SPFBO 9 Finalist review: A Rival Most Vial by R.K. Ashwick

SPFBO 9: A Rival Most Vial by R.K. Ashwick

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 7th SPFBO 9 finalist review is for A Rival Most Vial by R.K. Ashwick. 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 A Rival Most Vial we have 6 reviews and 6 scores for your reading pleasures.

So, without further ado, let’s take a closer look at our 7th finalist!

Table of Contents

About the Book
Series:Side Quest Row #1
Genre:Fantasy, Romance
Publisher:self-published
Date of Publishing:January 25, 2023
Book Blurb
A Rival Most Vial by R.K. Ashwick

Two potion shops, one heated rivalry…until hate bubbles over into something else.

Any adventurer worth their sword knows about Ambrose Beake. The proud, quiet half-elf sells the best, and only, potions in the city—until a handsome new shopkeeper named Eli opens another potion shop across the street, throwing Ambrose’s peace and ledgers far off balance.

Within weeks, they’re locked in a war of price tags and products—Ambrose’s expertise against Eli’s effortless charm. Toil leads to trouble, the safety gloves come off, and right as their rivalry reaches a boiling point…

The mayor commissions them to brew a potion together.

The task is as complex as it is lucrative, pushing both men to the limits of their abilities and patience. Yet as the fires burn and cauldrons bubble…they find a different sort of chemistry brewing.

Review

Bjørn

Read: 100%

‘Romantasy’ is the publishing trend of the year, according to Serious Book Publications (none of which seemed to have acknowledged the existence of ‘grimdark’). A Rival Most Vial seems to be, well, it, which is why I didn’t want to read the book – if something’s trendy, I automatically reject it, which is how I missed out on The Dark Knight. Liis, however, kept insisting that I should read this book, I know she’s good good (i.e. similar to my) taste, so I decided to give the first 10% – maybe 20% – maybe half while we’re at it – a try.

As it happens, I read a lot of romance in various guises. I know how plotting one and beats work. It’s the most difficult genre to write. I found A Rival Most Vial disappointingly predictable for a genre the point of which is to be predictable. The only thing that surprised me was how suddenly Ambrose went from being angry at Eli for existing to suddenly noticing that his pants seem to be tighter than usual, or have they always been that tight? In my head, I couldn’t stop but count “we’re at the 40% mark, this is going to happen now.” Reader, it does. It’s wholesome romance, too – no danger of sudden popping appendages described in gruesome, I mean – sexy detail.

Let’s move over roman and get to the tasy, though. (I hate myself for this nerd dad joke, but not enough to remove it.) I loved the magic. I loved the details. I loved the ideas, the visuals, I held my breath as something was being stirred clockwise and then counter-clockwise, or when Dawn, Ambrose, and Eli in various configurations attempted to find the elusive moss. I knew, of course, that the commission had to succeed, but what if it wouldn’t?! Would Dawn create her fireworks? She would, obviously, but what if she didn’t?! (Speaking of which, the depiction of depression and people’s reactions to it is both gentle and accurate, whether on purpose or not.)

As fantasy goes A Rival Most Vial  is epic, and I don’t mean battles. There is so much imagination at display. Casual queerness of the exact sort I like best. (Tell me there’s a book coming with Grim as one of the protagonists and me as the other.) It’s a very visual book, and the visuals are beautiful. The scene where Eli and Ames test a certain potion for the first time is where A Rival Most Vial shines… sparkles the brightest – romantic, funny (this book is funny, too), sweet, and pretty.

The use of tropes in romance is hardly unusual – romance is about use of tropes, whether it’s Harlequin or Helen Hoang’s trilogy. Perhaps it’s because the fantasy part was so wonderfully elaborate – “sparkling” would be my one-word review, actually – that the romance arc felt flat for me. The characters are fully fleshed-out and complex, from protagonists, through Tom (I WANT MY OWN TOM), to all the other residents of the street. The bit about found family made me tear up a bit, though, and same did Eli’s actual family showing up. And for all my whining about how it was predictable… I had no idea how it would end until it did.

I would recommend A Rival Most Vial to anyone who saw the word ‘romantasy’ in The Guardian and didn’t immediately report The Guardian to the manager of Internet. And – thank you, Liis, for talking me into reading it. Because I would have missed out on a book I liked much, much more than I thought I would, and I needed the escapism and the beauty.

