SPSFC Finalist Review: Steel Guardian by Cameron Coral

We’ve made it to the finals of the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC), and six of the seven finalists are new reads for my judging team. The farther we get into the competition, the more highly recommended each book comes–each of the seven has been hand-picked out of a 30-book slush pile by one of the ten judging teams, and each fell in the top quarter of a semifinal round consisting entirely of the books that had been hand-picked by those first-round judging teams. Every book we read from here out has multiple other bloggers singing its praises. But, as we saw with the previous two rounds, we still bring a variety of interests, likes, and dislikes to the table, and a book hitting with one reader doesn’t always mean it will hit with everyone. Along with our scores–which will be averaged with the nine other judging teams to determine the winner–we’ve done our best to explain what we like or dislike about any given book, but it’s up to the readers to try to extrapolate from our tastes to their own tastes.

Today, we’ll be looking at a post-apocalyptic novel featuring a friendly AI trying to navigate a war-torn American Midwest and find some shelter from the human/AI conflict in Steel Guardian by Cameron Coral.

Jay’s Review and Rating

While it’s not necessarily blazing new territory, it’s an entertaining example of the subgenre. The smooth, unobtrusive prose helps the pages melt away in no time, and the inevitable new dangers punctuating the story at regular intervals provide constant encouragement to read just one more chapter. But this sort of story always stands and falls on how well the reader invests in the characters and their quest for survival and safety, and I struggled to get a handle on Block. There’s clearly meant to be character progression from naive AI to empathetic person who can build relationships with humans, but it sometimes feels as though his abilities and shortcomings are chosen haphazardly to emphasize either his naivete or his machinehood. And because a person’s limitations play such a huge role in their emotional development, the lack of clarity about what Block can do contributes to lack of clarity about what he feels in a given situation. So while there are some tender character moments, the overall progression is hard to grasp.

Jay has rated Steel Guardian 5.5/10. For more detail, check out his full review.

Esme’s Review and Rating

I knew I was going to like this from the first chapter. It’s very rare when my connection with a character is instant, but I adored Block from the very start. He has such a clear distinct voice that hooked on my heartstrings. The plot is just breakneck speed. This isn’t a long book and the entire time the main characters are on the run and trying to reach a place called New Denver where AI and humans live together in relative peace, and I love the friendship that develops. I absolutely adored this book. It’s my first five-star book of the 2021/2022 SPSFC/SPFBO season!!! <3<3<3 Highly recommended!

Esme has rated Steel Guardian 8.5/10. For more detail, check out her full review.

Lilyn’s Review and Rating

Lilyn Did Not Attempt Steel Guardian.

Bill’s Review and Rating

The prose and editing are really quite good, among the best that I’ve run into while reviewing for SPSFC. And the plot elements and basic characters move the whole novel along at a good clip. Finally, there is strong character development on the part of the two lead characters as the book progresses. I just didn’t care for it much at all. The topic of post-apocalyptic sci-fi is just so overworked, and to be fair there have been quite a few that I’ve read already in this competition. And telling the story from the point of view of the robots isn’t all that new either. I went in with a certain set of expectations, none of which really excited me, and the author basically delivered. This may really engage other reviewers, it just did little for me. In the end it just seemed. . . a bit too cliched.

Bill has rated Steel Guardian 5/10.

Tracy’s Review and Rating

I saw another review liken this book to a Pixar version of Terminator, and I think that fits. Block is an engaging robotic character–some of the writing didn’t work for me, but overall it’s a good story.

Tracy has rated Steel Guardian 6/10.

Official Scores

Jay 5.5
Esme 8.5*
Lilyn DNA
Bill 5
Tracy 6
Team 6.25

*indicates judge’s top book read as SPSFC competition judge

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