SPFBO 9: The Second Culling & Semi-finalist update (by Esmay)

 


The time for another culling has come! And wow, was it a fun but difficult process for me!


When I got my batch of 6 books, I only glanced at the synopses (which got me very excited) and then immediately decided to just go in as blind as possible from there. I naturally tend to gravitate towards the darker and more character-driven fantasy (and bonus points if there’s emotional destruction!), but I am honestly willing to try out anything because of my extremely eclectic reading tastes.


I thought it would be perfect that I can enjoy such a wide variety of fantasy stories, but then I started reading these books and I realised that maybe that wasn’t such a good thing after all. I mean, how was I ever supposed to choose only one favourite when all of them are honestly so good?

Now, at first I really wanted to try to keep these reviews as concise as possible, but I quickly realised that I am incapable of keeping my excitement in check, so you will get my usual loooong reviews here. This competition is designed to shine a light on indie books after all, so why not give all these brilliant books the love that they deserve? 


Okay, enough with the stalling, time to dive into this incredibly exciting batch of books. I hope you have grabbed a snack by now, because we are gonna be here for a while. Enjoy!

Let’s just go through this batch in the order I read them, starting with


Where Madness Lies by Heidi K. Allen
Published June 1, 2023; 463 pages (Kindle Edition)
Cover design by MiblArt

Genre: Epic Fantasy, Mythology reimagining



I decided to start with this one because it was the only one that I was a bit nervous about, for personal (mental health related) reasons. But then I started reading and I quickly realised I never should have worried. Where Madness Lies turned out to be one of the most addictive books I have come across in a while. This contemporary fantasy/mythological thriller is filled to the brim with Greek mythology, mystery, suspense, action, found family, healing, and even a delicious hint of slow-burn romance. Honestly, what’s not to love?!

When we first meet our wonderful protagonist Alex, she isn’t particularly thriving, to say the least. After suffering through another one of her inexplicable visions, she is once again hospitalised and now shuns any and all human interaction.


However, a fellow patient manages to befriend her anyway and she has information about her visions that turns Alex’s world completely upside down. Enter an enticing murder mystery, a pantheon of immortal ex-Greek gods, dangerous Venetian assassins and a whole lot of jaw-dropping twists and revelations.

Now, the first few chapters had me a bit nervous as hospital/institution settings aren’t my favourite, but once we got to the big family reunion and the plot started kicking in, I was completely hooked. Alex does react almost unbelievably casually to being exposed to all kinds of supernatural craziness, but I could personally look past that and was just along for the wild ride.

Alex and Artemis are exactly the type of strong and resilient female characters that I love to read about and I really enjoyed seeing their tentative friendship bloom into an almost sisterly bond throughout the book. They find each other while they are both at rock bottom and I thought it was so beautiful to see them support each other through their own messy healing journeys.


I do have to admit that I wasn’t too impressed with the anorexia (recovery) representation, but more so because it was rather surface level/stereotypical and not because there was anything super harmful or triggering. Still, if you are not in the right headspace, I recommend going in with caution or choosing something else to read instead. The other mental health rep was very well done and handled with a lot of care, so that was definitely nice to see.

Aside from that little personal quibble, there was really not much that I didn’t enjoy about this book. First of all, the chaotic family of petty immortal Greek ex-gods… they absolutely stole the show! If you are even slightly familiar with Greek mythology, you will know just how messy the family dynamics between the Greek gods are. And the way that the author captured that messiness and worked it into her own story was just so masterfully done. The interactions between all the siblings were so realistic and well-written, and their banter managed to get some good chuckles out of me. Normally I am not a big fan of such modern prose, but it perfectly fits this type of story.

These characters could so easily have felt like stereotypes, but the author somehow managed to make them feel completely unique and distinct while still staying true to their ancient origins. There are also some surprisingly poignant discussions on the meaning of life when you have lived for millenia, which added a layer of depth to the story I wasn’t expecting.

What’s even better, all this amazing character work didn’t come at the cost of a captivating and exciting plot. The murder mystery that drives this narrative forward had me glued to the page and I loved how Alex’ visions were used to find answers. This whole plot was quite clever and I was surprised multiple times by all the crazy twists and turns along the way. The short and snappy chapters also really add to the already incredibly high levels of tension and give this book that ultimate ‘just one more chapter’ vibe that I love.

