SPFBO 9 Semi-Finalist review: Scarlet & Sunder by Mike Rousseau

SPFBO 9: Scarlet & Sunder by Mike Rousseau

Welcome to the Semi-Final stage of SPFBO 9! As you know, we already cut 24 books from our batch of 30 and announced our semi-finalists. Check out our SPFBO 9 page for more info! In the next few weeks, we’ll post group reviews of each semi-finalist, and then we’ll reveal our finalist on October 18th, all going well.

Our 3rd SPFBO 9 semi-finalist review is for Scarlet & Sunder by Mike Rousseau. The order of the reviews within a post will be the following: first is the person who picked the book as a semi-finalist, and then the others in alphabetical order.

A quick reminder about how we are proceeding in the Semi-Finals: our judges had the freedom to opt out of reading any of the books due to personal interest, time restrictions, unforeseen life events, etc. Our aim is to have at least 4 reviews/scores for each semi-finalist.

Both in the Semi-Final and Final stages we’ll have a DNF rule in place: if a judge reads a book (either semi-finalist or finalist if they didn’t opt out beforehand), they have to read at least 25% of it. If they decide to DNF between 25%-50% they’ll have to give a score but can opt out of writing a review, and if they DNF after 50% (or not) then also have to score AND write a review.

For Scarlet & Sunder we have 4 reviews and 5 scores for your reading pleasures.

So, without further ado, let’s take a closer look at our 3rd semi-finalist!

Table of Contents

About the Book
Series:Vanguardians #1
Genre:Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Publisher:self-published
Date of Publishing:February 25th, 2023
Book Blurb
Scarlet & 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.

Review

Olivia

Read: 100%

This was my semi-finalist—so of course, I’ve already done a mini-review for it. I won’t reiterate everything I said about it here, but I will touch again on the points which most influenced my final score for it.

Scarlet & Sunder is a vibrant book in every sense of the word. It has a lot of character drama, some decent character arcs, and a unique-feeling setting. This, more than anything, is its strength as a book; while it sometimes feels as though the author is flying along without a tightly pre-planned outline, the book never feels boring. It has movement, and excitement, and a fair bit of tension—all of which are the really important mainstays of a successful book. Authors can get away with an awful lot, as long as the story never becomes boring. For positive character-specific points, I’ll mention again that Serenia—one of two primary POV characters—was an excellent character study, and I enjoyed seeing her forced to question her cultural brainwashing in a relatively realistic manner.

There are some things which negatively influenced the book’s score—but I would like to be clear that I consider these points to be far less crucial than the positive ones. The fact that I read the book to the end without feeling tempted to put it down should speak for itself. This is a competition, however, so we’re going to discuss the nitpicky stuff.

In the first review, I mentioned that Scarlet & Sunder has some pacing issues, with its major revelations being squished too closely together from the halfway point onwards. It also stacks a few too many tragedies and abrupt betrayals onto the other main POV character, Sunder, which makes her ironically less sympathetic as a character.

The last thing I would note here, which I did not mention in the first review, is that the very end of the book might inch just a bit too far into the absurd for some readers. I give Scarlet & Sunder a lot of leeway here because it’s fashioned after the super sentai genre, but it does lean into that absurdity far harder at the end of the story than at its beginning, which can make for a bumpy transition. There are people coming back to life all over the place, new powers and agendas revealed in a flurry, and—probably the biggest point—at least one character’s basic identity suddenly comes into question in a way which isn’t necessarily well-telegraphed. Transgender readers might actually empathise a lot with this arc, given that someone takes control of their identity by renaming themselves, but the execution felt a bit abrupt.

Again, I think that the book’s chosen genre is capable of accommodating most of these things, when handled properly. Super sentai shows are, in fact, famous (or infamous) for over-the-top character arcs, people going missing and coming back later, deaths which aren’t really deaths, and even things like evil clones, all played with utmost seriousness for the audience at home. But Scarlet & Sunder really needed to telegraph that some of these things were thematically possible just a bit sooner in the novel, so that the book feels more consistent. The first half felt extremely grounded; the second half decided to take full advantage of being in super sentai land. If you averaged out the tone more evenly, you’d have a pretty unbeatable book.

