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Space Wizard

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Painted Space

SPSFC Reviews Round 3 – The Semifinalists

Welcome to the Semifinalist round of the first SPSFC! There are 27 more books here, all of which I will review. I expect this to be a harder round, as all of these have been chosen out of 30 contenders! Note: I'll try to avoid major spoilers here, and will talk generally about the books. You may intuit some plot points as I do so.


UPDATE: Our team's official books have been updated to reduce stress on the reviewers. I'll mark the ones that I am reviewing for the contest with a big note beside them. Team Red Stars will only be officially rating 6 new books, but I'll still be reading all of them.


UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: I've marked the finalists and the ones specific to our team in this list as well.


Previously read books from my team from the first round are noted with an asterisk.


Personal Top Ten List:

#1 - Dusk Mountain Blues

#2 - Age of Order*

#3 - A Star Named Vega - FINALIST

#4 - In The Orbit of Sirens - FINALIST

#5 - The Last Shadow

#6 - Dog Country*

#7 - Mazarin Blues

#8 - Gates of Mars

#9 - Captain Wu - OFFICIAL REVIEW - FINALIST

#10 - Zero Day Threat


Read #8 of 27

Position #1

Overall Thoughts

Alright folks, I think I’ve found what I really wanted out of this contest, and I’ll be surprised if any others pass this one to land at the top of my list. Dusk Mountain Blues is like nothing I’ve read. Take a little bit of Deliverance, a little bit of Firefly, a touch of Gideon the Ninth, and some X-Men thrown in for good measure. But like any good book, it’s about family. Now I will say I might be a bit biased as I’m a North Carolina local and this takes so much from the ties and traditions of Appalachia, but it never feels like a caricature of the culture. There’s some dialect in this, “gonna” and “ain’t” and “gotcha” and the like, but it never interfered with me reading. I did note a few typos and omitted words here and there, but I was so pulled into the story they didn’t even make me pause.


Plot

The book slowly reveals the large Caldwell clan, headed by five patriarchs who were experimented on and mutated by a much larger space civilization. Each character in the book has some superpower, and they’re all individual and unique—not your standard superhero powers. The family mainly wants to be left alone to continue their backwater existence, but the soldiers of the Civilization, the Bluecoats, are intent on wiping them out. Throughout the book, the stakes keep getting upped, forcing the characters to grow. Even though there are amazingly overpowered battles, it still feels real to the story told. The best thing about this was that this story had a definite end, but it left me wanting more—in a good way. I can tell there’s so much more in this story and this universe, and I want to continue the tale.


Setting

Just as strong as the plot is the setting. The planet C’dar is in many ways similar to North Carolina, with mountains, swamps, cities, and plains. It’s a very real place, though most of the action takes place in the lush hills where the Caldwells have settled. Having traveled through the mountains of NC many times, I can absolutely see the hand-made tools the Caldwells use, as well as their houses, fixed up and broken-down machinery, and their custom weapons. There are hints about the universe past this one planet, and it’s stated many times as a backwater. We see just enough hints of more advanced technology to know that even though the abilities and machines of the Caldwells are impressive, they’re just one little rebelling cog in a much larger machine.


Character

This brings me to the real heart of the book, the characters. This is told in a close perspective, over the shoulders of three generations of Caldwells: Drifter, a patriarch, Appetite, his son, and Kindle, Appetite’s daughter. Those are their nicknames, because all the Caldwells have monikers linked to their individual mutations. But their real names are used as well, and I was impressed that I was able to jump from one to another with ease as they were stated in the text. That tells me the characters are well set in my mind. There’s no overt LGBTQ representation, but there were a couple instances of different genders, and a general acceptance of people who are different, no matter what they look like.


Each generation of the family grows during the book, even Drifter, though he’s already been through a lot in his life. The Caldwells are a family of scoundrels, living off the scraps of the Civilization. But we root for them all the way because they’re set challenges that keep getting steeper and steeper, and just like generations of Appalachia folks in our world, they dig deep and rise to each one. There are villains and heroes and those in between, heartwarming moments and betrayals, grand revelations and very quiet moments, but I was rapt for the whole thing. There’s a lot more I want to write here, and I’ve been thinking about this universe all day, which is the main reason this story is coming out on top.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

Science fantasy at its best with very real characters and a fully fleshed out world, underdogs and ships and guns and overpowered battles and quiet family moments. I want to read more of these books, which is why I’m giving it my first 10/10.


Read #0 of 27 (one of our team's finalists. This is the same review as from Round 1)

Position #2

Overall Thoughts

Wow. Just wow. Take the best parts of The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Snow Crash, and Brave New World, and bundle them together. That’s what I got out of this story. This is one of those books were I was eager to dive in every time, and had to stop myself from reading “just one more” chapter. The characters are deep and have arcs, the setting is awesome, and I want to read more books to find out about the larger plot. The story takes the viewpoint of a girl in a second class society with the chance to see and experience the upper echelons of a very stratified future USA. I thoroughly recommend it, but if you need more, here are the rest of my thoughts:


Plot

The first chapter or two was a little slow, but I could already tell some of the larger social and economic issues that would be tackled in this book. Once Daniela Machado, a Latinx girl from Bronx City, accepts an invite to the most prestigious of Manhattan schools, Tuck, the story takes off. The biggest part that drew me in is that the reader can tell from the beginning that something is deeply suspicious about the whole setup, but there are enough clues to keep you just one step ahead of the characters. The plotting and tension are excellent, leaving the reader satisfied and wanting to know the answer to the next question. There is as much said in what happens as what doesn’t, and I was thrilled with a particularly satisfying plot twist near the end. The book ends in a way that could be a standalone, but leaves the larger world open for future stories, which there are, and I will be reading!


Setting

Near-future New York includes the advancement of many dystopian elements we’ve all seen increasing over the last few years, with the separation of the elite and lower class, authoritarian measures of control, and increasingly one-sided politics. The future in this book is both dystopian, and one I could believe would happen. This is often the issue I have with dystopian books, where I cannot make the connection between our current reality and the fictional one. This story did not have that problem. But there is another side to the worldbuilding as well, and that is in the awesome future tech on display. From realistic virtual assistants, to advances in genetic engineering, to new security and protection measures, all the advancements seem just as realistic as the society, and its inclusion both allows and encourages the progression of the plot in the best way.


Character

I love these characters. All of them. Even the bad ones. There are the petty rivals from many YA books, including Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, the geniuses with flaws more often seen in adult books, and those characters that are molded and expected to act one way by society, yet have secret layers to them. I won’t elaborate on this one because it’s sort of a spoiler, but such a person is my favorite character.

There are some great character arcs, especially with Daniela transitioning from the eat-to-survive, dangerous society of the have-nots to the power-grabbing, wealthy society of the genetically tweaked highborn. But all the characters have their share of growth, helping her on her journey.


My one detraction from this book, overall, is that there is no LGBTQ+ content. There doesn’t have to be a lot, especially if the authoritarian state has made that type of diversity illegal, but I would have liked at least a hint of how queer society functions in this book, whether undercover or out in the open. I can only hope that’s taken into consideration in future books.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

An action packed look at future tech in a dystopian society with all the right plotting to keep you reading. 9.5/10. I almost gave this one a 10, but the lack of queer content knocked it down a peg.


Read #6 of 27 - FINALIST

Position #3

Overall Thoughts

This is supposed to be a YA book, but like all good literature meant for young minds, this really probes deep into questions of what our purpose is, why we live as we do, and what happiness should be. Oh, and it doesn’t pull punches! There are real consequences for actions, even if the 30th century technology means life-threatening injuries are less so. This story actually reminds me strongly of if Vernor Vinge wrote for kids in his Zones of Thought series. But even with all this heavy stuff, there’s a lot of fun in this story, a lot of beauty, and a lot of adventure! All this, packed into a deceptively simple story, means this one goes near to the top of my list! (and just look at that cover...)


Plot

Things start out deceptively simple, with a kid Aster, and her father on a star cruiser going to a new job. There are antics, and we meet some more characters, but the story quickly takes a turn when we learn about strange maybe-humans covered in beetle-like armor who attack the ship. It would be easy to make these attackers one-dimensional villains, but instead they become linked to the heart of the story. The deeper into the story the more questions are posed about the price of utopia and the human drive for progress. And though this is YA, so not all these themes are fully explored, there is a lot lying under the surface dealing with The Singularity, how humans cope, and what our goal as a species is. And I have to say, the ending did not go where I thought it would! Or rather, I didn’t think the story would go there, but it did. I was almost thinking this would be a series, but I’m not sure if it will be. In any case, I’d love to read more in this universe!


Setting

It’s hard to write a far-future story and get all the tech right, but I think this one did. People have FTL, thought-based connection, nanobots, and most importantly, true AI. This becomes linked to the main story, and it’s only a little spoilery to say that the civilizations in this book are guided by post-singularity AIs, so powerful that they are essentially untouchable. This makes me think of the Powers in A Fire Upon the Deep, and how they may even control humans without their consent, though the outcome might well be beneficial. This gets to the heart of the questions posed here, of whether we are better off heading to an outcome of les suffering for all, even if we have to be controlled to do it. It’s an interesting question, and this book takes a good swing at it.


Character

The characters here are delightful. Whimsical and capricious, as suitable for a YA book, but also fairly deep, each with their own flaws. I would have liked to see more LGBTQ+ content in the societies, however, and some non-binary representation as well, especially with the number of AIs in this story. Since this is a YA, I think the one place where it perhaps doesn’t have as much depth as it could is dealing with the consequences of some of the things the young people in this story are put through. Especially Isaac, who has a much tougher history than his goofy exterior belies. Not only that, but the antagonists have a lot of depth to them as well, as the reasons for their society is unfolded over the length of the book. There were parts where I genuinely didn’t know who to root for! But all together, this was an incredible story, and I had a lot of fun reading it. It’s very close to the top of my list!


