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.
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.
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.
Adam is a Pennsylvania resident and has been reviewing and blogging SFF since 2017. When he's not reading or working his day job as a pharma consultant, he enjoys writing reviews, beta reading, and story editing. He loves hockey, his family, and his ridiculously adorable kittens. Hit him up at @swiff