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REVIEW: Planesrunner by Ian McDonald


Title: Planesrunner
Author: Ian McDonald
Pub Date: December 6th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A fast-paced adventure story that reads more like adult science fiction than YA science fiction.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a huge fan of Ian McDonald’s adult science fiction. His complex, multi-layered plots and penchant for near-future science fiction set in non-western cultures (Africa, India, Brazil, Turkey, etc.) have always struck me as interesting, engaging, ambitious, and structurally complex. So when I heard that Pyr was going to be releasing a new YA novel by Ian McDonald entitled Planesrunner, I jumped at the chance to read it.

McDonald has earned a large, loyal, and very much deserved following for his adult fiction, I don’t know if the decision to market this particular story as YA lay with the author, his agent, or with his publishers, but it does make reviewing the book an interesting challenge. UPDATE: but his foray into MG/YA fiction represents an interesting critical challenge. The YA and SF genres have different (though overlapping) conventions which stem from both their respective histories and their divergent audiences, and it is unclear through which lens we should look at Planesrunner. What comes first: the science fiction, or the YA?

Planesrunner is told from the perspective of Everett Singh, the fourteen year old son of a quantum physicist involved in the development of doorways onto parallel worlds. Everett watches his father get kidnapped, and then finds that he alone has the clues and capabilities to rescue him.

Judged solely by the protagonist’s age, Planesrunner falls firmly into YA territory. Though the book opens in London, McDonald’s hero comes from a Punjabi background, and McDonald’s excellent ear for local cultures comes through in Everett’s voice. Particularly in the novel’s first third, McDonald paints Everett in solidly contemporary British colors, albeit filtered through his Punjabi background. Everett’s cultural background can likely best be compared to that of Jessminder “Jess” Bhamra in the excellent Bend It Like Beckham: to say that Everett is a soccer-loving British boy tells only half the story, while to say he is Punjabi does the same. This is a blend culture more accessible to western readers than the India McDonald took us to in his (adult) Cyderabad Days, but it is definitely not the whitebread England of Harry Potter. As always, I applaud McDonald’s presentation of cultural complexity.

The first third of the novel focuses on Everett’s reactions to his father’s kidnapping. From the high-powered opening, the story’s pace slows down significantly as we learn more about Everett’s family background (his parents have split up, he has a younger sister, etc.) and we get gradually introduced to our protagonist. We learn about Everett through his interactions with his mother, his soccer team buddy, the police, and his father’s co-workers. Throughout this process, we gradually learn more about the work his father does, and about the parallel worlds that he helped discover. This part of the book is written with McDonald’s typical skill, providing a good feel for Everett, his values, his cultural background, and his life. We grow to care about him, and get engaged in his desire to save his father. All of this is good, however by the standards of contemporary YA it happens rather slowly. Most contemporary YA that dives into the action the way this story does maintains and rapidly escalates the tension from page one. Here, the tension is maintained but its escalation unfolds more slowly. It is effective, but it has more of the feel of an adult novel than a typical YA story.

Once Everett deduces that his father has been taken to the parallel world of E3 and follows him through the gates, the book’s pace accelerates substantially. First, the alternate reality Everett crosses into is a vastly different London, where oil was never discovered. As a result, its 21st-century society runs on coal-powered electricity and has no access to technology we take for granted (e.g. plastics). It is a delightful and compelling steampunk world, complete with vast airship fleets. The concept of a 21st-century London where oil had never been discovered is an interesting one, and McDonald does an excellent job of rendering its technological development believably. But while he does a fine job of nailing the technological/scientific world-building, I am less sold on the cultural flavor of his alternate London, which blends contemporary and pseudo-Victorian sensibilities.

On the one hand, we see that the alternate world has values and a cultural background commensurate or at least compatible with those of our modern world. The villains in E3 are quite at home in skyscrapers, modern dress, and with modern weaponry. But they are set in opposition to a romantic rabble of airship sailors who dress, talk, and generally act like they stepped out of the Victorian era. Perhaps this disconnect is part of McDonald’s point, but upon reflection, I found myself doubtful. Nevertheless, it is a testament to McDonald’s skill at world-building that these quibbles only arose upon reflection: while reading the story, I found the world compelling, engaging, and believable.

