1st in a series


The first book in the fantasy series the Book of Dust.

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Publishing year: 2017

Format: Print

Finnish publisher: Otava

Page count: 687

Finnish translator: Helene Butzow

This series is a prequel to the His Dark Materials series.

Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead’s parents run an inn called the Trout in Oxford. He’s a studious boy who likes to help people both in the inn and out of it. He’s also very observant. When three strange men come to the inn and ask Malcolm about a baby who is in the care of the local nunnery, he thinks it’s very strange. He hasn’t heard about it and tells them so. Later, when he’s on the Thames in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage, he sees a man looking for something. His daemon Asta thinks she saw where the man dropped the item. But before they can help the man, he’s arrested. Malcolm and Asta go and retrieve the item: a wooden acorn. They manage to open it and find inside a secret message. But they don’t know where to take it, so they keep it.

Later, when Malcolm goes to the monastery, he asks about a baby and much to his surprise, a nun tells him that they are caring for a baby. She’s called Lyra and nobody is supposed to know that she’s there.

The first half of the book is building tension when Malcolm slowly realizes the depth of the secrets he has stumbled upon. We also get to know Dr. Hannah Relf who interprets the alethiometer at Oxford University. She’s also part of a conspiracy against the Magisterium, the religious organization that wants to control the world. We also meet some other conspirators. When the action starts to roll in the second half of the book, everything is in place. Well, mostly. The second half has scenes and magic that felt very random to me and they weren’t explained. Also, compared to the first half where the only magic are the daimons, the second part seems disjointed. Also, the main bad guy, Bonneville, seemed very strange.

Malcolm can feel quite a passive character who only reacts to events, but he’s just 11 and doesn’t know much about the larger plots. This can frustrate readers who are expecting a more Lyra-like main character. For the first half, Malcolm runs errands, spies for Hannah, and just talks with people building tension for the rest of the book and series.

It’s been a couple of decades since I read His Dark Materials series but I recently watched the first season of the TV show so I remember it well. I loved the daemons, again. Malcolm’s Asta still changes form at will and the adults have stable daimons who reveal a lot about their personality.

Some characters from the previous series appear. However, we already know what happens to Lyra so there’s no tension about what ultimately happens to her. Of course, I don’t read books to find out how the main characters will die, so this didn’t really bother me. Overall, I enjoyed this book and it’s a fine beginning to a new series. I just hope Pullman has some explanation for the random things that happened.

The first book in the YA SF/fantasy series Pit Dragon Chronicles, but it can be read as a stand-alone.

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Publishing year: 1982

Format: Print

Publisher: Orbit

Page count: 243

Austar IV is a backward planet that has only one thing going for it: dragons. Specifically, dragons fighting each other. Some Austarians own, train, and breed such dragons.

The Austarians have been divided into two classes: those born free and those born into bond slavery. Also, some free people are forced to sell themselves, or their children into slavery to survive. A bondslave must always carry his or her bag of coins around their neck so everyone can see that they are a bonder, as they are called.

Jakkin is one of the latter. A feral dragon killed his father when Jakkin was very young and his mom sold herself and Jakkin to bond slavery. Now, Jakkin is 13 and working in a dragon Nursery. He cares for the male dragons, the studs. But he dreams of stealing a dragon egg and training it to fight. That way he could get a lot of money and buy his freedom. He has two friends among the other bonders, boys his age. However, the supervisor (also a bonder) hates Jakkin.

Jakkin is determined to steal an egg: he has even found a secret place where the dragon can grow and Jakkin can train it. However, an accident with one of the most temperamental male dragons leaves him in a bad shape. How can he now pursue his dream?

For a children’s or a YA book, this story has lots of very mature elements. Jakkin is a slave even though he’s called a bonder and not a slave. Granted, his master isn’t a harsh one and he’s allowed Bond Off days, essentially days free of work. He isn’t beaten or starved. It’s more a plot device: he wants to become the trainer and owner of a fighting dragon because he wants to be free. Also, because he likes dragons a lot. Also, the world has Baggeries where the bonders and free men go. They’re bordellos and it seems that a lot of free women work there. One of the significant secondary characters is a weed smoker. Also, some of the characters believe that some men are simply born into bondage and can’t survive free.

