SPFBO Review: Beneath the Canyons, by Kyra Halland

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 6/10
Author’s website
Publication date – November 4, 2014

Summary: Cowboys and gunslingers meet wizards in this high fantasy series inspired by the Old West. Silas Vendine is a mage and bounty hunter, on the hunt for renegade mages. He’s also a freedom fighter, sworn to protect the non-magical people of the Wildings from ambitious mages both lawless and lawful. It’s a dangerous life and Silas knows it, but when he comes to the town of Bitterbush Springs, he finds more danger and excitement than he bargained for…

In Bitterbush Springs on the trail of a dangerous rogue mage, Silas meets Lainie Banfrey, a young woman both drawn to and terrified of her own developing magical powers. Though Lainie has been taught all her life to hate and fear wizards, she and Silas team up to stop the renegade who has brought her hometown to the brink of open warfare. The hunt takes them deep beneath forbidden lands held by the hostile A’ayimat people, where only Silas’s skills and Lainie’s untamed, untrained power can save them from the rogue mage and the dark magic he has loosed into the world.

Review: Westerns are really hit-or-miss for me. I don’t have a spectacular amount of interest in them as a genre or subgenre, though I do admit that the setting can hold some appeal for certain types of stories. I wouldn’t say that Beneath the Canyons is a story that can only be told with a wild west setting, since it has many elements that appear in dozens of other stories, but it wasn’t incongruous. It fit, it wasn’t jarring, and I can’t say that I minded it in this case. The story overrode the setting, so to speak.

The story uses the alternating viewpoints of Silas — a bounty hunter and mage come to investigate reports of a rogue mage and bring them to justice — and Lainie — a girl who lives and works on a ranch in the Wildings, hiding her own magic from the fearful and superstitious townsfolk. Strange things have been happening in the town of Bitterbush Springs, something to do with the wealthy man Carden, and both Silas and Lainie get mixed up in events that take them into uncharted territory.

Being a setting based very much off old tales of the wild west, the world in Beneath the Canyons is very familiar. There’s civilized country, there’s the frontier where men and women tough it out to get by, the whole shebang. Which is great if that’s the kind of setting that really appeals to you. For my part, though, some of the worldbuilding seemed lackluster, and like it was the same old building with just a new coat of paint on the outside. The world’s religion might be pantheistic instead of monotheistic, but society still plays by the Judeo-Christian societal rules we’re used to thinking of: no sex until marriage (unless you’re one of those women), women are subservient to men, men wear pants and women wear skirts/dresses, and so on. It wouldn’t have taken much to mix things up a bit, and it would have added something to the story, something to distinguish it and make it stand out.

And I completely understand that mixing it up probably wasn’t what the author was going for. For people who are really into this kind of setting, they like it as it is, with all the bells and whistles that typically come along with it. It’s part of the genre. I get that. This is purely a matter of personal taste. It was nothing I hadn’t seen before, and not in a genre I particularly have a thing for, and so all those bells and whistles just didn’t do it for me. It felt uninspired in that regard.

I was of two minds when it came to the whole “science/magic” dichotomy. On one hand, it’s a parallel of the science/religion controversy that some people face. On the other hand, both aspects of that are based on an utterly flawed idea of what science actually is. In Beneath the Canyons, science is used as a shorthand for certain kinds of technology. Sewing machines, things powered by electricity, etc. People who use magic eschew ‘science,’ and vice versa, each side believing the other to be inferior. Really, though, if magic has quantifiable results, it can be called a science. And not all technology is anathema, or else humans would still be living in caves and eating whatever they could shovel into their mouths instead of having axes and saws to cut wood and build houses, stoves to cook food, looms to weave cloth for clothes and blankets, and so on. Call it a pet peeve of mine, but it bothers me when people use science and technology like the two terms are completely interchangeable, and then ignore so many things that involve technology we take for granted because it’s been around for so long.

Whether this was intentional — for instance, if it was meant to show that people generally dislike what they don’t understand and often don’t use the correct terms for things — or if it was a mistake on the part of the author, I can’t really say.

The bulk of the story revolves around trying to uncover the mystery of the ore that Carden wants miners to dig up, that he’s paying them a small fortune for. Why does he want it so badly? Is the ore related to the reports of spooky things happening at night around Bitterbush Springs? And what of the A’ayimat, the blue-skinned people who live in forbidden land beyond the town’s boundaries? The story unfolds at an even pace, and Halland’s writing is smooth and uncomplicated, making the story feel quick and easy to digest. There’s some action, but most of the story is mystery rather than brawls in the saloon or shoot-outs at the corral.

From the first couple of chapters it’s pretty clear that the intended romance is between Silas and Lainie, and to be honest, I really couldn’t feel it. I can see her being attracted to him, since he’s a stranger from far away and there’s always that appeal, plus he discovers her secret magic, so he’s in close confidence, but beyond that, what develops throughout the story is more akin to a friendship than a romance. They don’t see much of each other until closer to the end, when the plot gets hairy and people are in danger, and then Silas pulls the, “I think I loved you the moment I met you,” and I didn’t see anything there beyond brief infatuation at best.

When all is said and done, Beneath the Canyons wasn’t a bad novel, but it wasn’t anything great either. The story itself was interesting even if the setting didn’t do much for me, and though I had my other issues with it, it’s definitely on par with numerous other books I’ve read in my life. I may not go back and read it again, but I don’t regret reading it now. If Westerns and fantasy trip the right triggers for you, then Halland’s novel will probably entertain; don’t let me sway you away just because it wasn’t really my thing.


SPFBO Review: Demi Heroes, by Andrew Lynch

Buy from Amazon.com
Rating – 7/10
Author’s website
Publication date – March 20, 2016

Summary: Lucian Huxley wants to be a hero. To be the one who kills the dragon, defeats the rabid horde, and slays the princess. No, wait, saves the princess. Right now his job is to clean up after Moxar Lightshield, the real hero. Real heroes don’t do their own dirty work. That’s where Lucian and his companions, or anyone else willing to put their lives on the line for a trivial amount of money, come in. In a world filled with magic, unruly bandits, and fearsome ogres, Lucian has his work cut out. But this time the Company has offered him the chance to make his dreams come true. Will he succeed and become the hero he’s always wanted to be? Or will he fall at the hands of the God Killer?

Review: I was initially on the fence about this book. On one hand, the writing was decent, and the early few chapters hinted at something I hadn’t actually seen before in my years of reading fantasy novels. On the other hand, books intended to poke fun at things and be humourous often fall rather flat with me, and there’s as much chance that I’ll dislike them for the humour as I’ll like them for the story.

Demi Heroes turned out to be one of those books that I liked. Largely because it riffs on some concepts that many storytellers rely on as a given. People will always be in the right place at the right time. Things will work out in the end.

Demi Heroes is the story of Lucian, and the group of Company workers who basically make sure all that actually happens. They’re the ones who make sure that the Hero of the story doesn’t get held up by wrong directions (unless, of course, that leads to the Hero’s story being more compelling), that the ancient artifacts are in place when the Hero arrives at the ancient temple, that the villains provide a challenge but never so much threat that the Hero’s death is a certainty. They are they unsung grunts behind every Hero’s quest, the hidden hands of the masterminds who profit from the tourist trade when Heroes take down tyrants and defeat vicious dragons. Heroes always have help, even if they’re unaware of it.

Only now, the Company Lucian works for wants to approach things in a slightly different way. Instead of clearing the way for current Heroes and making their lives and stories that much better, they want to start from scratch, chronicling the rise of a Hero from his beginning, not after he’s already gotten underway. Lucian is offered the chance to fill that role, to become a man who can change the world and have stories told about him and have a team of his own working behind the scenes to make it all come together in a way that others will want to hear about.  But only if he does well in his latest job to help Moxar Lightshield take down the villain who seeks to kill a god.

This is a book for people who always ask why only the hero’s story gets told, why we don’t see the story from any perspective but the one to whom it’s all really happening. (Largely because doing so tends to not make for the greatest story, as interesting as it could be if done well…) Lucian’s story is a wonderful cross between watching a play and getting to peek backstage to see behind the scenes. Lucian himself isn’t a capital-H Hero the way the Company defines them, though nobody can deny that his “stagehand” role puts him in the hot seat as he faces down bandit hordes and ogres and unfortunate political incidents in order to further Moxar’s story. Lucian and his team have their task, but they’re picking up clues about the God Killer as they work too, and more than once Lucian wrestles with whether it’s better to keep your head down and do your job, or whether advancement and ethics mean doing something completely different and taking a more active role in what is supposed to be someone else’s story. There’s a fun meta-aspect to it all, reading a story about a story-maker (or perhaps it would be better to compare him to an editor?), who is both hero and aspiring Hero, trailing in a Hero’s wake while doing heroic things in the process.

