BLOOD BOUNTY by Liza Street (SPFBO 7 Semi-Finalist Review)
Welcome to the Fantasy-Hive’s SPFBO 7 SEMI-FINALIST WEEK.
Just to remind you our team of five judges, me (Theo), Belle, Peter, Scarlett and Calvin have spent the last five months:
- Sampling our batch of thirty self-published fantasy books to (at least) the 20% mark
- Identifying twelve* worthy quarterfinalists
- Running six* quarter-finals, a couple of which went to extra-time, to choose our six semi-finalists
- All five of us reading all of the chosen-semi-finalists
- All five of us putting the six semi-finalists in our own personal rank order
- Adding up those rankings to decide which of semi-finalists we will put forward to the next stage of SPFBO competition, joining nine other finalists exposed to the opinions, judgements and scorings of our fellow SPFBO blogs.
* OK, don’t @ me I know that conventionally there are 8 quarterfinalists and 4 quarterfinals, but this isn’t a tennis grand slam tournament!
It is now time to sadly say good buy to our unsuccessful semi-finalists, one at a time.
So Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday we will be posting the Hive reviews of the three semi-finalists that did not make our overall top three. It is worth stressing that the posting order for these three days will be randomised. These were all worthy books and no author should feel they came bottom of anything. They all impressed us more than at least twenty four books to get where they are.
On Thursday we will reveal our third placed semi-finalist, and on Friday in a double post we will review our top two books and announce which one is our chosen finalist.
There is one more thing to be said before we bid adieu to our first semi-finalist, and that is to say thank you and goodbye (for now) to one of our judging team.
Peter has been a stalwart member of the team throughout the first phase, making many valued and insightful comments in the reviews and in our group chats. However, SPFBO is a big commitment for all of the volunteer judges and, while Peter has seen enough of the finalists to contribute to our final selection, work pressures mean he has to step back from the next phase of the competition.
So many thanks to Peter and without further delay, the first of our book goodbyes is to –
Gracie Boswell’s got a charmed bullet, a brand new posse, and a pack of outlaw vampires to kill.
The tiny town of Penance has a big vampire problem—and charmslinger Gracie Boswell aims to be the solution. A whole nest of vampires makes for a mighty fine bounty, though, and Gracie is far from the only charmslinger angling for the job. When a charming local layabout and an old competitor elbow their way into Gracie’s posse, she’s forced to at least pretend to play nice…but trust is scarce in the west, and smart bounty hunters always sleep with one eye open.
But Gracie doesn’t have much time to watch her fellow bounty hunters—Penance’s vampire nest is bigger and more organized than anyone suspected, and there’s at least one traitor in the town’s midst. Soon, Gracie finds herself in the unenviable position of leaning on her posse…and at least one of them isn’t what he claims to be.
I’m not a great one for covers, but Blood Bounty’s is cool and effective. I like the simplicity of its two tone design, the title font is a bit evocative of the pulp western novels that it echoes so well, and while a skull may not be the most original cover motif, I’ve never seen a skull wink before. Production values are good in that I didn’t notice many typos (just “a pang of sorry” where “a pang of sorrow” would seem more reasonable). The prose is a strength with many lovely lines and images which I will save for the quotes section. However, occasionally it stumbles with a convoluted sentence or an odd phrasing like “You might not want to verbally attack the people who…” I thought that using verbally attack the people drew attention to itself in a way that a simple insult the people wouldn’t.
I really like the winking skull, and the title typography reminds me of wanted posters, which is a nice touch. I don’t read a lot of present tense but I thought it worked really well for this story, it kept everything moving along nicely. I enjoyed the prose and dialogue, and while there was the occasional typo or slightly clunky sentence, it didn’t hamper my overall enjoyment.
Blood Bounty’s tricolor cover of grey, white and bright yellow is quite striking. The Western title font with the winking skull is well balanced out with a simple, modern straight font and adorned with just the right amount of swirl underline. The cover is matt and at a little over 225 pages it feels nice to hold and read in. If there is one thing I would change, it would be the blurb style/sizing on the back of the book.
I found the prose flowed well in speed and placed somewhere along a middle ground for me in terms of the plot and pacing. It was highly readable and a fun experience all around.
Calvin: The cover is definitely eye-catching, and it captures the feel of what’s inside very well. With this one, you’re getting a wild West inspired fantasy that ended up being quite fun.
