Best Dystopian Worldbuilding Award
Magic Born series by Sonya Clark
Trancehack (2013), Witchlight (2014), Firewall (2014)
To get the full effect, and because it’s way more fun this way, you need to start with the first book in this series, Trancehack, which was published in 2013.
This series has some really awesome dystopian worldbuilding that resonates both with some of the less savory parts of history and with modern-day politics. Throw in three completely different but equally well-done romances and this near-future series becomes marvelous SFR that sweeps you up in the romance and makes you think about the way the world works. Not just our world, but theirs.
If people started being born with “magic” talent, what would happen? Katherine Kurtz said it best, “the humans kill what they do not understand” and it rings true in this series. In many countries, the majority non-magic users embrace the talented, admittedly with some bumps in the road. In the US, the religious fanatics take control, locking the magic born up in ghettos and making the US a world pariah. Economic sanctions, and economic depression, inevitably follow. But the Magic Born series isn’t about how bad things are, it’s about solving the problem.
First we have a cop who falls in love with a magic user, and is willing to give up his badge and his future to keep her and her people safe. Then we have a politician who has been passing all her life, discover that she can no longer keep her secret in the face of a new round of repression. And last, but certainly not least, we have a former collaborator becoming the ringleader of a group of social media hacktivists who finally break the government/corporate firewall and get the word out. Their stories, and their loves, make their universe change in a way that will make readers stand up and cheer for the good guys. And the happy endings will warm your heart.
Best Superhero Origin Series
The Phoenix Institute by Corrina Lawson
Phoenix Rising (2011) Luminous (2012) Phoenix Legacy (2012) Ghost Phoenix (2014) Ghosts of Christmas Past (2014)
This series is kind of an X-Men/Batman crossover, if everyone is not just gender-bent but also talent-switched. And even that Batman analogy requires that Batman’s gifts be more super and less obsessed-neurotic based. But still awesome.
The Phoenix Institute starts out as “The Resource” run by one of the very definitely bad guys. His mission is to find people born with super talents and train them to be super soldiers obedient to his every whim. His evil plan is foiled by supers that got away, aided and abetted by one of his own. If Professor Xavier was a firestarter married to a telepath, you get the Phoenix Institute. Pun is intended, the Phoenix Institute rises from the ashes of the Resource and reaches out to supers everywhere, while righting the very big wrongs perpetrated by its predecessor.
On the main series, we have a telepath who rescues the firestarter, and a self-healer who finds his way back to the woman he left behind, who just happens to be in a long line of charismatics. We end with an invisible woman who falls for her clean cop in a dirty city, and a teleporter thief who saves an immortal queen. The alternate history angle in Ghost Phoenix is surprisingly twisty and results in a happily ever after that may just really mean “ever after”. This is paranormal romance with a delightful superhero twist, made even better by continuing into 2015.
Best Use of a Cheesy Pen Name Or Best Not-Quite-New Author
Mandrake Company series by Ruby Lionsdrake
Mercenary Instinct; Trial and Temptation; The Assassin’s Salvation and The Ruins of Karzelek
Ruby Lionsdrake writes fantasy/steampunk as Lindsay Buroker, and her Emperor’s Edge series is absolutely fantastic, but not SFR. Quite.
However, when she decided to write unabashed SFR (and include more romance and sex) she decided to test out a new penname for her new endeavor, and Ruby Lionsdrake was born.
The Mandrake Company is a mercenary group headed by one Viktor Mandrake. He left the Galactic Conglomeration armed forces when they bombed his home planet out of existence. Other exiles from Grenavine joined him, and he became the captain and leader of a mercenary outfit that tries to be just a little bit more honorable than your usual run of space mercenaries while still making a profit and staying out of GalCom’s sights. So think of Mandrake’s company as being a bit like Firefly, if Mal had any kind of head for business.
Mandrake captures a trio of women running a bioengineering firm on a fake bounty, and the owner of the company escapes repeatedly and manages to charm his socks off (along with everything else). As the series progresses, Ankari and her company of gut-bug researchers integrate themselves into the life of the ship, and find terrific romances with some of the men in Mandrake’s company. Starting, of course, with Ankari and Mandrake.
For an SFR series with a high quotient of fun (not to mention the gut-bugs) the Mandrake Company is terrific.
Best SFR Masquerading As Space Opera
Paradox series by Rachel Bach
Fortune’s Pawn (2013), Honor’s Knight (2014), Heaven’s Queen (2014)
This series starts out as pure space opera, but includes a love story that can be read as either “Romeo and Juliet on steroids” or “Beauty and the Beast” where both parties think that their lover is “Beauty” while they themselves are the “Beast”. Considering that both parties are perfectly capable of destroying the universe if they lose control, they are both “Beast”. (Also, no one should name a romantic hero Rupert ever again).
The Paradox story is one about “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or of the one” definitely crossed with “who watches the watchers”. The universe has a big secret that everyone involved is trying to keep under wraps. Unfortunately for those secret keepers, it is absolutely impossible for anyone to keep mercenary Devi Morris wrapped up in any way.
The personality of mercenary Devi has a lot of similarities to Torin Kerr in Tanya Huff’s marvelous Valor Confederation series, and the person that Devi needs to save is an even scarier space girl than River Tam in FIREFLY. This series is space opera for those who are looking for a gut-wrenching plot twist around every corner, and where the bad boy in the romance not only isn’t as bad as he thinks he is, but isn’t even half as bad-assed as the girl he falls for.
Still Standing Award (Best Long Running Series)
The Hot Zone (Harmony #11) by Jayne Castle
The first book in the Harmony series, After Dark, was published back in 2000, and the series now stretches to 11 books and ties in with Castle’s long-running Arcane Society series, written as Amanda Quick when it’s historical and Jayne Ann Krentz when it’s contemporary. But this long and genre and generation spanning series is SFR at its core.
The people who in the Victorian Era found the Arcane Society to regulate those who are born with extra-sensory gifts run a psychic-based detective agency in the 20th century and their descendants fly to the stars in the Harmony future. In all the series, the Arcane Society or its descendants is based in science and not superstition. The source of many family gifts is a mad scientist who went very much astray. But in the Harmony series, Castle has crafted a far-future society where power is based on how much and what type of psychic talent one is able to muster.
And on the planet Harmony, the human colonists have found a place that enhances their psychic talents even as it throws up new challenges for the talented. We see the society grow from its early days as a lost colony struggling to make the place habitable, while at the same time Harmony throws its new population challenges and opportunities that favor the survival of the gifted. With each new generation, they explore more but often discover they know less. And human nature has not changed just because we’ve left Earth behind. Many of the romances being with someone discovering that their power is greater or different than they thought, and that they need to combine their talents with someone they never expected. The sparks are physical and psychic (and very hot)