Demi Heroes relies a lot on tropes, unsurprisingly. Company-aided Heroes are paragons of goodness and strength and morals, always bearing the burden of defeating evil wherever it may be found, which is practically a textbook definition of the kind of hero we see in many stories through the ages, and also the kind of hero that has fallen further from favour in recent years as readers crave more nuanced and morally-grey protagonists in their fiction. The story takes a bit of a satirical tone when it comes to those classic tropes, as even in the context of the in-book world those Heroes are to no small degree molded, almost custom-made, for the people who want to hear stories about them and feel inspired. They’re archetypes, not real people doing things that real people do. It’s not that the Hero didn’t kill a dragon, but the dragon was drugged and not as dangerous as it would normally be, so that the Hero can properly kill it and make people feel good about Heroes.

But even as the book pokes fun at tropes and archetypes, it falls prey to them with pretty much every other character. These days, admittedly, it’s hard to write a character that isn’t tropey, since so many things have been done that even inversions of tropes have becomes tropes themselves. The know-nothing know-it-all. The mage who can’t properly use magic. The bard who can’t sing. The man whose appearance is brutish and terrifying but really he wants to heal people instead of hurt them. They’re not really clever inversions, not any more than someone writing a vampire who feels faint at the sight of blood. Funny for a moment, until you realise that dozens of people before you also thought it was funny for a moment when they did it. Lucian and his party aren’t much more original than the character of Moxar Lightshield.

Which, honestly, may well have been Lynch’s intent, since making fun of classic character roles is a big theme here, as well as looking behind the scenes at the people who make stories happen. Lucian’s party may well have consisted of such characters specifically because the Company wanted that kind of party around, because they were characters they felt people wanted to hear about. So we have a storyteller writing about a company of storytellers trying to tell a story about people aiding in creating a story. It’s all very head-twisty and fun, and I think the fun of the implications made up for the characters not always being particularly strong or original.

Demi Heroes doesn’t bring much new to the table, but it does bring an uncommon twist to an old story, and it was certainly fun to read. A bit slow in places, but curiosity to see how it all played out kept me going even when I felt things were lagging a bit, and Lynch’s writing was fairly smooth and decently detailed to boot. If you’re in the mood for some humour in your fantasy, then give Demi Heroes a try.

SPFBO Review: The Dragon Scale Lute, by JC Kang

Buy from Amazon.com
Rating – 6/10
Author’s website
Publication date – February 29, 2016

Summary: Kaiya’s voice could charm a dragon. Had she lived when the power of music could still summon typhoons and rout armies, perhaps Cathay’s imperial court would see the awkward, gangly princess as more than a singing fool. With alliances to build and ambitious lords to placate, they care more about her marriage prospects than her unique abilities. Only the handsome Prince Hardeep, a foreign martial mystic, recognizes her potential. Convinced Kaiya will rediscover the legendary but perilous art of invoking magic through music, he suggests her voice, not her marriage, might better serve the realm. When members of the emperor’s elite spy clan– Kaiya’s childhood friend and his half-elf sidekick (or maybe he’s her sidekick?)– discover mere discontent boiling over into full-scale rebellion, Kaiya must choose. Obediently wedding the depraved ringleader means giving up her music. Confronting him with the growing power of her voice could kill her.

Review: I want to start off this review by stating outright that I’m not really qualified to talk about the accuracy of various cultural aspects of this novel. I have no background in Chinese studies, little knowledge of Mandarin Chinese beyond, “Yes,” “No,” “My name is [name],” and, “I want tea,” and I do not have any Chinese ancestry. So it should be left to people wiser and more knowledgeable than me to say whether or not this book has a good portrayal of Chinese culture at any point through China’s history. I’m not the one to make that judgment.

The story is based on historical China, at least, though for me it lies somewhere between historical fantasy and secondary-world fantasy, given that as much as there are referenced to the country being called Cathay, the Great Wall, and a load of other little things that peg it as historical, it also makes references to multiple moons, which makes me think secondary-world. Either way, the feel is very much “ancient China,” with a few other cultures thrown in for good measure. It does make it a welcome change from the glut of western-based fantasies, for certain.

I do like Kang’s writing style. it’s fluid, it’s clear, and it moves the story along well. There’s some good detail in here that manages to balance giving the reader a good image of an unfamiliar culture without bogging the whole thing down with too much description in an attempt to explain everything that might not be 100% clear to every reader We don’t need to know exactly what Dian-xia translates to in order to pick up that it’s the formal title of the princess.

From the description, the story is largely about the young princess Kaiya, though to be perfectly honest, Kaiya’s part in the novel could have been skipped without losing very much. She has magical talent that manifests through music, reportedly powerful enough that she could subdue dragons, but for the most part, her chapters involve her mooning over Prince Hardeep, a visiting noble from Ankira who has little personality and spends his time on the pages trying to guide Kaiya into doing exactly what he wants her to do. The story happens to Kaiya, not because of her, and it gets tedious to read. Pretty much until close to the end, the most contribution she makes to the story is to agree to marry an abusive lord for political reasons. And practice musical magic while thinking longingly of Hardeep.

Kaiya may play a greater role in the story in the rest of the series, but here she’s largely passive and not particularly interesting. Even looking at it from the standpoint of young romance, I couldn’t really get into her sections. Hardeep wasn’t that interesting or developed, and it seemed like her only interest in him stemmed from his good looks and the fact that he was nice to her. And from that she’s willing to go along with dangerous and troublesome ideas for literally no other reason than because he says so. We don’t really see anything from his perspective, so all we see of him is through he eyes of someone besotted, and even that doesn’t make him compelling.

Far more interesting were Tian and Jie, who have far more defined personalities, infiltrate political plots, take part in espionage and combat and all sorts of things, and generally do more to uncover the meat of the plot than Kaiya does. I would have rather read the whole story from Jie’s perspective, honestly, than flip back and forth between her and Kaiya. She takes a more active role through the whole book, is sarcastic, is in a great position to provide commentary on how people don’t take her seriously because of her presumed maturity… Seriously, Jie was the star of this book, not Kaiya.

There’s a rather unique cultural mish-mash going on in this book that is worth talking about, and I feel I can at least comment on it even if I don’t make any “this is wrong/right” judgments. While the story is told in a Chinese-inspired area, and there are mentions of other places that I believe are inspired at least by India (and possibly a couple of other places I couldn’t entirely identify), there’s also some pieces of western Europe and its mythologies thrown in. Both Asian- and European-style dragons are said to exist. There’s mentions of elves and dwarves, and though no really solid description is given of either of them barring the fact that elves have pointed ears, it seems a fair assumption that they’re the elves and dwarves that we think of when we think of Lord of the Rings, for instance. These people aren’t commonly seen in the book, having their own homelands and own affairs to tend to, but they do show up every now and again. Often with Cathayi names, though that might be a nod to the culture they’re all hanging out in rather than their actual names, I’m not sure. Regardless, there are enough references to other places and cultures that The Dragon Scale Lute feels like it’s taking place in one small part of a much larger world, which is something that I often see ignored in fantasy novels. Unless characters are actually traveling that larger world, any multiculturalism tends to get left by the wayside, and it was good to see something where that wasn’t the case.

While the overall combination of political intrigue and magic and a non-western setting definitely made this book stand out to me, I think its real weakness is the utter lack of character in Kaiya, who is ostensibly the main character of the whole story. The writing was decent, but it wasn’t enough to really keep me going through sections in which nothing related to either plot or character-building actually happened, and that spoiled what could otherwise have been a really good book, especially considering that Kaiya’s POV was about half of the novel. Maybe it would appeal to younger readers or those who enjoy a mooning one-sided romance, but that’s not the sort of story that appeals to me, and that aspect rather spoiled it for me, unfortunately.

SPFBO Review: Touch of Iron, by Timandra Whitecastle

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 7/10
Author’s website
Publication date – May 13, 2016

Summary: Is the Living Blade real or just a legend?

With it… Prince Bashan could win back his kingdom. Master Telen Diaz can free himself of the burden from his past. Owen Smith sees a once-in-a-lifetime chance to gain untold knowledge.

…but for Noraya Smith, the Living Blade will bring nothing but suffering and sorrow.

Review: First off, I want to take a moment to praise the person who did the cover art for this book. I don’t usually talk much about cover art, but this is an exception largely because it’s notable that a self-published book has such high-quality art. When most people think self-pub, they usually associate it with covers that look slapped together in MS Paint, or that have okay art on the cover but not really the sort of art that one usually associates with book covers. But let’s be perfectly honest here; if you hadn’t seen that this review was for a book associated with the SPFBO, would you look at that cover and think that it was a traditionally-published book, with all the associated work and assistance that goes into getting an awesome-looking cover? I know I would.

And it’s interesting how that can be the difference between attracting readers and not. As much as we saw we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we do exactly that all the time. We see a book’s cover and we decide from there whether we even want to look at the back-of-the-book description. It’s the first impression, that one that you don’t get a second chance to make. And so far as I’m concerned, it’s worth pointing out when books do that well, especially in a field where the pervading stereotype is that they don’t.

Anyway, enough about cover art. What did I think of the book itself?

