SPFBO 6: Fifth Semi-Finalist Announcement
On Wednesday, we announced our fifth set of three eliminations and revealed that our next quarter-finalists are LAST OF THE EXALTED by Derek Prior and QUEENS OF THE WYRD by Timandra Whitecastle.
Speculative fiction seems to be full of young “chosen ones.” Teenagers and twenty-somethings discovering their raw talent just in time to save the world/universe. Older characters, if they exist at all, are consigned to the bit part role of mentor or sacrificial parent/uncle. This may be because of the considerable overlap between YA and fantasy, or it may be that showing people growing up in a world is the easiest way to induct the reader into that world.
But sometimes it is nice to see the older people have their crack at the lead role, be it the retired warrior whose past just won’t let the poor bastard go, or the reluctant mother shouldering the burden of destiny. Gemmell has Druss picking up his axe to the defence of Dros Delnoch in Legend, and N.K.Jemisin has Essun, grieving mother and master of tectonic magic shattering the earth in The Fifth Season. And so at the Hive we’d just like to say a big hooray for the older women and older men picking up the reins of a tale. To hell with these teenage prodigies, or even at the extreme end of the spectrum the stereotypes of grizzled mages and bent crones. Let us have some protagonists who’ve lived a bit but are not quite ready for either the fantasy retirement home or the cameo adviser role. Let us have heroes, who’ve already met with triumph and disaster and given those two imposters a bloody nose, and more to the point who have the scars and the stretch marks to prove it.
Certainly that is what we found when we dipped into this week’s pair of quarter finalists so, without further ado…
Last of the Exalted
He was a curse upon the dwarves.
Then their savior.
But after the tragic loss of his wife, the Nameless Dwarf stood down from the throne of Arnoch and went into the mountains to die.
Two hundred years later, the dwarves are a dwindling race on the brink of civil war.
When the hordes of Arnoch storm through the Malfen Pass, refugees flee for their lives, among them the half-Slathian storyteller, Nyra Sahtis, and Sister Caelin, a priestess who was once a trainer of armies.
But with the capital, Jeridium, under siege from a second dwarven faction, there is nowhere for them to run. And so Caelin must seek the aid of the lord she once betrayed, while Nyra is forced to confront everything she left behind when she fled her childhood home in the City of Sorcerers.
As rival dwarven armies converge on Jeridium, the Senate send the assassin Shadrak the Unseen to the Southern Crags to find an old friend in a desperate bid to avert the coming catastrophe.
For ancient evil manipulates from the shadows, and the dwarves are not themselves. And if there is any hope of bringing them to their senses, it comes in the shape of a grief-stricken warrior and his mythical axe:
The Nameless Dwarf.
The hero of legends.
The last of the Exalted.
The book opens with a long list of dramatis personae at the start, but no map. I’m never too sure about this – I like maps more than lists, mainly because maps can be so pretty. But with both people and places in speculative fiction, I like to be able to trust that the story will “locate” them for me within the body of the text. I’m a little bit wary if the book seems to suggest I’ll be needing to look people up a lot, either because their names are confusing, or their numbers too plentiful, for mortal minds to cope. Ditto for the glossary that follows right after the dramatis personae. And there is a map, just after the title page – pretty enough, and rendered better than many in kindle form. So I got to 3% without hitting a word of story and wondering what would come next, a prologue? (actually another map!)
However, by 10% in I was curious, Shadrack is an interesting fellow with a wicked sense of humour and two women characters differently capable also piqued my interest. There is a lot of complex backstory and history, and the book’s opening does struggle a bit with the weight of emotional and narrative baggage that the characters are carrying. That does lead to a few excuses for exposition by dialogue, skaald story telling, dreaming, argument and guilty self-reflection.
However, then we met a sentient axe, that mind-talks in italics between square brackets! By the time I got to 20% I wanted to go further on. This is a richly imagined world. Although, in many ways this feels like a series with lots of backstory bleeding in from what has been told in other books, it does seem to work as a standalone. It offers a fresh adventure for old (and new) companions. The Nameless dwarf reminds me a bit of Gemmell’s Druss – but a bit more old and battered. There is some interesting political intrigue going on and – quite a few points where I found myself noting “nice line” so writing with a bit of sparkle, characters with a bit of wit and moral greyness, world with a bit of complexity – yup that ticked enough of my boxes.
Like Theo, I didn’t have a great first impression of this book, the long list of characters could have done with being at the back of the book. The cover looks a great deal like a John Gwynne book; I was confused at first whether or not this is actually a self-published book (the press is even listed under editorial services in the book, does this mean Prior edited the book himself?); the cast of characters list put me in mind of George R R Martin; and finally, as interesting as the maps looked, one of them put me quite strongly in mind of Josiah Bancroft’s tower… all in all, I was left wondering if this book was actually going to do anything of its merit.