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

An excellent far-future tale of the consequences of AIs in society, cleverly hidden as a fun kid’s adventure through space. 9/10.


Read #11 of 27 - FINALIST

Position #4

Overall Thoughts

Are you looking for a truly epic sci fi space opera? This is a good one. From space battles, robots, and time dilation, to aliens, telepathy, and cool creatures, this book has almost everything. It feels epic in its time scale as well, covering over three hundred years in a way, but also in a span of four years for the main story. My only complaint for this book is that it might be a little too epic. There are a few scenes I think could have been cut to heighten the overall tension, and sometimes there were lengthy descriptions of events during action scenes that didn’t really add anything, as well as changes in POV to tell what another character was thinking. But in general, this story drew me in and kept me engaged.


Plot

The story has a unique structure in the beginning, where it covers one family in Earth’s solar system three hundred years before the main story timeframe, and another family already on a distant planet. Those still in our solar system are fleeing a cyborg race intent on destroying humans, while those on the planet have to find a cure for a disease which will stop their lungs if they breathe the air. The narrative reverses later, catching the humans on the planet up to when those from our solar system arrive. And this is all before the main part of the story starts! There are dealings with native aliens, lots of cool creatures, and of course the eponymous sirens. Looking back, this book covers a lot of ground, but still leaves some loose ends for the rest of the series to use. The sequel is out and the third book is coming out very soon, both of which I’d be interested in reading!


Setting

The story really shines here. The author is also a previsualization artist and it shows in the care taken in how plants and animals are described, glimpses into the ecosystem, and how the native aliens’ culture works. The planet this takes place on is a vibrant place, which the human settlers are just starting to discover. There is a lot of room for surprises in the story when something works a little different than expected. However, I will say sometimes the description bogs down the story just a bit. For example, there’s an extended section dealing with one character training to be a scout which could probably have been shortened or cut as it doesn’t have the biggest effect on the story’s outcome.


Character

As with a lot of the epic science fictions, especially dealing with multiple subjects, the character development sometimes suffers for this. This book does a good job of watching the action from several points of view, but generally keeping to the most important characters. There is a romance in here, but I felt it was overshadowed by the rest of the events and wasn’t as impactful as it could have been. However, the characters are distinct, and even if they don’t always get as much screentime as I wanted, their objectives are clear, for both heroes and villains, which is a big part of making relatable characters. There’s even a bit of LGBTQ representation. Not much, but some. In all, this was a very enjoyable romp across a strange new planet, and I’d be interested to read the sequels.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

An epic science fiction space opera that covers everything from killer robots to alien telepathy and diverse ecosystems! 8.75/10.


Read #21 of 27

Position #5

Overall Thoughts

This story has a lot to love! Think the TV show Atypical, crossed with The Sinner, crossed with Dr. Strange. There’s a deep mystery in the plot, the characters are amazing, and I was astounded by the ending. Also, it’s set in the 1990’s which, for a mystery, reduces some of the instant gratification of a constant internet connection. I also have to give a lot of respect to the author for writing a non-verbal autistic POV character. It’s a great opportunity to see inside the head of someone whose inner thoughts don’t necessarily reflect what her outside is doing. The other POV character is an older man—a retiring detective, and though his character is more of a trope, there are lots of cool twists in the plot.


Plot

The book does have a bit of a slow start until we really get into the heart of the story. However, there’s an immediate fight between the older detective, Bas, with a mysterious assailant who seems to be able to use magic. We are soon shown the other character, Dee, and introduced to her autism and how it affects her. I think the book does a really good job of sliding the reader into how autism (and relatively severe autism) affects people, with the main concept still being that they are people, and not plot devices.

As to the actual plot, I don’t want to go into too much detail, but things ramp up between missing people, people who lose their memories and assume other lives, and strange effects of magic that seem to be multiplying and expanding. It quickly becomes apparent that someone must be behind these different things, though how they are connected is unclear. At the same time, using magic, Dee discovers she can communicate telepathically with other people, and also has the ability to do unexplained things. I thought there was going to be a second book, but things were wrapped up and explained at the end (and yes, this is science fiction). I wouldn’t mind another story in this universe, though!


Setting

The story is set around 1990, and that affects almost everything that happens in the detective, Bas’, ability to track down what’s happening. Images have to be printed from VHS cassettes, people have to be tracked down from address books, and characters can’t instantly tell each other where they are with cell phones. When people assume new lives, where they may suddenly live in different houses, or have different families, and everyone around them forgets them, it’s a lot harder to find them than it would be today.


Character

The characters in this story are great. Bas has a lot of real-world experience, and fulfills the trope of the tired detective whose seen all of this before (until he hasn’t). Dee has a lot of growth in front of her, starting as a non-verbal person with trouble controlling her own actions (executive dysfunction), and depends on stimming, or repetitive motion, to control herself. She is never cured of autism, but she is given new opportunities that enable her to deal with some of the challenges she faces in life. There is great representation of neurodivergent people and LGBTQIA people, and good development of the main characters. All around a well written, enjoyable, mysterious story.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

An engaging mystery, developing magic that doesn’t always seem to follow rules, LGBTQIA content, and excellent characters, including a non-verbal autistic girl. 8.75/10.


Read #0 of 27 (one of our team's finalists. This is the same review as from Round 1)

Position #6

Overall Thoughts

This is a very thought-provoking book with some great worldbuilding and character moments. That said, it’s not a very happy book. It’s not going to make you cheer for the protagonist over the villain—there’s not always a clear definition of who those are—but it is a very well-written book. This is set about eighty-five years in the future, and it’s easy to tell that from who the characters are and what technology is available, but this is also one of those stories that could work equally well now, or in WWII, or in the renaissance, or in the crusades, talking anthropomorphic dogs notwithstanding.


What’s that? Oh yes. Most of the character in this are basically actualized furries (and even called that a couple times), created through genetic engineering. It’s one of the parts I actually like the best, because we get a great vehicle for seeing the human species, while also dealing with the concept of the outsider and how many people see themselves cut off from others. It’s something experienced by people in the furry community, from the little bit I know, and it comes across powerfully in the story.


Plot

I would say this is the weakest of the three categories, only because this is such a strongly character-driven book. The first half of the book deals with main character, Edane (though only one of several viewpoints), coming to terms with what he wants in life after a serious injury on a military operation in a Middle-Eastern/Central Asian country. The anthropomorphic dogs in the story are all clones, bred specifically as owned soldiers, which as you might think, messes with their psyche. Fortunately they have been emancipated, and many play in augmented reality military simulations as sports. The second half of the book, in my opinion, goes a little long, as it covers a new military operation, but in the end, the story sticks the landing and gives the bittersweet resolution I was looking for.


Setting

There’s a lot of interesting and subtle worldbuilding that goes along with the story. This is set on future Earth, so extrapolated from our geopolitical situation currently. I thought it a little ironic that the conflict is all set around the Middle East, and I was reading this during the aftermath of the US pullout from Afghanistan after twenty years. I want to hope we’re not fighting the same battles there next century, but I can’t say I’d be surprised if we were.

The other big component is the ability (and evident acceptability) of gene modding humans, and mixing them with animals. The clone dogs are the biggest characters, but there are mentions of a few other types of species mixes as well. The hybrids seem to have the same capacity as humans, though there are several excellent passages showing how the dogs think differently, and have trouble grasping some concepts such as humor, sexual pleasure, and why humans do so much political maneuvering.

Advanced technology also plays a big part in the story, from fully augmented reality, to decentralized decision making, advanced 3D printing technology, and smart(er) weapons. In all, the world here seems very real, and very possible.


Character

This is the big one for this book. Edane’s story is very moving, and though I have no experience with the military, seems like it is deeply rooted in the how soldiers feel coming home from a violent life of snap decisions to live in the comparatively cushy life of a citizen. There are a lot of adjustments to make, especially when one is a gene modded dog hybrid who was an owned asset for much of his life and not taught some basic concepts like laughing, the concept of gender, or how to use one’s initiative.

There was some great LGBTQIA representation as well, in Edane’s adoptive mothers, and in himself, as he is functionally ace/demi sexual. It factors into his relationships and how he approaches trying to live in a society where he has trouble grasping some of the basic concepts and accepted “normal” rituals of everyday life.


The other characters don’t have quite the extent of character arc Edane does, but still have satisfying ends to their stories. As said above, I felt the middle of this book went a little long, but in the end, the story stuck the landing and provided resolutions to all those questions proposed in the beginning of how to live in society when you are different physically and in personality. Even if that answer is, “I’m still searching.”


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

A great and thought provoking read, though not an upbeat story in many places. A lot of military focused action, but an excellent character story. 8.75/10 (adjusted from 9/10 based on overall ranking gradient)


Read #27 of 27

Position #7

Overall Thoughts

Hey, cool cats, a little birdy told me about the heppest dystopia this side of the nuclear family. Wanna dig it? ‘Course you do! Don’t be a square—call dibs on a seat and let me lay it on you!

Ok, I’m going to stop the lingo before I embarrass myself, but I was warned ahead that I might like this book very much, and so I made sure to save it to the end. It’s set in the rockin’ 2060’s, where the trend is to wear bland clothes, have colorless furniture and pictures, and let the megacorporations do their thing and install whatever updates they want to your Navigator—a bit like an internal Alexa or Siri. Now, some people rebel against The Man and have turned back to art deco and the ways of a century earlier. The combination of the retro vibes and futuristic lack of privacy lend a great setting to this story already, and I haven’t even gotten to the quirky, anxiety-ridden, very queer cast of characters!


