This is my first year as a SPFBO judge, and I’m grateful to Mark Lawrence and the FantasyBookReview team for letting me voice my opinions on their forums. I’m especially grateful to all of the incredibly talented authors that have submitted their work for this contest. Regardless of who wins, I hope everyone who participates walks away with something positive — whether it be more readers, new writing ideas, or new contacts in the fantasy community.
I was given a batch of ten random books and agreed to select two to move onto the semi-finals. This process was much more challenging than I had predicted. Several of the eliminated books could have easily been swapped into a semi-finalist position, and I would still be happy with the results. My final decisions were drawn from a combination of personal enjoyment, originality, and lasting appeal, along with a few other factors. Although the following books have been eliminated, I truly believe there’s a large audience that would enjoy many of these selections. If any of them sound interesting, I encourage you to give them a shot!
Below are mini-reviews of each of the seven eliminated books. I have also linked their full reviews if they exist.
Vincent, Survivor by O. L. Eggert
This story is an apocalyptic urban fantasy/horror novel about a family dealing with a race of minotaurs that have appeared on Earth with plans to decimate the land and annihilate mankind. The titular Vincent and his ex-con brother Dante team up with their grandmother and a newly-discovered relative to discover why our world is suddenly going to Hell. This book started off intriguing, but as I progressed, two main issues irked me: the characters were completely unlikeable and quite dense, and there were too many confusing plot points that broke the narrative. The mind-numbing choices that the characters kept making became too frustrating to read, and the dialogue was oddly mean-spirited. I’m not sure if it was intentional sarcasm that flew over my head, but the family members kept weirdly insulting each other as they traipsed through their neighborhood’s genocide. The tone shifts were odd, the plot holes kept getting bigger, and I didn’t find myself wanting to root for any of the protagonists. So, this is one of the few books that I didn’t finish.
Mabus by Dean Rencraft
I am struggling to come up with something positive to say about Mabus. The plot follows David, an orphan of potentially mythical circumstances, who has been accepted to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) along with his foster brother. They immediately treat all women as sexual conquests and refer to them as “stalkers” and “bitches.” May I remind you that these boys are MIT students? David eventually starts working with his professor to develop a new, powerful artifical intelligence, but the dialogue between these apparently genius minds was unconvincing, and I found myself struggling to stay interested. There were no female characters of any agency, and the behavior of its male characters left a bad taste in my mouth. This was an uncomfortable read, so I decided not to finish it.
A Season of Pure Light by CJ Erick
The prologue of this story reeled me in immediately: a brother and sister are attempting to emigrate from an oppressive, fascist-like planet to a new world with “golden opportunities.” The siblings experience a harrowing ordeal that sees them barely make the escape ship as they head toward the newly-settled planet, but they must face various conflicts, both domestic and alien, in order to survive. Erick’s writing is gripping and intense, and the story hums with tension right out of the gate. Unfortunately, I had to eliminate this book from contention because it is purely science fiction, and this contest is for fantasy novels only. I would like to return to this book, as I think Erick is a promising writer and I’m curious how the story will continue. This is a book I’m quite comfortable recommending to fans of adult science fiction. It has gleaned many high marks from reviewers on both Amazon and Goodreads.
Angel of Destruction by Virgil Debique
This story is about a human assassin with selective amnesia who is trying exact revenge on a rogue Angel who is responsible for various tragedies in the assassin’s past. The book incorporates multiple planes of existence, faeries, dwarves, elves, battle arenas, disturbing pleasure houses, cloud kingdoms, and other fantastical elements both familiar and new. Although this book was well-plotted, it needed some (any?) female characters with agency. All females either needed to be saved, or their sacrifice served as a plot device to further the goals of a man. This book in its current form is also in dire need of editing. Spelling and grammatical errors adorn every page, and it made some passages difficult to interpret. I wasn’t quite sure what the author was trying to say when parts of the sentences repeated itself, or it trailed off into something unrelated. I do think that there are the bones of a good story here, but I can’t recommend it unless it undergoes another revision.
Scrooge and Marley, Deceased: A Haunted Man by Jonathan Green
A short but engaging sequel to Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” picking up a year after the original ended. Ebenezer Scrooge reunites with the spirit on his dead accounting partner Marley on Christmas Eve, but this time, Marley wants Scrooge to help him grant peace to the wronged spirits that haunt London’s snowy streets. They immediately find themselves embroiled in a murder mystery, with a culprit that borrows heavily from another famous 19th century tale of gothic horror. Green does a remarkable job of emulating Dickensian prose, which is no small feat. This story felt like a natural continuation of “A Christmas Carol” and Green impressed me with his ability to paint the London setting and its various characters with familiar detail. The driving mystery of the story, and its resolution, came very quickly and a bit too conveniently. However, this is a very short read, clocking in at under 70 pages. Anyone curious to read a modern take on “Dickensian fan-fic” with a horror-crossover twist would certainly appreciate this story. Although it initially seemed like this book would be outside my wheelhouse, it ended up being a wondeful read. I strongly recommend it, though its brevity and niche subject matter prevented me from pushing it forward to the next round.
