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Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off #6: The First Five Fall

Book with Sand by Alyssa Strohmann (detail)

* Disclaimer *

As my friend and colleague GR Matthews has written in these introductions many times, reading is a subjective exercise. Some readers will see classical character and narrative arcs, while others perceive a dull landscape of tired tropes. Whether a book thrills or bores depends as much on the reader as the author—check out the reviews of any famous book and you’ll see a plethora of single stars. Every author who tosses their book-baby into the SPFBO pool should remember this and take heart in the knowledge that whether the baby sinks or swims has a lot to do with the pool.

To reflect the range of opinions across the Fantasy-Faction team, the reviews below are constructed of direct quotes from the judges’ comments. Just because a book appears in this or any batch of eliminations from our team doesn’t mean it’s a bad book; it simply means a majority of us didn’t find it strong enough to consider as a finalist (you can find an explanation of our process here). Many readers may find something to love in these books, and we wish the authors well in their creative journeys.

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

A Knight of Cold Graves by Clara Coulson

A Knight of Cold Graves (cover)“Even the strong force of fate can’t blow the coming storm off course.”

Until they were eleven years old, identical twins Saul and Tanner Reiz were inseparable. Then a terrible accident sent Saul spiraling down a delinquent path that ultimately spurred him to run away from home. And so Tanner wandered into an average adulthood alone, while Saul wandered into something altogether…different.

But when a case of mistaken identity unexpectedly throws Tanner and Saul back together after twelve long years of separation, the brothers find themselves stumbling through a race to stop a dangerous magic conspiracy that’s been building in the shadows of the world for generations. Three innocent girls have been kidnapped. A dangerous weapon has been stolen. And a deadly ritual has been set in motion that, if successful, could disastrously alter the course of the future.

Saul and Tanner have mere hours to unravel the mystery and rescue the girls. But the enemies they face harken back to a time of myth and legend, populated by knights and wizards and powers beyond belief. If the brothers can’t quickly reconcile their decade’s worth of differences, they may very well lose the battle…and the world may lose the war.

A Knight of Cold Graves is the first novel of The Revenant Reign, a dark paranormal action series with elements from Arthurian myth.

Judges’ Thoughts

This fun urban fantasy book built around Arthurian legend had a great premise in which the heroes and villains are reborn in modern day people. It’s a great hook for anyone who loves a bit of mythology, folklore and legend.

Unfortunately, soon after the story got rolling, lengthy exposition—and not the plot-critical kind—bogged down the pacing. Some judges felt the frequent pop culture references were more off-putting than engaging, and others found it difficult to connect with the shallowly constructed characters.

Ancient Ruins by Benjamin Medrano

Ancient Ruins (cover)Sistina awakened after millennia of dormancy, her memories in tatters and born anew. Residing in the ruins of an ancient city, she finds herself drawn into a war between two elven nations and the slaver kingdom of Kelvanis, when she rescues a princess from slavery.

With her domain containing hints of forgotten knowledge, Sistina becomes a dungeon, stronghold, and source of hope all at once. And perhaps, just perhaps, she could finally find love in her new life. This is a dark fantasy lesbian romance, with a focus on the dark fantasy.

Judges’ Thoughts

Many judges agreed the powerfully interesting prologue hooked them, wherein a demon is transformed first into a magical jewel, then into a sentient willow tree and eventually an extremely powerful dryad. Some also thought the magic system was cool.

However, while the judges liked the concept of elves as the victims of oppression, all felt the execution was lacking. The narrative jumps around between too many point of view characters, many of whom are flat and syrupy despite the dark themes in a story that deals with war, enslavement, sexual exploitation, and unnecessary depictions of rape.

Confundo et Transfiguro: Of Dreams, Hunger, and the Hunt…and Vampires by Myn Aunsoo

Confundo et Tranfiguro (cover)The heart of this book concerns two vampire youths, Volod and Aurel. These youths have completed nearly all the required training for confirmation into the society of adult Moroli (what vampires call themselves) and have only to complete their Dream Quests, First Hunt, and final Confirmation Rituals. After their confirmation, however, Volod realizes the Moroli way of life is empty and immoral. As a result, he and his beloved companion Aurel set out on a perilous journey of transformation.

