Archive for December, 2010

Sarah A Hoyt’s “Darkship Thieves”… One Word, Amazing

Some women in science fiction tend to scream a lot when they’re in trouble, hoping to be rescued by a dashing hero. Athena Hera Sinistra, the main character in Sarah A. Hoyt‘s wonderful book, Darkship Thieves, tends to destroy anything and everyone when she gets cornered or in trouble. I like her.

Let me reiterate: I really like her.

I got lost in this book the moment I opened it, with Hoyt’s expansive universe enveloping me at the outset. Athena is the only daughter of Patrician Milton Alexander Sinistra, who is one of the members of the ruling council of Earth. Athena awakens to find an intruder in her cabin on a spaceship. Confused but unafraid, she waits for him to get closer before she makes her move. Her move, surprisingly enough, is to jump out of bed and attack her attacker. Caught off guard, the attacked is dropped and Athena makes her escape. But that’s when the problems really begin…

Athena knows she has to get off the ship, so she makes her way to the launch bay, where the escape pods wait. She manages to sneak aboard and jettison out into the wilds of space, heading towards the vast powertrees that were her only chance at escaping. However, once inside she realizes that she is not alone in her hiding out in the powertrees orbiting Earth: a Darkship Thief is there as well, watching her.

The Darkship Thieves are legends on Earth, former slaves of the terrifying old rulers of Earth. They killed babies, kidnapped elderly and stole anything not bolted down were just a few of the popular stories about them. They also stole the power from the vast powertrees that Earth received electricity from, which would make them public enemy number one: if anyone believed they really existed anymore.

Athena is brought aboard the ship and, for a minute there, I was worried that Sarah had pulled the typical “male hero on board, they fall in love and live happily ever after” trope. Thank God that Ms. Hoyt read a lot of Heinlein in her lifetime, because what she has Athena do instead made me cheer. The terrified, scared and cornered “socialite” attacks the humanoid inside the spaceship once she’s on board. Not “fists flailing and crying” attack, but a cold, calculated and nearly lethal attack instead. However, the man inside the ship is slightly faster and stronger than she is, the first such person she had met in her entire life.

That is the first inkling that something strange was going on in this book…

I don’t know how else to say this: go buy this book. It is an amazing piece of work, and Ms. Hoyt can really spin a good yarn. There are almost no points in the book where the scene drags out and makes you want to kill somebody, and the characters are so believable that you actually feel bad when you realize that Athena has done something stupid (once again). She is so believable that I could swear I’d met Athena somewhere before. Her captor/rescuer, Kit, is just as “real”, with his own faults, secrets and personal depression over the past. The setting is amazing, and the planetoid Eden is stunning in both its’ simplicity and complexity.

The conclusion of the book is startling. The big secret is revealed, and it’s up to Athena and Kit to make things right once more. And right doesn’t always means that the ending is happy…

Go and read this book. It’s amazing. Easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Reviewed by Jason

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“Fledgling,” “Saltation,” AKA Theo Waitley, parts 1 and 2, are Highly Enjoyable, Satisfying.

The first thing you need to know about the books FLEDGLING and SALTATION is that they’re written by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, who are both spouses and co-writers, and that between them, Lee and Miller know how to write enjoyable and satisfying novels.

The second thing you need to know about these two particular books, FLEDGLING and SALTATION, are that they are set in Lee and Miller’s popular far-future Liaden Universe.  This is a place Lee and Miller know very well as they’ve set at least a dozen short stories plus another dozen novels here, yet the richness and freshness of this setting never dulls.

And the third, and final, thing you need to know about these two books, FLEDGLING and SALTATION, are that they are both about Theo Waitley, and are sequential.  Theo is fourteen when the first book, FLEDGLING, starts; she is the daughter of Kamele Waitley, a Terran professor at the University of Delgado (both the name of the university and the planet), and Jen Sar Kiladi, a Liaden expatriate and a professor of cultural genetics, also in residence upon Delgado.  Delgado is known as a “safe world,” meaning that all behavior is tightly regulated and monitored, and that in addition to the typical coursework of “reading, writing and arithmetic,” Theo studies “Advertency” (how to better understand the world and your place in it by being observant, more or less), consensus-building, and Social Engineering (how to better get along with others).

