We stand in the sun and look back in our tracks
An image of self in grays and in blacks
Laughter and joy hold us in their sweet thrall
But even in wonderland shadows must fall

Book Review: “The Saga of Edda-Earth” By Deborah Davitt, parts 1 and 2

June 17, 2015 | Posted in Alternate History, Book Reviews, Epic Fantasy, Fiction

The Valkyrie (The Saga of Edda-Earth Book 1)The Valkyrie by Deborah L. Davitt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

The Goddess Denied (The Saga of Edda-Earth Book II)The Goddess Denied by Deborah L. Davitt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

[Note: This review covers the first two books of the series – the stories flow together so well, and my comments for each are essentially the same, so it didn’t make sense to make two separate reviews. There are no spoilers for either book in this review.]

 

Let me get straight to the point – the first two volumes of “The Saga of Edda-Earth” contain some of the best epic fantasy fiction – Norse based or otherwise – I’ve read since Marion Zimmer-Bradley’s “The Mists of Avalon,” a book that has been at the top of my favorites list for many years. (At the time of this review, the remainder of the series has not yet been released.)

Like “Mists,” the first two books of “Edda-Earth” dive deeply into its world’s political and religious landscape during a time of change. Edda-Earth is an alternate reality in which Rome never fell. Most of the world is under Rome’s banner, though the amount of control Rome exerts over the different nations varies. Some retain almost full autonomy, while others are almost fully controlled by Rome.  Each nation, however, maintains its own culture, though there are prohibitions on human sacrifice and proselytizing.

The story takes place in times roughly analogous to our own, in which technology and magic exist side-by-side. Author Deborah Davitt has constructed an extensive and detailed alternate world and history for the Saga. The technology used in most of the Empire is fairly similar to our own, though there doesn’t seem to be much of an emphasis on computers and some of the firearms are a bit more primitive. As for magic, there are three distinct schools – ley magic, powered by quantum strings; sorcery, which makes use of physics and the mage’s will; and spirit summoning – as well as people who have inherent abilities from the divine spark of being godborn or god-touched, or who have been granted certain abilities through the use of tools like magical tattoos. I really like the way Davitt has tied science and magic together, while still allowing for some magic to be of a more wonderous nature. 

Since nations retain their indigenous culture and beliefs, religion in Edda-Earth is quite diverse. The strength of any given pantheon derives largely from how many followers it has, and people who have chosen a faith – whether it was a deliberate decision or because they simply followed the faith of their culture – they essentially fade from the awareness of all other gods. Some gods have little to no direct interaction with their followers, relying on faith alone, while others choose to make their presence more tangible.

As the story opens, Propraetor Livorus – a man generally considered to be the right hand of Cesar and who is often sent to deal with delicate diplomatic situations – is being sent to a small nation in the middle of what we know as the U.S., in response to the apparent kidnapping of a young girl who they believe is to be used as a human sacrifice. Accompanying Livorus on the mission are his lictors – kind of a combination body-guard and advisory council. Foremost among his lictors is Sigrun Caesia, a godborn granddaughter of the Norse god Tyr, and the Valkyrie of the first book’s title. Adam ben Maor, who is frequently the lictors commanding officer, is a Judean warrior who is quite skilled in the use of weapons. Kanmi Eshmunazar is a ascerbic but brilliant Carthaginian sorcerer, and Trennus Matrugena, is a ley-mage and spirit summoner from Gaul whose size and prowess often belie his gentle spirit. There are others who come and go or work alongside the lictors, but these are our main heroes.

The story follows them as they discover rumors that the practice of human sacrifice is being restarted in other areas as well, and as they explore the deeper mysteries of what is behind this change and the impact it’s having on the world. Add in a couple of natural disasters and some long-simmering tension threatening to become open war, and Livorus’ crew has their hands full. As with any story, there are a few plot points that will feel a bit familiar or even predictable, but I found myself far more often surprised or shocked by the turn of events and the changes in the characters that resulted.

