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SPFBO2017: The First 26 Reviews!


I'm participating in this year's Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off competition - all the background, details and updates are here.

The first step is to filter through the buffet of 301 books that have been sent my way. Although I'll bring some fancy-shmancy grading criteria in later in the process, at this stage I'm being unabashedly subjective: do I want to keep reading it?

For each book, I commit to reading at least the first 20%. At that point, I make the call. If a book's got me hooked, I set it aside for a more thorough, leisurely read. If I'm done, well,... I'm done. This is, of course, utterly subjective, but, let's be honest about the nature of this process - no matter how much I like the books, I need to cull 29 of them. 

Quick descriptions and mini-reviews of 267 of the 301 follow. My ramblings aren't intended to be critical, although I've tried to note, where I can express it, how some the books didn't work for me. There are some good books in here. And, of course, other readers will, of course, respond differently.

26 out of 30 sounds like a brutal ratio, but think about the circumstances. If you walk into a bookshop - hell, if you walk over to the fantasy section - you don't want to read every book. Look at a shelf of them, and decide how many you're interested in reading: if the ratio is as high as one in eight,... well, I'd be amazed. And this isn't even a bookshop - a closer equivalent would be to pick a random page in the Amazon fantasy subcategory. That's not to imply that self-pubbed is worse, just that this is, literally, an indiscriminate grab-bag of books. 'Clicking' with 1 in 8 is, in that light, probably about right. 

In defiance of Pornokitsch editorial tradition, I've also added Amazon links. These brave and talented people put themselves out there, if something catches your eye, please support their work. 

One last thing...

The SPFBO is open to books published whenever, as long as they've not been entered before. A quick skim reveals a five-ish year range in the books' publication, about the same as last year. Annoyingly, that means I can't conclude year-on-year trends. For example, no less than three of these books posit a post-apocalyptic landscape based on a second American Civil War. If there were all published since, say, November 2016, that'd be an interesting trend, but alas. Randomness.

Still, on the whole, this a pretty good random sample of what's out there: the sorts of books people are writing - and, given the nature of self-publishing, the sorts of books people are interested in reading as well.

267 Very Brief Reviews

61l3Il7p44LThe Road to Cordia by Jess Allison. Ja'Nil is an unwanted orphan resident of a tiny outlying village. As an orphan, she's sort of 'communally' maintained by the village, and without any real skills (or charm), her future looks pretty bleak. The village needs a healer, and Ja'Nil - much to her trepidation - joins a grumpy trader on the long trek to Cordia, to ask the Empress for a favour. Disaster strikes at every turn, and soon Ja'Nil - naive and unprepared - is left alone with her impossible quest. A terrific hook, and the peripatetic nature of the plot led to some great set-pieces. Allison also has a good way of making realistic, tense scenes without going graphic or grimdark. By the very direct writing style, I'm guessing this is a good fit for MG readers. It reminded me a bit of A Stranger in Olondria, but the writing style (and pace) couldn't be more different - but the naive outsider's view on the 'civilised world' is a compelling theme.

Talent Storm by Brian Terenna. A post-apocalyptic world, what was once America is now tightly ruled by new political factions. As technology falters, psionic powers have arisen and, at the start of our book, Jaden, our hero, is discovering his. And thank god for it - he's (slightly randomly) bullied, his uncle (he's an orphan) is domineering, and, frankly, if it weren't for being a powerful telekinetic, life would really suck. Except now he belongs to the state... An interesting world, but the characters were a little dry. A lot of the dialogue - for characters of all ages - was sort of functional. Even Jaden's genre standard emo-but-angry-but-horny-but-confused feelings were relayed to us in a clinical way, it is cliche, but I wanted more showing, less telling.

