SPFBO 8 Semi-Finalist Reveal

SPFBO 8 – Semi-Finalist Reveal: Paul

Following in the footsteps of my amazing teammates, it’s now my turn to announce my last round of cuts and offer up my semi-finalist as a sacrifice. As my fellow judges have already mentioned in their posts, thank you to all the authors who entered their books into this year’s SPFBO.

So, how are we 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, doesn’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: A Hunter Among Wolves by Ben Stava, The Stone Guardians: The Path of Fate by Katy Mullett, and No Land for Heroes by Cal Black (read my full elimination round post here). Below are my thoughts on the other books in my batch:

The Three Sons by Sean Mauss

The Three Sons by Sean Mauss

A god made man looks to right a primeval wrong. A tyrant king vies for power. Three men fight to correct mistakes of their past. War erupts, power is given, and lines are crossed. Who will emerge victorious? Who will survive? The fate of the world hangs upon the answer.

The Three Sons was, unfortunately, a book that I didn’t connect with from page one. It felt like it was moving along at too fast a pace, with things happening far too quickly and without any real transition from scene to scene. Neither the characters nor the dialogue ever quite pulled me in, and while tonally it was quite dark, something that I usually enjoy, it was just a little heavy-handed and turned me off somewhat.

At the 20% mark, I still wasn’t feeling it and a quick check at the chapter list, showing that chapters 19-148 averaged just a page or two each, just reinforced that this wasn’t a book I’d be putting forward, and so it ended as a DNF.

An Alliance of Enemies: Dissension by Reuben J Eckhart

Dissension by Reuben J Eckhart

There are mistakes.

There’s history that ought not to be repeated.

So it is for half-brothers Ilriych and Radvere. They live in Cylandia, where they face off against each other and forces beyond their control. While one wants peace, the other talks of violence, and the elves who govern the island are his targets. Ilriych has a big mouth, but there are people who want to overthrow the elves through a second civil war. The Red Band are about to emerge as a force to be reckoned with.

Ilriych and Radvere are forced apart, when being united might be the only thing that can save them from themselves and defeat the enemies of Cylandia. An Alliance with an enemy might just be their only choice. War is coming, but it won’t start the way either expect.

It’ll start with the death of a son.

My issues with Dissension were very similar to those of The Three Sons, I just didn’t connect with the story or characters and ended up DNFing at the 35% mark.

Despite reading just 35% of Dissension, being a more svelte book, I would have hoped to have a sense of the overarching plot but I wasn’t too clear on what was happening. One reason for this was the sheer number of characters and the speed at which they were introduced. There seemed to be far too many characters and individual arcs for a 260-page novel.

My other issue was the writing style, which was a little dense and, at times, leant towards the impenetrable. Several sections required a re-read or two to understand what was happening or who was speaking, this coupled with the seemingly interchangeable use of Dwarf and Dwarve hindered my ability to really become immersed in the story.

I will say, though, that Dissension’s narrative does have some complex world-building underneath the hood with plenty of social injustice and politics at play.

While it’s a DNF at the moment, it is a book I would like to revisit when I have more time on my hands

Nomads of the Sea by Coby Zucker

Nomads of the Sea by Coby Zucker

In the Nisi Archipelago, a civil war festers. Zealous insurgents burn villages across the islands in an effort to return the Mangaal people to the sea and free themselves of their Lyssan overlords.

Sig of the Midandaal, the son of a diplomat, must combat the growing threat. As he stamps down the rebellion, he quickly finds his talent for bloodshed surpassing his talent for peace.

Idalia Goss is attached to the Lyssan company that has been sent to aid the loyalists. The daughter of a renowned physician and arcane scholar, her task is to learn more about the Mangaal mages, who far outstrip the mainland sorcerers. Her efforts are hindered by the dark reputation of her predecessors.

Back on Lyssa, Bryn Urien, the Inferno of Mochan Pass, has lost his spark. Once, as the foremost mage of the royal army, he slew indiscriminately in the name of his queen. Now, he finds himself enfeebled and on the run.

Witness the beginnings of the storied band of soldiers who came to be known as the Fishgut Guard.

