Book Review: Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

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You may have gathered from my recent review of The Sparrow that it would be a tough book to follow. But, its ending was so depressingly brilliant that a sequel… well, had this been Hollywood instead of whatever the literary equivalent is, it would have been inevitable.

Evitable or not, Children of God is that sequel, and in time honoured tradition of sequels, is not anything like as good.

Which doesn’t make it a bad book by any means; it covers much of the same moral, spiritual and socio-political ground as The Sparrow, and is at least as mean to Emilio. The book is essentially made up of two disctinct stories: that of Emilio Sandoz as he tries (and almost succeeds) to get back to a normal life outside the priesthood, and that of Sofia Mendes, left for dead on Rakhat by her colleagues and now raising a child there among the Runa rebellion.

As the two story arcs follow their slow but inevitable collision course, there are plenty of layers, some pretty deep themes, Emilio getting utterly abused in new and horrible ways, and of course the aftermath of First Contact – the rebellion itself, which does a pretty thorough job of ruining Rakhat society.

It is undeniably a beautiful piece of writing; emotional, complex and non-preachy, but for me it lacked the page-turner appeal of its predecessor so I relatively plodded through it. I suspect I did it no favours by doing that, and indeed when it got to the more exciting bits and I did keep reading at a decent pace it was… well, all of the good things I said about it in the last sentence, but with more intensity.

It should be said though that this is a story of closure, on a personal and cultural level. That is, essentially, the reason Emilio is sent back to Rakhat with his new crew, and what they in turn try to achieve for the remnants of Runa and Jana’ata culture. The catalyst for the whole adventure – music – is brought full circle in the closing chapters. Even (slight spoiler) Emilio gets a happy ending.

If you wanted The Sparrow to be slightly less bleak, read Children of God – but be warned, it gets worse before it gets better.




This week, I have been mostly…

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Failing with my 2015 plans in epic style. Cold & flu season will, unfortunately, have that effect, especially in a house with a nearly three-year-old on hand to distribute her germs. But, in the interests of accountability, here’s a quick rundown of what I have achieved in 2015 so far:

Writing.

I actually have done some! Just short pieces, but in a glass half full moment I can see one of them developing into a decent piece of speculative fiction that I may even send to L Ron Hubbard once I finish it to a good enough standard.
 

Editing.

In between sneezes I have been trying to wrangle an old NaNo draft into something vaguely readable; this is a thankless task from the very pit of Hades, let me tell you. I had hoped to finish the first edit at least by now, but the secret project known for now as Bootlesquith Manor has been delayed for at least another month.
 

Planning.

Not as much as I had wanted, but part of my brain is dedicated to coming up with ideas for the Writers of the Future contest. Another part just picked up three recent editions of the anthology for research. It’s almost as if I’m taking it seriously now…
 

Website building.

Or at least, playing with ideas. Bootlesquith Manor is such an utterly different beast to Countless as the Stars that I really need to separate the two in my webspace, so I’m auditioning new front pages behind the scenes ready for completion and launch.
 

Coming soon…

Plans for February: Finish the first edit of Bootlesquith Manor. Draft a story for the Writers of the Future contest (with the aim of getting in before the 31 March deadline). Be planning another story, possibly for the June deadline. And if I really try hard, keep up with the blogging and social media stuff which sort of drifted off when man-flu and the day job conspired to make me not be bothered.
 
Anyone else having trouble with their 2015 aims already?

Tuesday Tunes: The Sparrow

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Yes, we are following straight on from the last post; The Sparrow, as well as being an excellent example of literary sf, is also, it turns out, a prog rock album by an obscure band called Metaphor.

I have to say that as either sci-fi music or prog rock it doesn’t quite tick all my boxes, but then my boxes are all weirdly Porcupine Tree shaped, and I’d only be annoyed if Metaphor just copied the Tree. That said, it does have its good moments, so let’s crack on with the review shall we?

The album opens with Inquisition, which is based on Emilio’s inquisition in the novel, and is similarly depressing. In fact, that is something of a recurring theme in the lyrics of the album – Mother Night is a particularly bleak song, and elsewhere titles like Death in Eden and God Will Break Your Heart sort of set the tone.

