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  • Virtual Grunt

    by Barnaby Quirk

    Rating: 6.50

    Plot: Quirk offers a light sci-fi story set in the world of high stakes virtual gaming. Action packed and quickly paced, the narrative playfully explores identity and the intersection of real and virtual life.

    Prose: Prose is engaging, accessible, and smooth, with lively descriptions of gaming action.

    Originality: Comparisons might easily be made to other narratives involving virtual reality and gaming, but Quirk approaches the subject with a sense of adventure and warmth, ensuring middle grade appeal.

    Character Development: Quirk's protagonist is a likeable underdog with a clear sense of right and wrong. Meanwhile, adult characters are properly antagonistic, giving readers all the more reason to root for the young hero.

  • The Hero in the Helmet

    by Joa Macnalie

    Rating: 6.25

    Disqualified because it is a picture book and word count is under 30,000.

  • Goblin Wars: A Fire Rises

    by Nelson Vasquez

    Rating: 6.25

    Plot: This is a fast-paced, fun adventure through fantastical lands with mythical beings struggling to coexist in a world ravaged by war. While the plotting is generally solid, the ending seems a bit abrupt.

    Prose: Vasquez’s prose is detail-oriented, meticulous, and features high-quality diction. However, the descriptions are much stronger than the dialogue throughout the novel.

    Originality: Goblin Wars: A Fire Rises is a melting pot of fairy tales, mythology, and fantasy tropes, with one notable and original exception concerning the protagonist: he is adopted by a wizard couple. It is the normalcy with which the family dynamic is announced that makes this plot point so remarkable and relatable.

    Character Development: The cast of characters in Goblin Wars: A Fire Rises is comprised of solidly crafted mythical and mythological creatures and humans.

  • The Legacy of King Jasteroth Vol. 1

    by S. L. Wyllie

    Rating: 6.25

    Plot: Though decently plotted, this novel is relatively light on conflict, which may not sit well with fans of the genre. Still, the story moves along at a good pace and is entertaining.

    Prose: The writing is simple, direct, and clear. The dialogue reads naturally, with various characters sufficiently distinct in their speech and mannerisms.

    Originality: The novel follows standard fantasy conventions. The setting and scenario are unique and interesting.

    Character Development: Ariella and Austin are thoroughly realized, although Austin’s true motivations are sometimes difficult to discern. Emily serves as a nice foil and balance to her brother, while Jasteroth is a looming malevolence.

  • Zafira and the Birds

    by Eugenie Makrogiannis

    Rating: 6.00

    Plot: Middle grade readers will be easily captivated by the premise of a girl able to realize her dreams by traveling to historical and fantastical places. However, the author offers relatively little in the way of explanation. Additionally, the story's stakes are never raised high enough to create any significant sense of urgency.

    Prose: Makrogiannis's prose style is breezy and swiftly moving. The story relies somewhat too heavily on exposition; as a result, readers may struggle to become fully engaged in the protagonist's adventures.

    Originality: The author offers a few unexpected twists on an otherwise familiar story concept. Historical allusions to works of art and mythology, enhance the novel.

    Character Development: Protagonist Zafira is plucky, well-received, and likeable, with an endearing thirst for knowledge. Supporting characters are rarely as fully realized.

  • The Cloud Seeders

    by James Zerndt

    Rating: 6.00

    Plot: While the plot features enough action to initially grab readers, the storyline meanders and at times feels contrived. Additionally, some character motivations feeling vague.

    Prose: Zerndt's prose is solid and well crafted. It remains unobtrusive and allows the plot and characters to take center stage.

    Originality: Zerndt's dystopian novel doesn't follow the typical rules of the genre, giving things just enough originality to keep it fresh.

    Character Development: The characters in Zerndt's dystopian novel are a mixed bag.The main character and his younger brother are solidly developed. But Jerusha is a thinly drawn type, while the villainous president is more caricature than character.

  • Skerryvore

    by lee williams

    Rating: 5.75

    Plot: The novel offers a compelling concept (teenage twins have always dismissed their father’s rejection of cell phones, computers, and TV as conspiracy theory-driven paranoia--until he goes missing) that evolves into a far-reaching and multilayered story.

    Prose: Williams’s prose tends toward overwriting, with heavy blocks of exposition that can interfere with momentum.

    Originality: Williams integrates a smart and timely thematic element into this sci-fi story by exploring the potential threats posed by overuse of modern technology.

    Character Development: While the characters have clear, distinctive roles in the story, they otherwise are lacking in substantive emotional depth.

  • Dark Curses, Faerie Dreams

    by Tom Xavier

    Rating: 5.75

    Plot: In a charming, uncomplicated story, a group of young Woodsy Trolls set out on a trek to a magical land. The travelers make several stops en route to their destination, resulting in a series of misadventures. Accompanying web material serves to bolster the thinner expository elements.

    Prose: The author writes in clear, readable prose that capably builds intrigue and a sense of the primary characters. Dialogue in particular will appeal to younger readers, as will the narrator’s immersive storytelling. 

    Originality: Although this work leans heavily on fantasy tropes and aesthetics, the author creates a rich sense of the world’s history and culture through the integration of its legends. While invested readers will seek out the supplementary, multimedia content, the material might have been better woven directly into the fabric of the storytelling. 

    Character Development: While likable and distinct, the characters experience little growth during their short journey. Moments of moral dilemma have impact, but are fleeting

  • The Big Squash

    by Mark Herder

    Rating: 5.75

    Plot: Herder’s fast-paced middle grade novel documents the Thompson family’s rapid rise to fame in their small, quirky Kentucky hometown, when daughter Adrianne plants a magically-growing squash seed. When the squash begins to grow, chaotic events snowball, and things go from bad to worse for Adrianne, her brother Joey, their conniving father and exhausted mother, and their entire community.

    Prose: Herder authentically captures the voice of a girl suffering bullying and insecurity. The diction in this novel leans toward a country twang, with old-fashioned, ultimately charming, turns of phrase. The author maintains a gratifying balance between humor and emotion.

    Originality: With it's magical premise, The Big Squash takes an original approach to exploring how relationships disintegrate when fame and fortune come into play, as well as the worry and confusion of puberty. Readers will relate and enjoy the story of a lonely girl struggling to determine what she really wants and whom she really values.

    Character Development: Herder sensitively conveys the pain and uncertainty that can accompany childhood and early adolescence. Protagonist Adrianne’s desperate attempts to be noticed and appreciated by her father, are poignant. The eccentric residents of Mellsville and their claims to fame are mentioned often in passing, lending the town its own unique character.

  • Lost in the Shadows

    by J. S. Green

    Rating: 5.25

    Plot: The slow pace of this YA story prevents it from maintaining the tension of a typical horror/fantasy novel. Nevertheless, as the teenage characters take center stage against a wild and treacherous backdrop, the narrative gains momentum. 

    Prose: The writing in this novel is clear, but unmemorable. The overly expository style can weigh down the storytelling, preventing important scenes from fully coming alive on the page.

    Originality: While the concept of an ancient spirit wreaking havoc is not new, the author makes effective use of  the unique and unsettling Alaskan setting.

    Character Development: Teenage protagonist, Jack, is a sympathetic character, but the story too often reduces him to a mere observer. Characters share little interpersonal chemistry, and come across as disconnected from one another in a manner that does not benefit the eerie story.