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, onwards with our another review of the finalists of SPFBO 5!


The Hunt is Coming.

Despite his warriors’ lineage, Erroh would rather waste his potential stumbling alone from one tavern to the next, drinking and gambling. Fate, however, has greater plans for him.

After decades of peace, a great war draws near, and though he doesn’t know it, he is standing in the way of the first wave. What’s more, and very much to his dismay, he’s about to find out he’s not entirely alone either. But Erroh has a plan, a simple plan.

It’ll never work.

Judges’ Thoughts

Lynn Kempner

A long tale at 696 pages, Spark City tells the story of Erroh, a young man meandering his way to Spark City to enter the Cull. Erroh is an Alphaline, which possess strength, agility, fighting prowess, and endurance above the common people referred to as lowerlines. Amongst the common lowerliners, the Alphaline are revered.

The purpose of the Cull in Spark City, is to compete to find an Alphline female to mate for life. But, Erroh prefers solitude and is a gambling cheat whose naive notions leave him unprepared for the challenge. He is the son of an infamous Alphaline, Magnus, and it is a fact he tries to hide whenever he can. His discovery of a horrific mass murder adds a new goal to his journey, and he soon discovers that complacency will be the death of them all. A massive invasion looms and the people aren’t prepared for what’s coming.

I found it difficult to relate with the main protagonists, Erroh and Lea, as they constantly misread situations and bicker. The repetitiveness of this throughout was something I found unpleasant. The prose is passable, but I felt the altered cursing lacking in imagination and is too close to a typo as the author only dropped a letter from words we use every day.

The last portion of the book is the best and at last shows some true character development. War, blood, death. Here we finally get a handle on Lea by way of her journal. I enjoyed that section much more and feel the book could be shorter, and better, if it were more concise with less character introspection.

A. M. Justice

Although it was far from perfect, I loved this low fantasy/post-apocalyptic sci-fi coming of age story about a young man trying to find his own way out from under the shadow of his father, a famous (or infamous) warlord. Right from the start, I appreciated the roguish aspects of Erroh, who cheats at cards, drinks too much, and finds other means of self-sabotage as a way of denying or escaping his heroic birthright. I have always had a tender spot in my heart for reluctant heroes, and Erroh captured mine early on, but I particularly loved the second half of the book, in which Erroh’s love for his mate blossoms and deepens while the couple confronts an enemy incursion.

I also admired a lot of the worldbuilding, such as how society had recast itself in the mold of wolf packs, where there are “alphas” who lead (and who mate for life) and “alphalines,” who are the elite bloodlines in this world. Hints that the story is set in the far future of the Earth or an Earth-like planet many thousands of years after what appears to have been a nuclear apocalypse also hit the right buttons for me.

That said, I had several problems with the novel that kept me from putting it closer to the top of the SPFBO5 pack. First, it was poorly edited and formatted, with lots of typos and a lack of breaks between scenes, which compounded the confusion sometimes caused by the omniscient, abruptly head-hopping style of narration.

Another issue was the society is established as a matriarchy where women hold the social and political power and men are cast in the role of not only protector, but helpmates. However, the author doesn’t seem to have really thought this through, as in practice the female characters take subordinate roles to their male partners and the language of the world is rife with casual misogyny, which simply didn’t fit the social structure the author tells us is in place (although the text also implies this societal shift happened within the past generation or two, so it may be there hasn’t been time for cultural norms to adjust to new social realities?). There also are a few too many plot conveniences for my taste, including the very end which, while emotionally satisfying, seemed implausible.

– – –

So, Spark City gets a respectable finalist score from the judges at Fantasy-Faction and this year’s SPFBO gets closer and closer to an end. It has to be said that any book that reaches this stage has done very well and we wish the author well in the future—they’ve a great platform to jump off from!


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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