Plot

We start out with the birth of a new, and unwanted, AI, as their anxiety-prone Pilot, Reed tries to go about his daily life working at the mortuary. We quickly find out that many people have gotten an unwanted upgrade, which is causing the Navigators to become sentient. Many are doing terrible things to their Pilots, and now Waze, the corporation that wrote them, wants them back. But Mazarin, Reed’s Navigator, has fallen hopelessly in love with him, even as Reed is trying to work out his life, and maybe even see some new people or (gasp) get a boyfriend. Honestly, the plot is probably the most standard part of this story, though it’s solidly written, with some great twists and a satisfying conclusion, even as it leaves space open for sequels. But let me get on to the real fun stuff.


Setting

This story oozes setting. We immediately get a conflict between Reed and his surroundings, as we learn he’s very particular about his carefully maintained bland house…except for his den, full of decoist material. Society in general seems like an accurate progression of our own, with large corporations doing whatever the heck they want, including stepping on privacy and individuals’ rights whenever they can get away with it. For example, it’s illegal not to have a Navigator. And of course where something’s illegal, there are those who get around it. The decoist society is partially hidden, and partially just reviled as being weird. They like to use 1950’s and 60’s slang, wear bright clothes, listen to jazz, and disable their Navigators. This is where Reed turns as his becomes sentient, which leads him to meet Jax and Emery. But that means I must move on to…


Character

Oh my. This story lives on its characters. We’re in Reed and Mazarin’s POV most of the time, and Reed is just so helpless, you want to just give him a hug (although he’d hate it). So switching to Mazarin’s POV is a really great way to show Reed’s flaws and strengths from the outside, while we also ride along with a developing AI, finding out what it can and can’t do, as it’s literally trapped inside someone else’s body. This journey of discovery, as both Reed and Mazarin learn to become better people, is so well written. Later we also get Jax, a full-on decoist who falls for Reed, and Emery, the non-binary owner of the local decoist speakeasy and purveyor of not-so-legal goods and mods. There are themes of love and growth, acceptance and self-discovery, learning to love yourself, differently-abled people, neurodivergence, straight, gay, and ace relationships, and really, just a whole lot of people (human or not) learning to be people. Overall, if you want an unreal bash, pony up the bread and eyeball this boss story. Just don’t tell The Man, dig?


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

A future dystopia with developing AI’s, full of odd and delightful characters, with an overabundance of style. 8.75/10.


Read #22 of 27

Position #8

Overall Thoughts

How do you hide your true motives from an all-seeing AI in a one-on-one interrogation session? That’s the tension that runs through this story, and it lasts from the beginning all the way to the end. Oh yes, add to that how Earth is a desolate wasteland, inhabited by mutants and by people living only to pay off their debt to the few fabulously wealthy who have skipped the planet and are building a paradise on Mars. This is partially told in the present, as the main character, Crucial (his sister is named Essential) relays recent events to Halo, the AI, because his sister has gone missing in a world where everyone is monitored all the time. This is set up to be a trilogy, and I’m greatly looking forward to the next books, though they are not yet released.


Plot

I’ve related a bit of the plot already, but only on the “realtime” side. In the flashbacks, we learn a lot more about how Crucial is sent to Mars to investigate his sister’s disappearance. This is usually an honor only given to those debt-ridden Earthers who win a lottery to serve the powerful five families on Mars for a short time before being dumped back in the toxic wastelands and subsistence-level population living there. Of course, things aren’t what they seem, and odd occurrences mount as both the five families and suspected rebels interfere with the investigation. The story is tense all the way through, even through we know Crucial must live (as he’s relating the information) and even though he tells us some of the finale in the very first chapter. It’s a well-set up story with a lot to enjoy in the twists and turns.


Setting

This is set in the year 2187, in an unfortunately believable future. The Earth has gone through a catastrophic climate event, and with nothing left but basic needs and unsolicited advertisements, the uber-wealthy have turned society into a debt-based machine, feeding all the luxuries to themselves on Mars while sending their refuse, toxic emissions, and unwanted people back to Earth. This is aided by the AI, Halo, that monitors all people based on the family’s whims. It’s illegal not to be connected, and when the AI can see through everyone’s eyes (and even change what they perceive), it’s very easy to track down someone who has gone missing.


Character

As with every good story, the characters are the heart. Crucial is a reluctant hero with a regrettable past, and often makes poor choices in life and in relationships. We’re soon introduced to his ex-girlfriend and her new, vindictive, girlfriend (security chief on Mars), as well as some others Crucial already has cause to dislike. I especially liked the character of Sanders, who originally arrives as a sort of bodyguard. More is soon revealed, making him quite an adorable and funny character. Sex and gender both take backseats in the story, where relationships are judged by the type of people in them rather than what gender they are. In fact, the gender of the protagonist plays such a small role, I spent the first few chapters thinking Crucial was female, and it didn’t alter my perceptions one bit when talking about his past and future relationships. At their core, each character is built on their personality, wants, and needs. Overall, this was a very enjoyable book and I greatly look forward to the sequels. If you like investigations and mystery, future societies and AI, or fighting against an oppressive and all-seeing regime, try this book out!


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

A missing-person investigation between Mars and Earth in a panopticon society. Excellent characters and tense action scenes. 8.75/10.


Read #1 of 27 - OFFICIAL SEMIFINALIST REVIEW - FINALIST

Position #9

Overall Thoughts

Do you not have enough swashbuckling in your space opera? This book will fix that. It features a ragtag crew with a dysfunctional captain in her sixties, out of money, and always on the run. Throw into the mix the captain’s hacker-in-training granddaughter, who’s stowed away and an authoritarian interstellar government who’s decided to pay attention to the small fries for some reason, and you have yourself an excellent adventure.


Plot

Like all pirating adventures, this starts out with the crew out to score another job and get some real money to keep their ship running, however it quickly gets complicated, first by the captain’s granddaughter (who’s lied to her mother about joining up with her estranged grandmother, of course), then by some unknown aliens who really won’t leave them alone—all across the galaxy. The plot is maybe not as deep as they come, and I will warn that it ends on a sort of small cliffhanger, but the real fun here is from exploring the interstellar world and the characters in it.


Setting

I love the used, oppressed feeling of the different worlds and places featured in this story. From desert towns, to icy expanses, polluted industrial outposts to gleaming, expensive space stations and scarily advanced ships of the government, this elects Star Wars, and Firefly, and The Expanse in equal measures. The story never really sets too long on one place, avoiding some of the standard scifi tropes of monoculture planets and travel times. There’s a convenient wormhole network and some good hand-wavy explanation for how it works. There are even hints that not all is as it seems, and the story sneaks in a few pointed jabs at authoritarian governments and how resources are artificially constrained. I’m interested to read the next books in the series and see if they follow up on these promises. Overall, though, I was greatly entertained, which was the point!


Character

The characters definitely made the story here, which is definitely the goal for this gritty sort of action space opera. Captain Wu herself is delightedly unstable. Even though she’s in her sixties, she likes to go out drinking and fighting in pit matches. The trans pilot is usually high on something illegal, but makes a few great speeches on how to approach life to the stowaway granddaughter. The granddaughter herself is an amazing wrench stuck in the whole story, and her interactions with her grandmother are alternately comedic and touching. The muscle of the ship probably has the least story to him, but I don’t think anything is lost there, and the enigmatic alien crew member is sufficiently mysterious. Again, I hope to learn more about them in later books, but this is a delightful entry into the series, and makes me want to go watch Firefly and Solo again!


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

A fun space opera romp from disaster to disaster with compelling and dysfunctional characters. 8.5/10.


Read #24 of 27

Position #10

Overall Thoughts

Take Ocean’s 11, mix in a little Guardians of the Galaxy, and you might have something like this delightful book. A misfit crew with lots of baggage between them—a pilot, an explosives expert, a hacker, and a genius—is brought together by a seemingly innocuous government representative to steal an experimental ship. There’s a lot of fun scenes between the crew as they struggle with the obstacles between them personally and in pulling off the heist. There’s plenty of action, plenty of great character moments, and some great twists a turns. I’m looking forward to reading the second book!


Plot

I won’t go into too many details here so as to not spoil the heist elements, but this starts out with an introduction to the pilot—who has a fear of being grounded and confined—as she escapes prison. We then get an introduction to the rest of the crew and their backstories before getting into the full heist. The setup is excellent. It seems like there’s no way this crew can pull off their assignment, if they even agree to, and every new impediment adds layers of complexity. But there are still plenty of great character moments included.


Setting

This is set in some future space civilization, and while the exact details aren’t too relevant to the plot, we know there are extensive communications and security systems, hidden government programs, and a lot of people stuck on the outsides of society. You could probably plop this story wholesale into the setting of Star Wars or Firefly, and it would work perfectly. While the setting isn’t overly strong, it’s also not necessary. It’s in the background, providing a great playground for the plot and the characters.


Character

This is the real gem of the story. Each of the main characters on the team have their own POVs and get time to confront their own personal problems. We start out seeing the pilot, Jez, as a motormouth annoying character, but through the book, we come to see why she is the way she is. The same can be said of the explosives expert, Ysbel, the hacker Tae, and the genius Lev. We even get some (limited) insight in Masha, the one who brought them all together. The stories all tie in with the plot and really make the whole story enjoyable. It’s a fun jaunt, and I’d recommend this book and looking into the sequels.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

A space heist with delightfully flawed characters. A fun and quick read. 8.5/10.


