SPFBO 5: Another 4 Eliminations – And Second Semi-Finalist Announcement!
The fifth Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) is 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 second batch of eliminations – and to find out who our second semi-finalist is! (Here’s our previous announcement in case you missed it.)
And so, without any preamble whatsoever, here are our next four eliminations, followed by our second semi-finalist:
Gabrian Shadwell is one of the most lethal and powerful supernatural beings on earth.
Her blood, one part silver mage and the other Vampire, is an unstable and hard to control combination of supernatural gifts that would test even the most knowledgeable of souls.
The Problem is…She has no idea she even has it.
When her magic surfaces and makes its claim on her, Gabrian loses control of her life and becomes a danger to everyone around her. The world she knows turns upside down and fills with chaos.
Stubborn and hell-bent on getting her life back, she makes a deal with a smooth tongued devil who claims he can help her gain control. But she soon learns the cost might be higher than she could ever imagine.
GREY is the first book in The Covenant of Shadows, a series of captivating urban fantasy novels. If you like new twists on Vampire lore, a bit of romance, and close-knit bonds, then you will love Kade Cook’s supernatural journeys.
Sadly, I didn’t get very far into this one before it became obvious it just wasn’t for me. The premise is intriguing, but I had issues with the prose; it’s quite convoluted in places, and the author has a tendency to misuse words. The dialogue is also a little too stilted and overly formal for my liking.
The opening line of the prologue didn’t hit the right note for me – as though it was pitching for profound but just mishit it. Like Laura I found that simple scenes and actions were being embroidered with a flourish of vocabulary that was actually forming a barrier to me engaging with what was going on. At other times words were misused in a way that grated – eg “…outbursts of rehearsed verbatim.”
Parts did snag my curiosity – there is a meeting and discussion about “the child” that got my ears pricking up at an intriguing backstory lurking in there. It felt like Hogwarts wizards discussing Harry Potter, or Jedi Masters discussing Anakin Skywalker. So the setup had promise, but there was quite a lot of exposition.
When we met the main character it was through an italicised journal entry of reflection that came across as a self-absorbed psychologist complaining how self-absorbed her clients are. However, the writing style did become more natural and fluent there than in the narrative parts. A nice line about lost marbles made me smile. There is an interesting premise in this – a lost child now as an adult awakening to her true supernatural self. But the writing did not sustain that premise strongly enough for me to read on.
At first, I really struggled to get into this book; just reading the first page felt like a slog. I usually love descriptive prose, but I felt clarity was being lost through over-description. I’d lose the sense or the point of the sentence, and would need to re-read it.
This was followed by a section wherein each character was being “introduced” – each took it in turns to speak and we were told a little something about them. It was repetitive and tedious, and I found myself barely paying attention.
Finally, when we reached our main protagonist, my patience was already wearing thin. Although there was a clear distinction in the tone between the two perspectives, I found myself disliking this character and her flippant language regarding mental health. Coming from a mental health professional, it really lifted me out of the narrative and I found myself unable to connect to her or care about what happened to her.
In short, a potentially interesting concept but I didn’t find the execution readable – sorry!
I was actually excited by the tagline for this:
WARNING: May contain unstable magic, supernaturals and vampires.
Vampires are a big hit or miss for me. I grew up in the years of UNDERWORLD (hit) and TWILIGHT (miss). Once bitten, twice shy or so the saying goes.
Would you steal life to save your own?
Even a Vampire has gotta appreciate these stakes!
One-click now to summon your copy and dive into a mystical new world today.
Okay, I might have lol’d a little.
But that’s pretty much all that I liked about this. That’s not to say I disliked it, it’s just not for me. Removing my personal opinion on the subject matter, and reviewing objectively based on merit, GREY reads like it’s trying to be poetic prose, with trimmings of purpose and poise and prophecy… but nope, it’s just very purple. Trying to see the story through the words is like trying to see the woods through the trees. The writing style definitely bites off more than it can chew (especially if you’re trying to read this out loud – something I try when I’m having difficulty adjusting to an author’s voice) and it could do with a good beta read and edit to file those fangs down to a point.
Like the others, I abandoned this one early on. I didn’t like the voice, and the prose – especially the dialogue – felt stilted to me. Once, for example, the characters describe the looks of another character to each other, even though they both know him. Why would you do that, if it wasn’t just purely for the reader? Such things just throw me out of a story really quickly if there’s more than a few occasions. It simply didn’t hook me at all, so I must give this one a miss – not my cup of tea, sadly.