It’s not all that bad though, and some of the songs are quite fun: Deus Vult is about humankind’s realisation that we’re not that special, but just ‘another ball in freefall’; Stella Maris is about the trip out to Rakhat, and something about a turtle on a fence. the source of the mysterious space music. God Will Break Your Heart, meanwhile, goes for the chanting monks sound to pretty good effect.

Fence turtles not withstanding, I largely prefer the instrumental tracks; Song From A Nearby Star especially, while short… well, does exactly what it says on the tin; slightly spacey, mysterious, and leaves me wanting more.

And of course, this is a prog rock album, so there are of course Challallah Khaeri and Stranded, the obligatory 8 minute plus tracks with lengthy instrumental sections meandering across entire spectrum of prog sounds. You either like that sort of thing or you don’t, ultimately.

Stand-out tracks: Song From A Nearby Star, and God Will Break Your Heart.

Listen along

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Linky goodness

Metaphor Official Website

Book Review: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

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Quick retro review here (The Sparrow was first published waaaay back in 1996) because I’m about to finish reading the sequel and will be posting up a review of that in the next couple of weeks.

I think The Sparrow is one of the most depressing books I have ever read. Mary Doria Russell puts her characters through things no human being – even a fictional one – should have to endure. On the plus side, this is one of the most depressing novels I have ever read – and any novel that can invoke emotions like this one does, has to be worth reading.

The Sparrow is marketed as a literary novel rather than sf (in the UK at least), and although there is little detail in the way of alien technology and such, it is very much a story of first contact – the outcome of which is foreshadowed in the last sentence of the Prologue: ‘They meant no harm.’

Whether it is a Christian novel depends a lot on your definition; Russell herself, although raised a Catholic, became disillusioned and spent decades in ‘contented atheism’ before converting to Reform Judaism. I wouldn’t define it as a ‘Christian’ novel because God comes across as a vague notion rather than an actual being (possibly based on the author’s own experience of God/church/religion), but it certainly is a story of faith tested to near destruction, and of accepting God’s will through good and bad.

The story is essentially that of Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz, who finds himself selected to be a missionary to Alpha Centauri, following the discovery of music being broadcast from somewhere in that system. Sandoz and his small crew go not with the intention of evangelizing whatever lifeforms they may encounter, merely to meet them.
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At first, the story seemed to jump wildly from one timeframe to another, and I thought I was going to get horribly confused…. but before long it settled down into two interwoven plot threads – the mission to Rakhat, and the Vatican enquiry after Emilio’s return. (I did also get a little bit thrown by the existence of a character called Edward Behr, but that’s not important right now.)

The mission itself starts off well, but pretty much turns into a catalogue of ‘Things That Might go Wrong on a First Contact Voyage’, ultimately leaving Sandoz alone and at the mercy of an alien culture until the arrival of a rescue mission, which sends him back, on top of all his other troubles, to face the aforementioned enquiry.

The characters are realistically imperfect, the writing is good, and the story is, well, uncomfortable reading a lot of the time, but that is one of the things that sets The Sparrow apart from a lot of sf – the horrors Sandoz is exposed to are not wierd, alien horrors but very human ones, from the physical to the spiritual.

This is a book that really shows what intelligent science fiction can be like.


Looking back, looking forward

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Yes it seems somewhat cliche, but there is good reason for taking stock of writing successes, failures and plans at the new year – and not just because it’s the most convenient time for buying diaries and such to aid with the planning.

Regular visitors may have noticed that all my energies go into one thing for the duration of NaNoWriMo, and there is barely enough time to get any traction on something else before the Christmas break, so January makes a useful jumping off point for new plans. And this year I have plans! But first, let’s see how well I did last year, shall we?

Publishing.

Well, the Countless as the Stars e-book made it on to amazon at long last! And to go with that, the shop page on the website… well, it came and went, if we’re honest, but it’s back now mainly to shift the remaining first edition paperbacks, and with linkies to the amazon page for ebooks. It’s still not as clean or useful as I would like, but at least it’s there, and working.
 

