* Disclaimer *

Writing and reading are subjective arts. What some folks will absolutely love, others will dislike. It is a bit like Marmite in the UK – normal people dislike it intensely, but some weird folks actually enjoy the taste of warm road surface with fresh roadkill upon their tongue. To each their own, I suppose.

Anyway in this competition, we at Fantasy-Faction are reading all 30 books in no particular order and ‘rejecting’ them in similar fashion. And, to be clear, we are reading like agents, we read the first three chapters or ten thousand words (give or take) using the Amazon Sample whenever possible. Our judges record their comments and we base our decisions to keep or, sadly, reject based on that alone.

If a book you love goes out in this the first of our five to fall, it does not mean the next twenty or so are better, only that they were read afterwards.

If you have no idea what we’re talking about you can catch up here.

Blood and Ashes by Marilyn Peake

Blood and Ashes (cover)Blood holds the power to both heal and destroy. The fingertips of a blood witch hold enough power to heal or destroy the entire world. In the Land of Faerie, the Unseelie are dying from the spread of a fatal disease. And only the child with special blood can save them.

Kaelin discovers that she has incredible power: the power of blood magic. She’s capable of both healing and destroying. A few drops of her blood bring an abandoned baby back from the dead.

As she struggles with her newfound power, Kaelin meets an alluring stranger with eyes unlike any Kaelin has ever seen. However, he may have entered her life with more than a romantic relationship in mind.

Stepping through a door in a decaying factory, Kaelin falls through a portal into a frightening world. There, a sickly woman confronts her. She demands the return of “the child” and threatens consequences if her order is not obeyed.

As Kaelin hides the abandoned baby from the authorities and runs from those who threaten her, she relies on the man with whom she’s fallen deeply in love to save her. The question remains: Is he there to help her or betray her?

**Blood and Ashes is a Paranormal Romance novel with some adult content.**

This was always going to be a hard sell to a few of our team. Paranormal romance, which it appears to be from the beginning, with a vampire who makes our protagonist tingle whenever he appears, is not the first love of all of our judges. Some like it, some don’t.

It appears to be set in a semi-dystopian world or perhaps an echo of somewhere in the USA today – Mexicans are deported and their babies left behind? Our judges weren’t sure. There are some inconsistencies and strange events that might be normal for this sub-genre but had us all widening our eyes in surprise: The vampire heals our protagonists hand of a serious cut and she doesn’t remark on it at all? She brings a baby back to life and that’s not a massive shock?

However, this book from USA Today bestselling author Marilyn Peake has some good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads (which I only look at after making a decision), so it just might not be our cup of tea (or locally brewed beverage of choice).

Letters from a Shipwreck in the Sea of Suns and Moons by Raymond St. Elmo

Letters from a Shipwreck (cover)A research team and a blind old sailor slyly spar over the truth of a long-ago shipwreck, a mad island of dead gods and the mystery of a lost manuscript. Neither sailor nor interviewer is what they seem, and both must learn to work together to find what they seek.

Seemingly, Clarence St. Elmo sits old and blind in the Sailor’s Safe Harbor Home. A patient interviewer sifts his wandering memories for details of the wreck of the Unicorn, a cargo schooner lost long ago in the South Pacific.

But Clarence St. Elmo is also a young man who finds himself on a cursed ship with a cargo of dead gods destined to be sunk in the Sea of Time. His love waits for his return, while mad voices in his head slyly pry for clues to a lost book. And always beyond the words and the memories, the dreadful storm circles closer.

A romance of memory, across the sea of time.

This one had the judges scratching their heads. Some were really intrigued by the style and others just could not get their minds around it.

Let’s start that again. Letters from a Shipwreck is told in letters and interviews. There is some disaster on a ship – the shipwreck from the title – and due to the strange nature of the disaster it is being carefully investigated, but years later. The idea is a sound one, it builds some mystery and the book doesn’t give it all away straight away. You are intrigued by the prologue and the promise inherent in it.

After that confusion sets in. What all our judges noted was the style of the interview questions – they linger too much on the setting without getting the story moving or giving much information away. The back and forth between the interviewer and interviewee go on and on, repeating much and telling the reader little. It is hard to get the emotional content via an interview, but the lack of that hook into the character leaves it all a little flat.

You have to praise the bravery in the style choice while acknowledging, for our judges at least, it didn’t work.

The First Warrior’s Code by G. D. Talbot

The First Warrior's Code (cover)Every warrior has their code but not every code is worth following.

