SciFi / Fantasy / Horror
by B.C. Chase
Plot: The countless dangers and excitement of traveling in space are woven through this story of Jim, a 75-year-old man who has been curiously “chosen” by aliens to join a crew voyaging to Pluto, where humankind is scheduled to meet the beings who contacted them from space. There is excellent inclusion of mysterious deaths that may be caused by a murderer on the flight team, while the author also infuses the narrative with a degree of irreverent humor.
Prose/Style: Jim's voice is initially candid, humorous, and somewhat aloof, but as circumstances intensify, his tone also shifts to one of more grave concern and uncertainty. Chase's details relating to space travel are engagingly clear, while descriptions of outer space are vivid and memorable.
Originality: The very idea of aliens insisting that humans take a trip to Pluto for a meeting is unique enough, but the addition of a 75-year-old “regular guy,” and what appears to be a murderer on board during the trip, make this novel about as original as it can get.
Character Development: It's easy to root for Jim, a fully rounded, spunky senior citizen and unlikely astronaut. It's also easy to loathe Commander Tomlinson, who makes questionable decisions and gives disturbing orders. Additional characters are nicely fleshed out and all have distinct personalities and motives.
by Dale Renton
Plot: Fast-paced, extremely well-plotted, and loaded with fun and surprises, Renton has created a story that keep readers right in step with the colorful characters and well-crafted settings. Not a boring moment in this storyline.
Prose/Style: Great prose and description brings this novel to life. Lovely descriptions that don't try too hard to impress are appreciated, and the writing is very realistic.
Originality: From the syl to Lisa, the AI librarian, “DART” is a fresh and original story in a very crowded genre.
Character Development: Renton's characters are fully-drawn and come alive on the page. The wisecracking protagonist, Dart, never loses his grit or smart mouth throughout the book. Amarth is complex and sexy without being stereotypical, and Analine, the antagonist, is also developed emotionally well.
by Aaron-Michael Hall
Plot: In this complex and tightly plotted work of fantasy, warriors are charged with protecting the mortal world following a God's corruption. With a nimble hand, Hall delivers both breathless excitement and psychological depth.
Prose: Through engrossing and vivid detail and smooth, productive dialogue, Hall delivers an uncommonly rich fantasy.
Character Development: Hall's characters are wholly memorable, with each possessing a distinctive voice. As the epic story unfolds, the author excels at allowing the many cast members to evolve, meaningfully interact, and exercise their own free wills.
Originality: Hall's concept is both original and elegantly explored. The author's attention to detail and pronounced character development allow for the work to shine.
by David Reiss
Plot: The plot of Reiss’s novel is very much the stuff of superhero comics, but the author gives it an expansive sweep suitable for a work of novel-length fiction. The idea of a world where cross-pollination by interdimensional forces has introduced powers verging on the supernatural provides a solid foundation for the interactions between its superheroes and villains, and the conflicts in which they engage.
Prose/Style: The novel’s prose style is simple but effective for the story being told. Key to its narration is the confidence of Terrance as a narrator. Reiss so comfortably inhabits this smart, sometimes smart-alecky character that he never seems anyone less than the perfect person to usher the readers through his succession of adventures.
Originality: The different elements that come together in this novel have been seen in numerous superhero comics and movies, but Reiss combines and recombines them in a way that makes them seem refreshingly new. Especially notable are Markham’s self-doubt and feelings of guilt, which both humanize him and lend his superhero avatar a vulnerability crucial to the dramatic conflicts in which he engages.
Character Development: The principle characters in Reiss’s novel are very well-developed, especially narrator Terrance Markham who, along with his superhero avatar, Dr. Fid—whom he characterizes to others as a villain, but who has a complicated backstory, has a rich emotional life that shapes his actions both within and without his superhero persona. His android sister Wyn and the various superheroes and villains are largely sounding boards for the conflicted emotions he expresses, but they are established with enough individuality to make them stand out memorably.
by Kayleigh Nicol
Plot: This extremely well-plotted story provides genuine elements of surprise, an evocative sense of place, and an action-filled narrative arc. Magical elements are gracefully balanced with the story's more pedestrian concerns, while the familial conflicts are reminiscent of fairy tales.
