SPFBO 6: Eliminations Part 4
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, eliminated another three books, and revealed THE HEADLOCK OF DESTINY by Samuel Gately as our third quarter-finalist and THE PYGMY DRAGON by Marc Secchia as our third 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.
Fire Eyes Awakened
R. J. Batla
Jayton Baird worked for years to save enough for his powers to be Awakened, becoming a Senturian. Protectors of Terranum from the terrors on the West Side. This power comes with a price – Jayton becomes the most powerful Senturian Awakened in a hundred years. And the most feared.
With an invasion imminent and a death sentence over his head, Jayton is chosen to fight in a gladiator style tournament to prevent a potent weapon from falling into the hands of an enemy bent on conquest. A team of elite warriors escorts him on the trek fraught with danger.
Can Jayton and his team survive long enough to complete his mission, or will the dark power burning inside consume him?
So there’s a distinctly Harry Potter element to this in that there is a big bad guy who was powerful from the good (eastside) but has become corrupt and fled to the side of the monsters on (westside) and there is a protagonist – a young man – who at his first assessment turns out to have massive magical potential, but contains within himself elements of good and evil such that no-one can be sure if he will destroy the world or save it. Thinking about it, Anakin Skywalker is another possible comparator.
We meet a complex range of races and forms of magic in this future Earth – many thousands of years after some cataclysm almost destroyed humanity, until they discovered the ability to harness the magic within them. I’m not sure yet where the other races came from – dwarves, elves and blue skinned sentorians. There is quite a lot of detail that has been imagined to this world and at times the author seems in a hurry to share it with character conversation and action (reading history books) being used to impart knowledge (which the characters already knew) rather than develop the characters. And for me that is the problem with the book, the characters and how they are portrayed doesn’t really make me engage with them or like them.
Jay, the first person protagonist, is a little too in awe of people with unearned wealth, and quite male gazey. Lines like
“We let the girls lead, strategery, my friend – we had to quality check those pants.”
“I took the opportunity to check her out, and I was not disappointed”
“curves in the right places”
just don’t make for an endearing character to me. That and the rather simplistic purity of the big bad guy’s evil and this feels like a book very focussed on world depiction and action over subtlety of plotting and nuance of characterisation.
There is a hint of treachery afoot, I think I’ve spotted the traitor – although the author may be fooling me with an “obvious” red herring, but that would be a surprise given how upfront and in your face other aspects of the book are.
I think there is potential in the story. I am curious about what arcs will be provided for the two women characters. However, I need to like, or at least care more, about and for the suddenly overpowered protagonist if I am to read on.
First of all, the cover is bold and very vibrant. I quite like the image, it screams magical fantasy at you and feels like it’s aimed at a YA audience, which, after reading the opening chapters, is appropriate. It very much reminds me of Avatar the Last Airbender animated series.
The book begins in the middle of an action scene. It’s a bit confusing and the immediate use of guns and military vocabulary felt rather heavy.
We then follow our main protagonist Jayton, as he travels with his friends to an ‘Awaken’ ceremony to discover whether he has magical quantum powers or not. As Theo has mentioned, there is a lot going on with the magic system and world-building – we have dwarves, elves and even alien races, we also have elemental magic and healing powers. The more abilities a character can ‘unlock’ at the ceremony seems to bring them more esteem. Yet not for women, who are clearly not as well respected as men. They shouldn’t be trained to fight? WTF?! If both men and women can harness the same power why can’t they do exactly the same roles? Why even bring in sexism? The majority of the magic system/world-building is also told to us through character’s interactions with each other and clumps of exposition, I would have much preferred this to be weaved naturally into the narrative and to be balanced with good characterisation.
Again, I agree with Theo, it’s very hard to become invested in Jayton’s story because he’s… well, not very likeable and not very well fleshed out. His voice feels extremely young, even for a teenager – the dialogue is clunky and awkward. Then we have his male gaze tendencies, oh and we also find out (*mild spoiler here*) that he is the most powerful of them all… well who would have guessed that? I rolled my eyes at this. Jayton’s character just felt very unoriginal.
Fire Eyes Awakened takes place in an Alternate future Earth chock-full of magical creatures and magical powers.
I take offense with the fantasy race sexism at display here. Sexism, it can be argued, is a product of power imbalance — when both genders have access to magic, which is the purest expression of power, why would you have sexism, also?
The magic system itself has plenty of elemental control at its core, along with healing abilities and energy manipulation. Some magic users have talent in many of these abilities at once, reminiscent of the blessing-curse dichotomy of the mistborn in Sanderson’s classic series.
