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I've long been meaning to read Katharine Burdekin's classic dystopia, Swastika Night, and given the political climate of the day, now seemed an appropriate time to finally get around to it. What makes Swastika Night stand out among the other anti-fascist dystopias of its era is the explicit connection that Burdekin makes between fascist ideology and what we would now call 'toxic masculinity.' As Daphne Patai notes in the Introduction to this Feminist Press edition:

"Though Burdekin’s feminist critique appears in her realistic fiction and even in her children’s book, she excelled above all in the creation of utopian fiction, and the special vantage point afforded by the imaginative leap into other ‘societies’ resulted in her two most important books: Swastika Night (1937) and Proud Man (1934). When these novels first appeared, contemporary reviewers tended to miss Burdekin’s important critique of what we today call gender ideology and sexual politics, though on occasion they noted her feminist sympathies, which, indeed, led some to guess that ‘Murray Constantine’ was a woman. With this reprint of Swastika Night, Burdekin’s works may finally begin to find their audience.

Like fictional utopias (‘good places’), dystopias (‘bad places’) provide a framework for levelling criticisms at the writer’s own historical moment. But in imagining in Swastika Night a Europe after seven centuries of Nazi domination, Burdekin was doing something more than sounding a warning about the dangers of fascism. Burdekin’s novel is important for us today because her analysis of fascism is formulated in terms that go beyond Hitler and the specifics of his time. Arguing that fascism is not qualitatively but only quantitatively different from the everyday reality of male dominance, a reality that polarises males and females in terms of gender roles, Burdekin satirises ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ modes of behaviour. Nazi ideology, from this point of view, is the culmination of what Burdekin calls the ‘cult of masculinity’. It is this connection, along with the strong argument against the cult of masculinity, that set Burdekin’s novel apart from the many other anti-fascist dystopias produced in the 1930s and 40s."

In Burdekin's vision of a Fascist future, Teutonic myth, warped medievalism, and the history of a Hitlerian victory in WW2 merge into a religious cult of masculinity, where God the Thunderer and his holy son Hitler preside in heaven over a hierarchy that begins with the German political elite - the Fuehrer and the Ring of Ten - and then widens out to include the Knights, the rank and file Nazis, and then foreign 'Hitlerians' (the 'converts' from other, conquered and occupied countries), all of whom are men. At the bottom of the social order are women - deemed barely more than dumb animals - and Christian men and other 'heathens.' Men are seen as heroic, beautiful, noble, women as ugly, weak, fit only for bearing sons for the glory of Hitler. But in the first pages, the reader is let in on a dire secret that has greatly concerned the upper echelons of this society - fewer and fewer female children are being born to Hitlerian women, a trend which if continued will mean an end to the Hitlerian edifice and possibly to all of humanity.

The novel focuses on three men, of different stations in life: Hermann, a young German of the Nazi class, content to work on the land as his ancestors have, and a devout believer in Hitler; Alfred, an Englishman with whom he became friends (and possibly lovers, there is much homoeroticism in the relationships between men in the novel) during a period of military service in England, a sceptic who believes that if the mystery cult of Hitlerism can be broken, the German Empire can be destroyed; and the old Knight Von Hess, who has seen too much and knows too many secrets - even the secret of history - to believe in anything.

It's a dark dystopia, and much like Orwell's 1984, a dystopia in which even the occasional candlelight of understanding and rebellion against the oppression flickers only for a few minutes, and then is blown out. At the end of the novel, there's no breaking of the bonds, only the faintest hope that some knowledge of the past, of the idea that things could be different, will survive, and someday be found by someone who can use that knowledge to begin a change.

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Mary Robinette Kowal's Ghost Talkers is a book that crosses genres with impudence and verve. It's a World War I historical romance, with a spunky red-headed heroine and a dashing military officer. It's a wartime spy thriller, with traitors and murders and secret codes. And it's a historical fantasy in which the British make use of a distinctly paranormal source of intelligence - the ghosts of soldiers killed in combat.

In Kowal's slightly alternate world, mediums are real, and the war effort has recruited them to interview the souls of those lost in battle for information about enemy weapon placements, troop movements, anything the revenant remembers about the circumstances of his death. And in turn, the mediums record their final messages for those they leave behind.

Ginger Stuyvesant is one of the mediums of the "London branch" of the Spirit Corps - so named to hide its true location in Le Havre - and her fiancé, Ben Harford, is an officer in British Intelligence. She, like all the other mediums, spends her days talking to the dead, reliving their last moments with them, and then dismissing them to the next plane. And then everything changes, when one of the ghosts reporting in is an officer she knows, stationed in Le Havre, who tells her that he thinks he was murdered - and the last thing he remembers is overhearing is a discussion between two spies that could mean the Germans are planning on targeting the Spirit Corps.

What follows is a fast-paced story of spy vs. spy as Ginger hunts clues to the identity of the spies across war-torn France. There are plenty of red herrings and false leads, dead ends and desperate plots. And of course, a love story.

What gives the narrative extra depth is Kowal's focus on the women (the mediums employed by the war department are mostly women, but the war also relied on the services of nurses, female couriers and other support personnel) and people of colour who were part of the war but are so rarely seen in fictional accounts of The Great War.

Sexism abounds. When Ginger attends a staff meeting as the acting head of the Spirit Corps, she's asked to make coffee. Her reports on the murder and subsequent related events are downplayed because she is a woman. The work that the mediums do - soul-wrenching and potentially deadly should the medium fail to disengage from the departing ghost - is dismissed as "sitting around," in a way that recollects the minimalising of the value of so much women's work. Not even Ginger's beloved Ben, who has learned to acknowledge her value and strength, is completely free of overprotectiveness disguised as gallantry.

Racism abounds as well. The strongest and most experienced medium is Helen, a woman of colour - but not only is she unable to take her natural position as leader of of Spirit Corps, she and other black mediums can't even fraternise with their white colleagues. At the same time, skilled and experienced soldiers from the Indian colonies are sidelined as drivers, and are excluded from the conditioning given to all white soldiers that ensures that they will report after death - then be mercifully dismissed, rather than left to wander the fields they died in.

