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Ace of Hearts

Jan 10-Ace of Hearts-Red Angel ch 1 (4728 words, slight G)

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Additional content warning for fantasy derogatory racial terms and queerphobia
 
Hi everyone!
 
Red Angel is a epic/political fantasy novel that I've been sitting on and making minor tweaks to for a couple years now. Don't want to color your view too much more than that so that the text speaks for itself.
 
Note: I think I find prescriptive feedback/ideas brainstorming to be pretty helpful, so feel free to go in that direction even though that's generally not what we do here. 
 
Questions for after reading:
1. Points of interest/engagement? Positive qualities?
2. What's confusing here? I'm expecting there to be quite a bit since I tried to keep exposition at a minimum.
3. If you were in charge of rewriting this chapter, what would you do and why? (even answers like "idk what I would do since I'm not sure what this is going for" or "here's what I would do even though it's really different from what I think you want" are still helpful)
4. *Long question incoming* How do you feel about the setting? Right now I see it as "exactly far enough away from fantasy Islamic Arabia to attempt some sort of plausible deniability" and there are multiple details here that would be VERY out of place culturally in typical historical Islamic Arabia (such as normalization of alcohol, relative lack of gender segregation, ect; though of course there was variance over time). I'm not sure if this is doing the story any favors and I'm looking for advice about what to do with the culture (whether it should be closer to historical Arabia, further away, ect.). Also you can probably guess this from my name but I don't belong to the groups of people I'm talking about here, which I know contextualizes how I need to approach this. 
 
Thanks!
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Well, I'm definitely on board with this! I really liked the previous versions I read and this one is even better. You've got a great intro and I really like S.'s character.

How much of this is written? Because I'd like to read more.


Questions:
1. Great voice, good character hook to start, some intriguing questions. I would keep reading this.

2. I think it's actually made more confusing the few info dumps. Taking those out or making them smaller would remove those questions until you have time to answer them.

3. Nothing for now except a little more show and less tell. I want to read the next one!

4. I really like the setting, but as I have very little exposure with this culture, I can't say if it would be problematic to anyone in that culture. That said, there's nothing very controversial here except potentially for the intersex/crossdressing topic, which depends entirely on your audience. Tagging @kais for if you want to have more insight for the intersex part.


Notes while reading

pg 1: "The empathic fear that his psychic hand crystal was relaying to him slithered back a few centimeters. "
--The fear slithered back? Sort of confusing since you're also introducing a magical item.

pg 1: "How many people fit that description?” 
--so is this saying people would recognize him anyway because his condition is rare? Then why is he trying to disguise himself at all?
--Also, the infodump paragraph after this one could probably be cut. It's not really necessary here. You might leave in the the fact that he's intersex. Also, you can get great information on that front from Kais.

pg 2: "“I came out of the womb as a boy..."
--Also might look to intersex people for how this paragraph reads.

pg 3: "But why should the guard care even if he did feel like a girl?"
--Nice.

pg 3: "“If you can find a bunch of other boys like me..."
--this starts to get long-winded though.

pg 4: "and he… didn’t have a way of turning it off"
--again, could cut down on the explanation here and show it instead. I'm also not sure if this is soemthing rare, or if lots of people have it.

pg 4: "to throw his life away"
--Good hook. You've got my interest with a great character introduction, and I want to find out what he's doing.

pg 5: "had a guard walking a couple paces behind him."
--Hmmm...that would give away that he's a person of influence. I'm still not sure how effective this disguise is.

pg 5: "one in a hundred chance that he was an empath instead."
--So here I'm a little confused and I think the tell rather than show is making it more confusing. Maybe introduce another person who is a telepath and the crystal works as normal to show us the difference? Doens't have to be here. I'm fine knowing he's an empath for now. Bringing in telepaths confuses the issue.

pg 7: "It was a cover story his father had come up with"
--this is interesting. So he's supported and even encouraged in doing this.

pg 7: "they were psions by the crystal in each of their left hands,"
--they who? Does the guard have one too?

pg 7, end: Getting a little lost on what the objective is. He's talking to people to get information about...what? The original statement is "satisfaction with the regime." Is there anything more specific? WHY do they need information about the regime?

pg 8: "the possibility of his brother letting in more."
--Also confused here. It said before, his brother died. I guess this is a different brother? Is his father still alive? One or two sentences about his family could help.

pg 9: It sounds more like he's gathering information on the immigrants.

pg 9: "the vendor suspected him of being a boy"
--interesting. But this is pretty rare, right? Would only intersex people be male with his coloring?

pg 10: Alright, we now find out about the Red Angel. That seems like the real reason he's out talking to people. Maybe a statement near the front about how it's a long shot, but he hopes he hears something?

pg 11: "challenge J for rulership at the last second and earn a spear through his eye for the troubles."
--Ahh. So his brother didn't die from the angel but from his other brother.

pg 12: "who could read minds"
--unnecessary with "telepath."

pg 14: "a Holy Ruler’s brother wasn’t allowed to father sons that might rise up to challenge for the throne."
--so the marriages are purely political, then?

pg 14: “Ah, yes. There was something I wished to tell you."
--that's a little...anticlimactic for what's got to be an unprecedented loss of artifacts and money!

pg 14: “So unfortunately, we may not be able to initiate as many telepaths in the upcoming years."
--this seems very blase for what happened.

pg 15: "deactivating the protective psychic aura around him"
--I thought he couldn't control it?

pg 16: "the First Citizen"
--who is this again?

pg 16: "what he saw from the Red Angel,"
--I thought he didn't see it? OR did he see it with his brother?

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I live! I swear! I've got this noted and will try to get to it this weekend. I've been meaning to get back on the forum anyway and an intersex character sounds like a good place to start.

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Questions:

1.      I really like the concept for the psychic/empathy magic, and the world setup is really interesting, and my world-building brain is already running off on tangent thoughts about how race and gender presenting themselves this way would impact the world development and culture. Definitely interested in seeing where things are going.

2.      There are a couple of spots that came off as a little info dumpy, where there was a lot to absorb at once (mentioned below).  Other than that, I think telling us he’s looking for the RA when he is out in the market near the start of that scene will make it feel a little more directional. As it is, he’s mentioned going out to get information, but without knowing what that is, his walking around feels a little meandering.

