Team Tar Vol On is back for the third annual Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC3), and over the next 4-5 months, we’ll be narrowing our selection of 24 books down to two semifinalists, which we will then pass to other SPSFC judging teams. There are many ways to do this, starting with the most obvious: have every judge read and rate all 24 books. Unfortunately, not all of us (self included!) read enough to feel comfortable adding another six novels to the stack every month. So we’ve considered alternative strategies, and like last year, we will be employing the Two Scouts method.
In practice, this means that each judge on the team has received an allotment of at least seven books to scout for the rest of the team. These allotments have been chosen largely based on reader preference–to ensure as best we can that each book is matched with the readers most likely to enjoy it–but with the stipulation that each book must have a minimum of two readers. Over the next two months, each of us will read our seven books and report back to the rest of the team. As our goal is to cut 70-80% of our books in this first pass, many of these reports will be DNFs accompanied by a recommendation to cut. This does not mean the books are bad, only that they failed to enamor two particular readers (I’ll note here that my personal favorite indie sci-fi novel was cut in the slush stage last year).
Others will come back with complete reads, scores, and recommendations to advance to the quarterfinals. I can’t say in advance exactly how many there will be, or whether every book that receives a single recommendation will indeed advance. We have limits as readers, and because the quarterfinals are purely internal to the team, we’re able to give ourselves some flexibility. If one of our initial readers find themselves a poor match for a book, or if the two assigned readers come back with a split opinion, we may pull in a third judge and ask for their opinion.
But while we can’t promise details, we can promise that no book will be eliminated without being considered by at least two of our judges. Keep an eye on this blog for team updates throughout the month of October, and be sure to follow the individual team members to catch any personal reviews that may be posted. We hope to finalize that list of books to be read by the entirety of the team in early November. Until then, let’s check out the books we’ll be reading over the next couple of months:
Red Darkling by L.A. Guettler
Red Darkling’s ship is a weevil-infested piece of junk. Her smuggling business barely brings in enough credits to buy cheap beer. Alien creeps think a blaster can get them favors when their charm fails. Her only company is a glitchy cat and the occasional hook-up.
Her life is dirty, dangerous, and just how she likes it.
It all takes a turn for the worse when things start going well. A little too well. Partying with movie stars, weekends in paradise, troublesome people turning up dead—it’s maddening.
Who is this anonymous benefactor, and why does he think she needs protecting?
Initial Readers: Mark and Rari
Stargun Messenger by Darby Harn
Astra Idari is a mess.
She drinks too much, remembers too little, and barely pays for it all as a Stargun Messenger. She hunts down thieves who steal filamentium, the fuel that allows for faster-than-light travel. When Idari meets Gen Emera, she meets the girl of her dreams and the last living star. There’s just one problem.
Filamentium is only found in the blood of living stars.
Everyone wields knives and justifications for butchering the living stars to get around, but once Idari knows the truth, she faces a stark choice. Either she turns Emera over to her employers who control the filamentium monopoly, or risks everything to help Emera fulfill her quest to save her people.
The choice should be simple, but it’s not losing her life that terrifies Idari. It’s finally living. Idari knows she’s human despite outwardly appearing to be an android with a failing memory stitched together by her ship’s irascible AI, CR-UX. She’s been just getting by for longer than she remembers, assured in her humanity, but not enough to risk it.
Idari has lived her entire life in darkness. The dark comforts and shields. The dark preserves in its cold, and Idari may not be able to keep her star out of her shadow.
Initial Readers: Azrah and Rari
The Dreams That Bind Us by Maximilian Lopez
This sci-fi thriller explores the possibility that when we dream, we’re merely glimpsing into an alternate reality. Three strangers bound together by a shared dream fight against the current of fate. Can they come to terms with the truth? Are we the only versions of ourselves? Are you the best version of you to exist? They must find each other without losing themselves. Two universes hang in the balance as external forces vie for control of their ability to peer into an alternate reality.
Initial Readers: Azrah and Paromita
The Jungle Planet: A Science Fiction Thriller Novel by Jeff Walker
The crew of the harvesting space vessel Skyward Seven, are bound for Dreganon V––a jungle world with a rich, and highly concentrated oxygen atmosphere. As they extract the planet’s dense O2 supply, Katelan Driscoll (Astrobiologist/interplanetary botanist) and crew being to discover that this world is more than what they bargained for. Not only is the air thick with an overabundance of pollen and spore that continually clog their collectors., but strange things occur with the surrounding plant life.
