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Friday, August 3, 2018

SPFBO: The First Cull & Semifinalist Update by Lukasz Przywoski

Last year I followed SPFBO's unexpected developments with bated breath. I’ve read close to fifty books by authors determined to win the SPFBO selfie-stick. Who wouldn’t like to get one?

This year, thanks to FBC, I’m participating in the fourth edition of the SPFBO as a judge. I’m honoured.

The first step of the contest is simple – each of us was asked to filter through a batch of books and choose a semi-finalist. While we’re not asked to read the books from cover to cover, I’ve done precisely this. I want my reviews to be fair and some of my all-time favourite books gripped me a bit later in the story than suggested minimum of 20% of the book.

Each title in my mini-batch of eight books will get a full, brutal review on my Goodreads account. Chosen titles will get full reviews also on FBC.

Other FBC judges may approach their batches differently, so bear in mind that not all books in our group will be read from cover to cover.

Here’s my batch of eight books, and my brief thoughts on them:

By Raven's Call by J.A. Devenport

Genre: Epic Fantasy

Series/Standalone: Book 1 of The Blackwing Cycle series

Overview: The Raven is an unstoppable killing machine. He's more of a weapon than a human being. Rumour has it that he killed thousands of people, including the old king. Unfortunately, the new one is even worse. To put it mildly, the tyrant king is a despicable and greedy individual who doesn't care about the kingdom or his people.

The Uprising lead by a mysterious leader works to overthrow the ruler. It seems The Raven may be involved, but it's tricky to be sure when no one knows who The Raven is and if he exists at all.

While not fully satisfying in certain regards, rough with its characterisation, there is a sound concept, and enough plot hooks to keep readers flipping the pages with growing excitement. Also, world-building deserves high praise. It feels fresh and unique.


Dancing in the Dust by Gwendolyn Pendraig

Genre: Dark Fantasy, Dystopian

Standalone/Series: Listed as a standalone, but the ending opens plenty of possibilities for the sequel.

Overview: We're done. A virus of Bubble Flu killed most of the human race. Those who survived behave more like feral animals than civilised humans. If you look closely you'll see mothers roasting their children over the fire, men raping women and abusing them in every imaginable way. Even if your imagination is twisted, you'll witness scenes of such cruelty that even Satan himself would turn his eyes in shame.

This novel is uber-dark, gruesome and puts on display the very worst humankind has to offer. I can't say that I love nihilistic fiction, but if there's a cathartic quality to it, I'm usually able to appreciate it. At least a bit. Unfortunately, it's not the case here. For me Dancing In The Dust doesn't deliver any meaningful message; instead, it assaults the reader with ultra-violent, often disgusting scenes.

If you're in the mood to shower in blood, brain matter and other body fluids, buckle your seatbelts and go for it. I'll stay at home and water the garden instead.


Dominus Silentia: Part 1 Awakening by Eric Wooden

Genre: Urban Fantasy, Dark fantasy(?)

Standalone/Series: Book 1 of the series

Overview: Dominus Silentia is compact. It moves quickly and is easy to read. The prose isn’t perfectly fluid, but it works fine for the story. There isn’t enough time for extensive worldbuilding; that’s the kind of thing left for the sequels, I guess. We get as much worldbuilding as we need to follow the adventure, remain engaged and be surprised.

This is essentially an origin story of sorts. The supernatural world is introduced in an entertaining way and Dominus Silentia's take on werewolves and vampires is less obvious than what we get in most YA books and movies. I was motivated to turn pages and discover what happens next. While not really surprising, the ending fit the story and the promise made in the title.

Ultimately, though, it didn’t do anything to pull itself up out of the pool of gazillion of UF books surrounding it.


Empowered: Agent by Dale Ivan Smith

Genre: urban fantasy, superheroes, YA

Standalone/Series: Book 1 of the Empowered series

Overview: Agent focuses on Mat Brands (aka Vine), an angry young woman who wants nothing more than to take care of her family and lead a normal life. Not an easy task for the empowered. Even more complicated for empowered on parole. Despite her best efforts, she ends up with the choice to go back to prison or infiltrate a group of super powered criminals.

Mat's superpowers aren't very impressive. She is classified as a Botanical Catalyst which is a fancy way of saying she can control plants. She can't stop hearing them in her mind. She hears them sleep. She hears them suffer and feel when they need water. As someone who loves nature and walking barefoot, I think it's a fantastic power that can enhance the sense of unity with the world around us. On the other hand, speaking with plants and growing them, no matter how fast, isn't going to impress people wowed by real, kick-ass superpowers.

But it should. Mat has few aces up her sleeve.

I liked this book. It's not perfect. It has some flaws, weak characterisation of the secondary characters being the main one. On the other hand, the story was engaging and entertained me. I felt motivated to turn the pages, even when what I saw in my mind's eye was silly. The pacing is excellent, and some action scenes impressed me with vivid imagery. Despite numerous eye-rolling moments, I plan to continue with the series.


Hell Comes To Hogtown by C.D. Gallant-King

Genre: horror, comedy, urban fantasy, supernatural thriller

Standalone/series: standalone

Overview: I'm a fantasy guy at heart. Sure, I go on adventures and try new things but there's nothing like a good old-fashioned epic story.

Horror is a genre of its own that can intersect with fantasy but is definitely not contained fully within it. I have a feeling that horror tends to create two very distinct camps– those who love it and those who would never dream of reading (or watching) anything in the genre. I'm in the middle. I'm willing to read horror novels, but I rarely enjoy them.

