SPFBO 6: Second Semi-Finalist Announcement
On Wednesday, we announced our second set of three eliminations and revealed that our next quarter-finalists are NIGHTFALL: BLESSING OF FURY by J.J.Coffelt and A WIND FROM THE WILDERNESS by Suzannah Rowntree.
In the section definitions of bookshops the terms Science Fiction and Fantasy are as inextricably entwined as Romeo and Juliet. Indeed many bloggers consider themselves SFF readers, as happy to entertain one genre as much as the other under the broad but rather worthy umbrella title of “speculative fiction” However, this week as you will have seen, the Fantasy Hive team have been wrestling somewhat with the question “when is a fantasy book not a fantasy book?”
Arthur C Clarke’s third law states that:
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Those who have read Mark Lawrence’s The Broken Empire Series or his books set in the ice world of Abeth, will know how he has played with that blurred boundary in ruined worlds where lost technology in some way unleashes magical powers in individuals. It is in the nature of writers and writing to refuse to be bound by neat categorisations, even though the marketing departments of big publishers would love them to do so. Those who would try to shepherd speculative fiction authors through such narrow gates may as well try herding cats, and those who search online for “What is the difference between fantasy and science fiction?” will swiftly find more pages than they can shake a sword/lightsaber at.
Our two quarter-finalists each stretch the fantasy envelope in different directions with a healthy dollop of historical and science fiction – but we’re happy to say more power to their elbow. The cross-breeding between genres can create stories that are stronger and more engaging. For this competition (which is about specifically fantasy not speculative fiction) we do need to see at least some slither of magic, of mysticism, of the inexplicably uncanny in the world, or the creatures, or the powers of its people. However, as you can see we are happy with even just a seasoning of fantasy, after all – the story is the thing.
But, without further ado…
Nightfall: Blessing of Fury
J. J. Coffelt
Death awaits if you’re caught outside during Nightfall.
Humanity hides from the horrors of Night within the dome of Mecca, paralyzed by fear. Few dare to cross into the world beyond.
Venturing out into the underworld, Jericho uncovers an artifact of the Old Ones. Using this technology, Jericho and his clan plot to overthrow the false god of Mecca. Embarking on a thrilling journey across the underworld, they learn many secrets, including some better left undiscovered.
Gripping your mind with a sense of wonder, this epic Sci-fi/fantasy adventure will leave you breathless. This story catapults you into a world of dark mystery and chaos.
OK – I suppose the first question is – is this fantasy or Sci-Fi. It has a tech heavy opening of a protagonist, Jericho, and a band of power suited scavengers searching for scraps from a ruined post industrial landscape driving a suped up beach buggy and escorted by a versatile robot.
It certainly feels very sci-fi and also a bit mad max. But then there are a variety of monsters (helpfully categorised into class 1s and class 2s etc) and a belief in Gods and curses, and a sinister church with mind controlling oracles. By 20% we are back in Jericho’s home of Mecca, a domed city of scraps with complex internal politicking of clans and pride.
It is a book that blurs the boundary between science and magic as other authors have done before, so I will pass on the sci-fi/fantasy question for now and go on to “what about the story?”
Well, engaging, pretty action packed, rattling along at good pace. There were points where I might have quibbled with the science (X-ray vision is useless unless something is actually a source, a reflector of x-rays or a detecting of X-rays, so you can’t really be invisible to x-rays, and things which absorb all photons are hard to see any detail in to the point of being just black.) Also, whatever the future world holds I still don’t think you’d just ruefully rub at broken ribs – not without screaming in pain. But hey, I’m being picky. The opening 20% has introduced drama, some mystery and some interesting worlds and characters so I’d say this is one I’d be happy to read on.
We begin with a frame narrative, as the prologue features a grandfather telling his grandson the story of his origins. In chapter two, we are introduced to the main character, Jericho, who is experiencing a dream within a dream – which to be honest was a bit too much. Instead of being ominous it was actually just confusing. Jericho dreams of a forest full of malevolent creatures, and this was really enticing, but having that dream within another dream, had the effect of making me go ‘huh?’
I really liked the setting of the novel, it’s a post apocalyptic/sci-fi/fantasy world – a wasteland of oxidised/rusted metal juxtaposed with overgrown fungus. Jericho and his friends, all from different clans, live in the ‘underworld’, scavenging metals and tech to survive. Inside the dome they are protected, but outside and especially during nightfall they are hunted. Let’s face it, when it comes to monsters, I’m a huge fan, so I enjoyed those parts a lot.
