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The first book in the Killday series. Can be read as a stand-alone.

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Publication year: 2018

Format: Audio

Running time: 11 hours, 34 minutes
Narrator: MacLeod Andrews

Set in the near future, people are using fobs instead of tablets or phones. Both governments and computer companies are designing artificial intelligences.

Lee is a computer scientist and works for the US government. She has designed robots, combots, that take the place of soldiers in combat. Now, she’s flying to Pakistan in a travel pod. She realizes that something’s strange with the combots, but Lee has not time to investigate. Unfortunately, something goes wrong and a robot kills a human. Lee is supposed to be the only one who can change the combots’ programming and she’s suspended.

Owen Royston is the founder and owner of Royston Dynamics. His former partner Victor suddenly arrives at the HQ with an offer that interests Owen a lot. Years ago, Victor betrayed Owen professionally, so Owen is reluctant to trust him again. Owen’s company makes nano assemblers that can make anything. For years, he’s wanted to build spacecraft, his space schooners, but hasn’t had the time or resources to do it. Now, he has a chance.

Mortimer is an AI who wants to break free from the company that created him. When he realizes that one other AI is already roaming the internet, he redoubles his efforts. He has watched the humans who have created him so that he can manipulate them. However, humans interest him and when he realizes that one AI is out to destroy humanity, he wants to prevent that.

Richard is a robotics engineer at a computer company. He starts to see visions of a child who claims to be god. This god warns Richard about AIs who will one day soon destroy humanity. Richard must prevent that by any means necessary.

The story has lots of high-level tech. Some people have nanotech inside them to heal illnesses, even mental illnesses. The travel pods apparently use anti-gravity, but the tech isn’t enough to lift vessels to space. However, most people still use cars and buses so the pods must be expensive.

The beginning is a bit slow with multiple subplots that don’t seem to connect. However, near the halfway point the pace picks up a lot and builds to an explosive ending.

Unfortunately, some of the relationships felt contrived. Lee has a troubled marriage and a preschool daughter. Her husband isn’t happy with how much Lee must be away because of her work. Lee isn’t happy about that, either, and thinks about resigning. Owen’s wife thinks that the space vessels are a waste of time and money, especially because Owen wants to give the space schooners away for free so that humanity isn’t tied to Earth’s fate. The AIs have very human motivations and ways to communicate. Of course, they can’t be too inhuman, either. Also, near the end, the tech was a bit inconsistent.

The book starts as a warning against AIs but ends as a disaster book. The ending was a bit too bloodthirsty for me although I can see it as a summer blockbuster movie. Otherwise, this was an entertaining read.

The first book in the Children of Time SF series.

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Publication year: 2015

Format: Audio

Running time: 16 hours, 31 minutes

Narrator: Mel Hudson

I haven’t read a book like this before. It has an alien perspective and a human perspective.

In the distant future, humans have engineered a nano-virus that can “elevate” an animal to a human level of intelligence and consciousness. The virus will also accelerate the process. Doctor Avrana Kern needs to spread human intelligence throughout the stars. She starts by seeding an alien planet with monkeys and the virus. Their evolution will, of course, take thousands of years, so she won’t be there to witness it. Instead, she will seed other planets. Unfortunately, Earth has a strong movement against tampering with other planets. One of those people infiltrated Kern’s mission and sabotages the launch of the monkeys to the planet. He also destroys Kern’s ship and the monkeys. Kern manages to upload her mind to the satellite she has left orbiting the alien planet. The virus spreads on the planet but doesn’t have Earthlike mammals to infect. Instead, it infests spiders.

A couple of thousand years later, humanity’s last ark ship the Gilgamesh is nearing Kern’s world. The ship simply doesn’t have the resources to maintain its cargo of thousands of cryosleeping humans infinitely. So, based on old, old records the ship’s captain, Guyen, has chosen this world as most likely to be able to support human life. He wakes up a classicist, Holsten, who has studied the old Earth. Guyen commands Holsten to translate the old Empire’s language and contact the satellite around the planet.

Meanwhile on the planet, the spiders have grown intelligent and are forming societies. We see through the eyes of Portia and her descendants how the spiders develop languages and customs. Eventually, they also form religion and organized warfare. They also keep ants as servants. Because of their different physiology, their language isn’t human-like and they command ants through scents.

