SPFBO 9: The Fourth Diminution & Semifinalist Update (by Adam W.)

 

After sitting out for a couple of years, I’m thrilled to be
back judging SPFBO for the third time. Thanks to the amazing and talented team
at Fantasy Book Critic for bringing me on board so I can sing the praises of this
contest that has become more varied and competitive each year. I’m pleased to
share that my initial batch of six was quite strong – there were several books
that were fighting to be my semi-finalist, and the decision wasn’t an easy
choice.

Below I have reviewed all six books in the order I read them.
I’ll then share my pick as to which semi-finalist will move forward. Let’s jump
in!



Rada was the first book I read out of my batch of six, and
it set a high bar for all remaining entries. The story is a political fantasy focused
on two recently allied countries a short time after their war ended. The
neighboring nations lived in a time of fragile peace, though the reader is
given the sense that the peace has a fast-approaching expiration date. Various
scheming factions across the ruling classes threaten the safety of the land,
and alliances aren’t as strong as they appear.

One of the main characters, the titular Rada, is only six
years old. From the very first chapters, Rada is thrust into a nearly
impossible situation in a time of crisis: her mother Jadzia is giving birth, but
Jadzia’s husband – whom she was forced to marry for political reasons – is
threatening to kill the newborn to secure a legacy for his chosen line of
descendants. Jadzia is desperate for help, and she can only trust Rada to carry
out a mission to deliver a message of salvation to the visiting Emperor. The
author did an excellent job of writing Rada like a real six-year-old would
react: stumbling over words, forgetting directions; as a father of two young
girls, Rada’s mannerisms felt authentic.

Rada is easy to root for because of her determination and
willpower. These traits help her mature and grow stronger through grimmer and
grimmer situations throughout the entirety of the book. And this book gets
quite grim, indeed. Trigger warnings abound, though many serious issues are
handled with admirable care.

Another aspect of the story I
enjoyed was how long the book waited before dipping into fantasy elements. It
was close to halfway through the story before any supernatural events occurred,
and the scarcity of such elements added to the frightening and threatening
nature of each situation. Magical events were used sparingly, and they hit all
the harder for it. This tactic reminded me of Guy Gavriel Kay’s historical
fantasy novels, which is high praise.

As the book progressed, Rada’s
youth became increasingly less of a stumbling block. Her speech and actions
toward the end of the novel did not reflect who she was at the beginning. This
is partly due to character growth, as running her through a gauntlet of terrifying
experiences contributed to her growing up fast. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t
mention her age felt less authentic as the story went on.

Overall, Rada is a well-plotted,
enjoyable, and immersive standalone story, though I believe the author is working
on a follow-up. It is an easy recommendation for anyone with a passing interest
in a grim, unforgiving world of backstabbing politics and how a family’s bonds
are constantly tested. An easy rec to put it on your TBR.


I was pleased to have another Todd Herzman book land in my
initial group, as I have read a few of his books after being introduced to his
work in a previous SPBFO. A Dark Inheritance was my semifinal choice a
few years back, and Todd has been especially prolific in the intervening years.
Would lightning strike twice?

Hack, Slash and Burn is book one of a LitRPG trilogy.
I’ve read a few LitRPG stories that I’ve truly enjoyed – Phil Tucker’s
Euphoria Online series, and pirateaba’s The Wandering Inn, amongst a few
others – but unfortunately, I did not connect with Herzman’s story. It leaned
into a number of traditional fantasy tropes: Calder, a grizzled ex-soldier in a
small town, must defend it from an orc invasion, only to end up a Chosen One with
RPG-like powers.  

The book focuses its early chapters on explaining how the
leveling system works. The system felt like standard RPG/video game fare: kill
monsters, earn points or items, level up, get new magic abilities, then repeat
until you’re strong enough to go to a new area. Some of it was engaging, but I
felt that the author spent too much time explaining the system at the cost of Calder’s
character development. Calder’s companions felt a bit flat as well; there
weren’t many defining character traits and it felt like this aspect of the
story came a distant second behind the ever-present push to kill monsters and
grow stronger.

Much of my decision to DNF this was due to personal preference.
If you’re seeking a book that focuses on relentless action, leaning heavily
into LitRPG elements, then you’ll find a lot to like about Hack, Slash, and
Burn
. It has a lean prose and moves at an extremely brisk pace. I
especially enjoyed the Elder Scrolls: Oblivion feel to the story, with gates
appearing around the world and monsters pouring through at any given moment. But
the story felt more imbalanced than well-rounded, so I had to put it aside.



