Archive for the 'Books' Category

Is this a kissing book?

One of my… let’s call it a “characteristic”, that’s a neutral enough term… is that when it comes to fiction, I always finish what I start. The reason I have so few played-but-uncompleted games in my collection is that I am constitutionally incapable of setting something aside until I’ve seen the end. Once I’ve put a certain amount of time into something, I feel like I’m owed the end, so I’ll push my way through to the finish.

The drawback here is that quality doesn’t come into play. I have no doubt that if someone had tricked me into reading Twilight or Eragon, I’d have read the whole series by now. Sure it sucks, but I have to know what happens.

The irony of having this characteristic while being unable to finish any of my side projects or keep a consistent blogging schedule is not lost on me, I assure you.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because I’ve been listening to audiobooks at work over the last several days. Free audiobooks, which should set off warning bells right there. The part of my brain which detects quality is screaming at me to stop, but, well… I’ve come this far, and I’ve got nothing but time on my hands.

I can’t even say that I’m not enjoying them, really. The books tickle the nearly-suppressed part of my subconscious which has an almost childlike infatuation with schlocky airport fantasy. Most of the fantasy I’ve been reading in paper form these days has been of the modern, somewhat nontraditional take on the genre, but this stuff almost wallows in conventions. It’s like I’ve fallen back in time twenty years… and Stockholm Syndrome is taking hold.

One, Murder at Avedon Hill, is a murder mystery, but the author was very obviously weaned on those old SNES RPGs where you had to perform a half-dozen fetch quests before you could get anything accomplished, and so you ended up spending about ten hours just trying to get a bridge fixed by the most roundabout method possible. The book takes a prologue+six chapters before the characters even begin to actively work towards solving the mystery which is the book’s main plot thread. They need a letter of introduction to get into a manor to talk to the lord to convince him to lift a roadblock, but the only person who will write it for them needs a certain kind of moth, which lives in a cave in the wilderness… but only a living moth, which is out of season right now… you get the idea.

I understand the point of all this, of course; it’s a way to set the scene and introduce characters who will be important later on without being too obvious about it. You can’t just line up your major players and have them tell the protagonists who they are and what they do… except the author does that anyway later on, but anyway…

The point I’m driving at here is that fetch quests are effective in games when used well because they’re a method of exposition that allows for player interaction. Instead of just having some asshole tell the player that things are pretty crummy in Shitsville, you contrive some trivial errand that sends the player to Shitsville and they can see just how crummy it is for themselves, and hopefully become more motivated when the time inevitably comes to do something about it. It’s not as effective in literature, where it just feels like padding.

The book’s got other problems as well… there’s the exceedingly irritating perspective-hopping issue I’ve complained about before. It’s got a pretty serious case of the burly detective syndrome, exacerbated by the fact that the two main characters have inexplicably similar-sounding names. It’s also heavy on the infodumping, which would be tolerable if the world did not appear to be stock Tolkeinesque medieval. The mashup between high fantasy and a down-to-earth Law-and-Order police procedural is a strange mix, and one that I’m not entirely sure works particularly well in this case. (I’ve seen it done well, but you kind of have to emphasize the hard-boiled noir aspects of the setting. Placid small-town charm clashes with the tone.) It’s kind of hard to get invested in the search for clues and the grilling of suspects when you have a sneaking suspicion that vampires are behind everything, you know?

The other book… well, I’ll decline to mention the title since I’m about to spoil it rather heavily… has different issues. It’s much better-written than the other, keeping a consistent viewpoint and having fewer noticeable language issues. The major problem here is that its plot twists are all entirely predictable. It’s unbelievably frustrating to work out all the mysteries literally whole books before they come to fruition and having to listen to the characters fumble their way through it. The moment the main female character was first described my immediate thought was “there’s a refrigerator with this woman’s name on it.” It took two full books, but lo and behold. I actually felt bizarrely happy when it finally happened, because it meant I could stop anticipating it every time she stepped out of the main character’s sight. I was fairly certain the author wouldn’t kill her off in sight of the main character, but rather that he would come back from some adventure to find her ripped to shreds or strangled to death with her own hair or something and set him off on a quest of righteous vengeance.

Farewell, [redacted]. You were too good for both this world and this story. But hey, at least in passing you’ll be spared the hokey “revolution against the evil church” plot the book seems to be drifting towards, which is more than you can say for me.