Hell Comes To Hogtown surprised me in a good way. How do I even describe it? It’s a strange, genre-bending mixture of action, horror, fantasy and comedy. And it works - it entertains, surprises and, above all, provides a lot of fun.

It’s not lighthearted, but a strong dose of absurd and wicked sense of humour balances off some of the tragic events.

It has a similar vibe to Tarantino or Guy Ritchie's movies. The story is simple but twists and turns are Legion and you really can't be sure what to expect. It'll entertain you in a loud,violent and inappropriate way.


Inharmonic by A. K. R. Scott

Genre: YA, sword & sorcery

Series/Standalone: Book 1 of The Music Maker series

Overview: Inharmonic is a warm, well written YA book - first in The Music Maker series of fantasy novels. It uses tropes but twists them lightly to offer something new(ish). Instead of magic / military school, we have nicely sketched music conservatory brought to life by varied groups of students and teachers. Magic is real. It just needs someone special with a right pool of genes to channel it through music (for example singing a lullaby that'll make you sleep for days).

I enjoyed this book and felt motivated to finish it. Sure, I was a little frustrated with contrivances in the romantic relationships in an attempt to create tension – these behaviours and problems were and felt forced.

Despite some reservations, I would recommend Inharmonic to teen readers who like fantasy. Old ideas are tuned in a smart way that should keep your attention and allow you to read it along with your kids.


Nia Rae: A Book about Boobs and Space and Stuff by Debbie Taylor
Genre: Sci-fi, romance
Standalone/Series: possibly Book 1 of a series

Overview: One of New Year's resolutions I was able to keep was to read more Sci-Fi. It turns out Space Operas rock. Nia Rae: A book about boobs and space and stuff is described as Part one of an epic polyamorous bisexual science fiction romance that will change the course of history.

I won't lie, the title got me hooked but also worried if there's more to it than boobs. There are some fun and creative ideas here, but the novel lacks a clear structure and the spelling/grammar errors riddled throughout and coupled with weak characterization bring down the plot.

In the end, I think this book needs further edits - both developmental and proofreading to gain clear structure, sense of direction and strong, consistent narrative voice.


Silverglen by E.A. Burnett
Genre: Epic fantasy, YA
Standalone/Series: standalone, epic fantasy

Overview: Silverglen is E. A. Burnett’s debut novel. It's a teen epic fantasy about a young woman who must leave home when her shapeshifting abilities are discovered.

Her father - Lord Arundel is known for his hatred for shape-shifters. As a powerful wizard able to devise intricate spells, he's not the one to play with. Especially that torture is one of his preferred pastimes. Lord Arundel's minion - Fletch is even worse, a cunning, gross man driven by low instincts and petty wickedness.

It's good standalone YA book with a fitting bittersweet ending. I appreciate E.A. Burnett's rich imagination and nicely developed world. I would recommend the book for younger readers looking for an original* epic fantasy book.

* As I don't read that much YA / teen fantasy I may be wrong here. On the other hand, I read a lot (100-150 books per year), and I think Burnett's take on shapeshifters is exciting and definitely not recycled.

Choosing a semi-finalist:

Last year I might have called some of SPFBO judges names for the absurd and outrageous decisions they've made. Now I see how damn difficult it is to choose a semi-finalist. I don't even want to think about choosing a finalist. Hopefully, Mihir will just say "We take this one" and the burden will be gone ;)

On a more serious note, though, after finishing eight books I knew which one I liked most. But it's not that simple. We're supposed to choose the best book in the batch and try to remain impartial. Easier said than done.

While I try to be a fair and honest reviewer, as every reader I have my preferences and pet peeves. Some stories that appeal to me, bore others, depress some, enrage others. All are perfectly valid, reasonable responses.

Bear that in mind when you see your favourite book fall in a second. So, in order to choose my semi-finalist I wrote full reviews of every book in the batch and compared their strengths and weaknesses in a top secret excel sheet shared by FBC judges. After the first analysis, five books remained on the arena:

All of these stories were entertaining and perfectly readable, but there were two novels that rose to the top of my list. Here they are, in a brutal fight for survival:
Hell Comes to Hogtown made me laugh and entertained me with a unique and fresh mix of fantasy, horror, action, brisk pacing and absurd, dark and twisted humour. I couldn't put it down. While I hoped it would be more daring and uncompromising in the end, I found the ending satisfying. On the other hand, it's a comedy horror novel. Does it really represent best the spirit of the contest?

By Raven's Call is a strong, plot-driven story that impressed me with its clever, complex plot and immersive world-building (airships, drugs augmenting strength and reducing fear, alchemy, bonding with spirits; there's a lot of goodies in here). Also, it's quite possible that despite some issues with characterization, By Raven's Call will appeal to larger fantasy audience.

So, love or reason?

Damn. It was difficult.

In the end I've made the decision.

So, without further ado, I can now reveal the first FBC semi-finalist to be...

Drum roll, please

. . . . . . . .


Congratulations, C.D. I liked your book most of my batch and I hope more readers will give it a try.

But wait. That's not the end of the story. While I enjoyed HCTH very much , I thought it would be a mortal sin to cut By Raven's Call at this stage. And I don't want to burn in Hell, ok?

I discussed things with Mihir and we agreed that keeping J.A. Devenport’s debut work in the game is the only reasonable choice.

So congratulations J.A. - By Raven's Call is now, officially, a second FBC semi-finalist.

Well done, guys. I hope that fantasy readers and SPFBO enthusiasts will give your books a try and share their thoughts in meaningful places.

In the meantime I'll approach you both asking for a possibility to have a mini interview with us.



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