Kowal's narrative moves swiftly, capturing both the horrors of war (she makes effective use of Rupert Brooke's war poems) and the "whistling in the dark" kind of humour so often found side by side with death and the constant pressure of being in a war zone. In a book which deals so powerfully with darkness, separation, sacrifice and death, she reminds us that there is also love and courage, and that after the dead have passed, life goes on.

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Nisi Shawl's novel Everfair is a steampunk alternative history set largely in Central Africa, in the lands known in our history as the Belgian Congo. Its point of divergence from history lies in the decision of the British Fabian Society to purchase land in the Congo from Belgium's King Leopold and, in partnership with African-American missionaries, attempt to establish a sanctuary country - Everfair.

Everfair the novel has a dual purpose (aside from entertainment, of course, which it fulfill quite well). First, to present the attitudes and actions associated with colonialism and imperialism in Africa (including cultural colonisation, shown most clearly in the efforts of the black missionaries, themselves both victims and perpetrators of the colonisation of the mind), and second, to interrogate the ways in which
steampunk as a genre fails to recognise the ways in which it creates nostalgia for the colonial project. Inmy opinion, it manages both of these quite well.

The inhabitants of Everfair the nascent country - and its enemies, the violent armies and rubber harvesters of King Leopold - together form a microcosm of the conditions of colonialism. White and privileged freethinkers from the Fabian Society, Europeans seeking riches or adventure, African-American Christians seeking a home in the land of their lost roots, labourers from Macao and the Indian subcontinent, escaped black slaves from Leopold's rubber plantations, and the indigenous Afrucan peoples to whom the lands making up Everfair actually belong - it falls to these peoples to defeat the Belgians, survive the first world war, and surmount the supremacist assumptions of the white "founders" of Everfair and the African-American Christian colonists (themselves internally colonised by the experiences of abduction and slavery) they partner with.

And there are all the lovely steampunk things - aircanoes, and motorised bicycles and boats, and mechanical prosthetic limbs for all those mutilated by the Belgians, or in the battles of resistance.

I am not, generally speaking, enthralled by steampunk, but the genre worked for me here, possibly because of the context in which it is situated - not privileged Europeans or North Americans off on adventures, but oppressed peoples fighting for their freedom, their culture and their lives.

The novel covers a rather large span of time,and has quite a large cast of significant characters, which necessarily limits some detail in characterisation and plot, but I did not find that the story suffered from this in any way. An engaging read.

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Raven ​A. ​Nuckols' alternate history ​Had ​the ​Queen ​Lived: An ​Alternative ​History ​of ​Anne ​Boleyn is a most interesting conceit. Written in the form of a history rather than a fiction, it puts forward an imagined Tudor history in which Anne Boleyn was not tried and executed for adultery and treason, but instead lived to be Henry VIII's consort throughout his reign.

Nuckols takes as her point of divergence the fateful tournament held during Anne's pregnancy, in which Henry and his brother-in-law Charles Brandon faced each other in a friendly joust gone seriously awry. In 'our' history, Henry was injured and rendered unconscious - in fact, was initially thought to be dead. It is generally held that the shock of being told this was a major cause of her miscarriage of what appeared to be a healthy male fetus. Losing Henry's desperately wanted male heir left Anne vulnerable to both Henry's fears that this marriage too was cursed, and the political machinations that ultimately led to her trial and execution.

In Nuckols' alternate history, it is Brandon who suffers the near-fatal injury. Anne goes on to bear a healthy son and thus retains her position as Henry's wife and her influence over the governance of the kingdom.

The conceit is interesting, as are the ways in which Nuckols imagines Anne's continued influence would have changed the events of Henry's reign. As a thought experiment, it was enjoyable reading. One might not agree with the path Nuckols imagines for Henry and Anne during the course of a long and tempestuous marriage in which Anne actively sought to influence policy, but the effort involved in researching the possibilities is impressive.

Unfortunately, Nuckols is not the best of prose stylists - to put it mildly - and the book sadly lacks a good proofreader. The text is riddled with grammatical and typographic errors, incomplete sentences, and other issues that make reading a bit of a chore. But I persevered and was not unhappy to have done so.

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I'd seen Elizabeth Bear's novel Karen Memory referred to as a "lesbian steampunk western," which made me a bit hesitant to read it because while I'm completely down with stories about lesbians, steampunk is something I can take or leave, and western may be one of the few genres I really don't much enjoy. But Bear is one of my favourite authors, and I was promised lesbians, so...

I'm glad did, because Karen Memory is a delightfully wild adventure featuring a diverse cast of outsiders foiling a plot to not only take over the fictional northwestern port town of Rapid City, but destabilise the political balance of the Pacific Rim. Western and steampunk tropes are not overwhelming, but serve as the background to the characters and their exploits.

Karen Memery, the narrator/protagonist, is an employee of Madame Damnable, who owns the Hotel Ma Cherie, a high-class house of prostitution. Madame Damnable runs her house in the fine tradition of Spider Robinson's Lady Sally, or Kage Baker's Nell Gwynne - her employees are, by the standards of the time, well paid, well treated, and happy in their profession, though Karen, like some of her associates, is saving money for a future outside the sex trade.

Madame Damnable may be a good employer, but others in the city are not, particularly Peter Bantle, who owns the dockside cribs where poorly fed, ill-treated sex workers, mostly Indigenous and Asian women, are held in captivity to service the dock trade.

The story starts off slowly, letting us get to know Karen and the other inhabitants of Hotel Ma Cherie, both the working women and the other employees necessary to keep such an enterprise functioning. But things speed up when Madame Damnable and her house give shelter to a wounded Chinese woman named Merry Lee who has rescued Priya, a young South Asian girl, from Peter Bantle's clutches - and Bantle decides to teach the women a lesson. But the women and men of Hotel Ma Cherie are more resourceful and more formidable than Bantle anticipates, and they soon discover that Bantle is up to much more than appears.

