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Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off #5: The First Five to Fall

Apple on a book by Þórdís Björnsdóttir (detail)

A bit late, but I’ll put that down to careful reading, many discussions amongst the judges, alongside a desire to get it right: Fantasy-Faction’s First Five to Fall. (Say that five times as quick as you can and read the disclaimer!)

* Disclaimer *

Writing and reading are subjective arts. What some folks will absolutely love, others will dislike. It is a bit like Marmite in the UK—normal people dislike it intensely, but some weird folks actually enjoy the taste of warm road surface with fresh roadkill upon their tongue. To each their own, I suppose.

Anyway, in this competition, we at Fantasy-Faction are reading 30 books in no particular order and ‘rejecting’ them in similar fashion. And, to be clear, we are reading like agents. We read the first three chapters or ten thousand words (give or take), using the Amazon Sample, whenever possible. Our judges record their comments and we base our decisions to keep or, sadly, reject based on that alone.

If a book you love goes out in this the first of our five to fall it does not mean the next twenty or so are better. It’s just that they were read afterwards. The eventual finalist will be the book we thought was most engaging, well-written, exciting, of our 30 books. There can be only one!

If you have no idea what we’re talking about. You can learn more about the SPFBO here.

Full Dive by T. M. Rain

Full Dive (cover)In the virtual city of Atlantis, anything is possible. Floating islands dot the sky, portals provide instant travel, and people are free to be whatever they’d like—from a supermodel to a three-legged cat in a space suit. But for Wil, a failing dance club designer, Atlantis isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Desperate for cash and an escape from routine, he volunteers to test the next hot thing: a fully immersive simulation video game.

But what’s with the health disclaimers and liability waivers? And why is the sim so painful?

Something is wrong.

From a monster-infested forest to the seedy back alleys of Atlantis, Wil is suddenly swept up in a conflict that could determine the future of virtual reality. Lives are at stake. The corporation behind the sim is in denial. And as Wil races to discover the truth of what’s happening, he’s finally forced to come to terms with the virtual world he’s always hated.

Full Dive is a science fiction adventure of the near future.

Did you read the blurb? Especially that last line? The Self-Published FANTASY Blog-Off can sometimes lead to us reading some crossover novels, and those that push the boundaries of fantasy. More than that, sometimes those are the best ones, the most original, the most successful. Self-publishing is about taking risks, being different, and then hoping people like it enough to recommend to others.

So, Full Dive is a novel set in a VR world, and we read it, expecting there to be magic, monsters, the occasional dragon or two, maybe a LitRPG vibe. There isn’t. And for that reason alone, the fact that it is sci-fi and not fantasy, we have to let it go.

Having said that, if you are a fan of Ready Player One-esque books that play with concepts and tropes of a VR universe and its intersections with reality, it may well be the book for you. The beginning is engaging enough, and the prose is solid, if simple, as is the plot—give me a simple story I can follow, an adventure and I’m generally happy. The ending is somewhat anticlimactic given the buildup.

If it is your cup of local beverage, you can certainly give it a go. It just isn’t fantasy.

A Bagful of Dragon by Sakina Murdock

A Bag Full of Dragon (cover)Inayat isn’t a witch. She’s a not-quite-ordinary twenty-something, screwing up her life one failed date at a time. But when she dumps the wrong magician, Inayat finds herself in a bubbling cauldron of paranoid fear.

The arrival of an unusual bag of jewellery heralds an alarming increase in frightening events, dragging Inayat and her friends into the magical web spun by her adversary. He wants something Inayat has and he’s prepared to take her spirit if she resists.

Inayat has only dabbled in magic before, but now she must learn fast or lose for all eternity. She’s got plenty of fight in her, but is it enough, or will she succumb to the hatred of a man who just can’t lose?

Well now, a book title that mentions dragons. We could be on the right track! Also, that title screams YA to me, but the cover doesn’t and the book inside isn’t YA either. Which is a little confusing, so be warned, readers might need to be a little older to spot some of the traps and pitfalls this book possesses on their journey through it.