That’s another thing that bothers me about the plot here… The religion here isn’t even secretly evil like most evil churches, it’s obviously evil. It openly condones what amounts to the sacrifice, enslavement, and cannibalism of obviously sentient beings, but what tips people off to the idea that this isn’t A-OK is the revelation that OMG the dragons aren’t really gods!? I dunno, guys, seems like you’d have a bit of resistance even prior to that. It was almost cute watching the book clumsily hint that the high priestess might be evil. Figured it out on first sight, thanks.

The book also does that annoying fantasy thing where it stars nonhumans, and so feels the need to replace the words “man” or “men” (even species-neutral words like “person”) with an equivalent phrase every… single… time. I get that this helps the fantasy flavor, but it’s unbelievably distracting and even a little jarring, since you have to do the mental translation every time it comes up. We already know they’re not speaking English in-universe, so why not extend your translation a bit?

There’s one more that I’ve been listening to off and on, Nina Kimberly the Merciless, which I downloaded just because I was intrigued by the premise (the barbarian hero’s spoiled teenage brat of a daughter trying to follow in his footsteps and live up to his legacy), but I was immediately turned off when the title character’s personality did a complete 180 not two chapters in. She’s supposed to be a fearsome warrior, but hot-tempered and short-sighted. Imagine my surprise when she goes on to lose every fight she participates in and solves most conflicts with level-headed diplomacy. Go figure.

There’s also a clumsy romance which just goes on… and on… and on. I’ll be waiting over here when they’re done giving each other soulful looks across the campfire.

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Ultimate Illusion

Steady paychecks are making me dangerously irresponsible. I bought a giant pile of books yesterday, including Brandon Sanderson’s latest, The Way of Kings. (I was waiting for the paperback because I was pretty sure that if I took the hardcover edition into my house, the upper story would collapse under the weight.) I usually burn through Sanderson’s books in a few days, but this monster appears to be thick enough to challenge even me. And he plans to write ten of these things while also working on The Wheel of Time and other unrelated projects? The man’s a crazy.

I also bought Ys: The Oath in Felghana for no other reason than it was twenty dollars and I could. I love cheap video games.

And if that weren’t enough — and if I weren’t already muddling about in Dissidia 012 and Final Fantasy Tactics — Final Fantasy III came out on the Virtual Console today. I didn’t actually have to spend any money on this one, because I still had some leftover spacebux from my purchase of Chrono Trigger a few weeks back (which I still haven’t finished, incidentally…), but where am I going to find time to play it? I am positively drowning in menus to negotiate and Fires to cast, you guys. That’s the great tragedy of the video game hobby — when you’ve got time to play them, you don’t have money to buy them, but if you go out and earn that money, that’s time you can’t spend playing them.

Well, whatever. Sooner or later I’m going to be sitting around with nothing better to do, and when that day comes, the game will be sitting on my Wii… waiting patiently.

Unlike Xenoblade and The Last Story, evidently. I’d talk about that, but what’s there to say? I want to play them, but Nintendo won’t let me. Operation Drizzle or whatever was a nice gesture, but internet activism has never worked before and it won’t work now, so anyone who was surprised that it didn’t happen has been deluding themselves from the start. I held out some hope after E3 that Nintendo was just holding back on them so as not to distract from the 3DS, Wii U, and Skyward Sword, but that report stating that NoA forbade NoE from showcasing the games at E3 has pretty much killed that hope for me. Now if we get either game it’ll be a pleasant surprise, rather than the seeming certainty I once thought it was. It’s bizarre that we’re twenty years past the SNES days and advanced the medium in so many ways, but on this one issue we’ve wrapped right back around to “RPGs are too niche for these action-obsessed Americans to wrap their ADD brains around” again. We’re entering another age of lost classics, and that’s just too bad. Maybe ten years from now RPGs will be huge again and publishers will start dipping into their backlogs again?

Welp.

I didn’t mean for updates to get away from me again like this, but a combination of extreme busyness and rougher-than-usual work making more sleep necessary has kind of sucked away my free time. What leisure time I have had has mostly been spent fiddling with my PSP. Don’t feel too left out, though, as this blog isn’t the only thing I’ve been neglecting: I’ve fallen behind on my TV viewing, I’ve been stopped on the last level of Sonic Colors for about two weeks, I haven’t read anything new in a while, and I can’t remember the last time I watched all nine innings of baseball game.

