SPFBO10 Meet - Summoning the Phoenix by Tithi Luadthong (detail)

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Hello, Editor Jennie here. It turns out Julia wrote a much more in-depth look at how we pick our books for the SPFBO, that I completely missed before I posted mine. So, on top of getting an interview with our judging team today, you also get more information on our process! Enjoy! (Sorry, again, Julia.)

Time goes by quicker than should be possible, and it’s already time for another round of SPFBO! And not just any round, it’s the ten-year anniversary of this fantastic contest, that’s grown so very well. Keep your eyes out, there will be something special coming!

Fantasy-Faction is obviously once again one of the blogs who judge the contest, and so it’s time to explain what you can expect and what’s going on behind the scenes.

So, we’re starting with a really big team, which is a lesson I learned early, as we always lose some on the way. Sometimes real life happens, or someone underestimated the sheer amount of work involved. So, for now we’re at ten people, though our fearless leader Jennie is more involved in organising and such, than in the scoring. 

Once we got our allocated books, and Jennie has vetted them all for rule conformity, we start reading! We have a sheet for all our books, and in round one, we don’t score books, but just use a colour code. Every judge tries to give every book a try, so we have as many eyes and tastes as possible for balance. We don’t have a set minimum that needs to be read, but judges are free to DNF (Did Not Finish = stop reading before the end of the book) whenever they know the book is not it. This is why we don’t really score at this point, as you can’t really score a book you only read 50 pages off, with your agent hat on.

Our colour code is:

  • Red for DNF
  • Yellow for Not Sure
  • Green for Yes, more please! 

The overwhelmingly green ones will be our semi-finalists, and yes, we had books that had red and green from different judges before!

Once we see a clear pattern, as many judges as possible finish the semi-finalists, and score those, the highest average will be our finalist for round two!

We also have a second document, where we jot down notes about the books, as we go. From those we try to write up at least a mini review for each book. Sometimes, if the book didn’t click with any of the judges, those will be super short, as we’re not in this to rip a book apart, but to shine a light on the hidden gems.

When all that is done, off we go into round two! Here the main difference is, we try to have everyone to finish every book, and rate them all. Aside from that, same as before, everyone puts their scores on a sheet, and their thoughts on a doc.

We’ve already started reading and are so excited to jump into a new round of adventure!

Now let’s get a more in-depth introduction to our judges, so you know who’s on the other side of the display or screen.

I simply live to find the hidden gems, the small voices usually overlooked, the special books that just aren’t easy to categorise. SPFBO has helped me find so many of my favourite books over the years!

The excitement of discovery, I think. When I heard there was an opportunity to join the Fantasy-Faction team, I couldn’t pass it up. I love having wonderful books to recommend to people. It’s also a lot of fun to be part of a team and share the experience of discovering new books together.

I was invited to judge for FF last year as a ring in and it’s always kinda been a dream to be a judge for SPFBO, so of course I had to come back and do it again from the start. Slush pile come at me!!!

*makes grabby hands*

I’m a big fan of the competition and what it does for indie authors and the community as a whole. 

Ever since I was a contestant in SPFBO, I’ve felt like I should try to give something back by helping the judges out. I genuinely think that SPFBO is the most significant thing that has happened to indie fantasy, and it’s certainly helped me discover some brilliant authors. I want to add what weight I can to the effort.

I became a judge for SPFBO6 & have enjoyed myself every year so far and aways look forward to the beginning of June. I love finding books that excite me; writers that make me cry, laugh, or give me a visceral punch to my gut and I love being surprised by enjoying a book in a genre that I tend to avoid. 

SPFBO also is a wonderful community—I’ve made some great friends amongst my fellow judges, other reviewers, and some of the authors. I’m also still waiting for that 10/10 book to come along. 

SPFBO was my introduction to indie books and about four years ago I began reading the finalists of that year along with the winner books of years prior and I was hooked. The more I read, the more interested I became in indie publishing, and I haven’t really left. Like I said last year, two-hundred and ninety-nine books don’t make the cut, but even among those that never reach the status of semi-finalists, there are always wonderful new books and authors to discover, so when presented with the chance to be part of the competition, who wouldn’t want to join?! 

I couldn’t possibly pass up the opportunity to be involved in such an awesome endeavor. SPFBO is the perfect place to discover new authors and books, and the opportunity to potentially contribute to an indie author’s success, or merely supporting/contributing to their exposure is extremely rewarding. 

