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For hundreds of years the Guardians have ruled the world of the Hundred, but these powerful gods no longer exert their will on the world. Only the reeves, who patrol on enormous eagles, still represent the Guardians' power. And the reeves are losing their authority; for there is a dark shadow across the land that not even the reeves can stop.

A group of fanatics has risen to devour villages, towns, and cities in their drive to annihilate all who oppose them. No one knows who leads them; they seem inhumanly cruel and powerful. Mai and Anji, riding with a company of dedicated warriors and a single reeve who may hold a key to stopping the deadly advance of the devouring horde, must try, or the world will be lost to the carnage. But a young woman sworn to the Goddess may prove more important than them all . . . if they are not too late.


Spoilers.

Jodie: Spirit Gate has a lot going on — a large cast of characters, several different settings, lots of world building, and multiple interconnected developments. It's been a while since I've read an epic fantasy that truly was so epic in scope. By the end of the novel I felt like I understood about 85% of what was going on, but I think I still missed some important connections between the different story lines. Did you find it easy to get to grips with this new fictional world?

Renay: I am pretty sure that the fact that I started with Kate Elliott's most recent books when I discovered her worked against me when I picked this book up, because the first 100 pages of this novel definitely felt like what I think of as dudebro epic fantasy — horrific lady death, dudes indiscriminately fucking ladies, etc. — and so I had to adjust my expectations a lot. There's also a lot of world building at the outset across two different cultures, and the shift was abrupt and a little difficult to follow. I think that's just me, though, who prefers her stories to follow one or two characters rather than multiple perspectives, and in that first 100 pages we get four. So it definitely took me some time to sink into the narrative. Was your problem similar?

Jodie: Yep, nearly identical. I started out expecting Marit to be the 'unusual reeve' mentioned in the book's blurb, and when she died — when I finally accepted she was dead and the book wasn't faking me out — I was left with Joss and his manpain. So, I had to readjust to the fact that this wasn't going to be a book about a chrome-ass lady having adventures with her huge, killer eagle, and that I was going to follow Joss around the world instead.

Joss is OK, but I never got that attached to him. I'm an extremely character driven reader and, although I was interested in the political schemes and puzzles Joss found himself enmeshed in, I missed feeling the kind of reading compulsion that comes on when I just can't wait to find out what would happens to a character. That's why I thought the multiple perspectives of the novel would work out well for me, because I'd be introduced to new characters I could latch on to. I did find those characters (Mai, Anji, Zubaidit), but the switches in perspective also often left me confused and overwhelmed.

As the end of the story approached, the book attempts to reveal exactly how all of its plots link up. Despite the fact that I'm pretty sure the book tells you how everything connects, I still found it hard to work out how some plot lines linked up and in some cases I had trouble even identifying how some of the plot lines resolved. I didn't feel like I was struggling because the text was deliberately holding details back so I couldn't guess particular developments; it was more that I didn't have an adequate handle on what was going on even when machinations were being discussed openly. I think part of that is down to how often I'd be whisked away to yet another perspective just as I was starting to build up a picture of how everything worked for one set of characters, and part of it was that the whole plot structure was just too complex for me. This book may have been too epic for me to handle.

Renay: I was better off because I really liked the political machinations and the way all the different characters eventually wrapped around each other's stories, and the mystery of the Hundred and its struggling reeves that carried me through the first few parts. I finally fell into the sway of the point's of view right before Keshad was introduced, and then I was sent reeling again because I found his sections really tough to handle. I'm not sure if it's because I expect point of view characters to be introduced sooner or if this is just my hilarious habit of being terrible at epic fantasy rearing its head yet again.

I joke with people that Elliott's world building is like world building cubed. It's intense and thorough, and because it's so intricate, the world becomes its own character that the reader has to pay really close attention to or otherwise get lost. I can see that being a huge problem for someone who is a character-based reader.

