SPFBO 6: Last Semi-Finalist Announcement
On Wednesday, we announced our last set of three eliminations and revealed that our final quarter-finalists are OATH SWORN by Meg MacDonald and FORGED IN SHADOW by Megan Haskell.
As we come to the end of the first stage of our search for a finalist, it is perhaps timely to remember that we can only pick one finalist to put forward with the other nine blogs and of those ten finalists only one will win. So the benefits of SPFBO are in the taking part. Never mind the winning, just think of the exposure! And at The Hive, we try to give as much exposure and feedback as we can.
Our system this year was each of the five judges graded a book’s opening 20% or so, as:
- Green, very keen to read on, 2 points
- Orange, happy to read on, 1 point
- Red, I’ll pass, 0 point
So each book could have a maximum score of 10.
Of course systems are made to be stretched, if not, broken. Of course we ended up using half points, with some books judged greenish orange (1.5 points), or orangey-red (0.5 points) or in one case greeney-red (mentioning no names cough Julia cough).
We point this all out because in the end the outcomes turned out to be close, very close.
Just half a point separated the semifinalist in 6th place from the three quarter finalists tied in 7th place and another half point to the remaining three quarter finalists tied in 10th place. While this may be a source of frustration rather than consolation to those who just missed out, we hope you’ll take away a couple of points.
- Deciding between books is a subjective judgment, not an objective determination of some notion of “absolute quality”
- There were a lot of books in our batch that we would have been happy to spend more time with
We hope that the many things we found to enjoy in those books which we sadly had to cut, might encourage some other readers to spend some time with those stories.
One man’s oath. One boy’s sacred duty. One enemy bent on their destruction.
Soldier and statesman, Aralt syr Tremayne has finally laid to rest the ghosts of his past. He could no more have prevented the death of the Kavistra’s sons than the death of his own brother.
Now, the grave has given one of them up.
Aralt’s world is thrown into tumult when Lian Kynsei, last of a soul-touched clan and scion of a religious dynasty, returns and Aralt is oath sworn to protect the boy’s interests. But Lian is also a traumatized boy whose secrets rival Aralt’s own.
And neither of them are telling the truth.
Oath Sworn begins the Wolf’s Oath trilogy, a gothic gaslamp fantasy filled with unforgettable characters and a richly-drawn world where skyships sail above tidal extremes, and crystal swords are tuned to their owner’s souls. Follow this riveting adventure as one man is forced to choose between duty and his lust for revenge.
By the 8 percent mark I was enjoying this. It’s a rolling complex story and world with many characters (including one I share a name with so I’m kind of invested in the story). I liked how the individuals are fleshed out – distinct in appearance and personality. There is a tumult of events going on that is confusing to read – but gives a good sense of our protagonist Sir Aralt Tremayne, beset on all sides by problems of politics and alliance, haunted by a failure in the recent past, and alarmed about what the future might hold.
Nothing is spelled out – not the magic, not the alliances, not the prejudices, not the nature of the crystal swords, it just “is” and I like that immersive feel. But it feels like there is a lot going on with lots of threads to be held in the reader’s head. There are a lot of in-world terms and we end up haring off down some plot rabbit holes at times – the confluence of characters in a meeting for one purpose proving too convenient an opportunity to resist fleshing out other plot points.
It does mean that some scenes lack a sense of focus/coherence. But there was lots of incidental world building – pond woggle = some kind of frog like creature I deduce from the context, eighth day = a kind of sabbath/day of religious observance in a possible 8 day “week”
By the time I’d hit the 20% mark I found myself in a complex, richly-imagined and atmospheric world. We follow the point of view so far of Aralt, currently regional governor and previously oathbound body guard/companion to a holy child who was presumed kidnapped and dead following an attack by a heretical leader from within a neighbouring nation. Aralt has “history” with the kidnapper.
On the plus side there is a depth to how the cast are presented, Aralt’s companions and adversaries have a certain distinctiveness like the knights of the round table in Arthurian legend, though perhaps more coarse in their expressions and habits. The complexity of the world is a virtue with lots of in-world details of phrasing and custom, though the author does at times have too much to tell us about the politics but tells us (shows us) in the dialogue between characters. I am tickled by the existence of a character that I share a name with and perhaps that means I should “declare an interest” but this one just tipped into the want to read-on-category for me.
