SciFi / Fantasy / Horror
by Shawn Patrick Cooke
Plot: Cooke’s short stories effectively stand alone as concept-driven vignettes, while also harmonizing thematically as a collective.
Prose/Style: Cooke offers an observant voice that is situated between cynical and earnest tones, creating an engaging narrative tension.
Originality: The author infuses each story with fresh elements and perspective, as well as voice-driven energy.
Characterization: While working in short form, Cooke impressively leaves readers with clear and lingering impressions of his characters.
Blurb: Blending ingredients of the preternatural and absurd with centering emotional resonance, Cooke brings crackling energy, poise, and subtlety to his collection of stories.
by Zachry Wheeler
Plot: The plot is genuinely engaging and tightly paced, though the latter half lags a bit when widening the scope away from the central characters. However, the events as they unfold manage to maintain momentum and keep the reader guessing.
Prose/Style: This book is well crafted, with a strong sense of pacing and naturalistic dialogue. The author effectively ratchets up tension through narration and the action sequences are fast-moving and riveting.
Originality: Admittedly, themes and moral ideologies feel a bit unrefined or muddled, perhaps because the book is a sequel, and would benefit from more in-depth exploration of the history and context of the world the characters exist in. However, the premise and setting are interesting and effectively play on the reader's expectations to surprising results.
Character Development: As this is the second book in the series, most of the characters have already been established and therefore can at times feel a bit under-explored or stagnant to the reader. However the protagonist's struggle is genuinely sympathetic and his journey a slow burn to rock bottom, which primes the reader for the next installment.
by Shanna Bosarge
Plot:This book is well paced and evenly plotted, set in a world that is easy to navigate. Readers will find mystery among its pages, as well as adventure and evil. Even those who don’t usually enjoy fantasy will look forward to another installment in this series.
Prose/Style:The book is clearly written, with lots of imagery. The author has managed to help the reader journey into this world without overwhelming him/her with details. Dialogue and language set the characters apart.
Originality:A made-up world with fantastical beings is nothing new; however, Sterling's silver eyes are appealing and mysterious.
Character Development:The characters are powerful yet vulnerable, making them appear more human than not. The main character is intriguing, leaving the reader wanting to more about her beyond the end of the book.
Blurb:Bosarge introduces a dynamic and mysterious woman whose journey is not soon forgotten.
by Michael C. Sahd
Plot: The Unfettered Child is an atmospheric fantasy novel about a young child journeying to save her parents after they are captured by elves. Sahd transforms what could be a stereotypical fantasy and enlivens it with vivid details and a permeating sense of wonder.
Prose/Style: Sahd has clear and readable, yet highly descriptive prose that fits the genre well.
Originality: On the surface, the story of The Unfettered Child initially unfolds with a degree of predictability and within the confines of the fantasy genre. Sahd, however, enhances the work by weaving in elements from a variety of fascinating cultures, languages, and systems of magic, providing memorable imagery and a distinctive sense of place.
Character Development: The characters in Sahd's fantasy novel are quite unique to the genre. Samara is a small child with powerful and rare magical abilities, yet Sahd avoids derivative tropes from Chosen One narratives.
by Willow Thomson
Plot: People have destroyed Earth and two very different groups head to colonize a new planet, one good, one greedy. But some of people can commune with nature, with seeds, plants and the planet itself, which is an intriguing and refreshing concept. The planet is none too happy about the greedy group’s mining intentions.
Prose/Style:This book boasts solid prose for the genre, with riveting and energizing action descriptions. The author also makes good use of creative verbs. There is quite a bit of nice, character appropriate dialogue.
Originality: Take a basic “colonizing a new planet because we’ve killed Earth” plot and then add aspects of homeopathy remedies and intuitiveness and you have a very different book from most. The family and relationship angles are well crafted and give the story a familiar feel, even though it is set on another planet in the future.
Character Development: Readers will very much enjoy the main characters and their budding romance among the stars. Intricate details like the alternative healing powers of Jey, along with the communications with plants and rocks that she shares with one of the children, make the characters very interesting and add another layer to the story.
by Torvi Tacuski
Plot: The small twists and turns of Allister’s character being occasionally surprised, challenged, and frustrated, despite his near-eternity of cynicism, is the story’s consistent highlight. Occasionally the book slows down amid the parade of his patients, though most remain unique enough to stay interesting.
Prose/Style: The vast majority of the book is either spoken dialogue, Allister’s mental dialogue, or catching the thoughts of others – all well done, particularly in the tricky balance of Allister’s thoughts reflecting what others are thinking.
Originality: The immortal incarnations of Death and Time, who can’t be defeated, competing in a game against each other is an intriguing idea pulled off with sharp-fanged flair. The idea goes a step further, with Death being subject to the thoughts and emotions of those around him and souls he’s encountered – compounded with consequences of becoming unbalanced – which multiplies the reader’s desire to see how the contest is settled.
