SPFBO 9 Finalist Review: Murder at Spindle Manor by Morgan Stang

SPFBO 9: Murder at Spindle Manor

Welcome to the Final stage of SPFBO 9! As you know, the 10 blogs all picked their champion who advanced into the finals, including ourselves. Check out our SPFBO 9 page for more info! SPFBO 9 ends on April 30th, and so we’ll post our finalist reviews every two weeks or so until then.

Our 1st SPFBO 9 finalist review is for Murder at Spindle Manor by Morgan Stang. The order of the reviews within a post will be in alphabetical order.

A quick reminder about how we are proceeding in the 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 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 Murder at Spindle Manor we have 4 reviews and 5 scores for your reading pleasures.

So, without further ado, let’s take a closer look at our 1st finalist!

Table of Contents

About the Book
Series:The Lamplight Murder Mysteries #1
Genre:Fantasy
Publisher:self-published
Date of Publishing:October 20th, 2022
Book Blurb
Murder at Spindle Manor by Morgan Stang

Mysteries abound in Spindle Manor.

For Huntress Isabeau Agarwal, the countryside inn is the last stop in a deadly hunt. Armed with gaslamp and guns, she tracks an insidious beast that wears the skin of its victims, mimicking them perfectly. Ten guests reside within Spindle Manor tonight, and the creature could be any one of them. Confined by a torrential thunderstorm and running out of time, Isabeau has until morning to discover the liar, or none of them—including her—will make it out alive.

But her inhuman quarry isn’t the only threat residing in Spindle Manor.

Gunshots.

A slammed door.

A dead body.

Someone has been killed, and a hunt turns into a murder investigation. Now with two mysteries at her feet and more piling up, Isabeau must navigate a night filled with lies and deception. In a world of seances and specters, mesmers and monsters, the unexpected is hiding around every corner, and every move may be her last.

Review

Jen

Read: 100%

Murder at Spindle Manor is a gas-light fantasy murder mystery with a creepy tone that suits the setting and darkish fairy-tale feel to Stang’s world.

Morgan Stang does great character interactions – I knew this from having read The Spider and the Scribe and that doesn’t change here. The closed-room style of Murder at Spindle Manor, meant a more intimate story with a limited cast- which worked better for me all around since I found there to be way too many people to keep up with in TSatS. The intro for the cast here feels very Agatha Christie; they each had a unique trait that helped to cement them in my head and honestly it just made meeting them a lot of fun.  

The first half of this book was strong and just a treat if you are at all a fan of mysteries. I really enjoyed the genre blend/style and the general creepy horror elements mixed with occasional moments of comedy.

The mystery itself, I wouldn’t say was overly satisfying to me but it’s a short book and everyone has a secret so there isn’t a lot of time to really allow for much more than a cursory getting to know everyone and/or the clue trail. Big personalities helped with characters, but still there was a lot of running around and general chaos, muddying up the water in the middle before the reveals.

What saved this for me after a weaker middle/mystery reveals, was the ending. I loved how personal it became, which I think was what I was missing in the middle. It gave us a nice bit of character work for Isabeau and something to look forward to in upcoming books with her renewed partnership with Evie – whose interactions with Isabeau had been one of the highlights of the story for me.

All in all, Murder at Spindle Manor was a fun smash-up of a few things I have loved in my lifetime – I ultimately enjoyed it for taking those ideas and running with them.

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Liis

Read: 100%

There are two types of people in the world. Those who like silly string, and those that don’t. Similarly, there are two types of readers out there. Those who like quirky paranormal murder mysteries, and those that don’t. Murder at Spindle Manor would not be one of those books that I would feel compelled to read. It would not be my go-to, that’s all. So, don’t get me wrong, because the cover is eye-catching, the blurb is positively intriguing, and who doesn’t like a steampunk vibe, right?! I can’t say I fully enjoyed it. Again, don’t get me wrong. The story is there. And it’s an entertaining story.

