SPFBO 8 Semi-Finalist Reveal

SPFBO 9 – Semi-Finalist Reveal: Bjørn

We are done with the Elimination Round, which means it’s time for the Semi-Finalist Reveal posts, and cutting some more titles! Today it’s Bjørn’s turn to share his thoughts on his remaining 2 titles, and tell us if he picked a semi-finalist!

A bit about our process ICYMI. Each of us (except Olivia) cut 2 or 3 of our titles in the Elimination Round. Now we start revealing our semi-finalists and saying goodbye to the remaining titles. Fair warning: not all of us might pick a semi-finalist. 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.

Previous Semi-Finalist Reveal posts: Olivia’s choice

We’d like to thank each and every author who submitted their book to SPFBO this year. We know how hard it must be, but sadly, we can’t forward all of you to the finals. As a reminder, you can check out our SPFBO 9 page to see how we allocated our books and follow our progress.

Still in the Running

In the Elimination Round, Bjørn said goodbye to two titles: The Ring Breaker by Jean Gill and And The Wildness by Susan Maxwell (full Elimination Round post here). Below are his thoughts about the rest of his batch, in alphabetical order:

A Dagger In the Winds by Brendan Noble

A Dagger in the Winds by Brendan Noble

A warrior shrouded in darkness. A witch sworn to revenge. A winter unbounded.

Wacław is an outcast. Born with a curse he doesn’t understand, he’s hidden his power his entire life. But when the goddess of winter unleashes the darkness within him, his only hope for answers is the girl he’s forbidden to see.

Otylia is a witch. There’s no one she hates more than the winter goddess—except her once best friend Wacław. But when she receives visions of endless blizzards and Wacław fighting by her side, she realizes he’s the key to uncovering the goddess’s plot.

Facing monsters and magic at every turn, the pair must journey with friends and rivals alike to confront the cult of winter, but Wacław’s awakened darkness grows as death consumes the living realm. To contain it, they’ll have to mend their broken relationship and delve into the mysteries of their past. Mysteries that could destroy the winter goddess . . . or themselves.

In this first book of an epic fantasy series rooted in Slavic mythology, dive into a new world with menacing magic and beasts, scheming gods, a group of allied misfits, and plenty of secrets to uncover.

I’ll admit I was reluctant to read this book. I am Polish from origin and a book based on Polish mythology felt… scary. Fantasy books with “Slavic setting” often range from “I guess this is Slavic now” to borderline offensive. Which would A Dagger in the Winds turn out to be? I procrastinated, postponed, picked other reads, expecting – fearing – the worst…

I owe Brendan Noble an apology. I have never read a book based on Slavic lore that was this good. It felt like a love letter at times. Long, complicated, somewhat discombobulated love letter – but has love ever made any sense?

The worldbuilding in A Dagger in the Winds is immense. I have learned things I have never even heard about. The old, pre-xtian beliefs and Gods are all there, and, like with the Northmen, they walk around us mortals. There are szeptuchy, rusałki, utopce… and that’s a problem that might actually be mine. That’s a lot of Polish words – it sounds strange coming from me, but this made me read slower, since my subconscious sort of kept switching between languages. (I’m extremely curious how non-Slavs feel about it?) The one word I would have definitely changed was not Polish, though. It was “electricity.”

The main characters, Wacław and Otylia, are wonderful, although I wish they would spend less time agonising about, well, a lot of things. How many times can you ask your bestie the same question or evade it? Many, it turns out, and the pacing suffers from that. Their relationship is not quite the sort of relationship you’d expect – I can’t share more without spoilers, but oh boy, if you’re one of those people who say “I don’t like romance in fantasy,” you know nothing about Wacław and Otylia, Jon Snow. Kuba, Wacław’s friend, is a delight, and I would love to learn more about Xobas. Unfortunately, this doesn’t expand to the less important characters, and not just tertiary ones you meet in passing. Ara, Otylia’s best friend, is sort of there. Narcyz (a bit heavy-handed choice of a name here) is the sort of person that only ever opens his mouth to eat or say something nasty. (Wacław is surprised when for one single time Narcyz doesn’t call Otylia “a witch.”) Marek is so expendable I haven’t really noticed when he stopped being around. (Actually, I am not sure whether he was still around at the end…) A Dagger in the Winds is really about Wacław, Otylia, and the Gods, and this is where it shines.

