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Wednesday, July 7, 2021

SPFBO: The Second Reaping & Semifinalist Update (by Jonathan Pembroke)


Hey everyone! It’s that time!

Before I get into my reviews and pick for semi-finalist, I want to congratulate and thank all the authors who submitted. I know it’s tough to put yourself out there for public judgment, so well done on being brave enough to try it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

I also want to say that everything here is my opinion, so please take my comments as such. While some of my batch were not for me, I tried to note who they might be for with the following shorthand:

MATRWL – May appeal to readers who like

TW – Trigger warnings

Page lengths are the print version, according to their Amazon pages, unless otherwise noted.

Finally, I want to thank the FBC crew for taking me on board this year, putting with my banter and with me waffling back and forth on my choices. Y’all are great.

Okay enough stalling, onto the reviews!


My assignment was a batch of eight books to read, and to pick a semi-finalist from this group. I present them here in this nifty graphic of the covers in the order I read them. I enjoyed all the books to a varying degree, though some much more than others. 

Of the eight books, there were really four I considered as my semifinalist. I’ll cover the four that I cut first, in no particular order.

First Round Fallen

Summer of the Gods, by Sascha Kersken

Modern/Urban Fantasy

256 pages (Kindle)


MATRWL: socio-economic commentary, multi-POV, Greek gods walking the Earth

TW: discussions of race, Nazism


WHAT IT IS: On the eve of a negotiated economic settlement between Greece and the EU, the gods of old descend to Earth, where some seek to guide humans to a better future, and others to destroy it.

WHAT I LIKED: It’s an ambitious story being told from a lot of perspectives. Tales of the (familiar) gods of our mythologies moving among us are always going to have some appeal to me. A handful of characters—the goddess Athena and a plucky human reporter—were very likable and easy to relate to.

WHAT I DIDN’T: With that handful of exceptions, the characters didn’t feel like they had a lot of depth. The book needs another editing pass because there is some phrasing that is just plain clunky. Other than one character having a major—and sudden—change of heart (and one kind of strange battle scene), by the 60% point in the book, very little had happened other than lots of monologues and description of the reality on the ground of living in Greece during this time period and what the gods thought about it. And while I don’t mind a political theme in a novel, I prefer it to be more subtle and nuanced, and the one in Summer felt like it was being driven home with a sledgehammer.

FINAL VERDICT: I’m afraid this one just wasn’t for me, so I’ll be passing on it.


Season of the Plough, by Luke Maynard (Book One of the Travalaith Saga)

Epic Fantasy

MATRWL: female protagonist, slow-burn epics, multi-POV, deep worldbuilding

TW: violence

334 pages

Kindle / Print


WHAT IT IS: A half-fae young woman named Aewyn comes to live in an isolated mountain town and with the help of her friends and mysterious druids, struggles to discover her destiny.

WHAT I LIKED: Season lays out a very in-depth world, with a substantial, detailed history. At points, it was almost overwhelming how much backstory lurks behind the story’s events. The magic and monsters inhabiting this world were, for the most part, just hinted at, in tantalizing glimpses, until thrust in the reader’s face in a bold way. Very well-constructed. Aewyn, the ostensible main character, was flawed and relatable, and grew on me over the course of the tale. Some of the secondary characters—particularly Robyn, the militia captain—were also likable.

WHAT I DIDN’T: There were a few odd moments of head-hopping mid-stream in the narrative. And while I appreciated the depth of the setting, I think it came at the expense of the pace. The first half of the book is extremely slow, without enough character or plot development for me. More interesting events occur in the book’s second half but had I not been reading this for SPFBO, I would have put it down around the 33% mark.

FINAL VERDICT: I liked Aewyn and the world is intriguing but I just didn’t find enough in the looming story line to hold my interest, so I have to let this one go.


Stone and Shield, by Thomas J. Devens (Book One of the Fall of Emros series)

Epic Fantasy

MATRWL: wide epics, multi-POV

TW: violence

438 pages

Kindle / Print


WHAT IT IS: The story follows numerous characters as an Emperor dies and his vainglorious son assumes the throne, plunging the realm into conflict, with more sinister villains waiting in the wings.

WHAT I LIKED: This one is ambitious, spanning numerous POVs and the lives of many characters, from emperors and their advisors, to mercenary warriors, to common innkeepers. There’s political intrigue, banditry, mercenaries being sold out by their former employers … all kinds of good plot devices to propel the action forward. There is an early battle scene that is particularly well-written, well-paced, and suitably bloody. The story features an interesting take on dragons, with one character having a dragon companion (always a plus for me).

