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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

SPFBO: The First Cull and semi-finalist update

 



The time has come to make choices. Not always comfortable, not always happy for all concerned, but such is the nature of this competition. 

Every year (it's my 4th SPFBO rodeo!) I try to keep an open mind, but, like everyone, I have my preferences and pet peeves. Some stories that appeal to me bore others, depress some, enrage others. All of those are perfectly valid, reasonable responses. And the SPFBO rules are brutal. In the end, only one book from each group will make it to the finals. And there will only be one winner.

Before I wrap things up and say goodbye to seven titles, I want to emphasize that SPFBO's main strength and addictive nature lies in the wonderful community and process of discovering and discussing books. Submitting your book to a contest takes courage, and I applaud all of you for doing so. 

Here is our first batch of eight books (in alphabetical order). Let's take a closer look at each of them.



Fìrinn by E.A. McLaren
Published May 10th, 2021; 184 pages (Kindle Edition)
Cover design by Studio Maru
Genre: Coming-of-age
Series: standalone

Fìrinn tells the emotionally charged story of a young woman searching for her place in the world. After discovering uncomfortable truths, Fìrinn flees her arranged marriage and seeks refuge with her late mother's people. Like many coming-of-age heroines before her, she is special and has an important role to play. 

Much of the story follows her journey across the country. McLaren has an eye for detail. Her descriptions of the landscapes and weather are vivid and evocative, but they also slow the pace. Coupled with lots of adverbs ("the darkness faded into the dim grey of a solemn dawn," "bleak white mist," etc.), they shift her writing style toward the lyrical, perhaps even purplish. I admit that I found some passages overwritten, and some plot points dubious. 

With its focus on the protagonist's inner states and nuanced phrasing, Firinn will appeal to fans of slow-burn, character-driven stories. On the other hand, it probably won't engage fans of tight plots and non-stop action.



Fourth Sister by M.L. Farb
Published February 10th 2021, 286 pages (Kindle Edition)
Cover design by Wynter Designs
Genre: YA Asian Fantasy
Series: Hearth and Bard Tales

Fourth Sister will appeal to fans of slow-burn books focused on character's study and growth. It combines myth, fantasy, and poetry (each chapter begins with a haiku) to tell the story of Shisei, the fourth of seven sisters, blamed for the death of her twin brother. The first part of the story follows her as she apprentices to a mask maker. 

I enjoyed this part, but every story needs a strong conflict to fully develop. In this case, Shisei's youngest sister is accused of killing the local Kazoku's son. Only a clever deception can save the sisters. 

I enjoyed how M.L. Farb wove Japanese culture and folklore into the story. Her focus is on characters and broken relationships that can be healed and deepened through work and self-acceptance. Shisei starts out as a whiny girl, but that changes throughout the book, making her character growth palpable.

All told, Fourth Sister is an entertaining and clean story. I would recommend it to readers looking for a heartwarming and thoughtful read about family ties, guilt, and self-acceptance. And did I mention the four-tailed fox that hops in and out of Shisei’s everyday life? Cause there is one :)


Lady Vago's Malediction by A.K.M. Beach
Published September 27th, 2020, 253 pages (Kindle Edition); 
Artwork by @SketchedUp84
Genre: Gothic Fantasy
Series: The Banshee's Curse Duology

I'm shallow. I judge books by their covers. I didn't expect to enjoy Lady Vago's Malediction, but I was wrong. 

The titular Lady Vago is a banshee. Before turning into one, she had a good life - she caught the eye of a charming baron who married her despite their class differences. Her husband was not only handsome but also wise and good to everyone; he wanted nothing more than to improve the lives of his subjects. Rovena's keen mind and insights helped him make bold decisions that brought satisfying results that did not please everyone at court.

The first few pages of the book leave the reader with no illusions - everyone dies, and everything ends badly. The question the book tries to answer is how and why they all got there. 

