The Girl and the Mountain by Mark Lawrence

The Girl and the Mountain

New Release Review

Leather and Lace by Magen Cubed

Leather and Lace

New Release Review

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Daughter



6th Annual Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off: An Introduction to the SPFBO

Magic Book in the Dark by Josh Hild (detail)

Fantasy-Faction has been part of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO)—a fantasy fiction competition sponsored by Mark Lawrence—from the beginning, and as the sixth round of the competition kicks off, we’re itching to get our hands on the next batch of contenders. The submissions seem to get stronger every year, and we can’t wait to see what lies in store for us.

The Rules

The 2020 competition opens on Saturday, May 23, and all self-published authors may submit books that meet the following criteria:

  • It must be fantasy.
  • It must be a novel of at least 40,000 words (no short stories or story collections/anthologies).
  • It must be the first book in a series or a stand-alone.
  • It must be self-published by June 1, 2020.

The following rules also apply:

  • No book that was entered in a previous SPFBO can be reentered.
  • Authors may enter only one book per year.
  • The book file must be uploaded via the online form when you apply to enter the contest. You will not be allowed to update or change the file later.
  • Authors may not contact the blog to which they’ve been assigned.
  • The competition is free (no entry fee!).

Full information and the link to the submission site is available on Mark Lawrence’s blog.

The Judges

This year we’re thrilled to be joined by Alicia Wanstall-Burke, author of the Fantasy-Faction SPFBO5 finalist, Blood of Heirs. We’re also sad to say goodbye to G. R. Matthews, who has led the judges’ team for the past five SPFBOs (although G. R. sometimes pokes his head into the judges’ room, filches a few snacks, and imparts sage advice). The rest of us are a rangy group of veterans and newcomers, as you’ll read in the bios at the end of this post. First though, we wanted to share our fantasy likes and dislikes and what we like to do when we’re not reading. (Responses are in alphabetical order, because some of us are compulsive that way.)

What’s the easy sell for you, i.e., your favorite fantasy subgenre?

A. M. Justice: I love anything that’s good, i.e., compelling prose, a well-crafted story, and fully fleshed out characters are what matters to me. That said, the sweetest of sweet spots are the cross-genre tales that explore life’s gray areas. Give me a character-driven historical fantasy or science fantasy with a moral dilemma, and I’m a happy gal. Bonus points for thought-provoking!

Alicia Wanstall-Burke: At the risk of being super cliché, I have a massive crush on the subgenre I write in: dark, epic fantasy. If it’s too squeaky clean, and the protagonists are a bit too good, I get bored. I want shadows and grey bits in the characters, decisions that make them question themselves, and characters who make mistakes.

Amanda Cenker: Dark, YA, urban, high fantasy, humorous, deep characters, light romps, erotic, epic…I like almost all of it. I like detailed worldbuilding, food, social customs, magic structure, politics, landscape. Take me to another world and I am yours.

Julia Kitvaria Sarene: Everything! More seriously though, I actually like all subgenres. I’m as happy to read epic as I am to read urban fantasy. I like fluffy fun stuff, and I like grimdark. I enjoy YA and am just as fine with complex worlds.

Kartik Narayanan: I generally am agnostic to genres and subgenres. Like most long-time readers, I prefer well-crafted stories and excellent characters. But if you held a wand to my head, I would choose epic fantasy—ones with complex magic systems, lots of action, intricate storylines, and a huge world.

Kerry Smith: I enjoy grimdark and protagonists who dwell in the underbelly of the cities, novels that mix crime and fantasy, strong female protagonists, and novels where the “hero” is someone who is “other”: e.g., ogres, necromancers, dwarves etc.

Lynn Kempner: I have become more and more open to fantasy in all its subgenres. I just want a great story, and the more unique the premise, the better. Even tropes that are skillfully twisted, with a more unique plot will draw me in if there are great characters who intrigue me. I prefer books that stay with me long after I’ve finished for any of the reasons listed above. I have slightly darker tastes and I’m rarely shocked by graphic violence or adult situations and language.

Mariëlle Ooms-Voges: Let me start by saying that real life really has a really big voice in what I’m in the mood for! Overall, I like to be challenged and surprised by a book and its characters. I like books that are different and original, and I tend to enjoy books more if they are dark-ish with flawed characters. But, I must be able to root for the main character! If I don’t like any of the main characters, I can’t be bothered to finish the book.

