SPSFC Book Review: “Age of Order” by Julian North

Age of Order by Julian North

Dystopias are all the rage. Age of Order might strike some as just another dystopia, but it has more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye. It starts of with Daniela Machado offered a shot to go to an elite school for the privileged and wealthy. There, she has to fight against classism and the genetic modifications of the “richies” even as she contends back home with the impact of a pseudo-police state. It’s a great setup that quickly turns into something that reads a bit like a school drama combined with dystopia.

Then… things kind of get out of hand, in both good and bad ways. At 20% in I was hugely enjoying it; at 40% it started to read like it wasn’t stopping. The extended school scenes and back-and-forth moves across the city read at times like an over-extended travelogue instead of a dystopic thriller. Then, twists and turns started to hit hot and heavy, and our main characters had some more interesting background revealed.

The novel begins to read like a roller coaster, with extremely high points of big twists and reveals punctuating an almost mundane otherwise story of going to school and dealing with bullying. The highs definitely outweigh the lows, however, and I found myself enjoying it all the way through. The character interactions are the strength of the novel, and I especially enjoyed how several major plots were intertwined almost behind the scenes before they got revealed to the reader. As that reader, I never felt cheated by having something come out of the woodworks. North certainly sets up the background to have even massive revelations about the characters feel believable. And there’s no way to avoid empathizing with these characters, who deal with struggles both in and out of their control.

Age of Order is a great read that I would highly recommend to fans of dystopias. It’s got so many great character moments and huge plot points that it overcomes its own problems with being a bit over-bloated. I’ll definitely be reading the next novels in this series.

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SDG.

SPSFC Book Review: “Above the Sky” by J.W. Lynne

Above the Sky by J.W. Lynne

Above the Sky has a familiar-sounding premise: teens are coming of age in a society with mysterious strictures that they take for granted but we readers know don’t make sense. Seven, our main protagonist, takes us on a journey as she discovers that her world isn’t what it seems. Sounds like a fairly straightforward dystopia, right? The answer, as readers move on with the plot, is no. It’s not that straightforward at all.

Basically, what happens is we get to experience Seven’s journey as she goes from finding out what she’s supposed to do with her life (be a doctor), to taking her sister’s place to chase after a love interest she’s barely even had any (physical) contact with, to being trained as a warrior for mysterious reasons in order to fight the threat that lingers Above the Sky, to finding out everything is way more complex than any of this seemed to begin with. Along the way, major and minor side characters appear and become more ore less important in believable ways. One of the most riveting scenes in the book involves an action sequence while our characters are under fire and Seven has to decide what to do with extremely limited vision and knowledge of the situation. It’s a truly excellent way to frame a narrative like this, and Lynne delivers time and again on character moments like that.

The plot revelations are spaced out in a satisfying way, such that just as I got settled in to how I thought the plot was going, Lynne introduced a new wrinkle that kept me guessing. It’s difficult to know who the bad guys or good guys are, and as you discover more about the outside world with Seven, it becomes more alluring and more urgent to know who’s who even while the confusion mounts. Meanwhile, the teen drama, training sequences, and discoveries about the characters are what one might expect from standard YA dystopias, but they’re all so well written that I never found any of it remotely boring. Instead, the book is an absolute page-turner from cover-to-cover.

When we finally start to really see that there’s more to the world than Seven has been allowed to find out, it just ups the tension yet again. Lynne truly weaves a story that keeps readers guessing even while investing enough in each major act to slow things down and allow readers to ponder the events and get used to the “new normal” even as Seven does. It’s a great way to write a book like this, and it definitely kept me engaged all the way through.

My major complaint with the book is the way the plot was driven at the end. (MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW.) I wasn’t surprised to find that Seven was pregnant, but the solution to it seems impossible. She and Six are to swap places and somehow Six is supposed to somehow be competent in all the things Seven was doing while also passing herself off as Seven while Seven does the same back home with Six? And they’re going to swap places multiple times? I just… find it really hard to buy into as a real solution. It pressed my suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point. I’m definitely going to read the next book, because I’m sold on the world and the mysteries happening there. The characters are great, too. I just wish the ending hadn’t been so hard to swallow. (/END SPOILERS)

Above the Sky is a thrilling read that has me wanting more. There are so many different mysteries being teased here that it is impossible not to want to know what’s going on. The characters are strong as well, and Lynne shows she’s not above serious tragedy happening for the sake of the story. I am invested, and I’ll be reading more.

