Leather and Lace by Magen Cubed

Leather and Lace

New Release Review

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Daughter


First, Become Ashes by K.M. Szpara

First, Become Ashes

ARC Review


Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off #3: The Fifth Five Fall

SPFBO #3 (banner)

The Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off officially began on July 1st! In case you missed it, here’s what Fantasy-Faction has posted so far.

Our Announcement
Introducing Round One
Cover Contest Winners
First Five Fall
Second Five Fall
Third Five Fall
Fourth Five Fall

And of course, you can keep track of everything relating to round one on the SPFBO page on Mark Lawrence’s blog.

The finish line is in sight, but sadly not for these five worthy books who just didn’t make it. Though many of these held our judges’ attention long enough not to fall earlier, none of them quite impressed enough to be considered for our one final spot. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth reading. Any one of these could be your new favourite book.

21. Zeroth Law by Guerric Haché

Zeroth Law (Cover)Autonomous machines polish the bones of a civilization slowly being swallowed by wilderness. Creatures not born of Earth inhabit the remote corners of the world. Humans live with legacies they don’t understand – old ruins, strange technological artifacts, incredible powers in their blood. There are other worlds alongside this one, and death is not what it once was.

Isavel is ripped from a simple life into the heat of a conflict she doesn’t understand, and saddled with powers and expectations she doesn’t know how to handle. Lost in a storm, she hopes that by following the will of her gods, she might find purpose – and ultimately, peace.

Ada took her own peaceful life and threw it out the window. Outcast for heresy against the scholarly dogma of her people, she decides the world needs to change, and she thinks she’s the one to do it. To her surprise, she happens to be living at a time of more wondrous and terrible change than she can imagine.

These two young women must navigate a world that is barely holding together, each only slowly becoming aware of the other’s existence and power. Each of them will have the chance to light a fire to change the world – but first, they must become the people they will need to be.

An interesting post-apocalyptic adventure, but a bit too sci-fi for our tastes. The two parallel protagonists were well-handled, though we are thrust into the story without much time to establish their backgrounds or motivations (in fairness, these are subsequently addressed to some extent). It’s fast-paced, full of interesting concepts (perhaps too full at times), and the finale is thrilling while also setting up for further adventures. Well worth a look if you like genre-blending action, though there are a few rough edges to file down.

22. The Hawk and His Boy by Christopher Bunn

The Hawk and His Boy (cover)Murderous assassins. A wizard with way too much power. You can run, but you can’t hide…not from the Dark.

Jute was just a poor, street-wise thief, until he stole an ancient knife full of magic. After getting himself murdered, he’s brought back to life. Sounds like a good thing, except everyone wants him dead now. Really dead.

With the country under attack, Jute must band together with an unlikely bunch of allies to save their city, the land and…pretty much the entire world.

The Hawk and His Boy is the first book in an epic fantasy series of exhilarating adventure, fantastic magic and even some romance.

Nice book, no ending. This is a book that caught our eyes from the start, and there’s a good chance if we were reviewing the whole series (as one book) this might have been a winner. However, after a strong start setting up some intriguing characters and conflict, it just peters out into nothing. No climax, no conclusion. Putting a part-book out there to draw readers in may be a self-publishing strategy, but even free it can leave the reader feeling short-changed, and it just doesn’t work for this competition, unfortunately.

23. The Zero Blessing by Christopher G. Nuttall

The Zero Blessing (cover)Caitlyn Aguirre should have been a magician. Her family certainly expected her to be a magician. But by the time she reached her twelfth birthday, Caitlyn hadn’t managed to cast even a single spell! In desperation, her parents send her – and her magical sisters – to Jude’s Sorcerous Academy, her last best chance to discover her powers.

But as she struggles to survive her classes without a single spell to her name, Caitlyn starts to uncover an ancient mystery that may prove the key to her true powers …

… If she lives long enough to find it.

A middle grade/YA tale that seems to borrow from Harry Potter and other such wizard school tales, this was always going to struggle in this competition. However, it proved well-written and enjoyable for those that could get past the similarities to other well-known books. For some, the privileged first-person narrator struggled to elicit much empathy, while others admired her for standing up for herself and her friends despite her titular lack of magic. There’s no bigger plot here, no Big Bad or world to save, but fans of school stories should definitely give it a look.

24. Shattered Dreams by Ulff Lehmann

Shattered Dreams (cover)Friedrich Nietzsche said that if one looks too long into the abyss, the abyss looks back. Drangar Ralgon has been avoiding the abyss’s gaze for far too long and now turns to face it.

