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The first person narrator of Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber (1970) wakes up in a hospital without knowing who he is or how he came to be there. He does know that he's been being kept in a drugged sleep, so he feigns unconsciousness, takes out a thuggish orderly, threatens the doctor in charge, and, finally learning from him that his "sister" checked him into the hospital, heads off in a taxi for her home in NY. Thus begins his quest for identity and memory, which occupies the first half of the novel. By concealing his amnesia, acting as if he's considering his next move in some game of power, and examining every clue, he soon learns that his name is Corwin, that he is a prince of a place called Amber ("the key to everything"), and that his Machiavellian kin (eight brothers and at least four sisters) feel little kinship for each other: "I'd get what I needed and take what I wanted, and I'd remember those who helped me and step on the rest. For this, I knew, was the law by which our family lived." But how can he return to Amber, and what is the family game that stranded him memoryless on earth?
I remembering loving the first Amber cycle when I was in high school, painfully waiting for the fifth book to be published in 1978 so I could find out how Corwin's saga ends. Revisiting Nine Princes of Amber thirty-five years later, I still find good things in it. Zelazny's conception of Amber as the only real place, the one true substance from which all other cities and worlds, including earth, are "but a reflection of a shadow," is intriguing, as is his depiction of traveling through the Shadow worlds by mentally adding and subtracting features till you arrive at Amber. He tells a page-turning story. His strategy of having Corwin reveal early on that he's telling his tale as he is about to die somehow somewhere in the future is neat. There are some nice lines, like "As I sailed into Shadow, a white bird of my desire came and sat upon my right shoulder." And as he exploits the internecine machinations of a dysfunctional super-powered family, Zelazny explores the ways in which hatred shapes the world, partly through the filter of the Vietnam War: "I walked among Shadows, and found a race of furry creatures, dark and clawed and fanged, reasonably man-like, and about as intelligent as a freshman in the high school of your choice--sorry, kids, but what I mean is they were loyal, devoted, honest, and too easily screwed by bastards like me and my brother."
Alas, today I can also see many warts on the novel. For example, despite loving the soldiers fighting and dying for him, despite invoking the horror of napalm and mushroom clouds, despite having participated in appalling campaigns like Napoleon's march on Moscow, and despite having come to care for other lives during his centuries of exile on earth, Corwin (and Zelazny) really do treat the quarter of a million plus casualties of the Amber game as anonymous, "custom-made cannon fodder," when a truly caring prince might try first to mentally dominate his nemesis so as to avoid war via one of the nifty tarot-like cards that serve the royalty of Amber as combination telephones and teleporters. Corwin's "guilt" feels crocodilian.
Another: Despite Amber being the only real realm, Corwin's allusions to people, events, and works from our "Shadow earth" (like "I suddenly realized that I had known the mad, sad, bad Vincent Van Gogh") so outnumber those from Amber's history that Zelazny evokes our own world more than he develops Amber. This is especially so when Corwin uses American slang and sexism from 1970. He refers to a nurse as "a hippy broad," says that he can or can't "dig" certain things, decides to "play it cool," invites a friend to "make the scene," and so on. Zelazny is grounding his fantasy with an "authentic" language and manner, but it causes some cringes.
As for gender, early on Corwin devotes a paragraph each to describe his brothers and himself, but only a single paragraph for his sisters, and he often wonders what happened to his father but not to his mother. Only men are fit to rule Amber, and the royal sisters are basically concubines of the fittest. Corwin even gets to indulge in a Captain Kirk-like interlude with a suitably bare-breasted and green-nippled undersea queen.
Finally, Zelazny's depiction of Corwin as a macho, sensitive warrior-bard, expert at martial and liberal arts, fluent in hip slang and Shakespearean English, possessed of superhuman strength and regenerative powers (no wonder he can chain smoke without getting cancer!), starts feeling like a nerdy adolescent's ultimate cool guy power fantasy (no wonder I loved these books in high school!). With the possible exception of Random, Corwin's siblings appear flat next to him.
The reader Allesandro Juliani, excellent with Solaris, is good here, but his light and casual voice make Corwin seem less substantial and charismatic than he could be, and his attempts to vocally distinguish the other eight brothers from each other begin to sound strained. He also tends to make female voices too high and weak.
Later entries in the Amber cycle may correct my kvetches, but to find out I'll dust off my high school days' Avon paperbacks rather than pay Audible for each of the four remaining five-hour novels (when a single 25-hour omnibus audiobook would have been nice).
Scott O'Dell's The King's Fifth (1966), a runner up for the Newbery Medal, is an absorbing, well-written, and vividly-imagined historical novel. At dusk in 1541 in a prison cell in Vera Cruz, New Spain, the young cartographer Esteban de Sandoval begins writing the account of his adventures seeking the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola in the vast part of the New World marked "Unknown" on maps. He tells us that his trial for treasonously denying the King of Spain his due fifth of a great treasure will begin in two days on his 17th birthday, and that he is writing to "find the answer to all that puzzles me. . . . for if I do not clearly know what I did or why it was done, how can I ask others to know?"
Esteban begins his account by relating how he joined the ambitious and mutinous Captain Mendoza and his four soldier-servants in leaving the Spanish fleet led by Admiral Alarcon whose mission was to deliver supplies to General Cordova's army. Esteban's motive was not to find gold (unlike his fellow explorers, who dream of cities paved with it), but rather to become the first man to map the Unknown territory. He also tells us early on, however, that he began his adventure "not knowing that the dream of gold can bend the soul and even destroy it, unaware that one day it would do the same to me." This is the first of many (perhaps too many) ominous foreshadowing remarks that O'Dell has Esteban make as he tells his story.
Throughout his past tense adventure, Esteban weaves his present tense predicament, having to keep the venal jailor hopeful enough that he'll draw him a detailed map leading to the treasure, and having to appear before the venal judges and venal prosecutor protected only by a rookie legal counsel. In fact, much of the present tense strand of O'Dell's novel reads like a courtroom drama, complete with antagonistic interrogations and surprise witnesses.
