#SPFBO 8 First Batch of Books: Feedback

Posted On 13 September 2022

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What is SPFBO? Check out Mark Lawrence’s post here to look at this year’s entrants, judges and allocations list.

I am teaming up again with the ladies from The Critiquing Chemist.

Today’s post is about giving feedback on the first five SPFBO books I picked up.  I have fifteen books altogether and I’ve tried out a different process this year.  I had three batches of randomly chosen books equalling five books a month for the first three months.   As previously mentioned I will be giving every book in my batch a fair chance and in fact I’ve read at least 30% (and more often than that more) of each book.  Having  partially read all 15 books I’m now in a position to start to make cuts and choose which books I will be fully reading before choosing a semi finalist. I will provide a short review of my initial thoughts for the books that I have to say goodbye to – always the saddest part of the competition which is why I find myself delaying the inevitable.  Before the end of September I will post two further updates with further cuts.  At this point, and to be clear, the books I’m rolling forward at this stage are not Semi Finalists but are in the running to become so. I aim to complete all my potential SFs by the end of September at which point I hope to select one or two books as Semi Finalists for the Critiquing Chemist to read (and they will do likewise) – we will then decide on our Finalist.

Without further ado:

Elusion of Freedom by Kelvin Womack

Elusion

After thousands of years the trapped darkness is breaking free, and once it is, no longer shall we be.

Thought to be long locked away, darkness has escaped it confines, enslaving everything it touches.

The only safe haven is behind the Order’s towering walls, where 17-year-old Vayn and his father have fled. But it’s not the darkness they’re afraid of. After escaping the clutches of Shadow Reapers that ravaged his land, Vayn desires to never live in the free world again, exchanging his liberation for what some would consider a form of slavery.

But when Reapers break inside, murdering his father, Vayn is determined to attain retribution. The Order forbids it, knowing he’ll uncover their secrets.

There is but one way to regain his freedom. Once a year, on the Day of Liberation, one may leave the walls but at great cost. A life.

Vayn must sacrifice someone innocent. If he doesn’t, he’ll never bring his father’s killers to justice or learn the Orders secrets.

Outside awaits the darkness, its creatures perishable only with the aid of a larger-than-life sword. But not even that will help him face the darkness of his own past.

Freedom is both elusive and hard to distinguish. Time is of the essence, and on his quest of vengeance, Vayn must learn that true freedom is more than escape from physical and mental subjugation before the darkness swallows their world into oblivion.

My thoughts:

I read just shy of 40% of Elusion of Freedom.  It’s a fast moving story with plenty of action packed in and was quite a surprise being a mix of fantasy and sci fi.  The world here is beset with a dark encroaching menace with monsters that attack villages slaughtering everyone and destroying everything.  We initially meet Vayn and his father as they seek sanctuary behind the walls of the Order following such destruction in their own homeland.  Their entry involves wearing a permanent collar which appears to act as an information gathering tool – basically there are certain stations placed around and the wearing of these collars gives signals that demonstrate the wearer’s emotions and can lead to problems for them. Vayn trains to become a soldier, making firm friends along the way, until the Order is also attacked and Vayn’s father is killed.  Vayn then leaves the order to seek vengeance, a thing which is deeply frowned upon – in fact once you leave there is no return.

At the point I left off I would say that this would definitely appeal to readers who like a lot of action, also the possibility of a romance potentially developing between two of the central characters, although this is very subtle so don’t worry if romance isn’t your thing.  I felt like the characterisation suffered a little as a result of the constant drive forward and as a result I didn’t find myself becoming quite as attached to any of the key players as I would have liked, but, at the same time, I recognise that my feelings may have developed further if I’d read to the end.

In terms of the world.  I did find myself a little bit perplexed at times.  On the one hand this had the feeling of something olde worlde.  We have swords and daggers, bows and arrows and an old fashioned military style school that drills obedience into students, but then we seem to have some much more sophisticated hardware that felt a bit at odds somehow and not fully explored, again, though the caveat of only having read so far also applies to this comment.  I confess that I kept falling into a more mediaeval type mindset but that’s really my brain lulling me.

At times some of the language was quite modern which also jarred me a little, particularly as for most of the read I got a different vibe, like in my head I was picturing a different period but them something uptodate would pop up and it would surprise me all over again. In fairness that’s my own issue though and other readers might not share that experience.

All that being said I think this would appeal to readers who enjoy a story that has a fast pace with a central intrigue.  The characters seem to be forming lasting friendships and the intrigue surrounding the darkness is waiting to be discovered not to mention future revelations that have been hinted at concerning the ‘Order’ and it’s motivations.

