#SPFBO Finalist

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Today I’m announcing my finalist for the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off.  300 self published books, ten bloggers, one winner.  Brainchild of Mark Lawrence the SPFBO is in it’s third year and is going strong.

This year I’ve found it difficult to make a choice.  I had four books that were competing equally for my attention.  I’ve read and reviewed them and even been back and reread the beginning of each book over again to try and help choose a winner.  The four books in question (with links to the reviews) are:

Jack Bloodfist: Fixer by James Jakins

Today is Too Late by Burke Fitzpatrick

Empire of the Dead by Phil Tucker

The Archbishop’s Amulet by Watson Davis

I will say that having more than one book tied neck and neck is downright not good.  I hate having to choose between them but that’s the deal.

There can be only one

My winner is: Jack Bloodfist: Fixer by James Jakins

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I liked all four of the above books for different reasons and I would definitely continue reading future books from all four authors.  What really stood out for me with Jack Bloodfist was the fun I had reading it and I hope the other bloggers enjoy it as much as I did.

I would just like to say a huge thanks to all the authors who took part.  Putting your work out for such scrutiny and potential criticism must be difficult and I applaud you all.  Thank you. 😀

 

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#SPFBO Review : The Archbishop’s Amulet (The Windhaven Chronicles) by Watson Davis

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archThe Archbishop’s Amulet is one of my remaining four books for the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off and my final review.  I will be choosing a winner later today but wanted first to review each of my final books.

This book certainly falls into the category of grimdark.  Don’t be fooled by the younger age of some of the main characters, this is downright harsh, dark and brutal.  Thankfully, at the same time the author does manage to give you this tiny edge of hope that keeps you clinging to the pages and reading on willing things to work out.

At the beginning of the book we witness an exchange between some traders and the Onei tribal leader of the Brightfox Clan.  This is our first sighting of Caldane, the chief’s son who is currently in training to be a Shaman.

From there we jump forward.  War has swept the nation and the Nayen Empire have conquered virtually all in their path.  Caldane’s tribe has been all but annihilated and he is being held a prisoner, a slave of the Empress.  His only thoughts lead to escape and survival.  The Nayen regularly use slaves in their dark magic, sacrificing them in part of their rituals to call demons and gather power.  Caldane has managed to survive these sacrifices simply by the strength of his own magical ability and has in fact been unwittingly contributing to the sacrifices by lending his own magic to the proceedings.

As Caldane attempts to escape one night he finds himself taking an extra person, a young boy called Rucker, also desperate to escape.  Let’s face it – everyone would want to escape this hell.  The escape attempt ultimately fails, what Caldane could have achieved alone is not possible with a much younger child in tow, but when he is returned he overhears something that gives him a whole new purpose.  His mother still lives and is being held captive by General Silverhewer at the fortress in Windhaven.  The knowledge that his mother is alive gives Caldane a whole new purpose and he once again breaks free, this time accompanied by more than one child.

From here the story becomes a fight for survival.  Caldane has taken an amulet that belonged to the Archbishop Diyune, a gift from the Empress that was vital to the rituals.  Of course this makes his recovery essential and all the forces of the enemy are being used in his pursuit including an army of orcs.

The main character is Caldane.  He’s resourceful, capable and tough.  He hasn’t had a pampered upbringing and as a result he’s able to look after himself.  His companions are Cole, Rucker and Aissal.  Cole has led a life of privilege, Rucker is little more than a chlld who wants to return home to his parents and Aissal a young woman, blue skinned and apparently alien.  I’m not totally sure that I understand enough about Aissal to speak confidently about her.  Like Caldane she shares a magical ability that gives her healing abilities.  I liked her as a character although she does come across as hopelessly optimistic in the face of such evil.

What works here is the way in which the friendships develop, Caldane knows that he’s hampering his own escape and yet he starts to form a bond with these others becoming almost responsible for them and wanting to deliver them back to their homes.  Don’t get me wrong, sometimes they just annoyed me, running wilfully into danger – but then they’re little more than children so of course they’re not always cautious.  Again, I realise that I’m talking here about a good few of the characters being children and that might seem off putting but this isn’t a young feeling book, it’s just a book about desperate characters trying to escape from dreadful slavery.  The range of characters extends to many more than this small group and the beauty of them all is they feel real, they run the gamut from good to evil but they’re not as simple or straightforward as that.

