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Sci-Fi, Horror, YA & Urban Fantasy Books / What is Urban Fantasy to you?
« on: January 23, 2013, 12:16:28 AM »
There's been a bit of discussion about what direction the fantasy genre as a whole is going in over at the main forum: http://fantasy-faction.com/forum/fantasy-book-discussion/the-future-of-fantasy/
Our Fearless Leader (Overlord) rather cheekily suggested that Urban Fantasy shouldn't be called Fantasy. That got an impassioned response from one of our resident writers, who also happens to be an Urban Fantasist (Francis Knight, her debut UF novel Fade to Black is coming out soon, there's a review on the front page, and while I haven't read the whole book, I have read an excerpt and it looks fantastic, so I hope others join me in purchasing a copy when it hits the shelves). Francis outlined the difference between PNR (Paranormal Romance) and UF, which are often confused.
In recent times I've seen all sorts of things called UF, things that I wouldn't ordinarily put in the sub genre, but they do fit. I can list things until the cows come home, but I'd like people here to say what they consider Urban Fantasy. Not just books or authors, but what elements does a book have to contain to make you consider it as an Urban Fantasy novel?

Fantasy Book & Author Discussion / Something Different
« on: November 11, 2012, 04:28:28 AM »
No, this isn't a post about Monty Python's Flying Circus, although one could argue that they definitely belong on a Fantasy Forum. 
Just recently I've seen a few posts asking for recommendations because people seemed to have exhausted the recent 'big things' in the genre that we regularly discuss here. Although new things and works by popular authors are wonderful we don't see much about older works and those that don't get launched in a blaze of publicity. I'm hoping that this thread will bring some of those to light.
I'll kick things off by posting a review I did of a book I read recently that I never would have heard of if the cover hadn't caught my wife's eye and prompted her to buy it. It won't be to everyone's taste, but that's not really the point. I never thought I'd like it until I gave it a go.

Chime by Franny Billingsley

I was left with one word when I finished Chime: Brilliant.

The hard part about reviewing Franny Billingsley’s excellent tale is to explain exactly why it gave me that feeling without totally spoiling it for any prospective reader.

It’s a very hard book to classify, and also to market. Given where my wife found the book (the YA section) it fits into the ever broadening field of YA literature. The best classification I can hang on it is YA Gothic Romance. That however doesn’t really do the book justice. Although it’s marketed as a YA book I can’t see too many YA readers really warming towards it. I had the feeling a number of times throughout the book that had I read it as a teen I wouldn’t have liked it, but as a fairly widely read adult I had a greater appreciation of the skill required to write a story like Chime.

It’s told in first person most of the time, although it does occasionally switch perspective for brief periods. It’s the story of Briony, a sheltered young woman who believes she is a witch, caused the death of her beloved stepmother, is the reason her twin sister is damaged, and therefore should be hung. Meeting and befriending the young tearaway Eldric, brings Briony out of herself and eventually convinces her that what happened to her stepmother and sister was not her fault and she should not feel responsible for the events or the fates of those women.

The relationship between Eldric and Briony is handled sensitively and skilfully with a great deal of humour and believability. Briony and Eldric’s relationship often made me recall that of Laurie and Jo in Little Women. The setting is truly fascinating. It’s hard to pin down a time, but the technology and fashion mentioned suggest that it’s early 20th century. Location is another one. The town of London is described as being not all that far away, so it’s somewhere in England, but the swampy setting kept making me think of Louisiana. Briony’s belief that she sees magical creatures and events that no one else can made me think of Jo Walton’s Among Others. The heroine of that book was not dissimilar to Briony and she also saw things and had beliefs that were left deliberately ambiguous. Eldric was also reminiscent in some ways of Among Others' ‘romantic lead’.

It was an entrancing book, full of glorious dreamy imagery. It was something you savoured as you read. Billingsley’s prose and sumptuous way of describing things combined with Briony’s somewhat unique, quirky and highly amusing way of viewing her world and the people around her were a joy to encounter.

Chime is one of the best books I’ve read this year and I urge everyone to find it and lose themselves in this dream of a novel.       