3.      I think the biggest thought I had in this regard was the possibility of making it into two chapters. One related to gathering information, one with the meeting with his brother.

4.      Long answer incoming. Because you’ve stumbled into the path of one of my soapboxes. Apologies in advance for the rambling. I’ve actually been meaning to put my thoughts on fantasy-religion-building together for an essay or blog post or something for a while and haven’t gotten around to it, so they're still all a little jumbled, and this walks right into the middle of it.

Anyway.

Ultimately, I like the setting and worldbuilding a lot, but would be careful about what parallels you’re drawing to *Islamic* Arabia vs. a desert culture like we’d see in Arabia whether or not Islam was involved.  Especially with the characters and themes we’ll probably be dealing with.

Sticking closer to the former, you’ll probably find yourself running into a lot of pitfalls regarding how you’re presenting the religion and its interaction with the culture. If you don’t have a good handle on the theology of Islam or other monotheistic religions, I’d tread lightly in how you’re representing one in a story that will push back against anyone holding those beliefs.

There’s certainly a place to challenge said beliefs, and I think having an intersex protagonist is a good way to do that in the way I think you might be trying to. However, I think an intersex protagonist in a setting where there’s a pretty strictly two-gendered culture achieves the same goal without needing to do too much in-depth theological study to make sure you’re not running the risk of misrepresenting a set of religious beliefs [I have a comment about page 2 related to this]. You just want to make sure that the practice of the in-world religion would imply the gender norms/views you’re setting up.

 Representing real-world religions in fantasy settings can be really tricky because it’s hard to make it clear what aspects are being presented as comparable and what aspects are presented as part of the fantasy world.  Describing “Islamic Arabia with normalization of alcohol and a lack of gender segregation” very quickly ceases to be Islamic Arabia. Which is probably a safer bet anyway unless you’re really familiar with Islam or have someone who knows their theology who you can bounce ideas off of (if it was Protestantism/Catholicism, I’d volunteer. I’ve done enough study to poke a stick at tricky spots there. But I don’t know enough about Islam or Islamic cultures to be helpful as any sort of sensitivity reader or research source on that front).  I’d probably recommend taking a few clear steps further away from historical Arabia on the religion front to avoid some of those pitfalls.

 

Pg 1:

The first sentence is really long, and could probably be made stronger.  Having the first look at the character and the book be him stumbling is probably not ideal.  Also, I’m not sure how to pronounce S’s name, which throws me off a bit. I think it’s partly some weird instinct to go with “Sammy” which doesn’t seem to fit the setting.

“freak out” does not seem to fit a setting with wandering merchants and veils for sand protection. 

This being the first look at the world, the “when he addressed them as humans” isn’t entirely clear.  I assume it means that the guards tend to be dehumanized by the people they protect, and aren’t sure how to respond when people break that pattern. But when everything is fair game this early in a fantasy, I wasn’t sure if it might mean that the guard (and most guards) are some sort of non-human species.

The inheritance traits section is a lot to absorb up front.  We’re getting introductory information about two different races while also learning that royalty has certain markings while also learning about an unusual setup of the inheritance of physical traits. These are all interesting details, but I think they need to be spaced out a little more to sink in. If we get information about what the average Sh- person looks like and what the average Xa- person looks like and have time to process that, adding in the details of how they mix is going to be much easier to work into the framework.

Pg 2:

I like the descriptions of the empathetic connections. I remember finding that really fascinating when you submitted something related to this world before.

Would like a clarification of who D is here, though. Obviously S is in disguise, and the way she addresses him and the “confidence of a monarch” suggests that she’s also a royal in disguise, but the “usual” servants’ garb makes it unclear.  Her nickname runs into the same issue S’s does, in that it separates me from the setting a bit.

I’m sure I will have comments on the world’s theology as it gets fleshed out.  I apologize in advance :) 

In the meantime (with the caveat that none of the following is meant to be argumentative or dismissive. I don’t think it should come across that way, but text tone is always hard…), I did want to point out a small concern with the “If the creator made us…” line.  It’s hard for me to not see it as a throw away one-liner trying to call out inconsistencies with Abrahamic religions. Which makes me wonder how close a parallel the religion is supposed to be to Islam.  If it’s supposed to be a strict parallel (I’d recommend not going this route), you’re going to run into far bigger issues related to how the religion is expressed in the culture.  And if it’s not a strict parallel, I’m not sure what the takeaway should be.

I don’t know as much about Islam as I do about Protestantism/Catholicism, and I’ve seen similar arguments in that realm, but they never quite hold water for what Christianity actually says. I see the point that’s trying to be made, and the argument has weight behind it if presented properly, but the wording here is setting up a straw man argument of a different theological point altogether (one that isn’t really relevant) that interferes with it being a credible point about creators making mistakes. It comes close to where the real complication/supposed inconsistency lies, but ignores a pretty big detail of Christian theology to make its statement.  It doesn’t entirely misrepresent Christian theology (maybe…I’d have to think about that), but it definitely oversimplifies it and misses where the real “gotcha!” point would be.  And if this is supposed to be a fantasy setting that doesn’t align with a real-world religion anyway, I’m not sure what it’s trying to do. 

If you’re planning to go in-depth in developing the world’s religion, and D will be giving a thorough explanation of both that religion’s theology and this potential conflict with it, that’s one thing, but if it’s meant to be a one-line comment on a real-world religion, you might be getting yourself in trouble here, because it’s cherry-picking aspects of a religion without acknowledging that no single component of a religion exists in a vacuum.

TLDR: The line feels a little too on the nose, and it makes me antsy when Christianity (or other things, but it’s the one I know things about) is misrepresented or simplified beyond recognition to prove a point. Especially when I agree that there’s a point there to be made and it’s not being shown in the best light.  

Ultimately, I’d probably recommend leaning a little away from the direct Abrahamic religion parallels unless you’re able to make it clear what is comparable and what is different and how the setup of your world affects and is affected by that.

Pg 3:

“trying to get rid of me.” *snort*  Though I am also sympathetic with her inability to find reliable sources. Hate when that happens.

“catch you later” there are a number of things like this, where the dialogue feels far more modern and casual than the setting implies.