Demon Frenzy by Harvey Click. When her brother disappears, Amy Jackson returns to the backwater town of her youth, Blackwood, to search for him. Boy, have things gone downhill. Her brother's gone, there's a demon in the closet, everyone is hooked on demon-meth, and Amy gets the Very Distinct Impression that she's not wanted. Demon Frenzy is legitimately strong pulp horror: there are creepy gross-outs, some excellently jumpy moments and, most importantly, a real vibe of this is all horribly wrong, expressed through casual (horrifying) encounters and a pervasive atmosphere of icky wrongness. There's a real and admirable knack for the grotesque. I struggled with Amy herself -  even within the pulp traditions, her decision-making didn't make sense and the male gaze was too leery (she even has a 'checking out her breasts in the mirror' scene). To a certain degree, it isn't genre-abnormal - think Richard Laymon dialled to 11. 

Wayfarers Highway by Peter Petrack. A young man, Orson, is in the hospital in a small desert town. Prompted by another patient, he tells his story. Seems his adventures started from same plain bad luck - his family land is in the way of a Big Evil Company, and his attempts to salvage things only uncovered a strange factory filled with strange gems. That's the first step in a big twisty quest, complete with conspiracies and magic swords and, well, lots and lots of stuff. It is a long story (I'm not sure if the framing device pays off or not, to be honest), and Orson finds himself facing one twist after another, as the conspiracy broadens, and a lot of villains come chasing after him. The structuring feels slightly stream of consciousness; I expected it to go fully bizarro or surreal, but it straightened out into a slightly more conventional epic structure.

51-QgYCmAALThe Devil's Library by Watson Davies. It all starts with a map. Gartan, leader of his clan, finds a map on a raid. The map's owner (before losing his head to Gartan's axe) explains that it leads to a vast treasure - one hidden halfway across the world. Aided by his son, Tethan, Gartan begins to scheme... Meanwhile, a merchant, quite keen to get on her journey, is caught up in Gartan's (inconvenient) invasion. And, amongst her retinue, her newly-hired wizard has secrets of his own. They're requisitioned by Gartan, and dragged along on his voyage. A fun adventure, with a great set-up and an airy turn of phrase that keeps things light. A bit Kings of the Wyld, in the colloquial dialogue and dedication to comic timing. 

Repulsive by Brian W. Foster. Zack is a superhero fanboy. There's nothing he wants more than to become a superhero, except, maybe, his best friend/crush Hayli. When Zack does become a superhero - receiving the call and special destiny and such - he finds it a mixed blessing. He's super-powerful but also, well, super-repulsive. And he's still not snogging his best-friend/crush Hayli. There's a fun world-building system at play here. Zack's own powers are interesting, and, as he unlocks them, there's plenty of potential for conflicts and twists. That makes a lot to like about the setting and the set-up: someone who wants to be a superhero, but with distinctly unwanted powers. However, Zack's also a stereotype, exhibiting a certain entitled mentality that's, to be honest, not ok. He's constantly making sacrifices - that Hayli doesn't ask for - and resenting her for not recognising them. Zack's POV is leery and creepy, even as he rides out to to 'rescue' her from leeriness and creepiness. At the 20% mark, when Zack was having a temper-tantrum and whining (to another dude, of course) that Hayli wasn't allowed to date someone because she belongs to him... I was done.  My caveat is that, well, this is titled Repulsive - and there's a chance that, in the latter 80% of the book, we learn that this is all a set-up. Zack may very well be on his road to creepy super-villainy, or have the sense slapped into him, or... maybe he's just a budding red pill-er. Regardless, despite many of Repulsive's strengths, this wasn't for me. In terms of both the positive and the problematic, probably best compared to Mark Millar.

[Aside! I know I've said this before, but superhero novels are incredibly difficult, and I'm still not sure anyone has cracked it. They're simply too linked to visual storytelling, and the closest I've seen to 'great' superhero literature is when authors go revisionist - like The Violent Century or Vicious. Writing a straight-up superhero adventure not in a comic (or movie) is really running uphill. Kudos to those who try, but it is hard to compete with comics, and the way they've told and re-told and un-told and re-told-again.]

