You might wonder about the quality of novels submitted to a self-published competition open to the public. Are they a slush pile of unpolished prose where a story that’s well-written and compelling is the exception, or do enough good books get entered in the contest that it makes choosing the best of them genuinely difficult?
The ScienceFiction.news team of judges in the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition sampled 27 books in our allocation during the first round and had to pick the seven most worthy of being selected as quarterfinalists. It wasn’t easy to choose just seven.
For this round, judges read the first part of each book – usually 10 to 15 percent, unless we got carried away – to decide whether to keep reading. The books that got the most Yes votes advanced.
Here are our seven quarterfinalists, in no particular order.
Dark Theory by Wick Welker, a science fiction adventure that deposits readers into a broken civilization in a galaxy on the verge of collapse.
In a village of the desperate and exploited ruled by a succession of absent feudal warlords, two humans who scavenge for scrap discover a sentient robot that is still operational. Beetro has no memories and only one goal – to find his creator.
The close-knit scavengers Lucindi and Miree have strikingly different reactions to the find. Miree, who trusted no one until she met Lucindi, would just as soon let the robot stay turned off and be sold for parts. Lucindi sees the bot as another being to look out for, like she does a starved but resilient waif everybody calls Ribcage.
As Beetro and the humans are still navigating their new relationship, an ominous figure arrives in the village with a legion of soldiers at his command. Things take a turn.
One of our judges called Dark Theory “my favorite of all,” noting the quality of the writing and how quickly they became hooked on the plot.
Another said “I liked the main characters from the start,” calling the scene that follows the arrival of the soldiers riveting and the setting “full of surprises.”
“Even this early in the book, I’m pretty invested in the story,” a third judge stated. “The inciting incident and the questions it presented have already hooked me. I want to read more right away.”
Old Bolts: An Ironshield Novel by Edward Nile, a book listed under two quite different top-selling categories on Amazon: gaslamp fantasy and steampunk science fiction.
After a civil war has ended, diesel-powered warsuits and their Kaizer engines are now outlawed, left to decay and rust because they are forbidden. But a team of mechanics cut off from the world in the frozen mountains of the north are keeping guard over a Kaizer warsuit they’ve named Old Bolts.
Their leader Viktor learns that a new mining settlement has been established near their hideout, putting his people and Old Bolts at risk. So he must make a decision.
A judge declared this novel “their favorite so far” as they sampled our allotment of books.
Another said, “I like the main character, Viktor, and love the idea of following the losing side in a war. The descriptions and world building all feel very immersive too. Would definitely like to read more.”
Dropnauts: The Redemption Cycle Book One by J. Scott Coatsworth, a science fiction adventure in which an apocalyptic disaster on Earth a century ago has left the ten thousand humans in the Moon’s Redemption colony believing they might be the last of humanity.
Something detected on the Moon has forced the colonists to choose 20 of their own to become dropnauts who will return to Earth to determine its suitability for life.
The extreme risk of the trip is made clear in the opening pages, which dive right into the countdown sequence as five teams of dropnauts are about to ride jumper ships off the lunar surface, nervously reassuring each other that everything’s going to be OK. (Spoiler alert: It is not.)
Several judges praised the strong LGBT representation in the novel, which includes transgender, disabled and non-binary characters among the leads. “It gives us protagonists from a diversity of backgrounds and life experience to root for,” a judge noted.
“This one has a lot of characters and we jump pretty rapidly between them, which concerned me at first,” another judge wrote. “But from what I read they’re all well-written, and the plot and setting are intriguing.”
Another judge asked, “Can these books stop being good?”
No, sir. They can’t stop. They won’t stop.
Dim Stars: A Novel of Outer-Space Shenanigans by Brian P. Rubin, a young-adult space opera about a fourteen-year-old girl genius and the intergalactic space legend she hero worships.
Kenzie Washington signs up for two weeks as a cadet aboard the spaceship of the great Captain Dash Drake, who isn’t what she expected him to be at all – since you wouldn’t think someone who once saved the entire galaxy could end up so broke and bitter. But that’s where Drake finds himself today, helming a tramp freighter and not doing that job well at all.
This novel’s subtitle promises a different feel than a lot of science fiction novels and the judges felt that promise was kept. “I really enjoyed the tone of this,” said one judge. “It’s light-hearted and feels sharp, as you’d expect from a ‘novel of outer-space shenanigans.’”