Tad Williams is one of the most versatile authors I’ve encountered. From his Tolkienesque epic f trilogy Memory, Sorrow and Thorn to  the cyberpunk tetralogy Otherland, he rarely visits the same territory twice. One of my favourite books ever is Williams’ standalone fantasy The War of the Flowers. I’ve been gradually reading more and more urban fantasy, so I was very happy to hear that Tad Williams had cast his eye in that direction with The Dirty Streets of Heaven.
Urban fantasy these days tends to be the province of vampires and werewolves, although zombies and faeries are starting to claim the territory. Another supernatural creature gaining popularity are angels. That’s where Tad Williams cast his line with The Dirty Streets of Heaven. Bobby Dollar is an earthbound angel who probably has more in common with Phillip Marlowe than he does with Gabriel or Michael. He swears and he drinks, he takes the Lord’s name in vain. Bobby’s job is to guide souls from death, through their initial afterlife trial, and if they pass he sees them off to Heaven.
Things are going relatively smoothly for Bobby and his partner Sam, they seem to win more souls than they lose, and then they’re saddled with an eager young beaver from Records who they nickname Clarence (his real angel name is Haraheliel), not long after they attend the death of a philanthropist and while they’ve got a body the soul is missing.
If Bobby can’t find out what happened then the futures of both Heaven and Hell are at stake, that’s if Bobby can keep himself alive long enough to complete his investigation.
Tad Williams generally likes a lot of room in his books to set things up, possibly why he usually writes epics that are about the same size and weight as your average housebrick. Urban fantasy audiences don’t really go for this and they also tend to like their stories episodic, so that they at least get some sense of closure by the end of the book.  For a Tad Williams book The Dirty Streets of Heaven is really fast paced and still maintains excellent character development and back story mixed in with some high octane action.
Sometimes with popular fiction in a particular sub genre you can get some stereotyping, this wasn’t the case here. Even the peripheral characters were well drawn. I was particularly impressed with Bobby’s ‘love interest’ Casimira, the Countess of the Cold Hands.
One thing that was handled both with class and humour was the depiction of Heaven and the descriptions of the angels. It would have been very easy to inadvertently offend people with this, but it never happened and I really liked the ideas behind it.
I couldn’t shake the image of Bobby I had in my head as actor Misha Collins. I know this is because Misha Collins plays earthbound angel Castiel in the TV series Supernatural, this is also further evidence of the growing popularity of angels in modern urban fantasy. The fact that the book reads largely like a bit of a whodunit also lends itself to a cinematic view in my head.
The Dirty Streets of Heaven was really well done and a breath of fresh air in the genre. I’m definitely a fan and the good news is that there are two further Bobby Dollar books planned for the future. If they’re anywhere near the quality of The Dirty Streets of Heaven then this fallen angel has a long and successful career ahead of him.

A few months ago I read a new urban fantasy by Chuck Wendig called Blackbirds. Blackbirds was the story of Miriam Black, a young woman cursed with the ability to see a person's moment of death simply from skin to skin contact.

Blackbirds took the reader by the throat and dragged them on a harrowing journey through life's seamy underbelly. It was narrated in 3rd person present tense by the foul mouthed Miriam, and it did not pull it's punches. It wasn't an easy book to read, but it was quick purely from the fact that it compelled you to read on.

Because of the impact Blackbirds made on me, Mockingbird was on my must buy list as soon as I heard about it. I was overjoyed recently to wander into my local SFF bookstore and see Mockingbird with Joey HiFi's striking cover art on it. I'm really pleased that they retained Blackbirds' cover artist and that he went with the same style; Miriam's wild hairstyle being composed largely of birds. You have to be careful with the covers, a close inspection reveals things about what lays within the pages, so if you don't want to be spoiled, don't really examine it until you've finished the book. Mockingbird isn't quite as eye catching as Blackbirds was, but I think that's largely because I preferred the hairstyle on the first book.

It's been some time since the events of Blackbirds and Miriam is trying to settle down to a more normal life with her truck driver boyfriend with the heart of gold and patience of a saint; Louis. Miriam is not by nature a pleasant person, and her curse makes it hard for her to even pretend to be normal. Soon enough her temper gets the better of her, costs her a job and leads to a vision of impending murder. Once again Miriam manages to thwart destiny.

