SPFBO 6: Third Semi-Finalist Announcement
On Wednesday, we announced our third set of three eliminations and revealed that our next quarter-finalists are THE PYGMY DRAGON by Marc Secchia and THE HEADLOCK OF DESTINY by Samuel Gately.
Both these books have strong main protagonists exemplifying aspects of “The Hero’s Journey” first popularised by Joseph Campbell. It is a pattern so ingrained in human storytelling and myth that it can assert itself almost subconsciously in an author’s writing. But that is not to suggest the concept implies a bland formulaic approach to fantasy writing anymore than serving a three course meal is a formulaic approach to nutrition.
Graphically and narratively, the first quarter to a fifth of a story is taken up with “the call to action” where the world is established and the hero is summoned to some great task. There is usually some dilly-dallying around including “refusal of the call” before the hero “Crosses the threshold” and finally sets off on their quest.
With our two quarterfinalists, the first 20% certainly carried us neatly to that “crossing the threshold” point where the Hero is journeying into the outside world. However, it is a mark of the framework’s flexibility that it can encompass heroes as diverse as
- an oversized brewery worker setting off to compete in a mixed martial arts contest that feels like a cross between a beauty pageant and a WWF wrestling competition and
- A captured pygmy escaping from the zoo exhibit in which she has been imprisoned and flying away on the back of a sentient dragon.
Our judges’ enthusiasm for both stories is also a testament to the potential for a compelling narrative in stories that are underpinned by this kind of framework.
But, without further ado…
The Headlock of Destiny
Some say titans are descended from giants. Others say they are risen from men. But there’s never any debate about where to find them. They will be in the center of a roaring crowd, beating the hell out of each other. From contenders like the Savage and Scott Flawless to pretenders like Richard the Living Portrait and Troll-Blooded Thom, a titan’s lot in life is the same: To wrestle for dominion and glory in the squared circle.
Van, a quiet titan from the brewery town of Headwaters, wants no part in this. He’d prefer to be left alone with a beer. But destiny has him in a headlock, and it is prepared to drag him into battles that will shake the land and change his world forever.
Step into the ring with this one-of-a-kind novel, brewed special for fans of epic fantasy, fans of professional wrestling from the Golden Era and beyond, or simply fans of a good tale.
I got to the 20% mark and read on beyond that to the end of the chapter as I wanted to see how it ended – which is always a good sign. This is one of those books which takes quite a radically different angle on fantasy. Picture if you will a cross between Miss Congeniality, The WWF superstars of wrestling (or possibly MMA – or even SUMO) and a Munich beer Festival. In this world giant men called titans compete for fame, fortune and the interest of the ladies in a circuit of local and regional contests to select a champion to go forward to the National Headlock of Destiny competition. The titans are as colourfully named and caricatured as any WWF fighter or even old west gunslinger and, with a tendency to leave bastard children around the place, there is always a fresh source of Titans.
One of them is our hero Van, who actually spends much of his time avoiding attention and hunting out beer – working in a world famous brewery helps and his strength makes his bosses overlook his laziness. He reminded me a bit of Lenny the gentle giant in Of Mice and Men by Steinbeck. The prose supports the story’s premise well, without quite flying. However, there were lines that made me smile, such as a burst of crudity about Titan origins from the titan who styles himself The Living Portrait. This story grew on me as I read on, and I was keen enough to consider reading on in the story.
First of all, I really love the cover. It depicts the two monstrous titans boisterously wrestling which is exactly what the book is all about. The title of the book is also within a wrestling belt which I thought was a clever addition.
Ok let me be frank here though, I don’t like wrestling and I have absolutely no interest in beer. So…. yeah, I struggled really hard to stay engaged with this one because, well… it’s literally the central theme. I also had an issue with the fact that in this world Titans have children, but are absent from raising them, and not only that but the mothers generally die giving birth too. Now this may change and develop later on in the story, so I’m only judging by the first few chapters but still, this concept just didn’t sit right with me.
I did however like that the book is a fun fantasy and that The Headlock of Destiny tournament brings trade/tourism and wealth to the nations which win, although very different from The Hunger Games (a series I really enjoyed) they do both share that same notion.
This is why I’m so glad that the Hive chose to have all five of our judging team read 20% of each book, because with Headlock of Destiny, it is just a case of it not being my kind of read and I’m glad some of the others enjoyed it more.
