SPFBO 7 – The Fifth Quarter-Final – “EXTRA TIME”
As you may remember our fifth quarter-final – the one from the “starting anew” batch – could not be settled in “normal time.” Having read both books to the 20% mark or so, our judges couldn’t decide which of The Spear of Akvaloon and Windward deserved the accolade of Fantasy Hive SPFBO7 semi-finalist, so the contest went to “extra time.” Each judge has read on in both books far enough to clarify their judgement.
We’ll go through each judge in turn and out of the five of us the decision will be on a simple majority vote to decide the sixth and final Fantasy Hive SBFO 7 Semi-finalist.
So without further ado!
In The Spear of Akvaloon the first 20% introduced us to shape changing Marisha, suddenly in peril when the priests come to her village. By the end of the opening she is fleeing for her life in the company of a stranger she only met that day. The next 20% is taken up with more of that flight and pursuit as the mysterious Kai takes Marisha into the deep water beyond the reef. Kai also lets slip some home truths about the people and the priests, and the witches and the wyrms. Wyrm here, as with Tolkein, is a synonym for dragon, though Bennett’s wyrms appear more aquatic than airborne, vestigial wings about as useful as an emu’s or a penguins.
I like the concept of “the last wave” as the key geographic and religious event in this world. In cli-fi I’ve seen a lot of similar verbal markers of apocalypse (the madeinchina, the twilight century, the change, the (first and second) pulse). Furthermore glacial melting 8000 years ago at the end of the last ice age – with all the related sea level rise – probably gave rise to the flood stories found in several mythologies.
The story maintains several dimensions of tension and conflict and, around the 40% mark hit a very memorable and innovative battle sequence. While, in some ways, the plot is swirling towards a familiar trope – the search for a weapon of great significance (presumably the eponymous spear) – the world building and characters feel fresh and interesting. I am particularly enjoying the perspective of the antagonist, villainous priest Aiachi who gets some of the best lines
“He wanted desperately to be above the feeble limitations of his body, yet these lesser creatures had found peace in desolation, while he could never seem to find it in plenty.”
It’s brevity gives it a certain lean focus, a bit like Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea.
In Windward we follow the continuing tribulations of a community (nest) of dragons and their “bonded” human companions. A key disruptor is the immature Tebah identified as his new bonded by the dragon High Flight. Neither dragon nor human were especially honest with each other and Tebah arrives in the nest like Elizabeth Allen in Enid Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl in School. Our protagonist Palon is charged with minding this stroppy wayward child and getting her to accept her new existence as a dragon bonded human.
There are other unavoidable disruptions to the smooth running of the nest and in the midst of this a thief (an unheard of concept) is raiding the caches where dragons and bonded alike keep their very personal and precious (to them) collections of random artefacts. Magpie-like, the pieces are of value only to their owners, a bit like a friend of mine who used to collect old irons.
There are some interesting touches of dragon culture particularly around the very real nature of the bond and how it grows and is strengthened. In some ways I found the love of dragons became a bit of an indulgence that distracted from the essential narrative conflict. When Palon is thinking “The fact was, dragons were amazing, and she couldn’t fathom how Tebah didn’t see it.” I did wonder if the author’s and the protagonist’s thoughts had merged.
For me, the conflict over the unknown thief and the stroppy Tebah doesn’t feel like a strong enough engine to drive the story on. I hope that the thief storyline will take a sharp twist and present me with a culprit other than the apparently obvious one. However, the style of the story to date has not left me confident that I will be surprised. The mystery element appears to be a context in which to display all things dragon and bonded, rather than a subtle intricate puzzle in its own right.
Windward is a story that revels in dragons and partnerships with dragons – but I wanted more than that. I felt The Spear of Akvaloon, alongside its innovative centring on the shape changing Marisha, has a more layered structure of people, culture and conflict.so my vote for the “starting anew” batch semi-finalist is The Spear of Akvaloon
|After ONE vote||The Spear of Akvaloon||Windward|
|Total Judges’ Votes cast||1||0|
After reading the first 20% of both books, I largely found myself feeling a bit ambivalent – I didn’t dislike either, but neither were they grabbing me the way some others in our batch have, so I was very curious to see how I’d feel after the next 20-30%.
In the next 30% of The Spear of Akvaloon, we learn a fair bit about the world and the magic/religious system, but at the same time I didn’t feel like the story progressed very much, and at 50%, there still has been no mention of the eponymous Spear, which leaves me wondering what’s going on. I did really like seeing more of how the magic system works, and the consequences of using it for the witches. I was particularly intrigued by Aiachi, and how the magic bestowed on him affected him in ways he very much wasn’t expecting. I think that will be interesting to explore in the rest of the book.
In Windward, the next chunk is largely taken up with a lot of angst, and mostly I was not there for it. I love a bit of angst as much as the next person, possibly more as it can be a very interesting way to learn about characters and gauge their development, but Palon’s single-minded focus on whining did get a bit grating, even if it was for understandable reasons.
