SPFBO 6: Eliminations Part Two
This year, we’re arranging our eliminations a little differently. Every week, we’ll be announcing a batch of five books. Three will be eliminated on the Wednesday, carrying two forward to the Friday, when we’ll announce a semi-finalist.
Last week, we announced our first three eliminations, and revealed A TALE OF INFIDELS by Erik A. Otto as our first quarter-finalist and GOD OF SMALL AFFAIRS by Olga Werby as our first semi-finalist.
So, without further preamble, here are our next three eliminations, followed by the announcement of this week’s Quarter-finalists from which we will be choosing our second semi-finalist in our Friday post.
Angela J. Ford
A day will come, when curses will be broken, the lost shall be found, the found shall be lost, and the rift between mortal and celestial will cease to exist.
– Prophecy of Erinyes
Maeve of Carn is a warrior of warriors, but she’s no hero.
Born with superhuman strength she sells her abilities to mercenaries and warlords in exchange for wealth.
Until the night of the full moon. . .
In the midst of a raid, led by the warlord she just might be falling in love with, Maeve is taken by the Dark Fae.
After leaving her to rot in the dungeon of the damned they offer her a deal. Freedom.
If she finds a divine relic rumored to have the power to break all curses.
Left with no other choice, Maeve sets off on a perilous quest, guided by the Scholar.
Just as an observation – the title typography on the cover is so hard to read that I twice scanned through my SPFBO 6 selection on my kindle without seeing it. I didn’t realise I’d got it until I downloaded it for a second time and recognised the picture.
It’s a short book so I got to 20% quite quickly. There were some lines that rose above the norm for me – I liked the turning of pimple into a verb in the line: “The wind caused goosebumps to pimple on her skin” But there are other points where the choice of grammar/idiom felt off to me. Spit or spat? What does “drunker than a bamboozled wretch” mean?
The basic premise, stateless-queen-come-bitter-mercenary Maeve is obliged by her captors to team up in a mismatched couple with a scholar and seek out seven artefacts in seven months. It reads well enough, but there are quite a few points with swathes of exposition often masking as reflection as Maeve contemplates her own past and perhaps seeking out a different future. This one was a maybe for me. I was curious, but it hadn’t fired my interest enough to make me unequivocally enthusiastic about reading on.
I’m not very enthusiastic about this one either. It’s fairly well written, there are a few nice lines of description, and the dialogue between our main character Maeve and her guide Sandrine, flows well. However lines like ‘she smelled like magic, raw and dangerous’ felt redundant. Also the line where Imer talks of his ability to seduce women and how ‘often they lost their wits after he bedded them’ made me quite frustrated.
Pawn is extremely fast paced, and action packed, but I think it lacks depth. The characters feel one dimensional, and the conflict feels superficial – as though it’s there just to tick a tension box, and has no real purpose. I really liked all the inclusion of monsters, fantastical creatures and I did find Maeve and her plight interesting. I think with some development and refinement I could potentially like this story a lot and become much more invested. However, at present, sadly, I’d rather not continue.
Lastly, the cover gave me Wonder Woman kind of vibes and I guess in a way that does bleed into the story too, with Maeve being a powerful queen who’s land and race have been destroyed.
Personally, I ended up somewhat unsure of how I felt about Pawn…
The cover really is quite striking – although I’m not normally a fan of characters on covers, the artwork really is of very high quality, and I loved the detail of the dragon. My expectations were quite high!
The opening was quite dramatic as we’re introduced to our imprisoned protagonist, I thought the writing style was skirting just a tad close to purple. I found myself interested by this character’s plight, but it was difficult to fully commit myself, as there was the odd issue that kept bringing me out of my verisimilitude. Little things like:
* the jeopardy of the villain’s Big Threatening Speech completely ruined by his threat “if you even think about disobeying me”, when just before his speech she had been thinking exactly that. On the one hand, it’s just a figure of speech, but being in such close proximity to the moment of her thinking about the disobedience, it emphasises how empty the words actually are;
* her description of the geography was utterly confusing, describing a ‘bay’ that was surrounded by water on three sides;
* strange phrasing choices, such as “semi-gray smoke.”