The story centres around Nora, a young woman who left her village with her twin brother, and who runs headfirst into trouble pretty much immediately. She encounters Diaz, a half-wight pilgrim who is assisting a fallen prince in attaining the legendary Living Blade, the sword that once cut down the gods and that will allow the prince to regain his throne. But there’s opposition, naturally, and Nora is half-pulled into a deadly quest and half walks there willingly. But as much as Nora moves forward and seeks the training she desires, she can’t entirely escape the past that shaped her all along.

Whitecastle writes an interesting world in Touch of Iron. It’s not stand-out unique, but it does play with some interesting elements. I admittedly haven’t seen too much with wights (outside of books based on fantasy RPG worlds, that is), let alone half-wights, so that was an unexpected addition to the story. The way twins were handled also caught my attention, with their relation to certain deities. Not the first time I’ve seen anti-twin sentiments in a secondary-world setting, but it’s another rarity — at least in the books I’ve read over the years — so it was cool to see. Both the issue of half-wights and the viewpoint of a twin allow for some good presentations of prejudice and racism to show through, although it was fairly minor, and mostly dealt with through hiding and contemplation of what people might think, rather than showing any overt animosity toward certain characters. Nora has strong feelings about people not abandoning newborn twins to the elements, as is tradition, but she only openly opposes such treatment in one scene, and doesn’t really force the issue with others who believe that twins are cursed or unworthy.

Not that I can blame her. Not everyone is made to fight every fight, and Nora’s cause wasn’t the equal treatment of twins. If expedient, she would pretend to be somebody’s wife, or student, or whatever was needed at the time; it wasn’t her priority to force the issue at every step, however much it may have rankled her. It was more important to find the Living Blade, to be trained by Diaz, to survive.

Of course, this “you can’t right every wrong” attitude in especially difficult to deal with when rape is involved. And it comes up more than once. So, consider this a bit of a trigger warning in regard to this book: if that sort of treatment of rape is one that’s particularly triggering for you, then maybe this isn’t the book for you. It’s difficult to read, in any case, and as much as I can understand the cold practicality behind not being able to save someone from being raped to death if all it will accomplish is you dying too, that doesn’t make my blood boil any less.

I found Diaz talking about his heritage to be something that provoked reflection, and it resonated with me to a degree. I’m paraphrasing, but he talks about how humans consider him half-wight, and wights consider him half-human, and so he fits in nowhere. That struck a chord, and I imagine it will do something similar to readers who feel torn between two halves of themselves, be it culturally or racially or through some other aspect of themselves.

Though while the world that Nora moves through isn’t a monoculture (there are regional differences in dress, food, manners, etc), there are strong common threads through every place that we see. Every area she travels feels the same way about twins, for instance, and for the same reasons. Every place knows the same legends, about the same gods, with no real differences, or even slightly different interpretations that fit their particular subculture a bit better. It’s hard to tell if this is due to a lack of more detailed culture-building, or because it’s difficult to tell the scope of Nora’s travels. Though at one point she spends months going from one place to the next, that could be only a small part of the world, equivalent to, say, crossing the United States. You’ll find differences between the east coast and the west coast, but not so many that you’ll find an entirely different and unfamiliar way of living. It may be that Nora’s travels only take her that far, when the rest of the world is much larger and much more varied. It’s hard to say.

Whitecastle’s writing is a treat to read, polished and with good flow, even pacing, and a good balance between realistic dialogue and observant narration. I loved the dialogue that Whitecastle writes, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s probably my favourite aspect of her writing. Her characters live through their words, they pop off the page and feel like real people you might talk to on the street, and I loved that! Definitely a skill worthy of praise, right there.

One weakness that I saw in the novel, however, was a general lack of character motivation, or at least my understanding of it. There was plenty of action to drive the story along, lots of events to keep things moving, but I found myself struggling to figure out why any of it was happening in the first place. I mean, yes, there’s a fight scene because bandits are attacking, but why are they attacking? Owen wants to be a pilgrim, but why? Master Cumi betrays everyone, but why? Reasons are given, but they don’t really seem to explain what properly motivated the character in the first place. Especially with Master Cumi. We know that she uses a type of magic that’s seen as evil (in part because of the potential it has to harm as well as heal, but her reason for betraying people seems to be little deeper than, “I’m tired of pretending that evil isn’t inside me, mwahaha!” We don’t really see her be dissatisfied with healing instead of harming. We don’t see her struggle with moral choices. We don’t even see her mutter angrily under her breath. We just see her arrange for a buttload of people to die so that she can go somewhere else and openly practice the kind of magic she uses, instead of hiding it. So we get an explanation, sure, but because we see no real demonstration of her motivation beyond her outright saying it, it feels hollow and weak, and entirely unlike the character we’d gotten to know by that point. Character motivations sometimes get revealed much later on into the story, but by that point they often feel like afterthoughts, because we’ve seen so little of what’s been pushing characters to do anything beyond reactions through most of the story.

Aside from that, though, there’s a whole lot to like about Touch of Iron, and at least at the moment, I think Whitecastle’s novel stands a strong chance of being passed to the final round in the SPFBO. And even if it doesn’t go further, it’s still a good novel that’s worth reading, and there’s plenty of potential for the story to go further. Touch of Iron is a self-published novel that could go far, carried on the strength of Whitecastle’s writing.

SPFBO Review: The Narrowing Path, by David J Normoyle

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 6.5/10
Author’s website
Publication date – November 13, 2013

Summary: In the ultimate battle of wits and strength, only the most ruthless will survive.

Every six years, the noble teenagers of Arcandis compete in the harrowing contest of The Narrowing Path, forced to prove themselves worthy to continue their family line—or perish trying. Bowe Bellanger, younger and weaker than the rest, is expected to die on the very first day. However, Bowe isn‘t interested in just surviving, he wants to save his friends—which goes against everything the society stands for.

This is the first book in The Narrowing Path trilogy. Within a medieval fantasy setting, this series takes the reader to an exciting but brutal world full of intrigue where each character is larger than life and death is around every corner. Fans of The Hunger Games and Maze Runner are sure to love it.

Review: It’s hard to read the first 1/3 of this book and not make Hunger Games comparisons. A group of teenagers pitted against each other in a monitored and timed brutal competition, and the survivor(s) are assured prestige and a place in the world to come. These days, it’s hard to write a story with those elements appearing at any point without people drawing those comparisons, thanks to the popularity of The Hunger Games. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if that’s what the author’s going for, and if that’s what readers want to read.

But happily, there’s far more to this novel than something that just feels like it’s trying to ride the coattails of a popular franchise. The Narrowing Path follows the story of Bowe, last of the Bellanger family, at an age where he can begin on the Green Path and force his way to salvation by eliminating competitors. This isn’t just some brutal scheme to keep people in line or control the population. Bowe is fighting to become an ascor, one of society’s elite, and earn his place in the Refuge so that he can survive the approaching heat of the Infernam. If he doesn’t, then the only option is death. But Bowe isn’t happy with the Path before him, and he seeks to change it, subvert it, and forge a new Path for himself and those close to him.

Normoyle’s writing is pretty good, and he can paint a clear word-picture of what’s going on. The characters he writes are fairly distinct, though the increasing cast of characters toward the end sometimes made it tricky to keep track of who’s doing what and why. Once or twice characters were introduced who really added nothing to the story, leaving me with another name to keep track of and nothing more. Perhaps they become more important later on in the series, I’m not sure, but at least here, they don’t do much besides have their name known and be part of what Bowe is trying to accomplish.

The society set up in Arcandis is an interesting one. It’s highly stratified, with ascor being the elite of society and escay being the bottom ranks. Escay can rise through the ranks by becoming marshals (your basic law enforcers), and then getting raised to ascor for loyal service, but it’s rare. Ascor look down on escay, seeing themselves as far above the concerns of the rabble. It’s not an uncommon society to play with in novels like this, really, but what I found most interesting about it was the way society was shaped by the Infernam, which is the period of intense heat that comes every six years.

However, it’s not perfect, and there are some discrepancies that don’t quite add up for me. It’s Ascor who typically end up with guaranteed or near-guaranteed places within the Refuge, but a Green’s rise to ascor is, well, along a narrow path. Very few of Bowe’s peers typically become ascor and get to survive. The rest get killed. The majority of escay die by just not being able to afford Refuge. But the population sizes don’t really reflect that. Yes, ascor men typically have multiple wives and there’s probably a whole lot of breeding going on, but the ascor should very quickly outnumber the escay, and most escay would likely be ones in direct service to ascor (who could thus get into the Refuge more easily) and any children under 6, who haven’t experienced the Infernam yet. You’re likely end up with no escay not being in service to ascor, and their families having been in service for generations. And that doesn’t seem to really be the case as presented by the book. Not unless the people we see in The Narrowing Path represent about half the entire population of either group.

I find population problems to be a common one with dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, and they don’t seem to bother most readers, so I may be the exception here that actually finds this somewhat irritating. I also admit that this discrepancy could well be something addressed in a later novel. There are plenty of hints dropped along the way that indicate far more going on that just what’s on the surface, and while some of them get only a passing mention that seems disproportionate to their potential impact, it does leave things wide open for a greater exploration of some ideas in the future.