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SDG.

SPSFC Book Review: “Extinction Reversed” by J.S. Morin

Extinction Reversed by J.S. Morin

What if humans went extinct, but the robots/AI that lived on missed us enough to bring us back? That’s the core question that drives the action of Extinction Reversed by J.S. Morin.

Eve14 is a new iteration of the attempt to resurrect humanity, and it appears she is a success. Kind of. She’s given specific inputs and raised in a lab setting, and this has a huge impact on how she interacts with the outside world. Morin delivers on this concept, making the marked difference between Eve14 and “robot” characters like Charlie7 especially stark. This raises questions of humanity, transhumanism, and what it means to be alive. Their interactions, along with several other characters, are interesting.

Unfortunately, I found some of the characters hard to navigate with the naming system. I don’t know why it bothered me so much, as I’ve been fine with naming systems similar to this in other books, but I had trouble keeping track of some of the side characters to the point where I would have to backtrack and reread sections to understand what was happening and to whom.

The main problem I had with the book is that it goes on for far too long without much happening. It reads like an extended action scene for much of the middle chunk of the book and only moves the plot forward more at the end. Charlie7 and Eve14 have quite the adventure, but I didn’t see enough happening with their development for me to get hugely into the story.

Extinction Reversed is a solid premise for a novel and it delivers on the action. Where it stumbles, though, is in dragging out the middle for too long. Readers who love AI/Robot fiction should check it out for the compelling look at themes of transhumanism.

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SDG.

SPSFC Book Review: “Zenith” by Arshad Ahsanuddin

Zenith: The Interscission Project- Book One by Arshad Ahsanuddin

When my group, Team Red Stars, was doing its initial sampling of this book, I was somewhat put off by having it so clearly sell itself as a space opera, when it didn’t read like that at all. It went on to my personal “no” stack, but ended up in our quarterfinalists. I’m glad it did, because it has some serious strengths, but it also has some weaknesses that keep it from being great in my opinion.

Zenith is set something like 100 years in the future. For all that, many of the scenes read as if they’re domestic scenes from the present day. Whether it’s characters casually moving sacks of groceries around, cooking dinner in the same fashion as we do now, or having beds on spaceships that don’t seem to have noticeable differences, I admit I felt a constant annoyance at the lack of many contrivances for technology. I get the idea of not innovating for the sake of innovation, but at some point I think that as a reader, I should have had some discernible moments where the book told me “yes, this is the future” with some startling tech. Instead, everything was mundane, as if the next century is going to go on in stasis, with the only real innovations happening in space travel.

Going along with that, the main plot wasn’t engaging. A spaceship is developed and a motley crew is assembled to send it on its maiden voyage. Behind the scenes, there’s much more to the technology. I was intrigued by finding out more about some of the plot developments, but not enough is revealed in this entry. It’s almost as though the author is holding back on the reveals, but doesn’t give the readers the insights they need to see where things may be going.

All of this may make it seem like I didn’t enjoy the book at all. That would be wrong, because despite the problems I listed, the core character interactions are pretty excellent. There is quite a bit of romance here, and much of it is queer romance. Going along with that, there are genuine moments of true character development for all the main characters, and even a surprisingly thought-provoking take on the differences between physical attraction and love. I wanted to see more of these characters, and if I were to continue the series, they would be the reason why.

Zenith is not at all a bad book. It’s just decidedly in the “not for me” category based on the problems I outlined above. That said, it has serious strength in the sense of great characters and some thoughtful moments. Fans of character-driven sci-fi with an interest on queer representation should definitely take a look.

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SDG.

SPSFC Book Review: “Eye of the Storm” by R.K. King

Eye of the Storm by R.K. King

Humanity exists in the eye of a truly massive superstorm in the aptly named Eye of the Storm by R.K. King. This one didn’t make it past my group’s first round of cuts in the Self-Published Science Fiction Contest, but I had hugely enjoyed the first sample I’d read, and decided to keep on going. I am glad I did, because what I discovered was a gripping look at a cool post-apocalyptic wasteland.

