Team Tar Vol On is back with our second batch of SPSFC3 first-round eliminations. This finishes up our consensus cuts–which very much does not mean that they were all easy decisions–but we’ll be back with another round of split-decision cuts before announcing our quarterfinalists. If you’re new to the competition or need a refresher, I have a brief introduction to the competition and a few comments on first-round eliminations. If that’s all familiar, skip the next two paragraphs and jump right into the books!
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.
Living Metal: Metallic Soul by Matthew Harrington
Consensus: A few editing errors and confusing passages in the opening stages prevented our readers from really catching the early hook and sinking in to the flow of this thriller plot.
The Dreams That Bind Us by Maximilian Lopez
Consensus: Both of our judges were fascinated by the premise of dreams and alternate realities, and they gave solid marks for execution as well, with praise for the thriller plotting and the creation of several distinctive perspective characters. But they wanted a little bit more from the development of the premise, and one reader got bogged down in the focus on the minute details of the characters’ inner monologues.
Richard: Distant Son by Michael W. Hickman
Consensus: Featuring secret kings and royal backstabbing, this one had plenty of fantasy vibes to go with a healthy dose of interstellar travel. But our judges struggled to immerse in a narration that did too much telling and not enough showing.
Time Burrito by Aaron Frale
Consensus: The over-the-top nutty comic sci-fi was a hard sell for the senses of humor among our judges. After a rough beginning, our readers saw it improve noticeably as it progressed, but the frat boy style of humor just didn’t grab us.
Blackout Trail by Linda Naughton
Consensus: While one of our readers strongly objected to one of the main character’s decisions, we felt the characters were well-drawn and the writing style high-quality. But both of our readers struggled to be totally hooked by the plot, in which short stretches of excitement punctuated longer sections that felt slow and predictable.
The Sequence by Lucien Telford
Consensus: It doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes there’s a consensus cut that’s still an extremely painful decision. Both of our readers struggled through an opening with too many plot threads and no clear direction. And then, from about 20% to 65%, it was one of the best reads in the entire round, with a deeply compelling, mysterious plot and characters that generated true emotional response. And then the ending relied on characters and plot devices that had not been adequately set up earlier in the book. The structural issues were too significant to send it forward to the quarterfinals, but the moments of pure brilliance made it one of our most difficult cuts.
Mendel’s Ladder by E.S. Fein
Consensus: A fascinating—albeit often horrifying—world piqued our readers’ curiosity, but so much of this book felt like series setup as opposed to something that can be enjoyed on its own. The characters were interesting, if not often likable, but the plot seemed mostly dedicated to maneuvering them into place for some future conflict rather than meaningfully developing them in the here and now, making the book as a whole feel like a relatively intriguing promissory note.