The opening of Oath Sworn impressed me with its tone. It’s quite dark and foreboding. The characters also appeared to be the type that I like – grim, flawed and conflicted. They were definitely enticingly presented.
However as I read on the narrative became far too complex for me to follow. We are thrown in at the deep end, and although I usually don’t mind this, I feel Oath Sworn went a touch too far with it. There’s a lot of mentions of past events, plenty of name dropping, without any explanation so we don’t know who anyone is. Then the time jump also threw me and I wasn’t compelled enough to read on as it was taking so much effort to try to figure out what was happening.
When looking at the world building I do think this book is well written – the world has deep-seated religion and cultural aspects, there are airships and sky-pirates, and there are swords made from crystal which bond to their wielders. I love how ambitious this is, but I feel perhaps there is too much going on and the plot could use some refining. Perhaps everything falls into place later on and I would enjoy it a lot more, but at this stage I’m not compelled enough to find out. I’ll be keeping this one on my TBR though, as one day I hope to try again.
Enjoyed the hell out of this. Excellent worldbuilding, characters with distinctive voices, a protagonist whose loyalties pull him in very different directions – I was eager to read on. Alas, not everyone shared in my enthusiasm for Oathsworn, but it is the nature of the competition.
The world you’ll find within this is immersive, there’s no question about that; like some of my favourite novels (an example would be Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon), Oathsworn throws you into the depths. You’ll either swim or be lost in how different this world is.
If I had to pick one of these two books to continue on with, I might’ve picked this one; this isn’t a blemish on Forged in Shadow— for that novel is our semi-finalist for a good reason — but a witness to Oathsworn’s quality, the sheer power and captivating nature of its book and conceit.
I will be revisiting this one after the contest ends, and hope that many of you will give it a chance
I am quite sorry to see this one go! I liked it right from the start and was pretty much hooked at 20%… I plan to finish this at a later time (only, after SPFBO it’s SPFBO again…)
Just like Filip above me, I would definitely have chosen this one as a semi-finalist. These were the closest two quarter finalists in our ranking, with just 0.5 difference between them. So it is definitely worth a look!
I liked the tone and voice right from the very start, and clicked with the characters right away. I actually loved the complexity and not really fully knowing what is going on! For me it added mystery and had me intrigued to learn more about what actually happened.
I enjoyed the worldbuilding. I always had a fondness for any sort of airship, and I liked all the hints at a deep lore behind the story. At no point did it feel like a two dimensional backdrop like some other books feel like, but rather like you could go dig in every corner and find more!
The characters felt well developed and distinct to me, which is one of the things I sometimes find to be one of the weak points in indie books. So that’s a definite plus.
All in all a book full of potential, and I’m looking forward to reading more of it, whenever I get a big parcel of extra reading time….
I really wanted to like this one more than I did. My first impressions were very favourable; I liked the writing style, the language used isn’t too simplistic. The first line was lovely:
The living flame, blue as heaven, flowed around the observatory in the distance, illuminating the tower before splintering into a million filaments of light that swam across the night sky.
However, I really struggled to get into it. When I put the story down and later returned to it, I couldn’t remember what had happened and needed to re-read to jog my memory – and this was still during the prologue.
I think my issue was with the lack of exposition. Usually, I’m a big fan of being dropped into a story. Like Theo said, it’s far more immersive; I much prefer finding out about a new fantasy world through context rather than explanations. But with Oath Sworn, there was just too much going on for me to try to follow. This is clearly a very deeply imagined world, a complex society that MacDonald has taken great care with. I wish I could have sank myself into it, but I just felt mired and unable to follow the story.
If anyone’s playing SPFBO Bingo, this one has a Scottish accent (in a secondary world)
“Ye cannae ken who it be,” Scanlin said under his breath
Forged in Shadow
In the chaos of war, not all heroes shine. Some must rise from shadows to claim the light.