Pg 4:

Ah. She is a servant. Oops. I’d probably try to make her seem a little more deferential to S, even if they’re friends. That doesn’t have to mean groveling at his feet or being overawed, but a note of some of the more automatic behaviors that she’s likely to have developed while working around royalty.

Do we know who J- is yet?  Ah. Next line.

“Maybe he should go easier on them.” I like that he realizes that he’s put Y- in a difficult position, but am a little disappointed that he would do so intentionally. The reasons following are alright, but still feel a little off if he seems to take servants/guards more seriously than his peers would.  A personal guard might help. Someone whose primary job is to keep S safe, and therefore has a clearer line of authority.  Especially if these trips are something S does regularly. If he worries about the guards getting in trouble for it, it seems like something he might have tried to find a solution to.

The wording in the sentence before the section break is a little confusing, but I really like the hook into the next section.

Pg 5:

I know there’s a bit of a trope of people giving away disguises by using titles, but if S is really concerned about being caught and he does this regularly, I’d expect him to be more careful of which guard he’s bringing.

Pg 6:

Runaway sister seems to come out of the blue. Might help to have him reference that he’s going to see her before now to give their wandering a little more focus.

Pg 7:

“gave them an excuse to wear full veils…” “Them” being the guard and S (I didn’t think the guard had a crystal thing)? S and his father on other trips?

The last paragraph on this page mentions Ki- invaders, Sha-, Xa- empire in addition to giving more information about Hu, and making passing reference to the HR, who we don’t know much about yet.  That’s a lot to follow in one paragraph (a situation that I am fully sympathetic to, having run into it…oh, once or twice [once or twice today, that is…] in my chapters)

Pg 8:

I like the detail of him paying more attention to their emotions than to their words.

“rattlesnakes” – vipers? Tarantulas? Some similar unwelcome creature? I think rattlesnakes are mostly a North American thing. Depending on what you’re trying to do with cultural associations.

Pg 10:

I think some of this conversation would stick better if we knew what S is expecting the angel to signify.  I feel like angels don’t have clear enough tropes attached to them for me to know if this is supposed to be a terrifying thing or an exciting thing, and S’s reactions aren’t giving me any clues.  This also seems like something that would be worth bringing in above. That this is what he’s intentionally searching for. So that the wandering feels more direct and intentional, even if it’s a little meandering because he’s looking for specific information.

Pg 11:

The explanation here feels a little info dumpy. I’d try to figure out what we need here and now, and what can be filled in later when we have a better sense of the framework of things.

Pg 14:

I almost think this should be two chapters. One with him sneaking out and getting back, ending with him being “caught” by his brother, then the rest of this conversation.

The destruction of the crystal collection comes out of the blue, and while it seems like it should be a big deal, I don’t know enough about it significance for it to hit very hard.

I don’t really know anything about Z at this point, so S connecting the dots and accusing her here is less engaging than if I’d had reason to sort of connect the dots along with him. I think if there was more given about her being tied to revolutionaries (or something similar) and seems to be on the HR’s bad side, that would be helpful.

Pg 16:

Do we know anything about the FC?  My Islam-parallel paranoia is filling him in as a great prophet of some sort, but I don’t know what that means in this world (and ties things close enough to a real-world religion to put me on-edge to expect pitfalls) We get some information here, but he is mentioned a few times through the chapter without  any explanation.

Does J not know where Z is? If she’s within the city, doesn’t he have the ability to track her down?

The questions here at the end would be more engaging if I’d had a better sense of the significance of them, but I think there was a little too much going on to process why S would be asking those specific questions.

Closing line could use a little more detail. Though I think part of that comes from the above point of not having a good sense of the significance of the questions. Because of that, I’m not having a lot of luck guessing what he’s feeling here, or what expression he would be trying to hide.

 

Overall:

Despite my cautiousness about the way the religion is presented (which, really, probably doesn’t bother 95% of people. So there’s that), I really like the worldbuilding and setting, and am excited to learn more about them.

I mentioned a couple of things I think could be shifted around a bit to come across more clearly, but the ideas themselves make me want to read on to figure out where the story is going from here.

Full apologies for the rabbit trails. Depending on what your goals are on that front, you’re welcome to either ignore them or send a message to pick my brain on it further.

 

Thanks for submitting! I enjoyed reading :) 

 

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On 1/13/2022 at 0:21 PM, C_Vallion said:

Ultimately, I like the setting and worldbuilding a lot, but would be careful about what parallels you’re drawing to *Islamic* Arabia vs. a desert culture like we’d see in Arabia whether or not Islam was involved.  Especially with the characters and themes we’ll probably be dealing with.

Sticking closer to the former, you’ll probably find yourself running into a lot of pitfalls regarding how you’re presenting the religion and its interaction with the culture. If you don’t have a good handle on the theology of Islam or other monotheistic religions, I’d tread lightly in how you’re representing one in a story that will push back against anyone holding those beliefs.

There’s certainly a place to challenge said beliefs, and I think having an intersex protagonist is a good way to do that in the way I think you might be trying to. However, I think an intersex protagonist in a setting where there’s a pretty strictly two-gendered culture achieves the same goal without needing to do too much in-depth theological study to make sure you’re not running the risk of misrepresenting a set of religious beliefs [I have a comment about page 2 related to this]. You just want to make sure that the practice of the in-world religion would imply the gender norms/views you’re setting up.

 Representing real-world religions in fantasy settings can be really tricky because it’s hard to make it clear what aspects are being presented as comparable and what aspects are presented as part of the fantasy world.  Describing “Islamic Arabia with normalization of alcohol and a lack of gender segregation” very quickly ceases to be Islamic Arabia. Which is probably a safer bet anyway unless you’re really familiar with Islam or have someone who knows their theology who you can bounce ideas off of (if it was Protestantism/Catholicism, I’d volunteer. I’ve done enough study to poke a stick at tricky spots there. But I don’t know enough about Islam or Islamic cultures to be helpful as any sort of sensitivity reader or research source on that front).  I’d probably recommend taking a few clear steps further away from historical Arabia on the religion front to avoid some of those pitfalls.

