Review: “Ambiguity Machines: and Other Stories,” Vandana Singh

Pros: Winding and beautiful
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines: and Other stories is a slow, winding collection of beautiful short science fiction stories (at least one story has overtones of horror, and more than one can be considered dystopian). Some seem more like, or are reminiscent of, folktales. Past, present, and future twine together seamlessly, with a near-constant infusion of culture and atmosphere redolent of India. While I’m sure there were cultural references I didn’t get, I never felt like I was left out in the cold. Note that there’s a brief bit of bloodiness and a little low-detail torture.

In With Fate Conspire, scientists are trying to use a machine to change the timeline by establishing a link to the past–but only one woman is capable of using it. She’s supposed to be spying on a poet, and passing along any unpublished poems he might come up with, so when she makes contact with someone else, she has to start creating her own poems in order to fake it.

Peripeteia introduces us to Sujata, a physicist. She was just left by her lover Veenu. She’s plagued by visions and strange ideas:

She liked to invent complicated explanations for straightforward phenomena, a kind of intellectual Rube-Goldbergism, just to thumb her nose at William of Occam.

Lifepod involves a bunch of humans in cold sleep, and the aliens who captured them. “The Eavesdropper” is the one who watches over them and explores their thought-clouds. Another far-future SF story is Oblivion: A Journey. Vikram’s world-shell was ruined, and they were tortured. They dedicated their lives to taking vengeance on Hirasor, a man who was responsible for both atrocities.

Are You Sannata3159? is SF in setting, but horror in nature. A young man tries to eke out a living while his mother and sister are hired by the brand-new slaughterhouse in his neighborhood. He starts to believe that there’s something terrible going on at the slaughterhouse, and he’s determined to find out what it is.

Ruminations in an Alien Tongue explores a man going through a time-loop on an alien planet, through the eyes of the woman who takes him in each time he shows up from another universe. It’s a lovely exploration of love, aging, and relationships. Sailing the Antarsa is about a woman who is from a planet colonized by humans, trying to reach another planet that humans were supposed to have colonized. She is awoken early, and finds herself surrounded by strange beings.

We seek to feed within us the god of wonder, to open within ourselves dusty rooms we didn’t know existed and let in the air and light of other worlds.

Cry of the Karchal is a story of how a man who–at the behest of a dead woman–treats others’ lives like stories, manipulating them so they will come out right. Several of the storylines come together in a way that feels like a folktale come to life. Requiem is a stunning story of a woman who goes to Alaska to collect her dead aunt’s belongings, only to get a fascinating look at life in the Arctic, the whales her aunt took inspiration from, and how everything is changing due to climate change.

These are slow-paced stories. While there are sci-fi aspects to all of them, they are primarily about people, and culture, and storytelling. There are also a couple of lovely same-sex relationships presented in here. I absolutely loved this collection.

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Review: “Dragon Blood,” Linsey Hall

Pros: Interesting characters and plot
Cons: Formulaic
Rating: 4 out of 5

Linsey Hall has just put out Dragon Blood (Dragon’s Gift: The Sorceress Book 2). The Dragon’s Gift universe has more than 30 books in it at this point, divided into 5-book sub-series. This one focuses on Aerdeca (Aeri), a blood sorceress who always wears white and secretly works for the Council of Demon Slayers. Recently she met (and then pissed off) fallen angel Declan, even though she had chemistry with him. The two of them had worked together to deal with a powerful demon. Now another demon is loose–an Oraxia demon, who is setting up special orbs that are turning the people in the various districts of Magic’s Bend into stone. Even the FireSouls and their boyfriends have been petrified! Aerdeca teams up with Declan once again to find out where the magic came from and how to un-do it. Before the spell becomes permanent! In order to deal with the Oraxia demon, which is invulnerable, the two of them need to get their hands on an unusual potion ingredient, which will necessitate a very dangerous visit to the Bermuda Triangle. Luckily they have a siren friend, Syra, to help them get there.

There’s a nice time-based tension here, because if the heroes don’t find the Oraxia demon and force it to reverse the spell before it’s done deploying, the petrification will become permanent! Now, this being written by Linsey Hall we know she won’t kill off some of her major characters, but she still manages to make the possibility seem tense and fraught with danger.