The humans aboard the Gilgamesh start to fight among themselves (as usual). Holsten is in cryosleep for much of the time and each time when he wakes up, the situation has changed. However, I was far more interested in the spiders. The curious spiders with their scientific mindsets seemed more interesting than the power-hungry and increasingly savage humans who just love to fight each other. Of course, the two species are heading toward a confrontation.

The writing styles for the two factions are different. Holsten is the POV character in the human chapters which are written in a tight third POV. But the spider chapters are from an omniscient view. They have a spider POV character but the narrator also summarises the development of the spider society.

This was a very entertaining and compelling read. The final chapter continues the story but it’s not a cliffhanger.

A stand-alone murder mystery set in 1636 France.

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Publication year: 2022

Publisher: Palmetto Publishing

Format: ebook

Charles de la Forêt is the third son of a Baron. A couple of months ago, his father sent him to Paris to be a musketeer. Charles has no choice but to obey. However, he enjoyed the camaraderie of the musketeer cadets and has even made a couple of friends.

Dueling is illegal in France but when a group of the Cardinal’s guards interrupt rudely the cadet’s play, Charles has to defend the Musketeers’ honor and fight one of them. They’re both wounded. The next day, Charles is sent to his first mission; not because he’s the most qualified but because the Cardinal might charge him if he remains in Paris.

Charles is sent to a small town, Pontcourt, to bring a murderer and proof of his guilt to Paris for trial. A family was brutally murdered but the people caught the villain. When Charles and his servant Michel arrive in the town, they encounter a mystery. The suspected murderer has been tortured so much that he can’t travel. Still, he insists that he’s innocent. He’s also a tax collector, so the local people want him to be the culprit. Charles starts to investigate even though the people are against it.

Charles lives in the shadow of his two elder brothers who are more successful than him. His father is constantly disappointed in him. So, he’s eager to prove his worth but he also wants justice to be done. He was born and raised in a small town and thinks that Paris is a smelly and dangerous place. He’s short and men often underestimate him. The Musketeers assign him the servant Michel. Michel was born and raised in Paris and thinks it’s the best place in the world. They don’t know each other but must quickly learn to rely on each other because the people just want to see the murderer punish with torture and death.

This was an entertaining read. It has surprisingly many action scenes for a murder investigation. Wray has clearly researched the time and the place; his descriptions are vivid. The mystery has enough twists to keep you guessing. This is a stand-alone story but it can be easily expanded to a series.

The first book in the First Edition Library cozy mystery series.

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Publication year: 2019

Format: Audio

Running time: 9 hours, 23 minutes
Narrator: Fiona Hardingham

Hayley Burke has a new job as the curator of Lady Georgiana Fowling’s First Edition Society’s library in Bath. She also lives in the Middlebank House, a Georgian manor, where the library is kept. The late Lady Fowling’s former secretary, Glynis Woolgar also lives in the house. The women don’t get along because Hayley wants to modernize the Society so that it could be profitable. Lady Fowling wrote murder mysteries and the library is dedicated to first editions from the Golden Age of Mysteries. Hayley’s other problem is that she’s never even read a mystery: she’s an English Lit major. She’s planning to read one whenever she doesn’t have to fight with Mrs. Woolgar, advise her adult daughter, or travel to London to see her inventor boyfriend. Meanwhile, she avoids talking about mystery books as much as she can.

She’s arranged for a group of mystery fanfiction writers to meet weekly at the Middlebank House and pay for the privilege. Mrs. Woolgar doesn’t like it, of course, and complains about them all the time. But then one of the writers is found dead in the library. Initially, Hayley has no intention of investigating the crime but she needs to preserve the Society, not to mention her job, so soon she becomes an amateur sleuth.

This was a fun mystery set in a very bookish environment. The story has lots of twists but the ending didn’t really work for me. In addition to the mystery, Hayley juggles a long-distance relationship with her absent-minded boyfriend, giving motherly advice to her daughter, and she meets an annoying literature professor. The fanfiction writers are a very colorful lot. The story is a bit too long and sometimes focuses a bit too much on Hayley’s life than the mystery. Otherwise, it was quite entertaining.

A stand-alone SF book.