Glad to hear this because this is actually exactly what I want. The issue I'm running into is that a lot of what's normal in the setting that's associated with Islam (veils, polygyny, ect.) didn't originate with Islam in Arabia, and make a lot of sense for a culture set in a desert. I do think there are probably a few too many details in there that I based off Islam though and I can try to trim those back. 

The main thing I'm wondering is if having this culture be monotheistic at all is the right choice. My rationale for that is otherwise the world ends up with a sort of "each race is so different from the others and has their own god" which was the original historical setup of the world and is kinda a tired trope in fantasy. Hmm... I'll be sure to do more thinking on this front. Even if I do keep it monotheistic the whole setup of the religion may be too close to Islam, too. With FC being a great prophet figure like you inferred. 

I'm wondering if calling out "angels" is hurting this as well since as I understand it they're mostly associated with abrahamic religions. I wonder if there's a better way to frame "divine messenger" in a way that still gives the same weight. 

On 1/13/2022 at 0:21 PM, C_Vallion said:

If you’re planning to go in-depth in developing the world’s religion, and D will be giving a thorough explanation of both that religion’s theology and this potential conflict with it, that’s one thing, but if it’s meant to be a one-line comment on a real-world religion, you might be getting yourself in trouble here, because it’s cherry-picking aspects of a religion without acknowledging that no single component of a religion exists in a vacuum.

 

Kind of, but iirc it's mostly religion from a historical lens rather than a theological one. So yeah maybe it makes sense to shift further away. I think my issue is that I'm so used to the framework of abrahamic religions that it's hard not to default to (my incomplete idea of) that. I'd be happy to hear any more comments as we go along! :)

On 1/13/2022 at 0:21 PM, C_Vallion said:

“rattlesnakes” – vipers? Tarantulas? Some similar unwelcome creature? I think rattlesnakes are mostly a North American thing. Depending on what you’re trying to do with cultural associations.

Oh really! Yep I looked it up and you're right there. I think vipers might be what he's looking for. 

On 1/13/2022 at 0:21 PM, C_Vallion said:

I think some of this conversation would stick better if we knew what S is expecting the angel to signify.  I feel like angels don’t have clear enough tropes attached to them for me to know if this is supposed to be a terrifying thing or an exciting thing, and S’s reactions aren’t giving me any clues.  This also seems like something that would be worth bringing in above. That this is what he’s intentionally searching for. So that the wandering feels more direct and intentional, even if it’s a little meandering because he’s looking for specific information.

 

This comment highlights that I maybe need more meat here because the truth is that currently S has no idea what it signifies. He (kinda) has opinions about what the angel represents in the abstract but doesn't know what to make of one appearing right in front of him now. But it makes sense for this to be where the story develops, not the stuff at the end that there's no context for.  

On 1/13/2022 at 0:21 PM, C_Vallion said:

The destruction of the crystal collection comes out of the blue, and while it seems like it should be a big deal, I don’t know enough about it significance for it to hit very hard.

I don’t really know anything about Z at this point, so S connecting the dots and accusing her here is less engaging than if I’d had reason to sort of connect the dots along with him. I think if there was more given about her being tied to revolutionaries (or something similar) and seems to be on the HR’s bad side, that would be helpful.

Hmm I can definitely see why this is coming across this way and I do kind of agree about the multiple chapters thing. Z is the other PoV character so just seeing her first probably helps tbh. I'll think this over. I think this ties in well to what you were saying about needing more from the angel since I'd need a new thread to end this on anyways. 

Thanks for your thoughts! :)

On 1/12/2022 at 10:43 AM, Mandamon said:

I thought he couldn't control it?

This is one of the things I was wondering if it would be unclear. The crystal provides a protective aura that nullifies all psychic powers, but if it's physically covered then the aura disappeared and psychic powers such as telepathy can work on the person.

On 1/12/2022 at 10:43 AM, Mandamon said:

interesting. But this is pretty rare, right? Would only intersex people be male with his coloring?

Intersex and trans, yeah. Specifically, the characters don't know this (S doesn't and some of the scholar types know a little bit), but to have the coloring someone has to have 2 or more X chromosomes. 

On 1/12/2022 at 10:43 AM, Mandamon said:

--So here I'm a little confused and I think the tell rather than show is making it more confusing. Maybe introduce another person who is a telepath and the crystal works as normal to show us the difference? Doens't have to be here. I'm fine knowing he's an empath for now. Bringing in telepaths confuses the issue.

This is a good idea. There's a telepath in the next chapter (I might bump the talk with J back so can't count on that) so that can carry through. I think the main point the story wanted to convey here was that S being an empath is rare rather than the standard (as one might assume if that's the first one they're shown), but I think I can convey that without mentioning telepaths.

On 1/12/2022 at 10:43 AM, Mandamon said:

2. I think it's actually made more confusing the few info dumps. Taking those out or making them smaller would remove those questions until you have time to answer them.

Good to hear! I'll do another pass on them. 

Thanks for your thoughts, everyone! :) 

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26 minutes ago, Ace of Hearts said:

The main thing I'm wondering is if having this culture be monotheistic at all is the right choice. My rationale for that is otherwise the world ends up with a sort of "each race is so different from the others and has their own god" which was the original historical setup of the world and is kinda a tired trope in fantasy. Hmm... I'll be sure to do more thinking on this front. Even if I do keep it monotheistic the whole setup of the religion may be too close to Islam, too. With FC being a great prophet figure like you inferred. 

I will say that avoiding a monotheistic setup is probably the easiest single thing that would pull it away from seeming like Islam.  

I think there are other ways to have a polytheistic setup without it seeming like the different races have their own gods.  Lois McMaster Bujold's World of Five Gods books is probably the best example I can think of. Where there are four gods everyone in the surrounding area agrees on, and a fifth that some view as a god and some view as a demon depending on culture.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_of_the_Five_Gods  

I also just generally really enjoyed those books for having non-standard fantasy protagonists. Curse of Chalion's Caz being a guy in his mid-thirties who ends up as a tutor, and Ista  from Paladin of Souls is an older widow who is tired of being treated as such, and in an attempt to get away, sets out on a supposed "pilgrimage" (because it's the most socially acceptable excuse she can find to get away from the boredom). 

But anyway.

