SPFBO 7 – The Fourth Quarter Final
On Wednesday, we announced our fourth trio of eliminations and revealed that this week’s two quarter-finalists from the “Kick Ass” batch are BLOOD BOUNTY by Liza Street and THE NAMELESS AND THE FALLEN by Scott Kaelen.
Kicking ass is what many fantasy protagonists do best. Interestingly though, our two quarterfinalists both upped the ante a bit by giving their leading characters some pretty hard to kick antagonists. See the judges’ comments below, with the books – as before – listed in alphabetical order!
by Liza Street
This is one of the first entries I sampled for this year’s competition. As in previous years I tend to get wordier in my spreadsheet comments as the competition roles on, so my notes on this one are brief but positive. I really enjoyed its opening, with a strong first person voice for the protagonist. The setting and worldbuilding are both intriguing but are fed in incidentally without too much exposition. It feels a bit like Stark Holborn’s Triggernometry series in that it is a different kind of western and I was finding a good crop of nice lines and sharp observations in the prose. The quality was sustained throughout the first 20% so it was a pretty comfortable green from me.
Oh, I had a lot of fun reading Blood Bounty. Western-types aren’t something I read often, but I might have to do something about that if this is indicative of the genre. I really enjoyed the use of present tense – it’s not easy to pull off but it really worked for me, and I think it suited the story and the character really well.
I thought the magic use was well thought out, the dynamic between charmslingers, who are shunned for using charms, and everyone else, who wants the charmslingers to keep them safe from all the beasties out there, was well thought out.
I really enjoyed this! Refreshing with the first person narrative of the main character, with an interesting setting. I enjoyed reading about Gracie Boswell, she is such a well developed character and it was hard not to like her. The setting was awesome, mixing a wild – west setting with the idea of vampire hunters, I have enjoyed some Wild West fantasies (Ben Galley’s Bloodrush comes to mind) and this was exciting. I really enjoyed the magic system, charmslinging, such a simple use of secondary creation to create something so cool. Gracie is a bounty hunter and her life becomes complicated when another bounty hunter enters her world, by the 20% mark this was a definite green for me and with writing that flows so well I am really curious to see where this story goes.
Oh, I liked this one…such an engaging, fun read and I loved the gunslinging, witty protagonist charmslinger, Gracie Boswell. She is such a bundle of spitfire and attitude from page one, it is hard not to take an instant liking to her. The setting and plot of this novel are a unique combo, meshing the western genre and the Wild West with the premise of vampire hunters earning a living through bounties. Gracie does her job well and uses those charms with practiced precision, but the townspeople are sceptical of this trouser-wearing, lone gun of a woman. When another bounty hunter enters the novel and tries to snatch her jobs away, she has to strike a deal to come up on top of it…and by that time, the hook has been well set for the reader as the story just takes off. The chemistry of characters and the creative world worked really well for me. The writing flowed effortlessly and I can’t say there is something I didn’t like up to this point.
I need to tell you two honest things about my taste in books that are very relevant to my experience with Lisa Street’s Blood Bounty. First, I am not generally one for wild west fantasies. I’ve come across several that I’ve really enjoyed (Sarah Chorn’s Of Honey and Wildfires comes to mind) but it’s probably something like a coin flip in terms of whether I enjoy wild west settings generally. Second, I strongly, very strongly, do not like present tense narrative voice. Blood Bounty is set in a wild west world (I’m not clear whether it’s post apocalyptic or secondary world, at this point) and it’s written in present tense. And yet, through the first quarter of the book, I have found the characters to be so interesting and engaging that I don’t care.
That might be over stating things a little, I suppose. If I’m honest the present tense still jars me out of the scene from time to time. I just find it odd–but that is true of nearly every present tense narrative I’ve ever read, and isn’t an indictment of Street’s prose, which is smooth and, aside from the tense, gets out of the way of the story. The main character, in particular, has some excellent characterization with just the right amount of harshness to feel old west, but still be very likeable and human. The setting is also very intriguing. I look forward to learning more.
The Nameless and the Fallen
by Scott Kaelen
We have a couple of high powered male characters Wren and Oriken who haven’t met yet (at 20%), but seem to be able to take on quite large odds in single combat. There is a certain intrigue in the setting, for example, the ice ghosts, kind of sharp edged semi-invisible and indestructible apparitions that slice and dice anyone who gets in their way. There is also another PoV character, Paleo, seen for only one chapter who I’m guessing from his behaviour and interactions is some kind of Golem/terminator figure (Paleo short for paleolithic?).
This feels like a sort of sequel, picking up on characters that the author was fond of and had taken through a different adventure. That can be a perilous strategy if the author’s fondness for characters is what drives the story. It could be why we get some almost literal “as you know, Bob” moments of dialogue used for exposition such as eg “That’s what happens when you talk badly about two of my good friends,” he said. “One of whom you damned well know is dead.” Or “Back for the first time in almost eleven months,” Henwyn said. The ‘almost eleven months’ is an excess of precision that jars.
There are a few typos and misused words that snagged my attention more so than usual – emphasising the need for editing beyond spellchecking. eg “come to escort me from the tow, have you?” and “His sensed pricked” However, there are also some nice bits of imagery like
“the demonic mouth of the cave with its glistening fangs of ice.”
“Tonight, he shared shelter with the cadavers that huddled together in the long repose.”