The world building.  Well, at the risk of sounding redundant this place is not a place you want to go to.  The new rulers hold sway (obviously I suppose), but more than that the conquered are dominated completely, subdued and in fact controlled, little more than puppets, they’re not just beaten, they’re literally broken. Life is cheap in this new order, blood and souls essential for the dark magic.  It’s a statement to the evil that people will commit in the name of ambition.  This isn’t just about conquering people it’s almost like whole scale massacre and ruin.

Overall this was a thoroughly engrossing read.  It gets off to a great start, the hook of Caldane and where he is, why, what’s going on, and, then getting on board with the whole idea of him breaking free.  Frankly, I just wanted him to run for the hills and keep running but the story is about more than just running away.

In terms of criticisms, well, this can be quite bloody and violent – the initial scenes, with the cleaning up after the sacrificing – may not be for everyone.  However, it’s not all bloody guts and graphic details, there’s a very good story going on here.  The other quibble I had was the ending felt a little rushed but that’s probably just me expecting it to go on a little longer and I certainly did want more – the ending doesn’t feel complete, it’s clear there’s more coming and I would like to know what happens next.

Overall I thought this was a really intriguing story.  It definitely compelled me to read on quickly and once I started I knew that I had to carry on.  I would certainly wish to read a follow up if one was forthcoming.

 

#SPFBO Review : The Empire of the Dead (The Godsblood Trilogy #1) by Phil Tucker

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empireThe Empire of the Dead is one of my remaining four books for the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off.  I will be choosing a winner on Saturday but will first review each of my final books.

Phil Tucker is not a new author to me.  I read and enjoyed The Path of Flames, from his The Chronicles of the Black Gate series.  It was great and in fact I bought the next two books on the strength of it.

Anyway, The Empire of the Dead is completely different from The Path of Flames.  It’s just as well written and its still fantasy but this time its a heist story.  Doesn’t everyone love a heist story?

As we start the story we meet up with Acharsis, demigod and son of the fallen god Ekillos.  Acharsis has fallen on hard times, he’s feeling his age, he’s tired of being a merchant, he’s feeling guilt over his past actions and on top of that he has his very own demon that seems to appear out of nowhere right before bad things happen.  Acharsis has decided to return to his homeland to apologise to his past love Annara and to seek forgiveness from his former friend Jarek (also a demi God).  Of course, having received a recent visitation from his demonic menace perhaps Acharsis should have turned around!  Unfortunately, he ignored the visit and ploughed on and surely enough everything went to hell in a handcart swiftly on the heels of his appearance.  I feel like I’m always saying this and it does make me feel guilty but I’m not going to give away the rest of the plot because it’s best discovered through the read itself.  Although what I can say without giving too much away is that Acharsis and Annara agree to forget their differences and team up to try and make things right.  Along the way they visit Jarek to attempt to enlist his help and after that, and the odds being greatly stacked against them, they also seek further help as best they can.

Given that I’m not going to give anything more away about the plot let’s move swiftly on to world building and characters.  The world here is pretty grim.  Necromancy is abundant with the dead walking among the living and forming an army of very difficult to kill critters. People live miserable lives of poverty and starvation and the whole feel of the world is bleak and oppressive.  The city of Rekkidu, is the destination of our protagonists,  At it’s centre is a huge ziggurat, now the ruling home to an undead lord, brother of Jarek –  Akkodaisis.  This won’t be a happy family reunion.  Akkodaisis, being undead, has a penchant for sacrifice, he has schemes to become more powerful and his brother Jarek (former ruler of Rekkidu) could hold the key to his success.

To the characters: Jarek and Acharsis are something of a double act.  Jarek plays the no nonsense, dry humour, huge-hammer wielding type to Acharsis’ more funny guy, full of one liners, brains of the piece.  Annara, well, to be honest I didn’t really get a good feel for her other than she’s persuasive and stubborn.  Then we have two other characters, also children of former gods, Sisu and Kish – a bit like brother and sister these two enjoy a good spat,   I’m just going to confess straight off that Jarek and Kish were my out and out favourites.  Kish is a great kick ass female and I couldn’t help really liking her.  She has this wonderful, honest, simplicity to her where basically she’s not afraid to say and do as she pleases.  And Jarek, he has a past that has scarred him, he’s a bit of a deep thinker but there’s something about him that you can’t help liking, perhaps his quiet, calming influence.