Jodie: Yeah, it wasn't a huge problem in her Spiritwalker books; I mean past those first 100 pages that everyone seems to have trouble with before they fall in love with Cat and Bee. For one thing, the world of those books hit a lot of my personal buzzers: Industrial Revolution, Regency, the Wild Hunt, Roman colonisation so puzzling everything about the world building out often felt like a fun game to me. I wasn't hooked as quickly by the world building in Spirit Gate (it starts in a quite traditional fantasy landscape), but it was more the plot links that caused me problems. I had a reasonable understanding of how the world worked by the end of Spirit Gate, but some of the plot tie ups, which were probably quite obvious, took me forever to get. I'm not very patient when I don't get plots :P

Before we move on, I'd like to talk a little bit more about Keshad. Keshad and his sister were two of the characters whose stories engaged me quickly. Keshad's trip to free his sister was compelling, partly because I expected something to destroy his dreams and partly because seeing such a driven character power through to their dreams is electric. I was so hooked once Zubaidit appeared, and I was so glad he freed her so I got to enjoy watching her ruthless, professional skills. However, I was also kind of thrown by how late his new POV was introduced, and Keshad is a disturbing character, especially once you know how he's going to earn the money to free his sister and how he relates to women in general. He reminded me a lot of Mai's uncle Shai, who is another a character I ended up having compartmentalised but largely negative feelings about. What was it about Keshad's sections that was tough for you?

Renay: Of course, it's circumstance, right? Keshad is trapped in an abusive system so he propagates that abuse on others while trying to escape. I was torn between disliking him and having a lot of sympathy for his situation. Once it was clear he was taking the two girls to be sold into slavery in order to free himself from debt slavery I was flung toward, "Oh god, this is AWFUL, how can he do this KNOWING?", but when it's revealed that he's rescuing his sister, too, I was flung back the other direction — what horrible choices he's faced with. Of course, then we're told that the price for his sister is someone we've met, and by this point we've already cast judgment on Shai for how he treated people he had power over, so that's a good parallel to draw. Shai backs off the path Keshad never falters from, and so I spent a lot of my time feeling so much empathy and yet so much horror over what he had done...but his situation was terrible! He was working in a system that was extremely abusive as the government of the Hundred broke down and the well off abused the system more and more, unchecked by the struggling reeves. It's tough liking a character for their determination, wanting them to succeed, when it means that their success comes at the expense of the lives of three women (which was really jarring! So many male POV characters versus female!). Maybe that's why I struggled so much with the opening of his story — and I suspect that's absolutely on purpose.

Jodie: You'll know better than me, having read a lot of Kate Elliott's work, but I feel like this might be a theme she returns to — men trapped in abusive situations who end up taking the same shape as their abusers, and the ways these men handle what they've done. If it is a recurring theme of her work then that's exciting because I feel like it's rare to see this kind of male character. I'm more used to seeing men of power abuse those around them and then have to work their way through the consequences, or slaves, servants and serfs who liberate people. Spirit Gate has two characters who buck both those trends and, like you say, they take very different paths. I think that's because Keshad is more successful at rationalising his behaviour than Shai. Shai is self-critical and aware of his weaknesses. In order to survive, Keshad had to be completely confident in himself, so he's made himself impenetrable. Keshad is also quick to erase his guilt by blaming the women around him; he criticises the slave girls for not reacting when they're sold. Shai tries to do this as well but isn't as firm in his beliefs, and he always had Mai around to call him out on his flaws.

How did you like Mai's story, and her relationship with Anji?

Renay: She fooled her whole family into thinking she was dumb and then smacks the shit out of Shai with it as soon as an opportunity arises. Mai is my hero.

I loved her, and the relationships she forms with the people around her. It took me a little longer than Mai to warm up to Anji, actually, and only finally connected with him in the moment on the trail to Old Fort, where his seeming perfection breaks down — he gets jealous, and he's sharp. Just like Mai, I was so terrified at this moment, because just like her, I was afraid he would hit her, or maybe worse. I will say that for the world building and the treatment of women within it — it gets easy really fast to expect some sort of abuse from men.

So although Mai trusted much faster than me, I can see why she did. To live a life so surrounded by bullies, what a breath of fresh air Anji must have been! He gave her choices and autonomy, sought to understand her, saw her quick mind, and didn't underestimate her. In fact, I bet if I reread the sections at the beginning, I'd find the whole marriage hilarious because I suspect Anji found the whole thing comical To be surrounded by people who couldn't see the worth of Mai must have an endless source of amusement as he rushed the marriage along. I'm imagining Anji and Tuvi finding the Mei clan boggling for their blindness.

