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Myth & Sacrifice

The Great Grand Robin Jarvis (Re)Read

The Dark Portal | Chapter 11

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Warning: Contains spoilers!

‘Old soldiers never die Jake, they simply fade away.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: This chapter shows us that what we thought we knew about Jupiter and his faithful followers is not actually the full story. So far, the fearsome Lord of All has been the worst thing that could happen to our heroes. Like Chapter 7, part of this chapter’s function is to expand the world of the Deptford Mice, but this time our eyes are opened in a different and more frightening direction. Like Audrey, we awake from the nightmare of Jupiter into a reality which is far worse – the hidden, blood-soaked shrine of the Mighty Three.

Now that the fearsome Raith Sidhe have been introduced, I feel I would be remiss not to mention one of the most unique and fascinating aspects of the Robin Jarvis readership. By now you will have gathered that belief plays a pivotal role in his work, and, as our new readers will discover, this is true not only for the Deptford Mice Trilogy, but for every series.

This has lead to a peculiar phenomenon that I’ve seen only in a very few other author’s readerships. It has no official name and has only been tangentially addressed by Mr Jarvis himself, but the fact remains that, regardless of their real-life beliefs, anyone who will admit to being a Robin Jarvis fan will also admit that they have a special fondness for one or other of his fictional deities.

I have more to say on this topic, but I’ll save it for when we’re further into the (Re)Read. For now, let’s focus on The Dark Portal, and open things up to the floor. Dear Readers, are you noble Green Mousers, wondering what your brass would be, awed by the Spirit of Spring? Are you captivated by the fiery gaze of Jupiter, Prince of Nightmare? Or do older, darker powers whisper your name from the depths? (As a quick aside, if you align with a Robiny cult or mythology which has not yet been introduced, please feel free to drop hints, but refrain from mentioning them or their deeds explicitly).

 

Matt’s Thoughts: What could have been just a chapter of more rat unpleasantness turns fascinating with the introduction of the three rat gods: Bauchan, Mabb and Lord Hobb. I’d love to know what Jarvis’ inspirations were for this, but it does make the rats more similar to ancient Vikings or other characters known for paganism, bloodshed and human sacrifice.

For those who are reading through it for the first time, it might just read like one more unpleasant moment in arguably the most violent chapter in the whole book. (To this day, I still remember the scene where Fletch gets his head snapped off … it was such a visceral thing. I don’t think I’d read something that graphic in a book for younger readers since the time I read King Solomon’s Mines, which also featured a somewhat gruesome decapitation of the main villain.)

But what fans of the series really love is that Jarvis has here set up some amazing mythology, with plenty of fascinating questions: Are the three gods real beings like Jupiter, that might turn up some time? If Jupiter wasn’t always god of the rats, where did he come from and how did he take over? All of which we shall leave concealed behind the veil of the no spoilers policy, but it’s a great set-up.

Finally, I love the way Audrey – despite all the evil she has seen – still has some sympathy for Jake in the end. It adds to the impact of his demise but also serves to delineate the fundamentally kind hearts of the mice vs. the self-interest of the rats.

The Dark Portal | Chapter 10

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Without any further ado they opened their dark mouths and with a shock Morgan realised that he could see straight through them – they were ghostly, ephemeral things.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: This is one of my favourite chapters in The Dark Portal. It’s got everything; an atmosphere of creeping dread; the bleak, swishing set of Blackheath, eerie even in daylight hours; and, ah yes, an arcane ritual to summon unclean wraiths from the trackless void! Honestly, what’s not to like?

I’ve spoken about Twit at length, and Thomas and the Starwife will get their moments in the limelight soon enough, so let’s talk about Morgan. Oft-overlooked in the annals of Mr Jarvis’ great and bad, that spotted slime-ball is nevertheless the first villain to meet our heroes on their level, so to speak, and he deserves a look-in for that alone.

