SciFi / Fantasy / Horror
by K.C. Julius
Plot: A Realm at Stake is the second book in a fantasy series and thus is driven by subplots set up in the first series title, and new subplots—among them the coming of age of Fynn, the bastard son of the King Aetheor, Yarl of Helgrinia; the revelation of Whit’s innate magic skills; the kidnapping of Halla—set up to shape adventures in subsequent titles. The real ‘plot” of this novel is how these subplots elaborate the world of Drinnglennin, which the author has given a richly imagined culture and society.
Prose: Julius’s prose is well suited to the story she tells. It’s colorful without being ornate and serves to describe well scenes of both high fantasy and courtly intrigue.
Originality: The interplay of fantasy and royal politics in this novel is redolent of well-known multi-volume fantasies such as George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones saga. However, the intrigues and adventures of her characters are entirely original to her story and stamp their imprint on a familiar fantasy template.
Character/Execution: Julius builds her panoramic narrative around the adventures of individual characters, each of whom she gives a distinct personality and role in the story. They are fully realized and credible in their exploits.
by Angie Chasser
Plot: The storyline—a chance encounter that leads a young girl to embark on an adventure with a magical being—is familiar, but the addition of a vividly realized mythical backstory greatly enlivens the narrative.
Prose: The prose is first-rate, with evocative descriptions that finely establish the setting, characters, and realities of the fantasy realm.
Originality: While there are parallels to the mythologies being presented—especially Norse myths—the author's epic fantasy world is engrossing, believable, and well-established enough to support a series.
Character/Execution: Both major and minor characters are distinct, vital, and authentically portrayed.
Blurb: Fans of Tolkienesque epic fantasy will find themselves captivated by Chasser's storytelling and worldbuilding.
by D.G. Valdron
Plot: D.G. Valdron's bold, funny, fast-moving fantasy The Princess of Asylum follows quick-witted actress Dae Zea Lors after the destruction of her city. Dae survives in the wasteland by improvising a series of increasingly outlandish lies and personae, convincing bandits and orgus and more that she's, variably, a princess, or an expert in jewel magic, and eventually a priestess. The story's scope is epic, with airships and military sieges galore, but its tone is light and its perspective intimate, always tied to Dae. Inevitably, the hero's lies make her a leader, and she's surprised to discover herself caring about people beyond herself. The novel opens as a picaresque, with Dae bumbling from encounter to encounter, but by the end, as the plot takes shape, readers will actually care for Dae's world and companions. The sense of urgency that powers the novel's final third, though, is sometimes missing in the book's middle, especially in the occasional cases when the balance between comedy and fantasy storytelling proves uncertain.
Prose/Style: Valdron excels at both the narrative perspective of his protagonist, a savvy actress who finds being on a fantasy adventure something of a comic imposition, and at the demands of epic fantasy storytelling. His worldbuilding is memorable and unique but communicated to readers in Dae's offhand observations; his descriptions of the fantastic or terrifying are quick and powerful. Much of the novel is driven by dialogue, as Dae improvises new selves and lies to stay alive; at times, the characters she's hoodwinking, such are written as if they're willing participants in a comedy routine, such as the tyrant who apologizes for scheduling conflicts with her upcoming execution. The novel's pleasures and occasional problems rise from the same source: the tricky balance between the comedy of Dae's improvisations and the threatening reality around her. For the most part, though, Valdron aces that balance.
Originality: It is rare for a fantasy novel to center on such an exciting new character and idea. Besides the strength of the premise and Dae's general delightfulness, the world of The Princess of Asylum is itself original, wrought with care, and revealed in tantalizing glimpses.
Character Development: There's no doubt about it: Dae is a character readers will love, and her wit and sensibility drive the book. She faces hard choices, makes surprising sacrifices, and movingly comes to care about more than her own life. At times, especially in the novel's middle, the complaints and patter of Dae's inner monologue cut against the narrative urgency, especially when she's joking or crabbing about the book's cast as if they're all in a play together rather than continually facing their own deaths. At such moments, she seems not to have grown during her adventures, reverting to being a comic type rather than a fully-shaped protagonist. That makes the novel feel long, even as it's entertaining: If she's not taking the situations seriously, readers will be tempted to join her. The saps, villains, monsters, and occasional upstanding folks she encounter also prove memorable, driven by their own coherent but interesting motivations.