Fortunately I’ve got three off-days in a row lined up, so I plan to get some Shit Done. Get caught up on my shows, crank out a Majora’s Mask update, watch some baseball, and play all the games.

1) I’d been plugging away at Dissidia even though the main quest has started to bore me. The original Dissidia plot is a lot more insipid than the new stuff for 012 (which is hardly brilliant itself), and I ran into two characters back-to-back who I don’t really enjoy playing in Terra and Cecil.

There’s a lot to like with Terra; she’s a ranged fighter, which I like; she can easily initiate chases, which I also like; and her EX Burst is really easy to do perfectly, which I love. However, actually killing things with her is a chore. At the level I finished her story with she had essentially only two HP Attacks, both of which were really slow, telegraphed things that are hard to hit with. I probably won more matches with her by building up massive Bravery, initiating a chase, and hitting the other guy with a big HP Attack than I did by winning “normally”.

Cecil, on the other hand, I don’t like at all. He’s a multiple-stance character, like Lightning, but he changes between Paladin and Dark Knight automatically when he uses certain moves rather than activating the transformation with a button combination. Usually with multiple-stance characters like Lightning or Zelda I just figure out the one I like best and stay there, but that’s not really possible with Cecil. I could stand this, too, but his HP Attacks seem really punishable. I think I’ve used an HP Attack only to be immediately Brave Breaked in retaliation more in the dozen or so fights I played with Cecil than I had in the entire rest of the game up to that point.

It seems to me that the major problem with both characters is how limited their angles of attack are. This could probably be an entire essay in itself, and in fact I think it will be, once I’ve fleshed out the idea some.

2) While at work I was listening to a fantasy short story podcast and happened across a story by George R.R. Martin, more famous of course for the A Song of Ice and Fire series. It was about dimensional-hopping beings, and it was pretty good, but one thing that stuck out at me were the villains — a cabal of godlike beings called (wait for it) The Seven.

Now, as everyone knows, the Seven is the primary religion of the main continent in ASoIaF, and the most likely explanation is that it’s just a cute nod by Martin — that, or Martin has a Costanza-esque fondness for the number seven. I am kind of worried, though — it’s been a while since I’ve read the series, but I seem to recall that the nature of the Seven was somewhat vaguely defined, and their major influence on history was summoning forth an Andal horde to wipe out the old gods. In addition, the Faith of the Seven became more prominent in A Feast For Crows, and they started to seem more sinister rather than just part of the backdrop of the setting as they had been. I’m probably worrying about nothing, but I’d hate to see a series that’s so innovative in so many other ways degenerate into “god is evil” ridiculousness.

3) I’d completely overlooked all the shows starting back up. I taped White Collar but haven’t had a chance to watch it, but forgot entirely about new Futurama, Burn Notice, and Leverage. Will I ever get caught up? Stay tuned to find out!

Review: The Hammer

The Hammer, by K.J. Parker

I’m not sure why I keep doing this to myself.

Check that; I know exactly why: It’s because K.J. Parker is a superb writer. Characterization, plotting, voice, pacing, worldbuilding… Parker’s got it all as far as secondary-world fiction goes. Bill James once said about Rickey Henderson that if you could split him in two, you’d have two Hall-of-Famers; that’s how I feel about Parker: If you could split her in two, each of the two writers would still be one of the best in the field.

That said, there’s an issue I have with her books: I don’t really like any of them. See, Parker’s books are extraordinarily cynical and depressing — her happiest stuff makes George R.R. Martin seem like a cheerful frolic through the Lollipop Forest, to give you a point of comparison. Parker loves to grind your face in grubby realism: Her worlds run on blood, oil, and dark sarcasm, and heroism and idealism are not only not effective, they’re not even really considered. She once said in an interview something to the effect that she believes in happy endings in the same way she believes in Pluto — she understands the concept, but doesn’t see what it has to do with anything.

As I’ve noted before, that’s not really why I read fantasy. I like heroism and idealism and happy endings, and seeing it so casually discarded in what is, after all, my escapism cuts a little close to the bone. If I want a world in which life is meaningless and only the most selfish and ruthless survive, I can turn on the news. When I read a fantasy novel, I want to see the good guys beat the odds.

