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SPFBO2: The First 24 Reviews!

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I've finished my first pass for the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off!

I've read 3 chapters and/or 20% (whichever comes last) of 30 self-published books. I've picked six of those books for further reading and proper reviews. One of those will then go on to the FINAL ROUND in the BLOGGERDOME. It'll be awesome.

Below, you'll find a quick introduction, a not-so-quick spiel about reviewing self-published books and 24 short reviews.

Caution - this post is loooong.

A quick introduction

In 1921 - this has a point, bear with me - the authors of What Editors Want interviewed a lot of the prominent editors (magazine and publishing house) of the day. They all responded with pages of stuff: formatting advice, genre preference, commercial details, you name it. The best of them was the Atlantic's Ellery Sedgewick, who simply responded with: "My selection is made according to the whim of one individual."

I think that's a wonderfully honest assessment of the subjectivity inherent in any review process. In the case of SPFBO, and this very first pass through the books,  I've tried to think about what does and doesn't work for me. But, ultimately, the one decisive test is: 'do I want to keep reading this?'.

For 6 books, the answer was a more-or-less emphatic 'yes':

Those six get the dubious privilege of longer reviews, using my patented DGLA system. For the other 24, I'm afraid that urge to press on wasn't there. 

A not so quick caveat!

I'm aware the reviews below are pretty critical. That's not because they're self-published (I really dislike the term 'indie-publishing', but, whatever). Instead, these reviews are pretty critical because:

  1. I'm only reading the first three chapters/20% 
  2. They're totally subjective. I'm not even pretending objectivity here. The metric was 'do I want to keep reading?'. Which leads to a lot of the follow-up question: 'why not?'.
  3. This is the inevitable result of reading 30 books selected at random. (Thinking about it that way, a 20% success rate is actually pretty good.)
  4. I have to weed 30 books down to 1. So, yeah, I'm looking to thin the herd.

That said... imagine an axis going from 'this reads like a first draft' to 'needs a lot of work' to 'almost there' to 'good book (if not always for me)'. Generally speaking, I find traditionally-published novels clump more on the right-hand part of the spectrum. Editors and editorial teams and proofreads and designers - they tend to weed out a lot of the structural and stylistic barriers that prevent readers from enjoying books. Even if I don't like a traditionally published book, those bugs are hammered out, and the book feels done. Whereas, in the case of these 30, it is fair to say the graph would look much more like a bell curve. Some of these books felt like they came out of the oven a bit early. That doesn't make them 'bad' books, rather, they're books that still have further potential.

Lest I sound a complete dick, I wholly believe this is a matter of resource - and not a remark on self-published authors' talent or their dedication. Traditional publishers have lots of people, lots of processes and lots of support. Self-publishers have moxie - and very finite amounts of time, money, and - frankly - patience. Sometimes that's enough. Sometimes it isn't. I say all of this as someone that self-publishes: I am empathetic to both the stigma around what do and the hard work that we put in. 

Anyway - quick reviews (of the first three chapters/20%) are below. If any of them sound like your sort of thing, I urge you to try them out.

Reviews!

Annie Bellet - A Heart in Sun and Shadow. Celtic setting, a pair of handsome young boys are kidnapped by an angry/horny faerie. When they escape, she curses them with a sort of Ladyhawke-esque lycanthropy, and they take turns as a Wolfhound (nb. I adore Irish Wolfhounds). A secondary (primary?) POV character features a young woman, a changeling, an outsider, and you can probably see where this will head. Well-written, but the sex (which was, presumably, intentionally creepy?) made me uncomfortable. There was also a lot of micro-telling: world-building and fact-sharing on the sentence level that I kept tripping over. 

25579639A.A. Bavar - Az: Revenge of an Archangel. One of the primary Archangels tells his (immortal) life's story - starting with Creation. A disconcertingly casual, almost chipper, tone of voice for a tale of cosmic repercussions. This was particularly disconcerting given the narrator, subject matter and extremely ambitious scope. That said, a clever use of cultural references (I particularly liked the Three Musketeers shtick). (Aside: a striking cover, which helped set the scene with some heft. This might actually be a manga in book's clothing?)

