#SPFBO2: Our Shortlist!
As we continue on into the third month of the great Self-Published Fantasy Blog-off 2, we’d like to thank everyone for their patience. Things have been definitely happening behind the scenes here! For the past 10 weeks or so, the reviewers of The BiblioSanctum have been busy poring through pages, scrutinizing details, taking copious amounts of notes, guzzling gallons of caffeinated beverages, comparing our results, arguing our cases, hammering out the specifics, all to finally bring you this huge announcement…
WE HAVE OUR SHORTLIST!
What that means is, we have now completed our read-through of the first five chapters (or approximately 20-25%) of every book in our batch of 30. After thorough discussion, the three of us have decided on the handful of books which will carry on to the next stage of our reviewing process. These are the titles that we will 1) read from cover to cover, and 2) provide with full reviews. This means that eventually, one of these will go on to the finals to compete with the picks from the nine other blogs participating in SPFBO2.
Things are heating up, and we’re very excited. Without further ado, here are the books The BiblioSanctum team has chosen to feature for a closer look. We look forward to reading these and bringing you their reviews:
Assassin’s Charge by Claire Frank
The Alignment by Kay Camden
Beyond the Starline by Austin Hackney
The Warlock and the Wolf by Delfy Hall
Anathema: Transition by O. Rising
The Dragon’s Blade: The Reborn King by Michael R. Miller
Congratulations to the authors who have made our shortlist! We received a very strong batch of books this year, which made it extremely difficult to narrow down the field. So for those who did not make the next stage, please don’t let this discourage you. Having to choose only one book out of 30 at the end of this phase of SPFBO regrettably meant that we could only move forward with a very few, even though there were many that caught our attention. We definitely had to adopt some different, unconventional strategies for this part of the competition, which sometimes meant that we had to compromise or be extra critical–and yes, even ruthless–in our selection process. No matter what though, we just want to say it was an absolute pleasure and delight to have had a chance to read your writing, and we would like to thank everyone for all your hard work and wish you all the best for the future.
The following are some of our feedback and mini-reviews of the books that unfortunately didn’t make the cut, but we’d like to feature them and talk about them all the same. Keep in mind, our thoughts here are based only on the first five chapters/20-25% of each book. In some cases, while these books did not make our short list, they still caught our interest enough to read on outside of the SPFBO–so watch out for future reviews! If any of these titles interest you, we strongly encourage you to check them out.
Fantasy adventure, with some touches of sci-fi. The story begins with our characters somehow finding themselves on a Goblin planet. Very soon, they encounter its inhabitants and become entangled in the dangerous and unpredictable politics of this world. A winsome tale with a fun, adventurous premise and endearing characters like Dobbins who is always getting into more trouble than he can manage. There are some intriguing cross-genre elements in here like goblins and spaceships, along with other unique alien creatures with creatively quirky-sounding names. Some jokes and humorous moments provide some much welcome comic relief. The book is quite dialogue-heavy, which sets a very snappy and quick pace, but some polish is required to smooth out the conversations to make them easier to follow. This quick back-and-forth style also sacrifices development in other areas like characters and world-building, and the story needs to be fleshed out more, but there are a lot of very interesting ideas here.
Fantasy, with Young Adult vibes. Xalo and his best friend Jirnik are scavengers, collecting and selling valuable things they find in order to eke out a living. One day, while out exploring a forbidden site, they encounter a desperate princess trying to escape a group of strange creatures. In her possession is a magical gauntlet, which calls to Xalo. This story feels fairly typical, and predictable. The writing is oddly extravagant in some places while sparse in others, but the descriptions of people and places are nicely done. Definitely has potential if the audience is Middle Grade to YA, and we think this cute and fun book would be an absolute delight for younger readers.
Fantasy. One day while out netting butterflies to add to his collection, entomologist Ben Whytten accidentally captures a tiny faery. Feeling remorseful about shredding her wings, Ben vows to take the faery, Shawndirea, back to her realm of Aetheon. A very lovely, sweet story. Editing is required to fix some minor errors, but on the whole the writing is nice. Character emotions however are somewhat perplexing, e.g. everyone is suddenly overwhelmed with strong emotions, but those not apparently influenced by fae magic seem to act rather calm in the face of alarming circumstances. More character development would have been preferred because none of the characters here really connected with us, but this isn’t a bad start.