As an introduction to the kind of vile secondary baddies Robin does so well, Morgan gets top marks. In Chapter 1 he’s responsible for the capture of Albert, so we despise him already, and his appearances in both the previous chapter and this one thoroughly cement our loathing. Here, we get a look into his slinking, beleaguered existence, and begin to see that his cringing fear of Jupiter is completely warranted. At this point, he has been serving the Lord of All for years, and is bound to his malevolent master’s will come plague, fire, and doom.

The Blackheath ceremony is another one of those scenes that is etched into my memory from the audiobook. It helped that Tom Baker’s rendition of Jupiter’s ‘soothing and repellent’ voice was blood-freezingly terrifying from start to finish. To this day, I could probably recite the words of that evil incantation verbatim, just because this chapter made such an impression upon me when I first heard it. I have yet to come across a more gracefully executed yet deeply disquieting scene involving occultism, even in the work of classic cosmic horror and weird fiction writers.

I’d love to hear you opinions on this scene, Readers all. Did you wonder queasily what was in Morgan’s paper parcel? Did you turn the book face-down after reading so you wouldn’t have to see Jupiter’s blazing eyes?

 

Matt’s Thoughts: This chapter is more or less burned in my brain. It’s perhaps a throwback to my childhood in the 80s, where in some Christian circles, any tales of magic were immediately branded as ‘occult’ and considered dangerous. (Smurfs was on the dangerous list for some people. And you certainly couldn’t speak about Dungeons & Dragons.)

And so here we come across Mr Jarvis – in the middle of a kids’ book – describing an arcane ritual in enough detail to be highly disturbing but (perhaps) not enough detail to get himself in trouble with publishers.

Now that I’m older, I realise that in many ways Robin was drawing on centuries of legends and traditions about witchcraft and sorcery and the evil things that exist out there if you tap into them. This was the stuff that terrified grown-ups in the classic wave of occult 70s horror cinema, such as The Exorcist, The Omen and – a true British classic – The Wicker Man. But I don’t think anyone back then had thought about putting it in a book for young readers quite like this.

I don’t know – maybe people don’t read this with the same chill that I do. After having so many Paranormal Activity and Conjuring films, is the world of the occult something that is more laughable and familiar now? I’m not sure. But either way, for me, this pushed the book into a new level of darkness. Even Voldemort at the height of his mischief never felt as hideous as Jupiter summoning up dark spirits on Blackheath.

This, of course, became a mainstay of Robin’s books. There is always a moment (perhaps several) where his villains really ramp things up by tapping into dark forces. It usually marks a turning point where things go from being dangerous for our main characters to flat out cataclysmic.

But what about you, dear readers? Do Jarvis’ descriptions of dark forces give you that rising sense of dread as well?

The Dark Portal | Chapter 9

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

It was a chilling, gruesome thing; the pawless arms dangled around and touched him so softly that it was like being tickled by the dead and caressed by ghosts.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Now this is one that many of us remember, and if you’re reading for the first time, chances are you’ll recall it just as vividly in future. The next three chapters are what I’m right now naming the ‘Robin Jarvis litmus test’ – in short, if you can get through these and continue reading, congratulations, you can get through just about anything Mr Jarvis will throw at us in this trilogy, and so help you, you’re here till the bitter end!

The build-up to this chapter’s horrendous set-piece is brilliantly handled. First we’ve got Part II of ‘Oswald and Piccadilly in: A Brush with Protracted and Grisly Death’ as they finally escape the marauding rats. It’s thrilling, as our heroes zoom away on their makeshift raft. It’s chilling, as they are almost gnawed and almost drowned. It’s even funny, with Oswald’s phonetically-spelled lines being the most accurate written portrayal of someone with an injured nose ib eber come acwoss.

Then, they arrive, unknowingly, in Morgan’s lair. There’s a prickling, ominous atmosphere to the scene without anything explicitly horrible happening, lulling us into a false sense of security even as the shivers crawl up our spines. It is a rat’s lair, that much is clear. Piccadilly sneaks in. Oswald remains outside to ‘keep watch’ and, predictably, follows Piccadilly after a few moments of dithering. Piccadilly senses an odd, salty aroma and comments on it. Oswald steps in something disgusting. So far, so banal.