After getting separated from her family during their hunt for an especially deadly monster, Ellen sets out in search of the Monad Fortress, the safest and most peaceful place in the world. And she finds it, just in time to learn that it’s about to be destroyed.
The sky over the fortress is turning black and monsters are beginning to appear in every corner of the dimension. Saving the fortress is impossible. Even saving herself and her new friends is going to be a miserable struggle that she might not survive.
Part 1 of the Ellen’s Friends series: a fantasy adventure that encompasses both books and video games.
Story-wise, Forlorn Dimension starts off pretty intriguing – wandering hunters, decaying dimensions, eldritch monsters – but sadly it falls a little flat in the execution. We’re initially introduced to a young protagonist who is terrified about being sent off on her own to find a certain city. I was looking forward to seeing her cope with the solo journey through the horror-infested dimensions… except that the book then cuts to ‘two weeks later,’ when she finds the city in a safe dimension.
Everything that happens after that is disappointingly underwhelming, including her ‘trial’; and the fact that she seems barely worried about the fate of her guardian – plus the fact that she doesn’t speak up to explain herself to the antagonistic cityfolk – frustrated me, as did the numerous typos. Not for me – sorry!
I thought the opening was well written – the kind of unobtrusive writing which does the job well. We have a female protagonist and mysterious guardians sheltering in a strange dimension hunting bug-eyed monsters. There was some tension in a monstrous attack, but that was dissipated by the leader’s calm confidence that it could be dealt with – making the event seem simply a vehicle to thrust the protagonist away on her own.
But that solo fortnight of peril is shortcut in barely a line that takes us to a dimension where “There wasn’t a trace of danger anywhere.” This dissipates tension again. Maybe seeing some of the dangers Ellen fought her way through alone would have given me some investment in the character/situation.
There was some mystery about combat in this dimension, and to Ellen in particular, which piqued my interest. But once again, tension was raised and immediately dissipated; enemies become friends, for no adequately explained reason. The kindle sample ends at an intriguing part – with Ellen just stepping up for her final assessment. But… it just didn’t grab me. I didn’t find enough depth in the characters or the situation. The world building of multiple decaying dimensions is an interesting setting, but every challenge/danger ended before it had properly begun – as if the story never gets into a stride, let alone breaking sweat.
This one just didn’t grab my attention unfortunately. I thought there was plenty of potential in the idea of a multi-dimensional world which is decaying, but this wasn’t really explored any deeper than the protagonist frequently telling us how scary the monsters were. There was a lot that just didn’t work for me, which was such a shame. I found the writing quite simplistic, and the character too repetitive to connect to. There were some quite specific Americanisms which, in this kind of ulterior-world fantasy, again lifts me out of the narrative (for example the word “bangs”).
For a book boasting a blurb with some pretty spectacular set pieces, the story is rather two-dimensional.
Wow, that’s a bad pun even coming from me.
Forlorn Dimension tries to plane-shift as it goes, reading like a middle-grade book at times, and then like it’s hopped over into a more mature LitRPG land. It’s an odd experience. And like I said, I was excited by the blurb and the ideas, but the execution… it’s missing. As the others have already pointed out, it skipped the GOOD BIT. WHY DO DIS? Okay, I get that there is a story to be told, but I was hoping for that story based on the blurb, not this! By portalling two weeks ahead it cheapened what I’d already bought into, and delved into rather boring normality. This killed any sense of real momentum in the pacing and the movement of the overall plot. I hung on as the story continued, but there wasn’t enough in it to keep me from a warped sense that this had more potential that it delivers upon.
One more I abandoned very early on. The setup was really intriguing and I was settling in nicely at the very start when we’re in a cave and our main protagonist is set on watch. Obviously something will happen now!
Something does, but the whole introductory scene didn’t really make much sense to me. When it’s almost time for someone else to be on watch, and she wishes they were already awake and then she just goes to sleep anyway? When something then happens she has absolutely no idea what to do – why would you let someone be on watch who had no training in that regard, as it seems from how it’s written? The actual incident was rather underwhelming, and did not fit the expectation of the setup. I read on a bit, but just didn’t get hooked – though I might already have been in a bit of a mood, after the – for me – unsatisfactory beginning.
Song of a Dead Star
When Kav sleeps, a firefly whispers in his ear that his wife is not dead. But to find her he has to kill the three Magi that protect the land of Eden.
