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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

SPFBO: The Third Diminution & Semifinalist Update by Justine Bergman


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

Hello, everyone. Justine here. Firstly, I can’t tell you all how excited and honored I am to have even been asked to participate in this year’s SPFBO. Sure, I’ve followed for years, but as this is my first time judging, I wasn’t really sure what to expect - so, a huge thank you to my blogmates for hunkering down as I bombarded them with questions and concerns, and an even bigger thank you to all of you who have so graciously submitted your books and given me tons of great things to read.

As you already know, for this round, we were tasked with finding the best of the best in assigned mini-batches. I’m going to be completely honest with you - this is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do in my blogging career. I know this competition is stressful for authors, but being given the roles of judge, jury, and executioner is something that’s been pretty rough for me. I wish I could just float you all to the finals, and let someone else handle all the tough decisions, but alas, I cannot. So. Without further ado, here we go with the another culling.

I had an incredible batch of books, and thoroughly enjoyed making my way through all of these stories. I approached each and every one as objectively as I could, and tried to keep my personal tastes out of my decision-making as much as possible. Here are the six books assigned to me (organized alphabetically by author):

Pursuit of Shadows by J.A. Andrews
Grayden by L.K Evans
Starheart by Hailey Griffiths
The Dark Ability by D.K. Holmberg
A Keeper’s Destiny by C.A. King
The Ukinhan Wilds by Eldon Thompson


Let’s get to it.

Pursuit of Shadows

Pursuit of Shadows by J.A. Andrews
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Series: The Keeper Chronicles

I was a little hesitant to dive into this one, only due to the fact that this is the second installment in AndrewsThe Keeper Chronicles series. To be clear, I have not read A Threat of Shadows, and was worried that although book two is a standalone, I would be missing out on key worldbuilding. This was not the case whatsoever. Pursuit of Shadows is a fun, clean, uplifting, and enjoyable read, highlighting the idea that one person, no matter how flawed, is able to make a vast impact. A recurring theme of choosing the best path for the greater good, and living with the consequences ties all aspects of this story together seamlessly. With all the darker fantasy currently flooding the market, this book was truly a breath of fresh air, and has earned its place on my list of feel-good fantasy.

After a bit of a slow start, we follow Keeper Will, who has the ability to read the emotions of others, on his journey to find his kidnapped sister in a land ripe with enemies. Recruited as resident storyteller by a seemingly progressive enemy clan leader seeking peace, Will is soon heaved into a grueling adventure populated with humans, elves, dwarves (the best), goblins, dragons, and magic. This book is perfect for fans of classic and epic fantasy, as it’s a charming, yet modern take on the core elements that generally define the fantasy genre. Of the many things to praise, the character dynamics Andrews creates are just superb. Easy to read, splashes of chill-inducing prose, and stunning character and plot development, this was definitely a stand-out read for me. There are a few unanswered questions at the end, and I'm hoping for closure in future books.


Grayden: The Secret of Illryn

Grayden: The Secret of Illryn by L.K. Evans
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Series: Standalone

That first chapter, though. I mean, nothing like introducing your reader to a world where a man magically severs tongues and melts flesh from bone with a mere thought and flick of the wrist. I have to admit, that scene was glorious. *insert 'I seen some sh*t' emoji*

Grayden: The Secret of Illryn is a compelling story of persuasion and deceit governed by magic, gods, and the arduous journey of finding the truth. The general concept Evans conveys of a gifted person being used as a puppet by both the church and state for their own conflicting needs was one that really appealed to me, and one that was definitely executed well. As the story continues on, Grayden begins to access repressed memories, and I feel this gradual unlocking of secrets hidden within the dark corners of his mind is a brilliant engine for worldbuilding. The additional thread of an ongoing battle between gods infused a whole new layered depth to Grayden's mysterious past, that which unravels before us in a stunning fashion.

I thoroughly enjoyed the majority of this book, and believed we were on course for a solid grimdark tale of vengeance filled with hyper-violent stabby moments and reprisal. Oh, I got plenty stabby moments - however, I felt there was a turning point where the story began to stray from the established tone - the darkness of retribution to the dawn of redemption, if you will. And while Krowen is one of the most incredible and wonderfully developed characters I've become acquainted with lately, Grayden's transformation felt a little too abrupt, leading to an unfortunate disconnect I wasn't expecting. There's something special about this world Evans has created, I just hoped the story would stay true to the roots it sprouted from.


Starheart

Starheart by Hailey Griffiths
Genre: Young Adult
Series: Vale of Stars

This was the first book I chose to pick up, because I was in dire need of some YA escapism. Starheart is a remarkably whimsical story defined by a uniquely enchanting world; one that is far too easy to lose yourself in. The setting is beautifully illustrated, and reminiscent of one within a fairytale with surprises everywhere the eye lands. The imaginative trials faced, and the wicked villains we're introduced to were among some of my favorite aspects of this book. Additionally, the writing is solid, the underlying mystery is alluring, and it was difficult to decipher who was friend and who was foe (something I always appreciate in a story).