Oh, the Gods. The burning of Marzanna’s effigy, then drowning the remains symbolises the end of winter – but what if Winter is not in the mood to end and captures Dziewanna, the Spring? Does the Summer have an opinion on that? Our protagonists are, obviously, the Chosen Ones – but sometimes being the Chosen One is not a good thing, especially when you get punished for refusing to do the bad thing. A friend of mine says that in monotheist religions the believers want to be noticed by their gods, and in the polytheist ones they do everything not to be noticed, and he’s right. Those Gods are sociopaths and if there’s something they want from you, you’re fu– unlucky. I have no idea whether the swords Jaryło carries, one for each month, are Noble’s original idea or something from the actual lore, but I loved it. I never felt I was being given a lecture, it was a plethora of wonders. In retrospect, I feel really stupid for thinking A Dagger in the Winds wouldn’t deliver.

Something I was not fond of was the political subplot, which was so sub- that even the characters sometimes seemed to forget why exactly they were on their journey. This is not to say that I’d know how to do it better, since somehow it was both necessary and superfluous. It had to be there so the book could be there. Nevertheless, maybe it’s actually because the politics didn’t take over that I have never lost interest while reading A Dagger in the Winds, although sometimes I lost the plot (sorry) (not sorry) and it contributed to the uneven pacing. (That ending felt a bit, as in a lot, too easy.) It never put me off, though, and I was rewarded. I have NOT seen the non-political ending coming. Or anything before the ending, actually.

Plot twists aplenty, one towards the end very unwelcome (I will find you, Noble, and tell you what I thought about that one and you know exactly what I mean). The uneven pacing that makes the book both fast-paced and a slow burn aside, I recommend it to fans of myth-based fantasy that delves into truly uncharted territory… and True Blood.

PS. Marzanna’s effigy is still burnt, then drowned in many communities in Poland to celebrate the end of winter, and inevitably followed by boys jumping over the fires. The Old Gods never truly die. Unless Brendan Noble decides otherwise…

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Carved Amidst the Shadows by M.T. Fontaine

Carved Amidst the Shadows by M.T. Fontaine

When the gods shaped the continent into five kingdoms to be ruled by their progeny, they did not account for the greed of men. When they created the Order from their god-blessed followers to mediate between realms, they neglected to plan against the hoarding of power. War between the royalists and the godly was inevitable.

Five centuries later, the borders between kingdoms are impenetrable. No branded-born Marked can cross them without burning to ash, except the Order’s Stewards. But a damaging new war has been prophesied, one that haunts the Order, one that will come to pass if Carved traitors roam free and brandless-born Flawed are left alive.

It starts with one girl that survives the impossible. Kaianne, the Carved. It takes shape through one prince with ambition. Andreiyes, the Marked. It hinges on one grieving Steward that is ready to give up hope. Rau, the Steward. Three people bound by fate – whether they like it or not.

This review contains spoilers I couldn’t avoid.

Oh, Kaianne, I love you so much.

Sorry, I should first mention that Kaianne is the female protagonist (and that I love her). Her journey is so exciting and brilliant – a scared girl turning into a really badass woman – that I sometimes lost interest in the male MC, Andreiyes, who grows from a tween who thinks with his smaller head into an adult who still thinks with his smaller head, but now has a sword. There is a third point of view – who doesn’t get much space in the first half of the book, but gradually takes over the second, Master Rau, essentially exiled for wanting to avoid massacres in the name of the Gods and all that is good and pure. Rau is written beautifully – is he a villain? Sort of. Is he a good guy? Also, sort of. Talk about shades of grey.

In Carved Amidst the Shadows, children are born with marks, symbolising their lineages – they are the Marked. This is good. Some children are born without marks. Those are called Flawed and must be killed (there is a warning about infanticide in the beginning, you won’t have to wait long) as “aberrations.” Then there are the Carved, born with marks, but deciding to remove them – essentially outlaws. And here is where the entire premise of the book trips over itself.

The Masters (the Order, i.e. clergy with near infinite magical powers), immortal thanks to Well’s Waters they consume, like to keep their finger on the pulse (or stopping that pulse). They can track their flock through the Marks. No wonder they want to get rid of the Flawed before the Flawed find a way to get rid of the Masters instead – the Order fought long and hard to take control. I haven’t noticed the, ah, flaw, until Master Rau received a letter informing that  “a Flawed ripple appeared.” But… the Masters can’t detect those without marks. If the letter said “we have been informed,” I would probably have missed it. The Flaw of the baby that dies in the first chapters can’t be hidden, because it has the misfortune of being (briefly) a noble, which means that everyone knows about the missing mark within five minutes. Or bilials. Or sandfalls. Or stretches… The author created their own system of time measurement, which never stopped puzzling me until the end, where I found the explanation. The problem with the explanation being at the end is that it is at the end.

