Feb 26 2010 10:16am

“In my own time and season”: Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Shattered Chain and Thendara House

The Shattered Chain was published in 1976 and Thendara House in 1983, and you can buy them now in one volume as Saga of the Renunciates along with City of Sorcery (1984), which I’d like to like but actually can’t stand.

These two books are the story of two women, Jaelle n’ha Melora, Free Amazon, and Magda Lorne, a Terran intelligence officer. The Shattered Chain is an adventure story about them, and Thendara House is an encounter group novel about them. They’re both feminist novels about women taking control of their own lives in a medieval culture. The first time I read them, I read Thendara House first, and since it thoroughly spoils all the events of The Shattered Chain, it seems as if I never read that book for the first time, I always saw it through the lens of the later vision. Bradley clearly did a lot of rethinking of her concept of Free Amazons between the books, but nothing contradicts anything earlier or feels wrong, so it’s perfectly possible to read all the revealed complexities of the Renunciates of Thendara House back into the sketch of them in The Shattered Chain.

I think these are both feminist SF novels, but in very different ways. The Shattered Chain is sword-and-sorcery, women breaking free of conventional expectations and having adventures—and in 1976 there wasn’t much of that. The whole concept of Renunciates, Free Amazons, women who took oath to live without the protection of men, was innovative. This would be an interesting document even if it wasn’t a good story and fun to read—which it is. It’s immediately absorbing—and it’s immediately into culture clash. The world of the Comyn is opposed to the world of the Free Amazons even before we encounter the Terrans. Then Magda Lorne, Margali n’ha Ysabet, is caught between cultures, not knowing where her real self lies. This is a good place to start to explore the complex layered world of Darkover.

Thendara House follows the two main characters, in alternating chapters, after the adventure is over and when they go into each other’s worlds. Magda goes into the Renunciate Guildhouse to learn how to be a Free Amazon, and Jaelle goes into the Terran headquarters to work and try marriage. This is a feminist novel arising much more directly out of seventies second wave feminism—the encounter groups, the questioning, the examination of sexuality and assumptions. Yet it doesn’t feel preachy or as if it’s trying to sell a line, unlike some of Bradley’s other work. None of it feels anachronistic in the setting. The book is great on the small details of living out of your culture—Jaelle hating the synthetic food, and Magda craving for coffee. The Terrans, who are supposed to be much more egalitarian than the Darkovans, come over to a modern reader as incredibly sexist and rigid, insisting on calling Jaelle "Mrs Haldane" and assuming she’ll buy the household supplies.

The Shattered Chain is one of the best books of the series, and it’s where I often tell people to start. But it’s all fast-moving adventure and romance, bandits, banshees, oaths, lives at stake. Thendara House is about dealing with the psychological consequences. I like books about what happens after the adventure, and that’s how I like this. The end of Thendara House tacks on an adventure plot for no reason, and it’s a pity. It’s a novel of psychological growth and culture clash, it doesn’t need a chase through the wilderness, and the actual end tangles it up with The Forbidden Tower.

Bradley gives us three points of view to identify with in these books, and I like all of them. Rohanna Ardais, who has given up working with magical laran power in a tower to marry and have children, and who is risking her husband’s disapproval by rescuing her cousin Melora from slavery in the Dry Towns, is easy to like and easy to sympathise with. Magda, Margali, is my favourite character in the whole series. She’s caught between cultures and worlds, nothing is ever easy for her, she’s always pulled several ways at once by conflicting duties. Jaelle is less sympathetic because she’s a spoiled brat—but she’s very well done as one.

Spoilers and trivia follow, and for other books too:

In these books which are family saga, where I know so much about Jaelle’s and Rohana’s children and grandchildren, I find myself wondering what happened to Peter Haldane, beyond surviving, after the end of the book. Does anyone know?

I don’t know why I never noticed before, but the trip Jaelle’s outfitting Monty for at the end, to Alderan, must be where he meets and falls in love with Lew’s grandmother! Well, he’s all ready for it.

I find City of Sorcery, which I did not re-read, completely implausible and suspension of disbelief threatening for the whole series. The little bits of set up for it in Thendara House (the Sisterhood, the voice Margali hears) are best left as mysteries as far as I’m concerned. I find it hard to reconcile with everything else. Please don’t tell me I’d like it if I read it again, as I’m trying to forget about it.

