SPFBO on Fantasy-Faction

The Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off officially began on July 1st! In case you missed it, here’s what Fantasy-Faction has posted so far:

And of course you can keep track of everything relating to round one on the SPFBO page on Mark Lawrence’s blog.

HUGE thanks to my fellow SPFBO judges – A.F.E. Smith, G. R. Matthews, James Latimer, Julia Kitvaria Sarene and Michael Everest – for their incredible input into these reviews.

Before we launch in to our second set of eliminations, please note that myself and the other five judges are working through our batch of entries in no particular order. The nature of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off means that a great many entries fall at the very first hurdle, cast aside after just a few pages. In a contest largely hinging on judges’ personal tastes, it’s anyone’s game. Here’s a few things to remember about the process:

  • It’s subjective. Just because one judge didn’t enjoy a book does not mean it isn’t a good book.
  • It’s time-consuming. Some blogs have a team of judges; others are one-man shows. Either way, they’re devoting hundreds of hours of their own time to this contest. While some might post mini-reviews of every single entry in their batch, others may only have time to review their finalist. If you think that’s unfair – tough.
  • It’s constructive. Entrants’ novels are fair game. If a blogger eliminates your book and provides criticism as to why the decision was made, please don’t challenge them. Listen to them. Plenty of authors would kill for this kind of feedback, and it’s meant to help you – not to bully, belittle, or embarrass you.
  • It’s positive. Nobody is out to tear these books to pieces. Every judge will always try their damnedest to point out things they liked. At the end of the day, we’re all part of the same amazing community, and are far more interested in building each other up than in tearing down ‘rivals’. That said, false praise is something you will not find here on FF.

Last month we eliminated five books from the contest. Here are the next five.

(Brian D. Anderson and Steven Savile)

Akiri by Brian D. Anderson and Steven SavileThe Dul’ Buhar are the deadliest of warriors, gifted with extraordinary skills through the dark magic of their Sorcerer King, and Akiri is the mightiest of them all. Yet even his immense talents will be tested beyond the point of breaking as everything he believes in is ripped apart by his sovereign’s insatiable hunger for conquest and death.
Akiri was born into war, his childhood shaped by battle and betrayal. He knows it is his fate to die by the sword. He is a warrior. Warriors die. It is what they do. But he will not go without a fight. In his first breathtaking adventure Akiri must outwit shape-shifting creatures bent on devouring his soul, battle spirit demons, become the first new dragon lord in a generation, and defy the will of the God of Death himself if he wants to live.
Forged in the pits of hell by the Lord of the Underworld himself, the legendary Scepter of Xarbaal was created with the sole purpose of purging the land of mortal life. In his arrogance, the Sorcerer King believes he has the strength to wield against his enemies and end the devastating war once and for all.

Akiri is the only man he trusts to recover the mythical artifact.

Akiri has never failed his sovereign yet, but he knows that to succeed this time could usher in the death of the world… 

You might recognise this one from the cover contest. It didn’t quite make our top three, but it received an honourable mention on our shortlist – and for good reason.

First impressions are crucial, and while we didn’t all appreciate the aesthetics of the cover (one of us favourably compared it to Jen Williams’ US Copper Cat covers, but another likened it to Mills & Boon . . .) we all agreed that it was striking and did the job it set out to do.

Turns out the Mills and Boon comparison wasn’t completely off the mark, because Akiri contains plenty of sex, much of it cringeworthy and exaggerated. In a similar way to how the rest of the story constantly reminds us that Akiri is the best in the world at what he does (i.e. everything), the very nature of the protagonist makes him difficult to engage or sympathise with.

Romance aside, the rest of the comments were generally positive. There were mixed feelings on the prologue (as there always are), with most agreeing that despite the wordy opening and passive tone, Akiri is a novel that many readers will enjoy from the outset. However, others took issue with the authors’ use of not-quite-close third person POV, finding the narrative’s occasional tendency to drift into omniscience somewhat jarring. Although this continued throughout the story, on the whole the team agreed that Akiri was a solid book.

Verdict: Solid. We liked it, but we didn’t love it.


(Kristal Shaff)

Life Charmer by Kristal ShaffTwelve-year-old Takoda Schwartz, aka Koda, spends his days dodging bullies out to get him for his Native American heritage. One day, he touches a magic-loaded arrowhead on his family farm which lands him on his backside and gifts him with the ability to animate wooden objects. When a shape-shifting trickster god appears and knows far too much about Koda’s emerging powers, he opens Koda’s eyes to a real-life world of Native American mythology.