Despite the obvious issues I have, I found myself somewhat engaged by the end of the third chapter. There’s an element of power fantasy here, and I am amenable to this kind of story — call it a guilty pleasure. A lot is thrown into a melting pot, and you get the sense the author was looking to see what made for a striking flavour without worrying overdue if some ingredients might leave a bad aftertaste.
I found some worldbuilding elements gripping enough, while others were certainly lacking in quality. As far as the blend of fantasy and sci-fi goes, this leaves something to be desired. The fantasy races at display consist of some of the usual suspects — elegant elves, dwarven craftsmen, fiery phoenixes; but also some species of the author’s own devising.
The prose suffers from awkward turns of phrase, on occasion. But one scene at the 17% mark crossed my personal tolerance where “male gaze fantasy” is concerned, and it made up my mind. I remember going back and forth in my judgement for this one — do I mark it as a hard pass, or do I leave an ‘orange’? By the end, the elements I enjoyed were far outweighed by the ones I found problematic. Perhaps Fire Eyes Awakened gets better later on, and I’m certain some folks would enjoy it well enough. It doesn’t do what it does badly, but I don’t like much of what it does.
I drew some inspiration from Wolverine’s famous tag-line for that last sentence, send your letter of thanks to Marvel editorial.
I like the idea, but sadly the delivery fell flat for me. The prose reads a bit clumsy and amateurish instead of smooth. For example there are in-depth descriptions of some races and then just “the normal men” for presumably humans.
I definitely dislike characters explaining obvious things for the readers benefit, and we had that quite a bit. It just feels like lazy worldbuilding / info dumping.
The line to my left was moving much faster; the Earth Senturians who operated the train were checking in to do their jobs, dressed in light brown coveralls. One of them must have been new, as his coworker said, “Don’t be nervous! Just use your powers to magnetize the right rails at the right time to keep the train moving and you’ll be fine.”
I picked up a history book from one of the shelves in the cabin called Where We are Now. Most of it I already knew-natural disasters two thousand years ago had almost destroyed the human race. We had emerged from the rubble, but to a different world entirely, with monsters lurking everywhere. If it hadn’t been for the discovery of Awakening stones that gave humans supernatural powers, we might have ceased to exist right then. After a battle for our lives, we managed to push all the monsters to the West Side of the mountain range we knew as the Breaks, and sealed them off. People with different powers started grouping together until they were their own races, with their own physical and social characteristics.
Two days later, I was just getting to the part where Hammod Gardon, the most powerful Senturian at the time, about nineteen hundred years ago, erected the Wall between the East and West sides. Tensions had been growing ever since it was a very big book).
This story has later issues teased early on, like other races commenting how women shouldn’t be taught to fight, which makes it feel like ticking boxes, not like a natural part of the story. I do like stories that make me re-evaluate and think, but I want it done subtly!
A lot of what happened felt predictable and quite tropey.
Added to that some of the dialogue felt stilted to me.
I think for YA readers, people who haven’t read much fantasy or who are looking for an easy read this could still be fun. For me who has read hundreds of fantasy books it just felt generic.
Once the girl – I was sure it was a girl, judging by how the robe fit – reached the stone on the stage, she waited with her head down, cowl covering her features. Reaching up, her blue hands drew back the hood, and I about hit the floor. This was the prettiest girl I had ever seen-she looked around my age, with an oval face, full lips, deep blue eyes, curves in the right places, white hair streaked with light blue, and light blue skin.
Nils and I love judging books by their covers, and like Nils I thought this quite eye-catching. It gave the impression that magic is going to feature heavily in this story.
As my other judges have mentioned, the opening is quite militaristic, with a sniper doing the whole comms thing back to base – it didn’t leave me feeling particularly inspired. This was compounded when the sniper is killed and the narrative perspective then switches; it didn’t read very well.
The weird dumps of exposition that everyone else has already mentioned kick off straight away, and as far as exposition dumps go, they are some of the least subtle I’ve ever come across:
I handed the guy my ticket and ID.
“Let’s see. Jayton Baird, six foot, green eyes, brown hair. Here you go, sir,” he said, punching my ticket.
The conversation doesn’t flow naturally at all; when Jayton joins his friends, they all seem to be repeating things they already know to each other for the benefit of the reader. I was quite surprised by the number of mistakes and the quality of writing considering this has been edited. Informal terms such as “emcee” and the sheer amount of telling via dialogue. I disagree with Julia, I don’t necessarily think that just because an audience is potentially younger, you can get away with having a poorer quality of writing. There was some very poor choice of wording – as well as the sexism already discussed, there was this odd reference to social classes:
The only reason I knew them at all was from school, where they’d let me hang out with them despite the differences in wealth. Good people.
