SPFBO 6: Eliminations Part Three
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 another three eliminations, and revealed NIGHTFALL: BLESSING OF FURY by J. J. Coffelt as our second quarter-finalist and A WIND FROM THE WILDERNESS by Suzannah Rowntree as our second 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.
The Copper Assassin
HOW CAN HE STOP THE ULTIMATE ASSASSIN?
In the sixteenth year of its founding, the city-state of Wyverna teems with vitality, rife with crime, secrets, and sorcery. Like its namesake, the wyverns that hunt from the mountains above, Wyverna is a city of predators. Its pirates sail out to plunder the wealth of nations, while at home the capital seethes, an uneasy amalgam of the old ways of its anarchic peoples and the newly imposed rule of law.
The young noble Gorgo navigates these complexities with ease, until one night he learns of a plot to assassinate Wyverna’s legendary founder, the Warlord. The rebels have obtained a mighty relic: an ancient copper golem created to be the ultimate assassin. Invulnerable and relentless, the golem destroyed the civilization that birthed it. If it kills the Warlord, Gorgo realizes his city too will fall, ripped apart by civil war.
Armed with nothing but his wits and his courage, Gorgo sets out to find a way to save Wyverna. His mission will take him from the elegant casinos of downtown to the chaotic docks where smugglers prowl, from the hot sands of the arena to the cold midnight of magic-shadowed streets. But even he cannot foresee where his path will ultimately lead, and to what consequences.
I read to 25% mainly because Chapter 4 developed some tense action and a change of gear/pace that kept me reading – which was a good sign. There are some intriguing themes in this book.
It has a striking cover and an interesting premise of an implacable magical assassin, shades of Schwarzenegger’s The Terminator perhaps, stalking the streets of a pirate town. The pirate community is a curious one, a displaced community driven from their original home (honestly who wouldn’t enjoy having pirates on their doorstep) and forced to found a city overseas, which seems to have developed in great detail in what was apparently only 15 years. There is a little tension there in the seeming antiquity of its libraries, dark streets and resources, yet the relatively small timescale for it to be established. However, a book which gives librarians and readings and research a key role in the plot feels different.
Our hero Gorgo is determined to solve the puzzle of the assassin with thought and planning rather than kickass swordsmanship. The author also has some distinctive names, variants on fantasy’s fondness for apostrophes with Gorgo having a cousin called “Six & Seven” meeting a sorceress named “Water” and a backstreet fence named “Ta.ar” I was sort of wondering if the % sign was going to creep into a name somewhere.
Where the book has a weakness it is in a tendency to exposition with character reflections that start to feel like authorial asides detailing politics and history. The plotting also relies on some rather clumsy coincidences of overheard conversations and misunderstandings between the bad guys, while Gorgo’s explicitly thinking through his plans and actions starts to feel like the author working out his story. I think credit for setting out to have a different “thinking” hero, but Gorgo’s self confidence that “I’m good at finding things out” doesn’t yet make for such a compelling central character as say Tyrion’s “I drink and I know things.”
I had been rather looking forward to this one, but ultimately ended up quite disappointed. Reading through Theo’s review, I found it very interesting that, although we reached the same conclusion, he seems to have quite a different take on the story. But I’ll get to that…
I really liked the cover, which is why I had been looking forward to this book; I liked the little dragon in the background, I loved the interesting mix of medieval design and tech.
I found the writing style at some points a touch florid –
“But as the sun plummeted below the sheer peaks that swallowed half the western sky, the city stirred to life.”
And at other times quite evocative –
“The sound of the city carried faintly to them, a distant murmur like the sound of a woman’s laugh, far away, low and amused.”
It flowed well enough and was easy to read – no mistakes to speak of.
The world building didn’t grip me quite as it did Theo; I found the notion that they were a people who had escaped and built a new colony interesting, but I felt like I’d missed the point they were pirates. There was a great deal of talk of the underworld and shady dealings as being something which happened in only certain parts of the town, so I didn’t see the society as a whole as an exciting swashbuckling pirate town.
