SPSFC Book Review: “The Shepherd Protocol”

The Shepherd Protocol by Fowler Brown

The Shepherd Protocol was a read I was on the fence about when we went through our initial impressions. It ended up in a battle royale against two other books. At that point, I still felt on the fence, ready to push it into my top 10 if I didn’t find other books were to my liking. That didn’t end up being the case, but, happily, the novel ended up in our group’s quarterfinalists, giving me the chance to dive in even more deeply.

The Shepherd Protocol follows Melody Clay, an AI who inhabits a synethetic body. There is much anti-“synth” sentiment on Earth, and Clay ends up in Boston trying to figure out how to stop or prevent the Decay, a shutdown protocol that’s been killing synths. As she investigates, more players show up, whether it’s people hunting synths for parts, a near military state police force, or others in on the action. There’s a sense of mystery throughout, along with a kind of haunting doom for Clay.

What I hugely struggled with for this book was getting into it. Melody Clay and the other synths didn’t have that feeling of “otherness” that is almost necessary for books like this to work. Because of that, it reads more like a mystery set in the future, but even that future doesn’t have the world-building to back it up as feeling very… futuristic. The book ends up reading more like a mystery set in Boston with just a few modifications. There’s not much by way of developing the world, so readers are left with the main plot, and that, again, is unfulfilling.

The last 15% or so has some twists in it that make some of the earlier points feel like they finally have a payoff, but it reads a bit as too little, too late. At that point, it’s nice to see wider impact happening, but it would have been even better to have had those impactful moments earlier in the book, where they could help carry along a plot that otherwise feels lethargic at times.

The frustrating thing for me is that the book checks off so many of my boxes. One of my favorite subgenres of sci-fi is that of the sci-fi/mystery mashup. I also hugely enjoy robots and AIs. The Shepherd Protocol may just be one of those cases where it didn’t hit me the same as it does others. Check it out if you like any of those sub-genres I mentioned.

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The Self-Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC) Hub– Check out all of my posts related to the SPSFC here!

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

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Announcing Team Red Stars SPSFC Round of 100 reads- The Self-Published Science Fiction Contest

We’ve done it! Team Red Stars has narrowed our 31 selections for the SPSFC down to 10. 10 groups have done so, which means the remaining books are the top 100 out of about 300 entries into the SPSFC! Without further ado, here are our 10 books for the round of 100, along with some comments on each!

Of Cinder and Bone by Kyoko M.

Our whole group was enthused about this read from the sample we read. We loved the character-driven drama and the hints at science-y, dragon-y plot. I have since finished the book and will have a review coming… eventually!

The Shepherd Protocol by Fowler Brown

The group was sold on this AI/Robot mystery that seemed to get deeper the more we read of it. I personally quite enjoy the cover art–it’s not often you see art in this style, which looks like a kind of advanced colored pencil drawing.

The Trellis by Jools Cantor

I may as well say it: I’m a sucker for the mashup of science fiction and mystery. The Trellis has that from the get-go, and Cantor also sprinkles in some commentary on unfettered capitalism and more as the novel gets going. I am about halfway through and it’s captured me completely.

Zenith by Arshad Ahsanuddin

Another character-driven drama, with this one set in space. I found the characters compelling, and it was exciting to see representation of characters outside the norm for science fiction.

Refraction Wick Welker

This story takes place in three different time periods spanning from our past to a future a few hundred years from now. The group was into the main characters, as well as intrigued by the way the plot hinted at bigger things to come.

Age of Order by Julian North

Our group had a bunch of dystopias, and this one was one that stuck out from the crowd with its setting and potential for big implications about its world. We also liked the main character, for whom we’re all rooting!

Wherever Seeds May Fall by Peter Cawdron

I couldn’t stop reading this first contact/hard sci-fi novel by Peter Cawdron. It just kept getting bigger and more intriguing as it went on, and I think it’s just a wonderfully told and timely story. Others in the group enjoyed the tone and were interested to see where the plot goes.

Dog Country by Malcolm F. Cross

Our group enthusiastically selected this no-luck military sci-fi drama that intensely focuses on character-driven plot. I have finished it since, and I’ll save my main thoughts for the review; for now, let’s just say the story is as good as its cover.

Extinction Reversed by J. S. Morin

Artificially intelligent robots are trying to revive the human race in this touching novel about robots. I wasn’t entirely sold on it until I got about 20% in, but it truly starts to ramp up from there. I’m excited to see where it goes.