With all the catalyst telepathy going on here, there’s almost no mention of matrix technology.

Bradley talks about how awful the genetic breeding program was, and what a terrible legacy it has left, but—and I suppose it’s inevitable when you’re writing a family saga—she’s quite caught up on genetics and inherited laran herself. Having decided that Jaelle and Damon are Cleindori’s parents, she can’t help prefiguring her, mentioning her directly twice, and having them end up as part of the same polyfamily. She doesn’t go out of her way to let us know that Rohana is Dyan’s grandmother and Lew’s great-grandmother. Probably just as well. But why do I know anyway? Why do I care?

I can’t quite think of anything else where I know so much about so many generations of people on another planet. Bujold comes closest, but we only really have two generations, we never get the point of view of the others. I can’t recall anything else where I have the sensation of recognising minor characters as the grandfather and great-grandfather of a major character in another book. Should this be appealing? I don’t know.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Fragano Ledgister
1. Fledgist
In trying to follow the whole Darkover saga, it's quite easy, I've found, to get lost among the family connections. Not to mention who's speaking which language, or why the Aldarans are outcasts.

I agree, for the most part with your reading. Except for one thing. I kept feeling uncomfortable with the assumption that the Terrans would have maintained the social structure of the North America of the 1970s (not to mention the same political/social dominance structures) in the far future.

I read these novels in order (praised be the secondhand SFBC edition that I read back in the mid-1980s), and I agree entirely with your judgment on City of Sorcery. At the time, I wondered if I were failing as a reader, or if it were something about my maleness that were keeping me from grasping the point. I'd truly loved both The Shattered Chain and Thendara House both as adventures and as tales that truly described exploration of a i]different world by people who were trying to embrace that difference.
Walter Underwood
2. Walter Underwood
City of Sorcery is the only Darkover book that I haven't been able to finish. Maybe I'll keep it that way.

Probably time to re-read the first two, though. Thanks for the reminder.
Walter Underwood
3. Dholton
I don't know if you've ever read the Cheysuli Saga by Jennifer Roberson, but that series is multigeneration.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Dholton: I haven't read those. Do they have that effect of making you think "Oh, right, X must be Y's grandma!"?
Walter Underwood
5. hobbitbabe
I adore the first three-quarters of Thendara House, and I like the other two and love parts of them.

That is a very good question, what happened to Peter Haldane. He probably didn't universe-shift into the Haldane family of Katherine Kurtz's books.

I really like seeing the families and names recur in the Darkover books, and I think that the co-written books about Lew's daughter don't quite get the names right in a way I can't put my finger on. Also, I've got a feeling that some of the more juvenile stories written earlier (the one about the trailmen fever maybe) use some of the names/ genealogy in a way that might be inconsistent with other canon.

In a completely different context, I once had the opportunity to pass on a symbol of a shared oath to my younger sister and her best friend - and afterwards I called them my oathdaughters.
Walter Underwood
6. lampwick
I read Shattered Chain when it came out, and I was thrilled to find a book written by a woman who came up through the pulps and could do great pulp adventure, and who transferred that to writing about women's adventure. At the time there was so little women's adventure written that I had a hard time even imagining what it would look like (hard to believe now, I know).
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
Lampwick: I think that's a really good point, and well put too. We didn't know what women's adventure could look like, and I think these books were foundational to letting us get an idea of the shape of possibility.
Walter Underwood
8. Dholton
No, the series is all about a Royal Dynasty, and incorporating the blood of two magical races within it per prophecy to produce an ultimate saviour. So it's a straight line progression through the generations, pretty much one generation per book, rather than hopping around like Bujold or Bradley. I know what you mean though, it's always fun to connect the dots that way.

They are interesting books, as well as her Tiger & Del Swordsinger books. You might want to try them.
Walter Underwood
9. Doug M.
_Starstruck_ covers three generations, and does it bouncing back and forth in time. No grand genetic progression towards anything, though -- _Starstruck_ is anarchic, and quite pointedly so.

There are some passing similarities to the Darkover books -- Amazons and other strong female characters, decadent aristocrats -- but I think that's more a question of drinking from the same late-1970s fantasy and SF wells.