Having any sort of multiple-god setup separates it from Islam, but you don't need a full pantheon.  And having a priest or saint or prophet that some cultures sort of deify for some heroic feat in the past but other cultures don't consider a deity might be a good way to make some small variations that don't feel like the usual "this group worships this deity. This group worships this deity" setup. 

1 hour ago, Ace of Hearts said:

I'm wondering if calling out "angels" is hurting this as well since as I understand it they're mostly associated with abrahamic religions. I wonder if there's a better way to frame "divine messenger" in a way that still gives the same weight. 

This is also a good thing to consider.  I figure the term angel has you fighting the Christmas-angel image or the more varied and terrifying Biblical descriptions for various angel-subtypes.
Maybe some sort of magical creature that acts as a divine messenger? Whether that's an existing animal that people consider sacred or something made up entirely. 

1 hour ago, Ace of Hearts said:

I think my issue is that I'm so used to the framework of abrahamic religions that it's hard not to default to (my incomplete idea of) that. I'd be happy to hear any more comments as we go along! :)

This definitely makes a lot of sense. Though even within abrahamic religions, the frameworks vary quite a bit. 

You can be sure you'll get more comments as we go along :P 

1 hour ago, Ace of Hearts said:

This comment highlights that I maybe need more meat here because the truth is that currently S has no idea what it signifies. He (kinda) has opinions about what the angel represents in the abstract but doesn't know what to make of one appearing right in front of him now. But it makes sense for this to be where the story develops, not the stuff at the end that there's no context for.  

Gotcha. Yeah, I think that's fine as long as we are aware of what he does and doesn't understand. I think getting a sense of "I know it's important because my brother thought it was important enough to die for" and that that's driving his search for information would be a fix for what I thought was missing. 

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On 1/10/2022 at 11:33 AM, Ace of Hearts said:
1. Points of interest/engagement? Positive qualities?
 

The middle section in the market and near the end, the exchange with the brother were the most engaging parts for me. 

You also do a good job bringing in details about the world at a good pace. 

On 1/10/2022 at 11:33 AM, Ace of Hearts said:
2. What's confusing here? I'm expecting there to be quite a bit since I tried to keep exposition at a minimum.
 

I felt a little overwhelmed by the first few pages for some reason and didn't engage right away, but I wan't really confused. I thinking the minimal exposition worked pretty well. 

On 1/10/2022 at 11:33 AM, Ace of Hearts said:

3. If you were in charge of rewriting this chapter, what would you do and why?

I would probably trim the begining. Maybe open with the mc in the market already. 

I would also try to re-word the discussion about transness if you kept it. Maybe not use the "born in the wrong body" thing as a way to explain it. 

On 1/10/2022 at 11:33 AM, Ace of Hearts said:

How do you feel about the setting?

I felt like it worked better than the last version of this story. I got more vibes of it being a fictional culture this time and not specifically an arabic culture put in a fictional setting. But I'm not part of the people you're referencing either, so I'm not sure how much authority I have on the topic. 

 

I didn't really make notes while reading. 

My overall reaction was I got a little bogged down in the opening and almost wonder if you spent too much time explaining the character's body before actually getting to the plot, motivations, and stakes. That was the one part where you had  a lot of exposition and it felt a bit heavy handed, or it just came too soon. I think it's fine to have that explanation, but once the story is a little more underway. Once we got to the market part, the character was working towards an objective. But then he got the info he needed, and the the scene with the brother introduced some new issue that may or may not be related.

But other than those few things, I am intrigued and looking forward to reading more (and hopefully being more timely next time).

 

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Figured I'd go back and read this one before doing this week's.

Overall

I appreciate the work in terms of what I expect to be a queer-friendly narrative. I appreciate the inclusion of the lesbian princess, the friend who is pro-trans, and the attempt at intersex inclusion. These are all good.

My concern draws from what I see as a setup to use an intersex character as a lynchpin in a 'queer people should have rights' argument. (I also have issues with how the intersex condition is portrayed, but that's discussed below). It's important that the narrative does not conflate intersex issues with gay or trans issues. While there is some overlap, they are not the same thing. A sizable portion of the intersex community do not consider themselves queer at all. I'd suggest to be mindful of this as you continue writing. If your MC is going to have issues due to his biology, make it clear those are different issues than his sister's lesbianism. Make it clear that trans issues are not relevant, as our MC has been vocal about not being trans. If you intend this for publication, you'll need a paid sensitivity reader from the intersex community to help out (even if you, yourself, are intersex, as this hits a lot of sensitive areas for the community).

Narrative wise, there's no inciting incident. The first few pages are interesting, but with no plot movement, the first chapter lags. I'd suggest cutting all but the first few pages and moving chapter two up, assuming it has a plot movement section that could be the kickoff for the book. All the information S gathered in the market just blew past me because I A) wasn't super invested in S yet and B.) didn't yet care about the world and C) was searching for THE MOMENT when the book narrative really starts

I think you have the start of an interesting world here, and of course I'm always excited for intersex leads. But so many authors have done it poorly that I tend to be wary.

As I go

- pg 2: Okay. You've mixed cat and bird type intersex traits with human ones. I have...feelings about this. This sort of patchwork in humans does occur, but tends to be a result of one twin absorbing the other in utero. I understand this is fantasy, but unless you are going to have actual cat or bird people in it, I'd suggest being clear this is a failed twin issue, so as to not fall into erasure territory. Or tie them more directly to an exact intersex condition. Reading this in a book in a bookstore, it would make me uncomfortable.

- pg 2: You’d make a pretty lady <-- Does S want to be a girl? Does he not get to choose his gender? I have many questions and increasing discomfort, especially when his discomfort is right there on page one.

- pg 2: who claim their souls were put in the bodies of the opposite sex <-- this is a transgender issue, not an intersex issue. Please do not conflate the two. This would be where I would put the book down in a bookstore.

- pg 2: I came out of the womb as a boy <-- sounds like he came out of the womb intersex

- and then it turns out our MC isn't trans, and vocally so. Marginally confused now

- pg 8: no inciting incident yet, unless the intersex issue is supposed to be the reader hook. If it is, it needs some tightening, per above

- pg 8: I'm skimming all the political talk. I don't care enough yet about the world and characters to invest in it. Searching for that inciting incident

- end of page ten is the background info that would have been nice in page two or three, to hook the reader. Although still no inciting incident

- pg 14: Though the doctors said that Si’s conditions might make him infertile regardless.  <-- As calico cats are not infertile as faras I know, this indicates that this is a human intersex condition. Hence you definitely need to lean into the more human aspects of it

- pg 16: so this fantasy land is homophobic? 