Blurb: A fast-talking actress makes her scrappy way across the wasteland, surviving by her wits -- and shaping empires with her lies. Imagine a vivid high fantasy, full of beasts and sieges and cults, narrated with the wit of Anita Loos.
by Bridget E. Baker
Plot: Displaced, the first novel in Baker's Birthright Saga, boasts a fleet, often inspired story of matriarchal superheroes on a Hawaiian island. The story's heart is the conflict between royal teen twins Chancery, the kind-hearted protagonist, and Judica, her cruel sister and the heir to the throne. Baker's story pulses with exciting incident, and even though this is the first book in a series the climax is consequential and exciting, even as it entices readers with the promise of more. Occasionally, the bloody business of warrior queendom proves an awkward fit against the novel's teen romance elements. The high school scenes feel less urgent and engaging than the scenes of dynastic intrigue. The idea of "pure" DNA as the source of these "Evians’" powers also has an unfortunate whiff of eugenics, but the novel hints that this might get explored further in later volumes.
Prose/Style: Baker's writing is swift but potent. She invests each scene with the heart of her protagonist, so it's always clear what's most important in each moment. The large cast is clearly described and differentiated, and scenes of action and romance both prove exciting. Chancery's perspective is likably wry for a royal narrator. The dialogue varies from flirty teen banter to regal proclamations, but always is crisply crafted. In short, the prose is appropriate to the story.
Originality: Displaced’s milieu is familiar to the Wonder Woman mythos, and the introduction of Chancery's second potential love interest demonstrates a fidelity to genre. But Baker brings fresh energy and invention to even familiar elements like the inevitable royal succession crisis. Her Evians' powers and customs fascinate, and Displaced never misses an opportunity to jolt readers with a surprise.
Character Development: Chancery is a strong and appealing protagonist, split between two worlds and ultimately dragged into battle against her own twin. Both sisters are vividly drawn, as are their paramours, guards, relations, and friends. A letter from Chancery's mother, after that queen's death, is a moving highlight of the story, and Chancery's exciting choices power the narrative from start to epic climax.
by E.M. Hamill
Plot/Idea: For a violent sci-fi novel teeming with alien species and philosophies, E.M. Hamill’s Peacemaker is notably, refreshingly humane, concerned with diplomacy and empathy, considerations of the morality of war, and questions about what it means to consider any group – even engineered mercenaries-- “abominations.” Hamill’s plotting is dense and twisty, but adult readers willing to bone up on the proper nouns and invest in a milieu of tense intergalactic diplomacy will be rewarded with tense, surprising science fiction that’s thematically rich, sexually frank, and highly inventive in its cultures, technology, and dilemmas. In the opening chapters, Hamill demonstrates a talent for vividly rendered violence, which creates a tension that hangs over the rest of the narrative, as the protagonist, Dali, strives to prevent more. Readers craving action may be disappointed at the hero’s brainy, empathetic efforts to thwart it – but that’s the risk an author takes when daring to write a challenging genre piece.
Prose: Hamill’s prose is generally crisp, clever, and genre appropriate. Tech, cultures, and action all are described with clarity and vigor. In most scenes, Hamill emphasizes with style and wit, what matters most or is most interesting. Those are rare qualities. Sometimes, a throwaway line is less than artful (“A sense of foreboding sketched lines against my forehead”), but overall Peacemaker demonstrates a high degree of polish and precision.
Originality: Intergalactic alliances on the brink of war are science fiction mainstays, and increasingly non-binary gender presentations are as well. Hamill invests the novel with great inventive brio, finding new spins on familiar conflicts and technologies while not over-complicating matters. Some received ideas prevail, as is common in space operas (FTL travel, for example), and readers might find it curious that these advanced societies and the protagonist, a “third-gender human” have not come up with a clearer, more effective non-gender-specific singular third-person pronoun than “they."
Character/Execution: Hamill executes a strong character twist in the opening chapters. Dali kicks off the book by demonstrating Jack Reacher-like skills for violence against a band of chumps, then has wild sex that leaves their partner, a stranger, thrilled and satisfied, and soon is upbraided by a superior office for insubordination--all familiar story beats for a genre fiction hero. The twist: Dali quickly realizes pheromones, a drug called Vape, and a zeal to complete a mission had interfered with their thinking and actions, and then sincerely apologizes to their commanding officer.