Part of what makes this series so incredible is the extensive level of character development that Davitt provides. Unlike many epic tales – where we follow the characters primarily for the duration of the perilous journey they must undertake to save the world – here we stay with the characters for an extended number of years and see them not only as they handle their various missions, but also during the times when they are able to remain home. We get to know them as they deal with the full gamut of family issues, from difficult relatives, to falling in love and building their own families, and learn who they are when they have the chance to just be themselves. Rather than slowing down the pacing, however, this additional perspective gives “Edda-Earth” an added richness and the deeper understanding of the characters provides a boost to the tension when they are in danger.

Both “The Valkyrie” and “The Goddess Denied” are long books – each coming in at around 600  pages, so they do require a bit of an investment of your time, but I certainly found it to be well worth it, and I’m excited to see what Davitt has in store for our heroes next!

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Book Review: “The Darkling Tide” by Travis Simmons

April 12, 2015 | Posted in Book Reviews, Fiction, mythology-based

The Darkling TideThe Darkling Tide by Travis Simmons
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

This reviews contains spoilers for the first book in the series, “A Plague of Darkness.” 

In “The Darkling Tide,” the 2nd book in Travis Simmons’ “Harbingers of Light” series, we rejoin Abigail, Leona, Rorick and Daphne on The Singer’s Trail as they travel through the Fey Forest in search of the elf city and the community of Harbingers that they hope will help Abigail learn how to control the Wyrd powers that accompany the plague. Celeste, the Light elf who had been guiding them has been recalled to the elf city. With Celeste gone and the others new to this world, Daphne is their only guide. The further they travel, however, the harder it gets to resist the pull of the darklings along the sides of the warded trail.

Simmons continues to develop the characters, with each of them facing difficulties that challenge them in unique ways and force them to make choices for which they may not truly be ready. And while Abigail is undergoing a transformative change due to the plague she carries, in many ways, it is little Leona who faces the greatest hurdles. In the first book, she had to sacrifice her beloved doll, Skuld – who frequently spoke to her and gave her guidance –  in order to save her sister and their friends – killing the attacker in the process.  Now we start to see how the experience is weighing on her.

The story had a lot of action to it and moves at a nice, steady pace. We learn more about Agaranth, get a chance to see the elf city, catch a glimpse into the politics between the dark and light elves and meet a few new characters, including Daniken a dark elf who causes trouble between Abagail, Rorick and Leona.

The middle book in a trilogy is usually the trickiest. We’ve already been introduced to the main characters and had the world established in the first volume, and the its ending is really only a resting point, since the third book contains the climax and denouement. As a result, middle books can sometimes feel flat.  Simmons has managed to avoid that here. The characters experience a number of gains and setbacks, while the tension slowly builds to lead us into the final episode. I’m really curious to see how it all turns out!

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“Circleborn” by Lor Hasse

April 10, 2015 | Posted in Book Reviews, Fiction, Urban Fantasy

Circleborn (Solomon's Circle Book 1)Circleborn by Lor Haase
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

At first glance, Lor Haase’s “Circleborn” – the first book in his “Soloman’s Circle” trilogy – may sound a bit reminiscent of the “Secret Circle” series (at least the TV version – I’ve not read the books) in that it features a group of families bound together by magic and the magic is passed from one generation to the next.  That’s where the similarity ends, however. 

In Hasse’s story, each family wields a different type of magic, and types gain their power from different sources. The circle is structured in an intricate hierarchy based on how much power a certain type of magic has and the order in which power can be shared between circle members.

 I found the book to be quite enjoyable. He sets up the main conflict nicely, and the characters are likable. The book is fairly short and makes for a quick read, but it’s full of action, making it a lot of fun.  It’s a dark story, though – a couple passages left me pleasantly creeped-out.

There are a couple things that bothered me a bit, which is why I gave it 3 stars. The first is that there are quite a number of typos throughout the book, and while they’re not so serious as to make any part of the book difficult to understand, they did slow down the flow of reading and had a tendency to pull me out of the story for a moment.  