The characters are enjoyable. Aerdeca and Mordaca have more depth to them than they’ve shown in previous books. Their icy (Aerdeca) and glowering (Mordaca) act is a part of them–not a total smokescreen–but they’ve been hiding their traumatized, hiding-from-the-bad-guys, keeping-secrets selves. Declan is rightfully angry that Aerdeca tried to use her magic to make him forget her, but when push comes to shove he can be relied upon. I was slightly annoyed by the fact that Aerdeca fixated on the size of the breasts of every woman who talked to Declan.

There is a brief mention of “Dani … the third sister we’d never had”, so I have to wonder, given that until now she’s done these sub-series in sets of three, whether that’s going to happen again.

I am enjoying being in Aerdeca’s head. Her morality is a little more gray than that of previous main characters, and every once in a while she actually swears! She comes across as slightly more grown-up than the other main characters.

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Review: “The Last Outpost and Other Tales,” Z.S. Adani

Pros: Intriguing worldbuilding
Cons: Tone and pacing are stiff; confusing worldbuilding
Rating: 3 out of 5

Z.S. Adani’s The Last Outpost and Other Tales is a collection of sci-fi short stories. They’re original and creative, but I ran into a few problems.

There are good and bad aspects to throwing the reader head-first into the worldbuilding without any real explanation. It can provide a very deep sense of being in the world. However, in the case of most of these stories it felt like they were deliberately written to obscure information as a stylistic choice. I frequently felt as though I was missing something or failing to understand something properly. Perhaps this is partially because some of these stories take place in pre-existing worlds the author has written in. Maybe I’d find that although they don’t stand well alone, they make sense after reading those books.

The style and pacing of the writing is a bit stiff and one-note. The real problem with this is that it doesn’t convey emotion well. There were stories in which clearly we’re supposed to empathize with the characters and care about their troubles, and there were times we were supposed to be tense with the action, and yet I usually couldn’t feel it. There were two exceptions to this. In “Mirror of My Mind,” in which a woman purchases a “Mother Fragment” (essentially, a clone) to watch over her son while she’s busy, I was able to get into the emotional content as the woman starts to wonder whether the MF is degrading. “Beneath the Alien Shield” starts off with enough no-context worldbuilding that it seemed a bit like gibberish, but it managed to become very tense as Kestra, a Special Ops agent of Defense and Intelligence, has to single-handedly take out a very dangerous and nasty alien.

If there were more detail, I think the worldbuilding would be less opaque and the tone less clinical. Everything is just very plainly laid out, and it robs the writing of emotion. There are some very creative ideas in here–some of the societies and aliens are quite fascinating–but with those problems in mind, this anthology doesn’t make for very interesting reading.

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Review: “Wellside,” Robin Shortt

Pros: The worldbuilding
Cons: Still get confused about how the Library works
Rating: 4 out of 5

Robin Shortt’s Wellside is a fun tale of a Well that exists between worlds. The story starts out at Chifley High, where student Ben is observing the fascinating sketches that Essa is making. He ends up catching the attention of psychotic bully Ryan, however, and runs for it. He ends up at the gym, where he desperately tries to open the door that no one has been able to open–only it does open, and a monster climbs out. The door turns out to be a Door into the Well, and Essa has been trapped in Ben’s world for a year waiting for this Door to “ripen”. She ends up pulling Ben into the Well with her, where they find themselves caught up in a fight against an entity called the Exile that could destroy the Well. There are three Powers in the Well and its worlds: the Cogs (machine-oriented people), the Vats (specializing in biology), and the Library (specializing in information). Essa is a Librarian, and this gives her certain unusual abilities. Alternating sections show us some of Essa’s past experiences in the Library.

The idea of a Well between worlds is neat–I enjoy world-hopping adventures. Somewhat original in here is the idea that there are actual towns suspended within the Well. The Red Sand Library is also really neat and original. However, I found the Powers to be very monolithic. All of the Cogs were largely the same; all of the Vats’ agents were largely the same. We only saw some variation in the Librarians through seeing Essa’s background, and there were only two individualized Librarians besides her.

