#SPFBO Wrap Up and Announcement

Posted On 12 May 2021

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300 books           10 Judges            1 winner

If you’ve been following SPFBO (The Self Published Fantasy Blog Off competition, brain child of Mark Lawrence) you’ll probably be aware already that we have our winner.  It was a close competition with some excellent reads – I advise you to step over here to see what takes your fancy. 

The Lost War by Justin Lee Anderson topped the charts and is a worthy winner.  This was closely followed by my first book (and definitely not my last) by Michael R Fletcher a dark and grim little number called Black Stone Heart.  Shadow of a Dead God by Patrick Samphire was actually the first finalist I read and it really set the bar high (so no surprise that it came in the top three).  Anyway, I won’t go through all the finalists here, the final order, scores and all the reviews can be found on the link above and I highly recommend giving them all a try in fact I think I can safely say that there’ll be something here to satisfy every taste – from epic style fantasy to character focused, to grimdark, to norse retelling to gladiatorial style fight club and much, much more.  (Never forgetting of course that there were some amazing books that didn’t make the final cut – check out the blogs to see their thoughts on their original batch of books and eventual semi finalists).

***

Moving swiftly on – ‘WHAT!!’ you may say.  ‘Already? No, it’s too soon’. 

Well, SPFBO 7 will be starting on the 1st June so this post also acts as a ‘heads up’ for all you authors out there who would like to submit your work for the next competition.  The details can be found here  – (hint – the doors for submission open on the 14th May).

Two things must thee know about SPFBO.  

Firstly, it’s a competition – you have to be in it to win it.

Secondly, 300 books may enter the gates but…

highlander

Don’t be put off by those odds though – come for the competition but stay for the community, the camaraderie and the friends you will make along the way.

That is all.  Keep your eyes glued to Mark Lawrence’s blog, check out the SPFBO Facebook group or sign in to Twitter (#SPFBO) for further updates.

 

 

#SPFBO Review (9): The Lost War (Eidyn #1) by Justin Lee Anderson

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300 books           10 Judges            1 winner

The 1st of June marked the start of the sixth Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (details here.)  My Introductory post is here.  Stage 1 is now complete and the finalists can be found here. My previous book reviews can be found here, here, here, hereherehere, here and here. Today I am reviewing my final finalist.

The Lost War by Justin Les Anderson is the finalist put forward by the Booknest and you can find their review here.

LostWarSo, I’m going to start this review in a remarkably blunt fashion by saying it’s my favourite of the finalists. Although, I will say, that as I was reading this one, even though it was good, and although I knew something was coming, it felt a little generic. Okay, you need to stay with me here. Yes, this feels like a typical medieval world, things feel familiar, but at the same time things feel wrong, and, when you reach the conclusion you will know why. Now, I’m not the kind of reader who thinks it’s okay to redeem a story by giving readers a remarkable ending, but what we have here is something different – or more than that – this is a book that gives little hints along the way, a trail of breadcrumbs that leaves you with an overall feeling of disquiet.  It’s  not a book that you’ll second guess, at least I don’t imagine so, but it will be a book that will eventually take you by complete surprise.

So, this is a book that doesn’t let up,  It starts by introducing a few characters in a dilemma and from there the pace is pretty relentless. Aranok is a draoidh, he wields magic.  He travels with his bodyguard Allandria, a skilled archer and he is the kings envoy.  War has been waged, lands have been ravaged and although the enemy has been defeated the threat is far from over.  Aranok,and his companions, are sent on a mission, one in which they don’t entirely trust each other even though they face many foes together.

Okay, I will say, that for a large part of this tale there is a sense of familiarity. We have a typical fantasy setting, characters that feel comfortable and a certain amount of conflict.  The characters we initially meet head off with a mission and before we know it encounter problems.  They’re beset with demons and other foes and every way they turn lies danger.  Like me, you may begin to wonder why anybody would ever travel abroad with so many threats in store and it certainly felt like winning the war hadn’t really achieved a favourable outcome or easy place in which to live. I enjoyed the strong sense of feeling at home with this book.  It felt comfortable to read and easy to get on with.  The pacing is excellent and there was a constant sense of movement coupled with an ever growing sense of unease.