The other is that for much of the first half of the book, Hasse has the characters drop a lot of hints and clues about different story elements by having their thoughts and conversations referencing an unspoken common context without letting the reader know exactly what that context is. This is a tactic many books use to build suspense – and it’s very effective in doing so – but usually it doesn’t seem to take quite as long for the author to reveal the secret to the audience, and it usually only involves a couple characters.  Here, Hasse suspends information from at least 5 different characters, and there were times I found myself flipping back a few pages to refresh my memory on what I’d learned so far. 

That said, I do recommend “Circleborn” for lovers of urban fantasy. There are a lot of surprises in the book, and Hasse has some interesting ideas in play. I found the power-sharing idea intriguing, and really liked the power-learning technique he devised for one character, among many other things, and I’m really looking forward to reading the next installment. 

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April 8, 2015 | Posted in Stuff

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Book Review: “A Plague of Darkness” by Travis Simmons

April 1, 2015 | Posted in Book Reviews, Fiction, mythology-based

A Plague of ShadowsA Plague of Shadows by Travis Simmons
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book free in exchange for an honest review.

Travis Simmons has put together nifty combination of Norse mythology and his own imaginative world-building, creating a unique universe in which to spin tales with familiar touchstones and wholly new ideas. He has taken element of the Noise cosmos and given them original names, which I found was a nice way of signalling that while this universe may be inspired by the Eddas, Epics and Sagas, it was not a retelling of any of the older stories.

“A Plague of Shadows” is the first book in the “Harbinger of Light” trilogy, in which we meet Abigail – a young woman who has found herself having to step into a more adult role of caring for the home and honey farm after her father is injured in an accident – along with her younger sister, Leona, and their neighbour Rorick. They live on the world of “O” which has been under attack from darklings – shadowy creatures capable of performing evil magic and tend to leave death wherever they’ve been. Touching or otherwise coming in contact with a darkling puts a person at a high risk of being infected with the darkling’s shadow and become a darkling themselves.

When Abigail shows symptoms of the plague, her father decides it’s best to send her to Agaranth, the world he originally came from and where his brother and sister still live. That world is also beset by darklings, but unlike O – where the Light Guard “cleanses” anyone who comes down with the plague and punishes people for even talking about the magical or mystical – people on Agaranth have learned to control the plague and even make use of the magic abilities it brings. Because Leona it’s showing signs of becoming a budding seeress, which is, of course, heavily frowned upon by the Guard, and Rorick’s parents are dead, Abagail’s father sends them with her on the journey.

Of course, things don’t go quite as planned, and that’s where the meat of the story kicks in. I was actually surprised how fast the book went. At one point, I’d thought I was no more than maybe a third of the way through, only to find is been reading longer than I’d thought and was nearly 3/4ths done. It’s a truly engrossing story.

The scene where Abigail and friends travel from O to Agaranth is remarkable in describing the World Tree and the rainbow bridge connecting to each of the nine worlds and a heavenly-like plane (with hints of something much darker below.) A guide they meet on the bridge tells them (and us) about this universe and some of what may lie ahead, but because the information is presented while the characters are also exploring this core of the cosmos, it flows more naturally than such expository passages sometimes can.

I have to admit part of the fun for me was in recognizing where’s he’s included Norse elements in somewhat different guises and under somewhat different names and how the old and new mesh together – but he’s done this smartly so that even if you’ve never heard of the Norse, you can still enjoy this tale.

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Book Review: “Erato” by Sharon van Orman

March 28, 2015 | Posted in Fiction, mythology-based, Urban Fantasy

Erato (The Sophia Katsaros Series # 2)Erato by Sharon Van Orman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Erato by Sharon van Orman

The last time we saw Dr. Sophia Katsaros, she had just returned from a trip to Greece – where she’d gone to find her missing brothers – only to discover an entirely unwelcome guest waiting in her apartment. She soon learns that she’s been targeted by the Enforcers of the werewolf pack who have come after her because no one who learns the secret of the pack is allowed to live.