Once in this new world, Everett quickly joins up with that staple of the steampunk sub-genre, a crew of airship pirates sailors. They are second-class citizens presented as a rough-around-the-edges but still lovable rabble, quasi-Romany in nature. The characters Everett runs into, in particular his fiesty love-interest Sen, her adoptive mother (the captain), and her Bible/Shakespeare-quoting crewman are all extremely distinct, very interesting, and very engaging. In portraying both this world and the harsh underbelly of its society, McDonald made an interesting authorial choice: most of these characters speak in polari, which IRL is a cant slang developed in the British theater community in the 17th and 18th centuries. McDonald portrays this dialect directly in dialog, making it hard to parse for the uninitiated. I found myself torn as to its effectiveness.

The strategic use of polari deepens the credibility of McDonald’s alternate world. Yet at the same time, it decreases the accessibility of that world. As an American whose only previous encounters with polari had been limited to a handful of phrases in a few episodes of Porridge while living in Europe, I found that it took real work to decode what characters in Planesrunner were saying. Interestingly, Everett had very little trouble doing so: it is possible that growing up in London, he would have had more exposure to polari than I have had growing up in the States. Readers as unfamiliar with it as I was might find that it takes a bit of effort to get through. Overall, this strategy marks an interesting choice, and one that in general McDonald pulls off effectively. However, it is a choice that I have rarely seen in YA. Experienced genre readers will probably just accept it and make use of the glossary at the end of the book, but I am less certain that YA readers will be willing to invest the same amount of effort.

The biggest weakness I found in Planesrunner was that once Everett stepped into the parallel world, it seemed as if he had entirely forgotten about the mother and younger sister he left behind. To some extent, this is a natural consequence of the plot’s focus on rescuing his father. Nevertheless, I had the impression that themes of Everett’s family introduced at the book’s opening remained unaddressed (let alone resolved) at the book’s end. Above all, it is this fact that makes the book feel more like an adult SF novel than a YA SF novel.

Themes of family, of choosing/balancing sides, and of cultural identity are all frequently explored in YA. One can argue (and I’ve done so on this blog before) that at some level all YA novels address the challenge of finding one’s place in a complex, multi-layered, and ambiguous world. McDonald sets these themes up fairly well in the opening of Planesrunner, but fails to follow through on them by its end. Themes of family get re-introduced, with the focus on Everett’s place within the airship’s “adopted family”, but it never ties back to the family he left at home. Perhaps as the series continues we will return to these themes and gain some closure. But stretching a single unresolved thematic arc across a series and without clear inflection points in each installment is something adult series may pull off, but flies in the face of typical YA conventions. It is one thing to end the plot of the first book on a cliffhanger as McDonald (more-or-less) does, but to leave thematic threads dangling (as opposed to tied, whether loosely or strongly) weakens the book’s emotional resonance.

Overall, Planesrunner is a solid adventure. Read as such, it is perfectly enjoyable. Fans of adult science fiction will find it especially satisfying, and will likely find it fast by the standards of the adult genre. Fans of YA science fiction will likely enjoy it as well, though I suspect that long-term it won’t be as memorable as more tightly themed YA novels. Readers of McDonald’s earlier work will enjoy Planesrunner for how it builds on McDonald’s strengths and how it diverges and expands on his previous patterns. However, readers looking for the thematic, structural, and sociological complexity of McDonald’s adult novels won’t find it here. That complexity may exist below the story’s surface, incorporated into the story’s world-building, but Planesrunner is a simpler, more adventure-focused story than McDonald’s earlier work. In general, I found Planesrunner a fun if only partially-satisfying read, but I am definitely invested enough to pick up the next book in the series when it comes out.

REVIEW: Lightbringer by K.D. McEntire


Title: Lightbringer
Author: K.D. McEntire
Pub Date: November 15th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Reasonably compelling characters, but the love triangle was wasted on me.

