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SciFi / Fantasy / Horror

  • The Earthling's Brother

    by Earik Beann

    Rating: 8.00

    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.

  • A Chip on Her Shoulder

    by RJ Blain

    Rating: 7.75

    Plot: R.J. Blain's amusing, inventive comic fantasy A Chip on its Shoulder is a much wilder novel than its title suggests. It opens as comic urban fantasy, as shapeshifter protagonist Darlene vows revenge on the mafioso who have transformed her brother into a chipmunk. That strange but simple setup soon gets complicated through divine intervention -- in Darlene's world, "divine" beings of all the world's religious pantheons regularly intervene in human affairs. An intriguing (but somewhat convoluted) mission sends Darlene and an abandoned Egyptian child to Hell, a realm Darlene has vowed to take over as a logical step to enlisting divine help on her road to revenge. Much of the rest of the book covers amusing exchanges between Darlene and Lucifer, a sexually frustrated trickster eager to give her almost anything she wants in exchange for a chance to ogle her leopard spots. These scenes are funny and engaging, but they diminish narrative momentum and suspense. The throughline of Darlene's mission weakens as the devil bargains for her hand in marriage and the characters (angels, devils, gangsters, and more) crack wise at each other.

    Prose/Style: Blain's comic dialogue is strong enough to hold this playful, discursive novel together, even when the story itself proceeds in fits and starts. Blain excels at offhand comedy and at breezily establishing the rules for this world. Darlene's foul mouth is often amusing, though her profane insults sometimes become repetitious. The comic tone of the novel makes any couple of pages of it a pleasure to read, but the novelist's tendency to favor the amusing over all else limits the story's emotional urgency.

    Originality: There's a bevy of urban fantasies in which the divine and infernal consort with humans. Blain's stands out, thanks to the freshness of the rules and details of its world, and the often amusing and surprising chatter and incidents.

    Character Development: In the opening chapters, Darlene stands out as a compelling and exciting character with a strong mission. That mission soon becomes muddled, and even with her narrating the story her perspective often gets set aside for lengthy, situational dialogue scenes that only incidentally advance the plot. It's not clear, based on her reactions in these scenes, just how seriously readers should take the dangers she faces.

  • Beyond What Separates Us

    by R.A Morris

    Rating: 7.75

    Plot: R.A. Morris's humane and sweeping Beyond What Separates Us ambitiously juggles four different narratives from disparate people around a near-future Earth ravaged by climate change. The novel offers portraits of very different lives in a broken world, balancing scenes of loss and violence with a collectivist hopefulness. That bold structure presents challenges for the reader, though – the novelist establishes a quartet of separate protagonists, each with its own milieu and perspective, in so few pages, while also slowly teasing out the essential worldbuilding details of the book's near future. The problem isn't necessarily that this is too much work for a sympathetic reader to keep track of -- the issue is that nothing in those early chapters demonstrates whether the work will be rewarded. The individual narratives aren't all compelling enough from the start, lacking strong narrative hooks, and several feel repetitive of each other with their stories of desperate journeys, cruel men with guns, and loved ones gone missing. All ultimately have their affecting moments as the novel continues, and the world they reveal is fascinating, but the individual stories progress in fits and starts. The rotating quartet of perspectives sacrifices narrative momentum and urgency in the name of the novel's humanistic perspective.

    Prose/Style: The novel's strength is its cross-cultural empathy and the way echoes of the trials faced by a protagonist in Bangalore resonate with the experiences of one in Colombia. The close third-person perspectives of each protagonist persuasively emphasize a shared global humanity and the power of persistence, though the narrative voices do not vary much, with the exception of one character's journal entries. Morris' descriptions of journeys and actions are clear and precise, if a touch wordy; the novelist's handling of violence is mature and outraged.