And this one about height:
They were short, but not abnormally so.
All in all, the premise felt quite cliché and even somewhat regressive – everyone fits neatly into their box of stereotypes. After skipping five pages where we’re told what powers other people get before discovering what happens to the protagonist, I really felt I couldn’t continue to force myself to read this one.
Unbinding the Stone
Marc Vun Kannon
Young Tarkas, a Singer of humble roots, whose worst crime had been accidentally stumbling upon a village elder and his wife..um…in the act, suddenly finds himself exiled from the only home he’s ever known. Because of a flame in the bowl. What Tarkas soon learns is that his misfortune is necessary to the future of the universe as he knows it. For he has been chosen as a Hero-in-training, and he must save the world.
With the aid of his new companions, one a Demi-God in disguise, the other a beast ferocious beyond compare (and a little help from the Elixir of Warrior), Tarkas uses his wit, strength, and Songs to track down the rogue Lords Elemental, restoring order to the realms that hang in the balance.
This is a different kind of fantasy and that always gives a book a bit of initial SPFBO momentum for me. Tarkas, our protagonist, is a young single man in a hunter gatherer community that reminded me of Rym Kechacha’s Doggerland people in Dark River. However, Tarkas’s people have developed a sophisticated mythology of gods and of roles within their separated village communities.
We meet Tarkas as he is in the middle of an act of contrition for some offence he has given to his community. However, it does not go according to plan and Tarkas ends up running away with no great sense of where he is going or why. During his flight he meets much by way of hostile flora and fauna, gets lost in a bog and stumbles across a way into a strange kind of domain of the gods.
The writing is quite stylistic, aspiring perhaps towards literary fiction where the focus is more on the way of telling than the tale itself. While escaping the faux-medieval setting of so much fantasy is good, this is a book that seems determined to test its reader. In places that writing approach works well; Tarkas describes a swamp where
“great beasts pretended to be rotting logs, until they snapped up something which believed them.”
Or when seeing nature’s ceasefire around the shared watering hole
“Hooves and ears drank beside fangs and claws.”
Or when Tarkas meets an embodiment of death (somewhat better fleshed and more understanding of humanity than Pratchett’s brilliant creation) and is told
“It is not life which counts, but what one has done with it.”
There are moment of wry humour too, Death excuses himself saying
“Unfortunately I’m a very busy entity, so I can’t help you out as much as I’d like.”
Tarkas lives in one of many parallel worlds whirling around the barely inhabited city of the gods (such busy people/divinities that they are out rather a lot) and the author strives to show the strangeness of this place to Tarkas by defamiliarising the description of things and places. Some meanings I spotted
“On the ledge of the hole sat as small silver lump with a handle. He lifted it and discovered a small ball inside made a chiming sound” – it’s a bell!
Others I was too slow on the uptake, the soft floored (carpeted) room (library/study) lined with frames (shelves) that held coloured oblong blocks (books).
I made it to 20% where Tarkas and his new found demi-god are in discussion about Tarkas’ new role as a Hero (ranked below a legend, which is in turn ranked below a demi-god etc).
It’s quite interesting, but very different in style and quite different in content from most of the fantasy I read. It is perhaps not a surprise to find that the author has a PhD in philosophy, because parts of it feel like a debate (internal or otherwise) between philosophers. I’m curious about where it goes but in something of an academic way, rather than being engrossed in it. So this one is orange for me.
I apologise for being blunt here, but the cover really needs updating. The cover is always the first thing which catches a reader’s eye and this one just makes me want to look away. It’s very low quality and doesn’t have a professional feel to it at all.
Unfortunately I also failed to be engaged by the opening chapters of Unbinding the Stone. The writing style was an aspect I particularly disliked and struggled with for a few reasons. At times I felt it read more like a stream of consciousness (which is the sort of narrative style I don’t usually enjoy anyway) where the character’s inner thoughts would jump from one idea to next, often very abruptly, but then I also felt there was far too much exposition.
‘With sudden alarm, he spun, but that had not changed. The mountain waited. He could go forward, but not back. He went forward.
‘Here would be no whill to help him. They tended to die if the water got too close. Like over there, that one already curling-wait one stick. Curling up? It should never have sprouted! Suddenly icy tremors afflicted his icy joints’
I don’t really have much else to say, I couldn’t get a feel for the main character at all – he came across as rather dull. Then I found all the repetition of the Song and the Gods became far too tedious. So overall this just wasn’t for me.