The story is polished, with few typos. The dialog is snappy and the prose largely gets out of it’s own way with one rather major exception. This one is written in present tense. This is a highly personal thing, but I always have trouble with novels written in present tense. I find myself constantly bouncing off of them, unable to fully immerse myself in the story because of the oddity that is present tense narrative. Obviously, your mileage is going to vary. I think I would have enjoyed this one a great deal more had it used past tense to narrate events.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
Gracie, Carson and Boone are all intriguing and distinctive characters, like a Magnificent Seven distilled down to a Thrilling Three. Gracie is a wonderfully compelling loner, suspicious of everyone, a target of prejudice over her mixed race, her profession and her magic craft as a charmslinger. A bit like the Orogenes in N.K.Jemsin’s The Fifth Season (and EU HGV drivers in post Brexit Britain) people have been taught to hate the charmslingers even as they need them to keep them safe and alive. I particularly liked the way that Gracie’s past came out in little snippets, glimpses that made sense of some of her obsessive behaviours and driven focus.
Street has an eye for description that she devotes to Carson, clearly the “kid” in this shrunken Magnificent Seven. “Too handsome for hard work… maybe he rides up and down the street, hoping to catch glimpses of his reflection in the couple of glass windows.” or “…flashing that too-pretty smile.” There is a lovely paragraph of Holmesian deduction where Gracie deduces that Carson shaved late in the day and so is a late riser and a bit of a lazy bugger, as well as something of a narcissist.
Boone despite – or perhaps because of – the friendliness that Gracie can’t help noticing is the most enigmatic character of the three. Street does play fair with the reader, dropping clues that shine bright as day with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.
The dialogue feels real to the characters and the world, particularly in this line from Boone when the little posse has been delayed in a vampire hunt.
Boone speaks up for the first time. “We’re burning daylight.”
I enjoyed all of the characters, and the banter between them was a definite highlight for me. I also really liked how their stories were teased throughout the book, especially in light of some twists towards the end.
There is definitely some great tension between the characters and how they end up pulling together despite Gracie and Boone both being loners. I love the witty banter and straightforward competitiveness with a hint of attitude toward each other, yet plenty was shown about each character’s insecurities as well. There is only so much of a facade one can put on in front of the other when vampires begin to win the race against saving a town.
I really liked Boswell from the beginning for her spitfire attitude from page one, but Boone has that big swagger ego, that’s hard to pass by in a fictional character. He definitely had his weapons and it took me a while to figure him out.
I was also a bit stumped by the sheriff, who I wasn’t exactly sure about. That she was a female though, was a big plus for me.
Gracie, our protagonist, is a wonderfully drawn character. She fits so well into this world as a magical version of a traveling gunslinger. She’s brash and a bit of a loner, but we also get to see more of her motivations as the story progresses and there is growth not only for her but for many of the side characters as well. There’s also a good deal of well-written, snappy banter between Gracie and the other characters. That might be my favorite aspect of the novel, actually.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
It’s a relatively short book told in a pretty linear way. The plot is – at its fundamental level – fairly simple; Find a nest of vampires threatening the town of Penance and wipe them out. However, Blood Bounty does have enough twists and turns to make it an intricate little story. The conflicts within the posse and within the community keep things nicely complex, as different pasts catch up with the protagonists, along with a little bit of betrayal and treachery which does absolutely nothing for Gracie’s trust issues.
As Theo said, the basic premise is pretty simple, but it’s the character arcs and background that keeps it from becoming tedious. I read the whole thing in one sitting, because I simply had to know everyone’s story and the clever pacing means that it’s not until the very end that you get a complete picture of everyone.
Nicely summed up already by Theo, the idea of vampires taking over a town was the overall arc, but there were other veins feeding in to create a nice little maze of side plots. This kept everything very refreshing and interesting as well as mysterious. What was the center of attention in terms of Boswell’s and Boone’s cat and mouse play of rivalry initially, begrudgingly takes on different shape along the plot and the secrets buried within these characters lend to a nice surprise at the end.
Calvin: As others have pointed out, this is a fairly straightforward plot and there aren’t very many twists and turns or mysteries. However, what draws you in is really the character growth and figuring out exactly how it is they are going to find and handle this nest of vampires. There are interruptions to this central quest and those serve as the primary form of tension. It’s possible that at a few points the plot might have benefitted from a little more mystery, but overall I didn’t feel that much was lacking in that department as I was reading.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
Street has given us a well realised faux-western setting augmented with witches, charmslingers, vampires, demons and fae. Street doesn’t waste time in info-dumps or even exposition by dialogue to explain the way her various forms of magic operate and interact. All the information you need is delivered – and delivered well – through the story actions and interactions. That does help give the world a very immersive feel. I’ve not read much of the western-fantasy sub-genre but this is a well written and compelling example of its kind.