Prose: The author's writing style is clear, crisp, and authoritative. Nicol doesn't mince words, and the tone can come across as breezy, but descriptions of settings and circumstances are often quietly lyrical. Battle scenes are especially well realized.
Originality: Nicol's story of sorcerer sibling rivalry offers a strikingly original and dynamic concept. The novel's central love story is well integrated, if predictable, while the magical content is vivid and marvelously fun.
Character Development: Reshi is a lovable rogue, while each sibling possesses a unique set of skills and attributes; the family members distinctly stand apart from one another, while forming a charmingly, ragtag collective.
by Jennifer Estep
Plot: This thrilling novel offers an intricate, absorbing plot that takes readers literally into an atmospheric world of assassins, vampires, and other beings. As this is the second of a series, new readers will need to catch up; while sorting through a large cast of characters and key events leading to the timeframe of this work is a challenge, it is truly worth the effort.
Prose/Style: The author is a gifted writer, demonstrating great command of language, action, dialogue and grammar. Her words and the storyline flow, making this a highly enjoyable read from start to finish.
Originality: The author has created an entirely new realm, unique and complete. She has done an admirable job crafting an original story, with distinct characters and a captivating plot line. This is an author at the top of her game.
Character Development: Estep clearly understands characterization. All players in the story, whether significant or minor, are created with finesse and distinction. Estep's protagonist--an assassin who runs a BBQ restaurant and is eagerly anticipating her friend's wedding--carries both depth and contradiction. Her rare abilities are somewhat less intriguing than her other characteristics.
by Elizabeth Crowens
Plot: Crowens's novel is wildly imaginative and suspenseful. Readers will find themselves finishing the book in record time.
Prose/Style: The prose is crafted well, which makes the articulate plot flow nicely to an exciting ending. Chapters that are just letters are am an interesting stylistic choice, too.
Originality: Crowens's novel about time travel and a hint of spookiness is highly original. It starts off with a peculiar character named John Patrick Scott, who is just one of the many interesting people readers are introduced to.
Character Development: What makes Crowens's characters interesting to the end is the use of both real and fictional characters. Readers will love the courageous main character, John Patrick Scott.
by Mike McCoy
Plot: “Asteroids: Escape from the Arcadians” is a well-plotted, fast-paced book. McCoy's narrative style flows well between the various characters' stories and holds the reader's attention with dramatic tension and enough twists to keep one eagerly turning the pages.
Prose/Style: McCoy's combination of everyday language and scientific jargon is extremely well-balanced. There isn’t a boring passage in the book. McCoy has a gift for creating images using minimal words.
Originality: Although asteroids hitting Earth is not a new story idea, McCoy manages to bring a fresh approach to his apocalyptic plot. From the futuristic weapons to the artificial atmosphere of New Arcadia to the vampire-like antagonist who gains immortality from the blood of children, to two characters' use of Klingon as code, this story is full of unique ideas.
Character Development: The characters are realistic and believable in their actions and reactions. The hero, Rick, is a very likable and unlikely hero, an arc which McCoy carefully develops. The main villain, Colonel Cruikshank, is a dead-on representation of a sociopath bent on ruling the world at any cost. The supporting cast of characters is very diverse with little or no overlaps in either behavior or traits.
by Scott Porter
Plot: The novel’s plot functions on two levels: one involving the culture of the as yet unsophisticated planet of Calema that is largely beholden unto “the Lesser Knowledge” (i.e., belief in magic); the other concerned with “the Great Knowledge,” or scientific reality, that shapes the interests that non-Calema civilization have in the developing planet. Porter dexterously juxtaposes these two levels to create the incidents and misunderstandings that propel the plot into both dramatic and lightly comic territory.
Prose/Style: Porter’s prose style is simple, unaffected, and gets his story told in a very economical way. His characters speak believable dialogue suited to whether they are Calema natives going about their daily routines, unaware that they are under observation by spies from other civilizations who live among them, and embedded representatives of those other civilizations who try to stay incognito even as they position themselves to be the first to exploit Calema when it shows (mistakenly misinterpreted) advanced development.
