SPFBO 8 Semi-Finalist Reveal

SPFBO 9 – Semi-Finalist Reveal: Jen

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 Jen’s turn to share her thoughts on her remaining 3 titles, and tell you if she 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, Bjørn’s choice, Timy’s choice, Liis’ 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.

Note from Jen: I enjoyed my group of books immensely and read 100% of each one before choosing who, or if, I would put forward a semi-finalist. Thank you to my group of authors for the many hours of enjoyment and the opportunity to read your work!

Still in the Running

In the Elimination Round, I said goodbye to three great titles: The Shattered Spire by Ted Cross , Shadow of Fire by Kate Shumacher and The Return of Abaddon by Peter Mooren (full Elimination Round post here). Below are my thoughts about the rest of my batch, in alphabetical order:

The Last Fang of God by Ryan Kirk

The Last Fang of God by Ryan Kirk

When gods refuse to die, it’s humans that suffer.

Safely hidden deep within the endless fields of his late wife’s people, Kalen’s only dream is to live the rest of his days in peace. He paid for his dream in blood, but neither his sword nor service are demanded any longer.

Chaos erupts when his daughter, Sascha, is called by Kalen’s old master. Father and daughter have no choice but to leave the home they’ve created for the land of Kalen’s birth.

But the sins of the past cast long shadows. After years of a tenuous peace, gods and humans alike resume their quest for dominance. Kalen and Sascha find themselves in the midst of a struggle that will reshape the boundaries of their world.

The warrior who wants nothing but peace will be forced to draw his sword once again.

Will it be enough to protect his daughter from the whims of the gods?

One of the first things I do with my group in SPFBO is sort my books by page count. I can usually tell a lot about what to expect from a story just by how much time the author thinks they need to tell it – except when it comes to these 250-300 pagers. They fool me every time. Sometimes they’re too bare bones and other times they’re perfect. In this case, I knew within a few chapters, we had a possible contender for the semi-finalist, as long as it could hold onto its promising start for two hundred and twenty more pages….

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In The Last Fang of God, Ryan Kirk weaves a tale of a Kalen, and his daughter Sascha, caught up in the fall-out of a life he tried to leave behind nearly two decades ago.

You see, Kalen was originally from a clan known as the Wolves of Vilkas – he is the last true blood, and in his daughter that blood runs very strong. Kalen’s God, Vilkas’ is calling her back to the Tree, and Sascha can choose to ignore that calling- living out the remainder of her year in peace or answer the call and the challenges that come with it.

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There was a lot I enjoyed about this book, starting with the relationship between Kalen and Sascha – which is rocky at times, because of the lies Sacha perceives he has told by hiding his past and because Kalen is having a hard time seeing her as an adult.

The story allows for mutual growth between these two, not only with each other but in facing up to their own mistakes.

Sascha has all the conceit of a 16-year who thinks she knows everything, and who is coming into some pretty awesome powers. So needless to say, she could be pretty bratty at times and tried my patience on more than one occasion with her attitude.

But their relationship is not just about Sascha growing up and seeing her father as a fallible person, it’s also of Kalen loosening the parenting reigns and allowing her to become an adult. I saw glimpses of my husband and daughter here – especially in the moments where as a dad Kalen, got to appreciate how well she had learned the things that he had taught her.

All in all, I loved that there was some great father/daughter relationship stuff going on, which is not something I run across often.

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Kirk writes in a clear, no words are wasted, fast-paced style that is a favourite of mine. Information is sprinkled through the story in an easy way that you don’t even realize you’re picking up the tidbits of character work or the world-building as you’re speeding along (Mike Shackle, is the closest I can think of who writes in this style).

I find this style of writing to be very visual, even though there is little in the way of stopping to smell the roses (so to speak) unless it’s contributing to what’s happening around the characters and story. I guess it’s the most ‘movie-like’ for me because there are fewer distractions that cause the story to stall out in my head.

Other stuff I enjoyed – Rune magic. It’s been a hot minute since I’ve read anything with runes or where the gods walk the earth and interact and/or influence the people and their lives. I liked the way it was done here – not too much and just letting the bulk of the story be about Kalen and Sascha and their part in the game. I won’t go into that part of the story, as the gods have their own chess game going on and I don’t want to spoil anything.

I will say that I liked how the story unfolded – it’s a tightly written and plotted book. Everything that happened pushed the plot forward whether it was to help with the character growth, the relationship, or to move events to their conclusion. And agreeing with my teammate Olivia in the behind-the-scenes chatter, I always felt this story knew where it was going.  

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I loved the style, the story, and especially the relationships.

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The Stone Mermaid by Aisha Urooj

The Ston Mermaid by Aisha Urooj

He will give up everything for love.

As dark prince of the dark seas, Victor has everything. Everything except Ariana’s love. Victor is Ursula’s son, so he can’t blame Ariana for not trusting him.