I am honestly just so impressed with how the author managed to write such an engaging and fast-paced story, while still taking the time to establish the characters and allowing the reader to really connect with them.
I totally hadn’t realised how emotionally invested I had become until we came to the final showdown and I was suddenly hit right in the feels. This ending has a beautifully bittersweet touch to it, and that’s exactly how I like it!

Safe to say, this was one hell of a wild ride from start to finish. I am not saying this book didn’t have its flaws, but I just had such a great reading experience that I could very easily forgive those minor nitpicks.
This book has a satisfying story arc and could even be read as a standalone, but I promise you will want to come back for more. So, if you think you are tired of seeing reimaginings of Greek gods in a modern setting, then you better try out Where Madness Lies. I had an absolute blast!


After that contemporary fantasy, I was ready for some good ol’ high fantasy vibes, so I decided to check out The Vow That Twisted Fate by Katherine D. Graham


The Vow That Twisted Fate by Katherine D. Graham

Published July 9, 2021; 350 pages (Kindle Edition)
Cover design by Jesh Art Studio

Genre: Sword & Sorcery


And while I did get all the high fantasy goodness that I was craving, I also got A LOT more that I totally wasn’t expecting. The Vow That Twisted Fate is an imaginative and intriguing mix of epic fantasy, portal fantasy and sci-fantasy, with court intrigue, alternate dimensions, time travel, dystopian elements and a dash of romance mixed in. And I realise that might sound like a lot, but trust me when I say that Katherine D. Graham somehow makes it work!


This is the story of the young queen Arlena, who rules over a world where evil hasn’t existed for 500 years. However, that peace is threatened to be disturbed when an ominous pentagram suddenly appears in the sky and Arlena starts to be haunted by White Queen Valera’s ghost. It’s up to Arlena to save her world from spiralling into eternal darkness, all while trying to make sure she doesn’t lose herself in the process.


Now, you might get a simple good vs. evil vibe from this premise, but I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the author has given a very unique spin on that familiar trope here. It’s hard to go into details without spoilers, so all I will say is that I was very impressed and happy with how complex and nuanced this story turned out to be.

Graham cleverly plays around with concepts of time, identity and alternate dimensions, which gave this story that page-turning suspense and intrigue that I always love. And don’t even get me started on this villain, she was so complex and might even have been my favourite character in the entire book!


However, I do personally feel like this story was maybe a bit too big and ambitious for the amount of pages that this book is. The set-up and premise of this story are so amazing, but the overall execution left me a bit wanting in the end.

The first 30% of this book is quite action-packed, yet at the same time there is also very little character development and plot progression. Which is why when things did eventually kick into gear, all the crazy twists and reveals didn’t land for me because of the lack of investment at that point. The big showdown also doesn’t happen until the very final chapter, which made it feel rather rushed and almost anti-climactic to me. 

I think it all comes down to the fact that I just wanted a bit more of everything; more time to get invested in the characters, more development of the side characters, more time to explore this fascinating world/universe, and maybe even more perspectives (especially from the villain’s side) to just experience and admire this world and story in all its glory.


All that said, I do think there is a lot to love about this book and I honestly still had a fun time reading this one. First person present tense isn’t usually my jam, but Graham made it work so well here. The writing is immersive yet approachable, which gave this story that bingeable quality that kept me hooked the entire way through.

Themes of family, friendship, loyalty and sacrifice are also beautifully explored here, which made this story a lot more layered and impactful than I was anticipating.

And even though I usually couldn’t care less about romance subplots in my fantasy, I think this relationship was executed magnificently. I believed in their bond and loved all of their passionate and heartfelt interactions, so get ready for some swooning!


So, while I did have some nitpicks with this book, there’s simply no denying that Graham has masterfully crafted a unique and exciting fantasy story. Dwarves, elves, djinn, centaurs and all other sorts of familiar fantasy creatures are incorporated into the story in fresh ways and familiar tropes are cleverly turned on their heads, which makes this a perfect book for both fantasy veterans and complete newbies to the genre. 

If you like the sound of a fast-paced epic fantasy that plays around with concepts of good vs. evil, time travel, and alternate dimensions, then you can’t go wrong with The Vow That Twisted Fate! 





