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Wednesday, August 28, 2019

SPFBO: The Fourth Reaping & Semi-Finalist (by David Stewart)


Read Fantasy Book Critic's First Semifinalist Update
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Second Semifinalist Update
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Third Semifinalist Update

It has come to me to provide Fantasy Book Critic's next culling and fourth semi-finalist, and boy am I eager to announce the winner because it's a hell of a book. The titles I've read so far this year are:

Wanderer by Nancy Dunne

Beggar's Rebellion by Levi Jacobs

The Harvest by KB Benson

Into the Labyrinth by John Bierce

Devian by Shanna Bosarge

Petrified by Ben Weeks

I set myself a goal of reading through each of my books this year, even if I didn't like them. This was more of a personal goal than anything because it becomes obvious within the first 10-20% of a book whether or not it's going to advance. I almost did it, only abandoning one book in the batch as simply not for me.

Wanderer by Nancy Dunne - I am always excited when I read a book blurb and it claims to feature druids and nature magic. I have a degree in Permaculture, which is as close to real life druidism as there is. I love green stuff! Include dragons in the mix, and I'm a sucker for whatever you've got to show me.

But to get the sad news out of the way right up front, Wanderer is the only book in my bunch that I could not finish. There is so much sexual violence, implied and overt, that I simply couldn't continue - especially when I fully expected a book about tree magic. There is magic, Dunne has populated her world with elves and dark knights and all manner of typical fantasy ideas, but there's nothing engaging about that magic (unless the later portion of the book really changes up the formula). It's basically people pointing their fingers at stuff and having magic happen. Add in characters that act and are characterized like anime tropes, and this book was not at all what I wanted.This was the last book in my bunch, and had I read it earlier I might have stuck with it, but it became clear very quickly that this was not going to advance in FBC's batch.

Beggar's Rebellion by Levi Jacobs - Beggar's Rebellion immediately catches the eye with one of the best covers in this year's SPFBO and one evocative of its subject matter. It's hard not to have high expectations when going in with art like that. Imagine my surprise when not only does the inner content match the outer, but said content gets better and better as the book progresses.

Beggar's Rebellion has nearly everything that people look for in epic fantasy these days, with robust power systems and political machinations complicated enough to make George R.R. Martin blush. Levi Jacobs managed to impress me with a courtroom scene, and I hate anything to do with legal drama. By the last page, I could not have been happier with Beggar's Rebellion being in my lot. This is a book that could easily stand beside any traditionally published book on the shelf, and in fact shares many features of some of the best-sellers. Jacobs writes strong characters, Ella being one of the most likable characters I've read in fantasy, and his world-building is both familiar and unique. It might even be easy to label Beggar's Rebellion as traditional, but I think it brings enough to the table to keep it from such common labels.


The Harvest by KB Benson - The premise of The Harvest has merit - sirens live among us and they aren't your everyday Ariels. Rather, they share more in common with the monsters of folktale than they do with Disney. The Harvest takes this idea and pours it into the young adult fantasy romance mold - a mermaid Twilight if you will.

I read Twilight, and while I wouldn't say I enjoyed it, it is certainly readable and found resonance with a great many readers. I would not say the same for The Harvest. The characters were in no way believable for me, and the blend of saccharine, Christian-themed, puritanical tones with dark, sea dwelling monsters put me off completely. I wish I could say that anything worked for me in this book, but it was a struggle to read through to the end. It's possible that fans of romance, and in particular the Christian romance one finds in a Hallmark Store, could enjoy The Harvest. It's possible that I am the least qualified reader in the world to judge its merits based on that metric. But even had I loved the subject matter and believed any of the character motivations, the writing in The Harvest is too simple to win a contest like this, a competition that features truly beautiful and complex writing. I did finish this book, and it is technically competent, but I would not say I enjoyed it very much at all.

Into the Labyrinth by John Bierce - When I read the synopsis of Into the Labyrinth, I was prepared to read a simple children's book in the vein of the early Harry Potter books or The Chronicles of Narnia. Having such legendary material to match up against is tough. Thankfully, Bierce manages to distinguish himself with Into the Labyrinth, and while it does tick off many of the common checkboxes of a middle-grade novel, I think it's quite good. Bierce's magic system, in particular, is almost at odds with the simplicity of the story - it is as complicated in writing as any math textbook I ever cracked. For me, this did not take away from the book, though I can see it being complex for younger readers. Then again, kids are smarter now than I'll ever be.