Character Development: The reader sees bits and pieces of Allister’s abrasive personality crack to reveal something different now and then, but the more fascinating changes are the “pawns”, his patients. The changes he brings about in them, intended or not, keep the story fresh.
Blurb: Death and Time, even in mortal appearance, cannot be defeated by anyone or anything. So when these two jaded incarnations decide to compete against each other, maybe a few mortals will be helped along the way – or maybe all of Creation will come to an end.
by Jim Yeazel
Plot: Tight and proudly pulpy, Jim Yeazel's "An Unknown Shore" spins a tense tale of monster hunting in the upper Midwest in the 1950s. The setup is familiar, and jurisdictional and political wrangling complicate the plot. Some of the political spats between Beane and an ex-chief and a current sheriff aren't as gripping as the monster mystery, but Yeazel excels at scenes of planning and debating how to handle a potentially supernatural threat, and he's especially good at measuring the toll this bloody adventure takes on the psyche of its hero.
Prose/Style: Yeazel writes crisp, memorable dialogue, and his horror action is pared to the bone. Scenes of suspense achieve their aim, and Yeazel finds some bleak poetry in gore. Yeazel relies too often, however, on sentence fragments for their abrupt one-detail-at-a-time effect, drawing readers' attention to his repetitive technique during scenes when they should be caught up in the horror.
Originality: Yeazel invests his familiar story with real feeling and tension, plus some surprising folkloric roots and compelling challenges that demand the protagonist grow. But that fresh skin is still stretched over a familiar stop-the-monster frame, and few readers won't occasionally think of "Jaws" or similar stories. Fans of that kind of story will savor the author's ingenuity and skill, but Yeazel is playing squarely within the confines of his genre rather than expanding them.
Character Development: Chief Beane is an alcoholic haunted by the war and wracked with guilt and desire over his history with Helen. Meanwhile, the ex-chief and the sheriff resent Beane and accuse him of theft. As he steels himself for the job of stopping the beast that's murdering people in his town, Beane must face all those issues and more. Plot and characterization are tightly bound in "An Unknown Shore," urging each other along. That said, Yeazel's handling of the complexities of Beane grows more sure as the novel goes on.
by Bil Richardson
Plot: This fast-moving novel features a setting and atmosphere that might have been plucked from the horror greats of the 70s and 80s. It is a short book, which works in its favor. The plot builds to a satisfying conclusion and there are plenty of eventful and entertaining beats along the way.
Prose: The writing here is punchy, visceral, and infused with a sense of dread. The work can revel in its gore, which is sure to please horror fans. The descriptive writing is solid, with dialogue that effectively services the characterizations.
Originality: A fun horror romp about a demonic invasion into our world, the book is clearly very aware of genre conventions, but feels fresh rather than derivative. The characters and scenario appear wholly original.
Character Development: There is a large cast of characters for such a short book. While many are single dimensional and serve clear roles, they are sufficiently unique and distinguished. The protagonist is an undeniably fun character to follow and helps propel the book forward.
by Michael Kilman
Plot: Kilman's story is well plotted, with several surprises that will sustain readers investment in the story. The concept of roaming cities is a fascinating one with much potential, and the author capably delivers an exciting and atmospheric narrative.
Prose/Style: Overall, the prose is often lyrical, with memorable and poignant descriptions of the unusual world the story occupies. Dialogue is realistic and believable.
Originality: This book presents an engaging twist on a post-apocalyptic world. The author vividly describes the novel elements--the walking cities, the regeneration alcoves and futuristic medicines. The novel offers an authentic representation of the lives of the homeless; a thoughtful look at the horrors of advanced technology; and a fresh take on psychic beings fighting for the world's welfare.
Character Development: Protagonist Mimi is so human and sympathetic that the reader will feel immediately invested in her substantial evolution. The supporting characters are also well established and come across as integral to the storyline.
by Dan Cray
Plot: Cray's novel offers a highly intriguing work of fiction that focuses on the topic of remote perception--deftly explored through an unexpected and engaging storyline. The author's convincing integration of ideas relating to linguistics and neurology, provide a degree of verisimilitude to the sci-fi elements.
Prose: Cray's language is strong and consistent, though the prose carries less impact than the bold and weighty concept behind the book itself.
Originality: This novel takes a fascinating approach to the topics of ancient languages and linguistics. What is lost when a language becomes extinct? Are there ghostly echoes of such languages accessible to some among us? Such intriguing questions populate Cray's unconventional story.