After that whirlwind of an adventure, I was looking forward to something a bit more character-driven again, which is why I chose to try out
Beautiful Undone by Melissa Polk

Published January 19, 2023; 367 pages (Kindle Edition)
Cover design by Fay Lane

Genre: Retelling, LGBTQ

This a character-driven fantasy romance that’s pitched as a queer retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Though, in the acknowledgements of this book the author admits that it somehow became “more like a reimagining gone awry”, and I honestly love it all the more for that.


This story follows childhood friends and estranged lovers Victor and Quade, who haven’t seen or spoken to each other in nearly 10 years. But when Quade suddenly gets an unexpected letter from his long lost love, he doesn’t hesitate a single moment to pack his stuff and travel to Victor’s estate. Upon arriving, though, it immediately becomes clear that something nefarious is going on and it doesn’t take long for total chaos to ensue.

What follows is a tale full of eerie gothic vibes, devastating curses, alternate worlds, nefarious doppelgangers, and, of course, a whole lot of steamy queer love. Oh, and we can’t forget about the unruly comedic relief cat, what an icon!


Now, the fact that this is not a high fantasy with a grand scope doesn’t mean that the stakes are any less high than in those sweeping epics, they are just a lot more personal.

This book absolutely shines in its character work and I really liked that the author made this a multi-POV story that includes the perspective of the ‘villain’, because that made the whole conflict so much more nuanced and complex.

These characters are very passionate and often let their emotions drive their actions, which sky-rocketed the levels of tension and made everyone feel so relatable and human.


Now, because the characters and their complicated interpersonal relationships are the main focus of the story, the plot can feel a bit aimless at times. However, I personally didn’t mind the slower pacing too much, because I happen to like just spending time with characters sitting in their feelings. Also, Quade and Victor’s inner turmoil is just top-notch and I was very gripped by their complicated yet wholesome dynamic. I’ll admit that I could’ve done with a bit more slow-burn pining and a lot less smut, but that’s just a personal preference of mine. I could still acknowledge that the sexy times were well-written, so if you like steamy (queer) romances, you are in for a real treat here!


And luckily for me, the author did a great job of balancing the romance out with the fantasy elements, so there were still tons of other things to enjoy for me here. 

The world building isn’t rock-solid or anything, but I was actually pleasantly surprised by how well the author pulled off all the crazy twists and turns here. The slow unravelling of the whole mystery behind all the uncanny things that were going on at Victor’s estate was riveting and I particularly loved the exploration of the parallel world.

The magic does remain elusive and largely unexplained though, but I personally appreciated that and thought it really fit with the overall ethereal and fever dream-like vibe of the story.


Speaking of fever dream vibes, the prose here is incredibly stunning and just utterly mesmerising. In my opinion, Polk masterfully emulates Poe’s trademark atmospheric and haunting storytelling, but without ever feeling like a copy-cat. And that evocative and lush writing style also really made the emotional and sensual scenes hit all the harder, which I personally really loved.


Safe to say, this book was just one wild and titillating emotional rollercoaster from start to finish. The ending was very satisfying yet also beautifully bittersweet, which we have already established is exactly how I like it.

Beautiful Undone contains everything you’d expect from a Poe retelling, except it’s a bit quirkier and a whole lot more queer!

If you are looking for a queer gothic fantasy romance with messy characters, soul-stirring prose, insane levels of tension, and lots of steam, then this is the book for you.




I figured I would just get the other more romance-leaning fantasy out of the way while I was in the right mood, so next I picked up
The Heart of Jesparia by Alex Hanson

Published November 15, 2022; 515 pages (Kindle Edition)
Cover design by Damonza.com

Genre: Steampunk, romance

The Heart of Jesparia is a fantasy romance mixed with political thriller mixed with swashbuckling adventure, and it somehow works brilliantly together!


It’s been 8 years since Amii became sovereign after ending the civil war that had divided her country for so long. All that time, her Master Shield Aro has been at her side to protect and guide her, which has unsurprisingly resulted in some feelings to bloom between the two. However, just when they finally accept and embrace their deep love for each other, Aro is left disabled after being struck by the plague that is terrorising the city. And now, Amii must rely on her own wits and strengths to protect her country from her estranged yet power hungry family members who are scheming to overthrow her rule.