If ever there were a book, which you shouldn’t judge by its cover, Nomads of the Sea by Coby Zucker is it. While the cover made me think it was some steamy tropical romance, the blurb is anything but, and the story certainly isn’t either.

Taking place in the Nisi Archipelago, it’s not your traditional setting, nor the usual society or culture. While there is a western-style empire, the Lyssans, who conquered the archipelago some years ago, the story focuses more on the Mangaal people and their ongoing civil war. The Mangaal historically lived on the seas in nomadic fleets, though they have found themselves settling on land and in permanent settlements. This permanence has caused a schism, with one side forcefully seeking to return the Mangaal to the seas, their old ways, and from under the yolk of the Lyssan.

I enjoyed reading about such a different culture, one that reminded me of the Sama-Bajau people of Southeast Asia. The world-building is exceptional, with deep cultural and religious structures and a unique, fantastically conceived magic system. It’s always great to read about a magic system where there are real risks and consequences to its use, it was also nice to have one with a grounding in science and biology.

Descriptively I enjoyed Zucker’s writing style; the beaches, jungles, settlements, boats, and every single location we step foot in is painted vividly, creating a very immersive and believable world.

The tension between the two very different cultures plays out very nicely, with a great deal of initial mistrust and animosity thawing as the book continues. The Mangaal and Lyssans have very different perspectives, and Zucker does a good blending the two and allowing you to see from both sides.

From my perspective, the expansive world-building came at the cost of slightly less engaging characters and plot.

While I am happy with long and florid descriptions of beautiful scenery, I’m not so much a fan of infodumps and more ‘mechanical’ exposition. Nomads of the Sea was heavy on the telling at times and rendered it somewhat of a slow read. For example, one character on his deathbed asks to be told the story of his city’s founding, so we are told it over a couple of pages. This didn’t further the story and instead took away from the scene’s emotion.

With so many different kingdoms and cultures being mentioned from the wider world that I was on occasion, stumped as to who they were and where they were from. It didn’t help that some cultures were referred to by different names depending on who was speaking; a glossary would have helped me no end.

The characters were interesting, but I couldn’t invest in them as much as I’d have liked.

We’re constantly told that Sig has a growing propensity for violence and is a fantastic warrior, but I don’t think we’re adequately shown it. Come to the 70% mark, which was almost page 500, I think there had only been two skirmishes and a battle against one of the greatest beasts of the archipelago, but they were so brief and ‘easy’ they didn’t have enough bite for me.

Similarly, the arc for Idalia was a little too convenient, with some twists being massively telegraphed and other plot points being discovered almost effortlessly.

Though this review may sound a little negative, Nomads of the Sea is a good book and highly ambitious for the first in a series and a debut at that.

It’s a lazy comparison, though not without merit, but Nomads of the Sea feels a lot like The Rage of Dragons, albeit with a much broader scope; Sig also reminded me a great deal of FitzChivalry Farseer in terms of his introspective nature, personality, and overall development.

What I’m trying to say is that this book has a great deal to offer and so many solid elements, with the groundwork now laid out, I’m genuinely excited to see where the series goes.

The Witch Hunter by Casey Hollingshead

The Witch Hunter by Casey Hollingshead

“Everyone assumes you’re some sort of monster, Richter. The man who kills crones and slays ladies. A hunter of the helpless you are and yet, when the time comes, they find they must hire you anyway. That they both offer you crowns and do not stab you in the back requires of them an enormous sense of charity and constraint alike. It is in these trepidations and suspicions that our commerce finds common ground. You the witch hunter, myself the mercenary.”

Hated. Distrusted. Needed. Richter von Dagentear, a witch hunter known in legend as the Wight, traverses a realm falling headfirst into war. To survive, he will have to betray his profession’s purpose and undertake a task that goes against everything he believes in. All that stands in his way are backstabbing nobles, cruel sellswords, terrible beasts, and a mysterious traveler from another world.

When I first saw the team’s selection of books, I knew immediately that The Witch Hunter was one I wanted in my allocation. It’s Grimdark, it has a Germanic flavour, and it’s by the lead writer of one of my favourite games, Battle Brothers.