Edited by kais
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P1 “The empathic fear… slithered back a few centimeters.” I’m not sure whether to interpret this as the guard becoming more or less fearful. Also, describing an emotion with such physicality seems odd.

“Though S did know…” You have two clauses in this sentence that both start with “though.” Also, I’m pretty sure “sploting” isn’t a word, and have spent far too much time trying to decide whether I mind.

I also had a hard time following his explanation on skin colour here. I think part of the problem is that I actually have no idea, other than these descriptions, what people actually look like, even whether they’re human/humanoid or not (the “calico” description threw me).

P2 “Why should the guard care even if he did feel like a girl?” Yeah, I’m uncertain what S is trying to get of this conversation with the guard other than “do I look like the ruler’s brother” or why sex and gender is featuring so prominently in the conversation if all S really needs to figure out is “did my royal eye markings go away.”

I’m struggling a bit with the contrast between an explicitly intersex lead and a culture that seems to have a very strongly enforced gender binary, especially without a clear understanding of where the POV character feels he fits in this. Also, D’s “born in the wrong body” line seems more germane to experiencing gender dysphoria than it does to being intersex (I’m sure they sometimes coincide, but they’re separate things).

P3: “D’s eyes light up” should be “lit”

So… what was D doing here to begin with? I don’t have a good grasp of where S is or why these specific people are with him.

“S knew guards well enough to enter a meditative state…” I get the intent here, but the sentence is confusing. Consider simplifying, ie “S braced himself for the spike of panic that he knew was coming.”

P5 “S went over to a fruit vendor who didn’t send fear through his empathic link…” Sounds like the fear is or is not being sent deliberately at S, but I think it’s about S approaching someone who doesn’t seem fearful of him?

“He sensed a spike of fear behind him.” That’s the second time the phrase “spike of fear” has been used.

P6 “Returned the core to the merchant” why is he giving a merchant his garbage?

 “Following his father through H as a child gave S…” seems like he is going to a particular street, but then this is contradicted by the next couple of sentences. I stumbled here. Also, “gave him enough familiarity” should really be “had given” here.

So S is passing as female? I thought he was visibly intersex.

“It was a cover story his father had come up with,” fair enough, but if S is on an official mission why doesn’t he just say that to the guard? In the first few pages it’s presented as S going out of his own accord, even if (he thinks) he has a good reason for doing so.

Hmm… This market segment is starting to drag. I don’t have a clear idea of what S wants to discover or why, and he doesn’t seem to be hitting on anything that surprises him or changes his actions in any way.

P7: I’m still confused as to how this skin colour inheritance works. It seems to be tied to both race and sex but I don’t understand how.

“The people he talked to criticized his father…” wait, is his father the ruler, or his older brother?

“By the time S reached the southern market, he was ready to give up.” Still not sure what he’s trying to accomplish here. I think we need some clearer stakes and a chance to really feel the tension in whatever S is trying to accomplish – which summary really doesn’t do. Consider picking an incident in the market that is emblematic of what he’s trying to do and the problems he’ll face, and reducing the summary to a sentence or two.

P10 “Finally, a lead!” This is the first indication we’ve had of what he’s actually looking for. I’d rather establish this up front and then have him fail (or not!) to find it. Right now, it feels like he’s wandering aimlessly, because we don't understand his purpose.

“...and when he did, it was time to look into the history…” Why didn’t he do that before going out into the city?

More generally, I’m baffled by S’s approach here. If was what he was looking for, why didn't he just ask? Especially for an opening chapter, I’d prefer to see the protagonist take a direct approach. And if he can’t, for some reason, I want to see that, and to understand why.

P12 “...as telepath psions” Is this different than empathic psions? If yes, I missed it on first read. If not, this is repeat information.

p13 “S was amazed at how Y managed to keep his face neutral with relief in his empath link” the subject of this sentence switches from Y (keeping his face neutral) to S (who’s experiencing emotions through his link).

“keeping them out of the public eye” I’m not sure what this means in this context.

“One of the insurgents broke in…” Uhhh this seems like a big deal. Maybe lead with that?

And surely this disruption would be reflected in the setting somehow! I’d like to see S getting home from his mission feeling SOMETHING about what he did or didn’t accomplish… and then getting home and finding something is clearly wrong.

P15 “Better S than one of the palace interrogators” sure, but why does S think he’d be doing this instead of one of the inquisitors rather than in addition to? His brother clearly doesn’t trust him.

I’d also like to see S and J’s feelings about their sister’s involvement (or presumed involvement) punched up here. ESPECIALLY if Z is as involved with the revolutionaries as the later pages suggest (rather than just dating one of them).

“Go ahead and practice closing your heart… I don’t imagine that this will be a problem for you.” I originally interpreted this as J saying “I don’t imagine closing your heart” will be a problem which was confusing because he’d said the opposite above. It took several reads to realize he meant leaving the person in one piece wouldn’t be a problem. Maybe reorder these sentences for clarity. And I’m confused as to why J agrees to this. I get that S is manipulating J by letting him read his emotions, but it seems to me that that manipulation would be fairly transparent, even without the apparently visible hand gestures.

“Why did he show up on the day of J’s ascenion to holy ruler..” This is the first indication we’ve had of this. Again, I feel like this would be a pretty big deal.

Overall: I’m interested in the setting, I’m enjoying S’s POV so far and I find the line-by-line writing pretty engaging (though there is definitely some room for tightening up).

I think this chapter needs clear stakes and focus. There are several threads that significant screen time, but there's no dominant concern. I think one of them needs to be the focus of the chapter with the other two being mentioned, set up for later, but in the background. And we definitely need a clear sense of the protagonist’s goals and and why they’re important. What are the stakes for S in this story?

On 1/10/2022 at 8:33 AM, Ace of Hearts said:

How do you feel about the setting?

In a general sense, I was interested but not in love. I think that comes down as much to lacking information as an actual judgement.

