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Sunday, July 18, 2021

SPFBO: The Third Diminution & Semifinalist Update (by Jen)

I am happy to return for my third SPFBO. I’d like to think that this part of the contest would get easier but every year the quality is upped a notch and it’s just as difficult as it was the previous year. 

Thank you to authors for submitting and for making my choice so tough. 

My reviews are on the long-side, I apologize in advance. As always, these are just my opinions so take them with a grain of salt.

Without further ado (in my reading order).

This Merry Hell by Edward Hargreaves

Pub date - April 2 2021

Genre - Fantasy/comedy/Magical realism?

Jason finds himself in hell, after being hit by a car while out for a run. Using his surprise death as an opportunity to be the person he wasn’t in life, Jason, gathers a group of unlikely friends, branding themselves The Alliance of…. well, they can’t seem to decide on that part yet, but they set-out through Hell anyway, in search of the devil himself.

This is so far from my normal reading I can’t even tell you. The story is a comedy and nearly all dialogue, with a bit of philosophy and silliness thrown in. I almost dropped it several times to be honest because outside of the whole being in Hell, and a few mentions of mages- there wasn’t much in the way of fantasy elements. But I was curious to see how Jason’s journey would end and decided it didn’t matter if it wasn’t fantasy enough.


Jason reminded me of Billy Crystal and don’t ask me why, but likely, because of that thought, the story in some respects did make me think of City Slickers (I could almost argue the herd being the other inhabitants of hell) in the way that it appeared we were going to be on a personal enlightenment journey in the midst of a humourful dead-life crisis.

 I enjoyed a lot of the story- even most of the humour worked for me. Although, sometimes the high-energy conversations could be exhausting. 

I found that there wasn’t always enough breathing room between the arguments and dense humour, to appreciate all of the comedy and/or the moments of enlightenment. I wished for the quieter instances to happen more often, because I found I was backtracking quite a bit to catch some of those more profound moments and thoughts that were lost in between. 

Because this story is nearly all dialogue, there was not a lot scene-setting to the surroundings. But one that I really liked was the use of sound, and the descriptions of the groaning echo as the audible soundtrack of Hell. This was very effective against the emptiness of the landscape. Nicely done.

Another rounds of edits would have helped with missing words, tense changes and head-hopping etc. Personally, I had hoped for some character enlightenment that would bring change to Jason, in the end, but we almost come full circle. I did understand the choice, I mean he is in Hell and part of hell is living the afterlife in an unending circle (I assume) but in this case, I kind of wanted a little more payoff for the journey.

I am King by Damien Shillingford

Pub Date June 21 2020

Cover Art -

Genre - Classic Fantasy

Series- I am King #1

I am King was the second book I read in my group, and I knew within a few chapters it was going to be right up my alley.

It has a very traditional fantasy feel with a young prince and only heir that was sent away years ago after the king is killed. The boy is now being retrieved to claim his throne after his whereabouts were revealed. The journey to that throne isn’t an easy road and we are only a portion of the way there by the end of the book. 

First, this is one my bullet-proof likes. I will never tire of trad-fantasy (or any genre) hidden prince stories and have read a fair number of them, so let me tell you- this had to impress me. And it did. I enjoyed this book a ton.

This story is put together- the presentation, pacing, the characters and the plot; everything feels like attention was spent on making it as top quality as it could get. I am not sold on the title though, I’m sorry to say. It just feels very lackluster compared to the rest.

The characters 

There were a lot of characters but they were introduced in batches and the peripheral ones fall-out of the picture quickly enough, I was able to keep them straight with no troubles. 

Royce and friends- I really liked Royce and co. and in the beginning, I almost expected them to jump teams at some point, or maybe I just wanted him to because of everything he went through to protect his family. I loved the relationship between him and his men, and how much they felt like a group who had worked together and become friends and family over the years. 

Royce’s goals were always the forefront of his decisions. It’s his choices that get little murky along the way. I liked at the end; he was still looking for a way to work things out to protect his family and friends.

