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Thursday, July 30, 2020

SPFBO: The Third Reaping & Semifinalist Update by Adam Weller


Read Fantasy Book Critic's First SPFBO Update
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Second SPFBO Update

Hi, everyone! My name is Adam Weller, and this is my first year teaming up with Fantasy Book Critic. I’m a regular contributor at Fantasy Book Review, which was one of the ten judges for SPFBO4 a couple of years ago. It was a lot of work to organize and publish all the reviews and blog posts, so I’m thankful to Mihir, Lukasz, and David for letting me infringe on their turf this year and handle all the dirty work.

I was intrigued when I drew my initial lot of eight books out of our assigned thirty. I was pleased to pull a couple of titles I had been hoping for, as well as a couple of offbeat, non-traditional titles I could sink my brain-teeth into. But the thing that interested me most about my lot was how little fanfare these books had received to date. The book with the highest number of ratings on Goodreads had only twelve people rating it. Only twelve people, out of all eight books! Five books from my selection had five or less star ratings, and two books had zero ratings and zero reviews. One of those books was recently published, so it is understandable, but the other book was published more than two years ago. How could this be? What other mysteries behind these stories was I about to unravel?

My favorite aspect of SPFBO, and the reason why I review books at all, is to find stories I love and nag everyone I know to read them. Seeing these books had such small Goodreads audiences to begin with, it lit a fire inside me to find these books larger audiences that would appreciate them. I hope I’ve done my job, as I’ve written reviews of all eight books below. Sadly, I had to eliminate six of them, but I will announce my two semi-finalists towards the end of this post.

I encourage all of you to take a few moments and find one or two that might appeal to you. So instead of buying that extra cup of coffee tomorrow, why not invest in some fantasy entertainment from all across the spectrum?

Let’s get started!


Bloodline: Rise by Jonatan HÃ¥kansson

Official Book Blurb: A decade of peace coming to an end, the rumour of a queen’s return.

When the Iron Jarl waged war against the mountains eleven years ago it was to free the north of the clans’ tyranny. Left in their wake, however, was but mistrust and twisted ambitions. A fickle balance upheld by the old families now toppled over as a witch is found within the Willslocks’ lands.

A bloodline at stake, the haunting words of a life taken. The oath has been broken and the winds whisper of war. What fate awaits the Grayrat house in this realm where legends linger?

REVIEW: This book lays the foundation for what feels like a sprawling epic to come. It is well-written, but there was one thing that nagged the back of my mind while reading it: the plot seemed far too familiar to the first book of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

The book focuses on a Ned Stark-like character, the head of a powerful house in the far north. The house is one of a few ruling families, with familiar squabbles and alliances. At one point, an opposing Lannister-like family talks about repaying their debts. There is a supernatural threat beyond a mountain range border that is rearing their heads. The head of the house also has several children who are assigned different tasks across the land, hoping to save the world and stay honorable even though they’re making enemies left and right. There’s a city of slavers that one child wishes to free. There’s even a royal twin brother and sister who have an unusually close relationship.

I don’t believe all of these similarities are intentional—at least, I hope not--but it was still difficult for me to enjoy the story when so much of it felt so familiar. There are certainly some original threads to it; witchcraft and cursed blood and some clever politicking kept the story interesting and never dull. And if you haven’t read A Game of Thrones, you will certainly enjoy this story. Even if you have read A Game of Thrones, and you like all of the ingredients mentioned above, then you’ll surely enjoy this story.


Death of the Invisible Financier by R.D. Henderson

Official Book Blurb: Paul Bloom wants to make his own way and stop grinding for a criminal organization. The higher-ups in the organization are lining their pockets thanks to Bloom and he was getting just a pittance. The catch is he doesn’t want the higher-ups to learning he wants to make his own way.

Mettle Coyle, an elf and financier, is finally able to get out from under his aunt, who was beloved by everyone at their family-owned investment and financial firm and died under mysterious circumstances, and seized control of the firm with the goal of lining his pockets at the expense of his partners or investors. Paul Bloom, his associates, and Mettle Coyle join other criminals in engineering a confidence scheme which most likely ensure each of them a nice tidy profit.

REVIEW: This book has a promising opening. Right away, I was impressed by how polished the book felt. There’s a particular tone that Henderson was aiming for, and it was something that I was drawn to immediately. But the repetitive format of each chapter, the lack of character depth, and the sheer disposability of most of the cast made it extremely difficult to enjoy this story as much as I wanted to.

