For the first round of this year’s Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC2), my team has been assigned 28 books to ultimately whittle down to three semifinalists. To that end, we have further divided our batch so that each judge will be assigned 11 or 12 books to scout for the rest of the team. And one of the first books I volunteered to read was Scribes’ Descent by Dylan West.
Scribes’ Descent stars Mallory, a teenage science prodigy whose family fled to the stability of the planet Daishon after their previous home was wracked with earthquakes. But when quakes begin on Daishon, Mallory begins to suspect that the answer lies in the top-secret underground research lab that holds the suppressed history of the historical oppression of Daishon’s indigenous people. And she can gain access to that lab if only she can win a drone competition.
Scribes’ Descent is a blend of young adult sci-fi and Christian fiction. As someone who read plenty of both growing up, this made me the obvious choice as an initial reader for our SPSFC2 judging team. The drone competition provides both an early hook and an opportunity for the lead to really display her cleverness, and the mysterious suppressed history is gripping enough to take over afterwards. There’s enough early focus on the science-worship of Mallory’s culture to guess that a big part of the mystery will involve the native religion, but the clever science work and anti-colonialism promised that this wouldn’t be a story that was only about religion.
Unfortunately, as the story progressed, too many of the problems reduced to trusting the divine to provide safety in dangerous situations. Whereas in the early sections, Mallory had to rely on her wits, the second half often saw her a passive lead relying on a mysterious external power to survive every new trial. And while I love seeing a novel bring its brilliant lead to a moment where their intelligence is no longer sufficient, having such reliable supernatural assistance makes it difficult for the story to maintain its tension in the second half. The fluid writing style kept the story moving at a brisk pace and even managed to create some tension in spite of the all-powerful aid, but it wasn’t enough to maintain the power of the opening half.
My other major complaint is that it doesn’t quite stick the balance between delivering a satisfying story and setting up the sequel. Scribes’ Descent is chock full of new places discovered, and Mallory certainly both learns plenty of suppressed history and finds herself meaningfully changed from her initial state. In that regard, it does what you’d want from an opening novel. But such a big part of the major animating question is left for the sequel that it’s hard not to feel shortchanged on the anti-colonial aspect that provided so much of the initial hook. There’s plenty of adventure, but I was hoping for more answers.
Overall, it’s a quick read with a strong setup and enough intermediate hurdles to keep the reader turning the pages. But the divine guardian robbed too much of the tension, and I like my series-openers to have a little more payoff and a little less tension. It’s a book written for teenagers, and it’s exactly the sort of book I would’ve torn through as a middle-schooler with nothing but time to dive straight into the full series. But as an adult reader trying to judge a single book on its own merits, my feelings were mixed.
Recommended if you like: young adult sci-fi, Christian fiction, and overarching series plots.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Self-Published, and it arguably also features a Revolution or Rebellion and No Ifs Ands Or Buts.
Overall rating: 11 of Tar Vol’s 20. Three stars on Goodreads.
SPSFC Score: While there were enough positives that I decided to read the entire book—unusual at the slush pile stage!—I won’t be recommending Scribes’ Descent as a quarterfinalist. But I am not the sole decision-maker, and if collaboration with my teammates send it to the quarterfinals, my score will be 5.5/10.