While I found the second half of the book a charming experience, the first half was pretty difficult for me, as I felt there was an unnecessary amount of fluff preventing a real sense of urgency from forming. I sense the world itself has a deep history below the surface just waiting to be discovered, but many of these indications are mentioned with little to no details, and those are often vague, as well - almost as if there was a book I should've read before this one. The characters we follow, although adults, seem childish and flat at times, unfortunately preventing me from truly bonding with them. All things considered, I'm glad I continued through this book, as that final half was exactly what I was looking for - I only wish the fascinating bits began just a tad earlier.


The Dark Ability

The Dark Ability by DK Holmberg
Genre: Young Adult
Series: The Dark Ability

The Dark Ability was one of interest around the FBC circle, as it already has over 2,000 varied ratings on GR, so I was pretty excited to give it a try. The notion of magical abilities determining a person's standing in society is an intriguing approach to viewing the many prevalent inequities in our own society. The whole "they only hate and fear it because they don't understand it" concept plays a huge role in this story, and tackling it sends out a positive message to readers. Additionally, I absolutely loved the blacksmithing aspect introduced, especially how lorcith, a magical and almost sentient metal, calls out to Mastersmiths to be shaped in a way it desires, usually in the form of weapons. These lorcith-forged weapons have been deemed illegal by those ruling - the reasoning unknown. I was also captivated by a supporting cast of complex characters with many unveiled secrets.

Having that said, while I adored Brusus, Jessa, and Haern, I just couldn't connect with Rsiran, the main character, whatsoever. His constant, repetitive introspection became overly distracting, consistently pulling me from the immersion of the story - if these repetitions had borne fruit, I'd not even mention it. The underlying story is truly fantastic, but I felt some aspects were overly simplified, while others felt too bogged down with superfluous details. Additionally, the corrupt ruling class dictating the lives of all was an interesting thread I wished has been explored in more detail - I know they're the bad guys, but not why. Despite my mixed reactions to this book, I'll most likely be continuing with the series, simply because I need to know what happens next.


The Portal Prophecies: A Keeper's Destiny

The Portal Prophecies: A Keeper's Destiny by C.A. King
Genre: Young Adult
Series: The Portal Prophecies

A Keeper's Destiny is a coming-of-age story that follows a group of teenagers as they discover their own abilities and attempt to save the world from an impending invasion and complete destruction, as foretold in a prophecy. This story also focuses on the corruption of man, and the inevitable ruin that follows. It's apparent King has imbued this world with an interesting and rich history, as we catch snippets of the past through storytelling and seers - I only wish these facets were discussed in further detail while setting up the conflict of the main story. This book has a promising concept and tons of potential, what with the idea of once-believed sealed portals opening between worlds, but it just falls short on delivery.

I unfortunately didn't finish this book, as I couldn't get past the copious amounts of info dumping, often repetitive, that drowned the first 40%. For one of this length, I expected this story to swiftly sweep me into a fantastical and mysterious tale of prophecies led by a Chosen One, but the author left nothing to the imagination. Although this is labeled YA, I felt as though the narrator was speaking to a younger audience, with portions that were overly simplified, and too much focus on inconsequential aspects. While I love the idea of a younger cast exploring their strengths, talents, and interesting powers, I was unable to connect with any of them. I was definitely interested in the core tale, and was looking forward to finally reaching the 'ah ha' moment, however my journey to get there was just too prolonged.


The Ukinhan Wilds

The Ukinhan Wilds by Eldon Thompson
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Series: Warder

Well, the entirety of this book is one wild expedition, fraught with horrors and peril at every. Single. Turn. A thrilling tale of adventure, treachery, and courage, The Ukinhan Wilds delivers us from the throes of a hungry sea, to shattered shores, to humid swamps, to labyrinthine caves, and more, in order to deliver a kidnapped princess back to her father. However, there's a consistent feeling that nothing is as it seems, which unravels into a larger underlying plot line that awaits further discovery. Populated by a large cast of diverse characters - some you love, and some you hate - this story focuses quite a bit on character dynamics, most of which were interesting to watch unfold. Kylac, the main character, is overly-powered, yet conflicted, which I always find to be a fine balance. Solid writing, vividly painted landscapes, and truly terrifying baddies, this story was an unexpected and welcome treat.

While I enjoyed my precarious trek through the wilds, at times there was a bit of meandering that threatened to pull me from the story, finding myself growing weary and wishing for more monsters. Don't get me wrong, there are monsters aplenty, and each more horrifying than the last. I also felt somewhat of a disconnect with Kylac, and later learned that the author dedicated another entire series to his adventures. There were a few aspects of his character that I found distracting or questionable, and maybe being acquainted with his history would've better equipped me for this. A shocking ending leaves this series open to a whole new set of nail-biting wanderings, and I'm looking forward to seeing what trouble Kylac finds himself in next.


There Can Be Only One.

Welp...and now I have to choose! I'd like to thank you all for tossing your hats into the ring - it's because of you this competition continues to remain awesome! This was not an easy decision, but here we go:

My choice for the next FBC SPFBO5 semifinalist is...

Are you ready? I'm not.


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Pursuit of Shadows
*trumpets blaring*


A huge congrats to J.A. Andrews for moving on in the competition! This book was such a pleasure to read, and my finger is poised upon the order button for the rest of the series! Stay tuned right here on the FBC blog for my full review coming soon.


Thanks for stopping by, everyone, and best of luck, J.A.!

Happy Reading!
🖤


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