When the peeled mouse-skins are revealed, it’s like the first paragraph of the prologue magnified tenfold. We have come to know and love the Deptford Mice. We have cheered for them, we have cried with them, and now we feel Piccadilly’s dull horror as he explains about Bib. Once again, the evil of our villains is brought home and made personal, but in this case it is Morgan who takes the ghoulish spotlight, and the true menace of Jupiter’s faithful is brought out into the open.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: You know, it’s only when I slow down and write about one chapter at a time like this that I realise what a constant stream of macabre ideas that Jarvis throws in to his books. Morgan’s stockpile of flayed skins – if this wasn’t a story about mice – would place this well into the realm of adult writers like Stephen King, James Herbert and Thomas Harris.

It’s chilling stuff, but it yet again ratchets up the stakes against our heroes.

Which then makes it even worse, when they stumble into a lair of sleeping rats … But this is also great from a storytelling perspective, because Oswald’s tall rat-like look, far from just being an interesting physical description, now becomes a major plot point. Jarvis genius!

 

Up Next Reminder | The Crystal Prison

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The classic original cover of The Crystal Prison.

Now that we’re midway through The Dark Portal, this is just a reminder that if you’re thoroughly enjoying this – and we hope that you are! – that you might want to track down a copy of the second book in the trilogy, The Crystal Prison, before we start up in February.

With regards to editions, this is much the same as was the case with The Dark Portal. Ideally, you will want to see the illustrations, so we recommend:

The original edition (as shown above).

The silver edition with the dripping writing:

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The American edition:

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And because it’s the only in-print version still on sale, and because we like to support Mr Jarvis, where we can, we’d suggest buying the Kindle version as well.

The Dark Portal | Chapter 8

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Their red eyes sparkled in the firelight and shone with the hunger and hatred that drove them.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Now we return to Oswald and Piccadilly on their hunt for Audrey’s mousebrass, and we begin to understand why Oswald is so hapless and down-trodden. Like with Twit and the story of his parents, I shed a tiny tear when I think of the hurt and feelings of rejection which Oswald has endured for the whole of his life. Combined with Piccadilly’s achingly brave shouldering of his own orphan status, it’s no wonder that this pair are at the top of many a reader’s Characters Who Most Need A Hug list.

In their small, sad conversation, Oswald and Piccadilly bring to light perhaps one of the most important themes in all of Mr Jarvis’ work: the necessity of true and loyal friendship. Oswald may have an appalling time of it in the Skirtings community, and Piccadilly may have no family, but, as they begin to realise in this chapter, they have each other – along with Arthur and Twit and (hopefully) Audrey.

Following this adorably awkward scene, we move right into ‘Oswald and Piccadilly in: A Brush with Protracted and Grisly Death’ as One-Eyed Jake and his band slink by on their way to the Skirtings. Courageously, the mice contrive to distract the rats and so spare the lives of their loved ones, but not before they get a lovely catalogue of the many and varied ways in which Jake and his cronies deal with their victims. All are quite ghastly, and cover everything from a traditional live peeling to my favourite, the good old crispy mouse-ear. Which of the rats’ murderous methods do you like best, O Ravening Readers?

 

Matt’s Thoughts: I love the halfway points in Jarvis novels. The action has heated up, and all the gas burners are turned on. This is a fairly straightforward chapter, but we do start to see Oswald become more brave – plus we also find a little bit about the awkwardness and insecurity that he’s lived with most of his life.

Then we have the rats! One-Eyed Jake, Fletch, etc. I always loved his rat villains, especially because of the illustration in this chapter. Their evil faces and long, tall forms, compared with the short innocent mice make such a contrast. I realised what I didn’t quite express in an earlier post about his villains is that they were unusual for their time, because a lot of villains in kids’ stories were more cartoonish back in those days. (At least in the books I read!) Less than intelligent, easily fooled, comic characters.