The young King Beau, and his cousin Julius, were ten-year-old’s that felt like ten-year-old’s. They were strong enough for us to believe they could do this journey, but there were also moments where they had temper tantrums, fits of crying, and other things that you would expect from overtired and traumatized preteens. I appreciated that characterisation of them more than anything.

I also really enjoyed how different the two kids were from one another Beau a little more reserved and thoughtful, Julius impetuous and ready to defend. 

Nisila, Gavin and comp - 

I thought Nisila was a bit silly for telling a certain someone where the kid was and she trusted a person’s honour way more than I would think someone in her position should, especially with a secret that big but I guess the cat was out of the bag anyway. Other than that little bit of naiveté, I liked her a lot. 

Gavin’s goals were all monetary and self-interest based. He was a grumpy jerk and I hated him a lot of the time. In much the same way that I loved Royce a lot of the time. Until they both were pushed far enough to see their true colors (shining through like a rainbow… wink wink). I thought it was an interesting contrast and I liked this a lot, especially as you can see the growth in one for the better, while the other slides down the slippery slope.

I did feel a little bit that even though we do get multiple layers in their characterisation, sometimes it was too easy to fall back to their main character points- of disillusioned jerk or everything is for family etc. 

We see a lot more of the fantasy elements as the story builds. Creatures and cool magics- there were stones that held power called Embers (colors had different uses), Paladins, voodoo magic (love voodoo magic) to name a few. It seemed like we were seeing different elements from different beliefs and I assume (hope) we will get to explore these beliefs/cultures a bit more in the next book.

There was a choice fairly early in the book that surprised me. I liked this choice for setting the tone of expectation for everything that followed. 

While there weren’t any huge twists in the end ala. Justin Anderson (last years winner) there were small surprises a long the way. There was lots of action- battles and chases (loved the whole part with the Revenant) and a good steady build to the end conflicts. The one fight felt larger in scale, while the other was bigger on a personal level. It was satisfying on both accounts. 

Minor things

Repetition- in thoughts, especially Royce about his family, Beau’s worries about not telling Julius about his dad but also occasionally in storytelling, things that are said twice but worded differently etc. 

A few fun, but convenient plot movers- Paladin’s brother, finding the sword, Shadow-cry reappears (the bird) after being gone long enough to wonder what happened to him. 

As I said, minor, because there wasn’t enough here to keep me from enjoying the book. It was quite the opposite actually, I was always wanting to get back to these characters to see how they fared and found myself trying to slow down my reading to make the story last longer, which is saying a lot in a 600-page book.

Other notes

Dear author/Mr. Shillingford, pretty please with sugar on top, think of me as a reviewer when book two is ready for release. 

I liked that we get introduced to the cast like they’re going to be around for a while- so no one felt totally safe.

I expected Beau’s mother shared ancestry with the warlocks to come in to play. But maybe later…. do we have a magical king on the horizon?

There was a lot to unpack here, and this does feel like a series starter, but it ends in a good place that will let you rest easy in between books.

The Conjuring of Zoth-Avarex: The Self-Proclaimed Greatest Dragon in the Multiverse by K.R.K. Lockhaven

Pub Date- April 1 2021

Genre - Fantasy/Comedy

Harris, recently hired at the Site (think Eureka, the fantasy edition) has spent the last year at a supersecret magical training school. His new job begins just as a new project- one that has been in the works for the past 37 years, is ready to be put into motion.

The Site plans to conjure another Dragon. Hopefully with better results than their last effort.

The conjuring is a success but the results are predictably, no better, as Zoth- Avarex the aforementioned conjured dragon from the Titan realm, promptly steals the most beautiful girl in the room, and parks himself on the top of the Seattle Needle, like King Kong but with hostage negotiation skills.

This book tickled me to no end. I swear I am going to have to eat my words because I always say I don’t care for comedy/fantasy books, but this was just so delightfully charming with a bit goofiness rolled in. I enjoyed it a lot. It’s also a very quick read for an almost 400-page book. 

