Writing fiction is like painting Rorschach cards: everyone sees (and feels) something different when looking at what you’ve created. Every review is subjective. And as AFE and GR have observed in previous rounds, each of the following books have something positive to recommend them. All five samples have been read by 3-4 members of the team, at least one of whom said they were definitely interested in reading more.

I’ve added more general comments at the end of this article. But first, here’s another five entries that managed to make it over an impressive number of hurdles before finally falling.

The Black God’s War by Moses Siregar III

The Black God’s War (cover)Against the backdrop of epic warfare and the powers of ten mysterious gods, Lucia struggles to understand The Black One.

Her father-king wants war.
Her messianic brother wants peace.
The black god wants his due.
She suffers all the consequences.

King Vieri is losing his war against the lands of Pawelon. Feeling abandoned by his god, he forces his son Caio, the kingdom’s holy savior, to lead his army. Victory ought to come soon.

To counter Caio’s powers, Pawelon’s prince enters the conflict. Rao is a gifted sage, a master of spiritual laws. He joins the rajah to defend their citadel against the invaders. But Rao’s ideals soon clash with his army’s general.

The Black One tortures Lucia nightly with visions promising another ten years of bloodshed. She can no longer tell the difference between the waking world and her nightmares. Lucia knows the black god too well. He entered her bed and dreams when she was ten.

The Black One watches, waiting to see Lucia confront an impossible decision over the fates of two men—and two lands.

This one was divisive. We all agreed that the writing is (for the most part) simple and direct, but while some of us regarded this as a strength, others felt that it was perhaps a little too simplistic.

Another sticking point was that the female characters mostly appeared to be side-lined; and the multiple POVs meant that the pacing wasn’t quite as dynamic as the prologue led us to expect.

On the other hand, each of us described the overall sample as interesting and intriguing. The setup is solid, the prologue has some really nice bloody drama, and we all agreed that we’d need to read more to get a real sense of the shape of the story. However, what we couldn’t agree on was whether or not this was a positive thing, and so we reluctantly decided to say farewell to The Black God’s War.

General consensus: Interesting concept with an intriguing start, but loses direction once it moves away from the initial POV.

My extra pennies’ worth: As a latecomer to the SPFBO, this was the first sample I read. I think it’s promising, and fits well with my personal reading tastes. I’m a sucker for writers who depict gods as interfering bastards (Steven Erikson, Marc Turner, Terry Pratchett), and I’m curious about deathly Danato’s motivations. I’d hope to see more of Lucie’s POV if I were to read on, though.

Award: Most badass author name.

The Secrets of the Moonstone Heir by A. R. Cook

The Secrets of the Moonstone Heir (cover)She was Hijn. Others thought it was the greatest blessing. She thought it was a curse.

He was a Wretched. A curse to everyone, and he embraced it.

Desert Rain is an heir to one of the Salamandrian Sages, the Moon Dragoness, who with the other Sages formed the land of Luuva Gros centuries ago during the Great Manifestation. She has inherited the dragon’s mystical powers, but she refuses to use them, making her fearful to interact with the outside world – that is, save her friend Ayu, a Wretched who has lost his memories and has slowly been recovering in Desert Rain’s care.

When Desert Rain suddenly stumbles upon Ayu’s lost memories and returns them to him, the Wretched’s true nature is awoken: he is a Distortionist with an insatiable drive to not only destroy the clan that betrayed him, but transform all of Luuva Gros into his twisted vision. Desert Rain, feeling responsible for her friend’s shift to madness, pursues him to stop the spread of his Distortion. With the help of a lizard disguised as human, a Quetzalin bird girl, and the mighty Swordmaster, Desert Rain begins a quest unlike any she’s ever faced that could change Luuva Gros and everyone in it forever.

Interesting, this one. Very interesting. All who read the sample agreed that the worldbuilding was impressive, the desert setting vivid and unusual, the beginning intriguing, and we were really conflicted about letting it go.

However, we also felt that the prologue – despite being one of the few that’s used effectively – was a bit too heavy; and although the characters are without doubt fascinatingly diverse, on the whole there was too much unnecessary backstory for our collective liking.

