SPFBO 5: First 4 Eliminations – And Semi-Finalist Announcement!
The fifth Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) is already well underway! Check out our introduction here, read all about the contest’s origins here, and keep track of phase one here. Continue reading for the Fantasy Hive’s first four eliminations – and to find out who our first semi-finalist is!
As you know, the 300 competing titles have now been split into batches of 30 and assigned to one of the ten participating blogs. But we can’t keep them all, and over 30 books have already been cut from the contest as each blog begins to eliminate unlucky entries in the search for their finalist.
As I mentioned in my introduction post, the best thing about participating in SPFBO as part of a team rather than as an individual is that round one ends up being about as fair as it can be. As the contest progresses you’ll hear us continually stress that much of what gets said is completely subjective. Aside from issues with (e.g.) spelling or grammar, which are more or less indisputable, the bloggers’ opinions are exactly that: opinions. So when there are five pairs of eyes potentially reading the opening chapters of every single book entered, chances are we’ll be able to give a more rounded view of each one, and to choose our finalist according to how many of us it managed to strike the right chord with.
So, without further preamble, here are our first four eliminations, followed by our first semi-finalist.
Daxton’s life was ideal. He spent his time blissfully hunting and roaming in the backwoods with his best friend Barton, and his beloved dog, Fang.
But on his eighteenth birthday, his parents reveal a startling fact: they aren’t his birth parents, he was abandoned on their doorstep as a baby left with nothing but a note, a sword, and a compass.
Daxton hurls himself towards his fate on a search for answers, accompanied by Barton and a witch who knows far more than she’s telling. Meanwhile, a king is waging war against the most hated female pirate in Stonehaven – the swashbuckling Silverblade, and Daxton is about to be swept right into the very center of it.
With an exciting and colorful cast, Daxton is a story of friendship, of thrilling action and adventure on the high seas, and of treasure not buried but hidden.
Laura’s thoughts: Daxton seemed promising at first. The book kicks off just as a sea battle is getting underway, which is exciting. However, the writing feels very rough; there’s too much exposition, too much head-hopping, and too many awkward sentences. There are also occasional tense changes which are quite jarring.
Theo’s thoughts: I agree with Laura, there is some promise in starting with a ship under attack. However, there is an early digression into exposition that is very “telly” and there are other parts of the sample that are also omniscient narrator delivering historical exposition.
While the author tackled her subject with enthusiasm, it would have benefited from more rigorous research. The politics, trade and battle tactics don’t feel credible. To my mind the supposedly crack pirate ship appeared unfeasibly vulnerable to a surprise attack from which it then extricated itself far too easily. The descriptions of the ship include some un-nautical terms and the naval battle descriptions really didn’t convince me.
The book is presented professionally, for example in its formatting, but the worldbuilding and characterisation lacked the depth and logic for me to read beyond that key kindle sample stage (10% or so). Also, it was surprising that 10% into the book we still hadn’t met the eponymous Daxton in his woodland environment. Indeed, the hero’s appearance is delayed until about a third of the way in, which suggests a lack of balance in the storytelling.
Beth’s thoughts: I really struggled with the writing style of this one; there were a number of mistakes, inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and unusual turns of phrase, that kept pushing me out of the flow of the narrative. Therefore the story wasn’t grabbing my attention at all. As TO suggests, it felt like the story could have benefited from further research; it read as if the author perhaps didn’t know very much about ships, which in turn did not create a convincing or immersive world.
Mike’s thoughts: I had high hopes for Daxton, but this wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. As a reader, I savour turn of phrase in dialogue and terminology when describing things to anchor myself to the story, but when these are misused (i.e. nautical terms in the case of Daxton) I find myself thrown out of the scene. When a story is really strong, or the characters especially compelling, I can look past the minor details and things like punctuation and spelling, but in this case it’s a narrr and not a yarrr from me.
Julia’s thoughts: I also agree with what has been mentioned before. My main problems were the really rough prose and how there seems to have been little research into ships and sailing. Combined it unfortunately kept me from ever getting hooked on the story or characters.
The One That Lives
Gregorian looms over the McKinley family though they’ve never met him. He’s the name Jacob McKinley screams right before his older brother, William, wakes him from his nightmares. Gregorian hangs over their breakfast table some mornings when the weight of him just won’t leave. Gregorian is a name William could do without knowing.