The Silver Strand by L.J. Clarkson. Much to her surprise - and horror - a lock of Isabelle's hair turns silver. It won't be cut off, it stands out like a beacon, and it keeps doing weird things. Is Isabelle special? Or is this yet another excuse for her to be bullied? The Silver Strand goes somewhere and gets a bit Potter-y, which is no bad thing! - and the strand itself is a good twist on a traditional 'marked as chosen' gimmick. Good use of a clear timeline and, of course, magic school is always awesome. Although definitely for Middle Grade readers, I was still surprised when Isabelle is revealed to be 12 - she reads as much younger. 

51WBJeTzVpLTrail of the Necromancer by Lucas Thorn. Martin Hemlock is a budding necromancer. His best friend, Melgana, is a warrior (and the princess). Together, they loot tombs, smite skeletal guardians and go in search of lost knowledge. When his caught with his forbidden lore (by an old bullying nemesis), they hit the road: him to save his life, her to avoid the slow, lingering death of an arranged marriage. This is a classic sword-and-sorcery set-up; for the most part, very entertaining. I enjoyed Trail most when it wasn't being serious - the banter was quality, and the action tightly written. O the whole, its tone varies from the pulpy (think: Hawk & Fisher) to the melodramatic (...other Simon Green books), with occasional upticks of grimdarkness. [Also, probably my favourite cover. Almost Gaughan-eseque.]

The Ventifact Colossus by Dorian HartThe Dark One is coming! In this case, we have a banished evil Emperor, straining at the bonds of his prison dimension. A doddering archmage summons the heroes the land needs, but, in this case, they're not quite what anyone expected. The adventuring party includes a grizzled mercenary, an expelled priest, a craftsman, a wizard's apprentice, and a handful of others. It is very D&D, down to the spell-casting system, the scavenger hunt quest, and even a  familiar critters (orcs and drow, by any other name...). But that's no bad thing, and the characters have their own foibles and characteristics to keep them distinct, as they happily railroad from one quest hook to the next. One for Sam Sykes fans.

Hales Fire by Carl Harwood. Hale is a young man with a problem - shit keeps catching on fire around him. After one foster home after another burns down, he's institutionalised. There he meets a wise - and crazy - old man who, after slapping Hale around a bit, reveals his true nature. He's a dragon. Moreover, being a dragon is awesome. Unfortunately, being a dragon is also very dangerous, as there's an on-going draconic blood feud going down, and Hale is - all of a sudden - right in the middle of it. Part conspiracy thriller, part epic fantasy, Hales Fire was best for me when it leaned more on the former. Hale's mysterious past, his crazy ally, the mad dashes for survival - I found those most compelling when we didn't know what was going on, and Hale was forced to make rushed decisions. [Aside! There's very much not an apostrophe in the title. This is consistent and - presumably - deliberate.]

Rebirth by Aaron Hodges. America has broken apart in a new Civil War. In the Western Allied States, an uneasy society has been made uneasier by the presence of Cheads, sort of super-zombie-vampire things. People evolve into Cheads spontaneously, and, like living weapons, wreak havoc until the authorities manage to put them down. Eek. Chris is an ordinary (handsome, fit, hard-working, good-hearted) 18 year old, and his - already hectic - life gets a lot worse when gov'mint forces break in and kidnap him. He's a 'traitor' and he has zero rights and, hey, now he's going to be medically tested by secret scientists who are looking to unleash his inner potential. There's a whole group of them in there, all being poked and prodded and generally yelled-at until they do their thing. The narrative is pretty familiar, in a YA dystopian sense, although the novel cleverly adds interest through having a few different perspectives. A slick book, if slower moving than I expected.