The characters are cool – the closed circle investigations were snappy, concise and made sense. Loved the revelations AND I full on laughed out loud multiple times. But this is where it also gets odd for me. On the one hand, I loved the occasional wit, on the other, it got a bit too much, somehow? And then, the delivery of the story was intentionally chaotic. What I mean is… How to explain… Benny Hill! You know, when he runs around on a beach with a group of people after him, from one end of the screen to the other? There are people that LOVE the show, and they laugh so hard, they get stomach cramps. Then there are people who find it amusing but oh, so silly. The running around in a gang, up the stairs, down the stairs, the dramatics – for some, it adds to the entertainment factor, for others, it grinds against the grain.

This will be hard for me to rate because whilst on a personal preference I would not rate this book above the midway point of the scale, I feel like it’s not fair to base the rating purely on personal preference at the time, because I was equally as impressed as I was exasperated with the story. Yes, I felt it dragged on for me for too long in the end, even considering the already small page count of 249, but I can’t fault how the story got tied up, it felt rewarding. And bonus points for the era atmosphere and ghost vibes!

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Olivia

Read: 100%

Murder at Spindle Manor is a dark fantasy murder mystery with some splendid worldbuilding. Clocking in at 217 pages on my ereader, it’s quite compact—but those 217 pages have clearly been carefully outlined, crafted, and polished, so that there’s very little wasted space. Given that I’ve recently subjected myself to several sprawling fantasy tomes (both traditionally published and indie published) which didn’t seem to know where they were going, this book was honestly a breath of fresh air.

The novel follows Isabeau Agarwal, a mysterious agent who hunts supernatural creatures. Isabeau has tracked her current quarry to Spindle Manor—but since it’s a creature capable of stealing identities, it could be any one of the several guests already present there by the time she arrives. As both Isabeau and the guests are trapped at the manor by a thunderstorm, a far more mundane murder soon occurs, which leaves her in the position of trying to find both a human culprit and a supernatural one.

Murder at Spindle Manor had clean prose, intriguing worldbuilding, and a hint of genuine humour to offset its otherwise dark tone. It’s also quite good at maintaining narrative tension; I don’t think I was ever bored or tempted to put the book down, once I started reading. One of the things the book did best, I think, was working in its worldbuilding in a natural manner. For some reason, many of the fantasy novels I’ve picked up lately have engaged in what I jokingly refer to as “clue-by-four worldbuilding”, where children ask their parents to re-explain the universe to them aloud, or students ask their teachers to talk about basic things they already understand, in order to fill in the reader on the details. Thank goodness, Murder at Spindle Manor does none of that. It smoothly works in suggestions of the world in which it takes place by putting those details naturally in context and making them relevant to the plot at hand.

That said, this is a competition, and I am obliged to nitpick. Please keep in mind as I do that I did thoroughly enjoy the book, and I recommend it heartily.

Obviously, Murder at Spindle Manor has two separate, parallel mysteries in play. One of them, I felt, was better handled than the other; Isabeau’s supernatural quarry is well defined, and her method of hunting it down was something with which the reader could easily engage. Ironically, it was the mundane murder which sometimes felt airy and difficult to follow. Part of this was probably the sheer number of suspects involved—within two chapters, the author introduced the main character, her coachman-slash-partner, the proprietor, her servant, ten suspects, and a ghost. It was… a lot to take in. And while the author did a better than average job of fleshing all of these people out in such a short space, I’m just not certain any reader out there could possibly ingest all of those characters at once, let alone start speculating on which of them might be a killer. One or two fewer characters, with more space dedicated to the remaining ones, might have made the book a bit easier to follow.

The red herrings and developments in the mundane murder, while narratively dramatic, often felt more like unrelated digressions into chaos rather than investigation. There was also an abrupt tonal shift during one revelation in particular, where a character suddenly goes on a tirade of crude, aggressive sexual comments that just… goes on and on. Given that the rest of the book didn’t have that tone, it felt jarring in the same way that suddenly introducing modern language into an epic fantasy can make you blink. Were I in an editing mode, I’d recommend either distributing that tone more evenly throughout the book, as in The Lies of Locke Lamora, or else shortening the sexual aggression to only a line or two so that it shocks appropriately and then moves on.