I loved Zoth and his arrogance and sarcasm, and his footnotes were hilarious.

Most of the humour was right up my alley. I am fan of the tongue-in-cheek and stabs at our society etc. and there were lots of fun references throughout; everything from books to current day stuff. (Think Ready Player One kind of idea but with that light-hearted warm humour you would find in Eureka.)

Harris is like most of us fantasy lovers and wouldn’t mind having some of the stuff we read about in books be real. He is easy-going and likeable. I enjoyed his pov. Actually, the characters were all likeable, eccentrics. 

I do have to gripe about the mid-point pov switch (everyone knows how much I love that) we begin with Harris and Zoth, after that we get everyone. So, it was a bit of an adjustment trying to place which person the new pov was in.

 I did wish there was more character building because we don’t get a lot of time exploring them but the book is just so ridiculously entertaining, it was hard to care for long. 

It could have used a minor edit to catch those some stray letters and words (This actually could have been a format error too since I do use an app). The cover is wonderful. I had seen it on twitter before the contest opened and the whimsical style caught my eye. I had even added it to my Amazon Wishlist based on the cover. 

All in all, needs a teeny bit of love in places but the book is a barrel of laughs and I smiled though the whole thing. What a wonderfully fun story! I hope everyone will check it out.

Other notes-

Zoth’s world gave me such Wizard of Oz vibes while walking though the flower field but the size of everything made me think Jack the Giant Slayer- I couldn’t decide if we were going to get a giant or a man behind a curtain or neither…

The Shadow & The Sun by Monica Enderle Pierce

Pub Date - April 22 2016

Cover Design - Scott Pierce, Cover/Interior Illustrations- Qistina Khalidah

Genre - Fantasy/Romance

Series - Militess & Mage #1

Halina - King Vernard’s bastard daughter, is sent to parlay with the Shadow Mage, Gethen Rhysh. His lands are in the borders of her dominion, and his allegiance is required in the dispute against Gethen’s brother. Gethen has refused to oath, causing concern about whose side such a powerful mage will throw his lot with in the dispute between the two countries.

I really enjoyed this story. There is a nice blend of fantasy and romance with enough fantasy elements for me to be able to call it that, while still feeling like a romance at its heart. 

It’s also very well presented- from the beautiful cover down to the contents.


Things I liked. Both were strong capable characters- there was a little bend on the classic with him being the healer-character, and her the warrior but they both felt suited to their positions without feeling like they were being crammed into to the box they were given.

There is a slow-build to their romance and despite the spirited way she spoke in the beginning around her soldiers and the implied relationships- this was surprisingly tame which personally, I prefer. I like a nice build in the getting to know each other and in the sexual tension, to having an insta-love and a multitude of sex scenes. It makes when they do finally get together way more fulfilling for me. (It’s all about the chase for me) 

The pov’s were fairly equal in time on-screen. There wasn’t too much waffling back and forth in their desire for one another, though they both were repetitive at times, falling in to the same thought patterns about the other- especially him admiring her strength etc. I’m not going to gripe about that too much, it’s preferable to him admiring her heaving bosom. (Thankfully we have no heaving bosoms). 

I did feel a little distant towards them, I am not sure why, but my heart never beat out of my chest in fear for either of them.


It’s soft and not a lot explanation is needed. 

As a Shadow Mage Gethren, keeps souls from entering the realm of the living, to use his magic, he draws from the animals and even people around him (which he doesn’t like to do too much) so he tries to just siphon a little from all around (they can recover this with rest).  But he is transitioning from Shadow mage to a Sun mage (the only one of his kind in the four kingdoms) and because of this, his power has weakened and spirits in the void are taking advantage of his flagging defences. He is in need of a protector for the final transition- Enter Halina. She doesn’t have any magic she practises but there is blood magic from the battles she has fought in her armour and sword that help to protect her. (The Shadow Mage shedding his armour was pretty darned cool btw)


Not much world is seen outside of his keep/Tor. They do travel via magic to another location where he goes to learn the magic of the Sun Mage and we get a few details about the Rime Witch an ancient sorceress imprisoned in the void but most of the story is in his surroundings.