The first impression one gets from the book is that it’s a kind of Mad Max world set in a storm. That’s… not wrong. It’s not all of the premise, though. There are various clans who live and move around in this storm, from the Pathfinders, known for mapping out the direction the storm will move, to the Dogs, who collect and cobble together machines like cars. As the storm moves across the land, these clans stay inside, sheltered within the Eye from the awfulness of a storm that seems to encompass the whole world. They fight each other for the meager resources they encounter and scavenge along the way, each clan looking out for its own, while still being force to barter and interact with the others to get some of the things they need.

The Eye of the storm must be quite large, based on the actions that take place therein, but it’s never really spelled out in the book. Aiden, a Pathfinder, eventually stumbles upon a young woman he calls Nemo, and together they venture into the heart of the storm itself, looking to see what might be out there in the world.

Our view of the world comes through the eyes of the characters. There’s very little side exposition here. Mostly, readers are just thrown into the action and ride along. It’s a great way to tell a story like this, and certainly keeps the plot moving. When the plot picks up as Nemo and Aiden venture forth with a small band and a Stormwalker, the pace is relentless in a very good way. I found myself churning through the pages throughout the night and didn’t stop until I got to the end.

There’s something to be said for science fiction that is mostly about the ride along the way. This novel is the kind of book one can sit back, enjoy the ride, and set down with a feeling of fulfillment and wonder. It’s just a good, fun read that doesn’t make you think very hard. That’s not to say there’s no development of characters or story. King moves the plot forward with the characters growing in somewhat predictable ways. The world itself is revealed in small chunks as readers follow the characters, ultimately getting some big moments that certainly set up what I hope are some great sequels to come. There is romance among the characters, and it was fairly predictable, though I was never upset by it. The one thing I would say as a detractor for the characters was how easily they shrugged off major losses. While some major scenes of mourning occur, it was almost like other characters didn’t give any emotional weight to the plot. It was a minor thing for my overall enjoyment, though.

Eye of the Storm is an intensely fun read that doesn’t let off the gas. It’s intense from end-to-end, and weaves an action-packed narrative about a post-apocalyptic world.

Score (a score out of 10 is required for the SPSFC Rules to help us determine which books are moving on): 8/10

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SDG.

SPSFC Book Review: “The Shepherd Protocol”

The Shepherd Protocol by Fowler Brown

The Shepherd Protocol was a read I was on the fence about when we went through our initial impressions. It ended up in a battle royale against two other books. At that point, I still felt on the fence, ready to push it into my top 10 if I didn’t find other books were to my liking. That didn’t end up being the case, but, happily, the novel ended up in our group’s quarterfinalists, giving me the chance to dive in even more deeply.

The Shepherd Protocol follows Melody Clay, an AI who inhabits a synethetic body. There is much anti-“synth” sentiment on Earth, and Clay ends up in Boston trying to figure out how to stop or prevent the Decay, a shutdown protocol that’s been killing synths. As she investigates, more players show up, whether it’s people hunting synths for parts, a near military state police force, or others in on the action. There’s a sense of mystery throughout, along with a kind of haunting doom for Clay.

What I hugely struggled with for this book was getting into it. Melody Clay and the other synths didn’t have that feeling of “otherness” that is almost necessary for books like this to work. Because of that, it reads more like a mystery set in the future, but even that future doesn’t have the world-building to back it up as feeling very… futuristic. The book ends up reading more like a mystery set in Boston with just a few modifications. There’s not much by way of developing the world, so readers are left with the main plot, and that, again, is unfulfilling.

The last 15% or so has some twists in it that make some of the earlier points feel like they finally have a payoff, but it reads a bit as too little, too late. At that point, it’s nice to see wider impact happening, but it would have been even better to have had those impactful moments earlier in the book, where they could help carry along a plot that otherwise feels lethargic at times.

The frustrating thing for me is that the book checks off so many of my boxes. One of my favorite subgenres of sci-fi is that of the sci-fi/mystery mashup. I also hugely enjoy robots and AIs. The Shepherd Protocol may just be one of those cases where it didn’t hit me the same as it does others. Check it out if you like any of those sub-genres I mentioned.