Doug M.
Walter Underwood
10. Doug M.
Speaking of which: Zimmer Bradley was a capital-F Fan long before she was a writer, and a voracious reader of fantasy and SF.

So, you could probably have some fun spotting the various influences, especially in her earlier stuff. "Ooh, look -- there's a big patch of Anne McCaffrey!" "Yes, and I see some Michael Moorcock over behind that rock!"

Doug M.
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
Doug M: Actually I see her influences as being much more in the direction of Leigh Brackett and Theodore Sturgeon and pulp adventure. And I certainly don't see her having patches of being influenced by one thing more than another.

What do you mean by that comment anyway? If you mean to imply that there's something wrong with being a fan and a reader, I strongly disagree. In reality most writers were readers first. It doesn't mean they're derivative, it means they know what they're doing. We're all larks rising on the backs of eagles here -- except for those who reinvent the wheel, and more often than not they get bogged down trying to describe how many corners it has. That's why I recommend to beginning writers that they do read widely. That isn't something it makes any sense to sneer at.
Walter Underwood
12. AlayneM
I read The Shattered Chain, Thendara House, and City of Sorcery as they came out. I just loved the first two -- I had already self-identified as a feminist and there was not nearly enough SF/F that wrote about women as independent actors in the world -- and did it well.

And the fact that these were set in Darkover, which, as you said, is an incredibly addictive series, made it even better.

City of Sorcery was just a huge disappointment after the first two. I had grave doubts that any of those characters really wanted that ending and it undercut the other two books. I still have the book (for completeness) but I don't think I've reread it since the first time.

You're brave to reread these -- I'm always afraid I will see them with a much more censorious eye on a reread.
Walter Underwood
13. Doug M.
It's been forever since I read these books, so I'm at a disadvantage here. That said, I do remember that -- even at the age of seventeen -- there was stuff that jumped out at me as being influenced by a particular author. I mentioned McCaffrey and Moorcock because I remember reading passagea and thinking, hey, she must have been reading so-and-so. (I remember that I also thought I detected a little Poul Anderson in there, but that one was more debatable.)

Now: it's entirely possible that my many-years-younger self may have been wrong, sure. Or -- more likely IMO -- that I was making comparisons among writers who were drawing not from each other, but in parallel from the same wells. Bradley's first wave of Darkover stuff is almost exactly contemporaneous with Moorcock's first wave of Elric stuff, and a couple of years ahead of McCaffrey's Dragonriders.

That said, in the middle period I do suspect there was some cross-fertilization going on. Not that there's anything wrong with that! But, again, I'm handicapped by not having reread the books in a great many years.

I do think these books are very... there's not a good word. Fan-ny? Fan-nish? My younger self instantly realized that these were books that had been written by someone who had read lots of SF and fantasy, and liked it. Everyone should read lots of stuff, as you say. But not all authors are serious, no-kidding Fans. MZB was, and I think it showed. This is not intended to be pejorative; it's a value-neutral observation.

I think this comment breaks naturally in two. More in a bit.

Doug M.
Walter Underwood
14. Doug M.
Influences: Leigh Brackett, sure. Thinking back, some of the very earliest stuff, from before 1970, reads a bit like Brackett fanfic -- and I don't mean that in a bad way, either.

Theodore Sturgeon I didn't see, though, and don't now in recollection. Sturgeon's work deals with some similar themes, but the tone and general handling are very different.

Pulp, yah sure, absolutely. (IMS she went through a period in the 1960s when she was writing pulp under an assumed name.) You see the pulp influence even more clearly in some of her non-Darkover stuff, like Hunters of the Red Moon.

-- I said I barely remember most of these books, which raises the reasonable question of "why comment on them, then". Well, because while I stopped liking them a long time ago, and wouldn't read them again, I recognize and agree with the points made at 6 and 7 above -- they're really important in the history of the field. I'd far rather read Bujold, but without Darkover there might not have been a place for Bujold. (For various reasons, I don't think Anne McCaffrey would have broken the same trail.)

"any sense to sneer at" -- My earlier comment was written quickly and was sloppy, but no sneer was intended. Just because I know who Walter Breen was doesn't mean I've come to troll or pick a fight. Pax?

