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Speculative Fiction Indie Novella Championship! Round Two Picks

We are so happy to be a part of this year's competition!

“The Speculative Fiction Indie Novella Championship (SFINCS, pronounced “sphinx”) is a yearly competition to recognize, honor, and celebrate the talent and creativity present in the indie community. We are a sister competition to both SPFBO and SPSFC, and we highlight greatness in the novella format in all areas of speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc.).”

Rat City: The Rat City Chronicles, Book 1

by Laury Silvers

In the walled city of Aman Kala, the grisly murder of a sacred Rat Keeper pulls Detective Derya Mack into an investigation that threatens to expose the power struggles that guarantee the very safety the fortress offers from the plague world.

The year is 986H/1578CE and Derya Mack lives and works in Aman-Kala, a plague fortress located between Arab, Persian, and Turkic lands. The rebel Zanj have toppled the Abbasid Caliphate, outlawed slavery, and turned regions and cities into client states. The Zanj Caliphate governs from Baghdad backed up by the force of their empire-wide army. Regional militaries are outlawed and cities are left to govern themselves without police or jails. In Aman-Kala, private detectives solve crimes, large and small. Derya Mack is one of those detectives.

Rat City is a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo OUT NOW IN REVENGE IN THREE, a collection of novellas based on the classic novel entitled Revenge in Three.

Reviews

Catherine Catcho

Quick-ish Pitch If you think Jessica Jones had it rough, meet Detective Mack. Living in a precarious plague-ridden time, Mack’s cunning skills are means of survival. Well, that and the drinking.  It doesn’t help that caged rats are seen as remedy to keep plague at bay. When she’s called to investigate a murder, things get even murkier than expected. Because the biggest rat isn’t in a cage.

What I liked: – Introduce a jinn in the first chapter, and you have my complete attention. After reading lots of Arabic mythology, I am hungry for anything that touches this category. – How the delicate judicial system added tension to the plot. At anytime I was waiting for the house of cards to fall on Detective Mac.

Minor Tiffs: – TBH, I had to look up a ton of words just to understand what they meant. Mukhannaths, rajulas, majdhub, oh my. And I don’t mind doing that, but I wouldn’t have minded a glossary at the back. – I really wanted to see more of the magic world building at play. I wanted the dialogue to be more playful, in general. This story is more plot focused vs character focused. – TBH, I feel like an idiot because I reread The Count of Monte Cristo recently but I would have never seen the retelling aspect.  

Recommended: – After you’ve read P. Djèlì Clark, S. A. Chakraborty- and this isn’t your first rodeo in the category. – If noir murder mystery is your vibe.

Favorite Line: “The Sufi brother must have prayed for her again; she felt the prayer’s fingers touch her shoulder and brushed them off.”

7/10

Zack Rosenberg

7/10

Beth Tabler

Rat City: The Rat City Chronicles, Book 1 by Laury Silvers, is intriguing. It has a lot of excellent things, such as historical fiction, fantasy, and noir. These are all things that I enjoy reading quite a bit—especially the noir parts. 

I love a “Sam Spade” type novel—the great “who-done-it.” 

Where I had a difficult time with Rat City is that I found it to be too much world-building; granted, with a Muslim plague city, you will need a lot of background information. But we did not have enough character-building to offset it. 

“In the walled city of Aman Kala, the grisly murder of a sacred Rat Keeper pulls Detective Derya Mack into an investigation that threatens to expose the power struggles that guarantee the very safety the fortress offers from the plague world.” The world of Rat City is a world constantly shaken by plague. Pustules take out whole towns. 

Our protagonist, Derya Mack, has seen her fair share of pain and suffering, “She had been just another squalling infant found among the bodies of her parents and siblings. She survived again in the orphanage when it seemed like every other child died of plague or some coughing or shitting sickness. Then, her plague family. Little Danyal died, and Rivka moved to Baghdad, leaving her with only the Mac Aodhagáins at the farm as a family to her. But they, too, ended up being eaten by the pus-filled lumps. Little Tom died in her arms.

 Yet she kept living.”