I did feel the book had quite a few issues in regards to the writing and therefore I feel it could use a thorough editing. There is a lot that goes on in the beginning 20%, a lot of ideas/concepts particularly in the world-building which are introduced with very little backstory or depth. We seemed to just jump from one action scene to the next which, don’t get me wrong, is fun at first–but it quickly became tedious and I found myself irritated.
I also wasn’t keen on the heavy use of technology and technical idioms, and to be honest a lot of it is really bizarre. However, I kind of enjoyed it because of it’s bizarreness! I would be quite interested to see how the rest of the book pans out..
I thought the cover was intriguing, there seems to be a mix of fantasy and some sort of tech/magic going on… If it hasn’t become clear yet, no I don’t read blurbs before diving into books! I have since, and it would have clarified things for me — which I actually see as a negative. I like going in blind.
I thought the prologue was very weak. It was extremely repetitive – only two or three pages, but “said the old warrior” was repeated six times. I think it must have been copy and pasted in at a later date, as the dialogue ends with a full stop, suggesting there shouldn’t be anything further. I wondered if perhaps someone, a beta reader maybe, had expressed confusion over who was speaking so the author wanted to clarify. It’s a shame they were not more imaginative here though. Overall, I don’t think the prologue added anything useful at all.
Once we get to the main story, I was excited to find the characters in some form of regressed society post apocalypse! This is one of my favourite kinds of world-building in fantasy, and it raised my expectations somewhat – however these came crashing down quite quickly amongst the heavy military and technical talk of all their armour and weapons. I’m sure there are readers out there who love those kinds of details, but I find it dry in the extreme; I don’t know the difference between guns, and I don’t care unfortunately. All in all, it was building a picture that was closer to sci-fi than fantasy, sliding the book further downwards in my opinions.
There were a couple of mistakes I picked up on in the opening 20% which really broke the flow of the narrative for me, similar to the prologue, they were mostly repetitions that were quite jarring:
“Shooting past him at a supersonic level, rods impaled the wretched beasts. Long metal rods pinned the Gaunts into the ground.”
“Rex came sprinting out of the forest, his weapon slung over his back. He was running at his top speed. Rex called out to him. “We gotta get the hell out of here!” Rex yelled”
I found myself scan-reading after this point, as it just wasn’t holding my attention. Ultimately, I don’t think there was quite enough fantasy evident to warrant its entry into a fantasy contest, and although the story displayed some interesting ideas, they were poorly executed.
This novel has an intriguing set of ideas, and it certainly succeeds better in creating a science-fantasy atmosphere than Lazarus Code did. There’s something to the world that reminded me a little of the video game Horizon: Zero Dawn; both the tribal relations at display, and the world The book showcases a well-structured society in what seems a post-apocalyptic world so past the point of the Apocalypse that all the activities to do with surviving have become commonplace. There’s some excellent banter between protagonist Jericho and some supporting characters, and a layer of religious intertextuality which I’d be very interested in seeing fully developed.
Onto what stopped me from giving this a green: errors, typos, and repetitions. These elements hold the book back, and need to be taken care of. They give the impression of sloppy prose, especially at times — Julia and Beth have plenty of examples which should serve as proof to this point. Further, said sloppiness can be exemplified by a sequence of sentences such as this one: “Barreling towards them across the clearing, the Behemoth charged. His nerve began to break.” Whose nerve? The Behemoth’s? No? The sentence doesn’t make it clear, in a textbook case of unclear antecedents, which is among the rather more insidious grammar mistakes out there. And while the next sentence might clarify the predicate through context alone: “Aiming for center mass, he unleashed a charged shot at the creature,” still speaks to a carelessness that should be cleaned up; and even this showcases the issue of unclear antecedents. This problem, and others, weakened the sentences sufficiently to prevent me from advocating to continue reading this book past the 20% mark.
Though I will say, I loved one particular turn of phrase, about “a broken rib” that will occasionally tickle protagonist Jericho’s innards, to agonizing (for him) and hilarious (for us) effect.
This has quite some potential and I liked the tone and pace. Sadly it had a few too many flaws to really become a favourite and make it a semifinalist for me.
Some repetitiveness and some things that just didn’t add up fully sadly tainted an otherwise really enjoyable read! Here’s a few examples of what I didn’t like prose wise:
Saul said loudly to wake Rex. Pulling his shoulder length brown hair back with massive hands, Saul kicked Rex gingerly to wake him.”
The word “rods” being used 3 times within 2,5 lines.
His fractured ribs tickled his insides, sending a bout of nerve signals to his brain.
Or this one with the many clans:
“What clan brings victory from the hunt?” said a deep bass voice. To which the clan replied.
