The first round of the second annual Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC2) has ended, and my team has hand-picked three semifinalists to send to two other teams of fellow judges. In return, we have received six semifinalists from two other judging teams, which we will read before the end of April. And one of the most exciting of our new semifinalists was the book that earned the highest score given by any of the ten judging teams in the first round: Those Left Behind by N.C. Scrimgeour.
Those Left Behind opens an epic sci-fi trilogy, in which humanity’s elite—watching their home planet collapse under the weight of overpopulation and environmental disaster—ventures an expedition through a mysterious wormhole, only to find a long-standing coalition of four different species that is themselves on the edge of war against a powerful and implacable enemy.
It’s plain to see why Those Left Behind was so highly praised by its first-round judges. A fluid, bingeable writing style brings the story to life and makes it difficult to put down. And the general setup has room for so many rich storylines. There are conflicts within the human camp between the classist elites and those who want to uplift all of humanity, there are existing tensions within the coalition on the other side of the wormhole that are only exacerbated by war on the horizon and the arrival of human scouts, and we even get a glimpse inside the walls of the battle-hungry enemy preparing for the next conflict. There’s just a lot of story to cover, and every bit of it has room for tense action and layers upon layers of intrigue.
Unfortunately, I didn’t feel that Those Left Behind was able to capitalize on its considerable potential, as it consistently succumbed to the temptation to do too much too fast. Regular readers of the blog know that I prefer pacing in the slow-to-medium range, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I would complain about fast pacing after so many other readers enjoyed it. But, while a fast pace doesn’t itself undercut a story, I think some of the fallout from the pacing held back Those Left Behind.
My biggest problem—the one that pulled me out of the story several times and kept me from fully appreciating all the positive elements of the story—was seeing major, plot-necessary events consistently occur without the lead-up to make them fit the story. A captain hides vital information from their crew, without consulting any of their officers or even spending any page time wrestling with the decision? Sure. A credulous leadership group ignores threats the reader has seen since chapter one, not even taking the bare minimum of precautions? Also sure. Throw in a couple power-hungry antagonists who would never hesitate before a betrayal, and you end up with a plot that races ahead of the story’s emotional core and leaves the transitions feeling clumsy and unconvincing.
Also in this vein, Those Left Behind just tries to stuff too much story into the series-opening novel. While being just 25 chapters long, it features five major perspective characters, three human and two from the alliance on the other side of the wormhole. And during the stretches when four of those characters are in the same place, addressing different pieces of the same problem, it works just fine—they reinforce each other and each contribute their own pieces of the puzzle. But the middle of the book sees the perspective characters cast to the wind, and their adventures apart are limited to just a couple chapters each, making some fairly high-stakes scenes feel more like odd interludes than essential building blocks of the story.
I have no doubt that the pieces will all come together as the series progresses, and Those Left Behind does much of the work expected from an epic series-opener, setting up the cast and world and manipulating the pieces into place for the overarching conflict. But it doesn’t give any closure at all on what I took to be the biggest questions driving the story, which in turn prevents it from having that moment of convergence where the reader begins to understand how all the subplots fit in place.
Overall, there’s plenty of good here, with a fascinating setup and a smooth, high-quality writing style that makes Those Left Behind a pleasure to read. But there are too many moments that break that pleasant immersion, with subplots that don’t have room to breathe and huge revelations that feel inadequately set up. Throw in an ending that drives intrigue for the sequel but fails to provide closure on the motivating questions of the opening book, and it doesn’t bring quite enough to win me over. I’m intrigued, and I’d be willing to check out more of the author’s work in the future. But Those Left Behind tries to do too much, so even with the gripping narrative style, the result is a mixed bag.
Recommended if you like: fast-paced space epics.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Mundane Jobs, and it’s also Self-Published.
Overall rating: 12 of Tar Vol’s 20.
SPSFC score: 6/10 for my personal score. The official team score will be determined in concert with my teammates.