We are done with the Elimination Round, which means it’s time for the Semi-Finalist Reveal posts and cutting some more titles! Today, last but not least, it’s Paul’s turn to share his thoughts on his remaining three titles, and tell you if he’s 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.
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.
In the Elimination Round, I said goodbye to two titles: The Untold Prophecy by R.R. Hunter and Platinum Tinted Darkness by Timothy Wolff (full Elimination Round post here). Below are my lengthy thoughts about the rest of my batch:
Fae Gods Maze by Philinna Wood
Greek mythology and fae fantasy romance collide in this sweeping story of divided loyalty and forbidden love. I am the daughter of the king, and he is the fae monster my father sent me to kill. For years, the people of my kingdom have whispered tales of the monstrous Minotaur in the depths of an underground maze. Every night, he enters my dreams. His golden eyes capture mine. His horns caress my spine. And I always wake drenched in fear. He’s waiting for me, I know. But when I venture into the darkness, I find that the monster is in fact a handsome man, cursed by the fae gods to roam the maze. Trapped in the labyrinth with him, I start feeling something that I know I should not—a strange desire wells up within me. My heart is torn between my loyalty to my kingdom and the man whose loneliness echoes my own. As we attempt to escape the treacherous maze, secrets that were meant to remain hidden in its depths beg to be revealed, and with them comes a love so forbidden yet so powerful that it could forever change my life. Author’s note : This book is intended for readers who are 18 or older, as it contains explicit content and darker elements, including mature language, violence, and sex. The story is a loose reimagining of the Greek myth of the Minotaur, and it is a standalone fae fantasy romance with an HEA.
There’s a group of people who say you shouldn’t say it, but there’s also a group of people who play SPFBO review bingo, and, for those people, I’m going to say it… ‘I don’t normally like romance novels, but…’
Fae Gods: Maze (Maze) is a loose retelling of the minotaur myth, and when I say loose, I mean as loose as this minotaur’s chiton, particularly around his groin area. In summary, a nasty minotaur (more like a mino-PHWOAR) lives in the labyrinthine basement below a palace, hot princess plans to kill said minotaur in the hopes of paternal approval, but what’s that, the minotaur is hot… sheeeeeeeit!
Despite being ‘Fae Gods’ rather than ‘Greek Gods’, Maze has an abundance of Ancient Greek flavour thanks to bountiful description and sumptuous language found throughout this deliciously covered read. The gods we encounter are aloof to mortal concerns, avaristic, and partial to a little bit of hedonistic debauchery.
Raunch isn’t something I’ve read a great deal of, so on a scale of cheese sandwich to Carolina Reaper smoothie I wouldn’t trust myself to appropriately rate it. That being said I would be happy to play a game of pin the schlong on the minotaur, I’d get a few goes because there were a few schlongs, and none of them were schlorts if you get my drift. It would’ve been nice to have better penis representation, as I didn’t see myself in any of those beefy members.
Seriously though, there were a variety of saucy techniques on display, nothing exceptionally gratuitous but certainly enough to elicit a few stirrings. The instant-love was perhaps a little too quick for my liking, but they’re fated lovers, it’s inspired by Ancient Greece, and it’s a steamy romance, so they’re not going to bond over chaperoned needlework sessions, though pricks are still a significant risk (tee hee hee).
The characters were all very human, apart from when they weren’t. Even with so much banging and brooding going on between the MCs they still found time for ample development and exploration of their backgrounds, motivations, and wants. Avra particularly has a great character arc, becoming a really strong female character with no small amount of sexual and emotional liberation.
The writing was great, it had a very breezy yet energetic style that pulled me along, which, when coupled with the engaging plot and world-building, makes for a really quick yet satisfying read.
My only minor quibble is that the Fae aspect feels extremely superficial. The only difference between Fae Gods and Greek Gods is the word Fae in them and the fact they have pointed ears, you could delete the word Fae en-mass, and the story wouldn’t change.
Eleventh Cycle by Kian N. Ardalan
It has been a thousand years since the last Seed abandoned their duty. The mists are closing in. Finally, the Morning Bell tolls. A new Seed is born, but is it too late?
The rot eats away at mortals. The Witnesses pray so that they may not turn into one of the forgotten. And the constricting mists infect the lands with fear.
But there is more to this tale than just the Elders and their Seeds. Four mortals will have a part to play in Minethria’s fate. A farmer girl with only love in her eyes. A warrior born to the life of a refugee. A highborn stuck between the realm of gods and men. And a woman running into front lines and away from home.
Will the cycle finally be completed? Or will the mist swallow all?