Read #0 of 27 (one of our team's finalists. This is the same review as from Round 1)

Position #11

Overall Thoughts

Oh my goodness, the voice in this book. That was what originally drew me in, and kept me going through the whole thing. I got only a few chapters in and there is a tense will he/she won’t he/she relationship between three characters with enough bisexual energy to stun a dragon. Speaking of which, I also love the world this is in, which is just like ours, except dragons, an offshoot of dinosaurs, were alive and well until the 1400s. But the dragons are not the stars of the show. Leave that up to Jack and Kam, two scientists decide to bring one back to live, like their very own high fantasy Jurassic Park. I’ll go into my thoughts in much more detail below, but I’ll leave you with the one reason this book isn’t even higher on this list. There weren’t enough dragons in the book…


Plot

So, our two main characters are busy bringing a dragon back to life, while trading barbs filled with sexual tension between themselves and their friend Faye, who might like both of them, yes in that way. Except very soon the newly hatched dragon is stolen, which leads to a wild chase through the streets of Tokyo, Japan, Yakuza thugs, disaffected scientists, dirty cops, and one very angry dragon.

Now, I will say I thought the plot thread with Japan went on a little too long, as did, if I’m honest, the book as a whole. I felt like there was a really good end point about 80% of the way through, but there were a few more plot points after that. This is the first of a series (which I will definitely be checking out) so I feel the last part of the book probably could have been the beginning of book 2 instead, and not really lost anything. In addition, the genre of the book changes more to thriller or suspense, with the dragon as a McGuffin, rather than the focus being on the dragon, as I was expecting from the first few chapters.


Setting

Another thing that really drew me into this world is that it appears to be exactly the same as ours, except many species of dragons persisted through the middle ages, when they were finally wiped out by dragon hunters. Makes those fairy tales and knights and dragons make a lot more sense, right? But that said, I actually wanted more dragons. There are little tidbits through the book, and a bit more at the end, but I wanted more scenes with the dragon and more talking about how they functioned in society. I felt it got lost against the Japanese backdrop.


This brings me to my second point. A good half of the book takes place in Japan, and as such there are people speaking Japanese. I have a rudimentary understanding (thanks college anime and Duolingo) but I felt a bit more, especially in the long phrases, could have been translated. There is, in fact, one footnote to translate a phrase in maybe Hindi or Tamil, but none for the Japanese. Crime organizations also played a big part, and while they are connected to the story, I feel it sort of buries the lede of Cool Big Dragon coming back to life. That said, I’m hoping for a lot more dragon action in the next books of the series.


Character

This is the big one for this book. The characters here make the story. Jack and Kam are absolutely adorable together, and Faye is an amazing foil to both of them. There are some other characters later on (one in particular) who are an absolute joy to read. The writing style here is such that I would read just about anything by this author, simply to enjoy the character interactions. Also, there’s a big plus for me in adding a bi character, even if she doesn’t end up having a huge part.


This is why I’m less annoyed by the lack of dragons than I otherwise might be. The character arcs here are deep, bringing in the characters’ pasts, and how they affect them as individuals, while not slowing down the action sequences. They build and inform the action sequences, and the many snarky responses more than once made me snort in laughter. Jack and Kam (and several others in the book) are so real I feel I’ve known them for a long time. I’m sure I’ll get to know them more in the next books in the series. You should too! Go check this one out.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

A page-turning dragon heist through Japan with snarky and loveable character, even if there isn’t quite enough dragon for my taste. 8.5/10.


Read #14 of 27 - FINALIST

Position #12

Overall Thoughts

Although comedic media rarely wins awards, I have to say this one held my interest, and pulled me into the story. Even though the characters are (sometimes self-professed) idiots, bungling through a day at a time, they still get to be the heros. There were a couple places where I think the story went a little too deep into the ridiculous, it still kept the same heart throughout, which is also something comedies tend to have a problem with. Let’s dig into this one a little deeper.


Plot

The plot is…interesting. It starts with showing off some of what’s to come, giving us a good indication there’s going to be timey-wimey issues. We’re quickly introduced to the titular Duckett, a dead-end corporate with no real prospects, and Dyer, his childhood friend, who is a leech and basically does nothing but live off his admittedly small income. They get pulled into the shenanigans as people go missing in strange blasts of lightning and energy and random people call them, responding to ads for their detective agency, which doesn’t exist. Cue madness that follows, including giant hamburgers, cow people, time travel, and eventually some understanding. The ending felt a little abrupt to me, but it does clearly go into a second book, in which presumably more ridiculousness happens. There’s enough here to convince me to keep reading into further books.


Setting

There’s a lot here showcasing the futileness of life and inanity of how we go about our daily lives. Even though crazy events happen, I was never completely pulled out of the story, and there was support given for why things happen as they do, with even some scientific facts to back them up now and then. As I said above, this is often where comedies veer off, introducing nonsensical elements simply to shore up the comedy. This one feels better constructed, yet still manages to keep the comedic elements.


Character

There’s a lot of heart in the two central characters, Duckett and Dyer, as well as the hardboiled detective that serves as a foil for them. There’s even some nice LGBT representation for Dyer, and the characters feel real and well-rounded, rather than mockups for comedic effect. There was maybe not as much development as I would like for both of them until the very end of the book, but I’m assuming things will develop further in the rest of the series. Overall, this was an enjoyable diversion and a fun jaunt across dimensions and time.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

A comedic science fiction that keeps to its roots all the way through. Where a lot of comedies lose the plot, this one sticks the landing at the end. 8.25/10.


Read #12 of 27 - OFFICIAL SEMIFINALIST REVIEW

Position #13

Overall Thoughts

If you like Fallout, Mad Max, and all things wasteland, this book is for you! Even if you don’t like that stuff, you still might enjoy this quite a bit. This journey across postapocalyptic America has a surprising amount of heart, great LGBTQIA rep, and interesting characters that tie together with each other in a fun and memorable tale. My main complaint was there was a large amount of authorial voice in this story, often telling us in omniscient monologue what could have been described by a few movements or expressions from a character. But all told, I really enjoyed this book. It felt like playing the best parts of the Fallout computer games.


Plot

This is largely a story of the journey to the fabled City That Has Survived The Apocalypse, a common trope in this genre. While it’s not always clear why our heroes choose to struggle through insurmountable odds for a place that might not even be real, the character struggles themselves are. They fuel the majority of this plot, showing how relationships build out in the waste through imperfect people doing what they must to survive. There was one connection near the end of the book that seemed a little too coincidental, but it served to tie up a promise from earlier in the story.


Setting

This is a large and well-crafted segment of this book. All the familiar tropes from the Fallout games are here including mindless irradiated people, sentient mutated people who have survived the apocalypse, creatures that have changed and become bigger or more deadly, and small towns fending for themselves against raiders. There are also a lot of influences from the Mad Max series, with fuel hoarding, old cars, and lots of dust. There’s nothing unexpected if you’re familiar with the genre, which makes reading this seem like taking a nice stroll down a well-remembered path.


Character

The characters are where this story builds on the apocalyptic genre, and I very much enjoyed the backstories of the two main characters, Delia and Gennero, as they come to terms with their violent pasts and how to deal with caring for another person. Also a big shoutout to having a bisexual male main character and good representation from minor characters! There was a little bit of “bury your gays” in the middle of the book, but I thought it was overall handled well. I also really enjoyed that there were backstories to all the minor characters encountered along the way. None of them seemed like cutouts, and even the mutants and raiders had aspirations and goals. There was a real question every time the group stopped over whether they would stay in this place or move on. Several had their advantages, shown through the people who lived there.


Ah yes, the group. I have to mention the last main-ish characters, Perth and his pug Mort. Perth is an older man who lived through the apocalypse, and through his eyes, we see how things have changed and what life is like now. He’s basically the player’s eyes in a Fallout game. Those are set so far in the future, no one remembers the present. I thought it was a nice touch here that some people remembered civilization and could make the contrast for those who hadn’t. Even if apocalyptic stories aren’t your thing, but you like a good journey and growing relationships, I’d give this one a try!


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

Like playing a new Fallout game, with even better dialogue and character stories. Surprising moments of tenderness, even if there is a bit much authorial voice. 8/10.


Read #16 of 27 - FINALIST

Position #14

Overall Thoughts

For fans of colony and military space opera, this is a hefty tome with a lot happening! From a crashed ship, to hostile environments, to interesting methods of control, reading this book is truly a journey. It’s also long. Really long. The two main viewpoints don’t even meet up until maybe a fifth of the way into the book, but after that there is a lot of great chemistry between them. However for me there were a couple downsides as well. First, I think the story was a bit too long for what was in it. There are a couple extraneous POVs that don’t add a lot to the full story, and a couple spoilery coincidences that threw me out of the story near the end. I also had trouble with some of the descriptions and scene shifts, and I got lost in a couple of the transitions.


Plot

The plot starts with Joy, traveling on a colony ship to a new world. Except she wakes up over a hundred years later after the ship crashes on a desolate planet. We rapidly find that the universe is much different and darker than she is used to, with a deadly plague of mind controlling demons taking over people who are not pure of thought and deed. This segues to our other main POV, Cassimer, the commander of a team of Primaterre, an organization that reminds me a lot of Warhammer 40K, and prescribes all of its soldiers must follow laws of purity to combat the demons. This is all in the first couple hundred pages, but only about a third of the way through the book. Joy and Cassimer have some great chemistry and must solve the mysteries surrounding the demons and questions on where they came from. That said, I had a couple issues with the plot, in that I was not always sure what people’s objectives were, and there was a lot of milling about early in the book until certain events happened to direct the characters to some of the mysteries. The problem is, there are also some strange similarities and common themes through the mysteries that made me question what exactly the soldier’s original aims were, as well as how exactly events had transpired over the last hundred years. I was certain two different events would turn out to be one and the same, or at least related, because of how both worked, but evidently not? No one really even addressed the similarities, and this took me away from the story in the latter half.


