stacked books by Andrew Draper (detail)

The last month of Phase I of the SPFBO is always a nail-biter for authors who remain in the competition, and it is with great sympathy that we say goodbye to our next five from the Fantasy-Faction batch. This week’s titles feature cool magical animals and shifters as well as some classic struggles between good and evil played out across the gamut of fantasy subgenres, from epic to steampunk to urban. Now comes the standard language about how reading is a subjective exercise, and although these books didn’t rise to the top in our judges’ eyes, each one has something a lot of other readers might enjoy.

Today’s cuts include one title containing the word dragon and one with the word shadow, leaving three shadows and one dragon still in the race.

Dragonseer by Chris Behrsin

Dragonseer (Secicao Blight cover)To betray the empire or her dragon?

In the era of dragons, airships, and automatons, Pontopa faces a difficult choice. She could work for the king, liaising with merchant traders, for good money. But this would support his war against dragons, putting Pontopa’s own dragon in danger. Or she could exile to a land where grey dragons run amok. But the king is ruthless and disobeying his edict would risk her parents’ lives.

It will take a chance meeting with her favourite author for Pontopa to make up her mind. And she’ll discover her destiny is not as clear-cut as she first realised. Because a rare few remain from an ancient lineage who can sing legions of dragons into battle.

In a now endangered era, Pontopa Wells might just be a Dragonseer.

Dragonseer delivers on the cover’s promise of a “rip-roaring steampunk adventure,” as two rival mad scientists exploit the talents of a young woman and her dragon for their own benefit. The plot is full of unexpected twists, and turns into some dark territory involving kidnapping and forced drug use. Unfortunately, the protagonist lacks agency and is merely blown along in a narrative that relies on convenience and coincidence. In addition, the magic system is poorly explained. For these reasons, judges found it difficult to invest in the main character or her fate.

The Longest Shadow by Stephen Murray

The Longest Shadow (cover)A charnel wall of fog creeps across the western horizon bringing with it ancient terrors and walking nightmares, spoken of in fearful whispers as the Perash. On the farthest reaches of the Hardic Empire, disgraced general Tybir Galingar is faced with a dire choice between certain death at the hands of the Perash or, to return to his former home and the vengeance of an Emperor he once sought to usurp.

The Stillborn King, Hector Aris sits atop a teetering throne. Cursed by his inability to sire an heir, his enemies circle ever closer and the weight of the crown grows heavier with each passing day. With the Hardic Empire in a crisis of succession and an otherworldly threat encroaching from the west, Hector is forced to confront the failings of his past if he is to salvage any future for his people.

In the secretive order of the Praetory, a young girl named Pan toils reluctantly to join the caste of imperial guards and spies known as the Praetors. Abandoned by a war-mongering father and ward to an Emperor, Pan finds herself embroiled in a web of conspiracies, wending a bloody path towards the throne.

All paths converge in Virangan the jewel of the Hardic Empire, where knives are drawn in shadow-draped streets and a climactic confrontation with the Perash decides the fate of all.

The mythic animals populating The Longest Shadow, including gryphons, panthers, and a gigantic turtle, were the gems of this book, along with some stunning descriptions of landscapes and the flight of refugees. Unfortunately, those descriptions are rife with grammatical errors, and the mistakes are so frequent they leave the reader confused. Still, the author has a promising imagination, and with better editing, this could be a great read.

Rivers Run Red by A. D. Green

Rivers Run Red (cover)In the Nine Kingdoms, lords and churches dance to a song of war and murder.

But unknown to the players, the song is changing. The Tainted One has returned; harbinger of a cycle of destruction as old as humankind itself. A kingdom is on the verge of collapse; humankind is on the fringes of annihilation—but the lords and ladies, the holy men and the apostates, the great and the small; all just keep spinning with the music.

Nihm is a young woman, living peacefully on the edges of the wilds. But as the hordes descend upon the Nine Kingdoms, she finds herself at its forefront, in a race for survival. Where truths will be revealed and her world will change, challenging who and what she is.

Renco is a mute, raised by an outcast from an Ancient Order. His master hones his mind and body to a fine edge. But to what purpose? Join an epic fantasy and follow Nihm and Renco as their journey unfolds. Can two people really change the fate of a world?