Behind the pulp-style adventure, Bear delivers a few subtle lessons in tolerance and understanding. As the plot intensifies, Karen and the other women gain allies in the form of black US Marshall Reeves and his posseman, Tomoatooah, of the Namu nation ("but you would say Comanche"). The interactions of the white characters, including Karen, and the characters of colour illustrate a range of ways to behave that signal respect and a desire to learn without appropriation or race-based assumptions.

I am very glad I decided to take the plunge and read this.

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In Tropic of Serpents: A Memoir by Lady Trent, Marie Brennan returns to the alternate world she created in The Natural History of Dragons, a world that is in many ways like our own in the mid-victorian era, but in which there are dragons, in great abundance and variety, found mostly in the less accessible parts of the world. Here she continues the story of Isabella, a young woman with a passionate scholarly interest in dragons, and the determination and courage to travel wherever she must in order to collect information on them - even if it means breaking all the conventions that surround a young woman in her society.

These novels bring to mind the lives and writings of European women adventurers of the 18th and 19th centuries in our world, women like Mary Kingsley, Gertrude Bell, Alexandra David-Neel and Hester Stanhope. Brennan does not shy from giving her protagonist some of the classist, racist and imperialist perspectives of such times, although a healthy dose of scientific rigour and a willingness to learn about the ways of dragons from the people living close to them help to temper these perspectives as she gains more experience in her travels.

This second volume in Isabella's story takes her to a continent not unlike our own Africa, where her native country of Scirland has involved itself in a local war in order to gain massive trade advantages. Isabella, of course, is there to see the dragons of the savannahs and the mysterious swamp-wyrms that dwell in the delta jungles of the Moulish Swamp. Unfortunately, her desire to explore these dragon's natural habitats involves her in the political schemes of others when all she really wants is to do natural science and learn the secrets of dragons.

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Sometimes I find myself wondering what my life would have been like had I made different choices at one point or another. Of course, I'll never know. This one life is all I have, and all my choices represent roads not simply not taken, but never to be known.

But In My Real Children, Jo Walton tells the story of a woman who does know, who stands, in her final years, on the cusp of two worlds, knowing exactly what will come from a crucial decision, and armed with that knowledge, prepares to chose which life she has lived - who are her real children (literal and metaphorical) and who are the phantoms drifting along the road not taken.

Patricia Cowan is, at the beginning of the novel, a woman of nearly 80, with advanced dementia, living in a senior's facility. Her medical chart notes that she is frequently "very confused" - which is to be expected from her diagnosis. But as we listen in on her interior monologue, we realise that not all of her confusion is due to her mental state. Patricia is remembering two lives, and living in two slightly different worlds. As she begins to understand this herself, the novel flashes back to when she was a child, and moves forward to the moment her life split in two - the day when, as a young schoolteacher with a degree in literature from Oxford, the somewhat odd yet insistent young man with whom she has carried on a romance via letter for two years gives her an ultimatum, to marry him now, or never.

From that point on, we see in alternating chapters her two lives unfolding. In one, where she is called Trish, she is unhappily married and personally frustrated for many years, but slowly finds ways to put her talents to use in a variety of causes from peace work to local politics to teaching adult education classes.

In the other, where she is called Pat, she finds a career and a passion in writing guidebooks to the great cities of the Italian renaissance, meets and forms a long lasting and loving relationship with another woman, living a life that holds greater personal and professional satisfaction and fulfillment, but is less oriented to public service.

The larger world also splits on that day, and both Trish's and Pat's worlds vary from our own. In Trish's world, the great powers move further back from the brink than in our own, and humanity reaches the moon, civil liberties are acquired sooner, the world seems more likely to find peace. In Pat's, human beings still reach the moon, but there are limited nuclear wars and a heightened response to terrorism that seems to go beyond what has happened in our world.

By the time the doubled lives of Pat and Trish have been told and we are again in the facility with Patricia, we understand that this twinned existence cannot continue, that Patricia must make a choice between her pasts - and decide which world her real children will live in.

Walton leaves us to decide for ourselves what Patricia's choice is, and invites us to consider what choice we might make.

It's a book that made me cry, and made me think. Walton does that a lot.

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Amitav Ghosh's novel The Calcutta Chromosome is fascinating but hard to characterise. Part science fiction, part medical thriller, part meditation on the nature of knowledge, part conspiracy theory, part post-colonial examination of the British presence in India... As I said, it's hard to characterise.

It begins with Antar, a middle-aged man living in New York, at some point in the not-too-distant future, whose job appears to consist of working with an AI named Ava in an attempt to inventory ... I'm not sure what, maybe everything. He recognises an artefact shown him by Ava as the damaged ID of a man he once worked with L. Murugan, who disappeared in Calcutta in 1995. Murugan was obsessed with the discovery of the transmission mechanism of malaria by an Englishman named Ronald Ross in 1895 - only Murugan believes that Ross' discovery was actually orchestrated by a secret society whose members embraced a kind of anti-science, and for whom Ross' work on malaria was just a sideline on the way to their real goal.

The novel moves between the three timelines - Antar's, as he recalls the strange things Murugan told him; Murugan's, as he searches for clues to the whereabouts of the secret society, and Ross's, as he conducts his research in the midst of colonial India, surrounded by servants who may or may not be part of the society Murugan will look for a century later.

What is particularly interesting about the novel is Ghosh's concept of anti-science, or comprehending without knowing, that has been adopted by his mysterious group. It seems to incorporate an intuitive analogue of the uncertainty principle - that watching changes the watched. Ghosh never fully describes it, possibly because wherever it is, it's not something that is reducible to words. What he does, is write the unravelling of the mysteries of Murugan's quest in a fashion that urges the reader to comprehend the novel in just that fashion. Ghosh rarely tells his readers anything, he merely presents a slow accretion of clues and leaves the reader to put it all together and figure out what has gone on, and why. All the answers are in the mind of the reader, not in the book.