Above the Sky by J.W. Lynne

Our group dug this dystopia (maybe–it’s not clear if it’s a dystopia or simply playing on the subgenre’s tropes yet) about a looming threat that lingers above the sky. I admit I’ve been sitting on it, waiting for a good moment to start truly diving in. I anticipate savoring it based on the sample I read.

First Round Status

As a group, we’ve determined our final 10 books. I have several posts in the docket to show how I came to my personal top 10, as well. 8 of my personal top 10 made our quarterfinalists, which is pretty exciting for me. So what’s next? More book reviews and discussions. Let me know if you’ve read any of these and what you think in the comments!

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The Self-Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC) Hub– my hub post with links to all of my other posts related to the SPSFC.

Announcing Our SPSFC Round One Top Ten!– Red Star Reviews has his own write-up related to our group’s reads.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!


SPSFC Round 1, Battle Royale Part 2

There were 5 slots left on my “yes” list for the Self-Published Science Fiction Contest but 15 books in the running. That means I need to eliminate 2 out of every 3 books. To do so, I decided to commit to fully reading these 15 books (or, minimally, reading until I decide it’s not for me) and pitting them against each other for the final 5 slots. I had to re-think my reading to do this, because I enthusiastically put too many books on the “yes” stack to start off. So, for the sake of seeding, each former “yes” goes up against two “maybe” books (except for one post where two higher seeds will face off).

The Shepherd Protocol by Fowler Brown

I love stories about robots, AIs, and “sleeves.” I especially love mechs, but there aren’t enough mech stories. Anyway, The Shepherd Protocol is about robots who live in a world in which Asimov’s Laws aren’t a thing. Synths–the robot stand ins–are starting to die/go idle due to the Decay and our protagonist is right in the middle of trying to figure out why things are happening. What follows is a mystery that weaves around a vaguely cyberpunk cityscape. More revelations hit at satisfying intervals. The main characters, whether synths or not, feel realistic and human. But it’s this very humanity of the robots that makes the book seem less intriguing for me. There’s no sense of “other” with the synths here, and it’s never entirely certain if that’s part of the reason why. There is occasional exploration of how humans might treat the synth “other,” but the discussion never delves deeply and the ground is well-trod when it comes to science fiction. The Shepherd Protocol is a fine story, but one that reads as if most of its punch is taken away by having been done before, if differently.

Refraction by Wick Welker

There are three storylines here, each taking place about 80-100 years apart between circa 1980 and circa 2150. The first of these follows a scientist, Timothy Straus, as he works on a groundbreaking discovery. The second, set in the middle time period, follows Caleb (aka “Cal”) as he learns some of the darker secrets behind his cloistered dream life. The third is centered around Custos, a sentient robot who has become the President of Mars. While these stories initially seem unconnected apart from the link of the first two characters hearing voices, they eventually become entangled within each other in deeply connected ways. What’s remarkable about this is that at no point did the entanglement of these narratives seem contrived or forced. Welker does a simply phenomenal job of weaving a cohesive narrative across three timelines while keeping readers on the edge of their seat the whole time. Each society and time period felt fleshed out and full of side characters who mattered. The science-y aspects were detailed enough to survive the suspension of disbelief, and the big reveals, when they started to hit, were fun even if occasionally predictable. The book is almost 450 pages but I sat down on my day off and marathoned through the last third or so of it over a morning (cat on my lap, the best way to read!) because I couldn’t get enough of it. This is a true compelling science fiction yarn, folks.

This Blue Ball by Wayne V. Miller

When I sampled this kaleidoscopic novel by Miller, I was struck by the conspiratorial tone and the way the story was told. I put it on the “maybe” list and was intrigued enough to circle back to it. Now that I’ve finished the novel, I am… confused. “Straightforward” is not a word I’d use for the beginning, but compared to where the story goes, the early parts are pretty simple. You’ve got the story told through a found manuscript that tells of a strange light burned into a computer display that might signify something other or out there in existence. It’s conspiratorial in tone, with a kind of “they [government/illuminati/something] don’t want you to know that we [storyteller(s)] know that they’re [aliens… maybe?] out there.”

