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Review Round-up: The SPFBO Finalists (Approach & Part 1)

51Q4ahBJtTLAfter months of tension and excitement and a lot of reading, we're now in the final round of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. 

Ten bloggers read 30 self-published books each. Every blog selected one book for the final. Now, all ten bloggers are reading all ten books in pursuit of FANTASY EXCELLENCE (or, at the very least, a winner). We're each moving at our own pace, so the best way to keep up is through this page, where organiser-and-author Mark Lawrence keeps track of the scores and reviews.

You can find links to reviews of my initial 30 here.

So... I hate doing ratings for books. Genuinely. For long-term readers of this blog (hi mom!), you'll know that we haven't scored a book since 2010. In fact, in one of the few blatantly self-serving acts of revisionism I've ever committed, in 2011ish, I went through and deleted all the scores from previous reviews. I really don't like rating books.

However, I completely understand the need for some sort of judging system for the SPFBO, which features ten multiclass blogger/judges with very, very different tastes and scoring standards. So, I've embraced the chaos, and used numbers. Basically, this is a disclaimer that my numbers are just my numbers and OH GOD NEVER AGAIN. Also, please remember that the way judging works means I'm reviewing ten books that I didn't 'pre-select', so, naturally, they're not all going to be to my personal taste.

So, all caveats said and done, let's hand out the first batch of arbitrary numbers! 

The Path of Flames by Phil Tucker

I suppose this is the one book I did select so it is no surprise that it gets a high rating. This one's been under the gun already.

I've raved about this book quite a bit, and my appreciation hasn't declined over time. The Path of Flames is an immensely fun, genuinely entertaining blockbuster epic. The traditional geek in me loves 'systematised' worlds with a detailed magic system, and this one has shtick that practically echoes with the joyous clatter of dice. As a story, it also nails a lot of my favourite tropes - from jousts to politics to demon-hunting to training montages to rebuilding a castle. Moreover, there are a handful of great characters, each of whom have their own unique voice and compelling motivations. And, best of all, it has a sneaky-wonderful subversive twist that undermines and redefines everything about it, and might even have something to say about the world...



FionnFionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma by Brian O'Sullivan

A fantasy set in early Ireland, Fionn is slow going - the plot doesn't kick off until about a third of the way through, and, moreover, the book is dense

Fionn has an impressive, it not entirely recommended, commitment to showing all of its research. This is a book that has information in brackets [explaining to you some detail that could otherwise have been left to show, not tell], and a deep love of technical explanations:

The produce of her garden - an annual bounty of herbs, onions, carrots, parsnips and other vegetables - was of reliable consistency and quality. The nutritional variety it provided always proved popular amongst the inhabitants of the ring fort given a diet otherwise restricted to dairy and cereal products.

That's not very exciting. And, unfortunately, that same functional tone is liberally applied throughout the book. For example, in that very same scene, the reader has their very first brush with the book's supernatural elements:

Where he saw indistinguishable lumps of frozen soil, Bodhmhall's tíolacadh - her 'Gift' - revealed patches that radiated with varying degrees of biological activity.

That's kind of cool! But it also feels very textbooky. As a result, it takes a while for things to happen, and, when things do happen, the characters feel very distant: there's a lot of explanation, a lot of fifty cent words, and a lot of detail.

However, Fionn is also impressive in its way. And things do happen. Fionn has a plot that gradually, but inexorably, builds, and although the story gets bogged down by minutiae, that obsessive attention to detail also provides for a certain kind of enforced immersion. So help me, I actually started caring about the water supply, the temporary woven-wicked construction of the walls, and the exact nutritional value of every meal. It also helps that Fionn is siegeporn - a particular sub-subgenre of military fantasy that relies on the details to create tension. When you're under siege, resource management matters. Similarly, although I never warmed to the characters, I could still picture them, and, importantly, they all had important roles to play.

Overall, Fionn left me a bit cold. It is very easy to admire from a technical standpoint, but it didn't capture me as a story. I would certainly recommend it as a well-executed example of a particular type of fantasy.