He will do anything for her, but she is falling for a mortal prince. Can Ariana see that Victor’s heart is true, or is it too late?

With his mother, Ursula, against the sea king’s daughter, will Victor’s love cost him everything?

The Stone Mermaid is a mythical tale of mermaids and other legendary sea creatures and monsters. This is an epic story of love and betrayal, involving Ariana, the sea king’s daughter, Ivan, a human prince, and Victor, the sea witch’s son.

Love has the power to change destinies in this ravishing new take on a classic tale.

 I was very excited to get this in my group as I have an undying love of fairytales and retellings.

There was a lot I enjoyed about this retelling starting with the changes. Aisha Urooj kept enough of the elements of the originals to recognize it without actually making this a blow-by-blow retelling. In fact, it kept enough of that darker feel to the story in the beginning (coupled with that title) to make me worry about which way this tale would go – Disney or sadly. This was one time I was grateful for reading on Kindle because if this had been a paperback, I probably would have popped-ahead for spoilers.

The story is in two parts and in this tale – Ariana’s (the little mermaid) mother Helena, was human and her father The Sea King, stole her and brought her to live in his kingdom under the sea (so hard not to sing that under the sea. Helena’s stories of home are what sparks Ariana’s interest in the wonders of the world above.

The Sea Witch has a son named Victor, who is enamoured with Ariana. I liked that a lot of the tale was from his perspective. Especially because his POV just makes the whole thing feel fresh to our eyes.

There are a lot of new and fun elements to the story – Victor is helping Ariana win the heart of her prince Ivan (and being incredibly jealous while doing so), all the while hoping she will eventually see himself, as a potential love interest. There are additional cast on land, with Ivan and his family. And a dark force rising in the ocean, with Victor and Ariana’s destinies tied into its outcome. Also, there are fun little nods to Disney’s flounder and Sebastian.

The first part somewhat tells the story we know (to a point) but part two, veers away and builds off all those tidbits of backstory that the author used to pad and revamp the original. I loved how incredibly creative it was and all the additional story in the second book but I did wish the two parts had a more cohesive blending of their parts.

The first part, definitely felt stronger than the second part which was a bit more all over the place, filling in more details of the story and introducing characters to give us a clear path for the main characters to gain their ending. I wondered why more of the details hadn’t been included in the main body, earlier, as I felt it would have been a smoother story all around. As it was, part two felt like it was written at a later time (and maybe that was the case).

That said, I still say this was one of the more imaginative retellings I’ve read in a while, and I enjoyed it a lot for that reason (and also for making me doubt for a while which way the end would go). If you like retellings like I do, it’s worth checking this one out.

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The Unwanted by Catherine M. Walker

Unwanted by Catherine M Walker

In a world torn by conflict, it is the unwanted who fight for survival. At nearly 18 years of age, Damien knows his peaceful life in the only village he’s ever known is about to change. Either his burgeoning powers of the veil will kill him, which at least would bring an end to the pain and the mistrust and fear of his friends and neighbours, or the Warlord and his infamous warband, the Unwanted, will track him down. Though the Warlord claims to protect his domain from the persistent raids of the enemy Sylannians, that protection comes at a price. To be taken by the Warlord is to forfeit your soul. Those who join his warband are destined to become cold-blooded killers, and the atrocities they are rumoured to commit make death the preferable option. When the worst happens and the Warlord finally comes to his village, Damien surrenders himself to save his family—and protect his younger sister, Isabella, whose own powers are already growing… On the other side of the vast mountain range the clans of the People have lost the war against the Sylannians. As royal Sylannian Commander Jaclyn plans to return home after their victory, only two clans remain, and they face an impossible stay and risk almost certain annihilation, or flee their homeland and take their chances on the other side of the mountains. But even as the clan leaders seek a way to save their people from genocide, the political wheels in Sylanna are still turning and the ruthless king and his wives have their own plans for his sister Jaclyn, who was never meant to succeed. As Damien makes a new life with the Unwanted, he learns to use his powers and discovers the truth about his new “family”. But before he can decide where he really belongs, he must come to terms with who and what he really is.

It’s no secret that I love these multi POV plotty stories, so I was very excited to get this one in my group (there was also a fair amount of horse-trading behind the scenes to ensure I did). There is a lot to unpack in this book so my review gets a little long and this is the cut-down-by-a-mile version. There were also quite a few things in the story that I didn’t even address, in an attempt to shorten this up a little; hopefully, I was able to keep my train of thought clear enough to make sense to anyone reading.

The Unwanted had a lot of the elements that I love- interesting world, great characters that I can root for, mentor relationships, and magic that wasn’t too hard but not too soft either.

*

Between the three countries we end up with a pile of characters, but being that they were in separate groups and quite different socially- it went a long way in helping to keep them straight in my head.