Doug M.
Walter Underwood
15. tariqata
A few comments:

I seem to be in the minority in that I actually enjoy City of Sorcery. I wonder if it's because this was the first Renunciate book I read, thanks to my local library's apparent policy of always having only the second or third book in any given trilogy. (Also, I think I was 14.) Without prior expectations for Jaelle and Magda, I just sat back to enjoy the mountains and the adventure. I do think, now, that Margali's decision to leave her life and child to stay with the Sisterhood is strange, but to me, now that I've read all three of the books, it is growth for a character who always seems to be taking responsibility for everyone around her rather than focusing on her own needs, something I think she does as much in her attitude toward Jaelle in Thendara House as she does in City of Sorcery.

That said, The Shattered Chain and Thendara House are both stronger books, and I don't think I enjoyed them less for knowing how the story would end.

Even though it seems like an insignificant part of the book, Rohana's story in Chain is my favourite section; I wish there was somewhere it was published with the other Rohana stories (in particular "Everything But Freedom", of course, since the two go together, with the first section of Chain being Rohana's first rebellion against tradition and her decisions in "Freedom" the second). As much as Margali bridges the Terran and Darkovan worlds, Rohana, to me, bridges the old guard of Darkovan society and the new, as well as the worlds of the Comyn and commoners. Her transition from traditional Darkovan woman to (pseudo-)Renunciate is also a fascinating parallel to Margali's.

Regarding the Terrans seeming very much like 1970s North Americans: this is very true, but I actually appreciate it, personally. It keeps the Terrans from being too much of a perfect egalitarian society relative to the Darkovans. One of the (many) things I deeply hate about the books that were co-written after Bradley's death is the way Darkover is held up as an ideal agrarian/natural society when compared to the technological society of the Terrans which is presented as almost entirely villainous. If the Terrans of the Renunciate books bear a lot of similarities to Terrans of a certain historical period, at least they don't seem like caricatures, and the distinctions between them and the Darkovans become much more interesting.

A lot of my books are packed up right now so I can't check, but I feel very sure that at some point either in one of the fan-written anthologies or in one of Bradley's own works Peter Haldane ends up as the Terran legate on Darkover.
Blue Tyson
16. BlueTyson
Yes, in fact on being a Brackett fan, there are a few references :-

Arbur in her book/bibliography explicitly links Brackett, McCaffrey and Bradley
Walter Underwood
17. aleistra
Doug @14:

(IMS she went through a period in the 1960s when she was writing pulp under an assumed name.)

Forgive me if you know this already (I don't know what IMS stands for in this context), but while I don't know about SF pulp she did write lesbian pulp under several pseudonyms in the '60s.
Walter Underwood
18. Tansy Rayner Roberts
The Xanth books have that sense of multiple dynasties - there's the royal line which is fairly straight-forward, but also just about every marriage and romance in the story produces a later protagonist (and just about every story has at least one new romance!). Something like Ogre Ogre which produces about 7 marriages can influence a whole bunch of later generations. And because the books are standalone, like Darkover (a series I never read, possibly because I was too busy reading Xanth in my teens), you end up reading them in topsy turvy order and get the 'ooh great-grandfather of X' effect quite often.
Walter Underwood
19. Doug M.
"I don't know what IMS stands for in this context"

'If Memory Serves'.

"she did write lesbian pulp under several pseudonyms in the '60s."

Sure. I never read any, but I gather they were rippin' pulp adventure yarns, except that the protagonists who got to rescue the bosom-heaving female were also female themselves. Apparently they were treated as porn, though whether they were pornographic in any sense we'd recognize today is unclear to me.

I'm also told (at second or third hand) that they're worth a little money today, if you can find them.

A surprising number of second-generation SF writers worked for a while on porn or porn-like stuff: Philip Jose Farmer, Robert Silverberg, Mike Resnick. Resnick has a funny, informative post on his years in the porn mines:

Coming at it from another angle, there's Jerry Pournelle, who wrote several truly horrible pulp thrillers in the 1960s under a pseudonym. No, you won't find them on his wikipedia entry -- they're that bad. But there is a lot of continuity, both of ideas and execution, between his pulp stuff and his later work.