The jungle isn’t all that it seems. Katelan will discover something else is waiting for them in the depths of this deep, dark jungle planet of Dreganon V.
Initial Readers: Paromita and Rari
Embargo on Hope by Justin Doyle
On planet Vastire, worth is set by the sins of one’s ancestors. Good families rise to the elite and the wicked fall into poverty. Unfortunately for sixteen-year-old Darynn Mark, his father incited a revolution. Now, Darynn scrounges his way through life in the slums. When Vastire is surrounded by an embargo, it gets even harder to survive.
That all changes when an alien ship slips through the embargo, seeking Darynn with an finish the revolution and the embargo ends. He might have a chance thanks to mysterious magic powers, and his two clairvoyant crush Fyra and soldierly alien Kaylaa.
Cutthroat killers, mystical beasts, Vampires, power-hungry priests and lords, and self-serving spies stand in their way. If the three of them can crack his father’s secret, maybe they can end the embargo and save the poor. If not, another poor orphan will be added to the growing piles of dead.
Initial Readers: Mark and Rari
Time Burrito by Aaron Frale
With great burrito comes great responsibility.
Pete’s food truck at the University of New Mexico isn’t going well. Seniors dare freshman to eat his burritos. Frats use them for pledges and pranks. Rumors fly around campus that they are chupacabra ground up with rat. Pete needs a change, and it comes in the form of a physics experiment gone awry. After being sucked into the past, he stumbles across an ingredient that goes great in one of his creations. First, there was Marty McFly. Then there was Bill and Ted. And now Pete—
Initial Readers: David and Mark
From the Grave of the Gods by Alan K. Dell
Strange lights in the sky.
A Red Planet.
A catalyst to change the course of human history.
Commander James Fowler is an astronaut and the first office of the Magnum Opus, the largest spacecraft ever built, on the first crewed expedition to Mars. The mission: to investigate the mysterious extrasolar object that went down on the Red Planet five years ago. James is living the dream: he gets to go to space and be one of the first to set foot on another world, with his girlfriend, Angela, cheering him on at home. Maybe after the mission, when he’s returned a hero, he’ll find the perfect moment to finally propose.
But his dreams shatter as the mission ends in disaster.
Returning to a world reeling from the revelation of what they found out there, James works to piece his life back together and come to terms with what happened. But the mission left him changed, and now he must fight to protect everything he holds dear from those who seek advancement at any cost; a process that makes him question his identity, his place in the world, and what it means to be human.
Initial Readers: Azrah and Jay
The Survivors by Katherine Ginbey
In 1536, Annie Dawson was brutally raped and murdered. In the 487 years since she has made it her immortal mission to save every girl she can from the same fate. Those she couldn’t save completely have joined her. They have mockingly become known in the fanged community as The Survivors.When Annie receives an irresistible offer from the cursed coven, the four survivors head to Buckingham Palace. If they save Prince Alistair they finally get their questions answered. They finally find out why they are the only vampires that can walk during the day and what happened to Annie’s brother all those years ago.
Initial Readers: Jay and Paromita
The Automaton by Ian Young
Humanity is on the cusp of extinction. Deteriorating populations threaten the planetary economy and risk the collapse of humanity itself. In desperation, human-like machines are built to serve where man no longer can.
These are the Automata.
Five thousand years later, humankind no longer walks the Earth, but has ascended beyond biology to float above Earth in a hemisphere-spanning supercomputer . When an anomaly arises on Earth that not even a post-biological civilization can comprehend, XR-345x—a long-deactivated top-of-the-line automaton—is awoken in a derelict facility deep within the overgrown jungles of Africa.
With help from Hank—a mysterious holographic A.I.— XR must learn of the advent of the automata and the resulting civil unrest, to a war that destroyed humanity’s trust in their would-be saviors, to racial disparities that divided the globe, to love eventually building a bridge that ultimately saved the human race.
At the same time, a violent automaton faction threatens XR, the anomaly, and what they represent for the future of Earth. Time is one thing the automaton does not have.
Initial Readers: Azrah and Mark
Richard: Distant Son by Michael W. Hickman
Richard is an average fifteen-year-old from the hills of Ohio whose biggest concerns are studying for tests and asking Becky out next Saturday. Everything changes one day when, while lying on the sofa in his parents’ basement, he hears someone whisper, I am your gift. A moment later, the sofa shoots straight up into the air, passing like a ghost through the house and then soaring into space.