Children probably won’t even notice these things, though. (I hope.)

Otherwise, this was a fast-paced, exciting read. Jakkin is single-minded in his goal to get and train the dragon. Unfortunately, it can make him look stupid. But he is only 13.

The book has only two named female characters. One is an older woman, the cook. The other is Jakkin’s age and was clearly created to be a mysterious teenage girl for Jakkin to pursue. The world-building is, unfortunately, quite sexist.

The dragons themselves are interesting. They’re herbivores but still fight each other so much that before humans started to train them, they were nearly extinct. They live in stables, males and females in different buildings. The females are also referred to as hens. So, I got the impression that they’re horse-like. However, their blood is acidic and burns a human. A dragon can form a mental bond with a human. However, that’s not common.

We don’t actually see the dragons fighting until very near the end.

This was a fun, if somewhat peculiar read. Unfortunately, I can’t really recommend this for kids.

A stand-alone science fiction book.

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Publication year: 2018

Format: Audio

Running time: 13 hours
Narrator: Emily Woo Zeller

Nika Rik Terri is a famous body-modification artist. She redesigns people’s bodies and sometimes heals them, too, using machines made for it. She considers it both an art and a science. She’s obsessed with her work and has even invented the extraordinary machine that can put one person’s mind into the body of another. Unfortunately, she fell in love with a smooth-talking, ruthless criminal who treated her badly, and she plans to run from him. Then a mobster comes into her shop and forces Nika to use her machine so that the mobster will use Nika’s body to assassinate someone. Nika realizes she needs to run right then. On the way, she stumbles into a beginning body-modder Snow. She helps him against a violent man, but they both need to run.

Josune Arriola is a junior engineer aboard the cargo spaceship Road to the Goberlings. She keeps her head down and works as well as she can. But she has a secret of her own: she’s actually a member of the legendary exploration ship the Hassim. Her captain has sent her undercover to the Road so Josune can tell her captain where the Road is and the two ships can meet covertly.

Hammond Roystan is the captain of the Road. He is supposed to be happy ferrying goods around space, but slowly Josune starts to realize he’s not what he appears to be.

But then the Road encounter Hassim, drifting in space. Someone has attacked it. The Road’s crew are salivating at the chance to loot it, but Josune is heartbroken for her former crewmates. But the Hassim’s treasury of knowledge of undiscovered planets makes the Road a target for powerful enemies and also some of the Road’s crew members want more than just their share.

This was mostly a fast-paced space adventure with mystery. Nika and Josune are the two POV characters. Nika, Josune, and Roystan all have secrets to hide while they run from their enemies. The rest of the crew are entertaining, as well. For example, Jacq is a cook and makes special meals for his captain. I also liked the growing relationship between the beginner body-modder Snow and Nika. Her blunt manner and way of doing bodymods scandalizes Snow who is trying to soften her words and eventually even stop people from relying on Nika.

Nika is a very single-minded character. She speaks bluntly, seeing no reason to hide her skills or interest in other people’s modifications. Her obsession with trying to ”improve” people can feel offputting, even fatphobic. Josune is a seasoned fighter. Hassim was a target for greedy people and companies, so all the crew must be capable fighters. She’s attracted to Roystan but doesn’t believe he cares about her.

The first chapters are slower when Nika is doing her body-mod thing and we get a lot of details about it. The implications of being able to change your appearance on a whim, as long as you have the money of course, are fascinating. However, we don’t see enough of society to really see the impact. The focus is on the Road and its crew. Most of the power seems to be in the hands of 27 companies and freelancers like the Hassim or the Road must be constantly on their guard. Laws are only followed in legal zones but even they aren’t safe.

This was a fun, light space adventure. It’s a stand-alone, but has a sequel.

The first in a cozy mystery series.