As the youngest son of the greatest smith of the fae, Curuthannor should be aspiring to the forge. Instead, he would rather wield a blade than craft one. When the high elf king commissions a powerful enchanted sword requiring iron found only in the subterranean goblin mines of the Shadow Realm, Curuthannor seizes the opportunity to earn a place in the smithy that doesn’t require a hammer. But when dark elf treachery interferes, the lives of his entire family could be at risk…for the high elf king is unmerciful and will not suffer disobedience.
Especially from his own daughter.
Lhéwen is honored to be the only handmaiden selected to attend the high elf princess on what she believes is a diplomatic delegation to the dark elf king. She doesn’t realize it could be a one-way trip. While the princess forges an escape from her father’s ruthless will, Lhéwen is trapped in a foreign land. Betrayed and alone, Lhéwen discovers it is her own quiet power that may free—or doom—them all.
For when the pen fails, the sword will take its place.
Forged in Shadow is the first book in the thrilling new epic fantasy trilogy by award-winning author, Megan Haskell. Set in the same universe as The Sanyare Chronicles, this is the story of the Great War between the nine faerie realms. If you like sweeping vistas, unexpected heroes, and world-shattering stakes, you’ll love this battle between Shadow and Light.
I got to the 21% point. This felt a little bit YA in places, our two main protagonists appear to be an elven blacksmith who wants to be a warrior and a princess’s handmaiden who wants to be a dressmaker.
The two of them come across as fairly naive honest characters which can feel a little simplistic. Just about everyone else bar one (and we do follow the Point of View of other characters) seems to be pretty mean, deceitful and carrying a hidden agenda in this world of multiple elven realms linked by portals and over which King Othin is determined to exert his overlordship.
The plot so far did not feel that deep. It put me in mind of an old movie with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland – in that the good are very good and the bad are very bad. However, the multiplicity of characters is helpful in that there are a lot of people the reader is keen to see get a well deserved come-uppance.
I did find some of the sexual references in relation to the eleven princess felt a little out of step with the general YA feel of the piece, the references to her using her allure, or being sure to “sway her hips” as she walks into a throne room, or this exchange, between the princess and her chief guard who is under strict orders not to resort to violence.
“Unshackle me if you want satisfaction”
Faeliel suppressed a shudder at the obvious and inept double entendre.
But there were some nice lines such as this from a teleporting imp doorkeep
“Not so smart questions, if you ask me, but what do I know – I’m basically a doorbell.”
I have some reservations, but this is an easy enough read. I’d be happy enough to read on.
I found the cover was greatly appealing. The sword in the centre with thick molten lava spiralling around it was very mysterious. In fact the whole artwork looks deliciously dark and ominous.
When I first began Forged in Shadow I wasn’t sure how I felt about it – I wasn’t particularly drawn to the characters, I felt they were somewhat uninspiring. However it was the world-building which held my interest. This is a world of elves and portals. I loved that the lands are dominated by various clans of elves rather than humans, and not only that but the elves all have different cultures, customs, temperaments and even magical abilities. I loved learning about each one. There’s also themes of commerce and trade, and beyond the civilisation of elves there are mentions of imps, goblins, and trolls, which I’m curious to see more of.
As I reached the 22% mark I felt myself enjoying the story more and more, especially with the addition of new characters such as Rothruinil who hailed from The Summer Realm elves. She’s known as a fire sidhe, meaning fire runs through her blood and she is able to wield it. I also enjoyed the POV from Princess Faeliel, I’m not sure as of yet if she’s a likeable character but her ambition to step away from her father’s shadow is certainly intriguing.
Overall, although I’m not completely enthralled by many of the characters, I feel that they have room to grow on me and I’m compelled enough by the world and what direction the narrative will take, to read on.
Like Nils, I loved the cover for this one, it looks very professional and certainly catches the eye!
On reading the prologue, I wasn’t entirely sure what was happening or what to make of it, but once we’re in the story proper the politics all fell into place and I appreciated how Haskell gave us this flash of view point from the tyrant.
I didn’t get the sense that this was a YA like Theo did, but then I wouldn’t really say I’m very good at recognising the genre at the best of times, or what features of a story constitutes YA.