“The Sons!” the clan said in unison.
Add to that characters acting dumb, like a trained military group being told to hold fire and then fire on the head. And instead them using all the ammo on the body instead? Or using their vehicle as a battering ram, and instead of everyone besides the driver getting out, everyone has to get in just to be thrown out and injured?
I do hope that this might get another good editing, because it definitely has a lot of potential. I liked the tone, the pace, the world building and the characters were well enough!
A Wind from the Wilderness
Hunted by demons. Lost in time.
Welcome to the First Crusade.
Syria, 636: As heretic invaders circle Jerusalem, young Lukas Bessarion vows to defend his people. Instead, disaster strikes.
His family is ripped apart. His allies are slaughtered. And Lukas is hurled across the centuries to a future where his worst nightmares have come true…
Constantinople, 1097: Ayla may be a heretic beggar, but she knows one thing for sure: nine months from now, she will die. Before then, she must avenge her father’s murder–or risk losing her soul.
Desperate to find their way home, Lukas and Ayla join the seven armies marching east to liberate Jerusalem. If Lukas succeeds in his quest, he’ll undo the invasion and change the course of history.
But only if he survives the war.
Only if his enemies from the past don’t catch him.
And only as long as Ayla never finds out who he really is.
This one also bucks a trend – in that so far it is predominantly a historical rather than fantasy tale. Lukas, son of a graceo-roman patrician in Syria – is lifted by magic and disaster from the time of the prophet Mohamed (640 AD) to the time of the first crusade (1096-99). There he meets Ayla, a turkish girl masquerading as a boy named Kismet. In parallel we also meet Raymond St Gilles Count of Toulouse trapped – en crusading route to Jerusalem – by the political machinations of the Byzantine emperor.
So far it has had me hurrying to google references and establish that so far every major name mentioned bar Kismet and Lukas seems to have been a real person, so the whole feels a bit like Bernard Cornwell’s brilliant fictionalisations of history – particularly his Heretic series. I am not sure how far the unfolding story will count as fantasy with a bit of history, rather than history with a tiny lubrication of fantasy. However, judged on its own merits it is well written with engaging characters.
I’m particularly struck by Kismet/Ayla whose date of death has been predicted by her father so she knows with some certainty that she has only six months left. That reminded me of my favourite book, Mercedes M Yardley’s Pretty Little Dead Girls, whose central character Bryony Adams lives under a similar, if slightly less precise, curse of an untimely early death.
Beyond a cursory inspection of Wikipedia I don’t have the knowledge to critique Suzannah Rowntree’s fidelity to her chosen historical periods – but it does feel right, in the same way that Diana Gabaldon fitted her time travelling 20th century heroine into the 18th century events of Outlander.
Also, I do like being introduced to new words and my new favourite is cumbrously. To be fair – by the 18% there is more magic creeping back into this story. Possessed animals, I suspect maybe a time traveling Djinn and it seems Lukas’s past associates the watchers have acquired a sorcerous reputation. So, I read on to 22% and I think this is fantasy in the same way that Dr Who is Sci-fi, a versimilitudinous historical setting for an adventure of fantastical/speculative origins, a bit like the Dr Who Pompeii episode.
So yes it’s well written, it gets the nod of fantasy from me, and I’m really keen to read on.
I had been really looking forward to this one: I love how colourful the cover is, I thought the patterns beautiful. It gives the impression of a non-Eurocentric setting, which I found promising, that perhaps the author was thinking outside the ‘typical’ fantasy box.
Initially, I was disappointed by the opening couple of pages. We’re dropped into what seems to be a very important conversation, but seeing as we don’t yet know these characters, I struggled to connect and care.
Despite that slow start, it wasn’t long at all before I fell into this story. I found myself first swept up by the historical politics, then thoroughly intrigued by the magic when it began. I loved the notes of Middle Eastern mythology, and I felt Rowntree evocatively brought Syria at this time to life. I’m looking forward to reading on!
I very much enjoyed A Wind from the Wilderness, in fact, the opening of this book exceeded my expectations. Initially I was drawn to the Middle-Eastern setting as the story takes place in Syria during the period of The Battle of Yarmouk (my knowledge of history is absolutely terrible so I did have to Google this) and clearly indicates this as a historical fantasy novel.
The prologue also started off really strong, if a little confusing, as Beth mentions, many names are dropped and we’re not given much indication of who they are. However, there was a sense of a slight magic system being built with concepts such as ‘watchers’ and ‘messengers’ so my interest held. Then the villain was introduced which hooked me into wanting to read more instantly.