Urban fantasy, about a young woman named Leia Swanson who is just getting her life back together after addiction. All of a sudden though, she is starting to see demons all around her. Beyond the prologue and the first chapter, the storytelling became less polished and needed some tightening up and editing, but we felt the writing was decent and loved the set-up and the opening. It would have been nice if there was more build-up to Leia’s problems, and the character of her drug-dealing brother felt somewhat insensitive given Leia’s history, and he seemed only concerned with her on a superficial level without attempting to dig deeper into the cause of her troubles. Good premise overall, if a bit conventional.
Urban fantasy. Mac Brennan can’t remember anything about himself–not who he is, not why his right arm is blackened and covered with glowing red tattoos, and certainly not why he woke up in a dumpster tonight. All he knows is he saved a young woman, and now a death cult is coming after him. Very cool and intriguing premise, though there were mixed feelings about the main character’s voice and narrative, citing awkward snarkiness and pop culture references with some wordy internal monologuing that doesn’t add much to the story. The plot also felt too convenient, and along with strained dialogue/action choices, it felt very much like events were being deliberately pushed in one direction without letting them unfold more organically and consistently.
Epic fantasy about a mercenary who oversteps his bounds and offends a pantheon of gods. The angered gods then proceed to throw everything they have at him and his Crimson Blade guild in order to see them all destroyed, but the hero manages to face down all the obstacles one by one. There’s a strong RPG vibe with this one. The different gods at the beginning were compelling, though later on there are a lot of characters and elements introduced in a very short time, so there were also some issues with info dumping. Action scenes are plentiful, but some of the fight sequences are confusing and awkward due to too many things going on and the injection of multiple different PoVs to portray everything that happens. Not too terribly deep, with basic fantasy tropes, but a fun story regardless.
Fantasy. A young outsider stumbles upon a small village, frightened and injured. The townspeople rush to help her, but they are also wary. The land of Galenia has been unstable as of late, as discontent between the races grow. As Hanna learns of Galenia’s destructive history from her caregivers, she resolves to help them in any way she can. Some polishing is needed to improve the flow of the writing, as the prose right now feels like a report of events, with dialogue feeling forced like the speaking is reciting world-building elements to the reader. There is a good story shaping up here, and we think it can be improved with further editing.
Fantasy, paranormal. Four teenage misfits’ lives are changed when they discover another world full of magic and darkness. The beginning introduces a lot of characters with a lot of POV switching, but generally good characterization of the four main characters Danny, Katrina, Poppy, and Russell. The writing is great, flows well, but there needs to be a better balance and spread in doling out the details and the world-building elements. For instance, when the kids pass through into the new world, readers are hit with an overwhelming amount of information in one go; things became problematic when the narrative tried to develop the story and divide attention between too many characters at all once. On the whole we thought this one had a fantastic introduction and presents a very original premise, but the first handful of chapters could have been pared down a little and tightened up.
Epic fantasy. The Crimson Throne needs an heir, and all the powers of the world are seeking the one remaining hope for restoration. The story’s style is slightly reminiscent of Steven Erikson’s Malazan or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire; however, the prose also stumbles a little from wordiness (e.g. lots of repeated words and phrases for emphasis, when brevity would have been more effective and impactful). The book starts with a big battle to draw readers in, but after that the pacing slows way down. Giving more context in the first five chapters as well as more reasons to care about the characters would be ways to improve this intro and make it more attention grabbing.
A blend of some fantasy and science fiction. 400 years after his experiences in the Creata Adventures, the protagonist Han Storm starts a new journey on a faraway planet in another universe after transforming his consciousness into a new, donated mortal body of a teenager. Upon awakening, Han turns out to have no memory of who he is, which made understanding this story difficult at the beginning. Information is related in an almost “stream of consciousness” type narrative as our main character absorbs everything that is around him while leaving readers without much background information to any element. There’s potential for this story to become more, but the first few chapters were too confusing due to the lack of follow through on any of the thoughts presented to capture us right away.
