Candles by kafemik (detail)

The third group to be eliminated in this year’s SPFBO includes some really creative and ambitious explorations of intriguing themes, from gender roles to capitalism, to the nature of power and love. As we say with each batch we let go, just because a book appears on this page doesn’t mean it’s unworthy of love, and in this batch, there were some titles that captured and held the interest and attention of at least some of our judges. Reading is, however, subjective, and all of the books in this group had their share of negative as well as positive reviews from our team of judges.

In case you’re keeping track of the titles containing the words shadow or dragon (of which our batch included five and four, respectively), today the remaining dragon books are spared, but we are saying goodbye to one of the shadows.

Kurmaru by Sladen C. Mire

Kurmaru (cover)When Jordan Jaeger is thrust into a world of magic and monsters living inside the city limits, his simple country upbringing with his grandfather seems like a distant memory. Everything from his body breaking training to his mind melting studies wears him down. With the secret, and potentially fatal, ritual hovering over his head he doesn’t allow himself a break. Good thing he’s got a few friends to help along the way.

Kurmaru draws inspiration from classic fantasy worldbuilding, weaving a story set within a universe influenced by modern classics of the hero’s journey, tales of companionship and self-improvement, and a lush spin on classic folklore and fantasy elements. Blending various fantastic hallmarks from a diverse set of cultures, this story embarks on a journey of what it truly means to be human.

Kurmaru is an urban fantasy featuring dragons and vampires that might be enjoyed by YA fans. The intriguing cover caught the eye of several judges, and it is a good representation of the story within. Unfortunately, our judges found the story didn’t live up to that promise. The magical academy plot was contrived and predictable, and the main character’s achievements were too easily gained. Additional editorial polish on the text would also be helpful.

The Ruthless Land by A. B. Endacott

The Ruthless Land (cover)“Lying is not simply about telling a plausible story, it’s about being able to tell what someone will want to believe.”

To outsiders, the Fourth Country is an unforgiving place. Under the leadership of ruthless women, powerful families regularly wage brutal campaigns against one another to increase their land and wealth, and men live in a state of complete subjugation.

Lexana, heiress to the Farwan family, is sent to the Academy, an elite institution where the daughters of powerful families learn and refine techniques to maintain and gain power. There, she finds herself attracted to Jaxen, one of the teachers who defies convention and goes about unveiled. His apparent disregard for what is expected of him leaves her both uneasy and fascinated.

Then the impossible comes to pass, and disaster befalls the Farwan family. Lexa must leave the Academy to find her mother and help restore her family to power. Jaxen insists upon accompanying her, arguing that she cannot survive without his help. Lexa can’t be certain she can trust Jaxen, but he is right; she needs his help if she is to succeed.

Set after the events of Queendom and King of the Seven Lakes comes a standalone book set in the Godskissed Continent which explores questions of family, equality, love, and betrayal.

The Ruthless Land is a coming of age story set in a capitalistic, matriarchal society where men are kept as chattel. Upended gender roles can be both entertaining and thought-provoking, and several judges were excited to see how the author dealt with these themes.

The book began well with lovely prose and a refreshing emphasis on the main character’s mathematical abilities and business acumen rather than brute strength or skill with magic (which is a commodity in this world). However, although some judges were glued to the pages all the way through and admired the twist at the end, others lost interest due to overly detailed descriptions of the physical world and society and under-developed characterizations that prevented them from connecting with the protagonist.

Falling Shadows by Joan Lightning

Falling Shadows (cover)Her powers could doom her world.

Possessing all seven Gifts of magic, Crystu is destined to be one of the leaders of her people, the Guardians of the planet of Reyth.

She’s twenty-one, powerful, and her people’s ancient enemy makes an astounding proposal: The Shadowbringer, a survivor of the war three millennia ago, offers godhood if she will mother a new race of magic users for him. Their children will be strong enough to free him from his long imprisonment, and, together, they will conquer the world.

His followers, gifted with portions of his power, are prepared to destroy everyone and everything Crystu holds dear to persuade her to accept his offer.

The Guardians have been training for generations to prepare for the day when the Shadowbringer begins a new War of Magic and that day has arrived.

