This is our last elimination round post before we start announcing our semi-finalists, and last but not least Arina gets the chance to share some reviews!
These titles sadly didn’t make it but we are grateful to every author who entered this year, we are sorry to let books go but this is how the competition works and so we obey the rules. However, we might have decided not to forward any of these into the finals, but we encourage you to check them out nonetheless. So, let’s say goodbye to three more titles then!
The following reviews will be in reading order and were the hardest to cut of the batch.
The Clash of Fates by Michael E. Thies
Walk the path. Climb the cliff. Conquer the mountain. But do not die for the crown…
Edwyrd Eska is a man with a bright future, being accepted to participate in the upcoming Trials. But when fate intercedes on his behalf, being forced to bond to a dragon after a violent tragedy, his life will never be the same. Can he overcome his loss and use it to his strength as he competes against the most dangerous adversaries in the system?
Prince Victor Zigarda has always been talented in Power, swordsmanship, and reading others, so he isn’t surprised when he is selected to participate in the upcoming Trials. However, he soon realizes that there are others even more gifted than him and that there is more to the competition than meets the eye. How far is he willing to go to become Apprentice, uphold his family honor, and win the Trials he is fated to win?
The Clash of Fates is the thrilling prequel to the fantasy adventure series, Guardian of the Core. Experience the original Trials and the genesis of a blood feud that extends for centuries as fate intertwines these two combatants in a tale of fire and pain…
Being the shorter of the bunch, The Clash of Fates got the hard task of paving the way for my SPFBO reading, basically setting the stage for my judge debut in the competition.
This story is a prequel novel, so it had the added obstacle of enticing the reader into a subsequent series while not giving too much away, which I usually find hard to nail down just right. It’s hard to find a balance between giving and not giving, but as far as prequels go, I think The Clash of Fates did a great job.
It does great work with worldbuilding, raising stepping stones leading to what feels like a much wider world (or, should I say, worlds) and sets up the origin story of an underdog hero fighting for glory in a series of dangerous magical trials. It adds a darker tint to beloved elements like animal companion and tutor-student relationship.
Its tone, both in writing style, tropes, and plot, brought to mind works like LOTR and WoT, and other fantasy classics. Sometimes its (assumed) influences were very recognizable, which could work both in its favour and against it, but I found it soothing and refreshing, like nostalgia that manages to be its own thing.
In the end, what stumped me was that I couldn’t connect that deeply with any of the characters (except Victor, for whom I’ll probably continue this series. I’m very curious to see how his disability will be handled). There’s just not enough focus on the emotional repercussions of pivotal moments in the main character’s arc or the bonding moments between different characters, which felt a bit too much like archetypes.
A lot of times conclusions and motivations are stated very matter-of-factly by other characters, and we don’t much get to see the main character dealing with emotions, as the narrative favors action and rushes plot progression.
It does make up for it in worldbuilding, with an elements-based magic system, the twist being the variety of elements, both known and undiscovered. The world is like an amalgamation of physics and magic, a true science fantasy cocktail of several connected worlds, magical artefacts acting as portals, and ancient cosmic beings.
That cohesive thread between its fantasy and sci-fi elements was my favorite thing about this book, although there were a few confusing moments, like when a character mentions ablepharon-macrostomia syndrome by name, which sounded quite anachronistic for its setting.
I wonder if it being a prequel, it shied away from too much at the wrong times. Either way, this is a really solid build-up to the first book in the series, and I urge you to take a look at it yourself! But alas, I found other books in my batch more balanced.
The Talon’s Fury by Robert H. Fleming
Glory Favors the Bold.
Martius dreams of one day joining the legendary legions of the Belgadan Empire. He seeks to enlist as only a simple foot soldier, but the twists of war have another path for him. As he’s thrown into the army’s air cavalry and becomes a member of the infamous gryphon riders, the empire’s fearsome enemies mass on its borders.
Martius’s one chance at glory is here. With the help of veteran generals and his bond with a war gryphon, can Martius find his place in the legion and claim greatness? Or will the barbarians charging towards the gates of the empire overrun and destroy all he holds dear?
The Talon’s Fury is the next great fantasy series from Author Robert H. Fleming. If you like epic fantasy battles featuring mythical creatures and heroic warriors, the gryphons and legionnaires of The War Gryphon Saga are for you.