Originality: The idea of unsophisticated civilizations under observation by advanced civilizations for signs of advanced development is not unique to science fiction, but Porter gives his treatment an original spin, one that satirizes the avarice and ineptitude of the so-called sophisticated civilizations more than the backwardness of Calema. It gives a satisfyingly humorous spin to a subject that has been played for serious drama in other novels.
Character Development: This novel’s cast of characters is diverse and well-developed. Mack, the bureaucratic Planet Clerk, is admirably diplomatic if unambitious. Timo, an embedded spy from earth, is memorable for his dedication to his work and the many subterfuges, often comic, that he uses to maintain his anonymity. Even a minor character like the primitive scientific investigator, Chumber Sackman, stands out for his determination to separate science from the superstitions that shape prevailing wisdom on the planet of Calema. All of Porter’s primary character engage reader sympathies at various levels.
by Shannon Kelley
Plot:This story opens with a blazing inferno and keeps the pages turning with engaging descriptions, dynamic characters, unique races, and the mystery of a violent dark rider. That he anonymously saves a woman under attack early on, and displays additional acts of kindness, adds to the intrigue. The pursuit of this individual—man or mythical “elowan”—is as captivating as his ability to fend off the most determined attackers.
Prose/Style:The descriptive voice is powerful and vivid here, helping to draw the reader into the places and people of this world.
Originality:This story has the familiar fantasy foundation, with royalty, heroes, villains, honor, and exciting clashes all woven in. The inclusion of the likable boy Marren adds to the original spin, and the hint of his future is alluring.
Character Development: Richly drawn characters are an element that will help to capture and hold readers' imaginations. Marren is a sweet, smart, brave 10-year-old, and the dark rider Yuriah is awesome in his fighting abilities. His capacity to learn is endearing.
Blurb:An irresistible fantasy world, complete with brave battles, honorable endeavors, and an enchanting, unexpected friendship.
by Roz Morris
Plot:This novel is tightly plotted, and every tantalizing clue ultimately hangs together very well, without ever making the reader feel deceived. Readers will find themselves biting their nails worrying over how Paftoo and his horse will triumph, or at least survive. While not every question about the world, or even Harkaway Hall, is answered, most of the reveals can be attributed to Paftoo’s own limited knowledge.
Prose/Style:The prose in this book is engaging and evocative, conjuring striking images and surreal comic moments with equal skill.
Originality:The premise of a robot gaining and hiding sentience is not particularly new, but this was definitely a refreshing and remarkably human take on the concept. Using the connection with horses sets it apart from similar stories. Although this is a novel of ideas, it has its feet firmly planted in the pathos of an individual who cannot conform.
Character Development:The characterization of a mostly robot and equine cast is slow to build, but once it sets in, it works beautifully. Readers will find themselves cheering desperately for Paftoo, and may be surprised to be rooting for characters who started out as antagonists.
Blurb:A compelling tale about finding and keeping one’s soul, of the prices we pay for love, and how our worlds shape us and we shape them.
by John Wilker
Plot: In a solidly entertaining sci-fi adventure, a NASA astronaut, kidnapped by aliens, winds up as a smuggler with a misfit crew on a mission to save the universe. Despite a happy ending, the villain escapes, setting up a natural sequel to this series of events.
Prose/Style: Dialogue-heavy at times, the book is fast-paced and fun, as well as funny. Descriptions, like the one of the robot Gabe, are precious and memorable.
Originality: The premise is not terribly original, but the book's clear nods to other sci-fi franchises suggest that the author is aware of its derivative elements. Smart-mouthed characters and familiar galactic thrills will easily engage readers.
Character Development: The handsome hero is pilot Wil Calder, a human, but it’s the aliens and the bot who shine. Bennie, the three-foot tall green hacker, really makes the book. And Gabe, the robot, seems almost human. Dynamite and endearing characters allow this adventure to take off.
by Derek Cressman
Plot: The novel is consciously modeled on George Orwell’s “1984”, which it occasionally references, and it advances with the same skillful pacing and narrative twists that distinguish the classic novel. Cressman’s one narrative misstep is to incorporate huge chunks of text from The Book, the secret history of how the repressive Globalian Trade Zone came to be and seized control of society, midway through the story: it’s a dry, if impressively comprehensive, info-dump that provides the backstory of the future world but slows the narrative pace to a crawl (and even puts one of the characters reading it to sleep).