Whereas there is almost nothing comic about Jarvis’ rats. (Though possibly you could make an exception for the number of creative verbal riffs they have on all things to do with snot, slime and poxes … a clever way of making them coarse without anything that would count as coarse language.)

Anyway, we’re in the middle of a water chase … on to the next chapter!

The Dark Portal | Chapter 7

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Sometimes in the dead of night I catch her out. Maybe it’s just the timbers shrinking after a warm day, but there are occasions when I fancy I hear the old girl sighing and sobbing for what was.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: This chapter kind of crept up on me. I was busy being all excited about Twit’s history and the bat’s prophecy, and suddenly, oh look who’s next! Thomas Triton, midshipmouse; retired, and sometimes pickled! At the opening of this chapter, however, we have yet to arrive with Twit in the rigging of the Cutty Sark. First, there’s an aerial tour of London to be had, and what a tour it is.

Twit’s flight over the city in the claws of Orfeo and Eldritch perfectly echoes the tale of Twit’s parents which we were privy to last chapter (especially when the bats almost deposit him in the icy, fast-flowing Thames!) but its main purpose is to reveal to us the world beyond the small, mousey confines of the Skirtings. Through Twit’s startled little eyes, the Deptford of the 1980s rolls out like a vaguely shabby carpet, revealing its Frankenstein’s monsters and its dark Satanic Mills, presenting a shadowy, dream-like stage-set for the action of the trilogy.

When eventually Twit does arrive on the Cutty Sark, it is as if to another world entirely. Having never seen a ship in his life, he has no frame of reference except the high corn-stalks of his field, and I’ve always loved the way he squares his tiny shoulders and just copes, despite that the bats have recently subjected him to more alarming experiences in quick succession than he’s probably ever had in all his born days.

Then there’s Thomas; the first whisper we get that the world is greater still than the London of the Deptford Mice Trilogy, and that it is indeed tall and dangerous. What secrets gleam in the blade of the midshipmouse’s sword, now hung on the wall like a trophy of nameless battles past but terrible? What sorrow lies at the bottom of the bowl of rum he gives to Twit? What wondrous places do his old and faded maps depict, and what has he seen that he has no fear of Jupiter, Lord of All?  Dear Readers, that’s another story.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: I got the chance last year to visit London for the first time ever. I set aside a day – primarily because of this trilogy – to go and visit Deptford and Greenwich. (And drag my kids along.) I’m assuming Londoners have a much more immediate idea of what the place is like, but as an Australian, having only these books to go by, I was less sure what to expect.

Here’s a photo of the Deptford Markets from when I went through:

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The first thing that struck me was that it was similar in many respects to some of the inner-city suburbs of my city, Sydney, that used to be a bit rough in the past but are now becoming quite trendy. (So you now have the strange combination of the young and trendy living side-by-side with the less-well-off.)

I would probably need a Londoner to help me out on this one, but the feeling I got from Deptford was that this was a suburb on the up now but that perhaps was less popular back in the day.

All of which leads me to one of the most interesting things about Robin’s books: they are all very particular about place. While he has created some completely fictional settings for some of his books (e.g. Hagwood), there are also a good number of places like Deptford, Greenwich and Whitby, that are real, living locations.

Which makes me wonder – what did people think, back in the late 80s, of a book being set in Deptford? Did it carry some sort of social weight that we wouldn’t be able to appreciate overseas? What does it say about his heroes that they live in a place like Deptford?

I’d love to hear from any of our British readers in the comments on this topic.

And here’s my photo of the Cutty Sark!

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It’s been damaged by fire (and repaired) a few times over the last couple of decades. And it now sits on a sort of glass platform rather than being in a concrete trough like the book. But still, it’s there and larger than life and a total must-see for those doing the Deptford Mice walking tour in London! (As is the Greenwich Observatory, but I’ll save photos of that for Book 2.)