The cover is so striking and eye-catching!
I was enjoying the first page of the prologue until it attempted to replicate that technique you often see on screen whereby the scene cuts to a person recalling the events. I don’t think it translates well to the page, and it’s an early hint that this writer might depend more on the visual punch of a scene rather than the narrative worth.
There’s an easy flow to the style of writing with quite relaxed language used by the characters. Unfortunately, I found myself losing interest quite quickly. I think if you enjoy light-hearted humourous fantasy with a focus on action and fights, you’d really enjoy this one. Personally, it lacked a depth and complexity for me. I found myself caring for Van, and I was somewhat curious to find out whether he proves all the haters wrong; but not enough to read on to read on I’m afraid!
IT’S A FANTASY TOURNAMENT ARC!!!!!!*
Right, with that out of the way, I like neither beer** nor wrestling, and yet I found The Headlock of Destiny beyond endearing to begin. I enjoy the cultural importance the Headlock of Destiny tournament has in-world, a sort of Olympics–except that, rather than a symbol of international peace, this tournament has come to replace a bloody war that once engulfed the world.
Protagonist Van is good-humoured, literate, intelligent and quite lazy, as well as haunted by the failures in his personal life. An endearing fellow, and one I empathised with quickly enough.
Excellent dialogue, sharp and very enjoyable to read, chock-full of fine characterization. When Van, who has purposefully turned away a wrestler’s career despite being born a Titan (or Tenman, for Titans have the strength of–you guessed it!–ten men), is dragged back into the ring, he finds the bout a more endearing endeavor than he might have previously thought. How does the ancient proverb go? If you can’t bring the ring to John Cena, bring John Cena to the ring. The rest?
Action taps into the visceral nature of wrestling, with the additional benefit of being all true.
A unique, never-seen-before take on fantasy; and I, for one, will read onwards, despite this not making the semi-finalist cut. The Headock of Destiny also holds the distinction of being the only book of the thirty to have reduced me to a fit of choking laughter that went on for a long time. And not just once, but twice. Twice!
…Who could’ve imagined that beer and giant, sweaty men duking it out could be so much fun?
*Thank you to the three anime fans out there for appreciating this call-out.
**The reviewer lied for stylistic purposes; he, in fact, loathes beer from the bottom of his tiny, black heart.
I liked the tone and voice in this one, but sadly the plot just didn’t grab me. I am neither interested in wrestling nor do I like beer (yes, I am an actual real life Bavarian who simply hates the taste…!) and as soon as the story went more and more into the tournaments I started skipping and skimming more and more.
I think this one could be brilliant fun to people who have an interest in these things, even if the target audience isn’t big enough to make it into SPFBO finalists.. The author definitely manages to write in an engaging way!
The Pygmy Dragon
Yesterday, a Dragon kidnapped me from my cage in a zoo.
Stolen from her jungle home and sold to a zookeeper, Pip knows only a world behind bars, a world in which a Pygmy warrior and her giant ape friends are a zoo attraction. She dreams of being Human. She dreams of escaping to the world outside her cage.
Then, the Dragon Zardon kidnaps her into a new life. Pip rides Dragonback across the Island-World to her new school – a school inside a volcano. A school where Humans learn to be Dragon Riders. But this is only a foretaste of her magical destiny, for the Dragon Assassins are coming. They have floated an Island across the Rift and their aim is nothing less than the massacre of all Dragons.
Now, the courage of the smallest will be tested to the utmost. For Pip is the Pygmy Dragon, and this is her tale.
I read up to 21% of this in a single engrossed sitting.
The story introduces us to a pygmy named Pip with the opening line “Yesterday, a dragon kidnapped me from my cage in a zoo.” The detail of that opening sentence consumes the first enthralling fifth of the book from Pip’s capture and incarceration, through long years as a zoo exhibit with some dubious cagemates, to that moment of freedom courtesy of Zardon.
The writing and the character totally sucked me in with a kind of Dickensian tale of woe and injustice seasoned with the compassion of others and the chance for escape. The world is exotic and original, only the dragons themselves seem to draw on familiar tropes and that I suppose is the nub of my slight hesitation as I look forward to reading on.
The opening has been so rich and characterful, hitting so many notes that have the reader cheering Pip on, that I don’t want it to descend into more orthodox dragon and rider bonding. Definitely a green for me, one of the easiest greens I’ve given and I am eager to see where the story takes us.