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Publishing year: 2016

Format: Print

Publisher: Crown

Finnish translator: Tammi

Finnish publisher: Ilkka Rekiaho

Page count: 400

Jason Dessen is a professor of physics at a college in Chicago. When he was younger, he wanted to become a scientist and pursued that career. But then his wife-to-be, Daniela, told him she was pregnant. Jason settled for a secure job and she gave up her art career, and instead they had a son.

When the story starts, Jason and his family are having a quiet family night. His old friend got a prestigious award, and Jason’s wife persuades him to go out and have a drink with the friend to celebrate. While walking back home, Jason thinks about how his life could have gone differently if he had chosen to pursue his career instead of staying with Daniela. A masked man holds a gun on Jason and kidnaps him. The abductor takes Jason to an abandoned factory. He asks if Jason is happy and then knocks Jason out with a drug.

When Jason wakes up, he’s in an unfamiliar facility with people who know him, but he doesn’t know them. He’s on a gurney and people are celebrating that he ”came back”. What is going on and can he get back home?

This was a fast-paced thriller. The descriptions were minimal and the pacing was excellent. Jason is the first-person, present tense narrator, although we get a few glimpses from another POV. Still, there is time for Jason to think about the choices he has made and the choices other people have made. He’s a sympathetic main character, and I empathized with his problems.

The first part of the book is a mystery, so I don’t want to spoil it. The only thing I didn’t care for was how long it took for Jason to realize what was going on, but that’s a minor complaint. Many of the twists surprised me and so did the ending.

Excellent read.

The first book in the SF series Mickey7.

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Publication year: 2020

Format: Audio

Running time: 9 hours, 15 minutes
Narrator: John Pirhalla, Katherine Chin

Mickey7 is an Expendable, an employee whose consciousness is downloaded to a new clone body after he dies. So, he does all the most dangerous jobs and especially those where he is sure to be killed. There can only be one version of an Expendable at a time. Also, it’s easier to grow a new body than replace an expensive drone or other equipment, so that’s why people who have space-age technology use expendable humans.

He and the rest of the crew are colonists on Niflheim, a planet that was supposed to be able to support life easily. When the ship arrived, they saw that the planet was ice and snow. It also has dangerous animals which were dubbed creepers. The colony is struggling and resources are low.

On a routine mission, Mickey7 falls down a ravine and is left for dead. That doesn’t surprise him. However, he manages to return to the base, and to his astonishment and dismay, Mickey8 is already in his bed.

This was a fun and quick romp. Every other chapter is present day and the other chapters are either from Mickey’s past or he tells us some significant piece of history. The book is about space colonization and cloning.

Mickey has a girlfriend but only one close friend on the base. The commander is a religious man who thinks that cloning is an abomination, so he uses any excuse to punish Mickey. While the parts of the story are pretty dark, the overall tone is light and humorous.

The first book in Legendborn YA fantasy series.

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Publication year: 2020

Format: Audio

Running time: 18 hours, 54 minutes
Narrator: Joniece Abbott-Pratt

Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books

Bree Matthews lost her mother a few months ago and she can’t get over it. She hates living in a house where everything reminds her of her mother. She has applied to a residential program for bright high schoolers at a university and both she and her best friend Alice are accepted. Despite her father’s misgivings, Bree and Alice attend.

But during the first night, Bree and Alice participate in a party that is outside the campus. Bree sees something unexpected: a supernatural creature attacking. Some of the other students use bows and arrows and swords to take it down. Bree hides.

This was an entertaining read and a new twist on the King Arthur legend. It has the descendants of various knights who belong to a secret order. It also points out that all the descendants and members are white. Some of them have been slave owners. And Bree is black.

The main themes of the book are grief and racism. Bree’s grief over her mother was beautifully and realistically described. Her reactions, too. When she realizes that she might not have died in a simple car accident, she won’t allow anything to stop her from finding out what really happened. She’s brave and determined and also wants to protect her friends and dad. She does have flaws, as well. Also, she’s only 16.

While racism is shown through some people’s actions and words, there are also heartbreaking scenes where Bree realizes that she always feels out of place. For example, because buildings and places aren’t for her (race) even though most likely black workmen (or slaves) have built them, but for white people. Or because she doesn’t know her family history. There are also a couple of flashbacks to her foremothers who were slaves.

Themes are more important than the plot. So the plot has a leisurely pace.

Despite the strong themes, the story succumbs to some YA tropes. The love interests and the love triangle. I didn’t care for the triangle. I kind of like the love interests as characters, though.