I also found it difficult to really understand the Library. It’s an Intelligence, and the Librarians are researchers. There are creatures called Isms that the various Librarians serve, and which sometimes do battle. I never understood how exactly they do research. And other than Essa’s attempt to research how to create new Doors–something only the Exile knows how to do before her–I never understood what most of the Librarians research. Most of the flashbacks to Essa’s past explore the relationships between her, an old friend of hers, and a Librarian named Gregor, who ends up in the middle of the war against the Exile along with Essa. The unusual things Essa can do involve her Ism and red sand and strange symbols she forms with her hands or writes directly into the sand, and I never got a handle on that. It feels kind of hand-waved, especially when Ben (who happens to be a hacker) gets involved on his laptop.

What’s there is really neat, but I felt like there needed to be more. More variation among the Powers and a greater understanding of how the Library worked. This is an enjoyable book, however, and I’d like to see more of this world.

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Review: “Necessary Ill,” Deb Taber

Pros: Fascinating characters and original plot
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Deb Taber’s Necessary Ill is an unusually intriguing and original book. It’s set some indeterminate time in the future, when resource depletion and waste disposal have become even greater problems than they are now. The population of the planet is unsustainable. Although people as a whole haven’t caught on yet, more and more people are being born as neuters, or “neuts”, with no reproductive organs, no puberty, no gender, little to no estrogen and testosterone. They’re gathering in the Network, and working to make the Earth’s population sustainable. They research medicine and waste disposal, and–they spread plagues to drop the population. Jin is a particularly clever and creative neut who is trying to come up with a plague that will affect only malicious people. We also get to see the neuts through the eyes of Sandy, a “gen” (gender), who is rescued from rape and possible death by one of the “spreaders” (neuts who spread plagues) and taken in by the neuts.

The neuts tailor their plagues to target people of all “racial, religious, social, and economic” groups. When that’s not possible, complementary plagues may be released to restore the balance. Regardless, Jin is a mass murderer, and herein lies the genius of this book: we’re made to sympathize with a mass murderer, and see those who try to stop him as the bad guys. Don’t worry though–it’s never made out to be black-and-white. The situation only gets more complicated as the book goes on, and even tries to tackle how one might lower the birth rate without selecting for race, socio-economic class, religion, etc. There are no easy answers here. Even other neuts aren’t always so sure about the spreaders, despite the fact that the Network supports them explicitly.

At first the neuts seem to be described fairly monolithically. They’re relatively unemotional, they have a particular pattern of speech, they’re unusually focused and intelligent, they don’t like to be touched, etc. However, the author quietly introduces us to neuts who break each of these types, thus keeping things from seeming stereotyped. It would have been nice, though, to see a neut who was capable of feeling romantic love even if they can’t feel sexual attraction. We do get to see an artist’s enclave, and we meet musicians and actors as well as the scientists.

The only (very mild) negative I had was one woman’s reaction to finding out some of what Jin had done. She accuses Jin of “nothing but interfering with people’s lives,” which seems like an awfully mild way to view mass murder.

Content warning for rape and attempted rape, although most of the gory details are elided.

This is a brilliant story with utterly fascinating characters, amazing worldbuilding, and an intriguing plot. I highly recommend it.

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Review: “Cruel Works of Nature,” Gemma Amor

Pros: Absolutely wonderful horror collection
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Gemma Amor’s Cruel Works of Nature: 11 Illustrated Horror Novellas contains some delightful tales. I couldn’t put the book down until I had finished them all!

In Foliage, Dan takes a job doing handyman jobs at the old Norfolk Manor. Fay Lockwood has decided to make the place her home, years after her grandparents disappeared from the house when she was 11 years old. When he tries to cut away the massive vines that have taken over the backyard, however, he makes a disturbing discovery.

In Jack in the Box, poor baffled Barry doesn’t understand his wife’s anger when he gives her a Jack-in-the-box for her birthday. Even when she points out that it has a child’s skull–and their own baby died some time ago–he doesn’t quite know what to think. When she leaves the house for a couple of weeks, he starts talking to Jack. Of course, it’s when he starts listening to Jack that the real problems start.