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Publishing year: 2017

Format: Print

Finnish translator: Taina Wallin

Page count: 142

Finnish publisher: Tammi

Sarah Edwards has recently moved back to the small town of Cherringham where she grew up and where her parents live. She’s a web designer. She’s also a divorced mother of two teens. When she was younger, her best friend was Sammi Jackson, before Sammi moved to London and they lost touch. But now, Sammi’s body is found in the river. The police think it’s a suicide or an accident, but Sarah doesn’t believe that. She meets Jack Brennan who lives in a houseboat on the river. Jack is a former NYPD detective who moved to Cherringham after his wife’s death. Together they start to figure out just what happened to Sammi.

This was a nice, quick read. It’s a cozy mystery where Sarah and Jack talk to people and get to know each other, too. The characters are entertaining small-town English people, and the mystery isn’t too complex. Jack is reluctant to interfere at first, thinking that the local police and the local people aren’t too happy to see him meddle. He’s right, but he still can’t resist a mystery. Sarah is determined to find out what happened to her friend and she finds that she enjoys the detective work.

Apparently, the series first came out as ebooks in English and in Finnish, too. I have the omnibus version of the first three books.

The first book in the Heartstrikers urban fantasy series where the main character is a dragon.

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Publication year: 2014

Format: Audio

Running time: 13 hours, 31 minutes
Narrator: Vikas Adam

Julius is the smallest dragon in the ambitious Heartstriker clan. He’s also very undragon like. True dragons are cold schemers who use anyone and anything to further their own aims and the aims of their clan. But Julius just wants to get along with everyone and has no interest in using anyone. So, he keeps his head down and doesn’t interfere with the affairs of the more powerful dragons.

Finally, his mother has had enough. So, she seals Julius in his human form and sends him to Detroit Free Zone to either succeed gloriously, and bring honor to his clan, or fail miserably – and then his mother with eath him. DMZ is the only city on Earth where dragons aren’t welcome. The powerful spirit that rules the DMZ will destroy them if she sees any. While Julius is sealed in his human form, he can’t shift to this dragon form so he can’t fly or breathe fire. He’s also broke. Luckily, one of his brothers has a job for him: to track down and capture a dragon from another clan. That dragon’s family wants her back. Julius has his doubts, but he doesn’t really have a choice. Luckily, while in the club, where he met his brother, he meets a mage Marcia who is also down on her luck. Julius hires her to find the other dragon.

Not so luckily, Julius’ eldest brother, Bob (yeah, that a nickname) the family seer has taken an interest in him. And there are mobsters after Marcia.

This is a fun mix of magic, technology, dystopia, and myth. DMZ is a capitalistic dystopia where the only thing that matters is if you have money. The underside of the city is a hive of scum and villainy while the rich live in the upper levels in security and comfort.

Julius’ family is also quite chilling: they use humans as tools and anyone else, too. Julius is the opposite of them. He’s one of the kindest and most considerate characters I’ve read lately which was nice. He also has a geeky side to him, as well. He starts to like Marcia and helps her simply because Marcia is kind to him.

We get to meet quite a few of Julius’ family. Beside his ruthless, power-hungry mom, there is Ian the suave businessman who is courting a dragon from another clan, Bob the insane seer (or is he? His antics made me laugh, though), Justin the dragon with more brawn than brains, and Chelsie the family assassin. And Jessica who is a snob. Of course, we meet dragons from another clan, as well.

I really enjoyed the writing style. With a cast full of ruthless dragons, it could have been dour or black, but instead it’s light and fun. Bob has hilarious antics and Julius has a nice sense of humor.

I also enjoyed Marcia. She’s in a tight spot and making the best of it. She has a mercenary side to her which balanced out Julius well. It seems that they’re fated to have a romance, which is too bad. I would have loved for them to be friends.

I listened to the audiobook version and it was very good.

Since this is the first book in a series, some things are left open at the end.

The first book in the mystery series Cold Poker Gang.

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Publication year: 2014

Publisher: WMG Publishing

Format: ebook

Page count from Amazon: 182

In this series, a group of retired Las Vegas Police detectives gathers together once a week to play poker. They also have permission to look into cold cases and try to solve them.