Similarly, the issue of food doesn’t really get addressed either. Food-producing farms are mentioned, and it’s logical to think that 6 years of growing seasons could result in a surplus to stockpile if you get lucky and control things well enough, but if the world becomes too hot for humans to survive in without either dying or going deep underground, that’s going to take a toll on the world’s ability to produce crops. I can’t imagine people emerging from the underground caves and going right back to planting and plowing. It would take time for things to cool down again, for the land to recover enough for crops to be grown once more. And yet this seems to be enough of a non-issue that Bowe find people selling carved trinkets at an escay market, which indicates the leisure time to throw into decorative items.

So while the issue of the Infernam is definitely one that is shown to shape society at large, there are a lot of holes in the story when it comes to practicalities.

I’m a bit on the fence about gender presentation in this book, I admit. On one hand, the story is told from the perspective of a teenage boy in a tough situation, in a society where gender roles are pretty rigidly enforced, so it’s not like I expected Bowe’s group to have a whole load of women in it. But from what I recall, there were a total of 4 women with names in this entire novel: 1 who killed herself, 1 who did nothing but glare from a distance, 1 who helped Bowe and whom Bowe had a thing for but felt horrible about it because of class differences, and 1 whose biggest role was to regret that she was too ugly to get a husband and so would probably not get into the Refuge. That’s it. It’s not exactly overflowing with positive tropes; even Iyra, arguably the most interesting and involved female character, was primarily there to further Bowe’s goals and be a romantic interest. That’s not good.

It’s easy to argue that this kind of gender presentation is fitting with the society that was being written about, and that’s true. It was. But more and more I’m agreeing with people when they say that’s not an excuse; the author is the one who creates the society, and thus the author is the one who bears the responsibility for what casts of characters like this imply. You don’t have to have every female character be a kick-ass superheroine, but when the character who does the most is mostly there to confuse Bowe’s sexual morals, it doesn’t come across very well.

I do, however, have to give Normoyle some points for inverting the “being thin is the only way to be beautiful” stereotype for women. Here, girls who are well fed and have some curves to them are considered more attractive than ones who are thinner. Makes sense, considering the ascor’s abundance, and I did like to see that aspect being dealt with.

Another sticking point, and one that felt prevalent throughout The Narrowing Path was, for me, the fact that Bowe does not act at all like the 13 year old that he is. If he was 16 or 17, I might believe it. His patterns of speech, his behaviour, his ability to see and manipulate complex patterns, the way people follow him and his ideals, none of it comes off like a person who only relatively recently hit a double-digit age. It’s difficult to see people a few years older take him as seriously as they did (especially in a cut-throat competition), let alone the adults who so easily bowed to his logic and grasp of politics. It just wasn’t something I could believe. Not without Bowe having shown ridiculous amounts of promise early on, which clearly wasn’t the case since everybody, including Bowe himself, expected to die on the first day. He comes across as far older than he actually is, and the only way for me to make it seem less incongruent was to mentally picture him as being in his late teens rather than his very early teens.

So in the end, The Narrowing Path was a decent beginning to a series that’s definitely more YA than adult, though it does have some darker themes running through it and it doesn’t shy away from blood and violence and despair. It has its strengths, and a lot of the flaws that I mentioned are ones that I don’t notice so much while reading as I notice them in retrospect, when examining the novel specifically for review and critique; it’s easy to fall into the story and ignore the little bits that don’t get addressed or don’t make sense because Normoyle’s writing is, as I said earlier, pretty good. But that doesn’t mean the problems aren’t still there. I can recommend this to people who are fans of YA dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, because it is a fun read and it is still good; for the genre and the intended audience, I’d say it’s on par with a lot of other offerings out there, and so is probably worth taking a look at if you have the chance.

SPFBO: First Eliminations (Batch 2) and Strong Contenders

I mentioned in the previous post that I’d be highlighting a particular set of books for special attention. These books are books that I initially figured I’d leave on the “I’ll read and review them fully” list, making them strong contenders for being passed along to the second round of judging.

And then I looked at the list and realized wow, that’s pretty much half the books in my batch! That’s a lot of reading! Who do you people think I am, anyway? Do I look like I read at Sarah Chorn‘s pace?

Anyway, that was the point where I realized I was going to have to cut down that list a bit in order to better manage things.

It was tough, making eliminations from this category, because every book in here was one that I wanted to read, for one reason or another. So here’s what’s going on with books in this category: for the moment, they’re not being considered as books that could be passed along to the second round of judging.

However, once I’ve read and reviewed the books that I did earmark as possibilities, if there’s time left before I have to choose a book to pass forward, I’ll start looking more closely at these. These books are also here as backups, in case I made a huge error and judgment and none of the books I think stand a good chance are ones I’d feel comfortable recommending to others. So these books aren’t completely eliminated yet. For the moment, yes, but don’t discount them entirely. They’re worth a second look.

A note in advance – You’re going to see a lot of, “I wanted to see what happened next,” in these mini-reviews. That sounds vague, but it’s a good sign. It means that even if there was no real action of big reveal or anything of the sort, something get its claws into me and made me want to keep reading, to see the somethings that would happen later. It’s not a thing I can pin down and say, “There, that one particular section, that made me want to know what happens next.” But you know it when you feel it, and it’s often the sign of a book that I can enjoy even if it’s not my preferred genre or there’s stuff in it that I find uncomfortable.

Stormwielder, by Aaron Hodges – Starts off with a cursed but naive guy showing up in a new city and nearly getting kidnapped and sold into slavery, only to be saved by a sudden violent local thunderstorm he inadvertently calls down. The naive protagonist doesn’t do much for me, and the intro feels a bit rushed, like the author wanted to get past some tedious establishing bits to get to the meat of the story, but it was still an interesting start, and it feels like there’s a lot more going on than just what’s on the surface.

Ranger of Mayat, by Jim Johnson – Lots of telling and not much showing in the early sections, not in the form of long infodumps but just lots of explanations/definitions in the narrative. Good action, good humour, and the combo of Wild West plus ancient Egypt really struck a chord with me. It was uncommon enough that I want to see more of how the culture presents and the story unfolds.

Demon Frenzy, by Harvey Click – I really didn’t expect to like this one as much as I did. The cover turned me right off, for one thing. I had a bit of a tough time getting into it, but the writing good and it seems like there’s a good story in there. Despite it being urban fantasy, which is typically tough for me to get into, I found myself wanting to know what would happen next, wanting to read more.

The Rise of the Mages, by Brian W Foster – The writing is good, with clear descriptions and each character feeling distinct. A bit of a slow start, and it’s a little hard to be invested in a character when all I really know about him is that he keeps dreaming of and crushing on a girl he’s never met. But the writing alone drew me along to the point that I wanted to find out more about what was going on, which gives me hope that the slow start isn’t a sign of lackluster storytelling.

Innocence Lost, by Patty Jansen – Smooth writing style, characters I’m interested in, and even if the setting seems like bog-standard European-based fantasy, I kept wanting to read just to see what happened next. Not much really happened in the first three chapters, but I quickly felt enough interest in the main character to want to keep reading and follow along, to see what adventures would happen along the way.

The Adventure Tournament, by Nicholas Andrews – This one really surprised me. The cover does nothing for me, the concept does nothing for me, and yet the humour does everything for me! It seems like the kind of book that isn’t meant to be taken seriously, poking fun at many things (including itself) to the point where it’s almost a parody, but not quite. Either way, I was impressed, and as silly as it all sounds, I do want to know what happens.

6 books worth paying attention to. And that’s not including the other 9 that I’ll be taking a much closer look at first.

Those 9 are:

Thread Slivers, by Leeland Artra
Demi Heroes, by Andrew Lynch
Song of the Summer King, by Jess Owens
The Dragon Scale Lute, by JC Kang
The Grey Bastards, by Jonathan French
Beneath the Canyons, by Kyra Halland
Dark Fate: the Gathering, by Matt Howerter & John Reinke
The Narrowing Path, by David J Normoyle
Touch of Iron, by Timandra Whitecastle

Expect full reviews of them starting soon!

SPFBO: First eliminations (Batch 1)

First, I want to apologize that this post was so delayed. I’ve had a hectic time these past couple of months, with a sick pet (and several hundred dollars in vet bills), a sprained ankle, and general laziness on top of it all.

Second, I want to let readers know that this post is technically going to be broken up into 2 parts. You see, I had so many good books in my batch that if I were to just cut that ones that failed to interest me by the end of the third chapter, I’d still end up with, oh, about half my batch. This post will be about those books, why I had a hard time with them, and why I didn’t want to progress further.

The 2nd post that will come out of this will look at some of the other books that were still intriguing but ultimately at this point are not going to get a full read-through and review from me. What I read was good, but these books I had to judge a little bit differently, and looked at them from the perspective not of what I thought was just good quality or an entertaining story, but what might be seen in that light by the other reviewers involved in the judging. I’ll talk a bit more about it when I make that particular post.

