* 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 read all 30 books in no particular order and ‘rejected’ them in similar fashion. And, to be clear, were reading like agents, we read the first three chapters or ten thousand words (give or take) using the Amazon Sample whenever possible. Our judges recorded their comments and we based our decisions to keep or, sadly, reject based on that alone.

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

These remaining five books are the ones who made it through our initial slush reading and were given a second look by our judges. They were the stories we thought had the best beginning and, just like an agent, the ones that intrigued us the most. Often more than one judge read a book and fed back into the central vat of thoughts, ideas, reviews, loves and dislikes, from which we selected our finalist.

So without further ado, here are our last five picks, in no particular order, for the first round of the 2018’s SPFBO!

Carnifex by D. P. Prior

Carnifex (cover)For more than a thousand years, the dwarves have hidden away from the world in their ravine city of Arx Gravis. Governed by an inflexible council whose sole aim is to avoid the errors of the past. The defining virtue of their society: nothing should ever change.

But when the Scriptorium is broken into, and Ravine Guard Carnifex Thane sees a homunculus fleeing the scene of the crime, events are set in motion that will ensure nothing will ever be the same again. Deception and death are coming to Arx Gravis.

The riddles that preceded Carnifex’s birth crystalize into a horrifying fate that inexorably closes in. But it is in blood that legends are born, and redemption is sometimes seeded in the gravest of sins. For Carnifex is destined to become the Ravine Butcher, before even that grim appellation is forever lost, along with everything that once defined him.

The story of Carnifex starts strong and the concept of a whole book set in a Dwarven culture, separate from the rest of world, is definitely intriguing.

There is a murder and a chase through the city of the Dwarves which introduces us to the main characters, the threat and teases that there are greater things going on than we are currently aware. This start is one of the reasons we picked it as a book to ‘request a full manuscript’ of (read all the way through).

Carinfex himself is a likeable character, always trying to do the right thing, to be brave and steadfast. Behind him is a history, a family secret or prophecy, and he is drawn to something deeper within Dwarven culture, though he fights it at times. Carnifex’s brother is also well-drawn character and there is some unrequited love, realised and revealed too late to add the intended poignancy to the story.

The worldbuilding, for even this small contained environment, is excellent with different tiers, different vocations and a rich political seam running through it. Though the society seems to have stagnated over the centuries there are brewers, miners, guards, council and the baresarks, the wild dwarfs, who give it a vibrancy. I am not sure I ever really grasped the entire history, but the story moved on at a good pace so I didn’t notice the gaps in my own understanding so much. The token human, a wise Gandalf, Macros the Black type character, forever hints that he knows a lot more than everyone else.

The weakness of the book is the ending. There is a lot of buildup and the stakes are high, but the nature of the events which take place remove the agency from the character – he is no longer in control of his actions, no longer making choices and a mere passenger to the slaughter which occurs at his hand. My interest here began to decline. There is a moral conflict inherent in this section, but it really doesn’t come through as strongly as I wanted and the resolution muddies the pathos and sadness which should come along with it.

Overall, I like this book. The culture, Carnifex and his friends carry you along on their adventure right up to the end.

Rogue Arcanist by Alan Brenik

Rogue Arcanist (cover)Arcanists are born with the ability to manipulate reality with their spellcraft, their existence is a closely guarded secret; they’re among the most dangerous people on the planet, and rogues are some of the worst.

Nick Teller isn’t a rogue arcanist by choice; he’d been born to it. But he understands the death sentence that carries if the totalitarian Society of Arcanists ever find him. That’s why he left that life to become a lecturer at King’s College London. Staying hidden, staying safe.

But nothing lasts forever.

Nick Teller, not his real name, is an Arcanist, a rogue one. This means he does not belong to the hidden society who exist to police the use of magic. One evening Nick interrupts a powerful magical ritual taking place in his University and sets a chain of events in motion which lead up to a satisfying battle at the end.

Set in London, in the UK for those not in the geographical know, Nick lives with the tribulations of traffic, police and interdepartmental politics. At the weekend, or evenings, he teaches swordsmanship to some of the students at his University. Nick’s love life is a mess, though one of his colleagues may be able to set him up with a suitable date. It is in his workroom hidden away in the maze of the old building is where he does his real work.