Now Koda must come to grips with his abilities, escape a two-faced cowboy creature who tries to eat him, dodge an evil pack of dog men, and stop an unseen enemy who would rather have him dead. At the same time, he leads a motley crew of misfit heroes—and a wiener dog with a superiority complex—on a quest to stop a not-so-natural disaster of monstrous proportions.

This is another entry that divided us at first sight. While we agreed that the cover and the accompanying interior illustrations demonstrated good care and production values, more than one of us were immediately turned off by the fact that Life Charmer is clearly a children’s book.

While the SPFBO is not exclusive to writers of adult fantasy, we felt that this particular entry – which has a recommended reading age of 8-12 years – didn’t really belong in the contest. Although it wasn’t badly written, the author’s tendency to disrupt the narrative with infrequent switches to second person voice made us feel as though we were being told about events rather than shown them. Considering its intended audience, we were also of the opinion that the story contained rather too much romance.

Verdict: Fast-paced middle-grade fantasy in the vein of Percy Jackson.


(Meghan Richardson & Tina Verduzco)

Meghan Richardson and Tina Verduzco - Storm and the Mermaid's KnotStorm Harn is not your typical 16 year old and St. Augustine, Florida is not your typical beachside town. What they share is a century old secret that, if not solved, may destroy them both by summer’s end.

Soon after arriving in St. Augustine, Storm’s “growing pains” transform into sensuous curves, salt cravings replace her sweet tooth, and her emotions affect the weather. Storm has reached transition; the age all mermaids transform from vulnerable, human-like adolescents to bewitching, powerful adult sirens. The catch? Storm was never told of her mythical lineage.

Suddenly part of a powerful clan of mers that rule the Atlantic waters, she is thrust into a world filled with magic, romance, deception, danger, and secrets. Storm is determined to uncover the truths that both her human and mer families are keeping from her…but knowing comes at a cost.

Okay, so this is one of the few books that united every single one of us in our opinions. Unfortunately, most of those opinions are negative.

On the whole, we felt the writing to be adequate but clumsy in places, and over-wrought in others. A proofreader would have helped to catch the many instances of missing or repeated words, and an editor might have been able to point out the flaws in logic and consistency – as well as a few other minor gripes, such as the prolific (and irritating) overuse of the word ‘Totally’.

A few slightly more problematic issues arose, though. For instance, the protagonist makes a big deal about finally being able to get contact lenses instead of having to wear nerdy glasses. Bearing in mind that this is a YA/children’s book, the message that sends is, erm, not great – nor is the tasteless, flippant treatment of the main character’s reaction to personal events at the end of the book. The fact that ‘Stormy’ has to have everything spelled out for her rather than figuring it out for herself also makes her frustrating and unsympathetic.

Verdict: Might appeal to a younger, ‘cooler’ audience, but for us it turned out reading about a whiny teenager was about as much fun as being one.


(Ryan Mueller)

Empire of Chains by Ryan MuellerFive hundred years ago, powerful magic sealed Emperor Darien Warrick inside a ring of mountains. For five hundred years, his subjects have been trapped beside him. Some say he’s evil and these actions were necessary. Others say he’s a man willing to sacrifice anything for the greater good.

To young noblewoman Nadia, he is nothing but a murderer. On the day Warrick’s executioner takes her mother’s head, Nadia dedicates her life to one goal: killing Warrick. She spends her days training with the castle guard, her nights poring over the notes her mother left behind. In them, she finds the location of the only spell that can defeat the immortal sorcerer. But it feels too convenient. If she is to succeed in her quest, she must uncover his true motivations and outsmart him.

For young woodsman Markus, Warrick is the man who owns him. Markus has spent his entire life training to become an Imperial Guard. It’s a future he can’t stomach, but it’s the only option he has, or at least the only sane one.

Until he meets Nadia.

Reformed thief Berig doesn’t care about Warrick one way or the other. Berig would rather keep his head down and scratch out what meager living he can. But in a world like this, he’ll never get what he wants.

Warrick has other plans.

Much like Akiri, this entry (which was one of our three picks for the cover contest) promised something that it didn’t quite manage to deliver.

