SPFBO4 Finalist Selection

For myself, Emma, and Timy, this was our first year as acting judges in SPFBO. Although we’ve followed the contest and read many of the entries in years past, we didn’t realize how challenging being a participant would be. The process of eliminating so many quality books was daunting. Our list of semi-finalists ballooned from six to eight, and there were still several books that we wanted to include that didn’t make the first cut (I’m looking at you, Dragonshade and Servant of Rage.)

Our semi-finalists ran the gamut of speculative fiction: urban fantasy, epic fantasy, grimdark, military fantasy, high and low fantasy, and a couple that laughed in the face of classification. We were lucky enough to draw books from both traditionally-published authors and self-published authors, and we were just as amazed by debut novels as much as those with predecessors. Some of our semi-finalists had hundreds of reviews, and others had just one or two. Regardless of the winner, we hope that our coverage has sparked interest for readers to seek out some of these lesser-known gems. And when you’re done, tell your friends! Write a quick review; a sentence or two will suffice. This contest is living proof that community word-of-mouth can help do a world of good, for writers and readers alike.

Thanks so much to Steve Rodgers, Josh Erikson, Scott Kaelen, Brian Anderson, Mitchell Hogan, Toby Bennett, Steve McKinnon, L. L. McNeil, and the rest of our thirty entrants for their tireless dedication to crafting these novels that we’re all lucky to have experienced. Thank you for getting your vision down on paper and sharing it with the world.

While we thought highly of all our semi-finalists, we agreed that there were two that were a cut above the rest. These two were Josh Erikson’s Hero Forged and Steve McKinnon’s Symphony of the Wind. Both were debut fantasy novels that did so many things well: they had rich, wonderful characters, exciting and unpredictable plot threads, and creative and immersive world-building. But one book had a certain “wow” factor that caught us all off-guard. It kept surprising us with how much it packed into one novel, and how well it was all executed. So, we at Fantasy Book Review would like to congratulate Steve McKinnon for his excellent, action-packed, and genre-defying novel Symphony of the Wind, our choice for the SPFBO4 Finals.

Symphony of the Wind
Our SPFBO4 Finalist!

My full review for Symphony of the Wind is forthcoming, but my elevator pitch would describe it as a “military post-steampunk fantasy with enough stirring action sequences to rival Pierce Brown’s ‘Red Rising’ series. It deals with post-war PTSD, political propaganda and conspiracies, organized crime, celebrity culture, environmental threats, and a smattering of Greek mythology. It has characters you love who will die, and characters you hate that just won’t go away. And it’s funny as hell.” Emma Davis and Timy Takács have posted their reviews if you’d like to read more about it. Our official SPFBO score is 9/10.

We also loved Hero Forged and think it deserves a second chance in the contest. Therefore, we are pushing it forward as our Senlin Safety Net selection. This story, set in the infamous urban nightmare of… Nebraska…, is about finding and keeping your humanity amongst dimension-hopping demons that are trying to possess you. It features wonderful sexual chemistry between its two leads, and it’s also funny as hell. The tonal shifts in the story are handled brilliantly. This is the start of the Ethereal Earth series, and Erikson himself performs an excellent audiobook version. Read FBR’s reviews from Emma and myself, Timy’s review from RockStarLit Book Review, and check out what Esmerelda Weatherwax thought about the audiobook version on her blog.

Our ‘Senlin Safety Net’ selection

Congratulations and good luck, Josh!

Now I’m going to turn it over to Timy Takács and Emma Davis who will share some of their thoughts.

— Adam Weller

Back in the summer when I first checked out our group, I had an idea of which books would be favourites among us. Symphony of the Wind wasn’t one of them. Then Emma picked it out as a semi-finalist and I got intrigued, so jumped onto it. Probably because I had low expectations, but by the time I got to the halfway point, I was sold. The richness of the world, the many layers, the well-detailed characters were all jumping out to me. By the time I finished, I knew this is going to be our finalist. It totally blew my mind and even though I gave voice to some criticism in my review, I had no doubt Steven McKinnon has a great career before him. I’m really happy to see him succeed and I sincerely hope he’ll do well in the finals. 