Now, this is technically the second book in the Men of the Mark series, but much like in standard romance series, each instalment follows different characters and can be read on its own. The author subtly introduces all the characters and gently eases you into the world, so you won’t have a hard time finding your footing if you haven’t read book 1 first.

However, I would still not recommend reading these books out of order, because I think certain emotional beats just won’t land if you haven’t built up that emotional investment by reading book 1.


Luckily for me, I had already read The Lady of the Mark first beforehand, so I absolutely loved being back in the city of Trista and reuniting with all the characters I’d come to adore in book 1!

One of my favourite aspects of this story was seeing just how much Amii has grown over the past 8 years that divide book 1 and 2. I already loved young Amii as a side character in book 1, but seeing her come fully into her own here in this instalment was just beautiful.

She is a strong, sensible and passionate young woman who will stop at nothing to protect the people she holds dear. And it also quickly becomes clear that she actually doesn’t need no man to protect her, as she is perfectly capable of standing on her own two feet.


Though, the fact that she proves that she can fend for herself doesn’t mean that she is left alone here. The found family vibes are off the charts in this book/series and I really like all the wholesome character dynamics here.

I am also quite a big sucker for a good queen/bodyguard romance and this one delivered! I maybe would’ve liked to see a bit more of that back-and-forth pining that I usually love so much about this trope, but aside from that I really loved Amii and Aro’s heartfelt relationship.


Speaking of Aro, his personal journey is quite harrowing in this book and I really appreciated seeing him persevere through some of the hardest moments of his life. On top of living with a heart defect, he also loses his hearing and suffers irreparable mental and physical damage over the course of this story. However, he is the only one who ever sees himself broken in this book. No one else ever treats him any differently or views him as a burden, which was so wholesome to see.

I can’t personally speak to the deaf representation, but to me it felt really authentic and I really liked seeing how everyone helped him recognize that his scars don’t define him.


If it wasn’t already clear, this is quite a character-driven story. I personally happen to like those types of stories a lot, but it does mean that you don’t have to come looking here for a really complex plot or some super intricate world building.

Aside from the fact that this is set in a secondary fantasy world, there really aren’t any fantasy elements to speak of. Though, there are two engineer characters here who make all kinds of fun inventions (including a hearing device!), which almost feel like magic to the characters.

On the one hand, I would’ve loved to explore this alluring steampunk-ish world more, but on the other hand I also really like the intimate setting in the city of Trista. The author does a brilliant job of creating atmosphere and that made this such an immersive reading experience. There were some lulls in the pacing for me, especially in the middle third of the book where characters get separated, but luckily the tense political conflict with all the scheming, backstabbing and shifting alliances managed to keep me engaged.

Right from the prologue, you will realise that this is a story with serious high stakes where no one can be trusted and no one is ever truly safe, and I absolutely loved that!


Overall, I really enjoyed this story and I can’t wait to come back to this world and these delightful characters in the future. I have found many new favourites among this cast, so I am super curious to see which couple the next instalment is going to focus on.

I highly recommend The Heart of Jesparia for anyone who likes character-driven fantasy romance with great atmosphere, tense political intrigue, wholesome found family vibes, lots of emotional gut punches, and, of course, a passionate queen/bodyguard romance with some good steamy scenes!



The Ruptured Sky by Jessica A. McMinn

Published April 4, 2023; 359 pages (Kindle Edition)
Cover design by Get Covers

Genre: Sword & Sorcery


With those four incredibly diverse and unique stories out of the way, I couldn’t resist going back to my roots and choosing the most grimdark one next, because I was ready for some emotional turmoil at that point. And The Ruptured Sky by Jessica A. McMinn delivered!

I wasn’t intending to binge this book in 2 days, but here we are. This story just gripped me from page one with its diverse and morally grey characters, intriguing world building, and thrilling action scenes. Honestly, The Ruptured Sky is everything you could ever want from a dark and gritty multi-POV epic fantasy.

Amikharlia is a runaway princess turned demon hunter who has been hiding her mysterious magical powers for years. All she wants in life is control over her own fate, hence why she didn’t hesitate a second to flee her homeland on the eve of her wedding. But then, she somehow finds herself at the centre of a madman’s prophecy about the revival of a dead goddess and the looming threat of the ruptured sky above them. It’s up to Amika to decide if she’s willing to give up her fight against destiny’s chains in order to save all of civilization, even if that means potentially destroying the entire world in the process.


