SciFi / Fantasy / Horror
by FX Holden
Plot: The plot of Holden’s hard science fiction novel is masterfully elaborated and executed. Its panoramic unfolding through a multiplicity of characters’ experiences as they grapple with the consequences of a near-future spaced-based kinetic weapons system gives it a global scope, but also sense of personal intimacy. The story is suspenseful, audacious, and full of thrilling surprises.
Prose/Style: Holden’s prose mixes abundant technological and military jargon with its characters’ regular conversation. Whether or not it is technically accurate, it certainly convinces the reader that it is.
Originality: Holden’s novel is the latest in a tradition of military thrillers with science fiction overtones, harking back to Wheeler and Burdick’s Fail-Safe (1962) and even earlier. That said, it has a satisfyingly fresh feel.
Character Development: Holden’s novel is told through a diverse array of character viewpoints, each them credibly rendered. Each has their own personality with its attending complexities, none more so than Anastasia Grahkovsky, creator of Russia’s Groza weapons system, whose defense of it at the expense of the considerable human deaths it causes is chilling but, given her backstory, understandable.
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 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 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 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.
by David A. Wimsett
Plot: Wimsett’s book presents an exciting plot of palace intrigue and political machinations spanning a continent. The novel is second in a planned series, picking up where the previous entry left off, and ending with movement toward the next act.
Prose/Style: The book features strong writing that helps illustrate the vastness of the fictional world and depth of the novel’s lore. The plotting of the political drama is carefully plotted with reveals that are timed satisfactorily.
Originality: The book unapologetically embraces fantasy staples and tropes. While there is not a particularly unique element to the setting and characters, the quality of their depiction makes for a captivating read within an immersive world that is clearly established as its own universe.
Character Development: While catching up to the different character arcs seems to require a bit more effort for readers not familiar with the first entry in the saga, the motivations of the characters are complex and variable. Readers will easily be hooked into the exciting blend of mobilized armies and political intrigue.
by Richard G Walker
Plot: Walker’s novel proves a lighthearted apocalyptic romp that plays with established Norse mythology to tell a story of heroism and young love.
Prose/Style: The plot moves at a brisk and satisfying pace to keep readers intrigued and invested. The characters who exist primarily in Adam’s head can feel a bit intrusive on the page as formatted, though the reader will quickly grow accustomed as the characters endear themselves.
Originality: While sci-fi rendering of Norse mythology is not unexplored territory, the plot and characters are fresh and creative, and the book’s unique brand of sardonic humor goes a long way toward establishing originality.
Character Development: The romance between Adam and Evie, both quirky characters, provides a tender charge to the story’s plot, and supporting characters are fun to read and establish the tone and worldbuilding nicely.
by GJ Scherzinger
Plot: Neatly paced and epic in scope, this fantasy novel is light on the sorcery and lighter on the sword, instead leaning on its characters in a well-imagined world to keep readers hooked.
Prose/Style: The writing flows well, and features some beautiful descriptive language that brings the fantasy world alive, though occasionally the language around Cerra can feel a bit lubricious. The dialogue is organic and effectively aids in characterizations.
Originality: While the book doesn’t break any new ground, it does avoid many of the tropes and pitfalls of the genre. The characters, setting, and world appear original and unique.
Character Development: The characters are the novel’s greatest strength, particularly the relationship between Cerra and the demon. The supporting characters are also well-rendered with their own motivations and personalities that eschew fantasy tropes.
by Steven Ramirez
Plot: The plot flows clearly, though the pacing is slow, particularly in the latter half of the book. Details of the primary mystery thread are neatly blended with the book’s supernatural elements. The ending will leave some readers wanting, however, with loose ends and no clear promise of what’s next.
Prose/Style: The prose is clean and accessible, and features some strong descriptive writing as well as some exciting, if spread out, moments of action.
Originality: The book is unique and original in terms of theme and characters, with an atmospheric supernatural setting that will leave readers eager for the next chapter.
Character Development: The characters are nuanced and distinct, and the attention devoted to their relationships adds to the compelling nature of the book’s darkly fantastical setting.
by Tom Kranz
Plot: The plot of this dystopian tale is slightly bifurcated. For much of the novel’s first half, the reader is not aware that Rick’s time travel from 2212 to 2055 is not accidental but rather a calculated effort. Only when Rick is joined by his fellow time traveler Chen Shu does the plot and its pacing kick into high gear, with the revelation that the two are rebels who will stop at nothing to prevent their future from ever happening.
Prose/Style: Kranz’s prose is serviceable for his story. It is clear and direct, and advances his narrative and its ideas satisfactorily.
Originality: This novel’s central theme is one of the oldest in science fiction: the time-travel paradox. Kranz doesn’t bring substantial novelty to the concept, although he does give it a contemporary spin by making his time travelers’ objective the prevention of the planet’s ecological and economic despoiling.
Character Development: Kranz’s characters serve the purpose of his plot, although Rick, the first time traveler from 2212 to make his way back to 2055, seems unsatisfyingly passive and ineffectual, given his role as a ReEarth rebel bent on significantly changing the future he comes from. In part this is because he is a sharp contrast to the much more dynamic Chen Shu, his fellow ReEarth rebel, who is not above acts of hacking, theft, and assassination to fulfill ReEarth’s objectives.
by Tina M.E.
Plot: Actually a trilogy of books in one collection, this unique story tells of the fall and redemption of a biblical demon, and of his love with a human woman.
Prose/Style: The writing is clear and easy to follow, though the biblical diction can sometimes feel stilted. The dialogue reads naturally and enhances the already meticulously detailed characterization.
Originality: This story is original and rare. The author clearly researched Christian occultism during writing and used that knowledge to great effect, creating an authentic mythos that allows for an intriguing and unique plot.
Character Development: Dantalion is a complex character and is well-developed over the course of the conflicts between the three books. Laurel, the human to whom Dantalion is bound, goes through tremendous transformation, although her interior journey is less dynamic.
by Ava Lock
Plot: Lock's plot is well-paced for the first half of the novel, before picking up too much steam for the reader to keep up. Although the concept of Alpha Bots is entertaining and largely well-executed, it requires additional refinement to truly shine.
Prose/Style: The prose here is strongest when spoken in Cookie's voice, and lacks occasionally throughout the rest of the novel, becoming convoluted and overly-descriptive. A focus on balancing the other characters’ dialogue would greatly benefit the novel.
Originality: Wholly inspired and brimming with satirical genius, Lock's narrative manages to feel original while playing within the sphere of novels that came before it. The playful incorporation of dessert throughout aids the plot and overall narrative.
Character Development: Cookie Rifkin's voice is extremely strong for the first half of the novel before fading into the background as the plot amps up. The satirical tone of the novel works better when Cookie's voice is more prominent.
by Criss Velazquez
Plot: Velazquez's intriguing novel would certainly be strengthened through a more streamlined focus and reorganization. Overall, the work is weakened by convoluted plotting, while its narrative pacing lacks consistency – the world takes too long to be interrupted from its norm, and then proceeds with relentless action, resulting in a somewhat imbalanced narrative structure.
Prose/Style: While the dialogue is lively and sincere, the prose is rather basic in execution, lacking descriptive qualities to bring the reader into the atmosphere of the book.
Originality: Bringing Hell to the reader, this book’s premise is fascinating, but lacks in delivery, losing its promise between a confusing plot and flat characters.
Character Development: The protagonist, Landon, is ultimately overshadowed by the complementary characters, who are provided greater internal development. More attention given to the cast as a whole would better allow the rich machinations of the storyline to resonate with invested readers.