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Wednesday, September 5, 2018

SPFBO: The Second Reaping & Semifinalist Announcement (by D.C. Stewart)


Read Fantasy Book Critic's first semifinalist update

Truth be told, I had not even heard of the SPFBO contest until last year. I had become more active in the reddit fantasy group and people kept talking about these books with titles I’d never heard of: Sufficiently Advanced Magic, The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids, The Grey Bastards. These weren’t being published by Tor and Houghton Mifflin, and like many, my preconceived notions of the publishing world stood on shaky ground at best. What ventures I had made into self-published work had nearly put me off reading anything of its ilk. I am thankful that Mihir invited me to join this year’s SPFBO because not only is my heart flipped on the concept of self-publishing, and not only do I now see my own faults and strengths as a writer, but I strongly feel that I may have discovered one of the next big names in fantasy, and that is a hell of an exciting prospect.

I should state here that while I finished most of the books on my list, there were several that I did not complete. When reading through these entries, it would become clear fairly quickly what titles would make the final cut and what would not. If I was not enjoying a book and did not feel as though it had any chance to beat out stronger entries, I would put it down. If an author is unable to hold a reader’s attention even in the first fifty pages, the chances of that author winning this contest are not good.

My finalists will get full-fledged reviews here on FBC, and I may choose to write about a few of the other entries. There is not one author on this list who does not have potential and/or talent, and I think with some work any of them could be a published author. I truly believe it.

Without more side-talk, here is what I think:


Apples Of Idunn by Matt Larkin

I was happy to get Apples of Idunn in my pile because I’m a Norse Mythology junkie. I also really like mead. Apples of Idunn seeks to reinvent the saga of the Aesir, but tackles the myth from a very human angle (and one seemingly authentic to ancient nordic life). Odin’s father is slain, and the mantle of leadership over the As tribe falls on his still-young shoulders. Odin is quickly approached by the Vanir goddess Idunn, who promises him immortality should he unite the tribes and declare himself king.

Apples of Idunn is ambitious, but ultimately falls victim to poor characterization. I did not like Odin, or Tyr, or any of the characters aside from Loki (oddly enough the most sympathetic character), and found their behavior reprehensible with very little redemptive presence. I also found the gender dynamics to be flawed to the point of frustration, and would have torn my hair out if I’d have read the word “trench” or the phrase “swelling trousers” one more time.

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Seeking Shiloh by Coleman Grey

Seeking Shiloh started out so strong that I expected to not only like it but possibly find it in my list of semi-finalists. There are genuine laughs in the first and second chapters, and while the tale it sets out to tell is a familiar one (rescuing a princess), I am happy to read something full of tropes if it’s humorous. Setting the viewpoint in the eyes of an incompetent accountant further separates this from its ilk.

Unfortunately, Seeking Shiloh quickly loses itself in the attempt to push its humor agenda too far. The jokes start to feel so forced as to become cringe-worthy, and many of the scenes in the book feel like they exist only to insert snide politic jokes or to damn the press. The fine humor line that Seeking Shiloh could have taken is crossed heavily and it never recovers.

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Death’s Merchants by Justin Hennar

The protagonist of Death’s Merchant begins his tale in a gruesome way - through patricide. Wielding powers he doesn’t understand and in a world that defies understanding, Jem Trask is alone. Or so he thinks. Through an aimless wandering Jem becomes embroiled in the games of gods.

Justin Hennar is what I would call a master of language. He writes beautifully, with every sentence an elegant combination of words fine enough to put to poetry. However, a mastery of language does not mean a mastery of storytelling, and sometimes purple prose can hinder a story more than help it. It hurts Death’s Merchant, as does a meandering narrative that has trouble ever finding its feet. I wanted to like Hennar’s work for its beautiful language, but I ultimately could not stomach the endless descriptions and overwrought writing.

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Glitch Hunter by Skyler Grant

Glitch Hunter is the first LitRPG that I have ever read, and in fact my introduction to the existence of this new fantasy sub-genre. As someone who spends entirely too much time and money on video games, this is a style of novel after my own heart. I could immediately relate to the events of Glitch Hunter because I have spent decades of my life immersed in a variety of online multiplayer role playing games. Grant throws us into the shoes of the player Alex, who finds himself naked and amnesic in an unknown world where he is a Glitch Hunter who must fulfill specific quest parameters and slay monsters known as Glitches.