A prime example of a book whose prologue manages to grab and interest the reader, only for the body of the text to lose them thoroughly, to start with.
This work has a synthetic quality to it; almost like a modernist novel it never lets you forget that you are reading words written by a writer; there was no moment in which I submerged myself into the story fully, the way most excellent fantasy helps the reader achieve dissolution. But unlike a modernist novel, it’s not interested in modes or methods of intertextuality but rather…philosophical meditations, style, a different cultural landscape that’s far-away from the European one.
There’s something challenging about it, and on account of Unbinding the Stone being the second to last of our batch of thirty I opened, I fear I might not have been in the headspace necessary to appreciate its merits the way I was capable of noting its weaknesses.
Another one I can’t say much about. I tried to start this 5 times, but I just couldn’t get into the story. I wasn’t gripped and kept putting the book down at any opportunity. After starting it for the fifth time and still not getting past the 10% mark I gave up. So I can’t say if this might be good or bad, as I just couldn’t connect to it. Prose and tone are definitely not my cup of tea.
The better for him to go, then!”
Without his mind to intervene, his body responded and left. He considered not the source of those words, any more than he considered how the people let him through without notice. But his feet hurt
Even as he flogged himself into motion with these dismal exhortations, the rhythmic slap-slap of sandaled feet, coming fast, derailed his train of thought. He didn’t fear; he only thought to get out of the runner’s way, and the thought moved him as such thoughts will. Only then did he wonder what the man’s news might be.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far through this one, and barely wrote any notes as I was reading. I found the attempt at a stylistic narrative was so heavy-handed, that I really struggled to follow what was actually happening to the character. In the blurb above, it explains the transgression the protagonist made but in the story itself, this was not made clear at all. I couldn’t understand why everyone was upset with him.
Immersion in a fantasy is wonderful thing – but you need to be able to take your reader into that immersion with you and I just felt left behind.
Finding Fairy Tales
Imagination is outlawed.
Fairy Tale herself is imprisoned.
Molly has never heard a bedtime story… or any kind of story. But her daydreams are full of impossible wonders nonetheless. She’s kept her unruly imagination hidden for years, but she knows her luck won’t last. The emperor has eyes everywhere. Even in her own house.
Hatch knows it’s risky even to dream of adventures beyond his home, but he can’t help himself. Worse, the end of 7th grade is approaching. That means enrollment in the dreaded Institute, where there’s no chance of keeping his illegal imagination under the radar, and not everyone makes it out alive.
When a government agent appears on Molly’s doorstep, the two children must flee together or risk arrest, but an impassable wasteland lies between them and freedom. Then they learn astonishing secrets about their pasts, and realize there is more at stake than their safety. To fulfill an ancient prophecy, the two embark on a dangerous quest to rescue Fairy Tale. But will they outwit the emperor’s henchmen and reach her before it’s too late?
This feels very much like a children’s book. It puts me in mind of Louis Sachar’s Holes in its omniscient narrator and matter of fact delivery of the uncanny oddness, or Barbara Sleigh’s Carbonel in its reverence for cats, or Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events in it’s authorial asides of foreboding.
It is an easy quick read – but pitched well below what I would consider the YA range. There are other books in our batch that also felt more like children’s books but this is one that so far feels like it has the production values, writing and consistency of voice to succeed on the Children’s book shelves.
There is nonetheless a kind of 1984 subtext with a divisive and dictatorial ruler labelling “the other” as enemy and persecuting imagination. I also saw an interesting observation/subtext about the purpose of imagination – the necessity for humans to be able to see things “other than as they are” in order to take the actions needed to make them so.
The idea that cats are all government agents resonates with me. As did this sentence
“…But Eldon knew that a government official breaking the law was least likely to get caught if he appeared brazen and confident all the time, a trick the government officials in your world discovered long ago.”
It also reminds me a bit of Paul Biegel’s King of The Copper Mountains in its whimsical and idiosyncratic style. I got to 24%. Judging it as a children’s book, I think it is quite accomplished. I know others may wonder if a children’s book is really in the spirit of SPFBO but this is, I think, well written – intelligently crafted with a consistent voice. So I’m going with green!
One chapter in, I found this children’s book charming and beyond charming. A strange place, seeing a work aimed at younger readers placed in this competition of ours, but after several reds in a row, I find this a breath of fresh air.
The society in which this story takes place is fascinating indeed, holding imagination in the deepest suspicion. The dialogue oozes with charm, the kind that’s freshly direct and full of clever little asides which might just make you chuckle along as you read this to a kid sibling or your very own child. There are some minor issues of style I would unwrap my editor’s pen for (for example, “They quickly became fast friends,“) but for the most part, I found this charming, and so, though I am certain it shan’t make it past this circle, I would give it my personal stamp of approval via this here green colour.