For fans of: Miles Cameron, Dorothy Dunnett, Simon Scarrow


Shadow SoulThe Shadow Soul by Kaitlyn Davis

Jinji is a a member of the Arpapajo, one of the last native (-equivalent) tribes. She's preparing for her coming of age ceremony, ready to enter adulthood and marry the handsome young warrior selected as her mate. But disaster strikes. Her husband-to-be is possessed by dark magic and kills the rest the tribe before, himself, dying. Jinji is the last of her people, and, in her grief, uses her spirit-illusion powers to take the form of her (long dead) twin brother.

Meanwhile: Rhen, Prince of the kingdom. He is very much not down with being a hands-off type of royal. He has an elaborate scheme to appear as a sex-crazed fop, while he's actually sneaking around the land as an amateur spy. With his connections in the palace and on the street, he's the perfect agent. Also, magic powers.

Rhen and Jinji (as 'Jin') pair up to face the hand-wavey magical/political menace that wiped out Jin's people and threaten Rhen's. The plot, as you might expect, takes a bit of a backseat. Their adventures are episodic: half comedy of errors (girl dressed as boy! Rhen pretending to be scurrilous!), half weighty drama ('my people!', 'my kingdom!'). Underpinning everything is an occassional reminder of pending doom.

I had a hard time connecting with The Shadow Soul.  I'm on board with all the structural decisions - I really like the tropes of the prince playing commoner and the girl playing the boy. From Shakespeare to Eloisa James, these are archetypes that are nowhere near exhausted. Similarly, with this particular type of story, I don't particularly care about the plot: this is a situational comedy/romance/drama, and I'm not fussed about the reasoning (or even plausibility) of the Big Bad and how/if it is thwarted. I like The Shadow Soul's priorities, I like its character focus, and I like its set-up.

That said, even if I don't believe in the plot, I need to believe in the characters. Even armed with a hearty suspension of belief - fostered from years of 'issues' YA and regency romance - I struggled to see past The Shadow Soul's contrivance. Rhen's efforts to play the rake, for example; up to and including drugging his (willing) partners and sneaking out the window while they were (somehow?) implanted with false memories of an amazing time. At a certain point, embracing him as charming rake would've been easier and , more importantly, more natural, than maintaining his Rube Goldbergian virtue-maintenance schemes. As with his magical powers, or Jinji's past, or Jinji being Jin, or her dreams, or or or... The Shadow Soul is very heavily fuelled by misunderstanding, secrecy or awkward coincidence. 

Instead, character development too often relies on telling - swathes of text describing exactly how Rhen and Jinji are feeling, what they're thinking, and why. (In Jinji's case, these internal monologues are often preceded and/or followed by a flashback, visitation or dream.) That's a lot of telling, and this explicit emotional detail doesn't give the reader any room to form their own bond. There's a lot of passion in this book - both in the characters and in the writing - and that's wonderful. But, perversely, less on the page may have resonated more with the reader. This one, at least. By the time I reached the cliff-hanger ending, I felt like Rhen and Jinji were having their adventure without me. 

For fans of: Kristin Cashore, Sabaa Tahir, Alwyn Hamilton


PaternusPaternus by Dyrk Ashton

Fi is a young woman working at the local (slightly creepy) hospital. She has a strange uncle, a little old man (Peter) that's her favourite patient, and a sexxxy young guitar-strumming Classics student (Zeke) to crush on. Then the werewolves, vampires, monkey gods, sabretooth tiger people and buffalo ninjas come crashing through the walls. Only with the help of Peter, who is possibly LITERALLY capital-G-God, Zeke's dimension-hopping ability and Fi's own magical visions can they prevent a new apocalypse, with the Firstborn dark gods/demons/whatnot wiping out their kindly-hearted counterparts and all humanity. Also, Merlin. And stuff.

Obviously that all makes a ton of sense, so let's further confuse things with a lengthy aside:

In the SPFBO, I've been exposed to a... for lack of a better work... genre: The Kitchen Sink Fantasy (KSF). These are, genuinely, all-encompassing, theory of everything fantasies that gleefully describe a universal set of tropes. There's a "more the merrier" ethos that stretches to include all possible tropes, inventions, pseudo-sciences and volumes of the Monster Manual. This isn't solely limited to self-publishing - Simon Green, for example, is a master of the genre). However, it wasn't until I started reading self-published works that I started finding these more regularly: a combination of unbridled ambition, pop cultural saturation and a publishing process that is without, er, checks and balances.