When the name becomes more than a nightmare, William swears to protect Jacob, but doubt lingers in the back of his mind. Given the choice between living or dying to protect his brother, William’s uncertain he’s selfless enough to make that sacrifice.
Laura: I’m afraid to say I didn’t get very far with this book. The writing feels quite clumsy, and the rather confusing and disjointed nature of the first couple of chapters makes it difficult to sympathise with any of the characters. I might have tried reading further if not for the poor formatting, which made it even more difficult to engage with.
Theo: There was some nice sharp dialogue between William and his friend Draven, and an interesting dislocation/surprise effect when William meets a slightly spooky substitute teacher with hints of magic intruding into this otherwise ordinary world. There are however some word choices that felt awkward, so potentially a bit of an edit needed.
The plot shifts along dizzily with quite a pacey start, where strange supernatural events are taken in their stride by the protagonists. I’d always rather be swept along by events that don’t entirely/initially make sense than have infodumps forced on me. The One That Lives did interest me, but didn’t quite enthuse me enough in its opening compared to the others in our sample.
Beth: I’m afraid I didn’t manage to read very far into this one either as, like Laura, the clumsy and disorientating writing was far too jarring. There were a number of mistakes, sentences that didn’t seem to make sense (possibly because there were certain words missed out?). Similarly to Daxton, the jarring quality of the writing meant I couldn’t really grip the story itself.
Mike: First impressions count – take the time to get it right, or you start off on the wrong foot. When the kindle sample shows formatting errors, it’s not a good omen for the rest of the book. From this alone the book comes across as unfinished/rushed.
In regards to story, there’s a growing sense that something isn’t quite right in the world, but I was more concerned by the wrongness of the formatting to really enjoy it. There’s promise in the premise and characters, but the looming threat is overshadowed by the need for a red pen edit.
Julia: This one had really poor formatting, that made it harder to focus on the story. Aside from that the writing felt a bit amateurish to me, and definitely could benefit from a harsh edit. There is some promise in the characters and story, but the rough edges made me quit early on.
Rien’s Rebellion: Kingdom
Once upon a time, a nation’s fate depended on an informant.
Once upon a time, a woman knew the law and a man knew war.
Once upon a time, they all lived under a good Monarch’s leadership.
Until he was assassinated.
Galantier’s politics can be vicious, corrupt, and unfair, but not deadly. They’ve got a war they can’t win and dare not lose on their border. Everything depends on a practical, cooperative government, including a smooth succession.
Vohan made that easy. For twenty-five years, he’s been a steady, reasonable monarch and leader. He raised his daughter, Cazerien, to serve Galanteran justice. His nephew, Laarens, leads in the Galanteran army. They will follow him.
Now Vohan is dead, and Galanteran politics have turned bloody. Nothing will ever be the same.
Cazerien believes in the law — not just as her profession, but as a faith and the wisdom that allows her people to thrive. She knows Galantier’s game, and she plays it well. Laarens believes in Cazerien and the arts of war.
Their adversary doesn’t follow their rules.
And someone knows what their adversary must keep secret.
Laura: I’ll be brutally honest and say that I almost abandoned this book after the first few pages. The opening is incredibly confusing; an abundance of unfamiliar terms makes the prose almost nonsensical in places (and the underlined links to the glossary more distracting than helpful), and the alternating first person narrators are disjointed and disorienting. There’s also an awful lot of internal monologuing at the start, which would be fine, except for the mixed tenses making things more confusing.
The mixing of tenses unfortunately continues, but once the book reaches Rien’s first proper chapter, the writing really seems to improve. I found myself racing through the first 20%, and although the time jumps are still a bit disorienting in places, they actually serve the story well, and the author does a creditable job of building the central mystery. Rien’s interactions with her council are smart and charming, and I found myself wanting to read on to find out what happened to the king. However, after a while longer, the pacing, along with the elements mentioned above, was not quite strong enough to maintain my interest.
