FORTUNE’S FOOL by Angela Boord (SPFBO Finalist Review)
Phase 2 of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off is drawing to a close at the end of this month! Keep track of the finalists’ scoreboard here.
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.
And if you have no idea what’s going on here, go ahead and check out our introduction to round 1!
And here it is, our last review for SPFBO 5: Fortune’s Fool (Eterean Empire #1) by Angela Boord.
A secret affair. A disfiguring punishment. A burning need for revenge.
Kyrra d’Aliente has a bad reputation and an arm made of metal.
Cast out of the safe and luxurious world of silk to which she was born, played as a pawn in a game of feuding Houses, Kyrra navigates a dangerous world of mercenaries, spies, and smugglers while disguising herself as a man.
War destroyed her family and the man she loved.
Vengeance is within her grasp.
But is she willing to pay its price?
Beth has abstained from judging and scoring Blood of Heirs for impartiality purposes.
(The cover? Production value? Prose? Editing?)
Taking a look at the cover to start with, I assume we are seeing the protagonist, and it looks like a woman with a way with cards, a sword, and a strange silvery arm, in a kind of European-renaissance kind of setting. So I’m expecting some thievish trickery and I am always keen to read about female protagonists. Let’s see how much I have divined correctly from the cover!
Unfortunately I’m not so keen on the cover. I appreciated the 80’s retro fantasy book cover style it’s aiming at, the mysterious metallic arm gripping a sword gives us a semblance of what to expect too. However, there is something about the central figure which I found really unappealing.
I really don’t like the cover at all. But that’s personal preference, as I never like to see actual characters front and center – especially not faces. I am also not a big fan of the style. But obviously that’s very subjective.
The prose is strong in this one. It is a long book, fleshing out its author’s world with rich descriptions of place, people and setting but all delivered with a lightness of touch and an authenticity of first person voice, so it doesn’t feel ‘long’ just ‘good.’
There is a thoroughly professional feel to the book and the prose is of a very high quality. My kindle notes are full of lines and phrases where I’ve just commented ‘nice,’ ‘really nice,’ ‘lovely.’ It’s not purple prose, just very well crafted and effective – so many nice lines and so many associations sparked with great stories.
Like Theo, I also loved the prose. Boord’s narrative style feels sophisticated, eloquent and well polished. As soon as you dive in, there is a classic feel to it, and I think this suited the renaissance time period of the story really well. I was initially surprised by the use of present tense, but I very much enjoy differing narratives styles, and Boord handles it well, so this was not jarring in any way and I enjoyed it.
The opening section of ‘present story’ looks at one point like it is going to get mired in an excess of complexity, but then we switch to the backstory, which follows a more linear flow, and starts to resolve some of that initial confusing tension.
I have to admit although I love the prose, initially, the first two chapters were quite a struggle for me. There were a lot of names, places and past events thrown at the reader, which felt overly complex, and failed to hook my attention. I considered not reading on, but once Julia mentioned she felt the same way but then began to love it – well I trusted Julia, and she didn’t lead me astray. By chapter four, and this is where we hit the backstory, I was fully invested.
Yep – exactly like Nils said. I almost DNFed this one at first despite the great prose – and it ended up being my personal favourite of all the ten finalists! The first two chapters drown you in information (that you don’t even really need at that point!) and so are very slow. I was fully expecting to DNF it at 50 pages, and it just barely managed to hook me before I got there!
Something else I didn’t even notice until Nils pointed it out, one of the two timelines is in present tense, which I usually loathe! Boord however wrote it so incredibly well, it didn’t even occur to me, she snuck it past me! It’s really hard to make it work for me, so this is some of the highest praise.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
(Do you have a favourite? Is the main character sympathetic? How’s the dialogue? Are the protagonists believable? Do we care about their plight?)
I liked Kyris/Kyrra a lot – the character who has already been changed emotionally and physically by a series of ordeals and is currently doing a Twelfth Night Viola/Orisini act of disguising herself as a man in a man’s world.
Kyrra/Kyris is a character whom I enjoyed seeing develop throughout the book, I was thoroughly impressed by how well-crafted her narrative voice was. I particularly liked her plight early on where she had to adapt to a disability, which was one aspect that resonated with me as I also have a physical disability. I very much appreciated the way Boord portrayed Kyrra’s frustration at having a limited range of things she could now physically do, but then learning to find new ways in order to cope.
