The time has come to make choices. Not always comfortable, not always happy for all concerned, but such is the nature of this
FBC Judging Process
Our judging process is straightforward. Each of the five judges is assigned (randomly) six books and selects the best one from their batch as a semi-finalist. We then evaluate each other’s semi-finalists and assign ratings. The book that receives the highest score is chosen as the finalist.
Each judge determines their own approach to reading their set of six books. This year, I made sure to read a minimum of 30% of the books assigned to me.
If you’re interested, a few words about my preferences. I love genre-bending books and character-driven stories. I love good pulp fiction, too. My pet peeves include unnecessary wordiness, redundancy, and blocks of exposition (I don’t care about the world or magic if you won’t hook me with your voice or make me care for characters, first).
Before I wrap things up and say goodbye to five titles, I want to emphasize that SPFBO’s main strength and addictive nature lies in the wonderful community and process of discovering and discussing books. Submitting your book to a contest takes courage, and I applaud all of you for doing so.
Getting involved in the community is one of the best things any self-published author can do. I encourage you all to follow the contest and engage with bloggers and other authors regardless of the outcome of this round of cuts. I hope my mini-reviews will allow potential readers to pick books that may appeal to them.
Here is our first batch of six books (in alphabetical order). Let’s take a closer look at each of them.
Published March 1, 2023; 344 pages (Kindle Edition)
Cover design by Matt Seff Barnes
Genre: Dark Fantasy Horror
As a horror enthusiast, I was thrilled to find A Crack in the World among the six titles assigned to me. The premise had me hooked from the start: entire villages in Sussex mysteriously disappear into thin air.
Leading the investigation is Gino Marcotti, renowned as the Gran Maestro Occultist. With his expertise and background, he delves into the unsettling case alongside his partner/bodyguard, Carter.
Their journey takes an interesting turn when they uncover unexpected connections to the Black Metal scene. As they delve deeper, the duo realizes that there are sinister forces at play. The mystery unfolds, and they must confront dark entities that threaten everything.
A Crack in the World combines occult themes, detective work, and supernatural elements with Gino’s troubled past and imminent danger. I got the impression the occult lore was well-researched, and I appreciate that.
On the flip side, the writing didn’t appeal to me. The overuse of passive voice made the writing feel less engaging and slower-paced. I also admit I found many similes awkward and unnecessary. The attention to detail certainly helped to build atmosphere and develop the lore but at the cost of the pacing.
Ultimately, I decided to DNF A Crack in the World at 39% of the ebook version. I expect fans of occult fiction will appreciate it more than I did.
Published February 24, 2023; 365 pages (Kindle Edition)
Cover design Luciano Fleitas
Genre: Dark Fantasy,
Series: The Violetto Papers
I wasn’t sure what to expect based on the blurb and the cover, but it was a pleasant surprise. A Gallery For The Barbarian is eccentric, quirky, unique, and unlike anything I read in a long time.
Violetto is an undead painter looking for the next perfect subject. Portraying the same paltry skulls and flowers bores him, he hopes to find something more inspiring. And he does when he meets his muse – the beastly Brask of Bannavaria. A true barbarian to the core. Brask’s thirst for wealth, food, and glory is insatiable. Violetto finds him irresistible and recollects their adventures in a distinct, if flowery, voice. The two want glory but nothing comes easily in life and two rivaling cults threaten to consume Svinheim – the glittering city of fine arts.
I had fun with the episodic nature of the book, and I vibed with its eccentricity. Violetto’s voice is delightful and unforgettable but I suspect more action-oriented readers will have an issue with it. Although there is an overarching storyline, each chapter delves into a different adventure, some more pertinent than others. My take? I loved this structure – it allowed me to piece things together and read the book as a collection of interconnected episodes.
A Gallery For The Barbarian is quirky and eccentric, written in excellent prose and brimming with creativity. It plays, respectfully, with Swords-and-Sorcery tropes while bending them in more literary ways. Quality stuff, here, guys.
Published July 27, 2021; 386 pages (Kindle Edition)
Cover design by Stefanie Saw / SEVENTHSTAR ART SERVICE
Genre: LitRPG, Sci-fi Fantasy; it’s genre-bending.
Nuclear magic and sci-fi fantasy? Count me in!
Forced to seek refuge in Tungsten City, Clayson teams up with Rugnus, a skilled elemental magic practitioner, and Andalynn, his long-lost sister (he had no idea existed).
Fans of fast-paced stories packed with inventive ideas will enjoy Forged in the Fallout. However, I have a few reservations. Firstly, the book could benefit from trimming unnecessary wordiness and excessive use of adjectives and adverbs. Secondly, while the characters are intriguing, they lack depth and complexity.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Clayson’s emotions and reactions are described, but they failed to truly engage me. It’s worth noting that my perspective differs from the numerous opinions of other readers who gave the book enthusiastic reviews.