Colleen discovers The First Warrior’s Code through stories her grandfather tells her from his deathbed. Colleen comes to understand how important the code is and the blessings that can come from following it. She learns that not all tall tales are untrue and warriors can come in different shapes and sizes. Also that all warriors who do not follow The First Warrior’s Code, could find themselves and their nations fall into ruins.

Especially when God decides, it’s time for us to remember, why we once feared giants.

Writing a book is often a labour of love and it is damned hard work. No one should ever go into the process lightly – not if you intend to see it through to the end. Anyone who manages to get over fifty thousand words written and tell a story has run a marathon of imagination, thought, creativity, stress, and determination. I make no bones about it, to write a book the writer has sacrificed something (family time usually) to get it done.

The First Warrior’s Code is a short book – Amazon has it at 49 pages, Goodreads at 78 – as result everything happens at breakneck speed with little time to dwell upon motivations, emotions, or time to get to grips with the world.

Even bearing in mind the first paragraph of this little review, I find it difficult to recommend this short book to anyone. The prose needs polishing and some honest feedback from a trusted source would help the author crystalise their thoughts and intention. Grammatical errors blur the meaning of many a sentence and this leads to confusion on the reader’s part. Sadly, these also rob scenes of emotion content.

I had a peek on Amazon (as I do after we’ve read and decided) and note the author has a lot of short stories written and published.

Dragon School: First Flight by Sarah Wilson

Dragon School - First Flight (cover)Sixteen-year-old Amel arrived at Dragon School just like everyone else – with a dream to ride dragons and join the Dominion Dragon Riders.

But Amel has a crippled leg and Dragon School training is grueling. Before she can even become an initiate, she must complete her First Flight on a dragon.

Can Amel survive First Flight and become a Dragon School initiate or will her dreams dash on the rocks below?

Another book from a USA Today Bestselling Author, this time Sarah Wilson. Dragon School is targeted at the YA market and is the first book (102 pages – Amazon) in a sixteen book series. It should be noted that it is currently riding high in the Amazon YA charts so clearly there are a lot of readers out there tempted by the cover and the blurb. However, not all our judges are the book’s market – some of us are quite old (me, I mean) – and some of us like our fantasy with a harder edge.

Some of our judges liked the YA feel and mentioned that, in that field, they can see it doing very well (it is), but against more serious, grimmer, darker, complicated samples this book didn’t do enough to make us want to all read on. There are echoes of Harry Potter in the choosing sequence, which is quite nicely handled, of Eragon in the dragons, of Dragonlance in the colour of the dragons denoting their powers.

Some of our judges did feel like a disabled character as the focus was an opportunity wasted. Much more could have been done to show the struggles the character faced and perhaps some of it could have been handled in more complex manner. This may have been due to the YA nature of the book, but one or two judges (with personal experience) found it off putting.

This book has a lot to recommend it, as long as you know it is YA and it kind of just stops at the end. Meaning you have to buy the next to read the rest of the story, and we’d imagine, the next and next so on up until the sixteenth.

Spectre of the Spheres by Matthew Ward

Spectre of the Spheres (cover)The world ends each blood moon. But a faction of priestesses sacrifice themselves to keep it going.

What happens when Aceline wants more for her life and decides not to do it?

Wallace has chased his dream of becoming a poet for a lifetime. It leads him toward a mysterious aurora.

Robert just wanted to connect with other humans in a world dictated by screens, algorithms, and addiction.

These three become linked across worlds, and each must uphold their end of a quest to prevent catastrophe at the hands of a tyrant in a land full of necromancy.

This book has some cool ideas in the prologue. Spiders that harbour souls: Sign me up, this sounds like it could be great! There is a battle right at the start to get the reader involved in the story.

However, and you knew that was coming because the book isn’t our finalist, there are some things that, for our judges, just didn’t work as well as perhaps the author intended them. One judge commented that the battle is told to the reader which robs it of any peril, emotional content, a hook to draw you in. For another judge, the narrative voice just didn’t click, yet a third thought the cover was interesting, but the disconnect between prologue and chapter one (always a difficult bridge to cross) was off-putting.

There is a story here that doesn’t quite emerge from the chrysalis of the author’s imagination and as such none of our judges were inclined to read on.

– – –

So there it is. Fantasy-Faction’s first five to fall post of the 2018 SPFBO. Again, it is important to note that 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 are: G R Matthews, Julia Sarene, David Zampa, Jessica Juby, Rachel McCoy, Rakib Khan, and J C Kang. You can read more about each of them here.