Bayard Lott hosts the game. He’s a widow, living alone. He has an adult daughter Annie who is a very good poker player and rich. She also solves mysteries together with her boyfriend Doc Hill. Lott’s former partner and best friend Andor Williams is also a player in the weekly game. The newest player is Julia Rogers who retired from detective work because of a leg injury. In fact, Julia wants the gang to try to solve her husband’s murder.

Julia’s husband was murdered 22 years ago in Las Vegas. The case was never solved. Lott and Williams were the detectives on the case back then and it has always bothered them. This time, they’re far more experienced and can look at the case from a slightly different angle. Julia lived in Reno back then so Lott and Williams didn’t even interview her.

This is a complex case with a lot of surprises. That partly explains why Lott and Williams didn’t get anywhere with it the first time. Unfortunately, their work also seems sloppy. Julia gives the case a very personal angle, especially when they find disturbing things about her former husband and she’s thinking about how she can tell her daughter about it.

Lott and Julia are the two POV characters. They also quickly find each other attractive and start liking each other’s company more and more. Lott’s wife died three years ago and he’s still not over it while Julia never had a real relationship after her husband’s murder. The romance is a gentle one without the toxic romance tropes, so I liked it a lot. The mystery is also more like a cozy mystery, without blood.

This was an interesting case with very likable POV characters.

The first book in Silke’s Strike Force superhero series. It can be read as a stand-alone.

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Publication year: 2020

Format: ebook

Page count from Amazon: 303

Silke Butters is a supermodel. She’s also Indian-American so her way to the top wasn’t easy. She was often dismissed because she’s not blond and fair-skinned. But with determination, she clawed her way up and is now finally the face of Candy Girl Cosmetics

Now, she finally has what she wants. Then she starts getting strong headaches and seeing strange visions. One of them is of her father whom she hasn’t seen in many years. The next day, her adopted brother Joe comes to her and tells her that her father is dead.

Silke has mixed feelings, mostly regret. Her father was strongly against her modeling career so she hasn’t really talked with him after she left for New York when she was fifteen. Her father, Duke, was a soldier and after retiring from the Army, he started a private security firm, the Enforcer Factory, which is now doing extremely well. Joe is Duke’s partner in the firm. Joe also has secrets from Silke. For example, Joe himself is an Enhanced, person with superpowers.

And now, Silke has strange feelings and visions. Also, her attraction toward Joe is surfacing.

The ruthless, super-powered Sin Squad is targeting the Enforcer Factory. They’ve even infiltrated it. Now, they won’t stop for anything to get what they want.

This was a very interesting beginning to a series. It introduces us to a world where superpowered beings are mostly secret pawns in a larger game. Silke has no idea about them and the revelations in the book are a shock to her. It’s also her origin story; she’s learning about her powers and learning how to use them.

Silke is impulsive, but also very determined. Also, her life as a model needs her to be quite disciplined; she loves food but must restrict her diet. Also, Silke’s roots are from India which means that she’s no stranger to prejudice. However, these days she’s a famous model so she has to deal with her celebrity. There’s also a romance subplot: she was attracted to Joe before she left for New York, but never acted on it. Now, Joe has a girlfriend.

Joe is a stoic soldier who hero-worshipped Duke Butters who took Joe in after Joe’s parents died. Duke was sick for a while before his death, so it wasn’t a surprise to Joe. Joe has also promised that he doesn’t tell anything to Silke and he feels that he’s protecting her.

My favorite character, however, was Mackenzie ”Maki” Monroe whom Silke calls Mac n’ Cheese. She’s a computer expert. She’s also happily married with kids and heavily pregnant. But I feel I need to give a content warning about miscarriage.

The book has several POV characters, but Silke is the most prominent one. She’s mostly a very good main character who is trying to figure out what is happening to her and what’s happening around her. However, right at the start of the book, she makes some stupid choices: mixing painkillers and alcohol that felt out of character for her.