This book has some interesting ideas, but its execution just wasn’t for me. It’s been described as The Sopranos or The Wire meets D&D. I wouldn’t go that far, but I understand what he was going for: it’s almost entirely scenes of dialogue, with barely any exposition, and only a touch of live action that lasts a fleeting moment or two. This format might work in TV, but it didn’t work for me in a book format. Most of what happens has already happened between chapters, and it’s just referenced. The reader doesn’t experience it firsthand.

There’s a few other talking points about this book that can be discussed. It would make an interesting buddy-read, since it really is different that most other books I’ve read, and that’s truly saying something. I don’t know exactly what that something is, but for a book that I didn’t necessarily enjoy all that much, it has inspired me to want to write a lot about it.

Why not check it out for yourself?


The Alchemy Dirge by Ryan Howse

Official Book Blurb: In Aeon, everything can be had for a price.

In this city of guilds, conspiracies, and artifice, the cost can be more than gold.

Salai Pavane, alchemist and inventor, wants to create a printing press to lift his fellow citizens to a better world. Desperate to fund his invention, he pushes the boundaries of alchemy to sell on the black market. In doing so, he accidentally produces the most dangerous weapon the world has ever known.

Success is more dangerous than failure. Now he’s pursued by anarchists who want his formula, the Ministry who wants him imprisoned, and assassins who want him dead.

REVIEW: Although this is the second book of the A Concerto for the End of Days series, it serves as a standalone piece. It focuses on two characters. Salai is a talented alchemist, living in a slums of a floating city, crafting tools and armor for the local military. He is also nearly finished with his life’s work: an invention that has the potential to change how information is stored and shared across the populace, which could upend society’s class structure. Naturally, there are those who wish to steal and suppress his work. But Salai must also deal with a dangerous alchemical weapon he created by mistake that has fallen into the hands of a terrorist group led by witches and corrupt freedom fighters, all looking to squeeze Salai for everything he is worth.

Ilher is a longtime friend of Salai, a merchant by day and a black-market trader by night, dealing magical items, books, wards, illegal weapons, and information to both the police and criminal organizations. When a foreign ambassador from an enemy country arrives into town, Ihler’s trust and social allegiances are tested, and he finds himself caught in the middle of way more than his job description ever entailed.

This book brought to mind the civil unrest and factional divides found in Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Divine Cities trilogy, mixed with the city-as-a-character feel of Gareth Hanrahan’s The Gutter Prayer. It was full of exciting scenes and interesting ideas, and there were some great set pieces that had me fully drawn into the world. The lead characters were painted in detail, and pieces of the world-building had some fine touches. I did, however, feel like there were a few too many ideas introduced that we didn’t get to explore. It felt like Howse bit off a little more than he could chew, especially where the book ended. Apparently there are no plans to continue this thread of the story, so I’m a bit confused as to some decision-making in the final act. Also, there were no female lead characters; there were only two female supporting characters of any note, and we didn’t learn that much about either of them. They served a purpose in supporting the MC’s, but not much else.

This is a fun and fast-paced adventure with an original setting, some unpredictable events, and a hint of something much larger planned ahead. If any of that sounds good to you, then give this one a go!


The Wound Of Words by Deborah Makarios
Order the physical book over HERE

Official Book Blurb: There are words which change lives...forever.

Andrei just wants a chance with the girl of his dreams, but he knows she's keeping a secret from him - an imperial secret, a disturbing secret, and one that will not leave Andrei and his love alone.

Now he's on the run from a murderous monster, with only one chance to save himself and those he loves: hunt down the heart of the dreadful curse that has fallen on the Czar and find a way to end it for good.

Followed by nine feet of animated stonework, a petrified exhibitionist, and his grandmother's sullen apprentice, he must struggle through winter's deadly chill to uncover the truth before everyone he knows is changed forever.

REVIEW: This book is not something I would have normally picked up from the blurb alone, as the tone of it didn’t appear to be my usual cup of tea. But thankfully, it landed in my SPFBO6 slush pile, and it surprised me in the best way possible: it started well enough, seemingly a low-fantasy romance I could invest in. Then a few chapters in, it takes a surprising hard left turn, and the humor, mystery, and overall weirdness doesn’t let up until the final pages have been turned. The plot twists are never at the expense of the characters, who are as varied as they are memorable. It’s a hodgepodge of clever madness and I welcomed it with open arms.