WHAT I DIDN’T: Unfortunately, as a unified effort, the book never quite gelled for me. As I said, there were a lot of POVs—maybe too many. It diluted the narrative and very much prevented most of the characters from getting significant development. By the middle of the book, many of them started to blend together. A number of characters were killed but I didn’t feel moved, because I had not connected with them. The entire thing could have also used another editing look, as there were sections with repetitive phrasing and some run-on sentences that kept knocking me out of the tale.

FINAL VERDICT: Though I appreciated the wide-spanning scale of the story, I wasn’t invested enough in the characters’ fates to hold on to this one.


White as Frost, by Althea Sharp (Book One of the Darkwood Trilogy)

Young Adult

390 pages

Kindle / Print

MATRWL: fairy tale retellings, female protagonist, YA, fae characters

TW: parental neglect


WHAT IT IS: A spin on the Snow White/Rose Red fairy tale, the story is launched when Rose’s mother marries the king of Raine and they move to live in Lord Raine’s castle by the edge of the Darkwood, along with his haughty daughter Neeve.

WHAT I LIKED: The prose of White as Frost is clear, concise, and easy to read, with one of the best balances of narrative and dialogue I’ve read lately. Rose, the POV character, is mostly sympathetic. I found the world-building and magic-systems interesting, with lots of room to explore as the series progresses, and the book’s finale ends not quite on a cliffhanger, but still leaves lots of questions to be answered. Note: this is a very clean book, suitable for younger readers.

WHAT I DIDN’T: Unfortunately, none of the characters save Rose are particularly likable. Rose herself takes agency over her own actions but is, by and large, a bumbler for the near-entirety of the story, which made it hard for me to relate to her. The pace also felt a little slow and repetitive in the middle third of the book.

FINAL VERDICT: Though I think this is a well-written book that will appeal to younger readers, I had a hard time connecting with characters, which means I have to reluctantly let it pass.


Okay, so that left me four books. Of these four, I considered all of them for my semi-finalist slot. I enjoyed all of these books enough that I will be reading more in the series. I’ll outline the reviews (again, in no particular order) and then reveal who made it.

The Second Four


From the Darkness Comes, by Joy Demers (Book One of Darkness in the Midst series)

Epic/Grimdark Fantasy

317 pages

Kindle / Print

MATRWL: first-person POV, female protagonist, revenge stories

TW: violence, slavery, attempted sexual assault


WHAT IT IS: Against the backdrop of feuding goddesses and scheming nobles, Cadda is returned from the dead to seek vengeance against the man who killed and enslaved her family, and burned her village.

WHAT I LIKED: I’ll just say that I love broken protagonists. I enjoy reading sympathetic characters with deficiencies who have to work to overcome them—and Cadda is a hot mess, with tons of issues to work around. Other characters are diverse and believable; I specifically liked Cadda’s friend and sidekick Matty. World-building is understated but feels reasonable and I came away with a good sense of difference between the protagonist’s culture and the one in which the story occurs. The book moves at a rapid pace, especially in the final third, and the first-person prose is easy to read and follow. And the book ends not on a cliffhanger, but with a “what-the-hell-does-she-do-now” vibe that make me keen to continue reading.

WHAT I DIDN’T: The plot was serviceable but other than one whopper of a surprise, the major events were fairly predictable, and the main character does make a handful of dumb decisions. While I loved Cadda, part of the lure for me of damaged protagonists is seeing them overcome their issues and she hasn’t changed much yet. I know there are two more books in the series but I would like to have seen a hint at her progression as a character.

FINAL VERDICT: Because I liked the main character and the flow of the prose, I ended up enjoying this book a lot, I highly recommend it, and I will be continuing the series.


The Wolf and the She-Bear, by Morgan Stang (Prequel (I think) to the Bartram’s Maw series)

Sword and Sorcery

190 pages

Kindle / Print

MATRWL: multi-POV, female protagonist, novella reads

TW: graphic violence


WHAT IT IS: Samantha Redmayne, a down-on-her luck mercenary hiding from her past in the northern wastes, is hired by an old colleague to guard a goods shipment … but it’s never that simple.

WHAT I LIKED: Samantha (“Call me Red”) is a likable, capable protagonist, with some tough backstory that is dribbled out in a well-paced reveal. Other POV characters are interesting and varied, and the world-building is intriguing. There are a handful of plot twists, including one that I wasn’t sure whether it was more audacious or obnoxious, but was consistent for the character involved.

WHAT I DIDN’T: There is some odd and redundant phrasing that probably would have been snipped with a good round of edits and even though the book is quite short, there are a handful of scenes in the middle that slow down the pace.

