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Monday, June 20, 2022

SPFBO 8: 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 5th SPFBO), 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 five 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 six books (in alphabetical order). Let's take a closer look at each of them.




Amok by Anna Tan
Published June 2021; 258 pages (Kindle Edition)
Cover design by Jiwosophy
Genre: Coming-of-age, Non-Western, 
Series: Absolution 

Amok follows Putera Mikal, the young prince of Maha, on his journey to fulfill a prophecy. He firmly believes in religious dogma and hopes that Kudos, his god, will grant him access to the Amok Strength that all royals are supposed to possess when they come of age. But no matter what he does, he remains weak, while his father, Sultan Simson, enjoys power despite his blatant disregard for the Temple. 

After tragic events, Putera is captured, and he must figure out how to liberate his people.

Much of the story follows Putera's struggles in his new circumstances. Without spoiling, he was betrayed by someone he trusted completely and turned into a servant. His god seems deaf to his pleas and prayers. The story is fast-paced and focused. Thematically, it deals with faith, the nature of friendship put to the test and rebellion. 

As the main character, Putera is rather irritating. Yes, he's young and lost everything in a single night, but his whining and complaining are rather annoying. He also doesn't seem particularly bright for most of the story. That's not to say he's not growing as a character, but it takes a long time to warm up to him.

I liked the Malaysian elements woven into the narrative and the idea that the power of Simson lies within his hair. Terang is made up of three city-states: Maha, Suci, and Impian. And each of these city-states has its own leader and its own magical gifts from Kudus. Overall, the worldbuilding is solid and interesting, though rather shallow.

With its focus on the protagonist's growth and action, Amok will appeal to fans of action-oriented stories. On the other hand, it probably won't engage fans of deep world-building and genuinely complex characters.



Awakening The Gods by Kristin Gleeson
Published July 15th, 2021, 308 pages (Kindle Edition)
Cover design:  JD Smith Designs
Genre: New Adult, Folklore
Series: Rise of the Celtic Gods

I'm not into romance. At all. This put Awakening The Gods at the disadvantage. And yet, I ended up liking it. Maybe because from time to time I like to read something atmospheric and slow burn, especially when the author manages to balance romance, intrigue, and mythology. And Gleeson has done that skillfully.

Awakening The Gods follows Saoirse, a musician and decent human being who's just been fired from her barista job. The death of her father and complicated inheritance matters complicate her life. And then she receives a call from a woman claiming to be her grandmother, inviting her to her home in rural Cork. Saoirse agrees. 

Soon she meets Smithy, a reclusive blacksmith (and MUCH more, but you should find out for yourself). For the most part, Awakening The Gods reads like a slow-burn romance. But there's a supernatural twist and lots of fascinating Celtic mythology woven into the story. Music plays an important role, too; I loved descriptions of traditional bands playing music and making magic happen. 

Although I'm not generally into romance novels, I liked Saoirse and Smithy's dynamic. It's romantic, emotional, and well written. Fans of steamy romance will be able to get emotionally invested in their relationship. Fans of elegant writing will appreciate the depth of characterization and nuanced approach to the sex scenes.

I have little knowledge of Celtic mythology but Gleeson made it easy to understand and follow. Her book introduces Tuatha Dé Danann, Fomorians, and the BIG BAD of the story, Balor. In all, I enjoyed the Irish flavor of the novel and the smart re-telling of myths. 

To my big surprise, Awakening The Gods won me with its moody rhythm, likable and nuanced characters, and excellent blend of romance, mythology, and adventure that balances lighter parts with dark ones.




Awen Rising by O.J. Barre
Published July 26th, 2019, 336 pages (Kindle Edition); 
Cover Design by 100Covers
Genre: Romantic Fantasy
Series: The Awen Trilogy

Awen Rising is a fast-paced near-future urban fantasy with druids, Dragons, Reptile Man, magic, and mischief.

Emily Hester is bankrupt and broken. But she's also special. Actually, she's our only hope to win the coming war between the humans and reptilians and rescue humanity. To do so, she must accept her Druid lineage and trust a handsome druid trainer. Saving the world can be fun, after all!

Awen is a fun romp. It has short chapters and multiple POVs that allow readers to look at the conflict from a few angles. There's a lot thrown in the mix: sentient animals, sexy times, nasty reptilians, magic, druids, and druid lore. As the story progresses, it gets quicker and quicker and culminates in a cliffhanger (a good one!). 

I expect readers looking for an entertaining read with YA/NA feel will enjoy Awen and its sequels. However, I also felt that the story tried to cram too much in, and not all of the plotlines merged as smoothly as I'd have liked. I expect O. J. Barré's writing style to be divisive. Some readers will appreciate the rich, emotionally charged descriptions, while others will feel they get in the way of the story. Sometimes her prose leans towards purplish, and that's not the style I like. Another issue I have concerns with is a rather juvenile characterization. 