I found the heavy descriptions of the characters’ appearances quite distracting; I felt a great deal of attention was paid to their skin tones, how they compared to each other, “His voice was deep and smooth, as dark as his skin.” I found it difficult to get a sense of the characters as individuals and personalities, to the point where I ended up having quite a mixed impression of our protagonist.
Which leads me on to ultimately the main reason why I felt so disinclined to continue reading – I was too confused by Gorgon to like him. He starts off seeming quite young as he attends his cousins swimming in the river. But soon, he’s in a casino being led away by a woman and falling into circumstances that require him to be quite savvy… I struggled to sympathise with him, as his motivations appeared to revolve around the fact he was so good at everything it left him bored:
“Maybe everything came too easily to him.”
Then the way he kind of fell into his adventure, overhearing a conversation in a room he shouldn’t have been in, felt somewhat contrived. Personally, I struggled to find his plight exciting, and so struggled to focus an interest on his story.
Like Beth, I too was really excited to read this one. I adore the cover! It was my personal favourite from The Fantasy Hive’s batch. The metallic warrior figure in the foreground and the malevolent dragon creeping in the background promises an action packed plot, and because of this my expectations for this book were quite high.
I have to say though, I found the opening rather bland. The book is told through the eyes of Gorgo, our main protagonist, but like Beth mentions he’s not really a likeable character which makes it hard to feel invested in his story. Gorgo is presented with very little personality, he is rather dry and stoic. His main motivation is boredom – he wants to find a way to feel challenged, which isn’t a proper reason to embark on any kind of quest in my opinion. I actually found his cousin ‘Six and Seven’ (I agree with Theo, these name choices are quite odd!) had a lot more spark to him, and was instantly more likeable.
I also found the plot to be equally as bland and I think this stems from two factors; a) the author adds much of the world building into the dialogue between characters, which has the effect of passages of info-dumping, and clunky conversations; and b) like Theo also mentions, the plot is too convenient!! For example; Gorgo mentions he wants a quest of importance, he then enters a room and overhears an assassination plot against his warlord – huzzah he has a quest. Gorgo wants a sorcerer – lo-and-behold one appears instantly coming out of a cafe to gaze at the moon. Everything he wants he gets with very little effort. Then there are also lines that made me cringe like ‘Muckety-muck’ and ‘The gorgeous bartender’. Whilst this isn’t a major issue, I was slightly jarred by these as overall the author writes lovely descriptive prose, so lines like this felt out of place.
There are parts of the story which very much intrigued me. There is a great storyline about a golem inside an egg, the concept of the underworld, and I’d be interested to know more about the warlord, but overall I’m not particularly captivated by The Copper Assassin.
The Copper Assassin is not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, but the string of convenient “right place, right time” occasions that rest at the novel’s core failed to grab me. Protagonist Gorgo has a well-defined voice, but I never quite empathised with him, in part due to his role as passive observer rather than active participant in an extended conversation that established the main conflict of the entire book, and chartered Gorgo’s path forward.
Gripping descriptions are at times on display; occasionally, however, they tend towards the unnecessary verbose. Reading through my notes now, I can’t help but notice that I wrote the basic “interesting opening” pro in two entirely different ways without realizing it at the time; I didn’t find enough in The Copper Assassin to excite me in a way necessary to have a constructive conversation about a novel.
As the others have spoken in detail already, I’ll keep my bit short…
I hated the names in this one. Really actually hated them. I mean, as much as different worlds might have different names, how do you come up with “Six & Seven” (as in that is one name, not one character being called Six and one being called Seven) or “Na•ar”. That really threw me out of the story over and over.
The dialogue felt long winded and brimmed with info dumps to me. While the story itself was intriguing, it just didn’t grab me nearly enough to keep me reading despite the things I didn’t like.
