SPFBO 6: Fourth Semi-Finalist Announcement
On Wednesday, we announced our fourth set of three eliminations and revealed that our next quarter-finalists are PRINCE OF SHADOW AND ASH by Selina R. Gonzalez and CODE OF THE COMMUNER by Kai Greenwood.
It is in the nature of speculative fiction, and particularly fantasy, that their authors work under a burden of worldbuilding. Not for them the comfort of a contemporary or even a historical setting, everything about the world has to be built in the author’s imagination and then – more trickily – imparted to the reader. One can’t be laissez-faire about world building (unless your world for some reason has that French idiom). What are the names of the month, the days of the week (can’t have Woden’s day or Thor’s day or Tyr’s day outside of a Norse origins). Are there even seven days in a week, or what is a week? The kind of stuff that makes my brain hurt so hard I need a coffee (er… yes caffeinated hot drinks, are they a thing in this world?)
Of course you can overthink these things, and a more telling error is when new authors are so enthralled by the myth and history of their world creations that they exposit it mercilessly at the reader. The best world building is subtle. It lets the readers experience the world through the characters’ eyes, rather than be told about it by some authorial voice making ventriloquist puppets out of their characters in a series of “As you know, Bob…” exchanges.
Both of this week’s quarterfinalists had imaginative but quite different world settings, and elected to immerse us in those worlds without much by way of elaborate preamble, and to be honest that’s the way we like it.
So without further ado (or even further preamble)…
Prince of Shadow and Ash
Selina R. Gonzalez
Bastard and former mercenary Lord Regulus Hargreaves just wants to earn his freedom from the sorcerer who enslaved him. When Lady Adelaide sees past his scar and his shadowed past, Regulus’ dying hope rekindles. But will loving Adelaide while serving the Prince of Shadow and Ash put her in danger?
Adelaide Belanger longs to use the magical energy within her, but revealing her power could get her killed. When she meets kind and rugged Regulus, she wonders if she has finally found someone to trust with her secret—and her heart.
Regulus and Adelaide struggle to build a relationship and keep their secrets from those who would harm them. By the time Regulus’ and Adelaide’s secrets are revealed, it may be too late for them both…
There is an engaging central premise around the protagonist Regulus, in public an ex-mercenary turned aristocrat resented by his peers, in private the magically enslaved and immortal servant of an evil sorcerer, forced to wear a disguise as The Black Knight.
The female lead, Adelaide is also engaging, in being an independent young woman capable of looking after herself. The secondary characters also have a bit of life to them. However, there is such an overwhelming sense of foreshadowed romance that I’m a bit worried. I’m not sure how the balance between high octane plot action, and whimsical insta-romance will play out in the rest of the book.
I mean romances from Austen onwards have started with a premise of the eventual matched couple initially not getting on or not realising how well matched they are, but in this one the protagonists PoVs both show a level of mutual besotted-ness which they dare not speak. This dissipates the initial romantic conflict, though there is scope for some serious strife once Regulus’s alter ego and Adelaide’s hidden nature come to clash. That makes this an orange for me. I wouldn’t mind reading on, but it hasn’t grabbed me yet.
I really like the cover. The blade in the centre and the tiger and wolf on either side is really eye-catching. Perhaps the title dominated the cover a bit too much, but the stylistic typography is fab.
Overall, I have mixed feelings about Prince of Shadow and Ash. Like Theo, I too really like the premise of the narrative – our main protagonist Regulus (I’m sorry but I think that name is awful!) is immortal, as we learn his body unnaturally heals. He has a ‘sorcerer’s mark’ on him, (an actual physical mark on his body) which somehow relates to why he can’t die. In the opening chapter we also discover that if others attack him or he is in danger, the sorcerer who placed the mark upon him can take over his body and cause untoward violence and bend Regulus to his will. I thought this was a fantastic thrilling concept.
I liked the initial world-building too. There are hobgoblins, centaurs, sorcerers, and the promise of many more creatures. I think I’ve mentioned enough times by now how much I love fantastical creatures!