Theo: Colour maps make a positive first impression, but the formatting in the main text was very off-putting, with huge spaces between paragraphs and the use of hyperlinks to a glossary that felt more appropriate perhaps in academic non-fiction. The use of italics felt random; I couldn’t work out if it was internal monologue or dialogue? Formatting matters. The best advice is to follow established conventions, at least until you’ve sold enough books to have earned the patience of a devoted following.
The writing felt as though it was aiming for stream of consciousness, but initially at least just confused me. We experienced different first person POVs, none of which really engaged me. It is possible that the book develops stronger, clearer storylines and perspectives past the initial 10% or so sample, but if that’s the case, then that’s where/how the story should have started.
Beth: I had a big problem with the bombardment of information sans content here. When it’s done right, drip-feeding exposition can be great, but here there were too many unknowns and the references were too fleeting. There were hyperlinks to a glossary, but that’s a very inconvenient way to read a book; it felt like the author was relying on the reader to look up each reference, which made for quite poor story-telling. The phrasing was quite strange and sometimes jarring, such as “Most times, people say, oi, he’s an Ingenia, and you think, he knows where to dig a new well, or maybe he’s one of those special lawyers who read minds.” It just felt so confusing to read that I wasn’t feeling gripped by the story – which is a shame, as clearly there’s been a lot of thought put into the world building.
Mike: Politics is a dry subject for some, but with a personal and professional interest in it, I was really looking forward to a ‘political fantasy’. That being said, when most paragraphs include 3-4 links to the glossary for definitions, this is stretching the footnotes of any government briefing pack. If the links weren’t included I probably wouldn’t have noticed and just put it down to worldbuilding I’d discover along the way. Additionally, in terms of presentation, italicising random words for emphasis doesn’t work when you also use the same styling for random stream-of-consciousness thoughts in the narrative. It becomes confusing.
The opening – a prologue – adds nothing because it doesn’t tell us anything, really. It’s just there and gives an idea of political intrigue, but what, who knows. As such it’s all politics, very little intrigue. And this theme continues throughout. Even when it could get interesting, it’s all a bit flat, and lacking emotion. Which is a shame, because the more I think about it, the more I wanted the story to embrace how different it wanted to be, and the more I wanted it to succeed.
Julia: I abandoned this one early on. I read it on an e-reader, not an app, so I didn’t even know if all the underlined things were links as I guessed or just really strange formatting. My guess turned out right, and they were all things I should/could look up in the glossary. I am really sorry, but if a book starts off with me needing to look up a glossary every few sentences that is a quick way to get me first bored, then annoyed, and then picking up another book. If that was the only thing I might have been able to look past it, but the whole start just felt strange and confusing – and not in a good “mystery” kind of way. Instead it made me go: “what, who, why now? Ah – forget it, I don’t have a clue what this is about anyway, so I don’t really care about any of it”. I’m quite willing to learn new things and explore strange lands! That is why I love fantasy – but give me *something* that hooks me first.
Vampires. Mere stories and myths until David’s dearest sister becomes one. He’s hunted them relentlessly ever since. Given that Haventon attracts supernatural creatures like a magnet does iron, David has become a well-practiced and skillful hunter.
But his hard-earned confidence betrays him and his prey, an elder vampire, takes the upper hand. Leisa doesn’t kill him, but shatters his certainty. Into his rebuilding effort comes The Order, directors of his hunting, with an order to supervise a novice hunter. Her error, attacking a human, requires all his attention at a time he can ill afford it.
Anna, the novice, asks him to examine her notes, to explain where she went wrong. While her mistake becomes understandable, it’s also attracted dangerous attention. More dangerous, perhaps, than the female vampire stalking him.
But not more dangerous than the town he and Anna were born in.
Haventon hasn’t finished with them yet.
It hasn’t even begun.
Laura: Urban fantasy is usually not my cup of tea, but I found myself rather enjoying Haventon Born, and I read all the way to 20%. It’s still not the kind of thing I’d choose to read, but it’s quick and fun, and has plenty of intriguing elements. However, at times it felt as though I was reading a sequel; there are lots of references to things that happened off the page before the events of this book, and I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing something.
Theo: My initial impression was of a reverse Twilight (insofar as I know anything about Twilight). We have a male human and a female vampire as protagonists and a mysterious quasi-legal order of vampire/werewolf hunters. There were quite a few PoV characters introduced early on and a theme of vampires and werewolves at war with each other.