Even though we are here to celebrate our finalist, I’d like to give a shout out to every one of the authors in our group! Especially our semi-finalists: Josh Erikson, L.L. McNeil, Mitchell Hogan, Brian Anderson, Scott Kaelen, Steve Rodgers and Toby Bennett. I especially enjoyed The Endless Ocean and Hero Forged which was a close runner up. Although I’m sad to see them go, I’m sure we will hear from them in the future! I would also like to thank every author I got to know through our correspondences and interviews. I really enjoyed being part of Fantasy Book Review’s team on the sidelines and I am looking forward to acting as a judge in the finals! Best of luck to everyone!

— Timy Takács

Boy, did I ever luck out. In a SPFBO group filled with memorable, imaginative, and accomplished writing, I got assigned both Hero Forged and our finalist: Symphony of the Wind. Each stood out in ways that simply demanded a place in the semi-finals.

In all honesty, I nearly put Symphony of the Wind aside. If I hadn’t been reading it for a competition, I might have. I don’t like airships. I don’t do steampunk/cyberpunk of any sort. I never used to read self-published fiction. I even said in my review that the book doesn’t start out as well as it might have. Now I’m thinking that might just have been my bad attitude…

So yeah, my narrow-minded self got a serious lesson this year. 

What I’ve learned beyond anything else during this SPFBO is that talent is everywhere and that I’ve been ignoring some of the best places to find it. Just because a book has a low number of Goodreads/Amazon reviews (Symphony had one before the competition I think) or doesn’t have a big-name publisher, doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time. There are so many incredible people putting themselves and their work out there— give them a chance to wow you. Seriously. Some of these books aren’t just good, they’re truly bloody fantastic. Both Josh Erikson and Steve McKinnon went straight on my must-read list, as have several of the other authors I’ve discovered this year. And it’s been beyond thrilling to see other people in my group enjoying them as much as I did. 

Choosing was always going to be hard. In the end though, it had to be one.

And Symphony of the Wind is incredible. It smashes genre classifications. It’s funny and clever and so damn surprising. The world is a place you could fall into and never leave. Not literally because you’d probably die ridiculously quickly, but just because you don’t want to let these characters go. Take your eyes away for a minute and something dire will have happened, believe me. It’s a place with magic and tech and monsters, plots within plots, a whole wide world to explore. I have never read anything like it. I said in my original review that I flat out loved it and that feeling remains. I’m already looking forward to a reread. And don’t even talk to me about how excited I am for what comes next… So…

HUGE CONGRATULATIONS Steve McKinnon, your book is not only the winner of our group, it’s one of the best I’ve read this year. This is very clearly the start of something big.

— Emma Davis

SPFBO4: Semi-finalist Selections & Eliminations

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

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

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

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

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.
Full review:
http://www.fantasybookreview.co.uk/Virgil-Debique/Angel-Of-Destruction.html

Scrooge and Marley, Deceased: A Haunted Man

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.
Full review:
http://www.fantasybookreview.co.uk/Jonathan-Green/Scrooge-and-Marley-Deceased-A-Haunted-Man.html

Servant of Rage

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.
Full review:
http://www.fantasybookreview.co.uk/A-Z-Anthony/Servant-of-Rage.html

Dragonshade

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.

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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

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.
Full review:
http://www.fantasybookreview.co.uk/Steve-Rodgers/City-of-Shards.html

Revenant Winds

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.
Full review:
http://www.fantasybookreview.co.uk/Mitchell-Hogan/Revenant-Winds.html

The Endless Ocean

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.
Full review:
http://www.fantasybookreview.co.uk/Toby-Bennett/The-Endless-Ocean.html

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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)