Fantasy. Halfling friends Randir and Fendi are playing not far from their peaceful farm village when they suddenly stumble upon an invading force of Vergai emerging through a portal. They discover the invaders’ plan to steal something called the Elven Jewel, an powerful object that sustains Reloria’s defense system. The two halflings then embark on a journey to warn the elves about the Vergai, teaming up with the other races of the land to protect their home. At the heart of this story is a standard quest narrative, with fairly common tropes. Seemingly aimed towards younger readers and feels heavily influenced by The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The writing is weighed down by some info dumping here and there, and some oddly injected descriptions/exposition. Dialogue is awkward in places, like trying to fit as much information into conversations as possible, e.g. when the Vergai leader spells out his entire plan to capture the jewel in full detail, conveniently within earshot of the halflings. Some of the world-building elements are wonderful though, like the fascinating connection between the halflings and their fairies. Cute and adventurous story, but we were looking for something more unique.
Urban fantasy, paranormal. Welcome to 7C, an apartment with a room for rent tucked above the Heaven & Earth Bakery in Toronto’s Kensington Market. If you can’t find it, you need not apply; they’re looking for a very special kind of tenant. However, protagonist Clare is not looking for a new place to live, she has something else in mind. A short, quick read with a wonderful concept of “Others” living in secret among humans. There are some unique twists to the creatures, and interesting world-building elements. Quality of prose is high, with the writing being very smooth. Awesome character development and fascinating story with an intriguing conflict. A very strong book that almost made it onto our shortlist, so this is one we may revisit outside SPFBO and you should definitely check it out too.
Science fiction, with dystopian elements. When the Rapture Virus came, it killed almost everyone. The book’s protagonist, video game entrepreneur Ben Gardiner has just lost his work and everyone close to him, and he’s on the verge of also losing his sanity. He decides to go looking for survivors, and ends up finding a small mysterious group of them in Montana. There are some fascinating things going on here, with the virus, the E*, the video gaming angle, etc. The large amounts of information to take in was overwhelming though, especially when delivered by characters that amount to talking heads with little more than a name to differentiate between them. Details are vague and confusing with little explanation, or, in some cases, explanations that seem to rely on a relation to gaming, but as gamers, we found the connections unclear or superfluous. We felt there could be something here, and things are certainly shaping up to be interesting, but the beginning felt like we were dropped into the middle of a story already in progress and we wanted a more immediate hook.
Fantasy. Religion and politics threaten to tear a realm apart in the face of a prophesied apocalypse, forcing Prince Kendryk into a decision that could be worse than war for his kingdom. The story switches frequently between several points of view, including Kendryk’s, allowing for various perspectives on the conflict from very different angles. However, there is a lack of world building within these views, resulting in some confusing elements. The aspects of religion and politics–heretical views versus practiced dogma–and the ambitions and motivations of the various characters are appealing. The simmering plot shows promise that could be better served by deeper prose and world building, as well as a bit more character development beyond the descriptions provided in the blurb to allow for more empathy for the various perspectives.
Dark historical fantasy. It is 188 A.D in Ireland, a land of tribal conflict. The book starts with a young warrior woman called Liath Luachra (the Gray One) fighting a battle with her fellow band of mercenaries. Pleased by her prowess and potential, her battle leader offers her a mission that she cannot refuse. Writing is good, though there’re a lot of straight-up translations for the large number of Celtic terms used, which can be very distracting. Despite the battle at the beginning, the story is also slow to take off, though soon enough an interesting conflict presents itself and the character finds herself in a bit of a bind. This book was a strong contender, but it didn’t hook us as quickly as a few others did. Still, we loved the atmosphere, and there are some very strong grimdark fantasy vibes here, so it’s worth checking out if you are a fan of this sub-genre.
Fantasy. A young university student struggles to hide his debilitating illness from his friends and all those around him until he learns that he may actually be the heir to a magical realm where he could find healing for what ails him. Characters and their relationships are well established in the beginning, but for some of us, the conversations that dominated the first few chapters offered little progression, and the narrative and inner monologue of the main protagonist in particular tended to bog the story down. We have had some experience with this author before and appreciate their conscientious handling of elements such as religion, sexuality, and politics and hope the protagonist’s disability will be handled with similar respect.
Urban fantasy, paranormal. Anne Moody is a dragon sorceress running a cursed pawn shop in Las Vegas, selling anything you can imagine to the desperate and curious people of Sin City. Not much happens at the store usually, but one day a handsome young man comes in hoping to sell a gargoyle statue that is more than it appears. Reads like your typical urban fantasy, nothing too different, but regardless this feels like light, fun fare. The Vegas setting is delightful, as is Anne’s secret life as a sorceress with a familiar-like dragon companion. We enjoyed the casual dialogue and sense of humor, and the way supernatural details are tossed in almost nonchalantly at first, and then get more complex as Anne’s secrets are revealed. Another strong entry that almost made it onto our shortlist, and we’re curious to see where the story could lead, with hopes that the more unique angles will be explored. Recommended for fans of UF.