I do enjoy the way Phil Tucker writes and on top of that I really appreciate the way in which he brings humour to the story to off set some of the darker elements.  He clearly understands the need to break the tension a little and achieves it in what appears an almost effortless way through the snarky dialogue that his characters share.

In terms of criticisms.  Nothing too major to be honest.  I thought the first half of the book took a little time to warm up – the second half of course more than makes up for that and the first half is establishing the groundwork so it’s understandable but just be aware that it takes a little time to really take off and be patient.

Overall, I had a great time reading this.  It’s well written, creative and entertaining and it ends with the perfect set up for the next book, which I will definitely be picking up.

 

#SPFBO Review: Today Is Too Late (The Shedim Rebellion #1) by Burke Fitzpatrick

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todayisToday is Too Late is the second of my remaining four books for the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off that I will be reviewing.  I will be choosing my finalist to go through to the next round on Saturday.

Today is Too Late is the start of a very ambitious dark fantasy that seems to bring together a strange, and yet surprisingly complementary, mash up of what I can only describe as a biblical retelling of ancient Greek literature and Tolkien style middle earth.  It sounds a bit confounding when I put it like that but it just worked, really well.

The story begins after a battle.  The undefeated executing those survivors who refuse to bend the knee to the knew ruler.  Finally the defeated king, Lael Baladan is brought out and having also refused to swear loyalty to the new emperor is pitted against two monstrous beasts.  An ignoble end for a mighty warrior.  Emperor Azmon is an ambitious and ruthless conqueror.  He has made a pact with the demons of the Nine Hells and now serves Mulciber, the creature that he travelled into the depths of the earth to release.  Azmon practices dark magic.  His nobles are known as Bone Lords for the constructs they make from their fallen soldiers and his Lord Marshall, Tyrus, has a variety of catchy nicknames such as The Damned and The Butcher of Rosh.

Tyrus started in service as protector to Azmon.  The two have been together many years and have a strange yet uneven friendship.  Tyrus is an Etched Man and one of Azmon’s greatest successes.  His body is covered with rune marks that are etched deep into the muscle and give Tyrus many abilities, including regeneration, keen eyesight and strength to name but a few.  Most are unable to withstand the process of etching and so although Tyrus is Azmon’s biggest success an army cannot be formed of one – hence the creation of  the bone constructs.

At the same time as this, a reborn hero seems to be predicted by the appearance of a blue light in the sky.  The Empress is giving birth to a baby daughter, in secret.  She has had a vision that her daughter will be a hero reborn and as such will be killed at birth – the Demons that Azmon serves will not permit her to live.  The empress has made a pact with her cousin to smuggle the child out of the city and run to safety. Of course Tyrus is sent to retrieve the child and is conflicted about whether to help the child (of the woman he secretly loves) or return the baby to the man he serves (and secretly feels he is no longer useful to). And so the story begins.

I don’t know whether I’ve made that all seem terribly convoluted or not but I can promise it’s very easy to understand.  The author has a persuasive style of writing and an easy way of flicking back to past events to fill in the history without coming across as info dumps.

From here, well, there is no shortage of imagination.  We have conflicts aplenty.  The Paltiel Woods are home to the Ashen Elves.  Fleet footed and deadly anybody entering their realm is unlikely to survive to tell the tale and yet this is where Azmon must send his bone constructs.  Battle ensues, the two forces clash and blood, lots of blood, is spilt.  The outcome is extraordinary and I confess unexpected.

In terms of the characters.  Tyrus, I neither like or dislike him at this stage to be honest.  He’s a force to be reckoned with and he’s a puzzle.  Okay, without wanting to give too much away I’d like to think that he can redeem himself – but at the same time as thinking that I’m very aware of his past deeds and the person he serves – it’s not as though Azmon suddenly became this character overnight – they’ve been together a long time and carried out many foul deeds.  Then we have Azmon – he’s an absolutely hideous person – which at the same time makes him a fantastic baddie.  He’s almost aloof.  Like he’s got a god complex and we’re all just mere ants.  The young girl who flees with the baby doesn’t really play a huge part tbh and in fact at this point I can barely remember her name.  The rangers, and one in particular, with their bears play a great role and are really intriguing to read about.