The Witch Hunter follows Richter von Dagentear, a storied and infamous Hexenjäger, as he hunts and is, in turn, hunted across a ruthless and unforgiving world. If I were to liken it to anything, I’d say think of The Witcher, penned by Michael R. Fletcher, and you won’t be too far off.

Now, when it comes to Grimdark, there’s Grimdark, and then there’s GRIMDARK. The Witch Hunter belongs firmly and openly to the latter, wearing someone else’s stolen and partially chewed heart on its sleeve. The first half of the book is decidedly darker, with references to rape and the murder of older children, which will understandably turn people away. But if you persevere through to the second half, you are rewarded with some of the best battle sequences I’ve ever read, alongside delectable tongue-in-cheek dialogue and enemies to sworn brothers (who would probably still kill each other) vibes.

As already mentioned, the world of The Witch Hunter is bleak, with almost everyone out for themselves, but it’s a world packed with flavour, even if it is the flavour of week-old viscera. There are, though, some sparks of humanity still dancing in the ashes, not least being Hobbs, who, despite being an unwanted ward, becomes a moral anchor of sorts, slowly eking Richter the man from the calcified shell of Richter the myth. Their relationship, despite its subtleness, really is the star of the show offering hope as a counterpoint to the almost suffocating cynicism. It’s not the brightest of lights, I admit, but it is a light nevertheless, and without it, the world may as well just fall on its knees and fucking rot.

Throughout the book, the character work is, for me, never anything less than spectacular. Almost everyone is reprehensible and utterly grotesque, yet they all still manage to exude personality and presence. Everyone’s dialogue fits them perfectly, and while on occasion erring towards the philosophical, is delivered organically and with bite. The bickering and acidic snark between the company members in the book’s second half, predominantly from Quinn, is absolute chef’s kiss.

Equally as good were the battle scenes, both intense and intimate, being either one-on-one or between small groups. They are perhaps on the shorter side, but this is to be expected given the impetuous nature of the skirmishes.

My only criticism is perhaps that the arc of the ‘traveller’ is a little too mysterious, and come the end of the book, it’s not 100% clear what his actual goal or impact has been. If you’ve played the Battle Brothers game, you may have slightly more of an idea and will also chuckle at the Hoggart the Weasel Easter egg, but if you haven’t played the game, don’t worry, it won’t impact your enjoyment of the novel.

The Semi-Finalist

Well, now my initial seven-book allocation has been fed through the meat-grinder, all that remains is to find the choicest cut of meat from the resultant pile of juicy literary chuck.

When I first cast my eye across my books back on day one, there were three books that really caught my eye; Nomads of the Sea, The Witch Hunter, and Dissension. Based on the blurb and reviews that I read, these three books seemed to most closely match my reading preferences. Consequently, I decided to tackle these three last so that I could enjoy the other books without any unfair comparison.

While I didn’t gel with Dissension, my gut feeling about Nomads of the Sea and The Witch Hunter proved to be correct, and they now find themselves battling for the top spot…

In picking my semi-finalist, I’m guaranteed to irk the team regardless of which one I choose.

They will be reading either hardcore grimdark or one of the chonkiest books in the competition…

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The Witch Hunter by Casey Hollingshead

In the end, I had to pick The Witch Hunter by Casey Hollingshead – Congratulations!!!

Of all the books in my batch, I had the most fun with this one and found it to be the most complete.

Given how divisive a genre grimdark can be, I’d say I’m more wary of my fellow judges’ opinions than I am excited.

While I can’t guess how it’ll do in SPFBO, I know for a fact that it’d do exceptionally well in GRIMBO, if that were a competition that existed at least.

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

Paul is a man of few words but the owner of many, many books. While he is predominately a reader of sci-fi and fantasy, he has a passion for all things ancient and medieval, so historical fiction/non-fiction litter his chaotic shelves like potsherds at a dig site. Raised on The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, he fell in love with fantasy at an extremely young age but soon began devouring science-fiction after his mother stole him a copy of 2010: Odyssey Two from a hospital library. In a previous life, he’s been a biomedical scientist and an immunological researcher, but these days is a civil servant who spends his days wishing he wasn’t. Paul lives on the gelid shores of North East England, where he lives with his glorious wife and two cat-shaped demons.

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