What is it with contemporary YA novels and love triangles? Maybe I wasn’t quite the lady’s man I thought I was in high school (I’m sure my ex-girlfriends and my wife are all laughing right now), but it seems like everywhere I turn in YA today, I come across a heroine torn between between two opposed romances. Team Gale vs Team Peeta. Team Edward vs Team Jacob. Clearly, I must have missed out on a defining characteristic of the teen years since I didn’t have multiple women competing for my affections. Wendy, the heroine of K.D. McEntire’s debut YA novel Lightbringer, does not have that problem. She’s got two guys fighting over her…and one of them has been dead for a long time.

Lightbringer is an interesting YA paranormal mystery. It’s got the standard love triangle (are there YA books today that don’t?) but that’s actually the least compelling facet of the book. Two entirely different facets caught my attention about Lightbringer: McEntire’s mundane, living characters, and her take on magic and death.

The book introduces us to Wendy, a teenager facing some tough times. Her mother is in a coma, her dad has to travel all the time for work, and she’s responsible for her two younger siblings. And she sees dead people, who she is duty-bound to help move out of limbo into the Light (whatever afterlife that might imply). It’s a lot for a teenager to deal with, on top of school and boys. The plot’s primary engine is Wendy’s quest to find her mother’s not-yet-dead soul, which she believes is lost somewhere in the Never, the limbo-like afterlife that certain stranded ghosts get stuck in. If ghosts stay too long in the Never, they will gradually lose their vitality and fade into Shades. If they don’t want to fade, then there’s a straightforward solution: eat the Lost, the souls of children who haven’t yet moved on. Yeah, it’s a bit dark. And McEntire’s depictions of the Walkers (the ravenous ghost-eating zombies) are chilling. A band of teenage ghosts try to protect the children from the Walkers, though they seem to be fighting a losing battle. The Never makes for a particularly compelling setting, an interesting ghost-eat-ghost parallel world that McEntire skillfully depicts. Her descriptions have an eery, ethereal quality except where the action comes hard and fast. That juxtaposition of misty language for place-setting, and concrete viscera (literally) is a highly effective combination.

Wendy, despite her ability to see the Never and send ghosts into the Light, is entirely unaware of the Never’s social complexities. For her, ghosts are ghosts. She is convinced that by sending them into the Light, she is helping them. That they might have different opinions, or that the Never’s population represents different moral choices, she is utterly unaware. All of this changes, as her quest to find her mother’s lost soul takes her deeper and more aggressively into the Never. There, she meets Piotr – one of the Riders who cares for the lost children. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything (the cover copy makes it clear) by saying that he’s one vertex of that love triangle. Of course, life and love are nothing if not complicated: he doesn’t realize that Wendy is the “Lightbringer” – a monster who destroys ghosts.

While Wendy is looking for her mother, Piotr is trying to find some of the Lost Children, who have presumably been kidnapped by the walkers. This represents a menacing divergence from the walkers’ normal behavior: typically they just eat the kids in question. But now they seem to be acting with tactics and guile, perhaps at the behest of a mysterious “White Lady”. With his experience in the Never, it is natural that Wendy should look to Piotr for help in finding her mother. As the book unfolds, their respective quests remain superficially parallel but separate. It is only through Wendy’s experiences in the living world, through her flashbacks to her relationship with her mother and her friendship with Eddie (Piotr’s rival for her affections) that the reader develops a sense of linkage between the two quests.

Much as I loved McEntire’s depiction of the Never, it was the living characters who carried the story. I wouldn’t expect a teenager who can see dead people and who is essentially duty-bound to kill them to be "normal". And she isn’t: she has issues, and how she responds to her family situation is heartrendingly believable. A grown-up might look at how she is described and shrug it off by saying that Wendy is “acting out”, but her actions are realistic, deftly handled, and most importantly – McEntire skillfully avoids any sense of authorial condescension. Wendy is engaging, and her voice rings true. Her friendship with Eddie, and their complex and shifting relationship both resonated for me in a way that the Wendy/Piotr hookup didn’t.