The story alternates between Rovena's tragic now, her fulfilling past, and the events that ruined her life. Although the plot is relatively predictable, the authors seed it with intriguing revelations that would be spoilers to list. Good pacing and Rovena's character depth are strengths; she's relatable and likable. I also enjoyed secondary characters and found them well-rounded and believable. Sure, Rovena's late husband was a tad too perfect, but maybe she just idolized him in her memories?

As you probably guessed, I liked this one. It's well-written, atmospheric, and engaging. I'm looking forward to seeing where the series goes from here.




The Crystal Spear by Rob Donovan
Published August 31st, 2020, 490 pages 
Cover art by Jest Art Studios
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Series: Forbidden Weapons Saga

Any warrior wielding the Crystal Spear can demolish entire armies. Some believe it's a myth, others are deadly serious about it. When Prince Horan unleashes its power, all hell breaks loose. And to think he just wanted to impress his dad.

Tonally, The Crystal Spear is pretty dark, but it also contains moments of humor, camaraderie, and hope (less and less as we get closer to the end). The POV characters are well written and quite compelling. We get the mischievous Klayton, Horan, a prince who is considered a failure by his father, and the infamous pirate known as Black Shade. We get a few more POVs in the book, and that gets problematic.

While I liked the characters, I felt the author took too much time introducing them and their circumstances. As a result, it was hard to understand what the story was about until about 40 (ish)% of the ebook version. A tad too long, if you ask me. 

Generally, though, Donovan makes it work. The novel contains genuinely exciting action sequences and intriguing character development. These aspects make up for the occasionally overambitious goals of a story.



The Great MacGuffin by Rachel Ford
Published September 30, 2020, 175 p (Kindle Edition)
Cover art by
Genre: LitRPG
Series: Beta Tester

The protagonist, an experienced gamer, beat out millions to become the first beta tester for the newly developed game. And what a cool game it is! The player's consciousness is transferred to virtual reality so that adventure gets visceral. There's, of course, a return switch to save the player if the need arises. Only: it doesn't work. 

Trapped in a dangerous world, Jack needs to finish the game to survive and return to reality. Ford throws the reader (and Jack) right into the adventure and keeps things tight. I liked the pacing and the clear structure. Unfortunately, I didn't connect with Jack. I mean, he's beaten countless geeks and got picked as an experienced player. And yet his actions are clueless and he's mostly inept at everything except making tiresome snide remarks. 

The author writes in a straightforward, sometimes quite basic, style delivering an imagined world full of surprises. I expect fans of LitRPG laced with a nerdy sense of humor will enjoy The Great MacGuffin. I liked the premise, but found the execution and writing style uneven.


The Hungry Fire by A.M. Obst
Published January 18th 2021, 298 p (Kindle Edition) 
Cover image by Thomas Brasch
Genre: NA, Sword&Sorcery
Series: Serpentstone series

The three siblings, Betharad, Sarnd, and Jessa, lack the magical powers to deal with what awaits them. Their parents sacrificed their lives to stop the evil sorcerer. And that would be it, except the sorcerer didn't die. And the heroic story didn't tell the whole truth.

I liked the fact that the siblings start out as ordinary people using their wits to outsmart a ruthless fiend. The magic, the world, and the three POV characters are compelling. I found Jessa's chapters most exciting, probably because she tends to act on a whim and often gets into trouble. 

Solid character development and earth-shattering magic make the story engaging. I feel it would be even more exciting if we got less exposition and more action/character work. That being said, I enjoyed the smaller (but no less entertaining) scale of the events - the siblings want to save their hometown, not the whole immense world. 

In sum, The Hungry Fire has a promising foundation and interesting premise. I feel it could do a better job at making characters more nuanced and memorable but what we get is solid anyway.





The Kept King by Ryan D. Meier
Published December 17th 2020, 272 p (Kindle Edition)
Cover art by Ivan Zanchetta
Genre: Paranormal
Series: Standalone (?)