What Glitch Hunter does right - namely telling a really fun dungeons-and-dragons-style story within the confines of a game-style world - is overshadowed by what it does wrong. There are some basic writing issues in this work that need to be addressed, but even beyond that the complete obsession with sex completely eclipses the story. I like a nice racy scene as much as the next reader, but when every character is jumping every characters bones within the first paragraph of meeting them, I being to wonder if I’m reading a fantasy novel or pornography. This might work for some, but it did not work for me.

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Recumon by Michael R.E. Adams

Recumon features a world like our own, but one full of hidden demons and those few select people who can see them, and hunt them.

Recumon is one of the few novels of my pack that I did not finish. The writing is fine even if at times it feels as though the author is not a native English speaker. This is a work trying to be cool and edgy but not understanding what cool and edgy writing actually feels like. There is an manga quality to it that I could not adjust to given my own views of what written storytelling should be. It is clear from the start that Michael R.E. Adams has a flair for the creative and dark nature of fantasy, but his knowledge of basic storytelling and writing techniques needs work.

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Soul Prison by Derek Hampton

Soul Prison is an ambitious attempt at telling huge, world-scale fantasy, but regrettably became another book that I could not finish due to poor pacing and the kind of fight scenes that are more reminiscent of Dragonball Z than anything believable. I knew from the first two chapters that Soul Prison was not strong enough to contend with the other entries on my list, and I could summon very little desire to continue with its story. There is a way to write about god-like characters without making them look silly, and unfortunately Hampton has not yet mastered this method. There is solid world-building buried in the bones of Soul Prison, but too many flaws hamper the effort to make it work.

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Here are my semi-finalists:


Here Be Dragons by David Macpherson

Many would seek the crown once worn by the late Sir Terry Pratchett; headwear that proclaimed Pratchett as master and lord of all comic fantasy. He has had many emulators, both during his reign and after, but none have quite managed to capture the humor and philosophy offered by the realms of Discworld. While I am not ready to sling the Pratchett-crown at David Macpherson (even were I the master of crown-slinging), I have read few authors who fell so readily into the mold even while distinguishing themselves as masters of their own work. With Here Be Dragons, a bouncing tale of incompetence and buffoonery, Macpherson has proven himself at least worthy of sharing a sentence with the best of the best.

Though a touch rough around the edges, and perhaps in need of a nit-picking editor, Here Be Dragons is a stand-out in this year’s SPFBO. It is so rare that we fantasy fans are allowed to jump out of our scary grimdarks and epic, world-crashing tales and simply laugh at an oafish dad and his mid-life crisis while still getting to hear tales of dragons and swords. I’ll take that even if I have to suffer through cynical telepathic donkeys.

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The Boy Who Walked Too Far by Dom Watson

What I can say about The Boy Who Walked Too Far is that this book defies expectations. The title does not make sense until the very end of the book, and the cover would suggest a journey into the afterlife or some ghost-realm. I was not expecting a book to defy genre so wholeheartedly because even after reading it I’m not sure if this is a Victorian inspector novel, a science fiction piece set billions of years into the future, a psychological fantasy thriller, or a novel on dream interpretation. It is somehow all of those and more. Set millions or even billions of years into humanity’s future, the city of Testament has seen a murder in its midst, and it is Heironymous Xindii’s task as the world’s foremost Dreamurlugy detective, along with his assistant the super-genius Solomon Doomfinger, to figure out whodunnit, little realizing that their quest might prove to be the lynchpin that saves civilization.

The Boy Who Walked Too Far is the best book I have read out of this pile of SPFBO entries, and I suspect Dom Watson might be the hidden gem that comes out of this contest. I loved this book. I loved its characters and their interactions and its weird, mind-jumble of a plot. I loved its setting, which itself becomes a beloved character. I loved the plethora of, to me, completely new ideas that emerged from this novel (genetic architecture, reverie prisons, and story parasites to name a few). Make no mistake, Dom Watson needs an editor (there is an entire section of the novel that unintentionally repeats itself, just as a for instance), but he is overflowing with talent and I want his book to succeed. It is testament to his ability to craft story that a book so laden with mistakes could still be so phenomenal. The Boy Who Walked Too Far is far and away my number one choice for FBC semi-finalist.

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