SPFBO7 – The Fifth Eliminations
Welcome to our Fifth Eliminations post for SPFBO 7.
This week, we have grouped our five brave entrants together into a “Starting Anew” batch. You can find out more about this week’s posts in our Meet the Batch post. Read on to find out which three of them fell in our fifth batch of eliminations, listed in alphabetical order.
Dive Endless Skies
by Chris Reign
This is the third year in a row we’ve had a litRPG book in the Hive’s batch. This one is very resonant of my World of Warcraft experience – even down to a starter quest to kill a troublesome boar. However, it also manages to convey a sense of a real story in there as low level Eyre bypasses the tutorial and ends up hooked up with a diverse party in a high level region. The writing gets a bit jargon infested at times (perils of the subgenre I guess) and sometimes misfires. But of the three spfbo LitRPGs I’ve read so far, this comes closest to a decent marriage of story and game mechanics, so orange.
I’m usually not a fan of litRPG-types, but Dive is such a mild version of the genre that I wasn’t bothered by it at all, and I really appreciated that the main character skipped the tutorial section because I didn’t want to do it either! While there were a few hiccups that an edit would fix, mostly around misuse of words that spellcheck won’t pick up, I found the prose to be enjoyable. This might be one I come back to later, after the competition, but at this point, despite the potential I can see, it’s not quite enough to keep me hooked.
This is my 2nd time in the SPFBO, the 2nd time I have had a LitRPG book. This one resonated with my Elder Scrolls Online experience/time/obsession, everything from a starting quest to the tutorial missions- this book managed to convey a good sense of story. Eyre is a low level player who is met by a strange character, who offers her a quest and the story moves from there. It was entertaining, but the story gets bogged down in the jargon of the genre. This was a shame because I am starting to enjoy this genre more.
I don’t have a lot of experience reading litRPG, since I have only read a few so far. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy them, but I don’t often choose to pick them up because I am not a gamer and worry things will go right over my head. Therefore, the reference made to the incident with the boar that Theo had mentioned, was unfamiliar to me and I needed to gain my footing on what was going on at first in this story. Eyre, a low level, is met by a stranger who offers her a quest. They are both so-called outworlders and he promises her help in levelling up if she in return can fulfil a quest for him.
I thought the story read reasonably well. There were quest instructions easy to keep track of, even for me, and the story moved swiftly with a decent flow in some places and a bit slow in others. While I didn’t fully get invested in the characters, I was intrigued enough and my curiosity peaked while reading. I’m not sure if it was enough for me to continue in this quest though since it wasn’t quite for me.
Dive: Endless Skies was pretty fun for the first 20%. I have a weird sort of relationship with litRPG books. I love the progression elements to the story, but often the gaming elements don’t connect as much for me. I generally find that litRPG stories that honestly acknowledge the characters are in a game and also show me their out-of-game lives tend to connect better for me. Having said that, I did have fun with the first part of this novel. At the same time, I also found it to be a little formulaic (which is, perhaps, an issue of the genre generally). More importantly, I thought the story was paced a little more slowly than it could have been, making things feel a little meandering in the first 20%. For folks who love the litRPG genre I think this one may be worth a closer look. For me, it’s not quite doing it.
Ghosts of The Nightmare Gods
by Rebecca Mickley
There is an interesting premise in here, ancient guardian of woodland grove has appropriated a human form and pissed off the fates with his tendency to turn people into animals, so they decide to bind him to a companion and activate some of the constraints of his human form while all is about to go drastically tits up in woodland grove world. There is even a shout out to climate change, which resonated with me. However, I do have reservations, the unfortunate young human woman transformed into a pet hare by the woodland grove lord feels like a serious invasion of bodily autonomy, while the relationship between them, with him always addressed as master or sir and her compelled to obey his every instruction feels a little bit too much like a sub-dom kind of set up. The notion that all humans have a sense of animal magic within them which they have lost awareness of, but which is always ready to be released is interesting – I just wish its release was a bit more voluntary/participative. I might feel less uneasy about the set up if the genders had been reversed and this was a matriarchal woodland lady snaring a male human pet because that would feel more like a challenge to patriarchy rather than a reinforcement of it. The idea that there are some key humans whose fates are carried by a “golden thread” is also cool. The prose has some nice moments – I liked
“The storm had taken all the dirt out of the air and washed it away”
I was less sure about “He looked to be of vaguely nordic construction.” Some interesting elements – but not quite firing my enthusiasm to read on.
I read through to 30% before stopping. I found the prose to be engaging for the most part, although sometimes it felt a little simple, for lack of a better word, and the author’s avoidance of using “said” was considerably more jarring than using it for every dialogue tag. Like everyone else, I struggled with the relationship between the two MCs – especially in respect to Skye. For someone who is the entire focus of the cover copy, she has absolutely no agency, and that did not feel great. I think there’s a lot of potential in the worldbuilding and the plot, but that wasn’t enough to overcome the downsides for me.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this book, it was a bit weird. We have a strange, non-human character who has taken the form of one. We meet him when he is biding his time in a house when a young woman knocks at the door, he promptly transforms her into a rabbit and she becomes his servant. Now I really liked the idea of all characters having access to magic, or an awareness of animal magic is an interesting premise. Like my fellow judges I had an issue with the male/female relationship in this book, it felt very one way as in Dom/Sub. It did have good things going for it through, the prose felt good and flowed in places and hints of something called “the golden thread”, the idea of key people whose fates are carried by this. Sadly the book just didn’t hit home with me and was just not for me.
