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Wednesday, July 17, 2019

SPFBO: The First Cull & Semi-finalist Update




It's my second year as an SPFBO judge, and I'm both honored and excited to participate in this bloodbath contest. The first step is simple – each of us was asked to filter through a batch of books and choose a semi-finalist. I've read at least 30% of each book before deciding if I want to finish it. 

Each title in my mini-batch of six books will get an honest review on my Goodreads account. My semi-finalist will get a full review on FBC website.



Here’s my batch of six books (in alphabetical order), and my brief thoughts on them:

Exhumations by Christian Corbitt

Genre: metaphysical fantasy

Series/Standalone: standalone


Overview: "Rinaldo has been dead for over three years before he decided to return home." I loved Exhumations' opening line. Combined with the cover alluding to the famous Shakespearean graveyard scene, where Hamlet holds up the unearthed skull of Yorick, it sets the tone of the book. And does it well. Exhumations is different, weird and eerie, and it requires attention from the reader.

A sorcerer’s apprentice who took his own life returns to the small town of Recillio. Disguised as a friendly count, he interacts with people but his goals (including overthrowing reality) are at odds with what most living creatures expect from life. Things get weirder when we meet a spirit who mistook an ordinary night for the apocalypse or discover a city sprouting up in streets and alleyways. 

Corbitt created an interesting and imaginative setting and memorable characters, all described with a rich vocabulary. I found the writing elegant, but experience shows part of fantasy readers prefer more utilitarian straightforward prose. As imaginative as the setting is, a casual reader may feel lost in a tempest of myths and legends, prophetic visions, and dark memories. 


While I appreciate Corbitt's creativity and subtlety, I feel the novel spends too much time meandering, setting things, giving subtle hints. In consequence, it lacks strong character/development hooks that would fuel the reader's urge to turn the pages.


Exhumations, with its eerie atmosphere and strange phenomena, will appeal to people who enjoy different, weird books with moments of profound introspection and less emphasis on non-stop action


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Fear the Wolf by Andrew Butcher

Genre: dark fantasy

Series/Standalone: Works as a standalone, but can easily turn into a series (I'm not sure what's Andrew Butcher's plan for this one).

Overview: Fear the Wolf is a small-scale dark fantasy in which Senla (the protagonist) faces her desires and fears. In her village, children are raised in fear of the Wolf and taught to know their place and follow the orders. She's no good at it, and her desires don't fit societal norms.

Fear the Wolf has a lot going on: forbidden love, secrets, moments of dark introspection, a mysterious and devastating plague, dangerous monsters, and a young woman who wants to find her inner strength to slay the Wolf (both physically and metaphorically). All of these ingredients make for an engaging story. 

On the surface, it draws from classic fantasy novels, as it features the troubled, naive adventurer leaving a destroyed home, seeking answers, and meeting unique and unlikely partners that help her survive, succeed and grow as a character.  However, the predictable elements stop there, as Butcher has crafted an intriguing new angle on the formula, and demonstrates his skills as a storyteller from the very first page. 


While I appreciate the build-up and strong reveals, I didn't fully warm up to Senla as a character. I enjoyed parts of the story but wasn't keen on others. I think I understand the final confrontation leading to important reveal, but I wasn't fully satisfied with it.


Overall, it's a solid, well-structured book that should appeal to readers enjoying dark and intimate stories.


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Genre: sword & sorcery

Series/Standalone: book 1 of the Gorp the Goblin series.

Overview: As a goblin, Gorp struggles to land a decent job. Other races despise his species. But there’s a work at a Ye Olde Dungeon managed by the sinister Dungeon Overlord Jamalin Spellslinger. Fantasy readers tend to associate dungeoneering with exciting exploration, high adventure, and heroics. Very few think about the logistics of maintaining a dungeon and keeping it clean. Brave janitors work backstage to make things shiny. Or, rather, sufficiently dank and gloomy. It’s a job with perspectives; a quick professional advancement is at hand, especially when more experienced cleaning crew has just been eaten by a dragon (dungeon's biggest attraction). 


Gorp is a likable protagonist without a clearly defined agenda. Things happen to him but he can find his way around and get out of a jam. He never says what others want to hear, but what is in his heart. The author approaches this story with gentle humor and a distance. As a result, Gorp reads quickly and easily. 

That being said, I need to address some issues, namely insufficient editing, weak characterization, and lack of stronger turns and twists. We get a villainous villain who kills his minions whenever he’s in a sour mood, a dragon with an agenda, and a good-hearted protagonist who somehow always lands on top. While it won’t impress seasoned fantasy readers, it has the potential to entertain.

With additional tweaking such as clearing all grammar and spelling errors, and simplifying some awkward sentences, Gorp can become an engaging and enjoyable story for a younger audience

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Journey to the Top of the Nether by William C. Tracy

Genre: science fantasy aimed at a younger audience

Series/Standalone: Book six of the Dissolution Cycle but it works as a standalone

Overview: This one grabbed my attention with a quirky cover. The story is full of surprises and unexpected settings. The famous explorer Morvu Francita Januti has discovered an ancient, insect-shaped machine able to drill through the Nether. She takes her daughter, Natina, on an expedition to climb Nether’s smooth walls for the first time. Such an expedition comes with a risk, but if they survive, they will enjoy fame and glory. Not to mention that Natina will spend more time with her always busy mother and finally understand how she became the most famous explorer of the ten species.