General consensus: Laudable worldbuilding and authentic settings/characters, but would have been stronger with more showing, less telling. Overall, a little dense in places but engaging nonetheless.

My extra pennies’ worth: While this isn’t the strongest sample I’ve read it’s almost certainly one I’d like to see more of. I think the whole setup is creative and original, and the various races admirably vivid and authentic.

Award: Most unique world.

Age of Torridan by Kai Herbertz

Age of Torridan (cover)The future seems certain, devoid of promise. Ferro Torridan believes that his career as a knight has reached an impasse with his latest assignment at Mountain Watch garrison. All that changes when demons from an age gone by raze the outpost, killing most of his fellow knights. With the aid of his fiancé Leena and the other survivor, Knight Jarina Dagon, Ferro embarks on a journey to find out what prompted the attack.

There’s little respite for Ferro, as his survival puts him on the wanted list of a mysterious wizard, of the interim ruler of his homeland and of the queen of a neighboring state.

All of these power players want him for different reasons and suddenly he finds that clearing his name of the accusation of being in league with the demons is the least of his worries: the events set in motion at Mountain Watch threaten to tear the world asunder. Ferro Torridan must face his fears if he is to save the world. But what is the mark of a true hero?

I suspect this one may have made it further had the chapters been ordered differently. As it was, we each agreed that while the first chapter had a solid setup it was somewhat let down by its execution.

Beginning the story with your protagonist trapped in a dangerous situation is a smart move: it creates tension, makes us feel sympathy, and makes us want to read on to find out how he got there in the first place. However, we each felt that the prose (including the author’s use of the passive voice) made what should have been an exciting scene more distant and disorienting than we would have expected.

Overall, each of us had a positive reaction to this one, and praised the fact that both the story and the writing improved with each chapter. But, based purely on what we read, it was ‘like’ rather than ‘love’ and so it’s a respectful farewell from us.

General consensus: Solid setting, with an intriguing threat and plenty of strong female characters. Dialogue and action are both a little flat, but the fact that they seem to improve with each chapter is promising.

My extra pennies’ worth: While I found Torridan’s chapter kind of awkward, I’d love to read more about Leena (the hint of a gambling addiction is especially intriguing). Going into chapter three there seems to be a theme of diverse, strong female characters, and personally I’d quite like to see what part they each have to play.

Award: Most brutal weapon.

Sword and Chant by Blair MacGregor

Sword and Chant (cover)In a remote cave, an assassin who hasn’t aged for three decades learns the Iyah of Calligar has been assassinated by Kennem rebels. The cause, he knows, is the Chant — the exiled god of sacrifice and broken dreams — and the Chant wants His most favored assassin to take up his knives yet again to slay those few mortals who stand in His way.

Shala has hidden from assassins all her life, living in secret among the cliffs of Kennem’s border with Calligar. But news of the Iyah’s murder changes everything. She is one of three surviving Swords — descendant of those who cast the Chant into exile generations ago — charged with protecting Calligar from the blood-hungry god’s return despite her hatred of the murdered Iyah’s warlord son.

Jaynes cut and honed his battle-skills on the Kennem border, ruthless in his determination to control the Kennem lands his father, the Iyah, had conquered. Though his father’s murder requires he return home to see his sister ascend as Iyah, his greatest hunger is for vengeance. He will see the Kennem rebels scattered and slain despite Shala’s warnings and demands.

But Jaynes doesn’t know every battlefield death feeds and strengthens the Chant.

And Shala doesn’t know the Chant’s assassin is coming for her.

First off, let me say that this was one of the more well-written entries, demonstrating competent prose, interesting characters and solid editing. Furthermore, the author conjures a variety of impressively vivid settings with detailed and elegant descriptions.

However, there are occasions when the descriptions are overly detailed. Similarly, we all agreed that the prologue was unnecessary, and found the early chapters somewhat obscure despite being heavily laden with backstory in several places.

So while we praised the author’s skilful worldbuilding, on the whole this one simply didn’t quite captivate us as much as some of the others did. And although we enjoyed our foray into this original and intriguing world, our own personal tastes meant that it didn’t score quite as highly as some of the others.