That Good Mischief is a
fun and comical Norse-inspired tale that begins in modern day California. It is
a post-Ragnarok world, and Loki, God of Mischief, is the central character of
the story. After all the hustle and bustle of being the cause (and solution) to
Ragnarok, Loki is ready to settle down with his love Sigyn. Unfortunately,
Sigyn appears to be possessed by an evil presence that grows stronger by the
day, and Ragnarok may no longer be a thing of the past. Loki goes on a series
of missions to save his love, but the path ahead is daunting: he has made many
enemies over the years, and gods have long memories. Can the prideful,
mischievous Loki put his past differences aside and learn to work together to
stop a war?

I enjoyed this story right from
the jump. Loki is established as a powerful being with very human traits, which
made him easily relatable. His actions are inspired by love, though he doesn’t
always make the most logical of decisions or act in his best self-interest. He
is arrogant, love-sick, and spiteful, with a history of burning many bridges of
previous relationships. It didn’t bode well when he had to rely on building
back trust with past companions who despised him, but it made for interesting
reading.

One issue that stood out was
whether the reader was supposed to know about these relationships going into
the story. That Good Mischief was submitted for this contest as a
standalone, even though it is book #3 in its series. I have a basic, passing
knowledge of Norse mythology, but I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to reference
the known mythos, or if there were major events and interactions in the
previous two books that I missed, and needed to catch up on. Did Loki and
Odin
’s relationship already exist in books one and two? It was difficult to
tell, as conversations and revelations were cagey. I had a sense that I was
missing out on important knowledge that would have filled in some gaps in the
plot. I have a sense I would have enjoyed the story much more if I had read
books one and two, since the plot was heavily reliant on what came before, and
I’m not sure the author did a good enough job to establish this book as a
standalone and provide the reader with everything they needed to get the full
intended experience.

Although I had those questions in
the back of my mind throughout the book, it didn’t take much away from my
enjoyment of Wolf’s writing. The story is breezy and brisk, laden with humor
and mystery. Some of it worked well, but I think each reader’s level of
enjoyment will vary based on how well they relate to Norse mythology. There are
some surprising tonal shifts and new character point-of-views as the story
progressed, so the book stayed fresh and engaging. Anyone with a passing
interest in this subject matter would do well to pick it up. 


Out of Shadows was both an
excellent yet frustrating read. It kept me up late each night, and there were
many aspects to the story where I felt the author excelled. However, the book in
its current state was not ready for publishing. A couple of minor edits or
misspellings throughout the story are forgivable, but I found problems every
few pages for the duration of the entire story. It was as disappointing as it
was surprising, as a simple spell-check could have highlighted a multitude of
errors: wrong or missing punctuation, sentences with too many descriptors (as
if the author had intended to eliminate one but never got around to it), run-on
sentences, dialogue that stops mid-sentence, capitalization issues… this truly
felt like a draft instead of a final copy. This book would be so much better
off with one more round of careful editing, as its various errors pulled me out
of the story time and time again.

However, if you can get past the lack
of editing, the story was one of my favorites from the batch. It starts small,
as we’re introduced to Brennan, a ‘hack-first, ask-questions-later’ warrior who
is thrust into companionship with a young lad and a potentially duplicitous
woman after a town is ransacked by raiders. Brennan’s young daughter is
kidnapped by the raiders, so Brennan leads his companions on a mission to
rescue her. The book established a sense of immediacy with themes of revenge
set in a grimdark world, and the characters were well-drawn and had strong
motivations of their own. But then the story gets exponentially bigger as we
learn about what makes Brennan’s daughter so special, who Brennan really is,
and how trustworthy his companions truly are. 
 

The environment plays a major
role in the story and felt like a character unto itself: cold passages through
mountains and forests, underground tunnels and ruined castles, and a menacing,
omnipresent evil that grows stronger throughout the book. Even though this was
only book one in the series, I was surprised at how much ground was covered
before the final page. There is an excellent mix of action, world-building,
well-written battles, character development, and urgency in the story that kept
me rapt. Still, it’s hard to recommend this book in its current state. I
strongly urge the author to give it one more round of close editing, and I’ll
be happy to sing its praises and recommend this story left and right. Fans of
well-written, grim stories with plenty of action would do well to add this to
their TBR, but perhaps wait until a revised edition is established. Or, if this
stuff doesn’t bother you that much, go grab it today!


The Last Ranger is the
first book of a new series, Ranger of the Titan Wilds, by the prolific Josiah
Rosell
. Although I haven’t read any of his previous works, most appear to be
quite popular across review sites. After breezing through this fast-paced and
enthralling adventure, it became easy to see why.

The book starts with the birth of
our protagonist, Leiyn, revealing the difficult circumstances that brought her
into this world. A near-impossible decision about her birth paved the way for a
challenging childhood rife with prejudice against neighboring nations. As an
adult, she has become a ranger, which is like a roving law officer that has a
strong tendency toward the preservation of nature and the balance of life.
Rangers also serve as a protective force against potential threats in the area
such as raiding factions, or defending the area against a Titan, which are
massive, long-slumbering spirits that occasionally awaken to violent tantrums
before falling dormant again.