Overall, I think that Scarlet & Sunder has the most crucial elements of a good fantasy novel—the elements that most authors are hard-pressed to learn over time, if they don’t understand them already. Its negative points are still noticeable, but not enough to drag down the novel’s general enjoyment. Because of this, I suspect that Mike Rousseau is an author to watch—given a bit more tonal consistency and some slightly subtler character work, I expect his books to get better and better, with very little ceiling in his way. For authors who already know how to hold a reader’s attention with vibrant setting and characters, the sky is truly the limit.

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Bjørn

Read: 100%

“I accept that you are sorry. However, I accept neither you nor your apology.”

I have to admit that when I saw “mech” I thought “meh,” because my only association was Transformers. But after my fellow judges shared their spoilers, I mean remarks, I decided to give S&S a chance. I’m glad I have. But… oh boy.

Do you know the Chekhov rule, where if there is a gun in the story, it must be fired before the end? So, imagine you enter a supermarket. It’s filled with guns. And lasers. And flamethrowers. And robots. And ex-lovers. And explosives. And ALL of those things are going to fire, or backfire, within 700+ pages (Scarlet & Sunder is not a short book), because Mike Rousseau closes all the sub-plots and sub-arcs with shocking elegance for someone who has written a fantasy soap opera that makes Dynasty feel like a bleakly realistic documentary.

I really have no clue where to start this review and I already started!

It’s a beautiful book. It’s about love. Not “boy meets girl” (although I love the twist on this) love. All facets of it. It’s also about very big maybe-somewhat-sentient, er, mechs. And monsters, sometimes human-shaped. There are no goodie-goodies, although one of the characters is very much a baddie-baddie (yet not flat). Scarlet & Sunder uses the word ‘electricity’ (which I now immediately notice in fantasy) in a way that makes sense, explaining what it is. It also uses the word ‘christened’ in, er, um, not that way.

Scarlet & Sunder suffers from a phenomenon I’ve been noticing since the beginning of the year – I’d swear the first 30% was proofread, but the rest wasn’t, which makes me feel the authors (not singling out Rousseau in particular!) only ensure the reader doesn’t notice mistakes in the sample before buying the book. No, I haven’t slept through the first 30%, because you don’t get any rest throughout those 700 pages. Everything is either fast-paced action, or conversations leading to it – hats off to Rousseau for almost completely avoiding “as you know” simply by introducing the master/apprentice dynamics. And there is a lot to know.

I absolutely loved the fact that all the main characters were female and the treatment of queerness was exactly as I like it – it’s a non-issue. This or that person has red hair, snarky sense of humour, is bisexual, and likes wine a lot. The one sex scene is fade-to-black in a gentle, elegant way. It’s strange how Deceit felt like a bro-book, but Scarlet & Sunder appeals to the part of my soul that identifies as female.

The stakes keep growing with each page, almost. Every time you think Scarlet & Sunder reached the absolute peak, Rousseau cranks it up further. And further. The plot twist at 83% swept me off my sofa, out of the house, and possibly off the continent. And this is where “unfortunately” comes in. Rousseau kept cranking it up and at 89% I found myself not loving the book anymore. It became too much, too big, too complex, too coincidental to suspend my disbelief – it exhausted me. After all, as it turned out, Scarlet & Sunder was Transformers. Only if Transformers was a soap opera. A very good one, which nevertheless jumped the shark at 89%.

Recommended to people who enjoy well-written female characters, books that somehow manage to be fast-paced action, character-based, AND plot-based, and speeding.

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Jen

Read: 100%

I was thrilled when Olivia picked this as her semi. I had been eying this one up since it landed in our group.

I really enjoyed Scarlet & Sunder. I had a few minor ticks with it, but overall, I found it to be nicely written with great relationships and fun battles. This is a chunky book and I smashed through the first half in no time at all.

It felt slower to me in the last couple of parts (there are five) I think for a couple of reasons. First, there’s a feel of repetition – not so much with events as it was with the themes – especially with Maia. She is one of those characters who hates herself and routinely does irritating things to prove just how much she does.
 
