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 and fresh roadkill on their tongue. To each their own, I suppose.

These are the finalists of the 5th annual Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. Respected blogs, reviewers and readers out there chose these books as the best of their bunch. On that basis alone they deserve a hearty well done! With that in mind, we will review each book honestly and give our opinion (and score).

And this is how these reviews will work. The star number at the top of the page is the average of all the judges’ scores. Judges will give their opinions on the book and say a little bit about why they scored the story the way they did.

Now, onwards with another review of the finalists of SPFBO #5!


Mishi and Taka live each day of their lives with the shadow of death lurking behind them. The struggle to hide the elemental powers that mark the two girls as Kisoshi, separates them from the other orphans, yet forges a deep bond between them.

When Mishi is dragged from the orphanage at the age of eight, the girls are unsure if or when they will find each other again. While their powers grow with each season-cycle, the girls must come to terms with their true selves—Mishi as a warrior, Taka as a healer—as they forge separate paths that lead to the same horrifying discovery.

The Roju council’s dark secret is one it spent centuries of killing to keep, and Mishi and Taka know too much. The two young women have overcome desperate odds in a society where their very existence is a crime, but now that they know the Roju’s secret they find themselves fighting for much more than their own survival.

Judges’ Thoughts

Lynn Kempner

I have developed a distinct craving for Japanese inspired fantasy and this one is highly satisfying. I was delighted to read it. 2019 saw a surge of this type of fantasy worldbuilding and three of the SPFBO #5 finalists have stories in this vein. The amount of detail in this novel is tremendous, and I’m no expert in the field of feudal Japan, but the worldbuilding here is intricate. The hardest thing for English readers will be the challenge of remembering who is who until they become more acquainted with the characters. The names can be a challenge at first, then it settles into a very good tale. 

At its heart is a tale of two orphan girls, separated from one another at the orphanage where they were raised by the kiso they carry. Kiso is a type of elemental magic and the very thing that brought the two together as close as sisters. One is taken into the Josanko school, to become a josanpu, where the council trains women that attend all births in the country. The other, is rescued into a secret Kisoshi training. All is due to the fact that women with powers are forbidden training, and the rarity in Gensokai of a girl child carrying such power. The truth of the purpose of the Josanko is a vile secret the governing council, the Roju, has been hiding from the population of Gensokai for a thousand years. 

The story of Taka and Mishi, and the paths they take, is truly a tragedy and a triumph. While brutal at times, the story is full of magic, and magical creatures. There’s an excellent plot of a quiet rebellion that has been brewing for many years. Taka and Mishi, as children, have no notion of the enormity of the cruelty of the world, but learn it too quickly. Both must find a way to rise above the laws of the Roju Council as they become young women, both gifted and powerful in different ways. 

I will be recommending this book to anyone who is looking for Asian inspired fantasy. It’s very well written, very well edited, and has a beautiful cover as a plus. The pacing is steady, with an action-packed climax. The author’s voice is authentic and strong. It’s isn’t a light read, it’s quite challenging at times, but worth every word. 

G R Matthews

Blade’s Edge does that thing I like the most: it tells an adventure story, but once you’re past the excitement of battles and betrayal, you realise it is really about family, about relationships. I suspect many books are, but the truly good ones make it a real part of the story.

Females are not permitted power in this Japanese inspired fantasy. In fact, it seems as if the whole governmental system is based upon the fear of women, and the power they might control. As we learn this is based on a history of darkness, when women truly did hold power and used it ruthlessly. In an act of rebellion and desperation, the powerful women were cast down, and men rose to power—suppressing in the cruelest manner any chance that female magicians and fighters could ever arise again. What the world needs is balance—and as a reader you realise this quite soon. Surely there should be a chosen one, one who is born to bring balance to the magic. Thankfully not, the author avoids that trap—however, I did get a feeling of Luke and Leia in the idea of lost siblings who find each other once more after some teachings by a mysterious spirit. And also, hello—why didn’t you realise sooner? That bit felt a little too, “here’s a cool twist”, but I don’t mind as it added a dimension to a character who lacked it until then.

As the story of the two orphan girls progress, the world opens up and the cruelty of the Roju council becomes uncomfortably clear. However, there are others working to end this government and they become caught up in the plan. There is definitely enough characterisation, enough secrets and reveals to keep the reader engaged. The fights and relationships are both well written, and though there are moments when the pace lags or nothing much happens, I really enjoyed this whole book and have no hesitation in recommending it to everyone.

A. M. Justice

I liked the story about two orphan girls and childhood friends who follow separate paths to discover their own power and then play key roles in a rebellion against the ruling patriarchy. The characters were also likeable and easy to root for as they set out to right wrongs and correct injustice.

However, although I liked the story and the characters, I found the storytelling very disappointing. All too often, key events occur off-page. Instead of letting the reader experience these moments with the characters, when they would have the most emotional impact or create the most tension, we learn about these events after the fact, as the character reflects on the event or tells someone else about it. If an event is important enough for characters to discuss it, it’s always better to put the discussion off-page (or summarize it in a couple of sentences) and include the event itself in the narrative.

The writing was also a disappointment, with over-packed sentences that bog down the pacing, especially in the action sequences. The choreography of fights is overly detailed, filled with minutiae and the rationale behind character’s choices, rather than simply showing us the flow of the battle and sharing the emotional and physical impact on the fighters. I’m afraid, on balance, I also didn’t like how the major conflict was handled.

On one hand, it’s refreshing to read a “noblebright” tale where the good guys are truly virtuous and their goal is justice for all rather than revenge, but one does not simply walk into Mordor… In other words, the author set up a fight against a thousand-year-old patriarchy, but such a society ought to have deeply ingrained cultural biases that would be one of the most challenging barriers to the achievement of our heroes’ goals. Unfortunately, I did not feel the author adequately dealt with these issues.

Julia Kitvaria Sarene

This one didn’t hook me right away. I needed to get used to the style and tone first—but once I did, I really enjoyed it! I liked both the main characters and was invested in what would happen to them. The side characters could have been fleshed out a bit more at times, but overall, they were still interesting enough to not feel like they bogged the story down. While I usually prefer a grey character over purely good or bad ones, these felt real enough to still keep me hooked.

I especially enjoyed the Asian setting, which was a nice change from all the medieval Europe ones, not just in differences in culture and behaviours, but also in landscape and surroundings.

The prose was well and fluent enough but could have been a little bit more polished at times. There is one page for example that has the very similar words Mishi or Hishi 10 times in just two paragraphs, which felt so repetitive it took away from the story. 

The plot overall was engaging and mostly had me devouring the story, though a few things felt like they were just too easy or felt like they happened because the plot needed them to be work that way. Once again it wasn’t so often it really annoyed me, but with a few other flaws it made what could have been a perfect book for me into “just” a really good one. Which is still a definite recommendation from me!

– – –

So, this one split the judges a little, some scoring it high and others a little lower, which resulted in that average you see at the top. This tale set in a fictional Japanese-esque culture is intriguing and marks another of the finalists with an Asian setting. More power to them, I say. Challenging culture and introducing readers to new backdrops to fantasy tales is what the SPFBO does best. Pick this one up, give it a read!

Stay safe and read a book!


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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