There’s more to it than that, but that’s a quick run-down on what I’m doing here.

Before I get started, I want to state in advance that me DNFing a book at this stage is not a sign that the book is bad. Sometimes it’s just not to my taste. Sometimes if a book isn’t in the genres you enjoy, you’re pickier with it than with others. Sometimes the faults you find are subjective. Yes, sometimes a book was released into the world too early and needs more work, but not always. So please, please be respectful that the following notes are my own opinion, that others may have differing opinions, and that I am not going to ruin any careers by saying what I’m saying.

Now, on to the books that didn’t make it past the 3-chapter mark. In no particular order…

Girl With Ears and Demon With Limp, by edward j rathke – I initially was going to discard this as being a short story, which wasn’t allowed by the rules of the contest. It does, however, fall past the 7,500-word mark, which is the upper limit on short stories according to the SFWA. So. It tells the story of a strange girl who has wolf ears and who is banished from her home to live in a huge castle. It’s written quite poetically, told like a fable, but it was hard to get into because I felt very little for any of the characters present. I didn’t much care why they were where they were, nor the mystery of the castle, and however beautiful the writing, I just wasn’t compelled to keep going.
(This one was exempt from the 3-chapter chance because it has no chapters. I read about 1/3 of it, though.)

Bitter Ashes, by Sara C Roethle – The writing in this one was okay but nothing special. It starts off with a woman being kidnapped, and the narrative tone is so distanced from the action of the events that I wondered if I was misunderstanding a kidnapping somehow. There’s some interesting plays with mythology, which is cool, and well-suited to urban fantasy/paranormal romance, but PNR is definitely not my cup of tea, and I found the characters to be flat and stereotypical. Female protag has been kidnapped and is being held hostage and not given explanations? Better take a first-person POV moment to note how sexy the men around her are. Really not my thing.

Emerald Emergent, by James Aaron – The writing’s okay, but it gets off to a bit of an awkward start. It suffers from the very-common first-person POV problems, such as trying to cram in more details than a character would feasibly notice in order to give the reader a clear picture of things. The world seems like it could be interesting, but that wasn’t really enough to sell me on reading the rest of the book, especially because “okay YA novels” are a dime a dozen these days. In many ways it’s a bloated genre, and it’s getting harder to stand out in it because there are just so many options available to readers. Being “good” doesn’t get you far, unfortunately.

Quiet in the Realm, by Joseph Sutton – First off, this needs to be looked over for numerous missing commas, badly-placed apostrophes, and incorrectly-spelled words. It was enough that encountering them threw me out of the reading groove at least once a page, and I can’t stress enough how much that sort of thing makes it look like you don’t care enough about your own writing to have someone go through and do a basic copyedit. The story itself didn’t seem too bad, but it also didn’t seem to have much to make it stand out (fairly standard fantasy setting in which peace is coming to an end and certain people in power don’t want to admit the problems that go along with it), and so with all the other little problems, I decided to DNF it.

The Call, by Eli Freysson – The setting is definitely interesting, and I don’t see too much fantasy that plays with Norse mythology, which gives this book some points. Katja could grow to be a very interesting character, but I felt that the writing alternated between flat and then overly-detailed. Despite having so much thrown at her in the early chapters, I still felt too distanced from Katja to want to continue with her story, and the unsteady writing might have been a big part of that. Too much in too little time, I think, because even after so much happens to her, all I can really tell is that she’s stubborn.

Awakening, by Raymond Bolton – The combo of sci-fi and fantasy elements in this one seemed like they could be interesting, but for my part it felt like a jumbled mish-mash of things that didn’t quite fit. A world that has microscopes and motor vehicles won’t just limit that technology to those areas; if you have internal combustion engines, you’ll use them elsewhere too, and I saw more signs that the author was trying to make the world feel more like “fantasy with random modern tech” than anything cohesive. Science fantasy is really difficult to pull off properly, and I think this one fell short of the mark. The story itself could be neat, with strange creatures haunting/looking for the main character, but the worldbuilding spoiled a lot for me, and it stopped me from really sinking into the world so that I could feel invested in the story.

Bone Magic, by Brent Nichols – The story starts off when stupid people make stupid assumptions that don’t make sense, and that’s a pretty awkward way to get your main character involved in the meat of the story that will happen to them. It seemed more like they setup for a quest in an RPG, where characters will take a quest because that’s just what characters do, rather than something that would actually happen in the real world. Characters felt less like people and more like flat roles that needed filling. The writing was okay, but it wasn’t good enough to keep me going despite the flimsy beginning.

Dead Man, by Domino Finn – The narrative style turned me right off pretty early on. It’s first-person, told from the perspective of someone so arrogant that they refer to themselves in the third-person every once in a while. I didn’t find the attempts at humour to be all that funny. The first-person POV is done decently, though, and it reads like the protag is actually telling the story to someone and occasionally losing track of their thoughts, only to come back and over-explain some things. The story itself could be pretty interesting, but that style of storytelling made me averse to finding out.

Genesis, by T Sae-Low – Starts off with an infodump about the world, which I usually find to be a weak beginning. It could be an okay fantasy, but it just didn’t really speak to me.

Half-Bloods Rising, by J T Williams – Suffers from Missing Comma Syndrome; also has rather stilted dialogue that seems more like a dramatic script for the stage than actual people talking. A fair bit of, “As you know,” and “That which we call” dialogue. The characters don’t feel distinct, and I had a hard time pinning down any of their personalities, let alone motivations. Could probably be decent with some work, but it needs some editing to get it there.

Half Wolf, by Aimee Easterling – The writing’s decent and the characters seem developed, but urban fantasy is really hit or miss with me, and this one had enough cliches that it fell more into the “miss” category. I can see it really appealing to those who prefer urban fantasy novels, though, since stylistically it seems to have a fair bit going for it.

Raindropt, by Deena Byrne – Narrative is mostly third-person limited with random jumps to third-person omniscient, which is a little weird. The writing is pretty decent, pulling from fairy tales and making a potentially interesting — if a bit over the top — story. Biggest drawback for me, and the thing that killed me desire to read it, is that the main character is an air-headed entitled brat with nothing appealing about her whatsoever. I understand she’ll probably be redeemed by the end, but by the end of chapter 3, all I could think is that I didn’t want to read an entire book following the adventures of somebody so stupid they mistook a centaur for “an exotic horse.”

Snort and Wobbles, by Will MacMillan Jones – A kids’ chapbook. Now, I’m no expert on books for this age range, seeing as how the last time I read any, I was pretty much in that age range. The tone’s pretty playful, and the story’s cute. It’s not something I have much interest in, though, nor is it something I’d feel remotely comfortable passing on to the 2nd round of judging, since this isn’t really the kind of book the SPFBO is geared toward. Still, from what I can tell, if you have any young kids who are getting into fantasy stories, maybe this would be good for them.

The Hunters, by Richard Bamberg – Good writing style, the dialogue in realistic and smooth, and in general it seems like it could be a pretty decent urban fantasy. As I’ve said before, though, urban fantasy is extremely hit-or-miss with me, and despite knowing that this could well be a good book, I just couldn’t sink into it enough, and so I had to put it aside. Entirely a matter of personal taste on this one, and I think that fans of urban fantasy could really enjoy it if they got into it.

The Huntress, by Nadja Losbohm – Seems like it has potential, but it also seems a lot like an early draft of something that could get better with some polishing. Also got turned off by what was probably a throwaway line early on that just sat wrong with me; the main character is a monster hunter who states that she can’t keep doing things alone anymore. When it’s pointed out that her predecessors all worked alone, her retort is that yeah, but they were all men. And in that one line, the main character turned in my mind from a strong independent kick-ass woman to someone whose main reason for not doing stuff others before her have done is because she’s not a man. Sigh. It left a bad taste in my mouth.

So there’s that batch done. A full half of them didn’t make it past the 3-chapter chance. Which, as I said before, isn’t necessarily a bad thing; a good number of them were just not to my taste, and there’s no shame in that. Luck of the draw, unfortunately; someone else doing the challenge might have liked them better.

(Though I have noticed that nearly all of us, across both years, prefer secondary-world fantasy to urban fantasy. Not sure if that’s of benefit to people considering submitting a novel next year, or a sign that there needs to be a similar challenge for urban fantasy, or both. Just a little thing I noticed.)

Anyway, stay tuned, because there’ll be another post shortly that talks about another batch of novels from the challenge that I figure are worthy of a special post of their own!

SPFBO 2 – First Impressions (Batch 5)

Disclaimer – I am not going to be commenting on any book’s content. I have not read any of the books currently sent to me, not even a page. I am making this about my first impressions of the following things: title, cover art, and blurb. All things that people will consider before they buy a book. So any commentary I make, negative or positive, should not be taken to mean that I think the story itself will be good or bad. And one way or the other, I will give the book a try.

Quiet in the Realm, by Joseph Sutton

The realm is quiet.