That said, once the thief subplot began to pick up, I found myself a lot more interested and engaged. I also enjoyed it a lot more once Palon started to show some personal growth and understanding of the people around her, particularly Tebah. By the time I reached 50% I was enjoying it, but like Theo, I’m not convinced I’ll be surprised by the ending.
Even as I’ve been writing this, I haven’t been sure which one I’ll pick, but now I must make a decision.
When I think about the elements that I’ve been most intrigued by in both books, and which ones I want to learn more about, the one that calls to me is Windward, as I want to see how much more Palon will grow … and I want to know if I’ll be surprised by who the thief is.
|After TWO votes||The Spear of Akvaloon||Windward|
|Total Judges’ Votes cast||1||1|
In The Spear of Akvaloon we are introduced to an intriguing world, with an equally intriguing main character called Marisha. She finds her life changing when her village is visited by priests. The story happens quickly as Marisha finds herself in the company of someone she barely knows, fleeing for their lives. The book is then a well done further introduction to the world, the issue that I had is that the aforementioned spear is not really mentioned, the story doesn’t really go very far and I wasn’t really sure what was going on. The magic system was interesting though, I was curiously reading it to find out more about it, the consequences of it as well were well handled.
Then we have Windward, now I love Dragons and stories about Dragons and their riders this was interesting. The MC of Palon is okay, her single minded focus could be annoying sometimes, but it’s her drive to succeed which is equally interesting. The relationship between the humans and the Dragon’s was interesting and a different approach as well, it makes this aspect of the book very enjoyable. The sub plot that emerges of the thief is compelling, this also really helps Palon to grow as a character and I started to really enjoy the book that much more. I ended up reading this to more than 50% and I may have worked out the thief sub plot,
My decision after reading both has to go to Windward. It ticks more boxes for me and I am interested to see if Palon develops even further as a character.
|After THREE votes||The Spear of Akvaloon||Windward|
|Total Judges’ Votes cast||1||2|
The Spear of Akvaloon continues with a slightly different flair from the moment Marisha left her village behind with Kai. There is a rise in tension to be picked up on as the villagers are left behind in grave danger and Marisha and Kai are being hotly pursued. Told from 3 different angles, we learn of the threat and workings that lead to the big flood and the lies told about witches, wyrms and priests. Far beyond her borders, Marisha becomes a key player to save lost knowledge and stop an evil hand. This is what has been alluded to as far as I can tell by reading to 40%. Marisha learns more about the home she left and the sacrifices that were made, and has to use her shape shifting abilities in a rather dramatic scene towards that said mark.
I enjoyed the first part of the novel slightly better…maybe that is because it was such a great leap to shapeshift to an aquatic orca for me, whereas in the first part, there was much said about the setting and imagery which I enjoy. Reading the story from different angles was well done and created an eerie feeling about the darker forces behind the flood. The system is intriguing, but again…a bit of a leap for me.
Windward continues with two main conflicts going on in the nest and the turmoil it brings. Action scenes and knifing ideas lead the way mostly between the 20-40% mark, plus a pouting new character that is refusing to bond with a dragon. Much time is spent on that particular development, foreshadowing something isn’t right. The disappearance of treasured items from the lairs, continues a theme as well and poses a big accusation right close to that 40% line.
Taking advantage of the new character, much insight is given about the bonding processes. The idea of humans taking on traits of the dragons vs the other way, is still an interesting concept to me. As I had mentioned in my first round of thoughts, this novel could be read by a younger audience and that seems to hold true still to this point. I am enjoying the immersive experience of the lair and hope that there will be less time spent on the reluctance of one said character as it continues. I would love to see a greater reach in the overall story arc beyond my mentioned points for a more wholesome read.
Both novels are unique and it’s a bit strange to me how they ended up being in this spot together. I enjoyed both of these books pretty much at the start of the contest along with my very first readings, and knew I was intrigued by both worlds right away. (I’m a sucker for settings…) The Spear of Akvaloon came in pretty strong and gained momentum as it went along, but my greater connection resides with the intricate world of the dragons in Windward.
My vote will go to Windward.
|After FOUR votes||The Spear of Akvaloon||Windward|
|Total Judges’ Votes cast||1||3|
I think both The Spear of Akvaloon and Windward are worthy of being semi-finalists. I enjoyed both enough that I couldn’t force myself to put them down and so I ended up reading both all the way through. For me, both of these are definitely semi-finalist material and if either of them seem in any way intriguing to you, I hope you’ll pick them up and give them a shot. I’m confident that–with the judge’s comments here–you’ll have a good sense of which might most connect with you. Having said that, I still have to pick one of these to advance as an official semi-finalist. Because I enjoyed both of these so much, I’ll try to compare certain elements, similar to my comments on our other extra-time batch.
The Prose: Both of these have prose that tends to get out of the way of the narrative. I think I might slightly prefer the prose in Windward as I think it’s just a little more smooth, whereas in The Spear of Akvaloon there is occasionally a sentence that feels oddly worded. In both novels, however, I was able to really sink into the story and not notice the prose very much–which is the way I like it.
