The Fantasy-Faction SPFBO team are on the verge of announcing their top seven books! But first, here are a final set of five that didn’t quite make the cut. It was really hard to say goodbye to some of these; maybe on another day, with another set of reviewers, they would have made it through. There is certainly something to recommend them all.

The Girl with Red Hair by Michael J. Sandford

The Girl With Red Hair (cover)Only eight, Adelaide has never felt like she fit in. The other children bully her for ears that don’t match, and for her lack of magical prowess. When her only friend–and caretaker–Miss Hastings forces her to flee, she doesn’t argue. Miss Hastings has never lied to her, and if she claims that Adelaide’s mother seeks to kill her, then it must be true. The old elf inscribes the runes of the transfer circle and sends Adelaide off with one final direction. Go to Wolverhampton and find Thiladir.

But something went awry and Adelaide ended up hundreds of miles from her destination, in the middle of some monstrous forest, alone and scared. But then they found her. They can’t leave Adelaide on her own. She’s just a child, after all. And after watching their home destroyed by forces beyond comprehension, they need something to hold onto. Something to fight for.

But the creatures of shadow follow relentlessly. And a strange woman in a black dress taunts them at every turn with untold power, and seeks to take Tannyl for herself.

Something larger is at play. More than a lost girl. Something more than a ruined forest village and four exiles.

They fled for their lives, and now may hold the lives of all in their hands. The only thing they know for certain is that Adelaide is important, for the shadows want to destroy her most of all. And the world with her.

Like several other books in the contest, The Girl with Red Hair fell down because it split our reviewing team in half. Several of us commented that it has a RPG vibe to it, featuring as it does a group of protagonists with different skills and abilities – but whether that’s a positive or a negative depends entirely on your point of view! Some reviewers found the setup intriguing and wanted to read on, while others felt it was verging on clichéd. Certainly, it’s fair to say that what we read covered somewhat familiar ground; for some readers it won’t offer anything new, but for others it will be like wrapping themselves in a comfortable blanket. The writing style also divided opinion, with some considering it well written and others finding themselves detached from the emotion on the page. In the end, The Girl with Red Hair didn’t convince enough of our readers for it to go through to the final seven.

The Princess Companion by Melanie Cellier

The Princess Companion (cover)One dark and stormy night, lost and alone, Alyssa finds herself knocking on the door of a castle. After a lifetime spent in the deep forest, Alyssa has no idea what to expect on the other side.

What she finds is two unruly young princesses and one very handsome prince. When Alyssa accepts the job of Princess Companion she knows her life will change. What she doesn’t know is that the royal family is about to be swept up in unexpected danger and intrigue and that she just might be the only thing standing between her kingdom and destruction.

This retelling of the classic fairy tale, The Princess and the Pea, reimagines the risks and rewards that come when one royal family goes searching for a true princess.

It’s a real shame to say goodbye to The Princess Companion, since fairy tale retellings are a favourite of at least half the reviewing team. This was another divisive book; the light-hearted, semi-comic tone was felt to be both a positive (it certainly has a unique voice) and a negative (for many of our reviewers, the tone didn’t quite gel with the story itself). In the end, enough of the team were switched off by the multiple POVs in the opening chapters to discount reading on. Having said that, though, at least one of our reviewers read the entire book and very much enjoyed it, and there was a general consensus that the book improves greatly once the protagonist, Alyssa, takes over the narration. Therefore if you are a fan of fairy tale retellings, you might want to give this one a go.

The Full Moon by David Neth

The Full Moon (cover)Kathy and her sister, Samantha, have always been a team. Throughout their time as witches, they’ve taken out more than their share of bad guys. But after Kathy meets Will, who she learns is a demonic Dark Knight, her loyalties begin to change.

Meanwhile, Samantha doesn’t trust Will or his intentions. Still, Kathy can’t help but feel tempted by the dark side as she falls deeper in love with Will. Crossing over would give Kathy the freedom to do whatever she wanted with her magic. No rules. No limitations. It would also mean breaking the bond she has always shared with her sister, who has made it clear that she wants nothing to do with the dark side.

When Will proposes they take over the underworld, Kathy loves the idea of having power. But it also leaves her with a choice that will change her life: abandon her family and the life she has always known, or give up the love of her life forever.