I know with Spiritwalker trilogy, you had some issues with the main romance between Cat and Andevai — was that repeated here, or did this partnership work better for you?

Jodie: Once I got over some initial fears about Anji and Mai's relationship their romance worked much better for me than Cat and Andevai's. At first, I worried a lot about whether Anji had feelings for Mai, because he's often hard to read and can be quite severe. And I admit I was suckered by the book's hints about his first wife. I totally agree that it's easy to expect the men of this book to turn out to be abusers. I was particularly concerned when Mai realised that he would leave her behind if she couldn't keep up, and that moment when he tells her not to 'shame him' also set me up to worry. The way she answers him is perfectly matched to the situation though. Her pride and certainty reassure him better than any protestations of innocence would.

By the end of the book, I was convinced Anji had moved from just valuing Mai to loving her. That first day in the marketplace, he choses her because he sees how smart and brave she is; Anji believes she will be a great asset to him and their marriage is partly a practical measure. At the same time, it turns out that Anji doesn't need a wife. I thought we'd see much more of him using Mai to gain access to places men can't go, and that his early reasons for marrying her might be entirely borne out of practicality, but that's not the case at all. So, although her capability makes her suited to Anji's life there must have been an initial attraction that stirred him to marry her in the first place.

I think what I was actually vibing when I thought Anji had taken Mai purely for her skills was that in order to feel love and respect Anji requires his partner to be able to rise to each new challenge. I love the way he gives Mai the opportunity to develop skills and to come out of her protective shell, and that he's happy when she pushes boundaries or acts on her own.

I would like to see what happens if Mai can't meet a challenge though. Will Anji's love be able to encompass frailty as well as strength and ingenuity?

Renay: I'm really curious where the next book will take Mai and Anji, especially since at the end of the story it really feels like they've solidified a true partnership. Your question reminds me of all the times in the story when Mai would be handing someone their ass and how Anji seemed to keep getting worse and worse at hiding his amusement at her excellent negotiation tactics.

In fact, when thinking about Mai as part of the larger story and how she influences the narrative, compared with Zubaidit — every single dude we share a point of view with (and some of who we meet along the way) struggles with incompetence. From Joss, to Keshad, to Shai, and finally Horas, who we only know for a short time (and thank the stars for that), the woman we share POV with in this story really spend all their time correctly assessing and making judgment calls beyond the men's ability to keep up and make decisions with the changing politics of each situation. Anji was the most competent, but later in the story this is often because he's actively listening to Mai. I found this fascinating — did you see this at all or is it just me?

Jodie: I think you're definitely on to something there. Once Keshad is introduced we see two main male character who find it difficult to adjust to new situations. Both Keshad and Shai are competent figures when they're in familiar situations; Shai is a great craftsman and Keshad is the master of planning. However, once they're thrown into new environments they struggle to make sense of them. I find it understandable that they would, and I have a lot of sympathy for their troubles, but c'mon guys — the ladies are in the same boat and they are killing it. Once their situations have changed, the women seem to take to the new freedom they gain. The men seem to lose their feet.

I also think there's a correlation between the competence of male characters and their comfort levels with powerful women. Shai and Keshad are unable to accept the emerging reality of the women they're related to, and this reflects the men's inflexibility and inability to adapt to the new challenges they face. Horras lets his lust lead him into underestimating a woman and totally misreads every situation. Anji, while a thoroughly competent commander to start with, increases his effectiveness by being flexible enough to listen to Mai and to watch as she runs her own negotiations.

I'm not quite sure if Joss fits in to this pattern. I find him astute, and generally able to read and adapt to a situation (although being a reeve seems to keeps him isolated from the growing opposition to the reeves so he sometimes misses cues that he's unwelcome). And, while he's a complete alley cat he's perfectly happy with women in power, having been brought up in the mixed gender power structure of the reeves. He's certainly the policeman figure - the one puzzling out the whole structure of the mystery for the benefit of the reader and setting the pacing for the whole novel, but overall I find him a competent character even though there's always plenty he doesn't know and can't work out until later. Of course, he is easily distracted by women, so that does rather compromise him in a world where there's an organisation of female sex workers trained in spycraft and murder. Sorry, I do seem to keep bringing this discussion around to Zubaidit!

