SPFBO 8 Semi-Finalist Reveal

SPFBO 8 – Semi-Finalist Reveal: Arina

After our esteemed queen and Nick did their semi-finalist reveal, it was my turn on the Ferris wheel. Firstly, thank you to all the authors who have put their books forward to be read and enjoyed; I’ve had a lot of fun reading through my batch.

So, how we are going to proceed? As you know, each of us already cut three of our titles. We’ll share minireviews of our remaining titles and at the end of the post, we’ll reveal which book(s) we picked to be our semi-finalist(s)! In the next couple of weeks, we’ll be sharing group reviews of each of the semi-finalists then we’ll reveal which of them made their bloody way to the top of our batch. Sounds fun, isn’t it? Let’s get down to business then, as I have an announcement to make!

Still in the Running

In the elimination round, I said goodbye to: The Clash of Fates by Michael E. Thies, The Lost Sentinel by Emma L. Adams, and The Talon’s Fury by Robert H. Fleming (read my full elimination round post here). Below are my thoughts on the other books in my batch:

Queen of the Wild by E. M. Howell

Queen of the Wild by EM Howel

A Ruler who will stop at nothing to save her people.

After bringing her country, Tenoreth, back from the brink of ruin, Chief Lady Zenobia must journey to their neighbouring Vayreland to broker a peace treaty. And she has little left to barter with–except herself.

A Warrior loyal to no one but his king.

After enduring a lifetime of condemnation for his parentage, High Commander Andrew cares for little else besides protecting his best friend, the king. He’s taken a vow of celibacy to better execute his duties and the solitude has never bothered him… until now.

A dangerous affair…

When Andrew is tasked with Zenobia’s safety, assassins, sacred religious practices, and impending civil war force them into each other’s arms.

Will his devotion to his code of ethics and her determination to save her people be enough for them to deny an attraction that would have disastrous and possibly fatal consequences?

Queen of the Wild is a clear-cut romance bound to appeal to any lover of the genre, especially those who enjoy their romance with fantasy elements woven through it. 

For better or worse, I’m the type of reader that’s the anthesis to this persona: I enjoy romance moderately and can usually stomach it much better when it’s smothered in complex worldbuilding and politics. I’m kind of a masochist about it and I lean more towards relationships that carry tension for so long it makes you ache. And so, it was definitely by my own fault that I found my interest dwindling as that need for doubt and slowburn wasn’t met.

Although this book did have a defined world and enrichened its characters with backstories of a past childhood spent together, right off the bat it focuses heavily on establishing the wants and desires of our main couple, shared and otherwise, with plenty of unexpected arousals waltzing into loins and such. Quickly our pairing ends up in situations that usually force them into close proximity, of course, most times, of the physical kind. 

The world, therefore, ends up as sort of an afterthought, a dim playground for these characters to develop their feelings. Not to say there isn’t worldbuilding, there are kingdoms, their disputes, kings and queens, and all the angry politics that with them come, but these are not elevated enough they become prominent parts of the story and when they do, they spill out in a rush, as if the words are dying to get to the “good bit”, that is, the thirsting.

I’m writing this good-humored (hey, I like thirsting as much as the next guy), so don’t take it the wrong way. The relationship between a strong female character (a queen even) who’s kind of a flirt and a somber, honorable man makes for a fun dynamic, but in the end, I needed more than its romance-heavy crux to sustain me.

I can’t fault it for being what it’s meant to be. It certainly caters to its audience, so I recommend you give this one a try if that’s you. It just so happened I wasn’t and other books in my batch delivered a greater enjoyment.

City of Reckoning by Brianna da Silva

City of Reckoning by Brianna da Silva

Kindy Sharro is used to hiding. As a Nocturan, her bat wings, claws, and night vision place her under constant threat of hunters, who cruelly slaughter her kind for sport.