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SDG.

SPSFC Book Review: “Of Cinder and Bone” by Kyoko M.

Of Cinder and Bone by Kyoko M.

Of Cinder and Bone was one of only three books that my group unanimously selected to go into our round of full reads. The group was intrigued by its strong, fun characters and hints of a dragon plot mixed with some sci-fi. I personally thought it was a kind of Jurassic Park with dragons and stronger characters scenario and was all in from the get-go.

Now I’ve finished the book, and I think the strengths that were clear at the beginning didn’t let me down. The characters in the novel are real, living people that you want to root for or smack upside the head by turns. Even minor characters get significant development, with a few of them almost supplanting the core three characters to take over the story. That last bit hints at my main problem with the novel, but more on that later.

The main story follows Jack and Kamala, two scientists struggling to bring back the long-lost dragons from the grave. Alongside them is Faye, a fireball of a woman who carries the plot in every scene in which she appears. Although she’s “just Kamala’s roommate,” she steals the show time and again as her interactions with the others move the character development in sometimes surprising ways. The scientists manage to get a dragon in a very Jurassic Park-esque manner, but then it’s promptly stolen, thrusting our mains into a dark world of Yakuza and more to figure out what’s going on.

This is where I have a minor gripe–the story gets pretty drawn out at times in this major middle section, as Jack, Kamala, Faye, and many, many side characters hop in to create a sometimes dizzying narrative of hard science fantasy, dragons, and corporate intrigue. It becomes necessary to truly slow down and concentrate on the flow of the story for fear of missing major plot points. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it did detract from my personal enjoyment as the novel moved from an expected fun, easy-to-read romp to a jungle of names, locations, and people each with their own motivations. Some of the major points about dragons that were raised early on disappeared into the background until they were suddenly thrust at readers again towards the end. I found myself almost experiencing whiplash with how quickly big movements happened in the last quarter. All of this is to say, don’t let the first fun impressions fool you–this book requires some thinking and effort. But lighthearted humor and great moments are found all the way through.

The bulk of the enjoyment comes, again, from the characters and their interactions. Yes, dragons are cool. Yes, there’s some hard sci-fi and made up history of dragons thrown in there. I honestly wanted way more fake paleontology related to dragons. I would have eaten that up. But the core of the novel’s strength is in these characters, and there are some major side characters who direct the plot along. These feel like real people, with some true development happening between chapters. I loved them.

Kyoko M. has created a truly fascinating alternate now that is carried by some of the strongest characters I’ve encountered in this contest. While it didn’t maintain the tone I personally hoped for all the way through, the plot was satisfying and the conclusion has me wanting more. Of Cinder and Bone is a great story with fantastic characters.

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SDG.

SPSFC Round 1, Battle Royale Part 5

Skybound by Lou Iovino

I was intrigued by the hard sci-fi premise of this novel. What would happen if the Earth stopped spinning? Iovino dives into some of the science questions this brings up, and provides answers to some of the big ones, like what happens to the moon (in this book, whatever stopped the Earth’s spin kept the moon in a kind of stasis as well), or satellites, or why didn’t everyone just fly off into space? Scatter in some great character pieces, and the book was set up for success. I had a ton of questions as I got to the 3/4 mark of the novel. I was especially interested in the strange alien (?) object that seemed to be the source of all the problems. [There are spoilers for the ending after these brackets. I’ll close out spoilers with more brackets.] But then, they just solve the problem. An astronaut from the ISS worked throughout most of the novel to get information back to Earth, and they can’t read it, but that doesn’t matter because nukes. I re-read the last 20% or so of the novel twice because I was so surprised by how so many threads were left dangling and some of the biggest investments in characters were just dead ends. They literally just shoot a bunch of nukes at the object and it disappears after a couple hits. Flash forward 5 years and some people are bittersweet about the events. That’s it! There’s no explanation of what the object was, why it did what it did, nothing! I am left wondering if it is supposed to be some broader point about the pointlessness of various things, like how we could invest a ton of time and effort into a project only to have it all be for nothing. But really, it just feels incredibly unsatisfying after a super strong first part of the novel. [/Spoilers.] Because of this, Skybound is, disappointingly, a “no.” There’s just not the satisfaction of an ending I was looking for. I would read another novel by the author, though.