Writing.

Well, the Ambivalence Chronicles are growing, thanks in large part to NaNoWriMo and actually managing to write 50,000 words that didn’t all suck during last November. So that was a bonus; but it was also all the writing of any note I got finished.
 

Editing.

The Countless ebook ended up taking far more of my editing time than I expected, so I didn’t finish the planned second ebook (currently a secret project in need of a codename!).
 

2015 plans.

I have taken a much more intentional approach to writing and publishing stuff for this year, and actually have monthly goals as well as overall goals for the year. But one step at a time, eh? First, the goals for the year:
Publish at least 3 ebooks. Ambitious, I know, but they are already written in some form (well, NaNoWriMo form, to be specific, so still some work to do!). At least two will be in the Ambivalence Chronicles, and are deliberately short (probably 20-25k per volume). The others will be based on past NaNo projects, but whether they will end up longer or shorter than the initial 50k remains to be seen.
Enter the Writers of the Future contest. I’ve been messing about with speculative fiction ideas for years, knowing that this is a thing, and knowing that it would be an awesome opportunity should I ever polish my work to a sufficient standard to be recognised, but I’ve never actually submitted anything to it. Which is clearly ridiculous, so I inteend to enter at least one piece for it this year – and not get too disheartened and vow never to do so again if it fails to catch anyone’s attention.
Write more regularly. I can’t write daily outside of NaNo, real life simply does not allow that, and the only way to maintain consistency is to recognise that and work with it. I can do something – blogging, editing, pre-writing – every day, but to impose a daily word limit will end up counter productive I think. So a weekly one it is – although I haven’t set one yet. I may just see how many actual new words I can write by the end of this week and work on maintaining that.

 

Coming soon…

Ah yes, I mentioned monthly goals too didn’t I? Well here are January’s specific goals:
1. Finish editing the secret project.
2. Write at least one short story.
3. Plan a story for Writers of the Future.
 
And on that bombshell, I should be editing…

Book review: The Fatal Tree by Stephen Lawhead

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Before we go any further, I can’t stress enough that this review is going to be of no use unless you’ve read the previous books in the series. So to that end, you should go now and visit my reviews of The Skin Map, The Bone House, The Spirit Well and The Shadow Lamp. Oh, and then read the books, if you feel that way inclined. I recommend them all (that was the abridged review).

So, since Thomas Nelson were kind enough to ship a copy across the Atlantic for me as part of the Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy Blog Tour (which I am obliged to tell you), it seems only fair that I hold up my end of the bargain and review the fifth and final book in the series, The Fatal Tree.

The Bright Empires series has been an epic adventure through time, space, and possibly some sort of other dimension. The Fatal Tree brings that journey to a head with our heroes’ quest hampered by the sudden appearance of a tree with the apparent power of life and death, Archelaeus Burleigh released from prison – oh, and the small matter of the universe unravelling around them. Yep, Stephen Lawhead goes wibbly wobbly timey wimey in a big way here. Our questors are split up as the Zetetics’ home dimension, 1930s Damascus, is invaded by… well, spoilers aside, it’s invaded and they take off, like the Jedi at the end of Episode III. But that is just the start, and while there is a little bit of hiding out in a cave, there is more, you know, saving the universe.

All of the elements of the story so far turn up for the big showdown – the Bone House, the Shadow Lamps and the Spirit Well are all brought back and bring their own threads to a close. Only the Skin Map itself was somewhat lacking in any significant role, but I suppose its role was to get the whole quest business started for Kit and Mina.

Kit and Mina, incidentally, seem to have made the most of their never-mentioned break-up, and for some reason (possibly involving Cass, possibly more to do with the impending doom of the Omniverse) Kit doesn’t seem that bothered that his ex is far less annoying now than she was before becoming his ex. But people change in a story this epic, it’s all good.