As a character, Piotr is quite frankly bland. His heart is in the right place, which I suppose counts for a lot, but for most of the book he felt like a placeholder character. All of the ghosts – Piotr included – are one-note characters who were removed from different time periods (one’s a Native American, one’s a flapper, we have no idea what time period Piotr’s from, etc.). Their speech patterns are peppered with dialog idiosyncrasies, which helps to make them distinct, but it does little to really flesh them out as characters. If the ghosts’ flat natures were by design, then this is some clever storytelling on McEntire’s part. It would be an interesting statement about the depth of characters who hang on, rather than move on with their after-lives. But I’m not certain that was the point McEntire was going for: the Wendy/Piotr romance undermines that point.

Wendy’s relationships with the living people in her life are much more fully realized. The scenes involving her younger siblings, who are both wrapped up in their own problems, are incredibly touching. I wanted to see more of those relationships, and to get a better understanding of how Wendy’s family dynamic worked. I really enjoyed the way Wendy’s relationship with her mother is gradually uncovered as the book progresses. The flashbacks that show Wendy learning how to use her gift, and the past/present family dynamics are all presented very well. McEntire does a good job of leaving vital truths unstated: they might get intimated, but it is up to us to make the connection. If we do, then the eventual reveal becomes that much more satisfying.

Bravely, McEntire does not skirt the moral implications of Wendy’s actions. And by the end, the book avoids offering a prescriptive solution to her quandries. Which worked well for me: the dénoument does not tie off the story with a neat little bow. Whatever conclusions she will draw from her harrowing experiences will be unpacked over the course of years (likely years in therapy). There is nothing easy about that, neither in real life, nor in well-drawn fictional characters. And that sense comes through.

The weakest aspect of the book for me was the whole love triangle aspect of it. I admit, I’m inclined to believe that love triangles in YA fiction (in particular in YA paranormal fiction) are ubiquitous to the point of being overdone. But in this case, I don’t believe that the love triangle actually added much to the story. In fact, I felt that Wendy’s relationship with Piotr detracted from the relationships with her family and (living) friends. Perhaps I would feel differently about this if the love triangle had some sort of resolution. But instead of resolving it in some fashion, it ends with a plot hole that I was simply unable to leap across. Hopefully, that plot hole will get plugged/clarified in a sequel, but the lack of resolution in this one book weakened the experience for me quite significantly. If it weren’t for the fact that the love triangle fell apart without resolving, I would happily have given this book four stars on the basis of McEntire’s creative world-building, deft writing, and excellent characterization. It has all of those elements, but the love triangle just really didn’t work for me.

Overall, I think Lightbringer is solid YA paranormal romance/mystery. As this is publisher Pyr Books’ first foray into the YA market, I think it’s a fine title to start with. Artistically, their experiment is a reasonable success (though not a category-sweeper). Despite its one significant weakness, I enjoyed Lightbringer. While I might not recommend it for everyone, I think that folks who enjoy the YA paranormal romance category will find a lot to enjoy in this book. I’m looking forward to more books from K.D. McEntire (whether in the same world or not), and I’m curious to see how Pyr will develop their YA list in the future.

Oblique Wisdom: The Secret of Evergreen Middle-Grade?


Probably right around the age of nine, I discovered Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. These books opened up a world of adventure, mystery, and wisdom for me – and are probably the reason why I love fantasy so much. Fast forward twenty years, and this past weekend I cracked open The Book of Three, the first book in the series. Reading it over the course of an afternoon (it’s a much faster read today than I remember it being), I think I stumbled on an aspect of middle-grade fiction that I think might be universal in evergreen titles (the classics that never go out of print, never stop being popular): oblique wisdom transparent for the reader but opaque for the hero.

Some Thoughts on the Heart of Middle-Grade Fiction

There is a world of difference between middle-grade (MG) and even young adult (YA) fiction. While both are lumped together as “children’s fiction,” everyone knows that an eight year old looks at the world very differently from a sixteen year old. Differences in awareness, concerns, and our ability to articulate our thoughts and emotions drive many of the fundamental differences between MG and YA books. An eight year old can love Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, but the themes and concerns of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games would likely go over that same child’s head.