Fantasy, paranormal. A story about a siren prisoner who just wants to escape her cruel captors. Her only hope is a brusque eunuch, but what are the chances that he’ll help her? This is a strange story with a bit of enticing mystery. The introduction was well done, and the siren’s transformation is curious. However, when the narrative changes course to describe the happenings of the here and now, the story loses a bit of its magic. There are extensive paragraphs about seemingly trivial matters, as well as a bulk of one chapter taken up to describe privy duty, when more focus could have been on more “big picture” world-building. The book is also in need of some editing work with grammar and punctuation issues. An interesting beginning, but plot needs a little more polishing and streamlining if it’s to really grab the reader.
A short work that collects the first nine parts of “Seven Stones”. Traveling preacher Absolution Kobb arrives in the village of Morth to disdain and suspicion, and it doesn’t take long before a misunderstanding leads the townsfolk to accuse him of grievous assault. However, a powerful evil also stalks this land, and before long everyone in the village is under attack. Unfortunately this one may be too short for SPFBO consideration, and its bite-sized format also greatly limits plot and character development. The rough, gritty atmosphere is excellent though, and there’s even some dark humor. If you enjoy fantasy with strong western vibes, and don’t mind the short length, this is worth checking out.
Urban fantasy, paranormal. Missy is a werecat. Puberty first brought on her shift, and she goes into the mountains where she spends for the next two years trying to learn how to master her abilities and change back. Her disappearance leads everyone to believe that she was kidnapped. The story might have had some potential, but none of us were able to get very far into this book, with the writing being cited as the main issue.
Fantasy. Pancras, a mage who has left necromancy behind, is drawn away from his usual dealings with demons by the petty demands of the Mage’s Guild. Setting out on a journey with his friends, he expects the trouble to be at the end of his journey, but that’s not usually how these things work out. Nice to see a book that embraces fantasy by offering readers a world from the perspective of a minotaur, lizard creatures, and fae, instead of the typical humans. The journey Pancras is set to take promises an interesting adventure, as do the cryptic words of a dragon, but the story could benefit from a bit more world building. Descriptions are grandiose in some places, but then sparse in others. The physicality of the main characters in particular could use some polish as they often come across as far too human in their actions, despite their fantastical nature.
Science fiction with some urban fantasy elements. Rick Anderson is just your average high school student with a crush on Mara Friti, a girl from his history class. But Mara turns out to be no ordinary girl. Just when Rick finally scores a date with her, he finds out she’s not even human. And not only is Mara actually from another world, she’s already betrothed. A short novel with a funny premise, and while the plot succeeds at being humorous and absurd, the writing needs improvement and the story is not well developed.
A novella-length dark fantasy, adventure. A talented young scribe recounts the adventures of the famous monster slayer, Gerhold of Vilheim. In one of his quests, Gerhold is hired to kill a vampire after the creature had kidnapped the wife of a lord and taken her hostage. In the first stage of our reading, one of the factors we kept in mind while choosing which books to go forward with is its uniqueness, or inventiveness. This book was fun, but the main character and story bore too many resemblances to Geralt of Rivia of The Witcher novels and games for us.
Paranormal fantasy, with strong YA elements. Megan O’Reilly thought she was just your average teenager, even though she’s had some occasional issues in school and she also has to take medication for her ADHD. But then she finds out there’s a lot more to her life. She finds out she’s not even entirely human. Somewhere beyond this world is also another realm, where a Fae conflict rages. Megan learns that her father is over there and he needs her help. While the insight into the main character’s ADHD was appreciated, it also felt like her experience wasn’t woven into the story deeply enough to give the situation more depth. Megan’s friend Lani’s actions were not only very dangerous and alarming, they also changed the emphasis on Megan’s challenges. The characters and story could have used more feeling, which could be related to the writing style. The prose was weighed down by some oddly worded phrases, trivial details, and stiff sentence structure. However, we did like the major plot ideas here, but felt perhaps they needed to be presented a little sooner.