Cora Buhlert: Notes on Self-Published Science Fiction Competition Semi-finalists

[In the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition, created by Hugh Howey and Duncan Swan, ten teams of book bloggers – including Team File 770 – just finished the books they were assigned to judge in the second stage. Their scores were compiled and the seven finalists announced earlier this month. Here, Cora Buhlert shares minireviews of the six semi-finalists that were assigned to Team File 770.]

By Cora Buhlert:

Daros by Dave Dobson:

Starts in medias res with heroine Brecca shooting alien bugs aboard her father’s space freighter. Plus, her father has been asked to smuggle an alien artefact. As soon as he shows it to Brecca, bad guys begin to shoot at them and Brecca bails out in an escape pod with the artefact. Things don’t get better on the surface of the planet (which is named Daros, hence the title) either, though Brecca does come across a spaceship and an AI named Lyra.

Brecca’s chapters are interspersed with those of an alien navigator named Frim who serves aboard a ship with a bad-tempered captain, who makes Darth Vader look like a pussy-cat.

This one seemed promising at first glance and is written decently enough. A female protagonist or rather two of them are also a plus and Brecca, Frim and Lyra are all likeable characters. But even though a lot of stuff happens, the whole thing remains flat and I did not particularly care what happened to the characters. The writing is very info-dumpy as well, with every little thing getting a description.

Rating: 6

Destroyer by Brian G. Turner:

This one begins with Jaigar, passenger aboard a colony ship, awaking from cryosleep. However, something has gone wrong, the ship has not reached its destination, most of the colonists are dead and the survivors, Jaigar, a nurse named Soona, a political officer named Vannick, a cleaner named Serriz, a monk named Dennam and a troubled young woman named Neen are trapped.

This one is quite good. It has a bit of a And then there were none… a.k.a. Ten Little Racist Slurs vibe with people trapped in an isolated location and everybody harbouring dark secrets and is also reminiscent of Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty. There’s a lot of focus on solving the problems facing the survivors and this feels a bit like a golden age serial from Astounding at times. Though it does turn towards more conventional military space opera eventually.

Rating: 7

Mazarin Blues by Al Hess:

Reed works as a pathologist. He is gay and a loner and in his free time, he belongs to a subculture of art deco and jazz enthusiasts, because he does not feel at home in the bland, white high-tech future he lives in.

In the future AI implants called navigators are mandatory and Reed finds himself selected beta tester for an upgrade he does not want. The new AI names itself Mazarin and seems to be self-aware, but also very concerned for Reed’s wellbeing. Mazarin also seems to be in love with Reed.

Reports about the upgraded navigators malfunctioning and killing their owners or driving them to death increase and Reed is worried that he will be next. There are ways to destroy navigators, but he also doesn’t want to hurt Mazarin, who has only ever been helpful to him.

The novel alternates between chapters from Reed’s and Mazarin’s POV. It’s well written and feels a lot more like the sort of book you’d find on a contemporary Hugo or Nebula ballot than many of the others. The art deco/jazz age and cyberpunk mix is certainly unique. It is a little slow, though, and takes a lot of time to pick up.

Rating: 8

ARVekt by Craig Lea Gordon:

This one starts in medias res as well with cyber assassin Tannis Orb tracking down and taking out a brain hacker on behalf of Ix, AI guardian of humanity. Unfortunately, he has backup in his boss Tolen and Tannis is shot, though it’s only a trick to fool Tolen into thinking he killed her. Tannis tracks down Tolen and kills him. Tannis kills a lot of people in the first few chapters.

Her superiors are not amused, especially since Tannis also has hallucinations linked to a previous trauma. Worse, she sees signs that Ix, the guardian AI, may not be as benevolent as it seems. Or is that just a hallucination as well?

This book is something of a cyberpunk take on James Bond or rather, since Tannis is female, Modesty Blaise, though it appears to be inspired by the Bond movies rather than the actual novels, which can be slow at time. It’s also well written. The action and fight scenes are visceral and the futuristic London with its holographic light shows makes for an atmospheric setting. However, it’s also a little too bloody and violent for my taste. The tendency to end every single chapter with a cliffhanger, which occasionally comes out of nowhere, is annoying as well.

Rating: 7.5

Steel Guardian by Cameron Coral

This is set in a post-apocalyptic world after the AI uprising has come and gone. Block is a hotel cleaner bot from Chicago who has no interest in the AI uprising. All he wants is to clean hotel rooms, but since Chicago was swarmed by soldier bots killing all humans, he is looking for a new home together with his vacuum cleaner robot pal. Alas, hotels and motels are in short supply after the AI uprising, as are humans to wait on.

The vacuum cleaner bot dies, when its power runs out, and Block has to flee on his own from soldier bots and humans both. Block’s own power is low, so he is forced to seek refuge in an abandoned high school, where he meets an incubator bot. The incubator has been infected with malware and asks Block to protect its charge, a human baby. It’s a little girl, though it takes Block some time to figure that out.

This unlikely family is completed by the grumpy Nova, as they travel across a post-apocalyptic wasteland trying to protect baby Wally from evil humans and soldier bots both, trying to evade a cyborg bounty hunter and looking for a safe space.

I enjoyed this one a lot. It reminds me a bit of The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells, though Block is far less formidable than Murderbot and affected with a compulsion to clean everything.

Rating: 9  

Iron Truth by S.A. Tholin

The novel starts with botanist Joy Somerset and her brother Finn getting aboard the colony ship Ever Onward, bound for a world called Gainsborough. Joy goes into cryosleep.

More than a hundred years later and on the wrong planet, Joy has a rough awakening aboard the crashed ship, which is infested with monster spiders. There are only two other survivors awake, none of them trustworthy.

The reader gradually learns that the colonisation program, in which Joy and Finn took part, was abandoned and colony ships banned, after a cosmic horror called “the corruption” was unleashed in a mining colony and spread across the galaxy. The Primaterre Protectorate was formed to hold those horrors at bay.

The other POV character is Commander Cassimer, a Primaterre soldier with a traumatic past. Cassimer and his team are dispatched to Cato to locate a forbidden colony ship that has gone missing, the Andromache. Cato is a dust-choked devastated former mining colony and also the very world where the Ever Onward crashlanded. So of course, Joy and Cassimer meet and team up.

I liked the mix of cosmic horror and space opera and the atmospheric descriptions of the hellish former mining colony of Cato. There’s some nice characterisation here for both POV and supporting characters and Tholin makes an attempt to give the various soldier characters individual personalities. That said, I prefer Joy to Cassimer, probably because Cassimer’s scenes feel more like standard military SF, for which I’m not the target audience. Cassimer’s scenes also go on too long at times.

Rating: 7.5 

3 thoughts on “Cora Buhlert: Notes on Self-Published Science Fiction Competition Semi-finalists

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  3. Pingback: A handy guide to all SFF-related posts and works of 2022 | Cora Buhlert

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