World of Difference by WJ Donovan

I don’t really know what to make of this book, now that I’ve finished. It’s got a kind of sardonic narration style that makes it difficult to tell if some of the worst comments are satire critiquing awful things or whether the narrator is just… awful. One example is a character who goes on about how incarceration rates (even in the future, apparently) are skewed in America towards imprisoning people of color, which seems like a potential critique of mass incarceration. But then that same character jokingly (?) says mass incarceration is good because it was a way to help explore the Solar System through forced labor. Moments like this abound. The plot is at times buried to the point it feels one needs an excavator to figure out what’s happening. Is it a slice of life novel, showing what’s happening across the lives of several characters? Or is it something more? By the end I was still asking myself this question. It’s got the seeds of interest here, but not enough for me to bump it to a “yes,” especially with my concerns over some of the problematic content.

Age of Order by Julian North

We’ve got another school-based dystopia here! I gotta confess, I love this concept. Combine Harry Potter with a dystopia and you’ve got the classroom drama of teens or kids and the potential for much bigger consequences.

Round 1 Status

As my group pushed to find the last 10 books our group selected, I had to cut my reading of Age of Order short (about 43% in), but I could tell that it stood out from the crowd enough this round to move on. I’ll be interested to see if my group decides to pick it as one of the group choices, as I know there were some mixed opinions on it. World of Difference is an intriguing story with maybe just a bit too little cohesion and too many things going on for a satisfying answer to any of the many basic character questions it raised in my head. Skybound is a fantastic read that just… kind of fizzles out. With Age of Order, we’ve rounded out my personal top 10 from my team’s books for the SPSFC! I can’t wait to see what my group’s official choices are, but I said I’d promise reviews for all my own selections, and you’ll have them even if they don’t make the group’s list! Let me know in the comments what you think!

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SDG.

SPSFC Round 1, Battle Royale Part 4

There were 5 slots left on my “yes” list for the Self-Published Science Fiction Contest but 15 books in the running. That means I need to eliminate 2 out of every 3 books. To do so, I decided to commit to fully reading these 15 books (or, minimally, reading until I decide it’s not for me) and pitting them against each other for the final 5 slots. I had to re-think my reading to do this, because I enthusiastically put too many books on the “yes” stack to start off. So, for the sake of seeding, each former “yes” goes up against two “maybe” books (except for one post where two higher seeds will face off).

Memories of the Khassos by Leah Flaherty

The first 10-20% of this novel had me intrigued by a world-hopping adventure that seemed to blend some elements of hard sci-fi, dystopia, and, frankly, whimsy. As I read the rest of the novel, though, it didn’t ever get over the hump. That is, the premise of the world never seemed fully to be cashed in. There are supposedly numerous civilizations on the line here, but we don’t get enough of a view of any of them as a reader to become invested in their setting. Are they civilizations worth saving? One, hinted at early on, seems to be something of a police-state. But that’s it–we just get hints. The characters feel the same way. While a few of the main characters get fleshed out over time, most of the others seem to be just their as props, barely carrying along the plot. There’s not enough flavor to this world, and that’s a shame, because I think the potential for a wonderful read is there. I thought Flaherty’s prose was a strong point. The Memories of Khassos was initially intriguing, but ultimately it’s getting the cut.

Extinction Reversed by J. S. Morin

I hugely enjoyed J.S. Morin’s Black Ocean series, which is like “Firefly” with magic (and it does work and feel about that way). So, when I first sampled this book, I was surprised it wasn’t an immediate yes. I threw it on the “maybe” stack and figured I’d give it a deeper go later. I’m glad I did, because while I haven’t had the chance to fully read the book, once I got past the confusion with names and places that was piled into the front portion of the book, the plot truly takes off. It becomes an interesting look at how AI and robotic life might examine itself and try to find a place in the world. It also picks up more of the humor and personable characters that I expected from familiarity with some of Morin’s (huge) corpus. I have been enjoying it hugely ever since, and it has moved up the pile.