Because she's out of a job Louis arranges her to use her ability with a friend of his to foretell her death. The woman works as a teacher at a private school for girls, girls with troubled lives, the school is as much a reformatory as it is a place of learning. Miriam sees a bleak future for a girl in the school, this twelve year old will die quite horribly unless Miriam does something about it. It's going to take every bit of ingenuity and all of Miriam's fighting spirit to put this one right.

Blackbirds and Mockingbird both have Wendig's marvelously raw and descriptive way of looking at general life. While the subject matter is by it's very nature and the bleak outlook of the protagonist, fairly depressing, there's still a macabre sort of humour about it. Miriam's take no prisoners style of talking is frequently funny, and it's just part of her character.

While Blackbirds was largely a one hander, Miriam gets some allies in Mockingbird. There's Louis of course, Lauren the girl from Caldecotts, who starts Miriam on her mission, is also prominent and I think Miriam can see a lot of her in the smart mouthed pre teen. The teacher from Caldecotts; Katey, who doesn't look like a Katey according to Miriam, is also a welcome addition and ally.

Mockingbird finishes on a high note, sort of, and if there were no more Miriam Black stories this could have ended them, but happily there are and Cormorant is due out in 2013.

If you enjoyed Blackbirds then you will love Mockingbird and if you haven't read Blackbirds then you should do so immediately and then read Mockingbird. Both books are among the best, rawest urban fantasy I have ever read and will keep you turning the pages until the very end, then wish there was some more.

Ashes of Honor is the 6th of Seanan McGuire’s October Daye urban fantasy series, starring changeling PI and knight errant; Toby Daye.

A year has passed since the tragic events of One Salt Sea and Toby is trying to live a fairly normal life, or as normal a life as a half faery woman with a fetch and a Tuatha De Danaan fosterling as a squire can expect to live. She’s also still mourning the death of her lover and childhood friend Connor.

After having a confrontation with a group of goblin fruit peddling changeling kids go badly wrong Toby is collected from the police station by her friend and love interest, Cait Sidhe and King of the Cats; Tybalt. At home, and the reason that her fetch; May, couldn’t come in Tybalt’s stead is Etienne. To say that Toby is surprised to see the stiff necked Tuatha De Danaan at her house, not on business for his, and her liege lord Sylvester Torquill, is understating it somewhat. His reason for coming to her is even more surprising. Etienne has a changeling child, she’s always lived with her mortal mother, and she’s just gone missing.

As Toby has had success with similar cases in the past, she was the first person Etienne thought of. Despite his differences of opinion with her he does respect her ability and he can’t argue with her strike rate. Etienne’s daughter Chelsea has inherited her father’s ability of teleportation, and unless Toby can find her quickly and negate the power her life is not the only one in danger, her abilities threaten to rip the fabric of faery itself apart.

I can’t help it, I always seem to compare the Toby Daye’s to the Dresden Files and I got another comparison with this one. Etienne coming to Toby for help is right up there with the Warden Morgan doing the same thing to Harry Dresden in Turn Coat. Once Etienne has explained to Toby what has happened and why he wants to hire her, everyone other than Toby, Quentin and Tybalt faded into the background.

This one was really the story of how Toby and Tybalt would get together. Something that many fans of the books have been waiting for (not me, I’m not a Tybalt fan. I think it’s because I’m not a cat person, and Tybalt really is a cat in the form of a person) since Tybalt’s first appearance in Rosemary and Rue. There was plenty of Quentin to keep me entertained. I love Quentin, he’s such a total teenager, but he has so many good qualities; loyal, compassionate, brave, I think he always had them, but prolonged exposure to Toby has enhanced them.

Most of the cast that Seanan McGuire has built up over the previous five books popped in and out of the narrative, but it was driven by Toby and Tybalt as they strove to find a scared girl and stop her from plunging their worlds into chaos.

It moved fast and the action didn’t let up from the opening page until almost the very end. The Toby Daye books with their meticulously set up worlds of faery are excellently written with well done action sequences and snappy dialog that sparks and crackles between the characters, the relationships between the principals come across as realistic and believable, and the supporting cast is among the best in urban fantasy today.

I have a couple of quibbles. Toby’s caffeine addiction is overdone. It’s been established over the books that Toby requires regular infusions of coffee to function. I think readers understand that, I know I do, it doesn’t need to be reiterated every couple of pages as it was in Ashes of Honor. The other is that Toby is becoming a little too superheroish. She can recover quickly from wounds, more quickly than any normal person and possibly even other fae, but I lost count of the times that she was almost disembowelled in Ashes of Honor, yet was up and kicking butt in a page or so. That could have been toned down a touch.