I was also intrigued by the scarred mentor Arsenault Kyrra was still looking for years after a tumultuous parting before some battle. When we do meet him in the back story, we are shown, rather than told, his enigmatic nature and background – he felt sort of like a Clint Eastwood kind of grizzled veteran.
The villain is wonderfully, credibly-awful in a world where politics and the judiciary are dominated by the big money of family businesses. I am invested in seeing him get his comeuppance.
I feel pretty much the same as Theo about the characters as both main protagonists were extremely well done.
I was also very much intrigued by Arsenault. He’s a grizzled, rough-around-the-edges warrior, who has a lot of secrets up his sleeve. So I enjoyed watching his story arc unfold.
In terms of dialogue, I thought the exchanges between Arsenault and Kyrra/Kyris flowed naturally, and I enjoyed the way they began to understand each other during these conversations.
I can only echo what was already said. I really clicked with the characters and was so ensnared in their story I could barely put the book down. For me also, the way Kyrra adapts to her new challenges was very well handled! I enjoy it if there’s not just able-bodied characters, but often they seem like the disability is just ‘painted on’. Here you really could see her struggle to adjust and get frustrated, and it felt really well done!
That’s a good point, Julia. As a reader we really do feel Kyrra’s disability and the many ways it impacts on her everyday life.
I’d just like to chime in and agree with Julia too. I’ve read quite a few books where disability is handled poorly and not enough depth is shown – either we are not shown the struggle-to-acceptance narrative or the main character merely wallows in despair. Here we get to see Kyrra struggle right from the beginning and follow her progress towards finding ways of living with her disability.
Julia: Arsenault also really captured my interest, even though his sort of character usually isn’t especially appealing to me. But somehow they simply had me hooked and fully engaged all the way through. Rarely have I read such a big book in such a short time!
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
(Slow start? Hard to keep up? Does the author use flashbacks/POV shifts? Do these work well or not? Did each chapter keep you turning the pages?)
By 21% in the book has two timelines which I found well structured. The opening – present – story, has our heroine masquerading as a male mercenary, with a lot of weighty back story, including a metal arm. Stuff happens in a world where a lot of recent stuff has happened and it does get a bit confusing. But then we flip back a few years to meet the protagonist and begin to discover who she was and how she has fallen. This section at times is a bit ‘expositiony,’ but in a way that works. The first person narrator felt like a fantastic David Copperfield reflecting on the folly of her youth. It works really well. I was impatient to follow both threads as they converged on a present crisis.
Personally, I much preferred the chapters with Kyrra’s backstory over the present timeline with Kyrra masquerading as Kyrris. Like I said before, it wasn’t until then where I became much more engaged. The themes present in the backstory do (frighteningly) reflect some issues that are still relevant today, and I admired Boord for reflecting that.
The plot is quite immersive and complex, in a way that is reminiscent of one exchange between Kyris/Kyrra and a friend worried about what she is planning to do.
“Are you sure you want this? It’s deep water”
“I can swim,” I say.
The plot is deep, but well worth swimming in and it has some impressively delivered twists.
There was also a slow-burn romance, which became central to the plot, and this is something I’d usually be put off by, but I actually digged it in this. I’m stealing Theo’s words here but I can’t believe Julia and I liked ‘a kissing book!’
Overall though I felt the book was too long. There were a lot of chapters during the middle which unfortunately dragged, they felt long-winded and then at times became unnecessarily complex. I would have preferred for events to unfold quicker than they did.
Oh yes. No one was more surprised at just how much I love this book than me! I usually go for books full of action with a fast pace. I do not like romance in my fantasy. I loved this one even though it was slow, low on action (when you consider the size of the book) and had a romance as a big part of the story. But then it isn’t cheesy and there is no whining and pining as I like to call it. (Let it be said I am not saying romance in books is bad in any way – it is just boring to me, as I am a very matter of fact person and never understood relationship drama even as a teen!)
I agree with almost all Theo and Nils said, aside from one thing – discounting the first 2 chapters, to me it didn’t feel too long!
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
(Does it have a magic system? How immersed do you feel in the world? Does it feel original? Why?)