Also, the author does sometimes use more ”tell” than ”show”. Sometimes she just summarized the scene quickly rather than writing it out. It takes a long time until Silke gets any sort of handle for her powers. I’m also not a fan of plots where the main character is deliberately kept in the dark, especially ”for her own good”, so I didn’t really like that. Unfortunately, the book has also quite a few typos.

Still, it was an enjoyable and exciting read.

The first book in the humorous fantasy romance series Saint of Steel.

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Publication year: 2020

Format: Audio

Running time: 12 hours, 30 minutes
Narrator: Joel Richards

Stephen’s god, the Saint of Steel, died three years ago. The Saint had a handful of paladins and priests. On that day, some of them went berserk, killing and wounding people who happened to be near them at the time. The Saint’s paladins are berserkers and only the god’s grace keeps them from hurting people who don’t deserve it. Now, the god is gone. Luckily, Stephen was in the company of Dreaming God’s paladins who subdued him. The priests of the White Rat took the seven surviving paladins in.

Duty is the only thing that gets Stephen out of bed in the mornings. The Rat’s priests cared for them and now employ them as bodyguards and men-at-arms, since the church has none of its own. While coming back from escort duty to one of the Rat’s healers, Stephen comes across a woman running from the servants of the Hanged Mother. He helps her, but that means faking a sexual encounter with her long enough that the Hanged Mother’s fanatic followers leave. He likes her but doesn’t know her name or where she lives. Of course, being a broken paladin, Stephen thinks he can’t have love, or even lust, in his life.

Also, someone, or something, is killing people in the poorer areas. And when Stephen and the woman next meet, they witness an assassination.

Grace is a perfumer. She fled her previous master who was also her husband. He made her feel like no man ever wants her. He didn’t even end her apprenticeship so she’s technically not a craftswoman. But she has built a comfortable life for herself with her civette cat Tab and her best friend Marguerite, who is a spy. Grace must get perfume ingredients from graveyards so the Hanged Mother’s servants chase her. When the paladin saves her, she’s irritated but relieved.

Later, she appears in a royal reception, giving her perfume to the ruler’s guest, which is panic-inducing by itself but there’s also a high chance that someone will know who she is. Instead, she, Marquerite, and the paladin end up witnessing an assassination attempt.

This was a delightfully fun and funny read. I loved the cast of characters, especially the very pragmatic Bishop Beartongue of the Rat’s church and Istvan, one of the Saint’s other paladins. Istvhan has a wicked sense of humor and he’s also very practical. The paladins are hilarious together. Marguerite is also a wonderful character. She’s also very practical, as a spy should.

Stephen knits socks in his free time. He considers himself the solid, dependable one so the chance that he could break into an uncontrolled berserker fury makes him wary of life. Yet, he can’t stop thinking about the mysterious perfuremer.

Grace has never been able to rely on anyone else than herself and she’s always waiting for the other shoe to drop when her life feels ”too good”. Except that she trusts Marquerite. Yet, she can’t get the paladin out of her mind. His gingerbread smell especially intrigues her. Smells are very important to her. But she thinks no man can ever be interested in her.

The pace is quite leisurely. I think the biggest problem is that both Grace and Stephen want each other, but are convinced that the other doesn’t, so they think about each other quite a lot. I also didn’t care for the jealousy. Also, some of the characters were pretty predictable but I didn’t mind it. Still, I enjoyed the book a lot. The next book’s main character is Istvhan.

Quotes:

“Relief feels like happiness, if you don’t know the difference.”

“Rescue was bad. People who wanted you to be vulnerable and grateful tended to get very angry when you stopped being vulnerable and didn’t act grateful enough.”

“Normal people flirt. I think. Apparently we just exchange terrible life stories.”

“Having men want to rescue you was worlds different than simply having a female friend who had your back. If she needed a body buried, the only question Marguerite would ask was, ‘How deep?’”

The first book in the Steampunk Red Riding Hood series.