Renay: It's totally fine to keep bringing the conversation around to her! After Mai, I loved her the most, and was sad we didn't get to see more from her, but hopefully she'll be in the next book? Once I realized how integral to the plot she was, I went back and read the sections where she was in hindsight obviously a huge player and it was a revelation. I wasn't sure how I felt about the hierodules early on in the novel, but once we meet her I was definitely went, "Okay, yes, more from them, please, they are AWESOME." Although Zubaidit's introduction did solidify that the reason I found the narrative so odd was that the time skipping early on in the novel really narrowed down until we were going back and forward in time as the story played out, which complicated my understanding of the overall plot. Truly, I think a second read of this book would be just as interesting as the first.

But when considering Joss, I'm not sure how I feel about him and his ability to focus, because so many of his troubles were bad judgement based on letting his emotions control him, not listening to the people around him, and focusing too much on objects of desire. Although, this improves as the novel wears on, especially after the events at Horn. We see him growing out of it, whereas with Shai and Keshad we're watching them run into trying to conceptualize women they've imagined one way as what they actually are, which is women with the ability to think strategically and make their own decisions.

Speaking of women in this novel making their own decisions: I want to talk about Tumna, because I feel like she's a great jumping off point for talking about the EAGLES OF GREAT JUSTICE that police the Hundred during the novel with their reeves. The mythology of the world says that the eagles are incorruptible, but I didn't think we'd see such a graphic depiction of what that actually meant, and what it might mean for the future of the war, with this mystery army still a huge threat. But I honestly cheered when Tumna broke free of her bond to Horas in the most vicious way possible, even if that makes me extremely petty (I'm not sorry, Horas). I will gush for hours about the scope and depth of Elliott's world building, but the fact that we get to see, first hand, what the eagles might think of all this nonsense, is perfect.

Jodie: Let's just make EAGLES OF GREAT JUSTICE the unofficial title of our post.

I think Elliott might just be pushing against fantasy tropes with her eagles. For one thing, the eagles in Spirit Gate don't communicate telepathically or verbally with their riders — they sense their rider's emotions but don't share their riders thoughts or communicate with them in words. It seems to me that the field of fantasy critter relations is heavily influenced by Anne McCaffrey's telepathic dragons of Pern. While I enjoy telepathic critters and the riders who love them, it's cool to see a diverse range of imagination in fantasy literature. So, after I got over being a little bit sad that the eagles and riders aren't BFF psychic sharers, I found the specifics of the partnership between the eagles and the riders fascinating.

Rather than a fantasy soul bonding, the relationship between eagle and rider feels like a real life partnership between working animals and humans; eagles care about their riders and want to do a good job for them, but that care doesn't override the eagle's own wants, needs and sometimes less than convenient feelings. They feel like the big predators they are, and the reeves treat them with the same kind of practical respect and love I've seen horse riders and zoo keepers express.

The amount of autonomy Elliott allows the eagle's seems to be another way in which she's making her fantasy animals different. The violent ending of Horas' storyline clarifies just how free the eagles are. Eagles can dispatch their riders if they're not worthy. Eagles can also live on if their riders die, while I think we learn that humans don't survive well if their eagle dies. This might be old hat to more seasoned fantasy readers, but it all feels new to me as I've grown up with series like Dragonriders of Pern and Temeraire, which both stress the pain caused to a dragon if their rider dies. After witnessing dragon abuse in Temeraire I'm on board with an increased independence for giant fantasy creatures.

And no one mourns Horas. Not even a little bit.

Do you have any predictions for how the eagle's freedom to kill and incorruptibility will affect the war?

Renay: I'm curious about the eagles and their autonomy, and what it means that they've chosen a side when they've been cast as incorruptible. Does that mean they're on the right side? But the other side is still unclear to me that it's hard to say. They're a wonderful resource and given reeves a lot of power, but even with eagles of justice, you have to ask — whose justice? The eagles returning to the hall make me wonder even more about the Guardians, and what the slow takeover of the Hundred is meant to be about. Obviously some mystery is meant to be saved for future books, but we've already talked about how I found the plot hard to follow. The end of this book, with the return of so many eagles as well as the last scene that I read at least four times while going ???? — who is this war with? Do the eagles know? Have they cast their lot with humanity? So many questions.