Black Sand introduces us to a woman who used to be a combat medic, vacationing in Italy. After discovering a body on the beach–missing its legs–she ventures to a mysterious beach of black sand. The bartender warned her not to touch the sand, but her walking companion isn’t as careful as she is.

Back Alley Sue is a melancholy little tale of a homeless man coming to terms with the loss of his wife, with the aid of a rather disturbing local urban legend. The characters in these tales have depth despite the shortness of the stories; they are very human and “real”.

In Girl On Fire, a woman survives the crash and explosion of her 1989 Pontiac Bonneville–but it has changed her life forever.

I am the fucking apocalypse.
My name is Ruby Miller.
And I am a Phoenix from the ashes.

Scuttlebug, in which a new type of spider triggers an apocalypse, made my skin crawl! I think I’ll stay away from bugs for a while, thanks! Whereas The Path Through Lower Fell introduces us to some… cows? Somehow it works! Special Delivery sees a bizarre, huge egg delivered to a seemingly random recipient. When it hatches, things get bloody. Amor can create scary monsters out of just about anything.

His Life’s Work is a touch Lovecraftian, focusing on an old man’s attempt to open a mysterious door.

It Sees You When You’re Sleeping is a favorite of mine. Something very sinister comes down the chimney on Christmas Eve. This one’s pretty bloody, but with purpose. Amor builds up an impressive amount of tension in this one! My other favorite is the closing story, Sketchbook, in which a five-year-old child ends up with a very special sketchbook. Again, Amor creates some wonderful monsters–it’s one of her many talents as a writer.

As a note: content warning for attempted rape. I really enjoyed these scary stories. The plots are fun, the pacing is tense, and the characters have plenty of personality. I hope to read more from Amor!

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Review: “Dreaming Metal,” Melissa Scott

Pros: Powerful story with excellent worldbuilding
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Melissa Scott’s Dreaming Metal is a powerful story of emergent artificial intelligence. It takes place on the planet Persephone, where there are a lot of lines drawn between populations. There’s a strong layering of social strata that affects politics, jobs, and pretty much everything else. Some time in the past, a construct named Manfred became the face of a political movement for machine rights–until it turned out he didn’t actually meet the criteria for an AI, and he killed several people. Now the backlash fuels the Realpeace movement, which claims to be about human rights, but is virulently anti-machine rights. And it seems that someone in Realpeace isn’t afraid to get violent. Reverdy Jian is an FTL pilot who Manfred tried to kill. Her latest construct seems a little bit off reminding her of Manfred, so she sells it on the gray market. Celinde Fortune is a conjurer, using constructs and karakuri (robots, essentially) to create fascinating illusions on stage as entertainment. She needs a new construct, and ends up purchasing Jian’s construct and bridging it with another, less powerful one. The new construct insists on being named, and she names it Celeste, after her dead twin. Fanning Jones is a deaf musician and Fortune’s cousin, and his music attracts the attention of Realpeace–not in a good way. When Celeste asks to try making music with some of Fanning’s equipment, he and Fortune start to realize that they might just have the first real AI on their hands. But how can they keep her safe from Realpeace?

I absolutely love this novel. The characters are highly original and interesting, from the three main point-of-view characters to the members of Fanning’s band, the workers at Fortune’s theater, and the members of Jian’s piloting team. There are low-key same-sex relationships, nicely presented as completely normal, which I love. The various caste and political troubles can of course be used to reflect on some of the issues of today–and in the case of AI rights, a topic which we’re presumably going to have to address eventually!

The worldbuilding is vivid and fascinating. I love the atmosphere of the Empire, the theater-like place where Fortune and Fanning both perform. I also enjoyed the descriptions of Fanning’s music–the emotions of it were conveyed so well that it didn’t matter that I have no knowledge of music. I could still get the point. I found the details of Fortune’s illusions to be fascinating as well. Scott clearly has real talent for description. By the time the plot really picks up I felt comfortable in the environment of the world, which can sometimes be a little dicey when you get tossed head-first into the worldbuilding.