When she begins finding gruesome messages being left for her as warnings, she decides to go to the pack alpha and get him to call off the dogs, as it were. There she learns that her situation is even more precarious because someone has been killing wolves from the pack and Sophia is the number one suspect. She offers the alpha a deal – if he’ll call off the Enforcers, she’ll prove she isn’t the killer, and use her scientific skills to help him find out who is. So begins a uneasy alliance and a trip back to Greece to track down a killer.

As in “Lykaia,” the story is told from multiple perspectives, with Sophia as the main narrator, written in first person. We also follow one of the Enforcers, see a few scenes from the killer’s point of view, and learn more about the Dryad and Dryad magic in general. I found the system that van Orman has set up for the Dryad magic to be quite interesting. I also liked that as skeptical as Sophia was to start with, as she becomes more excepting of the magical world, you can sense a greater openness in her in general. 

Something I really appreciated was that even though it was obvious that the pack alpha and Sophia found each other attractive, there was no insta-romance to be had here.  They were working together out of necessity and each had very good reasons not to trust the other. While their relationship warmed up some throughout the course of the book, it would have felt cheap to have them jump into bed with all of the questions that is still lingered.

We also spend more time with Illyanna, the girlfriend of one of Sophia’s brothers and mother of her soon-to-be-born niece. The friendship between Sophia and Illyanna is a lot of fun, especially as they learn more about the magical world. There was a natural easiness between them that carried over from the first book as they bonded over their mutual love for Sophia’s brother, and I hope that we are not done with their story.

“Erato” does a great job of wrapping up the story begun in the “Lykaia,” and the pair make for a very satisfying tale. Dr. Sophia Katsaros is an easy character to like and the world van Orman has created has a great balance of the fantastical and the realistic. There are some nice threads that could be easily woven into additional stories – and I sincerely hope they are.

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Book Review: “Lykaia” by Sharon van Orman

March 26, 2015 | Posted in Book Reviews, Fiction, mythology-based, Urban Fantasy

Lykaia (The Sophia Katsaros Series #1)Lykaia by Sharon Van Orman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lykaia by Sharon van Orman

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I love werewolves. When it comes to paranormal creatures only witches hold more interest for me than our short, dark and furry friends, so when I had the chance to check out a series with a new take on their origin, how could I pass that up?

Lykaia actually tells several stories. The main story is that of Sophia Katsaros, a medical examiner from Ohio whose younger brothers had gone to Greece for the summer and are now missing. Another tells us about Stavros, a young boy being trained to serve as the high priest for the werewolf pact. A third tells us the true history of how werewolves came to be, and not the myth that has been circulating for centuries. And I the fourth, we learn about a Dryad whose daughter was instrumental in the werewolves’ origin – and who may still have a role to play in their future. 

The book alternates between the four stories in a fragmented fashion that can be a bit tricky at first. While the changes in perspective only happen at the start of a new chapter, we’re not told when the perspective is changing or whose perspective we’re changing to. I soon got a feel for the different voices making the changes much less jarring. All of Sophia’s story is told in first person, the rest are in third, but each has a distinctive voice and tone.  There are also two short vignettes which provide a glimpse into the life of two people who wind up on Sophia’s morgue table. Why these vignettes were included isn’t clear, but they’re both quite short and don’t really detract from the story as a whole.

In spite of the unusual presentation of the different stories, I found the book to be a fairly quick read and quite enjoyable. I’ve always loved the idea that myths came about as ways to explain things mankind couldn’t quite grasp, and Van Orman uses that concept to good effect, especially in the way scientifically-minded Sophia find her beliefs challenged as she searches for answers to the disappearance of her brothers.

The only real complaint I have about the book is that there are several Greek words used throughout the story – and many of them are variations on the title – Lykaia – but there’s no guide as to how the words are pronounced. For me, seeing these similar strings of letters without being able to mentally differentiate then by how they sound left me feeling at times like I was listening to a storyteller who kept mumbling. It wasn’t enough of a problem to keep me from thoroughly enjoying the book, but it did occasionally send me looking pack a few pages to refresh my memory on what a particular term referred to.