By the Hand of Dragons: AlinGuard
“Prisons are for men, AlinGuard is for monsters.”
To be sentenced here, they must pose a threat no single nation could handle. And now they’re on the loose.
AlinGuard, a frozen prison at the top of the world. By some horror, the convicts now control the prison, and have converted it into their base of operation as they wreak havoc across the Whitelands.
Shefa DragonPaw has offered his services to restore order to the inescapable fortress that has become the impregnable citadel. Unfortunately, powerful wards prevent any magic from being used within its walls. Now the dragon-crafted lord of Fuumashon must defeat a horde of unstoppable villains…without the use of his most potent weapon.
Monsters, nightmares and scores of assassins await him within AlinGuard’s storied walls.
But how did they execute this coup? Why? And who is the mastermind controlling it all?”
Non-stop action, brutal combat, and hellish monsters fill every page of this adventure. The perfect tale for lovers of action and heroes who give no quarter.
This story presents as a sidequest for Shefa the hero of a separate trilogy, which is what qualifies it for the SPFBO. The writing is patchy, though I did like this line,
“Shefa liked it because it was small enough to keep warm, even at night when the cold became a living thing hungry for toes.”
I also sort of got the simile for Shefa landing from a first magically enhanced flight
“He landed like a new bird: half stone, half tumbleweed.”
In too many other places, though, the writing just fell flat or misfired .
“The room blanched.”
“You’re dumber than you’re stupid”
“You’ll be murdered to death by morning.”
The underlying world melds magic and science, which gives the author cause to sprinkle science terms and references around, but unfortunately in ways that just ended up irritating me. What is “raw untampered velocity”? Since when did kinetic energy become a kind of stored energy that Shefa can release at will (unless the guy is packing some serious spinning flywheels about his person)?
There are typos too on the first page: “Shefa decided asking; he should know his kingdom. tit andtittle.” and in one of the chapter headings “A MEETINGOF CONS” which suggest a need for editing. There is also some head hopping as we switch POV back and forth within a scene.
The plot generates its conflict from extremes, from exposing Shefa to pointless levels of abuse merely to make his opponents stupidly vindictive and to allow his Marty-Sue powers (all that kinetic energy) to come to the fore. I got to 23% but noped out at this line as Shefa is getting into a contrived throne room battle.
“Shefa was born and bred for this. Shefa had wet dreams about this”
Sadly, I found too little to engage me in the world and writing of Alinguard.
I did not manage to get as far as the wet dream preparation, for which I’m now rather relieved.
I was quite surprised to see this book falls between the third and fourth books in a series. Apparently, it’s a stand-alone separate adventure, but we’re treated to a “story thus far” section – the inclusion of which implies we need to know the story thus far, ergo this story does not in fact stand alone.
I found the style of writing lacked any subtle exposition; it’s written in a manner that assumes familiarity with this protagonist, again not supporting the idea that this is a story which can be read on its own.
There were a number of grammatical mistakes, some odd choice of phrases, inconsistency in tone during dialogue.
I found myself working to try to read it unfortunately. Perhaps having read the other three books, this one might be a more enjoyable read as a connection with the protagonist will have already been formed. I felt that attempt to create a connection completely lacking here, which left me feeling cold and uninterested I’m afraid!
From the onset of Alinguard I unfortunately struggled with the over simplistic prose. As Beth and Theo both mention the narrative was full of errors – typos as well as grammatical and the dialogue was bordering on cringe worthy. Ultimately I found it very childlike.
Beth makes a very good point – from reading a short recap by the author at the start we realise this novella sits between books three and four of a series and although he does provide some context and backstory here, I too feel it was not enough to fully view this as a standalone.