And second, there is a lot in the last two parts of the story – between info, twisty events, relationships, and everything in between, the author went mech-size (har har) with the finale and threw everything in the pot and gave it a big stir.

It was fun, don’t get me wrong, but I did have a bit of fatigue with it all and I went from plowing through chapters upon chapters, to just a couple at a time as I was trying to absorb everything I was learning.

I won’t get into the plot – there is just a lot to tackle with that and I am trying to curb my wordiness.
 
Instead, I will talk about the biggest highlight (for me anyway) which surprisingly I found was Maia and Ren’s relationship. I say surprisingly because I expected to be here for the Pacific Rim-Godzilla styled fights, because who wouldn’t? But it was actually Maia and Ren, who kept me coming back for more.

I absolutely adored them (especially Ren). Not only because of the mentor/student angle which, btw, I can probably count on both hands how often I have had a female mentor relationship in a story (I’d like to think this has more to do with the way my tastes tend to run, rather than the fact that they are just that few and far between).

But I also adored them for other reasons. Like the fact that they get mad, they blow up at each other, then they come back and talk it through. Or that Ren felt like a young adult who is coming to terms with growing up and realizing everything she thought she knew about the world around her was a little one-sided. Or that Ren always tried to move forward and not allow herself to be a victim of circumstances, or of the world around. And maybe that last part, is a bit of her youth shining through and her not being so beaten down by the world like Maia is, but I did appreciate how she counter-balanced Maia in that regard.

Ren was one of the best young adult characters I have read in a while.

Maia, I liked, but I did have a harder time loving her. Getting her type of character from point A – someone who just lets people shoot her, to point B – a person of worth, who doesn’t deserve the blame she (or the world) has placed upon herself is a tightrope walk. I think for the most part, that walk went well but teetered off here and there. I find the victim/self-sacrificing characters very frustrating at the best of times so ymmv on that point.

The battles were fun. I loved the naming of the monsters which worked to lighten the mood, and for taking repetition out of the fights. They’re well thought-out and easy to visualize. I did grow up on Godzilla and have seen nearly all the giant avatar-driven robot movies so I have tons of footage in my head to base my totally amateur opinion on. ?

Long story short, Scarlet & Sunder was a fun, genre-blending fantasy w/mechs but it was Maia and Ren that I found helped to add that something special and set this story in my mind.


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Liis

Read: 100%

Scarlet & Sunder, yeah, somewhat enigmatic. It’s always a question with longer books – will it keep its momentum throughout? And I admit, at times, I felt like the story had maybe exhausted itself, it was going to flatline… but then, bam! some seriously brilliant scenes, clever dialogue, sharp wit! So, aside from the pacing issue, overall, I enjoyed this book. I can’t help but think that this book could not have worked any other way – there is a cool concept from start to finish with the Vanguardians in mind, some innovative ideas put to good use, and plenty of world building and background story politically and individually that keep any reader engaged!

It did take considerable time for me to warm to the main character Sunder aka Maia Sunderland. I think she clicked for me when she finally allowed herself a moment of true weakness. And yet, weaknesses she has a list as long as my arm. She has considerable guilt on her shoulders, she has a drinking problem, she is (simply put) exhausted, and she’s not at all in a good condition physically. But she prevails. She has no choice.

Enter Ren. Yes, she’s a very well written teenager with grand goals and a vision but as annoying as one can expect because it’s always the teenagers who know best. A character to surely evoke emotion, even if not entirely of the loving kind. Ren’s character arc falls neatly into the coming-of-age bracket, and I think it’s quite interesting to see her coming to her conclusions in her own time. Ren provided many conflicts to nudge the story along.

Peppered with brilliant twists and bits of dialogue that made this book well worth a read, I couldn’t help but wonder if the author held back slightly? Would he go full whack if he was to write a gritty novel with a male main character as opposed to respectfully tread in the female character’s POV? I do wonder. But one for sure, the few bits of grit, as much as appropriate for our cast in Scarlet & Sunder, tell me that I would totally read more from this author.

Our Judgement
Bjørn
Jen
Liis
Olivia
Paul
Timy
Our Rating
7
8
7
7
6
X
7

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