Classic MG titles like The Phantom Tollbooth and Dealing with Dragons show us fundamental truths about the world. Most of these truths are foundational, and so basic that MG readers will already understand them before they ever pick up a book. Research has shown that by the age of five, kids understand and apply complex rules of “fairness” in their behavior. They might not be able to articulate those rules, or explain why something is right or wrong, but they have already formed a sense of it.

The best YA fiction helps us to negotiate the muddier waters of an adult reality. Books like Collins’ The Hunger Games, or Pullman’s The Golden Compass transition a child’s black-and-white value system to the shades of grey that (unfortuntely) operate in the adult world. But middle-grade, at its heart, is there to provide the initial vocabulary. It teaches us how to articulate values every child knows, but might not be able to otherwise express.

Fairy Tales, Learning Better, and the Role of the Teacher

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the rise of popular children’s literature. In particular, Charles Perrault, the brothers Grimm, Alexander Afanasyev, Hans Christen Andersen, and Gregory MacDonald all contributed to popularizing stories with magical characters that grew to be beloved by children in their respective countries. These early fairy tales were often based on oral storytelling traditions, and employed a remarkably consistent morphology (I recommend Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale and Luthi’s The European Folktale: Form and Nature for a detailed discussion).

In the 20th century, Robert A. Heinlein argued that all stories (irrespective of audience) could be reduced to three categories: Boy Meets Girl, the Brave Little Tailor, or the Person Who Learns Better. The vast majority of early fairy tales – and the majority of middle-grade fiction – fall into either the Brave Little Tailor or Learns Better structures. Within the confines of these archetypes, the mentor (or dispatcher, in Propp’s terminology) is a standard element. Consider Merlyn in T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, Dallben (and Coll, and Gwydion) in The Book of Three, Morwen and Kazul in Dealing with Dragons, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. What in A Wrinkle in Time, or Mrs. Frankweiler in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler:

Each of these mentors is an adult, placed by the story’s plot in a parental/guardian position relative to the story’s hero. That the hero may be a hidden monarch or a prophesied savior is immaterial for the mentor’s role. From a plotting standpoint, the mentor is there to initiate and end the adventure.

Pushing the Hero Towards Adventure

Parents typically protect the hero. They want to keep the hero guarded against all of the vicissitudes of the outside world. The mentor, however, does not. The mentor recognizes – in their infinite wisdom – that the hero needs to face danger to grow. Merlyn puts Wart in potentially life-threatening situations because he hopes the lessons will make Wart a better king. Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which fetch Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin and put them directly in harm’s way. Kazul and Morwen – ostensibly – have few qualms about placing Cimorene in what the novel’s society considers danger. In this sense, the mentor often adopts the role of dispatcher in Propp’s morphology. In some cases, as in Morwen and Kazul, the mentor can play the role of helper just as easily.

Starting Points: Explaining the Lesson at the Start of the Book

Mentors are by definition wise. And invariably they share that wisdom with the middle-grade hero before the adventure starts. Consider Dallben’s exchange with Taran the Assistant Pig-keeper:

“Tut,” said Dallben, “there are worse things. Do you set yourself to be a glorious hero? Do you believe it is all flashing swords and galloping about on horses? As for being glorious…”

“What of Prince Gwydion?” cried Taran. “Yes! I wish I might be like him!”

“I fear,” Dallben said, “that is entirely out of the question.”

“Buy why?” Taran sprang to his feet. “I know if I had the chance…”

“Why?” Dallben interrupted. “In some cases,” he said, “we learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself. This is one of those cases. I could tell you why, but at the moment it would only be more confusing. If you grow up with any kind of sense – which you sometimes make me doubt – you will very likely reach your own conclusions.

“They will probably be wrong,” he added. “However, since they will be yours, you will feel a little more satisfied with them.”

This exchange – which we find in chapter one – outlines the arc at the heart of The Book of Three. Taran obviously fails to grasp the wisdom of Dallben’s warnings – otherwise, he would never run off after Hen Wen and begin his exciting adventures. But reading this exchange, an adult reader instantly sees the timeless wisdom of Dallben’s teaching. And I would argue that a nine year old reader gets it just as well.