Although I know there are further books coming (Chimes at Midnight is due out September 2013 and the author has a contract up to and including book 9) there is a sense of this one having a definite ending. There’s plenty still to explore. Duchess Treasa Riordan (the villainess in Ashes of Honor) could conceivably still present a threat, and as long as she’s alive Rayseline Torquill will be a thorn in Toby’s side as will the Queen of Mist. There are still the questions of who Quentin’s parents are and exactly how old Tybalt is, but Ashes of Honor does give readers a sense of closure to at least one chapter of Toby’s life.

One Salt Sea remains my favourite of the series, but Ashes of Honor is a worthy entry in what is probably the finest urban fantasy series currently being published, and has me counting down the days until the release of Chimes at Midnight.

Fantasy Book & Author Discussion / Chris Wooding
« on: July 30, 2012, 12:36:18 AM »
I haven't read any other Chris Wooding aside from his Ketty Jay books (which I love), but I've seen them recommended a lot and they're among the best rip roaring steampunkish fantasy out there. Sadly it looks as if the 4th book The Ace of Skulls will be the last. Chris talks about it http://www.chriswooding.com/2012/07/.
While I'm sad to see the series end, because they're great books I do respect Chris for having the guts and good judgement to bring it to a proper end and go out on a high note, rather than hang on and keep milking it for all that it's worth, kind of leaving us all with a bad taste in our mouths and sadly remembering past glories.

Whispers Underground is the third of the Folly series by Ben Aaronovitch, a UF series chronicling the adventures (Midnight Riot and Moon Over Soho) of bi racial London police constable and apprentice magician; Peter Grant.

This time around the body belonging to the son of a wealthy US politician turns up dead in the London Underground, and once Peter discovers a whiff of vestigial (trace of magic) on it, it’s up to him, his partner Lesley May, and their guv’nor Nightingale to find out whodunit and bring the culprit to justice. They’re aided and abetted, occasionally hindered, by an eager, shoot first, FBI agent; Reynolds, the foul mouthed Chief Inspector Seawoll, newly promoted DCI Miriam Stephanopoulos, and the urban explorer and member of the British Transit Police Jaget Kumar. There are also cameos from some of London’s river goddesses (I’m sure Lady Tyburn is going to become very important in the future, if she isn’t already), Dr Walid, and the cheeky pre teen Abigail. Of course Nightingale’s loyal servant Molly (still not sure what she is) and Peter’s dog Toby also reappear.

I look forward to Folly books every bit as much, maybe more, as I do to a new Harry Dresden or Toby Daye, now. If you have any idea how much I adore Toby Daye, then you’ll understand how big a statement that is. The Harry Dresden’s do share a few things in common with the Folly books. Both are narrated by magically adept (although Harry’s a fully fledged wizard, and Peter’s in the equivalent of wizard pre school), somewhat sarcastic antagonists. They’re both set in large metropolises and they both put their antagonist in harm’s way for a good chunk of the time. Both Harry and Peter regularly pepper their narration with pop culture references (Peter’s are naturally more British, and I’m not sure if all of them are understood as well by US audiences as they are by UK and Australian ones, although some of the specifically UK ones go over my head, too). Something Harry Dresden’s creator Jim Butcher has done very successfully over the course of the 13 published Harry Dresden adventures is build up a large cast of characters that enable him to lose one for a book or two and not have it matter a lot to his audience. Ben Aaronovitch has also begun to do this. There wasn’t a lot of Dr Walid in Whispers Underground, and I didn’t miss him all that much, come to think of it Nightingale wasn’t as prominent in Whispers Underground as he was in Rivers of London (Midnight Riot in the US) and Moon Over Soho, but there were other characters both old and new who took up the slack. I appreciated more Lesley, and I will never tire reading about Molly, she doesn’t even have to do anything, but I giggle every time she appears.

To me now, the plot isn’t even that important. I could read Peter’s descriptions of police procedurals (he writes about it so comfortably and knowledgeably that I wonder if Ben Aaronovitch ever actually spent some time in uniform) and his explanations of Britain’s magical history, complete with his own snarky observations, all day.