Blood Bounty has a really rich and varied worldbuilding, and I really appreciated how it was incorporated into the story seamlessly. Sticking vampires in a western setting was a lot of fun, and it’s definitely a world I would happily read more of.
I absolutely loved this story style. It was more a show via dialogue versus telling in great amounts of informational pieces. What the reader was experiencing was a razor sharp, quick and witty, fast paced read that explained magic systems within and along the characters by bits of information gained through mainly dialogue. The entire charmslinging concept was new to me and I loved it. The combination of Western style setting and vampires, superb! Such a great combination! It definitely felt original to me. Well executed too.
Calvin: The world building in this one was really, really good. I loved this wild west setting. It felt sort of post-apocalyptic in a way. The magic was also a lot of fun, and the vampires and other fantasy creatures felt very natural to the setting, even if we wouldn’t typically associate them with the western genre. One of my favorite aspects of this, as Scarlett pointed out above, was the way all of this world building is really shown through dialog or action, rather than through a lot of exposition. The world building, it’s originality, and the way it’s shown and executed were standout elements of the novel for me.
Quotations that resonated with you
I particularly liked Gracie’s reflection here
“Friendliness can cost a lot, but one thing I’ve learned in my twenty four years is that it’s better to save your breath than try to convince someone with an opposing philosophy that your philosophy is the right one.”
which sort of sounded like a summary of Twitter, Street goes straight on with another pithy observation
Besides, friendliness has different costs and rewards depending on your gender.
A theme of gender inequality that she also alludes to in
“I’ve heard some argue whether the west is a vampire’s world. A man’s world. A demon’s world. A fae’s world. I don’t know which of those things is true, but I know one thing for certain; It sure as hell ain’t a women’s world.”
But there were also plenty of other excellent lines, which is always a big tell for me.
“I miss a life I never had”
“I had a dog when I was a girl, name of Sparks, and he had fur that same gold and tan color. I’d run my hand over his fur and it would bend down like the grasses of the prairie.”
Or of two new additions to their posse
“He’s so full of that aching, youthful confidence that my gold’s on him to be the first to die.”
“I don’t think his chances are good, despite the stake he holds. He looks like he don’t know how to find the pointy part, even.”
The dialogue is consistently great throughout the whole book, but one of the things I like about the use of present tense is that it’s another chance for us to experience Gracie’s voice, and read gems like this:
“We failed. It should not have come to this, and I want to wallow in that regret like a pig cooling itself in mud, but the regret won’t help us get out of this situation.”
Ugh…so many good lines. I know I’ve said it before, I am all for descriptive writing, but I’m also very partial to just great lines delivered dead pan!
“…our bounty in blood. In this land, you’re the outlaws. We’ll take our bounty in blood.”
“Compassion gets people killed,” I say.
“The form wears no hat, yet its face is in shadow.”
Calvin: The others have already mentioned a lot of what I did like, in terms of quotes. As I looked back through my highlights, I was reminded once again of how present tense throws me out of the narrative. You can see in the above some of the snappy dialog that we mentioned, and that’s maybe my favorite thing in terms of quotable moments.
I really enjoyed Blood Bounty. Street delivers a well-written and different perspective on fantasy with a diverse cast of compelling characters. Even though the spine of the story is a relatively simple quest mission, the plot and characters give it a level of complexity and – perhaps most importantly – our protagonist Gracie is on a journey not to just to collect a bounty, but to collect something of herself. In short she is changed by the story, as all good protagonists should be. So a well told and accomplished story.
This was just such a great book. The characters were fun, the plot was interesting, and the prose and worldbuilding were excellent. Luckily for me, it’s the first in a series, and I will definitely be reading more.
This was such an engaging read right from the start. Something with a bite, refreshing and fun. Given that it isn’t a very long book, it was well thought out and entertaining. I liked the setting and the characters as well as many of the side characters. Plenty of shocking moments make the heart race and skip a beat in this page turner. My imagination was well fed and satisfied by the end. A powerful nugget in between for fantasy fans.
This was a quick read with a fun, entertaining, and unique world. The characters were also engaging. Unfortunately, I was constantly thrown out of the story due to the present tense narrative. I think I would have enjoyed the story a lot more if not for that. If you’re one who doesn’t mind present tense narrative, this is definitely one to add to the TBR.
So – as the judges have explained – Blood Bounty is a good read with many excellent features. While it hasn’t made it to being our finalist, we hope many of you will see enough resonances with your tastes and interests to add it to your TBR list.