Most of the loose ends from the series – including ‘what the heck was all that meandering about in the stone age for, anyway?’ – are resolved in this book, so anyone who has made it this far is not going to want to miss out. With that in mind, therefore, I will now proceed to the spoilery section of the review. Please feel free to go and read the book now if you haven’t done so already.

As enjoyable a ride as this book was, a few things did bother me. Like, quantum entanglement: I’m no expert, but I’m not entirely sure Mr Lawhead used the term correctly, or that he needed to use it at all. It didn’t interrupt my enjoyment of the story sufficiently to look up Quantum Physicists in the Yellow Pages, but there is a nagging doubt there. The same with the business of ‘human will altering atomic interactions’ – seems like maybe scientific terms are being seconded into the realms of fantasy?

And what was the point in sending Giles and Lady Fayth off into their own sub-plot with no bearing on the fate of the universe? Their story just seemed to fade away into an epilogue added long after really had been restored, which all seemed a bit of a waste really.

The ending was a bit Space Odyssey too, wasn’t it?

With those niggles out of the way, there was a lot I liked in this book. The involvement of NASA in a present day end of the world type scenario helped to anchor all the timey wimey stuff in something like reality. The faith of various characters shows just enough to make the reader think – speaking as one who likes Christian fiction to have something of an overt message, this book has shown how sometimes less really is more, such as when a throwaway comment is made to Tony Clarke to ppray this nightmare is really over’, following which he notes that ‘We do seem to forget that we’re not in this alone’.

You’re going to need a bigger Shadow Lamp.

There was much more about faith, Christianity and so on throughout this book than any of the previous volumes; the Fatal Tree itself is likened the tree in the Garden of Eden – the one that brought death into the human realm in the first place.

And of course, as I’m sure one or more of my fellow tourists will have mentioned (I’ll do the rounds later!) there is the (obligatory?) redemption story, which could have been oh so cheesy and Christian fiction-y, but the author manages to complete subvert the trope in ways that ticked boxes for story telling but also for leaving a message for the reader. I suspect there are many messages to be taken from that particular sub-plot depending on a reader’s stage in their personal journey of redemption, and that’s probably what makes it such a poignant story in itself – and probably, along with the epic span of the five book arc, makes the whole thing worthy of at least a second look now it’s completed.

There, I said it, and that is probably the best place to end this review: Bright Empires is a series I can see myself returning to in a few years time.

CSFF Blog Tour vs Tuesday Tunes: Bright Empires

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It’s Tuesday, it’s Blog Tour week, that can only mean one thing: time to recap the Bright Empires Series through the medium of Spotify!

Ostieguy – Kit
We begin, of course, with the theme song of our hero, Cosimo Christopher Livingstone the Younger, better known as Kit.

Pepe Deluxe – Ms Wilhelmina and Her Hat
If there is anything more psychadelic than wandering along a London back alley and winding up in 17th Century Prague, it’s the Finnish electropop version of Mina’s song.

Sheeple & Electrobios – Map Quest
The quest for the Skin Map being sort of critical to the series, this sort of had to be in there.

Icelandic Dream Station – Ley Line To Ancient Egypt
Ten minutes of pure sleep inducing ambience… and I’m sure there’s some clangers in there somewhere.

The Dead Weather – Bone House
This will at least wake you up ready for quest #2 of the series.

Juno Reactor – Burly Brawl
Because the soundtrack was just one of many awesome things about the Matrix. Oh, and because the bad guys are nick named the Burley Men, after their ringleader Archelaeus Burleigh.

Eonic – Well of Souls
The Well of Souls being the proper name of The Spirit Well, and the title of a suitably atmospheric instrumental piece.

Neo Retros – Zetetic Astronomers
Another change of pace as we meet the needlessly catchy secret society that turn up in The Spirit Well. The book, that is, not the actual well. That would be weird.

Maddison Wilson – Shadow Light
There isn’t a song called Shadow Lamp, I had to improvise. Don’t knock it though, this is an oasis of normality in what has been a wild soundtrack so far.

Teka Phobia – The Tree of Death
Told you, you should have just enjoyed Miss Wilson, you should have known there would be a doom metal moment coming in honour of The Fatal Tree.