Our judges tried to get into this book, some falling at the first chapter, but others soldiering on. For one, the single sentence chapters at the start just prevented any engagement or flow. For another the characters were too shallow and lacked the depth they sought. A few mentioned the sexual assault/rape the character experiences and how that is dealt with, while some were troubled by the stereotypical manner in which it reinforced the idea (in the book) that women encourage men in these situations. You can see it troubled a few of us.

However, there are appeals to the book. It falls squarely in the urban fantasy category, with a hint of ‘chick lit.’ There are also some experiments with style and point of view which some might find different enough to interest them.

Keys of the Origin by Melissa A. Joy

Keys of the Origin (cover)In a world where ancient races still dwell, the events of an age-old prophecy begin to stir. From the pages of an antique tome, there is much the ancients themselves have yet to learn. The time has come for the Keys of the Origin to play their part in restoring balance to Aeldynn; but how will their choices affect the outcome?

Two young men: one a righteous law-abiding servant to the people, the other a distinguished outlaw, don’t yet realise they are to play a part in a foretold bid for the future of Aeldynn. Fate leads them down a road they would never have dreamed of following; a road that leads them into a struggle to bring the world back into a state of balance from the precipice of madness and desolation. 

It is not only Zehn and Larkh who are fated to take on the malevolent forces of Aeldynn; there are others who must join with them as they are coaxed into the embrace of the ancient Nays and the fabled Drahknyr, who are also entangled in the masterful puppeteering of a renegade sorceress hell bent on reviving the greatest threat of all.

The map at the start of this book promises a deep world in which to lose yourself. Books that can meet that promise can be hard to find, relying on a combination of characters, world, plot, subtext and a million other little hard to define aspects which just click with you, the reader. For us, sadly, this book did not click.

Why? Each judge has a slightly different reason. I am (slightly) infamous for my pathological dislike of infodumps and after the prologue that’s exactly what chapter one was for me. I am aware there are readers out there who don’t share that view, and that is absolutely their choice. One judge mentioned that this part felt a little like a reasonable attempt at a Silmarillion type exposition and style.

The prologue itself, which is quite long, as one judge pointed out, contains a lot of names and there seems to be a self-congratulatory tone in their dialogue and actions. As the story gets started there was, for us, a fair degree of head-hopping, though it could have been an attempt at omniscient narration, which is very difficult to pull off well, and this clouded the characters and their motives. This made it hard to identify with the characters and the world they inhabit, and despite the clear potential it just did not work for us. Which is the nature of this competition and agents (secret or literary)—it has to click in the first few pages for us to want to read on.

Song of Thunder by Gareth Lewis

Song of Thunder (cover)Part of a war that’s spanned history, the goblin scout Tuarth serves the Dark One as part of a small squad, whether he wants to or not. With no real home, or family but the squad, all he can do is keep his head down and try to survive. Any kind of life outside war only a distant dream.

After kidnapping a human princess, the squad have both sides chasing them, and Tuarth’s dreams may soon be crushed.

Don’t look at the cover. Turn away. What? Too late? Sigh. Well, the cover does not convey the actual story or give us much of a hint what might be coming our way—to me it says Nativity (the fault of Sunday School when I was younger—I’ve grown, I’ve changed, but we can’t always escape our upbringing).

Anyway, Song of Thunder is about orcs. Now you see what I mean. It is told from the perspective of the orcs, as if, according to one judge, LOTR never ended. That is a little more intriguing and I like the idea of following the “monsters” around on an adventure. It has the potential to go tragic or ramp up into comedy, to build empathy and to develop a different understanding of the world.

Sadly, the prose and story do not deliver on either of those aims. Told in the first person, which can be truly engaging, or truly off-putting depending on your personal tastes, the book opens with an infodump (see above for my views on those). The joy of first-person is the immediacy of experience, you are there, right in the action, every moment, sharing their thoughts, and you learn as they do. However, Song of Thunder begins by telling you everything that has happened in reflections, memories, and past tenses.