Craig M. Skiera - Crimson & Cream. YA Fantasy. Twins (Flotsam & Jetsam, natch) are part of an orphan gang, scrounging the ruined undercity for saleable loot. One day their scavenging goes too far, and they wake an ancient menace in the forgotten tunnels. Campy, but fast-moving, featuring roguish orphans, outlawed magic and other familiar (but not unappreciated) tropes.

Toni Kerr - Descendant. A telepathic teen is ready to give up on his life, but, wait - has a quest dumped on him instead by Mysterious Supernatural Forces. Plus, he has DRAGON BLOOD. A rip-roaring intro that dives straight into the action, physical and emotional. A split narrative introduces a secondary world and hints towards the epic scale of the story as well. Telepathy is hard to write, and I'm not sure Descendant cracked it, and the staccato beat between action/explanation wasn't working very smoothly. (Aside: really well-formatted. I wasn't wild about the cover, but the interior was by far the best laid-out and designed of the 30 book.)

Evelyne Contant - Enchantment: The Moonstone. Difficult to read, as this was almost stream of consciousness. I think a sort of YA, with a young woman poised to encounter her destiny? Written in first person, present tense - Enchantment comes complete with some fourth-wall breaking addresses to the reader (a definite pet peeve). Emotionally tempestuous, but I suspect the closeness pays off when the romantic side of the plot kicks in. There's an intriguing introductory quote from Ovid. Not sure if this was mythologically inspired, but that might be an added layer that pays off for readers that stick with it?

Rafael Soares - Enclave: Creation. Wildly ambitious, with a super-epic, mega-cosmic scope. There's a mass of information presented in the first few chapters in a very explanatory style, and even the avant garde formatting (a brave decision) doesn't help bring out the actual characters. The scale and stakes of the book are made apparent, but this is a world-first sort of book, and it is hard to grip onto the story. There's a big thing here, and I'm not wholly convinced that, whatever it is, it is best expressed as a book. It may come to life better as a comic (with visuals given more work to do)? Or a game? Or even an RPG setting?

M.H. Lee - Erelia: Innocence. Properly big epic fantasy that throws you right into the action, and then lets you work it out. Not a bad thing at all. At least, conceptually. In this case, there's a lot going on through: three totally discrete protagonists in the opening three chapters. Not unusual for a modern fantasy, but it means having to hook the reader three times, on three different plots, with three different voices. Although the pace of the action was good, I didn't find the connection I needed with any of the three characters. 

Timothy L. Cerepaka - Gathering of the Chosen. Another big, epic fantasy, in what is clearly a richly developed world. As with Erelia, Gathering throws you right into the action from the start. The writing style was clunky - rife with physical description and a lot of telling. There was a lot of background information to impart, and the result was a slightly frantic attempt to bring the reader up to speed on a lot of fronts. Either all the information was essential (and needed to be delivered in a less tell-y, more show-y way), or it wasn't, and it needed to be pruned back pretty dramatically. But, despite the fast start, the first three chapters were pretty bewildering. The dialogue and word choice was also very - surprisingly - casual, which seemed at odds with both the characters and their quest.

Renee Carter Hall - Huntress. A coming of age YA story in an unusual setting - a sort of African-inspired tribe that's lion-focused. (Belatedly, I spot the cover. They may actually be lions?! She definitely has hands. It may be metaphoric? Or anthropomorphic?!) Protagonist Leya is feisty, although her angst makes her frustratingly narrow-minded. A writing style that didn't click with me: not quite a parable, not quite a story to be read aloud, it was half juvenile, half definitely not. Afraid this, like some of the others, suffered from being very much not my thing. 

Murder in AbsentiaAssaph Mehr - Murder in Absentia. On the other hand, this one was very much my thing. A fantasy mystery with a snarky, smart protagonist, in a well-researched Rome-inspired setting. Why, hello! And, indeed, there's a lot for me to like here (basically, everything I just said). Unfortunately, Murder suffers for being a little too enthusiastic about the 'well-researched' part. There's a lot of telling, and a lot of information just floated out there for the reader to appreciate. This was true for both the setting (both the Roman inspired bits and the magic system) and, unfortunately, the characters. We needed to ease into Felix a bit more, before he started dashing around and explaining everything. That said, a promising start and an interesting concept. 