For someone who doesn't epic fantasy much, I'm a little intimidated by the size and scope of the series, but I figure if I'm already here I might as well go see if the next book answers my questions, and also see if Zubaidit returns to foil evil plots and be resourceful. Do you plan to read the next book in the series?

Jodie: Well, now that you've pointed me towards the spoilerific blurb of Shadow Gate I absolutely will. I think I would have read on anyway because of Mai and Anji, and Zubaidit and Keshad, but wow those spoilers sealed the deal. Also, while Joss isn't my favourite he is adorable as part of a dudebro reeve team, and I want to see more of the Snake and Peddo. There are epic questions of fate and war to be decided, but I also hope we get to see more of Joss and Peddo hanging out, particularly Joss being Peddo's wingman when he's flirting with super hot guys. This series has proven quite hard to find in UK bookstores, but I've found one library that has the second book and one that has the third so I can actually finish it. I kind of want to start the Jaran series first though as you've been hinting all over about how great the first book is.

Renay: "hinting". You're so kind when what I've actually been doing is much more pushy and blatant. #FRIENDSHIP

Yeah...I may have already ordered the second book of this series and am considering the third just to have to available, because the description talks about an "ABRUPT FINAL CLIFFHANGER" so of course I'm picturing The Knife of Never Letting Go level torture, as I always do these days when someone mentions cliffhangers.

Thanks again for sending me this book and talking about it with me, and joining me on my ~takeover~ of Kate Elliott's backlist. — You should definitely read Jaran, though, because it is wonderful. It is even greater than EAGLES OF GREAT JUSTICE. :D

Other Reviews
Susan Hated Literature, yours?
From: (Anonymous)
This is a fantastic review, and the "Back and forth" conversation tone really works with a novel as rich as SPIRIT GATE in illuminating and teasing out things that I, as a solo reviewer, could not possibly do. Well done!
renay: Pink pony with brown hair and wings on a yellow background bucking hind legs in the air. (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
Thanks! :D

But don't sell yourself short! I do solo reviews all the time by having folks who have read the book ask me questions about it, and then I fold them into the narrative of my review, which lets me hit a lot of the small details I might otherwise miss. It's totally doable, even if it doesn't quite hit the back and forth style 100%.

Date: 2014-09-11 09:16 am (UTC)
dolorosa_12: (Default)
From: [personal profile] dolorosa_12
The Crossroads books are my favourite Kate Elliott works, and I'm always so happy to see others paying attention to them, as it often seems they're a bit neglected by reviewers. Mai is one of my favourite fictional characters ever. What I find so refreshing about her is her recognition that diplomacy, compromise, bargaining and giving people what they want (while getting something in return) - skills she's perfected in the market - are in many cases more important than military might and inspiring leadership in winning people over. Far too often in fantasy literature, mercantile behaviour and values are dismissed as being too yielding, involving too much compromise or duplicity to be worthy of narrative focus. I've always loved how with Mai, these things become heroic.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing what you think of the next book.

Date: 2014-09-11 06:03 pm (UTC)
renay: Pink pony with brown hair and wings on a yellow background bucking hind legs in the air. (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
facts: I thought Elliott was a new author when I first heard about the Spiritwalker books. Finding out she had a huge backlist was my eight birthdays in a row and so far I'm having tons of fun going through them. I can't decide whether to shove everything in my face at once and be completely caught up, or spread it out for years of delicious Elliott goodness (DILEMMA).

Mai is really great. I was worried, early on about how her story would end, but loved that once she was out from under the thumb of her family, building her own family and using the skills she had developed, she shined and thrived. I'm really excited to see where her story goes in the next book, which I have — I just need to read some other things first for other co-reviews.

You have a point about reviewing! It's not as useful, possibly, for reviewers to tackle back lists, since NEW NEW NEW is the operating procedure and it's easier to look relevant if you're focusing on current work? Although now I'm curious if publishers would be open to review copy of back lists for opening titles in a series. hmmmm

Date: 2014-09-11 06:51 pm (UTC)
dolorosa_12: by ginnystar on lj (robin marian)
From: [personal profile] dolorosa_12
I think I must've first encountered Elliott's books in the early 2000s, when I read the Crown of Stars series, so I read everything she wrote after that as it was published. So I was aware of her for close to a decade before the Spiritwalker books arrived on the scene, and it seems to me that they were the right books at the right time - everyone was talking about them, they got very positive reviews, and, best of all, they seem to have made everyone go back and read her backlist.