Chalk it to my magnanimous nature, or a very early onset of quarter-age crisis, or even to nostalgia — but by Jove, I’ve taken a liking to this one! Ah, and the narrator — an omniscient one — strikes a conversational tone with you, the reader, to great success. A gimmick prone to failure…and yet author Kate Ramsey is quite successful in her use of it. Further, Ramsey cleverly juxtaposes the lives of Molly and Hatch, our protagonists, in their town of Town West, and outside its confines, by using food. “…the breakfast of apples, cheese and bread…had been laid out for them. You may think this simple fare, but for Molly, who had never had a meal that didn’t taste at least slightly of onion, it was very nice.” Onion is bland, bland, bland! And so is a life without imagination, the kind of life that would bid the citizens of a town to name it simply “Town West.”
This one isn’t even YA but reads like middle grade at best. Now, while I do enjoy kids and YA books, they need to be really special to be able to compete to adult stories in a contest like SPFBO, and this one simply wasn’t extraordinary enough to make up for the lack of depth and tone.
I have to agree with Julia – this is for very young children and I feel perhaps it was unfair to allow this entry into the SPFBO, because judging a children’s book is very different from judging an adult one as the two vastly vary in style.
In the opening chapters of Finding Fairy Tales we follow Molly, a twelve year old girl who lives in a world where imagination is outlawed. One day she is visited by a strange man – Mr Holocombe, who whisks her off on an adventure. I thought the premise of this was really intriguing.
The overall tone and extremely simplistic prose fits nicely for the children’s literature sub-genre, and there are a few moments of humour that would entertain a child of say six or seven, so that was also nice to see included. I also liked that often the narrator would break the fourth wall.
My problem lies with the main character’s age and her characterisation – at twelve years of age she wouldn’t talk or behave in the way Molly does. She’s too compliant, almost robotic. Her voice never felt natural to me, it just felt bland.
In my experience of reading children’s books, I tend to gravitate towards the ones which hold enough depth to be captivating to both an adult and a child – think Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman. Unfortunately Finding Fairy Tales by Kate Ramsey didn’t manage to achieve that depth for me personally, but for anyone with young children who would like to introduce them to the fantasy genre, this would be a great start.
I love the cover! Going by the cover, the C. S. Lewis quote, and the tone of writing, this is a children’s book – a conclusion my fellow judges have already arrived at.
My first impression was that I loved the style; the hyperbolic repetition of how ordinary everything is felt very Rowling. I think the author over-did it somewhat with the pirates though – “Molly had never heard of pirates” so how/why then is she imagining pirates? I loved the idea that perhaps she had heard of pirates but had no idea what they looked like, so imagined these completely unlikely figures, but this was ruined by that contradiction.
As the introduction continued, although the society certainly sounds like a scary one, I felt perhaps the author was labouring the point somewhat. Like Nils has mentioned, Molly seems younger than twelve, the way she screws up her eyes and covers her ears to think better.
The way the narrator breaks the fourth wall to address the reader is very C. S. Lewis. And again similarly to Lewis and other good children’s authors, the writer doesn’t shy away from using more adult language and terms, such as “advocate”, which I always think is so important in children’s books. I remember as a child reading this kind of writing and feeling clever for it, and now as a parent I really welcome the writer’s trust and respect at their prospective readers, and how much it will help my children’s vocabularies. No child likes being talked down to.
I also really enjoyed the word play, it’s exactly my kind of humour. I’m the kind of parent who responds “hi hungry” to her kids …
As the story panned out, like Theo has already mentioned, it began to feel a little like a kind of 1984/Fahrenheit 451 dystopia for kids. There are some really big ideas and themes at play here. The tone of writing is very much like Lewis or Blyton, in the way the narrator converses with the reader and draws their attention to certain points, or compares things they may be used to that don’t exist in the world of the book. As much as I find this style a comfort, I’m not sure how well it would sit with a modern audience.
Finally, the premise of the plot was one that really excited me: they have to go and rescue the personification of Fairy Tale. It really sparked my imagination, and I’m a little sad that, despite Theo and Filip also liking this one, it didn’t quite make the grade to go further. I don’t think it would have held its own very well further in the competition, but I do think it’s a wonderful book that I’m going to read with my eight year old daughter.
This week’s Quarter Finalists are:
Commiserations to the eliminated books, and congratulations to our quarter-finalists!