Suspension of disbelief is the willingness to overlook things that can’t possibly happen, with or without magic. Carved Amidst the Shadows requires a lot. When Kaianne’s estate is burning to the ground and her entire family slain (the Masters don’t play), Andreiyes finds her, carries her out of the building, attends to her wounds as well as he can – unnoticed, still within the estate, where nobody else bothers to check for survivors – then carries her out through a secret exit nobody else knows about. He then carves out Kaianne’s mark, cutting “as deep as he dares,” and cauterises it. The result is described as “scars of melted flesh that extended from wrist to past the elbow, along with the indentation of carved tissue along her forearm.” Eleven days after this operation, Kaianne carries around heavy logs of wood. Until then, Andreiyes is “guarded” by a guard he places “on a hill,” from which the guard can’t actually see what Andreiyes is doing (digging a mass grave with his princeling hands and a shovel, which takes him a few days and does not cause as much as a blister, after which he spends his nights sleeping next to Kaianne in the woods). All this happens in the first 15% of the book, leaving me with the feeling that the author fell in love with the premise and the characters so much that where the political skeleton of Dagger in the Winds made me slightly frown, Carved Amidst the Shadows is packed with convenient hidden exits and corridors, meetings, unnoticed disappearances, and so on, because the show must go on.

You know what, though? The show is really good.

I feel I should apologise to the author, because all of the above sounds incredibly critical, but the reason for all this nitpicking is that I really enjoyed the book. The pacing is fantastic, the characters well fleshed (except Willik, who much like Narcyz isn’t capable of opening his mouth without something nasty falling out of it), and Master Rau’s disobedient secret never failed to make me smile. The magic system is great. Kaianne turning from an irritating girl Andy remembered into a woman who outsmarts him every time he thinks he understands what’s going on is incredibly enjoyable. Master Rau himself is both deeply suffering and very slappable. I would very much like to find out more about Lord Pascual, even though he’s present for about five minutes… until someone says one sentence that makes me WANT TO KNOW. Some of the imagery – two silent masters following Andreiyes’s pregnant sister, which he doesn’t understand, but the reader does – is chilling,  some is hilarious, and the proportions are just right. I did not see the ending coming. If Carved Amidst the Shadows was a bad book, or even just average, I wouldn’t bother highlighting the problematic passages (Adam’s apple…) – I would just shrug them off and/or stop reading. But, as Boromir famously said, you don’t just stop reading Carved Amidst the Shadows and, yes, I want to know what happens next.

I recommend it to fans of books that are both character- and plot-based, exciting, fun, and feature amazing female protagonists.

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The Semi-Finalist

My batch consisted of four books. Jean Gill’s The Ring Breaker is technically the best of them, except 1) it isn’t fantasy, and 2) another round of editing and proofreading would have made it great, rather than very good. Susan Maxwell’s And the Wildness is like watching four exciting TV shows at once. Brendan Noble’s A Dagger in the Winds masterfully built-up to the fire ritual, getting me to the edge of my seat, and then I was rewarded with a fizzle. M. T. Fontaine’s Carved Amidst the Shadows frustrated me by how good it was… except being too convenient way too many times. I enjoyed all of those books and only DNFed And the Wildness because I got lost in the wildness of too many good things. I’d gladly read sequels to The Ring Breaker, Carved Amidst the Shadows, and A Dagger in the Winds – and I’d love to see And the Wildness expanded into a trilogy.

And now I am apparently supposed to choose a semifinalist.

Are you ready?

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Technically, I announced that The Ring Breaker and And the Wildness were cuts, but that was before I read the other two, and I have never been known for not changing my mind…

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A Dagger in the Winds by Brendan Noble

A Dagger in the Winds by Brendan Noble

YET I HAVE CHOSEN YOU, BRENDAN NOBLE, WHETHER YOU WANTED ME TO OR NOT. THE BJØRNMARK ON YOUR HAND WILL FOREVER REMIND YOU OF THIS FATE.

Why?

Because normally when I am finished with a book, I’m finished with it. Sure, I’d like to read the sequels, but my TBR list causes Goodreads to short-circuit. When I got to the end of A Dagger in the Winds and saw that there was an excerpt from book two, I literally squealed aloud with joy.

PS. Someone needs to create a competition for best sequels.

Our congratulations to Brendan Noble for becoming Queen’s Book Asylum’s second semi-finalist!

To keep up with our progress and the competition, please check out our SPFBO 9 page!

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