(even if “the long repose” does feel like a thesaurus has been let loose on Chandler’s “The Big Sleep”)
Oriken is a freeblader – part of a guild which seem to be like some international freemasonry of assassins, with lodges in every town. When he got a new ID slab (Card) the book briefly read almost like a lit-RPG “it’s opened up some sideways opportunities, like training the novices, various high-end proficiency awards that’ll go in your slab, in-guild alternatives or additions to working in the field, so on and so forth.” There are some contemporary colloquialisms that creep in and give the prose a bit of inconsistency of tone “You need to learn to read the room, boy” (Perhaps the irony is deliberate as they are in fact camping outdoors at this point) or “He wasn’t much of a people person.”
Another problem with very powerful characters is that they are hard to make vulnerable. Superman has his kryptonite, Oriken spends time in a bar drinking whisky and talking to people in a scene that delivers no plot/character information/development beyond what seems to be a means to make him off guard and vulnerable in the next scene. There are a few other plot points, characters making rash decisions which seemed to be about positioning them in hopeless conflicts to illustrate the protagonist’s prowess. The violence can be quite graphic, with descriptions of shredded brains and allusions to sexual violence. However, for me the most jarring moment was when a young woman whose village has literally just (within the hour) been destroyed by bandits that our protagonist has single handedly slaughtered, decides this is the moment where she really wants and needs to have sex with a complete stranger (our protagonist), a desire that he grudgingly accedes to – but that was a fairly joltingly implausible scene for me. There are interesting premises in this world, and I’d be curious to find out more particularly about the ice ghosts and Paleo, but this is a middle of the road orange for me.
At 20%, I’m feeling a bit conflicted about this one. I liked the ghost creatures, and the teases of Wren’s history, but overall it struggled to keep me engaged. There’s a large battle scene close to the beginning of the book that I think could have had more of an impact if we had more time to get to know Wren and his current life and relationships beforehand, but as it stands it was just a thing that happened, so Wren could leave and the actual story could begin.
I also struggled a bit with the overwhelming competence of Wren and Oriken. There’s a difference between people being really very good at what they do and being so good nothing can ever touch them, and the former is way more interesting to me than the latter. Perhaps it will change later on in the book, but I didn’t feel like the stakes were very high for either of them.
I was so happy this book had been entered into this years SPFBO, it’s a very interesting mix of fantasy and some other worldly elements. We follow the two POV’s of Wren and Oriken, as two very different narratives emerge as Wren is an outcast and Oriken a wandering mercenary. We also get the intriguing POV of Paleo, a mysterious Golem like creature. These characters all embark on a journey, for one reason or another. The book is fast paced, it gets the story moving and allows the character development to happen slowly over its course. These are edgy characters to be sure, there are some wonderful dark elements to the story over the first 20% as well. The writing feels fluid and experienced and there are one two issues with the prose, that doesn’t detract from being a wonderful low fantasy with some intriguing elements, good characters and a well developed world.
This book was one of my highly anticipated ones in our batch of SPFBO entries, but I didn’t realize it was book #2 in The Fractured Tapestry, entering a world and possibly meeting characters I didn’t know anything about yet. In changing pov’s, the story is told by Wren, an outcast living largely on the fringes of society, and Oriken, a traveling mercenary in a world torn by rampaging monsters and widespread madness. Both of these characters were portrayed with a confident stance, albeit baggage (nightmares, brutal pasts, trauma), in somewhat uber strong, at times boasting fashion. Though I felt their characterizations suffered a little due to fast pacing, I still liked that dark and powerful aura surrounding them…but in general, I enjoy edgy dark characters. Despite a few spelling or wording issues I picked up on, I thought the writing felt experienced and I was intrigued by the impending war, the background histories and imaginative world as well as the ancient magics created. I would say this was an action-packed low fantasy with grit.
I enjoyed this one. At 20% one viewpoint character has a good deal of mystery associated with their plot, and I’m very interested to see where all of those mysterious elements lead. The other viewpoint character is a bit more character development focused in their plot–at least through the first fifth of the novel–but I’m equally invested. I’d like to see where that leads as well. One of the characters appeared in a previous book by Kaelan, but I don’t think knowledge of that story is at all necessary for this one, and the other characters are new.
I did find the prose a bit verbose at times. I think it could be tightened significantly to produce a more readable book. I think the verbosity could probably come to grate on me over the course of the entire novel. In addition, there are also some phrases that feel anachronistic from time to time. This is one I imagine I’ll return to so I can finish, regardless of where it ends up in the competition.
And our chosen semi-finalist is…
So congratulations to Liza Street and commiserations to Scott Kaelen. Join us again on Monday as we introduce our penultimate batch of SPFBO hopefuls.
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
Deen, Anela – In the Jaded Grove (*semi-finalist)
Gale, Scarlett – His Secret Illuminations (* quarter-finalist ET)
Gibbs, Olga – Heavenward
Greylock, T L & O’Connor, Bryce – Shadows of Ivory
Gutman, U. G. – Winds of Strife
Holt, Jason A. – The Klindrel Invasion
Jackson, Daniel T. – Illborn (*semi-finalist)
Kaelen, Scott – The Nameless and the Fallen (*quarter-finalist)
Kaeth, S. – Windward
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)
Street, Liza – Blood Bounty (*Semi-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