Despite these moments, I was still enjoying the story, discovering that our protagonist is somewhat more morally ambiguous than what I’d first assumed. However, at the 17% mark we’re introduced to a new pair of protagonists and they completely grated on me. At this point, the story began to be reminiscent of something like Paradise Lost… with the two brothers reminding me of Matt Damon’s and Ben Affleck’s characters from Dogma.
I was unsure whether or not I wanted to continue reading this one, I was still very much intrigued by the promise of a dragon, but unfortunately my fellow judges were less enthusiastic and made that decision for me!
Visceral opening, a protagonist who seems aware of being an utter trash panda but wants to become better; a short and likely enjoyable fantasy novel. Occasionally sloppy and clichéd in terms of word choice. Not a bad story by any stretch of the imagination, and the moral ambiguity of protagonist Maeve offers an engaging internal conflict, in addition to the external one at play, and I am curious to see how it’ll all play out.
Beth had done an excellent job of offering examples of these moments of sloppiness that persuaded me to give this one an ‘orange,’ i.e. a middle-of-the-road score. If my fellow judges had wanted to continue reading this one, I’d have been amenable. As it stands, however, I did not find this quite proficient enough in terms of technical presentation to champion. Would recommend for folks looking for darker fantasy that’s not much of a time commitment, however.
LOL TRASH PANDA
I have finished this one, and it isn’t bad at all, (and is available as audiobook!) – it just is as far away from being my cup of tea as a book can be. I don’t like romance in my fantasy, and I don’t like a focus on emotions of any sort.
So parts like this – exactly what other readers might enjoy – just have me sigh and drop my shoulders and hope to get on with it…
He Smelled like the sea, wild and free, eager to go wherever it wished, do whatever it wanted. Like freedom. If she kissed him, would he taste like salt and sunshine? What hold did he have on her? What madness? For she was giving in at just his touch, at the unexpected gentleness of his words. A desperate desire thrummed through her body to have more of his warmth, to envelop herself in him and forget about the quest, the fae, and the potential of dragons.
“Yes,” she whispered.
His fingers undid the laces of her sheath, baring her upper chest down to where her breastplate covered her breasts and stomach. A lump settled in her throat as his fingers brushed against the swirls that decorated her collarbone.
“They are beautiful,” he breathed a light in his eyes, lost in awe.
So while the plot was interesting enough and I enjoyed the world building, the characters stayed a bit plain with emotions painted on, instead of them just feeling like a natural part of the story. Big changes to their whole being take place in a matter of paragraphs, which adds to them not feeling like “real people” to me. Being really unsure about their own emotional state also didn’t help to win me over – me being a very pragmatic kind of person:
The past year she’d warred with her feelings, and although she was still unsure whether it was brotherly love or romantic love, it didn’t matter. She needed to help him.
For those who are looking for an epic fantasy with a big world mixed with some romance and a rather easy read, this might be absolutely perfect though!
Vestige: Rise of the Pureblood
Fangs, scales and a tail never looked good on anyone.
Another home gone. Another parent dead. And now Sinopa’s on the run for her life and must prove her innocence alone in a strange place.
But appearances are deceiving, and the police are the least of her worries. Because with every step she takes, someone else is watching. Something unnatural is after her…maybe even lurking beneath her skin.
And the deeper Sinopa investigates, the higher the stakes rise. More sorcerers disappear. Tensions escalate, and with every day, her humanity crumbles.
As an ancient evil resurfaces, how much will she risk saving those she loves?
An interesting one with a teenage female first person non-human protagonist. Although raised by Goblins it appears that Sepona is not entirely of that race and the author gifts her an interesting mix of physical features that put me in mind of a miniature version of Hellboy crossed with My Little Pony. There is an element of the story that also reminded me of the Will Ferrer movie Elf, though I don’t think the character known as Romero is going to play father Christmas anytime soon.
Sepona has a distinctive voice, I think Filip described it as hard boiled noir, and there is certainly an appealing kind of Chandleresque element to the self-deprecating dialogue. Structurally there are a few issues, in that the narrative is presented as a reflection by a much older Sepona upon her early life which gives it a “little did I know then…” kind of feel, but also makes some of it a little confusing as the narrator is simultaneously describing a first meeting with a character and then telling us that the character’s actions are in keeping with his habitual behaviour (which the older Sepona is familiar with).