With a title of The Wound Of Words, one would hope that dialogue would be one of the stronger aspects of the story. I thought it was where the book shines the brightest; it features some of the sharpest and most creative uses of dialogue in recent memory. There are some parts of the story where words are used as weapons, so the verbiage, use of sarcasm and hyperbole, cadence, and tone all play especially important roles in the story. Our heroic companions of wildly different personalities have funny enough conversations on their own, but when you add this feature into the dialogue… let’s just say that some events are difficult to predict.

Another aspect I appreciated was that the level of violence was kept to a bare minimum, yet the story still held a high level of danger and excitement. This is a refreshing turn from the type of books I’m normally drawn to, so it was all the more impressive that I was absorbed in its mystery and consequences without thinking there was anything lacking from the story.

If there’s one thing I had to nitpick, I’ll mention that the first few chapters took a bit to reel me in. The writing and the characters held my interest, but the plot didn’t pull me in early on. Perhaps it was an intentional choice to misdirect readers, so the shift in gears would have had a greater impact when it occurred.

At the time of writing this, The Wound Of Words had zero ratings or reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. Makarios’ previous book, Restoration Day, has only two ratings and one review since its publication in 2018, even though it was nominated for the Vogel Award for Best Novel last year. It is with no trepidation that I call Makarios a hidden gem in the self-publishing world. Since she has decided to publish her books under the Creative Commons license—she wrote an author’s guide to the Creative Commons license, which you can read here—only the paperback versions of The Wound Of Words are available on Amazon, but e-book versions are available for purchase worldwide through her Smashwords page.

The Wound Of Words is a wonderful book. It is extremely well-written, with beautiful prose, and rich, lively characters who are smart, flawed, humorous, and distinct. The story pulls you through one mystery after another as it transports you throughout a Russian-inspired winter countryside. I encourage you to pick this story up, even if looks to be outside your comfort zone. It is an easy recommendation, and a standout story that reads like a combination of a Russian fable, a witch-tale, and something completely original and undeniably entertaining.


I, EXILE by David M. Samuels

Official Book Blurb: Exiled into a wasteland because of a heist gone wrong, Emelith vows to hunt down the one responsible. Except not all is what it seems in the haunted realm of the Cauldron.

REVIEW: This story is a fast-paced, plot-heavy adventure about a heist gone wrong, an exile to a desert wasteland, and a threat from a powerful opponent that could spell doom for all the land. While the story elements feel a bit too familiar at times, I was engaged and having a blast tearing through this book at a rapid pace.

If you’re a fan of playing RPGs, whether it’s a computer game or a D&D campaign with friends, you’ll very much enjoy this story. Most of the book felt like you were guiding your character through a quest of varying locations, ‘NPC’ encounters, and lots of thrilling monster battles.

While the plot was a fun trip, the characters were a bit too thin. There was more depth added toward the end of the book, but it would have been better to share more of this development at the beginning so I could have cared more about character motivation and cheered or jeered them on.

There are a few convenient “just-in-time!” moments, and injuries didn’t seem to slow the party down, but the story moves so quickly onto the next challenge that it’s hard to dwell on anything for too long. Overall, I, Exile a fun sword-and-sorcery adventure that feels like a RPG campaign in book form. Fans of R.A. Salvatore or the Dark Sun D&D realm would especially enjoy this. Recommended!


A Dark Inheritance by Todd Herzman

Official Book Blurb: Torn apart by a raid on their village, three siblings must find their way back to each other.

But a dark force stands in their way—one they can't fight alone.

REVIEW: What sparked my interest right away about this book is Herzman’s approach to the story itself. This is a sprawling world, with multiple continents, oceans, islands, rulers, and lots of history. But when we start the book, we know nothing about any of that. And it stays like that for some time.

We see the world through three siblings, aged 19, 15, and 12. The story begins, when they’re woken in the middle of the night to find out that their small village has been invaded by raiders and set aflame. What would you do? We dive right into the action, but since we’re seeing the world through the children’s perspectives, we experience the fear and newness of the situation; we don’t know what’s going on, and we have little knowledge of what happens outside our village that we’ve never left. So the story starts small. But as it develops, the world opens up to us through these children and their experiences. There’s no long-winded or forced exposition dumps. It’s a natural education for all three POVs, and it paints the world in believable ways.