The most compelling parts of O'Dell's novel concern Esteban's memories of his experiences exploring much of today's New Mexico and Arizona, including many places and things that few if any white people had seen before. The descriptions of sublime geographical features like the Grand Canyon, impressive Native American villages like Tawi (the cloud city), affecting Native American rituals like greeting the dawn sun, unfamiliar animals like beavers, nightmarish things like a sunken desert "Inferno," and so on, are skillfully done, evoking wonder and fascination. And in general O'Dell does a fine job of working in interesting historical details, like the Spanish idea that California was a mysterious island and the Cortez law forbidding the riding or owning of horses by Indians.
O'Dell depicts the fraught history of the exploration and conquest of New Spain by the Spanish conquistadores with some complexity. To be sure, Mendoza and his party serve as a microcosm of the entire greedy, deceitful, and brutal Spanish presence in the "New World": greed, deceit, and brutality as the invaders tricked and killed Indians for gold and destroyed their villages, etc. while accusing them of being liars and scorning their lives and cultures. Interestingly, although Father Francisco has the right idea when he says that they should be looking at the country they're passing through and its creatures and mountains and clouds "with quiet eyes," Esteban detects in his eyes the same feverish light for saving souls as he sees in the eyes of Mendoza for grabbing gold. At the same time, both men are remarkably brave and charismatic.
O'Dell is a fine writer of potent prose, as when Esteban experiences a coastal storm: "The Cordonazo's first breath had parted a rope. The sail now streamed over our heads like a banner. The sailor rose to save it, but when he reached out the wind lifted him into the air. He fell upon the sea and as a man slides on the deck of a ship, so hard was the surface of the water, he slid past us and out of view." The moment when Mendoza's small party nearly walks over the edge of the Grand Canyon as night has fallen is sublime: "Below us lay blackness, fold upon fold, deep and endless. From it a warm breeze welled upward, as if the earth itself were breathing." The moment when Esteban bites a heavy gold nugget sees the marks of his teeth in it is intoxicating: "a curious feeling seized me. . . it was like a fever and a sickness. It was as if all the stories of gold that men had told me had suddenly come alive inside me." And O'Dell treats the love between Esteban and the party's Indian girl guide Zia with great restraint and charm: "Her eyes are the color of obsidian stone, so large that I see nothing else."
Jonathan Davis gives his usual masterful reading of the novel, being particularly good with greedy, clever, and hard men and Zia.
Perhaps the novel takes a little too much time to get Esteban on his way to Cibola, but people interested in well-written, well-researched accounts of the exploration and exploitation of the "New World" infused with plenty of universal human heart--especially regarding the fever sickness of gold greed--should read The King's Fifth, though they should also be warned that it, like O'Dell's classic The Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) is not a cheery tale.
"A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees." So begins Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s comical and moving autopsy of America, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965). Focusing on American wealth and poverty and winners and losers, Vonnegut introduces us to middle-aged Eliot Rosewater, heir to the massive Rosewater fortune. Eliot has been using his position as president of the Rosewater Foundation to help everyone who needs help in his small hometown of Rosewater, Indiana, answering the phone 24 hours a day, "Rosewater Foundation. How can we help you?" and giving emotional and/or financial comfort to anyone on the other end of the line. Although his ability to love "the little people," no matter how useless, criminal, or cracked, evokes a "God bless you, Mr. Rosewater" from the likes of the "ugly, boring, and stupid" spinster Diana Moon Glampers, it does not sit well with his free-enterprise loving, pubic-hair hating, die-hard republican Senator father, separates him from his loving but more human wife Sylvia, wins him nicknames like "The Nut," "The Saint," and "John the Baptist" from the workers at the law firm handling the Rosewater fortune, and earns him a weaselly sniper of a foe in the young lawyer Norman Mushari, who "slaveringly" thinks it will be easy to prove Eliot is insane and thus gain control of the Rosewater fortune by transferring it to a distant branch of the family living in Pisquontuit, Rhode Island.
Vonnegut caustically and amusingly details how American fortunes are made, how tabloid publications and deodorant advertising influence us, and how rich people tend to think poor people should be hard working and thankful. He introduces Eliot's distant cousin Fred as an ironic foil, depicting him as a life insurance salesman who guilts his male clients into "providing" for their wives ("brides") by buying life insurance and then when the men die receives his own "God bless you, Mr. Rosewater" from their widows. Vonnegut also makes Fred sympathetic by virtue of his being the son of a suicide ("Sons of suicides seldom do well") married to "a female chameleon trying to get ahead in the world."
Throughout the novel, Vonnegut relishes making fun of people rich and poor by exposing their physical and mental defects. This is usually funny but does at times verge on the mean-spirited or unfair (as in his depiction of the tall homosexual restauranteur Bunny Weeks, who has "eyes that were standard equipment for rich American fairies. . . junk jewelry eyes")
Throughout, Vonnegut delights in vivid and humorous descriptions. After a year in a sanitarium, Eliot looks like "an emaciated, feverish middle-aged boy. . . F. Scott Fitzgerald with one day to live." And the prolific and poor science fiction author Kilgore Trout, whose several book synopses read like Vonnegut's inner sf geek freed, celebrated, and mocked, looks when bearded "like a frightened, aging Jesus whose sentence to crucifixion had been commuted to imprisonment for life" and when shaven like "a kindly country undertaker."
Vonnegut also writes neat pithy lines like, "The most exquisite pleasure in the practice of medicine comes from nudging a layman in the direction of terror, then bringing him back to safety again."
One sign of the complexity of Vonnegut's satire of the "Money River" flowing through America, a small minority being born and living on its banks, the vast majority never knowing where it is, is that he inserts a minor character, Lincoln Ewald, who hates America because in it money is king (so far so good), but who is also an ardent Nazi sympathizer (ouch!). Another sign of its complexity is that there is an uncomfortable truth in Senator Rosewater's belief that if like Eliot you love everyone equally you cannot love anyone particularly, and love becomes like identical pieces of toilet paper. The anchor to hang onto amid the complexity and bitter humor MAY lie in Kilgore Trout's explanation of Eliot's behavior as an experiment to see if it's possible to love useless people: "We must find ways to love people who have no use," because "people can use all the uncritical love they can get" and because if we don't do it, "we might as well rub them out," and "if one man can do it, others can."
Vonnegut extends the meaning of his novel beyond the boundaries of America to human nature via riffs on things like the appalling allied firebombing of Dresden (and its effect on Eliot) and on an orgy of fish gaffing and braining by some Pisquontuit fishermen, leaving them "as satisfied with life as men can ever be."