FINAL VERDICT: I enjoyed the story, liked Samantha quite a bit, and it’s a world I’d like to keep exploring. I plan to continue the series.


Sands of Darkness, by Brian Anderson and Steven Savile (Book two of the Akiri series)

(note: the series is episodic, meaning book two could be read without prior knowledge)

Sword and Sorcery

306 pages

Kindle / Print

MATRWL: powerful protagonists, fight scenes, human-dragon bonding

TW: graphic violence


WHAT IT IS: Wandering and selling his sword to the highest bidder, Akiri and his dragon companion Kyra become enmeshed in politics and in-fighting in a desert city far from home.

WHAT I LIKED: This has a good old-school sword-n-sorcery feel, reminiscent of Howard’s Conan without being imitative. The world is neat and well-built, with magical artifacts, demons, and scheming gods. The combat scenes are crisp and read well, and the prose in general is smooth and easy to follow. This was the second book in my batch featuring a human-dragon team (something I love) which was, in this case, central to the plot.

WHAT I DIDN’T: The main character, Akiri; he’s stronger, tougher, and a better warrior, lover, and leader of men than anyone. Many sword-n-sorcery characters are exercises in wish-fulfillment but Akiri literally has no flaws. He felt humanized only by his attachment to his dragon Kyra (which felt natural) and his semi-willing service to a noble boy he befriended (which felt a little forced). The story was relatively boilerplate.

FINAL VERDICT: I did like this one—enough to earmark the other Akiri books for future reads. It’s solid and will definitely sate anyone who’s looking for a good old-fashioned s&s romp.


Gunmetal Gods, by Zamil Ahktar (Book One of the series of the same name)


496 pages

Kindle / Print

MATRWL: grimdark, historical analogs, multi-first-person POV, fast-moving plot

TW: All of them


WHAT IT IS: Set in a world mirroring disconnect/conflict between Christian Europe and Muslim Ottoman Empire, the book follows Micah the Metal and Kevah, respective champions of their cause, each seeking vengeance and harboring crippling self-doubt, while sinister immortals weave their own plots.

NOTE: This is one of the bleakest books I have ever read. The line about trigger warnings is no joke; Gunmetal Gods features limb amputations, violence to animals, mass infanticide, slavery, incest and attempted rape, and genocide. Some of these things occur on page, in vivid detail. Readers take note.

WHAT I LIKED: This is a fast-paced book that never lets up. Given the somewhat-rapid start, I was expecting a slow-down in the middle but if anything the pace accelerated and the last third went at breakneck speed. The prose flows well enough and the while the world-building is not the deepest I’ve seen, it’s more than sufficient for the tale. The plot is clever and features a number of twists, some of which I never saw coming. There are definitely (favorable) comparisons to draw to the Cthulu mythos and I thought the “gods” were suitably weird and menacing.

WHAT I DIDN’T: The twin protagonists, Micah and Kevah. I had a hell of a time connecting with either one of them. I think it was obvious which one the reader is supposed to cheer for but frankly, both are right bastards, the former for his blind bloodlust in the name of revenge, the latter for … pretty much the same reason. They do have some depth but it wasn’t enough for me to firmly get behind either one. The best characters were in the supporting cast. Not digging either main character did lessen my enjoyment of the book somewhat.

FINAL VERDICT: Gunmetal Gods is a fast, fun read with an excellent plot and set in a compelling world. Any fan of grimdark should check this one out.

Okay, that’s all eight book reviews. Of the four remaining …

I ultimately had to let go The She-Bear and the Wolf. It’s a good tale that I enjoyed and will keep reading the series but the short length meant it did not develop enough for me. I still plan to see what else happens to Samantha Redmayne.

Alternately, I released Sands of Darkness not for any real reason other than I thought the two remaining books were simply a little stronger. I’ll personally still read the other Akiri books and I recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a good hack-n-slash tale.

So that leaves me two:

I waffled on this for a very long time. On the one hand, Gods is probably the more complete effort, with an excellent pace and enjoyable plot. On the other hand, I loved the protagonist and characterization in Darkness much more. I went back and forth for over a week with first one, then the other (I am sure my ramblings on this subject drove the rest of the FBC team crazy). I highly recommend both books, especially to anyone who likes darker tales and first-person POV (I’m seeing a pattern here).

But as Highlander tells us, in the end, there can only be one. So …








… wait for it …








I chose Gunmetal Gods as my semi-finalist.

Okay, that’s it. I’m exhausted now.

Thanks again to everyone for submitting and best of luck to Zamil going forward. Cheers!



M. L. ROBERTS said...
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