Welcome to our first SPFBO 9 update! Since Olivia had only 4 books in her batch, she decided to skip the elimination round post, and jump straight at the semi-finalist reveal part of the process.
What does this mean? In this post, Olivia will share her reviews of all 4 of the books she read, and at the end will reveal her SPFBO 9 semi-finalist! If she has one, that is. The rest will be considered cuts.
Further into July, we’ll start having more regular updates, starting with the Elimination Round where we’ll cut 2-3 books from our batches, then we’ll start revealing our semi-finalists and cut the remaining titles. Once we are all done, we’ll be reading each others’ picks and reviewing those titles individually. Until finally we reveal our finalist in October.
Hi there. So. You submitted your book to SPFBO 9.
(Please imagine me turning around a chair and sitting down with my arms draped over the back of it, attempting to pretend that I am twenty years younger and infinitely more hip.)
My name is Olivia Atwater. Normally, I’m an author (and repeat SPFBO entrant)—but after winning last year, I will now forever be too self-conscious to enter again. As such, I decided instead to help out where I can! This year, I’ve joined Queen’s Book Asylum as a guest judge. (I would say ‘thank you to Queen’s Asylum for enduring my incessant chatter’, but so far, we’re all very well-matched in humour and enthusiasm.)
As an author, it’s true that I mostly write cosy fantasy. But my reading tastes actually vary widely, so long as there’s a fantasy element of some kind. As such, when I read and review a book, I’ll generally be asking the question of whether that book is a stand-out exemplar within its subgenre, common tropes and all. Apart from that, I’ll be looking for general craft (pacing, characterisation, etc), and clarity in writing (do I always understand where the characters currently are and who’s doing what?).
Since I’m a guest judge, Queen’s Asylum gave me four books to read and review in phase one of the competition. Here’s how they did!
Rebel Unicorn by Brogan Thomas
Her heart is broken, and her wrath is boiling over. Will she atone for her violence or fall to darkness?
Tru Dennison is tired of being judged a freak. Sick of monstrous villains wreaking havoc and mayhem on her city, the half-unicorn, half-vampire shifter channels her energy into an undercover role as a black-ops assassin. But when her alluring angel mentor finds her standing over a pile of dead bodies, she’s horrified that her unrequited crush accuses her of serial murder.
Unable to persuade the resolute man of her clearance to make the hits, Tru is thrown before the grand creature council to answer for her actions. But even after her sanctioned kills are verified, her fuming anger fuels her determination to become a force no one dare cross…
Will Tru’s battle to deliver justice destroy her soul?
Rebel Unicorn is the action-packed first book in the Rebel of the Otherworld urban fantasy series. If you like underestimated heroes, electrifying twists, and edge-of-your-seat suspense, then you’ll love Brogan Thomas’s epic quest for redemption.
It took me a while to decide what subgenre Rebel Unicorn belongs in. Aesthetically, the book definitely telegraphs itself as a paranormal romance—but while it has plenty of fantasy elements, the romantic subplot takes up so little screen time that I ultimately decided to approach the book from the standpoint of an urban fantasy.
Unfortunately, while I’m fairly forgiving to urban fantasies when it comes to worldbuilding, Rebel Unicorn really does throw a lot of setting elements at the wall without stopping to explain them. This could be a symptom of the fact that the book is set in a universe which already has another series—but because we’re judging these books as self-contained stories on their own merits, this doesn’t help the book’s position within the competition. Because I was missing these assumed explanations, a lot of plot developments hit me out of left field, so that I had to give up trying to predict even the general shape that the story might take.
Rebel Unicorn does have some stand-out ideas. The main character, Tru, spends some time in a magical prison which makes use of “humane” desensitisation torture, and these scenes were so well-written that I found myself genuinely concerned for the character’s mental well-being, no matter how physically powerful she might be. It’s rare that I see powerful characters acknowledge that there are situations which they cannot overcome through sheer willpower, and Tru’s understanding that she was not immune to these tried and true brainwashing methods—that she would inevitably break down, given enough time—gave this section of the book the most dramatic tension by far.
Overall, Rebel Unicorn had exceedingly readable prose, which is obviously half the battle. But the pacing, characterisation, and worldbuilding all needed some extra love, and the setting needed some paring down. Though urban fantasy and paranormal romance can get away with more fantasy races, more tropes, and generally more everything, there does still come a time when things tip overboard.
Readers may still enjoy Rebel Unicorn! But from a competitive standpoint, I can’t say that it’s in the top third of indie paranormal romances or urban fantasies I’ve read, which is what I would need it to be in order for me to recommend it as a semi-finalist.