The same Magi destroyed Kav’s hometown four years ago to crush a rebellion, and he hasn’t seen his wife since.
As Kav plots to kill the Magi, a flying armada bent on conquest and destruction invades Eden. Only the Magi and their ability to turn sunshine into magical energy can stop them.
Granted the same power by the firefly, Kav must either kill the Magi to reunite with his wife, or let go of his longing for the sake of Eden and its people.
This is another entry with a lot of potential and some interesting worldbuilding, but which falls a bit flat in the execution. The magic (science?) system seems really innovative, and the sun/light magic reminds me (favourably) of Brent Weeks’ Lightbringer series. However, Dead Star’s science isn’t explained as clearly as it could be (in my distinctly non-scientific opinion, admittedly).
The characters are sadly lacking as well. The feud between Kav and Tusir lacks tension because we’re thrown straight into it without any build-up or backstory. Furthermore, Kav’s persistently horny best friend was actually really annoying. Though the worldbuilding intrigued me, I found myself not really caring about what happened to the characters, which is why I set it aside for elimination.
We have a conflict to start, which is good. One boy against three always engenders a certain sympathy for the bullied. There is a mix of magic and contemporary science that keeps the reader uncertain but can also keep them curious. There are, however, parts which are quite heavy with exposition – for example, when a general delivers a big chunk of backstory to characters who would already know most of it.
There is a sort of Mark Lawrence Book of the Ancestor theme of a race of interstellar travellers making a home on a new planet and their planet-bound descendants – the children of Nur – learning to use a kind of sunlight-based magic. Quite complex ideas, including a key resource needed to help channel sunlight which seems to have sparked a long-running war. However, the main character’s companion is a little irritating in his sex/innuendo obsession and I couldn’t warm to either of them really.
There’s an interesting magic system and political and racial tension in the air which makes for some good raw ingredients for a story. There is also reference to the Magi/mask: mysterious magicians whose patronage is generally considered desirable. However, while there are puzzles in the characters and the situation, these complexities didn’t quite hit the sweet spot of firing my curiosity and sustaining my interest.
This contest can be so tough. To have written a book is an incredible achievement, and it takes a lot to then put yourself and your work out there in a contest like this.
So I apologise, but this book infuriated me somewhat. I just did not know what was going on. I rarely read the blurb of a book before diving in – I dislike how sometimes they can influence your expectations of a book – and having just read this blurb, it seems nothing like what I read of this book!
There were a number of mistakes in the opening pages, as well as a barrage of information delivered through dialogue; I had no idea who these people were, why this person was being chased, what the context for anything they were saying was. Therefore it was more confusing than exciting.
As the narrative progressed, things did not become clearer. For example, for the longest time I had no idea the age of these characters. In the opening pages I thought they were children, but later I had the impression they were much older than that – but at no point are we given clear indication. The last straw for me was the protagonist’s friend; his language, his casual joke that his friend looked like he had been raped by a mountain gorilla (why not just beaten up? Why raped specifically? You could literally use anything else in this instance), his frankly weird obsession with what the protagonist had been dreaming about… I just couldn’t read past how frustrating I found it all.
I WAS SO EXCITED FOR THIS! The blurb was music to my ears. Science – fantasy – adventure. Sing it for me, baby! Middle Eastern influences AND romance (I’m a sucker for a kissing book – don’t @ me, bro)? ENCORE, ENCORE!
Which is a shame, because this missed a beat for me. After a familiar, almost finger-tappingly so, opening, everything gets a little weird in the next scene, which is cool, but it really threw me. And when I’m in that mindset as a reader, one wrong note, even a really small one (i.e. a joke like ‘for someone who looks like he got raped by a mountain gorilla, you’re sure lively’) can be really off putting.
(I will add, the word ‘rape’ in a joke isn’t ok. Even if it’s about a mountain gorilla. Even if the characters in your story are gutter humour soldiers – I’m one [ex-mil] – it’s still not ok.)
Also, as a side note, when your Amazon ‘look inside’ preview is 6~ pages of story, and 9~ pages of glossary, you aren’t giving readers a chance to decide if they want to read on. After I finish a SPFBO book I always go and check the Amazon page for other things to include in the review, and this stood out to me so so so much. Please, SHOW OFF YOUR WORK – NOT YOUR WIKI!