Another Chandleresque element is the use of the arrival of a man with a gun to move the plot along, enigmatic strangers and sudden unanticipated journeys are the staple of fantasy fiction since Bilbo’s day (RIP Ian Holm). The plot engine seems to be a murder mystery, though apparently not the killing we witness in the first chapter, and that also left me a little bit confused. I like complexity, I like murder mysteries, so I was a little bit surprised to find myself a little irked by some of the bewilderment I was feeling. Present Sepona seemed to be staggering from one avoidable misadventure to another as an excuse to introduce new characters and backstory that Future Sepona could reflect on. The interesting theme, protagonist and voice caught my attention, I wouldn’t mind reading on but I would hope events start to hang together a little better with Sepona feeling less driven by impulse/accident.
I like the premise of Vestige, the main character is a Goblin who has been accused of murder and goes on a quest to prove her innocence and find her own identity. It’s always great to see more fantasy books with non-human characters, so I was quite excited to read this.
However, the narrative style just didn’t work for me at all. The main character Sepona has a snarky, sarcastic voice which put me off immediately. This narration made for stereotypical characters who felt quite dated. A teenager with an attitude problem and sass, and then Romero – a mysterious grizzled grumpy man, who constantly says, “You’re all right kid,” and “sweetheart”, which I understand is trying to reflect a Wild West type setting, but come on! Some more imagination please! I also found certain parts felt far-fetched and out of place – for example would a character like Romero carry around ‘a big book of baby names’? I appreciated that the author wanted to make this book lighthearted, perhaps to fit the YA genre, but unfortunately this humour just grated on me far too much. I love books with humour, but for me it has to be witty, cleverly written and sometimes, if it fits the story, dark too – like Joe Abercrombie’s humour. Most importantly it has to feel natural to the character. Overall I couldn’t care about the characters one bit, and that killed my investment in the book.
I’m also unimpressed by the cover. It’s not particularly eye-catching, and I can’t see (as far as the part I’ve read) how it relates to the book?
Unlike Nils, I quite liked the cover, I thought it quite pretty, although it took me a while to notice the upside down city in the wing. I would agree, though, that it doesn’t marry with the tone of the book at all. Like Filip and Theo have said, there’s a strong noir feel which I don’t think is represented here at all.
Sticking to first impressions, I didn’t like the sound of the title and what ‘Purebloods’ could mean.
Initially, I found the first-person conversational flow quite compelling. It started out interesting, but by the point our protagonist begins relating her new job at the bar, the Americanisms started to pile on really heavily, and there was suddenly a great deal of violence that seemed to come from nowhere. I’m not the squeamish type, I don’t mean to say I disapprove of violence – but it didn’t seem to make sense in the context. It felt like everyone was over-reacting.
Following the fight at the bar, everything began to feel so rushed – the narrative, the dialogue the plot… It felt like we jumped from the protagonist being attacked in the bar for reasons which felt vague at the time, to the police now wanting her arrest for murder. The plot points just didn’t seem to be developed well enough to create a sense of plausibility. Ultimately, I think it could do with a good editorial pass to give depth to proceedings, and help smooth things out like the disconnect between chapters two and three (it was almost as if what happened at the end of chapter two didn’t happen. Between the tone, and the fluffy pop-culture references, I found it too difficult to immerse myself in this one and get invested it.
I did not like this one for several reasons. The first has to do with technical issues — surprise, surprise, it wouldn’t be an elimination without me pointing out plain weird punctuation errors and typos. Here’s one: “Why do I have to do this? She was the one who burnt, it not me.” It’s neither the first nor the last one you’ll find, which is unfortunate.
I did enjoy the hard-boiled detective noir style (Theo quoted me correctly) that often sneaks into the protagonist’s narrative voice; but I disliked the self-deprecating comments which came across as self-satisfied a little too often. Some early paragraphs had a monotonous quality about them, which took away from the enthusiasm that came with reading a novel from a rather unique point of view, that of a non-human teen with an attitude.
Vestige was a hard one to judge. I did like the first few paragraphs, then I thought I’d have to DNF soon as it felt stilted and rough around the edges. Especially one scene had a lot of little things that just didn’t make any sense to me. Like the main character being caught in a bar-fight and instead of trying to de-escalate she makes it worse and worse, just to hide away from the fight once it really gets going. She’s then perfectly fine after someone stomps on her neck twice… Or her handing her greatest treasure, one of her few possessions from her childhood, over without a moment’s doubt.