The reader Eric Michael Summerer does a convincing Senator Rosewater delivering a speech admiring Augustan Rome, a fine orphan girl expressing her true feelings about her wealthy, ignorant, and arrogant masters, an uncanny grackle-voiced Lincoln Ewald saying, "Heil Hitler," a great bird singing, "Poo-tee-weet," and of course a convincingly cheerful, saintly, insanely sane and loving Eliot Rosewater.
In this novel Vonnegut works on the banks of the Twain River of sweet, hopeful, bitter, humorous American misanthropy.
Imagine Gandalf and Aragorn as lovers, the wizard choosing, advising, and sexing the king, the pair exchanging bodily fluids to make the land fertile! In The Fall of the Kings (2002), Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman queer the typical fantasy genre relationship between kings and wizards. Is their novel a bracing revision, a political passion, an unsavory folly, or just a well-written steamy same-sex romance fantasy about history, authority, truth, duty, art, love, and family? Maybe all of that.
Taking place about sixty years after the events of Kushner's earlier Swordspoint (1987) and about 45 years after those of her later The Privilege of the Sword (2006), The Fall of the Kings is set in her Elizabethan-esque secondary world centered around an anonymous city growing outward from its ancient island of origin, Riverside, home to a demimonde of pickpockets, prostitutes, artists, and the like now that the nobles have moved to the Hill across the river. The book begins with Theron Campion, the posthumous son of Alec, the Mad Duke Tremontaine, being dumped by Ysaud, a gifted artist who's finished using him as a model for a series of paintings featuring scenes from the legendary past, a man murdering his king-lover, a man staring at his stag reflection in a pool of water, a band of nude young men dancing around a fire, and so on. Will Theron find a new lover after having his heart broken? And will he find a way to balance his duties as future Duke with finding his bliss? Meanwhile, the wannabe intelligencer lordling Nicholas Galing yearns to be of use to the mysterious Serpent Chancellor Lord Arlen, who seems to be concerned about some possible royalist plotting in the city (two-hundred years earlier the nobles killed the last king and established a Council of Lords). A third plot strand features the university doctor of ancient history Basil St Cloud, who is practicing and teaching a revolutionary method, that of discovering new truth about history by examining primary source documents instead of rehashing the work of past authority figures. St Cloud's fixation on proving that kings were good, wizards benign, and magic real won't prove treasonous, will it?
Kushner and Sherman interestingly introduce the possibility of magic into the unmagical world of Riverside, develop the university, and detail the rich history of the city as far back as 500 years ago when the northern and southern cultures united. Unfortunately, the novel could have been shorter without harming its virtues, over-full as it is with portentous dream after portentous dream, provocative scholarly find after provocative scholarly find, intense confrontation after intense confrontation, bawdy seasonal festival after bawdy seasonal festival, aristo society event after aristo society event. The climax does not quite live up to its promising and lengthy build up, and the resolution left me feeling, "Is that all there is?"
In Kushner's earlier Swordspoint, I liked the relationship between young Alec Campion (the Mad Duke to be) and his swordsman lover Richard St Viers, and had no problem with their tasteful sex scenes, because Kushner wrote them sparingly and I liked the characters. In The Fall of the Kings, Kushner and Sherman posit a secret centuries-old northern ritualistic tradition by which the old king is sacrificed and a new king chosen by wizards from among his young male "companions" in a stag-hunt climaxing in group sex in a sacred grove, all of which was ostensibly to confirm the tie between king and land. Fair enough. But Theron imagining becoming a stag to rut with a stag (instead of a doe) to make the land fertile seems odd. And there is just so much sex alluded to or discreetly depicted in the book, the majority male-male, with a bit of female-female and male-female tossed in for spice, that it began to numb me (almost as much as too many violent action scenes do in typical genre fantasy). Perhaps the most fantastic thing here is that no one ever catches any STDs.
Theron's half-sister Jessica, "the Pirate Queen," injects new life into the novel and there are great moments in it, including one where a set of paintings becomes a sacred grove and another where Basil tries a magical text: "The letters lay dark and heavy on the page. Basil stared at the secret tongue. It teased him, dared him. . . He picked out the letters, and spoke two syllables aloud. They felt strange in his mouth, as if he were picking up pebbles or nuts and trying them on his tongue." Although Theron is rather shallow, self-centered, and lame (to me), other characters are interesting, like the unlikeable Henry Fremont, the obsessed Galing, and the brilliant and impractical St Cloud. The texture of secondary world creation is dense and intriguing. And I tip my cap to Kushner and Sherman for attempting to revivify the typical wizard-king relationship.
As with the audiobook versions of the other two Riverside novels, this one is "illuminated," Kushner reading most of it, and a handful of other men and women doing character voices in key scenes. I'd prefer either to hear the entire book read by the excellent Kushner or to hear it all read by the various readers. And although the music enhances the moods of the scenes, the redundant sound effects, from the striking of a "lucifer" (match) to the cheering of a crowd, disturb the immersive listening experience. After hearing someone knocking on a door, I don't then need the narrator to say, "a soft knock at the door heralded Terrance."
Finally, readers new to Kushner's Riverside books should read them in internal chronological order, Swordspoint followed by Privilege of the Sword, because although each book can stand alone, The Fall of the Kings is less satisfying than the others.
Cloud Atlas (2004) is a composite novel comprised of six different stories, each one set in a different time and place, including Belgium in 1931 and Hawaii in the far future; each one featuring a different protagonist, including a conservative 19th-century American notary and a revolutionary future Korean clone; each one belonging to a different genre, including an epistolary novel and a campfire tale; each one evoking a different mood, including suspense and black comedy; and each one featuring an aptly different style (vocabulary, syntax, and orthography), including an elegant Oscar Wildean British English and a lyrical post-apocalypse transformed English ala Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. Author David Mitchell's ability to make each story strand and voice unique and convincing is impressive, as is his clever arrangement and compassionate linking of the six stories, which refer backwards and forwards to each other in increasingly meaningful ways.