Marked by Fate by Jayme Hunt
She found her true home – just in time to fight for its survival.
She’s been thrust into a Faerie realm she didn’t know existed.
Summoned by an ancient creature who is an omen for war to come.
Her bloodline is being hunted to extinction.
Will she stay and fight?
“Marked by Fate” is the first in an adult fantasy romance series, based loosely on Celtic lore, which will take you on an action-packed journey of loss, love, and found family.
Marked by Fate is listed as a fantasy romance, and I think this is an apt description, despite its modern elements. After a brief interaction with the mortal world, the book’s protagonist Katherine is dragged into another world entirely, where she remains for most of the rest of the story.
Unfortunately, Marked by Fate suffers from some of the most common issues which first-time authors often run into. Many of the scenes in the book mark the passing of time and explain how events are unfolding, but lack any sense of tension. Though several characters claim that something dark and terrible is coming, none of them act as though something has genuinely frightened them—they seem to know, on some level, that they won’t be allowed to progress the plot until they hit the appropriate part of the story, and therefore feel little pressure to do anything about it other than training the main character and waiting for further information to reveal itself.
On the upside, the author clearly did some amount of research into Celtic mythology. I often run across fantasy romances where the word ‘fae’ or ‘faerie’ could be easily replaced by ‘generic fantasy elf’ with little consequence—but that wasn’t the case in Marked by Fate. Several actual faeries from Celtic mythology crop up over the course of the book, displaying some of their traditional powers and proclivities. One of my favourite artefacts, the Lia Fáil, even makes an appropriate sort of appearance.
Overall, Marked by Fate was an adequate book for a first-time author, and though I won’t be recommending it as a semi-finalist, I’d say that the author has plenty of potential and should not by any means feel discouraged. We all have to learn how to navigate the notorious saggy middle-of-the-plot part in different ways, and most of us find ourselves wrangling with it anew each time we write a new book.
Scarlet and Sunder by Mike Rousseau
Giant magical mecha, transforming heroes, and titanic monsters clash in this love letter to Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, Pacific Rim, and Godzilla, blended into an epic fantasy journey of self-discovery.
Every step is a choice.
Seven years after being kidnapped and forged into a Pilot—a magical knight tasked with slaying giant beasts sent from another world—Maia Sunderland is ready to give up the battle. Most of the world blames her for the lives she’s failed to save as she continues to wage a war she never wanted to fight. Her family and allies are gone. All she has left is Scarlet, her magic-fueled, walking war machine. As the last of the Vanguardians, Scarlet is the only weapon capable of standing against the invading menace.
As an incurable disease ravages Maia from within, a young officer emerges from an oppressive empire with orders to claim Scarlet for her emperor. Though reckless and inexperienced, this new Pilot somehow shares Maia’s ability to command Scarlet, making her uniquely suited to succeed Maia when she passes.
With little time left before she succumbs to her illness, Maia is left with a deadly train an unlikely apprentice to take her mantle, placing the most destructive weapon in the world in the hands of a tyrant, or save her would-be successor from walking the same bloody path Maia was forced down, leaving the world without a defender.
When I saw that Scarlet and Sunder was marketed as a “love letter to Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, Pacific Rim, and Godzilla, blended into an epic fantasy”, I knew I had to read it just for the sake of the camp and nostalgia. After all, who among us has not wandered around outside pretending to punch putties in the face while making swishing noises? (Don’t answer that, that is definitely a rhetorical question.)
The book mostly follows two different points of view—a fantastical super sentai mentor character named Maia (aka “Sunder”) and her new, unruly apprentice Serenia. The story takes place in an epic fantasy setting which includes wizards, magical robots, evil empires, and lots and lots of moral ambiguity. It makes several obvious homages to the genres from which it draws inspiration; in one particular scene, the giant monster the heroes are fighting screams corny threats at them in a strangely high-pitched voice, and I couldn’t help but appreciate those little delightful nods.
Scarlet and Sunder was, overall, a well put together fantasy novel. The prose was extremely clean, except for a few syntactically confusing blips during battle and a typo or two near the very end. The setting has a lot of thoughtful world building, and the soft magic system does what it needs to do by accentuating various character arcs. I also found Serenia to be a particularly fascinating character with unusual depth; as a culturally brainwashed soldier of the evil empire who’s just begun to see what the world outside her home is actually like, her struggles feel realistic and well-conceived. All of this put together makes the book a strong contender.
The novel does have a few rough edges to it, however, and many of them have to do with the other main character, Sunder, whose various tragedies and betrayals eventually stacked up to such an unrealistic height that it was difficult at times to take her seriously. There is a fine line between making a character sympathetic and making the reader feel as though the author is demanding their sympathy, and Sunder really rides that line.