We then meet Adelaide, our second protagonist, who is a wielder of forbidden magic – cue my intrigue once again. However, as I reached 19% I realised that the majority of the plot featured around the romance between the two main characters and frustratingly little of anything else. I’m sorry to say I found it hard to focus and was disappointed that the book wasn’t going in the direction I had hoped for. Perhaps it does later on, but by this point I’m not invested enough to continue. I think if you’re a fan of romance then this is one I’d recommend to you, but judging from the opening it just isn’t for me.
What’s wrong with Reggie Nils?!
The cover is one that stood out for me – I thought the simplicity of it gave it something of a classic feel, whilst also being very easily discernible. I also loved the maps and their details!
My immediate impression of the writing style was that it’s stronger than a lot we’ve had this year, but errs towards the specifically-detailed – something I find quite cumbersome – for example this description of our protagonist’s scar:
“His damp hair stuck to his forehead and neck and the sweat made the old scar that traced across his right cheek through the corner of his mouth to his chin itch.”
Like Nils, I found the concept of this reluctant warrior controlled by a sorcerer puppeteer very interesting. However, as the opening continued, the descriptions began to wear on me somewhat. The description of the sorcerer went, figuratively, in one ear and out the other – in fact, right now, I could not tell you what the sorcerer looks like. I rarely pay attention to descriptions of physical appearance, as I feel it’s a little too heavy-handed on directing my imagination, so I end up feeling quite frustrated. Here’s another good example of one of those overly-specific physical descriptions:
“His fur—of which he had a copious amount—was black on his face, chest, and haunches, and the rest was brown, getting lighter to the pale fur on the underside of his tail.”
However, despite the simplistic writing style, I do feel swept along by it. I did not enjoy the changes between the languages in the second perspective; although this hints at some robust world building, it did not exactly make for smooth reading. But again despite this, I really enjoyed the new protagonist – in fact both characters made a strong and positive imprint on me, certainly enough so that I was able to forgive the writing, as I wanted to know more about them.
Towards the 20% mark, as Theo and Nils have already discussed, the story takes a strong Pride and Prejudice bend. We have the mysterious and completely misunderstood social pariah; and our headstrong female lead who is looking for something deeper than the local pretentious stud. It’s a classic set-up, and I was really looking forward to finding out how the sorcerer would come between our star-gazing lovers… it’s unfortunate my fellow judges aren’t quite the hopeless romantics that I apparently am! I was enjoying the mix of classical fantasy components and intriguing magic system, with the seemingly-impossible love-match.
On a final note, please please please would authors kindly stop using the phrase “off of”. Effective immediately. Thank you.
The beginning of this one didn’t have me too hopeful, as it seemed to lack a bit of depth. Then there followed a few things right at the very start that had me rolling my eyes at the main character – and losing respect for the main character right at the start is not an ideal start to a story. Right away the mighty knight is dumb enough to not only have a tiny Hobgoblin manage to steal his food; no, about five minutes later he is already more or less starving and eats potentially poisonous berries. Yes, I understand that this was probably meant to show the reader, that yes, Regulus is actually an immortal! Though if he can’t even die from poisonous berries, and is ok after vomiting them all up again, why was he so starving he needed to eat them in the first place?
It got a bit better after that start scene and the sorcerer’s mark that makes him immortal had me intrigued, so I read on.
We then get a secondary main character, and I really enjoyed her introduction! I was hooked and my reading sped up a lot. A capable young woman, secret magic, an exciting fight scene — this started to be really promising!
Until the two characters met, and it was so incredibly obvious that this was going to be a romance… Now, while romance isn’t my personal cup of tea, it can still be well written, so I trudged on a bit farther, but finally gave up when I hit a paragraph that used the word “man” six times. In one paragraph.
I see a lot of potential here, and I would love to read more of the strong female character style I was hoping we’d get! But as is, this one sadly didn’t work for me.
Prince of Shadow and Ash opens in a memorable enough way, with a knight enclosed in black armour, with an attitude that I can best define as “I’ve had enough of this sorcerous shit.” Meet Regulus, black knight, minor nobleman and former mercenary. It might take a little time, but you might just grow very fond of him indeed.