All told, Awen Rising is an intriguing and fast-paced book that should appeal to fans of straightforward stories.




Broken Sky by Morgan K. Bell
Published April 14th, 2022, 352 pages 
Cover art by Keylin Rivers
Genre: Steampunk
Series: Skies of Cyrna

Broken Sky is fun; there are skyships, magic, a well-done coming-of-age story, and a diverse cast of characters. The story centers on Dorian Valmont, the sorriest excuse for an aeronaut, who joins the crew of the skyship named Phoenix. Dorian is a gentle soul, easy to like and relate to. He may lack agenda or physical stamina, but his personality makes up for it. Seriously, it's impossible not to like him, even if he does seem awkward at times. 

Dorian is bonded to a demon, and as the story progresses, he also bonds with a dragon. The story gets interesting, and the pace picks up from this point on. Broken Sky gets most things right - it has memorable characters, cool (if somewhat shallow) world-building, and an interesting premise. It's about love, magic, and betrayal. Family ties play a role in the story, too. 

While most things worked well for me, I didn't feel like there was much at stake. Even though it was the opposite (the fate of the world!). The thing is, the novel has this optimistic tone that suggests everything will turn out well for almost everyone in the end. Because of that, there wasn't as much tension as I would like to experience. Because of the age of the characters, their problems may not be entirely understandable to older readers. That's not meant to be a criticism; I just think Broken Sky might appeal to a YA /NA audience rather than "Adult" Fantasy fans.

All in all, it's an enjoyable book, quick to read, entertaining, and imaginative. Worth a shot.



The Girl of Precinct Five by Jonatan Håkansson
Published December 26, 2021, 313 p (Kindle Edition)
Cover art by TrifBookDesign
Genre: Dark Urban Fantasy with sci-fi elements, I guess
Series: Riftborn

The Girl of Precinct Five is a dark story. It starts with the protagonist living an ok life with her family. Unfortunately, she loses everything and has to survive in the titular Precinct Five. 

Throughout the pages, Lynn faces one extreme adversity after another, and it seems there's no end to her suffering. But she won't yield, no matter what. Admirable. Trapped in a dangerous world, she makes do. 

I liked the pacing and the clear structure. I liked the author's ideas and ability to contain scenes and build the narrative through relatively short chapters that make it a quick read. Unfortunately, I didn't connect with the story. Despite my sympathy for Lynn, I found the tone uneven and the plot moderately engaging. It's subjective, though.

Håkansson writes in a straightforward style that doesn't get in the way of the story. No issues here. All told, The Girl of Precinct Five should appeal to fans of darker stories.



Published October 18 2021, 418 p (Kindle Edition) 
Cover design by www.triftbookdesign.com
Genre: Mythology
Series: Black Hind's Wake

The Skin follows a Selkie forced to find her place in a world of humans. The protagonist has given away her skin to save her pregnant sister. Without it, she can't return home. Her search for her sister's skin drives the story.

I liked how Hannaford mixed the post-apocalyptic setting with mythology and a character-driven plot. The Old Ones in the world include Selkies, Sirens, and other fascinating creatures, all portrayed with skill and imagination. At its core, the story is about family and found family, but the various storylines have a different vibe. There's drama and adventure, joy and danger,  and exciting world-building. 

The obvious hook for this novel is the premise, which blends elements of the post-apocalypse with folklore. As the story progresses, however, some problems arise. The world-building is exciting, yes, but also superficial. Don't get me wrong - we get to see the richness of the world, but I'm still not sure how things work and why they work the way they do. Nevertheless, it's clear that humanity has screwed up a lot, and somehow maritime culture has evolved. 

The three main storylines featuring Selkie, Lady Gina, and Georgie are tied together satisfyingly, but things are confusing at first and become pretty obvious soon after. Still, the author provides plenty of action, character development, and surprises, and Selkie's internal struggle to find her place in the world continues to develop and deepen throughout the book.

Hannaford skillfully balances the different narrative tones with a love for the fantasy genre and nature evident in every chapter. There's also plenty of action and intrigue. Such a combination is sure to keep you entertained.


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Choosing a semi-finalist

I'm happy with my mini-batch of six 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):



 
Awakening the Gods by Kristin Gleeson- I thoroughly enjoyed the moody rhythm of the story and the way it blends Celtic mythology, romance, and drama.  While it could be tighter and quicker, I found characterization excellent and writing enjoyable.




The Skin by J.E. Hannaford impressed me with its imaginative setting,  quick pace, and solid twists. The ending provides a satisfying closure and the promise of an engaging sequel. 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 has more in-depth characterization.  

Our first semi-finalist is

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Almost there

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Congratulations Kristin! We liked Saoirse and Smithy. Soon, they'll face our remaining semi-finalists in yet another battle for survival. For the moment, though, it's time to chill.

1 comments:

Kristin Gleeson said...

Thank you so much!! I really appreciate your thoughtful review.

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