I love almost all things fantasy, so that’s a hard question! What I definitely miss are good urban fantasy stories, so I definitely wish we had more of those. I’m also a sucker for some of the good old tropes, like “learning along with the characters”, be that a master and apprentice relationship, or something like a school setting. Found family and strong friendships, as well a diverse cast are always a plus! Most of all, I hope I will be surprised.

Otherwise, I love cosy as much as grimdark, and popcorn as much as complex!

Progression fantasy is my jam. Not litRPG, but worlds where the characters grow in power (think the Cradle series). Bonus if that growth is linked to the story or their personal growth as individuals. It’s probably no surprise that I also enjoy the coming-of-age trope. Found family and friendships that become relationships are also favorites of mine. The more emotions, the better.

I love all of the fantasy things so no specific fave subgenre. I’m always one for found family, a diverse cast with great rep. I also love healthy, supportive, loving platonic relationships between characters.

I’m a big fan of character-driven stories. If your characters are great, I’ll forgive a lot else. I also want to see things that are new. There’s certainly a place for well-written traditional fantasy, but I want to see your own unique visions and ideas. Surprise me and amaze me! I know many of our contestants will.

Whilst I tend towards grimdark and urban fantasy, I will generally read most anything, especially if there’s a murder mystery to be solved. I’m a fan of character driven books and dislike long winded descriptions of every tree, rocky crag, or piece of armour. Progression fantasy is a genre I’m beginning to enjoy as I find more well written books in this subgenre. 

I have never really preferred one genre over another. Whatever I read, I read it based on my mood. If I’m happy I want something daring, bold, and epic. And if sad, maybe something simple, feel good, and cosy. What I am always hoping to see is the unexpected. The subverted tropes, or the mash-up of genres! I want to be surprised. At the end of the day though, I just want to read the best of whatever it is. I want to put that book down and be depressed because I will never get to read it for the first time again. 

I’m a huge fan of character-driven stories. I’m also eager to encounter fresh, innovative concepts. I have a special love for the darker side of stories, filled with twists, morally grey characters, and intricate worldbuilding. Bring on the complexity and the unexpected—let’s dive into some unforgettable adventures together!

I’m a plot-whore who values good writing and complex characters, but I’m the worst person to ask about tropes—I don’t really pay much attention to that sort of thing while reading. That said, I will absolutely roll my eyes at a ridiculous betrayal situation (like ‘you stole my apple, so I’m going to reveal your location to your arch enemy and make sure they murder your entire family and completely destroy your life’) or a forced, non-sensical love triangle type situation.

My preferences lean toward dark, urban, sci-fantasy, progression, and steampunk stories, though I will happily read and enjoy pretty much all fantasy genres.

I’m looking forward to some genre mashups and being blindsided—love a good blindside—either by a brilliant plot-twist, an awesome book, or an exciting new author.

Everyone who knows me, knows I’m not really into the romance, or very emotional side of things. While I’m fine with a solid relationship, all the “will they, won’t they” or “enemies to lovers” or such tropes usually are a really hard sell for me. Despite that, if they are super well written, they can still be my favourite book of the year, like Fortune’s Fool was for example.

I struggle with anything that is super dark. Actually, that might not be the way to say it. I don’t mind thematically dark books, but the subgenres that feel entirely hopeless, those aren’t for me. 

I have very few triggers and will read anything with a great story so not really. I love all genres equally for the most part, it really depends on my mood. I love low fantasy slice of life, to portal and epic fantasy, to historical fantasy, to spicy romantasy to the depth of grimdark despair.




As long as it’s well written and has characters I want to know about, they don’t even have to be ‘good’.

I can genuinely say that I’ve loved books in pretty much every subgenre. If your book is very dark and grim, you might have to work hard to win me over, but some of my favourite books could be described in that way. Likewise, I am probably more picky with romance and litRPG than other subgenres, but if they are good, I’ll read them!

I am not a fan of paranormal romance, sparkly vampires or packs of Alpha/Beta werewolves. I am also not a fan of descriptive sex scenes—the more off page, the better.

LitRPG is one subgenre that I’m still unsure about. I’m not a fan of pages filled with statistics but I’m okay with a book that is loosely based on a D&D RPG played by the author. An Ocean of Others, one of our semi-finalists last year is the type of litRPG that I can get into. 

I do have a bit of a struggle with YA. Very few authors I’ve read write YA well and I have come to realise it’s because they become shackled by the constraints of the characters’ age. It’s hard to write the heavy stuff when your protagonist is a teen that should not have to deal with whatever it is. How do you make something PG-13 when the subject matter is rated R you know? It’s hard.