Yet Theo is half-Liaden, and has the reflexes of a pilot.  This is because her father, Jen Sar Kiladi, is better known as Daav yos’Phelium, the former Delm (or head of the clan) of Korval.  Daav has this alternate identity because he’d wanted to study cultural genetics but didn’t want to be bothered by the status he held (at that point, he was the heir, rather than the Delm, but still of extremely high rank), nor did he want to cause problems for his homeworld of Liad, where far too many people outside his own clan seem to believe that humans and Liadens should not mix — thus the study of cultural genetics (trying to find a common root ancestor for humanity and the Liadens has taken place, yet the Liadens don’t want to believe it and some of the Terrans don’t, either) isn’t exactly something the Delm of Korval is supposed to put his influence behind.  Korval is known for its pilots (which is why Daav, in any identity, is a superb pilot), and for its motto “I Dare,” and to a lesser extent for its mixed marriages between humans and Liadens, but aside from piloting, the Delm of Korval is supposed to be as neutral as possible in cultural matters, which is why Daav came up with this alternate identity in the first place.

As seen in the books SCOUT’S PROGRESS and MOUSE AND DRAGON, Daav’s life was rigidly circumscribed by tradition whenever he was resident upon Liad, and he hated it.  His marriage to Aelliana Caylon, pilot and mathematician, greatly improved his life in all respects, but was unfortunately of short duration (and will be discussed in a forthcoming review).  Because of what happened there, Daav felt forced to leave Liad behind and take up his alternate identity.

Theo knows nothing of this — absolutely, positively nothing — and doesn’t even know she’s half-Liaden.  But what she does know is that she’s considered clumsy by her fellow students, isn’t that great at consensus building, finds Social Engineering rather dull, and while she can see the benefits of Advertency, well . . . she’s a misfit, in short.  And Delgado doesn’t exactly make misfits welcome.

So when there’s a major problem relating to the University and someone has to go off-world to handle it, her mother Kamele takes up this task, then takes Theo along with her, hoping to broaden Theo’s education.  On this trip, Theo meets Win Ton yo’Vala, a young Scout pilot (the Scouts are explorers, but also are one of the few branches of Liaden society where those who are curious about other races, planets, or cultures can go without being ostracized), and finds out that her reflexes are excellent.  That she has a talent for piloting — and that she’s half-Liaden.

After her mother solves the problems and goes back home, Theo goes through her rite of passage, called the Gigneri.  She’s told the story of her genes — not the actual conception, but that she truly is the child of “Jen Sar Kiladi” (as that’s the only name Kamele Waitley knows him under; Daav’s now been undercover for at least sixteen years), who has had status as a professor and her mother’s Onagrata (or sanctioned lover; Delgado is a matriarchal society) and has been in Theo’s life from the get-go.  This is a very good way to end FLEDGLING; it’s positive, hopeful and uplifting, and while it’s obvious to all that Theo’s not going to be following in her mother’s footsteps as yet another Scholar of Delgado, even Kamele herself sees the benefits of Theo going off-world and getting her pilot’s training.

SALTATION takes up at Anlingden Piloting Academy, which is resident on the half-human, half-Liaden world of Eylot.   Theo’s been sponsored to the Academy by Cho sig’Radia, one of the Liaden Scouts (and Win Ton yo’Vala’s Scout mentor), so she’s a scholarship student in piloting.  She’s starting in the middle of the semester and is placed in accelerated coursework, but isn’t told this — all she knows is that for the first time in her life, school not only suits her, but is incredibly challenging, to boot.

Theo has adventures from the start in piloting, but what’s most impressive about this book are the cultural variations that Theo notes and files away.  Though she still doesn’t know her father is actually the former Delm of Korval, Daav yos’Phelium, she now knows he’s a pilot of distinction and that he respects the Liaden Scouts.  (Daav was once a Scout himself, though “Jen Sar” was not.)  And she’s a credit to Daav’s teaching — she’s observant, highly intelligent, and an excellent pilot who learns quickly and enjoys her learning.

