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.
Our 6th and final SPFBO 9 semi-finalist review is for The Last Fang of God by Ryan Kirk. 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 The Last Fang of God we have 4 reviews and 5 scores for your reading pleasures.
Note: You might have noticed that we have one less review than scores. You could rightly assume, that it’s due to an early DNF. However, that’s not the case here. Paul, due to unexpected events, opted out of reviewing, which we absolutely understand and 100% support.
So, without further ado, let’s take a closer look at our 6th semi-finalist!
Table of Contents
|Date of Publishing:||April 26th, 2023|
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….
In The Last Fang of God, Ryan Kirk weaves a tale of 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.
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.
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.
I loved the style, the story, and especially the relationships.
I thoroughly enjoyed this standalone fantasy novel – it presented some elements that were unique to me so finding something fresh in a book is always a good thing.
It focuses on a father/daughter relationship that is certain to stir some emotions in the reader. I think I have a lot of respect for the Dad in this story. It is a classic example of wanting to do better but then finding out you cannot escape who you were or truly are, or from the decisions you’ve made. And when the mysterious past catches up with Dad, well, there’s no escaping it, and Sascha, the realistically presented teenager will end up having to choose between the scary and the worst.
Underneath there is a lot of heart and soul in this story. At the focus of it is a parent’s attempt to protect their child and a parent’s worry about their worst fears coming to fruition. I could feel it, it resonated – I was immediately on Dad’s side with the decisions he made because they make sense from a parent’s perspective. And relatability is one of the things that makes a story stick.
I appreciated that the book explained the various runes and the rune-abilities throughout the story when appropriate. A bit at a time and each time, demonstrated through action. In addition, Dad’s past was revealed a glimpse at a time, all the while suggesting that there is something bigger at play. It inserted some fear in me about potentially being wrong as to who he really is? This worked really well, coupled with the fact that Ryan Kirk has a natural smooth ability for storytelling.
There are a few grim scenes of quite the graphic nature. But they never felt out of place, they weren’t over stretched just to keep the grim for grim’s sake. They had a purpose, and in this case, when I think of Sascha, the contrast between the life she had had up to that point and what she now faced, was made clear through these darker scenes and it made it feel real. The Last Fang of God is a perfect standalone where you’re not left with unanswered questions or an open ending. It has a touch of meddling gods and with meddling gods, you can be sure you’re left wondering until the last sentence how everything will truly play out. I would certainly recommend this, and I would readily sample more of Kirk’s writing.
There’s something of the epic fantasy to The Last Fang of God, though it also brings up suggestions of a Norse epic or a classic faerie tale. Given that I particularly enjoy the classic mythological structure, there was a lot for me to dig into here.
The Last Fang of God follows notorious retired warrior and runecaster, Kalen, and his daughter, Sascha. While Sascha has grown up knowing only peace, stashed away in the relatively stable lands of an agricultural clan, the more warlike clans of her father’s past have begun to threaten at the edges of that peace. In addition, Kalen’s old god Vilkas has called Sascha into his service. If Sascha does not answer the call and travel to the old clan’s lands to perform a shamanic initiation, she will die within the year—but if she does go, she’ll have to traverse the dangerous lands of other clans and learn to commit violence in order to protect herself.
As a semi-finalist, The Last Fang of God already meets a certain standard of prose; it’s clear and readable, and I always felt as though I knew who was doing what, even in combat situations. The prose can sometimes stray too far into step-by-step recounting—there were times I would have preferred more focus on the current emotional tension between characters and less attention on the mechanics of hunting and setting up camp—but overall, it was a very clean reading experience.
The book has many other high points to recommend it. I enjoyed the setting, which uses several smaller gods who have more intimate relationships with their followers than happens in most fantasies, and the overall themes of the book are both intriguing and unique. The central theme mostly grapples with the function of death and violence in society—namely, whether a society can manage to be peaceful without at least a few people willing to kill and commit violence in defence of its peace. That’s a heavy question, and I felt like it was handled both very well and very thoughtfully. In fact, that question alone was well worth the price of admission (and I did, in fact, buy a copy of the book, despite the fact that it was also provided to me for free).
There’s another strong theme running through The Last Fang of God which I don’t see very often at all. The book concerns itself a lot with Kalen’s parental struggles as Sascha grows more independent and more opinionated on her own future. In a sense, I would call the book a coming-of-age story—only, the story is told from the perspective of a parent instead of from the perspective of the child who’s actually coming of age. I was shocked and gratified to see Kalen conclude that he needs to respect his daughter’s informed choices as she matures, even when she knowingly chooses to risk injury or death. The end of the book also sees Kalen recognise some uniquely worthwhile aspects of Sascha’s viewpoints, which he originally considered to be a bit naive. All of that is pretty brave writing for a parent’s perspective—and if anyone has actually read another fantasy book with such respectful parental themes before, you’d best hit me up with extra recommendations, because I loved it.
The following negative points are going to vary strongly by reviewer, I feel, so please take them with a grain of salt—and also remember that as a semi-finalist, I’m going to be harder on The Last Fang of God than I usually am on books when reading for enjoyment. I finished the book. I enjoyed the book. I expect that most other people will probably enjoy it, too!