Servant of Rage (Bloodrage #1) by A.Z. Anthony
This is another book that just missed the cut. I described it as “Highlander meets the Dothraki.” When a god-like immortal decides to end his own life, his terrible lightning-based power is divided up across the world amongst various horse lords, nomads, and all sorts of dangerous warriors. ‘There can be only one,’ as the last survivor of these gifted warriors will reap the power’s full benefits. But as each challenger falls, the rage that resides within the remaining heirs grows stronger, and harder to control. Is ultimate power worth the sacrifice of your humanity? Anthony keeps this entertaining and violent story moving at a breakneck pace, setting up the long game early in the story and jumping right into it with both feet. There’s not a ton of nuance or deep characterization of the supporting cast, but if you enjoy fights to the death, quickly-evolving magical abilities, and more than a touch of the ole’ ultraviolence, this book is a ton of fun. I’ll be checking out the sequel.
Dragonshade (The Secret Chronicles of Lost Magic #2) by Aderyn Wood
I’m more than bit sad to eliminate Dragonshade. This book is exquisitely detailed, with rich characters and a fully-realized setting. Clocking in at 864 pages, Wood takes her time in describing family histories, cultural developments, warrior clans, enemy kingdoms, cutthroat politics, royal hierarchies, prophetic dreams… and even a full chapter dedicated to duck farming. While I enjoyed reading this epic, high fantasy story about several kingdoms teetering on the precipice of war, I found that its progression unfolded very slowly. Wood is a skilled writer and it’s easy to see how much love and care she has put into this book, but I think its plot could have benefitted from a bit more focus and efficiency. At times, the relentless dearth of information, expansive world-building, and huge cast of characters felt like too much to digest. I enjoyed the plot, and Wood has some wonderful and original ideas, but ultimately this came down to just liking a couple of other books a bit better. However, if you enjoy epic standalone stories that are immersive, and you have the patience for it to blossom, then this is story you will likely enjoy. This book was a strong contender for a semi-finalist spot, and it would not surprise me if other reviewers would have chosen this to advance in my stead. Out of all the books eliminated, I believe this one to be the most impressive.
And now, the winners! Since there were so many excellent entries, I decided to select three semi-finalists instead of two. My three semi-finalists are:
City of Shards (Spellgiver #1), by Steve Rodgers
This was the first book I randomly selected to start my SPFBO4 reading journey, and it took me by complete surprise. It is a book that focuses primarily on a boy who is forced to choose between two awful fates for his country, while attempting to survive in a city that is slowly being taken over by a disturbing religious sect. There are wonderful, lifelike supporting characters and an imaginative race of ‘others.’ This is a sweeping epic of a story that has all the right elements. The world-building is intense from the get-go, so be prepared to highlight passages for later referencing. But there’s an excellent balance of action, mystery, and lore that kept the chapters flying by. Chapter 12 in particular is still stuck in my head, many months later. I had to pause my reading schedule to immediately dive into the sequel after finishing this book.
Revenant Winds (The Tainted Cabal #1), by Mitchell Hogan
In my full review, I called this book “an impressive and intriguing start to a series that deftly weaves magic, religion, and demonic vengeance into a story about seeking your identity and true purpose in life.” This is a grim yet compelling tale that tells a story through three interesting protagonists: a conflicted yet dedicated warrior-priest-healer-sorcerer (whew!), a near-immortal mercenary who wants to transcend to godhood so he can fulfill his love for his goddess, and a runaway noble’s daughter who is a gifted thief-for-hire. These characters find themselves inextricably bound to seek out an ancient cave for very different reasons. What they find could save or doom their world. My money’s on “doom.” This series has excellent potential, and Hogan is one of self-publishing’s rising stars.
The Endless Ocean (The Inner Sea Cycle #1), by Toby Bennett
A thrilling and imaginative tale that weaves pirate battles, Earthen mythology, multiple realities, hive-mind witches, and so much more into something truly unique. Brother and sister orphans are gifted students, learning telekinesis and sea navigation, when they are pulled into a series of terrifying confrontations that are linked to an ancient, rising evil. I think it best for the reader to discover each development on her own, so I’ll leave the remaining plot description sparse. While the character development is overall a bit on the shallow side, the story makes up for it with its originality, thrilling set pieces, and engaging mysteries. This book is constantly pushing new ideas, shifting environments, and compelling story arcs with each chapter. It has a certain “wow” factor that has struck a lasting chord with me. I believe this to be one of the first published novels of Bennett’s writing career, and he has since written a sequel that I will be reading in the very near future.
Congratulations to Steve Rodgers, Mitchell Hogan, and Toby Bennett! I’m excited to share these books with the rest of the FBR review team. Why not buy copies for yourself and tell us what you think?
— Adam Weller (@swiff)