I am sure her story is not the only one of its kind; quite the contrary. The people fear rats and the diseases they bring. The bubonic plague killed 1/3rd of Europe with the plague-riddled fleas they brought. It is an excellent thought experiment to take that idea and extend it to a society that is constantly shaken by the plague. All this brings us back to the walled plague fortress between Arab, Persian, and Turkic lands. A place that does not have cops but has “private detectives solve crimes, large and small. Derya Mack is one of those detectives.” 

Now, Derya is called to investigate the assassination of a sacred Rat Keeper. I love that Rat Keepers have sacred status. And the story gets complicated and full of clues. 

All of this is super imaginative; I feel it would have been better served at a longer length, where the author can elucidate slower on details and bring the reader for a ride. It is a good book, and folks will like it. And it may read more fully when you read the other novellas associated with this one. I’ll check the other books Silvers has written for sure. 

6.5 / 10

Total Score: 6.8 / 10

The Book of a Thousand and One Destinies

by Gareth Lewis

A paranoid Sultan, an Assassin found only in stories, and a Storyteller caught up in their battle. Once upon a time, a great Sultan was plagued by an Assassin who struck at him with stories and lies. A young Storyteller is gathered with her colleagues, and forced to share her stories with the Sultan before their voices are stilled forever. In a war of destinies, enslaved jinn, and comparative truths, the Storyteller must tread dangerous ground in what may be her final recital. A fantasy novella.

Reviews

Beth Tabler

I tried very hard to become engaged with this story. The premise is interesting it had both a 1001 Arabian Nights vibe as well as Hero by Jet Li. This is not a bad novella in any way, I think I had problems engaging with it due to how the chapters jump from moment too moment. I could not connect with any of the characters. But it does not mean that other people will have the same issue. I am just not the right reader for it.

5/10

Catherine Catcho

Quick-ish Pitch: A sultan thinks storytelling is a plague upon his lands especially when it’s about his sworn enemy (and his circle).

What I liked: – The book structure. It goes back and forth between past and present. – The Ending- without giving away too many spoilers it brings up decent discussion of destiny vs. fate. – The magic building inspired the title of the book.

Minor Tiffs: – So many thou’s.  I don’t know if I loved the timely vocab. I think conversations could have been snappier. – Less sultan having a tantrum, more clever jinni, please. I felt like the best character was held back until the end. Recommend: – When you like your chapters like tic tacs –short and sweet. – You want layered storytelling. – You want something clever between your longer reads.

Favorite Line(s) ‘Are we not all controlled by stories anyway. We see narrative causalities in the unrelated events we encounter, and link them to our tales. That we may fool ourselves we’re not alone. That life has a meaning. A purpose. Something beyond mere happenstance. We long to be stories, if only ones we tell ourselves.’

8/10

Total Score: 6.5 / 10

Ruins of Smoke

by João F. Silva

The Usharian Empire rules the Known World with an iron fist. Imperials protect their world from the tainted hand of the Deceiver, but he is back with an avatar capable of breaking the Empire and grounding humanity into ash.

JEHA is a sentinel of the Empire, willing to fight and die for kinship and duty.

AGOR is an imperial general. Disgruntled by the darkness he sees seeping into everything he loves, he makes his move.

MATALA is a young smokesmith who sees his courage tested as Ushar burns.

ALAMAKAR is the world’s most powerful man, but even strong blood ties can hold him down and tear him apart.

As the Deceiver threatens the Usharian Empire’s heart, fiends walk the streets of the capital. Men and monsters clash in a battle fit for gods. And the smoke follows them.

Reviews

Zack Rosenberg

As the Usharian Empire dominates the known world, several key main characters rise to make or break the fate of the world. For most writers, “Ruins of Smoke” would need thousands of pages to deliver on its promise, but Joao Silva accomplishes in a little over a hundred pages to deliver on his promise. While four POVs is a bit overly ambitious for the book, Silva manages to make them distinct and memorable, with tight writing and an absolutely thrilling plot that manages unique worldbuilding and leaves the reader wanting more of the Smokesmiths’ world.

8.5/10

Laura from OWWR Pod

Ruins of Smoke is a multi-POV story following characters in the heart of a battle between the gods and their avatars. This is a fast paced, action-filled novella that features complex characters, and a really unique magic system. I was instantly drawn into the story and enjoyed the many POVs. I appreciated how the author wrote such a complicated, but concise story and that it was an excellent set-up for the author’s series, which I’m looking forward to reading.