Conclusion : Cut

Cutthroats and Traitors by Steven Smith

Cutthroats

Will the Jagged Ghosts stop at nothing to evade capture? Their journey of alcohol induced law breaking may soon come to an end, with naval commander Lieutenant Dainsley being appointed the task of bringing the small pirate crew to justice.

It’s a race against time. If the Jagged Ghosts lose, the noose will await them all.

My thoughts:

Cutthroats and Traitors is an apt title for the story so far as we follow a small pirate crew and discover that not everyone amongst their number is playing fair.

The story begins with a banquet attended by the wealthiest aristocrats and an opportunity for a particularly highly-ranked British officer to brag about his most recent endeavours which led to the capture and execution of a notorious pirate.  The party is unceremoniously broken up when pirates break into the hall led by a young woman bent on revenge for the recent execution of her father.

Holly Black is the captain of the Jagged Ghosts, known as such because of the lethal weapons they carry and their ability to escape/disappear on the high seas.  Holly has a plan to get rich quick and disappear permanently, unfortunately, not all her crew are loyal and along with that she and her mates find themselves in a spot of bother when the Redcoats turn up at the tavern they’re patronising.

I can’t really say too much about the story and clearly I don’t want to give too much away about the traitorous aspects.

Now, as with the book above, I’ve read a certain percentage of this story, approx 32/33% and the first thing I would say to the point I read is that I haven’t at this point encountered any fantasy aspects – of course that could be due to follow so it’s only an early first impression.  To be fair I’m very fond of pirate stories whether or not they have fantasy within the pages so going swashbuckling always works for me and I can’t get enough of such stories.

I must say that I was very happy to find that we had a mostly female crew of pirates.  However, I struggled a little to like the characters or particularly engage with any of them and I put that down to the speed at which the story bursts out of the blocks.  I couldn’t help but feel like we were told they were badass rather than being shown through their actions, again though, I would add the caveat that the characters have had a fairly limited time to work their magic and although I don’t yet have a favourite that could easily change.  Certainly I think that the intrigue is interesting and I anticipate some twists before the conclusion is reached.

Unfortunately, at the point at which I’d stopped we’d not set sail or encountered any adventures as such but hopefully that is yet to follow.

As it is, this definitely contains intrigue in terms of the traitor in the midst of this band of reprobates and so if you like shenanigans involving pirates this could be the book for you.

Conclusion : Cut

The Prophecy by RE Davies

Reign of

Elf born, raised by wolves, and talks to dragons…who is this girl? She wants to find out, too, as she abandons the safe confines of her home to discover the truth for herself. Blessed with a magic unlike any before, she discovers a world at war ruled over by monstrous dragons, where the land has been slowly dying beyond that of her cozy little wolf den. The young elf discovers she is known by many names, and some believe her to be the one of prophecy meant to unite the land of Onis. It is no easy task that has been placed on her shoulders. There is no love between the dragons, the elves, the humans, the dwarves, and the drow, so getting them to listen will be quite a challenge. Luckily, the wolf child has an unprecedented team of cohorts to aid and guide her on her quest, but is she ready for such a challenge? Will the great dragon Aeris’s extreme hatred be overcome so that peace can be brought to the land? Or, will the young girl fail in her quest and bring forth an even greater war between the races?

Join this young elf on her epic quest for peace and self-discovery as she battles against monsters, forms unbreakable bonds, and faces the reigning ancient dragons of Onis.

My thoughts: 

The Prophecy is a coming of age/chosen one story – both much loved tropes within the genre and for good reason.  As the book begins we witness an attack, by dragons, on a band of elves travelling through the forest.  A baby is amongst their number but rather than kill the infant one of the dragons secretes her away to be looked after by wolves and in particular a wolf-god.  We then move forward and meet Davion as he graduates from a prestigious mage school with his ability being fire magic.  His uncle (not by blood) is a dwarf called Hort and the two are about to travel back to their home, Lochlann where Davion will use his fire magic to help in the foundry – although really he dreams of greatness in battle.  Meanwhile in the Sacred Forest the young elf child, known as Pavula,  has been raised as part of the wolf pack, practicing her magic and living an almost idyllic life.  Pavula is the hope of Onis, the one prophesied to bring peace.  She’s starting to push against the boundaries and restrictions that have protected her over the years.  She wants to see other places and meet people.  Both characters are of an age when they want more from life, and although they are in some respects still unprepared for what life is about to throw at them,  it seems like they’re destined to meet, particularly after both experience a vision of the other.

