Guest Judge Jen Estes is back from her whirlwind trip to the magical lands of your imaginative minds. Now that she’s had some time to ponder your spellbinding pieces, Jen’s ready to announce who snagged the top prizes for our Fantasy Competition. Read her commentary below to find out how she came to what was an incredibly difficult decision!
I was so honored to be chosen as the guest judge for this competition. However, I didn’t expect it to be such a challenge! I can’t stress enough how hard all of these talented writers made my decision. I hope each and every one of them never leaves their keyboard because the world needs their stories! Every single entry held my attention and it was incredibly difficult to pick just one. But I was blown away by the tragic tale of Bartered and its seriously solid worldbuilding. McKayla had less than a thousand words to make us believe in an unbelievable world. So how did she do it?
First, she immediately drops the reader into her story – thereby showing us the world instead of just telling us about it. I smiled as the happy animals frolicked around the Blackwoods’ Farm and the Comets cheered peace. I saw the sinister scowls of the Salingers and even felt the temperature in the room drop ten degrees every time the Elecans were mentioned. As she narrated from each family’s point-of-view seamlessly, I felt the goodness of the naïve Comae, and was chilled by the petty, maleficent Elecans. By only the first paragraph, I too had a stake in the war between the Comets and Elecans.
Her pacing is sublime, blending backstory with the present, all the while avoiding the dreaded info-dump or taking me away from the action. McKayla’s descriptions were perfect—rich and vivid, but not overly wordy, she was confident in her readers’ intelligence to fill in the blanks. She didn’t waste my time with unnecessary details.
And finally, McKayla used the two families to help me bond to the story—I wanted to be a Blackwood and therefore, the Salingers were my enemy too. McKayla definitely transported me into her world and I was very grateful for the trip. She left me scouring for another paragraph, desperate to find out more about the Comaes, Elecans, and their ill-fated kingdoms. Fantastic fantasy, McKayla!
Ella’s story should come with a warning—twists and turns ahead! Plot twists work great in short stories and Ella’s reveal of Star as Enigma was absolutely perfect. She sprinkled subtle clues throughout, although they are only notable in retrospect. Star’s creativity, her intuition, even the Hermit’s Hut mission, doesn’t raise any flags until the reveal and then the reader, along with Star, has the bittersweet moment of realization—the “Ahh….of course!” Fantasy readers are smart cookies, so in addition to subtle clues, twists have to be revealed without insulting their intelligence. It also helps that the twist is completely logicalas Aurora says, “Don’t you see it?”
What I also adored about Enigma was, well, the Enigma. Ella immediately created a character I could fall in love with in Star, introducing her as both a strong woman about to embark on her first mission as a Guardian, and a vulnerable girl full of self-doubt. She was relatable and likeable. And the character development didn’t stop with the protagonist, I saw Opal as a mentor and Aurora as a friendjust as Star surely had. I appreciated the fact that Aurora wasn’t prototypical villain and I too felt betrayed when she pressed her blade against Star’s throat.
With a compelling plot, a beloved protagonist, and a killer twist, Enigma didn’t miss a step. Keep up the good work, Ella!
BEST PEER REVIEW
I was so impressed by David’s review of Assassin’s Mercy. He took the time to highlight specific passages – not just providing constructive criticism, but also to point out where the story really worked! When peer-reviewing, it’s important to point out the “right” as much as the “wrong”. Not only does this praise remind the author that you’re on their side, it also helps the author keep it up! Authors don’t always realize when they’ve succeeded, don’t hesitate to remind them! Additionally, it keeps great passages from being scrapped during an overzealous editing round.
David hits it on the head by identifying a few formatting issues—while these don’t affect a good story, they could distract the reader.
Lastly, David provides the best piece of advice and one that we all have to remind ourselves to do: show, don’t tell. As David explains, this helps the reader connect to your character. Sometimes authors are in such a hurry to get to the story, we forget to take the reader along with us!
Wonderful feedback, David. You’re the reviewer of every author’s dreams!