51tkKKg7XGL._SY346_A God Among Thieves by Jackson Lear. A big fantasy. The novel opens with a group of soldiers on patrol - investigating a murder in the desert. After a bit of rangering and they uncover a secret caravan: smugglers and murderers and worse. Amongst the worse? Kes, a young woman, with a secret past. The ranger leaders recognise her: she's supposed to be long gone, possibly dead. Their city is the very last outpost of civilisation, surrounded by enemies and their violent Gods - how has she escaped? And, more importantly, what is she doing back here? A strong start, that leaps straight into the action, and saves the exposition for when we're already engaged. There's a sense that a little too much of the story may have already happened: Kes and our rangers are very meaningful as they talk about the adventures of their shared past. An interesting world and an intriguing set-up - fantasy in the style of, say, Ben Peek or Django Wexler. 

The Crimson Claymore by Craig A. Price Jr. Searon is a proper badass, big claymore and all. He's haunted by his past - and his need to revenge himself on the monsters that took his family. After meeting the snarky wizard Karceoles, though, Searon's no longer alone in his quest... As one might expect from the title, some almighty hackery and slashery, and well-written action scenes. A slight triumph of style over substance - in the first chapters alone, Searon does a lot of running and stealthing in his shining plate armor; and at one point he draws his mighty claymore... only to immediately sheathe it again. There's also a definite desire to tell rather than show: Searon explains how good he is at stuff and Karceoles explains a lot about, well, everything. However, this exuberance is also the book's strength, and it is definitely most fun during the (many!) action scenes.

Past Perfekt by K.M. La Porte. Harriet is an evacuee during the Blitz, and (like the Pevensies before her) discovers a secret magic to the countryside. The town of Bartleby is seemingly awash in spies, agents, and, as Harriet quickly learns, time travellers. Harriet discover the latter group, led by a Professor Trevelayn, and, despite her age (15), she's invited to join the Academy, and poke about amongst history's amazing secrets. Another MG/YA adventure, there's an ambling set-up, clearly leading to lots of twists and secrets clearly to come. 

The Grey Mage by Aidan Hennessy. Aelzandar, an outcast elf, boldly escapes from slavery, and, at the point of recapture, is saved by a pair of wizards. They take him to their master - the Grey Mage. Cassian is the third-most powerful wizard in the land (I envision this like the old index card-based 'ladder' hinging in a school gym), and so-called because he refuses to join with either the White or Black mages, preferring to further his own ambitions. Aelzandar fits in with Cassian's crew as a cook, steward and general dogsbody, giving him ample opportunity to observe and admire his master's adventures. The initial set-up is a slightly false steer, as Aelzandar is largely a blank (he has his own Special Destiny woven in, and it has a role at the end, but he's actually more interesting as a neutral observer). The magic system is pleasantly abstract, and has Lovecraftian elements that help showcase exactly how weird and unknowable magic can be. The Grey Mage is a quick read, and a light one.

18483450The Blood of Whisperers by Devin Madson. An epic the size of A Song of Ice and Fire, taking its inspiration from ancient Japan rather than the War of the Roses. In the first portion alone, we get the perspectives of a cold-hearted minister, a rebel princess and an abandoned (slightly magically-powered) orphan [his identity, interestingly enough, is revealed at the 21% mark - or in the Goodreads description. Depending on how you feel about spoilers, you may want to skip the latter.] ASOIAF is an overworked comparison, but I do like it here: there's an immersive world, a ton of major players - all morally ambiguous, and an elaborate social order. Nor does the author ever give in to the compulsion to infodump: the right call, as there are plenty of contextual clues. I think I have two challenges. I would've liked it to start a tiny bit earlier, as we're largely seeing our characters as they're on their journeys, not before they begin. But that might be a red herring, stemming from my second challenge: I didn't warm to any of the POV characters. Our orphan, ostensibly the central protagonist, was the most unpleasant of the lot - brave, but unpleasant (to people being kind to him) and loudmouth (in a society that seems to value social etiquette). One for fans of Rebecca Levene or Jay Kristoff, I think.