I am not a fan of breaking the fourth wall usually and I didn’t like it here.
A man sat down at the end of the bar with his head on his arm. His free hand held an empty shot glass. His hair streamed in ferocious amber streaks like a grisly lion’s mane. His black frock coat was ragged. It draped long and open with a hood and collar in the back.
“Hiya,” I said, waving over his slumped body.
“Hey, I said ‘hello.”
His eyes blinked up at me. They were wild emerald fields. (This is not erotica; I swear.)
“Can I get you a drink?”
“No. Now beat it.”
“Sheesh. Friendly, aren’t we?” His head dropped again.
Or sentences like this:
There was no way my bunny slippers could spring to my defense should things turn sour.
Bunny slippers don’t really fit into the world that has formed in my head…
Combined with a few strange prose choices like “He shrieked to his knees” shortly followed by “I groaned to my feet” it just kept pulling me out of the story.
I did like the humour in it, but it was a tad too repetitive for my personal taste. One example:
I was too short to go to prison. I didn’t want to know what they did to short girls in prison. And that would only be if I was lucky enough to go to prison for multiple murders,
As I said I did like some of the humour and the quick tone pace and banter, and I see a lot of potential here, but as it is it just felt a bit too rough and unpolished for me to keep going.
Sharon van Orman
“I am Ryder of the Pentimalli, a member of the first families and Captain of the deep space exploration vessel, Serendipity.”
In the centuries since our forefathers tamed an uncivilized land and revolted against a King we had grown complacent. When our government waged cyber war on us the spirit of those long dead patriots was ignited, sparking a second revolutionary war. It was then that the First Families were born. Genetically enhanced humans who carried within our blood stream nano-bots that repair and regenerate. We were meant to be the record keepers. The vanguard of our species as we spread across time and space. I have returned home after a decades long mission to find Earth devastated by the Weeping Death. A disease that has made it possible for the dead to rise. With the help of my brothers and my crew we will find who is responsible. They expected us to be complacent. They were wrong.
OK, I know Mark’s rules are simple
“iv) It must be a fantasy book. (If you say it’s fantasy then it is. But if it isn’t really it won’t get far.)”
but I think it takes a bit of a stretch or even some chutzpah to imagine that this “space-troopers + zombies” piece lies within the fantasy genre rather than Sci-fi.
While Mark’s own writing shows how these genres can overlap a bit at the borders, the Lazarus Code lies firmly in sci-fi for me. There is a certain cleverness in the title – what with Lazarus and coming back from the dead. However, the overwhelming feel is as if Star Trek, Alien(s) and Resident Evil had been smashed together.
I read to the 20% mark without seeing any fantasy, but plenty of zombie sci-fi action. However, it takes an old movie afficionadio to enlighten the genetically enhanced, nano-bot maintained protagonist Captain Ryder (sounds a bit like Ryker) as to what is going on.
He begins Ryder’s education with the line “there was a filmmaker by the name of George Romero…” Now Day of the Dead is my wife’s favourite movie but it’s slightly unsettling to read the director being cited as a plot point in a future set novel.
Judged as a read in its own right, the book rattles along at good pace. It intersperses first person POV “present” experience of Captain Ryder (aged 250+ but looking like she’s in her early twenties with shoulder length red hair and a fondness for fuschia bath towels), with third person “a few days earlier” experiences of the characters within the solar system who have been overwhelmed by the sneezing zombie virus and so are (nearly) all dead by the time Ryder arrives on the scene.
The writing can be exposition heavy, telling the story rather than showing it at points, and the characters are a little too obsessed with describing their own and each other’s appearance in rather stereotypical terms, rather than revealing character. I think that emphasises for me how this book prioritises story and pace over character and writing.
I did like this line as Ryder confronts a scene of mangled dead and undead,
“My stomach turned. I had seen a lot in my lifetime but that nearly made me contaminate my suit.”
but too often I found myself thrown out by stuff that just didn’t work for me.
“The insignia on his shoulder marked him as a Major. But the glint in his eyes branded him as a marine.”
