Our #SPFBO champion

Over the last few months Fergus and I have read steadily through our five short-listed Self-Published Fantasy Book-Off entries and we are pleased to announce that a winner has been chosen.

Before we announce the winner, here are our thoughts on the four other excellent short-listed titles.

Runner-up: Frotwoot’s Faerie Tales (The Unseelie Court #1) by Charlie Ward

Frotwoot's Faerie Tales coverThe Seelie and Unseelie Courts are at war. On one side: Noble knights, fighting for freedom. On the other: Not-so-noble terrorists, fighting for the right to rule. Caught in the middle: A very confused, very lost teenage boy. His name is Frotwoot Crossley. And he’s about to find out that, somehow, that’s not even the weirdest thing about him…

Our thoughts: We found this to be a charming and pleasantly irreverent story which both older children and teens should love. It is a very well-written story ideal for readers who have already enjoyed The Narnia Chronicles by C. S. Lewis and The Chrestomanci series by Dianne Wynne Jones.

Runner-up: The Penitent Assassin by Shawn Wickersheim

The Penitent Assassin book coverThirty years ago, when Mallor was a child, he was the sole survivor of genocide. Five years ago, while pursuing his revenge he was ambushed and killed. His goddess offered him a chance to return on the condition he became her assassin. Mallor agreed. Now, he is back, in the dank city where it all began using an old identity to hunt down a list of old foes, but thirty-six hours before his revenge would be complete, he learns a couple of things; he has a daughter, she’s been kidnapped by a sadistic magic abuser and the price for her release would not only ruin all of his plans but also kill his goddess. Mallor is nobody’s hero, but can he sacrifice his daughter to save his goddess, or will he forsake his faith and his need for revenge to rescue her instead?

Our thoughts: We found that the darkness that lurked at the edges of this book added greatly to its appeal. The narrative constantly raised questions that we wanted answering, such as ‘who are the dark replicants?’ and ‘who is/was Mallor?’. Full of unexpected happenings, twists and turns this is a very good book with great anti-hero that Gemmell fans will enjoy.

Runner-up: Whill of Agora (Legends of Agora #1) by Michael James Ploof

Whill of Agora book coverIt is the year 5170 in the land Agora, where humans, dwarves, and elves have existed in peace for centuries. Now, however, the human King Addakon has invaded and waged war on neighboring Isladon. The once peaceful Kingdoms of Agora are on the brink of continental war. The Dark Elf Eadon, and his army of Dragon-Elf crossbreeds, the Draggard, threaten to conquer all kingdoms.
Enter young Whill, a nineteen-year-old ranger with battle savvy and untapped abilities. Having spent years roaming Agora and training with his mentor Abram, Whill has become a bright intellectual and a master of combat. What he seeks most, however, is the identity of his birth parents. Instead, he finds a tumultuous terrain and a prophecy placing him in the center of the struggle. Along the way, Whill encounters an equally inspired group of companions that are matched in skill and mission. These include Rhunis the Dragon Slayer, the young Tarren, the fearless Dwarf Roakore, the beguiling warrior Elf Avriel, and the powerful Zerafin. As Whill joins forces, he forges bonds far mightier than their escalating travails. With high adventure and fierce friendship, Whill of Agora will capture your imagination and grip your heart during every super-charged escapade that Agora’s bold and grinning brotherhood embraces.

Our thoughts: We both liked this one a lot, in fact we both thought it was the best-written of the five shortlisted. However, we also felt that lacked its own stamp of uniqueness, the individual elements and concepts that set a fantasy book out from the rest. The story had all the ingredients of a first-rate fantasy tale: a hidden hero, an oncoming war and old secrets long kept. Reading this book brought back memories of old stories we loved, in particular the Shannara and Wheel of Time novels. But in the end this is why it was not our winner. However, we would both heartily recommend Whill of Agora to anyone who is looking for classic fantasy in the vein of Jordan, Brooks and Eddings.

Runner-up: Paladin’s Redemption (Kingdom’s Forge #1) by Kade Derricks

Paladin's Redemption coverPaladin, Traitor, Outcast, Mercenary… Dain Gladstone has been all of these. From childhood he’s been groomed for battle and trained in the Light. When war came he was branded a traitor and exiled for a treasonous act of mercy. To make his way in the world Dain has sold his skills to the highest bidder. But now he’s grown tired of war, tired of fighting for causes not his own, and he’s got a plan. Galena… rumors fly of a great fortune there, one buried beneath the snow-covered mountains, one vast enough to purchase an entire kingdom. Dain isn’t the only one seeking Galena’s riches. Men and elves and orcs all have plans of their own. Fortune has a way of twisting fate and turning the finest of plans on their heads.

Our thoughts: This book begins very well with a grimness to the character, landscape and story which felt fresh. But as the narrative progressed it entered into more common fantasy areas with golden elves, brown elves, orcs etc. providing a fantasy brew of Tolkien, Feist and Word of Warcraft themes, which will appeal to many.