PS. Dear author, if you have ARCs of books 2 and 3 lying around, don’t hesitate to send them my way, love Bjørn xxx

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Jen

Read: 100%

A Rival Most Vial is a nice little low-stakes romantasy. It feels a little like a contemporary romance in a d&d setting.  It was sweet. It was funny. And it was cute (I mean look at that title for a clue). It had a great cast of characters surrounding our leads and a world full of everything from orcs to elves.

Ambrose is a bit of a stuffed shirt. He likes his shop quiet and orderly. He’s that uptight prickly character that’s burying a lot of hurt…and my favourite type, I might add.

Eli is a friendlier, messier personality, and it’s reflected in his shop. What I loved about Eli was that he also had concerns and worries but just copes differently than someone like Ambrose does. He’s not just there to be that person who brings Ambrose out of the darkness and shows him that he is worthy. Ambrose also does this for Eli. So, each of them has that something special that helps make the other feel whole, if that makes sense.

A Rival Most Vial’s story revolves around them trying to outdo each other to gain customers to their potion shops, and eventually, for reasons they need to work together- allowing them to appreciate each other strengths, and use them to achieve their goals. In the meantime, love happens. This pretty much follows the romance formula and I ate it up with a spoon…I have an undying love for the enemies-to-lovers trope. This was that, but more to the sweet side. I enjoyed it for its light humour and warmth, and that all-around easy feeling that just allows you to sit back and enjoy the story.

Other thoughts

I am not quite sure if I could wrap my head around Tom, I had a mental picture of a robotized ET crossed with something out of Inspector Gadget which is probably not what the author was going for but whatever she’s supposed to be, she was cute.

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Liis

Read: 100%

A Rival Most Vial – the book I was looking the LEAST forward to. I groaned when I saw this fantasy romance make a finalist because please don’t make me sit through some fluffy feelings, I beg! And there better not be a love potion, grumble-grumble.

And well, I joked about it to the team, that if I did end up liking it, I would have to ‘man up’ and admit it. So here I am, admitting the fact that I LOVED this book so hard! It was cute, fun, the right amount of quirky, and not over-the-top graphic with the intimate scenes. It was perfectly balanced, like Ambrose’s potions!

A Rival Most Vial is an ‘opposites attract’ kind of story. I wouldn’t say it’s ‘enemies to lovers’ because I wouldn’t call the opposing sides of a healthy business rivalry enemies. Besides, Eli really doesn’t have it in him to hate anyone, I think. He has a very warm, open personality, he is bubbly and one of those people that just adventure through life, restlessly, day at a time, only planning for a short time and hoping they’ll make it. Ambrose, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of eagle-eyed perfectionist that can drive a non-perfectionist simple in the head. Ambrose is the opposite of fun. He does not allow himself to feel joy. 

Ambrose and Eli both have quite the development arc during this story. Their respective ‘figuring it out’ moments were one of the reasons I loved this book. It was so pleasantly human. We all have internal conflicts that hold us back from any number of things and to witness both Ambrose and Eli having to take a hard look at their ‘default settings’ to then make a step towards an improvement added that layer of emotional depth for me. 

In addition to the main plot and main characters, there were two things that made this book an absolute joy to read… The writing and the setting. 

Sometimes it happens that the idea in a book is good, but I just seem to stumble over words to get to the end. It’s like skipping along a riverbank on rocks of different sizes. Enjoyable and fun, but oh, so much work. A Rival Most Vial was a smooth sandy beach as far as the eye can see. When reading simply happens automatically, because the connection in between the words, your eyes and your brain is seamless. I don’t know how else to describe it. A Rival Most Vial is a polished piece of work, and it deserves the acknowledgement. It also deserves to be one of the SPFBO9 finalists!  

Regarding the setting, I adored the atmosphere in this book. The secondary set of characters is made up of merchants, each as unique as you can imagine. If I was to describe the feeling I got from the wholesome friendships on the ‘shopping street’ then I would compare it to the camaraderie one can feel in A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. The warm feeling of found family and lifelong friends. And when this emotion is done well, there truly is no need for anything overly dramatic to happen. Someone doesn’t have to die a death, someone doesn’t have to be sacrificed, someone doesn’t have to escape mercenaries or save a country from war… None of that awful, grim stuff. Sometimes there is beauty in simplicity. For me, A Rival Most Vial is a ‘stop and smell the roses’ kind of read, and it is purely about people – human and non-human. The glorious synchronicity of living together in a close-knit community, helping each other, celebrating each other’s successes, and helping each other in difficult times. I would recommend this for anyone looking for a book to take them away from the harsh realities, because A Rival Most Vial will wrap you in a comfy hug and make you smile. 

