SPFBO: Round 1 Winner

Though I haven’t reviewed all the books on my shortlist for the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, I have read through them, and after some deliberation, I figured it was time to announce the winner from my batch.

Barbara J Webb’s City of Burning Shadows!

Congrats to Webb for being passed to the second round, to be read and reviewed by all the other blogs participating in the challenge! (My review of the book is here, if you haven’t read it yet.)

And many thanks to everyone who submitted their novels for this challenge. I enjoyed reading them, and they helped me understand a lot more about agenting, editing, and writing. I appreciate being given this chance, and I hope that, even if your books didn’t get passed to the second round, the publicity from the challenge resulted in at least a few more sales for you all!

I’m looking forward to round 2 of the challenge, and seeing all the books chosen as winners from everyone else’s batches! Stay tuned for more awesome self-published books in the future!

GUEST POST: Barbara J Webb on Writing Urban Fantasy in a Secondary World

Barbara J Webb is one of the participants in the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. Her book, City of Burning Shadows, intrigued me partly because it was an urban fantasy set in a secondary world, and you just don’t see many of those. She was kind enough to write a guest post, talking about just that.


The truth is, I’m in it for the lizards. Everything else grew out of that.

Urban fantasy is a genre close to my heart. Like any imaginative kid, I grew up looking behind doors, under beds, around trees for any sign of magic in the real world. I wanted to open the wardrobe and go to Narnia. I wanted Gaudior the unicorn to swoop down and scoop me up to go save the world.

What is urban fantasy if not an extension of those desires? The hero or heroine moves through a world that looks a lot like ours, except that they can see the cracks, the hidden places, the magic. By the end of the book, they’re invested in the secret world, citizens of a place the rest of us can only dream of.

So if that’s the soul of urban fantasy, why would any author try to write it in a completely different world? Doesn’t that miss the point?

Urban fantasy’s roots are sunk deep in mystery and noir. Mystery is a genre all about details, about making sure the reader has enough information that when you give them the answer, their reaction is, “Of course!” and not, “What?” Noir is a romance of setting. It’s a tattered hero moving through a worn, familiar city and finding darkness in the hidden cracks.

These things are, quite frankly, easier to pull off in a setting familiar to the reader. It’s a challenge to write that kind of story in a second world. When everything starts out strange to the reader, you have to work hard to build the world in a way that they will recognize the things that are supposed to be strange and unusual within the setting verses the elements that are unfamiliar to the reader but everyday common to the characters. And if you fail, it’s not just the worldbuilding that falls apart. It’s the whole story.

All that extra work. Which brings us back around to…why?

The answer: lizards.

The not-really-a-secret secret is that a lot of the time we writers don’t know why we’re writing what we write. Ideas come (from the idea-of-the-month club, mail order from Nantucket, from the idea fairy once you leave him the proper offering of Dickens and Shakespeare) and we put them down on the page, and that’s enough work without trying to figure out their genesis.

I wanted to write about hulking lizard warriors. And bird-people. And people so made of magic that they don’t have a true shape. I couldn’t do that in the real world. So I built a city—a dying city in the desert—and into that city I placed a hero.

Ash is bruised and broken. He’s lost his family, his faith, his purpose. He’s watching his world collapse around him and feels powerless to stop it. But when he’s faced with an old friend in need and a new friend who holds the key to saving Ash’s dying city, he can’t turn away. That one act of humanity drags him into a world of lies and plots and monsters he never imagined.

A secret world.

Once I started writing him, it didn’t take me long to recognize that Ash is a quintessential urban fantasy hero, and City of Burning Shadows was going to be a quintessential urban fantasy story. Which meant—yes, a lot of work. It meant layering the world in fast and deep, so deep that it starts to feel familiar. To build it well enough that when Ash gets to a point of recognizing something isn’t right, the reader is there five seconds ahead of him. Hopefully I pulled it off.

I got my urban fantasy, my noir hero in his broken city. I got the setting I wanted to build with all the magic I wanted to give it, along with the hidden world lurking beneath.