For me, the only things tying this to a specific real-world culture were the references to setting and dress. I didn't spot anything setting-wise that struck me as problematic (assuming that the narrative deals with the homophobia, but it seems like you're setting up to do that) but I am not well-versed enough in the history or cultures you're drawing from to be any sort of reliable source on this.

On 1/10/2022 at 8:33 AM, Ace of Hearts said:

3. If you were in charge of rewriting this chapter, what would you do and why?

I try to avoid being overly prescriptive, but since you asked... ;)

Pick a thread and stick with it. S wanders through the market chasing rumours of the RA because - insert compelling reason here - and the conversations he has are tense, because people recognize his heritage (foreshadowing the conflict with the refugees) or the fact that he's intersex (giving us context for how intersex people are viewed for the culture and how he positions himself within it). Still, one or two of these conversations and maybe a very brief summary, he finds a solid lead! He also finds some disturbing implications and/or complicating factors, but they won't stop him from moving forward. Then he heads back to the palace because oh yeah, his brother is becoming an emperor today is probably going to be super mad that he missed the ceremony, only to find that: oh no! something is wrong with the palace! There's been a break in! And saving the family revelations for Ch2.

Or to choose a second thread, and probably the one I'd go for: S has recently gotten back from the market with troubling news of (trouble with refugees/rumours of the RA/both/some other actionable thing) and is determined to do something about it, but is interrupted by his responsibilities/obligations relating his brother's ascension to the throne. Maybe he even approaches his brother after the ceremony with a plan to do something about one of these things, but they're interrupted by trouble in the palace: somebody has broken in and destroyed the valuable MacGuffins! The Emperor goes to deal with it and S tags along because nobody's paying attention to him - and they BOTH recognize the perpetrator as their sister's lover. J is furious and swears revenge and torture, and S intervenes and talks him down. The next chapter is the interrogation.

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Ooh more feedback! Thanks everyone!

On 1/25/2022 at 0:23 PM, kais said:

My concern draws from what I see as a setup to use an intersex character as a lynchpin in a 'queer people should have rights' argument. (I also have issues with how the intersex condition is portrayed, but that's discussed below). It's important that the narrative does not conflate intersex issues with gay or trans issues. While there is some overlap, they are not the same thing. A sizable portion of the intersex community do not consider themselves queer at all. I'd suggest to be mindful of this as you continue writing. If your MC is going to have issues due to his biology, make it clear those are different issues than his sister's lesbianism. Make it clear that trans issues are not relevant, as our MC has been vocal about not being trans. If you intend this for publication, you'll need a paid sensitivity reader from the intersex community to help out (even if you, yourself, are intersex, as this hits a lot of sensitive areas for the community).

This is super helpful; thanks! I really appreciate having this inside perspective (though of course I understand that I need to get a broader view of the community too!). I think my pitfall here is that I did research on the condition itself, but I haven't learned from intersex spaces since that's not really how I've been taught to do learn. So a lot of the pitfalls I was told to avoid from articles written about intersex issues were... very very obvious and didn't cover stuff like this, since they were probably written for people who don't really understand what intersex even is. 

I'm glad you mention the trans thing. How do I make it clear that trans issues aren't present without, well, bringing up those trans issues with regards to S being intersex? My worry was that if I just ignore it but everyone sees him as having female body characteristics, he'll come across as trans rather than intersex. 

Most of S' "queer people not fitting into society" stuff is around the other ways he's queer. I assume that's fine so long as I'm clear with drawing the lines? From his perspective being intersex highlights biological and racial traits... which maybe there are still issues with, idk. To some extent though I think there is an element in the story of "people of all types who don't fit in need to band together" and that's not something I want to compromise. I hope that if I'm better at drawing those lines between intersex and (other) queer it won't be an issue to have him feel like a part of this band of misfits?

I'm also guessing that I should shift more towards "people should be precise when talking about this even if that wouldn't be usual for people in this culture?" I was already trying to lean that direction and it sounds like I need to go further? 

7 hours ago, Silk said:

Pick a thread and stick with it. S wanders through the market chasing rumours of the RA because - insert compelling reason here - and the conversations he has are tense, because people recognize his heritage (foreshadowing the conflict with the refugees) or the fact that he's intersex (giving us context for how intersex people are viewed for the culture and how he positions himself within it). Still, one or two of these conversations and maybe a very brief summary, he finds a solid lead! He also finds some disturbing implications and/or complicating factors, but they won't stop him from moving forward. Then he heads back to the palace because oh yeah, his brother is becoming an emperor today is probably going to be super mad that he missed the ceremony, only to find that: oh no! something is wrong with the palace! There's been a break in! And saving the family revelations for Ch2.

 

 

On 1/25/2022 at 0:23 PM, kais said:

Narrative wise, there's no inciting incident. The first few pages are interesting, but with no plot movement, the first chapter lags. I'd suggest cutting all but the first few pages and moving chapter two up, assuming it has a plot movement section that could be the kickoff for the book. All the information S gathered in the market just blew past me because I A) wasn't super invested in S yet and B.) didn't yet care about the world and C) was searching for THE MOMENT when the book narrative really starts

This matches up with what I've heard from other readers as well. My current plan is to focus more on him finding RA in this chapter--that is, have them actually make an appearance--and save the family stuff for S' next chapter since that's when he actually talks to Z's partner. 

Thanks a ton for your thoughts! :) 

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9 hours ago, Silk said:

Also, D’s “born in the wrong body” line seems more germane to experiencing gender dysphoria than it does to being intersex (I’m sure they sometimes coincide, but they’re separate things).

I'll second this. While 'born in the wrong body' is sometimes (certainly not always) used by trans people, depending on their level of dysphoria, intersex is very much a medical situation. I wasn't born into the wrong body, my body has complex medical issues that require intervention to allow me to live a healthy life. Trans issues tend to be about fitting in, body dysphoria, mental health. These can happen with intersex issues too of course but ours are almost always dominated by 'what surgeries/hormones/medicines do I have to take to not die.'

1 hour ago, Ace of Hearts said:

'm glad you mention the trans thing. How do I make it clear that trans issues aren't present without, well, bringing up those trans issues with regards to S being intersex? My worry was that if I just ignore it but everyone sees him as having female body characteristics, he'll come across as trans rather than intersex. 

