SPFBO2017: The Finalists Reviewed (All of 'em!)
Friday, January 12, 2018
We're participating in the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. You can learn more about what this means (and how the finalists are doing) here. And follow the various stages of our process here.
I think I'm going to follow up in a week or two with a wibbly 'WHAT I LEARNED' post, and talk about my SPFBO experience(s) a bit more as a whole [UPDATE: Nyah.]. It has been a lot of fun, very enlightening - I've read a lots that covered the whole spectrum of quality - and learned a fair amount about what I think constitutes 'good'. Which is no bad thing. And, unlike previous judging or slush-reading experiences, I can wang about this all I want. So, in the next couple weeks, I might take advantage of that.
But, for now, here are this year's ten finalists, in no particular order, with my - somewhat arbitrary - scores. Thanks again for all the writers, readers, judges and administrator (singular!) for participating, and please check out the other judges for other perspectives!
The Crimson Queen by Alec Hutson
This is a big sprawling epic, complete with all the trimmings. You want magic swords? Demon assassins? Sexy sorceresses? Immortal bards?! ANTI-PALADINS?! Well, ride on up, son, I've got all that and more. Our primary protagonist, Keilan [Updated: not ALEC, that's the author!], is a young boy from a fishing village with mysterious powers and mysterious parentage. His powers come to the attention of the, er, powers that be, and, as a generational magical talent, Keilan soon becomes the centrepiece of a continent-wide game of tug of war. There's the titular Crimson Queen, who rules a growing empire and wants Keilan by her side. The Pure, the anti-magic paladins who want to remove Keilan powers (and/or life). An (almost)-immortal wizardess, who sees Keilan as a walking spell component. And a thousand-year old bard, who is... also there. Besides Keilan, there are a handful of secondary POV characters, including the wizardess (a villain's eye view - which falls into the trap of making her seem... not all that competent) and the bard (who is almost entirely extraneous).
The Crimson Queen is certainly readable, but it suffers from a dose of ain't-it-cool. From shadow-bladed assassins to demon children to mind-melded slave-soldiers (my favourites, genuinely!) to shapeshifters to ghostly libraries, the book throws everything at the reader: a huge bucket of niftiness, and, what seems like, every possible totally awesome fantasy idea... but much of it never gets to stick. Whether it is a dungeon crawl through an ancient ruin or a stint in magic school, we move quickly - too quickly - through all of it. There's so much stuff here, but at the heart of it, Queen is our familiar village-boy-is-the-Chosen One story - although the icing is layered on with a trowel, the cake is still the same. Sometimes less really is more, and I would've enjoyed Queen more with a little less niftiness and a little more challenge. (5)
Jack Bloodfist by James Jakins
Orcs are alive, well, and living in the suburbs of Virginia. Magical critters are secretly among us is a staple of the urban fantasy genre, but I can't recall ever seeing it from the orc's-eye perspective. Our big green friends are actually settling in pretty well - making themselves comfortable in the construction industry, for example. But, for those incidents that do arise, there's Jack - the 'fixer'. Jack's half-Orc, half-Goblin and settled with the problems of both sides - his brawling Orc cousins and his scheming Goblin ones. Aided by the local police (an elf, naturally) and other friends (magical and not), Jack keeps things hushed up and moving along. That is, until a paladin breaks out of a high-security prison and starts killing Jack's family. Whereas Jack is used to helping Orcs with, say, jobs and housing, now he's tasked with keeping everyone alive.
Jack's strength is the quirky mundanity of the premise: 'Orcs in the suburbs' is a brilliant shtick (hell, Bright got greenlit, didn't it?), with a lot of legs to it. It could talk about racism (as Bright did, badly), challenge stereotypes of essentialism, talk about the immigrant experience, chat about class or multiculturalism, do..., well, a lot. I mean, these are Orcs - the bedeviled underclass of the universal fantasy experience - and they are settling in the Land of Opportunity. That's a really great lens for using fantasy to talk about the real world. Needless to say, I like this idea.
However, Jack goes another direction, and the book very quickly escalates into the cosmic: there are gods and meta-gods, dimension-hopping wizards, world-spanning magical corporations, a lot of exposition, and, what begins life as an ordinary murder-mystery very, very quickly evolves to become a Big Thing. As Jack embiggens, we're flying through the 'first book' questions (Who are Jack's parents? Who is Jack's crush? How do Orcs fit in with humans?) and all the way through 'second', 'third' and 'fourth' book ones (Where do the Orcs come from? Who was Jack's father, really? Is Jack part of a secret magical bloodline? Are the dimensions all patrolled by extra-ordinary god-beings? What happens to bad gods?!). It is like reading an entire Simon Green series in a single volume. As Jack pivots to face the Big Questions, we've lost our chance to appreciate the charming, pocket-sized premise of the book's humble origins. A suitably portentous prologue and epilogue promise that the embiggening has only begun, but, again, they only detracted from my appreciation of the here and now.