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One thing I'm loving about what's happening in the world of sff anthology editing these days is the growing number of projects devoted in one way or another to supporting the concept of diversity. Because, as editors Rose Fox and Daniel José Older note in the Introduction to their anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History,
We grew up reading stories about people who weren’t much like us. Speculative fiction promised to take us to places where anything was possible, but the spaceship captains and valiant questers were always white, always straight, always cisgender, and almost always men. We tried to force ourselves into those boxes, but we never fit. When we looked for faces and thoughts like our own, we found orcs and deviants and villains. And we began to wonder why some people’s stories were told over and over, while ours were almost never even alluded to.
The brief for this anthology was simple: to publish stories of speculative history, set between 1400 and the early 1900s, stories that are grounded in real events, that focus on marginalised people, and that have a speculative element. The stories in this anthology for the most part do this very well. They speak in the voices of the ones who did not have the power to tell their history, who were subsumed and made to disappear into the dominant narrative of the powerful, the colonisers, the privileged.
Most written chronicles of history, and most speculative stories, put rulers, conquerors, and invaders front and center. People with less power, money, or status—enslaved people, indigenous people, people of color, queer people, laborers, women, people with disabilities, the very young and very old, and religious minorities, among others—are relegated to the margins. Today, mainstream history continues to perpetuate one-sided versions of the past while mistelling or erasing the stories of the rest of the world. (http://longhidden.com/)
The stories collected in Long Hidden are examples of resistance to this dominant master narrative of history. And there is much good reading here.

Worth noting is that this excellent and prigressively-themed anthology comes from a small press - Crossed Genres (http://crossedgenres.com/) - that seems to be doing some intetesting projects. I have several more of their books in my TBR pile, and a few more on my To Be Acquired list.

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In his alternative history novel Lion's Blood, Steven Barnes gives us a world that is in many ways very similar to our own 18th century. It is a world where several strong and technologically advanced nations, sharing one continent and one religion, have embarked wholeheartedly on imperial projects in the western hemisphere, forming colonies and engaging in acts of aggression against the peoples they find there. And, like our own world in the 18th century, it is a world where the slave trade flourishes.

But in this world, Alexander the Great became Pharaoh of Egypt. Carthage, with the help of Egypt and
Abyssinia, destroyed Rome. Saul of Tarsis died in 30 AD, before taking that transformative journey to Damascus. An Islamic Africa colonised much of Europe and developed technologies such as steam power much earlier than Happened in our own world. And by the time this novel takes place, the western hemisphere has been colonised by people from the great African powers, Egypt and Abyssinia, and it is the technologically backward Gauls, Franks, and Celts, living on the fringes of the civilised, Islamic world who are the slaves.

The primary focus of the novel is the coming of age of, and growing relationship between, two young men - Aidan, a Celtic slave taken by raiders from his home and, along with his mother and sister, transported to the New World; and Kai, younger son of the Wakil Abu Ali, a government official living in Bilalistan, a colony settled by followers of an Islamic spiritual leader named Bilal. The Wakil assigns Aidan to be Kai's body servant, but over time the relationship changes as the two boys, master and slave, come to respect each other as human beings.

The novel is a multi-faceted one, examining not only the horrors of slavery, but also issues of religious diversity. Religion plays a significant role in the lives of many of the characters. Through them, Barnes explores the complexities of the Islamic faith, and shows how Kai's search for religious understanding leads him to question the injustices in his world and seek his own moral standpoint. At the same time, he envisages a Celtic-hued Christianity that developed without the influence of Saint Paul, but was influenced by the Gnostics and particularly the Gospel of Mary.

I enjoyed this book immensely, and am very sad to learn that its sequel, Zulu Heart, is out of print. I would so much like to read more about this alternate world, but until someone decides to bring it out in ebook form, I will just have to wait.
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I avidly read the first five volumes of Naomi Novik's wonderful alternate Earth/historical fantasy series featuring the unforgettable Imperial dragon Temeraire, but for some reason (possibly a combination of illness and the "too many books, too little tine" syndrome, I did not continue reading the rest of Novik's Temeraire books as they were published - an oversight I now wish to remedy. So since the events were a bit clouded in my memory, I decided to reread the last volume I had completed - Victory of Eagles, which I read when it was published in 2008 - before continuing.

The storyline of Victory of Eagles - of the defense of England against the invading French and their eventual expulsion from that scepter'd isle - was a good read, of course, but what continues to interest me most about the series is the growth of both Laurence and Temeraire as characters. Maturing both emotionally and ethically, Laurence is more and more becoming his own moral compass, and questioning the assumptions of his culture, while Temeraire learns empathy and understanding of the complexities of living with humans and dragons in a complex society. With my memory refreshed, and my curiosity about the next developments revived, I dove into the next three books of the series.

Sadly, I gather from reading Novik's website that there is only one book remaining in the Temeraire series, to be published sometime next year. It's going to be interesting to see how she ends the Napoleonic Wars... And also to see just where Laurence and Temeraire end up after all their journeys.


Tongues of Serpents

The ethical education of Laurence continues apace - and we as readers are seeing more and more of the ugliest side of colonialism and imperialism as Temeraire and Laurence, exiled to New South Wales as punishment for foiling the British plan to infect all continental European dragons with plague, undertake an exploration of the Australian interior, where they discover diverse difficulties from bunyips, wildfires and thunderstorms to smugglers who steal one of the dragon eggs intended to be the foundation of a colonial dragon-borne military corps. Following the trail of the stolen egg, they cross the continent and arrive on the north coast, where they find a thriving seaport where Chinese merchants, working harmoniously with the indigenous people of the region, are conducting trade via ship and accommodating sea serpents with just about anyone with a presence in the Indian Ocean or China Sea - to the considerable annoyance of the British, who want to control trade in every corner of the earth. There's also mention of an arrangement between Napoleon and the dragon-led empires of Africa to invade the New World and end the slave trade, repatriating all Africans kidnapped and taken overseas.


Crucible of Gold

With this novel, Novik continues to expand the geopolitical borders of her variation on the high period of European imperialism, and prepares us for further examinations of the ways that two sentient peoples can live together. The international relationships of Temeraire's world are getting increasingly interesting, and Laurence and Temeraire are becoming increasingly important to what shape the global alliances will take. Equally important is the moral development of the main characters, as Temeraire's sense of justice becomes more clearly defined and Laurence becomes more and more the owner of his own conscience.