Tying the whole thing together is a set of potent themes relating to memory, history, story, identity, human nature, civilization, the past, and the future. "The mighty [Edward] Gibbon" and his masterpiece, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, are often referred to and quoted ("History is little more than the record of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind"), and most of Mitchell's inter-nested stories concern the heroic attempt of fallible individuals in a moment of crisis to try to make a better future by standing up for another person or for themselves or for the truth and so defusing the default predatory human mode of greed, will to power, and cruelty. In short, the novel is about the growth of the human soul in eras and cultures inimical to it.
The following excerpts from the novel demonstrate its richness and range of voices:
"My eyes adjusted to the gloom & revealed a sight at once indelible, fearsome & sublime. First one, then ten, then hundreds of faces emerged from the perpetual dim, adzed by idolaters into bark, as if Sylvan spirits were frozen immobile by a cruel enchanter. No adjectives may properly delineate that basilisk tribe! Only the inanimate may be so alive."
"I've manipulated people for advancement, lust, or loans, but never for the roof over my head."
"I saw my first dawn over the Kangwon-Do Mountains. I cannot describe what I felt. The Immanent Chairman's one true son, its molten lite, petro-clouds. His dome of sky. . . Why did the entire conurb not grind to a halt and give praise in the face of such ineluctable beauty?"
"In my new tellin', see, I wasn't Zachry the Stoopit nor Zachry the Cowardy. I was jus' Zachry the Unlucky'n'Lucky. Lies are Old Georgie's vultures what circle on high lookin' down for a runty'n'weedy soul to plummet'n'sink their talons in, an' that night at Abel's Dwellin', that runty'n'weedy soul, yay, it was me."
"What wouldn't I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable, to possess as it were an atlas of clouds."
Perhaps the thriller story feels odd-man-out by having the only third person narration and generally seeming less convincing than its fellows (though I suspect that may partly be Mitchell's point). The intimations of reincarnation glimpsed in most of the stories sit a bit uncomfortably with me. In the brave new corprocratic dystopia of Mitchell's first future, I'd think that more likely brand names would become nouns than "fords" for cars and "sonys" for computer/smart phones (though "starbucks" for coffee and "nikes" for tennis shoes sure sound right). And because the stories of Cloud Atlas progress from the past to the future and back again, each ending in mid-crisis on the way forward, I found the first half of the novel when I had no idea what kind of story would start in each new section more intriguing than the second when the aborted stories conclude, albeit suspensefully.
The six readers (four male, two female) of the audiobook are mostly quite good, especially Simon Vance as Robert Frobisher and John Lee as Timothy Cavendish, both men relishing Mitchell's spot on articulate, brilliant, cynical, educated British English for those two characters, and Cassandra Campbell was perfectly dignified, resigned, and hopeful as Sonmi-451.
At one point, Mitchell's disinherited young British bisexual composer writes to his soul mate about Cloud Atlas, his "sextet for overlapping soloists, piano, clarinet, cello, flute, obo, violin, each in its own language of key, scale and color. In the first set each solo is interrupted by its successor. In the second each interruption is continued in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky?" This obviously describes the novel. So is it revolutionary or gimmicky? I think it falls between those two poles, being too coherent to be revolutionary and too well-written and heart-felt to be gimmicky.
What a promising premise to Colleen Gleason's first "Stoker and Holmes" novel, The Clockwork Scarab (2013)! Irene Adler, AKA "the woman," the American opera singer who got the best of Sherlock Holmes in "A Scandal in Bohemia" and is now the keeper of British Museum antiquities, recruits Alvermina (Mina) Holmes, the great detective's niece, and Evaline Stoker, Bram Stoker's younger sister, to be secret agent/detectives discretely risking "life and limb for their queen, their countrymen, and the Empire," just as many young men but no other young women do. And the girls quickly find themselves investigating a deadly scheme to bring the Egyptian goddess of death Sekhmet back to life. The story is set in a steampunk 1889 London, for Parliament has passed an act banning electricity and promoting steam power. Thus the city hisses with myriad "cognoggin" gadgets of every size and purpose, including self-propelled Refuse-Agitators and Night-Illuminators, steam-powered lifts and trolleys, mechanized Tome-Selectors and corset removers, Steam-Stream guns and finger-sized steam throwers, and clockwork hairclips and dragonfly pins. Steam-London is a city of sky-scrapers, the tops of the swaying buildings held in place by helium-filled balloon-like sky-anchors. Did I forget the airships? As if all that weren't enough, Gleason tosses in time travel and alternate worlds in the person of Dylan Eckhert, an American from 2016 who believes that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character and asserts that electricity has never been illegal. This leads to some amusing culture shock, as Mina encounters iPhones, Nikes, and slang like "cool" and "hot."
At first I liked the independent and spunky 17-year-old Mina and Evaline, trying to solve a macabre mystery while chafing at the restrictions, dismissals, and ignominies of their patriarchal culture. Tall and gawky Mina is a true Holmes, a girl of observation, deduction, and planning, while petite and pretty Evaline is her family's vampire hunter, a girl of action endowed with superhuman strength, speed, and healing ability. While Mina becomes winded during strenuous action and feels abandoned by her parents, Evaline becomes paralyzed before spilled blood and has to deal with Bram's wife wanting to marry her to some man who will take care of her. Mina is a willing recluse, Evaline an unwilling socialite. They complement each other.
Alas, the more I read, the more flaws I found. Like so many YA novels, Gleason's is narrated in the first person, the girls taking turns, but despite Mina's more intellectual vocabulary, their narrative voices are too similar, both using the same exclamations (drat, blast, blooming, etc.) and both tending to over-describe people, clothes, and devices. Here is Evaline on her older brother Bram: "I'm petite and elegant, and he's rather stocky. . . He has a full beard and a moustache, with an auburn tint in the growth nearest the lips." Mina on her outfit: "My skirt was a sunny yellow flowered polonaise, pulled back up into a bustle that exposed a cheerful gold, blue, and green ruffled underskirt. The tight fitting basque bodice I wore over it was pale blue, trimmed with yellow, green, and white ribbons, making the ensemble bright and summer-like and complimenting my golden brown hair and hazel eyes." And Mina on the "large bubble-like reservoir of ink" (1st time) and the "bulbous reservoir" (2nd time) atop Inspector Grayling's "fancy" phallic "self-inking pen." Such descriptions too often convey details that have nothing to do with the plot and make the girls seem oddly superficial. Both girls also use the same words to describe the several tall, broad-shouldered, sleek-muscled, warm-bodied, thick-haired, square jawed, minty/spicy/smoky/sandalwoody/lemony-scented young hunks they repeatedly run into and their febrile reactions to them: sweaty palms, dry mouths, flushed/warm/heated/burning cheeks, fluttering insides, flipping hearts, frozen brains, and discombobulated minds. As a result of all this, I often found myself thinking, "That's Gleason, not Mina/Evaline!"