From that point on, Dali strives to achieve diplomatic solutions to problems, actively working to prevent the kind of violence that two-fisted genre heroes usually relish. This is an extraordinary inversion – perhaps even critique – of reader expectations in space operas, and a strong indication that readers should be on their toes. The characterization of Dali and the diplomats, family members, planetary royalty, and the many other incidental characters is continually unpredictable but persuasive.
by Julia Ash
Plot: The Turning Point, the third novel in Ash’s genre-crossing The ELI Chronicles series, is gratifyingly wild, as any story about a war between animals, intergalactic telepathic vampires, wolf hybrids, mad scientists, ghosts, emergency heart surgery, and a vile president of the United States should be. Ash plots a twisty, surprising course through this extravagantly inventive material, always guiding readers to what matters most in any of the crisp, tightly written chapters. The author is adept at gruesome beasts and bursts of horror (readers should expect grisly transformations and some torture) but lights up the dark corners of this story with a focus on familial love, especially that between protagonist Ruby, her husband Clay, and their daughter Gabby, and also forgiveness, as when the villain of the series’ second book quite literally haunts the third – on the side of the heroes. Ash tells this complex story with heart and clarity.
Prose/Style: Ash excels at inner monologue, memorable dialogue, visceral descriptions of the horrific, and clipped, crisp scenes of action. A tendency to indulge in awkward sentences that open with participial phrases, though, slows down many crucial scenes.
Originality: Individual elements of Ash’s The ELI Chronicles are familiar from other genre works, but nobody has previously assembled these particular ideas into this exciting configuration. The joy in The Turning Point comes from Ash’s imaginative vigor, the willingness to make a longtime series character now the king of wolves, or to turn the first lady of the United States, in the opening pages, into a hybrid rat creature that must immediately be put down. What sets Ash apart isn’t just the exciting ideas but the emotional weight the author finds in them. Because Ash’s characters (even the villains) have convincing inner lives, these scenes have power.
Character Development: With so many characters, so many creatures, and so many ideas, Ash can’t possibly develop everyone in The Turning Point’s sprawling cast as thoroughly as they might deserve. The novel is propulsive, revealing its characters on the fly. Still, Ruby, Clay, Zagan, and the other key personalities are powerfully rendered, and everyone’s dialogue is unique. The president, though, sometimes sounds like a standard villain, issuing standard “bad guy” speeches.
Blurb: Wild, bloody, scary, and full of surprising inventions, The Turning Point makes an intergalactic war between animals, vampires, and humans both great fun and genuinely touching.
by Chris Yee
Plot: Chris Yee's plotting in the high-tech crime thriller Serial Cortex is smart and twisted, with every surprise revelation also pleasingly inevitable in hindsight. As his characters attempt to enter the mind of a prostitute accused of being a serial killer, Yee proves adept at introducing fantastical high-tech plot elements, such as the rules for detectives interacting with the suspect's memories, and then dazzles by seizing every opportunity for suspense or shock that those rules offer. Meanwhile, the real-world exploits and betrayals of the novel’s scientists and cops are tense and arresting.
Prose/Style: Yee's prose is crisp, propulsive, and exciting. Crucially for a techno-thriller, Serial Cortex is always clear and persuasive when establishing its rules, in this case the specifics of how "thought-hopping" tech allows the characters to enter the brains of the murder suspect. The dialogue is breezy, chipper, and often funny. Like Yee's description, the prose is trimmed to the bone and polished.
Originality: Neither the brain-insertion company nor the thought of entering a killer's brain is particularly fresh, but Yee's characters, inventive incidents, and surprising revelations mostly make up for that.
Character Development: Yee's tendency not to waste words means the book skips by quite quickly with no extra or unnecessary detail. That can be problematic in a mystery story, as here the few stray character details that Yee offers us about the members of his Serial Crimes Bureau stand out so much that it's little surprise when they come back later in the story as revelations. Readers will likely sense the blatant foreshadowing immediately; yet, while Yee still manages to surprise with how these elements play out, readers will have little trouble keeping track of all these shoes that his story is going to drop. Serial Cortex is more convincing in its depiction of the brain than it is in its depiction of policework or running a startup tech company. His detectives spend too little time considering the ethics or admissibility of sedating a suspect to root around inside her brain to gather evidence, especially considering the fact that this exposes her to risk of brain damage. Meanwhile, readers will likely wonder why a tech company with miraculous technology that can insert a person's consciousness into another's brain is suffering such cashflow problems.
by B. A. Vonsik
Plot: Book three of Vonsik’s epic fantasy series offers a captivating premise fueled by riveting questions concerning the very origins of human life. The use of world mythologies and legends provides fertile ground for the speculative work, which rarely slumps under the weight of its ambitions.
Prose/Style: Polished, immersive, and highly detailed prose propels this novel.
Originality: Vonsik's worldbuilding is formidable and fully convincing. While the work pulls from familiar mythologies and pantheons, their integration under a single vision is undeniably compelling.