Setting

The universe here is big and scary, with a lot of cool aspects. There are medical processes in place to basically rebuild hurt soldiers from dead tissue, healing what we would think of as fatal or irreparable wounds. The Primaterre has all the hallmarks of a galaxy-spanning military, including its secrets and special ops soldiers, hidden in the shadows. That said, there were a couple parts that didn’t make sense to me. Some of the descriptions and scene shifts weren’t painted well enough for me and I occasionally had trouble figuring out where a new scene was taking place, or even whether it was on the ground, below ground, or in space. Some of the functions of the universe were also explained late or after the fact, which added to my confusion. As an example, there’s a FTL method used in the book, that later becomes a part of the plot. However, how the method works is not explained until maybe 90% of the way though the book. That information would have been better earlier on for my understanding of the plot.


Character

The characters are wonderful, flawed, and very real. Joy and Cassimer have an instant attraction, but Cassimer is bound by his duty and service to the Primaterre. He’s pretty much addicted to medical stims to stay in top condition, while Joy has a severe respiratory ailment only made worse by the harsh conditions of the planet they’re on. It makes for a gripping struggle to see them come together against the various forces thrown against them. The rest of Cassimer’s team is just as complex and we get to know them almost as well. However, I didn’t think we needed any more POVs besides the two main ones. There were a few tangents in the story concerning other members of the team, and I think the book could have been shorter and even more impactful if they were removed to focus on the main story. I feel the same about some of the plot elements and similarities. There’s a really great book in here, and making it slightly shorter would bring that to light.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

A cool military space opera with intriguing tech and dangerous enemies, dragged down by the book’s length and some unneeded tangents. 7.75/10.


Read #9 of 27

Position #15

Overall Thoughts

If you want an exciting, Jurassic Park-like romp through prehistory, this book is exactly what it says on the tin. I really appreciate that the tension in this story starts from the title, and doesn’t let up until the end. The book introduces us to about ten different characters, so yes, the title means what you imagine it does. We also get a great look inside almost every character’s head, learning little bits about them, sometimes right before they get eaten.


Plot

There’s not a lot to it, but there also doesn’t need to be. A bunch of people get sent back in time, and have to deal with dinosaurs. There are some complications about how they got sent back, and a bit of a McGuffin in how they can return, but in all it’s a nice, tidy plot with plenty of places for twisty turns and dinosaur-shaped tension. I will say it kept me guessing until the very end, and didn’t conclude quite how I thought it would, so there was a good amount of sudden yet inevitable (cue Wash.gif) included.


Setting

It seems like there was a good amount of research done to get the setting right here. Many of the dinosaurs are referred to by name (not just “the spikey one” or “a weird two-legged one”) so it appeases the dino nerd in me. I also really loved that there are occasional points of view from the dinosaurs, giving a little insight into how and why they act. Rather than being boring, it enhances the tension nicely. There is one semi-plot relevant arachnid that I’m not sure existed, but it was a cool feature so I’ll give that one a pass.


Character

For all this is a dino thrill ride, it’s very much a character-driven story. We’re constantly in the heads of the ten—wait nine, no, eight—people who’ve gone back in time, watching in horror along with them as terrible things happen. As the story progresses, we learn a lot more about each one, and some of the people who seem bad at the beginning become a lot more sympathetic, and vice versa. I will say I felt the lack of any LGBTQ+ elements in the story, and (I think) there’s only one person of color, so it’s not a particularly diverse story, even if it is an exciting one.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

Time travel, dinosaurs, human fragility and shortsightedness. You know exactly what you’re getting in this story and it’s a lot of fun. 7.75/10.


Read #7 of 27 - OFFICIAL SEMIFINALIST REVIEW

Position #16

Overall Thoughts

This was a fun murder mystery in a post-apocalyptic/dystopian setting, and it’s one where the upbeat writing and interesting characters mask the real situation behind the scenes. We’re mostly in the POV of Scottie, who may or may not have been charged with the murder of the most important person in the domed town of New Seattle—the one at the top of the People List. The story unfolds from there, so let me dig in a bit…


Plot

This follows a lot of the plot clichés of murder mysteries: the multiple kills, the suspicious innocents, the plot twists, and does a good job following through on all the threads woven in the story. I’m not going to go in much detail here as things get pretty spoilery quickly, but I will say the reason this book rates lower than some of the others is that I thought the first third dragged a little, and there was a later plot twist that seemed almost out of place, considering how quickly it came about. There is some evidence beforehand, but the twist was not at all what I expected, and I think could have been telegraphed just a little better by one or two hints earlier in the book to make it seem more connected with the rest of the plot.


Setting

The setting was what made this story a sci-fi murder mystery, and although we spend nearly all the time inside the domed city, protected from the artificial freeze that’s happened outside, there’s a lot to learn about the world. Society has gotten cut into little pockets. Dystopian measures to control the population and ensure cooperation makes the characters almost childlike in the ways they don’t understand the old world. The reader gets to find out all the interesting ins and outs of the top people in the town as the mystery progresses, learning some of what really happened and how control is kept over the city. This also has to do with that last twist, as I feel there could have been a little more detail concerning the origins of what happened, and it would tie the twist in a lot better.


Character

Characters are the biggest part of this story, as with all murder mysteries. “All the Whys,” as the title states. Scottie is freshly into adulthood, which gives us a great open perspective to learn about this society. She’s also got her PALs—socially approved friends—although many forms of love and relationships are forbidden. We are occasionally in another character’s head for a chapter, and the first time this threw me a bit, as I had assumed the book would be from one POV, but often the chapter serves to increase our knowledge of Scottie. Overall, I felt like she might have been searching for too many things, like her own “brand,” along with potential love, the murderer, and information about her family. It diluted the core story a bit for me, but this was still a fairly light and fun read.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

A dystopian murder mystery where navigating society is a killer! Not as focused as it could be in places, and the final twist wasn’t supported well enough for me, but quite an enjoyable read, overall. 7.75/10.


Read #20 of 27

Position #17

Overall Thoughts

There’s an interesting commentary in this story on art, war, and how culture develops around them. The basic premise is that humanity, while fleeing from their home, encounters a new species and immediately goes to war with them. The artistic main character, Drake, at odds with his militaristic father, finds himself taking care of a child of their enemy. There are some great characters in this story, but I did find it hard to connect with Drake at times, especially as he tends to avoid making decisions or taking action. I felt this aspect made the first half of the book proceed slowly, though the second half ramped up the action.


Plot

A misfit crew of a salvage ship comes across a derelict ship of their enemy, the Gra’al. However there is one crew member still alive, as well as a baby in a suspended animation capsule. Drake, whose position on the ship is unclear, starts taking care of the baby, as well as making friends with the injured crewmember. Though the other crew object, Drake finds out a lot more about the Gra’al culture, and how they appreciate art, despite their warlike nature. A minor spoiler, but pretty easy to see coming: the baby is actually the heir to the Gra’al empire, so the plot goes into further shenanigans protecting the baby while trying to get him to safety. I was a bit stymied in the first half of the book, as Drake consistently refuses to make decisions or take responsibility for anything except the child. Not only that, but the rest of the crew (except his father) put up with and protect Drake from any hardship. It takes a long time for Drake to get to any self-realization, which made the book read slowly to me.


Setting

There’s some cool worldbuilding in here, with humans fleeing the ruins of their planet and accidentally settling on another that already belongs to the Gra’al. It’s a believable setup to a war between species, and as the book progresses, we find out just how little humans really know of their enemy’s culture. Each revelation makes the Gra’al a lot more human, which helps to build to the eventual conclusion. They sort of remind me of the developments with the Klingons in Next Gen, where we learn about the passionate and artful society they have, when they aren’t killing people. In all, a nice piece of sci-fi culture.


Character

This is definitely the strongest part of the book, focusing in on the main character, Drake. He’s the second generation after the war with the Gra’al, and a pacifist to boot. This means he mainly communicates with his father, an active soldier and protector, through arguing. Drake is an artist, and one without a clear direction in life at that. But that artistic skill becomes very important in that the Gra’al view artists as “truth tellers.” This gives Drake a way to communicate, and bargain for the baby’s future. I like the eventual growth the character shows with himself, the baby, his crew, and the Gra’al, though it felt it took a while to get there. In some part this is because the rest of the crew protects and shields him during the first half of the book, effectively cutting him off from making decisions for himself. A few of the character revelations near the end seem to come a bit quickly, but I can forgive that because of some later plot reasons.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

A fun sci-fi read with an unlikely hero and an alien baby. It took me a bit to get into it, but the ending was satisfying. 7.5/10.