But there’s trouble brewing on Eylot: the planet is ripe for revolution, and is about to kick off all the Liadens — even part-Liadens who didn’t grow up knowing anything about Liad like Theo.   So Theo’s next challenge is simply this: survival.

How Theo gets out of that mess is for you to read, but I highly encourage you to do so.  Theo scans as a real person — yes, highly motivated, very intelligent, and extremely interesting, but the farthest thing from a saint because she has a hot temper (now that she can finally admit to it; on Delgado, she suppressed it), she’s not that great at dealing with people her own age, and has some serious weaknesses that arise out of her strengths — and her adventures, both in FLEDGLING and in SALTATION, are well worth the time invested in reading these books.  (Then re-reading them.  Often.)

The best news of all about Theo Waitley?  Well, her journey isn’t over — Baen Books, Lee and Miller’s publisher, has a third book about Theo contracted called GHOST SHIP which is in progress at this time.  And this book will integrate Theo’s journey with the “mainline” sequence (starting with Lee and Miller’s first published novel, AGENT OF CHANGE, and ending with I DARE), which promises to be even more of a great thing.

In conclusion — grab these novels, and then recommend them to everyone you know.  (Yes, they are that good.)  Then join me in avidly awaiting GHOST SHIP.

— Reviewed by Barb.

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Mark Feldstein’s “Poisoning the Press” is Excellent, and True.

Mark Feldstein’s new POISONING THE PRESS: RICHARD NIXON, JACK ANDERSON, AND THE RISE OF WASHINGTON”S SCANDAL CULTURE is an excellent, page-turning read about the long-running feud between newspaper reporter and columnist Jack Anderson and former, disgraced President Richard M. Nixon.  It is such a page-turner that you almost forget you’re reading history at times, and it has twists and turns that I, quite frankly, didn’t expect.

What Feldstein did in this book is to contrast the upbringings of Nixon and Anderson, and Feldstein found many more similarities than I’d expected.  Anderson was Mormon, and Nixon’s family were Quakers, so both had puritanical religious backgrounds.  Neither of them was what you might call a “babe magnet,” though both had their own brand of personal magnetism that got stronger as they grew older; both were highly intelligent and driven men who wanted to be at the very top of their respective professions (politician, and journalist, respectively), and got it — but at an extremely high personal cost for both.

Nixon’s journey is the more well-known one, but even there Feldstein found many new revelations to explore.  You see, Nixon was a man who employed dirty campaign tactics — not new, exactly, as this has always been something some candidates have lowered themselves to when trying to hang on to a position or gain it.  But Nixon stooped to a new level of viciousness to gain his first seat against a respected woman Representative (Helen Gahagan Douglas); he called her a Communist, and at that point in history, even if a smear like that was unfounded (it was), that could bring you down more easily than anything else.

These dirty campaign tactics were just the start of Nixon’s checkered political career; he was a very smart man, and a gifted political strategist, but he was also paranoid, abusive, and extremely abrasive.  Also, oddly enough, Nixon was an introvert, and not someone who dealt easily with the public, which made him profoundly unsuited to being a politician of any stripe.  Yet he made up for all his bad qualities with the quality of his mind, somehow managing to serve his constituents in California well enough that he got re-elected as a United States Representative, then was elected to the United States Senate in 1950 before becoming Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Vice Presidential nominee in 1952, being elected as Vice President, then re-elected as VP in 1956.

Anderson, strangely enough, had some similar qualities to Nixon, though he was far less self-serving, at least at first.  Anderson was an investigative journalist in a time very few journalists did anything other than regurgitate press releases from candidates or campaigns, and he learned at the feet of Drew Pearson — the two of them, for years, put out a column called the Washington “Merry-Go-Round,” which at its height was carried by over one thousand newspapers.  (In the pre-Internet age, this was extremely significant; for many readers, the Pearson/Anderson column was the best source of news they were likely to get.)  But to do his job, Anderson did some awful things — he obtained classified files through any means, fair or foul; as a young reporter under Pearson he personally went through people’s garbage; he blackmailed people, or didn’t, depending on what they were willing to tell him.  All of these weaknesses were nearly canceled out by a passion for justice, and by his disgust with the sordid nature of Washington, DC’s political climate.