I did like that we got to see little of what it takes to keep the place running with the animals (I totally agree with the chicken consensus) and keeping bees, etc. and the tidbits on how he sold his tinctures in exchange for other things that are needed. 

A little spoilery in this section so beware.

I was not sure why Vernard abandoned Halina’s holdings and I wished we had more leading up to this because it seemed so out of left-field. There were no hints or even dealings with him other than the offer to Gethen to sweeten the pot, without letting her know. His sending her seemed like he knew she could handle it, not like- I hope you die so I can have you stuff.

Also the brother at first, I thought was a jerk but, on the leaving, seemed like he might care about her.

And then there is the housekeeper who had such a character shift that I wondered how no one noticed because it was pretty obvious. Especially with the coin.

I think in some cases, things were too subtle where they didn’t need to be, and others weren’t subtle enough.

Other notes

Why do I want to cheer when a stag appears in the forest in fantasy but I also want to roll my eyes because it’s so cliché? Still, it’s one of my favourite clichés. 

Oathbreaker by A.J. Rettger

Pub Date - Dec 8 2020

Genre - Fantasy/Dark/Grim

Mario’s first couple of days on his journey in knighthood doesn’t go well, as he is robbed of his horse, sword and is knifed. This is his first quest after graduating and he is full of excitement and optimism but as his journey proceeds that shiny world seems to be inclined to show him just how nasty it really is out there. 

This book had one of my favourite covers. I like dark moodiness of the colors and the way the armour is almost lost in the shadows of it. It suits the book title well, and in between title, cover, and the opening prologue- I expected a dark story. I was prepared. And I was surprised when after the prologue we switched to Mario pov. and Mario is so young feeling, but things get dark pretty quick once he gets on the road.

Eventually Mario ends up with a little group of adventurers and this almost has a D&D feel for awhile, as they travel around, getting into one jam after another with the very cool monster population (I love the dwarven statues army) and also with the general population who aren’t always so nice.

There are many interesting things going on in this world. The simplified version; a religious group called The Golden Sun is growing strong roots through the land- they believe in the purity of men and species that fall outside of that category, including half-humans have no merit. On the other side of that coin, we have a group that is starting to fight back against that oppression and hatred towards the non-human races. And to complicate it all, there is some political intrigue stirring in the background with the Emperor Vesuvius plans to cause distrust among the kingdoms.

This story has some very dark moments; with torture, rape, and some good gut-spilling gory deaths. It’s not a happy world, that’s for sure. 

I kind of felt like we were seeing an accelerated journey into Mario’s disillusionment of the world, and what it would take for a bright, optimistic young knight to turn into one of those disillusioned middle-aged characters that we usually see in grim-dark. It was an interesting approach and made me curious to see if that is the journey that Mario would eventually take, or if his optimism would hold-out in the end.


There is a lot going on in this book.  I can’t believe I am going to complain about too much action and really, it’s not so much that it was too much, because I like lots of action, but more that there is almost no breathing room in between the fighting. 

Mario’s journey is pretty straight-forward. It’s the other elements that are introduced that could have been smoother. They’re tucked in here and there through the body of the story or in the interludes and some seemed unrelated and others (Tiberius) had such large gaps between appearances that I was surprised he was back in the story.  

I was left wondering when the pieces were going to come together. Likely, this is just one of those series that is going to need to be read into further, for us to see the bigger picture, and there is nothing wrong with that either.

Demonheart by J.J. Egosi

Pub Date - Nov. 13 2020

Genre - Fantasy

Series - Raging Elementals #1

Michael is a Light-lover living in the Dark realm. He is different in appearance to the beings of the dark-realm, being the only one that is white-haired and blue-eyed. Michael was adopted and is treated very badly by his parents who use him as they would a slave. In fact, everyone around him- from his sister to the townsfolks are just downright cruel to him because of his race.


