SPFBO 7 – The Fifth Quarterfinal
OK – I know the expectation of competitions is that there should be FOUR quarter-finals, but if Douglas Adams could write five books in the (increasingly inaccurate) Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, then the Hive can definitely have 6 quarterfinals. On Wednesday, we announced our fifth trio of eliminations and revealed that this week’s two quarter-finalists from the “Starting Anew” batch are THE SPEAR OF AKVALOON by Toby Bennett and WINDWARD by S. Kaeth.
While many fantasy characters have to start afresh after some life convulsing event, they are not always able to do so with some implicitly trustworthy Obi-Wan Ben Kenobi figure, nor are the new recruits to a completely different life as malleable and enthusiastic as Harry Potter. Our two quarterfinalists explored both these extremes in the starting anew theme. See the judges’ comments below, with the books – as before – listed in alphabetical order!
The Spear of Akvaloon
by Toby Bennett
This starts with prose that feels a little purple in places and the first few pages are very descriptive with a bit of embedded exposition as we meet Marisha swimming in a rather unconventional way. I did warm to the story quite quickly. Production values are good – I only noticed one typo in the first 20%. The first 20% delivers a nicely compelling call to action (both “A stranger comes to town” and “going on a journey”). Within that section we also get convincing depictions both of an engaging protagonist and a suitably despicable antagonist. It’s quite a short book (My kindle doesn’t do page counts but the book has just over 3000 kindle “locations” where most of the SPFBO books so far have been more than twice that length at over 7000 locations). The passage describing the experience of swimming as an Orca reminded me of the joyful exuberance in Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, while tension, magic and relationships are all very subtly but effectively braided together. Dammit – I care about what is going to happen to Marisha and I wonder what happened in the past, where the arrogance of ancient witches flooded her world leaving only a few fragmentary landmasses and shallow ocean shelves. While some might see Atlantis in that premise, those who know me will not be surprised that I am thinking “Climate change fiction.” Interestingly the term witches is not gendered, in that the only ones we have met so far carrying that title are male. So yes, a very easy green for me.
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Theo: Belle – has a cat sat on your keyboard?!
Belle: Yes, the little snot! But – setting Addie’s opinions aside –
I really liked the magic system in this one – the shapeshifting was pretty cool, and I liked the hints of the wider magic system and how it fitted into the world. I think the descriptions were beautifully written, but besides that I wasn’t grabbed by the prose. I also wasn’t a fan of Marisha. While I empathised with the situation she found herself in, I didn’t fully connect with her and that made me less inclined to continue reading. I’ll be interested to see how my perception changes in the next chunk, as they leave the village for the wider world.
This was an interesting one, it caught my attention very quickly with the magic system. I also enjoyed the author’s prose, it was wonderful to read the description of a flooded landscape. Marisah is an engaging character, she is unlike everyone else in her village as she can shape shift and this is how you meet her. I liked the setting, the author does a good job of setting up this world which has suffered some form of catastrophe, and we learn Marisah and the villagers she lives with are in a state of oppression. Mariah is a compelling character, mysterious and we are introduced to a mysterious side character as well. This was quite a fast paced book as well and there was enough to keep me interested, so I would be very curious to read on further with this one.
This was a unique shape shifting novel and I enjoyed the descriptive prose and setting of this novel. The world had a bit of an ‘Avatar’ feel to it.. sort of lush and green in a flooded place. The main protagonist Marisha is unlike the other villagers and keeps her shape shifting abilities a secret, but when alone, she likes to spend time in the water just being who she really is. Like I said, the prose is beautiful and makes her experiences in natural form stand out. I often enjoy reading of circumstances and fearful events in novels that leave a place in devastation or a different state, and this one combines that with a protagonist who is the reluctant kind, who comes to find out the truth about her roots and abilities. In a world where the villagers are oppressed, she has to make a split second decision to save the villagers, when she is bestowed the truth about her heritage and the gifts she could aspire to with training. So many things worked for me in this one. Pacing was a mixture of swift to lingering and I’m intrigued what lays ahead for the main protagonist. Right after that 15% mark into it, big changes are about to happen and I am very curious to see how this unfolds. It receives a green, good to go light from me.
The thing that caught my attention right away with this one was the magic. Given how much I’ve talked about how I love magic, this probably comes as no surprise. The world is also intriguing, with a sort of “post-climate crisis” feeling to it. The pacing is also quick, engaging, but doesn’t feel rushed. The story moves along at a rapid clip, but never quite crosses the line into frenetic. I think that really works for this story, which seems to be very tightly plotted. The book itself is under 300 pages, according to Amazon. The characters also popped out at me right away, particularly our main protagonist, Marisha. From the first pages you care about what’s going to happen to her. She has a mysterious past and we’re pretty quickly introduced to a mysterious side character. I’m very interested to see where things go with this one. My only concern, to this point, is that there is a tendency to tell rather than show in certain spots and if that continues I could see it becoming an issue. It’s also possible that the couple places I’ve noticed that in the first quarter of the book are simply a by-product of the fast pacing. Only time will tell, but this one is a green from me.
