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Monday, July 4, 2022

SPFBO 8: The Second Reaping and Semi-Finalist Update (Jonathan's batch)

Hey folks! Here we are and it’s that time again.

First, I want to congratulate all the entrants for taking the plunge. I know it’s sometimes tough to put yourself out there, so good on you for taking that chance.

 I had six books in my batch, with the task to select a worthy semi-finalist, should any rise to the challenge. I have a little to say about each book, with some good and some bad. Page counts are what’s listed on the book’s Amazon paperback listing unless otherwise noted. I also used this shorthand:

MATRWL:  May appeal to readers who like

CW: content warnings

Here are my six covers, in the order I read them:

Of my six, there were two I considered for my semi. First, a quick look in no particular order at the four of which I decided to pass on:

The Valiant Four

Reign of the Occult, by Lauren Louise Hazel

Urban Fantasy

344 pages

Paperback / Kindle


MATRWL: fae/demons, YA, multi-POV

CW: slavery


WHAT IT IS: Prue, one of the last Users—a half-immortal mystic—and her brother Everett dodge capture by the Occult, the tyrannical rulership of the city sworn to wipe out all traces of magic.

WHAT I LIKED: This book has an intriguing set-up that piqued my interest with the blurb. Half-fae/half-demon are nothing new in urban fantasy but the idea of them being hunted to extinction by a semi-dictator caught my attention, as did the stark differences in how the fae and demon extra-dimensional refuges are depicted. The two main protagonists are generally likable, as are the secondary characters are to some degree. Overall, the book read quickly and held my attention. It’s a clean story, suitable for readers of all ages.

WHAT I DIDN’T: This definitely could have used another editing pass to smooth out some of the rougher prose. I’m normally not bothered by that but when it becomes repetitive—such as characters crying out (as in, “No!” he cried) three of four times in a row—it became very distracting. The principle antagonist wasn’t explored deeply enough for my taste.

FINAL VERDICT: While I like the premise, this one wasn’t quite as polished as the others in my batch, so I had to let it pass.


The Broken Oath, by Pablo Suarez

Urban Fantasy

232 pages

Paperback / Kindle


MATRWL: Greek/Roman milieu, school settings, multi-POV

CW: graphic medical procedures


WHAT IT IS: Damayra, an aging physician with a lifetime of regret, and Nymor, a young medical student on the cusp of adulthood, find their fates intertwined.

WHAT I LIKED: I found the setting—with a distinct classical influence—something new and different. We don’t see enough Roman-style fantasy. The two protagonists both have a suitable level of angst and trauma in their histories, which is something I always enjoy. I was intrigued by a magical system involved with surgeries and contracts and I would love to have understood more about it. There is a staggering amount of worldbuilding lurking under the surface of the story, at a level of detail I rarely see.

WHAT I DIDN’T: That level of detail became an impediment before long, as things were often referenced by characters with no context, which left a lot of questions, and I was struggling to keep people, places, and events straight. The pace of the book is also too slow, as I don’t think the real driving incident for the plot happens until about the forty-percent mark. The POV jumps to include a third character around the midway point, when I was really wanting more of Damayra and Nymor.

FINAL VERDICT: Despite some of the positives, I just didn’t really click with this one, so I am going to have to release it.


Vulcan Rising, by J. W. Judge (Book One of the Zauberi Chronicles series)

Modern / Urban Fantasy

294 pages

Paperback / Kindle


MATRWL: mythology, multi-POV

CW: violence, child/animal endangerment


WHAT IT IS: Agatha and Joseph are living a quiet suburban life when their son Thomas is kidnapped by supernatural forces, catapulting Agatha back to a life she thought she left behind.

WHAT I LIKED: While the tale is told in the shifting POV all three family members, Thomas was my favorite. The story does a good job of conveying a child’s innocence and terror at being held captive. There is a rich world of mythologically-influenced characters waiting to be explored and the author isn’t afraid to make some bold plot choices deep into the story.

WHAT I DIDN’T: Aside from Thomas, I wanted more emotional depth from the protagonists. The discourse between them often felt more bitter than like a married couple’s banter and in the end, I wasn’t able to connect with either of them. There are abrupt time-skips in the narrative with no warning, which pulled me out of the story’s flow. Last, there are a handful of references to American pop culture that are going to fly over some reader’s heads (I’m American and some flew over my head) which again, interrupt the rhythm of the tale while I stopped reading and tried to figure out what was meant.