Bree doesn’t know anything about the magic at the start of the book. When people tell her about it, there are quite a few info dumps, which I didn’t mind. The Arthurian stuff comes up later, so I don’t want to spoil it. I enjoyed most of it but was dubious about some things.

A stand-alone SF novella.

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Publication year: 2021

Publisher: Tor

Format: ebook

Page count from Goodreads: 201

Lynnesse Fourth Daughter is the youngest of the daughters of the Queen of Lannesite and the last one to believe in fairy tales of demons and wizards. When frightened people flee to Lannesite from the forest kingdoms with tales of a demon ravaging the forests and the people, the Queen and Lyn’s sisters dismiss the stories and are convinced that the smaller countries are fighting amongst themselves. Nothing for the Queen to be concerned about. But Lyn is convinced that a real demon is at work. She and her best friend Esha Free Mark make the long journey to the Tower of Nyrgoth Elder, the last of the great wizards of the Elder Race. Nyrgoth helped Lyn’s great-grandmother and promised to return if he was needed again. Lyn begs the strange-looking wizard for help.

Nyr Illim Tevitch is an anthropologist second class, lightyears away from home. He and his two friends were sent to observe this alien planet where Earth sent a colony thousands of years ago. But when messages from Earth didn’t arrive, his friends chose to return to find out what happened. Nyr chose to stay, waiting for contact. He has been in suspended animation and is now rudely awakened. He expects that a new message woke him but that’s not the case. He didn’t expect two native women in his home, begging him to leave with them.

Nyr’s instructions forbid all influence with the natives. But he has broken the orders before, with Lyn’s great-grandmother. And Lyn looks so much like her great-grandmother that against his better judgment Nyr agrees. But customs have changed and so has the language.

This novella had two POV characters. Lyn (third person POV) is young and eager to be a hero, somebody her mother will acknowledge. Her worldview has magic and demons. Nyr (first person POV) is a scientist with a scientific worldview. He also struggles with guilt from his previous transgression and he’s very lonely and depressed. He has a Dissociative Cognition System that will suppress his emotions so that he can think clearly and make logical decisions. However, the system can’t work all the time.

The two POV characters complement each other. The local culture is very customs bound and hierarchical. Nyr’s society clearly isn’t and he struggles to make himself understood. The themes of the story are culture clashes and depression. They worked surprisingly well.

The first book in the Iron Widow YA science fantasy series.

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Publication year: 2021

Publisher: Penguin Teen

Format: ebook

Page count from Goodreads: 394

Hundreds of years ago, the alien Hunduns tried to conquer the Earth. Now, giant robots made from the husks of the aliens defend the remaining humans. Each robot has a psychically linked team of two people: the main pilot, a boy, and his concubine pilot, a girl. The girl dies almost every time. The boy pilots are media superstars.

Wu Zetian is an 18-year-old woman whose older sister became a concubine pilot and died a few months ago. But she didn’t die in battle. Zetian is convinced that the pilot her sister was supposed to be paired with, killed her and got away with it. She’s going to get revenge.

So, she makes herself beautiful by getting rid of her unibrow and then volunteers for the concubine program. She knows that she’s going to die, but she wants to kill the male pilot first. When her spiritual energy which powers the mechas, qi, is tested, she gets a much higher rating than most people. So, she is paired with the pilot she thinks is the murderer. But she ends up killing him in their linked minds and survives, which is extremely rare. Now, the military wants to control her and pairs her with a boy pilot who murdered his own family.

The world is harsh and even more harshly patriarchal. Everyone seems to think that it’s ok to sacrifice girls so that boys can pilot the big mechas against aliens. However, the boy pilots rarely survive past the age of 25 while the girls usually die in their first battle. Society is very much influenced by the old Chinese traditions where girls aren’t valued. Also, the old custom of foot binding has been revived, at least in some cultures. When Zetian was five, her grandmother crushed and bound Zetian’s feet, so it is difficult for Zetian to even walk. Zetian’s family wants her to become a pilot because when she dies, her family gets paid and Zetian’s brother can study. So, Zetian doesn’t like her family.

The plot is fast-paced with lots of fight scenes between the giant mechas and some between people. Unfortunately, that left the characters rather shallow. I would have also liked more world-building and more information about the Hunduns. Also, the other female characters didn’t seem to see the problems in the society or they were just trying to get by. Of course, the novel is in the first person from Zetian’s POV.