So, let’s start with the main group who are The Warlord’s soldiers called The Unwanted.

Led by Michael the Warlord’s most trusted soldier (and thought of as a son by him). Michael and his group of soldiers, travel around striking fear into the hearts of man with their presence alone. The Unwanteds’ reputation as heartless killers has the dual purpose of keeping order and protecting the people. But part of the reputation comes about because they also find any person who is strong in the Veil (magic) and take them as their own- whether they want to come along or not.

On one of these scouting trips, they take Damien, who up until this point has managed to escape the notice of the Warlord by hiding himself away in the Veil. The Veil’s magic can be used in multiple ways- everything from defensive/offensive uses to mind-speaking or even hearing others who have talent in it.

Michael, Damien, and the rest of the Unwanted, were my favourite part of the story. They have this brother/sistership thing happening and you know they will jump in front of a truck for each other. I love the dynamics in the group and even the bratty Aiden (The Warlord’s real son) who put some much-needed tension here and there, with his jealousy and nasty temperament.

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The other characters that give us a look at the rest of the world:

Second up we have the Hallaran clans who are fighting the Sylannians. Tarkhan and Khalium are coleaders of the Kallth. They are losing against the Sylannians and make the choice to flee over the mountains into the Warlord’s territory to try and save what is left of their people.

And lastly the Sylannians with Jaclyn and her unit, who are part of the invading force.

The Sylannian units are the coolest like a spider and web. Their family/unit is made up of a male with many female fighters protecting him. Their use of the veil allows them to mind speak to others in their unit and they have a silk they can harden into armour among other things. They’re kind of scary in how effective they can be as a unit.

I thought Jaclyn was the most interesting, socially. She’s Sylannian, and the King’s sister. She also has more going on in her homeland with her family who are trying to rid themselves of her as a threat by sending her on dangerous missions they hope she will die doing.

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The story does this omni-rolling POV at times, to help round out the world but there were some POVs that were unnecessary – for instance, Steven’s, because we learn everything we need to when Michael arrives anyway.

*

There was so much I loved about this book but there were a few things that stumbled me up.

Occasionally, I found things to be overly-complicated, I understood what was trying to be shown but it also resulted in mixed-signals on some things. The biggest being the Warlord himself who was supposed to be reigning the public in with his fierceness, but almost seemed quite agreeable- taking some of the fizzle out of the biggest decision of Damien’s arc. I felt no urgency in the decision because I didn’t feel the Warlord was a force to be reckoned with for most of the story. Also, up to this point Damien himself, was fitting in pretty well on his own- without being forced.

The clans disappeared from the story for long enough after arriving in The Warlords territory, that I forgot about them. I will say though the initial show of force by The Unwanted at their first meet with the clans was pretty darned cool. Which btw is something that I found with all the battle scenes- they’re all very cinematic and movie-worthy.

Jaclyn: I never could decide if she was the big bad or not. We see enough of her to feel sympathy and understand her situation and for a while I even thought she would end up banding together with the Unwanted against a greater threat, but by the end, I wasn’t so sure.

I assume that over the course of the series, some of these things I mentioned will all come together to create a larger picture and I can eat my words. But as a singular story, I do think that it could have used more tension all around, and a bit of editing to clean up some of the odd things here and there.

Tldr:

I loved this story. The world was cool; mostly because of how creative the clans were, particularly the Sylannians and Jaclyn, in the way their family units worked.

The magic with the Veil that can be shared between them or just for themselves is neat and can be used in a multitude of ways.

But the biggest sell for me was the characters were all the ones I wanted to spend time getting to know. The whole troupe of the Unwanted was so much fun. I loved the family feel to them. And Jaclyn, though I didn’t love her as much as Damien, I was still very curious about her story and seeing how it pans out.

So my only real gripes were to do with the lack of tension, and that about halfway I started wondering where the story was going. Even so, it says a lot that I loved the characters so much, that I would happily return for book two just to spend time with them.

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The Semi-Finalist

I had some strong books in my batch. Generally, I would have a couple in my group battle it out for the semi-spot but this time around, they were all pretty equal – where one was strong in one area, the other was weaker in it, and vice versa and so on, making the choice incredibly difficult for just one runner-up.

Instead, I will present to you the one book that I thought was solid all around, between characters, story/plot, and structure, and that I thought might have a fighting chance against my teammates’ choices to move on.

My semi-finalist choice is…

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The Last Fang of God by Ryan Kirk

The Last Fang of God by Ryan Kirk!

Whoot! I am hoping my choice has what it takes to beat out my teammates and get to the finals. Fighting!

Thank you to the rest of my group for your wonderful stories! I hope the readers out there will give these titles another look, because the competition is fierce this year and you never know what you’ll be missing by only reading the finalists.

Our congratulations to Ryan Kirk for becoming Queen’s Book Asylum’s fourth semi-finalist!

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

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