The Triangle of Understanding in Middle-grade Fiction

The Triangle of Understanding in Middle-grade Fiction

The reason for that is because of Dallben’s obvious wisdom. A nine year old might not be able to articulate this wisdom, to communicate it anew, yet nonetheless it strikes a chord. We know Dallben’s interdiction will be broken, that Taran will go out on an adventure. And we know that the adventure will change him, make him recognize at least a part of Dallben’s teachings. The same model can be found in Madeleine L’Engle, Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne-Jones, L. Frank Baum: all of the classic middle-grade fantasists understood the power of foreshadowing the lesson at the start of their books.

Contrary to what many grown-ups believe, children well understand the difference between reality and fiction. They know that Taran’s adventures are dangerous. If they did not grasp the inherent wisdom of Dallben’s warnings, why would they be scared or excited when Taran faces Achren or the Horned King? While Dallben’s warnings might go right over Taran’s head, even a young reader will still understand and recognize their wisdom. They may not be able to explain what they have understood, but that does not mean they have failed to grasp its underlying significance. The reader knows what lesson is coming before they’re even finished with chapter one: which is why the book’s conclusion – when Taran has had his adventures, and has learned at least a little more wisdom – is so satisfying.

The Obliquity of Wisdom: Mediating the Mentor and the Hero

This structure is satisfying because the reader not only understands the mentor’s wisdom, but the hero’s desires. What nine year old doesn’t want an exciting adventure slaying monsters? We want Taran to have his adventure, we want him to face down monsters and evil, and to come out stronger, smarter, and happier at the end. We know that Taran will get into trouble by breaking Dallben’s interdiction, but there remains that niggling little voice inside that says adventure is worth it.

The relationship brings to a mind the best line of the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, where Isabelle warns Hugo that they can get into trouble and Hugo responds “That’s how you know it’s an adventure.” That exchange encapsulates the reader’s mediation between grasping the hero’s immature desires, and internalizing the mentor’s wisdom. If the hero were not in danger, if the hero did not break the mentor’s rules, then there would be no adventure.

Developing One’s Own Vocabulary: The Learning Hero in Middle Grade

As MG novels progress, the hero has to gradually develop their own vocabulary for the mentor’s teachings. The hero cannot just parrot the mentor’s lessons: that would not show any development on the part of the character, and would thus be fundamentally unsatisfying. Instead, the hero rationalizes an initial rejection of the mentor’s lesson and then builds an acceptance of the lesson by getting (proverbially – or literally) kicked in the teeth by life.

Note that there are examples where authors have tried to deviate from this pattern. Joseph Delaney – in his 2004 novel The Last Apprentice – tries to invert the classic structure. Delaney’s hero understands the wisdom of the Spook’s interdictions. However, he finds that certain rules are overly stringent. He does not break them due to a failure of understanding: instead, he breaks them because he actively disagrees with their universality. These books are a little too recent to be deemed evergreen, but I am curious as to how they will age over time. They have not resonated with me the way the more classic structure has, but that may have more to do with my own tastes (my fiancée accuses me of being an old-fashioned curmudgeon) than with any actual weakness in an inverted structure. Eventually, time will tell whether the mirror image of the classic structure can function as well as the original.

Regardless of whether the author plays it straight or flips the structure, at the end of the story the hero has learned a lesson and articulates it in words different from those of the mentor. What matters is that the lesson cannot be presented didactically: kids can smell that kind of condescension a mile away, and overt morals ruin good stories. Nobody likes to be patronized, least of all a nine year old. If the action and emotion of a story cannot imply a lesson through subtext, then it is a weak lesson that simply won’t resonate.

By finding a different subtext-driven way of articulating (or potentially refuting) the mentor’s earlier wisdom, a classic MG novel can show the reader how that wisdom can be applied in a fictional context. Just as the hero’s understanding of reality is broadened, so too is the reader’s conceptual vocabulary. Like Dallben says:

“…If you grow up with any kind of sense – which you sometimes make me doubt – you will very likely reach your own conclusions.

“They will probably be wrong,” he added. “However, since they will be yours, you will feel a little more satisfied with them.”

And that, ultimately is what childhood and fiction are both about.

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