This was a bizarre book. This story centers around Michael, Juliana, Isabella. Though we learn a big secret about Michael, the women do most of the pulling/ pushing of him on this journey (while arguing over who gets to have him, and comparing breast-size). Isabella is actually his adopted sister and, in the beginning, she was pretty darned mean to him but there is a reason- as we find out later.

Juliana was the one I liked best, mostly because she had the coolest magic swords and the battles with them were neat.  She is a demon and has been sent to kill elementals. Her swords can harness the life force of any spell or creature so, it’s like they’re sealed into her sword (somewhat like a pokeball) and then she can use the power of lightning or whatever she has harnessed. 

We also have a big bad in the form of Hecate the witch. She belongs to a group called the Legion of the Morningstar and they’re Dimension Walkers. They seek to collect all seven of the Titans (Each dimension contains a titan). The titans are familiars and she can summon them with her ring (which was also pretty darned cool).

There were some interesting things in the world - Guilds are devoted to specific forms of magic (enchantments, healing, relic transmogrifications etc.) you can’t get a job without knowing magic.

There is an Infinity bag that when a monster is killed the core (the essence of the creature) automatically goes to the bag.

And Hexes and altars can amplify the hex spells.

These things along with the over-powered battles and the bar resets, really gave this a game-lit feel and I was half-expecting there to be a big twist that Michael was trapped in an RPG.


This is a short book and I don’t get a chance to say this very often but this needed more. More build on the main body of the story, more build on the characters. It’s very bare-bones with lots of telling- all the important information is told; sometimes mid-battle, and a lot of the content was repetitive filler. The pacing is at a breakneck-speed, couple that with the swings in emotions/choices, or the occasional pov jumping, it could be dizzying at times trying to keep up. 

To Dream and Die as a Taniwha Girl by Benedict Patrick

Pub Date - Nov 16 2020

Cover Art – Jenny Zemanek

Genre - Fantasy/ dark fairy-tale

Series - Yarnsworld #5 

Mataio, the god of monsters is dead, and no replacement has come forward. Kaimana is noticing that she has begun to hear the prayers of the islanders’ inhabitants and does not want to be the person who answers those prayers. If she accepts and takes over Mataio position, she will have to give up the life she has made for herself and face an old evil that is trying to get its hook into the land (literally).


This is a dark fairy-tale world. The Alternate chapters are legends and tales from Atoll; each tale builds or gives insight to the world that was/is, while Kaimana’s chapters build her story. I love this so much! My favourite part of this book was the tales. They create the world (Earth Mother). They’re sometimes horrifying (Grandma and old spider. The best one.), sometimes they give just deserts (Lost canoes), sometimes happy (Coconut King), or absurd (Sea God’s Wife). They were everything I love about folk-tales.


They call Kaimana the Taniwha girl - the girl who talks to monsters because of her friendship with Rakau and other monsters of the Crescent Islands.

Kaimana has a musical talent- called knacks in this world and are somewhat like a professional career; baking, beading, soldiering etc. She used to tell the stories of other people’s adventures but now travels around having adventures of her own, with her best friend Rakau.

Maybe because I haven’t read the first book that involved these characters, I found I had a certain disconnect to Kaimana, and it took me quite awhile to enjoy her parts of the story as much as I was enjoying the myths. At least until we got to that turning point- that definitely grabbed my attention.

But because of that distance I felt towards her, I had this feeling of waiting to see where the story was going and how the folktales were going to connect (if they did connect), and certain later events were definitely not as impactful to me as they probably could’ve been. 

Rakau, is make of wood and has beautiful patterns carved onto the surface of his body (I was picturing him as a cross between Ogopogo and a Dragon). Their friendship began in Where the Water Turns Black (which I haven’t read) and is very close and sweet. He almost feels like a really large dog, but only Kaimana, gets to see that side of him.

Rakau, wormed under my skin. Kaimana’s love for him, and his for her, gave me the connection I was looking for in the beginning and it broke my heart when he was mistreated or sad.