Unfortunately, those ways are rough going. One discovers how blood mages gain power through enslavement firsthand. It’s not how you want to spend a Friday night. Another sibling is determined to find what is lost, and chooses the path of wisdom through the powers of nature. The third sibling discovers their power by the sword, the seas, and the soul. The supporting characters all have pasts and motivations and goals of their own, and there’s plenty of big mysteries to reveal.

Herzman’s prose is similar to Brandon Sanderson. He delivers concise and direct sentences that get the job done. Its lean tone makes for a highly digestible read, often leading to numerous one-more-chapter-okay-maybe-two-more late nights. The build-ups towards chapter cliffhangers come early and often, and the rotation between the three POVs are consistent, so if you want to know what happens next, you’ll have to read three more chapters to find out. It’s a sneaky, but reliable dig at the reader to keep them stuck to the pages. It worked.

One issue that stuck out was that a number of reveals were projected pretty far out, or were easily predicted. Some big ones were a nice surprise, but I think some re-wording and less mentions of certain elements earlier in the story might have a more successful impact of certain events when they dropped. It didn’t take away too much enjoyment from the story, but it did linger a bit after it was over. I also hoped the ending played out in a different direction, but I’m glad this was only book one of a series.

A Dark Inheritance is not a story that will subvert any tropes or carve out many new ideas in the genre. However, what it does set out to do, it does it very well. I had a great time reading this story; I was fully engaged with the plot and loved all three characters, each having distinct personalities where it seemed like they actually acted their age. The more I read books with younger POVs, the less common I find this to be, so I commend Herzman for a fine job of pulling me into this new world. I look forward to seeing how the next chapter is going to play out. You should get on board, and find out, too.


The Blood Stone: The Curse of the Drakku #1 by Jason J. Nugent

Official Book Blurb: He slays dragons for a living. Now he's on a mission to wipe them from existence. Lailoken longs to slit the throat of the beasts who abducted his wife. And with the winged monsters raining havoc on the northern lands, the vengeful dragonslayer's bloody skills have never been in higher demand. Finally granted the chance to rescue his long-lost love in exchange for a dangerous, magical gem, he sharpens his sword for the quest of his life.

Venturing deep into enemy territory to collect the dragon-killing artifact for his fanatical leader, Lailoken prays that he'll have one more chance to hold his beautiful bride. But as his single-minded hunt for revenge reveals a darker truth, he fears he may be fighting on the side of evil.

Will Lailoken reunite with his love and slay dragonkind, or has he unwittingly triggered the realm's destruction?

The Blood Stone is the first book in the fast-paced Curse of the Drakku fantasy series. If you like intriguing magic, powerful dragons, and honorable heroes, then you'll love Jason J. Nugent's epic adventure.

REVIEW: We open the story with a tactical battle as a group of dragonslayers, mages, and rangers have joined to take down a dragon and capture its essence. These battles have been going on for generations upon generations, as the lifeblood of the dragon is what powers much of the magic that humankind depends. The lore of the land is that the dragons (and halflings) are responsible for the land becoming barren and ill-supporting of life, so the humans have been trying to kill these dragons for centuries to restore their land back to health.

But here’s the kicker: the more dragons they kill, the worse the land gets. Somehow, they still think that wiping out all these creatures is solving the problem, instead of making it worse. Until one talented dragonslayer communicates with an elder dragon and learns that everyone might have been doing things wrong for the last thousand years. Meanwhile, a mage’s trainee discovers some ancient, hidden powers that should have stayed buried, and his dreams of power only grow stronger by the chapter.

This book was just not for me. I won’t go into too much detail, but I just couldn’t connect with it. However, it has a classic 1980’s sword-and-sorcery feel to it, with dragons, magical artifacts, evil mages and the like. If that sounds like it could be up your alley, then you, kind reader, have found your next book.


Timberwolf by Dominic Adler

Official Book Blurb: In Stassia, loyalty to the Party means survival. And Axel Geist – rogue, self-styled ladies’ man and accidental political prisoner – is determined to survive. Even if it means selling his soul to the Old God Bassarus, Lord of Deceit and Duke of Hell.