In the capital, idleness has corrupted mind and body alike following the longest peace in living memory, but the threat of whispers are rising again in courtrooms and alehouses across the land. Rumours are spreading like some toxic wildfire, leaving a trail of suspicion in their wake. Some are brave enough to dig for answers, but many more schemers want to fill the hole in and keep their secrets buried deep.

Ever more marriage pacts loom in such uncertain times, and wedding bells chime almost nightly, but reputations trail every nobleman, and some are more harrowing than others would believe.

Far from the mutter words and fancy pursuits of such highborns, the villages are suffering. Food is sparse, and even the young have long grown hungry. When stomachs churn and beggars go without, the laws of any realm would be tested to the letter.

Far away, across the Misty Sea, a stranger sits. Rich, powerful, but shrouded in mystery, the city that few care to speak of could have a part to play. But who, if anyone, will befriend this silent stranger?

The realm is quiet, for now.

Title – Certainly seems fantasy-ish.

Cover – The art’s good, but the title is dwarfed by the image and is hard to see. It just doesn’t stand out at all, and the first letter blends in with clouds of the same colour. Also no author name on this. So while the art itself is good, the overall presentation is of something that didn’t have much thought put into it.

Blurb – A troubled land, a gap between the rich and the poor, and a mysterious stranger. Okay, so we’re dealing with some very common fantasy elements here, and you know what? I like it. I like the idea, I like the possibility that this puts forth. It doesn’t give away much, but it offers a few hints and some background, and that’s a good solid teaser right there.

Bone Magic, by Brent Nichols

The war was supposed to be over.

Tira Archer is done with killing, done with fighting. She’s hung up her bow, saddled her mule, and headed for home. But children are disappearing from the peaceful village of Raven Crossing. Her search for the children brings her face to face with vicious kidnappers, goblin armies, and mercenary dwarves. A war is brewing, and not just any war. It’s a war where the dead don’t stay fallen.

Hurt, exhausted, and sick of fighting, Tira will have to take up her bow once again. Somewhere there is a dark wizard manipulating the living and controlling the dead. Tira is saving an arrow just for him. He plans to rule the world, but he hasn’t planned on Tira Archer.

Title – The title is fairly simple, could refer to a number of different things, and makes me curious. So, points there!

Cover – Decently done. Plus the character pictured makes me think of Denise Crosby, so more points!

Blurb – I’m not sure if it’s cheesy to have an archer whose surname is Archer, or whether this is one of those worlds where someone’s surname is directly related to their profession or status. Still, from the synopsis, it sounds like this could be a fairly fun action-oriented fantasy, one of those quick entertaining reads that I crave every once in a while.

Ranger of Mayat, by Jim Johnson

Kekhmet, the empire of the Two Lands, is a faded shadow of its former glory. Once the shining jewel of the world, the empire has been split apart by the invasion of foul Hesso marauders and the depredations of corrupt governors. The gods and goddesses of Kekhmet are all but silent, and the people struggle to find hope in their hardscrabble lives.

When Tjety, an exiled Ranger of the goddess Mayat, discovers a ransacked fishing village along the lawless northern frontier, he marshals his training and divine hekau magic to hunt down the vicious cultists responsible for the attack. But can he find them before their prisoners are twisted into mindless slaves serving a ruthless necromancer bent on shattering the tenuous balance between order and chaos?

Ranger of Mayat is the first episode in PISTOLS AND PYRAMIDS, an ongoing weird western series best described as an ancient Egyptian spaghetti western with magic. And mummies. Lots of mummies.

Title – It sounds like a fairly generic fantasy title, really.

Cover – For all that it appears fairly simple, I’m actually impressed by what’s going on with the cover. Hieroglyphs in the background, good positioning of easy-to-read text, and if I were shown this with absolutely no context, I’d probably think this book was a western crossed with ancient Egypt. (Which seems to be what it is, so kudos to the designer for managing to convey that really well without getting bogged down in a complicated image.)

Blurb – Until it’s actually described as a “weird western,” I wouldn’t have guessed from the description that there was anything western about it. And as I said in a previous post, normally westerns aren’t really my thing, but even if one of last year’s SPFBO finalists hadn’t turned me around on that, the combo of that plus a setting inspired by ancient Egypt would make my metaphorical ears perk up. This might possibly be the most unique concept I’ve seen in a while!

Dead Man, by Domino Finn

I’m Cisco Suarez: necromancer, shadow charmer, black magic outlaw. Sounds kinda cool, doesn’t it? It was, right until I woke up half dead in a dumpster.

Did I say half dead? Because I meant 100% dead. Full on. I don’t do things halfway.

So here I am, alive for some reason, just another sunny day in Miami. It’s a perfect paradise, except I’m into something bad. Wanted by police, drenched in the stink of dark magic, nether creatures coming out of the woodwork, and don’t get me started on the Haitian voodoo gang. Trust me, it’s all fun and games until there’s a zombie pit bull on your tail.

I’m Cisco Suarez: necromancer, shadow charmer, black magic outlaw, and totally screwed.

Title – I’m expecting either somebody who’s on the run, or somebody’s who is actually undead.

Cover – Nice! Makes me think of some of the more action-heavy urban fantasies that I’ve seen relatively recently.

Blurb – Despite being somewhat ambivalent on a lot of urban fantasy stuff, I think that I might enjoy this one for is mystery, while simultaneously having to fight down panic attacks over zombie phobia.

Note – Please don’t jump in to tell me things about how these zombies are different, how zombies freak you out too but you liked this book, or anything else to try and convince me that I won’t experience what I expect to experience. Because when I say phobia, I freaking mean phobia. Not just, “Urgh, zombies make me shiver unpleasantly and I don’t like how they look.” I mean, “Insomnia, nightmares, , delusions that people around me are dead, spending multiple nights doing nothing but staring out the window despite knowing that zombies aren’t real, but what if I’m wrong, and what if me watching for them is the only thing that can save me and my loved ones, oh god my home isn’t defensible, I’m going to die. *bursts into tears*” Recovery and coping is a hard process, and it’s ongoing, and it’s not helped by people acting like they can relate when they actually can’t, because all that does is diminish the seriousness of a problem that I have trouble convincing people of in the first place.

Stormwielder, by Aaron Hodges

For five hundred years the Gods have united the Three Nations in harmony.
Now that balance has been shattered, and chaos threatens.

A town burns and flames light the night sky. Hunted and alone, seventeen year old Eric flees through the wreckage. The mob grows closer, baying for the blood of their tormentor. Guilt weighs on his soul, but he cannot stop, cannot turn back.

If he stops, they die.

For two years he has carried this curse, bringing death and destruction wherever he goes. But now there is another searching for him – one who offers salvation. His name is Alastair and he knows the true nature of the curse.


Title – Similar enough to some other much-liked fantasy novels that I’ve read in the past that I’m inclined to think favourably of it.

Cover – No pun intended, but the grey-and-electric-blue colour scheme is eye-catching. It doesn’t really do much to interest me in the novel, though.

Blurb – I’m always a bit curious when I see that deities have a hand in national politics. I always wonder why. What’s in it for them? Even if it’s just a legend, how do people rationalize it? Anyway, the idea of a curse that brings destruction isn’t a new one, and it’s hardly surprising that the source of it is magic, though I suppose that’s a hint that the world in question doesn’t contain magic anymore or else never was supposed to. So the blurb does bring up some interesting questions, at least, and makes me want to know the answers.

Genesis, by T Sae-Low

As rumors swirl across the war torn lands of Eos of a possible Candidate—the long prophesied savior of peace— young Raden Nite finds himself unexpectedly chosen to discover the truth to these rumors. Raden’s top-secret mission will send him and his closest friends on a heart-pounding adventure through the mysterious Voras Mountains, the impenetrable fortress of Sargatum, and deep into strange new lands where dangerous enemies await.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Disputed Lands, Prince Aric sits third in line to the crown of Vicedonia. Seeking to escape the overwhelming shadow of his elder brother, and to prove to his father, the king, that he is indeed a worthy successor, Aric embarks on a path into the darkest corners of Eos. On his journey, he will encounter the sinister magic of the Dark Forest, the epic battlegrounds of Lake Raphia, and discover the harsh realities of what it truly means to be king.

In the first book of the Prophecy Rock Series, fates will collide in this epic tale of action, loyalty, and love, where the ultimate meaning of true sacrifice will be discovered.

Title – It doesn’t make me think of much in particular, except for, obviously, beginnings.

Cover – The silhouetted figures against a red and white background certainly do stand out, but right from the beginning I get the impression of a lack of depth. Which makes sense; the image is a flat one. But that’s not a good first impression of something I might spend my time on; you want to portray the idea of depth and complexity, not cut-outs. I know you can’t entirely judge a book by its cover, but first impressions do count for a lot, and when a potential reader gets a certain idea in their head from a cover image, it can be hard to not have that idea colour their reading.