But everything changes the day of the invasion. The Dorish Empire drafts the Nocturans it once persecuted to help defend against a godlike foe. Kindy enters the war, but she has an ulterior motive: Use the war to destroy her arch enemy, Charris Pouden, before he gains enough power to destroy her first.

Meanwhile, Lasía Mae’olo, an elite wolf-accompanied warrior, plots rebellion against the Dorish Empire. When she is drafted to fight for her enemies, she must find a way to subvert the war for her own purposes.

But suspicion and distrust haunts her every move. This war has many sides—and she’s not sure which side she’s on anymore.

The bonds of friendship will be tested. Alliances will be questioned. In a story of political intrigue, ethics of war, and young love, one question must be answered: Which side will you join?

City of Reckoning is admittedly a very well-written book and perhaps one of the best in my batch when it comes to character building (if not the best). However, its desire to make its characters shine ends up defining it, and the pacing slows considerably and noticeably after the prologue. A few chapters in and I was beginning to feel the weight of its pages (this one’s a chonker).

That’s because the initial coming of age moment held my attention, and I was curious to see how it would interlace with the story that follows. When in this first contact we meet a young girl who is forced to fight for her place in her clan, the following chapters follow another young woman who must hide who she is, as she fights a terrible addiction.

The ties between these two characters are immediately evident; they both share particular animalistic characteristics which make them pariahs and they both struggle with their own identity and their place in society. That’s where this book excels: in building its characters. Like all the best fantasy fiction, it uses its characters to portray the kaleidoscope of human existence, touching on themes like mental health, trauma, and the social status of women.

But quickly it veers off into a more jovial tone, and even uses terms and phrases that seem anachronistic (one of the characters uses the word “taxi” or “She was so dead”), in a confusing mix of contemporary and medieval. What begins with a more somber plot sometimes takes on the perspective of teenagehood, peppered with unrequited and impossible romances, which is not a critique on the book itself but I felt like it broke the atmosphere of it all.

I quite liked its foundations but in the end, it was the pacing that made me drop this one.

The Umbral Storm by Alec Hutson

The Umbral Storm by Alec Hutson

A thousand years ago the Heart of the World was shattered, its fragments scattered across the lands.

In the chaos that followed, martial orders arose to gather the shards, for it was found that great powers were granted when these pieces were bonded to the flesh of the chosen. These are the Sharded Few, warriors imbued with the divine energies that once coursed through the Heart, driven to absorb enough fragments to claim godhood.

Deryn has known nothing in his life except suffering. Orphaned at the edge of the realms, indentured to a cruel slaver, he has little hope of escaping his circumstances. But elsewhere, ancient powers are stirring, new alliances threaten the peace of the old order, and against all odds, Deryn will find himself a player in a game unlike anything he could have imagined.

Hands down my favorite book of the batch, though not without its less favorable points. The Umbral Storm set a high bar for the other books in my allocation. 

It has a lot of initially recognizable elements from classic fantasy, like the friend trio braving the unknown together and the underdog gifted hero, but one thing made it enough to ensnare me: the worldbuilding.

It starts by showing its uniqueness right away, as one of our protagonists climbs colossal forests to hunt for gigantic tree-climbing crabs. Other exciting elements join the fold; a magic system based on absorbing powers from the shards of a dead god, a myriad of cultures and creatures overflowing the world with wonder, and a fun twist on the magical academy trope.

It was like Harry Potter mixed with Game of Thrones, shifting from dark and slightly ruthless to almost whimsical, with plenty of plot twists and never an expected event. Plot elements are woven effortlessly; some things mentioned in the beginning have a big impact on the story and others not so much, so it keeps the reader guessing and wondering. For an answer-hunter like me, it dangled the proverbial carrot just right.

It has some faults: the main trio felt quite bland, the ending missed (what I felt was) a pivotal moment to change perspectives that would’ve built up a character and the overall tension of the world, and there’s the almost irrelevance of the one female main character in the trio (besides serving as a boost for the men) right up until the last moments.