The action in this novel is driven by the declaration of war by the Tswana - supported by Napoleon - against the Portuguese in South America in a bid to liberate Africans stolen from their homelands and sold into slavery. Laurence is offered full reinstatement of rank if he agrees to travel from Australia to Rio to negotiate in the conflict.

A mutiny on the ship carrying them to Rio leaves Laurence, Temeraire and their companions cast off on an island near the west coast of South America; making their way to the continent, they encounter an isolationist Incan Empire which was able to resist early Spanish adventurers and maintain its sovereignty. Here we encounter yet another form of relationship between human and dragon - among the Inca, dragons are the property owners and humans live for the most part as serfs in the fiefdoms of their dragon masters. The situations in both the Inca lands and the portuguese colonies on the eastern part of the continent bring the on-going themes of freedom and equality which have been woven into the story of Temeraire from the beginning into greater prominence.



Blood of Tyrants

Their mission to South America completed, Temeraire and Laurence are on their way to China when Laurence is swept overboard during a storm off the coast of Japan. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Temeraire refuses to believe that Laurence is dead, and demands that the British dragon transport they were travelling on make port in make enquiries in Nagasaki - the only city in Japan currently open to foreigners - to start inquiries into Laurence's fate. While in the harbour, he meets an American dragon - a merchant trader in his own right - who gives us - and the British dragons - a glimpse of another society where dragons are integrated into society and enjoy the rewards of engaging in free enterprise. As it turns out, Laurence is alive, but is on the run through enemy territory, as it is forbidden for any foreigner to set foot in any part of Japan outside of the controlled trade port, and his life has been judged forfeit by the local dragon aristocracy. Worse, he has lost his memory and has no idea how he came to Japan. Worst of all, he no longer remembers Temeraire or any of what he has learned since becoming Temeraire's captain.

In an interview found on the Suduvu website, Novik says:
As the book opens with it, I won’t be spoiling too much to say that at the opening of the book, Laurence has been separated from Temeraire, shipwrecked in a hostile country, and to make matters worse has suffered amnesia. I am always looking for ways to make my characters struggle, as I think that’s what makes them fun to read about. But also, this is the second to last volume in the series, and I really wanted to have a moment where I looked back at the distance Laurence has traveled. He’s come a long way from the person he was when the series began, not just in a practical but in an emotional sense, but it’s been a journey of a thousand small steps, not any single moment. I also am conscious that it’s a long series, and I wanted to give new and old readers both a place to refresh their memory and rejoin the story before we head down the final blaze of the rollercoaster to the end of the Napoleonic Wars. (http://sf-fantasy.suvudu.com/2013/08/new-release-interview-blood-of-tyrants-by-naomi-novik.html)
Reunited, and with Laurence very slowly regaining his memories (to the great distress of Temeraire), their next port-of-call is China. There, they become involved in palace politics thanks to Laurence's position as an adopted son of the Imperial family, and hear that news that Napoleon is invading Russia. The Emperor offers military aid, and the small British contingent set off across Asia, escorted by several companies of the highly disciplined and organised Chinese military force.

With part of this book set in Japan and China - both countries where dragons are fully integrated into society along with humans - and the rest in Russia, where dragons are treated as slaves, with those who will not serve hobbled by cruel hooks and chains embedded in their flesh that prevent them from flying, we see in one volume the best and the worst of relations between humans and dragonkind - but we see as well the beginning of an end to that treatment.

As one character in this volume notes, Temeraire and Laurence are, as a result of their own changes, changing things the world over, catalysts for shifting alliances between nations and changing relationships between dragon and human. Given that there is only one remaining volume in this series, I hope that Novik gives us at least some glimpses into the future of her alternate Earth - or perhaps comes back to it some day to tell new stories about dragons and the humans they share their world with.

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Some interesting anthologies and collections of short stories came my way last year. The anthologies included two nicely edited theme anthologies by John Joseph Adams (dystopias and homages to Barsoom), a vamipre themed antholgy edited by Nancy Kilpatrick, a survey of urban fantasy edited by Peter Beagle and a dragon-themed anthology edited by Jack Dann.

Of particular interest were two volumes edited or co-edited by Connie Wilkins: the second volume in a new annual series of anthologies featuring short stories with lesbian protagonists; and an uneven but engaging selection of alternate history short stories with a focus on queer protagonists as nexi of change.

I was also delighted to be able to obtain a copy of an anthology edited by Nisi Shawl of short stories written by authors of colour who attended Clarion as Octavia E. Butler Scholars. The anthology was offered by the Carl Brandon Society for a limited time as a fund-raising project and is no longer available.

Peter Beagle (ed.), The Urban Fantasy Anthology
John Joseph Adams (ed.), Under the Moons of Mars
John Joseph Adams (ed.), Brave New Worlds
Nancy Kilpatrick (ed.), Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead
Jack Dann (ed.), The Dragon Book: Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy
Nisi Shawl (ed.), Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars
Connie Wilkins & Steve Berman (eds.), Heiresses of Russ 2012
Connie Wilkins (ed.), Time Well-Bent: Queer Alternative Histories


I also read several collections this year, including two more volunes from PM Press's Outspoken Authors series, featuring work by and interviews with Nalo Hopkinson and Kim Stanley Robinson.

Other collections of works by SFF writers included: a set of novellas from Mercedes Lackey featuring two familiar characters, Jennifer Talldeer and Diana Tregarde, and a new heroine, techno-shaman Ellen McBride; a collection of short stories by Elizabeth Bear featuring forensic sorcerer Abigail Irene Garrett; short stories by Maureen McHugh; and forays ibto the fantasy realm of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander.