For that matter, too often Gleason writes overwrought romance: "My whole body was hot and trembly. My knees shook, and I could do nothing but stare at him for a moment, my lips moist and throbbing, my heart thundering like a runaway horse." Given the many moments in the novel criticizing male-dominated Victorian society and Mina and Evaline's brains and bravery, before young men they steam too easily.
Finally, to increase suspense Gleason has the girls do some stunningly stupid things (which I'll avoid spoiling) and undergo some stunningly rapid changes in morale, Mina going in three pages from "I realized I wasn't enough of a Holmes" to "The game was afoot," and Evaline in two from "I had no right to call myself a Venator, a vampire hunter" to "You're a Venator. You're strong. Fight." And the climax is absurd and the resolution incomplete (Gleason cheating to make us read the sequel?).
Despite its neat premise, then, The Clockwork Scarab disappointed rather than fulfilled me. I even realized that the steampunk setting is superfluous, for the scarab need not be clockwork, Grayling's steam-cycle could be a motorcycle, and the villain's main devices are electrical or supernatural. As interesting as it is for steam to be the lifeblood of Victorian London and as nifty as the cognoggin devices are, I wish the novel explored the ramifications and meanings of such a society. Laurie R. King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice (1994), about the relationship between fifteen-year-old Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, is much more convincing.
Jane Entwistle capably reads the novel, deftly handling the American and British and Scottish accents and male and female speakers, though I found her Evaline a bit grating.
Garrison Keillor's Pontoon (2007) is a novel whose chapters read like a linked set of short stories focusing primarily on the death of 82-year old, life-embracing Evelyn Peterson and its effect on her surviving family and friends and secondarily on the return to Lake Woebegone of "that tramp" Debbie Detmer for her quasi-wedding "commitment" ceremony. Keillor tells his tale via the memories, letters, back-stories, and current concerns, etc. of a variety of characters, including Evelyn, her lover Raoul, her daughter Barbara (the protagonist of the novel), Barbara's university sophomore son Kyle, Debbie, and Debbie's father.
Lake Woebegone is a largely Lutheran and muchly Norwegian Minnesota small town, and Keillor depicts both its negative and positive sides: it's "a culture of fussy women and silent angry men and horrified children," but "It's peaceful here. . . you can be just who you are." Keillor enjoys lists (varieties of booze being dumped gurgling down a sink drain, garage sale items spread out on card tables, and so on). He loves people, especially quirky ones, humorously, ruthlessly, and sympathetically exposing their foibles, fears, aspirations, delusions, disasters, and memories. His riffs on his fictional characters make them feel real. He makes the idiosyncratic natural and the typical interesting. He expresses much seasoned wisdom on families, marriage, religion, and life.
Keillor's tone, established by the first line of the novel ("Evelyn was an insomniac, so when they say she died in her sleep you have to question that"), is wry. And his humor can sting, as when Barbara contemplates Branson, Missouri, "a geezer resort, where the face-lifted stars of yesteryear go on singing their hits, like demented robots, eyes glazed, a sort of mortuary of pop music." But usually his targets deserve a little zinging, like Barbara's old classmate Marcy, "one of those mean women who developed hugging tendencies late in life, as if that made up for everything." Keillor's humor may attain an oddly affecting numinous counterpoint, as in his description of a statue in a grotto: "A dog lay at the end of his chain, his chin on the ground, pawing at the grass in front of a bathtub half-buried vertically in the ground, the half above ground forming a little grotto for a statue of the Blessed Virgin, arms outstretched, pity in her blank eyes. He had pawed a bare spot at her feet. A dog's homage." And he is a master of the savory, apt line, as when he mentions a radio baseball announcer's voice sounding "like a string of taffy, stretching" on a day marked by "A heavy air of Sunday boredom. Benign, indifferent, dozy."
Perhaps the climax, involving an aging pontoon boat, a pair of giant fiberglass pedal-powered duck decoys, a hot air balloon, a speed boat, a homemade parasail, a bowling ball on a chain, a naked young man, a malodorous dog with a wet, cold nose, and 24 tipsy agnostic Danish Lutheran pastors, is a stretch too far and a touch too contrived, and perhaps Keillor indulges in a wee bit too much eccentric minor character history (as when he has a parachuting Elvis impersonator recount his life story, beginning with killing his best friend in a youthful hunting accident and climaxing with being grabbed by the first President Bush's bodyguards), but overall his style and vision are pleasurable to imbibe, and he is capable of intensely moving revelation.
Some words about the audiobook read by Keillor. His reading is idiosyncratic, savory, appealing. He pauses where pauses wouldn't ordinarily be: "her old suede [pause] jacket" and "For he shall feed his flock [pause] like a shepherd." Or, less often, he speeds through places where pauses ordinarily would be: "Barbara is somewhat tightly wound, not the person you'd choose for the job of finding dead people. [no pause] She shrieked, she clutched at her mother's hand, shrank back from the body, knocked a lamp off the bedside table, yelped, ran out of the room into the kitchen where she tried to collect herself, and took a deep breath and thought 'homicide' and looked around for signs of violence." He drawls downward the last syllables of the last words in phrases, not unlike a deeper-voiced, bucolic Bukowski: "a hubcap for an ASHtraaaaay." Keillor can purr along in his own rhythm (sometimes independent of his own commas and periods) because he is the Writer reading his Work and he knows what he's doing and it works. Short piano pieces aptly and pleasingly close each chapter.
I enjoyed this, the first book by Keillor I have read, and recommend it to people who like humorous and moving tales of eccentric, flawed, and sympathetic denizens of American small towns.