First of all, don’t be fooled by the younger characters and tone in the prologue! The first chapter jumps forward a significant number of years and it won’t take you long to realise that this is most definitely not a YA fantasy. It does have the addictive pacing and emotionally engaging character work that I personally often associate with YA/New Adult fantasy, but aside from that this is very mature and dark in its content and themes. The world is harsh, the characters are morally ambiguous, and there are some actions/events that will make you go: “DID SHE REALLY GO THERE?!”, which is always fun if you ask me 😉


Now, while Amika was absolutely the kick-ass female lead of my dreams, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that she was only one of the four utterly compelling POV characters that we follow in this story. Every single one of these characters is wonderfully realised, super complex, and dripping with personality, which made them just jump off the page. Most of them are probably a bit too witty, cynical and sharp-tongued for their own good, but that’s exactly why I loved them so much. Also, some of them might need to buy a new moral compass soon because theirs certainly aren’t function properly anymore. But despite all their flaws, I found myself rooting for them and excusing their questionable actions, even when I knew I probably shouldn’t have.


The way that all of their storylines interweave was also very impressive to me and I really loved seeing all kinds of complex interpersonal relationships develop and bloom along the way. Speaking of relationships, this is a queer-normative world and we get to see some realistically messy yet authentic representations of queer love, which I will always be on-board for!

Every single interaction between these characters just worked, and there were multiple scenes that hit me right in the feels because I had become so invested in these messy characters. Like, can someone just give Kio a hug, please?


Another thing that I loved about this story was the incredibly intriguing and immersive world building. This is a fantasy world of truly epic proportions, yet the story never felt overwhelming to me because it felt so grounded by the charismatic characters. It’s true that there are a fair number of unfamiliar in-world terms that could throw you off at first, but I personally think it only added to the immersion and for me they didn’t interrupt the flow of the story. This world very organically opens up as the story unfolds, and I really loved exploring these lands, the tense political landscape and the magic system through the eyes of our diverse cast of characters. If anything, I would’ve wanted to see even more ofThe author also very cleverly played around with in-world history and completely shattered characters’ worldviews to create some truly shocking twists and revelations, some of which had my jaw on the floor.


With this book, McMinn proves that a talented author doesn’t need a 500+ page chunker to tell an utterly compelling and immersive epic fantasy story. It’s not the most groundbreaking epic fantasy out there, but it does exactly what it promises, and absolutely brilliantly at that. There were maybe one or two plot beats that felt a tiny bit rushed or predictable, but I was having such an amazing reading experience that I could very easily forgive that. From page one, there is just this looming sense of dread that permeates every aspect of the story and I couldn’t look away. The pacing is top-notch and not a single word is wasted, which made this such an insanely propulsive and bingeable read. And by the end, I was left hungering for more in the best way possible!


Luckily, this is only the start of this epic fantasy quartet, so I am beyond excited to see where this series goes next. If the insane quality of this debut novel is anything to go by, then I have a feeling McMinn is going to be an author to watch!

If you’re looking for a character-driven dark epic fantasy with a diverse cast of morally grey yet loveable characters, rich world building, an inventive take on prophecy, and page-turning action and suspense, then The Ruptured Sky is the book for you.




And that leaves us with only one book to discuss, which is
Death’s Disciple by Emma L. Adams

Published May 30, 2023; 447 pages (Kindle Edition)
Cover design by Deranged Doctor Designs

Genre: Dark Fantasy


Now, I don’t know about you, but when you throw elemental magic, death magic, war drakes, and a cast of unbelievably amusing and endearing characters together, I am SOLD.


Death’s Disciple turned out to be the fast-paced and character-driven dark fantasy that I didn’t know I needed.


Seven years ago, captain Yala Palanthar’s squad of elite dragon-riders was unceremoniously disbanded after a supposedly easy mission went horribly wrong. Now, she is a disgraced, disabled and cranky woman hiding away in the farthest depths of the jungle, where she can live in blissful ignorance of everything that’s going on in the world. That is, until a string of unwanted visitors, including a war drake, come destroying her peace to bring her the news that she and her former squad mates are in mortal peril. And before she knows it, she finds herself at the centre of an intricate web of deadly politics and it turns out that the God of Death is out to get her.