Then there’s the setting. The author clearly loves London. He writes about it in a way that marries the modern day city with it’s long and colourful past and puts you right there. It becomes more than just a setting.

As with the previous two books, Whispers Underground, is self contained, you could jump in right here and read without looking at it’s predecessors, although you’ll enjoy it even more if you do read the other two, and come away entirely satisfied. Now having said that, Whispers Underground does reference the earlier works, and some of it is concerned with the investigation of a villain from those books, it also very neatly lays the ground work for the fourth book, currently called Broken Homes, and due for release in 2013.

Whispers Underground is wonderful fun and highly entertaining, any book that so amusingly references one of the all time great James Bond quotes gets an A in my book, too! 

Tad Williams has a new book coming out soon called The Dirty Streets of Heaven, it's the first of 3 planned books featuring a fallen angel of sorts by the name of Bobby Dollar. It's described on the author's website as 'fantasy noir', which sounds very much like Urban Fantasy to me. I love Williams writing and I enjoy the way he switches genres, this is his first foray into UF, although parts of The War of the Flowers verged on it early, it should be a fun ride.

Fantasy Book & Author Discussion / Publishers regions
« on: March 21, 2012, 10:44:38 PM »
This may not be the right place for this, move it if it isn't, but I have a question and maybe those in the know about the publishing industry can enlighten me. Being a fantophile down here in Australia isn't all that easy. We only have one major bookchain (Dymocks) left and while the city store in Melbourne has a relatively good selection, it still seems to miss out on a lot of stuff. I'm lucky enough to know about a couple of independents also located in the city that specialise in SFF, so I can get the things that for whatever reason, and I am assuming this is a distribution thing, that don't find their way to Dymocks. They key offender seems to be DAW. I'm a big Seanan McGuire fan and her two urban fantasy series (Toby Daye and InCryptid) are published by DAW. The first 3 Toby's did find their way to Dymock's, but since then if it weren't for one of the independents I would have had to order her books from overseas. Ever since I heard about it I wanted to read Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, but it never appeared here, neither at Dymocks or either of the independents. I eventually ordered it from overseas, it too is a DAW title. DAW as far as I can work out is owned by Penguin, which does have a significant presence in Australia. Anyone know why certain publishers don't seem to distribute down here? It just seems like fans in Australia aren't finding out about books that deserve a market because they're not distributed.     

I'm not normally in the habit of putting reviews up anywhere else other than my blog (http://www.travelsthroughiest.blogspot.com), but I am prepared to make an exception for Discount Armageddon, the first entry in a stunning new urban fantasy series by Seanan McGuire. Here it is:

WOW! Capital W capital O capital W exclamation point. That’s my immediate reaction after reading Discount Armageddon. If I wanted to do a lazy review I’d tell you that this is a totally awesome book and you should run out and buy it right now, but that however wouldn’t be telling you why.

Discount Armageddon is the first book of Seanan McGuire's (October Daye series) new InCryptid urban fantasy series.

Most of us have heard about cryptids, they’re creatures who might exist or are rumoured to, but no genuine proof has actually been discovered. Two of the most famous examples are the Himalayan Yeti and Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster. Discount Armageddon works on the premise that cryptids are real, they’re real, they’ve always been real, many of them co exist alongside the rest of the population, others walk amongst us without anyone being aware of it.

Verity Price comes from a long line of cyrptozoologists, who have worked for generations to find, study and protect the cryptids. If many of the cryptids are actually monsters, or as the back cover blurb puts it ‘Ghoulies. Ghosties. Long-legged beasties’ why do they need protecting and what from? That would be the Price families sworn enemy; the Covenant of St George, this centuries old quasi military organistion exists to exterminate cryptids…ALL cryptids. Some of them are harmless and others are actually beneficial to human society. Verity’s ambition is to be a professional dancer, and she’s moved to New York to pursue that dream, but the only way her family would let her go was if she also promised to look after the family business on the East Coast.

On the way home from her job as a cocktail waitress at a cryptid owned and staffed strip club (Dave’s Strips and Fish) one night Verity runs into her exact opposite, a naïve, but cute Covenant operative by the name of Dominic De Luca. Once she gets out of his trap and gives him a right royal telling off, Verity and Dominic soon work out that while they’re coming at it from different angles they essentially have the same goal, and that’s to find and neutralize the sleeping dragon under Manhattan before it causes major damage to the human and cryptid population of the city.

