Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off #2: The Next Five
It has been a little while since our last update, but the pace should pick up a little now. As of 24th July, every book we were given has had its first three to five chapters read by two, some by four, of our team. We have, at the very moment I am typing this, a Top 14 – really a top 5 (we have lots of books tying for places). To that end, we’ve recruited another of our team to read these and try to break the dead-lock.
The quality of story has been really high and it is making the decision even harder. Please remember, a lot of this comes down to personal preference and tastes, especially when we get down to the final few – the margins will be small.
However, sadly, there are some that we liked but didn’t think were quite as (subjectively) “good” as the eventual winner.
Ranger Rising by Salvador Mercer
A thousand years ago, on the world of Claire-Agon, a war raged between men and dragons, destroying the creatures and the land’s many civilizations.
When his family is enslaved, Targon Terrel must battle the sinister Kesh wizards to save them, but a desperate group of refugees from his home country of Ulatha needs his help, too.
With the unexpected aid of a Druid of the Arnen, Targon discovers his destiny as a Ranger, but far from solving his problems, this discovery will soon reveal a personal betrayal. Targon’s fate brings him closer to long-buried truths about the ancient war between wizards and dragons — truths that could plunge his world into darkness forever.
Rangers are my cup of tea. I like the idea of creeping through the wilds, living off my wits and the land (and if I did it for real I would starve to death in a day, or fall down a hole, or over a cliff…or meet some such idiotic end) so the cover and title were winners. It is an action packed start, mortal peril and chase through the woods. Just the sort of excitement you want in an opening chapter. The next chapters couldn’t quite keep up that pace and there was, for us, too much description and information being given which slowed it all down.
Award: Best Chase Scene
Seascape by Benita J. Prins
All that fifteen-year-old Einur Landman has left in the world are his flock of sheep and his beloved little sister. The entire purpose of his life is to keep Lody safe from the Illyrië. But what he never expected was that it would be his own name that was drawn for the child sacrifice.
Leaving Lody with his promise to return, Einur escapes into the wild where he meets a stranger who outlines a way to bring down the Illyrië. Forced to choose between Lody’s probable death and taking on the powerful Illyrië, Einur takes the latter.
In his quest from his mountain village, through countless dangers, to the sea itself, everything Einur believes will be tested. For Lody’s sake, can he make a final crucial choice and stand firm to the end?
The book begins with the safe, comfortable relationship between a boy and his dragon. The writing hints strongly that this is bond is strong, that Einur loves his pet dragon. It creates a tone of warmth and love. However, things soon go wrong for Einur, his name is drawn and he is to be sacrificed to appease a god. Instead of complying, he flees on the back of his beloved pet. But then he meets a mysterious stranger who tells him he is to go on a quest to find a lost tribe and bring down the religion he fled from. He is also told to kill his dragon as the first step in this quest, which he does. Just like that. And I can’t work out why.
Award: Best Human/Pet Relationship
Fear’s Union by James Hockley
Ahan is a country beset by enemies, and all are drawn to war. Even the youngest daughter of the ruling family has her place in conflict; but then Anejo would have it no other way. Desperate for equal measures adventure and anonymity, she is woefully bad at balancing the two. Where she treads, trouble follows, and so therefore does the attention of the world. But she cannot hide forever.
Then there is Xen, who is dragged to war by virtue of her friendship with Anejo – but she is no warrior. A reluctant follower of the sword, she only treads the dangerous path to maintain an illicit affair with her commanding officer. Is it love? She hopes so. And love is worth fighting for, maybe even dying for, but only if it’s not an illusion. But how can she tell?
And Aran – the third of the friends – has his own problems to deal with. He is rotting from the inside, and hiding this fact only gets harder with time. He is the coward soldier, and yet the rot gives him strength. If only he could control it, he may even have confidence. But to yield is to fail, and failure has a price undefined. Only the certain path is open.
As unparalleled conflict comes to Ahan, the three friends are set upon the path to war; but little do they know what the gods have in store for them. Their ways are twisted, and their lives will part, but fate draws them inevitably together once more. They are the children of destiny, but only one can be true. Only one can unite the world against what is approaching.