Trivium – The End of Everything
And we’ll follow that with a bonus 80 seconds of the same, because… Kit stared at his fellow questors. “Is this it . . . the End of Everything?”

So there you go; enjoy the playlist, or at least part of it, there’s enough variety in there for you to find something you don’t hate… and then follow the tour, and then read one or more volumes of the Bright Empires series. I recommend book 1 as your starting point if you’re coming in fresh.

CSFF Blog Tour: The Fatal Tree by Stephen Lawhead

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Yes, I’m back on the tour again, because this week we are taking a look at the fifth and final volume in Stephen Lawhead’s Bright Empires series, The Fatal Tree. But before we get to that, as I have actually read all four books in the series so far, how about a quick precis of what has gone before, as summarised from my reviews?


 
 

 
 

Parts of The Skin Map take place in locations I know; things like leylines, prehistoric monuments and English mythology have long fascinated me, and when you mix these things up with a little time and inter-dimensional travel, you’re going to have a book that I’ll at least take a look at in Waterstones. And the opening line would pretty much make the sale:

‘Had he but known that before the day was over he would discover the hidden dimensions of the universe, Kit might have been better prepared. At least, he would have brought an umbrella.’

The Bone House seemed to start off quite slowly, but the main plot soon kicked in and wouldn’t let me go. Alongside the main storyline of Kit Livingstone’s quest for the skin map, we get some unobtrusive back story; the story of Mina’s transformation from annoying girlfriend to dimension-hopping Lara Croft fills the gaping hole that left her looking like a Deus ex machina at the end of The Skin Map, and other threads start to add a greater depth to the multiverse Lawhead has created. Some of the later sections with stone age Kit seemed a little longer than necessary, but didn’t stop me enjoying the story.

In The Spirit Well it was the new sub-plot, Cassandra’s story, that I found most interesting. Cass herself is nothing special, but it is she who meets the Zetetic Society, a strange possibly-religious group lurking in 1930s Damascus through whom some interesting references to God, faith, and religion as a whole are brought into the story. Mina has also fallen in with some ostensibly more traditional monks, but it is Cass and the Zetetic Society that give us the first real sign of a deeper spirituality behind the story. Thankfully, Kit also finds his way out of the stone age and back into the main story.

I couldn’t help thinking that The Shadow Lamp was the calm before the storm. The action seemed to be at much slower pace than in earlier books, although the bigger picture was definitely gaining momentum and there was a sense that the players will soon be taking their places for a final showdown. There’s also some quite lengthy exposition going on toward the end which could easily put a lot of readers off, but as a science fiction reader and writer, I found the conversations about the relationship between religion, science and the end of the universe quite interesting. Some story elements were more ‘Christian’, although I’d say if there was anything ‘preachy’ in the story it was about science, not Christianity.

And we’ll reconvene here on Wednesday for a review of the fifth and final instalment; in the meantime, click on some of the links on the sidebar and see what my fellow tourists have to say about The Fatal Tree and the Bright Empires series.

NaNoWriMo: The Dust Settles

I actually finished my story after about 43,000 words, and to fill the NaNoWriMo quota started on the sequel; but I saved myself the final scene of the planned NaNo story to write at the end of the month – and it transpired, completely out of the blue, to be the most meta scene in the entire story.

And because that means it almost certainly won’t make the final cut, and because it’s a fitting way to end another month of frantic typing, I’m going to share ot with the universe. So here it is, the final scene of the first draft of Hex Drive: Bit #3 of The Ambivalence Chronicles.