Back to the chapter, I also love the little moment flying over London with the feral creatures and the song of the night which Twit and the bats can hear. It’s just one of those scenes you read and never quite forget.

And speaking of unforgettable, Thomas Triton! Aufwader has said pretty much everything I w0uld want to say about him. But I would like to know – what sort of accent does Thomas have? Any help from our readers on that point?

The Dark Portal | Chapter 6

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Threefold the life threats. How shall he be vanquished? By water deep, fire blazing and the unknown path.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I didn’t remember the very start of this chapter, and when I read it over it gave me the chills. Here we’ve got Arthur Brown of whom I spoke so well in my thoughts on Chapter 4; kindly, well-meaning, sensible Arthur Brown, imagining the worst of Audrey and turning his back on her when she most needs him. Of course, it’s Jupiter’s power that is corrupting Arthur’s gentle nature, and I think it is the fact that Arthur specifically is so affected by the evil enchantments of the Grill that really makes the threat of Jupiter seem personal.

In this chapter we also get our first hints that there is more to Twit than was initially shown. For instance, there is something a bit woolly about the explanation for his immunity to the Grill’s influence. Apparently, he is simply too good-natured for the magic to get its claws into him. If, however, the same Arthur who recently comforted his grieving mother and raced into Jupiter’s lair at risk to his own life to rescue his sister can suddenly be sneering like a rat and saying Audrey can rot in the sewers, Twit must be positively saintly.

Then there’s the business with his parents – town mouse and country mouse, so to speak, meaning that Twit slots neatly into both the society of his fieldmouse home and the Skirtings community, even if he prefers the former. (Does anyone else find it heart-breaking that the story Twit treasures about his parent’s meeting is meant as a cautionary tale to discourage city and country mice from pursuing romance with each other? I certainly do!) Evidently, there is a degree of sorrow in Twit’s life if not in Twit himself, and a degree of duality and mystery. Keep hold of these clues, we’ll need them much, much later.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: I’m guessing that if there is any particular section in long-term Jarvis fans’ copies of The Dark Portal that is the most thumb-stained, it is this chapter. The bats, (with the marvelous names of Orfeo and Eldritch), are the deliverers of a bunch of cryptic riddles that foreshadow the entire trilogy all the way through to the last page of Book 3.

Thus the thumb-stains! Throughout the trilogy, all of a sudden you’ll remember something that the bats said way back in Chapter 6 of The Dark Portal, you flick back and then marvel at how Jarvis has plotted the whole thing carefully from beginning to end. Despite which, you can never quite work out how it’s all going to end.

Unless …

[Small Aside For My Confession of Youthful Transgressions]

… unless you’re like me and you used to peek up the end of books to see how they finished up. I was notorious for doing this up until the age of – well, really up until I read The Dark Portal. By peeking at the end of Portal, I so spoiled the ending for myself, that I decided from then on I’d sit back and let books unfold as the author set them out. Since then, I’ve found books and movies to be a lot more enjoyable when you don’t know how they’re going to end. It does mean, though, that I won’t join in any conversations about any TV show I haven’t seen yet Because I Might Watch It One Day.

[End of Aside]

Anyway, final question for the readers: if there was ever a T-shirt going around with the logo:

‘By water deep, fire blazing and the unknown path’

Who here would buy it?

The Dark Portal | Chapter 5

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

As she stood undisturbed in the moonlight, erect and lovely, it seemed as if the care of years fell away and she was young again.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Audrey’s mother Gwen is another character who is slightly underappreciated. This is really a crying shame, because her story arc is one of the most touching in the entire Deptford Mice Trilogy.

Though she bears the common sign of the house-mouse as her brass, Gwen shows uncommon resilience and fortitude, and it’s easy to see where Audrey gets her inner strength from.  The little scene between Gwen and Arthur as they grieve for Albert is incredibly moving even in its simplicity; we feel their sorrow, but overshadowing it is a layer of worry for Audrey, who still refuses to accept the truth about her father.