What is the hard sell for you, i.e., your least favorite fantasy subgenre, trope, or other misstep?

A. M.: Two-dimensional characters, stereotypes, and characters who do stupid things are big turn-offs. (A character who makes mistakes is a good thing; a character who makes plot-convenient dumb choices—few things make me hate a book more.) I’ll also get mad (yep, outright angry) if a tale is too predictable or if the twists come out of left field without being properly set up. Any poorly edited book isn’t going to be well received by me either.

Alicia: Romantic YA urban fantasy—[vomit]. I’ll take romantic fantasy, I’ll take YA and urban fantasy, but not mixed in together. It would be like eating fish fingers and custard.

Amanda: Horror. Violence and suspense are fine, but I do not need grotesque gore to be the central theme of a story. Whining, ineffectual characters. I blame Pip from Great Expectations for this aversion. That book was looong and not once did Pip man up and just talk things out instead of assuming everything.

Julia: Anything with a heavy focus on romance. Especially the whining and pining sort. I am okay with a fun whimsical one like in Gail Carriger’s books, or a matter of fact romance like the one in Godblind or Fortune’s Fool, but I hate indecisive love interests.

Kartik: I dislike any book that is manufactured to appeal to its base and lacks soul. The typical offenders are usually ones from YA—many of them are full of tropes. But like my fellow judges, I don’t really dig romance, sex, or gore for the sake of titillation of any sort.

Kerry: I dislike erotic fantasy, especially reverse harems and unnecessary use of sex and rape as a means of empowerment.

Lynn: I can handle romance and sex in fantasy, but only if it is secondary to the main plot and not contrived. It must serve a purpose. I really do not like characters without depth and poor dialogue. If there’s a bit of gallows humor, all the better. If you shred my heart and make me laugh, then you’ve won me over.

Mariëlle: I don’t like books that are too easy, if I can see the plot twists coming from miles away, or if there’s too much romance. I don’t mind romance—I love a good love story—but if it’s all about the kissing and the love and the missing and the dreaming, I’m out! Especially if sensible, strong women turn into lovesick adolescents… *sigh*

What’s your favorite pastime when you’re not reading?

A. M.: My favorite thing in the world is to shrug into a 50 lb. scuba tank and jump into the ocean, but when I’m not doing that (which is 99% of the time), I’m a total couch potato and have probably watched far more television than a human should!

Alicia: Eating popcorn, binge-watching shows, archery, and editing my fiancé’s books until he cries.

Amanda: Video games (FPS, MMO, casual, etc.) Crafting with clay and cross-stitching while binge-watching. Boardgames and napping, but not at the same time.

Julia: Like with favorite genres, there are many and I like to flit between them! I love running and hiking. Knitting geeky stuff. Archery. I have just started to take “bookish” photos, and I love collecting books and medieval(ish) stuff and going to fairs or reenactments. I have occasional bouts of excessive video gaming, and then not playing for months… Many hobbies means I am at best mediocre at them all, but they make me happy anyway!

Kartik: I love playing with my kids and binge watching with my wife. At other times, when I am not reading, I like creating something new: drawing digital art, 3D modelling, developing games, etc.—I usually try out something new every year.

Lynn: Gardening. I insist on trying beat the wilds into submission and a sense of order. I’ve been known to rip out offensive shrubs, no matter the size, and set fire to them. I love being outdoors. Going to the beach and reading all day are always my favorite ways to decompress. Oh, and whiskey!

Mariëlle:Boardgames!!!! I love boardgames… I love to play them, and I love to win! 😉 I could play every week, but I have awful friends who think once a month is enough.

Our Process

First and foremost, we work as a team. We also follow the practice established with the first SPFBO and approach our batch of 30 books the way agents approach their slush pile. We don’t even try to read every book in full; instead we read the beginning (roughly equivalent to the Amazon Look Inside) and decide whether it captures our interest enough to keep going.

[Authors take note: The opening of your book must be polished and compelling, or it will be eliminated.]

Final scores reflect an average from all the judges who read a particular book. Not all judges are required to read every book, but the majority of judges must rate a book before we make a decision about whether it will be eliminated.

If you’ve been a follower of SPFBO on this blog, you’re used to seeing “Five to Fall” posts every autumn. These are the posts where we give a mini-review of each of the five books we’ve decided to eliminate from the competition. Since we ultimately must choose only one out of 30 books as the finalist, the Five to Fall lists will include books we rejected quickly after reading just the first few pages (see above) as well as others that some or most judges read all the way through.