It might be interesting to try a similar analysis with Bradley. Alas, her early pseudonymous stuff has almost disappeared -- hard copies are quite rare and hard to find, and AFAIK they're not available online.

Doug M.
Walter Underwood
20. sixpence
The little details about everyday life in the fantasy context are why I favor the relatively scarce fantasies that don't focus on the lives of the rich and famous. What ever the age or technology, those on top of the heap live relatively the same - water is heated by servants/machines/magic. Transport ditto etc. It is on the lower layers of society that the differences generated by the type of 'tech' are demonstrated.
Walter Underwood
21. James Davis Nicoll
Doug: do you mean Red Heroin and [i}Red Dragon[/i] or were there others?
Jo Walton
22. bluejo
Has anyone read the lesbian pulps? Who was their intended audience? Were then intended for men, or for lesbians? I'm curious to know how different they are from on the one hand her very pulpy early Darkover stories and on the other The Shattered Chain.
Walter Underwood
23. Doug M.
@Bluejo, not me -- thirdhand only.

@James, yes, those two. Carlos ("carloshasanax" here) has them. I hope one day he'll post a review.

Doug M.
Jo Walton
24. bluejo
Doug, James: I have them too. I picked them up second hand a couple of months ago and haven't read them yet. I'm saving them for when I need the guilty pleasure of comfort reading.
Walter Underwood
25. James Davis Nicoll
One of the (many) things I deeply hate about the books that were co-written after Bradley's death is the way Darkover is held up as an ideal agrarian/natural society when compared to the technological society of the Terrans which is presented as almost entirely villainous.

That point of view was in Darkover back when MZB was doing all the writing. Consider the methods used to open reluctant worlds in The World Wreckers. There are some likable Terrans but on the whole the upper classes see contact as dangerous and not just because the Comyn are horrified at the idea of their poor, weak-minded peasantry being exposed to the horrors of external trade and modern medicine.

Aspects of Darkover remind me a bit of Anderson's Maurai series, in particular the bit where

I was going to rot-13 this but heck, the story is 40 years old now

the Maurai sabotage a fusion project for fear that cheap power might lead humanity back into the dark age of abundant, inexpensive goods and the horrors of general affluence. There's a quotation I'll try to dig up if I can recall the title of the story, one that sums up why many of the Maurai need to be punched in the face for days.
Walter Underwood
26. James Davis Nicoll
It was "Progress". The section I have in mind is too long to quote here.
Walter Underwood
27. Doug M.
James, I'm commenting over at your LJ.

Jo, you will /enjoy/ Red Heroin.

Note that when Pournelle wrote it, he was politically active as a minor functionary in L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty's re-election campaign. (No, not Deputy Mayor. He held that title a bit later, for something like three weeks. Associate professor at Pepperdine, researcher.)

Doug M.
Walter Underwood
28. tariqata
James David Nicoll@25:

I agree that the anti-technology point of view is in all of the books to some extent, but at least in the Renunciate books there's some push-back and acknowledgement that Terrans have something to offer to Darkovans (i.e. modern medicine, opportunities to see new worlds, etc.).

I'd also argue that, with the possible exception of The World Wreckers, most of other post-rediscovery novels aren't quite blatantly against technology and pro-Comyn aristocracy as Shadow Matrix or Traitor's Sun.

I haven't read the story you refer to, but I'll see if I can find it.
Jo Walton
29. bluejo
James, Tariquata: I think the ones written earliest -- World Wreckers, Planet Savers, original Bloody Sun (and perhaps Sword of Aldones, I haven't read it) are very anti-Terran and anti-tech, but the ones written later are much more nuanced and keep the balance better. I noticed reading the updated Bloody Sun that it retains a "Terrans have evil plot" plotline that doesn't fit at all with the Terrans we see more closely in the Renunciate books.