Regrettably, I decided to stop reading Forged in the Fallout when I reached the 35% mark of the ebook version.
Notes on Monster Hunting by Chad Retterath
Published October 20, 2019; 255 pages (Kindle Edition)
Cover art by Samanta Shieh
Genre: Sword & Sorcery (?)
With a quick and intriguing narrative, Notes on Monster Hunting offers a unique reading experience. Skrale’s monster hunting company, operating independently from kingdoms, eliminates creatures that threaten human lives. For cash. Beatrice, a member of the Fourth Squad, diligently documents and journals their hunts.
The story follows her notes/entries in the journal. Entries range from concise to more detailed accounts. This approach adds to the story’s readability, leaving room for the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps.
While the episodic nature of the story lacks a strong central conflict, it never fails to deliver action-packed moments. Retterath skillfully establishes relationships among the characters, fostering a sense of camaraderie and making them worth rooting for.
The lore surrounding the monsters is captivating, with each creature having its strengths and weaknesses.
Overall, Notes on Monster Hunting kept me engaged and made me appreciate the camaraderie of monster hunters, intriguing and organically-developed lore, and action.
Revolution by Sam Pigg
Published June 2021; 258 pages (Kindle Edition)
Cover design by Anthony Moravian
Genre: Epic, Sword & Sorcery
Series: The Crown and Blade
Revolution is an ambitious story with a whopping 12 POV characters, though some get less than two pages of screen time. Surprisingly, the author makes transitions easy to follow.
Prince Eerion struck a deal with his father, King Nyflon Talvios, enjoying a life of privilege and indulgence in every vice imaginable. However, the good times end when Eerion uncovers a horrifying truth and vows to bring down Nyflon. And to become a better person/ruler.
Finding allies won’t be easy for the arrogant and widely disliked Prince. But against all odds, alliances are forged and everyone involved undergoes personal growth. Mayhem ensues. Bloodshed, too.
I had a good time with the Revolution. I appreciated the organic approach to world-building; we discover the intricacies of the setting through character interactions, dialogue, and narration rather than lengthy exposition. The well-crafted dialogue propels the plot forward and develops relationships. This approach makes Revolution a surprisingly quick read, despite its page count.
On the other hand, some readers may feel that the story lacks some sensory details that could make the world more engaging. Even though most scene transitions flow well, some are confusing. But these are minor issues – overall, Revolution is a fun, character-driven story that should appeal to action-oriented readers.
I liked it.
Published June 20, 2022; 414 pages (Kindle Edition)
Cover design by LaolanArt
Genre: Sword & Sorcery
Monsters? Check. Isolated enclaves? Check. Characters discovering that nothing is as it seems? Check. I like narratives that encompass these elements, especially when they introduce fresh ideas. While The Outside may not break new ground, it delivers thrills, and surprises, and introduces intriguing (and lethal) fauna.
The story follows two interconnected arcs, each unraveling another layer of the world. The protagonists, although lacking charisma, are likable, and their relatable struggles and immersive character development kept me interested.
Exploration plays a significant role in the book, providing a solid dose of world-building. Sometimes it unfolds organically, while at other times it adopts a more “expository” approach. Fortunately, everything remains grounded in personal stakes, which I prefer over epic ones. Also, sentient spiders. You can’t go wrong with them.
On the flip side, I felt some scenes added little to the narrative and could be painlessly cut off to make the book tighter. However, this may simply be a matter of personal preference.
In conclusion, The Outside offers an engaging and imaginative story that captures the reader’s attention and deserves a try.
Choosing a semi-finalist
The books in my batch were good. I didn’t love all of them, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The two books I liked most were (in alphabetical order):
A Gallery For the Barbarian by Taylor Hartley impressed me with excellent writing, Violetto’s distinct voice, and willingness to “post-modernize” Sword and Sorcery tropes. It won’t appeal to everyone but is there a book that will?
Revolution by Sam Pigg was a fun and surprisingly quick read with lots of stuff happening and some nice (and well-timed) surprises to keep readers guessing.
So, who stays in the game?
I enjoyed both stories, but there can be only one. After careful consideration, I’ve picked a book that nailed the tone, voice, and the world.
Our first semi-finalist is
Congratulations! You remember when I said at the beginning of the post I didn’t like flowery language, right? Well, it turns out it’s not always the case. I liked how offbeat and eccentric the story was. Plus, Violetto’s voice is excellent. Other than that, I appreciate elegant prose and the author’s willingness to try something new and explore the uncharted territories on the cross-section of Sword & Sorcery and more literary stuff 🙂