Sinitalea was just darned hard to like. I kept rooting for her to do something right and there’d be glimmers of that goodness tying to break through but then those glimmers would fall to the wayside. You just knew if she would let Kaimana be friends with her, Kaimana could show her the kind of person that she could be. But most the time Sinitalea was so horrible I didn’t think even Kaimana could help her, and though I understood why and where it came from, I still hated her almost as much as I felt bad for her. 


The polish of experience shows in the presentation- from cover to contents everything was top-notch.

And imo, there are no covers better suited to these books than the ones they carry.

The fairy-tale feel to the story and the way it’s told or maybe because of the paper-layer look to the covers, had me imagining the story in that animation style that looks like a pop-up book come to life. 

This book/series is so unique in the way it’s told and the setting is just cool as hell. There were some unexpected choices made with the characters (which I applaud) and it took awhile for it to weave to its big conclusion, but it was a strong end that for me, suited the world they inhabit.

Other notes:

I hadn’t read Where the Water Turns Black - the book these characters first appeared in but I didn't have any problems following what was going on or what brought the characters to this point.

Now for the winner!

My semi finalist came down to the wire with my choice being between To Dream and Die as a Taniwha Girl and I am King.

This has been an absolutely agonizing decision that has taken me several weeks to make (my fellow judges will probably never invite me back again after all that whining I did) despite their differences, these books were almost equal for me- where one lacked, the other made-up, and vice versa.

Both books offer us something different in the way of characters. Taniwha has Polynesian setting/characters, and I am King, though a classic fantasy feel, offers us something different with the majority of the cast being POC.

Taniwha is stronger all around, the polish of several books under Benedict Patrick’s belt is obvious. It’s self-contained and easy to jump-in. The world is unique, I loved the myths, the story is strong and the characters interesting- I just wished I had connected to their story a bit sooner.

I am King is a solid debut. It needs a little polish here and there but it has all the makings of a potentially great series. And though the prince in hiding story may not be new, it hints at exciting things for the future, while giving us a comfortable starting point and fun moments. I was always excited to get back to the story. The characters captured my heart, and I am interested to see how their journey plays out.

But this is a competition and there is no denying the overall quality of Taniwha.

Edging I am King out ever so slightly, I will have to give this round to Benedict Patrick’s, To Dream and Die as a Taniwha Girl. 

Congratulations! I hope you beat out my teammates to go on to be our finalist. Thank you all for your patience in this lengthy post and I hope that readers will check out the other amazing entrants in my group. 


Unknown said...

Dear author/Mr. Shillingford, pretty please with sugar on top, think of me as a reviewer when book two is ready for release.

Will do, my email is, hit me up and I will add you to a list of beta readers

I liked that we get introduced to the cast like they’re going to be around for a while- so no one felt totally safe.

I have longed planned this book and the entire 5-6 book series is fully mapped out, so yes there are some characters you will get a chance to grow up with (literally).

I expected Beau’s mother shared ancestry with the warlocks to come in to play. But maybe later…. do we have a magical king on the horizon?

Yes, I have caught hold of these threads and I will continue to weave it all together. By book 3 you will encounter a leader who does utilize some of that fancy voodoo you like so much, so our heroes are going to find a way to deal with that.

There was a lot to unpack here, and this does feel like a series starter, but it ends in a good place that will let you rest easy in between books.

After doing my research before writing the book, I quickly found out that readers absolutely hate cliff hangers. Knowing that, I tried my best to sort of wrap up each book like an end of season show. The main conflict and antagonist will be dealt with in each book, leaving the main characters to reflect on what they have learned and hopefully the readers will like them enough to want to follow them into the next book or season, if that makes sense.

Thank you for the review, I am glad you enjoyed my story. I was extremely nervous about putting my book on grand display but now that this part is over, I am still alive, I did not die of a heart attack like I predicted. I have also learned so much from reviews, there are some consistent items that keep coming up and I am glad for it, so I know what I did well and what I need to change to make the future novels better.

God bless, and thanks for having the GUTS to make the difficult CUTS! (you know you like them hot bars. I'm thinking of moonlighting as a rapper.)


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