We keep saying our tastes as a group differ wildly, but nowhere has this been more apparent than with David Neth’s entry.

We really were split down the middle with this one. Some of us were intrigued by Kathy’s mysterious love interest, while others commented that it was a little too reminiscent of 50 Shades for their liking. Similarly, while some said they found the narrative voice engaging, the rest found it somewhat inconsistent.

One thing we all agreed on, though, was that both the writing and the pace picked up significantly the more we read. And although at times it felt more like a sequence of events than a naturally-unfolding story (telling rather than showing, in a ‘this, then that, then …’ manner), three out of the four of us said they would have been willing to read more.

Nightfall Gardens by Allen Houston

Nightfall Gardens (cover)Vain Lily Blackwood and her shy brother Silas wonder if their family will ever settle in one place long enough to lead a normal life. When a mysterious stranger arrives claiming to be their uncle, they discover their parents have been hiding a secret that turns their world upside down.

The two are kidnapped to Nightfall Gardens, the family’s ancestral home, a place shrouded in ancient mystery, where they meet their dying grandmother and learn of an age-old curse placed on Blackwood females.

Lily must take over as protector of the house and three haunted gardens that hold mythical beasts, fairy-tale nightmares and far worse. If she doesn’t, the evil trapped there will be unleashed and bring on a new dark age.

While she deals with malevolent ghosts inside the house, Silas is put to work in the gardens, where one wrong step means death.

Along the way, they search to unlock the secrets of the house and to stop the creatures in the gardens before time runs out and the world is destroyed.

Nightfall Gardens is an intriguing book that held a lot of promise for our reviewers. It has a definite style of its own, which is always a good thing, not just in a contest like this but for writing more generally. However, one issue that did mar the opening a little was the determined avoidance of past perfect tense, which sometimes made it hard to identify where the action being described fell in the timeline of the book. (Conventional writing advice tell us to avoid using the word ‘had’, but it exists for a reason. Cut it out completely in a book that’s already written in past tense, and you lose the ability to differentiate between the ‘now’ of the narrative and its ‘then’.) Although a couple of reviewers expressed interest in reading on, Nightfall Gardens didn’t quite grab enough of the team to make it through.

Daughter of Shadow by Tyler Sehn

BDaughter of Shadow (cover)orn with one foot in light and one in darkness, she is torn between both. Melea is the greatest warrior in the world. In service to the Lord of Light, she uses her abilities to kill for his divine vision. Shadows grow larger as the Light spreads—the world and the forces that define it are changing and Melea is caught in the center. Melea denies being a villain, refuses to be a hero, and would rather slash with the razors edge than walk along it. Fate spins, or so it is said, and Melea is cursed with the luck of the dead.

Like Nightfall Gardens, Daughter of Shadow is another book that fell not so much because the team found any issues with it, but because it simply didn’t grab us as much as some of the other books did. These are always the hardest books to say goodbye to, because we’ve moved beyond the more tangible reasons for letting a book go and into the purely subjective.

Perhaps it’s not much consolation, but another team of reviewers might well have preferred this book to some of our final seven. It has a decent prologue (which we found to be a rarity!) and introduces an interesting protagonist in Melea – the team enjoyed the fact that unlike many other fantasy protagonists, she is already powerful when the story begins. We also found the initial battle scene to be well written. In the end, we had to go by our subjective opinion that the writing wasn’t quite as smooth and didn’t have quite as much ‘voice’ as some of the other books – but Daughter of Shadow is certainly worth checking out for anyone who likes the sound of the blurb.

Thank you again to all the authors for sharing your books with us! Next stop, the final seven!

Author’s Note: Thanks also to Laura M. Hughes who helped with writing this article.

Title image by Domitilla.


By A.F.E. Smith

loves Hobb, Abercrombie and Lawrence as much as the next fantasy fan, but is on a mission to look past the big-name giants of the genre and discover the equally brilliant books that far fewer people have heard of. (This mission may have been influenced by the fact that she’s an insignificant digital-first author in her own right, but if so, she’ll never admit it.) She has two young children, a full-time job as an editor, and runs on a combination of chocolate and wishful thinking. Her first book, DARKHAVEN, was released in 2015 by Harper Voyager. You can find her on Twitter as @afesmith.

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