A seed is born and the evil is slain, so doth another cycle commence. Yet the last Seed born hath turned traitor, and the mists, which had been pushed back, returneth.
CONTENT WARNING (can contain minor spoilers): This book is Grimdark. There is a lot of violence, gore, heavy language. It also deals with very heavy themes like realistic representation of disability, has descriptive sexual content, self-harm, mental illness, rape and suicidal ideation.
I’m not going to lie; when I saw that Eleventh Cycle was in our allocation, I had to have it. Liis also had her sights set on this chonky tome, so a challenge was issued. After an extraordinarily civil and non-fatal fight to the death, it was shepherded into my allocation.
Eleventh Cycle takes place in an extraordinarily dark and unfathomably unique world, a world positively dripping in lore and laden with the most esoteric of mysteries. Imagine a world-building Venn diagram, within one circle, you have mortals going about their daily lives, in another, you have godlike elder beings that would make Barker and Cronenberg proud, and in the overlap, you have places that you don’t want to find yourself and where the baddest, weirdest shit happens.
The focus of Kian N. Ardalan’s first foray into the Mistlands is most definitely his characters and world. There isn’t at this point any grand over-arching plot beyond the birth of the Eleventh Seed who will defeat evil, but instead, the book is pulled onwards through the very personal and intimate struggles of its PoV characters. Our protagonists are a varied bunch of humans and non-humans, all of whom are dealing with some really heavy stuff, as you can likely guess given the trigger warnings found in both the synopsis and author’s foreword. With the exception of the Eleventh Seed, the PoV is first-person, which very quickly and effectively engenders a closeness that emotionally welds your heart to the page. The main characters are incredibly nuanced and personable with the trauma they endure, hitting so much harder because of how real they feel. Credit also has to be given to the author for making all of the side characters interesting and impactful; they feel fully fleshed out, not just hollow players made to move things on.
In terms of voice, Eleventh Cycle is very much on the florid side with vividly descriptive language, which is, in places, ethereally poetic. This style perfectly matches the ambience of the book and does a great job of enhancing the otherworldly feel of the Mistlands.
Given the size of the book, I was amazed at how quickly it flew by. Because of the bond you quickly form with the characters you want to keep reading to find out what happens to them, plus the constant dripping of lore and slow unfurling of the world is such an enthralling seduction it was genuinely difficult to put the book down.
With the positives highlighted, were there any negatives to air? The language and prose aren’t 100% consistent, there are a noticeable number of grammatical issues such as odd sentence structures and frequent repetition, and the prose does, at times, darken into a purple so deep it’s akin to a bruise on the page.
The most divisive aspect of Eleventh Cycle will be the graphic SA scene late in the book. Is it necessary? Is SA ever necessary in a book? It’s a sensitive and deeply personal question; in this instance, I found it excessive and more degrading than needed.
Overall though, and despite the negatives, I enjoyed my time with the Eleventh Cycle and eagerly await book two.
The Gardens of Ash by Sarah Cline
The world of Azadia smolders in restless isolation, molten rivers splitting the earth, and curtains of ash dripping from a scarlet sky. The followers of Alrya – an empire that spans many worlds – believe Azadia to be the hell their faith condemns, but to Draden and his family, it is merely home.
Once a feared warlord, Draden now wishes only to maintain a fragile peace in his corner of Azadia. But Draden’s contentment ends swiftly when a Tear – a passageway between worlds – splits open in his kingdom, and a stranger comes tumbling through with the fury of Alrya licking at his heels. Draden decides to take the young man in, but Vessels – eerie creatures that appear to be women, wreathed in flowering overgrowth and puppeted by an unknown force – pursue Jak into Draden’s kingdom, Lucia. The ensuing battle forces Draden to acknowledge that, as much as he hates to admit it, he can’t face this threat alone.
As a new war breaks forth from an ancient rivalry, Alrya fights to appease a god that has fallen silent, while the rulers of Azadia form an uneasy alliance against the waves of Alryan forces closing in on them from distant worlds. But even as these tentative new allies help Draden resist invasion, the conflict draws out Draden’s own struggles with restless memories and the temptations of power.
Meanwhile, Jak, now fleeing Alrya’s endless war, seeks a new Tear in hopes that it will lead him to a place where he will be left in peace to study the stars. But his budding feelings for Edim and Tlia, companions met in his travels, and the revelation of his fascinating gift for Blood Craft, a forbidden magic of Azadia, complicate Jak’s desire to leave the war-wracked world.
Together with Sarien, a famous hero who has put her own adventures on hold to help her half-brother defend Lucia, and Epomina, a mercenary seeking the elusive magic of Storm Craft in a world where strength is all that stands between her and a bloody end, Draden and his allies make their stand.