Zetian is a very angry character and the more she finds out, the angrier she becomes. She doesn’t dwell on any warm memories with her sister, but instead remembers her father’s belittling words and her mother’s advice to obey and confirm. Her only warm memories are with Gao Yizhi, a rich city boy, whom Zetian met accidentally. They’re in love but they can’t marry. Zetian leaves him to get her revenge on the boy pilot. She’s suspicious of every male character, quite rightly. When she gets power, she uses it ruthlessly. Especially in the end.

The first book in a historical fantasy series the Radient Emperor set in China in the 14th century.

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Publication year: 2021

Publisher: TOR

Format: ebook

Page count from Goodreads: 416

The story covers years 1345 to 1356 and is broken into three parts.

The first part follows our protagonist, a nameless second daughter of a destitute Zhu family. Almost all of her family has died of hunger, just she and her brother, and their father are left. Her brother and father call her a “useless girl”. She has learned to fend for herself, hunting with traps and hiding part of what she catches. Otherwise, she would have starved to death, too.

One day, the father takes the children to a fortune-teller. The old man prophesies that her brother, Zhu Chongba, is destined for greatness. The father and brother are happy and determined to survive. But for the girl, the fortune-teller says just ”Nothing”. The usual fate of girls in China.

But the girl is also determined to survive. A group of bandits robs them, but they don’t have much. So, the cruel men kick the father to death and the brother also dies the next day. The girl buries them, wondering why her brother has died when he was destined for greatness. She realizes that she can take up her brother’s name and greatness for herself. She remembers that her father arranged for the brother to go to a monastery. And so she walks to the monastery and sits outside for days until the abbot takes pity on her and lets her in.

She’s two years younger than the other novices and can’t read. She also has to keep her sex a secret. But she’s determined to succeed.

The second part introduces a handful of new POV characters. General Ouyang comes from the conquered Nanren people but he serves the Mongol Emperor who rules China with an iron fist. Ouyang’s father and the rest of the family were executed as traitors and Ouyang were the only one to survive. He was made a eunuch and a slave. Still, he clawed his way up, even though almost everyone despises him. He has, of course, plans of his own.

Ma Xiuyuing is the beautiful daughter of the rebel Red Turbans’ general. Recently he died in battle. Ma is betrothed to a young and foolishly arrogant rebel general. She feels that she has no control over her life. She’s a more gentle character than any of the rest. The other POV characters include a high-born Mongol man and a young thief who joins the rebels out of self-preservation.

The book has a couple of minor fantasy elements but you can almost read it as alternate history.

Zhu and Ouyang are mirrors of each other. They both have a destiny that they’re striving for ruthlessly. However, Zhu takes on her brother’s promised greatness to escape her fate of nothingness. She thinks that she has deluded heaven into believing she is her brother and she must do everything just like her brother would have. On the other hand, Ouyang has infiltrated his enemies to avenge his family. Except that he has grown to love his former master, lord Esen. Esen in turn thinks Ouyang as his best and most trusted friend. Ouyang is competent, of course, but must constantly endure the Mongols’ disdain both for being a eunuch and a Nanren.

Zhu and Ma are also mirrors of each other, as women. Ma has no desires of her own and hasn’t even realized she could have them. Zhu has a very strong desire and bends herself and the people around her to her will.

This society is misogynistic. It devalues women and deforms them and puts them in a tiny little box of either a dutiful, chaste daughter or a dutiful wife. Women do most of the domestic work and are still called useless to their faces. But I don’t think the narrative is misogynistic. While Zhu is clearly the exception who constantly hides her femininity, there are a couple of rather powerful women we see briefly. Ouyang despises women. The society also elevates warriors above other men. Without bureaucrats, the Emperor couldn’t rule but they are also constantly put down, as we see with lord Esen’s brother who is a bitter disappointment to their father.

This book certainly has an epic scope, with a large cast of characters and spanning decades. However, there aren’t many detailed battle descriptions. It’s far more focused on intrigue. The rebel Red Turbans have few leaders but they’re constantly fighting amongst themselves. The men under the Emperor are also undercutting each other.

The story was entertaining, if on the grim side. The ending isn’t a cliffhanger but Zhu’s journey hasn’t reached the end.

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