Interrupting the ritual changes Nick’s life. His comfortable existence is shattered and he finds he must balance his use of magic against the lives of his friends and students. The story moves along at a pace and there are twists and turns that lead us up blind alleyways and smack into the walls at the darkened end. The magic is good, a mix of instinctual, elemental and careful ritual and preparation. Nick, despite his powers, is not all-powerful and neither does magic solve all problems. Sometimes a quick stab with a sword or running away are better options.

It is worth noting that the whole book has a feeling of ‘Dresden Does the UK’ about it. The Society has enforcers, Black Cloaks, who serves as judge, jury and executioner. Nick has a large magical dog which works with and protects him. His mother appears to both mysterious, dangerous and dangerously insane.

During the events the regular police become involved and one appears to be called Ben Miller, the actor who plays a detective in the BBC series from Death in Paradise, which may or may not have been on purpose, but it made me smile.

The battles are good, a mix of magic and melee, but are robbed of some pace and excitement by the constant over-thinking, over-analysing, and over-describing that Nick indulges in. Particularly, during the final battle, instead of acting, he watches people get torn apart and killed when he should have been fighting.

The book rounds off nicely with some pathos, some choices, but there is that derivative feel and my frustrations with the main character linger for a time. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it, because I did!

The Engineer by Darran M. Handshaw

The Engineer (cover)“We are born in the shadow of fading memories and fallen dreams, living our days within the decaying bones of an age long gone.”

When the Engineer, Actaeon arrives at Pyramid in the heart of Redemption, nothing goes according to plan. Mysterious raiders pursue him relentlessly across the shattered remains of the ancient metropolis, and the leaders of his homeland pay no heed to his ambitious ideas.

Meanwhile, deep beneath Pyramid, a deadly creature stirs. And, when Actaeon meets a skilled young Knight Arbiter with brilliant blue eyes, he starts down a path he could never have imagined.

The vast, fallen city of the Ancients is home to a new people who face the constant struggle to find resources needed to survive in the dangerous ruins. For the Engineer, however, Redemption is a treasure trove of technology, opportunity, and answers. But his unique skills make him a target for those who would use his talents to achieve their own dreams of power and control.

In his endless quest for the truth, will Actaeon discover the fallen city’s greatest secrets? Or will he share the same fate as the Ancients of whom nothing remains but a whisper?

One thing is certain: in Redemption, everything comes with a cost.

The beginning to this book caught a lot of our judges’ attention. It is just different from everything else we read and stood out, and made us want to read more. Captured and tied up, our protagonist is smart-mouthed and confident of escape. The initial fight is handled well and there is a sense of threat inherent within it.

Also, the tone set for the world is intriguing. This isn’t a standard fantasy world, there are overtones of science fiction, and of a world faded from greatness to barely hanging on. How did the world get like this? Who lives there? How do they live? All the questions pop into your mind and you’re curious to discover more.

The whole book is produced with a such a high degree of polish and finish that any of the Big 5 would be proud to put their name to it. The map and the high quality of the editing speak of a labour of love and desire to put out the very best product possible. Combined with the excellent start, this book has masses of promise.

However, and you knew that was coming, the polish, worldbuilding and start are hard acts to follow. Sadly, the book and character begin to lose their way as it moves forward, never taking the step to greatness we expected. Our judges found the number of names introduced so quickly hard to follow and there were some infodumps later on which drew another judge away from the plot. I wanted to get a real sense of where the story was going, what the main character was trying to achieve, earlier on so I could plough through some of the mis-steps (which every book makes – remember this is all subjective).

Every judge who chose this as a possible finalist really hopes the author keeps writing – there is promise we so dearly hope can be matched – and will keep an eye out for future endeavours.

The Rise of the Fallen by Peter Fugazzotto

Rise of the Fallen (cover)Enter a world of fungal magic, a vengeful duke bent on a bloody civil war … and a secret that will turn a tropical empire on its head.

Cast out as a royal bodyguard for failing to stop an assassination, Maja, a master of the sword, lives out her exile among pirates on the outer islands.

But when a dying mentor charges her with bringing a young monk to the capital, Maja’s world is shaken.

Returning the boy comes with a price. Pursued by a mad torturer, Maja will risk her life and those of the Fallen, her embittered former companions, to protect the boy. Pitting her thirst for revenge against the desires of the Fallen, she must decide where her true loyalties lie.