Any queries should be directed to me (G R Matthews) via DM (Facebook/Twitter) or my contact form here.

Title image by Jana Dyskantova.


By Geoff Matthews

G. R. Matthews began reading in the cot. His mother, at her wits end with the constant noise and unceasing activity, would plop him down on the soft mattress with an encyclopaedia full of pictures then quietly slip from the room. Growing up, he spent Sunday afternoons on the sofa watching westerns and Bond movies after suffering the dual horror of the sounds of ABBA and the hoover (Vacuum cleaner) drifting up the stairs to wake him in the morning. When not watching the six-gun heroes or spies being out-acted by their own eyebrows he devoured books like a hungry wolf in the dead of winter. Beginning with Patrick Moore and Arthur C Clarke he soon moved on to Isaac Asimov. However, one wet afternoon in a book shop in his hometown, not far from the standing stones of Avebury, he picked up the Pawn of Prophecy and started to read - and now he writes fantasy! Seven Deaths of an Empire coming from Solaris Books, June 2021. Agent: Jamie Cowen, Ampersand Agency. You can follow him on twitter @G_R_Matthews or visit his website at www.grmatthews.com.

4 thoughts on “Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off #4: The Fall of the First Five”
  1. I’m obviously sorry to find my book, BLOOD AND ASHES, among The Fall of the First Five. I was somewhat prepared, however, as the books I entered this year were Paranormal Romance. (I write in a wide variety of Science Fiction and Fantasy sub-genres, but my only new Fantasy books for this year’s SPFBO were Paranormal Romance.) Your review was at least kind. I thought I’d clear up a few mysteries about BLOOD AND ASHES. The main character is a witch who has just begun to experience her powers as both a blood and hedge witch. She’s living in a decaying city that’s fallen on hard times after factories there closed. This city is set in the United States; illegal immigrants from Mexico are being deported. The era is present-day. The guy who comes into her life is a faerie, not a vampire. He has great powers, including glamouring. Eventually, the world of faerie will call on the main character to help them, as they’re dying from a mysterious illness and she has the power to heal through blood magic. I started the book in a tough section of the real world in order to use that as the beginning of the hero’s journey for the main character. From there, she eventually steps into the Land of Faerie. Part 1 takes place in our world. Part 2 takes place in the faerie world. Part 3 takes place in both. Thanks so much for taking part in the SPFBO and taking time to consider my book.

  2. What exactly about Sarah’s handling of Amel’s disability in Dragon School was disliked by the judges? This IS a young adult book, and as someone who is handicapped myself, I think she handled it beautifully. She turned it into a story of hope, pursuing your dreams and not letting your disability get in the way.

  3. Good luck to the first five in all of their future book-sales endeavors. I wish nothing but the best for all of the authors in this contest. Stinks because you know that only one author can win it and there are so many that are worthy. But the good news is that SPFBO shines a bright light on so many great writers that may not have gotten the exposure otherwise!

  4. Since my book is out, I’d like to offer a pitch for anyone who thinks it sounds interesting. Specter of the Spheres is quite non-conventional. It is a deep and complicated book that rewards a careful reading.

    The jarring gap between the fantasy world in the Prologue and our world in Chapter 1 is intentional. It sets up the main mystery and driving force of the novel, namely, how are these two things related? (I’m honestly baffled that someone can acknowledge how strange it is, yet not have any curiosity to find out what is actually going on).

    As any good storyteller, the answer is revealed slowly, over the course of the novel and not fully until the end. It seems the reviewers wanted me to tell them what was going on right from the start.

    Is this novel for you? Well, it explores some nonstandard themes for the fantasy genre like the nature of creativity and what it means to have lived a life worth living.

    Here’s an example of one of the many ways I think the novel rewards a careful reading. The title refers to a line in the Wallace Stevens poem “The Auroras of Autumn.” The main character is a poet named Wallace. He is searching for a mythical aurora that will lead him to another world (the one from the prologue?). Does his inspiration and creativity come from this other world? Does he make it there? If so, what happens there to inspire him?

    All this is to say, if you find this type of fantasy interesting, I’d urge you to try it despite the criticisms given here. This type of fantasy is definitely not for everyone. If you’re looking for the run of the mill quest, there’s a million of those out there. This will force you to think.

    I take things like “There is a story here that doesn’t quite emerge from the chrysalis of the author’s imagination…” to be a compliment. Surely, the same can be said about most great fantasy if you only read the Amazon preview.

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