I found I quite liked the character of Curuthannor, our inept smith’s apprentice/son who has been sent to gather some very important and expensive items with which to forge a new sword for the tyrant King Othin. I was quite surprised to read that he had been trusted with this task, so that in itself has drawn me into wanting to read more of his story, and discover just how badly he’s going to fuck this up.
Again like Nils, I also really love the world building here. Everything about this world is fantastical and other, and I found that really fun to explore this far – and I look forward to seeing what other magical creatures and elements turn up. I agree with Theo, it isn’t the most complex story so far, and likewise the characters don’t seem overly complex either, but there’s certainly enough of interest going on that’s drawn me in.
Forged in Shadow seems to be going the direction of socio-political issues, with an accent on the relations between powerful, ambitious elven nations. High elves, dark elves, fire elves — they come in all varieties, for every mood, and will satisfy the tastes of any wilful non-elf in the audience!
Some lines in particular reflect extensive knowledge of history in terms of how great powers in the real world prepare for conflict, and that’s definitely enough for me to want to read on. More traditional fantasy than many of the ones I’ve read and marked green so far — but when done this well, it’s not a negative. The principal character, the elven blacksmith, embodies the vanilla protagonist role with great gusto; a princess with a temper, an ambitious pair of kings and an angry fire elf (didn’t expect that one!) add more than enough spice for this reader! How is the conflict to develop? I can’t wait to find out.
This one is the exact opposite to Oath Sworn to me. I had a hard time to even make it to 20%. Instead of deep and complex, this often felt a bit flat. A bit too simple in tone and story for my taste and the story just didn’t flow naturally and smoothly.
I also didn’t especially like any of the characters.
It does have potential, and wasn’t actually bad.
I felt like a lot of good ideas were in there, but not fully realized. So over all sadly not my cup of tea.
Closing Thoughts on the First Stage of SPFBO6
So now that we’ve reached the end of the first stage of the Hive’s SPFBO6 work we’re all excited to rush off and dive into full reads of the six fascinating semi-finalists whose diverse openings have so fired our imaginations. We’ll be back at the end of October with full discussions of each of these great books and, of course, the announcement of which one we have chosen to be our finalist.
Thanks again to all the authors for being brave enough to put their books forward and for stimulating so much discussion and enjoyment of their stories. Commiserations to those whose books we had to cut – either as eliminations or unlucky quarter-finalists – but we hope you found something of value in the journey.
See you all next month.
Congratulations to FORGED IN SHADOW – our sixth semi-finalist!
Greenwood, Kai – Code of the Communer (*semi-finalist)
Haskell, Megan – Forged in Shadow (*semi-finalist)
Rowntree, Suzannah – A Wind from the Wilderness (*semi-finalist)
Secchia, Marc – The Pygmy Dragon (*semi-finalist)
Werby, Olga – God of Small Affairs (*semi-finalist)
Whitecastle, Timandra – Queens of the Wyrd (*semi-finalist)
Coffelt, J. J. – Nightfall: Blessing of Fury Book 1 (*quarter-finalist) Gately, Samuel – The Headlock of Destiny (*quarter-finalist) Gonzalez, Selina R. – Prince of Shadows and Ash (*quarter-finalist) Macdonald, Meg – Oathsworn (*quarter-finalist) Otto, Erik A. – A Tale of Infidels (*quarter-finalist) Prior, Derek – Last of the Exalted (*quarter-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 Ford, Angela J. – Pawn Hahn, Caren – Burden of Power Kannon, Marc Vunj – Unbinding the Stone Kerr, Jake – Tommy Black and the Staff of Light Kewin, Simon – Hedge Witch Marek, Marco – Hyperearth Padgett, M. J. – Eiagan’s Winter Porta, Dustin – Whalemoon Ramsey, Kate – Finding Fairy Tales Roberts, Antonio – Vestige: Ride of the Pureblood Rogers, Madolyn – The Copper Assassin Thompson, J. E. – A New Beginning van Orman, Sharon – Lazarus Code: A First Family Saga Zangari, Robert – A Prince’s Errand