In honour of Alice Munro, this year's recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature, I read a collection of her more recent short stories (and plan on reading several more in the coming months - I've always loved her work and am delighted that she has been so deservedly recognised). Also worthy of note was Drew Hayden Taylor's collection of stories set among the residents of the fictional Otter Lake First Nations reserve, and Margaret Laurence's short stories set in Ghana. In the realm of historical fiction, There were stories by Margaret Frazer featuring medieval nun and master sleuth Dame Frevisse; I discovered and devoured Frazer's novels last year, and will speak of them in a later post.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Lucky Strike 
Nalo Hopkinson, Report from Planet Midnight
Mercedes Lackey, Trio of Sorcery
Elizabeth Bear, Garrett Investigates
Maureen McHugh, After the Apocalypse
Lloyd Alexander, The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain

Margaret Laurence, The Tomorrow-Tamer
Margaret Frazer, Sins of the Blood
Drew Hayden Taylor, Fearless Warriors
Alice Munro, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

All in all, I found a wide range of short fiction to enjoy this year.

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Eleanor Arnason, Moby Quilt (novella)

A Lydia Duluth novella, thoughtful, as Arnason always is, but also funny. Well wprth reading.


Kage Baker, Empress of Mars (novella)

Taking place in Baker's Company universe, although not a Company story, it's one of those 'ornery Martian settlers outwit the authorities' tales, and it's quite good.


Ken MacLeod, Intrusion

MacLeod is very, very good at exploring various kinds of fascist states. In this case, he gives us a dark and satirical look at world in which women are defined primarily as childbearers who must be overseen by the state to ensure that they do nothing that might endanger their children, even if that means heavily restricting the freedoms of all women to manage their own lives. Thought-provoking as always.


Keith Roberts, Pavanne

Classic work of alternate history in which Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated and Roman Catholicism retained its stranglehold over European politics, culture and innovation. In a series of linked novellas, Roberts introduces us to a mid-20th century England still in a state of feudalism, controlled by the Church, and relying on steam-powered technology. But even though it is long delayed (as measured by our own timeline), change begins to force its way into this rigidly structured world.


Maureen McHugh, Nekropolis

McHugh is always worth reading. This novel tackles such varied elements as life in a repressive fundanentalist theocracy, the rights of artificially constructed people, the ethics of love when people can be programmed, chemically or genetically, to want to please others, and the experience of being a refugee trying to adapt to a strange new culture.


Terry Bisson, Fire on the Mountain

Another alternate history - the fracture point here is John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, which succeeds and sparks a revolution leading eventually to a socialist nation called Nova Africa in the former southern states. Great reading.

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It's a grab bag of volumes from some of my favourite fantasy series! Well, in a couple of cases, loosely associated with my favourite fantasy series.


Mercedes Lackey, Intrigues
Mercedes Lackey, Changes

Volumes two and three of The Collegium Chronicles. In some ways, this series is very much like Lackey's very first Velgarth series, in which Valdemar and the Heralds were introduced through the eyes of Talia, an abused child whisked away from a life of misery to become a person of importance and destiny. But the particulars are different and the time is different and it's still great fun.


Mercedes Lackey, Sleeping Beauty

The latest in Lackey's Five Hundred Kingdoms series. I actually think this series is among the most interesting work that Lackey has done. These are all engaging stories in their own right, but at the same time Lackey is both analysing and deconstructing traditional folk and fairy tale motifs, and rewriting those tales with a feminist perspective. I like.


Katharine Kerr, The Silver Mage

The last volume of Kerr's epic Deverry cycle. Truly epic in scope, what makes this series unique is that, it's not just about the heroics and politics of a rich and diverse fantasy world and the interplay of characters and nations, it's also a story of spiritual redemption across time for the key characters, who are reborn again and again until the actions that wove their spirits together are finally resolved, and in a sense for the nation of Deverry, for in this last volume we discover the events that set the movements of nations through the series, across hundreds of years. An excellent ending for one of the great fantasy series.


Tamora Pierce, Wild Magic

First volume of The Immortals series. Set in Pierce's Tortal universe, this new series shares some characters - at least so far - with her first series, Song of the Lioness (aka the Alanna Adventures). What I've liked about Pierce's work from the beginning is that these are YA novels in which young women get to do great and heroic things.


Kristen Britain, Blackveil

Fourth volume of the Green Rider series. This volume took the series to some very dark places - both in the Blackveil forest and in the kingdom of Sacoridia. Along with epic deeds, we also find deceit, betrayal of trust and corruption on a number of levels and in some disappointing places. But things have to get darker before dawn, don't they?


Michelle Sagara West, Cast in Fury

The fourth volume of the Chronicles of Elantra series (aka the "Cast" series). As this series has progressed, the protagonist Kaylin Nera, a member of the Hawks - the police force of the city of Elantra - has been drawn into situations that have given her entry and a unique understanding of the various races that live, more or less peaceably, in the City. In this volume, she must deal with some of the consequences of her last major mission, which involved the telepathic Tha'alani, while engaging in a personal quest to clear the name of her friend and superior officer, a Leontine accused of murder. And we are carried a bit further along in learning more about Kaylin's own past and powers and what is happening in the region known as Nightshade, where Kaylin once lived.


Jack Whyte, Order in Chaos

Final volume in the Templar Trilogy. Whyte completes the story of his alternate history secret order concealed within the historically secretive Order of Knights Templar with the destruction of the Templars. As with most Templar fantasies, the remnants of the order ( and the secret inner circle) flee to England and Scotland where their legacy lives on - an element of the Templar mythos that probably has its genesis in the fact that the Templars were not persecuted nearly as violently in England as they were in continental Europe, so that while the order itself was disbanded, many former Templars lived on in England and a number of survivors from Europe made their way across the Channel to begin new lives.


Liz Williams, Precious Dragon

Third volume in the series. The continuing adventures of Detective Inspector Chan and his demon partner Seneschal Zhu Irzh in Hell, Heaven, Singapore Three on Earth, and a few other assorted dimensions. Complete with dragons and the Emperor of Heaven.


Kage Baker, Nell Gwynne’s Scarlet Spy

This is more of a related stand-alone to Baker's Company series, but I thought I'd include it here anyway. Steampunk adventures of the Ladies' Auxiliary of the Gentlemen's Speculative Society, featuring Lady Beatrice. The two novellas collected here are all we shall ever see of Lady Beatrice, as they were written not long before the untimely death of Kage Baker - but at least we have these.

