SPFBO 7 – The Third Quarter final – “EXTRA TIME”
You may recall that – back in August – the judges found that the first 20% of our two “leaving home” Batch quarterfinalists did not leave them confident about which one to pick as the winning semi-finalist. Since then, the team of five judges have read further on in both books in a bid to come to a definite decision. So now we are in a position to reveal which out of His Secret Illuminations and The Ninth Scripture has won of the remaining two fantasy-hive SPBFO -7 semi-finalist spots.
In order to maximise the tension we will go through with each judge in turn discussing both books and then announcing which one gets their vote for a semi-final place. The outcome to be decided by a simple majority vote.
So without further ado!
Despite having a common theme of a journey or leaving home, these are two very different books. At its simplest level, by the time I reached 40% in each, the total number of deaths in each one was as follows (Spoiler alert)
His Secret Illuminations – zero, none, de nada, rien. Not even an anonymous NPC or a pet.
The Ninth Scripture – lots, I lost count, nobody close to the protagonist should feel safe, ever!
But looking at each book’s progression in a bit more detail
His Secret Illuminations continues to be a relatively gentle study in two very different characters, the shy monk and the fearsome warrior woman, building a relationship and discovering things about each other. There is a sense of peril, but it is distant like a mountain range on the horizon, with our characters still wandering the level plain where the major danger is Lucian’s fear of committing some revelatory faux pas which reveals his turbulent feelings for his companion. In terms of the story’s progression I am expecting a kind of hockey stick curve of sudden escalation and there are hints of it in a distant sentient book haunting Lucian’s attempts to track it down.
For the time being though I am happy enough to be in the company of Lucian and the She-wolf. I like the allusion to an exploitative health care system when the couple come across a sick family, and one cannot help but respond to Lucian’s instinctive urge to help.
There are quite a few lines that caught my eye as lovely gentle observations of their relationship. Like these two
“Because you gave me a tomato, even when you shouldn’t have” or
“He likes it when she laughs, feels the warmth of it all the way to his toes.”
The Ninth Scripture pushes the action and danger far more explicitly. Zecaar is caught up in and helps foil a dangerous attack, but elsewhere in the world those nearest and dearest to her are also under assault and lots of people die. Zecaar is presented as a tortured individual, a young woman who has endured much and suffers with her sense of loss. However, I was beginning to find the references to Zecaar’s inner turmoil a bit repetitive and unsubtle even before – around 28% – we had a key death that seemed to send Zecaar into a spiral of enigmatic navel contemplation. The death also reveals that there is some hidden secret in Zecaar’s past that she is afraid will be revealed. While this is intriguing, it makes the excess of time we spend in Zecaar’s head rather frustrating because she does not share this dark secret with the reader. Now in Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister Nona also has a dark secret from her early life that is only revealed near the end of the book. However, that grated less because the prose focussed on actions and interactions that kept the story moving, rather than dwelling on Nona’s inner confusion.
The prose is also more intrusive than in His Secret Illuminations. While there are some nice lines there are also some word choices which jarr and make the reading experience less smooth.
For example at a point where Zecaar is crouched down reflecting on a particularly bad decision
“Zecaar took a deep breath before pushing down on her thighs and rising from her sins”
“Rising from her sins” is a nice phrase which works well in the context, but “pushing down on her thighs” as she gets up feels clumsy both as an action and a description.
My other concern is the degree to which the plot falls a little conveniently for Zecaar. Whether it is searching for a map, or driving a hover vehicle, or finding the way to one of the top secret entrances to the City, all are solved a little glibly. It feels as though the author is hurrying to move the story forward so along the way as a plot problem is identified, it is then immediately resolved in a way that doesn’t feel realistic so the tension doesn’t really build up or get addressed in a satisfying way.
So my vote for the “leaving home” batch semi-finalist is His Secret Illuminations.
|After ONE vote||His Secret Illuminations||The Ninth Scripture|
|Total Judges’ Votes cast||1||0|
In His Secret Illuminations we are introduced to the character of Lucian, a monk who has a fascination with the She-Wolf, a mercenary doing work for the abbey where he is. I would like to start with my major issue with the book, in that the first 20% really is scene setting. She-Wolf and Lucian are two interesting characters, and it is an interesting read as they get to know each other and form a relationship. There are hints of peril, but it’s quite distant and therefore not a lot happens, not really and this is what was disappointing for me. It is however an interesting study of character and relationships, but if you know anything me then plot is just as important.