Since I almost never like romance and fantasy mixed together, especially in adult fantasy (for some reason I’ve no problem with it in YA), and as I especially dislike sex and innuendo in my fantasy books, I skipped this one completely…
The Map Maker of Morgenfeld
Cole Palmer lives an idyllic, quiet life in a small village, trying to put his life together after Liddy disappeared. He sketches and does odd jobs for neighbors, and misses her.
A murder in distant, sprawling Morgenfeld changes everything. And not for the better. The chaotic world of the vast kingdom-building shoves Cole into unimaginable situations.
Cole just wants to go home. If he can survive.
The perfect journey for readers who love the fantastic worlds of Mervyn Peake and Michael Moorcock.
The first line of this book is awesome, but – and I hate to say it – the rest is nowhere near as good. The author’s slightly odd (almost Shatner-esque) use of punctuation, specifically commas, prevents the prose from flowing as it should, but the larger issues are with the story itself. The main character, Cole, is far too passive a protagonist. The other characters’ actions are somewhat bizarre, and the intrigue of the opening quickly fades after several pages of nothing much happening. Cole’s situation is described by one character as ‘administrative limbo’, and I’m sorry to say that in my opinion, this was not a good way to begin a book.
For some – first line aside – this first page might be called a gentle start, for others possibly a slow start. The first chapter opens with a striking line and finishes with a striking line – again that sprinkle of conflict/threat alongside a naive protagonist who is generous with his time almost to a fault. There’s a slight Senlin-ness or Bilbo-esque nature to the man – Cole – being taken way out of his comfort zone. But I found it hard to get the measure of Cole; he’s easy going and didn’t seem excessively worried by his predicament.
And so we arrive at Morgenfeld, described as a building rather than a city. Like Gormenghast or the Tower of Babel, this is a building that could be the main character in the story. It made an interesting premise and I was curious, but I wanted to see some lines that make me smile and find out a little more beneath the surface of the characters. By the end of the sample I was curious but not yet wowed. I remained as unclear as Cole as to why he has been brought to Morgenfeld and so this whole section still feels like a setup to the story. It should have started later on, or got going faster.
I think this is our first elimination which, actually, I kind of liked!
It was a gentle opening as we’re introduced to the protagonist – who is then spirited away by guards for reasons which aren’t immediately made clear to him. I found this almost like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; he finds himself someplace mysterious, which clearly has its own set of rules that are out of his grasp, and he just wants to get home again.
I was intrigued by this city-state building, by its contradictory bureaucracy, and the notion of levels of society building upon each other, with the history of each layer perhaps forgotten as time went on.
However, I did get the feeling that perhaps the author wasn’t sure where the story was going. The narrative was quite meandering, it didn’t seem to have a firm sense of purpose – of conflict/ resolution to work towards. There were also numerous, silly little mistakes.
For a story about a map maker, this sure does like to wander from the point. That’s fine, but when it strays too far from the point too often, it can be easy to lose your way. In the opening alone, every ‘point’ is interspersed with a trip down memory lane, or a scenic route of the senses. As a reader I found it hard to keep track of where I was, let alone where the story was going. This style continues throughout, and it can make navigating the story between breaks easier said than done.
That being said, the voice here is strong. It’s not one that I am able to follow easily, though others will have better luck keeping up. As TO said, there’s hints of a Books of Babel-like tale here, and I’m not sure whether that was the destination, but the journey doesn’t quite make it.
As such, The Map Maker of Morgenfeld didn’t quite make it for me. I was willing to give it a chance, but it fell short of semi-finalist status. I will say, however, that if you’re looking for something a little different, this might be what you’re after!
The first sentence of this one was a perfect hook! Sadly, after that first sentence it feels like nothing at all is happening, and that nothing is described in really great detail… It felt so very slow that I found myself skipping paragraphs and then whole pages even early on in the book – and after I realised that, I abandoned it. I really loved the cover and the first sentence was so very promising, so I am sad this one wasn’t for me.
Commiserations to the eliminated authors. On a more positive note…
Our second semi-finalist is:
In nineteenth-century Angland, magic is reserved for gentlemen while ladies attend to the more practical business of politics. But Cassandra Harwood has never followed the rules…
Four months ago, Cassandra Harwood was the first woman magician in Angland, and she was betrothed to the brilliant, intense love of her life.
Now Cassandra is trapped in a snowbound house party deep in the elven dales, surrounded by bickering gentleman magicians, manipulative lady politicians, her own interfering family members, and, worst of all, her infuriatingly stubborn ex-fiancé, who refuses to understand that she’s given him up for his own good.