Character Development: The central character's unusual interest in forgotten languages provides artful foreshadowing. Additional characters from unique backgrounds and ages offer the story additional substance.
by Adam Boostrom
Plot: In some ways, Boostrom's Athena's Choice is the best kind of page-turner, a mystery that's more than just a whodunit. Instead, the questions that the characters uncover concern how life in the North American Union of 2099 got the way that it is--and whether the protagonist should take radical action to alter a utopian future that is missing a crucial piece. The philosophical mystery and the mysteries inherent in the worldbuilding all prove more compelling than the actual shoe-leather mystery driving the scenes in the first four-fifths of the novel. Boostrom has constructed a fascinating world centered on a speculative quandary, but his scenes often tend toward the perfunctory, lacking suspense or meaningful action taken by the protagonist.
Prose/Style: One of the novel's key strengths is the inventive miscellany of records Boorstrom invents to flesh out his world. Readers learn about "the Y-Fever" of 2050 and the women-only world that rose over the next half century from excerpts from homework assignments, wikis, speeches, spa ads, news reports, rejection notices, and even memories written out in film-script form. Generally, one document follows each chapter of traditional third-person narrative. The records reveal both the world and the author's talent for mimicry of official speech, and some key documents cleverly advance the story. The surrounding narrative chapters feel thinly imagined by comparison, such as the short tenth chapter, which only moves Athena from the car and into an elevator. Dialogue is crisp and sometimes memorable, though the dialogue tags sometimes are strained.
Originality: The provided documents, the worldbuilding, and the conundrum Athena faces in the final pages all are strikingly original. The premise of a world without men might seem familiar, but Boostrom's treatment of it is shrewd and surprising. That said, the revelations in the mystery never build to a satisfying jolt, not even a sudden murder.
Character Development: The narrative builds to the choice promised by the title, with Athena faced with the decision of whether or not to repopulate the planet with men after half a century without them. In fact, Boostrom ends the book without offering a definitive answer, although he does drop strong hints. Unfortunately, the novel doesn't steep us in Athena's thoughts and feelings enough for readers to come to know her or her thinking, or for her choice to feel either inevitable or surprising. The first chapters paint her as a sort of everygirl who doodles men as she daydreams, but once she gets caught up in the mystery, the novel no longer details her internal life. Athena is present in every scene, but she only drives a few--the most compelling.
by Carlos R. Tkacz
This novel is a very well-wrought old-school space opera. It presents its characters with a problem to solve at the outset—an impending war between the independent Inner Cluster and the unified Coalition provoked by suspicious causes—and through their individual efforts to uncover the truth it elaborates a future in which humanity has exploited imaginative new technologies to colonize the farthest reaches of the galaxy. Its pieces fit together neatly and accommodate a number of unforeseeable twists.
Prose/Style: Tkacz’s prose style is simple and direct, which serves his story well. The author has a considerable backstory about humanity’s future to fill in over the course of the story, but he reveals it organically through the activities of his characters. This story never feels burdened with exposition or information dumps.
Originality: The broad themes of this story—the sanctity of individualism versus the benefits of organized society, military versus diplomatic responses to a threat—are common to much classic space opera fiction, but the author finds novel ways to express them through the incidents and events specific to his plot.
Character Development: The personalities of Tkacz’s main characters are largely defined by the function they serve for the plot, but the author gives each an important role to play. Admiral Raasch is the military leader skeptical of the motives of the politicians he serves; Q’biin Khalihl, representative of the Inner Cluster, is an outsider to the Coalition forces represented by Raasch; and mediator Aasben Meiind is a diplomat endowed with a wild talent. The personal differences they demonstrate and their coordination as an integrated team underscore the novel’s the themes of juxtaposed themes of individualism and community.
by Sheryl Lynn Rosenstock Marcus
Plot: The plot and its underlying true conflict is slow to reveal itself, but is quite compelling when it is clearly exposed to the reader. Much of the book bounces between time periods and locales--including sidesteps to the extra-temporal Eversod. The logistics of the Eversod are somewhat confusing, and the nature of time there and its inhabitants could be better established.
Prose/Style: For the first half of the book, the writing is clear and straightforward, with some song lyrics and poetry integrated throughout. The prose and the dialogue in these sections is unassuming. The later parts of the book become much more experimental until becoming almost entirely poetic in form. This parallels nicely with the revelations of the plot, and does not become confusing or obfuscatory, but rather is fresh and readable.
Originality: While the central conceit bears some resemblance to the love story within Dracula, the story and characters appear to be wholly original, as do the poetry and song lyrics within. The novel also features a number of illustrations by the author, lending a personalized, distinctive quality to the storytelling.