Eric Tanafon - Robin Hood: Wolf's Head. A very clever reinterpretation of the Robin Hood stories, plus werewolves. It sounds silly, but it is taken seriously and introduced in a casual, show-don't-tell way that makes the supernatural sit well and, er, naturally. A clever format of stories within stories, and a sort of confessional framing device (which felt a little rushed, but maybe that's explained later). A rather niche conjunction of interests, but solidly done. 

John D. Brown - Servant of a Dark God. A sort of dirty-feeling fantasy setting, where an invasion means two cultures are (awkwardly and unpleasantly) co-existing. Plus, demonic possession! A young woman - child of a sleth (demon-posssessed mum) is on the run. A young man, Talen, is off to seek his fortune by finding her. (Presumably. He spends a large portion of the first 20% looking for his pants; a joke that's not really... explained?) And, for fun, a POV from a demon-creature thing. The book's strength was the sense of frustration -  stemming from all three characters, as they're chased and bullied. That sole atmospheric note aside, I'm afraid I wasn't wild about any of the characters, and the whole thing felt a little too by-the-numbers for me. I wasn't particularly compelled to stick around. [nb. after writing this review, I've spotted that this book is kind of a ringer - previously published by Tor as Servant. Later, this was republished directly by from the author. I'm assuming there were some re-edits and such, but... cheeky.]

Helen Bell - Shadowless. Strong central characters - two farmer children (one psychic) - band with a mysterious stranger and hie off in search of an epic destiny. Oddly rushed, and shared the characters' background so rapidly it verged on infodumping. There's a full-court emotional press to get the reader to really like the characters, really quickly, which wound up being a little too tell-y for me - I'd rather grow to like them on my own. There's a good-hearted fantasy in here, but it didn't click with me.

Amanda Greenslade - Talon. A Tarzan-y young man discovers he's a shapeshifter and a animal telepathist (I'm not sure the right word there). He bonds with a rare and beautiful icetiger, who largely contributes dialogue of sarcasm and cod philosophy, whilst explaining magic. There's a lot of exposition of what is, clearly, a complex and layered world, but I bounced off of this pretty hard and very early.

E. Madison Cawein - The Flamebearer. A fantasy romance in a quasi-historical setting (plus magic). There's excellent attention to some little details, which help set the scene and give balance out the characters' clear inevitability. There's not much else to distract from the (mutual) obsession though, and, although that sort of linearity might work for some, I was hoping for more.

The Last GatekeeperKaty Haye - The Last Gatekeeper. A slightly traditional YA set-up: mean-but-secretly-cool mom, chilled out dad, two nice friends, town where nothing happens, girl with Something Very Weird about her, and, guess what, she's Special from a Special Bloodline! In this case, Zan is allergic to electricity (weird, but fun), and her specialness is, well: she's an alien, and a chosen one, and there's a galaxy-saving quest that only she can fulfil. Also, there's a hot alien boy who looks like an angel. It is silly, but entertaining, as it blitzes through all the set-piece YA tropes at high speed. The bit that let me down was Zan's voice, which didn't click with me. She felt like a YA-teen, not a teen-teen, and I never warmed to her.

T.W. Piperbrook & Bobby Adair - The Last Survivors. Like some sort of genetically engineered predator, created in a lab by the military with the express purpose of succeeding in the indie-publishing market. Check out the silhouette-and-landscape cover and the tagline that uses both 'post-apocalyptic' and 'dystopian'. Think Hugh Howey, as filmed by Troma. Plus zombies, rebuilt agrarian societies, ambitious teen generals, a mom fighting for her child's survival and even some leery dystopian priest-y types. In the first three chapters alone, we have a massacre, an army of fungus zombies, someone burned to death, a teenager's sudden rise to military glory, and a parade of nekkid women. The characters were less characterful than narrative-pushing and nothing made any sense at all, but everything is so pulpy and over the top that, well, whatever. This book is very, very much exactly what it is, that might not be, um, good, but it is certainly, something. 