There’s no particular meaning to the order in which the Five to Fall are announced, although generally the books we eliminate early are those we dismissed based on the opening pages alone, and those tend to have the lowest scores.

In prior years, Fantasy-Faction didn’t choose semi-finalists. However, last year there were two novels we liked enough to name them as our second and third place titles, and we gave these books full reviews as well as de facto semi-finalist status. This year, we plan to continue this practice, and our goal is to select four semi-finalists to be crowned alongside with our finalist. However, based on the quality of the books in our batch, we reserve the right to name fewer semi-finalists if necessary.

Judges’ Bios

A. M. Justice: A. M. Justice is an award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy, a freelance science writer, amateur astronomer, scuba diver, and once and future tango dancer, who regularly shares her opinions of books, films, and television on the Fantasy-Faction site. SPFBO5 was her first outing as a judge, but she entered a book in SPFBO4 and so knows the agony and the ecstasy of the competition from both sides. You can follow her on Twitter @amjusticewrites.

Alicia Wanstall-Burke: Splitting her time between Central Queensland, Australia, and Lancashire, England, Alicia is a writer, a mum, and a cat-herder. There are rumors she may in fact be a quokka in disguise, but these are not to be believed. As a fan of self-imposed cruel and unusual punishment, after finishing in the top 3 of SPFBO5, she accepted the invitation to judge SPFBO6 alongside writing the third book in The Coraidic Sagas and editing for clients. She lurks on Twitter @AliciaWanstallB.

Amanda Cenker: Amanda is a wife, a mom, and a bibliophile since grade 4 when she ditched teen books and read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Pursing an English degree through grad school, she disappears into books, especially fantasy and sci-fi.

Julia Kitvaria Sarene: Julia is a seasoned beta reader, as well as a long-term moderator of Fantasy-Faction’s 15,000-strong Facebook group. When she isn’t working, running, hiking, or harassing other people’s dogs for some cuddles, the audiobook-loving bookseller spends her time building Lego castles, posting fabulous photos of her books on The Fantasy Hive Instagram, and practicing her archery skills on the (made of foam!) animals in Bavarian forests. And, of course, reading. An SPFBO veteran, this is Julia’s fourth outing as a judge. Her opinions are always blunt and honest but fair. You can find her brand new and therefore still a bit bare Instagram account at @juliakitvariasarene.

Kartik Narayanan: Kartik is a husband to a lovely wife and father of two naughty kids. You can see him reading a book or reviewing one, when he is not working or spending time with his family. He also manages to squeeze in time to draw digital art, model using Blender, develop mobile apps, and generally cause trouble. He is currently working on a non-fiction book on management and illustrating a children’s book with his wife. This is his second SPFBO and he is looking forward to discovering new book and authors.

Kerry Smith: Kerry was a voracious reader from a very early age and has always enjoyed the fantasy genre. She’s been a fan of SPFBO for the past three years and feels that becoming a judge is a dream come true.

Lynn Kempner: Lynn, aka Grimmedian, is a blogger in her third year of reading for SPFBO. Lynn was inspired by SPFBO to begin blogging and reviewing, and her website is thus filled with reviews of self-published work. A voracious reader of five decades of SFF and other genres, she pushes hard to find gems in all subgenres and increase the signal for indie SFF and speculative fiction. You can find her at and on Twitter @Grimmedian.

Mariëlle Ooms-Voges: Mariëlle is a devourer of fantasy who enjoys a lot of different subgenres and has a wide variety of taste! In everyday life she is a lover of boardgames, a mum of two, and married to her very own superhero! She is a moderator of the Fantasy-Faction Facebook page, and this is her second time as an SPFBO judge.

– – –

Good luck to all the entrants! We can’t wait to see what books and authors we discover this year!

Title image by Josh Hild.


One Comment

  1. Avatar Peter Blaisdell says:

    Thanks for the information about the Fantasy Faction SPFBO 6 judges and your review process. Not to jump the gun, but when will the call for submissions go out for SPFBO 7 go out? Or do I simply need to watch Mark Lawrence’s blog starting in mid-May?

    It seems like SPFBO 6 ‘sold out’ in just 24 hours, so being ready to submit quickly is clearly critical.

    And best luck with your writing – I haven’t read any of it, but will check it out. Thanks! Peter

Leave a Comment