Character Development: The novel's characters take some time to emerge, but their narrative arcs are ultimately gratifying. The art in the book bolsters the characterization of the protagonist, a somewhat tortured graphic artist, while her perceptions of her boyfriend allow him to substantially evolve. The devil analogue is dimensional and becomes critical to the central storyline.
by Ken Paterson
Plot: Ken Paterson's The Story of the Cloth catches its readers with a pair of irresistible hooks. Its early passages are singular, offering thoughtful, amusing, mysterious fantasy of a high quality, especially as the scenario edges up against great questions of belief and existence. The ensuing hunt for the cloth, though, plays out more routinely than those dazzling first chapters promise, and several intriguing plot elements (an aphrodisiac, a Tube-ride pickup of a woman of mystery) ultimately just set up familiar sex farce and men's adventure story beats, including the standard-issue rescue of a damsel from an impregnable prison. The novel's ending, however, honors the promise of the opening, revealing a weird (in the best sense of the word) and touching cosmology behind the fairy fantasy, a vision of a bicameral heaven in the humanist spirit of Powell and Pressburger's "A Matter of Life and Death."
Prose: Line by line, The Story of the Cloth sparkles. Paterson's prose is scrupulous, elegant, and pleasing, studded with sly turns of phrase and observations worth lingering over. The dialogue is strong and inviting, both when the characters cheerily one-up each other and especially when Burhan tells the long history of the miracle cloth. While in earnest, the novel often is written in a tone of wry detachment, which works much better in the scenes of curious fantasy and everyday amusements than in the passages of suspense and adventure in the novel's mid and late sections. Paterson tends to summarize the action without diving into Alex's in-the-moment consciousness, so the hero's fears and perceptions and pulse feel distant.
Originality: This novel is most inspired when it's at its most unique, when readers and protagonist both are caught up in the possibility of what Paterson describes as "curves in the logic of the universe." As the pages pass, however, those original elements--and a spirit of philosophical inquiry--become increasingly subordinate to familiar thriller plotting.
Character Development: The first page invites us into the mind of Alex, the kind of bloke who already has worked up a painstaking response just in case he's ever offered a magical wish. After that, though, we're given little insight into his hopes or desires, learning only that he's an architect who sees slow international arthouse cinema with a friend. It comes as a surprise when he announces that he's in love with Carol, the woman of mystery who turns out to be not that mysterious at all, though her interest in Alex might prove more convincing if she had a stake in the intrigue. The narrative voice is sufficiently far removed from Alex that its wit and verve seems unconnected to his mind. He encounters a sprawling cast of characters, but for all of their amusing dialogue most of them make little impression -- they tend to sound like each other and like the narrator. Burhan proves a welcome exception, however, and one of the book's pleasures comes from the teasing possibility that he might be setting Alex up.
by Julia Ash
Plot: Creating many subplots is risky, but here the author manages to pull them together and hold on to the main premise of the story, preparing the eager reader for Book 3 at the end. It seems there is never a dull moment, with plenty of twists and cliffhanging chapters. Even though this was a second novel in the series, most readers will not have an issue picking up the plot.
Prose: At times it seems there too much of a shift in the tone between characters, making those that are human seem sarcastic and less serious about the circumstances and those that are fantastical more in control of the situation through their language. It is hard to tell if this is intentional, but it seems to make light of the current situation.
Originality: Ash has created an unusual world with a blend of characters in different lifeforms. Readers may be surprised to find zombies, humans, vampires, and shapeshifters all living among each other in a world that is recognizable as Earth, as well as an immersive original planet.
Character Development: Characters are courageous here, and readers will root for some while hope others meet their demise. Main and supporting characters are well-developed and even throughout the book. Strong female characters are always a plus in a fantasy novel like this.
by Brandon M Wilborn
Plot: Well-paced and often exciting, author Wilborn's first volume in his "King of Caves" series unspools its journeys and mysteries with confidence. Wilborn combines familiar epic fantasy elements -- a boy of mysterious provenance from a backwater town called to adventure -- with an entertaining chase plot, showing readers enough of villain Lord Evasius' scheming to generate suspense. That said, there's little suspense in story beats involving a prophecy and the temporary sundering of a fellowship, as only newbies to epic fantasy won't guess their resolution.
Prose/Style: Wilborn's tale deserves high marks for its compelling, purposeful prose. While the novel is long, Wilborn wastes few words. He crafts memorable sentences, describes action with rare vigor and clarity, and sometimes pens passages of beauty. The hero, Kurian, seeing a star for the first time in his life, makes for a moving and evocative scene. Occasional passages detailing the history of the land of Pallingham are suitably mythic.
Originality: That prose distinguishes a story that in outline too often resembles epic
fantasies of a generation ago, reveling in old tropes rather than upending or interrogating them.
Character Development: The novel is at its most compelling when in the head of protagonist Kurian, a young acolyte who struggles some in the role of prophecy-touted adventurer. In the strongest passages, he responds to the beats of a fantasy story like an actual person might. The rest of the cast tends toward stock types, though the (often absent) heroine Louise is a warm and welcome presence, mostly because Wilborn invests great energy into her passion for horses.