I think it might be best not to discuss the plot too much. There is a mission, there is an overriding compulsion to ignore the mission, and there is much danger along the way.

In terms of the characters, well, I can’t deny I was pretty much on board with them all. I liked them in exactly the way the author intended. There are a few characters involved in the story and you might not initially warm up to them all but they all have their roles to play and I confess that I formed attachments to them all.  Which is quite impressive really. Plus, given the ending I’m looking forward to reading more about them in the next instalment.

The setting feels familiar.  A land that has seen war.  The country is still ravaged.  On top of that plague and other unmentionables still threaten the people. There are demons and undead out in the wilds, not to mention bandits and something else that seems even worse.

To be honest, I don’t want to say too much about this one for fear of giving away spoilers.   This is a book that will make you feel you know what’s going on.  Like me, you may imagine you can guess the eventual reveal, and there certainly are hints along the way, but I never second guessed the actual reveal.

In terms of criticisms.  There is a little bit of build up – but not enough to really be a problem.  I think my biggest issue became the draoidhs.  It starts to feel like there are too many possibilities for their particular talents – like there are literally no boundaries which makes it feel like any situation could be rescued.

This probably feels slightly vague in some respects but I’m trying to keep things under wraps.

I received a copy courtesy of the author, for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.

My rating 8.5

#SPFBO Review (8): The Combat Codes (The Combat Codes Saga #1) by Alexander Darwin

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300 books           10 Judges            1 winner

The 1st of June marked the start of the sixth Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (details here.)  My Introductory post is here.  Stage 1 is now complete and the finalists can be found here. My previous seven book reviews can be found here, here, here, herehere, here and here. Today I am reviewing my eighth finalist.

The Combat Codes by Alexander Darwin is the finalist put forward by the Fantasy Book Critic and you can find their review here.

I have to say I had a really good time with this one.  To be fair, going into the read I thought it might not be for me, I’m not always keen on books that are particularly reliant on fight scenes but I confess that this pulled me in very easily and the author’s clear knowledge and love of the subject shines through.

I will start out by addressing a bone of contention with this particular book and one that has given me plenty to think about as I was reading.  This is a story that is fairly low key in terms of the fantasy elements and it also feels quite sci-fi centric.  That being said I feel like it’s a strangely satisfying combination of both genres and it was a book that won me over with relative ease.

The concept of the story is pretty much stated in the title.  This is a world where single combat is used to settle disputes, ranging from small to great, and thus dispelling the need for war.  Although this is an ideal solution to prevent massive bloodshed, over the years the concepts have become muddied and less adhered to and the warriors themselves rely more on body enhancements through stimulants and drugs to create faster, stronger champions (which to some feels a little like cheating).  One of the characters from the book is a scout, always on the lookout for new raw talent from what are more or less underground fighting arenas.  Here he becomes aware of a young orphan who shows definite promise.

What I really liked about this was a combination of things.  I think the writing is good, I definitely formed attachments to the characters and I liked both the gladiatorial feel to the ‘below’ world elements and the combat school and rivalries of the ‘above’ world.

The first character we encounter is Murray.  He’s the scout, former Grievar Knight, now relegated to hunting for up and coming talent.  I liked Murray.  He’s a bit of a no-nonsense character, gruff, tough, something of a loner and definitely a person who prefers the ‘old’ ways of doing things.  He’s definitely not a popular guy with the other Grievar scouts or the hierarchy that controls the combat school and knights.  I’m just going to say that I’m not entirely sure what Grievars really are – obviously they’re bred to become the fighters of this world and in the current iteration there’s a lot of dabbling with drugs and the like to enhance particular characteristics, but I don’t know if there’s anything more to them in terms of family or heritage.  What I can say is there is definitely a lot of elitism taking place here with purelights  being highly privileged whilst lacklights are barely suffered to breath the same air.  Cego is the other central character, both lacklight and underdog.  In fact really the story is almost a voyage of self discovery for him as he has no real memory of his past – although he recalls snippets and he has cleary received training in both combat and the codes that dictate behaviour.  I liked Cego – he reminded me a little of Sanderson’s Kaladin in that he’s a character who manages to pull together a band of characters that are essentially the down trodden and give them both confidence and hope.  Of course there’s also the standard ‘bully’ of the piece.  Shiar, and of course, he becomes the predictable thorn in Cego’s side.  This character felt a little flat and obvious for me but not enough to be too off putting.