I also want to acknowledge Cholayna Ares, a black female head of Terran Intelligence, written in 1982. I think this does a little to counter the "redheads rule" (literally) of the rest of the series.
Walter Underwood
30. aleistra
Jo @22, I've only read an excerpt of one, I'm afraid. (The Strange Women, written under the name "Miriam Gardner". Obviously at the time books couldn't be actively marketed to lesbians, so it's tough to tell what the audience for her books in particular were; certainly there were some pulps that were much more sympathetic and some that were basically porn. Since this one is excerpted in the "Lesbian Pulp Fiction" anthology I have, it's not too unreasonable to assume it was sympathetic, but the introduction notes that Bradley basically later refused to acknowledge those books, which is interesting in and of itself.
Walter Underwood
31. James Davis Nicoll
tariqata, it's in Maurai & Kith, which Tor published in 1982 and reprinted in 1992. It is also in Baen's 2007 To Outlive Eternity and Other Stories.
Walter Underwood
32. TallJames
I read City of Sorcery first and enjoyed it, except for the ending which just didn't satisfy at all.

Does any one know what ultimatley happened to Magda Lorne after City of Sorcery? I dimmly remember a brief flash back in one of the later novels where shes refered to as having got one of the protagonists of a later novel (Bloody Sun?) off the planet during the fall out of the Cleindori affair but nothing more.
Elizabeth Coleman
33. elizabethcoleman
Ah, Thendara House, book I never got to read because I started it, and then my dad had chest pains and I gave it to him so he'd have something to read in the Emergency Room. I never did get it back.
I remember, in one of the fan-written anthologies, MZB remarking that she was surprised at how many Free Amazon stories she got. And all I could think was, "wow, you don't know your audience!" That's possibly why she so rarely got preachy in her writing, because it just never occured to her that anyone would want to read such a thing.

And speaking of McCaffrey, whose writing I also devoured as a teen, there's a humorous crossover story in...Sword of Chaos, I think. it's pretty funny, and ends in an awful, awful pun.

You guys are making me want to go re-read.
Walter Underwood
34. J. Bradford DeLong
Re: Doug M.: "Coming at it from another angle, there's Jerry Pournelle, who wrote several truly horrible pulp thrillers in the 1960s under a pseudonym. No, you won't find them on his wikipedia entry -- they're that bad. But there is a lot of continuity, both of ideas and execution, between his pulp stuff and his later work..."

Do tell.

Or are you just being mean?
Janet Hopkins
36. JanDSedai
Didn't Peter Haldane end up as (a mostly ineffective) Terran Legate?
Jo Walton
37. bluejo
JanDSedai: In what books? I'm not doubting you, I just don't remember any further mention of him and would like to find it.
Walter Underwood
38. tariqata
JanDSedai and bluejo:

Peter Haldane shows up as the Terran Legate in City of Sorcery, as it turns out; Magda meets with him in that capacity on page 83 in my copy. (And now, hopefully, I can turn my attention back to my homework, now that this nagging trivia question has been answered!)
Mary Kay Kare
40. MaryKay
I knew Marion some in her last years - I had some friends living in her household. She was moderately religious in her later years and tended to be very tetchy about the subject of lesbianism, especially as applied to her. It didn't bother her in others -- the friends I mentioned were a lesbian couple -- but apparently she repudiated it for herself and so would have been quite loathe to have anything to do with those books.

Walter Underwood
41. HelenS
Interestingly enough (at least I think it's somewhat interesting), there are German editions of those pulps fairly widely available as well. I wouldn't be surprised if they're not very faithful translations, though.
Walter Underwood
42. ngaire
the lesbian stuff is available online on a quite frequent basis - but as mentioned is usually pretty expensive

generally you have to be in the 'know' as to the 6 or so pen names she went under to be able to spot them - and some are listed more frequently than others

my understanding is that she wrote those books at a time when she needed to be - or to supplement - the breadwinner of the house, so they are books written of necessity rather than want

having read some of them (I own 2-3) I can say they are certainly not pornographic, though they would have been out there for the time in which they were first published
Christopher Chittleborough
43. CChittleborough
Pournelle's Wikipedia article does mention Wade Curtis and the Red X thrillers. I've read at least one; it (or they) left little impression. Expecting to get any "guilty pleasure of comfort reading" from them (Bluejo, #24) seems more than a little optimistic to me ... good luck with that!

It seems to me that the Darkover books included some good stories but failed as a series. I guess the rich, detailed world MZB and her later collaborators constructed turned out to be too static. Hmm.
Walter Underwood
44. Patricia Mathews
Oddly enough, it came to me on a re-read that Camilla n'ha Kyria was MZB's own Mary Sue character.

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