Thankfully, the actual opening of the story was more promising. The opening lines immediately give you a sense of place without directly telling you anything:
Silence struck like a direct hit.
But it was only a momentary lull in the bombardment.
I felt the scene of a city at siege is set out really well, and I particularly loved the details and intricacies of a society in this situation. If you’re playing SPFBO bingo, you can cross off your made-up swear square – “Shog it!” but otherwise it felt well written, and immersive enough that I got through the first 9% quite quickly.
Moving on from here though, it started to lose its grip on me. There is a great deal of story that’s packed in, and events unfurl at quite a sharp rate… an experienced assassin is captured by a shady government and sent out of the besieged city to hunt down his old friend, some kind of immortal Dwarven hero, to save them from the warring Dwarven factions at their gates. On paper, sounds like an interesting story. But bizarrely, it’s when we get to this dwarf and his magical talking axe that I just found myself increasingly nonplussed by his story.
I think this was very much a it’s me, not you issue; I’m sure other readers would find it an enjoyable read!
The cover definitely looks like John Gwynne’s A Time of Blood – whilst I love John Gwynne’s covers and find them very much appealing, I do feel Last of the Exalted mirrors this style too much and needed to incorporate its own flair to make it more original.
This is a hard book for me to review because it’s simply a case of I couldn’t focus on the story. Theoretically this is a book which caters to the kind of fantasy I find appealing – layers of humour, political intrigue balanced with action scenes, a sentient axe! I love sentient weapons – hello there Nightblood from Sanderson’s Warbreaker. There’s even a quest to find the Nameless Dwarf! Yet whilst I was reading my attention was never fully held. I was irritated by the invented swearing and by our main character Shadrack, who entirely failed to captivate me. I didn’t feel anything for him and therefore I wasn’t invested.
I kept putting the book down and didn’t feel compelled to pick it up again and when I did continue I’d forgotten most of the plot. Was it a case of the wrong book at the wrong time? Or was the book just not for me? As I’m not really sure, I may pick this one back up at a later date and see how I feel. However for this competition if the opening chapters fail to grab me then it’s not one I want to continue right now.
A city besieged, an immortal assassin, a lost dwarven king, a secondary protagonist I immediately took a liking to….there’s plenty to like here, in terms of humour, writing and prose, the sheer visceral quality to it. Last of the Exalted appealed to my tastes, and for good reason — it taps into that kind of fantasy that has one foot resting in the territory of epic fantasy, its other firmly rooted in grimdark convention.
I’m hooked. I hope to revisit this in the future — it’s a shame it didn’t move onto the semi-finalists.
I’m glad it struck a stronger note with you, Filip!
I already read a previous book in the same world by the author, and did like it. So I had a small advantage in getting into the story and world right away! I will most likely finish this one at a later date after SPFBO reading is done too, as I do like the humour and tone in them.
As much as I do enjoy them for being quick to read and entertaining, it just didn’t add up to other quarter finalists to me, because it just is a bit too shallow and quick to resolve problems. It’s one of those easy and light (as in not complex, not as in fluffy, they are quite a bit gritty) series that I love after a long day of work or between the big tomes that need every single brain cell!
Queens of the Wyrd
Raise your shield. Defend your sisters. Prepare for battle
Half-giant Lovis and her Shieldmaiden warband were once among the fiercest warriors in Midgard. But those days are long past and now Lovis just wants to provide a safe home for herself and her daughter – that is, until her former shield-sister Solveig shows up on her doorstep with shattering news.
Solveig’s warrior daughter is trapped on the Plains of Vigrid in a siege gone ugly. Desperate to rescue her, Sol is trying to get the old warband back together again. But their glory days are a distant memory. The Shieldmaidens are Shieldmothers now, entangled in domestic obligations and ancient rivalries.
But family is everything, and Lovis was never more at home than at her shield-sisters’ side. Their road won’t be easy: old debts must be paid, wrongs must be righted, and the Nornir are always pulling on loose threads, leaving the Shieldmaidens facing the end of all Nine Realms. Ragnarok is coming, and if the Shieldmaidens can’t stop it, Lovis will lose everyone she loves…
Fate is inexorable. Wyrd bith ful araed.
I very much enjoyed this. We have an interesting protagonist in Lovis, single mother, retired shield maiden, living in the midst of a suspicious community. It reminded me of Kings of the Wyld and Mad Max Fury Road that I wondered if those resonances were deliberate. It lacks the comedy element of KotW, but the plot feels like a gender reversal with a band of female warriors assembling to rescue one of their daughters from a dreadful siege. And then with the references to Furey Road, I was thinking of that other gender reversal of Mad Max to Fury Road – I mean Lovis’s shield is made of Furywood?!