I found the vampires, with their ability to read and control minds, felt a bit overpowered. While the story proceeds at a reasonable pace I didn’t feel a deep engagement with any of the characters in the opening sections. Although reasonably well executed, the essential set up and its people didn’t grab me as strongly as with others.
Beth: I’m sorry to say this one just didn’t grab my attention at all. I didn’t find the story particularly interesting. I’m not generally a fan of “urban” fantasy, or that is to say, fantasy set in our own world. Up to the point I read in Haventon Born, the only fantasy elements were vampires and a mention of werewolves, which isn’t enough fantasy for my tastes. Aside from my personal tastes, like Laura, I felt there were references made as if the reader should be aware of them from a previous book? Other characters were referred to as if we knew who they were. The sudden and numerous flips between perspectives were quite jarring.
Mike: I can’t help but read: vampire, think: Twilight. Once bitten twice shy, I guess. But with references to events that sounded like they had happened in a previous book, reading this felt like I had bitten off more than I could chew. The ‘plot’ had promise, but the awkward ‘voice’ (especially in dialogue) was one too many nails in the coffin for me.
Julia: I am a big fan of urban fantasy usually, but this one didn’t work for me. My biggest problem was once again the writing style feeling a bit clumsy and especially the dialogue felt stilted to me. Adding to that I found a lot of things felt way too unrealistic. An experienced hunter making mistakes a rookie would be ashamed of. Leaders discussing people’s fates when they know those people are in easy hearing distance. Such things just made me roll my eyes at characters who seem to act stupid just for the plot’s sake, while they are supposed to be good at what they do.
As you can see, this contest is tough! But on a more positive note…
Our first semi-finalist is:
A pacifist monk. A threatening darkness. An innocent village hanging in the balance.
Hoping to escape his dark past, Amana travels to the great village of Bajok in search of redemption. The day he arrives, a young woman is slain and the locals point their fingers at the new arrival.
Amana must overcome the village’s trepidation. A demon is on the loose and he fears more will die. The solution is obvious-a swift and brutal counterattack.
But his vow of peace is the last virtue that remains in his tattered soul.
Is his personal peace more valuable than the lives of the innocent, or will Amana be swallowed by the darkness that has hounded him his entire life?
Delve into an African fantasy inspired by the Angola folklore, where Amana will face mystical villains, ancient secrets, and the demons that smolder within himself.
Laura: The Kishi has one of the most striking opening chapters I’ve read during the contest so far. The atmosphere is celebratory and vibrant, but underscored with tension and threat. This gradually escalates into outright violence verging on horror when the boundaries between magic and superstition are torn away. I read up to 18%, and promoting The Kishi to semi-finalist status (aka a full read and review) was a no-brainer for me. The main protagonist, Amana, is a sympathetic fellow, and I look forward to following his quest through the rest of the book!
Theo: The opening is intriguing and different – not medieval-European frame, so it’s good to get that distance. There is some head hopping in the opening chapter but a lot of good incidental worldbuilding – avoiding the perilous infodumps.
We follow Amana as our main protagonist and little bits of subplot and tension brew nicely. I can’t see exactly where the setting is going to take us. The monster has been sort of explained so I am not sure if “it” is the story, or if (like one of my favourite Dr Who stories The Monster of Peladon, or even The Hound of the Baskervilles) the story is about the politics/infighting behind the monster’s appearance, but I’m looking forward to finding out more as we read on.
I only had one slight moment of alarm on reading – in a somewhat amorous situation – that a character’s breasts were “throbbing.” That threw me out a little. It sounded more like mastitis than passion!
Beth: My first impressions were very good, I loved the storytelling-feel to the narrative. It flowed well, feeling a little like a folk-tale but not quite; it was a nice balance that worked well. I found the story compelling and I wanted to read on. I liked the build-up to the attack, her irrational behaviour hinting that something wasn’t right.
With the introduction of the new character, at first I found him stuffy and I was a little disoriented with regards to the timing, but I liked the flashes that there was more to this character – again this compelled me to read on. There were moments I felt were poorly done; Amana’s description of the fight and the introduction of his “sight”; the repetition of the ritual and spirits, and the bride-to-be’s speech; the very sudden but fleeting mention of a dead daughter. Having said that, I think the story is still very interesting, and the characters are distinctive and intriguing! The story still sticks in my mind, and I’m still wondering where it may lead next.