An elaborate world that takes a bit of getting used to – but the brutal cruelty of its paternalistic society is laid bare in the first section of backstory. Like its characters, the world is richly, deeply layered and smooth as silk. (This is the second finalist this year with an economy strongly dependent on silk).
As Theo said, it does take a while to get used to the world-building and it’s complexity. In fact whilst reading Theo and Julia both helped to clarify a few aspects that I had missed such as the details of the warring houses and how abortion was in fact outlawed.
As I went through, different parts of the book sparked different associations for me – but all in a good way:
- In its rich sort of renaissance Italian setting, this reminded me of The Lies of Locke Lamora.
- In its cruel paternalism bleeding into misogyny it reminded me of The Handmaid’s Tale.
- In its political complexity of warring houses, it feels like Game of Thrones – but all told through a single first person point of view protagonist.
- In its twists of intrigue and double-talk, double-think, double-agents it felt like a John le Carre Spy novel
- In its pairing of an enigmatic mentor and a damaged brutalised but gifted protagonist it reminded me of Essun and Alabaster in N.K.Jemsin’s The Fifth Season.
The characters at different times and for different reasons reminded me of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, Edith in the Arm of the Sphinx, Machiavelli in The Prince. The Mythology has a Greek/Norse feel to it of philandering warring gods unable to control their impulses, yet the pantheon is small enough to feel original, fresh and coherent.
Just to touch upon the magic system as this was an extremely appealing part of the book for me. I’m a sucker for stories about warring gods, and their powers, therefore the way they could eternally torment humans by making them immortal, and having them face drastic personal consequences was quite fascinating.
I didn’t think it was really complex or complicated, but that could be because I breezed through it so quickly I couldn’t forget anything!
I also didn’t mind that the magic and godly powers were not explained at all. I do like a deep and exact magic system like Sanderson does them, but especially with gods I don’t mind it being mysterious – what do we mere mortals know about divine powers…? I hope I learn a bit more about Kyrra’s and Arsenault’s magic in book two, but for this it worked well for me.
Aside from that – Theo has said it all much better than I could, so I’ll leave you with that.
QUOTATIONS that amused/resonated with you
There were so many!
A conversation with an exhausted man:
His words come out as mere edges to his hard breathing
A domestic argument:
You are not silk, my mother said, but did that mean I was more or less important?
When our protagonist realises she’s been drugged:
Then the world drained away, like blood flowing from a wound. I grasped for it but it ran through my fingers, and the night flowed on like a dream.
After our protagonist has shared some comfort with another character:
I wanted to sink back into that shelter and let the outside world be cruel to itself. But I had learned not to trust what I thought I wanted, so I did the smart thing and got up.
There really were plenty, so here’s a few of my favourites:
I promise I’ll find you if I can. If I can’t, I hope you’ll find me.
Even in the best god, there is darkness. But in some gods, the darkness has grown.
What nobody tells you is that magic is a pain in the ass.
It’s like the dinner guest who always shows up uninvited. It comes too early and stays too late. It ruins your evening plans. It’s the mistake you wake up with the morning after.
This one is head and shoulders above what I have read in this contest. I’d rank it ahead even of the winning finalist that I read last year, though not by quite such a large margin. It is complex but it doesn’t patronise the reader or break the authenticity of the character’s voice to lay things out in simple exposition, we are immersed in a richly imagined world with deeply conflicted and nuanced characters and that’s the way I like my reading. I had just the one slight early frisson of hesitation when I thought the story was getting away with itself, mired in complexity, but the structural device of a twin timeline backstory resolved that. However, I do feel there is a potential rich experience of re-reading to be enjoyed, to spot how the threads and reveals bleed in, now that I know how the story goes.
My only reservations with this book was that I felt the plot could have been more condensed and delivered with less complexity. However, with beautiful eloquent prose, a compelling narrative voice, and a few lovely twists along the way, Fortune’s Fool was a very enjoyable read indeed.
Despite the slow start this is by far my favourite book of this year. I really loved Blood of Heirs and The Sword of Kaigen, but this one just stuck with me even more! It’s been two and a half weeks since I read it, and I still find myself thinking about the characters, which is proof of just how well this resonated with me. The moment I finished reading I was wondering if book two was done yet, even though I had another big book to read for SPFBO.
The whole balance of mysteries, characters, deep world building, prose and plot simply worked incredibly well, and I am eagerly awaiting the sequel!