FINAL VERDICT: I liked the concept but this one just didn’t come together for me so I am afraid I have to pass.



To Wield a Plague, by Derrick Smythe (Prequel to Passage to Dawn series)

Epic / Low Fantasy

234 pages

Paperback / Kindle


MATRWL: origin stories, animal companions

CW: violence


WHAT IT IS: On the event of the ritual of the Reznik people to allow passage into adulthood, Dwapek commits a great blasphemy and find himself set adrift from his tribe, and alone in a hostile land.

WHAT I LIKED: Dwapek is a decently sympathetic protagonist, who stumbles into a situation to befriend a monstrous bear—twice. The wary, developing friendship with the beasts was the best part of the story and I liked how the two had to overcome mutual distrust and fear to work together. The pain of Dwapek’s rejection by his people is real and heartfelt. The spider-like monsters that hunt the Reznik people are suitably menacing and creepy, and bring an appropriate sense of dread.

WHAT I DIDN’T: Some aspects of the plot and world are left unexplained, or under-explained, though that may be a function of it being a prequel (those things being answered in later volumes). That does, unfortunately, make it harder for the book to stand alone and left me wanting explanations. I stumbled on some of the narrative prose, which just didn’t feel as streamlined as it could have been.

FINAL VERDICT: While this one was interesting and I liked the main character, I didn’t think it was the strongest of the batch, so I had to let it go.



So after those four, that left me these two books that I considered for my semi-finalist:


The Final Two


Fly With the Arrow, by Sarah K. Wilson (Book One of the Bluebeard’s Secret series)

Romantic Fantasy

309 pages

Paperback / Kindle


MATRWL: clean romantic fantasy, fairy tale retellings, YA, first-person POV

CW: kidnapping


WHAT IT IS: Young noblewoman Izolda is snatched from a royal ball by a fae prince to be his bride—his sixteenth mortal bride—and falls into a world of intrigue and danger.

WHAT I LIKED: I have to highlight the worldbuilding; most of the story takes place in the fae realm, and the settings, creatures, and events are perversely nonsensical in mortal terms but blend together well. Wilson has been at this business a while and it shows; her prose is smooth and reads well. The story kicks off quickly, and maintains a pretty decent pace. I never felt bogged down or bored. The tale is an homage (or retelling, if you prefer) of the old French fairy tale Bluebeard and draws some significant plot points from that story while still forging its own path.

WHAT I DIDN’T: Izolda, while a likable protagonist, was a little wishy-washy for my tastes; she’s alternately resolute, and then not, and the back-and-forth got to be a little much. A condition of their wedding spell that prevents the two from speaking to each other at the same time felt like more of a contrived plot device to introduce relationship difficulty than anything else, which is a bit of a pet peeve of mine.

FINAL VERDICT: Despite some of my reservations, I did like this one and I think YA fans will eat it up.



Liches Get Stitches, by H.J. Tolson (Book One of the series of the same name)

Progression Fantasy

242 pages (Kindle listing)



MATWRL: slice-of-life, gallows humor, dark protagonists, first-person POV

CW: graphic violence


WHAT IT IS: Hedge-witch Maud finds herself an unintended lich and has to figure out how to thrive against a world that wants her dead.

WHAT I LIKED: The “slice-of-life” look at an undead sorcerer who wants to be left to her devices in the woods was an interesting concept. Tolson’s writing is snappy and the humor, while dark, landed more often than not. With the crisp narrative flow, I had little trouble visualizing the events and the setting. The world-building is adequate and hints of distant enemies and mysterious gods offer a teasing view of future conflicts and stories.

WHAT I DIDN’T: Unfortunately, I find progression fantasies to be repetitive in terms of plot and this one (research spells, kill enemies, research stronger spells, kill stronger enemies, etc.) was no different. The main character reaches a point where she can kill every enemy nearby with a wave of her hand, which really robbed the story of any tension. Also, Maud is written as a sympathetic protagonist but she grated on me. It’s a bad sign when halfway through the book, I found myself hoping the antagonists would win.

FINAL VERDICT: My personal disconnect with the main character aside, there’s a lot to recommend here and I think many readers will enjoy it.



So deciding between these books, I had settled on one but the longer I thought about it, I wanted to consider the other a bit more. Back and forth, back and forth but I finally settled on …



… wait for it …


Fly With the Arrow moves onto the semi-finals. Congrats to Sarah, and best of luck to all participants in future writings!




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