    Originality: Morris' commitment to capturing such disparate voices and lives is admirable. The novel expands the scope of the near-future dystopia to survey how life actually might be lived, around the world. The thread set in Ontario, though, is surprisingly conventional in its dystopic plotting, with that protagonist discovering dark secrets about the government, including its cover-up of the existence of other survivors and the fact that it executed the protagonist's parents.

    Character Development: This novel's daring structural demands that its characters be sharply drawn and immediately compelling. Instead, they reveal themselves quite slowly and are unlikely to stir in readers that sense of eagerness to revisit each the next time their perspective chapter comes around.

  • Piercing the Celestial Ocean

    by Kip Koelsch

    Rating: 7.75

    Plot: The plot is satisfyingly complex, moving between time periods and perspectives. The book builds to twist in its culmination, which serves as an intriguing launching point for an extended series.

    Prose/Style: The writing is sound, clearly depicting scenes while also effectively delivering exposition. Most of the character names have an apostrophe inserted after the initial letter, which can prove an irksome stylistic choice at times.

    Originality: The book is exceptionally clever. The plot and conceit are complicated but clearly thought out meticulously. Like good sci-fi should, commentary on our own society is seamlessly woven in. The book stands out as a unique and original science fiction novel.

    Character Development: The characters are thoughtfully crafted, and effectively convey the politics of the world they inhabit.

  • Half Awakened Dreams: Volume II of the Carandir Saga

    by David A. Wimsett

    Rating: 7.50

    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.

  • Nemecene: The Versal Arts

    by Kaz Lefave

    Rating: 7.50

    Plot: The fifth novel in the Nemecene series reunites readers with twins Keeto and Elize and the immersive futuristic world finely established throughout the first four books. The author offers a detailed glossary and codes related to the narrative threads woven throughout the story—tools that prove helpful to readers navigating the often dense, multilayered content.

    Prose: Lefave's prose is highly detailed, fluidly rendered, and often electric, if at times overbearing. The writing style varies as the text rotates between perspectives and moments in time. The potentially confusing machinations of the book are lessened through these fine delineations.

    Originality: The Nemecene series offers an exceptional vision of a future world laced with fantastical elements and rich in psychological depth. To fully grasp—and embrace—the reading experience, readers will surely want to begin with the first book in the series. As such, the readership with this installment may be somewhat limited.

    Character/Execution: The hypnotic, at times near stream of consciousness style of the writing allows readers to become intimately familiar with the individual characters’ internal thoughts, emotions, and motivations. Still, readers may struggle to become fully acclimated to the world the author so meticulously creates. Characters, though handled with precision and care, do not always concretely materialize.

    Blurb: Lefave's Nemecene series features top notch worldbuilding and an entirely immersive reading experience.

  • The Stars That Beckon

    by Kevin J Simington

    Rating: 7.50

    Plot: Simington has crafted an engrossing space opera, well-paced and cleverly plotted with numerous surprising turns. The universe the book weaves is vast, richly detailed and authentic. The book features complete narrative arcs while effectively launching a series in its culmination.

    Prose/Style: The writing flows nicely, gracefully blending exposition and dialogue. Action scenes are depicted vividly and imaginatively.

    Originality: The book fits comfortably in the established science fiction genre, but does so with an original plot and characters that readers will attach to. The setting and scenario are well-conceived and depicted successfully.

    Character/Execution: While certainly a book that favors plot over character, this work does do a praiseworthy job of creating and differentiating characters that can carry somewhat complicated narrative arcs of group politics.

  • Rebirth

    by Y S Pascal/Linda Reid

    Rating: 7.50

    Plot: The final volume of Y.S. Pascal's upbeat and inventive science-fiction trilogy finds Shiloh and Spud, the heroes of all three books, at last facing the truth that Omega Archon (or great leader) of the galactic Zygan Emprise that employs them as catascopes (intelligence agents/heroic troubleshooters) is a tyrant. As always, Pascal writes a lively, fast-paced story that audaciously riffs on a wide array of science fiction ideas. The material is clever and high spirited, but it all moves too quickly, with the speed and emphasis on dialogue of a screenplay. Despite several welcome scenes of philosophical discussion, the novel rarely illuminates what all its universe-shattering revelations mean to Shiloh.