I think it is an amazing genre. I suppose there have always been mash-ups - attempts to canonise and categorise swathes of references in one place. You could trace this back to early 'commercial' successes like Ivanhoe (which is basically an All Star Game of medieval heroes!), all the way through books like Deities & Demigods (let's put stats on Cthulhu, and then beat it over the head... with Zeus!). But, really, KSF feels incredibly post-modern: a genre inspired by cross-overs and summer spectaculars, by Batman vs Predator, Marvel vs DC, licensed LEGO sets and, above all, fan fiction. A genre that comes not only from the exposure to diverse canons and universes, but also the confidence (and capacity) to rewrite them.

Like fan fiction, KSF comes from a sense of play - but, more tellingly, a desire for ownership: "a balance between fascination and frustration", as Henry Jenkins pithily quotes. This genre cherry-picks existing characters and squidges them together because, well, that's fun. Could Mighty Mouse beat Superman? Let's write it and find out! But it also seems to stem from a deep desire for canonisation: the stability that comes from having a complete grid; fitting everything and everyone to the same playing field, with tangible metrics. KSF is the love grand-child of Wikipedia and Strat-O-Matic Baseball. What could be more intellectually cozy than the universal theory of everything: a ur-text that encapsulates all monsters, all magic and all possible worlds? 

Which is, as noted, an aside. But KSF is really fascinating, even if most examples of it are, I'm sorry to say, totally unreadable.

So where's that leave Paternus?

Paternus is a wild romp through every religion, myth and culture, uniting them all in some sort of late night Urban Fantasy pan-dimension smackdown. Want to see Samson fight werewolves? A cyclops/rhino fight a really mean bird-god-thing? Merlin wrestle a sex-leech? Paternus brings it on. It is a 500 page collection of Top Trumps, with legendary weapons, cosmic powers, and folkloric heroes all mashed into the fray. There's no monster too niche; no god too forgotten. They're all in here. Imagine Michael Bay directing the Top Trumps movie. 

The result is an easy book to fanboy over. Monsters fight gods. Gods fight gods. Monsters fight monsters. Shit goes boom. There are international conspiracies, millions of dollars thrown around, rare guitars described in sultry detail and some foxy people for your mental eye-candy (of both genders!). Magic powers are spontaneously formed. Dimensions are hopped. Machine guns fired at (and by) werewolves. You name a COOL THING and it is probably a) found within this book and b) slow-mo leaps away from an explosion at some point. It helps that Paternus is largely action scenes, and the action scenes are both fast-moving and fun

However, something's got to give. And, in the case of Paternus, this makes for a few gaps. Fi and Zeke, our ostensible protagonists, are non-entities. They largely exist to be threatened and/or infodumped upon. They meander from place to place - generally at someone else's instruction - and observe other people doing things. Shit rolls downhill, and Zeke, who has very little agency, spends a most of his screen time explaining ancient religion to Fi, who has no agency at all. Even Fi's magical power - to receive visions of awe-inspiring significance - is passive. Instead, she spends a lot of time admiring how handsome other people are. (Fi's sexualisation and sexual awareness are awkward inclusions, perhaps best described as 'hesitantly gratuitous'.) 

And there's a lot of infodumping. Even Zeke can't do it all, so everyone (excluding Fi) gets in on the game. There are characters explaining things to one another, characters explaining things to themselves, text extracts, characters looking in mirrors, explanations in brackets, explanations as asides, explanations everywhere. This is a big, sprawling, complicated world, and it is coupled with an unchecked enthusiasm to share every single aspect of it. There are dozens of POV characters, and they all spend the majority of time thinking about their place in the universe, as well as their stats, attributes, skills and powers. World-building: extreme. Cool concepts: definitely. Story: suffers.

I find Paternus as a thing, well, kind of riveting. Paternus has so very much to say, that successfully squishing it all into a single book is a victory, if a slightly Pyrrhic one. It takes a long time starting, ramps up through infodumping, and sacrifices its protagonists on the altar of world-building. But, that world might be worth it, and, more importantly, a bit like Fionn (above), I can respect this as a readable example of a tricky subgenre - interesting to think about, if not entirely to my personal taste.

For fans of: Simon Green, Brandon Sanderson, Black Library



Next SPFBO reviews in a couple weeks...