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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

SPFBO X: The First Update

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

FBC Judging Process

Our judging process is straightforward. Each of the five judges is assigned (randomly) six books and can select one of them as a semi-finalist. We then evaluate each other's semi-finalists and assign ratings. The book that receives the highest score is chosen as the finalist. 

Each judge determines their own approach to reading their set of six books. This year, I made sure to read a minimum of 25% of the books assigned to me. 

If you're interested, a few words about my preferences. I love genre-bending books and character-driven stories. I love good pulp fiction, too. My pet peeves include unnecessary wordiness, redundancy, and blocks of exposition (I don't care about the world or magic if you won't hook me with your voice or make me care for characters, first). 

Before I wrap things up, 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. 

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. 

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

Destiny Awaiting by Jan Foster
Published March 31, 2023; 382 pages (Kindle Edition)
Genre: Historical Fantasy

Fantasy and history clash in Destiny Awaiting. As do the worlds of fae, vampire and human. Add a touch of romance and you have a powerful hook. 

Aoiffe, a fae, has escaped to the human world where she stumbles on Tarl, a would-be thief. There's also a vampire priest. Anyway, things start with a bang and result in Tarl ending up in King Henry V’s army. Fight a war, hide a fae. Easy peasy.

I appreciated the historical setting and the amount of research that went into it. While I'm not really a romance/budding romance reader, I think the relationship between protagonists was done well. 

That being said, the writing felt rather verbose at times, and filled with unnecessary details and flowery descriptions. I wouldn't call the prose here purple, but it gets ornate and for me it suffocated the story in places. I also felt there was a tad too much melodrama. It's subjective, of course, and a quick check of GR reviews proves this book has dedicated fans.

If you enjoy historical fantasy and romance with a touch of melodrama, consider giving it a try.

Mercy by Ian Haramaki
Published November 19, 2023322 pages (Kindle Edition)
Genre: Paranormal Romance

I loved strong and dark opening of the story and devoured the first two or three chapters. But then, the pacing and the overall tone changed and the focus of the story went elsewhere. To a slow-burn queer romance between two protagonists, a priest and a, well, I can't tell you who because it would be spoilery.

The middle part of the story may appeal to fans of slice-of-life narratives with increasing romantic tension. There's little action or plot development and I had to push myself to get through this part. The action resumes at around 65-70% of the book and the ending is pretty good. With that said, I didn't feel the world-building made much sense and the mythology around demons, while intriguing, wasn't explained satisfyingly. I'm not a romance reader so I can be biased, but I felt the attraction between characters went from zero to extremes too fast. 

Anyway, I think Mercy may appeal to readers looking for tonally bipolar read (dark/cozy, traumatic/playful) with some angst, powerful emotions, and twists that aren't too surprising. With that said, I found the characterization lacking and the plot rather thin. 

Soultaming The Serpent by Tar Atore
Published February 24, 2023; 365 pages (Kindle Edition)
Genre: Dark Fantasy, 

Soultaming the Serpent feels fresh. Yes, it has a chosen one, dragons, and a hero on a mission. The twist? Jun, our hero, is a 60-year-old aromantic outsider who is more annoyed than excited about going on this adventure. There's also a queer love triangle, but not in the way you'd expect.

Jun is a likable character with an intriguing backstory, a strong sense of duty, and a weight of nostalgia on her back. Her only friend, Casey Brewer, who owns the village tavern, is also a well-written character. Twice-widowed and an amputee, Casey remains good-natured and surprisingly romantic.

The pacing is generally steady but occasionally drags, particularly in the middle of the story. The focus here isn’t on action. Soultaming the Serpent introduces dynamic sequences and action sparingly; Its tone is rather reflective and melancholic. The characters experience emotions of loss, longing, love, friendship, hope, and fear, all laced with gentle humor.

While I enjoyed the writing and clear narrative voice, the descriptive passages slowed the pacing. Awkward phrasing in places ("With Casey’s offer and a simmering anger under her skin at Casey—though it was mostly at herself—Jun barely slept") could use another editing pass. 