The book ends on a cliffhanger, setting up the next volume, “Erato,” but even if it hadn’t, I found the story and the characters enjoyable enough that id want to spend more time with them anyway.

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Book Review: ” The Copper Witch” by Jessica Dall

March 18, 2015 | Posted in Book Reviews, Fiction

The Copper Witch (The Broken Line, #1)The Copper Witch by Jessica Dall
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for free in exchange for an honest review.

When sitting down to begin this review I found myself reminded of the time my husband was participating in a writer’s forum and a new member had posted a short story for critique. Sadly, the story wasn’t very good but my husband wanted to offer some kind of encouragement, so he told the writer that one of the story’s strengths was that it had a beginning, middle, and end. Copper Witch probably isn’t quite that bad – I know several reviewers have given it high marks – but for me, I found myself reading it in more of that “slowing down to look at a car wreck” kind of way then anything. 

The book started off terribly slow, I was fully a quarter into the book before it felt like the plot was actually going somewhere, and much of the writing just felt lazy. There is no world-building to speak of, minimal scene setting, and – aside from Adela’s social climbing – little in the way character development. There really isn’t even any kind of a villain to speak of. Worse, the erstwhile heroine of the story is difficult to like, and once the plot gets underway, it moves so quickly that characters simply drop out of the story and there are almost no consequences for the questionable actions that characters take.
 
When the story begins we meet 15-year-old Adela Tilton, the future baroness of Penrith, and Antony Fletcher, a local painter who has been hired by her grandmother to paint her portrait. After spending most of the day flirting  relentlessly with Antony – pushing all of his buttons, to say nothing of the boundaries of propriety – she decides she would like to learn to paint, and by the next day Antony finds himself installed in the household as her new art tutor. Adela seems to spend more time trying to seduce Antony then she does trying to learn to paint, something her lady’s maid, Lettice, disapproves of highly and keeps trying to thwart – with little success.

Soon, Adela’s grandmother falls ill and Adela in his shipped off to stay with aunt in another town. Coincidentally, her aunt has also invited a Duke and his family – including his son, an Earl in his own right – to stay at the family home for a bit, in the hopes of making a match between her eldest daughter and the Earl. In what is just the first of several iterations of a pattern, the Earl, upon seeing the Adela, becomes instantly enamoured of her and within days is making arrangements so that they can be together. They quickly become engaged, and thus begins Adela’s whirlwind climb to the top of society.

At no time are we ever given a clear explanation for Adela’s constant success in achieving her ambitions, though there are hints that it maybe due to a copper bracelet she wears. She says it was given to her by a fortuneteller who supposedly told her that as long as she wore the bracelet she would get whatever she wants. If that is the case, however, it seems maybe the magic didn’t work as well as it should. Adela certainly does seem to get a great deal of what she wants, but by no means does she get everything she wants and – at times – she gets things that she very much doesn’t want.

The story is filled with a number of twists and turns, but because there’s no villain or force trying to prevent Adela’s success, it never feels like Adela is ever really in any danger. Even the one time she is faced with losing what she’s achieved, there stand yet another enamoured man ready to hand it all right back to her.

“The Copper Witch” is the first book in a trilogy (plus a novella) but even though all we see here is roughly two years from Adela’s life, from what I understand, the other two full novels deal with Adela’s descendants, rather than continuing her own story, though some of that is covered in the novella. This isn’t a series, though, that I plan to follow up on.

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Book Review: “Incite” by Erica Crouch

March 4, 2015 | Posted in Book Reviews, Fiction, mythology-based, Paranormal Romance, Urban Fantasy

Incite (Ignite, #2)Incite by Erica Crouch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Have you ever finished reading a book and then had a hard time figuring out which of the books you’ve been so eager to get to you’re going to read next because what you REALLY want to do is spend more time with the characters from that book in which you’ve just turned the last page? Well, that’s the dilemma “Incite” currently has me in.

I’ve sung the praises of the first two installments in Erica Crouch’s “Ignite” series (“Entice” and “Ignite” – and I strongly recommend reading them in that order as “Entice” really sets the stage for the series!) and “Incite” lives up to its predecessors.

