Writing and reading is a subjective art. 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 upon their tongue. To each their own, I suppose.

However, these are the finalists. Well 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).

Now, onward with another review of an SPFBO finalist!


“The Councilate controls everything except the truth. I have nothing save my discovery—but with this shall I destroy an empire.”

Tai Kulga lost the rebellion and his best friend on the same day, stripping him of his will to live even as a strange power flooded his bones. When the friend returns as a spirit guide, it feels like a second chance—but his friend is not who he was, and the Councilate is not done oppressing his people. When trouble with lawkeepers lands Tai’s surviving friends in a prison camp, he must go underground to find the last of the rebels and convince them to break his friends free.

Along the way he meets Ellumia Aygla, runaway Councilate daughter posing as an accountant to escape her family and the avarice of the capital. Curious about the link between spirit guides and magic, her insights earn her a place among the rebels, and along with Tai’s power help turn the tide against the colonialists.

But as the rebels begin to repeat the Councilate’s mistakes, Tai and Ellumia must confront their own pasts and prejudices, before the brewing war turns them into the monsters they fight.

Judges’ Thoughts

Lynn Kempner

This is an entertaining high fantasy with a unique magic system. Most of the population have a resonance or magic, called uia, which they can access by using a moss called Yura. This makes it quite valuable and the greatest source is mined in a settlement called Ayugen. Here the wealthy houses are part of the Councilate, whose goal is to achieve control of the Yura mining and shipments. They’ve imprisoned thousands of the local people and allowed the wealthy Councilate to bring in their armies and press the remaining population into poverty.

The protagonists are Ella and Tai. They meet when Ella, running from her past under an alias, finds herself stranded in Ayugen. Worse, she has unwittingly become an indentured slave. A chance meeting with a street runner named Tai, and the beggar children he looks after, selling Yura on the streets as a black-market product, changes everything Ella thought she knew about uai. The heavy oppression and Ella’s dire predicament set the stage for a rebellion against the Councilate that is destroying the way of life of the native population, the Achuri.

Beggar’s Rebellion is well paced, well edited, and laces a lot of action into the story as it ramps up to a climactic end. It is character driven and loaded with strife and suffering as well as victories that come at a steep price. An enjoyable tale of politics, magic, and the inherent racism of conquerors.

A. M. Justice

Although I enjoyed the main plot of Beggar’s Rebellion, liked Tai very much as a protagonist, and admired the unique magic system, several problems significantly undermined my overall experience with this book. 

First and foremost, I couldn’t help thinking I was reading a first draft of what could have, if properly developed, been a truly great book. Unfortunately, there were numerous continuity errors, including inconsistencies, redundancies, changing character names, allusions to events that didn’t occur (as far as I could recall), characters appearing and disappearing from locations at random or according to author convenience, etc.

The timeframe of the book was also confusing; Tai’s storyline appears to take place over several weeks or months, whereas we’re explicitly told Ella’s storyline occurs over a few weeks at most, yet the pair meet multiple times in that period and experience events in parallel. The book was also poorly edited, with numerous typos and misspellings. Thus, overall, the publication was very sloppy and needed several more rounds of editing to catch and correct these errors.

Another concern was the author’s handling of the colonialism theme. I applaud the author for tackling these issues and using his fantasy setting to explore the capitalist exploitation of native resources, but at the same time I thought there was a troubling lean toward the white savior trope, where Ella, as a member of the “lighthair” colonials, learns from the wise “mudhairs” and decides to help them. At best, there’s a lack of imagination in making the conquerors a pale skinned race while all the subjugated peoples are people of color.

On the other hand, one of the things I liked about the book was the juxtaposition between the different cultures and their differing religious beliefs, from the fascistic, profit-worshiping Councilate to the ancestor-worshipping Achuri, and everyone in between. If the author can do a better job developing the narrative structure of other books set in this world, I would certainly be keen to explore it further.

K. Narayanan

Beggar’s Rebellion is a riveting epic fantasy story with excellent main characters—male and female.

In a lot of ways, this is like Mistborn with hidden abilities coming to the fore upon consuming certain substances, etc. But the story is complex in a different fashion. Where Mistborn explores the hero’s journey, Beggar’s Rebellion is one of the most nuanced takes on colonialism I have read in fantasy. What does it mean when a country colonises another? How does one make a revolution successful? What does it mean when you try to defeat your oppressor using the same means they use to suppress you?

In addition, themes around feminism are also explored quite well. Ella is definitely one of the most well-rounded, capable and plucky heroines I have read in a long time.

– – –

A few of the judges really liked this book and applauded its attempt to explore the themes of colonisation—and like all art, the judges didn’t always agree on how it was handled, but that’s what makes this kind of competition/book review process so interesting.

There are just two more books left for us to review and a winner is close to being crowned!


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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