 

It felt like you were trying to set this up with the sister's comments, but I think the response from our MC wasn't strong enough. Because you're trying to separate out a small community from an even smaller one within the microcosm of queer space, I'd just be direct and upfront about it. Have the sister keep her 'born in the wrong body' line. Have the MC respond with something sharp and clear, like 'I'm a man with a medical condition and that's it. Stop trying to make me something I'm not.' (which is 100% a line I've given to doctors on several occasions). You might have to hang a lantern on it a few times throughout the book to really get it across to readers, but this is not a place to be subtle. 

1 hour ago, Ace of Hearts said:

I think my pitfall here is that I did research on the condition itself,

The problem is there are so many types of intersex conditions, and they are all distinct and unique. Researching 'intersex' isn't going to help. You'd need to pick a specific type and do deep dives on that particular medical area. Then find the community of those people. Is your character a chimera? Androgen insensitive? Have NCAH? Heck, even PCOS is being counted as an intersex condition now in some spaces due to the hormone issues. And each condition has its own community, and they have their own culture and how they want their issues talked about and discussed from outsider perspectives. 

1 hour ago, Ace of Hearts said:

I hope that if I'm better at drawing those lines between intersex and (other) queer it won't be an issue to have him feel like a part of this band of misfits?

Ehhh. You're going to have to do a lot of groundwork to pull this off, or you'll just conflate intersex with queer issues. It'll mean having your MC basically constantly refuting that he's queer due to his calico issue, and that instead he's queer due to whatever else. Over and over. You have an opportunity here to make a really powerful statement about intersex and queer interplay, but because you're doing it from outside the community it will take a lot of careful planning.

As an example, every time I meet someone new from the queer community I have to deal with this issue. My body clearly exhibits sex traits from both sides and I am assumed to be trans. Medical providers do the same thing. And part of it is the body thing and part of it is because I'm queer too, but not because I'm intersex, but because I'm nonbinary. And it is exhausting to constantly have to separate out the two, and then more often than not, be put on a pedestal by any trans people around, or used as a lynchpin in an argument about the validity of being trans. I am not trans is a phrase I have to use at least once a day, if I'm engaged in queer spaces. So I would be shocked if your MC didn't have to navigate similar issues.

2 hours ago, Ace of Hearts said:

I'm also guessing that I should shift more towards "people should be precise when talking about this even if that wouldn't be usual for people in this culture?" I was already trying to lean that direction and it sounds like I need to go further? 

Hard yes on this.

 

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1 hour ago, kais said:

The problem is there are so many types of intersex conditions, and they are all distinct and unique.

That's a good point. What S has (currently as written) is Klinefelter Syndrome. Skin color is mapped to the X chromosome for these people so S has the same blotchy skin patterns (due to X-inactivation) as any other mixed-race person with 2+ X chromosomes (which the culture simplifies to women). This falls into the "was vaguer than I maybe should have been due to the in-universe culture not having a ton of knowledge around this stuff." And me knowing more about the biological side than the social side since maybe this hits on bad tropes I'm unaware of. 

1 hour ago, kais said:

Ehhh. You're going to have to do a lot of groundwork to pull this off, or you'll just conflate intersex with queer issues. It'll mean having your MC basically constantly refuting that he's queer due to his calico issue, and that instead he's queer due to whatever else. Over and over. You have an opportunity here to make a really powerful statement about intersex and queer interplay, but because you're doing it from outside the community it will take a lot of careful planning.

As an example, every time I meet someone new from the queer community I have to deal with this issue. My body clearly exhibits sex traits from both sides and I am assumed to be trans. Medical providers do the same thing. And part of it is the body thing and part of it is because I'm queer too, but not because I'm intersex, but because I'm nonbinary. And it is exhausting to constantly have to separate out the two, and then more often than not, be put on a pedestal by any trans people around, or used as a lynchpin in an argument about the validity of being trans. I am not trans is a phrase I have to use at least once a day, if I'm engaged in queer spaces. So I would be shocked if your MC didn't have to navigate similar issues.

If your gut says that it's a bad idea to do what I'm proposing I do want to take that seriously. I do want to have "people who don't fit in banding together" be a running theme here (though hopefully not in a heavy-handed way), and I think it's unavoidable to some degree since the protags and non-antagonist supporting characters are all misfits in some capacity. In that case, do you think I should remove S having Klinefelter? Should I go ahead anyway and be prepared to cut it/change the story around it in the likely event that there's a lot more work to be done?

I really appreciate the example. It really helps me get a feel for what you're talking about. And thanks for the effort you've put into explaining everything to me! I don't want to take that lightly. 

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9 hours ago, Ace of Hearts said:

If your gut says that it's a bad idea to do what I'm proposing I do want to take that seriously. I do want to have "people who don't fit in banding together" be a running theme here (though hopefully not in a heavy-handed way), and I think it's unavoidable to some degree since the protags and non-antagonist supporting characters are all misfits in some capacity. In that case, do you think I should remove S having Klinefelter? Should I go ahead anyway and be prepared to cut it/change the story around it in the likely event that there's a lot more work to be done?

I think you should write it, and just be prepared for A) edits as you go and B.) the cost of a sensitivity reader with Kleinfelters. From what I know of that condition (it isn't mine), there are an absolute ton of medical issues that tend to go along with it. Medical intervention is almost always necessary. It'll be important to include that with your character, that he has to constantly have therapy for something or other (muscles, speech, growth, etc.). He will likely be ace, or demi, or somewhere in there with Kleinfelters, too. 

It would be easier for the narrative if you did something like chimerism. You could keep the calico stuff but have it be that he absorbed his twin in utero. That doesn't come with nearly the medical issues usually. Although having all that medical stuff, now that I think about it, might help hang that lantern you need to hang. If our MC is constantly having to see doctors for comorbids, then it's a part of the conversation and the reader learns as they go, and the not trans is reinforced over and over, natively.

 

Maybe write your MC with this phrase in mind: I'm not trans, I'm just tired. I feel like that sums up a lot of intersex life in a nutshell.

 

 

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@Ace of Hearts can you put in a thread for this week's submission? I'm going to read over yours today.

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