And I got my lizards. In the end, that’s what matters.

barbarajwebbGrowing up in a house that included a library of thousands of science fiction and fantasy books, Barbara J. Webb had no choice but to become a writer herself.

A midwesterner at heart, Barbara has lived in Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas, but finally settled in only two blocks away from the house in which she was born. She enjoys her small-town life with her husband and her cat, and occasionally dreams of keeping horses. Or even better, unicorns.

Her novel, City of Burning Shadows, can be purchased via Amazon.com or B&N.

SPFBO Review: City of Burning Shadows, by Barbara J Webb

Buy from Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble
Rating – 8/10
Author’s website
Publication date – March 12, 1014

Summary: Joshua “Ash” Drake is a man in hiding.

Hiding from the past, from the horror of his life as a priest after the gods disappeared.

Hiding from his emotions, denying the nightmares that haunt his sleep and the anger that fuels his days.

Most of all, hiding from the truth—that no matter how much he keeps his head down, no matter how he clings to the echoes of everyday life, his city—his world—is dying.

When a new technology offers salvation to his desperate city, Ash must reach out to people he left behind and step back into the world that almost killed him. But coming out of hiding now could be the worst mistake Ash has ever made.

Because there are monsters in the darkness, feeding the chaos, watching the city burn. And once those monsters know his name, Ash will never be able to hide again.

Thoughts: It’s not that common to find urban fantasy set in secondary worlds. Only a small handful of them come to mind. And it was this that made Webb’s City of Burning Shadows stand out right from the get-go for me. It’s very much urban fantasy. And it’s very much not set in our world, nor some strange post-apocalyptic version of our potential future.

It is, however, set in a post-apocalyptic world for the characters. The gods have vanished. Gone, disappeared, and aren’t coming back. For an ex-priest, finding a way to live in the new world is difficult, especially in a time of such chaos when more pressing concerns than religious crises are at hand. Water is running out for the desert city he calls his home. Rain hasn’t fallen in too long. Certain technology could save it, but that technology is a closely-guarded secret, and is danger of being misappropriated for more sinister uses.

And that doesn’t even begin to explain the sinister shadows following Ash around the city…

The narration for the story often verges on a noir feel without ever really doing more than just brushing by it, making it sometimes feel inconsistently detailed. I rarely, for instance, got a good handle on what most of the characters actually looked like, though I can picture the city streets quite vividly. The tone works, though, given the story: a man trying to a escape his past gets sucked into a dangerous mystery. It was odd, but I think that’s an entirely personal thing. I’m not used to noir stuff, and I can’t pretend that it wasn’t fitting or that it didn’t really work out, because it definitely did.

The pacing, though, it great, and City of Burning Shadows is the kind of book that you put down after a bout of reading and realise you had no idea how much time had passed. Things move along at a brisk pace, action and reflection interspersed pretty well through the pages, and Ash is a great character to follow. You get to see how the sudden absence of the gods is affecting society for people who didn’t really pay much mind to gods and to people who placed them at the very centre of their lives. It’s a really interesting way to start things off, as being part of the story but not being what the entire story is about.

So in this Webb has some great skill at worldbuilding, and in taking chances with uncommon themes. That, and she knows how to write a good mystery. Questions get answered and new questions arise, and the story grows darker and more complex and after a while you’re not entirely sure who or what is at the centre of the mystery because it could be any number of people. But as with any good mystery, the final reveal is only partly what you expect, and all of it makes sense and hints at far more interesting things to come.

I was pretty impressed by this novel. It turned out to be more than I expected at first glance, and I was pleased by the dive into the oft-ignored idea of secondary-world urban-fantasy. I think I would have liked it a bit better had there been some more detail thrown in, better description and whatnot, but overall, it was a good novel and I’m glad to have had the chance to read it. You have a protagonist who’s a man of colour, a load of different nonhuman races living in a desert city on the edge of collapse, and a very good blend of the fantastical and the technological. There’s a reason this is a strong contender for Round 2 of the SPFBO!