King Thomas Hawke needs a queen to secure an heir. With many potential (and eager) candidates to choose from, he can be picky. Life is good! Or, rather, would be if not for Thomas' long and short-term memory loss. After his inexplicable fits, he barely remembers anything. Something is wrong with the world around him, sure, but what exactly? Hard to say. 

I liked the way the author used memory loss to build psychological tension. Thomas' seizures "reset" him and make his narrative both compelling and frustrating. As a reader, I was interested in finding out the truth; the lack of a reliable narrative made it difficult. And fun!

There's a lot to like here: the mystery is compelling; the main characters are well developed; the pacing is consistent, and the plot is engaging. I find the concept of how memory shapes our understanding of the world fascinating, and Meier plays with this theme in a cool way.

One minor criticism is that parts of the story were repetitive. The resolution, while genuinely surprising, requires considerable suspension of disbelief. Not because it comes out of nowhere, but because I found the amount of work (funding, logistics, etc.) required to keep the conspiracy going insanely high.

This issue notwithstanding, fans of fantasy mystery should enjoy the story. 





Windborn by Alex S. Bradshaw
Published March 2021, 562 pages (Kindle Edition) 
Cover illustration by Raph Herrera Lomotan, Cover Design by STK Kreations
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Series: The Windborn Sagas

Windborn is Alex Bradshaw's debut novel, and it is an intriguing first work. Its main character, Edda Gretasdottir, has much more to offer than just a shield and ax. All she wanted out of life was a farm and freedom from the oppressive chief of her clan's oppressive chieftain. She got killed instead.

Okay, not really, but it's complicated. What matters is that she got superpowers in the process. She didn't ask for them, but now that she has them, she's going to use them to get revenge. Her narrative is fueled by rage and a short temper that gets her embroiled in something much, much bigger, and more dangerous.

Windborn has a lot of coolness to offer and display. With its Norse superheroes using elemental powers to wreak havoc and win battles, and Edda's internal turmoil the book is never lacking action, adventure, intrigue, and suspense. On the other hand, I felt the middle part was bloated and slightly repetitive. I could do with a few fights less, but it's just me, I guess.

But it's just a minor criticism.  Windborn is consistently well-written, entertaining, and held aloft by cool ideas, immersive setting, and compelling characters.


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Choosing a semi-finalist

I'm happy with my mini-batch of eight titles. I had a good time reading them and a difficult time picking my semi-finalist. Before I announce it, I want to thank the authors for braving the SPFBO gauntlet and submitting their books. Remember that getting involved in the community is one of the best things any self-published author can do. I encourage you all to follow the contest and engage with bloggers and other authors regardless of the outcome of this round of cuts. I hope my mini-reviews will allow potential readers to pick books that may appeal to them. 


The books in my batch were good. I didn't love all of them, but it shouldn't come as a surprise. The two books I liked most were (in alphabetical order):


 
Lady Vago's Malediction by A.K.M. Beach - I thoroughly enjoyed the central mystery and the compelling story. It's well written, atmospheric, and doesn't shy away from boldness (I mean, we know from the beginning that everything is going to take a turn for the worse). I'll definitely read the sequel once it's out.

Windborn by Alex S. Bradshaw impressed me with strong characterization, well-thought-out setting, and impressive action scenes. Plus, the ending provides a satisfying closure that leaves room for sequels but makes the book stand on its own. A strong debut.

So, who stays in the game? 

I enjoyed both stories but there can be only one. After careful consideration, I've picked a book that got deeper into the world and had more WOW-factor.  

Our first semi-finalist is


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Congratulations Alex! Edda is a memorable character with a distinct voice, and a compelling story to tell. Soon, she'll face our remaining semi-finalists in yet another battle for survival. For the moment, though, she can chill and enjoy her frosty "farm".

2 comments:

DLGardner said...

Nice, thoughtful reviews and presentation. Congratulations to everyone for their hard work, and to the winner! Good job.

Rob Donovan said...

Congratulations Alex, definitely a book I will be checking out.

Thanks Lukasz also for taking the time to read and review your batch and for the kind words.

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