Oh! PS! I LOVED the chapter headings! Brilliant little touch that made the essence of this book complete.

PPS! There’s no love potion! Yay! 

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Olivia

Read: 100%

A Rival Most Vial was possibly the most surprising book I’ve read so far this year. Several times, I tried to start it and didn’t manage to get past the first two pages. Just why that was is a mystery to me—perhaps it was simply trying to absorb a new setting and several characters in only a page or so. I set it aside more than once, wondering if it was me or the book.

Then my fellow judges started mentioning how cute it was, and I finally decided to sit down and push through the first chapter.

As it turns out, the first two pages were the only thing that got in my way. Almost everything else about this book was entirely delightful. As a reader, I deeply enjoy it when a novel makes a plan, sets a goalpost, and successfully executes; no matter the genre, it’s simply satisfying to watch things come together properly. A Rival Most Vial took aim at being a queer cosy fantasy romance, added a dash of LitRPG flavour, and absolutely stuck the landing.

One expects several elements in a good cosy fantasy: personal stakes (rather than epic stakes), comforting setting, interpersonal relationship drama, and often (but not always) an element of found family. Ashwick delivers on all of these counts, with a diverse cast of characters that swiftly grew on me, as well as several very relatable everyday problems. Overachievers burn out, socially anxious people lash out, and people who feel as though they should have everything they want begin to wonder why they’re not happy. Everything ends with people finally facing their everyday woes and deciding on a relatively healthy course of action, in a way that reassures cosy readers that they came to the right book for their comfort read.

A Rival Most Vial also delivers quite well as a light enemies-to-lovers romance. Ambrose and Eli have an entertaining Bert and Ernie dynamic, and their initial conflict feels very earned. I was particularly impressed by Ashwick’s ability to force these two characters into constant interpersonal interactions, despite their best efforts to evade it. Some romance authors (and some buddy cop authors!) call this element “adhesion”—the reason that two lead characters must stick together, no matter how angry they become or how little they wish to look at each other. Ambrose and Eli had not just one, but several different well-executed points of conflict and adhesion, which are the two main ingredients that make a truly satisfying enemies-to-lovers story.

Lastly, of course, I found the book to be simply well-written and charming in its own right. Once I got past those first two pages, I continued turning pages until I’d finished it. The two main leads are very strongly characterised, and they carry the story well. Ambrose is a socially avoidant, perfectionist mess whom most introverted readers will probably find deeply relatable; Eli is an extrovert with a talent for people, but not always for academics. Once they get past punching each other, they discover that opposites attract. In this case, it’s a cosy fantasy romance made in adventuring heaven.

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Paul

Read: 100%

When talking about A Rival Most Vial in the team Discord, there were accusations thrown around that I’m anti-fun and allergic to romance. Certainly, my preferences lean to the darker side of SFF, but I’m not averse to a dollop of sauce or a squeeze of infatuation where it’s integral to the story.

Sadly, A Rival Most Vial does little to dispel these rumours as it wasn’t a novel that I tremendously enjoyed. The romance here is the story, and that was kind of my issue as it’s pretty much the be-all and end-all, with everything else getting little attention. The book reads as romance-heavy but fantasy-lite and with a wider world that I found a little lacking.

It started interestingly with a progression fantasy vibe but focused on the NPC vendors rather than the players/adventurers. Being a fan of crafting games and coincidentally playing Potion Craft as I started the book, I was looking forward to seeing how the alchemy would be incorporated. Alas, there wasn’t any real depth to the artifice, with potions/items being referred to by level and ingredients/materials rattled off with no context.

But Paul, it’s a romance book, not ‘Alchemy for Dummies’… you dummy!! Yeah, and that’s why this one isn’t a book for me. Romance alone isn’t enough to keep me interested, there has to be some additional bite and depth, for me, there was an absence of that here.