4.5/5 or 9/10

Beth Tabler

I have a conflict of interest with this story, so I did not review it.

Total Score: 8.75 / 10

Dark Heart of Ilmoure

by Cara N. Delaney

Years ago, all she wanted was to leave. Now, a web of secrets might ensnare her forever.

When Iris Grey returns to her hometown of Ilmoure years after a bitter parting, she hopes for reconciliation in the face of a tragedy. Instead, she arrives to a town changed for the worse, a cold welcome from people she once loved, and a family that seems to be keeping secrets from her at every turn.

When those secrets become too heavy to ignore, Iris starts to dig deeper. What she finds leads her to question her very perception of reality. Faced with old wounds and new revelations, Iris finds herself mired in a plot that threatens to swallow herself, the town, and the people she once loved.

Rebecca Hill

I absolutely LOVE a good horror, and this one had some great twists that I was not expecting! Get ready
to dive into a book full of secrets that will keep you hooked.

6/10 stars

Beth Tabler

Dark Heart of Ilmoure takes a little bit of time to get rolling, but it delivers a very well-crafted payoff in the second act and becomes a nail-bitingly intense ride. The novella spends maybe a bit too much effort insisting that we’re seeing an ordinary family squabble in an ordinary seaside town; I personally might have liked the novella to get to its “wow” moment a dozen pages earlier but I have to say it was worth the wait. The writing delivers an emotional payload without being overwrought: Iris’ anxieties became my own, and I mean that as a compliment. Fans of the genre will find an enjoyable entry here, with very satisfying writing that rewards patience with genuine thrills.

4.0/5 or 8/10

Zack Rosenberg

Cara N. Delaney brings us the tale of Iris Grey, returned to her home of Ilmoure after many years. The town has changed for the worse and she finds only an icy reception, leading her to try to uncover the secrets that lurk in the heart of the town. Delaney manages to blend a variety of genres, and it is easy to see “Dark Heart of Ilmoure” as a wonderful modern successor to the Gothic tales of old. Emotion, hidden secrets and memorable characters dominate the novel which match well to Delaney’s powerful writing.

8/10

Total Score: 7.3 / 10

Audition

by Rachel Neumeier

Laura from OWWR Pod

Audition follows Nescana, a young girl who wishes to be a kajurai just like her older brother. The kajuraihi are selected through an audition process every 3 to 5 years with all boys ages 12 to 18 are eligible to participate. When Nescana is given the opportunity to audition herself, she has to choose whether to go after her dream or to continue caring for her younger siblings. This story had a nice pace, good imagery, and I appreciated the backstory that was provided. However, when I got to the end of the story I was expecting a twist or a shock that never happened. I also enjoyed that the main character was a girl who was given the opportunity to become a kajurai and that she was able to develop relationships with other girls. The relationships and the internal conflicts that Nescana had were definitely highlights of this novella, for me.

3.5/5 or 7/10

Catherine Catcho

Don’t get me wrong, I like a hardworking FMC, but I don’t think I’m the right audience for this.

Beth Tabler

Audition by Rachel Neumeier is a short novella that falls between books one and two of her well-known series, The Floating Islands. It stars Nescana, the first girl Kaijuraihi.

From the start, there is much to like about this YA/MG novella. I like the language that Neumeier uses to describe things. It has a lyrical quality to it that dances from paragraph to paragraph. This book speaks to daring to find one’s path and reach out for your dreams no matter how seemingly unattainable they are. Nescana is torn between wanting to audition to fly on the backs of dragons and being practical and caring for her siblings. Neumeier struck a good balance between conflicts and dreams to show that both avenues have consequences.

My main issue with the story was that I needed more of it to feel fleshed out. It felt more like a solid short story than a novella. That may be due to the age range it appeals to or that it falls between existing stories that add weight, backstory, and context. While I appreciate the obvious skill and care this is written with, it does not feel as fleshed out as I would have wished; thus, the ending felt abrupt.

6.5/10

Total Score: 7.0 / 10

With much deliberation, our chosen finalists are:

With a score of: 8.75 / 10

With a score of: 7.3 / 10

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