At the same time, it’s magically creative and keeps you hooked with mystery, while the worldbuilding is unique, building on tropes but not relying on them. Also, at one point it introduces a cutthroat female character with dark hair and deadly magical powers who kicks a man’s ass so I kinda fell in love.

At its climax, it widens the world and leaves enough unanswered to propel me into the sequel. Can’t wait to read it.

Penny for Your Soul by K. A. Ashcomb

Penny for Your Soul by K.A. Ashcomb

The dead don’t wait.

But they do work in the factories, decide over policies, and hate to stay buried six feet under. Petula Upwood is about to find what the undead genuinely want. She follows strangers into the night to awaken a man who many would prefer to stay under. She will soon realize that being a necromancer is more about politics than perfecting the art of waking the dead. And she hates it.

Herbert Ringworm, a sculptor and a werewolf-wrestler, is willing to kill to serve his justice. Not that easy when he is forced to pair with a genteel ghoul. The only thing he wants is Ona to be alive again.

Morris Reinhardt, a banker, needs to get tonight right to save his late father’s bank from the ruins by starting a conspiracy. He just isn’t sure about his accomplices and should have known better than put Petula’s life in danger. Everything is going haywire.If they want to survive tonight, they need to cooperate, and that is not exactly easy.

Penny for Your Soul is an economic and political satire with humans, ghouls, and undead willing to do anything to have a win. It is full of personal stories and a few jokes about metaphysics and humanity.

Penny for Your Soul is a witty, fun satire in the spirit of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Yes, comparisons and comps are often backstabbing and annoying (and yes, I like my comps, come at me), but I dare you to try this one and not go there yourself. 

It’s got the dark humor and cleverness to support it; exploring current politics and economics through the lens of a world where necromancy is the axis of society. Undead bankers rule with coin and necromancers with status, and the fabric of this world is woven with the fact that death has become a commodity to be exchanged and played with.

A necromancer is tasked with the safety of a recently deceased banker, and his accomplices only make things harder as they rush to complete a greedy plan before the clock ticks midnight. They’re an ingenious trio and I couldn’t stop laughing at their antics; each of them is either infuriating, delightfully sarcastic, or engagingly revolting.

The omniscient narrator is a fun break from more closed-off narratives, as the reader is privy to most evil plans every shady character is engendering, our characters are frustratingly clueless and one keeps wondering how and when all hell will break loose.

The Semi-Finalist

All in all, authors gave me a hard time, even those I enjoyed less. They were still stories with a lot of soul and it was hard to choose which one to send forward as my, let’s say, “champion”. In the end, though, I had to make a choice (the bane of my existence is having agency. Forgive me, my feminist ancestors and brethren). I was torn between two books that I not only enjoyed a lot but also felt had the potential to rock the socks off my fellow teammates:

They are, in essence, almost opposites, which kind of represents me both as a person and reader (inside me there are two wolves. One’s a sarcastic puppy who secretly likes butterflies, and the other’s into, like, raw meat and the rush of blood). I also, unintentionally but gladly, realized how both of these had the potential to become favorites for the entire Asylum team.

But again, there came the time to make hard choices…

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…And like always, I cunningly decided to make none at all! Ah ah! Take that, wolves! In the end, I just couldn’t choose between these two books, so I decided to put them both forward. I’m very curious to witness their progress. Congratulations to K. A. Ashcomb and Alec Hutson on writing totally awesome books!

To keep up with our progress and the competition, please check out our SPFBO 8 Phase 1 page!

If born in a fantasy world, Arina would have been a roguelike technomancer and the coolest mage-assassin. As it is, her love of tech led her to dev, and her passion for the art of storytelling to book reviewing. An avid advocate of the uncommon, she champions indie and inclusive SFF on Queen's Book Asylum, alongside her totally awesome co-bloggers. When not keeping an eye on the resident pet demon, Arina spends countless hours on MTGA, and on social media hoarding recipes.

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