The story impressed me with an imaginative and unique setting, and exciting exploration of the Nether, high above the clouds. It seems Journey of the Top of the Nether is the sixth book of the Dissolution Cycle series, but it stands on its own. I think William C. Tracy made a good job of introducing the world while using no info-dumps. Unfortunately, some terms or the names of the species were casually thrown into the story as something obvious. It’s cool that Natina and her mother are Etanela but I know nothing about Etanela, or other species in the Dissolution verse, except the fact they’re taller than most other Nether’s inhabitants. A glossary would help.

Although the prose contains some awkward turns of phrase, it flows well, with Tracy never losing sight of his target audience (as proved by age-appropriate dialogue). The well-crafted illustrations of Justin Donaldson add life and depth to the author’s words. I love the way they picture the world - each illustration complements the unfolding story. I wouldn't mind seeing more of them!

In all, an enjoyable and imaginative book suitable for a younger audience. 


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Silvertongue by Casey White

Genre: superhero fantasy

Series/Standalone: book 1 of the Remnants of Magic series

Overview: Silvertongue started as a writing prompt and morphed into a web serial hosted on Casey White’s Reddit page. The story revolves around Jon Christensen. He likes burgers and peace. He would enjoy being a regular guy, but, much to his displeasure, he has a gift to hear any language as English. When he speaks, his words always come in the listener’s native tongue. He tries to hide his talent and he succeeds until a chance encounter in a fast-food store throws him in a violent world he doesn’t understand. 

I enjoyed White’s take on magic / preternatural talents. People can gain them through Relics - objects of ancient power. The author introduces plenty of characters with various powers and her creativity impressed me. She doesn’t shy away from violent scenes with strong imagery (like the exploding head), so be warned that the novel explores darker sides of human nature. 

While I like some of the ideas introduced in Silvertongue, I also confess that the story didn’t engage me. It introduces new characters and scenes but does little to indicate the sense of direction or characters’ goals. I DNF-ed the book at 31% of the ebook version (around 180 pages) and I still couldn’t clearly define the plot or the themes it tried to explore. I found it repetitious and didn’t warm up to any of the characters. And when there’s no emotional engagement or, at least, a desire to know what happens next, reading becomes tiresome. I called it quits. 


Not to downplay the work White has put into the book, but perhaps in its current form, it still works better as a web serial, but not as a novel. I expect every scene to have a goal and move the plot forward and I like focused narratives. Because I didn’t finish the book, it’s possible things and facts connect later in the story, but my impression is that the author spends way too much time creating mini-cliffhangers at the end of each chapter without giving a clear sense of direction or purpose. I’m sure there’s a solid story here, but I would like to see it structured more tightly. 



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The Fox and The Hunter by Linn Tesli

Genre: YA historical fantasy influenced by Norse traditions

Series/Standalone: book 1 of the Where Vikings Roam duology


Overview: Set in northern Norway in the Viking age, The Fox and the Hunter explores difficult themes of a religious and political conflict. The clash of indigenous nature religion and monotheism is brutal and destroys lives. 


The story's protagonist, Elva, is raised to replace her grandmother as the noaidi (shaman) of her tribe when the time comes. She hopes it won't happen anytime soon, but she may have no choice when a Viking earl accuses her grandmother of witchcraft, a practice punishable by death. Elva decides to do everything in her power to stop the execution. 

I deeply believe in the power of brevity and I like focused narratives. It seems Linn Tesli shares my preferences. The story moves forward at a quick pace and doesn't focus on background static. Each scene serves something, Elva has a clearly defined goal (saving her grandmother), and the religious themes are well intertwined with the plot progression and interactions between her and secondary characters, especially with the Hunter (a young and naive son of a Viking Earl, who desires to be baptized). 


I liked Elva's connection to nature and animals, and I found descriptions of shamanic rituals (communication with the spirit world) involving the use of a drum very suggestive. 


Because the story develops in a harsh, cold climate with little food supply it doesn't shy away from showing a grim reality of killing animals to survive. Many readers (me included) react badly to violence towards animals, so I feel they should know upfront what they're getting into. There's one shocking scene that enraged me but I can't discuss it. Damn spoilers.


Tesli has created a gritty and gruesome world in which violence happens but it’s never included for the sake of shock value (except, maybe, for that one scene).


While the plot development is solid, there are a few weak points, including a few awkward sentences and the dialogue in certain scenes, where it feels unnaturally formal and stiff. Sure, a dialogue isn't exactly like speech in real life, but it should give the impression of actual, believable conversation. And here, characters' speech varied between nicely flowing and unbelievably formal.

Overall, though, The Fox and the Hunter is a solid, well-written, and engaging story I liked enough to read the sequel once it's published.

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One more thing, a general remark that concerns most books that introduce dialects or rare terminology. While having a glossary at the end of the paperback is handy, I would love to see it at the beginning of the ebook version. You can easily turn the pages to check the term, but doing the same thing on e-reader feels more tedious and anticlimactic. Just a general thought, one worth considering to improve e-book reader's experience.


Choosing a semi-finalist


Last year I had a hard time picking my semi-finalist. This year, though, it was a no-brainer.

I know.


Anticlimactic.


What can I say?

First, I want to thank you all for submitting your books for our consideration. While I did my best to remain fair and open-minded, 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. And SPFBO rules are brutal. 




In the end, there's only one throne selfie-stick. 

And our first semi-finalist still has a chance to grab it :)

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

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Almost there

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Congratulations Linn! The Fox and The Hunter won me over with its focused narrative, solid characterization and a promise of an exciting sequel.





2 comments:

Victoria Corva said...

Adore how even the books that have been cut have been given thoughtful reviews of their strengths as well as weaknesses!

Congrats to Linn Telsi on making it to the semi-finals!

Łukasz said...

Thanks, Victoria :)

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