Discount Armageddon is urban fantasy in its purest form. Although the October Daye series has been highly successful for Seanan McGuire, and both she and her growing army of fans are fond of the changeling detective and the cast of that series, the InCryptid series is the one Seanan has always wanted to write and in fact I believe she was born to do this one. At times it was like she had a direct line to my brain, I often found myself reading and thinking ‘I’ve always wondered how that would work if someone wanted to write about it.’

Verity has a strong voice, she’s a knowledgeable and easy to relate to narrator, she may be a bit too idealistic for her own good and she is fiercely independent and protective of those close to her. Verity and Dominic make an excellent opposites attract couple, and they’re both very likeable. There’s also a great supporting cast, from Verity’s family; her cranky, studious, gun loving brother and her frankly dangerous younger sister; Antimony, to her telepathic adopted cousin Sarah Zellaby and Verity’s workmates; the gorgon Carol, with the dangerous, venomous hair, the waheela Istas, who seems to have a penchant for wearing her enemy’s bodily organs as hats and the dragon princess Candy, who doesn’t have much in the way of offensive capabilities aside from asbestos skin. I haven’t even mentioned the Aeslin mice, yet and no review of Discount Armageddon would be complete without some mention of the community of intensely religious talking rodents who amongst other things are addicted to cheese and cake.

It is early days, but Discount Armageddon is one of the most amusing urban fantasies I’ve ever read, packed with fresh ideas and plenty of scope to expand. Hopefully sales will be strong and we readers will get to see a lot more of Verity, the Price family and the cryptids. Cheese! And Cake!

Please note: I was lucky enough to read an ARC, the book releases officially on March 6.

Fantasy Book & Author Discussion / Hidden Gems
« on: November 03, 2011, 04:29:30 AM »
The name of author Dave Duncan came up recently, and it triggered this thought. Dave Duncan’s been around for quite some time now. I first encountered him in the 1990’s with A Man of His Word series. It’s one of the rare instances where I’ve bought a book on the strength of the cover. A Man of His Word is comprised of 4 books (Magic Casement, Faery Lands Forlorn, Perilous Seas, Emperor and Clown), the series title, the individual book titles and I believe even the chapter headings all come from the one Keats poem, which was rather clever of the author. The Don Maitz cover art from the original paperbacks is a thing of beauty. I loved the idea behind it and the unique magic system he employed, plus I really connected with the characters. Duncan followed it up with a 2nd quartet (A Few Good Men) set in the same world and using some of the same characters, it sadly didn’t have Maitz’s cover art, and while it was solid, did not live up to the magic of the first series. Since that Dave Duncan has put out quiet a few books, and he changes his themes up a lot, too. As very few people I speak to are aware of A Man of His Word I regard it as a bit of a hidden gem of the genre. I looked around on my bookshelves for any other hidden gems and found a few.
Tad Williams is an oft mentioned author, although generally for Memory, Sorrow and Thorn or the Shadow series, occasionally Otherland. My personal favourite of his is a standalone; The War of the Flowers, it’s one of my favourite books full stop.
Then there’s Katherine Neville’s The Eight. This one is widely known, but it’s not considered genre, it’s an all stops out thrill ride. Neville has written other books, but The Eight was lightning in a bottle. The less said about the dreadful sequel; The Fire, the better.
There’s even some great kids books that people don’t often seem to talk about. I adored Tove Jannson’s Moomin books, but since her death they seem to be virtually unknown outside of her native Finland. It’s sad that generations will grow up never having made the acquaintance of Moomintroll and his hedonistic family or his best friend the super tramp Snufkin, the love his life the Snork Maiden, or the red dress wearing, verbally dyslexic duo Thingummy and Bob.
One I don’t think anyone will ever find again is an Aussie thing by the respected author Alan Marshall. It’s called Whispering in the Wind, and it’s the story of a boy with the world’s fastest horse, a magical kangaroo friend and his efforts to rescue the world’s last princess who is guarded by a dangerous bunyip. I read it countless times as a child, after discovering it on a car journey to Queensland.
Anyone else have anything they regard as hidden gems?   

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