Although the beginning is reminiscent of Sanderson (complete with its own magical tyrant and ‘chosen one’ rebel) – in a good way! – we were somewhat perplexed by the author’s decision to reveal the main antagonist’s secret so early on. As a result, we felt that much of the potential for tension and mystery was lost. Furthermore, we found that the simplistic, matter-of-fact prose (which spends a lot of time ‘telling’ without telling us very much) meant that it was hard for us to get invested in the story. Similarly, much of the dialogue felt wooden and stilted, and the worldbuilding is fairly generic.

Such complaints can perhaps be chalked up to the typical roughness of a debut novel. However, like Storm and the Mermaid’s Knot, Empire of Chains could have used more editing in order to eliminate recurring typos and inconsistencies – as well as instances of characters acting illogically to the point where their behaviour becomes downright strange, not to mention frustrating.

Verdict: Solidly written, but lacks flair and originality.


(Terri Bruce)

Hereafter by Terri BruceWhy let a little thing like dying get in the way of a good time?

Thirty-six-year-old Irene Dunphy didn’t plan on dying any time soon, but that’s exactly what happens when she makes the mistake of getting behind the wheel after a night bar-hopping with friends. She finds herself stranded on earth as a ghost, where the food has no taste, the alcohol doesn’t get you drunk, and the sex…well, let’s just say “don’t bother.” To make matters worse, the only person who can see her—courtesy of a book he found in his school library—is a fourteen-year-old boy genius obsessed with the afterlife.

Unfortunately, what waits in the Great Beyond isn’t much better. Stuck between the boring life of a ghost in this world and the terrifying prospect of three-headed hell hounds, final judgment, and eternal torment in the next, Irene sets out to find a third option—preferably one that involves not being dead anymore. Can she wipe the slate clean and get a second chance before it’s too late?

On the other end of the scale we have Hereafter, which was a fun read with flashes of deeper insight, yet relatively little in the way of plot.

One of the strongest aspects of this entry was the narrative voice. We weren’t always sure we liked the owner of that voice, but the main character at least felt authentic and compelling. This was also helped by the rather good version available on Audible!

However, the character relationships weren’t quite as convincing. The protagonist’s sidekick, for instance, is somewhat two-dimensional; their relationship at times seemed awkward, and it almost felt as though he existed solely for the purpose of having someone for the main character bounce off. In fact, he had his own subplot which had the potential to be very interesting. Unfortunately, it didn’t really go anywhere. The lack of real character arcs – which can perhaps be attributed to the fact that this is the first in an ongoing series – meant that the absence of a plot became increasingly obvious, and on the whole we found reading Hereafter to be a fun but flat experience.

Verdict: Meandering, but quite entertaining.

Ten down, twenty to go! For those keeping track, here’s where we stand with our batch of books. We’ll be back in around three weeks for the next round of eliminations!

  1. Alexia Purdy, Ever Shade
  2. Angela Holder, The Tale of Gurion Thricebound
  3. A.R Winterstaar, The Child Revealed
  4. Bill Hiatt, Living with Your Past Selves
  5. Brandon Barr, Ella Dethroned
  6. Brett Herman, Chaos Trims My Beard
  7. Brian D. Anderson & Steven Savile, Akiri: The Scepter of Xarbaal
  8. C.D. Gallant-King, Ten Thousand Days
  9. Charlotte E. English, Draykon
  10. Christopher Bunn, The Hawk and his Boy
  11. Christopher G. Nuttall, The Zero Blessing
  12. Frances Smith, Spirit of the Sword: Pride and Fury
  13. Ginny O, The Dawn Warrior
  14. Guerric Hache, Zeroth Law
  15. Gus Campbell, Pagan Heart
  16. Jade Kerrion, Illusions
  17. Joseph J. Bailey, Spellslinger
  18. Kristal Shaff, Life Charmer
  19. K.S. Villoso, Jaeth’s Eye
  20. Meghan Richardson & Tina Verduzco, Storm and the Mermaid’s Knot
  21. Marina Finlayson, Stolen Magic
  22. Melissa Snark, Valkyrie’s Vengeance
  23. Michael-Scott Earle, Wings of Justice
  24. Nigel Bird, Drawn In
  25. Richard Parry, Night’s Favour
  26. Ryan Mueller, Empire of Chains
  27. Scott Fitzgerald Gray, Clearwater Dawn
  28. Terri Bruce, Hereafter
  29. Ulff Lehmann, Shattered Dreams
  30. V.R. Cardoso, The Dragon Hunter and the Mage
SPFBO Next Five Fall
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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.

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