Read #5 of 27

Position #18

Overall Thoughts

Throwing comedy and a teenager into the mix with planetary invasion, talk of genocide, and grievous bodily harm might sound like a tall order, but Daros manages to give us laughs and thrills throughout the story. While a lot of the tale is concerned with small objectives—getting to safety, not starving, getting a loved one back—it does evolve into a much larger story by the end. My only issue was that it took a long time getting there, especially for a comedic book, which are generally shorter. I really enjoyed the ending, but felt it dragged a bit during the beginning and there were a few parts that could have been cut. But there is still a lot to like in Daros…


Plot

I feel like the plot was the weakest part of the book, mainly because there was a lot of moving around at the beginning and not really getting to a certain objective until much later. Once that happened, though, things really pick up! The story is also told from two points of view, and while I was pretty sure they would come together at some point, it happened later than I wanted. There was an entire section early in the book with a spaceship crash, getting separated from crew, and a cave of refugees, which while interesting, didn’t really add much to the overall story, and I felt it could have been shortened to give more room for the more exciting events at the end. Some of the characters early on were never onscreen again, which added to my feeling of dragging through the early sections. By the end, though, we get some really exciting events for the larger universe, while still focusing on the excellent characters and worldbuilding.


Setting

Again, much of this came later in the book, but there is a well-thought-out universe here with a lot of potential for more stories. And, because I’m a sucker for a good appendix, I really enjoyed the tour through future human history at the back, even though it really doesn’t affect the story. We gradually learn of events the teenage character is not at first aware of, and the other, alien POV might know, but has no reason to think about. This means that as the story spirals to the end, there are a lot of Big Facts laid on us about alien species, history, and intergalactic relations, some of which I think could have been doled out a little earlier to let the reader start guessing about the final conclusion.


Character

This is where the book really shines, as we start with a teenager, Brecca, who’s traveling with her father and crew. They quickly become separated, and while that was the part I thought was slow, it’s great to see the world through her eyes. Her character really comes into focus when she starts communicating with a ship AI, however, learning how to ask the right questions and make good decisions. By the end, we see how much Brecca has grown in this time.


The other viewpoint is of a relatively young alien, in a society where workers are quickly grown and implanted with knowledge. This gives us an excellent look into their culture as the alien discovers new aspects, some forbidden. Once again, it takes a little too long for me for these two viewpoints to come together with the knowledge they’d gained, and I would have loved a wider peek behind the curtain of the two cultures. Instead, there is a lot of time spent developing with smaller challenges of escape and rescue, which while fun, didn’t in the end contribute that much to the exciting ending.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

A comedic space opera with a fun teenage point of view. It takes a little too long to reach the larger issues, but the final events are worth it. 7.5/10.


Read #25 of 27

Position #19

Overall Thoughts

This book contains some really great discussion on what the nature of reality is, and how we can trust what we see, especially as we start to depend on augmented reality, and even AI-driven reality. The first half of the story does a really good job addressing these issues, but I felt the second half wound down a little too much into shooting and destruction, making it similar to a lot of other “AI is taking over” sort of stories. But let’s look at how it gets there:


Plot

From the beginning, it’s apparent there are shenanigans going on with Ix, the “benevolent” AI “guiding” humanity toward a better state. We’re introduced to instances, where people can play out scenarios and see how they affect real life. Programmable matter can be made into weapons and tools, and sometimes it’s hard to tell whether a person is in a virtual reality or actual reality. This turns out to be a detriment later on, as I occasionally had issues with visualizing the scenes because I wasn’t sure if it was “real” or not. There’s an element of brain hacking that comes in later as well, and I think some of it was literally drilling into people’s head, but I was never completely sure that it wasn’t a simulation. There’s a great twist later on in the book, however, that does make a little sense of what’s going on, but by that time I was pretty confused with what had actually happened and what was simulated or even an artificial hallucination.


Setting

I’ve covered a few parts of this already, because just by this story’s nature, it’s very setting-oriented. Artificial reality is a big part of it, and I think this is really what the story showed off best. Especially in the beginning, passing through the different layers of reality was really exciting, and it gave a lot of depth to the mystery of what was truly happening. When people can literally be edited out of reality, or what your eyes show you must be questioned, even to the extent of your own body or who is in the room with you, questions begin to pile up. This broke down a little toward the end, as some of the descriptions became a little too poetic for me to make sense of.


Character

The main character Tannis, is definitely not a reliable narrator, and not through her own fault. Part of the fun of this story is seeing how many times the rug gets pulled out from under Tannis and she has to adjust to a new reality. We know she’s gone through neural reprogramming, and the constant refrain is that she is regressing back to a psychotic break. It gives her character a lot of challenges to get over. There are some other POVs as well, though those characters are relatively minor, to the point where I kept confusing a few of them. I’d have liked maybe one or two fewer POVs in order to develop the rest of the characters more fully, so that we have more of an emotional stake in their eventual fate. Overall a very fun and thoughtful book, especially at the beginning, though some of the imagery became hard to follow toward the end.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

This poses some great questions about simulation and the nature of reality, but gets bogged down at the end by unclear description and a lot of Run and Gun. 7.25/10.


Read #16 of 27 - FINALIST

Position #20

Overall Thoughts

The concept for this book is excellent. A humble cleaner bot trundles through the post-apocalyptic wasteland. He doesn’t agree with the AI leader that killing all the humans was a good idea, and just wants to be of service doing his job and getting things clean. That’s all set up in the first few chapters of this book, however it veers later in a road trip with a baby and a hostile woman, and I feel like it doesn’t quite deliver on the setup in the beginning. Let me tell you a little more about it…


Plot

In the first chapter, Block the CleanerBot is carrying on a one-side discussion with what’s basically a Roomba, because he can’t find anyone else to talk to. It evokes the best from the C3PO and R2D2 schtick that’s one of the best parts of Star Wars. I would love a whole book about these two robots discussing why they don’t really think the robot uprising was the best plan. However, the poor Roomba is abandoned in the first few chapters, and never shows up again. Instead, the story focuses on Block getting tasked with taking care of a human baby, and ending up with a dour human female sidekick, who may or may not be trustworthy, as they journey to a city rumored to be a safe haven for both robots and humans. I think it’s telling that I found Block’s interactions with the other robots much more interesting than his interactions with the humans. While the concept is good, I felt the plot dragged a bit in the middle, and I didn’t quite get the questions answered that I wanted by the end.


Setting

The setting is solid here. We get some glimpses of how a robot society functions when most of the participants were originally made to service humans. There are markets set up to trade things robots need, like oil and fuel, and there’s plenty of wondering about how weird humans were. Block also has to negotiate with other robots like sentient cars and trucks, and even larger war-bots and mechs. It’s fascinating how this new society has layered itself. Whenever the story delves into this area, I was really interested, but not as much in dealing with the minutia of taking care of a small human. There’s enough of that in real life.


Character

The personalities here really stand out, at least for some of the characters. Block is a delight, as is the poor Roomba who gets abandoned early on. There are several other pairs and single robots that drop in and out of the story, and Block has to negotiate with all of them, coming from his background as a simple (and low class) cleaning robot. I wish some of them got to stay around a little longer, to shed some more light on how this society works. However, most of Block’s interactions are with a baby (who doesn’t have much to say) and with Nova, a woman he falls in with. Nova is a good character, but specifically in this book, I was less interested in her problems than in Block’s. There are some really good concepts in here, but not developed quite enough for my liking.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

A fun road trip with a robot questioning his place in a world where humans are almost extinct. A good concept but it doesn’t quite deliver in the end for me. 7/10.


Read #4 of 27 - OFFICIAL SEMIFINALIST REVIEW

Position #21

Overall Thoughts

Sometimes you just want space adventure with aliens, and this is one of those books. I was a little concerned at the start that it would be focused too much on Earth after the disaster of “The Wipe” in which most electronics and internet were eliminated, but the story quickly moves past that to some engaging first contact with aliens, an interesting moral dilemma, and some good character development around one family that’s been caught up in this.


Plot

The very beginning of the story takes place on Earth where the main character, Carmen, has to deal with the supposed death of her mother on a fledgling Mars colony when The Wipe happened, and with her father and sister. But soon the story moves into space after Carmen and her sister discover a spacecraft supposedly stolen by their mother to take them to her. In space, we learn some of what actually happened in the wipe, as well as the fate of Carmen’s mother. Toward the end, I found myself reading faster to discover the final solution to a matter of who really controlled or owned the spaceship, as well as whether several alien species would be able to work together. There is a second book in the series, but this one ends with enough of a conclusion for me, while still leaving plenty of questions for the rest of the series.


Setting

One thing I rarely see done well is depicting multiple alien species attempting to communicate together despite having a wide range of body types and communication methods. This story did a very good job of building this communication up. As we are seeing this from a human point of view, the first part of the book deals with learning what the heck is going on as the humans encounter aliens, but later there is an (alien) translator who helps the interface between species. I really enjoyed this part, as even through the layered and alien translation, it was easy to see that each species (and even factions within species) had their own agenda and were willing to tint or bias their own translation. Even though all parties were tentatively on the same side against the Big Bad, everyone had their own say. There’s a nice bit of worldbuilding taking place as well, as the reader uncovers more of what happened to bring these species together.


Character

The heart of this story is Carmen, her sister Jenna, and their mother, Sylvia. There are some conflicts between them, and a lot of history to uncover. Carmen in particular gets a chance to move past a lot of the things that have been holding her back, while dealing with argumentative humans, aliens, and robots. If there is a weak side to this book, it’s that the rest of the human characters don’t grow as much even as some alien characters. I’d love to see more development from them, but also there are more books, and there was plenty of excitement and moral conundrums to keep me occupied. In all, I quite enjoyed this book and I’d be interested to see what happens next in the series.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

A fun space adventure with aliens. Great descriptions and imagination, if some of the writing is a little basic and some characters don’t grow quite enough for me. 7/10.