Ancient Enemies by Tora Moon. Rizelya is one of the Reds of her keep, a fierce warrior with the ability to control fire as well. The other women of the keep also have powers - Browns heal, Yellows have air magic, etc. The men, meanwhile, have learned to shapeshift, and support the women with tooth and claw. As a keep, their main concern is the growing Malvers threat. Malvers are monsters - growing and hatching from nests, with tentacles and bad attitudes. Rizelya and her band have kept them contained with tactics and magical power, but now something has changed, and the Malvers have gotten even more fierce. A very detailed society and world (complete with the now-familiar colourific magic system), that seems largely explored on the battlefield. Probably best for fans of military fantasy, with a real focus on highlighting the tactical decisions and the ensuing play by play. The unabashed embrace of a complicated SFnal world reminded me a bit of Julian May.

The Last of the Ageless by Traci Loudin. In a far-future (post-apocalyptic) world, kids from various backgrounds - and species! - are all coming together to stop a greater evil. Korreth and Jorrim are ordinary humans, slaves who escaped only to be recaptured by something far worse. Dalan is a talented Changeling, tasked by his people to save the forms of dying species (this is a brilliant hook, btw). And Nyr is a tribeswoman, fanged and clawed, out to hunt and kill. Their fates are joined by strange alien amulets. It is a little confusing, especially at the start - there are a lot of odd names and strange powers to keep track of, and the multiple perspectives initially add more confusion than clarity. There's the sense of a very impressive, very intricate world, packed with lots of ideas. Feels like a throwback to the unapologetically 'alien' settings of SF/F YA that I grew up with, Douglas Hill, for example.

51q5hrKtuVL._SY346_Red Season Rising by D.M. Murray. Kalfinar is a member of the Night Command, manning the walls of a fortress on the outskirts of the civilised world. That's what he wants. His family is dead, his faith is lost - he's recovered from years of drug abuse, but... only barely. He likes the discipline and the loneliness. However, there are larger problems. Kalfinar is rudely awakened by an inhuman assassin, only his reflexes saving him from a brutal death. Kalfinar and a few men travel to the capital to consult with their commanders - only to discover the assassins have been there as well. The land is under attack by enemies new and old, with an angry god behind them. A very solid read, with an appreciation for tactics and messy battles. There's an Abercrombian vibe that comes from the characters' honest and realistic outlooks. In fact, much of Red Season Rising's combination of tropes and storylines feels familiar, but that's no bad thing. For Gemmell readers.

Life in the Fastlane by Phil Norris. A whirlwind of an alternate history book. It is 1947, and the United States is at war... with itself. The 'Free States' of the West battle the Soviet East Coast. And the war is accelerating, with airships on both sides dropping bombs on civilian targets. Meanwhile, the British Empire continues to expand its own interests. Against this background, a British scientist cracks the mystery of teleportation. The conniving and scheming over its use crosses the world, with explosive results. A very fun, imaginative novella. The use of newspaper articles to create atmosphere was a clever way of avoiding infodumping, and, despite the short length, this has a start, a middle and an end. It reminds me of something from Astounding or Asimov's: the quick-moving plot, interesting world, and (despite all the stuff going on in the background), the focus on the repercussions of a single technology. The characters are incidental, but, as Isaac Asimov and his 63 interchangeable protagonists would argue, they're not the point of this sort of story anyway.

The Bed by Laura Perry. It is Liz's birthday, and life is tough. Her folk art business is doing well, but that's... about it. Her mother doesn't understand her life choices (still), as evidenced by a drunken rant at Liz's own birthday dinner. Her best friend, Jack, wants something more - and Liz doesn't know how to turn him down kindly. What is going for her - her amazing new antique bed, and... the strange visions of a man that seem to come with it. A man that Liz seems to be stumbling across everywhere, including his journal and his magical implements. The visions come with a host of complexities: behind the, uh, bed, a host of archangels are engaged in a cosmic competition. A a real fondness for detailed description - which helped to bring Liz's life to light and make her empathetic. That said, the detail of Liz's very real life was in stark contrast to the (slightly too?) casual presentation of supernatural. For fans of Deborah Harkness, although lighter and less academic.