by S. Kaeth
This one wasn’t really for me. I like dragons in fantasy but my issues with Windward were similar to issues that I had with a semi-finalist last year. Just too many dragons. I haven’t read much of this style of work, but humans bonded with dragons doesn’t really float my boat as they say. The book opens excitingly enough with Palon riding the eponymous Windward in a battle with a pack of winged wolf like walavaim. The descriptions of flight and fight are quite vivid but I had a bit of an issue over Palon’s agency (or lack of it), in that she didn’t seem to add much to the battle besides almost falling off. There are moments of intrigue, Palon finds a stone which seems to have some threatening purpose and she gets all possessive reminding me of Smeagol’s instant fascination with the one ring. Dragons and their bonded humans have a thing it seems for “collections” (hoards by any other name) though these collections or caches are more along the lines of magpie-like curios of shiny things, than mounds of wealth. There is a newly bonded human who Palon is obliged to mentor and quickly discovers is likely to disturb the equilibrium of the nest, but in a manner that is more petulant than purposeful. There is, it seems, a thief loose in the dragon’s nest (a nest of 60 dragons and one of many nests), which we understand is a very serious matter. However, that does mean we meet a lot of named dragons and the story’s focus seems to be on the hierarchy, mannerisms and society of dragons and their bonded partners in a way which just didn’t really capture my interest. I wanted more than dragons, I wanted deeper conflict and more compelling characters – I think the potential of the story, spread across so broad a cast – just ended up being a bit thin for me to be keen to read on.
I’m currently feeling a little conflicted about this one. I really like how the bond between dragons and humans works – seeing the humans take on more draconian qualities made it more interesting to me, but overall I’m not feeling very enthusiastic about dragons in general. The opening battle definitely caught my attention, although like Theo I didn’t feel like Palon had much agency or purpose besides giving us a POV. I liked the mystery aspect and I look forward to seeing a bit more of how that plays out as the book progresses. I’ll definitely keep reading further, but I’m not confident that this is the book for me.
Now if you know anything about me then, you will know I love Dragons. This book hit on an interesting idea with the relationship between the humans and the Dragons, I have read a few books where creatures are bonded, but the connection between human and dragon is vivid. It’s interesting because the relationship is the other way around, with the dragon being the more dominant and humans taking on a more draconic nature. Palon is a bonded dragon rider who takes on the responsibility of looking after a newly bonded human, this quickly disrupts the harmony so to speak of the nest of dragons. While there is a lot of information, it’s quite necessary for this story, and Kaeth’s descriptive ability of Dragons in flight is wonderful, but the descriptive ability really allowed to paint a picture of this world, the humans and the dragons it was wonderful. I am so curious about the need to collect, the collections and what implications this has and I have also enjoyed some very intriguing characters. The author does a good job of pulling the reader in, with an intense prologue and then really introducing the world and by the 20% mark things are really starting to happen. I cannot wait to read more of this one!
Oh, this one is for dragon lovers! Books with dragons almost always make good stories great stories…what can I say, I enjoy them. Though I have read a few good ones in my reading days, I have not read one quite like this one. We have heard of humans bonding with animals and dragons before, but the connection in this novel between riders and their dragons is different and more vivid from any I have read in the past. Unlike the human exerting his powers or bonds onto the dragon, it is the other way around and humans take on sort of dragonistic senses. This is of intense variety and poses a dependency for life. I love what happens in the action of rider and dragon, which was so vividly expressed, it spills over onto the reader and one cannot feel but connected. This was the most intimate and close encounter with these majestic animals, if ever I had read one. Though it took just a bit to get to the bottom of that through a fast paced opening sequence and some group intrigue and background story among the dragons, when it clicked, it was such a symbiotic relationship. Overall, I thought it was written well but I can’t pinpoint a reader’s age bracket to suggest this too. Maybe for everyone who loves dragons! I say this, because it wasn’t the most challenging of a read, just mainly joy with intrigue and I think a younger reader could read this as well. Take that with a grain of salt, I do not know what happens after 20% into it. So, this one also is in the green for me and further reading will determine if this can become a semi-finalist.
So, with this one, if you are like Theo and believe there is a number at which there are “too many dragons,” then you probably aren’t going to enjoy Windward. However, I don’t share that particular preference. I found the first portion of this story to be extremely engaging, to the point where I legitimately had a difficult time setting down the book. Kaeth is doing something interesting with this setting. The bond between dragons and humans causes the humans to take on some of the traits of dragons–most notably an insatiable desire to collect certain objects; which objects vary from person to person or dragon to dragon. Don’t think of this as a typical dragon hoard, where value is important. This is much more interesting. One bonded collects feathers, another rocks. It’s the drive to collect itself that’s interesting here, not the objects themselves. This consequence of the bond, the need to collect, creates the main impetus for the hook of the story, namely that there is a thief amongst the dragon’s nest.
I found the descriptions of dragons, and especially of flight, to be vivid and engaging. In fact, Kaeth has a way of describing things that does an excellent job of painting a picture in your mind. The numerous dragons, vivid descriptions of flight, and the need of the dragon bonded to care for their dragons reminds me a great deal of Mercedes Lackey’s Joust series, or perhaps Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series–though with a decidedly less military feel than either of those. The book opens with an intense aerial battle before introducing us to the world and characters. I found the opening to work and, as I read on, I found several of the characters intriguing. For me, with a fascinating setting, intriguing characters, and the mystery of the thief, it’s an easy green. I can’t wait to read more!
And our chosen semi-finalist is…
Oh no … this is a second quarter-final that is going to EXTRA-TIME!
The judges weren’t confident, after 20% of each book, about separating these two into a semi-finalist and a quarter-finalist. So we are going to read on a bit more and see which one lives up best to its early promise, before deciding which of them will get the coveted semi-finalist and full read accolade.
You’ll have to wait for the outcome of this quarter-final until we come back to it in an “end of phase one play-off” in mid-September. (Hopefully we won’t have to resort to a “one page read at a time” penalty shootout!)
So congratulations to Toby Bennett and S. Kaeth for still being in the competition and
commiserations to Toby Bennett and S. Kaeth for still being in limbo about their quarter-final outcome
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)
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 (* quarter-finalist ET)
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