In terms of criticisms.  I did have a bit of a stutter combining the different elements of the story.  We have these very old, almost biblical style cities with armies fighting for dominance.  But then we have the nine hells and dwarves, and the forests and elves.  I couldn’t help feeling that the two were a little at odds with each other and yet in spite of that it didn’t hinder the reading.  Also, well, the ending felt a little bit rushed, a certain resolution that takes place (and sorry but I don’t want to give away spoilers) just felt too easy and didn’t sit as easily with me as the rest of the book, as though the author was struggling a little to come up with a solution as well.  That being said, the book does conclude well and leaves a perfect setting for the next instalment.

Overall I had a really good time reading this and would definitely want to pick up the next instalment to see how the story progresses.

 

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#SPFBO Review: Jack Bloodfist: Fixer by James Jakins

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jackbloodJack Bloodfist is one of my remaining four books for the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off.  I will be choosing a winner on Saturday but will first review each of my final books.

This was a very entertaining read, it kept me pretty much glued to the pages and held me gripped throughout.  I’m not going to lie – the cover didn’t really work it’s magic on me and so I went into this read feeling a little bit dubious which made the content a very pleasant surprise indeed.

At the start of the story we meet Jack.  Jack is part orc part goblin and as such almost runs interference between the two different tribes.  He’s known as the fixer and, although some mock his role or try to down play it, strictly speaking he’s a key player in keeping these two rather temperamental tribes on something of an even keel.  As the story kicks off Jack is about to head off on his latest job which involves showing his cousin and fiancee into their new temporary accommodation and from there things pick up pace almost immediately.

The majority of the story is based in Summervale, Virginia but obviously that isn’t where the orcs and goblins originated from.  They were brought to this world as an escape from an angry god and unfortunately it seems they were followed here by a holy knight.  The knight in question has been out of action for a number of years.  Cut off from his god, and likewise his power, he has spent most of his time on Earth incarcerated.  Unfortunately, for the orcs and goblins it seems like his prayers have finally been answered and he has a new mission.  One which primarily involves killing them all.

The majority of the story is told in the first person.  Jack tells the majority of the story except for the  occasional change in format when we jump to a different character.  This is a style that I felt worked well.  I liked Jack, he’s a good narrator and his personality comes across really well, particularly his sense of humour.  Basically he’s easy to like.  He has a very honest way of describing things, he’s a bit self deprecating and although he has a temper he can keep it under control.  The POV swaps worked really well for me too.  They help the reader to observe other parts of the story as they develop without simply restricting the read to those elements of the tale that Jack is a part of. Win win.

In terms of the other characters there’s Detective Denelle (Denny).  She spends a good deal of the time accompanied by Jack as she investigates the mounting number of orc deaths and I also found her very easy to like.  Denny is a drow – an elf basically.  She’s quite a tough nut to crack and she has an easy going friendship with Jack where she acts all tough and treats him like a child – which, given her true age is, strictly speaking, correct. The two of them gel very well together and make for good reading.

The story is populated with other fantasy characters/elements.  Magicians, men in black/bureau type characters, inter dimensional travel and Gods.  Plus others – but I’m going to stay mysterious on that front.

I’ve not really elaborated on the plot and don’t really want to do so.  It’s entertaining and fast paced, there’s plenty of action but it doesn’t feel overwhelming.  I found myself tearing to the conclusion at breakneck speed.  There was one element of this that was patently obvious, even if Jack couldn’t spot it, but that didn’t detract at all.  Not everything has to be a mystery and the plot, the history and the characters themselves all came together really well.

I think the only slight criticism I had was in relation to Jack’s relationship (which is not with the Detective by the way and also is not the major focus of the story) – there’s nothing wrong with the relationship as such but it has a slightly rushed feel to it during one particular element of the story.  That was only a very slight niggle that I had though and definitely not something that put me off.

On the whole I thoroughly enjoyed this, it made me smile, I cared for the characters and the ending is downright batshit crazy.  You know that you’re enjoying the story and becoming attached to the characters when you’re really scared that the author is going to kill one, or some, of them off.

I would definitely read more from Jack Bloodfist.  He’s a character that I would like to get to know better and I hope that this is just the start of his adventures.

 

 

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