We wanted to be hooked, to be drawn along with the character, and sadly we were not. The prose itself does need some work to avoid all the “telling” and repetitive sentence starters, and to get the hook set deeply into the reader’s mind.

There is a promise here that just doesn’t deliver as much as we wanted.

The Fairy Wren by Ashley Capes

The Fairy Wren (cover)From the moment a fairy wren drops his lost wedding ring at his feet, Paul realises there’s more magic to the world than he thought.

When Paul Fischer receives a strange phone call asking for help, from a woman who might be his estranged wife Rachel, he’s drawn into a mysterious search that threatens not only his struggling bookstore, but long-buried dreams too.

Unfortunately, the only help comes from a shady best friend, an Italian run away and a strange blue fairy wren that seems to be trying to tell him something. Yet the further he follows the clues it leaves, the less sense the world seems to make. Is he on the verge of a magical, beautiful discovery or at a point of total disaster?

There is a certain charm to magical realism, and this book seems to be fit that definition rather than out and out fantasy.

Set today in our world, there is a lot of mystery to be found in the pages and as you follow the main character about his daily life, with his worries, concerns and regrets, you can be easily subsumed into a ‘slice of life’ novel. Round about halfway into this short book, you might then realise that none of the mysteries have really opened up, nothing has been solved or even begun to be, and our protagonist is still soul-searching and doing little.

This type of book, the slow-burn, slice of life, might really appeal to some readers. We, the judges here, wanted something to happen, some hook to catch us and draw us into the world, some excitement, some hint of the conflict early on. It didn’t come.

The prose is engaging, the slice of life (keep using that term) is pleasant, but it just wasn’t for us.

– – –

So, there it is. Fantasy-Faction’s first Five to Fall post of the 2019 SPFBO. Again, it is important to note that these are just the judges’ opinions on the samples we read. Others may view the books differently. That’s what makes writing and reading so much fun (and so infuriating). Keep an eye out for the next Five to Fall article.

Our judges are: David Zampa, G R Matthews, Julia Sarene, Jessica Juby, Katrik Narayanan, A M Justice, Lynn Kempner, and Mariëlle Ooms.

If you’d like to learn more about this year’s judges you can read about them here.

Any queries should be directed to me (G R Matthews) via DM (Facebook/Twitter) or my contact form here.

Title image by Þórdís Björnsdóttir.

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4 Comments

  1. Avatar Sabetha says:

    This is my first year hearing about this contest, it is so exciting/terrifying to watch books work their way through the ranks. I haven’t read any of these, I look forward to reading your thoughts on the rest of your list.

  2. Avatar Amanda Harman says:

    From reading what the judge had to say on all books I’m so disheartened.

    I have read keys a few times each time I got excited for the next part.

    The prologue is two pages long most are between six and twenty.
    Not once did the author mention herself in the book or characters one of them yes sounds very much “self confusions” he’s a pirate it’s how he is go figure.

    I’m an avid fantasy reader and to be honest I rather this over lord of the rings anyday. I find the characters in keys so much more thought out and interesting.

    I’d love to know what book he was reading because I don’t think it was this.

    • Avatar Eliana says:

      I am as confused by the review of Keys of the Origin as you are. After seeing Keys being mentioned in a FB group, I read the Amazon sample and knew I had to have it; I devoured it. The prologue was only 2 and a half pages long, not extensive by any stretch of the imagination; and exactly how does a prologue sound self-congratulatory?
      And it is written in semi-omniscient third-person POV, so one gets a glimpse of several characters’ perspectives. That is not head-hopping.
      I dislike info-dumps as well but chapter one was not that, it was an introduction to two of the main characters and an engaging action sequence.
      And what about the astounding world-building, mythology, and moral struggles? How can anyone judge a book by just one chapter? I read a minimum of 6 to have a taste of the characters and plot.
      This so-called review leaves me with so many questions.

  3. Avatar G R Matthews says:

    6 judges read Keys of Origin, and the review is an amalgam of all their views; 3 male, 3 female. Thank you for your comments, it is always interesting to see how different people react to different books.

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