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Saturday, October 19, 2019

SPFBO: The Fifth Jettisoning & Semifinalist Update (by Lukasz Przywoski, Justine Bergman & David Stewart)

This is the last update and we will be announcing our final semifinalist at the end of this post. The books in this lot were read by four of us and were reviewed jointly as well. So here are the thoughts on the remaining six titles:

The Shadow Rises by K.S. Mardsen

Overview/Analysis: There’s a society of witch-hunters and Hunter (not his real name) is probably the best at what he does. He’s got money, the looks, and the skill. I mean, he’s almost like James Bond of the supernatural world. A girl he once saved from the clutches of the evil witch wants to join witch-hunters. A tragic turn of events makes him accept her as his apprentice. In the meantime, the evil raises and things get trickier than ever.

I liked the story and the concept. Everyone needs a good popcorn read from time to time, and The Shadow Rises mostly succeeds at offering high-octane, if slightly predictable, fun. Some action scenes and suspenseful moments are drawn out appropriately, but then a key piece of exposition or character development may be glossed over, or opportunities for those moments are missed. Both main and secondary characters have some distinct traits but, in general, remain underdeveloped and flat.

The writing itself could use a bit of a polish, particularly in the structure of the sentences and establishing POV and keeping it. Long stretches of simplistic phrases make the story accessible and easy to follow, but also remove the suspense or tension building in the story.

Despite many weak spots in the writing and the lack of more depth to the storyline and characters, Mardsen succeeds at creating an interesting blend of reality and fantasy. She explores the concepts of loyalty, individuality, and difficult choices and offers some unpretentious fun. As long as you approach it as a fast pulp read, you should appreciate at least parts of the story.

Windwalker: Forbidden Flight by H.G. Chambers

Overview/Analysis: Windwalker took me by surprise. I didn’t expect to enjoy it so much, but it has it all - winged raptors, sand-warriors, a rebellious protagonist willing to break the rules and follow her dreams.

Kiva Fariq wants nothing more than to help her tribe as a Windwalker scouring the desert skies on the back of a giant flying predator. She has the skill, will, and determination. Unfortunately, she’s a girl and the windwalker sect is closed off to women. When the time comes, Kiva attempts the perilous windwalker trials in secret. Even if she succeeds, the question is open whether the elders will accept or banish her.

In the spirit of youthful adventures, Chambers makes the teenage protagonists seem far more capable than the adults. Not only is she willing to challenge ungrounded beliefs and fight for her future, but she’s also the only one to see approaching danger. Younger readers, especially girls, will enjoy her inspiring growth. But even older readers should appreciate a good balance between appealing to a youthful target audience and creating a captivating, but ultimately comfortably predictable plot.

Overall, Windwalker: Forbidden Flight is a strong and uplifting start to intriguing series. It should appeal to a wide range of readers, from middle grade to young adult. I won't be surprised to see adult readers enjoying this one as a well-deserved rest between bleaker stories.

The Deadbringer by E.M. Markoff

Overview/Analysis: The Ascendancy and its Sanctifiers are on the hunt for remaining Deadbringers throughout the land, and young Kira finds himself on the run in pursuit of survival. Traversing cursed forests, hungry bogs, and countrysides filled with citizens that loathe and fear the very thought of what he is, Kira must hide in plain sight in order save not only himself, but those he holds dear, as well.

The Deadbringer is a dark and intriguing tale of finding one's true self and bearing with the consequences of lies told. We're dropped into a rich world with various races and mysterious, dangerous landscapes, that houses tons of facets waiting in the shadows, just plotting to reveal themselves and shatter what you believe to be the truth. A stunning blend of fantasy and horror, with beautiful, elegant prose, and blood and gore aplenty, this story is an incredible foundation for a potentially outstanding series.

As this is an account of the hunt, we're introduced to several point of view characters that lie on each end of the spectrum. We witness events through the eyes of the hunters and the prey, and at a point the lines between the two begin to blur. This alternating storytelling allows Markoff to refine the world around us without copious amounts of info dumping, something that I always appreciate. However, many major events suffered from a jarring time-jump mechanism, where readers are forced to observe the aftermath, rather than event itself, causing the flow to become unfocused and confusing at times. Also, a substantial amount of moving pieces and a bit of meandering led to just a few missed opportunities that I felt could've been beneficial to the story.