Between Albert’s sudden death, Piccadilly’s arrival, the awkwardness between he and Audrey, and Audrey’s missing mousebrass, things are burgeoning into a veritable mousey soap-opera, but it’s the melodrama that makes this story so engaging. One can’t help but be swept along.

Twit’s eagerness to return to the sewers on Audrey’s behalf is very touching even if he ends up staying behind, and the fact that Oswald gamely offers to venture into danger shows that he possesses an internal moral compass quite as strong as his divining rod. A good thing too, as he’s going to need every ounce of courage and integrity he has in the chapters to come.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Aww …this chapter was a lot more sad than what I remember last time I read it. The scene with Gwen stoically remembering the past in the moonlight really got to me this time.

I don’t have a lot to comment on in this chapter except that I love the fact that Oswald is getting braver, and I’ve always liked the visual image – even though no illustration exists for this – of him chasing his divining rod through the sewers.

As for the cliffhanger chapter ending, well, what I can say? Beware of the Grill!

The Dark Portal | Chapter 4

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

But the last, Twit noted with horror, had one of his claws missing and in its place, bound tightly to the stump, was something that made the fieldmouse squeal like his cousin – a peeler.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Poor Arthur Brown never gets much of a look-in when people talk about the Deptford Mice, but as far as I’m concerned it’s his unremarkable nature that makes him so likeable. As our heroine’s jollier, sturdier brother, it’s his duty to bring a bit of common sense and stability to proceedings. In this chapter as during the mousebrass-giving, he does this with aplomb, comforting his mother and rallying his friends when it becomes clear that Audrey is well and truly missing.

Here we also get a clearer look at Twit and Oswald; two of my absolute favourite characters out of any of Robin’s books. Twit especially is cleverly unfolded as the series goes on as a rather complex character, but his sunny personality remains genuine, as we see when he discusses his countryside home. The put-upon Oswald; gawky, bescarfed, and jittering, is the sort of character with whom we can probably all identify to some extent, if only because most of us certainly know ‘an Oswald’ in our own lives.

Between them, Arthur, Twit, and Oswald make up Audrey’s rescue party, and it is through their frightened but courageous eyes that we come nose-to-snout with One-Eyed Jake and his cronies. One rung down from Morgan, this band of bloodstained scoundrels are delightfully, slaveringly wicked, and thus immensely fun to read. I can recall one reviewer of The Dark Portal from a few years ago commenting that even the lowliest of Mr Jarvis’ rats would make Cluny the Scourge, the infamous warlord of Brian Jacques’ Redwall, drop his whip-like tail and flee in terror. I have to admit I concur – Cluny is very sinister, but you can’t beat a snickering, leering gang of red-eyed murderers closing in on our helpless heroes, deliberating whom they are going to make a ‘raw head and bloody-bones’ of first!

 

Matt’s Thoughts: I’m a fan of horror films, so I love the way Robin has worked in the classic horror movie trope into a kids’ story: One person goes missing in some dark, forbidding place. Other friends say, ‘Let’s go find them!’ And then everyone ends up in trouble. (He does, however, avoid that other cliché of horror stories, where somebody suggests the never-sensible idea of splitting up.)

This is also an introduction to a bunch of classic Jarvis ‘nasties’: they’re the bad guys who work for the ultra-villain and they’re nearly always ugly, sadistic and violent. I’m sure this got many parents and teachers riled up back in the day (and apologies to any parents and teachers reading this who are riled up still) but this is actually what makes his books so intense: the villains are so, well, vile, compared with the innocence of the heroes, that it makes the story that much more compelling.

Nobody has any special combat skills to battle these kind of bad guys. It just comes down to courage and tenacity. Which will be sorely tested in the chapters to come …

Final Pedantic Note: Reading the Hodder silver-coloured edition, I noticed that the book alternated between spelling the old piece of metal in the cellar as ‘Grille’ and ‘Grill’, sometimes within paragraphs of each other. To sort this one out, I went to the source. It’s now officially ‘the Grill’.

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