But the greatest danger of all lies outside the manor in the falling snow, where a powerful and malevolent elf-lord lurks…and Cassandra lost all of her own magic four months ago.
To save herself, Cassandra will have to discover exactly what inner powers she still possesses – and risk everything to win a new kind of happiness.
I really like what I’ve read of this so far. Although the narrator is belabouring the whole ‘four months earlier’ thing a bit too much, the voice is really engaging, and the story is flowing along at a good pace. The romantic set-up is very obvious, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; given the cover and blurb, it’s pretty much what I was expecting.
What I wasn’t expecting was for the prose and setting to recall such wonderful books as Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Sorcerer to the Crown. There are lots of similarities here, but I like the way the author puts her own spin on things: trolls, elves, and even the Celtic-inspired names of the political groups and families (Boudiccans, Trinivantians, etc). I’m very much looking forward to continuing with this one.
The initial feel is of a Jane Austen-type setup but with magic – yes, magic – and trolls who collect tolls, which seems more civilised than eating people. There is a secret backstory lurking around the protagonist Cassandra and her use/not use of magic. It is nicely hinted at but not info-dumped, keeping the reader’s curiosity honest.
The story worked its magic on me with some nice smooth writing (e.g. “…long, ground-eating strides that stretched my skirts with every step.”) The tension isn’t in blood and battle, or looming world-ending disasters; it is personal and relatable and engagingly written. It held my interest very well up to the 21% mark limit for our first sift/semi-finalist selection. Very Regency/Austen-like in its cultural style yet in a world where women do politics and men do magic. A good balance of action and tension, so very easily one to read on with.
The world sucked me straight into this story: as has already been mentioned, it’s Austen/Jonathan Strange in feel, with the odd Fforde-esque detail in representing the magical in the mundane (such as paying a tax on your carriage so you are not taken by trolls) and the influences of an alternative history (Boudicca seeming far more important to this society than today’s).
There’s the occasional awkward turn of phrase, and like Laura said, the protagonist is harping on a little too much. Despite this the narrative still flows very well and it’s an easy, enjoyable read. I want to know more about these characters, I want to know more about “what happened four months ago”, and frankly I want to know if Cassandra’s going to get over herself and back with Wrexham! Very much looking forward to seeing where this story takes us.
I like this – which means a lot, because it’s not something I’d generally go for. I’m more of the blood and guts and glory type than the regency and social decency persuasion.
The voice is immediately engaging – though the reminders of something happening 4 months ago is off putting, and I can’t help but ask ‘then why not write about that?’ – which weaves a spell of charm and enchantment as you follow the story. It’s fantastically well written, with delightful turns of phrase sprinkled throughout like a pinch of magic dust here and there (and a few awkward sentences/word choices, but let’s just sweep that under the rug and continue).
This is the type of book you can pick up, read, put down, only to realise you’ve spent the whole afternoon reading. But this is also where my criticism rears its head. It’s short. And reading it in an afternoon wouldn’t require a wave of a magic wand to add more hours to your day. Snowspelled sits at 166 pages on Kindle/168 physical, which is circa 50k~ words. That’s short. It’s more of a novella than a novel. And whilst I won’t let that detract from the well-deserved semi-finalist status, it does need to be acknowledged.
That being said, a story should only be as long as it needs to be, and this is a wonderful tale. The little touches here and there – trolls who take tolls (that just rolls off the tongue wonderfully) – really shine. It’s just a shame there wasn’t more to read (though there is a book two…which sits at 200 ish pages, so circa 110k between the two, and I do wonder if this should have been a ‘one and done’.
Regardless, I really liked this, and coming from a typical swords & sandals reader like me, that is an achievement in itself! Congrats on becoming a Fantasy Hive semi-finalist.
I loved this! I’m reading for 2 blogs this year, so it’s 60 books on my list – and Snowspelled is one of my personal favourites so far. Once I started, I devoured the whole book in one go! I couldn’t stop at the “sample length” as I intended – to read more of it later on when we review our semi finalists. This has a really charming tone and the voice just worked for me. It has a Jane Austen feel to it I really enjoyed. It isn’t perfect – what book ever is? – but I would definitely recommend it to everyone who likes a witty and cheeky main character. More to come in the full review!
*** Congratulations to Stephanie Burgis and SNOWSPELLED! ***
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* (*semi-finalist)
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* (*semi-finalist)
- Tracy Cooper-Posey, The Branded Rose Prophecy
Zamil Akhtar, Song of a Dead Star
One of the surviving 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!