I was not as smitten with this novel, I have to say. We have an ominous character, non-human but in the form of one, who is house sitting in a sense, biding his time. When a young woman knocks at the door, he lets her in to use the phone and transforms her into a rabbit to make her his assistant. There are reasons for this and I liked the premise of this magic system behind it, but I didn’t find it easy to read through the first parts of the novel. The transformation from girl to rabbit read undemanding, and the action/conversation of the characters fell flat to me. I am not sure how it continues, so I’m uncertain if the beginning was set up just to get things rolling or if a larger premise would propel this novel into a more wholesome reading experience for me. Unfortunately, what I have read thus far, was not for me.
This one has some potential in terms of the magic system. In particular, the idea that all people have a sort of innate magic that they don’t understand or use was kind of cool. However, that’s about the only thing in this one that worked for me. From the very beginning of the story there is a sense that the lord of the woodland grove is sort of a creepy, very powerful, poorly behaved individual. I really hate it when characters lack agency in stories, and one character lacks agency pretty early, being turned into a hare. Making matters worse, she then has to obey everything her master tells her to do. That sort of setup was a turn off for me. Maybe the author is mixing genres a bit and intends to dabble in body horror, though I didn’t get that impression. In any case, this one was a red for me.
The Last of the Wicked
by Israel Barbuzano
I warmed to this more as I read it. The opening feels pretty awful, overconfident American kids flushed through a portal and getting very sassy, without managing to be amusing with the witch who mis-summoned them on the other side. However, fortunately the objectionable kids seem to disappear and we settle more comfortably into Meredith’s world. The overall story blends elements of Roald Dahl’s The Witches – with its conspiracy of child murdering magical beings, Harry Potter – with its parallel magic world that is fascinated by the human world and borrows technology, the tale of Hansel and Gretel with children lured into the witches’ clutches and climate change (OK I see climate change in everything these days). That is to say, the witch world’s entire economy is run on a historically prevalent energy source – the spark harvested from human children – that is unsustainable and Meredith’s sister, as leader of the coven, is trying to make people think about changing (though more for pragmatic reasons than moral ones!). There is also a shade of The Worst Witch because Meredith, humiliatingly overshadowed by her brilliant sister, is pretty shite at being a witch. The story telling gets a little rough in places, but the focus on character and conflict works well in most scenes. Meredith is in trouble and the tottering pile of incidental and self-inflicted dilemmas that she faces seems doomed to collapse in unpredictable ways, and that is why I’d be interested in reading on. I also just love the idea of books being not just something somebody enjoys reading, but also a sensual sensory experience – Meredith has an admirer in the librarian witch and who cannot be enthralled by the idea of a love inspired by seeing its object’s reverence for books! So I’m greeny/orange on this one. Given the rough start, I’m not confident it will sustain and do justice to the elements that caught my eye, but I’d be curious to see how it develops.
I can see a lot of potential in this book – I quite liked the main character, Meredith, and really identified with her feelings of failure and uselessness. Unfortunately, that was the only high point for me. Often in books there is too much worldbuilding too soon, but I had the opposite problem in this one – I didn’t feel like I knew enough about the society Meredith is trying to live in, beyond the conflict with her sister and her own reservations about harvesting humans. Without that wider context, I found it difficult to keep reading.
I have rather grown to like the idea of Witch Covens recently, and Last of the Wicked uses this to make an interesting setting – it’s a take on portal fantasy, but reversed. We follow a character called Meredith who is harvesting humans, or at least trying to as she’s not doing a good job of this. She is determined to succeed but is always in the shadow of her sister, thrown into the mix is a bit of a love story with the Librarian Witch. Beyond the intriguing characters though is where the book fell a bit flat, the world just didn’t feel very well developed and I was confused about what the goal of the Coven was and the world-building felt dwarfed by the emphasis on the characters, the sisterly feud and love story. A nice idea but not hitting home for me sadly in certain areas.
This was really neat in a way…a reversed portal fantasy in a sense. Meredith is retrieving humans to harvest through a portal to power magical technology in her world, but she seems to be no good at what she does. Always in the shadow of her sister, it is tough going with a lot of mishaps. I liked the premise of this idea, and think it could definitely be explored further to create a wholesome read. I was a bit underwhelmed by the world building vs the noise made about the problematic sibling situation, which overshadowed or simply hovered in the room. Their dialogue came across snarky in parts with Meredith being at the receiving end of it. I did like Meredith’s reservations about what she is asked to do, which adds a hint of depth and a redeemable quality about her character. Unfortunately, I had trouble getting into the novel and wished it was just a bit more fleshed out.
There’s a really interesting setting and hook for this one. It’s a sort of reverse portal fantasy where Meredith, the main viewpoint character, resides in another world and–using magical technology–pulls unsuspecting humans through portals into her own world. Or, at least, she attempts to. As it turns out, she’s pretty bad at being a witch. Her sister, on the other hand, is rather exceptional and serves as the leader of the coven. It’s a neat setup and Meredith’s hesitation to harvest humans to power the magical technology of her world leaves plenty of room for hijinks. I also really enjoyed that Meredith just feels quirky. Beyond that, however, the story itself didn’t particularly hook me. There’s a lot of potential, but–for me–the storytelling fell a little flat. By a little over 20%, I was sort of confused as to why things were happening or why characters were making the decisions they were making. I also had lots of questions about the world and whatnot and just didn’t feel like the story was moving toward any answer.
And so our quarter-finalists are
The Spear of Akvaloon by Toby Bennett and Windward by S. Kaeth