Another judge observed, “It’s got a fun cast of characters, the plot is low-stakes but engaging, with good pacing, and the writing has been solid overall.” The judge praised the quick-witted writing and “especially liked Kenzie and her overactive sense of righteousness.”
A third said, “I’m a sucker for stories about spaceship crews doing odd jobs in a broken-down vessel while barely making ends meet, and this seems like one of those. The captain long past his glory days is appealing.”
The Peacemaker’s Code by Deepak Malhotra, a science fiction novel that shares ancestral DNA with the hard-driving political thrillers found at drugstores that are all written by somebody you don’t recognize whose first name is “James Patterson And.”
The novel finds Kilmer, a historian of war and diplomacy, being whisked from his home in the middle of the night to the highest levels of government in Washington. (Why don’t government agents ever whisk at a reasonable hour?)
The whiskers need him to watch a meeting of top leaders faced with a situation humankind has never faced in before, so he can privately give them his advice that might be absolutely crucial.
The novel rolls out in a sequence of events that feel densely bureaucratic and grounded but exciting at the same time, doling out secrets meticulously to make the reader hungry to understand more about what is going on.
Kilmer has a bit of Sherlock Holmes to his personality, relishing the chance to be one step ahead of everyone else in what he’s learned – and eager to explain how he did it.
One of our judges said, “This is a sophisticated near-future science fiction thriller that reminds me of the movies Arrival and Contact. The book does a good job of foreshadowing twists ahead. I didn’t want to stop at the cutoff.”
Another judge enthused, “I need to stop myself. I’m 55 percent of the way through this book already. This surprisingly twisty plot just keeps giving. I’ll definitely be reading this one to the end, even if we don’t advance it.”
We are advancing it and the judge did keep reading, finishing the whole thing faster than this announcement could be written.
Starhelm Epsilon by David Viergutz, a pleasingly cynical science fiction adventure that brings together three intriguing protagonists with extreme skills and dangerous secrets.
A galactically famous mech pilot named Royce Burgess has left that life behind for one in which he bounces among backwater planets doing odd jobs, trying his best to keep his identity a secret.
He flies a newly purchased A2-class Tugboat, a barely space-worthy hulk that he views as a large piece of junk outfitted to carry smaller pieces.
His co-pilot is Jarmet, a six-eyed wormlike sentient who finishes meals by eating the metal tray they came on.
Royce and Jarmet soon meet Keira, a woman who needs to get off-planet to put distance between herself and the Family, a star-spanning criminal enterprise that owns deep-space Waystations.
“I really like the characters so far, each of whom has secrets – and I’m always a fan of a loveable rogue type of character,” a judge said. “The writing is fast-paced with some fun banter between the three characters. I want to learn what all three are hiding!”
“I wasn’t immediately sold on this one,” another judge admitted, “but by the cutoff I was actually really enjoying it. I especially liked the Jarmet bug/worm character.”
A third judge said, “This feels like a rollicking space opera and has three protagonists who each is carrying secrets, which is an appealing combination. Extra credit for the presence of space pirates. I can’t get enough of those.”
The Last Gifts of the Universe by Rory August, a space exploration novel about space archivists whose job is as fascinating as it is lonely. They jump from one dead galactic civilization to the next, hoping to find something to download that will explain the greatest mystery of the present – why their own civilization is the only one still in existence.
Scout, an archivist for the Home worlds, travels a vast universe of dead planets, looking for anything in their tech or their culture that might enable her people to survive whatever killed everybody else.
She chances upon an ancient message left by Blyreena, a leader who had the tragic fate to be the last of her Stelhari people.
“I love the cover so I’m glad this one is just as enjoyable as I hoped it’d be,” one judge said. “The two main characters are well-written, and I enjoyed the main character tone of voice.”
“Sometimes a book grabs you instantly and the premise of this one did that for me,” a judge declared. “There’s also a cat.”
These are the seven books we will be reading in full. Congratulations to the authors on advancing!
Each of the quarterfinalists will be given a numeric score from 1 to 10 and reviews by judges will be posted. The top three novels will advance to the semifinals to compete with 27 books from the other nine teams.
If you don’t want to wait for our opinions, you can begin reading these novels now. Five of the seven are on Kindle Unlimited.