The sofa doesn’t stop until it reaches the moon. There he meets AAL, an artificial life form, who reveals a shocking Richard is the rightful heir to a kingdom spanning the Milky Way galaxy.
With AAL’s help, Richard will travel to the distant planet of Krel, the kingdom’s capital, to claim his throne. Along the way, he will encounter wondrous creatures that he once thought centaurs, satyrs, pure white pegasuses, and many others.
But powerful forces are already gathering against him, and after centuries without a ruler, many in the kingdom are not ready to accept a boy from a backwater planet as their king. It will take every ounce of strength Richard has, along with help from some unlikely allies, for him to seize his destiny.
Initial Readers: David and Mark
Thrill Switch by Tim Hawken
Detective Ada Byron is pumped to be assigned her first murder case–until she sees the crime scene. Someone has been killed exactly the same way as her father was seven years earlier. But, impossibly, he died using VR and the programmer responsible is still in prison.
To see if this is a copycat or something more sinister, Ada must confront her father’s killer: the enigmatic Jazlin Switch. What she discovers will change the face of both the real world and the metaverse forever…
Initial Readers: Azrah and David
The Mimimeid Solution by Katherine Kempf
Ragnarök was only the beginning.
Five years after the world he knew collapsed in ecological disaster, Lysander is back in his homeland of Old Scandinavia with his companions, Magdelena and Linnaea. The atmosphere is full of ash, the days are cold and dark and they are constantly under threat from the Celts, who have invaded and are burning the countryside in their wake. When a rogue group of soldiers led by a fiery Lieutenant named Petra offers them refuge in a place called Mimameid, they are tempted by a chance at safety.
But when Mimameid turns out to be more than he bargained for, Lysander must take control of his own fate and decide whether to stay or to go.
Initial Readers: Jay and Paromita
Eco-Terrorism by Daniel Musgena-Grant
Climate Change is impacting millions of people around the world . . . Three events begin to intertwine the lives of Discharged Lieutenant Ravid Malach, Birmingham Student Gemma Anderson, and Detective Inspector Damon Read. As they uncover the shadowy network of the mysterious Benefactor, they must ask the question . . . How far would you go to save us all?
Initial Readers: David and Rari
The Southron Deception by J.L. Birchwood
The year is 2085
In the Southron Union, a breakaway autonomous region of the former United States, climate change steals more of the South with each passing day, shrinking the coastlines and leaving behind an ocean of sand in its wake. Ruled by a man known only as The General, a charismatic leader who rose to power following a military coup, life here is a brutal convergence of violence and starvation.
Tasha Strong enjoyed a privileged existence. She had food to eat. A roof over her head. Water flowed freely from the tap. After being hand-selected for a top job by The General, she met Derik, a devastatingly handsome bodyguard, and the final piece of her perfect life clicked into place. At least for a time.
When a terrorist’s bomb detonates during The Union’s independence day celebration, Tasha Strong’s world is turned upside-down, forcing the formerly naïve, pampered young woman to embark on a quest to expose the insurgents responsible and bring them to justice.
Every step Tasha takes to unravel the mystery of the bombing reveals unexpected truths, destroying the illusion of The Union, and imploding the delusion of her idyllic life.
Initial Readers: Bowen and Paromita
Living Metal: Metallic Soul by Matthew Harrington
A tough-as-nail Martian cop, Anna Maytrix, with the ability to control metal finds herself face to face with another of her kind, Sara Bennett who’s wanted by the government and hunted by shadowy, malevolent organization. With no memory of her past Anna navigates through a dystopian world of Mars to figure out the mystery of Living Metal program. Unknown to Sara, and Anna, another of their kind had awaken, Nakita. What she knows about them, she will keep to her grave. Because of her hatred for the two, Nakita is willing to set Mars on fire to get her revenge. Born of flesh, baptized in steel, they are what lie beyond the next stages of human evolution.
Initial Readers: David and Mark
Apocalypse Parenting: Time to Play by Erin Ampersand
A few minutes ago, Meghan Moretti’s biggest concern was getting the kids’ athletic clothes washed in time for practice this evening. Now, it seems that Earth has been forced into participating in some high-stakes intergalactic reality television. All electrical wiring has been slagged, and most combustibles neutralized. Some kind of evil space rodents are appearing on the front lawn, too.