The Characters: Akvaloon gives us a really interesting MC, someone working to discover herself and discover more about her world. I really enjoyed that aspect of the story. Added to that there is a very well-fleshed out side character who adds some tension to the story. On the other hand, I found the antagonist to be less well-drawn. Windward has a larger cast of characters, but one thing I really enjoyed about that larger cast was seeing the way the bond with dragons affected each of the humans. There was also a real feeling that these relationships existed in a living, breathing world. They didn’t feel static, there was history to them. Again, I suppose I’d give a slight edge to Windward here.
The Plot: Here is an area where I think The Spear of Akvaloon shines. The plot is intriguing, helped along by a fascinating and unique world. There are a few twists and turns to the plot as well. I wouldn’t say that these are shocking or surprising, but the twists are used to good effect and tie in to character development well, which is something I always appreciate. The ending, perhaps, feels a little rushed. By contrast, Windward’s plot takes longer to get up to speed. For me, there were also moments of frustration because of the way some characters react to certain events and refuse to see what–to me–seemed incredibly obvious. Windward has more of a YA feel to it, which may explain some of my sense there. Both novels are once again very close, but in this category I think I might give the edge ever so slightly to The Spear of Akvaloon
So, where does that leave us? Again, I am happy to recommend both of these novels to you as worthy of your TBR. I think they’re close enough that preferences will end up playing a large role in which you enjoy more (dragon stories your thing? Windward. Do you prefer unique worlds with an ecological subtext? The Spear of Akvaloon).
For me, however, I’ll give the edge to Windward.
|The final total after all FIVE votes||The Spear of Akvaloon||Windward|
|Total Judges’ Votes cast||1||4|
So congratulations to S. Kaeth author of our chosen semi-finalist Windward which will now go forward to the semi-finalist stage and a full read from all the judges.
And commiserations to Toby Bennett author of our defeated quarter-finalist The Spear of Akvaloon in what – as Calvin pointed out – was a contest between two books both worthy of a semi-final place.
Hopefully, some of you will be encouraged to give either/both of these books a chance – highlighting little gems of self-published fantasy is what SPFBO is all about.
What Happens Next?
Well, the team is going to go silent for a while as we all go through giving the six semi-finalists our full attention and making notes and arguing (behind closed doors) and come to some doubtless difficult decisions.
We will be back in the last week of October. On Monday 25th, Tuesday 26th and Wednesday 27th we will reveal (in random order) which three of our semi-finalists did NOT make our final top three, but each will get a full hive read style review. On Thursday 28th it will be the turn of the third placed semi-finalist, leaving Friday 29th October for the joint reveal of our runner up and our chosen finalist for SPFBO 7.
At least, that’s the plan and – as any reader of fantasy fiction knows – the sure way of making sure things don’t go to plan is to explain to the reader exactly what the plan is!
But we will see you again in some form next month!
In the meantime congratulations to our six semi-finalists.
Deen, Anela – In the Jaded Grove (*semi-finalist)
Gale, Scarlett – His Secret Illuminations (*semi-finalist)
Greylock, T L & O’Connor, Bryce – Shadows of Ivory (*semi-finalist)
Jackson, Daniel T. – Illborn (*semi-finalist)
Kaeth, S. – Windward (* semi-finalist)
Street, Liza – Blood Bounty (*semi-finalist)
and commiserations to all our eliminated authors. Thank you for writing and entering the books that make SPFBO both possible and special. It is always a brave decision to subject your books to the scrutiny of such a competition as this. We hope that you found something useful and some new friends in the process.
Akeyo, Emmanuel – The Tears of the Old Gods Bapaye, Rebecca – Legacy of Flame (*quarter-finalist) Barbuzano, Israel – The Last of the Wicked Bennett, A. E. – Gathering of the Four Bennett, Toby – The Spear of Akvaloon (* quarter-finalist ET) Gibbs, Olga – Heavenward Gutman, U. G. – Winds of Strife (*quarter-finalist) Holt, Jason A. – The Klindrel Invasion Kaelen, Scott – The Nameless and the Fallen (*quarter-finalist) Kinnaman, V. L. – Sasha of the Feral Sons: Adolescence Lumsden, Douglas – A Troll Walks into a Bar: A Noir Urban Fantasy Novel Lyness, C. A. – Raiders (The Dying Light Saga) Maltman, Amy – A Journey Unveiled Marquitz, Tim – War God Rising Mickley, Rebecca – Ghosts of the Nightmare Gods Montgomery, Drew – The Burial Neil, Val – Dark Apprentice Preston, T. R. – Wenworld Reign, Chris – Dive: Endless Skies Reynolds, Cait – Downcast (*quarter-finalist) Thom, Michael E. – The Vanguards of Scion Wills, KE – Faye in the City Wolfsbane, D. – The Ninth Scripture (*quarter-finalist ET) Woods, Willow – Where I Belong