But where will he strike first?

Volume 1 of the Guardians of Reyth. Please note that this is not a standalone story.

The judges liked the diverse cast, unique premise, and cool magic system of Falling Shadows, and also lauded some great action scenes. Unfortunately, action sequences were few and far between, and the prose in slower sections of character interaction and description wasn’t strong enough to hold many judges’ interest. The book could also use another editorial pass at both the structural and line/copy edit level—a problem that may be alluded to in the last line of the book description, which essentially warns readers of an abrupt ending our judges found jarring and unsatisfying. Nevertheless, some liked the overarching story well enough that they intend to read the rest of the series.

Lord of Time by Michele Amitrani

Lord of Time (cover)Time doesn’t heal all wounds. It makes them deeper.

Alfred White’s only concern in life is his career. Until he meets Pacific, a mysterious man who questions Alfred’s obedience to a system designed to harvest people’s time.

Yes. Time. Pacific seems to know the inner truth behind time, and he will share this knowledge—if Alfred will accept his mentorship for one day. But Alfred soon learns the road to temporal knowledge is paved with death and destruction.

And, as the day continues, Alfred discovers another truth: there is nothing Pacific wouldn’t do for more time.

This is a very short novel and a quick read that explores what would happen if someone or something could control time. Some judges enjoyed what they thought was strong dialogue, worldbuilding, and character depth. However, others found the prose to be stilted and mired in excess detail, or they had trouble connecting with the characters. Given these mixed reactions, we had to wish Lord of Time farewell.

The Clay Queen by Ono Ekeh

The Clay Queen (cover)Queen Nouei is trapped in the present. She has no memory of the past and can’t even think about the future. And then she discovers why. Her future has already happened and now, she’s heading backward in time to her destruction. Nouei learns she’s the demiurge, the primordial clay, the co-creator of the world and all that exists. And her co-creator, Lord Rynae, the Almighty, has condemned her to death-by returning her to primal form.

When Nouei finds a way to peer into the future, she discovers her future self, from a world five-thousand years later, has set a plan in motion to escape their fate. The plan entails Nouei re-writing and re-engineering their past to resist Lord Rynae’s condemnation.

Nouei recreates her past self, a woman named Bridget. But Bridget has embraced the ideals of the death cult of Lord Rynae, the very god who wishes to annihilate Nouei. If Bridget’s devotion continues, she will die and Nouei’s fate is sealed. Is Nouei powerful enough to steer Bridget away from death?

Nouei wants to live, Bridget is desperate to die. Three histories, two women, one fate?

The Clay Queen is a visionary science fiction saga that takes you through three eras: a post-apocalyptic future four-thousand years from our present, nine-thousand years to the last human society, and to a present to a contemporary alternate-history world.

The cover of The Clay Queen was one of our favorites, and very nearly made the cut to move on to the SPFBO cover finals. The complex, mind-bending tale behind the lovely image gave our judges a lot to sink their teeth into as well. The story is a complex one that skips around between a distant, post-nuclear apocalypse future, to contemporary Earth, to the distant past, as a lesser deity tries to save the people and the world she loves from a more powerful god’s machinations.

Rich with detail, the solid prose sets up multiple conflicts, from the jealous squabbles between the central character’s worshippers, to a war between nations, and a threat to the earth itself. The book also features a diverse cast, an LGBTQ romance, and women in leadership roles, from high priests to the deities themselves. Some of our judges loved the deep dive into politics and religion and enjoyed the overlapping plotlines. Others, however, found the storytelling confusing and didn’t connect well enough with the characters to find the patience to untangle the threads of this complex tapestry.

– – –

And now we are halfway through our 2020 SPFBO batch. Look for more rapid-fire posts as we continue to winnow the field down to our finalist.

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 me, A. M. Justice, via DM (Facebook/Twitter).

Title image by kafemik.


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.

2 thoughts on “Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off #6: The Third Five Fall”
  1. Thank you for reading, as well as for the critiques. I will take that review as a lesson going forward as I move onto other projects, and as I’m finishing off the last book in the kurmaru series. Blessed be.

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