When Bassarus orders Axel to volunteer for Stassia’s warrior elite, the black-uniformed Timberwolves, he joins a labyrinthine security state. A traitor, deep inside the regime. A world of play or be played, kill or be killed… Stassia’s destiny turns on Axel’s treachery and lies.

Timberwolf – a dark fantasy of espionage, love, war and betrayal set in a world similar to, but entirely different from, our own.

REVIEW: This story is bananas. I’ve never read anything like it. I’ve never even heard of anything like it, so right off the bat it gets monster points for originality. The closest I can come to describing it is a ‘late 1930’s pseudo-German/early Holocaust military fantasy.’ Yeah, one of those.

Axel Geist is your first-person POV throughout the story. He narrates a brief chapter summarizing his youth, but by the end of chapter one, he’s a political prisoner at a Party-run concentration camp, sectioned off with other anti-Party groups such as homosexuals, free thinkers, and intellects. This country is a fascist state, and the mask the separates it from the rising superpower of 1930’s Nazi Germany is paper thin. The name are German, and the soldiers respond with “Jawohl!” It’s not a subtle book.

We follow Geist through years of forced labor, and eventually, the horrors of the military. The Party is hell-bent on invading everything around them, and the prisoner-soldiers from the labor camps are the first to the field. Anyone who runs gets mowed down by their own sergeant.

The war scenes itself are gritty and difficult, with panzer tanks, automatic weapons, munitions, and all the death and gore that comes along with it. It’s almost easy to forget that you’re reading fantasy until the moment that Geist’s team breaks through a gate, and instead of finding more enemy troops, they run into a warlock and his monstrous creation. Imagine facing that on the beaches of Normandy. Once the fantastical is introduced—and it does take a decent chunk of the book until we get there—Geist somehow ends up getting involved with some ancient gods of this world, and must now stifle his own code of ethics to do what he abhors for the good of his people. It’s messy, and complicated, and James Bond-esque, and an incredible amount of fun.

This story takes some commitment. There are so many events packed into this one novel, and they keep coming without much of a break. Now that I can reflect on all the major events of the story, it feels like one long James Bond/Mission Impossible mashup film mixed with a Wolfenstein video game with the Titanomachy to seal it all together.

I came across a couple of aspects with the story that didn’t sit right with me. First and foremost were the female characters. Nearly every single woman in the book either needed to be saved, or ended up being in love with Geist, or in most cases, both. It got a bit eye-rolly by the time I got to the end. Also, there’s a bit of a lull in the second arc of the story, around a quarter to halfway through. The world-building is appreciated, but at times I felt like I was reading an entirely different book. I also didn’t love the writing in the final arc of the book, but I won’t go into details, and most of that is subjective opinion anyway.

In summary, Timberwolf is a book you’ll have to read to believe. This is a hefty book with a lot to say, a ton of style, and Alex Geist’s narrative voice is one you won’t soon forget. If you have any inkling for an action-packed military fantasy-thriller rife with political allegory and increasingly mad set pieces, then Dominic Adler’s Timberwolf is a must-read.

DECISION TIME: So my two semi-finalist selections are:


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Deborah MakariosThe Wound Of Words, and Todd Herzman’s A Dark Inheritance (Hollow Fate Book #1)

*** Congratulations to you both!!! ***

It was very difficult to eliminate a book I enjoyed as much as Timberwolf in the opening round. It came very close to becoming my second semifinalist, but I feel like I made the right decision. I do hope that many fellow readers, bloggers, and authors give it a go, as I’ll be singing its praises for a long time to come. I must also state that in a different draw, The Alchemy Dirge and I, Exile could have both been my semifinalists as well. I believe I got a disproportionate selection of high quality books this year, which were all a pleasure to read, but torturous to eliminate.

I’d like to thank Mr. Adler, Mr. Nugent, Mr. Samuels, Mr. Howse, Mr. HÃ¥kansson, and Mr. Henderson for sharing their stories with us.

2 comments:

Todd Herzman said...

A great list of contenders!

I'm blown away that I made it as a semi-finalist. Thank you for such a great review, Adam. Perhaps the best, most well-thought out review I've gotten so far!

And congratulations to my co-semi-finalist Deborah Makarios!

I'll raise a glass to my fallen brethren. You were worthy competitors. I am honoured.

Swiff said...

Thanks for the kind words! I'm glad to hear that the next book is already in the hands of beta readers, as I'm looking forward to seeing what's going to happen next.

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