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, and the score we are submitting for the contest. Judges will give their individual score below 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!


Ein is on a mission from God. A God of Death.

Time is up for the Emperor of Ten Kings and it falls to a murdered eight-year-old boy to render the judgement of a God. Ein knows he can’t do it alone, but the empire is rife with heroes. The only problem? In order to serve, they must first die.

Ein has four legendary heroes in mind, names from storybooks read to him by his father. Now he must find them and kill them, so he can bring them back to fight the Reaper’s war.

Judge’s Thoughts

Lynn Kempner

I have to admit, I was delighted to see this novel put forward as a finalist. Having already read the book, I’m very fond of it and the characters within. It was just dark enough, and blended with some delightful dialogue, which is downright humorous in spots. 

Hayes is an excellent author and the novel is professional and well done. This Asian fantasy setting is full to the brim with folklore and mythos. A great amount of detailed knowledge of ancient weaponry, armor, and combat inspired by Chinese Wuxia shows the research put into it. Hayes builds his worlds through detailed characterizations and paces it with almost non-stop action throughout the book. I enjoyed it immensely. There are equal parts horror and humor in places all through this story and the ending is an extremely satisfying twist.

A. M. Justice

This martial arts fantasy has a lot to recommend it, including cinematic action and larger-than-life heroes. It is packed full of well-executed fight scenes, and the climactic battle at the end succeeds in being both suspenseful and often moving. There’s also a twist at the end I didn’t see coming.

The writing is a bit stilted, a stylistic choice I believe was a deliberate attempt to capture the larger than life spirit of the characters, but my consciousness of the narration kept the story and characters at arm’s length, rather than immersing me in their adventures, which is my usual preference. I also found the characterizations to be rather two-dimensional and thought only one character had an arc that made me care about his fate. I do think it’s really difficult to write larger than life characters, but I would have enjoyed it more if the author had injected more humanity in each of the protagonists.

Julia Sarene

I enjoyed Never Die quite a bit. I needed quite some chapters to get into it though—especially as it started off feeling like just so many tropes, and the characters felt like walking, talking clichés. While that sort of start made sense retrospectively,

 it didn’t make it easier to fall into this new world at first. It felt a bit repetitive too, with the same thing happening over and over (which I won’t say more about to avoid spoilers). It wasn’t bad and I kept reading as I have confidence in Hayes skills from reading his previous books. I just wasn’t hooked early on as deeply as I wanted to be.

The second half picked up a lot! The characters started to feel real instead of wooden, the plot picked up speed and there was a real sense of the story unfolding at pace! A lot of the things that felt off in the start do get explained and start to slowly make sense. There are unexpected twists and turns that make up for the bumpy start. From reading a bit here and there, I went on to devour the whole thing more or less without a pause. While I know it was a stylistic choice, and I understand how clever it was actually done, a new reader might drop this early on.

Rakib Ahmad Khan

Hayes has become a well-known name in the world of self-publishing, and that is for a definite reason. He once again creates an interesting setting and tells his story with a firm grasp on the plot progression.

This is a wuxia inspired work and does have its share of clichéd bits, but the execution is skillful enough to make the reading worthwhile. The characters are also adequately fleshed out and the action sequences are quite enjoyable.

Despite the apparent issues, the enjoyment factor is obviously the driving force of this book.

– – –

And that’s Rob J. Hayes’ Never Die—a book, like a few in this final, set in Asia. It is great to see this setting getting a lot more attention and readers are diving in, enjoying, and experiencing fantasy in something other than a European setting.

We’ll get on with the rest of the reviews at a pace and we can’t wait to see which book wins the whole thing!

Stay safe and read books!


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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