Despite this, it’s a quick and engaging read with some unexpected twists and a well-executed ending. Definitely worth a shot.

The Lost Noble by R. Litfin
Published February 6, 2018 413 pages (Kindle Edition)
Genre: YA Sword & Sorcery (?)

The Lost Noble offers an intriguing mix of high fantasy and high school drama. Adella Everheart leads a relatively peaceful life with her parents until she discovers her father is a prince in exile. Queen Cassandra of Adamaris, his mother, finds the family and it turns out she could use an heir to take over the throne.

Without giving too much away, Adella enrolls at Royal High, an institution that prepares royalty to rule their kingdoms. Raised as a commoner, she doesn’t exactly fit in but quickly finds a group of friends, as well as enemies determined to make her life miserable. Is there a love interest? You bet.

The Lost Noble is a fun, clean read. Adella is hard to dislike; her commoner background has given her a strong work ethic and dedication. With that said, I felt she lacked complexity. Most secondary characters are one-dimensional and easily categorised as high-school bullies or totally supportive friends with little personality traits.

Overall, it’s an entertaining and easy read. While it probably won’t surprise readers with anything new, it will charm some with its humor, good pacing, and likable protagonist.

The Unspoken Truths of Casemiro by Christopher Clouser
Published March 19, 2024; 405 pages (Kindle Edition)
Genre: Epic, Sword & Sorcery

Casemiro is past his prime. He’s a seasoned wizard, but with little power left. As the story opens, he returns to Lillenhold to earn some money and reclaim his glory. Instead, he gets involved in a murder investigation, complex relationships, and a quest.

I enjoyed the opening of the story. Casemiro’s guilt over lost love and his unclear past make him an intriguing character. He may lack power, but he retains a hint of the arrogance of a powerful wizard, and I liked that. I think characterization is Clouser’s forte. Casemiro and the secondary characters all feel distinct and compelling, with most having nuanced development. The tone shifts between tense, dramatic, and occasionally humorous, which is a good thing.

I liked the world too, though I could do with fewer details. The meticulous descriptions establish a vivid setting but aren’t that fascinating by themselves and slow down the pacing. My biggest gripe with the story is that there is too much telling rather than showing, especially regarding the setting and characters' internal thoughts. This makes the narrative less engaging.

This leads to my next point. I felt the story would benefit from tighter pacing, clearer narrative focus, and some prose refinement. The author has a rich vocabulary and isn’t afraid to use it, which is cool. Some sentences flow smoothly, while others feel awkward and convoluted. Another round of ruthless editing would make the story more engaging and impactful. Clarity and conciseness for the win.

The Untold Truths of Casemiro is a solid book that, with some refinements, can become a gripping read. But it’s not there yet.

Wings and Wounds by Dr. S.K. Burkman 
Published November 11, 2022; 280 pages (Kindle Edition)
Genre: Humorous Fantasy
Series: The Dragon Doc Tales

Wings and Wounds is an easy read written with a tongue-in-cheek tone. I'm sure some readers will find it charming, but I couldn't make it past 25% mark and DNF-ed it early on.

Things that didn't work for me include the over-description that suffocated any sense of pacing or urgency the story might have had. The narrative is filled with digressions, medical trivia, and descriptions of way too many things. Unnecessary exposition and awkward phrasing didn't appeal to me, so I called it quits at 25% mark.



The books in my batch were solid, but, being perfectly honest, I can't see any of them as our finalist (a pre-requisite for being a semi-finalist). Sadly, we're saying goodbye to all of them at this stage.

Now, I know it's a brutal outcome and I feel sorry to open our SPFBO X updates on such a note. With that said, we're always trying to offer our honest take on books. Thank you guys for braving the SPFBO gauntlet and we hope your books will find their fans. 


Pam H said...

Soultaming the Serpent sounds interesting! I’ll definitely be checking that one out.

My favorite read from spfbo9 (so far, at least) was one that didn’t make it to the semifinals, but I could tell from the judge’s mini-review that I would like the genre better than they did. So thank you for the great reviews! They were very helpful. I appreciate all the time you guys put into these.

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