My judging team in the third annual Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC3) has been given 24 books in the first round, with the charge to whittle the list to two semifinalists by the end of January. Because our judges are all volunteers and 24 books is a whole lot to read in five months, we’ve decided to divide the allocation among ourselves, with each book being scouted by at least two judges to determine whether it should be passed to the rest of the team for full evaluation. This initial scouting phase will be our biggest series of cuts in the entire competition, as we hope to eliminate 70-80% of our allocation before settling in for full reads of the remaining 20-30%.
Unfortunately, that means we’ll be saying goodbye to a lot of books early in the competition. And let me be crystal clear: a cut at this stage does not mean that a book is bad. A cut simply means that a book has failed to wow two members of the team. I will try to provide a brief explanation for each cut, but remember that all of our readers have idiosyncratic tastes. One person’s “no room to breathe, not enough character depth” may be another’s gripping thriller. One person’s “weird structure, feels too much like fantasy” may be another’s daring masterpiece. We’ve put plenty of thought into our decisions, but I’ve voted to cut books that teammates have ended up loving, and other teams have cut books that I thought were stunning. The books we’re discussing today may be eliminated from SPSFC3, but if the blurbs grab you and our critiques don’t bother you, we heartily encourage you to check them out for yourself.
So let’s take a last look at the first group of books that will be leaving us.
Blaze of Anger by Melanie Bokstad Horev
Consensus: Our readers found smooth prose and solid pacing in this anger-banning dystopian novel, but they never found themselves well and truly hooked in the thriller plot, with one reader struggling to connect to the lead character and the other citing a few repetitive plot beats holding back the overall story.
The Jungle Planet by Jeff Walker
Consensus: Our judges struggled to immerse in the early stages of this exploration thriller, with some editing errors and unexplained backbiting amongst the crew proving significant obstacles. While one of our scouts pressed on and found the book only improved as it went—with more realistic character interactions and a plot that became truly gripping—the inconsistency was enough to keep it from a quarterfinal position.
The Survivors by Katherine Ginbey
Consensus: This vampire story promises secrets and conspiracies, but our judges had trouble latching onto a strong central plotline, and the story felt much more fantasy than sci-fi. The prose was easy to read, but too much stylistic consistency made it hard to distinguish the character voices.
Inbound by William Altmann
Consensus: The show vs. tell balance was off on this one, with a detached, clinical narration style that distanced the reader from the action. Inbound is a sequel reworked to be an alternate series entry point, but our readers didn’t find much early hook and wonder whether the tension relies on prior engagement with the first book.
Eco-Terrorism by Daniel Musenga-Grant
Consensus: Our judges felt this read more like a present-day political thriller than a sci-fi novel. And while the storytelling was solid, it wasn’t gripping enough to demand a complete read to see whether it developed in more of a science fiction direction.
From the Grave of the Gods by Alan K. Dell
Consensus: This was one of the rare cuts that earned two full reads in the first stage, with both judges coming away with similar impressions. The writing quality was on point, especially in how it described the little details that made the setting feel real. The action was gripping and kept the readers wanting to know what happened next. But both readers struggled to connect to the characters, leaving them entertained by the plot thrills but wanting further dimension from the book as a whole.