But Parker is so good, and her books are so well-constructed. I feel like I kind of owe it to myself to read them in the same way that film buffs need to watch all the Oscar nominees, even if they’re sick to death of Nazis and people with disabilities. So we reach a grudging impasse — I buy them and read them and marvel at their narrative ingenuity and brilliant prose, but I don’t really enjoy them, and when I’m done I move on to something more cheerful (like a hanging, or the massacre of kittens) with something like relief.

And The Hammer is a Parker book, through and through. It’s actually got one of the happier endings of her books, in that all of the protagonists are still alive and their lives aren’t completely destroyed, and it still ends on premediated mass murder and betrayed trust. That’s The Hammer in a sentence: Great, but not really my bag.

Parker’s got essentially two protagonist molds. First is the cosmic plaything, a reasonably good man who finds himself at the epicenter of massive cultural changes that he is helpless to control, and is ultimately destroyed (physically or spiritually) by them. The other is the clever mastermind, who ruthlessly but efficiently manipulates everyone else in the story to see his own (usually bloody) ends done. Gignomai, the protagonist of The Hammer, fits into that latter category, and most of the story is his unfolding scheme to accomplish… something. I’m hesitant to talk about it because it’s kind of a big plot point — much of the non-Gignomai-POV chapters consist of everyone else trying to figure out what, exactly, he’s up to, and why — but on the other hand, I’m nearly certain that a reasonably astute reader could figure out the answer to those questions even before the big reveal. (The way the novel is structured, chronologically, is a big hint.) The best I can do is say that Gignomai is the youngest son of a noble family that, a few generations back, was forced to flee into the hinterlands to escape some vague political trouble at home, but still holds itself aloof from both the colonists who live there and the native tribes who occupied the area before either of them reached the area. Gignomai’s plan involves forcing these disparate groups back into the mix together, until…

Speaking more generally, the novel feels a little more plodding than Parker’s other stuff. Gignomai’s plan doesn’t really suffer any setbacks — he sets out to do it, and essentially does — so you get that “on-rails” feeling where none of what’s going on really matters in the long run. (This is a big problem with Parker’s “mastermind” characters, as they tend to be too smart to be thwarted by the schmucks they’re surrounded with.) There’s less actually happening, so the novel is devoted more to characters feeling each other out and trying to decide what to do. One element I feel the novel does excellently as a result of this is its portrayal of charisma.

Most fantasy authors, you see, regard charisma as something of a black magic. It’s usually reserved for villains, and it’s something along the lines of a superpower that they turn on when they need to convince someone to do something against their better judgment. It almost feels like hypnosis, sometimes… like endearing awkwardness is the only genuine way for human beings to communicate. The Hammer doesn’t do that… Gignomai and both his brothers exude easy, confident, natural charisma, almost unknowingly. It’s easy to see why people give their words such weight, because you would too. They know how to talk to people in a fashion that results in them getting their way. They’d be likable if you didn’t know the truth behind the smiles. I’d love to see more real charisma in books, rather than as a slightly-more-subtle version of Jafar sticking his staff in the Sultan’s face.

The epilogue was kind of weird to me. I think I saw what it was trying to do, but I’m not entirely sure it came through. Little too rushed in my opinion.

So yeah: The Hammer: It is a K.J. Parker book, so read it if you like those. Then invest in antidepressants.

Review: Corambis

Corambis, by Sarah Monette

Corambis is the fourth and final book in Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths series, the first three of which I read and liked quite a bit. Unfortunately, by the time the fourth book came out  the series was apparently enough of a commercial failure that Ace didn’t exactly give it their all in promoting the book, and I never saw it in the wild. I could have ordered it online, but it never seemed to be the most immediately relevant thing to spend my money on. (As a side note, one of the things being lost, at least by me, due to online shopping is the impulse buy. If I’m in a store and have something that I want in my hands, I’m much more likely to just say “The hell with it” and buy it. Online, though, I’m much more deliberative, much more likely to come to the conclusion that I don’t really need this thing I’m looking at right this moment. It’s an odd distinction.) I finally bought it when I was getting Sonic Colors, which was significantly cheaper online than it was physically, a few weeks back, and finally got around to reading it during my vacation last week.