We do have some time travel which follows on directly after the prologue and sets up the narrative for the rest of the book really well. I’m compelled by the two young protagonists – Ayla and Lukas, both of which are without parents, struggling to survive and searching for their family. However I don’t particularly like Saint- Giles, I couldn’t determine his significance but we’ll see where his story leads us.
The magic in the first 20% is subtle but we do get a hint of a spirit that can possess animals and is hunting our main protagonists which is pretty exciting – I loved the atmospheric prose in that chapter. So I’m eager to read more.
A Wind from the Wilderness touches not one but two favourite historical periods of mine, the first to do with the Byzantine-Seljuk wars, and the second almost at the beginning of the First Crusade in 1097. Exciting times to be alive for Christian-Muslim relations, to be sure. Jokes aside, the way that Byzantine-Turkic relations are rendered here speaks of such deep understanding and research on the part of author Suzannah Rowntree that I took an immediate liking to this title. I’m Bulgarian, and my country’s history crisscrosses that of the Byzantine Empires at every stretch; from my personal knowledge, this novel does a phenomenal job as historical fiction, and that is worth celebrating. Coupled with an in media res opening, which sees a young Roman noble misplaced in time via means of magical ritual, this novel turns fantastic a moment in history I hadn’t yet seen spun around with the elements of this genre we so love.
The young Turk beggar Ayla is a hell of a protagonist, and the young-but-slightly-older, time-displaced Roman, Lukas, is absolutely precious; but I enjoyed to the Frankish knight Saint-Gilles and his new-found hostage, Bohemond of Taranto; the two of them will make quite the pair ahead, I suspect. The exchange that comes to mind between them speaks of plenty of tension to come — and I am here for all of it.
This is the opening to a remarkable piece of historical fantasy, which demands further attention. It seems expertly edited, contains a cast of characters I want to learn more of, and a magic that’s been more hinted at than seen, so far, but offers great promise.
I really loved seeing this one is set in Syria and so quite a bit different from the standard settings!
I did struggle a bit to catch my feet in the prologue, where characters felt a bit bland yet and I had no real idea what was going on, but I was caught right from the start in the first chapter.
We get a second, young female, main protagonist there, and I clicked with her right away. I love the tone and prose and was happy to follow her along – especially as she rescues our rather lost character from the prologue!
I wish I knew a bit more about the history of Syria, and what happened between Turks, Greeks, Persians, Romans and all the others involved over time, but it wasn’t hard to follow along even without any extensive knowledge so far. Because of the mentioned lack of knowledge I have no idea how accurate the setting is, but it definitely feels rich and deep and I can’t wait to explore more!
I also am always a fan of the young main characters who start with little knowledge and have to grow into their own personalities yet, so that is something else that had me feel right at home, and almost a bit miffed when I reached the end of my sampler for the first round of our reading where we read about 20% of each book. It was hard to put it down! I’ll happily return to it the moment I finish my next and last sample of the 30!
Congratulations to A WIND FROM THE WILDERNESS – our second semi-finalist!
Batla, R. J. – Fire Eyes Awakened
Borodin, Stas – Magic, Sorcery and Witchcraft
Brooks, E. B. – Emissary
Christion, Alexzander – By the Hand of Dragons: AlinGuard
Coffelt, J. J. – Nightfall: Blessing of Fury Book 1 (*quarter-finalist) Ford, Angela J. – Pawn
Gately, Samuel – The Headlock of Destiny
Gonzalez, Selina R. – Prince of Shadows and Ash
Greenwood, Kai – Code of the Communer
Hahn, Caren – Burden of Power
Haskell, Megan – Forged in Shadow
Kannon, Marc Vunj – Unbinding the Stone
Kerr, Jake – Tommy Black and the Staff of Light
Kewin, Simon – Hedge Witch
Macdonald, Meg – Oathsworn
Marek, Marco – Hyperearth
Otto, Erik A. – A Tale of Infidels (*quarter-finalist)
Padgett, M. J. – Eiagan’s Winter
Porta, Dustin – Whalemoon
Prior, Derek – Last of the Exalted
Ramsey, Kate – Finding Fairy Tales
Roberts, Antonio – Vestige: Ride of the Pureblood
Rogers, Madolyn – The Copper Assassin
Rowntree, Suzannah – A Wind from the Wilderness (*semi-finalist)
Secchia, Marc – The Pygmy Dragon
Thompson, J. E. – A New Beginning van Orman, Sharon – Lazarus Code: A First Family Saga
Werby, Olga – God of Small Affairs (*semi-finalist)
Whitecastle, Timandra – Queens of the Wyrd
Zangari, Robert – A Prince’s Errand