Rivers Run Red has an arresting cover, and the opening prologue and early chapters promise an epic fantasy tale in the classic style. Familiar tropes like orcs and elves, political intrigue, and a big bad in the shadows are like comfort food, and in the right time and place are a pleasure to read. However, our judges found the story a little too familiar, with nothing unique to make it stand out. This, along with a plethora of editorial errors and poor formatting of the copy we received (although the Amazon sample looks much better), led our judges to set this one aside.

Path of the Tiger by J. M. Hemmings

Path of the Tiger (cover)When the world was still young and civilisation was but a dream, they walked among us, alternately revered as living gods and feared as powerful demons. Beastwalkers: nearly immortal men and women who could wear the living bodies of animals.

As the empires of humankind grew, the existence of these beings passed from incontrovertible truth to hazy memory, fading in time to legend and eventually crumbling into myth. But the beastwalkers endured, living hundreds of secret lives, drifting surreptitiously through countless centuries and the rise and fall of civilisations, like fireflies travelling through a night forest. Only a few still draw breath, hunted relentlessly by a global cabal bent both on their final extermination and unchallenged dominion over our entire planet.

Now, in the 21st Century, the remaining beastwalkers will make their final stand…but unbeknown to us, their struggle is our struggle, and the vicious campaign of extermination directed against them is, ultimately, a war of attrition waged on all living things. Will the beastwalkers prevail in their last battle and survive the coming storm … or will they, along with humankind and the rest of the living world, face total destruction in a cataclysm of final doom?

At over 1000 pages, Path of the Tiger is the longest book entered in this year’s SPFBO and may be the longest ever entered. Although the finals have seen their share of some very long books, to get there, the doorstoppers have to lock down readers’ interest from page one. In this case, the author does tempt us with cinematic descriptions of both landscapes and action in a unique mashup of historical fantasy, urban fantasy, and cyberpunk, as a dying race of shifters battle corporate greed and environmental destruction. However, a very large cast and an omniscient narrative style leave the reader reeling and unsure who to root for. The prose is clean and engaging, until one stumbles across the many inconsistencies and leaps of logic. It frankly felt like reading a first draft, albeit from a talented author. If the text were better edited—not for grammar but to correct implausibilities and continuity errors as well as prune excess verbiage—this could be a very fine read.

Keepers of Arden: The Brothers, Volume 1 by L. K. Evans

Keepers of Arden: The Brothers, Volume 1 (cover)Over a thousand years have passed since the Long Wars ended and the higher gods abandoned the lands of Arden. Divided and fearful, Arden has managed to secure a restless peace.

But peace never lasts. Darkness creeps through the lands once more. Salvarias, a man born of shadow and fire, will become hunted for his magic and a power that can grant a vile god instant victory. Only his brother, Wilhelm, can save him from not only the evil stalking him, but also the darkness that grows within.

Keepers of Arden has a lot going for it, starting with a pair of brothers: one a large and strong fighter, the other a sickly but powerful mage who are reminiscent of Caramon and Raistlin Majere of the Dragonlance series (although the brothers in Keepers aren’t twins). This is a dark, tragic story that balances horrific evil (including depictions of abuse and torture) with unbreakable brotherly love. The main characters are deeply flawed with a strong emotional (and magical) bond that makes their struggles compelling. Despite these merits, however, some judges felt the contrasts between good and evil were too stark, and the narrative would have benefited from more nuance, especially given the young mage’s struggles against his inner demons.

– – –

Thus, we have now eliminated 20 titles from our 2020 SPFBO batch. Look for the next Five to Fall post on October 23. After that, the last four books will be our semi-finalists and will each get a full review during the last week of October. We will announce our finalist on October 30.

Our judges are A. M. Justice, Alicia Wanstall-Burke, Amanda Cenker, Julia Kitvaria Sarene, Kartik Narayanan, Kerry Smith, Lynn Kempner, and Mariëlle Ooms-Voges. If you’d like to learn more about us, including our likes and dislikes, you can read about them here.

Any queries should be directed to A. M. Justice via DM (Facebook/Twitter).

Title image by Andrew Draper.


By A. M. Justice

A. M. Justice is an award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy, a freelance science writer, and an amateur astronomer, scuba diver, and once and future tango dancer. She currently lives in Brooklyn with a husband, a daughter, and two cats. You can follow her on Twitter @AMJusticeWrites.

One thought on “Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off #6: The Fourth Five Fall”
  1. Hello,
    I just wanted to say thank you to all of the judges and this blog for participating in the self-published blogoff. All the time you give to competition is very much appreciated. I hope everyone stays safe and healthy.
    Thank you again.
    Lesli Evans

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