In the opening chapter the main protagonist, Shefa, is presented as the King of the world! That’s literally how he describes himself, oh and he’s also a powerful mage. Which is an ok premise in itself, but slightly confusing as we know very little else about him. Then further problems arose for me when there was very little depth to the magic system, very little limitations were shown and the world building was sparse to say the least. For example if Shefa wanted to travel somewhere he could literally fly there within minutes, if he needed to escape, a way became available by bending the bars on his prison cell door. Perhaps having read the previous books this wouldn’t have been an issue as I’d have already been aware of the context, but solely judging on this novella, it was disappointing.
However at certain points I strangely did find myself intrigued by the narrative. At the mention of a prison called Alinguard, situated out in the barren cold, which had bandits escape and survive when they technically should have frozen to death, this is where I thought I’d begin to enjoy the story. However the prose failed to improve and then as Theo also noticed, a pointless action scene was added, so the book completely lost my engagement.
Ah, the wonderful world of AlinGuard, where chimneys promise thawed toes, and strangers…well, strangers are furious arseholes for no apparent reason.
This is a novel that will not impress with its prose, though its naming conventions will prove to be quite the mouthful. The character of Shefa seems a bit thick-headed at first, almost barbarian-like in his bearings, to use the ever-helpful class distinction of D&D. There’s magic, then there’s psionics, and the psionics (or Mind Magic, as Shefa puts it) work where magic cannot. Somewhat reminiscent of how D&D (ah, how this game keeps popping up in my mind) draws a distinction between the two; at least, that’s what it put me in mind of.
The entire book reminds me of a solo adventure of a barbarian who has leveled up once or twice in psionics. Plenty of lines that should be funny fall flat — the ill-conceived attempts at humour backfire very often. Some scenes felt mildly Conan the Barbarian-esque (I just can’t escape the barbarian trope, can I?) and one particular moment towards the close of the first chapter reminded me of a scene from the Matrix. I’d blame my brain for coming up with the weirdest associations, but AlinGuard offers plenty of material to draw these from, I promise.
I have little to say about this one, as I didn’t even make it to the 20% we set as a goal for the first round of our SPFBO reads.
The tone that I think is meant to be amusing just felt off to me and grated. I couldn’t engage with the prose and also didn’t like any of the characters I met, so I noped out of this one quickly.
Burden of Power
Ria’s secret fear is that she’s not ready to rule. But when the king goes mad, she may not have a choice.
As the first female heir to the throne of Rahm, Ria is surrounded by skeptics. Her dazzling wit and easy confidence hide the truth: She really doesn’t know what she’s doing. But she’d better learn fast because her father’s volatile behavior is getting worse.
When the king gets embroiled in a power struggle with Merek, captain of the Wall Guard, Ria sees an opportunity. She proposes a tour of the damaged wall, giving her an excuse to prove herself by acting in her father’s stead.
But Merek doesn’t have time for Ria’s schemes. A criminal network has infiltrated a critical border city, and he resents being pulled from his post. Abandoning his investigation could lead to disaster.
Stubborn wills collide as Ria and Merek wrestle in a shifting balance of power. Only by learning to trust each other can they merge their strong personalities into a dynamic partnership. Will it be enough to save Ria when the threat to Rahm turns dangerously personal?
The book’s opening is strongest in passages of description. There is a slightly Jane Austen’s Emma feel to the set up, in that we have a precocious young daughter, an ailing curmudgeonly father and significantly older friend of the family who one hopes will not turn out to be the protagonist’s love interest, but fears otherwise.
Like Austen there is a reliance on dialogue and social engagements to move the story onwards, but I found the dialogue generally unconvincing as though I was being told that this was wit and wisdom rather than shown wit and wisdom. There is also a sense of domesticated little women in how the female characters seem subordinate to the men and swept up in household chores, while the men seem fixated on the physical attractiveness/loveliness of the women to the point where it felt quite male gazey. It made me want to check if the author was a woman or a man.