Feldstein ably shows that there was a time in politics before we had the highly-crafted political commercials we see today; before focus-groups; before push-polling; before obscene amounts of money were spent on campaigns.  But the trade-off for all of that was that many things got done behind the scenes by big money that now is likely to get an airing — such as Howard Hughes managing to get tax breaks for his then-airline, TWA, or Nixon getting all sorts of kickbacks from well-heeled men (including Hughes) under the table, through his brother, or through other sources to keep his name out of it, all because Nixon came from a poor background and wanted more than he’d earned (or at least faster than he truly earned it).

But lest you think Anderson’s hands were clean in this quarter, they weren’t.  Anderson would give good press to people who helped him out, even if they were dirty as sin, because he had nine children to raise and Pearson didn’t pay him overmuch.  Anderson didn’t like doing this, and would sell out someone cheerfully if they failed to do things for him (like give him classified information), but the fact remains that Feldstein proves Anderson did do so — all because Anderson believed it was the only way to get the worst abuses before the public.  (And, sad but true, after reading Feldstein’s excellent summation of the various things going on in the United States that very few people knew about save Anderson and the criminals themselves in the United States government, I cannot say that Anderson was wholly, or even partly, wrong.)

Feldstein shows that the Watergate trial, and the subsequent Congressional hearings, were the least of Nixon’s problems — there were at least five separate investigations going on at the time of Nixon’s resignation, and several key members of his Administration, including the CIA director, his Vice President, Spiro Agnew, and at least two of his aides, ended up being jailed due to their poor conduct and misdeeds during their time in Nixon’s administration, making Nixon’s White House the most scandal-ridden of the 20th century (and possibly the worst in history).  And that while we remember Watergate as a low-water mark for the country, we should also remember the other scandals that laid Richard Nixon low — because there were a great many of them, and without Jack Anderson, who knows if any of them ever would’ve been stirred up?  (Even the guys at the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, likely wouldn’t have kept digging if Anderson, and before him, Pearson, hadn’t said so much about Nixon’s dirty activities long before 1972.)

Feldstein does an exceptional job recounting the Nixon Administration, along with Anderson’s long-running (and well-justified) feud with Nixon, and shows how and why Anderson did what he did to try to bring Nixon down.  Anderson was a key person in the events that led to Nixon’s resignation, yet Anderson’s conduct throughout were part of why Nixon had the belief that the press were the enemy — he was the first politician of the 20th century to openly come out and say so who’d ever obtained the office of President, and Nixon was the first politician who made hay by impugning the press in modern times — so Anderson was indeed part of the problem in Washington, though he was even more a part of the solution in how to clean Washington up.

The end of POISONING THE PRESS is stark in its sadness; both men fell out of favor, as Anderson stayed in the limelight too long to make whatever bucks he could from his transitory fame, and Nixon’s life ended with a whimper rather than a bang as our possibly-most disgraced President in history.  This is because both men made bad decisions, and it cost them dearly — that Anderson eventually regained his composure, objectivity, and was less of a curmudgeon to friends and family was a credit to him, yet Nixon’s devotion to his wife, Pat, was never doubted, so there’s yet another parallel that Feldstein was able to exploit.

This book has a great deal to recommend it — stirring history.  Excellent research.  Outstanding writing, and a great narrative.  But what I liked most about it was its heart — Feldstein shows both men’s virtues, not just their weak points, and shows how if things had been even slightly different (especially for Anderson) in their respective backgrounds, things might’ve been changed — on either side — for the better.

I couldn’t recommend this book more highly — go grab it, now!

— Reviewed by Barb.

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News

We here at Shiny Book Review want to wish everyone a safe and happy holiday season. I (me, Jason…) won’t be back on SBR until Dec 27, and I’m assuming that Barb and Rebecca will do the same. We have new reviews coming soon, and can’t wait to see what ends up in our mailbox for 2011.

Happy Holidays!

-Jason

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The Buntline Special — Tombstone With A Twist

When does a Western stop being a Western and start being something… else? Mike Resnick poses this question and others in his first foray into steampunk with The Buntline Special, a brilliant and humorously told tale about the Gunfight at the O. K. Corral.