Blurb – The whole “prophecy about a saviour” thing is overdone, and yet there’s still a great appeal for many readers. It sounds like this story could possibly be the kind of book I turn to as a comfort read, something to sink into because it’s familiar, not because it challenges the status quo or presents new ideas. Which is no bad thing, but that does make it unlikely to stand out in a crowd.

SPFBO 2 – First Impressions (Batch 4)

Disclaimer – I am not going to be commenting on any book’s content. I have not read any of the books currently sent to me, not even a page. I am making this about my first impressions of the following things: title, cover art, and blurb. All things that people will consider before they buy a book. So any commentary I make, negative or positive, should not be taken to mean that I think the story itself will be good or bad. And one way or the other, I will give the book a try.

Rise of the Mages, by Brian W Foster

Strange dreams of a beautiful young woman leave journeyman apothecary Alexander “Xan” Conley exhausted. That’s not good since a single mistake could kill a patient. To complicate matters, he’s afraid that finding a way to end the nighttime meetings would mean never seeing the girl again, a horrible thought considering she’s the closest thing to a love life he has.

His existence radically changes when a tenacious catcher bent on capturing and executing Xan forces him and his friends to flee their homes. As Xan quests to rescue his dream girl from the same fate that awaits him, he discovers that the catcher is part of a deadly conspiracy.

Xan’s sole path to safety is to become a mage, thereby embracing forces that nearly destroyed the world during the Wizards War. He must choose between two terrible options—saving the lives of those he loves or risking everyone by ushering in a new age of magic.

Title – Definitely puts me in a fantasy feel, I’ll say that for nothing. Not surprising, though, considering mages are mentioned right from the get-go.

Cover – I can’t quite put my finger on why, but it makes me think of Harry Potter. Maybe it’s just that the character whose hand and wrist we see looks like they’re wearing robes, and magic is involved. I don’t really know. But it really does make me think that this could be one of the redone adult covers for one of the Harry Potter books.

Blurb – There are a lot of unanswered questions that the blurb brings up, and here’s hoping the story addresses them (Why does someone want to capture Xan? Are apothecaries outlawed or something? Can anyone become a mage, or does Xan have that talent and that‘s why someone wants him dead?), because otherwise it just seems kind of chaotic and like things are jumping around. I get that blurbs and synopses have a short space to cram together a teaser and hopefully hook in potential readers, but I feel like there’s some key info missing as to why I should care that Xan’s being hunted down and why he needs to become a mage.

Touch of Iron, by Timandra Whitecastle

Is the Living Blade real or just a legend?

With it… Prince Bashan could win back his kingdom.
Master Telen Diaz can free himself of the burden from his past.
Owen Smith sees a once-in-a-lifetime chance to gain untold knowledge.

…but for Noraya Smith, the Living Blade will bring nothing but suffering and sorrow.

Title – I like it! It unsurprisingly puts me in the mind of faeries, or magic blocked by metal, and it caught my attention before I’d even had the chance to look the book up on Amazon.

Cover – Looks great, very professional, and I can see this being perfectly in place on my bookshelves. Whoever designed this cover deserves praise!

Blurb – It seems like the story will be told from alternating viewpoints, each from someone who wants the Living Blade (whatever exactly that is). Which appeals to me, because multiple converging quests from multiple viewpoints is nearly always fun to read, and I really hope that’s how the story will be told. I’m already curious as to why the Blade would be so different for Noraya, and curiosity is a big thing to draw in potential readers.

Bitter Ashes, by Sara C Roethle

Madeline knew her life was strange, and not just because she could sense the emotions of others. Having people die by your hand on two separate occasions can make a girl question her very existence. Still, she never thought she’d wake up in a world straight out of Norse myth. A world where corpses reanimate all on their own . . . and she’s supposed to be their executioner.

A normal person would run screaming into the night, but there’s something about dark and alluring Alaric that’s giving Madeline pause, and it’s not the fact that he turns a little feline from time to time.

Title – I’m thinking darkness, with a sense of loss.

Cover – I’m thinking gothic supernatural romance.

Blurb – I’m thinking this could be an okay urban fantasy, with some twists that I don’t often see in urban fantasy (though in fairness, I don’t read as much UF as I do straight-up fantasy, so maybe some of these themes are more common than I think). Definitely points for darkness and mystery, though based on the description, this really could go either way when it comes to attracting my attention, since it seems like something I’ll have to be in a very particular mood for.

Demon Frenzy, by Harvey Click

Sometimes going home again is a lot like going to hell.

Searching for her lost brother, Amy Jackson returns to her isolated hometown in the Appalachian Mountains. But Blackwood has changed. Now it’s run by a mysterious drug lord who has something more lethal than guns to protect him. He has demons—more vicious, venomous demons than even Hieronymus Bosch ever dreamed of—and after Amy witnesses an unspeakable atrocity he unleashes all the frenzied furies of hell against her. Soon she is stalked by snakewalkers, herky-jerkies, toadfaces, listeners, harpies, centicreepers, and the sinister crying man, who weeps while he torments his victims.

Title – Sounds like plenty of action and violence, in that sharp and fast way rather than long battles.

Cover – I’ll be honest here: this doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest. When I see it, I think that what’s inside will be a graphic novel. Which isn’t a bad thing, but if i bought it thinking I’d get a graphic novel, I’d probably be a bit disappointed when that turned out to not be the case. Seems like the cover might be targeting the wrong crowd. Also, I tend to not find much appealing about boobalicious women showing a whole load of skin in battle situations. Aside from the general impracticalities of it, it usually signals to me that chances are this was meant to be a certain kind of fanservice rather than actually portraying a decent realistic female character. If I came across this randomly, I’d pass it by without a second thought.

Blurb – Sounds like it could creepy, likely with some grotesque imagery to boot. Possibly fun, if I’m in the mood for that sort of thing.

Half Wolf, by Aimee Easterling

Every werewolf knows the meek won’t inherit the earth.

Fen Young is a half-shifter whose inner beast is more mouse than wolf. Home is her castle, the only place she’s ever felt safe.

Enter Hunter Green, an uber-alpha strong enough to stop traffic with a single look. He’s handsome and enticing and seems like just the ticket to broaden Fen’s horizons…until the uber-alpha brushes off his admirer and summarily rejects her from her home pack.

Now treading water in the no-man’s land of outpack territory, Fen must confront a missing pack mate, a tantalizing stranger, and a serial killer targeting half-werewolves. Will she be able to shore up her waning power in time to save her friend…and half-breeds everywhere…before it’s too late?

Title – If this book didn’t have werewolves or wolf shifters or some kind, I’d be very disappointed after a title like that.

Cover – Nicely done, professional-looking, and it fits in very well with many other urban fantasy offerings on the market.

Blurb – Sounds like it’ll be the kind of urban fantasy that has a lot of overlaps with paranormal romance. Which I don’t often find to my taste, but eh, I’m still willing to give them a try if it seems like there might be something to it, so it’s not like I’m utterly opposed to paranormal romance.

The Adventure Tournament, by Nicholas Andrew

With the kingdom of Bolognia under attack by independent forces of random malcontents, it’s time to send out the army to deal with these troublemakers, right? No, first there’s money to be made! Send out the adventurers, those rogues who wander the countryside in search of fame and treasure, and take up all the good seats at the local pubs. Then, organize brackets, stage it for the public’s entertainment, offer a prize and call it The Adventure Tournament.

Remy Fairwyn is a ne’er-do-well academic who really wants to become an adventurer. When he hears of the tournament, he jumps at the opportunity, only to find himself out of the frying pan and in the fire. Add ingredients like corrupt organizations, professional wrestlers, narcoleptic thieves, drama kings and malfunctioning magical minutia, and his venture quickly becomes a recipe for disaster.

As the competition heats up, Remy discovers that the tournament itself could be putting the kingdom in danger, and it’s up to him to uncover the truth before destruction consumes all he holds dear.

Title – It seems lacking, like the author couldn’t really think of a better title and so just went with this.

Cover – I’m of two alternating opinions about this. The first is that this is a book for kids, maybe in the mid-grade range of just a bit younger. The second is that it isn’t, that it’s actually a book intended for older audiences, but then the art really feels out of place and makes me think that the book itself will be cartoony and won’t have a plot that I can really take seriously.

BlurbAdventurer, as a profession, isn’t something that I can really take too seriously in books, unless they’re books inspired by D&D settings. (They get a bit of a pass, because of the source material, but even then…) So the entire premise being about someone not who wants to have adventures but “be an adventurer” makes me think that the story is based on some RP sessions, might be fun with a decent sense of humour, but isn’t really something that I’d turn to when I want to read about a realistic fantasy world.

SPFBO 2 – First Impressions (Batch 3)

Disclaimer – I am not going to be commenting on any book’s content. I have not read any of the books currently sent to me, not even a page. I am making this about my first impressions of the following things: title, cover art, and blurb. All things that people will consider before they buy a book. So any commentary I make, negative or positive, should not be taken to mean that I think the story itself will be good or bad. And one way or the other, I will give the book a try.