Reign of Blood by Alexia Purdy. A vampire post-apocalypse with a teenaged protagonist emerging from her bunker by day to kick ass, break fangs and, er... loot canned goods. When April Tate's family disappears, her routine is disrupted, and she has to figure out who took them - and why. Her quest upsets her (already kinda shaky) world, and destroys her last fragile illusion of safety. Great cover, commercially on-point, and solidly written. [Reign is extremely professional, which sounds like faint praise, but it isn't - this is well-produced, well-placed, and - I'm betting - successful. (2k+ GR ratings - called it!) There were one or two books like this in last year's bunch as well, and they strike me as the highly-evolved new species of publishing. Fast, consume-able, quality appearance and on-trend. I think publishers could learn a lot from studying Alexia Purdy. See, I warned you about tangents?] Anyway, I've mentioned slickness before, and that's really what this is: a slick, readable book. Like all the fun parts of The Passage, but with the fast pace of one of the (better) Veronica Roth books. 

17845560The Last Falcon by Colleen Ruttan. Erynn sees her father murdered in front of her - seemingly for no reason at all. A fortuitous (relatively) dragon attack scares off the murderers, and Erynn manages to flee to safety. Now, two years later, Erynn is 16 and ensconced in the castle as the King's scribe. The elder prince is off doing princely things, and the younger one, Holden, is being creepy. Before she knows it, Holden has essentially managed a coup - aided by the same horrible warriors that killed Erynn's father. With Holden controlling the falcons (used as messenger birds), Erynn is the last hope of getting through to the prince. (Thus the title.) Quest ensues! A very epic start to a very epic quest - dragons and everything. The Last Falcon is devoid the... depth... that we normally see in books of this vein. That's not all bad, and the epic fantasy genre could certainly use a hefty slap to its ponderous bits, but, reading Falcon, I wanted a little more breathing room. Things were moving so quickly, plot-wise, that we generally learned why things mattered as they were happening, without having anything seeded in advance. The larger the stakes, the more time we need to wrap our heads around it; to fear change, we need to identify with the status quo. Which is a long-winded way of saying that, The Last Falcon is clearly the start of something immense and impressive, but, for whatever reason, I struggled.

[Aside! A slow start in epic fantasy is formulaic, but as I think about it, there's good reason for the formula. In epic fantasy, we're often talking about literally saving the world. If we don't understand why the world is worth saving, there's not much point to it. That's why Frodo had a birthday, Garion had a farm, Simon Snowlock had Rachel the Dragon, etc. I mean, Fellowship is excruciatingly slow. Could you imagine judging the first 20% of that? 'This is a book about birthday parties. Two stars. Frowny gif.' Or, to be fair to the imaginary SPFBO reviewers of 1954, I think the 'objective' of the first 20% of Fellowship is to make you love the Shire, and it achieves that. That love is then constantly recalled throughout the adventure, and fully looped back to at the very end. So, yes, so slow, but also deeply meaningful. Good lord, I'll talk myself into liking Tom Bombadil next.]

[Nope. Still hate Tom Bombadil.]

The Last Days of the Wanderer by J.L. Scritchfield. Two brothers take the Old Road, looking for hope/adventure/survival. While exploring an abandoned city, young Alex falls through the ruins and finds a powerful pair of gauntlets. Adorned with his new abilities, he heads out to find his now-missing brother. Another suitably bleak depiction of the post-apocalyptic future, complete with shadow monsters, giant mutants and the like. The first part of this book was a little confusing, as Alex bounced (or fell) (or flew) from one moment to the next, and - despite visions and flashbacks - the underlying motivation was never quite clear. Another one that reminds me of the MG/YA SF novels, like Heinlein's 'juveniles', in which things quickly bounced from one adventurous set-piece to the next.