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Atomik Aztex, Sesshu Foster

This book is a total mindfuck, and that’s a good thing. I simply could not get it out of my mind while I was reading it, and scenes keep coming back to jeer at me, asking me if I really think I figured it all out.

It’s a tale of two worlds, one of which is a brutal slice of life for a Latino worker in the meatpacking industry in Los Angeles sometime in the last half of the 20th century, and the other of which is the war diary of an warrior priest in an alternate universe in which the Spanish got their heads handed to them when they tried to invade Central America, and the great and powerful and bloodily metaphysical Aztec Nation is allied with Russia to defeat Germany during WWII.

Oh, yeah, the warrior-priest and the meatpacking plant worker are the same person, Zenzontli/Zenzon, shifting back and forth between possible universes. Or possibly the two are potential, alternate personalities, whose reality depends on whether you think the Spanish defeated the Aztec, or whether it's the other way around. At the beginning of the novel, you can usually tell which universe he’s in by the variant orthography being used, but toward the end of the novel, the differences between the orthographies of the two different worlds/timelines begin to merge.

The more realistic narrative thread is, among other things, a searing indictment of the meatpacking industry and an expose of the difficulties workers face in attempting to organise - which leads me to consider to what degree the dual storylines may be a literary response to Upton Sinclair's rainforest and survival of the fittest metaphors in his indictment of the meatpacking industry, The Jungle. Certainly there are some similar plot and thematic elements, especially the focus on labour union, and Zenzon, like Sinclair's hero Jurgis Rudkus, is an immigrant (from Central America rather than Lithuania), and an unusually strong man with a powerful work ethic.

But what are we to think of the alternate history plotline? Is it Sinclair's Jungle, where corruption and capitalism (and there is certainly corruption galore in the Aztec Empire Foster portrays) make it almost impossible for an honest, hard-working man to succeed? The Aztec Empire's power is magical, built on the harvesting of human hearts (another kind of slaughterhouse), and it is to this end that the Aztec Warriors engage in the defence of Stalingrad - to begin the colonisation of Europe as a new source of sacrifices to the Empire. Zenzontli is a dealer in European slaves. Does Foster intend to suggest that it doesn't matter who won, that capitalism and empire inevitably lead to corruption, colonialism and exploitation?

I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I’ve taken from the book, but I’m very glad I read it. If you’re interested in a collection of more coherent comments, read this.

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Elizabeth Bear’s first two novels of the Promethean Age, Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water, are, in my mind, absolutely brilliant. These books are to what is often called urban fantasy as Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing is to a Harlequin romance. Not that there's anything wrong with the standard urban fantasy book (I read several series in this subgenre most avidly) or with Harlequin romances (not my cup of tea, but clearly they offer satisfaction to a great many people). But Bear's books, although unarguably fantasy, and clearly set in a modern urban setting (at least those portions that take place on Earth, and not in Faerie), are something quite special indeed.

As with many of Bear’s novels, there’s almost too much going on to even being to state a simple premise, over-arching plot or singular theme, but one can begin by saying that the universe of The Promethean Age is one where Earth and Faerie, Heaven and Hell, are real… places. Dimensions, overlapping and intertwined worlds, or something like that. The Earth is much as we know it, except that in the places that no one ordinarily looks to closely at, there are Magi, many of them members of the Prometheus Club, an organization which has for centuries waged a war with the realm of Faerie for the control of Earth. But neither the human Magi nor the otherworldly folk of Faerie can be said to be monolithic blocs, and there are power struggles between factions of the Magi and factions and courts of Faerie. And of course, various parties have various allegiances with Heaven and Hell – and not necessarily the ones one might expect.

Some reviewers have suggested that Bear has researched her material a bit too deeply. Certainly the more one is familiar with folk ballads, history (particularly the Elizabethan period), world mythology, other literary interpretations of the realm of Faerie and of the relationship between God and Lucifer, Heaven and Hell, Arthurian myths, and sundry other related fields of interest, the more one are likely to find in these books that delights with a fresh perspective on familiar characters and ideas. But the use of all of these stories, of differing degrees of presumed truth and cultural influence, is absolutely key to what Bear is doing with these books, because one of the underlying themes in the Promethean series is all about the consequences of the act of creation and the role of the imagination in creating and shaping reality.

As for me, I thought these two books were among the best things I read in 2008. I'm currently reading the next duology in the Promethean novels, Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth, and if anything, these are even better than the first.

Edit: Since I wrote this brief comment on my reaction to Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water, the racial tropes Bear uses in exploring another of her themes in these books - issues of bondage,servitude and obligation - have been critiqued by several readers of colour as problematic. Bear herself has not handled the critiques or the discussions that spread out from her responses particularly well. (For context on this debate, which has come to be known as RaceFail 09, please see this post by [personal profile] rydra_wong for a very long list of pertinent links, including links to some timelines and summaries.)

I agree that the tropes are problematical. My reading of the text is that Bear was attempting, among many other things, to deconstruct these racialised tropes as part of her exploration of binding and servitude. Speaking as a person with white privilege, I think that she was successful in this to some degree, certainly enough that I was encouraged by the book alone to think about these issues. But I am not a person of colour, it is not bodies that look like mine that are being used in the text to do this deconstruction, so the text had no power to anger or injure me. It was easy for me to read a text written by a white author that made use of these tropes, and wait for her to show me what she intended in making use of them.

Moreover, the author was working primarily with myths that were drawn from my home culture, one in which concepts of binding spells and geasa and other, similar tropes are common and not racialised, and in my privilege I did not think about how the use of explicitly racialised characters and tropes would affect people of colour.

I am not detracting my statement that these books were among the best that I read in 2008, but I am acknowledging that there are serious issues of cultural appropriation and how to write racialised characters and situations to be considered in approaching this text, and that it should not have been easy for me not to see these issues up front. I need to be a more careful reader where race is concerned.