The Gardens of Ash is the first entry in an epic of gothic fantasy.
On finishing The Gardens of Ash, my first thought was, ‘How in the hells has this book only got two reviews despite being released for over a year?’ It’s criminal is what it is because it’s such a good read and deserves so much more attention than it appears to have had.
The Gardens of Ash is a slightly complex book to describe despite not having the most expansive of plot at this stage. You have a multi-verse, which always requires mental gymnastics, populated with multiple worlds, gods, people, and factions. The big bad of the ’verse is the Alryan Empire, who are religious zealots, extremely aggressive, and deliciously creepy. The Alryans view the people inhabiting the world of Azadia as being anathema to their ideals, and so we’re tossed into a Gothic duke-out of multi-versal proportions.
Now, I haven’t read anything particularly Gothic since Gormenghast a decade or more ago, so was really excited to have The Gardens of Ash in my batch. With Gothic literature I’d expect lyrical prose, dark themes, and a smattering of weirdness, that’s what I got. While not being one to use quotes in my reviews these days, I feel that I need to because I just don’t have the words to explain how beautiful and evocative the language is here:
‘Like the woman who’d reached the castle, their armor bore a sheen of black iridescence beneath cloaks of sylvan growth: vines that tangled through the joints, blue-petaled blossoms spilling from their lips like flowering tongues, moss swelling from the joints in their gauntlets, an empty eye-socket hidden beneath a mask of leaves.’
That banger is just 26 pages in, and there are scores more before and after; there are more beautiful passages here than in a mine carved by Michelangelo.
Sarah Cline’s world is rich and elaborate, brought to vivid life thanks to the soaring and almost effortless prose. It can be a confusing world, make no mistake, but the authorial voice is confident and makes you feel that everything has its place, even if you have no clue where that is.
The characters are unique and diverse, with some unexpected representation, particularly Draden. While he is never explicitly defined or pigeonholed as anything other than himself, there are light touches throughout, which nod towards him being demi-sexual and perhaps having Aspergers. While not an expert and wholly aware that I can’t congratulate authors on the authentic representation of things outside of my experience, I felt as though these aspects were done well, with care, and respectfully.
There’s a fair bit of darkness on display, but nothing exceptionally gratuitous. You have some unsettling body horror, graphic violence, and the standard fare of viscera bobbing about in forcefully liberated bodily juices.
With the good out of the way, what didn’t I enjoy?
My main issue was with the extremely slow pacing of the book. While I enjoyed the characters and soaking up the beautifully detailed world, not a lot happens. There are a couple of well-written action scenes in the book, but not many, the remaining time is spent with the characters who are prone to introspection. This made for a slow read that was in places quite heavy and so required me to read in smaller chunks.
The world-building was confusing in places, and while there is a glossary, I didn’t find this particularly helpful as certain things weren’t mentioned, and each entry is quite long, so reading through them took me out of the book itself.
The negatives, I feel, are a first-book issue; there’s a lot of setting up the world and its characters, so I think these will be less of a problem in book two and beyond.
With these final three books, I’ve been spoiled, not one of them would be less than four stars, and I’d happily put them all through to the semis were it allowed.
I do feel a little sad that Eleventh Cycle and The Gardens of Ash ended up together in the same batch, given how similar and enjoyable they both were. It’s akin to the Hollywood problem of similar films being released at the same time, Armageddon/Deep Impact and A Bug’s Life/Antz, to name just a few.
For me, the book that just shades it is Kian N. Ardalan’s Eleventh Cycle as the characters and world captivated me from beginning to end.
If you’re a fan of Eleventh Cycle, I daresay that you’ll also be a fan of The Gardens of Ash, so if you haven’t already read that Gothic delight, I’d implore you to do so. It was an extremely hard decision to cut this one, and I hope that despite The Gardens of Ash not moving forward, it finds many a reader to lavish it with the love it deserves.
But hang on a minute…
Against my better judgement, and certainly against the commands of my Queen, it’s a double semi-finalist announcement as I’m also putting Fae Gods: Maze through.
Not everyone on my team is a fan of darker fiction, and given the themes in Eleventh Cycle, I’m not sure how well received it will be. Fae Gods: Maze is the complete opposite of Eleventh Cycle and would prove an enticing alternative.
I think Fae Gods: Maze has the potential to do really well in the semis and potentially beyond; if I’m honest, I think I’d rate it higher were it not for my anti-sauce bias.
Our congratulations to Kian N. Ardalan and Philinna Wood for becoming Queen’s Book Asylum’s fifth and sixth semi-finalists!
To keep up with our progress and the competition, please check out our SPFBO 9 page!
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