The Grey Bastards, by Jonathan French


Such is the creed of the half-orcs dwelling in the Lot Lands. Sworn to hardened brotherhoods known as hoofs, these former slaves patrol their unforgiving country astride massive swine bred for war. They are all that stand between the decadent heart of noble Hispartha and marauding bands of full-blood orcs.

Jackal rides with the Grey Bastards, one of eight hoofs that have survived the harsh embrace of the Lots. Young, cunning and ambitious, he schemes to unseat the increasingly tyrannical founder of the Bastards, a plague-ridden warlord called the Claymaster. Supporting Jackal’s dangerous bid for leadership are Oats, a hulking mongrel with more orc than human blood, and Fetching, the only female rider in all the hoofs.

When the troubling appearance of a foreign sorcerer comes upon the heels of a faceless betrayal, Jackal’s plans are thrown into turmoil. He finds himself saddled with a captive elf girl whose very presence begins to unravel his alliances. With the anarchic blood rite of the Betrayer Moon close at hand, Jackal must decide where his loyalties truly lie, and carve out his place in a world that rewards only the vicious.

Title – Puts me in the mind of a number of grimdark titles published in recent years.

Cover – Professionally-done, dark and violent, reinforces the title’s idea that I’m going to be getting grimdark.

Blurb – Fascinating. Hitting the grimdark trifecta here, and the blurb makes me think there’ll be plenty of violence and no-holds-barred action held within the story’s pages. It makes me want to take a closer look.

The Call, by Eli Freysson

Rowdy tomboy Katja has always been haunted by premonitions that she will face terrible foes and a lifetime of violence. Her dreams finally come to a frightening reality when she faces a marauding demon and meets Serdra, a mysterious warrior woman, who introduces Katja to the supernatural gifts they share – and the responsibilities that come with them. Together they venture out and heed the Call, as an old evil stirs in Katja‘s homeland.

For three hundred years the battle for the world of mankind has stayed in the shadows. But the old terrors merely slumber and bide their time, while men squabble and forget what awaits them.

The Silent War cannot be won, but the torch can be passed on. The world cannot be saved but it can be preserved.

Title – Pretty generic, but it doesn’t seem weird for a fantasy novel to have this title.

Cover – Not bad, though not with as much polish as I’ve seen in a few other covers so far. Still, I like the presented imagery; I’m curious as to why the character is greyed out, and whether that’s just a statue or some deeper symbolism.

Blurb – For some reason this puts me in mind of something I might see from Angry Robot. Which, while their stuff can be hit or miss for me, is often more hit than miss, and so I’d be fairly willing to check this one out even if it wasn’t in the batch of books I received for the challenge.

Beneath the Canyons, by Kyra Halland

Cowboys and gunslingers meet wizards in this high fantasy series inspired by the Old West. Silas Vendine is a mage and bounty hunter, on the hunt for renegade mages. He’s also a freedom fighter, sworn to protect the non-magical people of the Wildings from ambitious mages both lawless and lawful. It’s a dangerous life and Silas knows it, but when he comes to the town of Bitterbush Springs, he finds more danger and excitement than he bargained for…

In Bitterbush Springs on the trail of a dangerous rogue mage, Silas meets Lainie Banfrey, a young woman both drawn to and terrified of her own developing magical powers. Though Lainie has been taught all her life to hate and fear wizards, she and Silas team up to stop the renegade who has brought her hometown to the brink of open warfare. The hunt takes them deep beneath forbidden lands held by the hostile A’ayimat people, where only Silas’s skills and Lainie’s untamed, untrained power can save them from the rogue mage and the dark magic he has loosed into the world.

Book 1 of Daughter of the Wildings, western fantasy romance for adults and older teens.

Title – Doesn’t make me think of much one way or the other.

Cover – Doesn’t look like many traditionally-published books (and it doesn’t technically have to), but the art is still top-notch, and it seems to give you a taste of what you’ll find in the story itself, which is a western-inspired tale.

Blurb – Western stuff isn’t normally to my taste. And while I still stand by that, I was blown away by Ben Galley’s Bloodrush in last year’s SPFBO, so even something not typically to my taste still stands a good chance of impressing me if it’s good. As I’ve said before, the romance part of the story interests me very little, so if it’s heavy on the romance, I may not end up liking it much. But if the right balance is struck, this could be a pretty good story.

Dark Fate: the Gathering, by Matt Howerter & Jon Reinke

An arranged marriage.
A lost heir to the dwarven throne.
An ancient undead seeks to manipulate four unlikely heroes.

Princess Sloane is to become a queen. Her marriage will unite the last two human kingdoms of Orundal. As it is not a marriage of choice but of necessity, she struggles with the responsibility laid before her, not knowing that the sacrifice she makes for her homeland will be but the first that she must endure.

Her twin sister, Princess Sacha, has been called from her studies at the Monastery to support Sloane in her time of need. Sacha has begun to learn the ways of the arcane and deals with her own troubles concerning the loss of a family that has been taken from her.

The sisters will not face their fates alone as Erik and Kinsey, steadfast companions, become their guides.

Erik seeks only solace for himself and his adopted son, but soon learns that such a wish is impossible to attain as the events around them unfold.

Kinsey, orphaned at birth, wrestles with his newfound rage not realizing that its cause is tied to his unknown heritage.

A tale of adventure filled with dwarves and elves, men and mages, were-beasts and the undead who clash together in a conflict so vast it will consume them all. These four troubled souls will become champions in the struggle for survival, as dark forces gather to destroy them.

Title – The title unfortunately makes me think of something that’s trying too hard to be dark and edgy. Not entirely sure why, since it’s not like I haven’t seen similar titles on other books, where only sometimes they give me that impression. Chalk it up to timing, I guess?

Cover – The art is reminiscent of some of the redone Wheel of Time covers, at least with the character portraits in the background. I find they’re overshadowed by Evil McEvilson with his Darke Magicks in the foreground, though, which comes off as a bit cheesy, even if the art itself is technically quite good.

Blurb – From the blurb, this could be a fairly bog-standard dark fantasy story. That isn’t to say that it will be bad — I’ve seen plenty of stories that look entirely typical on the surface but beneath runs some rich and beautiful prose — but I don’t see much that would compel me to read when I’m not specifically in the mood for something that doesn’t make me stretch my mind too much.

Awakening, by Raymond Bolton

How does a world equipped with bows, arrows and catapults, where steam power is just beginning to replace horses and sailing ships, avert a conquest from beyond the stars? Prince Regilius has been engineered to combat the Dalthin, a predatory alien species that enslaves worlds telepathically, and to do so he must unite his people. But when his mother murders his father, the land descends into chaos and his task may prove impossible. Faced with slaying the one who gave him life in order to protect his world, he seeks a better way. Set in a vast and varied land where telepaths and those with unusual mental abilities tip the course of events, Awakening goes to the heart of family, friendship and betrayal.

Title – Fairly generic, neither good nor bad.

Cover – Makes me think of historical fiction rather than fantasy.

Blurb – Now here’s something you don’t see every day! Fantasy meets sci-fi, in the sense that a traditional fantasy setting is under attack by extraterrestrials! I think the last time I saw this done was actually in a Star Trek: The Next Generation novel. That alone is rare enough to get my notice, and I’m pretty curious as to how this story is going to play out.

The Narrowing Path, by David J Normoyle

In a world that burns up every six years, only the strongest, smartest and most ruthless survive.

The teenage boys of noble birth are sent out into the city to demonstrate their wits and strength. Some prove themselves in combat, others display their empire building skills, still others attempt to kill off their rivals. Out of over a hundred, only six will be selected by the leaders of the great families and allowed a place in the Refuge. The rest will perish, one way or another.

Not only is thirteen-year-old Bowe younger and weaker than most of the other boys, he has no family to support him. He is expected to die on the very first day of the narrowing path. Instead he begins a journey no one could have anticipated.

Title – It doesn’t evoke much feeling in me one way or the other, but it doesn’t seem inappropriate for a fantasy novel or anything.

Cover – Nice artwork, and surprisingly, decent use of flare and fading techniques to blend it all together. It doesn’t have the feel of something slap-dash or haphazard, and I like the the way the shadows play on the central figure to make them look almost stylized, kind of cell-shaded. Interested effect. My own issue is with the tagline, which is a bit too long and feel like too much info is being crammed in. “In this world, there are only winners and ashes,” could have conveyed things more succinctly, for instance, and the whole “the world burns up every six years” bit can be left for explanation in the text.

Blurb – I admit I’m already a little confused. The world can’t be literally burning up every 6 years, or else there wouldn’t be any thirteen year olds. So are we looking at something more metaphorical? Sudden climate change that destabilizes everything, but on a predictable cycle? (If so, how do things recover so quickly to continue to support life?) I can see conditions being bleak, but the setup seems like another logic fail situation that I see in a lot of dystopian and post-apocalyptic scenarios. The world is brutal, so let’s be brutal and make sure that people kill each other off rather than, y’know, cooperating to help further everyone’s survival. The story itself may answer all of these questions, but for now I’m just left scratching my head.