Winner: What Remains of Heroes (A Requim for Heroes #1) by David Benem

What Remains of Heroes book coverLannick deVeers used to be somebody. A hero, even. Then, he ran afoul of the kingdom’s most powerful general and the cost he paid was nearly too much to bear. In the years that followed, his grief turned him into a shadow of his former self, and he spent his days drowning his regrets in tankards of ale.
But now an unexpected encounter casts Lannick upon an unlikely path to revenge. If he can just find the strength to overcome the many mistakes of his past, he can seize the chance to become a hero once more. And with an ancient enemy lurking at the kingdom’s doorstep, he’d better…

Our thoughts: Surprisingly this was not the pick of the bunch after the first chapter. If the book has any flaws they are – in our opinion – found in the first chapter where a couple of major plot elements don’t quite feel right. But from chapter two onwards it was like reading a fantasy pro with years on experience and large publishing house behind them. We both bought into the characters and the story and that is really all it takes – once an author has achieved that with a reader much of the hard work is done. Added to this was a wry humour that worked really well and world building that felt, well, like a real world being described. The book strengthened with each page and was, we felt, the best book we read as part of the self-published fantasy blog-off.

And so there we are, What Remains of Hero is the book we are pleased to put forward to the next round of the competition where we would like to wish David Benem the very best of luck.

And to the four runner-ups: Thank you for submitting your work, we really enjoyed it and both Fergus and myself will be reading it to completion in our own time.
Lee and Fergus, July 2015

Our SPFBO short-list

We are taking part in the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off, a competition where we – and many other fantasy websites – receive 25 self-published fantasy books and are given the difficult task of selecting just 1 to put forward to the next stage.

Fergus and I approached this task in this way – we read the first chapter of each book and noted down those books that both impressed and engaged us. We then compared notes and found that we were in agreement on 5 titles. They were:

  • What Remains of Heroes (A Requiem for Heroes #1) by David Benem
  • The Penitent Assassin by Shawn Wickersheim
  • Whill of Agora by Michael James Ploof
  • Paladins Redemption by Kade Derricks
  • The Unseelie Court (Frotwoot’s Faerie Tales #1) by Charlie Ward

Mark Lawrence, who has the unenviable task of organising everything, thought it would be a good idea to mention some of the recurring issues we found with some of the entries, in the hope that feedback might prove useful. Should any of the authors of the 21 books that did not make the short-list require any additional feedback please email spfbofeedback@fantasybookreview.co.uk and we will be able to provide a little more information.

Obviously the first thing that should be mentioned is that Fergus and I like some sub-genres more than others. Some of the books that were submitted were not written with us in mind as their target audience. There isn’t much we can do about that I’m afraid – we simply like what we like. But if the book was well-written with an engaging story and characters it passed the first hurdle.

So here are a couple of snippets from our notes, to give a taste of why some books were passed over.

“Repetition of words throughout chapter, e.g. believe was used 5 times in the first 10 lines” – a reader can be lost as quickly as the first paragraph. I recently read a book which contained 5 similes on the first page – the sky wasn’t just black, it was as black as the deepest level of the largest ocean… and so on.

The complaint that appeared most was that the structure was poor, the writing sub-standard. The first book I rejected read like a bullet-point list, its structure being sentence, full stop, sentence, full stop – there was no flow, no celebration of a beautiful language and it had all the charm of a power-point presentation.

“Dry and uninspiring” was noted down next to a story. This means that after the first chapter we just has no interest in the story or its characters.

Many of the books were rather difficult to read, mainly due to how they were written. It’s not enough to just have a good story, the way in which it is told is of equal importance. Many books were often either under- or over-written, proving it really is a delicate balance. I’ve been running this site for nearly 10 years now and I’ve begun to notice something – many of the best authors have a work history including journalism or editing, jobs where one can become both skilled and comfortable with words. Many have also done a creative writing course. However, what I would find interesting is to be able to read a manuscript by someone like Robin Hobb before the editors got their hands on it. Robin Hobb writes beautifully but how much is natural and how much is thanks to the often under-appreciated skill of editors?

Then of course there comes the problem of having read the book before. I think every author wears their influences on their sleeve but sometimes it’s a little too on-the-nose. If, in the first chapter, you feel like you are reading a re-tread of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or Twilight then it is unlikely that you will feel well disposed towards it.

In summary, the books that made the short-list had 2 things in common.

  1. The were written with a fair degree of skill, care and attention to detail.
  2. The story, locations and characters were both engaging and well-written.

When reading the very best stories you barely think about the author behind the work. Ideally the only time you give them any thought is when eagerly getting your hands on more of their work.

Congratulations to the 5 authors who have made the short list and thank you to all who submitted their work. Here are some nice words from Fergus to end on:

Dear Authors,

Firstly, I would like to say it takes courage, dedication and conviction to finish a story and a fearlessness to put it out in the world for others to read. You have accomplished something many dream off, but have been unable to achieve as yet.

Unfortunately, being a competition we can only go forward with the novels that resonated with us. For those who did not make next stage in our decision process, it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to read your work. Confidence, fortitude and belief in your story will see you through and we wish you every success in the future.

Kindest Regards

The Fantasy Book Review Team