The other thing that roused my hackles was the plain dodgy science, with Ryder’s ship Serendipity wandering through a zombified solar system like the Orville, with floating space zombies being crushed against her hull like flies on a car windscreen because
“We weren’t travelling fast for a starship, but we were still going several times the speed of sound which generated a lot of heat”
FFS they are outside the atmosphere, no air, no sound, no speed of sound, no friction, no heat and – if they were travelling at say 3 km/s (9 times the speed of sound in air on earth at sea level) they wouldn’t be simply squishing zombies. So yeah, the astronomical non-science really tested my tolerance – but that may not be a deal breaker for others
If this had been recognisable as fantasy, I still don’t think the writing would have done enough to get me to want to read on, but as this is self-evidently sci-fi (at least to the 20% point) in a SPFBO competition, this is going to be a pass for me.
My first impression was not particularly favourable – whereas the cover is eye-catching and looks quite high quality, it screams sci-fi to me. There’s a gun, and a planet, and a woman who looks a lot like Rogue from X-Men. It did not give me fantasy vibes at all.
In the very first page of the prologue, the sense that this is more sci-fi than fantasy was furthered by the fact the character was travelling in a shuttle from Jupiter to Europa, and there was talk of terraforming a moon….
I’m not adverse to sci-fi, but this is a fantasy competition. If you enter a victoria-sponge cake competition, you don’t make chocolate chip cookies. I appreciate the rules, as Theo has already quoted, state you may enter a book that has features of both genres, that blurs the boundaries. But skim-reading through the opening chapters, I did not get that sense at all. Space academy, space travel, lots of space, scientific technology, did I mention space? My fellow judges seem to have given this much more of a chance than I did!
I have to agree with the others, this book is clearly sci-fi with no hint of fantasy. Like Beth mentions – just looking at the cover says it all really. I for one particularly enjoy books which blend sci-fi and fantasy together, but in the opening of Lazarus Code there is no indication of said blend; the characters are on a spaceship fighting off malevolent beings, using laser beams, advanced technology and using an abundance of space terminology – this speaks of hardcore sci-fi. Aside from that, within the first two chapters those malevolent beings turn out to be… zombies. My immediate reaction to that was, ugh I really hate zombies. Therefore this was never really going to be something I’d be invested in.
I also think it’s unfair for an author not to follow the rules here, as this place in the SPFBO could have gone to a fantasy author who deserved a shot at their book being judged.
That’s a very good point Nils!
Not a single original idea is to be found in Lazarus Code’s early chapters; everything you come across has the breath of staleness about it, like a slab of meat past its due date. Worse yet, this piece of science fiction is plagued by examples of sloppy writing on all fronts! Besides, it is a sci-fi book in a fantasy competition — while I commend the author for hustling as well as she is able, I would place the decision to apply into the SPFBO with this title… unwise.
Let’s examine a few mistakes I came across, shall we? Arbitrary punctuation makes for strange pauses:
“Overwhelmed by sheer numbers and an enemy that did not feel pain or fear. They lost two soldiers.”
A type of disconnect is at display here, between one sentence and the next, and it makes for a faltering experience.
Description sure is… doing something:
“The mariner’s gun barked, stifling a moan of one who had died and then walked.”
Outside of many more examples such as these two, the book is downright clichéd — borrowing heavily from Star Trek, this is at its core a zombie story. But rather than treat the undead as diegetic, as something most good zombie fiction does (see: Hickman’s Walking Dead) the novel early on describes zombies as something familiar, despite no one in this world having had experience with the shambling undead — which takes away from the tension. Yes, odds are that if you’ve grown up in the 21st century, you will know plenty about zombies. No, that doesn’t mean that you can use zombies as you would a stock image from the Internet. Admittedly, some later chapters do a better job of this…but the typos, grammatical errors and dearth of clichés were enough to strangle any interest I might have once held in this horror science fiction…so weirdly placed in a fantasy competition. It’s in the title, folks. And zombies… aren’t much of a fantasy conceit.
Not finding any fantasy, besides zombies, already didn’t have me too optimistic. And sadly I also didn’t really like the prose that felt a bit stilted at times, nor did I enjoy any of the characters I met. So this one was a really early DNF for me.
This week’s Quarter Finalists are:
Commiserations to our first batch of eliminated books, and congratulations to our quarter-finalists!