Prose/Style: Cressman has a nicely honed prose style suitable for telling his story and especially for elaborating very fluidly the many technological, broadcast, and social media advances (and distractions) that distinguish the story’s future world. He is also adept in his use of Orwellian newspeak terms—characters who begin to show individuality and non-conformity are removed from the company of others and “upgraded”—to show how Globalia puts a positive spin on the social control of its citizens.
Originality: As noted, the novel is modeled on “1984” and the author subjects the characters to adventures and fates closely modeled on those in Orwell’s tale. That said, Cressman has clearly shaped his future world and Globalia’s manipulation of the truth to resonate with aspects of our own contemporary times.
Character Development: The characters in this novel are very well developed. Vera and Chase are shown to be both products and sympathetic victims of their dystopic near-future society. Aneeka Randall is, by contrast, a sharply-etched embodiment of that society’s darkest side: a villain who presents herself as a friend and confederate in the rebel Sisterhood but who later betrays Vera and Chase’s trust, revealing herself to be Globalia’s best tool for suppressing individuality and resistance.
by James Schannep
Plot: The author pulls off the incredibly difficult task of weaving multiple reader-chosen plots while keeping them fresh, interesting, and feeling like natural (if not always happy) consequences of the reader’s decisions. There are plenty of conclusions that end with death, but enough victories – large and small – so that the reader never feels hopeless.
Prose/Style: There are few situations and no emotions left untouched in the book, and all are handled well. Among the best are passages mixing darkness (or something outright gruesome) and humor, particularly upon the reader / character’s death.
Originality: The book often either uses zombie fiction stereotypes in ways that don’t take themselves too seriously, or slyly upends them. The choices often take readers into intriguingly unexpected directions, such as a storyline allowing them to wander through life as a zombie themselves.
Character Development: The reader, of course, is the protagonist, but the book never goes too off the rails when it comes to characters benefitting or suffering from the reader’s decisions. The reader also has plenty of wide-ranging choices to fit a variety of personalities ranging from cautious to extreme risk-taker.
Blurb: If you’ve ever wondered whether you’d survive a zombie apocalypse, Schannep’s reader’s-choice book will give you a pretty vivid idea amid action, gore, and plenty of tongue-in-cheek snark.
by K.C. Julius
Plot: This is a well-plotted, smartly paced fantasy novel. It is built from converging subplots, each of which features a main character whose adventures allow for the elaboration of the history of the kingdoms and families central to its imaginary world and the intrigues brewing in them. The reader will keep turning pages to see how the bigger story they are building comes together.
Prose: Julius’s prose style is well suited to the story she tells. It has the comfortable, old-fashioned feel of the narrative and dialogue of many other historical fantasies involving royals, warriors, wizards, and vassals. It never feels forced or mannered.
Originality: Portents of Chaos is very much in the tradition of other stories that blend sword and sorcery, romance, wizardry, and high fantasy—up to and including Game of Thrones. But it never seems derivative of other works; the imaginary-world fantasy carries enough seeming verisimilitude that at moments it reads like a solid historical novel.
Character Development: Julius’s characters are well developed and believable, especially her female characters, Maura and Halla, who are determined, resourceful, and independent, even though they move through a male-dominated patriarchal society. Her other characters—especially Leif, with his previous unknown elven heritage, and Master Morgan, his mentor and the wizard whose actions carefully bring all of the subplots together—offer the story great diversity and depth.
by William X. Adams
Plot: The plot takes a simple concept and slowly branches it out into an epic tale. It's lovingly paced with sensible twists that truly make readers think.
Prose/Style: The tone here is delightfully thoughtful, light, and playful--even when things get dark. It makes the entire novel very readable and hard to put down.
Originality: While the core concept is quite simple, the truly original risks the story takes are unexpected and enterprising.
Character Development: While Janis verged on being a caricature, the overall character development is stellar. Each character has a distinct voice and perspective, and they are uncompromisingly themselves as they interact with the rest of their universe.