With that caveat out of the way: I do feel that the author has some subtle problems with writing Sascha’s perspective. Much as I feel that he worked very hard to make Sascha a fully fleshed-out character, her point-of-view still reads a bit like an adult writing a teenager who affectionately frustrates them. I suspect that this comes across mostly because the story’s emphasis is so squarely on Kalen’s parental difficulties with Sascha and not on Sascha’s own coming-of-age. Even when the chapter is written from Sascha’s perspective, the focus remains glued to Kalen’s reactions and emotions, and on any of Sascha’s reactions which might specifically trouble him.
As such, I think that older readers will find it easy to empathise with the story, but younger readers may occasionally feel as though they’ve been caricatured. In particular, Sascha glares at her father and/or stalks away in a huff a few times too many—mainly, I think, when the author needs to transition the scene or else remove her from a conversation. Overall, I suspect that Sascha bears more than her fair share of choices for the sake of (Kalen’s) narrative, rather than choices for the sake of her own growth, which makes her somewhat weaker as a character.
Kalen’s characterisation, meanwhile, was at its most interesting while he was struggling with his feelings about his daughter—but every time his background as a notorious one-man killing machine came up again, I found myself being pulled out of the story. Almost all of the characters that Kalen and his daughter come across (even the actual gods!) remember Kalen from his prime and marvel respectfully over his old exploits out loud—and I think that this is probably what does him such a disservice as a character.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a resident bad-ass in your story—especially when the story is so obviously styled after a Norse epic. But while it’s important to have some amount of external reinforcement from other characters that the story’s bad-ass is truly that terrifying, having the majority of the cast act as reinforcement can start undermining the gravitas of the point. Worse—if the author takes it too far, readers will begin to suspect (rightly or wrongly) a bit of authorial fawning over the character. The movie John Wick plays this conceit as a joke—“Are you working again, John?” asks the random police officer and the random hotel attendant—but The Last Fang of God is too serious in tone for that, which means that the story has to play it straight. A few more characters who don’t instantly know and respect Kalen would go a long way; I can think of a few off the top of my head who didn’t really need to recognise him in order to serve their function in the plot.
Overall, I did enjoy my time with The Last Fang of God, and I felt that it had some really interesting, thought-provoking things to express. I ended up contemplating the book’s major questions long after I’d finished reading it—which I’d hazard to say is the hallmark of a really great book. The theme for many of our semi-finalists seems to be “a great story that could use a pinch more subtlety”, and I’d say that also applies to The Last Fang of God.
The Last Fang of God was our shortest semi-finalist, although that’s not why I left it for last. The cover caught my interest early on (it was in our top 3 for a reason), and I hoped to keep the best for the last. I can’t say my expectations were super high though, but apart from Fae Gods: Maze, I was looking forward to reading this one the most.
The book starts off with your usual epic fantasy twist – our protagonist lives in peace far away from their bloody past and sins, but one day the past comes kicking in the door, leaving no choice but to follow the siren call of adventure/revenge/whatever. In this case, it’s Kalen’s old god, Vilkas who’s at the door, calling his daughter, Sascha to his service. Or else she’ll die before the year ends. So Kalen packs their life up and does what any other parent would do – does his utmost to keep his daughter alive, whether she likes it or not. Sascha, at sixteen, has very different ideas about what life she wants to lead and is not afraid to show her displeasure at the turn of these events. Especially as she realizes that she knows almost nothing about her father. That’s not easy to process, even for adults, let alone for teenagers.
The most interesting thing about The Last Fang of God is the father-daughter dynamics portrayed within the pages. I don’t think I come across something like this very often, but it’s very welcome. I liked that the book was as much about parent-child relationships as old grievances and the journey itself. We get to see both sides of the coin – a father, who slowly realizes that his daughter is becoming a young adult with her own feelings, thoughts, choices, and mistakes. And a daughter, who is on the way to adulthood learns that her father is not necessarily the idol she puts on a pedestal – as every child tends to do with their parents – but a man with flaws, with hurts, with a past that’s not at all rosy. And even though I found Sascha annoying at times and a bit rough around the edges when it comes to characterization, I could sympathize with her.
I also liked the setting with the different gods and how the clans belonging to them represent an animal, which lends them characteristics. Plus, it’s always fun when gods interact with their people directly and fuck things up for them more times than not. However, I would have liked a bit more depth to these gods’ history, especially in regards to each other. I wanted more about their myths and their origins, and how they divided the land to begin with, etc. With The Last Fang of the God being just about 250 pages, there is not much room for extensive worldbuilding, which is a shame. The same goes for the initial conflict between Kalen and Jolon. We learn some details as the story goes on, but again, I wanted more depth there too.
I usually don’t like books where the main event is traveling from one place to the next, but I wasn’t bothered that much with it here. This book is fast-paced, and there are barely any boring moments. Sometimes maybe too fast, especially in the first third of the book. On the other hand, with The Last Fang of God being a standalone, we get a clear conclusion and a neat arc for our main characters.
If you like epic fantasy, but don’t fancy big books, The Last Fang of God is a good choice for a nice weekend of reading. Well written, intriguing, has some cool rune magic, gods roaming, just enough violence and fighting, and a lot of thought-provoking. It’s not perfect, but definitely entertaining.
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