When Doc Holliday is called to the town of Tombstone in the Arizona Territory he expects to find more people who need to be killed. That’s his skill set and he is a man who is somewhat comfortable wearing that skin. But the times have changed, and though Doc Holliday is still a dentist turned gunslinger, the rest of Resnick’s Wild (Weird) West is vastly different. For in that America, the United States stops at the Mississippi River. Beyond that is the domain of the Indian nations, who are ruled by magic-wielding shaman and chieftains Hook Nose and Geronimo.

Holliday is actually brought to Tombstone to protect one Thomas Alva Edison and his partner, Ned Buntline, who are in Tombstone to try and stop the Indian’s powerful magic with their own special brand of technology. However, this is not the Edison we know who later becomes embroiled in a bitter dispute with Nikolai Tesla. This Edison has a mechanical arm in place of the one which was shot off months before by a mysterious assailant, who is more than happy to be working with an engineer as brilliant as Ned Buntline.

In Tombstone, though, the historical steps continue down the winding path as things get weird in a hurry. “Bat” Masterson is cursed by Geronimo and, at night, turns into a full-fledged bat. Meanwhile, Doc Holliday’s only true rival in the west, Johnny Ringo, is resurrected from the grave and the undead John Ringo goes out hunting for one Doc Holliday. However, neither man really wants to kill each other because Holliday knows that he can’t kill the undead, while Ringo really just wants to talk classics and literature before he has to eventually kill Doc Holliday. To say it’s a confusing relationship is like saying you can cause a paradox by taping the buttered side of a piece of toast up on the back of a cat.

In between relieving the curse on “Bat”, Holliday must also deal with the cantankerous and amorous relationship with “Big Nose” Katie, his lady friend from back in Dodge City. Now a madam with humans, cyborgs and full bots as whores working for her, Katie is caught in the middle of the quasi-friendship of Ringo and Holliday.

This book is just plain fun. Resnick does an excellent job with keeping things original and fresh, and despite the mental image of Kurt Russell-led movie Tombstone playing in my head, I was easily carried into this “Weird” Western recreation of the OK Corral. I especially enjoyed “Bat” Masterson’s character just before they ready to complete the deal to relieve the curse upon him. To say “soulless bastard” is an understatement!

I loved this book, though the ending had a bit of foreshadowing at the end. But with the amount of fun I had here, I could easily go for seconds. Highly recommended!

Review by Jason

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Sheri S. Tepper’s “The Waters Rising” is Thought-Provoking, Engaging . . . and Slow Going.

Sheri S. Tepper’s THE WATERS RISING is a thought-provoking, challenging novel that is both engaging to read, yet very slow to develop.   Because of these paradoxical qualities, I had to re-read this book at least four times to understand what was going on, but for the most part I enjoyed the re-reads as I got more out of the book the more I put into it.

The basic plot of THE WATERS RISING is as follows:  a young girl, Xulai (pronounced “Shoo-lye”) has been groomed since birth to be an important woman’s Xakixa, or soul-carrier.  When the important woman passes away, Xulai realizes that her role as Xakixa, while accurate, is only one of the things she must do in order to play a significant part in keeping humanity alive despite a major ecological disaster.

Xulai is Tingawan, an Asian-derived kingdom that’s said to have a thousand islands — this could be Indonesia, could be Japan, could be Hawai’i, or could be parts of all three for all I know — and is far from where Xulai has been born and raised in the Duchy of Wold, which appears to be part of what we’d now call the United States (or possibly Canada).  She’s known to important people because she is a mutant — this is never expressly stated in the text, but is the truth — and her particular genetic mutation has been prayed for, hoped for, and has been tweaked by what passes for scientists in Xulai’s rather barbaric future age, because the fact that the waters are rising is a major problem.

In Xulai’s time, Florida is gone.  Mississippi, gone.  England, gone.  The Netherlands, gone.  Any low-lying area anywhere on our Earth — gone.  And the reason for this is because of what they call the Big Kill — which really is the fallout after thermonuclear war.  The war was so intense that the climate altered, continents rose and fell, and the available, habitable land mass shrank significantly.