At first I thought to myself, “Regulus isn’t the sharpest berry on the bush,” and the text offered plenty of compelling proof to that end (this is after an incident involving a goblin and some unfortunate food supplies, see Julia’s explanation above):
An hour later, he trudged on, lost and starving. Is anything in this Etiros-forsaken marsh edible? A bramble bush covered in juicy-looking red berries drew his attention. He scrambled for them, then stopped. They could be poisonous. Can poison kill me? He shrugged. What did it matter?
This comes across as quite strange to begin with, but having now had context for it, I actually find this short paragraph better than I did before. You see, Regulus is downright suicidal, on account of having to serve at the pleasure of a sorcerer. This is the titular Prince of Shadow and Ash, who not only has made our protagonist immortal but also holds his friends hostage, in case Regulus gets any funny ideas in his head. The starving element still bothers me a little, but if I were to continue on this apologist crusade, I might point that our sir knight might’ve been travelling for hours without a single bite; an hour is enough to turn a peckish man in plate into a starving one.
Even with all these caveats, I can’t run away from the fact that the prose can be sloppy, on more than one occasion: “A normal-sounding man stuttered,” tells us one sentence in a display of…what, exactly? Typos such as, “The sorcerer got want he wanted,” are annoying, if not unforgivable. Similar pesky little errors and unnecessary flourishes can be found now and then.
I was well-pleased with the second PoV, that of Adelaide, a novice mage in hiding. She has done very little with her magic due to her family’s fears of Adelaide sharing in the other mages’ faith — they were slaughtered without exception (I wager you the slaughtering was done by our mysterious Prince and a previous unwilling servant if not Regulus himself). What I enjoyed in particular about Adelaide is, her nature widens the world and complicates it. Her PoV choreographs a conflict between her and the Prince (not the artist formerly known as), which will place the budding romance between her and Regulus at the square of it — and that’s the best place for a romance, in my humble opinion. I also adored the family dynamic of Adelaide’s PoV, which struck me with its sincerity and openness.
By the end of these 20%, I was hooked, and willing to read on. It’s too bad that not everyone enjoyed this one as much as I did — but such is the nature of the competition.
Buddy read once the contest is over Filip??
Code of the Communer
THE WILDWOOD IS CHANGING…
An invasion sweeps across the continent. Desperate to escape, Caida’s tribe seek Maerida, the lost homeland of legend. But legends can be deceiving. After hundreds of years the people of the Wildwood have forgotten a deadly truth: Maerida was abandoned for a reason.
THE CODE OF THE COMMUNER WILL BE CHALLENGED…
Now Caida must choose. Will she honour her mother’s legacy or seek a new path by abandoning the Code she followed since birth?
A SHADOW STIRS BENEATH THE ROOTS…
On Maerida, amongst the ruins, a time of hibernation comes to an end. After the long sleep, comes the feeding.
We meet an interesting pair of Point of View female protagonists: the young communer Caida urging her tribe on a migration to escape the “settlers” and the older arthritic communer Aldaria worrying that the remnants of her tribe have been sucked into a dictatorial protectorate.
It’s an atypical fantasy – not much by way of smash and grab battling or magic – but it is a richly imagined world that evokes lots of resonances for me. There is the impact of European settlers on the Americas, lending Caida a kind of Pocahontas feel. There is the impact of climate change with glaciers melting which, along with the neolithic technology (flint and horn tools) makes me think of the end of the last ice age and Rym Kechacha’s vision in Dark River of the lost hunter gathering civilisation of Dogger Land. There is also the existence of old waystones and traces of bronze from a lost greater era of Caida’s people – which makes me think of things like the antiquity of stonehenge and the pyramids and Britain in the dark ages with its lost Romano-Briton glory.
So yes – lots of little hooks to snag my curiosity. The world building is good too, little details bleeding in with in-world phrases and an approach that is about immersion of the reader more than exposition to the reader. So yeah, ticking all the boxes,
- interesting world,
- compelling (but in Aldaria, at least, atypical) protagonists,
- a goodly smattering of nice lines to make me smile eg The clearings were drowsy with pine scent. and
- problems ahead where I can’t tell quite where the story is going to go next.
So yes – very keen to read on.