The cover for The Rise of the Fallen is certainly a big selling point. Even for a man with defunct colour vision (me), it is clear that this is set in a lot of green and the motion of the character, the drawn swords, all convey a sense of urgency and action. We looked forward to the story that matched the cover.

The Rise of the Fallen begins with a prologue, and if you’ve read our other reviews of the SPFBO books you’ll know this can be a problem for our judges and so it is here. While it sets up a character and a bit of the world – pointing out that the Queen is unpleasant, as is the Duke, but that the distant Emperor seems to have no interest in either of them is good – it jars with the first chapter set fifteen years later.

We rejoin Maja at the age of twenty-seven and now a pirate. Someone who is on the run from the Queen and yet is an incomparably skilled with the sword, few would stand against her and those that did would fall in a few seconds. A village is burning, corpses smoulder and there are threats abound. This is much stronger start and the reason we chose to ‘request the full manuscript’ (as I appear to have taken to calling it). How did this dangerous woman go from protector to pirate? It is that kind of question that draws you into a book.

Where our judges found a little less interest was in the characters and setting themselves. A tropical biome is ripe for poison, strange beasts, ruins and every other thing you can think of from such shows as Tarzan, Romancing the Stone, or Tales of the Gold Monkey (an oft forgotten gem of 80s telly), but our judges felt this wasn’t realised as they read on. The characters were a little flat and seemed all to react in the same manner – a spark of humour would have been a welcome change and brought them to life.

None of this is to say it is not a good book because it has a lot to offer, the fungal magic is interesting and offers a new idea that will capture many readers.

Ruthless Magic by Megan Crewe

Ruthless Magic (cover)Each year, the North American Confederation of Mages assesses every sixteen-year-old novice. Some will be chosen. The rest must undergo a procedure to destroy their magical ability unless they prove themselves in the mysterious and brutal Mages’ Exam.

Disadvantaged by her parents’ low standing, Rocío Lopez has dedicated herself to expanding her considerable talent to earn a place in the Confederation. Their rejection leaves her reeling—and determined to fight to keep her magic.

But in the contest to keep her magic, the only options may be die . . . or kill.

To our judges this book would fit nicely in the urban fantasy/YA genre with a hint of the Harry Potters (the later books) about it. And that’s a good thing!

Set in New York, the story begins by introducing us to the main characters the world they inhabit. A society of Mages and Non-Mages where those with drop of magical talent must prove their abilities or have the power burned from them. It all sounds quite a dark thing to do young people – fail an exam and you’ll be an effective zombie with little future ahead of you. Modern society would never do that to its children…would it?

This book is about the children who didn’t get chosen, who failed their first exam. But there is a hope, a second chance to succeed before they lose their magic by completing some exceedingly difficult tasks and tests.

There are main protagonists. A boy of an “old magic” family who has little magic himself but chooses to undergo the test in an attempt to lose the place he feels he doesn’t deserve – a moral choice, but with so much at risk. A girl, a friend of our “old magic” family, with a great deal of magic but from a newly magic and wealthy family. Lastly, a second young lady from a new magic family, but from the lower end of society whose brother died in the same test. Here we have some class and wealth versus talent – an argument for a meritocracy not a plutocracy?

The tale becomes darker as the story progresses as the second-chance candidates enter Hunger Games territory. Our judge noted the book was a little too “morally correct” at times, but that is also quite normal for the YA market.

Overall, the story was interesting and the characters likable even if some of the secondary characters were a little bit bland or tropey. Our judge is of the firm opinion that there is a lot to like and enjoy in this book!

And the Winner Is!

Ruthless Magic! Congratulations to Megan Crewe!

Ruthless Magic (detail)

Commiserations to the other authors. There was little to separate the finalists in the end and it came down to a group decision (argument, recriminations, bouts of silence, moodiness and sulking…and that was just me). Really well done to you all! It takes a lot of courage and hope to enter this competition, and we take it as a privilege to read the result of all your efforts, time, love, and dedication.

Again, it is important to note that these are just the judges’ opinions. Others may view the books differently, that’s what makes writing and reading so much fun (and so infuriating). On to the finals we go!

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 via the Fantasy-Faction website.

Title image by Theo Crazzolara.


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.

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