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Publication year: 2018

Publisher: Carter & Bradley Publishing

Format: ebook

Page count from Amazon: 124

In Victorian England, supernatural creatures live in secret. But the Queen has a secret society, the Red Capes, who defend her land and people from the threats of werewolves, vampires, and other creatures. The Red Capes report to a mysterious organization called the Rude Mechanicals. Clemeny Louvel, whose nickname is Little Red, is one of those agents. She loves her job, even though it’s dangerous and leaves her little time to sleep. She can always rely on her partner Quinn Briarwood to watch her back. She’s an orphan, raised by an old woman whom she calls grand-merè.

But now the unthinkable has happened. Two of London’s most powerful werewolf packs have joined forces and started kidnapping alchemists and professors. The packs are usually fighting each other so Clem and Quinn must quickly find out what is going on.

This was an exciting and fast-paced beginning to the series. Even though it’s set in Victorian London, it has many prominent female characters, including a professor and the chief of the Red Capes. So women aren’t as constricted in this fantasy world as they were in history. The werewolves are also a bit different than what I’ve come to expect.

The world-building was intriguing, but the shortness of the tale left the characters a little shallow. Quinn is happily married so there’s not going to be a romance between him and Clem. She is single and another romantic interest is dangled before her, someone she doesn’t trust, of course.

Clem is confident and a very capable agent. However, I don’t know why she’s an agent, just that she loves her dangerous job and is good at it.

Part of the Action Heroine bundle I bought from Storybundle 2018.

The first book in the urban fantasy DFZ series.

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Publication year: 2018

Format: Audio

Running time: 9 hours, 45 minutes
Narrator: Emily Woo Zeller

Opal Yong-ae has a Master’s in magical art history. She’s also a mage, even though not a very good one. She’s never understood the intricacies of spell casting; instead she just throws raw magic at problems and they usually explode. She lives in Detroit Free Zone that is ruled by a goddess who upholds very few laws (slavery and murder are still wrong), but otherwise, the inhabitants can do whatever they please. The goddess also sometimes moves the buildings and streets around which makes even driving… quite interesting.

Opal is a cleaner. She’s a freelance agent who clears out apartments and houses when the renter has been evicted. Usually, she finds enough good stuff that she’s been able to pay her debt. But for the last six months, she’s had horrible luck and she really needs a good score so that she can make her next payment. Unfortunately, in her latest apartment instead of valuable items, she finds a body that has been rotting for a month. After her initial shock, she calls the organizer who convinces her to just clean the apartment of anything valuable. Since the body has been there for a month, it’s unlikely that anyone will come to claim it and the property.

However, Opal’s bad luck continues: while she finds a magic formula that could make her rich, she has no idea where very valuable ingredients are. But then she gets wind of where the formula might be… except that to get them, she has to use almost her last penny. And she’s not the only one chasing the riches.

This was a fun and fast-paced urban fantasy story. It combines tech and magic. The world is technologically more advanced than ours: (almost) all cars drive themselves and Opal has a personal AI, Sibyl, who takes care of paying her bills and also supports her emotionally. I rather liked Sibyl. People can also graft cyborg parts into their bodies. The world also has magic and dragons.

Opal is quite a pragmatic character, so I was wondering how and why she has a huge debt. But this is, of course, modeled after the US system where both education and healthcare can literally bankrupt a person. Even though Opal does most things in her life purely for money, she has a clear moral compass and won’t cross it, no matter how desperate she is. She also has a very interesting backstory, but I won’t spoil it here.

She runs into fellow cleaner Nick Kos who saves her from a couple of goons. Nick has guessed that she’s after something good and he wants in. Essentially, he bullies himself into protecting Opal. He’s far more mercenary than she and starts not trusting him, in fact, she thinks that he’s creepy and he’s done pretty bad things. The more we know about him, the quirkier he becomes. They’re pretty adversarial, but I guess they will become romantically attached in later books.

This series seems to be a spin-off of Aaron’s Heartstrikers series, but I had no problem understanding the world and characters. I haven’t read Heartstrikers, but the main characters there are apparently dragons so I’m going to take a look.

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