There were some things that didn't work for me in the book. The characters aren't very well developed for one. This is a difficult thing to nail in younger-reading fantasy, but the main character in particular is hard to root for due to his unfailing self-deprecation (even if that self-deprecation is a major plot point). However, the systems in place, as well as the mythology surrounding it, make it a worthwhile read.

Devian by Shanna Bosarge - Devian is another book whose premise intrigues me, despite the title confusion I felt when scanning its Goodreads page. There is a Celtic feel to the setting, which I am always interested in, and right from the start the world-building sucks in its reader.

Unfortunately, Devian suffers from some of the same issues that Wanderer does. There is a violence towards women in Devian that is hard to stomach, and while violence is an accepted form of expression in fiction, when it is purely directed towards one gender I begin to feel uneasy about the intent. That the male villains are all mustache twirling psychopaths is also telling. I would have also appreciated an ending, but Devian stops mid-plot, and I don't really understand where it's going nor why. All these things might have been acceptable had the writing itself been stronger, but it is peppered with grammatical errors, and there is a constant switching of tenses that bothered me throughout. I think Devian's dark tone and intriguing familial plotlines could work, but the book needs a lot of work to make that happen.

Petrified by Ben Weeks - Some tough honesty here - Petrified has one of the worst covers I've seen on a book. It's so off-putting that it really soured this reader on the experience of even beginning it. I mean, look at that thing. It's right over there, staring at you, daring you to open it and knowing you won't. This is tragic because Petrified is a solid urban fantasy with interesting mythology and characters that feel worth knowing (for the most part).

The biggest regret I had with Petrified was the main character's ability to animorph into an otter/otter-man. To the very last page, this felt ridiculous to me, particularly when other characters in the book were transforming into less comical animals. This might have worked better had it been a comedy, but the book, while having jokes, takes itself fairly seriously. This even wraps back around to the cover, which also makes Petrified look like a comic fantasy, and I can't help but wonder what the book might have been had it featured a stronger main character. Overall, Petrified remains a solid entry into the contest, but one that doesn't match up to some of the really great books in our batch.

So, it would come as no surprise to anyone reading this far that Beggar's Rebellion is the semi-finalist here. Levi Jacobs' entry into the 2019 SPFBO is big. It has everything: fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles - okay it doesn't have giants but you get the idea. Levi Jacobs will feel familiar to anyone who has been reading Brandon Sanderson, but he out-Sandersons Sanderson because I think Beggar's Rebellion is a better book than anything Sanderson has written (and I like Sanderson!). I think this is the book to beat, which is the case for a lot of the books in this year's contest because there are some real whoppers. I can't even say whether or not this wins at FBC, but I think it is something special and I hope people read it regardless of how far it advances. 


Congratulations Levi Jacobs! You have written a great book, and I for one and eager to read the sequels. Tai and Ella are both great protagonists, your world is well-built and immersive, and your prose is solid. Good luck in the contest!

3 comments:

Scarlett Readz & Runz said...

I really enjoyed your amazing and honest reviews here :)
Will give you a follow so I can stay in the loop with your recs.

Scarlett
@ReadzandRunz

Victoria Corva said...

Wow, very high praise for BEGGAR'S REBELLION! I'm sure Levi Jacobs is ecstatic. :) I'm curious -- were you relieved that it was so easy to single out the winner from this bunch, or were you disappointed that it didn't require more deliberation? I always wonder with competitions like this -- is it better when everything is amazing, or when the choice is clear? (I guess in an ideal world, both?)

David Stewart said...

@Victoria I think it's fine for the initial round to be easy, because I know picking from the picks of the other judges at FBC will be much harder. There is likely some bias for one's own pick, we are all guilty of a little vanity from time to time, and that makes the final round even more challenging.

So no! Hah. I don't mind a simple first round. The next is going to be tough, and the final choice for the grand winner of everything is real difficult.

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