And then it just kinda… gets weird. Like the plot doesn’t actually go anywhere. It turns into a series of vignettes with no apparent connection. Like there’s a whole lengthy scene of a Minister Brown introducing a number of people to a group of people and how they represent aspects of an idealized [Thomas] Jeffersonian government but then there’s someone else who talks about the way that the same ideals have led to massive inequities regarding arrests, imprisonment, representation, and more and then Minister Brown is just kinda like “Well that guy’s kinda angry but I don’t necessarily disagree” and then the scene is over. Yes that was a run on sentence but I had to get it all out there. I don’t… get it. I genuinely don’t know where the early plot even went. And then the ending shifts back to the conspiratorial tone talking to the reader and talks about a cacophony and sensation and none of that makes sense either. And interspersed with all of this is a weird obsession with prostitution and masturbation but it gets called “onanism” in reference to the Biblical Onan and I’m not sure where that’s from or why the obsession is even there.

The book doesn’t make sense. At all. And honestly? I’m kind of annoyed by that. Early on, I was sold on the conspiratorial weirdness but then it just keeps spiraling and seems to turn into a rambling commentary on like, life, man, as if you’re reading dialogue from “The Big Lebowski” overlaid with some debates about political philosophy and race. I’m left thinking, “What?”

Battle Royale Round 1 Result

Refraction is moving on to the yes pile! I’ll have a full review of it coming when my group moves on with this round. It’s got a pretty firm standing among my favorites, now that I’ve finished it. I recommend it pretty highly to my readers here. This is exactly the reason it’s worth diving into indie titles, because you find gems like this book that you’d never have known about otherwise.

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Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

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SPSFC Round 1, Part 6: Self-Published Science Fiction Contest reading

I’m beyond thrilled to be part of the first-ever Self-Published Science Fiction Contest! What is that? Check out the write up over at Red Star Reviews for an explanation. The first round of the contest for we judges is to whittle down the pile of books we’ve been given from the 30 (31 for our group!) to 10 that we’re going to read in their entirety. How do we do that? Well, we read 10-20% of all 30 of the books and then vote on whether we’d like to continue them. I’m going to blog about these as I go, and I want to know what you think! How do you like the covers? Have you read the book? Did my write-up make you want to read it? Let me know!

Extinction Reversed by J.S. Morin

I’ve been listening to Morin’s “Black Ocean” series and loving it. It’s self-described as “Firefly with magic” and I think that’s largely accurate. I was hugely looking forward to diving in to Morin’s work for the SPSFC. It’s a story about a future on Earth without humans. Instead, there are AIs that are attempting to recreate humanity, which is seen as a kind of blasphemy by some. I found it difficult to get into the characters, though. In part, this was because their names are variants on common names and a number (eg. Eve318). I also think I went in thinking it would be a light-hearted romp similar to Morin’s “Black Ocean” series and it’s clear this one requires the reader to slow down and think quite a bit more. That is obviously not a bad thing, but my expectations being so thrown off made it hard to orient myself. I consider this one a maybe, though I lean yes.

The Memories of Khassos by Leah Flaherty

There are quite a few threads happening in this book, and it was confusing to start off. At 20% in, things started to pull together. The plot seems to be about surveying the multiverse to see what events may or may not become important in the “real” or preferred universe. Another thread follows someone trying to sell information but running afoul of the law in a way that surprised that character far more than it surprised me. There are maybe too many plot threads going on all at once, to be honest, but each one is interesting in its own way. I’m intrigued enough to slot this one into my “yes” category.

The Shepherd Protocol by Fowler Brown

I’m a sucker for AI stories or stories about android like things or sleeves (people wearing robot bodies). Brown’s The Shepherd Protocol is a story about a synth—an AI in a metal body—trying to figure out what’s happening that’s killing others like her. Melos is an interesting protagonist, and the way humans treat synths reads like a commentary on our society. It’s got quite a bit of mystery thrown in. One issue I’m having is that I haven’t found the characters compelling yet at this point. Thematically, it’s all right up my alley, though. I’m torn about it. Consider this on the “maybe” list.

Round 1 Status

I’ve now dipped my toes into 18 out of 31 books. I’m now at 5 yes, 6 no, and 7 maybes. I obviously have far too many on my “maybes” list. I’d love to hear from you what you think if you’ve read any of these books or want to see them on my longer reviews! Want to know what other books are on the list? Check out Red Star Reviews’ post on my team’s list to see the covers!


Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!