For dusk is coming, and the individual will need to be forgotten. Only the collective can hope to survive the Age of Ku.
There is a prologue that introduces the book and might give some history. However, it truly begins in Chapter One where the quality of the writing and story really take off and you get a sense of the real potential in this book. The author has thought about their world and there is a strong feeling of the Far East, from the character’s names to the Katana being drawn – almost a mix of China and Japan, but not in our world. This should be right up my street. Each chapter seems to follow the pattern of one character (Anejo) point of view, and then another’s (Keles), with an occasional bit of head-jumping; nothing that gets in the way of the story.
This was a hard book to pass on. However, with the quality of competition this year it was down to fine margins and while we recognise the potential of this book, there were others we felt were just a little more to our collective tastes. I don’t think folks picking this one up will meet with any disappointment.
Award: Most Detailed Blurb and Katana of Potential +4
When They Shine Brightest by Yordan Evgeniev
A character-driven fantasy novel, exploring the theme of loss and how we try to deal with it even when there is no way to do so.
Korsak Dryshore, a middle-aged war veteran, is being held directly responsible for the invasion of his home town of Seten. Everyone in Seten, including his family, blames him for losing the last ditch defence against the aggressors. Utterly defeated, and mourning the loss of his eldest son in the conflict, he has spent the last months following the battle away from home. Upon his return, he has to confront the animosity of the populace, made even worse by his bringing a heathen girl back with him.
Beaten, downcast and in despair, he is resigned to merely spending the remainder of his days in meek quietude. That would prove impossible, however, as he’s soon implicated in an escalating political and religious conflict within the city. To make matters worse, his youngest son and the foreign girl are dragged deep into the whirlwind of the crisis. And in the meantime, They are about to set over Seten.
The Macana is a South American weapon where obsidian blades are sunk into a wooden staff. Obsidian can produce the sharpest of all edges, so this is a weapon to be feared. And there are swords too…which caused me to pause a moment and re-evaluate. I’d thought this might be set in South America and that was exciting; a new world of fantasy to explore. Anyway, the beginning is set during a battle with a wounded man dragging himself and his son to safety. It all makes for an interesting start.
There is a lot of description in the beginning of this book and a lot of similes. It harkens back (or forward) to a style of writing you don’t see too often. The “Point of View” was, to our collective taste, a little distant and it robbed some of the scenes of their emotional content. Now, this is just a personal taste issue, not a complaint, but it does mean, sadly, we couldn’t put it forward. It reminds me, a little, of the style of Grace of Kings (which has to be a compliment!) where the ‘epicness’ (I made that word up) of the story overwhelms the characters.
Award: Best ‘New’ Weapon In A Fantasy Book
Snapdragon: My Enemy by Brandon Berntson
A stranger arrives in Ellishome, Colorado astride a black horse. His face is that of death, but he is no bogeyman. He is a purveyor of lost souls, and he has come to Ellishome to claim the lives of men, women, and children.
Seth Auburn, an innocent boy, is deeply affected by the horrors plaguing his small town. When Ben, a magical tiger appears in the meadow beyond his backyard, the stranger is suddenly all too real, and Ben needs Seth’s help.
Assembling a band of newfound friends, Seth and his companions travel to a mysterious palace high in the mountains above Ellishome. Only there can they find a way to destroy the demon forever, because if Seth fails it will mean the end – not only of the town and people he loves – but of countless worlds altogether.
There is a charm to the depiction of small town American life that this book starts with. Children are playing baseball and the sibling friendship is written well. Chapter two introduces Seth, the character mentioned in the blurb above, who is wandering through a meadow when he has a strange experience, the meeting of a magical beast. What this book does well, in the section we read, is the child’s point of view. There is enough in there, clues, dreams and thoughts, to really picture the child running through the meadow, pretending to be Wolverine.
Again, this is one of those books that could have made the cut, but against the competition this year it just falls short. The prologue is a vague and confusing, but once the book gets going the charming points of view take over so when the demons arrive there is a real sense of fear. One of our readers said this, “Stephen King-ish juxtaposition of mysterious evil force with small-town American life.” Not a bad tag line.
Award: Best Child’s Point Of View