All the books in this batch were very hard to cut but The Talon’s Fury exceptionally so, mostly because I actually really liked it, but others in my batch did a greater job at balancing the elements of the story. This was the most well-written book in my batch. There’s a captivating quality to the way the author writes, that “can’t quite explain it” undercurrent that hooked me to its atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the characters didn’t stand out as much, and the plot revolved too long around its military facet to truly let the rest shine.
I can’t shy away from my own faults here, I think in the end, I couldn’t get overly invested because this story relied so heavily on its martial aspects and the way it brought common fantasy tropes into the fold without reworking them enough (the underdog hero with visions of grandeur, the “evil, barbaric tribesmen”,…).
Though I really enjoyed the ancient military history, and the world is pleasantly detailed –a clever fashioning of a fantastical Ancient Rome where the most prestigious in the military ride battle gryphons–, the main character wasn’t quite as fleshed out.
I was interested in sticking around and seeing if any of the tropes would get twisted, but for most of the initial chapters, the flow of the story lulls in this history-long battle-history-long battle push and pull, not bending familiarity enough to keep me hooked.
Much of the worldbuilding is done by recounting either past battles or present ones that start to drag after a few pages, although the author is clearly a master at research, and each battle feels authentic in strategy and ambience.
If you make your dwelling in military-focused fantasy and love to get lost in battle dynamics, I highly recommend you pick this one up. The writing is something beautiful, crafting the familiar politics, tensions, and world of Rome in a truly intriguing way.
The Lost Sentinel by Emma L. Adams
They say the country of Zeuten no longer has any need for heroes.
Quests have been completed, the great Powers have withdrawn from the world, and the Sentinels who guard the last Relics are largely forgotten. Unlike their neighbours in the country of Aestin, whose Invokers wield the magic of the deities in exchange for glory and prestige, they leave the gods alone, and the gods extend the same courtesy to them.
When Zeuten’s last Sentinel disappears, Zelle, her granddaughter, intends to track her down. Instead, she runs into an Aestinian stranger with no memories of his past, who claims to be looking for a long-lost Relic hidden in the mountains by the first Sentinels. To Zelle, the rumours of lost Relics are just stories told to trick gullible travellers, but the hordes of enemies on the stranger’s tail suggest otherwise. Armed with nothing but her grandmother’s sentient (and temperamental) magical staff, Zelle finds herself tasked with keeping them both alive.
Between monstrous beasts, magical storms, and an enthusiastic but inept aspiring assassin and her dragon sidekick, Zelle has her work cut out if she wants to survive long enough to save her grandmother and prevent the destruction of a nation.
Maybe Zeuten is in need of a few heroes after all…
I was especially interested in this book because of the plot: a quest to search for a missing family member, with a woman leading the charge. That was intriguing enough on its own, and I was pleasantly surprised by this book’s lack of romance (an unfair prejudice to have, but I thought that’s what the beginning was setting it up to be. Glad it wasn’t!).
Though one could argue there’s the budding of something between the two main characters further ahead in the story, the plot centers two very different people who somehow find themselves sharing a path for survival.
It just wasn’t as complex as I was expecting. Most challenges our characters face have very convenient conclusions, sometimes illogically so, considering their build-up. Characters end up exactly where they should be, at exactly the right time, with exactly the right help and tools, and the tension lessened with each page.
That kind of put me off, as consequences read as an incongruency; this initially dark, high-stakes world ended up being, for the most part, a very safe place to travel, with easily surmountable obstacles.
There’s a lot of travelling around the same minute setting, a lot of back and forth travel, and some “finding things that weren’t there for some reason but now conveniently are”, which felt a bit constrictive after a while.
The magic system has intriguing foundations but contradicts itself quite a bit, slowly scraping at those foundations until I was unsure of any of its rules. But maybe part of the fun is never quite figuring shit out!
Either way, the book sets up some really interesting elements, like sassy talking staffs, cranky grandmas who nonchalantly travel between worlds, and a cast composed mostly of (strong-willed) female characters. I needed them to be a bit more fleshed out, the dialogues a bit more charged and their backstories a bit more in the spotlight, but they were fun enough to carry me through; I was interested in seeing where they ended up and laughed quite a bit with their antics.
I loved the faith-based magic system though it didn’t quite demonstrate its workings as promised.
Overall, it’s a super fun, quick read that I demolished in a day or two and, I’d argue, a great starter story for younger audiences who want to/are threading the intimidating waters of fantasy fiction.
To keep up with our process and the competition, please check out our SPFBO 8 Phase 1 page!