Caren is a female author but one who writes about relationships in fantasy and other settings, which brings me back to the apparent Jane Austen-esque aspirations of the book. In its desire to build a romance the book fell short for me in its worldbuilding. For example, much is made of military hierarchy and the significance of a particular promotion, but there is apparently no rank between Captain and General. Not that that is itself a deal breaker, just that it exemplifies what felt too shallow a foundation to the world. So ultimately the opening 22% failed to enthuse me because it fell between the two stools of, on the one hand a charming character study of regency romance and on the other of a gripping but credible fantasy world under existential threat.
I liked this one! A lot! I was so disappointed my fellow judges felt differently – in fact, I was the only one to mark it as a “read on”!
I like the artwork of the cover, but I think perhaps the typesetting, although clear, lets it down a little.
The narrative is split between three characters who are connected in a chain – the ‘older family friend’ Theo mentions above not only has his own POV, but does also have roles in the other two POVS – those of confident Princess having to assume rule for her ailing father, and merchant’s sister who has faked death in order to avoid mafia-like family members who may have discovered them…
I found myself liking all three characters, who I thought were portrayed strongly enough to be distinctive from the start, and I found the story gripping. In fact I was so focused on reading through that I didn’t stop to make many notes.
The only shadow I really felt was this concern that the young princess would end up romantically involved with her father’s friend – his surprise at what a beautiful woman the child he remembered had grown into was … unpleasant, particularly coupled with his growing discomfort in her vicinity.
Sorry Beth, I’m another one who wasn’t too keen on this one. I agree with you about the cover though, it’s lovely but the typography and size of the title lets it down.
The opening chapters unfortunately failed to hook me; it isn’t bad by any means, but it wasn’t very memorable. You know when you put a book down and the next time you pick it up again you can’t remember a damn thing of what happened? That was me.
Then I discovered that romance was going to be a central storyline which is something I personally don’t enjoy. From that point I had the feeling this book wasn’t one I was going to get enthusiastic over.
I quite liked the way it’s written though, it flows fairly easily, and as Theo mentions the dialogue heavily moves the story along but I think the author does this skilfully because unlike Theo, I found it still felt natural.
However despite this, I just don’t feel this book is to my personal taste, but I would recommend it to those who want a regency romance in a fantasy world.
Burden of Power appealed to my love for classic fantasy, with its misguided king and military man of honour, with its clever but kind princess, and with a plot that weaves plenty of familiar tropes in an approachable story. This was one of the earlier books I read from our batch, and it’s one of the few I have a strong, lingering impression of. I remember the interactions between the characters, their relationships, some clever lines of dialogue, even. I’ll have to disagree with Theo on this account, as I had no issues buying into most of the dialogue between our cast of characters.
Despite my personal enjoyment and desire to continue forward, I didn’t vote we move this onto the next round because in those first twenty percent, it didn’t do nearly enough that was original. It also has minor issues of punctuation, the occasional jarring typo (“Grammel turned and walk away proudly, Merek’s feeling of victory souring under his threat.”), and some word choice that drew me away from the story. And to make it up to Theo for that disagreement earlier, I will agree with his point — there is something lacking to the Burden of Power’s worldbuilding, especially concerning military hierarchy.
For all that, there are elements to enjoy about this one; while perhaps it lacks the nutrients to be a main meal, Caren Hahn’s novel would make for yummy comfort food.
This one wasn’t bad, but neither did it really grip me.
From the three POVs I did like the soldier one best, though even that one felt a bit tropey and predictable to me. The relationship between king and daughter as a second POV should have been one I liked – a strong woman who has her own head and takes charge of things sounds great! – but somehow it just didn’t work well. For me the dialogues didn’t feel stilted, but they also didn’t really catch my interest. The third POV set up a nice mystery as in we don’t really know the backstory. While this kept me reading for a while longer, overall the book just wasn’t my cup of tea, and while I didn’t dislike it, I also didn’t mind stopping at the 20% mark.
This week’s Quarter Finalists are:
Commiserations to the eliminated books, and congratulations to our quarter-finalists!