Like any parent, Meghan’s first instinct is to keep her young kids safely away from the monsters, but an odd stroke of luck has her coming into some advanced information about this dangerous game. She learns that her kids will have to fight too.
What’s a mom to do?
Initial Readers: Bowen and Jay
Along the Perimeter by Steven Healt
A caustic fog blankets the Earth. Only the transparent barrier known as the Shield holds it at bay. It is the Amboians—an advanced alien species—and their technology that saved the last remnants of Humanity from the deadly Haze.
Cordelia Faucher, a scavenger known as the Haze Walker, has a secret she must keep hidden. Carter Gerro, one of the few Humans allowed among the City Guard is unexpectedly chosen to protect a member of the Amboian Council. A mercenary group known as the Amber Waves find themselves in over their heads after accepting a job they couldn’t pass up.
As disturbing reports of attacks from beyond the perimeter of the Shield reach the capital city of Amboy, all eyes turn eastward.
It is these events that bring together the Haze Walker, a City Guardsman, and a band of mercenaries.
Note: Unfortunately, we realized after receiving our allocation that Along the Perimeter was submitted to both SPSFC1 and SPSFC2, the latter of which saw it come just a quarter-point from the semifinals. This means it has reached the maximum submission limit and is ineligible for SPSFC3. It was assigned to Bowen and Jay, and any of our team members are welcome to read and review, but it will not be considered for advancement in the competition.
Through Stranger Eyes by Chris Sarantopoulos
Flesh comes cheap in a machine world
Doctor Rick Stenslandt has always advocated against the fusion of man and machine. But after a near-fatal accident, he is forced to accept ocular implants or go blind, end up unemployed, and without social status.
But something goes wrong. Now he remembers people he has never met before—influential members of the corporate elite that governs the world. And they have all been murdered.
Worse, it seems he’s the next target.
On the run from the police and a pair of augmented assassins, Rick seeks refuge in the infamous alleys of the megacity. But to protect the ones he loves, he cannot hide forever. Now he must figure out his borrowed memories and his connection to the victims, before it’s too late.
Initial Readers: Bowen and Rari
Mendel’s Ladder (The Collected Histories of Neoevolution Earth, Vol. 1) by E.S. Fein
In 2099, Earth is unrecognizable. Ravaged by climate change, nuclear devastation, and other cataclysmic events, the planet and its people continue to undergo radical changes in order to survive. Most of humanity has allowed themselves to be transformed into Nomads, bizarre human-plant hybrids who continue their lifecycle as flesh-bearing trees connected to a vast mycelial network that forms Earth’s burgeoning consciousness. Welcome to the thrilling, action-packed, and emotionally compelling world of Mendel’s Ladder , the first book in the epic sci-fi series, The Collected Histories of Neoevolution Earth.
Battling across the world after the destruction of their home, a pair of cybernetically enhanced warrior women bound by love and loyalty clash with Mutants, Biofreaks, and various other dangers to protect two human-like girls known as the Virus and the Cure. Traveling alongside them is an enigmatic Nomad who has served as the girls’ protector since they were created. Together, they must face the enslaved Hunter and the ruthless Huntress, lethal creations of the old world. The Hunter just wants to save the human woman he loves and lost, while the Huntress desires only to continue the Eternal Hunt and eradicate the final bastions of humanity remaining on Earth. Above this unforgiving landscape, the utopian space station Astrea offers refuge to the select few who escaped Earth’s devastation. Here, a tireless worker and son of a notorious revolutionary, discovers the harrowing truths hidden beneath the veneer of Astrea’s idyllic existence, exposing a reality more insidious than anyone ever imagined.
While these characters’ paths intersect in surprising and explosive ways, ancient powers lurk in the shadows, wielding god-like influence and potentially orchestrating the fate of the world itself. With societies and cultures on the brink of collapse, our heroes must form unexpected alliances and confront their deepest fears to protect their fragile world from the encroaching darkness.
Initial Readers: Azrah and Jay
Red Sky at Morning by J. Daniel Layfield
A mass murder on Mars, a suspect who couldn’t possibly have done it, a cover-up, and a reluctant Earth detective recruited to figure it out.