33953198Everything for Love by Marilyn Vix. Deidre Thompson is a researcher for the Time Counsel, with a specialism in artists. The method of travel is specific: she leaps far back into the past, and then makes jumps forward. Also worth noting - her time machine is powered by sex. When she was travelling with her partner, that was easy enough. But after he disappeared, she's been left to get very close to her research subjects (neither she nor they are complaining). A really fun, simple concept, and really well-researched: the descriptions of the places are lovely, and there's a lot of warmth and appreciation for the art as well [I share Deidre's interest in the Vorticists, if not quite to the same degree!]. If anything, Everything suffers from juggling a bit too much: there's a Big Plot, the world-building (or detailed sense of time/place), the romance(s), the erotic (not necessarily the same), and even the science-fictional elements (there's a commitment to making the time-tech rigorous, and a 'prime directive' sort of thing as well). That's all good stuff, but that's a lot of good stuff, and I think I, personally, would've preferred less plotting and more playing. [My other favourite cover.]

Joss the Seven by J. Philip Horne. Joss is an ordinary eighth grader, keen on practical jokes, hanging out with his friends, and generally getting along with his life. After following the instructions on a cryptic series of notes, Joss discovers he's... not all that normal. A secret society - the Guild of Sevens - tests him fully, and, much to everyone's surprise he's super-super-powered, born with all seven different individual powers. Extra-Chosen, as they say. Unfortunately, that makes him a target for the bad guys as well. Can he train up in time to protect his friends and family? Joss is fast-moving and jocular; more light-hearted than tense. Definitely another for the Middle Grade audience, who may also appreciate the detailed systems of powers and training montages. (I too love a training sequence.)

Seeking a Scribe by Marsha A. Moore. After a painful divorce, Lyra moves in with her aunt, in a quaint village in Michigan. The town is just as she remembered it - except for the addition of a really good bookstore. The bookstore (and its foxy proprietor, Cullen) has a touch of the extraordinary about it. Cullen seems to know what Lyra is thinking, the books move around, and, well, the whole shop seems to appear and disappear at will. Before long, Lyra realises that the shop is the - literal - gateway to a new world - and as the chosen Scribe, the fate of this world rests firmly on her shoulders. Scribe straddles the line between two genres: portal fantasy and romance, and takes a very traditional, almost 'old school', interpretation of both. As a portal fantasy, it is almost by the numbers: Lyra's got magical animal companions, unicorn quest-guides, a railroad-y scavenger hunt to chase down, and, of course, a ticking clock To Save the World. As a romance, it is also has some familiar tropes - harkening back to the era where fate and 'predestined connections' do a lot of the heavy lifting. Cullen struck me as a little off. The age difference is Buffy-like (he knew her as a little girl! That's weird!) and at one point he gives her a love potion without her knowledge(?). It isn't that this is icky: everything is played in a warm-hearted, well-intended way, and the author compensates for the lack of romantic build-up with a lot of well-crafted erotic tension. I suppose my issue with Cullen is indicative of my larger concern with the book -  Lyra lacks agency. She's being guided by fate, or instructions, or literal guides, or Cullen. When she's not being told what to do, she's waiting around - rarely making decisions for herself. I suppose this is all thematically fitting - her entire role as the Chosen One is the Scribe - by definition, she's there to witness, not to act. A fantasy book about escaping into fantasy, and probably best for those whose escapists tastes are more like Lyra's than mine.

What's next?

For the eagle-eyed, there are four books left:

I'm going to finish reading (and re-reading) them, and will be reviewing them at length over the next month. There's special criteria and everything, the poor bastards.

One of these four will then go on to the next round, to be pummelled by 9 other bloggers. Wish them luck!

Thanks again to all the authors for sharing their books.