Character Development: Vonsik succeeds in creating a fully immersive universe that he conveys through near cinematic worldbuilding. The protagonist is a much-needed sympathetic lead in a narrative that is somewhat more concerned with developing its core concept, fantastical setting, and many mythical players, than tending to individual characters’ psychological growth.
by Aaron A. Reed
Plot: Full of mystery and mind-bending intrigue, with a dash of unrequited romance, this novel entertains from start to finish. Utilizing a unique permutational approach, the book flows nicely and the modular mechanics underneath the surface are seamless. The work pairs nicely parallels the disorientation of the mysterious underground labyrinth with the apprehension of navigating romantic feelings amidst an established friendship.
Prose/Style: On a sentence level, the writing is above average. The unique structure of the book is pulled off deftly. The dialogue feels natural, and lends well to the characterization.
Originality: The permutational structure of the book is new and exciting. That aside, the plot and setting are fresh and quickly draw readers in.
Character Development: The book is centered around two characters, both thoughtfully rendered. As the twisting plot introduces doppelgängers, the characterization between them becomes increasingly compelling as their relationship becomes fraught in their fight for survival. Ultimately, the bond between these two serves as a poignant backbone for the story.
by Chandra Clarke
Plot: The plot of Clarke’s novel is loose, as befits the nature of the story the author tells. It is related to readers through the experiences of a half-dozen characters whose relationship to one another is not immediately apparent, and only some of whose paths cross by the novel’s end. Ultimately, the tapestry woven from their lives and experiences elaborates a future in which society is threatened by the abuse of virtual reality technology.
Prose/Style: Clarke’s prose is precise and well-suited to the narrative approach, which is to advance this story through brief chapters, each a continuing vignette in one of the character’s lives.
Originality: There are many futuristic novels in which virtual reality is a sub-theme. Clarke’s stands apart from many in the novel ways that the author shows how a technology created with a distinct scientific purpose can be appropriated for a variety of alternative uses, some perverse and some potentially beneficial.
Character Development: Clarke’s novel is character-driven, and these characters are the novel’s strength. Each is well developed with a distinct personality, especially Kel Rafferty, the scientist whose implant design is stolen to serve the virtual reality black market, and Maura Torres, the scheming head of the slightly crooked EduTain corporation that plays a critical role in the appropriation of Kel’s implant.
by Chandler Brett
Plot: Wolf Code provides a gratifying blend of human and animal worlds, with a surprising dual focus on activism and fantasy. Parallel stories meaningfully and compellingly mirror one another.
Prose: Brett's prose style is evocative, vivid, and clear. Anthropomorphic descriptions are as capably rendered as those of the quotidian human realm and of the gaming world.
Originality:Stories of wolves are familiar, but Brett provides a novel element through the connections made between human and animal protagonists. The focus on gaming provides an additional layer of interest.
Character/Execution: Tulsa and Don are an unlikely pair, whose bond over wolves and individual passions leads to their further development as individuals and partners.
by Albert Marsolais
Plot: Albert Marsolais's Amir of Guelph is a fast-paced, engaging, continually surprising near-future dystopian thriller. The novel is uniquely attentive to the drift of everyday life in an extraordinary future, and its focus is refreshingly localized: Marsolais's characters discover the truths about their government by dealing with issues in their own Ontario city. The novel moves so swiftly, with inventive power and an agreeable narrative voice, that its eccentric shifts of focus and occasional paucity of detail will likely not much diminish reader enjoyment. But both tendencies rob the story of urgency, as Amir of Guelph follows Amir and a growing cohort of friends attempting to save a library -- and its records of the past. The bonds between the characters are not strongly established, and the novel's not clear about just how dangerous the police and "thugs” of future Ontario are supposed to be.
Prose/Style: Marsolais is adept at breezy, amusing dialogue scenes that reveal the day-to-day experience of living in a future where human lives have been extended by decades, and governments are run by advanced A.I.s. The novel is often memorably funny, and Marsolais's descriptions of action and explanations of how the society works are clear and compelling. The dialogue and its comic spirit dominates the book, though, to the expense of narrative momentum and the development of the world.
Originality: Marsolais's vision of life in future ruled by A.I. is original and persuasive. The novel's strongest chapters might be its first, before the main plot really kicks in. In these, protagonist Amir gets embroiled with his friend Ranjit in a pair of sketchy schemes involving a catfishing incident and a can't-miss investment. These low-key misadventures later figure into the book's main plot of course, but they offer a memorable and unique perspective on the constancy of human nature even after radical societal change. Marsolais teases out the specifics of this world through dialogue and incident, which makes those first chapters especially compelling.