Now, with the waters rising due to the long-term effects after the Big Kill (something they call The Time Where No One Moved Around, or a second Dark Age), the remnants of humanity, which have devolved back to feudal states for the most part, are threatened because in addition to the glaciers melting, the aquifers underneath the former continents are adding to the available sea level, and have even changed the salinity of the water.   The projected amount of rising water is expected to overtake all but the highest peaks, and therefore if humanity is to survive, they must become water dwellers.

And while there are geneticists, still, and doctors, they don’t really know what we know now — they are working somewhat blind, even in Tingawa which is both the most sophisticated culture left on Earth and the most spiritual — though it’s a type of spirituality that seems like a cross between Shintoism and secular humanism, not anything we’d really recognize as an organized faith at this time.

Around the mid-point of THE WATERS RISING, things really get interesting, because things up until this point were explained as magic that instead turns out to be science.   And it turns out we’re looking at a scientific, not a magical, solution to the problems of this ecological disaster in the making because the Tingawans have a plan, and it all depends on Xulai.

Note that Xulai, because of her mutation, is older than she thinks she is, and needs to find a husband forthwith.  She does in the wanderer Abasio, who seems to be a commonsensical version of “Everyman” despite his talking horse, Big Blue.  Because of Abasio’s love for Xulai, we can see her as human, not as a freak.  And that helps a great deal.

The rest of this novel is for you to read, and I’d encourage you to do so.  It’s interesting, it’s thought-provoking, it’s entertaining, and it’s written in a deceptive way — almost like a fable rather than as a scientific tour-de-force, yet it’s both in its odd way.  That shouldn’t be a surprise, but somehow was.

In other words, this is a book that reads for a half like fantasy, but is ultimately science fiction.  It’s about many things — spirituality, sacrifice, what it means to be human, whether future humanity will have much, genetically, in common with present-day humanity — but the main ideas are clear, well-stated, and are compelling.

Don’t expect a quick read here, but do expect to have your assumptions challenged.  That’s what Ms. Tepper does best, and she delivered brilliantly here.

To sum up — I enjoyed this book a great deal, but it does take effort to read it and understand it and appreciate it.  But do not let that put you off, because if you give this book time, it will suck you right in and not let you out until you have fully understood what Ms. Tepper was going on about.

— Reviewed by Barb.

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Side Jobs — A Detour for Dresden Fans

Jim Butcher’s latest offering in his bestelling Dresden Files, titled Side Jobs, is more of a quick-fix for Dresden fans than anything actually original. Ninety percent of the short stories in there have been published elsewhere, leaving only the final story (“Aftermath”) something nobody has ever seen before. It’s not going to give you anything original, but it will leave you partially satisfied until next April’s release of the highly anticipated Ghost Story.

So where to begin? Butcher’s ability to tell a story from Harry’s point of view is excellent as always, and his quick wit cuts sharper than a sword. However, this is a collection of short stories, so you’re only left with a taste of the usual Dresden novel.

One of the things I did like was the reprinting of the short story (Backup) featuring Thomas Wraith, the older half-brother of Harry who also happens to be a White Court vampire. This change in direction from the normal Dresden story is interesting, for you finally get to see how other people look at Harry. One of the initial impressions you receive is that Harry may have enemies and friends, but everyone seems to respect him. And hey, a healthy dose of fear can instill respect, right?

But… it’s the final story of the book, Aftermath, that I’m going to focus on here. This story is from Karrin (Karin?) Murphy’s, Harry’s contact at the Chicago PD and quasi-romantic possibility, point of view hours after the events of Changes. No spoilers here, but suffice to say that Harry isn’t around to help Will the werewolf when his pregnant wife suddenly vanishes without a trace. Officer Murphy steps up and offers to track down Georgia to help Will. Naturally, the events at the end of Changes is weighing on everyone’s minds, but Murphy infiltrates a sort-of frog demon’s lair and rescues Georgia and her unborn child, and make their escape.

The short story (novelette?) is pretty straightforward, and while Murphy lacks Dresden’s wit and charm (not to mention his magic) she is a worthy stand-in for the departed hero. Nonetheless, purchasing a $26.00 book to get to one original short story is near highway robbery. A reader would be happier with a paperback version of Side Jobs, though a die hard fan of the Dresden Files will definitely want to see all the stories together for the first time.

-Reviewed by Jason

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