As for the book itself, I’m of mixed feelings about how necessary it was. The first three books in the series comprise a complete plot arc revolving around the city of Melusine. By the end, all of the outstanding mysteries have been solved and most of the characters have reached a resolution, which is the normal stopping point for a series. Corambis reminds me of a video game trilogy where the main three games were so wildly successful that the publisher can’t possibly hang up the franchise now that the story is done, so they keep commissioning side-stories and spinoffs to keep the money flowing in. Corambis takes place in an entirely different physical location than the first three books, stars entirely different characters aside from Felix and Mildmay, and follows an entirely different plot (and, moreover, an entirely different kind of plot). It feels much more “sequel-y” than the first three, much more added-on.

That’s not to say that the book is crassly commercial. If you look closely, you can see that Felix and Mildmay’s internal character arcs hadn’t yet reached a resolution by the end of The Mirador, and Corambis is largely about patching that up. Their relationship with each other and with themselves transforms from work-in-progress to something stable and able to build upon by the end of this book, and at the end you get the impression that finally, finally they have an understanding. One of the things I really liked about this series is that it it showed recovery from trauma and rebuilding relationships as a difficult process and not the instantaneous semi-magical act it seems to be in most fantasy novels. That said, though, this kind of book quickly becomes unbearable if nothing good ever happens to the characters, so it’s nice to see them get some measure of peace in the end.

One other thing I noticed was that the book doesn’t really have an antagonist. According to Monette, this was intentional and reflects her maturation as a writer — the first two books in the series had a villain, the third had antagonists, but the fourth just has people in conflict. This might be more realistic, but it does result in the plot feeling kind of unfocused and random — since no one person is behind what’s going on, in a lot of senses it just feels like Felix lurching randomly from one miscellaneous crisis to the next. The dramatic, important scenes seem to spike out of nowhere amidst everyday normality. I don’t know that this is necessarily good or bad, but it did seem worth noting.

In the end, Corambis strikes me as a book that you don’t necessarily need — as noted, the first three books comprise a full arc and the fourth feels tacked on in some ways — but if you’re a fan of those first three books you will want it. Monette’s gifts for character voice and realistic personal conflict is still in full force, so you’re willing to go along with her even if she doesn’t end up anywhere.

Review: The Cloud Roads

The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells

This is the new one by Martha Wells, who is by my reckoning one of the most underrated modern fantasists. I hadn’t heard that she’d written anything in a while, not since the The Fall of Ile-Rein trilogy several years back, and I’d feared she’d dropped out of the game entirely…

Wells is an anthropologist by training, and she really excels at creating non-earth worlds that feel very dense and real. Other authors might have more realized histories or cultures, but in most cases that’s because they’re cribbing from medieval societies on our world. Wells makes worlds that feel very unlike standard fantasy settings, but still provides them a sense of weight and history that gives them that juicy lived-in feeling. City of Bones (not to be confused with the book of the same title by glorified fanficker Cassandra Clare) is one of my all-time favorite fantasy books, largely (but not entirely) because of its extremely vivid depiction of a desert city that’s a mishmash of several earth cultures without precisely patterning itself off of any specific one. It was such an interesting place to explore that I’ve “written” several things that are thinly-veiled ripoffs of it, which is as good a sign as any that you’re on to something.

The Cloud Roads continues in that vein, with a society that’s just this side of prehistoric. That’s unusual, in and of itself — fantasy, despite taking place “in the past”, tends to sneer at hunter-gatherer societies, using them mostly as a source of noble savages and barbarian tribes for the “civilized” protagonists to feel superior to.

It’s also about non-humans, which is something I’ve been a little iffy about in the past. Few writers seem willing to write about non-human races without using them as a clumsy metaphor or foil for the flaws and foibles of humanity, or else they’re so human that there’s no appreciable difference. (Khat, the protagonist of the aforementioned City of Bones definitely falls into that latter category… he’s basically a human. He’s got a few extra tricks that help move the plot, but his worldview is human and and he could be a human without really changing the story much.) In The Cloud Roads, Wells splits the difference and makes a world where no one really has full claim on the term “human”… think of the ancient world, but if every tribe and nation was actually a slightly different species of humanoid rather than merely a different race of homo sapiens. This allows her to dodge the human-centric storytelling trap that ensnares so many fantasy worlds, where the non-humans are there, but they’re mostly supporting players to the humans.