Character Development: After the delightful opening chapters, which are powered by the narrator's efforts to navigate a friendship defined by deceptions and con artistry, Amir of Guelph introduces a succession of characters who, like Ranjit, catch Amir up in something of a mystery plot. These characters, though, are not as sharply drawn or as unpredictable. Amir's burgeoning friendship with young Darwina, for example, is sketched too quickly to be engaging or fully credible. Marsolais wrings some tension from the possibility that some of Amir's new circle might have divided loyalties, but the group's camaraderie and zeal for risk-taking is presented as a given rather than developed.
by GREGORY SCHERZINGER
Plot: Scherzinger's ambitious standalone work of epic fantasy unfolds in a magical world that falls into a path of destruction when power-wielding cards are compensated by a dangerous villain.
Prose: Scherzinger's detailed, polished prose creates a vibrant, fully immersive world.
Originality: Invested readers will be rewarded with a multilayered story that creates and abides by its own unique worldbuilding.
Character/Execution: The numerous characters are convincingly developed and supplied with well-rounded back stories and motivations. While initially difficult to parse out each kingdom, character, and magical element, the storytelling ultimately delivers satisfying portrayals and narrative arcs.
by Sasha DeVore
Plot: The third volume of Sasha DeVore’s Wake Trilogy offers readers a suitably epic yet intimate finale to the author’s character-driven dystopian science-fiction story. This time, protagonist Hanu, hurting from the losses the Dissenters suffered in the second book, faces a danger as great as the Ancient Ones who are preparing to wipe out humanity: political infighting among the resistance. As Hanu and company take matters into their own hands, leading a daring evacuation and insisting that these last survivors of humanity can find a way to triumph without further devastating an already-ravaged planet, DeVore excels at intrigue, both among the human cast and the Ancient Ones, and the twisty, surprising plotting will keep readers guessing. Much of the novel’s first half finds Hanu uncertain about what exactly the situation is, and he only discovers the truth when a character in the know elects to tell him. This makes the narrative feel somewhat uneventful – the hero and his companions aren’t making the crucial discoveries themselves. The novel’s second half, though, offers hard choices, engaging action, memorable time-travel twists, and affecting sacrifice.
Prose/Style: DeVore composes strong dialogue and is adept at explicating complex science fiction concepts. The author is especially good at chatter among friends and the declarations of alien beings.
Originality: Many of the elements of the Wake series are familiar from other dystopian adventures, but the unique characters set this series apart, especially Hanu’s zeal to find solutions to the conflict that are less destructive than what his elders plan. The science-fiction twists, too, are fresh and surprising.
Character Development: Hanu and his friends are engaging, original creations, and the pleasure of Year One lies in watching them work through seemingly impossible problems and arrive at solutions unique to their backgrounds and moral codes. The novel’s first half moves somewhat slowly, but its scenes of these young people taking stock of what they’ve been through and what they’re facing contain real emotional weight and power.
by Angela M Hudson
Plot: The story begins as if in the middle of another story, and we find our heroine trapped in a cage with other prisoners awaiting to die. This is how we are introduced to this world, and it’s perfect. The kinetic energy does not let up in this fun, inventive fantasy novel.
Prose: There is no purple language in this story. The prose is clear, plain, and appreciated, while Hudson’s ability to describe this world is masterfully done. The heroine's voice is lively, witty, and immediately engrossing.
Originality: Stories that integrate both the human world and the hidden realm of magic, wonder, and danger, are not entirely novel, and fairies are a frequent subject of fantasy. Nevertheless, Hudson offers clever twists, a clear voice, and distinctive world building. Readers will be more than eager to embark on the journey.
Character/Execution: Readers will easily empathize with blunt, no-nonsense heroine Cami Dixon and value the chance to see through her eyes that this particular magical world isn’t so magical.
by Earik Beann
Plot: Beann’s alluring sci-fi novel tells the oddball story of a woman who comes into contact with alien intelligence and ends up on an adventure, all the while with the fate of the world as we know it at stake.
Prose/Style: While the pacing and focus here are somewhat inconsistent, Beann’s writing is clean and flows nicely. The exposition is clear and often tinged with a hint of refreshing humor.
Originality: The story of two brothers raised to be different species is decidedly unique. The author introduces a number of strange, distinctive characters and a clever resolution, ingredients that allow the novel to stand apart from more familiar stories of alien encounters.
Character Development: Mustafa is interesting and well-rendered, while Maria is less intriguing, feeling too often like a passive observer without true agency. Supporting characters are sufficiently differentiated and serve the story well.