This is a powerful and beautiful story, with delightful characters, exploring a fascinating subject. I look forward to reading more by Melissa Scott.

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Review: “Alien: Echo,” Mira Grant

Pros: Characters, deep biological exploration, description, worldbuilding
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

When I heard there was an Alien novel coming out, I was cautiously intrigued. When I heard it was being written by Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire) I immediately bought Alien: Echo: An Original Young Adult Novel of the Alien Universe and sat down to read it. One of my favorite horror franchises together with one of my favorite, most consistently excellent authors–I knew it was going to be good! It managed to be every bit as amazing as I dared to hope it would be.

Olivia Shipp is the 17-year-old daughter of two xenobiologists. She has an identical twin Viola who has a mysterious autoimmune disease. The family has lived on the planet Zagreus for a short time; the parents were hired by the colony to survey the flora and fauna of the local ecosystem. Olivia helps out by locating and sketching newly-discovered species, getting a small payment in return. She’s also falling in love with Kora, a young woman from her class in school. She and Viola decide they want to have a party. Their father is going to be gone for a day surveying a salvaged scientific ship in orbit just to make sure there are no biological contaminants aboard, and their mother will be away in the field for long enough that they can get away with it. During the party, an emergency communication comes in from their father: something has gone horribly wrong on the science vessel. The students can’t help but notice when the colony shuttle crashes nearby, and Viola runs off to find their mother. Olivia, horrified at the thought of her sick sister alone in the wilds of Zagreus, goes after her with Kora and several others in tow. That’s when they find out that something terrible came back with the shuttle–and it survived the crash-landing.

I love the fact that Olivia’s intensive life-long exposure to her parents’ xenobiology work has left her able to comment on and theorize about the aliens’ biology, providing possible explanations for things like the secondary “mouth”. It also enables her to convey a fascinating amount of information about the planet Zagreus both before and after the aliens show up. The flora and fauna are wonderfully detailed and original. Since the citizens of Zagreus make a big deal about not pillaging their environment (although it isn’t as simple as that), it sets the scene for some interesting musings on Earth-like worlds:

Every inch of land that humans settle on worlds with their own preexisting biospheres is stolen.

The writing is extremely vivid, from the orange sky to the color of drying blood on the walls. I had no trouble “seeing” exactly what was going on, whether I was reading about Olivia setting out bait to attract new wildlife, or a tense chase scene through a variety of local terrain.

…[T]he lion-worm–a sightless, ground-dwelling predator that’s sort of like a mole, if moles were made of knives and hatred and cilia…

The characters are wonderful. I particularly liked Olivia and Viola’s parents, who aren’t always perfect, and don’t always have a perfect relationship, but who are nonetheless nifty people doing interesting things. The kids in this book interact with adults in very natural ways–they aren’t artificially made to be the heroes. They just do their damndest to stay alive and save their loved ones. I particularly loved the burgeoning and possibly fragile relationship between Olivia and Kora, which is a delightful young romance. It’s threatened first by a classmate who’s also in love with Kora, and then of course by the appearance of the aliens themselves.

Ahh, the aliens. This book is a part of the franchise, so we knew they’d show up. They’re handled really well, and are absolutely as scary as in the movie(s). (In fact, the book was so tense that I kind of welcomed pausing to make dinner.) Using Olivia’s experience and knowledge to explore them kept Grant from having to shoehorn in explanations of the various aspects of their biology that we’ve seen so far. There’s also a great little bit of foreshadowing here:

And there are so many bugs. Almost every world that has life has bugs, something chitinous and quick and impossible to eradicate.

As a fan of the Alien franchise, I gobbled this book up. As a fan of Mira Grant, I loved it. I knew as soon as I heard she’d written this book that she was the perfect author for it, and I wasn’t disappointed!