Read #23 of 27

Position #22

Overall Thoughts

This story starts out on high-octane all the way from the beginning to the end. From a stolen ship with an experimental AI, to unknown aliens from maybe another reality, to high-stakes battles, this book has everything. Well, most of it. My main issue being: that was all of the book. There is a mystery set up at the beginning with the main character’s sister, and with some very interesting worldbuilding mentioned with ships that get lost and come back…different, but neither one really played out in the end, and I was left waiting for the rest of the plot. There are follow-up books in this series, which I assume will look into those questions deeper, but I really would have liked at least some more hints in this first book.


Plot

The plot is a rollercoaster, starting very in media res with our protagonist Opal talking to her stolen spaceship and the reprogrammed AI, Clarissa, making sure it doesn’t turn on her and kill her. Then there’s a lost ship with some really cool and scary aliens, and a military ship from the organization Opal used to belong to. One part of the plot transitions to the next with little time to breathe between, and more importantly, little time to answer the questions it brings up. By the end, I was a little confused on what had actually happened and whether Opal’s original objective with the lost ship was achieved or not. Way back in the beginning, it was never really explained why and how Opal had stolen the ship or come to be in this particular part of space. There is a bit of sum up in the last chapter, but by that point, my attention was drifting, unfortunately.


Setting

There are some really cool settings here, and I wish I knew more about them. There are hints of extraplanar aliens, or maybe they’re from another dimension? Or a twisted reality? There seem to be multiple kinds, and some aren’t even corporeal, but only a little bit of explanation is spared on each. They also all seem to be inhabiting the same ship, and even the ship itself seems to be trying to trap or kill Opal. For what purpose? I’m not entirely sure. There’s a military presence later as well, and once again, I’m not certain what they are looking for, or how they found Opal. Devoting just a few sentences or paragraphs per chapter would be enough to give some explanation.


Character

Opal and Clarisse make a great team, barging through all the obstacles against them, and throwing out really cool tricks. They’re both resourceful, and intelligent, and Clarisse seems to have some background in the military and was court martialed. And that’s really about all I know about them, except that there is some connection between Opal giving the AI her sister’s name and voice (Clarisse). Just as in the other sections, there were great action scenes, lots of running and shooting, but after about half the book I really wanted to know more of the world and of the characters. I felt like neither was ever really fully explained.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

A great set of action scenes on a spooky and alien ship, though lacking much needed worldbuilding and backstory to bring it all together. 6.75/10.


Read #26 of 27

Position #23

Overall Thoughts

There’s a lot of interesting mystery and awe in this story, set in the far future. There are augmented humans, the Concordance (a shadowy theocracy ruling with an iron fist and some heavy Warhammer themes), and dead spaces where people are forbidden to go. There are some good character moments as the main character Selene goes from near death to a powerful figure. All that said, I was left wanting by multiple mysteries and not a lot of answers. This is the first book in a trilogy, so I assume some of those questions get answered later, but I would have preferred a few more hints now as well.


Plot

The plot focuses on the adventures of Selene, the sole survivor of a destroyed planet, who’s fallen in with a renegade called Ondo. They’re on a quest to… Well, and this is where I think the plot is the weakest part of the book, because I’m honestly not sure what they were doing. They’re on the run from the Concordance, and looking at forbidden and dead planets, but I never had a very clear overarching directive to the story. The beginnings of several mysteries emerge, from a ship that’s more than it seems, to evidence of galactic engineering, to dead planets and races that knew a lot more than they were supposed to. I really wanted to make something of all this but at the moment they all just seem thrown together and I’m missing the thread tying them all together.


Setting

Some great ideas in this book. There are museum planets, and giant spaceships that control access to entire solar systems. There are megastructures larger than stars, and also people who are augmented far more than normal humans. The scope goes from intricate hacking of virtual personalities to planetary rebellions, in the tradition of a lot of great space operas. I think with just a little more to make it cohesive, the setting could channel a really great saga.


Character

Selene gives us a character to cheer for, as she spends the first part of the book getting literally reconstructed from near death (or even brought back from death), and develops into formidable figure. It even strays into her being too powerful, as the lightness of the plot doesn’t give her a lot of really crunchy conflict to resolve. There is a nice side relationship included, which gives some good LGBTQ representation, but I felt it didn’t stand up to the rest of what was going on. Overall, the characters were fun, but the lack of a definite plot kept this adventure from being a truly stellar experience.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

Great ideas, fun characters, and universe spanning events that meandered and didn’t really resolve. 6.75/10.


Read #19 of 27

Position #24

Overall Thoughts

Several other judges ended up DNFing this one, and I can see why that happened. This story toes the line with very unlikeable characters, an alternate history with uncomfortable events and ideologies, and sexist views. However, it’s also done in a way that completely shows the author knows these are bad things and does not condone the characters’ choices. I have some issues with this, as on the one hand science fiction and fantasy is supposed to open our eyes to other points of view and act as admonition for what could happen. On the other hand, there’s always the option not to write that particular tale. But enough philosophizing. Let’s get to the story.


Plot

The plot is a little dense at the beginning, starting with a mental patient who seems to be creating an alternate reality. The mental ward has some of the tropes of abuse and drug use, and the alternate history is rife with a fascist agenda. It makes sense, as we learn that the splitting point is somewhere around WWII and involves a peace agreement with Germany. I grew warmer to the whole topic as the book progressed, and I think it makes some very good correlations certain events that are happening today and how societies might progress, but it takes some constitution to get through part of the story.


Setting

This was the most enjoyable part of the story for me. There’s an excellent mystery in how the alternate history formed, how it’s being reported in this reality, and delving into what exactly happened and how event progressed. There’s obviously a lot of research behind the scenes on people and events, and it makes an interesting tapestry of what could have been. I honestly enjoyed the alternate history (as terrible as it was), except, of course, for the characters…


Character

So! I have many thoughts about the characters and I’m not entirely sure what to do with them. To start, the main character is terrible. Like morally a bad person. He’s sexist, racist, vengeful, prone to violence, and an idiot to boot. However, this is literally in the blurb. The other characters note these things about him. It’s no secret. There are many other mistreated marginalized populations, as one might expect in a fascist alternate history. The story unfolds precisely because the character is this way, and otherwise we wouldn’t have the information. He’s a James Bond wannabe, including the over sexualized fantasies (and some realities) with women. That brings me back to my very first point: this book is an intriguing story, but it intrinsically deals with some problematic elements, simply by its nature, and that’s going to turn some people off. If you would like to read a really cool alternate history exploring topics that are hard to read, but also coming to light in current events, then maybe give this one a try.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

Great concept and alternate history, but with unlikeable characters and problematic themes and elements. A bit of a hard read. 6.75/10.


Read #17 of 27

Position #25

Overall Thoughts

This is a post-apocalyptic story, with some elements of traditional fantasy fare. There is a king, the court, and a strict hierarchy, but there are also cell phones, and hover cars, and vaccines. But the main thrust of the story concerns Nate and Kitty, two people thrown together by a strange affliction: their touch heals each other, while others touching them burns their skin. Most of the story concerns their journey, which had some interested elements, but I would have liked a little more worldbuilding, especially at the beginning, and I wasn’t really happy with a cliffhanger-ish ending.


Plot

Most of this book concerns the long journey Nate and Kitty take to find a cure for their affliction, learning about each other, and coming closer together. It’s got some good romance elements to it, but I felt they were hampered a bit by the lack of some steeper challenges. Most hindrances to them are solved with little permanent danger to either party, until near the end of the book, where a lot of things start to change. I understand this is the beginning of a larger series, but I felt like the ending came rather abruptly, while I was waiting for Kitty to get out of her latest predicament.


Setting

This was definitely the weakest aspect of the book for me. I’ve read a lot of scifi and fantasy, and the beginning was still pretty confusing for me until I started to catch up to the ways this world works. I felt like there was a bit of a disconnect right at the beginning as well, with some of the reasons they were originally afflicted with their condition simply not stated until later in the story, when it was relevant to finding a cure. I would also have liked more information about the mutants and rabids (I’m still not sure if they’re the same thing) that inhabit the world. Only much later do we learn some of the history of how people hid underground for a long time, and then came back up to repopulate. I felt jarred each time a new technology was introduced, like hovercars or cellphones, because it’s in contrast to the medieval-like setting of the story.


Character

The characters were certainly the best aspect of the story, with both Nate and Kitty developing a lot during the story. I was also happy to see some queer representation in the book, even if it was in passing. I would almost say this story was a romance and a journey first, and then a dystopian novel second, as those aspects were not as important as how the characters changed. Again, I wasn’t really engaged at the end of the book, however, as there’s a sort of Beauty and the Beast dynamic that starts up after most of the characters problems are solved. I wonder if it might have been better to start the second book before that point, and leave some of that conflict out of the first book?


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

An interesting dystopian romance, clouded by some worldbuilding issues and an abrupt ending. 6.75/10.


Read #3 of 27 - OFFICIAL SEMIFINALIST REVIEW

Position #26

Overall Thoughts

This was a very thought provoking read with some subtle, but well-executed character development. This starts out as a fairly standard dystopian story, along with many of the issues I have with them, like “How did we get to this point?” and “Can this society ever be stable,” but progresses to much more of a character driven story later. My main problem was that much of the middle of the book seemed to be getting to a larger starting point (probably for the whole 3-book series), where the true conflict was only really expressed in the last 15% of the book. I would have liked to see more of this conflict brought into the mid-section, to carry the story just a bit further and give it more weight.