Then we have The Ninth Scripture which is an interesting blend of sci-fi and fantasy, the magic system is very intriguing and I was so curious about it. Zeccar is a character we are introduced to who gets involved in a life threatening situation very quickly, we soon learn why. She is a tortured individual, but also quite a dark edgy character, and she wears her heart on her sleeve. She is emphasised by a key moment, when a key death occurs which sends Zeccar into a spiralling sense of depression. It also serves as an interesting plot device, as we learn a secret along the way about Zeccar and what her purpose might be. The story is fast paced, but the world is well developed, Zeccar is an interesting character and with it’s intriguing magic system.
The Ninth Scripture is the book that I am putting through as my suggestion for Batch C’s extra time suggestion for the semi final.
|After TWO votes||His Secret Illuminations||The Ninth Scripture|
|Total Judges’ Votes cast||1||1|
In a scenario like this where two completely different novels end up pitted against each other, it is very challenging to pick one over the other for they both have attributes and disfavors in their own right. Given the extra time and further reading was the only way to find out where I would stand in my decision, and as I have to make one, I have come to the following conclusions:
His Secret Illuminations has a historical feel to it and that’s something I always enjoy and gravitate towards. The gentle prose and slow burn story in combination with the forbidden premise of a monk traveling with a She-wolf is both alluring and frustrating at the same time. I’m not a connoisseur of romance and this play between the two main characters keeps hovering on the edge of a bucket about to spill over with maddening tension. At 40% into reading, I still don’t know when or where this static sizzle between the two of them will end or lead. Considering that Lucian’s magic depends on his purity it is a real tug and war of turmoil. Call it brilliant for dangling that carrot in front of the reader with such deliberation or just plainly, I’m falling for it.
Settings are a big deal to me and this one feels European, middle ages. The aspect of traveling and journeys, learning the land, visiting new villages and taverns and experiencing vividly detailed surroundings and customs is an enjoyable key aspect to me. Lucian’s experiences with meals, bathhouses, horses and landlords, is gaining a bit more swiftness and comfort in the 20-40 percent reading range and his training is getting better as well. With the two of them finally traveling and on their way to retrieve the stolen books, a broadening of the story unfolds and more details are revealed about Lucian’s monastery and rules of the land. In a case of aid before I stopped reading, the two of them have managed to do a fair deal of work without any wayside lingering desires to draw from the conflict, which also was a plus. In my opinion, the last 60% of this novel has great potential, if one enjoys the slow burn type of reading with the historical elements as I have described.
The Ninth Scripture boasts sci-fi elements in its setting combined with fantastic abilities by the protagonist and a certain group of characters. In an existential crisis and war, young boys and girls are raised for roles of procreation to increase the number of forces and commit the ultimate sacrifice to the cause. The setting begins in an orphanage where young Zeccar was left by her parents and raised along with other orphans. She is close in line by age to be initiated to her duties….until she finds out she has a gift! At 20% into reading, I was enjoying my initial impressions of settings/conflict and my curiosity about Zeccar’s gift was piqued. As a reader I am all for less sappy and more grit. I enjoy dark characters and underdogs. Zeccar is a bit of a problematic one though. She is tormented in ways about a secret from her past and doesn’t jive well with some characters in school. This instills in me the impression of a certain immaturity and I prefer the more confident badass kind of underdog. Placed into a different sector with other gifted young students, the novel proceeds in the 20-40 percent tile to demonstrate some of the tensions other pupils have with her. Following a devastating catastrophe, her situation worsens when she loses control of being antagonized to the point of no return and must make a really grave decision.
Continuing this novel for that second segment was a wise choice for me but it resulted not in its favor. There are many elements I liked, like a fast pace and action, but Zeccar’s character became less and less the person I had hoped her to be and I simply disconnected. In terms of writing, the overall feel was much harsher and louder in tone compared to the average novel to me, very edgy, but again, this is something others might really love about it.
My semi-finalist choice for this batch would be His Secret Illuminations.
|After THREE votes||His Secret Illuminations||The Ninth Scripture|
|Total Judges’ Votes cast||2||1|
This extra time decision has not been an easy one for me. Both His Secret Illuminations and The Ninth Scripture have elements that appeal to me and elements that sort of turn me off, if I’m honest. They are also two vastly different types of novels. On the one hand we have a very slow-burn romance that almost has a slice-of-life feel at times. On the other, we have a fast-paced, action-packed YA magic school melodrama that doesn’t pull its punches. The only way I could make a decision was to compare the two across a variety of areas. However, in the end, my decision also has a lot to do with my preferences.