Shattered Dreams is told from multiple viewpoints, with each individual tale eventually intersecting with the others, forming a tapestry. In a land finally at peace, war, like a weaver, pushes lives of warriors every which way until their paths become patterns. There are no shining heroes, no damsels who cannot save themselves, only people trying their damndest to make sense of the chaos they call their lives.

This book retells the first steps as they figure out their roles in the gigantic tapestry the gods have laid out for them. In a world where actions do have consequences, and mistakes are paid for in blood and pain, the lives of a few can make a difference.

This one was not bad by any means, but suffered from inconsistency and didn’t quite develop into a cohesive story. The opening chapters bounced around so much that every time we started to get into the story we were thrown back out again, and strong beginnings are vital in this competition. The prose could be evocative but was a bit rough around the edges – for example, the initial prologue is a mixture of the poetic, the profound, and the purple. There was too much exposition/infodumping for our liking. And some of the imagery was far too evocative (no, we aren’t going to explain). Still, there were plenty of solid dark fantasy elements and an intriguing main character. It may reward a more persistent reader. (In fact, this book has been picked up for publication by Crossroad Press, so look for a re-release in the near future!)

25. The Dragon Hunter and the Mage by V. R. Cardoso

The Dragon Hunter and the Mage (cover)Magic can make you invincible, if it doesn’t get you killed first.

Aric and Fadan are half-brothers. Both sons of the Empress, but only one of them the son of the Emperor. A decade ago, Fadan’s powerful father tore the Empire in two by outlawing the use and practice of magic. Forbidden from seeing each other, Aric and Fadan defy the Emperor and wander the vast Imperial Citadel until one night, they stumble upon an ancient Manual of Magic.

They are faced with a choice: take the book straight to the Emperor or see if one of them has the forbidden magical Talent. Their world is turned upside down and the half-brothers find themselves swept away as tragedy and conspiracy separate them, sending each to either end of the Empire. In a world of dark mages, massive creatures, and vengeful gods, one will train as a Dragon Hunter while the other taps into magical powers that could spell his execution.

Dark forces are moving in the shadows and no one in the Empire is ready for what’s to come. Will Aric and Fadan survive to ever see each other again?

A classic adventure, but a bit YA in both the simplicity of the writing, the ease at which certain situations were resolved, and the appearance of common tropes. This made it quite predictable, though it was fast and fun and full of action. In some places we found the spelling and grammar distracting, and there was some inconsistency in tone between the chapters dealing with the young protagonists, and those from the POV of the adults around them. This is understandable to some degree, but a book needs to decide what audience it is going for. Fans of classic fantasy will find a lot to enjoy here, especially once the adventure takes off outside the city.

– – –

Judge’s Note: We have been really impressed with the efforts of those writers who didn’t have the advantage of English as their first language, yet have produced books of such fluent standard that we couldn’t really tell. Sure, there were some grammatical inconsistencies, but that’s par for the SPFBO course; we’re happy to say that any such minor issues didn’t get in our way of enjoying the stories, and weren’t critical in seeing them fall out of the competition.

Only five books remain. But which of the following five will be our finalist?

Clearwater Dawn (cover)
Chaos Trims My Beard (cover)
The Tale of Gurion Thricebound (cover)
Stolen Magic (cover)
Wings of Justice (cover)

– –
Alexia Purdy, Ever Shade
Angela Holder, The Tale of Gurion Thricebound
A. R. Winterstaar, The Child Revealed
Bill Hiatt, Living with Your Past Selves
Brandon Barr, Ella Dethroned
Brett Herman, Chaos Trims My Beard
Brian D. Anderson & Steven Savile, Akiri: The Scepter of Xarbaal
C.D. Gallant-King, Ten Thousand Days
Charlotte E. English, Draykon
Christopher Bunn, The Hawk and His Boy
Christopher G. Nuttall, The Zero Blessing
Frances Smith, Spirit of the Sword: Pride and Fury
Ginny O, The Dawn Warrior
Guerric Hache, Zeroth Law
Gus Campbell, Pagan Heart
Jade Kerrion, Illusions
Joseph J. Bailey, Spellslinger
Kristal Shaff, Life Charmer
K.S. Villoso, Jaeth’s Eye
Meghan Richardson & Tina Verduzco, Storm and the Mermaid’s Knot
Marina Finlayson, Stolen Magic
Melissa Snark, Valkyrie’s Vengeance
Michael-Scott Earle, Wings of Justice
Nigel Bird, Drawn In
Richard Parry, Night’s Favour
Ryan Mueller, Empire of Chains
Scott Fitzgerald Gray, Clearwater Dawn
Terri Bruce, Hereafter
Ulff Lehmann, Shattered Dreams
V.R. Cardoso, The Dragon Hunter and the Mage


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