In “Ignite” twin demons Azael and Penemuel (but call her Pen) find themselves on opposite sides for the first time, and in this latest installment, we see how the loss is affecting each of them differently. Azael has been promoted to King of Hell, but is finding it difficult to take joy in achieving a level of power he’d only dreamed of. Even the companionship of the wicked Lilith is lessened by his confused feelings over Pen’s departure. But while he swings from being confident all he needs to do is talk to her and she’ll come back to him and raging at her betrayal, Pen is far more saddened than anything.

Michael does what he can to help her, but there are other urgent matters that need attention – such as the fact that both Heaven and Hell have put bounties on their heads, Michael’s heart seems to be weakening, and there’s a feisty little angel who keeps showing up trying to convince the pair that they’ve really started something. She tells them that other angels and demons who have come to believe there had to be something other than the stark black and white of Heaven and Hell have formed a community dubbed New Genesis, and she wants them to join up.

We meet several new characters in this book, and they all fit nicely into the story. Pen and Michael have their new friends, and Azael has a band of assassins and other useful sorts helping him track down his wayward sister and her beau. And even though Azael and his companions definitely represent the evilest of evil, they are not so far out there that they serve only to repulse. Azael is far from being an unsympathetic character, and that helps keep the tension high and the ultimate resolution unclear.

As with the previous books, there’s some intriguing philosophical discussions that elevate the story, which I happen to love, but there’s enough action and romance to satisfy those interests as well.

The next book will be a novella focusing on Ana and Kala, two of the new characters introduced in “Incite.” It will go into more about their history before we meet them. That will be followed by “Infinite,” the (sob!!) final book in the series. They can’t get here soon enough for me!

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Book Review: ” Altar of Reality” by Mara Valderran

March 4, 2015 | Posted in Book Reviews, Fiction, Urban Fantasy

Altar of RealityAltar of Reality by Mara Valderran
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The book started a bit slow, and I kind of had a hard time warming up to Madeline, Brandon and Thomas, but I was reading this as a review copy so I wanted to be sure I gave them a fair chance to grow on me. It took me a few days to read the first several chapters of the book, but once everyone got settled in an the story really got going, I read the rest in just a few hours – it hooked me that well.

The three characters have known each other for years: Brandon is Thomas’s younger brother and Madeline’s best friend, while Thomas is her erstwhile boyfriend with a tendency to wander. Madeline suffers from epilepsy and has a history of absence seizures, where she will become non a responsive and stare off into space. Kids at school, of course, treat her differently as a result, something that only gets worse when she begins to have seizures where she shakes violently and collapses unconscious.

When we first meet her, Madeline wakes up in an empty, derelict hospital with no electricity and no clue to what she’s doing there or why it’s in the condition it is. She leaves her room to try to figure out what’s going on when she runs into Thomas who explains that she’s been in a coma and has been since the day her parents were killed. Before she can get too many more answers, though, she experiences her first major seizure and wakes up in her expected classroom, assuming what she’d just seen was a seizure-triggered dream. When it happens again after another major seizure, she starts to become more confused.

In both worlds, Brandon and Thomas are the main forces in her life, and while she’s trying to cope with the confusion of her dual realities, the brothers – though trying to be supportive – cause a whole different level of confusion as they try to define, or maybe redefine, their relationships with her and, to an extent, with each other.

I really liked the mix of apocalyptic-level drama contrasted with the typical teenaged angst boys and girls put each other through. It helped make the more dangerous aspects of the dystopian world stand out from the more mundane issues she had to cope with in the peaceful world. It was also interesting to see how her interactions with the two versions of the brothers impacted how she dealt with them amid the changes they were sometimes unintentionally throwing her way. I also liked seeing how information she’d gain in one reality could be useful in the other.

The book ends on a heck of a cliffhanger, so I’m hoping the next installment will be ready fairly soon! I really am glad I stuck with it – “Altar of Reality” is a nicely told story with several dimensions to it, and a believable heroine just trying to figure out a very strange situation.

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