But the thing that stands out most for me for this book is the number of times I’ve made kindle notes about “nice line” or “great line.” The prose really soars with this one so I’m very keen to read on.
Where Last of the Exalted gave me a poor first impression before the story even started, Queens of the Wyrd had the complete opposite effect on me. I love the cover – the flames rising up behind a woman who already looks quite battered and experienced. There is a note to pirating books on the copy page which made me laugh aloud:
If you pirated the ebook, know this: Loki is the God of Mischief, and patron saint of this tale. He despises your laziness, thief, and will hound you forever; when your phone battery runs low and you’re standing in line waiting, when every single traffic light turns red on your commute to work and you’re already late, when you’re on the train but your seat has been taken by someone else 0 just so you know, that’s Loki’s curse. You can avert it by buying a copy of the next book you were going to pirate.
I didn’t need to get very far into the actual story to know that I definitely wanted to read to the end. The opening, the tone of a story told, of a legend being woven, was beautiful. I raced through without really even stopping to draw breath…
I loved Whitecastle’s portrayal of humanity, of people, of the way the rhythm of a crowd works:
Lovis rounded him twice: the first time he was muttering to the man next to him in a tone discordant with the harmony of the fighters sucking in breath through their teeth.
The one glitch I felt in this Norse matrix, was the use of the term “mom” – it felt like Whitecastle had been so careful with her language and tone in this setting, it had all been feeling so authentic, that this modern-sounding term for mother felt quite out of place.
However, I can’t wait to meet Lovis’ shield sisters and see a mother take control of this axe-swinging shield-striking fantasy. I can hear the Reddit bros cracking their knuckles in readiness, but damn it’s good to see a mother kicking down that fridge and striding forth.
Last week I mentioned that there have been two standout openings for me in our batch of 30 books: Code of the Communer was the first one and Queens of the Wyrd is the second! I loved the first 20% – I flew through it and found it a struggle to put down!
There are so many of my favourite kinds of features in this, for example I adore Norse mythology, Vikings and Shield-maidens. The world-building incorporates all of this and I enjoyed the dark and gritty setting of the village. Our story begins in a tavern where fights to the death are a source of entertainment and a way to find knowledge of the future through the blood that is spilt. This pretty much sets the tone of the book, it is a grim world indeed. There’s even a battle with a gigantic monster. A bloody exciting battle at that!
I am drawn to formidable warriors, and our main character Lovis is an extremely likeable one, as is her fellow retired shield-maiden Solvieg. Both of these characters stole my heart, and I became emotionally attached almost instantly.
I also love all the themes Whitecastle incorporates in the narrative too; prejudices, identity and motherhood. There is strong representation of single mothers which I’ve not come across often in fantasy before, so I very much appreciated this. The level of depth running throughout this opening is exactly what I’ve been looking for.
I did find a few word choices, particularly in the speech, such as ‘Bouncer’ and ‘nope’, felt out of place but that’s me being nit-picky really.
Overall Queens of the Wyrd is very much a Nils kind of read.
It’s as if Timandra Whitecastle wrote Queens of the Wyrd for me. I’ve an unhealthy obsession with mythology, be it Greek or Norse, and Queens of the Wyrd scratches an itch I didn’t know I needed, in offering brilliant female characters past their prime, forced to relive their glory days in order to extricate a young would-be Valkyrie trapped in a siege gone bad. This is a story about motherhood, and a powerful one, at that; speaking of, allow me to introduce you to the most badass character of all (second to my own, of course!):
Shieldmaiden, mother, half-giant slayer of beasts and men –Lovis is a hell of a protagonist! Her interactions with her daughter speak to a deep understanding of the complexities of the parent-child relationship. Riveting read, with some of the most fantastic action I have read among the pool of thirty books for the SPFBO. Timandra Whitecastle has done excellent work, and I’m eager to explore the remainder of this epic tale of family and sisterhood.
I’m loving the tone and voice in this one. Like our other quarter finalist it is a quick and fun read with plenty of humour and banter. I love the one liners and the pragmatic way of thinking of the main characters, and was hooked from page one!
I especially enjoy the different point of view of women who might be struggling to get through life, but are strong and capable anyway. Not just hardened, emotionless robots, but real women.
Also, just look at that copyright notice Beth quoted above – I mean I was already a bit infatuated right there.
Congratulations to QUEENS OF THE WYRD – our fifth 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 (*quarter-finalist) Gonzalez, Selina R. – Prince of Shadows and Ash (*quarter-finalist)
Greenwood, Kai – Code of the Communer (*semi-finalist)
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 (*quarter-finalist) 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 (*semi-finalist)
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 (*semi-finalist)
Zangari, Robert – A Prince’s Errand