    Prose: Pascal's dialogue remains brisk and engaging, especially when the characters joke or discuss the mad particulars of their adventures. Much of the story is told in that dialogue, and action and description are often rushed.

    Originality: Despite the meta-fictional boldness of the novel's ending, which finds Shiloh facing her creator, Rebirth is not as lavishly inventive as the earlier books in this series. This time, with a clear climax and goal in sight for the characters, the material has the familiar feeling of a splashy finale in which the suspense lies less in whether the heroes will win the day but in what particular solution will get them there. The particulars have some surprise, but the novel's shape feels pre-ordained.

    Character/Execution: Friendship and family power this series, and at its best, readers see both guiding Shiloh's actions. But the series moves too fast—and too often tells its story through quipping dialogue—to explore the depths of its lead, much less its sprawling cast.

  • Demon of the Black Gate

    by GJ Scherzinger

    Rating: 7.50

    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.

  • Imperial Knight

    by James Evans

    Rating: 7.50

    Plot: A gripping sci-fi plot that spans a vast universe. Combining exciting adventure with political intrigue, the plot is fast-paced and sprawling, with a satisfying build up and conclusion. While part of a larger series, the novel features a standalone plot that is satisfying in its arcs.

    Prose: The novel features strong writing, which clearly depicts a sprawling fictional universe without dwelling overly long on details. Action scenes are fast paced and exciting.

    Originality: The novel echoes classics like Dune, without being reliant or derivative. The world, characters, and split are original and unique.

    Character/Execution: The novel largely functions to develop characters for the larger series. The characters are robust and well-depicted, while room remains for growth and dynamism in later installments.

  • The Jode: Part 2: Awakenings Reckoning

    by PJ Selarom

    Rating: 7.50

    Plot: A character-driven fantasy adventure sequel. The novel moves quickly through a quirky adventure, while a larger world menace looms. The plotting is exciting and well crafted.

    Prose: The novel features some creative descriptive writing that effectively illustrates a storybook setting. The dialogue is full of banter that enhances the characterization, while the novel utilizes and identifies, to good effect, vocabulary unique to the fictional universe.

    Originality: The fictional universe is detailed and consistently realized. The play between plotlines is clever and engaging. The novel’s established world is comfortable alongside fantasy contemporaries and inspirations, but stands on its own as an original concept.

    Character/Execution: The novel features many characters whose stories began in a previous installment. The book is centered around a band of adventures, and their camaraderie is a strength of the novel.

  • Johnny's Ghost

    by Tim Nicholas

    Rating: 7.25

    Plot: Johnny’s Ghost is a fun, genre-bending take on the private eye story. The novel slowly unfolds a compelling mystery with a lighthearted delivery.

    Prose/Style: The writing echoes the hardboiled detective in the narration, while blending some compelling sentences with tinges of overwriting.

    Originality: The premise of a detective crashing his car into a house and killing a woman in the shower, then being haunted by her ghost until he can solve the true cause of her death, is about as original as it comes. Later revelations add to the book’s uniqueness.

    Character Development: The characters are fun and fit the setting, tone, and scope of the book nicely, though they are largely one-dimensional.

  • Skiathos

    by Boris Slocum

    Rating: 7.25

    Plot: The novel is a spacefaring adventure that is brave enough to focus on a single location. The worldbuilding is sound, and the plot which features a human survey team pulled into the civil war of a less-civilized alien race is exciting and even-paced.

    Prose/Style: The writing is straightforward and readable. Exposition is clear, and dialogue flows effectively.

    Originality: The novel reads a bit like a sci-fi Lawrence of Arabia, though it is in no way derivative of that work. The unique setting and scenario make for an exciting read which is able to compellingly address themes of colonialism.