Plot

As said above, I’m not really into dystopian novels because I have too many problems with the setup (though the last 5 or so years of existence seems to be trying to prove me wrong). This book is similar, in that it throws you into the setting where people are divided into elemental classes, and it takes a few chapters to really get a handle on what’s going on. The main difference here is that most of the conflict is driven through people against people, instead of people going against the government like in most dystopians, so that caught my interest. However—and this is my main issue with the book as a whole—a large mid-section of this book is dedicated to the main character discovering parts of society, which while interesting, doesn’t actually move the main plot along. I felt the real conflict (and the one I was expecting to come from a dystopia) only arrived in the last few chapters of the book, and begs for a larger exploration in further books. I was not really satisfied by the ending, as I felt it left off too much in the moment, and left me with a lot of questions.


Setting

The worldbuilding was definitely interesting, however it took me a few chapters to figure out that the characters were, indeed, people. They refer to each other as “elementals” all the time, which is a bit confusing if you don’t know what’s going on. I actually learned by reading the blurb after reading the entire book that this is supposed to be Paris in the future, which would have helped if it was included in the story! We learn a lot about the four types of elementals, which are sort of personality types, with Fire being enforcement and police, Earth being labor, Water being R&D, and Air being art and culture. Again, a cool idea, but I wanted a little more on how people were separated into these categories (because people obviously don’t fit in molds well). There is a bit on chemical alignment, which I guess tunes people’s frame of mind, but it sort of disappears into the background of the story and is linked to how people in this city enjoy life, much of which consists of neuro-receptor-changing drinks. I felt this took away from the other societal conflict of Heterodoxy (wrong thought) against Orthodoxy (right thought). This is a big part of how the culture sees itself, but again, this only starts to really get developed in the last little bit of the book.


Character

This, however, is definitely the strongest part of the book. Anaiya, the main character, goes through a change in the story, which I won’t spoil, but the writing is beautifully done so that you realize the way in which she saw the world before the change as opposed to how she sees it afterward. This allows her relationships to change and grow and the reader to learn more of how the world works through her eyes. It’s a really nice way of building the conflict. Again, I felt this was let down by the true conflict happening so late in the story, but it did eventually get to the character development I wanted to see. If there was maybe 20% less of the descriptive elements and slice-of-life in the middle of the story, replaced with that much more of how the conflict affects Anaiya, that would have taken this book to the next level.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

An intriguing dystopia where the society is slowly unraveled as a character’s viewpoint changes. However it happened a bit too slowly for my tastes. 6.5/10.


Read #2 of 27

Position #27

Overall Thoughts

There is immediately an interesting setup to this story as it starts. Several people are awakened out of cryogenic suspension on a colony ship, with something obviously wrong and few clues as to what it is. This drew me into the story from the beginning, but as I read farther my interest waned somewhat. There is a continual buildup of mystery and tension, but no real stages for relief or illumination along the way. By the end, I felt more frustrated with the unanswered questions than excited with the few answers I got. There were several mysteries left that were only hinted at, and not enough for my liking during the story. I later found this was the first of three books, and having not read the others, I can only guess some of the information hinted at here is explained later. I have no problem with a book being the start of a series or even a cliffhanger, but this book read almost as the first half of a larger story, where some of the payoff was missing. I imagine other readers may find it frustrating as well with a lack of answers.


Plot

This and the setting are the most compelling parts of the book, at least for the first half, because we get the sense of a large colony ship the characters have to explore. Much of the plot focuses on basic survival and escaping various trials and emergencies, and there are sprinkling of strange events to tell the reader that this is certainly not all that’s going on. One is that the main character has dreams of a dead crew member giving him advice he cannot yet know. Another is that a different character knows far too much about the ship. I was really looking forward to finding out at least some of these answers, but they are not explained by the end of the first book in any way, which actually makes me (personally) more hesitant to pick up the next one.


Setting

I really love the setting, and again, I wish we had just a few more hints about what was happening. There are two competing star empires, it seems, which is where a lot of the caution and safeguards come from in the ship. Some characters turn out to have ulterior motives (which again, we don’t learn anything of in the first book!) and there are strange shifts and power outages to the ship which really puts into perspective the size of a four kilometer long colony ship. There are other forces at play as well, though whether they are alien, or simply something unknown, I can’t say, and again, don’t find out in the first book.


Character

The characters are perhaps the weakest part of the book, which is also more common in sci fi and space opera. That said, I really love the developing relationship (bad and good) between the main character and the political officer who wakes up in the same cryo unit. There is immediate tension between the two and there is a whole sub-plot about them finding a way to trust one another. This was the most rewarding part of the book for me, as a triumph to latch on to when I wasn’t getting the answers I wanted to other questions. There are several other characters as well, but they are secondary and not fully fleshed out past a few quirks and mysterious backstories (guess how many are fully explained? None). Though this is the first in the series, I really would have liked to see a few more triumphs from the characters, or at least a suggestion of how they got in this situation. It would make me more likely to read the other two in the series.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

A good setup of a mysterious colony ship lost in space, hampered by a lack of answers unless one commits to reading all three books in the series. 5/10.


Read #10 of 27 - OFFICIAL SEMIFINALIST REVIEW - FINALIST

Position #28

Overall Thoughts

The premise of this book is very interesting. Kids who have the potential to be clairvoyant (telepathically and telekinetically gifted) are taken from their parents as they often turn into uncontrollable monsters, hence the title. For me, likely because I’m a writer and editor and look for this stuff, I found the excess use of vague words like “only,” “just,” “actually,” “almost,” and so on distracting as I read, slowing down the tension in the story. I got used to it as I continued reading, but in the end found there wasn’t as much to the plot as I would have liked. I’d also add there are a couple trigger warnings for this book, specifically suicide and animal death.


Plot

Most of the book covers one girl, Carmen, as she goes through the abuse and hardship that is used to train clairvoyants. The society suffers from how it was set up, at the hands of aliens, though we don’t learn much about that until later in the book. While the initial rounds of “training” were exciting to read, it eventually started to slow the book down and I was left wondering what else would be happening. As it turns out, not a lot, which made me question how their society functioned and what Carmen would do with her life. Ultimately, I felt like this was the first half of the story, and I really wanted to know more about how the society handled the clairvoyants who go through the training program. I was actually expecting some sort of twist at the end, but didn’t get that either.


Setting

This takes place on a new world somewhere. Mention of Earth and alien species is made, but we never see any further sign of them in the book past one strange creature. The cities we do see are an odd mix of Pleasantville and ‘80s malls, though most of the plot takes place in a facility of door, floors, and corridors. I wanted more of how this society came to be, and why they thought gifted people who tend to turn murderous would be okay with abusive training and then being released to do what they want with no supervision. I was anticipating some sort of directed use of these trained clairvoyants or a few types of jobs they would be forced into. Even a bit more on the aliens who originally set up this system would be welcome.


Character

The book centers around Carmen and her growth from age 6 to age 18. However there are a few POV shifts with no indication, which threw me off. Carmen is an interesting person, but because she is so young, the story suffers from being in her perspective, where we don’t find out a lot about what’s really going on. As I said before, I felt like this was the first half of a story where all would be explained in the second half. Carmen does have a main antagonist, but having the two of them in conflict seems very forced, to the point where even Carmen comments on it. It again makes we wonder how well the society works that sets up this environment, that underage gifted people are supposed to fight to the death and then be well-adjusted citizens.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

An interesting superhero premise, but the tension lags with a long coming-of-age story where not a lot is resolved. 4.5/10.


Read #13 of 27

Position #29

Overall Thoughts

This was my first DNF out of the semifinalists. I probably could have pushed my all the way through this one, as there is an interesting premise here concerned with recording people’s last thoughts, but I had too much trouble with the amount of violence, and even gleeful violence, in the book. The writing is pretty solid, though the main character is not particularly likeable. I only got about 30% of the way through this one and decided it was better for me to put it down. The main reasons were:


1) Violence: The level of description in this book ranges to how exactly bullet wounds are situated, details of trauma and wounds that I felt could have been left to the imagination, and in the main character’s eyes, a certain level of gleefulness that made me dislike him intensely. That main have been on purpose, but it ended up turning me off.

2) Connected to that, the main character has an addiction to seeing people’s last moments, to the point of killing people (most of the time under a contract), digging out the hardware in their head, and reliving their deaths. It’s just not a matter I really want to explore.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

Solid writing and prose, with an interesting plot, but far too much description and reveling in violence and death for my tastes. 4/10.


Read #18 of 27

Position #30

Overall Thoughts

My second DNF of the semifinalists. I only got 20% of the way through, but the setting here seems to be that after some apocalyptic plague on Earth, survivors have moved to space where they can research a cure and a way to repopulate the planet. Meanwhile on Earth, there are roving bands of degenerate humans who act like zombies. I was definitely interested in the story, but the personality of the main character and the treatment of the female characters turned me off very quickly. More specifics below:


1) The main character seems to think he is the best at everything, to the point in the first scene of letting his teammates die rather than giving any help at all. We find out this is a simulation, but it had already made me dislike him intensely. In real life, he’s little better, thinking he is deserving of every reward, shirking all responsibilities (even to talk to his dying mother) and belittling his friends.

2) There is a very squicky rape-type element to the first few chapters. The main character is passed over for the mission back to Earth in favor of his sister, implying that the lecherous admiral of the survivors wants her only for breeding stock. I was hoping this would be stopped or resolved quickly, but instead it later extends to all the females on the team, to the point of removing their contraceptives and taking them to the admiral’s quarters in a scene break. This is about where I stopped.


Score out of 10 (My personal score, not the final contest score)

The concepts sounds promising, of fighting zombies and establishing a new colony of Earth, but the unlikability of the main character and continued implication of rape, and even underage rape, turned me off. 3/10.

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