Welcome back to the second incarnation of the Self Published Science Fiction Competition. If you’ve been keeping up with us (and I do hope you have been), then you’ll be aware that we have finished our slushpile reading and ended up with seven books that the majority of the team agreed were worth reading to completion. Over the course of the next few weeks these seven quarterfinalists will be whittled down to three semifinalists, who will then be handed over to other judging teams for further analysis and discussion. How we turn seven into three is quite simple. Each member of our judging team will attempt to read the entire book. Upon completion, we will individually score it on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being one of the worst books we’ve ever read, and 10 being one of the best. We then take the average of these scores and turn that into the team’s overall score. If a judge decides to DNF a book for reasons other than time constraints or stylistic disagreement, their vote is counted as 0, but through the magic of mathematics, they are counted as half a judge for the purposes of working out the average. Though a little complicated, this in theory stops a book being removed from the contest simply because one judge has a visceral reaction to it. If a book impresses the other judges enough, a DNF needn’t be the end of the story.
What you’re about to read is my own personal review of one of the quarterfinalists. It doesn’t necessarily reflect the thoughts or opinions of my fellow judges, and as always I encourage readers to give the book a go and make their own judgements.
Today I’m taking a look at Trials on the Hard Way Home, by Lilith Frost. Having read to the twenty percent mark, this was one of two quarterfinalists that I voted NO on continuing. The other judges were unanimous in their support at that stage, however, and so I have read on.
When it comes to reviewing books, there is no accounting for taste. A book can work or not work for a reader based on any number of things, many of them beyond the control of the reader. For example, I have a soft spot for space operas, so even if it’s a trope ridden mess, there’s a chance I’ll be generous when it comes to books of that type. Conversely, if you put an erotic novel in front of me, I will likely hate it regardless of how well it is written. And that’s before we get into the convoluted mess that is comic novels. Tastes in comedy vary greatly, and it’s rare indeed that I find my sense of humour in alignment with an author’s. Taking this into consideration, this year’s SPSFC has an option for a judge to mark a book as Not My Style (NMS) – a way of putting a book down without affecting its score. While I see the reasoning behind this, I’m not going to use it. After all, if everyone marks NMS, there’s a chance that it’s just a bad book, and I’d rather see scores on the board for all books, even if they are lower. More to the point, even if I don’t enjoy a book, I can still recognise good editing and clean prose.
Trials on the Hard Way Home sorely tested my resolve. In terms of the actual writing, it’s perfectly servicable. It’s a well put-together novel that is highly readable. The pacing is great, the chapter breaks fall in natural places, and on a sentence by sentence level, it’s hard to pick a fault with it.
But then there is the content. I read science fiction for the science fiction elements, and I’m willing to put up with a fair bit of extraneous material to get to them. A polyamorous romance, however, is well outside my comfort zone. This isn’t so much a work of science fiction as it is a romance novel that happens to have the trappings of science fiction. If that’s what you’re into, then great. If you’re not, then this book is sorely lacking. I will happily go on the record as being against graphic depictions of sex in fiction. I just don’t think they’re necessary. So when I read an extended paragraph about men watching pornographic images, my brain switches off in a mixsture of revulsion and boredom. Clearly, this is a very personal issue that will likely affect few other readers, and marking a book down on this basis could well be seen as a failing of mine, rather than the book’s. But here’s the thing. I am clearly supposed to be emotionally invested in the love lives of these characters. If the book fails to get me invested in that element, then the book has failed in its primary task. Yes, my own preferences in this regard need to be taken into account, but a book not doing what it sets out to must surely be recognised as an issue.
On the basis of the writing itself, I’m giving Trials on the Hard Way Home an SPSFC rating of 5/10, but my issues with the story being told prevent it from going any higher.