The Prose: While I don’t demand lyrical prose, I do want the prose to get out of the way of the story. Both books have prose that works in this regard. However, The Ninth Scripture does have prose that is a little more rough. There are odd phrasings from time to time and moments where the prose draws attention to itself in the wrong ways. By contrast, His Secret Illuminations has smooth prose that flows well. Both novels do have some dialog that feels just on the edge of anachronistic from time to time. This tends to fit better in the world of Scripture as opposed to Illuminations.
The Characters: His Secret Illuminations has a comparatively small cast. Lucian and the She-Wolf are it. While there are side characters, it’s very obvious that the focus is on these two characters. Both of the characters here are well-written, and both feel very authentic. Lucian is a character the reader can easily feel sympathetic toward, and what he’s experiencing and the way he reacts both feel very authentic. Juxtaposed with this we have The Ninth Scripture which has a comparatively large cast. Most of the characters here are adolescents. The emotions of the characters, as we might expect, are often intense and at times confusing. But they do feel authentic to the age group.
The Plot: For Illuminations the plot is the characters and the relationship between them. It’s a romance, and outside of that the plot is very sparse. While romances can be fun, I really wish there was more to this one. At the same time, there is something cozy about this read that is appealing. In Scripture, the plot is pulse-pounding at times and generally mysterious enough to keep me engaged. Plus, there’s a mysterious magic system that I want to learn more about. My biggest complaint is that by the half-way point, there have been a series of events which have worked out in an incredibly convenient and helpful way for the protagonist. This happens to such an extent that it strains credulity. I have also begun to find the main character more annoying than anything else. Honestly, I’m not particularly engaged by either novel in terms of plot.
There is one other thing I need to mention, before I reveal my decision. I find present tense narrative terribly distracting when I’m reading a novel. There are a few novels that I’ve enjoyed that are written in present tense, but on the whole when I begin reading a novel written in present tense I find myself constantly bouncing out of the narrative.
His Secret Illuminations probably has the better prose and better character treatment between these two contestants. This would normally be enough to sway me. However, I simply cannot get past the present tense narrative, unfortunately.
Therefore my vote goes for The Ninth Scripture.
|After FOUR votes||His Secret Illuminations||The Ninth Scripture|
|Total Judges’ Votes cast||2||2|
I confess I’ve known what my pick would be for quite some time, but in the interest of fairness, I did read further in The Ninth Scripture to be sure.
His Secret Illuminations is really quite low stakes compared to almost every other book in our batch, and that really makes it stand out (for better or worse). Add the romantic tension to the story, and it really isn’t something you would normally see in SPFBO. But oh how I fell hard for it. It was just such a nice change of pace to read something so character focused, and by the middle of the book, we’ve learned so much about these characters, and a surprising amount of the world considering it’s very much background. The struggle Lucian faces in balancing his desire for the She-Wolf and his desire to remain chaste to practice his magic is very compelling and I quite think that alone would be enough to keep me reading.
And then we have The Ninth Scripture. I wasn’t super enthralled by this one based on the first 20%. I read a lot of YA, and the “overpowered chosen one” trope is quite common, for better or worse, so I was very sceptical about this one. Some of that scepticism has been allayed, as we see Zecaar struggle through her “training montage” scenes. I also found the paths the plot took to be very interesting, and I was glad to see Zecaar meet back up with some of her orphan friends, although not so happy about the circumstances.
At the end of the day though, while I will probably come back and finish The Ninth Scripture at some point, His Secret Illuminations is still my preference out of the two.
|The final total after all FIVE votes||His Secret Illuminations||The Ninth Scripture|
|Total Judges’ Votes cast||3||2|
So congratulations to Scarlett Gale author of our chosen semi-finalist His Secret Illuminations
which will now go forward to the semi-finalist stage and a full read from all the judges.
And commiserations to D.Wolfsbane author of our defeated quarter-finalist The Ninth Scripture in what was the tightest possible decision.
As I am sure you will realise, both books – though very different – have much to commend them and we hope you will be encouraged to pick either/both of them up and find out for yourselves.