You're probably right about reviewers needing to focus on the new. I used to be a newspaper book-reviewer, and the main paper that I wrote for had a column every Sunday devoted to more reflective, personal reviews that talked about books that meant a great deal to the reviewer (books from childhood, books they encountered at a particular turning-point in their lives and so on), and I was able to talk about a lot of older books that way (the requirement was that they still be in print, or be available in that city's public libraries). It seems common for review sites to do rereads of well-known or influential novels or series, and of course there are sites like Mark Reads, which are like giant online book clubs and have the scope to look at backlists. I'm not sure how that sort of focus would translate to reviewing sites with a very different format or structure, though.

Date: 2014-09-11 07:34 pm (UTC)
renay: Pink pony with brown hair and wings on a yellow background bucking hind legs in the air. (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
It really was the perfect timing for those books, but the most important thing for me is that I heard about them from multiple, diverse sources, i.e. although I am pretty sure The Book Smugglers pinged me about them, it was my Dreamwidth reading list mentioning them multiple times, then tumblr folks churning about them that made me go "oh!" THANK YOU FANDOM. ♥ Sometimes I wish the book blogging community could agree to reviewing a book from the backlist of their favorite authors once every quarter so I could find totally new to me authors to make up for my terrible learning in SF before 2000.

I don't know what you mean, my TBR isn't out of control or anything. This wouldn't be a horrible idea at all! >.>

It may have changed since I was a YA book blogger, but back then you were maybe considered more cost effective, especially if you didn't have a huge following, if you covered mostly new releases. Your newspaper experience sounds so nice! This is the type of book discussion I love the best, where people really have a chance to dig into what something meant to them, but it's often harder to find these days when so much of the discussion of books seems focused on the Hot New Thing, and those Hot New Things are so Numerously Hot that really digging in is hard to do, because the conversation will feel like its moved on while you're still blowing on the thing to cool it off. And I LIKE Hot New Things, but I ALSO really like nostalgia. It's a hard balance, and this metaphor is...it's gone too far.

The problem with rereads for me is that most things are never rereads for me personally because I didn't have access to most genre fiction, even if the works are considered influential. So it ends up feeling like a club that I'm not a part of. Ahhh, feeling left out. /o\

Date: 2014-09-13 11:50 am (UTC)
dolorosa_12: (matilda)
From: [personal profile] dolorosa_12
Oh, I'm very sorry that my talk of rereads made you feel left out. My own route to sf/f was very different to that of people who read the (old, white, male-authored, approved) 'classics' - and bears a lot of similarity to that of [twitter.com profile] fozmeadows, as we are both Australian women of a similar age - and I sometimes feel lost in a sea of references to literature I did not grow up reading.

Sometimes I wish the book blogging community could agree to reviewing a book from the backlist of their favorite authors once every quarter so I could find totally new to me authors to make up for my terrible learning in SF before 2000.

I've often thought of running some kind of series on 'under-appreciated books' that would focus on books from off the beaten track, but the time never seemed to be right. My intention was always to have guest writers from a range of different ages and backgrounds, but it seemed too difficult to organise while I was working on my PhD (which I was doing until June) and so I never really did much to get the series off the ground. Oh well.

Date: 2014-10-07 06:11 am (UTC)
renay: Pink pony with brown hair and wings on a yellow background bucking hind legs in the air. (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
*continues to be terrible at comments*

You didn't make me feel bad at all, ha ha, I was more talking about how there seems to be a trend of "reread X series" and "rewatch X show!" and then people writing essays about their experience going around and me sulking in the corner because SO MUCH is new to me even if it was published in the 80s so I'll have to wait 20 years and then finally get to have the TRUE reread experience with Harry Potter or one of the big popular SF series right now, like the Expanse. I guess it's only 20 years...I can wait...

I've been thinking for awhile of starting a column here where I talk about different subjects and get a bunch of different people to submit mini-essays for it. That could totally be a topic: what books from your favorite author's backlist do you wish everyone would read? Hmm. *plots*

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