Elizabeth Best - The Naiad Chronicles. A similar situation to the above. But as opposed to Fungal-Mutant DeathCycle Apocalypse Planet Part II, this is about a charming cat-tailed scamp is recruited by his wise dragon master to go sort out some sort of disagreement amongst the elves. There are happy kitties, goofy dragons, ornamental cat bowls, giggling, anachronistic dialogue, wise-cracking rulers and a palpable atmosphere of huggability. It is adorable and very acutely specialised.

David J. Lovato - The Ones Who Follow The Water. An interesting picaresque fantasy. Oren and Carah are childhood friends, and when he loses her necklace (it has a lot of social meaning and stuff), he's off on a quest to find it. Slow, but in a parable-like way. Oren's motivations are occasionally ethereal, and I didn't find myself connecting with him at the end of three chapters. That said, it had a touch of The Last Unicorn about it, as well as an unusual voice. (Aside: I also think the very generic cover does it a disservice, this book is more stylised than that, and the cover misses the tone.)

Christopher Pepper - The Outrider Legion. A Black Company style romp about a military company in a secondary world. The Outriders have just passed training to join the Elite Special Secret Missions Corps and are, of course, about to get thrown in the deep-end. Cue: treachery, scheming, etc. A promising prologue then turns into a very slow start, as we meet the characters (and their drinking habits, training regimen, wardrobes, personal background, skill sets, family backgrounds, non-weapon proficiencies, etc) at length. It isn't ill-meant - there's clearly a lot of love for these lads, and the author's keen to share it - but makes for a lot of telling and not much action.

Queens ViperLesley Donaldson - The Queen's Viper. Madly overwritten, with a tendency to use 50¢ words and enough adjectives to fill a dozen stately homes. Especially when coupled with the sprinkling of Gaelic vocabulary, Viper was a pretty stilted read. However, there's a some very interesting, time-hopping world-building going here, with a savage faerie killer awakening (unhappy) in the present day. Something wicked this way comes, and our disjointed, life-stealing Viper is somehow caught up in an apocalyptic destiny and brought into the modern day. (And I couldn't help but chuckle at THE SORCERESS-QUEEN ELIZABETH THE SECOND brandishing her dark wizarding artefacts.)

Michael Logan - Wannabes. Serial killers, washed-up celebs, demonic bureaucrats all brush up against one another in this very bleak comedy about the quest for fame. Or fame. Or even relevance. Cutting and well-crafted, with some deft, dark touches. Pound for pound, or line by line, Wannabes is a cut above virtually all the others in terms of pure writing craft. But also - it is mean, savaging broad swathes of humanity. There are bursts of optimism, but they're invariably false hope, followed by a cruel let-down. Wannabes is an example of the uniquely British comedy and/or horror story, where the the core theme is bad stuff happening to bad people. And that, I'm afraid, has never been my thing. Good Omens, which is the obvious comparison, used similar themes to create something fundamentally joyous, but I'm just not getting the same sense here. Wannabes might turn out differently? But I'm not compelled to go on. Again, well-written... but not for me. 

Gordon Atkins - When Destinies Collide. Another fantasy that leaps straight into the action. A quick prologue to set the stage, then skip forward to the present. Two brothers - rulers of warring kingdoms - are forced to unite in the face of a Greater Evil. The first three chapters dive straight in, with the brothers splitting and the evil looming. Reads - and here's an odd comment - a bit like the novelisation of a TV show. Which is no bad thing for pace or plot, but novelisations can rely on the reader's existing connection with the characters. Here, we needed a little more before leaping into the action.

Sarah Dalton - White Hart. YA fantasy. A young woman with special powers (what the Land Needs To Heal) tries to stay hidden in a small village, but Circumstances intervene. Despite needing to keep a low profile, she can't help but be sarcastic and outspoken and draw attention to herself when the (handsome) Prince rocks up. (BTW, he needs to marry someone with powers just like hers, for reasons, etc). Mae and Casimir are certainly likeable enough, but, the set-up felt a bit too familiar, and the plot twists a little too implausible.

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If any of the above grab you - here's a handy Amazon list! (Not an affiliate link. Just collected for easy browsing!)

And chime in on the covers - which are your favourites?

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SPFBO2 banner by Matt Howerter

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