Judges’ Thoughts

One judge found the opening chapters of this novel to be a charming attempt at religious satire in the manner of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. However, most judges disliked the storytelling approach and were confused by an opening that fails to even hint at the story described in the blurb (the characters mentioned there don’t appear until a third of the way into the book). The group consensus was to say goodbye to this one.

Ascension by David A. Combs

Ascension (cover)Angelica Brighton is a typical 21st Century high school senior—a diligent student, a track star, and surrounded by good friends. Life on her family’s farm is tranquil, happy, and prosperous. The arrival of a mysterious letter turns her world upside down, unveiling a destiny that leads her into the ancient heart of the nearby forest and face to face with the local urban legend of her sleepy New England town.

Anne-Marie Carmichael is a compassionate and hardworking wife and mother from the late 17th Century. Determined to save her family’s struggling farm from financial ruin, she enters into a hasty bargain that unwittingly turns her into a soldier in a war that has lasted for millennia. Imbued with the primordial magic, which extends her life and grants earth shattering power, the fiery-natured farmwife must recruit the children of her family for generations to come to stand against the demonic Shade, Father of Nightmares.

As the barriers between our world and the Realm of the Demonkin falter, Anne-Marie must awaken in Angelica the might that lies dormant in the Blood of the Firstborn and shape her into the weapon fate has called for her to become. For only the Witches of Pioneer Vale can hope to win the battle that threatens to destroy not just the pastoral community Angelica has known her whole life, but existence itself.

Judges’ Thoughts

This YA title has smooth, clean prose that engendered positive feelings from the judges. Unfortunately, the judges also found the plot too easy and convenient, and characters’ emotions and motivations seemed engineered to fit the needs of the plot instead of stemming from an authentic place.

Enthusiasm quickly waned during a barely disguised info dump that followed the initial meeting between the main characters. The erratic pacing also undermined any suspense, and most judges quickly set this book aside.

Blood Under Water by T. A. Frost

Blood Under Water (cover)When there’s blood in the water, there’ll be death on the streets.

Giulia Degarno thought coming to Averrio would be the start of a new life. But when a renegade priest turns up dead in a canal, the City Watch needs somebody to take the blame. And who better than a woman with a dark past and an even darker future?

Now Giulia has seven days to clear her name and find the killer. But as the violence mounts and the danger rises, she comes up against a conspiracy founded on gold, murder and evil magic. Giulia must deal with a cunning, ruthless enemy—and friends she may no longer be able to trust.

Judges’ Thoughts

The judges liked many things about this novel, starting with the cover, which was a finalist in our cover contest. The worldbuilding was appealing too, with the Venice-like setting and a murder mystery plotline that involves religious strife, an international conspiracy, colonialist villains, and oppressed magical peoples, which together make for a novel that would suit readers who enjoy historical fantasy and alternate history with flavors of steampunk, flintlock, and renaissance rather than medieval settings.

However, these positives didn’t outweigh the negatives, including inconsistencies in the plotting and characterizations. Judges felt the author was trying to reach for something but wasn’t quite able to get there and that something was missing in the writing or the characters but they couldn’t put their finger on it. All and all, although there was a lot to like here, it wasn’t enough to keep it in our batch.

– – –

Thus concludes the first Five to Fall post of SPFBO #6. Again, 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 this year are AM Justice, Alicia Wanstall-Burke, Amanda Cenker, Julia Kitvaria Sarene, Kartik Narayanan, Kerry Smith, Lynn Kempner, and Mariëlle Ooms-Voges. If you’d like to learn more about us, including our likes and dislikes, you can read about them here.

Any queries should be directed to me, A. M. Justice, via DM (Facebook/Twitter).

Title image by Alyssa Strohmann.

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