From the very first page, I just absolutely fell in love with Yala and wanted to know all about her mysterious past that is coming back to haunt her. She is angry with the world and frustrated with her uncooperative ageing body, so naturally she reverts to sarcasm and dark humour to cope. In short, she is everything you could ever wish for in a protagonist.

There are, however, also two other POV characters who I surprisingly enjoyed just as much as Yala herself. Kelan is a sharp-tongued and overly self-assured disciple of the Sky and Niema is a disciple of Life who is way too naive and idealistic for her own good, but in an utterly endearing way.


It takes maybe 2 chapters for all of their paths to cross, and from there it is just one hell of a wild ride. These characters bicker like siblings at times and their snarky banter was truly top-notch, so I was highly entertained the entire way through this book. While they are ultimately all working towards the same goal, they also each have their own personal journey to undergo and there is some truly beautiful character growth that we get to witness.

There’s almost this sort of reluctant found family dynamic that develops over the course of the story, which I was honestly just SO here for.

I also really liked that each of these POV characters gave such a unique perspective on this world, because their life experiences and worldviews differ so widely. We organically get to learn about some of the different branches of this elemental-based magic system through the eyes of the two disciple characters, which I found super intriguing.

I always like it when fantasy stories blend religion and magic together, and that is definitely the case here. A disciple’s level of devotion to their God directly impacts the strength of their powers, which not only made this a very fun and unpredictable magic system, but also allowed for some surprisingly compelling explorations on cultish fanaticism.

Also, can’t forget about the death magic. I wasn’t expecting a sort of zombie-like scenario in this book, but I have to say it really worked. Some scenes were disturbingly gory, but the escalation of this conflict was just a trainwreck I couldn’t look away from.


Normally these types of fast-paced and action-packed stories leave me a bit wanting in certain areas of the storytelling, but I am happy to say that the opposite couldn’t be more true here. Everything felt super well-developed, from the rich world building, to the intriguing magic system, to the intricate web of politics, and of course to the wonderful cast of endearing characters. There’s also this slightly unsettling yet gripping element of mystery woven throughout the narrative that will undoubtedly keep you on the edge of your seat.

The final showdown happened maybe a little too quickly for my liking, but overall it was just so bombastic and thrilling that I didn’t even care.


So, that leaves me with only one real complaint: Where was my pretty fantasy map?!

Okay fine, maybe I am being a bit petty, but I think we can all agree that a story with this much travelling really deserves a map! Luckily, I never felt lost because Adams does a wonderful job of setting the scene and describing the world, so even without the map I felt totally immersed in this dark yet intriguing fantasy world and I loved every single second of exploring it.


All in all, I just had an absolutely fantastic time with this story and I can’t wait to return to this world in the future. This instalment wraps up in a satisfying way, but these characters have secured a place in my heart and I desperately need to know where their stories go next!

If you are looking for a character-driven dark fantasy that will keep you turning the pages, then you have to check out Death’s Disciple. I loved it!


And so, we’ve come to the end of this (admittedly way too long) batch of reviews. A lot of fun was had, a lot of difficult decisions were made, but now I am finally ready to tell you which of these six books got my seal of approval to go on in the competition.


I think my batch is the perfect proof that the indie scene has so much exciting, outstanding, unique and diverse stories to offer. There is honestly something out there for any type of reader, and everyone is welcome. So first, a big thanks to all six of these authors for sharing their wonderful stories with the world, you all deserve nothing but the best! I honestly enjoyed them all and I genuinely think even the ones that didn’t make the cut are 100% worth the read.


Though, to my surprise, it turned out that I had unintentionally saved the best for last, as both The Ruptured Sky and Death’s Disciple just completely won over my heart.

But, only one can get the honour of being the second semi-finalist of team Fantasy Book Critic… Right?


Or maybe…


Wrong?


I may have rebelled (sorry team) and pushed both of these incredible titles forward in the competition. So, double the party, because I am happy to announce that The Ruptured Sky and Death’s Disciple are now both officially SPFBO9 semi-finalists.

Congrats to Jessica A. McMinn and Emma L. Adams on surviving the brutal bloodbath and entering the next stage of the competition, I can’t wait to see where this adventure takes you.

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