‘Gary?’ Bille said, leaning forward and peering out between Charlotte and Ken.
‘I hope so,’ Charlotte said. ‘Otherwise we are in a whole heap of trouble.’
‘Again,’ Ken said.
The ninja guard pulled his ninja mask up off of his ninja face, and grinned a ninja grin when he saw that it was, indeed, the Ambivalence, and it was, indeed, being piloted by Ken, Charlotte and Billie.
‘Guys!’ he called, sheathing his ninja weaponry and approaching the Ambivalence in a wholly less threatening manner.
Bille jumped out of the back doors of the van and ran over to hug her friend.
‘Get a room,’ Ken muttered, earning himself a nudge from Charlotte.
‘Good to see you two guys as well,’ Gary said with a grin, coming over to hug both their necks. ‘Where’s the other guy?’ he added. ‘The ugly dude?’
‘Metal Guru?’ Ken said, realising that he was with the three of them when they parted company with Gary all those hours and universes ago. ‘Well, there’s a story there,’ Ken said.
‘I was hoping there might be,’ Gary said cryptically. ‘Like to fill me in?’
‘Well, it is like this…’ Ken started, and then went on to explain about the God code, the Kempston Interface, and the importance of various home computers.
‘Great,’ Gary said. ‘A new quest!’
‘No,’ Ken said. ‘No new quests! I need to take a time out, regroup, edit our adventures to date…’
‘Excuse me?’ Charlotte said.
‘Nothing,’ Ken said innocently. ‘I just need to relax, remember who I am – or who I used to be before I got caught up in all these dimension crossing swashbuckling heroics.’
‘But you were a geek,’ Billie said.
‘Thanks for that,’ Ken said. ‘You are too kind.’
‘But we do have a quest, right?’ Gary said. ‘You know, once you have had a night off?’
‘I would like a weekend off at least, if that is ok?’ Ken said. ‘I feel like I haven’t seen my family in a month.’
‘Well, alright then,’ Gary said. ‘But I would like to get away from this weird little suburb at some point in the not too distant future too.’
‘Well, how about this for an idea,’ Ken said. ‘How about, we go home – or somewhere closely approximating the homes one or more of us know – park the Ambivalence up (as grateful as we are for its transport based help, of course), find ourselves a nice pub, and get a couple of cold ones in?’
‘Can we have dinner too?’ Billie asked.
‘I’ve got the perfect solution,’ Charlotte said. ‘There’s the signpost up ahead – Next stop: a Berni Inn.’

Yes, I know it’s badly written, so if you’ll excuse me, I should be editing.


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Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death

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Just when you thought the internet had shut up about Doctor Who (at least until Christmas), this: a little more chatter about the Second Doctor, because as I’ve mentioned before, he has been under-watched in my life until recently.

The Seeds of Death had, to be frank, a few silly moments; there is a chase scene which seems ridiculously Scooby-Doo-esque until you realise this episode actually pre-dates Scooby. Which doesn’t make it any less annoying for modern Who tastes, mind, but does alter the perspective slightly.

The story starts out with the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe arriving at some kind of Space Museum – which allows for a surprisingly prescient aside about the demise of space travel from Earth, a potential problem for galactic continuity until the recent Kill The Moon episode gave humankind back its curiosity.

The absence of space travel also allows an exploration of how dependence on technology can be a very bad thing. The use of rockets has been superseded by the Travel-Mat or T-Mat (which will later be known as a transmat) – a beam me up Scotty sort of device for the Whoniverse – which is used for basically all transportation requirements around Earth, including food.

The dependence on a single form of technology in this way seems a little far-fetched, but it makes the point and I suppose that’s the important thing – when Martian Ice Warriors try to take over the Earth, their first stop is T-Mat central (on the moon), from where they can control the Earth’s food supply and within a couple of episodes have all but the most primitive tribes under siege and rioting among themselves. Silly, but depressingly feasible.

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Weather control technology is also in use in this story, and could conceivably be used by Ice Warriors to make Earth more Mars-like; it’s also theoretically available as and when we outgrow our planet and look to terraform Mars, but stories such as Seeds of Death serve to remind us of mankind’s lack of regard for indigenous life in colonial times by turning the tables.

I did find the Doctor to be in turns melodramatic and whiney at points during this story, which is sort of a shame, but I’ll blame that on a sort of timey-wimey sense that the end for his current incarnation was near. Still, for a bit of Saturday tea-time TV fluff, plenty of sci-fi predictions, food for thought, and the big question which becomes bigger and more relevant day by day: Do we rely too much on technology?

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