And it’s about non-humans, too — their culture, their history… hell, the nature of their reproduction is a plot point.

As far as plot and themes go, The Cloud Roads takes up Wells’s fairly well-worn theme of isolation and trying to find a place to belong. Moon, the protagonist, is a shapeshifter who can change between a fairly normal-looking humanoid form and a strange winged creature. Having never seen another of his kind, he wanders around trying to integrate himself into the societies of other tribes, concealing his true nature. That is, until someone sees him changing form, mistakes him for a monster, and poisons him. At this point he’s rescued by another of his kind, the first one he’s ever seen, and is asked to join their society. Moon finds himself conflicted — these are surely his people, but he grew up away from them and doesn’t understand the customs, so he still feels like an outsider. Much of the story revolves around Moon trying to mediate these conflicting desires.

There’s action too, of course. Oddly, the plot feels a lot more… straightforward than I’m used to from Wells. Typically Wells’s endgames are kind of wham-y, with lots of crazy reveals, a flurry of action and fighting, and the occasional mind-fuck of an ending, but The Cloud Roads feels kind of tepid and… “predictable” has the wrong connotations, but there’s nothing particularly shocking there, at least not to a reader. (I imagine the characters felt differently.) It’s much more of a character study than Wells’s other stuff, and I’m not sure whether I like it better or worse. I raced through it, which is generally a sign that I’m really into what’s happening, but at the end I felt almost indifferent, which isn’t.

It’s apparently the first in a series, but it stands on its own well enough. It’s not among Wells’s best stuff, but it’s well-written and well-plotted and I’ve certainly read worse books — several in the past month, in fact! It’s probably worth your money if you’re interested in a well-drawn world.

I need to do a re-read of The Fall of Ile-Rein… maybe this year.

Game of Thrones: Delayed Thoughts

I’m liking the series, but then again I know that Shit has not yet Gotten Real, which is where the books tend to lose me.

One thing that always intrigues me is when fans of a book series whine about how a visual adaptation doesn’t fit their image of the characters. Just speaking personally, this has never happened to me — perhaps because no series that I’ve been really invested in has received an adaptation (just Discworld, kinda), but I don’t think it would happen even if they did. When I’m reading a book, I have a general sense of how things are supposed to look, but it’s not so set in stone that anything other than a very specific image would throw me. If someone were to adapt the Belgariad, say, I doubt I’d be huffing and puffing over casting decisions or monster designs.

This is a roundabout way of saying that you won’t receive much commentary from me as to whether an adaptation is source-accurate or not. I always try to take remakes and adaptations on their own terms, to the fury of purists I’m sure. But fuck purists; they suck the life out of anything they’re involved in, so screw ’em.

In fact, the aspects of the television series I’m most enjoying are the ones with little to no basis in the source… little conversations and snippets of dialogue that do not appear (on-stage, at least) in the books. The books are constrained somewhat in that everything significant that happens has to be viewed from the eyes of a viewpoint character. While I’m normally in favor of that (so-called “head hopping” is among the more irritating things an author can do as far as I’m concerned — I’m having trouble getting through a book right now just because the author does it endlessly), it also means that a lot of stuff is happening beneath or behind the reader’s notice in the books, stuff that the TV series can bring to the fore. Last night’s episode was a great example of this, with scenes like Littlefinger and Varys’s dick-measuring contest (metaphorically speaking) and Robert and Cersei’s quiet, reserved discussion about their marriage being things that are interesting to see, but which none of the book’s viewpoint characters had reason to be present for.

I’m really interested in where they’re taking Cersei, actually. They seem to be going out of their way to make her seem more well-rounded and sympathetic than she is in the books. This might come back to bite them later on, when they need her to be a monster in order for the plot to work — but it might not. Cersei was always something of a cardboard cutout in the books — even in A Feast For Crows, where she’s a viewpoint character, seeing things from her perspective just elaborated how shallow and spiteful she really is. It may be that giving her more depth may have the result of giving her villainous actions later in the series more bite. The aforementioned conversation could be viewed in a specific light, not present in the books… but we’ll have to see where it goes to know for sure.


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