Theo has done a wonderful job describing what so far is a very strong element of this story – the world building. Like Theo, this kind of hook always gets me, but rather than picturing Britain in the dark ages, the mentions of the forgotten metal working and the retreating ice age sent me hurtling into a future where society has regressed – those of you who know me know this is one of my absolute favourite themes in fantasy! There’s little I love more than following characters rediscovering secrets of their ancestors.
At 11%, I was already finding the writing style so easy to read – detailed and yet nuanced enough to bring the characters and world to life with depth and believability. The characters are presented in such a way that it didn’t take me long at all to feel like I knew them, to almost feel like a part of the tribe. Their beliefs and superstitions are not just believable but tangible.
I was utterly immersed. I very much want to read on, to discover if Caida and her people can finally escape the settlers, whether she finally hears from her god, whether the split narratives meet up at all. I think this is going to be a strong contender indeed!
Out of The Fantasy Hive’s batch of 30 books there have been two which have had absolute standout opening chapters for me… Code of the Communer is one of them! My fellow judges will agree here that I got just a tad over excited about this one on our WhatsApp group chats!
Firstly, I quite like the cover, and after reading the first few chapters we see that it depicts the setting of the forest extremely well.
My second impression was, I absolutely love the prose. It’s extremely immersive with its descriptions of the forest, the natural wildlife, the fantastical creatures, the kind of poignant tone it consistently holds, the dialogue; it all feels of a high quality and flows beautifully. The world-building is immense and damn right remarkable, just the way I like it – it’s flourished with rich tribal culture, the belief in spirit guides and subtle magic. Here’s an example;
‘She watched as a long plume of bats returned to some fissure or cave amongst the trees. Their streaming motion reminded her of the Long Walker’s beckoning arm. All things lead to Him, just as he leads all things.
She could feel His influence within her, and guessed the others felt something of it too, a yearning for movement, a need to strike out into the world. This was His gift to His believers: the antipathy of sloth.’
There is a lovely balance between young and aging characters. Caida, Fingle, Brea and Aldaria are my favourites so far. Yes, that’s the sign of a good book for me, I’ve already chosen favourites, although these might change! I already have a feeling one of these characters has a darker sinister agenda!
I think the plot is kind of a slow burn to begin with as the tribe embark on a journey to find a safer home, as they are hunted by ‘settlers’. Not a negative aspect for me at all because Greenwood deftly builds up on characterisation for each POV and he develops the world-building I previously mentioned, so I was always hooked. I’m not really sure where the story will go from this point but I’m so very intrigued, I hope we get a few more action scenes along the way. Can you tell I really want to read more?
I loved this book, though I was way more excited for it when I thought it was called, “Code of the Commuter”. “Now here’s a book that might just impart on me the moral fortitude I’ve always missed as a commuter!” I thought to myself — imagine the disappointment I faced.
It’s a hard world for our Code of the Communer protagonist,Caida, and for her tribe as well — but oh so arresting for us readers. As plenty has been said as to the qualities of this one, I’ll offer a few notes that might be considered rather more niché, but hopefully will help our audience and writers both in appreciating our choice of semi-finalist today. Greenwood makes excellent use of portmanteau on several occasions, my favourite neologism in this opening section a clever word for a herb that alleviates fever – “feverfew”.
The presence of long-extinct species such as the auroch (a precursors of the furasian ox), renders a world at once three-dimensional and different from our own. So with the conflict — though it has parallels to the colonial conflict between European settlers and Native Americans, it makes an identity for itself, with far more ancient powers and players both hinted at.
The characters are three-dimensional, engaging, human, and full of secrets and mystery. The imagery is stunning — not just setting, but set pieces. Code of the Communer was an early favourite, and I am eager to continue on with it.
Once again I am late to the reviewing party, and so much has already been said, and way better than I would have…
So I’ll make it short once again.
Like the others, the prose in this one worked really well for me, and made me delve right into the book.
I enjoyed the main characters and was happy to follow them, and slowly explore the new setting which had mystery and deeper world building promised behind every tree and bush.
The story is only slowly unfolding, but I didn’t mind it, as I had enough character introduction and glimpses of the world to keep me intrigued anyway!
I’ll happily keep reading this one!
Congratulations to CODE OF THE COMMUNER – our fourth 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
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
Zangari, Robert – A Prince’s Errand