The world building is perhaps a little on the skimpy side.  I think the author has been careful with his descriptions, which in one respect I think is quite clever because there’s nothing like a good description to really ‘age’ a novel.  But, it does make it a little difficult to really envision the place.  What I got from this first instalment was a dark, dingy, smelly, under or below world where people live pretty harsh lives and another completely different life for those that live above in the sweet smelling air where shortages are unheard of.  This is without doubt a world that is futuristic, the rings where the fights take place seem to have huge screens that display the fighters vital stats, there are simulated programmes used in the schools to test the students and there are definitely other scientific elements that I’m not going to discuss here.  Then there are the unexplained elements such as the spectrals, small glowing lights that seem to attach themselves to certain characters (I couldn’t help being reminded of the Spren with these), they definitely feel magical and give off an aura of ‘choosing’ characters to gravitate towards.   The fighting takes place on specially created rings that have strange alloys mixed into them that can influence the fighters – make them feel invincible, want to take risks, want to please the crowd, etc.

Overall, I can’t really discuss too much of the plot for fear of spoilers.  Like I said above this feels very much like a ‘finding youself’ type of story for Cego.  It has something of a set up feel with Cego finding himself part of a group of firm friends, being trained at an elite school with a gruff but not unkind mentor and five more years of schooling and battling to look forward to which will no doubt be enjoyed in future instalments.  If, like me, you feel a little sceptical about a book that has plenty of fight scenes I can say that these are particularly well described and easy to visualise.  Again, not particularly strong in terms of typical fantasy elements but I enjoyed the mix and would definitely read more from this world.

My rating 4 of 5 stars or 8 out of 10

I received a copy courtesy of the author, for which my thanks.

#SPFBO – Not a Review : Finalist Reading Schedule, Book #8

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300 books           10 Judges            1 winner

The 1st of June marked the start of the sixth Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (details here.)  My Introductory post is here.  Stage 1 is now complete and the finalists can be found here .

During Stage 2 I will read, review and score the remaining 9 finalists as will the other judges until a winner is revealed.  As with previous years I have given each of the 9 books a number and randomly selected a reading order.  Today’s post is to highlight the eighth book I will be reading and provide information regarding that particular finalist.  The first finalist I read was Shadow of a Dead God by Patrick Samphire.  This was a great start to the finals and my review can be found here.  My second book was The Fall of Erlon by Robert H Fleming which I posted my review here.  My third book was Shaun Paul Steven’s Nether Light, my review for which can be found here. My fourth book was a Norse myth inspired story called Darkness Forged by Matt Larkin and my review is here.. My fifth book was A Wind from the Wilderness by Suzannah Rowntree and here is my review.  My sixth book was Black Stone Heart by Michael R Fletcher, reviewed here. My seventh book was Last Memoria by Rachel Emma Shaw and my review can be found here.  Today, I’m posting details of the eighth finalist – The Combat Codes (The Combat Codes Saga #1) by Alexander Darwin. I’ve already made a very good start on this one and hope to post my review on Monday.  Here are the details:

The Combat Codes is the finalist put forward by The Fantasy Book Critic.  Here’s a little more information:

CC
“We fight, so the rest shall not have to.”

In a world where single combat determines the fate of nations, the Grievar fight so that the rest can remain at peace.

Cego is a mysterious Grievar boy forced to fight his way out of the slave Circles into the world’s most prestigious combat school.

At the Lyceum, Cego will learn a variety of martial arts from eclectic teachers, develop deep bonds of friendship and fight against contentious rivals to climb the school’s rankings.

But, Cego will find far more than combat studies at the Lyceum. He will find the mystery of his past unraveled by forces greater than he could ever imagine.

adAuthor Information:

Alexander Darwin is a fantasy / science fiction author with an unabashed reverence for combat sports. He spends his days getting humbled on the mats, staring at the unwritten pages of his next novel, and questioning the dumb luck that landed him his wonderful wife and two daughters.