Things They Buried by Amanda K. King and Michael R. Swanson

I have such mixed feelings here, because Things They Buried is quite the strong work, as well. It’s all about world-building here. There are several different alien(ish) factions here battling for control in a cityscape that is as depressing as it is hope-filled. The characters are fighting against an evil threat that is stealing and harming children. There are dark themes and awful violence here, but its for a purpose and never feels, so far as I can tell, exploitative or pointless. The book is also relentlessly dense, forcing an intense focus as you’re reading it. This is a science fantasy not to be missed by fans of the subgenre, and certainly more so if you enjoy the darker side of storytelling while still having hope even in the midst of atrocity.

Round 1 Status

Battle Royale Round 4 may have been the most difficult of them all. These books each have many merits, and they each bring entirely different things to the table. Memories of the Khassos didn’t quite live up to a promising start, but stands as an interesting enough, if disjointed, story. Things They Buried vs. Extinction Reversed is a tough battle, and I ultimately decided that Extinction Reversed is my choice, though it was very, very close. I’ll be interested to see what my fellow reviewers think of these books. Let me know your own thoughts in the comments!

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SDG.

SPSFC Round 1, Battle Royale Part 3

There were 5 slots left on my “yes” list for the Self-Published Science Fiction Contest but 15 books in the running. That means I need to eliminate 2 out of every 3 books. To do so, I decided to commit to fully reading these 15 books (or, minimally, reading until I decide it’s not for me) and pitting them against each other for the final 5 slots. I had to re-think my reading to do this, because I enthusiastically put too many books on the “yes” stack to start off. So, for the sake of seeding, each former “yes” goes up against two “maybe” books (except for one post where two higher seeds will face off).

Dog Country by Malcolm F. Cross

Dog Country is a military science fiction novel about geneforged dog-people who were created for war only to find there’s no war waiting for them in adulthood. Honestly, this is one of the most thoughtful books in our selection, in my opinion. Time and again, there are problems with our major protagonist, Edane, attempting to adapt to the “real world” and away from war. Then, a crowdfunded war to oust a totalitarian regime gets underway and we get some solid military sci-fi action that feels believable and surprisingly intense at times. Edane struggles to find out how to express himself to his girlfriend, Janine, and takes comfort from the his two adoptive mothers. The inter-character relationships are of utmost importance in the book, and I found it impossible not to get deeply invested in Edane’s story and struggles. There are shades of the big questions asked in books like The Forever War, but with a twist because they involve hypothetical situations of future weapons and technology. I hugely enjoyed this novel.

The Coldsuit by Andy Wright

First contact with a twist- our main character grew up effectively a slave laborer for an alien species. Ry grew up believing a lie, and as he discovers the truth, he starts to fight back against it. The plot and characters are interesting, but they didn’t draw me in to this twist on the dystopic genre. Yep, it’s a dystopia but it’s aliens this time instead of some far off human power (as in The Hunger Games). I’d recommend this to people who truly can’t get enough of dystopias, and I’d recommend it to them pretty strongly. For me, it read as too familiar. However, based on how the rest of my group thinks, this might end up on our group’s collective “Yes” pile.

The Lore of Prometheus by Graham Austin-King

I wrote in my initial impression of this book that I was interested in finding out more about what powers were at work, whether it was urban fantasy, and more about the characters. Now that I’ve finished, I sort of have the same questions in my mind. The plot meanders quite a bit and I’m still not convinced about how the protagonist’s powers work. It’s a decent yarn, but unfortunately won’t be moving on past this round for me.

Round 1 Status

Round 3 of the Battle Royale had some super heavy hitters. Each of these books seems worthy in its own ways, and I won’t be unhappy should my group select others of them for our group reads. For me, though Dog Country stood canine head and (furry) shoulders above the rest. It’s just a fabulous character piece told with excruciatingly powerful moments scattered throughout some solid action sequences. Fans of military or thoughtful sci-fi should consider it a must-read. Coldsuit, again, reads as a very good dystopic setup, but I found myself skimming after a while with a sense of having been there before. The Lore of Prometheus is another intriguing plot with good characters, but I was a bit confused by everything as I approached the end. Again, any of these seems a good read, so if you’re yearning for some indie reads, go grab them and read them! Let me know what you thought of them in the comments.

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SDG.