Now, I can concede that there were high levels of cosiness in the book, and the romance did possess a good amount of warmth (eventually). Not being a romance reader, I can’t really sling around critical opinions, but the enemies-to-lovers beat seemed to kick in far too late and far too quickly. It was ‘I hate you, I hate you too’ until about 40%, at which point they realise that the other has nice thighs, there’s then there’s the obligatory ‘Does he like me? He doesn’t like me, does he?’ section, and then we get to the loving. I feel that an element of reciprocal attraction could have been added earlier to spice up the initial conflict, but I do appreciate that this may not have been appropriate for the characters, and an emotional connection may have been required before a physical one.

A Rival Most Vial does, however, have a satisfying ending, and I found myself genuinely pleased for both Ambrose and Eli. Ambrose, in particular, is a well-crafted character, and I found it easy to connect and empathise with him. As the story unfolds, his personality slowly begins to blossom, and by the end, he emerges as a stronger, more vibrant individual.

My fellow judges have been rapturous in the Discord with their praise of A Rival Most Vial, and so my issues here are absolutely, ‘it’s not you, it’s me’.

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Timy

Read: 100%

Not going to lie, I had expectations for A Rival Most Vial, which got bigger and bigger as time went on and I wasn’t able to fall in love with any of the books SPFBO 9 threw my way. The pressure was on, and that’s always a double-edged sword. I needed a book to fall in love with. This is an accurate portrayal of me (keep it in mind, we’ll be back to it):

But the fact that these days I read more cosy fantasy than dark, and that I read 3 M/M romance novels in a week back in March suggested that A Rival Most Vial could be my favorite SPFBO book of the season. After reading it, I can say that it might even make it to my top 10 list at the end of the year. To say I loved this book would be an understatement. If I could, I’d pack my things and would move to the Scar, thank you very much. Despite the lack of internet and music venues. But hey, I could be a music venue owner! I’m sure all those adventurers need to let their hair down every once in a while. Taverns are good and all, but nothing beats a night of jumping around, and singing your heart out with your favorite band. Trust me, I know.

After reading the first page I knew I was going to love this book, and my instincts once again proved right. For me, the characters’ personalities shone through and I got excited to get to know them. I knew they would be fun. I think this shows how well-written A Rival Most Vial is. Plus, I’m a sucker for the found family trope and as the story went on, I kept wishing I was part of this family.

I loved Eli from the beginning (those earrings!! and bubbly personality!!) and I believe everyone needs an Eli in their life. But it took me a while to warm up to Ambrose. Turns out, he was the character I could relate to the most. He is basically me without the awesome found family and a passion for potioneering. He built so many walls around himself that he completely forgot they were there. He keeps everyone at arms’ length and even though he is lonely and wants to belong he finds excuses why he doesn’t. It’s easier to hide at home than making the effort to open up. And it’s easier to believe you are a burden for everyone and that you have to do everything by yourself than ask for help. Again, trust me, I know.

I loved how the enemies-to-lovers trope was executed here. And yes, some of it was predictable, but I enjoyed myself so much that I didn’t care. I don’t think things moved too fast, personally, the pace worked for me. I just wanted more of the whole book in general. There was enough development for the romance to be plausible but also allow the plot to move fluidly. I also loved that there were no high stakes, the world wasn’t a disaster, it’s a place where all kinds of people live together in peace. There is magic, there are adventurers, and a multilevel town with clever ideas and a lot of personality squeezed into every shop.

That’s not to say there aren’t any dangers – monsters roam free and our MCs get into all kinds of trouble, some of them life-threatening. Ashwick found the perfect balance between cozy moments and tense ones, where you can’t help but keep turning the pages. I wanted to savour this book by reading on my Kindle, but I pretty much devoured it through the audiobook. I’m not even sorry.

I probably could find something to pick on if I tried hard enough, but I’m putting the evil bitch Queen to rest for now and will join Bjørn in begging for books 2, 3 and however many there will be in this series. See the gif above. A Rival Most Vial grabbed my heart, squeezed it and left me wishing for more.

Our Judgement
Team Queen's Book Asylum's scores for A Rival Most Vial by R.K. Ashwick
Bjorn: 8.5
Jen: 7.5
Liis: 8.5
Olivia: 9.5
Paul: 7
Timy: 9.5

Our score for A Rival Most Vial by R.K. Ashwick:

Score 8.5/10

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