In Iain M. Banks' second Culture novel, The Player of Games (1988), a playful narrator tells the story of Jernau Morat Gurgeh, a jaded 60-year old master game player living in the Culture, a vast interstellar civilization that appears to be something of a utopia. If anything can be said to run such a sprawling and creatively anarchic civilization that solved interstellar travel over 11,000 years ago, the Culture is run by its AI "Minds," spaceships that give themselves clever names like Cargo Cult, Little Rascal, So Much for Subtlety, Of Course I Still Love You, Kiss My Ass, and Just Read the Instructions, and range from modest military models to vast habitats accommodating billions of people. Thanks to the Minds and to the Culture's advanced technology and virtually unlimited access to resources, every humanoid or sentient drone living on one of its many worlds, orbitals, or ships can get or make or do or be anything he or she wants, there is no poverty, disease, money, blackmail, crime, or sexual or racial discrimination, people can change genders and safely "gland" (manufacture at will within their own bodies) any drug as often as they like, fatal accidents are rare, life-spans are long (people in their thirties seem like "toddlers" to people in their 100s), information is mostly free, and everyone is theoretically safe and fulfilled.
The problem, then, for Gurgeh is that he is probably the best games player in the Culture, which, when added to the safety and comfort of his milieu, has led to his having become disaffected by games (and life) played without stakes other than prestige. Sure he cares about that and feels that winning is better than sex or any "glanding," but really, according to Chamlis, a 4,000+ year old drone friend of the family, Gurgeh is at heart a gambler, and "a true gambler needs threat of real loss and danger to feel alive." Thus when Chamlis says that the best Minds of the Culture are in Contact, where they tend to operate like gamblers while seeking out and dealing with new civilizations, Gurgeh perks up a bit.
And the main movement of the novel depicts Gurgeh's five-year Contact mission to master a game called Azad as he travels to a far off Empire called Azad to play. The Empire is an interstellar one founded upon obsolete things like exploitation, ownership, domination, competition, military might, media control, sexual discrimination, and basically everything the Culture opposes. And Azad the game is what holds it all together. The game is a complex affair played for weeks if not months with vast, multiple boards consisting of varied types of terrain, partially sentient pieces with minds of their own, resource and other cards, and complex rules and strategies that most Azadians spend their whole lives learning. The Azadians are also wont to wager on the game mutilation and incarceration and such. For the Azadians the game replicates the complexity of reality and is thus the means by which they earn the right to hold high government offices (including emperor). Will Gurgeh be able to learn the game well enough to compete with the locals? And how will playing the game affect his nature as a member of the Culture? And if he does somehow manage to do well, how will the xenophobic Azadians accept it? For that matter, does the Culture want him to fail or succeed? Banks never quite explains the rules in detail, but does depict Gurgeh researching the game, practicing with his Contact spaceship, and eventually playing against Azadian opponents in momentum changing, surprising, and gripping ways.
As in all his Culture novels, here Banks displays a fertile imagination, reveling in creating awesome things like the Fire World, a planet on which an entire ecosystem has evolved around a vast field of fire that traverses the world once a month. As in all his Culture novels, here Banks explores interesting ideas like the ways in which games and languages reflect culture and reality and change your mindset, etc., and the relative values of societies based on competition or cooperation, and so on. Banks is quite good at doing what the best sf does: using fantastic technology and environments and civilizations etc. to explore the way we live right now. He uses the tri-gendered Azad culture, with all its sexual bias, to make us think about our own bi-gendered cultures, and he uses the Culture to make us think about our own competition-driven, success-oriented, resource-wasting, environment-polluting, poverty-exacerbating cultures.
And Banks does all that with a clean, cool prose. A millennia-old drone floats up an elevator shaft instead of using the elevator car with a "geriatric precosity." Gurgeh experiences culture-shock "as though the city, the planet, the whole Empire swirled around him in a frantic spinning tangle of nightmare shapes; a constellation of suffering and anguish, an infernal dance of agony and mutilation." The Emperor absorbs some bad news "At the top of the high tower . . . seemingly locked into the stone like a pale statue or a small tree born of an errant seed. The wind from the east freshened, tugging at the stationary figure's dark clothes and howling around the dark bright castle, tearing at the canopy of swaying cinderbuds with a noise like the sea."
Audiobook reader Peter Kenny does a fine job. I especially enjoyed his drone and ship voices, differentiated so as to evoke their different personalities: avuncular drone Chamlis, snarky American renegade drone Mawhrin-Skel, prissy library drone Flere-Imsaho, Indian warship the Limiting Factor, etc.
Fans of elegant, imaginative, philosophical, and political space-opera flavored by plenty of wit and bite should enjoy The Player of Games.
Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (2009) is a brilliant historical novel, an absorbing account of the first eight or so years of Thomas Cromwell's career during the 1520s and early 1530s, first as the lawyer man of business for Bishop Wolsey and then as an increasingly indispensable and close advisor to King Henry VIII. It is a time of seismic change for England, with Henry trying to annul his twenty-year marriage to Catherine of Aragorn so he can marry a younger Anne Boleyn to get the male heir Catherine hasn't produced, which involves bribing, cajoling, and threatening the Pope to get his sanction and then when that proves difficult, thinking about making Henry the head of a Church of England. Despite the fact that most people know generally what happened with Henry, his wives, and the church, etc., Mantel's story-telling skills, extensive research, keen eye for detail, and deep empathy for her very human characters make the history/story fresh and compelling.
From the very first chapter, in which boy Cromwell is savagely beaten and kicked by his alcoholic blacksmith father Walter ("By the blood of creeping Christ, stand on your feet!"), Mantel makes us care for the man who is usually the chief Machiavellian villain of 16th-century British history. Mantel works into her main narrative pieces of Cromwell's colorful past (running away as a young teen to become a mercenary fighting for France, living by his wits in Italy, becoming an international merchant and lawyer, and finally returning after twelve years to England due to a dice roll). In addition to looking "like a man who knows how to cut up a carcass" and possessing a body solid as a sea wall and a stare "the equivalent of a kick," Mantel's Cromwell has a retentive memory, facility with languages, practical business sense, unaffected manner, fine organizational and managerial skills, loyalty to his friends and masters, sympathy for children, women, and the poor, and knack for being in the right place at the right time with the right solution. He is also curious about everything from mundane matters like the making of French wafers to arcane ones like the making of a memory machine. As the Duke of Norfolk says, "Damn it all, Cromwell, why do you have to be such . . . a person?"