The conclusion of this book is its ultimate shining moment that left me at a point where I not only wanted more, but NEEDED more, and I cannot wait to continue my journey through Ellderet with The Faceless God.

The City Screams by Phil Williams

Overview/Analysis: The City Screams is my initiation into Williams’ work, and what an incredible introduction it has been! An urban fantasy set in Japan that pulls in a healthy dose of lore from the area, this story perfectly portrays the concepts of courageousness and resolve, that not everything of consequence need be witnessed only through sight, and that there is always more to be discovered beneath the surface. Conspiracies, strange organizations, mysterious ongoings, peril, and hope, it’s a genuinely fun read that keeps you guessing until the very end – and that twist! Excellently realized characters and a plot where nothing is at it seems, there’s no shortage of surprises along the way. It’s length smartly strips all the fluff, resulting in a fast-paced adventure where every word matters, and honestly, I finished this book craving more of the Ordshaw world.

Being a story of this size, there are a few concepts that, while possessing excellent backbones, lack just a bit of fleshing out. I know The City Screams can be read as a completely independent standalone within the series, but I feel reading Under Ordshaw and Blue Angel prior to diving into this one could’ve been beneficial, and most likely would’ve answered all of my lingering questions. The story itself ties up nicely, however, everything is left open-ended, so I’m really hoping this isn’t the last we see of Tova. I’m excited to experience the events that paved the way for this great story, and also see where Williams takes us in the future.

Magpie's Song by Allison Pang

Overview/Analysis: I liked Magpie's Song. It has a setting I'm not familiar with - something that I can only describe as post-apocalyptic steampunk. The main character, one Raggy Maggy, exists in the slums of a divided city. On one side are the rich, and on the other the poor, and above them rests a floating island where reside those that even the rich stand in awe of. Raggy Maggy is a Moon Child, meaning she exists as the offspring of one of those who lives above and one who lives below. This makes her special, both because it gives her cool silver hair but also because it makes her immune to the plague that destroyed most of civilization.

Magpie's Song is an incredibly strong contender in our batch of books. It is well written, the main character is very well thought out and interesting, and the writing is solid with very few mistakes. My only real complaint with the book, and it's basically a deal-breaker for me in regards to preferring it over some other entries, is that the book leads up to something for almost its entire length, and then it ends without realizing what is promised. I've been told this happens in the subsequent book, which is fine, but what I am looking for when I sit down to read something is a self-contained story that has a beginning, middle, and end. Magpie's Song has no end, so despite liking the book a lot and really enjoying my time with it, I was left wanting.

Cleansed by G.S. Scott 

Overview/Analysis: Cleansed chronicles the life of Dirge, from childhood to adolescence. Orphaned at a young age, he’s taken in by Talic, the leader of the Order of the Brotherhood, assassins for the God of Death, Aza’zel. Dirge grows into a dangerous young man skilled in combat. When The Prophet of the forgotten God of Order, Ukase, approaches him, Dirge finally finds his way. He breaks with the Brotherhood to serve his new master.

His military adventures are bloody and epic. Cleansed goes into dark, scary places. It pictures lots of violent and gory fight scenes, debauchery, and casual cruelty. As the plot grows more and more complex, Dirge has to decide if he wants to lead the armies of Ukase.

I found Cleansed intriguing. It doesn't shy away from violence, but most of it served to show the grim reality of the world being torn apart by warring deities. With a strong ending and plenty of narrative hooks, it'll appeal to fans of dark fantasy.

That being said, the beginning of the book, with numerous time skips was hard to follow and tiring. As important as those events were in shaping Dirge's personality, they didn't engage me and I had to force myself through the first 25% of the book. Some scenes felt unclear (like Jacob appearing suddenly in the room with Dirge).

Overall, though, Cleansed is an interesting book, one worth trying.

So amidst all these titles, our last semifinalist is Allison Pang’s Magpie’s Song. Because of its well-written protagonist, post apocalyptic settings and its quick pace, it wowed all of us and hence easily overcomes the strong competition that Windwalker provided.

So there you go, Fantasy Book Critic has selected six semifinalists. Best of luck to all authors, we will be announcing our SPFBO finalist in the next couple of weeks.



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