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Short Take: “Carve the Sky,” Alexander Jablokov

Pros: The worldbuilding
Cons: The worldbuilding
Rating: 4 out of 5

Alexander Jablokov’s Carve the Sky takes place in the year 2358. Vanessa is an art expert who is supposed to authenticate a carving by famous sculptor Ozaki, and Anton is the Seneschal to the Monboddo Household, responsible for caring for its vast art collection. Vanessa also works for the Academia Sapientiae, and Anton is an intelligence officer. The Ozaki carving sets off a series of events that lead to conspiracies, a trip to the moon (where the characters participate in an animal hunt), a trip to the asteroid belt, rumblings of war, a religious conspiracy, a race to collect a set of four mysterious artifacts, and even a touch of romance.

The worldbuilding is both the book’s strength and its weakness. We get dumped into the middle of it and are expected to pick it up along the way. Bits of history emerge in the form of artifact catalog listings, which is clever. But there’s just so much detail to all of it that I never felt as though I really got a handle on it all. It distracted from the plot at times, and sometimes it seemed to substitute for plot.

The characters are interesting, although some of the side characters are a bit one-note. Vanessa and Anton are what make this book worth reading. I enjoyed their conversations quite a bit, and in those chats the worldbuilding seemed to settle a bit and make more sense. Both characters are imperfect and fallible, yet strong and competent, which is quite nice.

This book didn’t wow me, but it’s solidly entertaining.

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Review: “Demon Slayer,” Linsey Hall

Pros: Plenty of enjoyable action and snark
Cons: Still predictable; some missteps
Rating: 3 out of 5

Linsey Hall’s Demon Slayer (Dragon’s Gift: The Sorceress) is book one of “The Sorceress,” but past book 30 of her “Dragon’s Gift” universe. I highly recommend that you read the rest of the series first; it’s quick reading and they’re all available as ebooks, so you can get to them quickly. I think the world is just complicated enough at this point that it would be hard to start here. This new installment in the series concentrates on two characters we’ve seen in the background of the other books: Aerdeca and Mordaca, the Blood Sorceresses. They’re powerful, strong-willed, and elegant. As it turns out, they’ve also been hiding some secrets: they have dragon blood, and they’re on the run from their family, who forced them to misuse their powers. For now we’re focused on Aerdeca, who is icily blond and always wears white. Another secret she and her sister keep is that they work for the Council of Demon Slayers, hunting and killing demons. Aerdeca is trying to hunt down a necromancer demon, and a handsome fallen angel named Declan, a powerful bounty hunter, keeps getting in the way. He’s determined to take the demon alive. Can they hunt down the necromancer demon before he reaches his goal and starts raising an army of zombies?

If you’ve read the series, some things are highly predictable and formulaic. The main characters will have wildly powerful abilities. The stacked and handsome guy who immediately captures the main character’s attention will become the love interest, he’ll be muscular, wildly powerful, and able to produce large amounts of cash at will. The characters will have to pass various creative and somewhat arbitrary tests. An endearing and silly familiar of a sort will present itself–this time, a hellcat named Wally. The characters will have to elude traps like Indiana Jones, in a format that even Aerdeca refers to as a “living video game from hell.” However, the predictability also yields some good things. Each book has plenty of creative action scenes; the fight scenes are a lot of fun to read. There’s enjoyable snark and banter and some romantic sparks. The books are solidly fun to read, and having a series that reliable can be really nice. On the other hand, after this many volumes Hall is stretching so much to find new and interesting trials to put our heroes through that even her characters have started acknowledging how ridiculous some of them are getting:

“Weird test,” I said.
She shrugged. “I’m bored.”

I took issue with just how powerful Aerdeca and Mordaca really are. Sometimes Hall gives her characters abilities that she can’t entirely account for. In this case, they can supposedly use their dragon blood to create new powers for themselves–temporary and permanent. Their powers are pretty much limited only by their energy level and imaginations. Give me a D&D rules lawyer and ten minutes and pretty much every obstacle in this book would be meaningless. At one point Aeri explicitly says, “If only my dragon blood could give me the FireSoul’s ability to find things.” Well? Why can’t it?

I’m definitely enjoying getting a closer look at Aerdeca and Mordaca, especially since it seems they’ve been keeping up quite a front. I just wish that in the rush to make her characters super-powerful Hall wouldn’t back herself into these corners. A little variety in the cookie-cutter love interests would also be nice.

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