Mantel also depicts a new and complex Thomas More, here no Man for all Seasons idealistic and integrity-filled martyr for conscience! This More embeds spies into people's households and tortures and burns “heretics” (whereas Cromwell is sympathetic with free-thinking people), and is a hair-shirt wearing, pleasure avoiding, misogynistic domestic tyrant (whereas Cromwell loves good food and well-made things and his wife and daughters).
Mantel writes a potent, graceful, and pleasurable prose. Here are some of my favorite examples.
The sea: "He will remember his first sight of the open sea, a gray wrinkled vastness, like the residue of a dream."
The Duke of Norfolk: "Flint-faced and keen-eyed, he is as lean as a gnawed bone and as cold as an ax head. His joints seem knitted together of supple chain links, and indeed he rattles a little as he moves, for his clothes conceal relics: in tiny jeweled cases he has shavings of skin and snippets of hair, and set into medallions he wears splinters of martyrs' bones."
A numinous world: “The rocking of the boat beneath them is imperceptible. The flags are limp; it is a still morning, misty and dappled, and where the light touches flesh or linen or fresh leaves, there is a sheen like the sheen on an eggshell: the whole world luminous, its angles softened, its scent watery and green.”
Laws: “When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world and like spells they only work if people believe in them.”
Silence: "A lute retains, in its bowl, the notes it has played. The viol, in its strings, holds a concord. A shriveled petal can hold its scent, a prayer can rattle with curses; an empty house, when the owners have gone out, can still be loud with ghosts."
Sympathy: "Comfort is often, he finds, imparted at the cost of a flea or two."
British History: "It all begins in slaughter."
I suspect that Mantel could make anything work in anything she writes. For instance, apart from Cromwell's flashbacks, she writes her epic history in the present tense. And her narrator always refers to Cromwell as "he," never as Thomas or Cromwell. It can be tricky to follow things when she refers to a male character by name or title in one sentence and then to Cromwell as "he" in the next, but after you learn "his" personality and point of view, it's not difficult to grasp the referent of most of Mantel's "hes."
Why Wolf Hall? Although Cromwell seems to care for Jane Seymour, whose family lives in Wolf Hall, Jane does not play a big role in the novel, and only on the last page is he planning to stay there for a few days. Perhaps Wolf Hall represents something of Cromwell's own will, private pleasure, and romantic heart, all of which must usually be restrained as he goes about the Cardinal and especially the King's business?
The audiobook reader, Simon Slater, does an excellent job with the different voices of the large cast of characters, making them--male and female, old and young, aristocratic and common, English and foreign--sound like different real people. Among my favorites are his Cromwell (tough, intelligent, witty), More (learned, snide, superior), Wosley (John Geilgud channeling Oscar Wilde), Catherine (strong, sharp, Spanish), Norfolk (proud, merciless, choleric), Anne Boleyn ("unforgiving, hard to please, easy to offend"), and Mary Boleyn (sad, flirtatious, mischievous).
I recommend Wolf Hall to anyone interested in British history or in fine literature full of complex characters and rich writing.
What a bleak, awful, hopeful, and beautiful book is Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006). It takes the post-apocalypse genre and pares it to the core, burning away almost all flora and fauna from the world, obscuring with ash earth and sky, sun and moon, making each day darker and colder than the last, and setting in that "dead to the root" wasteland a father and his young son to travel "the road" for days "uncounted and uncalendared" through mountain passes and ghost cities and past derelict houses and charred forests south to the coast. A handful of people yet exist in this world: bands of cannibal savages and, possibly, some "good guys" who manage to survive without eating people.
The descriptions of the landscape are spare, apocalyptic, and vivid, like when the father and son walk past cars once caught in a conflagration, "The incinerate corpses shrunk to the size of a child and propped on the bare springs of the seats. Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts." The ubiquitous ash. The fallen husks of dead trees and the weeds falling to dust. The bones of animals, birds, and people. The colorful memories that are dangerous to recall and the awful nightmares that cannot be recounted aloud.
The journey of the unnamed father and son through the "shoals of ash" is mesmerizing. The father believes the son to be a kind of angel or son of God, though that may be the wishful and hallucinatory effect of starvation and illness. "He knew only that the child was his warrant." The relationship between the father and his son is almost unbearably poignant. The father fears and hopes so much for his precious son in such an extinct world. The son is dependent upon his father for life and companionship and learns vital things from him and in turn guides his father with his pure moral heart. They interact with honesty and love, "each the other's world entire." From the start of the book the father is wracked by a blood-spraying cough, and he wastes and weakens as the journey proceeds, and yet he always finds the strength to lead his son down the road. As he thinks at one point: "No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy, I have you."
The moments when the son forces his father to partake in some miraculous treat like a can of coke are moving. The scenes when the father tries to prevent his son from seeing some horrible sight, like a headless baby roasted on a spit, because "the things you put into your head are there forever," are harrowing. The moments when the son is upset and the father tries to reassure him and make him talk are powerful. The scenes where the father meticulously searches a house or boat for salvage are suspenseful: he could unveil a hell (a cellar full of naked people waiting to be eaten) or a "tiny paradise" (a storeroom full of stacks cans of food waiting to be eaten).
The novel is dark, yet it expresses desperate love and hope: the bond between parent and child, the need to do what is necessary without complaint, the wonder of doing good without context or reward, and the strange beauty amid horror: "Human bodies. Sprawled in every attitude. Dried and shrunken in their rotted clothes. The small wad of burning paper drew down to a wisp of flame and then died out leaving a faint pattern for just a moment in the incandescence like the shape of a flower, a molten rose. Then all was dark again.”
McCarthy's book stands apart from other post-apocalypse novels in its severity, its beauty, its darkness, its isolated father-son relationship (most other genre works depict a community maintaining and or rebuilding some form of civilization), its lack of explanation (most other genre works explain their holocausts as nuclear and or viral) and its idiosyncratic style. McCarthy writes elliptical, biblical, poetic prose marked by short sentences without verbs and grounded with simple words and afire with unusual ones (like "gryke," "illucid," "entabled," and "discalced") and illuminated by unexpected similes, such that any "like" may be a lamppost for epiphany, whether ironic ("They wandered through the rooms like skeptical house buyers") or sacred ("All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you've nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them"). And the dialogue is laconic, repetitive, and precise, because accurate communication is a matter of life or death and because anything the father and son say may be their last words.