Most people come to Mars for one of two reasons: entertainment or mining. Simon Lane and Detective Jake DeVitt are not most people. One of them is there to prove his innocence and the other is searching for a criminal. What they’ll uncover is even bigger than the crime binding them together.
Initial Readers: Azrah and Bowen
Blaze of Anger by Melanie Bokstad Horev
In the divided world of Eden 4023, anger is illegal, hidden, and suppressed. Doctor Tanger, the new hunter of angry people, is struggling to cope with the loss of a boy who changed his life. With the help of an orphan girl, Dancer, Tanger embarks on a journey of self-discovery that uncovers secrets about his past, the world he lives in, and the unexpected places where anger blazes. As Tanger is torn between loyalty and love, he encounters the Resistance and begins to question the controlling powers of Rita Hart and the Silvers. Will the people of Eden be able to unite and coexist in peace, or will they be forever divided by artificial intelligence humanoids?
Initial Readers: Paromita and Rari
Blackout Trail by Linda Naughton
Doctor Anna Hastings is no stranger to disasters, having spent much of her career as an aid worker in conflict zones around the world. Yet when an electrical phenomenon known as an EMP brings down the power grid, Anna faces catastrophe on a scale she never imagined. She must learn what it means to be a doctor in a world deprived of almost all technology.
As the blackout causes planes to fall from the sky, Anna crosses paths with devoted father Mark Ryan in the chaos at the airport. Mark convinces Anna to travel with him and his seven-year-old daughter Lily to their family’s cabin in remote Maine. There Mark hopes to reunite with his wife, and find a safe refuge from a society on the brink of collapse.
Journeying across a thousand miles of backcountry trails, they will face a daily struggle against nature. Their biggest peril, though, may come from their fellow survivors. As Anna grows closer to Mark and Lily, she resolves to see them safely home. But can she hold onto her humanity in a world gone mad?
Initial Readers: Bowen and David
The Sequence by Lucien Telford
Kit McKee is the world’s leading genetic editor. Having run from an America where she is no longer welcome, she now develops lucrative cosmetic edits to the human genome from her secure laboratory in northern China. She has been working on a side-project in her spare time, keeping it a secret—or so she thinks.
Dallas Ward is a former civilian sub-orbital pilot who now flies contraband for a Hong Kong triad in a ground-effect stealth jet, not as a matter of choice. He has been tasked with a special delivery, this one with a time restriction.
Fong and Woo are two Hong Kong police detectives investigating a series of homicides that appear to take place only during typhoons. The bodies are found to be genetically edited, leading the detectives toward Kit, who has suddenly gone missing.
All three storylines weave together into a fast-paced, near-future techno thriller that raises intriguing ethical questions about genetics and the global distribution of power.
Initial Readers: Bowen and Rari
Tasmanian Gothic by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
Solari wasn’t alive when the ozone layer split like a gutted fish above Tasmania and spilled radiation over the edge of the stratosphere, but she’s living with the consequences—the mutations, the gangland war, and the border wall that divides the affluent North from the contaminated South. Orphaned and alone in the southern reaches, Solari survives the chaos the only way she knows how: cooking the wildly addictive snowrock for local crime lord, Worcsulakz, and avoiding the mutants that skulk in the lush, untamed wilderness of the Fringes.
But, when her junkie ex-boyfriend puts Solari more firmly in Worcsulakz’s debt, she runs—escaping the promise of violent retribution with a stolen van and a pair of giant wings cleaved from a mutant moth. Grafting the wings to her body disguises Solari as one of Tasmania’s most reviled and hunted, but grants her refuge in the one place Worcsulakz won’t look for her—a mutant enclave.
There, Solari will form an unlikely alliance with another mutant and commence the dangerous journey through gangland strongholds and carnival towns to get to the Border Wall in the north. Hunted by Worcsulakz, the hidden terrors of the Fringes, the secrets in her family’s past, and the deception at the core of her fragile alliance, Solari will need to confront them all or stay condemned to a life of loneliness and brutality.
Initial Readers: Mark and Paromita
Merimnae: Inbound by William Altmann
Castor and Magellan have entered the Tau Ceti system. Henry’s memory affliction is under control – for now. If it flares up again, will they ever reunite? Together, they need to establish a base, come up with a long term plan to deal with the medical challenges, and decide how to accomplish their mission.
Then they detect another ship coming toward them, inbound from Sol. It is quiet and does not reply. And it is huge.
Initial Readers: David and Jay