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 The Empyrean by Katherine Franklin. Having read to the twenty percent mark, this was one of five quarterfinalists that I voted YES on continuing. Now, it’s time for me to read the rest.I’m going to get the bad news out of the way right now. I am not am emotional reader. That is to say, I don’t form emotional attachments to fictional characters. I barely make them to real people, so words on a page making an impact on me in that way is a vanishingly slim occurrence. I read books for entertainment and intellectual stimulation, in that order. I’m not looking to experience someone’s inner turmoil. In fact, few things turn me off a book faster than marketing that says, ‘but what it’s really about is the relationship between these characters.’ No. Just give me a good story, if that’s not too much trouble for you. So when the blurb for the Empyrean begins with ‘Emotion is a weapon,’ I rolled my eyes and say to myself, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ if it weren’t an SPSFC entrant, I wouldn’t have read past the first few pages.
But in those first few pages, something becomes clear. Franklin knows how to write. A lot of my complaints about the books in the slushpile phase of the SPSFC stem from basic but recurrent issues. Poor formatting, bad editing, or the basic inability to string together a coherent sentence. There is none of that here. This is a neat and professional book, and one of the better written in the contest. Sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph, Franklin is a pro. Even though I wasn’t exactly hooked, getting through the book was never a chore. At least, not for any fault of the book. I’ve had a raging headache all week, but even I am not so callous as to place the blame for that with The Empyrean. Frankly, after some of the non-SPSFC reading I’ve been doing this week, Franklin’s prose has been a delightful lift in quality.
Where the book hits a stumbling block is in the bigger picture. There’s a lot going on here, maybe too much. It seems to be a recurring theme of our quarterfinalists that the authors pour multiple ideas into a single book, when arguably several shorter, unrelated books might better serve those ideas. Plot lines are set up and then resolved in less than satisfying ways, and some of the worldbuilding had me scratching my head. While inventive in places, this is a book that’s already slipping from my memory. Again, this could be illness related, but it remains true. Franklin is a strong writer, but my overwhelming impression is that this could have been a better book.
Taking all of this into account, I am awarding The Empyrean a personal SPSFC rating of 6/10.
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