The cover is extremely eye-catching, especially the flaming eye on the central figure. I don’t normally like people on covers, but I think this one looks great.
Unlike most of the fellow judges I have more mixed feelings about The Pygmy Dragon. On the one hand I really am enjoying the story – our main character Pip is taken from her tribe and placed in a zoo to be gawked at as an animal rather than a human. It’s certainly an interesting premise which delves into the morality of keeping animals in zoos, what it means to be human and also challenges our notions on what it means to be savage. The supposed sophisticated humans come across as far more savage than Pip ever does.
The world-building is excellent, we are presented with tribal culture/jungle life/overwhelming cities and we are teased with so much more to come. The connections Pip makes with an ape, humans, and later on a dragon are great to see as I’m always fond of friendships and animal companions.
However, I feel the overall tone and narrative style is just lacking in depth for me. It feels very simplistic and I know that is because the main protagonist is young; but she is recounting her childhood to us, she is an adult looking back, so I feel the narrative voice could have been more mature. I think I also feel it’s because we are ‘told’ a lot more than we are ‘shown’. I am invested enough to read on, as I’d be curious to see how events develop, especially surrounding the dragons.
I am quite taken with The Pygmy Dragon. It opens on a tone I can only describe as cheeky, a sort of mocking talking down to which is at once amusing and hints at bitterness. What is this bitterness for, though — now that is a question the first twenty percent of Secchia’s book answers very well indeed.
A young Pygmy woman, Pip, is taken from her home and thrust in a cage in a zoo, where she befriends first a pair of Oraial Apes who teach her their language, and then a family of big people who teach her their language as she teaches them theirs. The way these relationships develop is beyond charming, which is testament to the characters and the quality of prose both. I didn’t catch onto any typos or errors in terms of grammar or punctuation, which deserves major kudos, considering so many of the other books in our batch — even some of the good ones!
Certainly this is an unusual book in some ways, but that’s exactly the kind of fantasy novel this competition should celebrate! Something in The Pygmy Dragon touched me in a way precious few of the other novels in our batch have — I hope to see it as a semi-finalist, as I am eager to read on.
And when Chapter 8 came? It was easy enough to see that this book succeeds where so much fantasy fails, in using its bloody dragon properly. I also suspect the book gives a passing nod to Le Guin’s Earthsea — a young boy, we are told, calls Pip “sparrowhawk” behind her back, which is the name by which protagonist Ged is known throughout.
Like Nils, I loved this cover, despite not usually liking faces on covers. As striking and beautiful as the art-work is, I did wonder a little about the representation – specifically her hair?
My first impression of the writing was not particularly favourable: unlike Filip, I did not like the tone of the opening at all, I found it somewhat patronising and simplistic.
However, after that first impression, like Theo I couldn’t put it down. The story, Pip’s plight, was engrossing. I thought it an interesting explorative critique on colonialist treatment of people. Nils made a wonderful point that the characters outside of the cage were far more savage than those within. I say characters, as one of my favourites so far is Hunagu the Oraial ape; I love their relationship and connection!
I did feel there were some inconsistencies in tone and style; for the most part, it flowed well, but occasionally there was a scene that didn’t read so smoothly – for example the prologue, and again when Pip is climbing aboard her rescuer. It almost felt like different writers had contributed those sections. I felt we could have also done with more build-up to the fact that she has magic; it went from something that was subtly hinted at, to “Yes, she has magic, didn’t you know?”
Like Theo, I also feel some reservations about where the story might be going from here, in terms of shifting from this unique story into something more fantasy-standard. Despite that, I do want to know what happens next to Pip and who it is she’s running from.
I had a really hard time with the start of this one. The tone – especially in the prologue – was not my cup of tea. It felt more like a kids book than a full fantasy novel. I did keep on reading, and chapter 1 got a lot better, even though it still felt almost like a middle grade book to me. The tone did improve as the story goes on though, and after a while I did find myself enjoying the story.
I liked having a pygmy as a main character (full disclosure, I am no giant myself…) and being able to talk to the apes also was something I enjoyed! Seeing the different way people treat a pygmy to a human was fascinating to see and can be quite thought provoking, especially for younger readers. So that was also something I liked to see!
Congratulations to THE PYGMY DRAGON – our second 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
Greenwood, Kai – Code of the Communer
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