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Ha’Penny, Jo Walton

This, the second volume in Walton’s Small Change trilogy – an alternate history of a fascist post-WWII Britain – continues its brilliant and merciless examination of a society that has come to accept the unacceptable, tolerate the intolerable, and keep on smiling as if nothing could ever be wrong.

The first novel in the series, Farthing, made use of the literary conventions of the English country house murder mystery to show the cumulative effect of every individual decision, every petty threat, ever minor compromise, every small change that results in the creation of a fascist regime in which people voluntarily accept the curtailment of freedom and condone murder and state terrorism to gain an illusory security.

Ha’penny takes the form of yet another well-established genre, the suspense thriller, to explore the moral issues at the core of life under an unjust and illegitimate government. Walton uses the same structure she adopted in the first novel, alternating the narrative point of view between two characters. The first, Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard would seem, by his centrality to the action of both volumes to day, to be the central figure of the trilogy. The second viewpoint character in the novel is new to us, although she has some connection to some of the events of the first novel - actress Viola Lark, estranged daughter of a well-placed and wealthy family (based, it would seem, on the Mitfords), and about to begin rehearsals for the leading role in a gender-reversed Hamlet.

Carmichael, blackmailed into silence about his knowledge of the crimes at the heart of the new regime by his superiors, who are aware of his relationship with another man, finds himself in the position of acting against his own deepest beliefs to preserve the government that he, more than most, knows to be the result of a murderous coup. His only hope is that he can at least, by serving honestly in an unjust world, save some of the innocent who might otherwise be caught up in the wheels of an increasingly uncaring machine.

As Carmichael threads his way through the complexities of investigating a terrorist conspiracy, Viola’s narrative traces the path of seduction and compromise that leads an unconcerned and apolitical innocent into the heart of violent resistance. Through both narrative threads, the ethics and motivations of those who condone state terrorism and those who would commit terrorist acts in the name of freedom are explored with equal honesty, showing the effects of compromised ethical positions on all sides.

It’s an uncomfortable portrait of human nature, and poses a number of questions about the methods and ethics of resistance to an unjust government – leaving the answers up to the reader.

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Heaven's Net Is Wide, Lian Hearn

This is the prequel to the stunning Tales of the Otori - Across the Nightingale Floor. Grass for His Pillow, Brilliance of the Moon and The Harsh Cry of the Heron. The beauty, the detail, the lyricism, the sense of immersion in another place and culture - all of the things that made the earlier books things of wonder are part of this book as well.

It is the story of Otori Shigeru as a young man, and brings us from the early days of his boyhood right up to the moment where Kikuta Tomasu, who will henceforth be known as Otori Takeo, the protagonist of the Tales, enters his life.

There are no surprises in this book - we already know most of what is going to happen, because so much of the facts and relationships explored here are part of the important history of the later books. We've heard the facts already. In Heaven's Net Is Wide, we learn how they happened, the context and feel and emotional depth of the past, and why it shaped the future we have already read.

Even though I knew, in general, everything that was going to happen, I simply couldn't put the book down until I'd finished it.

Simply beautiful.

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Gentle reader may recall that one of my favourite fantasy writers is Judith Tarr. Although she has written some fantasy set in original worlds, some of her best work, in my opinion, is in the vein of the historical fantasy, in which she revisits a place and time in our own very real history, and retells it as if some of the myths and legends common to that time and place were also real, and had been a part of the unfolding of history.

Earlier this year I re-read Judith Tarr’s The Hound and the Falcon trilogy, her first published fantasy:

The Isle of Glass
The Golden Horn
The Hounds of God

This series is partly the kind of historical fantasy that Tarr would later excel at, and partly an alternate historical fantasy, in which history did not happen quite as it did in this world. It’s also the first of her works that I read, and hence I remembered it with great fondness, and anticipated re-reading it. And I was not disappointed.

The Hound and the Falcon is set in an Earth where elves exist, and have for a long time had relations of state with the world of man, but are now withdrawing slowly, pushed to the edges of the known world by the advance of the Catholic Church, to which they are anathema. The time corresponds to our own 13th century: there is a Richard on the throne of Anglia, and a crusade brewing. But in this Earth, there are three kingdoms in southern Britannia – Anglia, Gwynedd, and Rhiyana, and the king of Rhiyana is of the Elfkind.

The protagonist of the series is Alf, who we see first as Brother Alfred, a devout monk who, despite having lived in the monastery of St. Ruan for 60 years, and having penned a scholarly religious work that is known throughout Europe, appears to be little more than a beautiful, almost unearthly-looking boy. Alf was a foundling, his past unknown, and he has lived his entire life sheltered by the abbots and monks of St. Ruan, never having to face the question of who – or what – he is. Then, quite suddenly, Alf is thrown into the outer world of politics – both secular and churchly – and is forced to acknowledge his true self and his people in order to survive – and discover himself, and love – in a world where religious wars are raging and the Church wants nothing more than to drive whatever it considers to be heretical and evil from the sight of man and God.

The story of Alf’s search for truth, self and love, set against a turbulent time of fear, distrust, hate and catastrophic religious war, is compelling – and its conclusion leaves the reader with both joy and sorrow.

This is among the best of Tarr's many great works of fantasy.

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Another fantastic series that has profoundly impressed me with the beauty of its writing, the depth of characterisation, the wealth of its worldbuilding, the heart of its story, is Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori. I've now read all the books in the main series, and am waiting for the prequel, Heaven's Net Is Wide to come out in paperback.

Across the Nightingale Floor: Journey to Inuyama
Grass for His Pillow
Brilliance of the Moon
The Harsh Cry of the Heron

This is the story of Takeo and Kaede, their love for each other, their struggle to survive those who seek to own and control them, and their quest to fulfil the desire of Takeo's adoptive father Otori Shigeru and Kaede's aunt Maruyama Naomi to bring peace and prosperity to the warn-torn Three Counties. There are, to my mind, echoes of the Arthurian mythos in the way that choices made in their youth will eventually bring about the downfall of Takeo and Kaede, but that's often a part of the heroic bargain - the sacrifice can only bring about a temporary victory, the fight for what should be must be passed to other hands to begin anew.

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