We're going to be okay, aren't we Papa?
Yes. We are.
And nothing bad is going to happen to us.
Because we're carrying the fire.
Yes. Because we're carrying the fire.
If there is a flaw in the novel, it may be that McCarthy doesn't seem to think much of women. The father and son have been abandoned by their wife/mother, who despaired and committed suicide: “I will not. I cannot.” And the man's memories of her are somehow unconvincing. This is a masculine book. But the man acts both father and mother for his son with great courage, resourcefulness, and tenderness.
Tom Stechschulte's reading of the novel is masterful: reading The Road as a book moved me, but listening to the audiobook made me cry.
I recommend The Road to parents or to people who want to imagine being parents, to people who like the post-apocalypse genre and condensed epic novels, to people who like style as much as story, and, of course, to fans of McCarthy.
Fyre (2013), the seventh and last book in Angie Sage's entertaining Septimus Heap series, enriched and disappointed me. The main story begins a short time after the events of the sixth book, Darke, during which Septimus and company managed to stop Merrin Meredith's Two-Faced Ring-guided Darke Domaine. Now Marcellus Pye, reinstated Castle Alchemist, is secretly restarting the great Fyre beneath the Castle for the first time since the Great Alchemie Disaster 500 years ago. ExtraOrdinary Wizard Marcia Overstrand is keeping the dangerous Two-Faced Ring in a magically Sealed Cell as she waits for Marcellus to become ready to DeNature the artifact. The two Darke Warrior Wizards trapped in the Ring are threatening to escape to extinguish Princess Jenna's line. Marcia's Apprentice Septimus Heap is still equivocating between Alchemie and Magyk. Septimus' oldest brother Simon (now fully redeemed after his year in the Darke) and Lucy Gringe are getting married in a well-attended ceremony. Sarah Heap is feeling happy because for the first time all eight of her children are together, but also stressed because the gifts for Jenna's impending Coronation are piling up. Jenna's biological father Milo is working on a secret project, while her biological mother’s ghost is still waiting for the right time to Appear. Jenna is missing the easy relationship she had with the old Beetle, and, worse, is fearing that the Dragon Boat is dying. Aunt Zelda, the Keeper, is forgetting things, but luckily her Apprentice Wolf Boy is becoming ever more confident and capable. And the Wendron witches are still hoping to bag a trophy princess.
For the first part of the novel Sage lovingly tours the Castle (and its Palace and Wizard Tower) with her quirky characters, as if preparing herself and her readers to say good-bye to it all. Then, as in most of the books in the series, mind-boggling adult blunders lead to complications for her child heroes (now 14) to deal with. As in other books in the series, Sage introduces appealing new characters, in this case the Drummins, Alchemical salamander-dwarfs with shiny dark eyes, suckered digits, a complex system of burrows, a lyrical sign language, an affinity for Fyre, and the ability to hibernate for centuries when cold. The Fyre, which feeds on water and calms under coal, is a sublime creation: living, beautiful, powerful.
In a Sage-ian page-turning and humorous way, the story attempts to tie things up, but in this novel Sage also writes more sublime descriptions than in her other books, making it often quite wonderful and pleasurable to read. When Marcellus opens the sluice gate to pour water into the reservoir of the Fyre, when Marcia opens the Sealed Cell to show Septimus the Two-Faced Ring, when Jenna massages the heart of the Dragon Boat, when Septimus and Beetle gaze at the Wizard Tower at night, when Jenna holds out her hand for the ghost of her mother to touch, when Septimus senses the "quiet and purposeful process" of the living Fyre and sees its huge red eye, when the ten-foot tall Warrior Wizards in their iridescent green carapaces and Darke cloaks direct their red eye beams onto the surface of the Fyre, when Aunt Zelda goes into the forest with her storm petrol brother and leans against her large tree brother: all such moments create a vivid, new magical world. And Sage achieves this even when describing non-fantastic things: "One of those bright forest mornings, when the sunlight filtered down through the leaves, and danced across the forest floor like reflections on water."
Sage does occasionally yank the reader out of her fantasy world with jarringly inappropriate writing, as when she compares two hapless Heap uncles to slow motion pinballs, or when she has Marcia quote a person she really admires, Sherlock Holmes. But such moments are outnumbered by delightful and apt touches like this: "In the very center [of burning houses and shops] stood the Alchemie Chimney with a massive plume of black smoke belching from it, like a Witch Mother on a midnight moot conducting her acolytes as they danced around her." Such moments have ever been my favorite parts of the Septimus Heap series (elevating it above the Harry Potter books), and the times I have been disappointed by Sage's work have usually been when she neglects her numinous imagination for too much page-turning action.
It struck me in reading this last book that many rules regulate life in Sage's fantasy world: Queen Rules, Ghost Rules (e.g., an ExtraOrdinary Wizard Post-Living Handbook), Wizard Tower Code of Conduct, Wizard Induction Oath, Spell rules, and so on. And yet despite all the rules, in the Septimus Heap series (unlike Le Guin's Earthsea cycle or Butcher's Harry Dresden books) there is never any discussion about the nature of magic--what it is, where it comes from, how much derives from study and how much from innate gift, what happens to the world when it is used, etc.
The main thing that disappointed me in Fyre is Sage's under use or misuse of potentially interesting characters like the Darke Wizards, Merrin Meredith, Arthel Mella, Jim Knee, Queen Cerys, and ESPECIALLY poor Syra Syara and over use of uninteresting characters like the all-too Ordinary Apprentice Rose, whose interactions with Septimus ("I'll pick you up later?" "Yes.") and reactions to wonderful things like the Dragon Boat ("Wow. . . . That is just so . . . wow.") are banal.
Gerard Doyle, who capably reads books two through seven, finally nearly made me forget Allan Corduner (the superb reader of the first book); I've always liked his gruff Beetle, and really enjoyed his high-pitched Drummin voices.
Readers who like young adult magical fantasy stories, should like Sage's series and this concluding novel, which is full of original and vivid fantasy writing, humorous and moving moments, and plenty of restoration and renewal.
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