This is a very easy to read fantasy.  The place is described well and although it feels slightly generic it’s easy to conjure.  There’s enough history to give the world a good foundation and this isn’t heavy handed.  It has a Tolkien feel with dwarves, elves, humans, dragons, trolls, orcs and other creatures.  Some humans can wield magic and this is believed to be as a result of their interactions with elves in the past.  Each race is, for a fantasy reader, much as you would imagine, for example, the elves are beautiful and graceful, long lived and magical, a little lofty and removed.  The Dwarves are blunt and to the point.  Skillful and able to craft, voracious of appetite, etc.

The characters are young, naive and slightly sweet to read about.  To be honest, I can’t remember their ages but this has a young YA feel to it.  The two central characters are Pavula and Davion but they are surrounded by other likable characters such as Hort.  I stopped reading at 34% which is the point at which the two seemed about to meet.

Overall, whilst The Prophecy felt a little young for me it is without doubt a book that younger readers, new to fantasy will enjoy.  There’s plenty of action and adventure, the beginnings of a sweet romance and the makings of two young people set to change their world.

Conclusion : Cut

The Hidden Blade by Marie M. Mullany

HiddenBlade

The bluron’s wings delivers a stark command of death as the Empire teeters on the edge of a most uncivil war. For the first time in Her long history, a ducal line has failed. The last duke of Etendulat is dead and none of his heirs have undertaken the Trials of Dusang. The wealth of farmlands that lies at the heart of the Blutben penninsula lack a ruler and greedy men circle the bountiful plains.

Into this high stakes game, Louis is sent to end the ambitions of Tybalt du Mamel, Baron of Somfaux, who would reach for the Etendulat Sash. With every step, he uncovers more of a treacherous plot that is poised to strike at the heart of the Empire. Forbidden magic shadows him and ultimately he must make a dire decision : Can he take the life of an innocent for the greater good?

My thoughts:

I won’t be posting a review for The Hidden Blade today as this is one of the books I’ve decided to continue reading so a review will follow at a later stage.

Conclusion: Roll forward

Memories of Blood and Shadow by Aaron S Jones

Memories

Guilt cuts sharper than the deadliest of blades.

Tavar Farwan lives alone past the Undying Sands. One stormy night, he is attacked by two young warriors claiming to vengeance for an ill from ages past. Tavar defends himself, killing one of the intruders and leaving the other to bleed on the floor. Weary and filled with regret, Tavar offers to tell the young man his story: a story of how a nomadic orphan rose to kill a God.

My thoughts:

Well, Memories of Blood and Shadow is a well told tale (to the point I read up to).  I love books where the central character is reflecting back and telling his story and this is no exception.

Tavar is the main character.  His parents are killed by soldiers as a boy and he, his brother and friends are taken to Alfara as slaves.  They are enrolled into military school where they are gradually honed to become soldiers.  Tavar’s brother, instead of being enrolled in the school was taken by a more senior officer and follows a different course although I suspect their paths will cross again even though I’d not quite reached that point.

So, I enjoyed reading the start of Tavar’s tale.  The story is well told.  There is plenty of detail that helps to build a really good picture of the world and the author takes his time over the characters developing their individual natures and succeeding in developing firm friendships.  I confess that I’m a bit of a sucker for the whole ‘training school’ type of story so the chapters I’ve read so far were enjoyable for me.

The issues that I had with this one.  Well, of course I noticed the familiarity in set up to Name of the Wind.  I think such comparisons are inevitable although I feel like the story itself is going in its own direction even though it had a distinctly Rothfuss style kick off.  The other slight niggle for me was the pacing.  This is a story that takes its time.  To be honest that’s not an issue as such for me as I really don’t mind my stories having a touch of ‘epic’.  However, there are certain points where I felt some of the narrative could have been pruned a little – this is very much a personal opinion though – and I do understand the author’s love of the place and people that they create and therefore want to expound upon.  Also, although I read just over 30% of the story (which probably equates to about 200 pages) there has been little action to this point and no fantasy elements so far (apart from mention of a sword at the beginning which sounds as though it might have some magical properties).

All being said I enjoyed where I read up to and I’m definitely curious enough to return and complete the story at some point.

Conclusion: Cut

My thanks to the authors for submitting their beloved books.  There wouldn’t be a competition without you and I really appreciate that you took such a huge leap.