Overall, Murder at Spindle Manor was a tightly-written, well-executed novel that knew where it was going and got there via exciting means. The setting was interesting, without being didactically explained to the reader, and I’d probably enjoy reading more books set within this world. One of the two mysteries did feel a bit patchwork, and the tonal shift briefly puzzled me—but overall, I quite enjoyed myself, and I found the ending to be particularly satisfying.

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Timy

Read: 100%

Murder at Spindle Manor had been on my TBR for a few years now, so I was excited when it was picked as a finalist, because now I had no excuse not to read it. As I’m in a massive reading slump, I thought starting with this would be a good way to get out of it. Or at least start to get out. And it kind of worked. I say this because I expected it to be my favorite finalist, and while it still may be, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

With its less than 250 pages, Murder at Spindle Manor is a book you can read in a day if you are so inclined. And once it gets going, it’s easy to get sucked into the mystery. Or mysteries, as it turns out. The setting is simple – there is a guest house full of well, beings let’s call them and Isabeau is ready to kill a monster. Alas, someone else has similar ideas as one of the travelers gets killed. So now she not only has to figure out who the monster is, but she also has to run a murder investigation.

And this is where things start getting interesting. But until we get here, we get a lot of info dumped on us as Isabeau meets all 10 guests, plus she has a companion in Evie and also there is the owner of the manor, Mrs Blanchet, and her puppet Penny. When you get all these names and personalities dropped on you in two very short chapters, it’s almost impossible to get everything straight in your head and remember the details. Especially as you can’t build any connection with either of them.

And that’s a problem for me, because I prefer character-driven stories, where I can connect with the MC (or someone belonging to the main plot, at least), and can care about what happens with them. Isabeau is a very secretive person to begin with – which is not a bad thing, mind you – but because the book is short and the plot has to move fast, there is little chance for us to get close to her. To get to know her. Yes, there is an investigation, and as interesting as it is to find the culprit, I need something more to make me interested in reading further into the series. At least we have Evie to lighten the mood here or there. I think she was my favorite character.

I haven’t read any Agatha Christie novels myself, but I did quite a few books in the genre, even books that followed the same formulas (as most of them built on what she created), and saw some of the movies made based on her work, so even I could see that’s where some of the inspiration came from for The Lamplight Murder Mysteries (book 2 is titled Murder on the Lamplight Express, if you need further proof). But if you take inspiration from a body of work that’s pretty well known, then I would expect to have a lot more meat on those bones. There is little worldbuilding here, we don’t get to know much about Ghasthia, though what we do sounds intriguing. I wished there was more, you know?

I was also annoyed by some of the dialogue, but I can’t quite put my finger on the why. Maybe because it didn’t flow quite as smoothly as I would have liked, but this can be a personal preference than anything else. Otherwise, the writing is engaging, and Stang does have a talent for drawing up characters in a very short time in a way that they don’t seem one-dimensional at all. The running from one place to another gets a bit jarring at times, but I liked how everything was revealed – even if I’m not a big fan of all the things being revealed in such a short time. Again, personal preference.

While I enjoyed the mystery and the ending was quite satisfying I kept feeling disconnected from it all the way. I liked the last few chapters when we got a look into Isabeau’s life and feelings but it was too little, too late. That being said, if you enjoy Agatha Christie’s work but want a supernatural twist on it, I’m sure you’ll enjoy Murder at Spindle Manor. After all, it didn’t make it into the SPFBO 9 finals for nothing.

Our Judgement
Team Queen's Book Asylum's scores for Murder at Spindle Manor by Morgan Stang

Our score for Murder at Spindle Manor by Morgan Stang

Score 7/10

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