This also contributes to a pacing issue in the first half of the book, where many of Sunder’s secrets are kept from both Serenia and the reader for far too long. In the first half of the book, Sunder starts a list of “things I don’t want to talk about” which reaches several items long. About halfway through the novel, these dark secrets had to come out nearly all at once in order for the plot to make any sense, which made them feel less like awful, bone-chilling secrets and more like… well, items on a checklist.
Overall, I would absolutely recommend Scarlet and Sunder to people looking to revisit their Power Rangers nostalgia, with a caveat that the first half of the book is an (often entertaining!) set of character studies, while the back half is where the answers get started.
Wings of the Storm by Aaron Bunce and Christopher Guhl
My name is Vayo, and I am a slave.
My people lived in Argia, the City of Light, before Nabonidus the Defiler swept across the land. He conquered, murdering and enslaving the other tribes. I was born after the fall, in a crumbling pit of despair and sadness.
Nabonidus crowned himself ruler of the land, building his new kingdom from the rubble of our fallen world. I live and serve them now, my head bowed, and my eyes down. That is, until a master servant chose me.
My new duty? Attending the King himself, serving the man that ruined my people. Desperate for blessings, I placed an offering to the Mother Goddess on my roof. Afterwards, I fell into a strange dream. One where I soared over the dunes on wings of radiant feathers. Shouts and screams startled me awake, and I watched as the King’s men carried my friend away. I followed, deep into dark tunnels beneath my fallen city.
Fleeing the horrors I witnessed below, I hid in the one place they would not think to look. Inside that forbidden temple and buried beneath the rubble of our broken past I stumbled upon a peculiar sight. A beautiful warrior, with her arms wrapped around a shimmering, blue egg.
Life as I know it will never be the same.
Wings of the Storm is a fairly straightforward epic fantasy, with lots of crunchy worldbuilding and a young chosen one main character.
The book starts from the perspective of Ailene, an elite warrior from a fantasy tribe, as she attempts to fight back inhuman enemies and save her people’s city. After this prologue, the book fast forwards several decades, picking up from the perspective of an enslaved girl named Vayo.
This transition initially creates a jarring problem with the book’s pacing, as it switches from a competent character with many resources at her disposal to a fearful, beaten-down character who spends several chapters primarily concerned with survival-based minutiae; either one of these storylines fits the subgenre, but when they’re placed side-by-side, it creates a sudden and frustrating slow-down.
The more pressing problem by far, however, is the fact that Vayo has very little agency in her own story—with the exception of one attempted poisoning, every important decision Vayo makes seems to be forced upon her by fate, luck, or other side characters telling her what to do, right up until the last scene. Unlike Ailene, Vayo’s heroic qualities are also very muddled; apart from some physical competence which is later supernaturally bestowed upon her, I couldn’t say that anything in particular sets Vayo apart from her fellow slaves. At the very end of the book, someone implies that Vayo was chosen by the gods because she is kind but not a pushover… but I never felt that Vayo’s decisions throughout the text supported this interpretation. Instead, the statement felt like a hastily tacked-on explanation, decided upon at the last minute.
Pacing problems aside, however, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that two male authors chose to write a young female main character, and even more pleased by the fact that I remained comfortable reading her perspective throughout the entire book. I do feel obliged to mention to potential readers that the danger of rape hovers constantly over the book—but this danger is matter-of-fact, rather than gratuitous, and it makes absolute sense in context, since the novel spends plenty of narrative space exploring the various ways in which the setting’s slaves are kept tame. This aspect felt as though it had real research and empathy behind it; the slaves have their nutrition limited, they’ve had their culture intentionally erased, and they’re regularly pitted against one another by the upper classes in order to prevent them from banding together. I rarely see this level of realism in systemic oppression, and it felt incredibly authentic.
A lot of love is devoted to the worldbuilding in this novel, and those who look for that specifically will find that Wings of the Storm is right up their alley. I would recommend that most readers skip to the glossary at the end before starting the book, however, as the story’s context is rarely strong enough to fully explain the fantasy terms as they crop up, and much of the extra information there helped me further appreciate the novel.
Are you ready?
Scarlet and Sunder by Mike Rousseau
While all of these books had something positive to recommend them, Scarlet and Sunder was by far the most well-rounded novel of the bunch. Congratulations to the semi-finalist, and good luck in the next stage of the competition!
Our congratulations to Mike Rousseau for becoming Queen’s Book Asylum’s first semi-finalist!
To keep up with our progress and the competition, please check out our SPFBO 9 page!
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