General consensus: Solid start and interesting world, with lots of originality. Would have preferred to lose the prologue and instead have more information revealed gradually, but on the whole this one has a lot to recommend it.

My extra pennies’ worth: In spite of its overall quality I wasn’t too convinced, at least, not until I reached the assassin’s POV. I thought the whole concept of him trying to escape the Chant’s compulsion was both eerie and fascinating.

Award: Most engaging prose.

God of Chains by J. R. Armstrong

God of Chains (cover)Eons ago, there was one god. His domain covered the world, and all men bowed to Him.

But eventually, mortals gained power to challenge their Lord. As their strength grew, conflict became inevitable. Such is the nature of man. The Final Battle destroyed civilisation, and nearly the world. It consumed every being within the heavens, and chained the old god within an immortal prison. Or so they hoped.

In the capital of Empire, a boy is born who unknowingly heralds His return. Throughout the globe-spanning realm, shudders are felt as He begins to break his chains, and in every corner men draw arms, both in devotion and in defiance.

Although this one clicked with some of us, overall it was a case of ‘good but not great’ based solely on the sample chapters (and our own collective personal tastes). However, we also agreed that it is competently written and does a solid job of establishing the world and its wider conflicts.

The main issue we all seemed to have with this one is that it doesn’t quite follow up on what it appears to promise. We modern readers exist in an age of short attention spans and instant gratification; and so, as unfair as it may seem, when a book begins with a tense flight from a mass execution we expect the rest of the story to continue in a similar vein. For us, the much slower pace of the later passages meant that although the story did grab us at first, it just didn’t hold on to us as tightly as some of the others we read.

On the other hand, it really is an intriguing setup – sort of Aladdin meets Harry Potter for grown-ups. The setting is vivid, and the various hints of conflict – mages vs priests, poverty vs wealth, an eternal war – definitely promise to reward those who read on.

General consensus: Chapter one unfolds quite skilfully, successfully establishing a rigid, cruel and caste-driven society. The grim and bloody events that occur early on grabbed our attention; but the chapters that followed didn’t sustain it as well as others had, and ultimately we decided that it just wasn’t for us.

My extra pennies’ worth: I was torn about this one. I thought the events at the beginning were tense and exciting, and I found the society intriguing; but some infrequent technical/copyediting issues, as well as the long passages of exposition later on, eventually had me setting this one aside in favour of others that clicked better with me.

Award: Most grim opening.

– – –

So there you have it: another five, fallen. Based on seeing the same comments crop up repeatedly, I can safely say that by far the most common turn-off is a confusing/unnecessary/heavy prologue tacked on to the beginning of a story. With *very* few exceptions, on the whole prologues just don’t seem to be working for us.

Which isn’t particularly helpful now, of course, but potential entrants for the SPFBO #3 might bear it in mind.

As for this SPFBO, judging is proving to be a difficult process, the reason being that each of us have wildly different tastes. But it’s also an enjoyable process thanks to the overall quality of the entries. We’re sad to let these five go; but with such strong competition, each and every one of the authors deserves to feel proud – not only for making it so far in the competition, but for producing such original and entertaining stories for us to read.

So to all entrants: good job and thank you for sharing!

Title image by Bethan Phillips.


By Laura M. Hughes

Laura lives under the grey, pigeon-filled skies of northern England, where she also writes for Tor.com. When she isn’t absorbed in Dragon Age, raving about the #SPFBO or working on her first novel, you’re most likely to find her trying to convince unsuspecting bystanders to read The Malazan Book of the Fallen. If you’ve any queries, or just want to talk fantasy, Laura always encourages like-minded folk to seek her out on Twitter @halfstrungharp. Anyone interested in hiring her to edit or proofread a manuscript can check out her rates, services and testimonials at lauramhughes.com.

4 thoughts on “Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off #2: Farewell To Another Five”
  1. Thank you all for reviewing “Moonstone Heir.” I’m actually surprised it made it as far as it did (I go back and reread it and realize it does need quite a bit of fine tuning) so it makes me happy that you all liked it as much as you did. This also helps me as I revise Book 2 in this series, so now I know what works and what doesn’t. Happy reading and I’m anxious to see which books make it to the final round!

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