I would mention that I think the cover could be improved! Perhaps it would be better to try and retain some mystery about the figure of the demon before the story actually starts.
Mike: This book had me intrigued from the very moment I heard the title. ‘The Kishi’ – a word I had heard previously. For those of you who don’t know, a Kishi is a being from African folklore (Angolan specifically) that is a highly charismatic male humanoid… but with a hyena face on the back of its head. They prey upon women using their charm and wit, and once they’ve lured them in, they kill and, well, eat them. In modern parlance, think Quirinus Quirrell from Harry Potter (who has Voldemort’s face on the back of his head) crossed with a D&D Gnoll, who has a +5 charisma modifier, sneak attack abilities, and advantage on bite attacks.
With this in mind, before I started reading, I was expecting an African-inspired folklore type fantasy with added romance, and a little bit of horror.
I was not disappointed.
So as not to go into any spoilers, the opening chapter launches into a vibrant African village setting which then embraces the dark and violent nature of the Kishi. It delivered everything I wanted from it in that first chapter – though the ‘throbbing breasts’ did let it down, I have to say – which had me ready and raring for more.
Julia: This had one moment at the start that made me think “oh no, please don’t be dodgy romance” (Just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with romance, I personally just don’t like to read it! And the above-mentioned “throbbing breasts” made me wary…). Once I got past that and a rather strange-feeling scene I rather flew through the book from chapter 2 onwards!
I especially enjoyed the setting that was so different to what I am used to. There is a bit of romance in it after all, but it is a natural part of the story and not the main plot of the book, and I think it was rather well done. Another big plus in my eyes were the fight scenes that felt fast paced and kept me interested. I had a bit of a problem with the cover giving away a major plot point early on, and how exactly that worked in the physical world. The interesting story, unique setting and well formed characters made up for that. I’ll keep more of this to myself until we get to full reviews, as I think I’m the only judge who already finished the whole book.
***Congratulations to Antoine Bandele and The Kishi!***
We’ll be posting more updates in the coming weeks. In the meantime, check out the graphic and list below for our full roster of entries, as well as links to more SPFBO 5 goodness!
- A.B. Endacott, Queendom of the Seven Lakes
- A.M. MacDonald, Remember the Dawn
- Antoine Bandele, The Kishi
Becka Sutton, Haventon Born
- Brad Carsten, The Wretched
- Brian McClellan, Uncanny Collateral
C.Z. Edwards, Kingdom: Rien’s Rebellion
- Deck Matthews, The First of Shadows
- Deston J. Munden, Tavern
E.L. Drayton, Daxton Eli Celata, The One That Lives
- Frank G. Albelo, The Hall
- Gaia J. Kos and Boris Kos, Evenfall
- Harry Young, These Forgotten Gods
- Jack Massa, Cloak of the Two Winds
- Jacob Rasmussen, The Fall
- Jeffrey L. Kohanek, The Buried Symbol
- Justin DePaoli, Dragonsoul
- K. Vale Nagle, Eyrie
- Kade Cook, Grey
- Lisa Cassidy, A Tale of Stars and Shadow
- Madeleine D’Este, Women of Wasps and War
- Matthew Satterlee, Forlorn Dimension
- Miriam R. Dumitra, Brightshade
- Ryan Howse, The Steel Discord
- Sean Monaghan, The Map Maker of Morgenfeld
- Sergio C. Pereira, The Not-So-Grim Reaper
- Stephanie Burgis, Snowspelled
- Tracy Cooper-Posey, The Branded Rose Prophecy
- Zamil Akhtar, Song of a Dead Star
One of these books is a future SPFBO 5 finalist – perhaps even the winner! Can you guess which one? (We can’t… yet!)
If you’re following SPFBO 5, let us know about any entries that have caught your fancy! Join the discussion on social media (there’s a Facebook group here) and weigh in on Twitter using the hashtag #SPFBO.
Stay tuned over the following five months as we review and eliminate 29 of the 30 books in our batch, and check out our introduction to round 1!