And sometimes the story is good, the worldbuilding is amazing but then it’s kind of very unbelievable that this kid is somehow solving problems I have seen grown men weep over. When that balance is struck though, magic does indeed happen. Also, if I see one more “strong” female lead in whatever genre lose agency and have all her problems solved by the alpha/billionaire/ten-thousand year old vampire/whatever, I think I will scream.

I will read any well-written story on any subgenre, but my least attractive subgenre would be probably paranormal romance or YA, but I have my exceptions. 

I’m not really a fan of excessively mushy romance novels that only have a hint of fantasy and over-accommodating characters.

Oh, so many! To keep this brief, I’ll just go with a few from the top of my head, instead of thinking about it for any amount of time.

J. A. Andrews, Rob J. Hayes, Michael Fletcher, Stephanie Burgis, Graham Austin-King, Michael McClung….

Will Wight, M. L. Wang, Angela Boord, Travis Riddle, Stephanie Burgis, Tao Wong, Andrew Rowe, Olivia Atwater, Quenby Olson, and that is honestly only a small sampling.

Wow. That’s like asking which kid is your favourite. We don’t ask such things! Buuuut, a few that come to mind in this moment are J. D. Evans, J. A. Andrews, Zamil Akhtar, Andrew Rowe, Kelly St. Clare, Krystle Matar, Mr. Fletcher, Andy Peloquin, and Andrew D. Meredith.

Oh, so many. I’m scared of missing my favourites out, so I’ll just stick to the two authors who converted me to indie fantasy in the first place: Rob J. Hayes and Dyrk Ashton.

So many over the years but some authors that I’ve gone back and reread their books because they’ve really made an impact are Jesse Teller, Sarah Chorn, Holly Tinsley, Phil Williams, Rob J. Hayes, Michael Fletcher, Clayton Snyder, and Craig (Heather) Schaefer. 

How do you even pick?! I guess I’ll put down some I have followed after picking up that first book of theirs: J. Zachary Pike, Zamil Akhtar, Tatiana Obey, H. J. Tolson. And three that deserted us to go trad: Kimberly Lemming, Travis Baldree, M. L. Wang.

Since I started my indie fantasy journey too many. M. L. Wang, Rachel Renner, Ryan Cahill, Philip C. Quaintrell, Clayton Snyder, Andy Peloquin.

I have too many favourite indie authors to list (some have already been mentioned) and I would hate myself if I left anyone out, so no list from me today.

I’d definitely be a hobbit. I hate wearing shoes, I love to eat all day, and I’m not much into adventure, unless it’s in one of my books!

This is harder than I expected it to be. I want to say Dragonborn (from D&D) or a Dunmer (from the Elder Scrolls series), but who am I kidding? I’d be an immortal elf locked in a library trying to read every. Single. Book. 

I wanna say some badass warrior type with elemental magic but to be honest, umm probably whatever the race of the being that dies first in every book. ??

Like Julia, I’d be a hobbit. In fact, I may already be. Comfort, good books, and a peaceful existence is my ideal.

Although I’m likely to be cast as the blind, toothless crone living in a scary wood; I’d like to be an immortal owner of a magical pop-up bookstore. 

In real life I’m like 80% vampire already, dressed mostly in black, tall, pale and with a UV light allergy. It would be nice to add immortality to that, although I’m not too sure about the blood drinking aspect, I love food. But imagine being immortal! Endless time to read more books, write more stories, learn so many languages, explore cultures, travel, craft.

I’d be a very boring vampire to be honest. 

A new hybrid race of elves and vampires.

I think I’d want to be some kind of magic-wielder or elementalist. Ooh, being The Avatar might be nice.

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Thank you to our judges for taking some time to talk with us! If you want to see how more about how the contest works and what books we’re reading this year, as well as learn even more about our judges, you can do so here. If you’d like to follow along more closely, you can join the SPFBO Facebook group and follow the #SPFBO tag on Twitter! You can also keep up to date with all the books’ scores on Mark Lawrence’s website!

Logo image by Tithi Luadthong.


By Julia Kitvaria Sarene

Kitvaria Sarene has been a bookseller in Germany since 2003. Her love of books only grew over the years, just as her love for fantasy and sci-fi did! Especially interested in indie publishing and discovering new talents she joined reading for SPFBO 3 in 2017.

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