Website :
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#SPFBO Review (7): Last Memoria (Memoria Duology #1) by Rachel Emma Shaw

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300 books           10 Judges            1 winner

The 1st of June marked the start of the sixth Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (details here.)  My Introductory post is here.  Stage 1 is now complete and the finalists can be found here. My previous six book reviews can be found here, here, here, here, here and here.  Today I am reviewing my seventh finalist.

Last Memoria by Rachel Emma Shaw is the finalist put forward by the Weatherwax Report and you can find their review here.

LastMemoria

I have such mixed feelings for this particular finalist.  I really enjoyed certain elements of the story and the memoria is such an interesting idea, on top of which this was a quick read with a very unexpected conclusion.  But, on the other hand, I felt the plot faltered in some respects and whilst the ending was very twisted it left me, at the same time, feeling a little staggered and not totally in a good way.  Now that all sounds very negative so I’m going to lighten up and focus firstly on the aspects of this that I really liked.

The writing.  It’s good.  I think the author took some risky choices with this but for me they worked out.  For example, as the story begins we meet Sarilla and her brother, on the run, in the forest.  The introduction very much assumes that readers will hit the ground running.  There’s no build up or polite dilly dallying while we get comfortable and to be honest I liked it.  I’m not saying I’d want all my books to throw me into the story in such a ‘feels like i’ve missed the start whilst making a cup of tea’, way, but, yeah, in this instance, consider me hooked.  The author also takes the unusual step of switching narrator part way through and again, considering the nature of this story I have to applaud the decision.  I think it really lends itself well to the ideas playing out and also really does highlight just how very unreliable both narrators can be.

The characters.  This is one of the areas that I do have issues with.  I don’t think that enough attention is given to many of the supporting cast, I can’t remember the name of Sarilla’s brother for example, or the King and so this makes it very difficult to have any real feelings for them when anything bad happens or the author is trying to create tension for ‘near death’ situations.  For me I experienced a definite lack of emotions on the part of most of the cast until the final few chapters when everything changed dramatically.  I mean, to be fair, I didn’t dislike Sarilla or Falon but I didn’t really warm to them either and perhaps that’s just one of the pitfalls when reading about one character who keeps her own counsel and another who is suffering massive memory loss.  Sarilla is very bitter, and not without good reason.  Her life has been difficult and as we make her acquaintance she’s running away from a situation where she’s been held captive and forced to use her abilities in terrible ways.  She’s very secretive and gives little away.  She also doesn’t feel like she has a lot of agency being pushed and pulled in lots of directions by various people.  Falon is hunting for his lost memories accompanied by a couple of friends.  Now, one of his friends is actually one of the good guys and a character that I did like.  The other comes across as a bit of an ass and gives me pause for thought about Falon himself if he has such terrible taste in companions. 

The plot is another slight area of concern for me although I’m deliberately trying to not give too much away about what takes place because of the possibility of spoilers.  In a nutshell this is about two people in search of something.  One has no memory and doesn’t really know what he’s looking for, just that he has gaps in his brain where there shouldn’t be any.  The other has so many memories that her thoughts and actions are confused and she struggles to stay in the present (as a memoria Sarilla can take a person’s memories through touch, she can also return those memories.  Having spent so long being pressured into this duty she believes herself to be a monster and has also come to realise that everyone lies – herself included).  I think my main struggle with both characters is that they seemed to lack strong motivation, direction or the good sense to come up with a plan.  But then they’re both suffering their own problems.  So, dilemma.  

I enjoyed the creativity in terms of the world building.  The Memoria people are really intriguing.  I would have loved a little longer to explore their way of life.  I enjoyed the forest with all it’s dangers and the Blackvine was a particularly cool idea.  However, I don’t feel like I spent enough time getting a feel for the place.  The ending was incredibly fast paced, the reveals coming thick and fast, but again, I think the shock ending might have had more impact for me if we’d spent a little more time getting to know the Memoria and their way of life.  As it is, the ending was a little abrupt and left me feeling oddly deflated which was a real shame after all the fast paced drama that preceded it.

Anyhow, in spite of some reservations I have to say that this is an author that I would definitely keep an eye on.  I thought she made some really excellent choices with Last Memoria not to mention coming up with some impressive ideas. 

I received a copy courtesy of the author, for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.

My rating 6.5

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