    Character Development: The protagonist subverts the typical military hero role of such works; instead, she behaves more like an anthropologist. The Lacertians are treated as more than props, though none are ultimately developed to the point of fully shedding “other” status.

  • Betera's Factor

    by T.J. Sachs

    Rating: 7.25

    Plot: A cyberpunk thriller featuring plenty of action and intrigue. The novel, while high concept, remains eminently readable and easy to follow. It ends by closing an arc but opening the fictional world to larger conflict.

    Prose: The novel is very heavy on dialogue. While generally well written, characters can lose distinction through the many exchanges. Exposition is clear and often features some elegant flourishes of writing.

    Originality: This book is original and creative in its integration of intriguing transhumanist concepts.

    Character/Execution: While the novel's characterizations generally take a back seat to plotting and concept, Sachs's characters are well-rounded, at times quirky, and meaningfully serve the story.

  • Zero One

    by Nicholas Nicolaides

    Rating: 7.25

    Plot: A timely tech thriller set during a lockdown during a pandemic, Nicolaides’ debut sets a sprawling international cast loose in a complex, cleverly plotted story concerning the company that has created an immersive VR video game for the superwealthy, and the pressing problem of AI-driven security drones that have decided that infected humans must be killed for the benefit of humanity. The novel surges along, leaping from character to character and thread to thread, tying them all together in surprising ways. Its speed, large cast, short chapters, and detached third-person narration keep the characters remote, and the book's story and perspective shifts often can be hard work to keep up with. At times, the onslaught of ideas and milieus is dazzling, as the author vaults from corporate meetings to crime scenes to gamers at home on their toilet chairs, all with an emphasis on technology and satire. But the occasional chapters written as a samurai epic (without proper nouns for readers to invest in) are more a chore than an atmospheric puzzle.

    Prose/Style:  Zero One’s wild, twisting plot allows Nicolaides many opportunities to demonstrate an impish wit, and at its best, when it guides readers through its leaps in perspective, the book moves with an off-kilter propulsiveness. In its first third, though, many of the short chapters build to flat endings that don't make clear why the story has followed these particular characters or compellingly connect to the next chapter. The author's satiric impulse at times undercuts the novel's thriller aspects, as when a character takes the time to deliver a monologue about Quentin Tarantino films before cutting off a man's ear. The phrasing often is flat, especially when characters are performing tasks that aren't that interesting, and the book would be better served by a thorough proofreading. The book's relentless attention to breasts, starting in the first chapter, is wearying and dated.

    Originality: The situations that Nicolaides crafts, and the solutions to problems that his characters arrive at, are inventive, exciting, and tied to our present moment.

    Character Development: Zero One introduces a multitude of characters but takes little time to reveal them to readers or to make them unique and compelling. That means that when the story returns to a character that it left behind a dozen chapters before, readers will have to flip back to recall that character's traits and dilemmas. Many characters, like The Belgian and The Frenchman, don't get real names, which contributes to the feeling that the novel favors archetypes over people. Occasionally, a flash of unique characterization (especially of Okumura and his daughter, or the blind Serguei) suggests a richer, more rewarding approach.

     

  • Neurogarden

    by Bryon Vaughn

    Rating: 7.00

    Plot: An exciting technothriller, the book features a fairly linear plot within an intricate context of future tech and the military industrial complex.

    Prose/Style: The writing moves quickly and builds excitement fitting for a fast-paced thriller. While the prose is not the book’s dominant feature, it can be satisfyingly visceral and quite memorable.

    Originality: The conceit is clever and makes for a gripping story. The characters, scenario, and plot appear to be original and prove entertaining from start to end.

    Character Development: The characters, while interesting, are lacking in dimension or depth and would benefit from a focus on transformative growth. The villainous antagonist would fit comfortably in a Bond, or other spy, movie.

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