Early in the story, Leiyn’s band
of rangers faces a deadly threat, and she survives by reasons she doesn’t fully
grasp. Leiyn is compelled to investigate the origins of this threat, which is
much bigger than she initially fears. The story leads her through a difficult
journey, encountering different companions and enemies (some whom are both)
while she continues to discover secrets about herself, her nation, and the
extent of her abilities.

I especially appreciated the
development of Leiyn’s character, as she is the central to every chapter in the
book. We are privy to her thoughts, and it was nice to hear her asking the same
questions as I was. Leiyn is easy to root for: she’s intelligent, determined,
yet realistically flawed. Many of the supporting characters were also developed
well, though none to the degree of Leiyn. This is the one aspect that I felt
Rosell could have worked on a bit more: some of the characters supported
Leiyn’s goals but didn’t appear to have motivations that strayed far from
Leiyn’s own. Perhaps in future books of the series we’ll dive a bit more into
what makes the supporting characters tick, which would do well for fleshing out
the story.

There were a handful of
compelling mysteries which kept my interest piqued. As the plot progressed, the
reader is given a sense that there’s much more going on than meets the eye, and
we’re just starting to scratch the surface of what’s truly happening in this
world. These elements combined with the fast-paced style of Rosell’s writing led
to me finishing this story quicker than anything else in my initial SPFBO
batch.

One of the biggest compliments I
can say about the start of any new series is stating that I want to pick up
book two and start reading it right away. This was the case for The Last
Ranger
, and while SPFBO has my reading sorted for the next few months, I’m
going to try and squeeze the recently released sequel in as early as I can. This
book is exciting and well-polished, with a ‘just one more chapter’ pace to it
that ended up turning short reading sessions into ‘oh man, that better not be
sunrise’ scenarios.


The Phoenix and the Sword
immediately stood out to me with its intriguing setting, multiple mysteries,
and methodical world-building. It’s been referred to as a cultivation fantasy,
and it is my first foray into the subgenre. I very much enjoyed my time with
the book, especially the first act of story during which the main players were
being established and the unifying relationships were built.

Aili’s people are at war with a
neighboring nation across the sea, and her nurse training with the navy is
almost complete. Although she is quite skilled at healing and is dedicated to
the war’s cause, she doesn’t have much of a social life outside of one close
confidant. A short time before graduating and preparing to ship out, Aili meets
a fascinating young woman named Tairei. They have an instant attraction, but
there’s more than meets the eye: Tairei speaks in riddles and seems to know
Aili much better than Aili knows Tairei. Some of Tairei’s secrets come out, but
most are initially left unexplained. A visit to Aili’s home and a peek into her
past brings Tairei and Aili closer together, but mere hours before Aili goes to
war, tragedy strikes, and Aili is left picking up the pieces.

Soon after, the story shifts
gears and goes into series of flashbacks. I won’t spoil the plot revelations,
but the relationship between Aili and Tairei is examined in new ways, and we
begin to understand who they really are. It is at this point in the story where
the cultivation aspect becomes a major plot point in the story. The concept
involves meditation to gain spiritual strength (filling your ‘spirit well’ with
qi), granting the cultivator the ability to heal, conjure a spiritual weapon, or
other various talents.

It was at this point where the
structure of the story began to lose me. The initial timeline and characters
were abandoned to tell an origin story, and I would have appreciated it more if
the two stories alternated every couple of chapters. This wasn’t the case,
however, and I found it a bit frustrating waiting to go back to the first
setting. Additionally, some of the various mysteries presented at the start of
the story turned into red herrings, and the further we traveled away from these
central mysteries, the less engaged I became.

One positive aspect that stood
out was how well Snow developed romance and relationships. Each step of
progression felt earned, and I like the way the author integrated cultivation
and motivation into each character’s backstory.

Overall, I enjoyed The Phoenix
and the Sword
, and I recommend it for anyone interested in an Asian-inspired
wartime fantasy rife with romance, mystery, and cultivation themes. There are
some neat ideas here, and although I wished the structure of the narrative was
rearranged a bit, it made for an entertaining and compelling read.


Conclusion

My semi-finalist decision came
down to two books: Rada and The Last Ranger. Although I enjoyed
both immensely, there was one book that slightly edged out the other.




The next FBC Semifinalist is …



 


 

 …

 

 …   



The Last Ranger, by
J.D.L. Rosell.

Congratulations Josiah, and
commiserations to the other authors in my batch. It was a difficult decision
and I hope this contest brings more eyeballs to your work.

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