There's a really good idea in here, and I'm teetering on the edge of, if not falling into, the trap of reviewing Jack for what I wanted the book to be instead - but, as it is, but Jack rushes too quickly through what makes it unique. (5)
Chaos Trims My Beard by Brett Herman
Chaos isn't too dissimilar to Jack Bloodfist in plot and structure - or many of the story's beats, for that matter. An urban fantasy, with a doubly-outcast protagonist (a dwarf who is also a half-dwarf), that survives by bridging the cracks in society. Edwayn is an odd-jobs man, a bouncer, a bus-boy, and an outsider that lives below the radar. When bussing tables one evening, one of his patrons quite literally explodes - transforming into a living vortex of fire that runs amok. Edwayn, through more luck than skill, manages to put the 'overrun' down, only to discover that the dead wizard was a cop. Now he's on the run from a massive magical conspiracy, and his only friend is another outcast (a 'rat-man' in Internal Affairs).
Chaos is, as a rough estimate, around 95% world-building. And it is a pretty nifty world - loosely resembling our own, but with some sort of Shadowrun-esque magical 'Awakening' implied in the past. The visual imagery of buildings atop buildings is lovely, with the haves literally building atop the have-nots. At one point, Edwayn comments 'to camera' about what an excellent metaphor that all is. Yes, indeed. Edwayn's adventures take him from the bottom to the top of the city, and into surprisingly detailed conversations about how magic works. Again, a very cool world. Metaphoric, too!
The remaining 5% is an unpredictable series of events that exists to take Edwayn from cool place to cool place. And, in Chaos' defense, the places are pretty cool. But as far as motivation goes - there's not a lot holding it together. Edwayn has a tendency to act on impulse, meaning each scene randomly abuts the one that came before. His chum Venrick seems to have more of a plan, but his shtick of throwing Edwayn into the deep end and revealing his intent at the end of every scene doesn't add any more of a flow. Edwayn is a sort of dry, comic (well, pun-heavy) character as well, but, aside from a sort of vague moral compass, we never really understand why he's involved at all. (5)
Side note, where this book has gotten me thinkin' about a greater trend. Sorry, there are a few of these littered in here.
Amongst the other similarities, both Chaos Trims My Beard and Jack Bloodfist both end in a sort of deus ex schlub shtick that is a trope I find... kind of unrewarding? In both cases, character that succeed (more or less) due to their wits, dedication, loyalty and hard-work, achieving their ultimate triumph through becoming - quite literally - gods. It undercuts the hard work the characters have put in along the way, and also shoots the middle finger to the mystery/detection/noir origins of the urban fantasy trope. Sam Spade got hit on the head a lot, but he never brought in the bad guy by suddenly manifesting lightning powers.
This isn't limited to these two books - the aforementioned Simon Green is a big fan of this shtick, and, to be honest, urban fantasy does it a lot (shit, think about that ending to Needful Things - urgh). As with all things, this trope is what it is, but I find it, personally, really disappointing. To me, the joy of urban fantasy is the mixture of the ordinary and the extraordinary, when it goes fully to the latter: with extraordinary solutions to extraordinary problems, it loses that final link to the reader's own life. It is no longer reality with potential, it is another impossible fantasy world.
Lily was born in the sign of the Tiger, and has all the 'Tiger' (un)luck and stubbornness. She takes her chances, and enjoys the thrill of the fight. But her unfortunate birth sign isn't the real reason she's ostracised from the rest of her village: she's an oddball, hanging tough outside the village, loyal to her lost mother and, secretly, staying hungry for the repressed Jinto spiritual traditions. She'd rather wander in the forest than gossip in the village; humming forgotten songs and spending time by herself.
Sadly, a quiet life isn't for Lily. On one of her forest excursions, she encounters Ashikaga, the son of the local Daimyo. The encounter between rough peasant outcast and noble Samurai prince doesn't go as expected, and when a group of rebels attack, Lily finds herself in the strange position of saving Ashikaga's life. Heroic, yes. But also misguided, as the key to Ashikaga's survival turns out to be the forbidden Jinto songs. Lily's secret - punishable by excruciating death - is now in the hands of a stranger. But Ashigawa has secrets of his own - and sees the potential in Lily to turn the tide of the war. This unlikely alliance - and possibly friendship - and maybe even more - could change the world.
A well-presented book, Tiger Lily does a lot right. The world-building is natural, the characters have clear motivations, the magic system interesting and unpredictable. It isn't even over-long, as are many of the other finalists: with a good balance of character development and fast-moving plot. Even as a YA reader, I found Lily to be little overwrought - the stereotypical 'ugly duckling' character, the last known survivor of her faith, she's special and beautiful and wonderful, but spends most of the book blundering through a fog of self-loathing. Her perpetual self-doubt is exhausting, especially since - despite the true difficulties she faces - she has allies willing to fight for her. Lily's an empathetic, interesting character, and I cheered for her, but her untiring ability to see the worst in every situation can be frustrating... especially as the reader knows otherwise. That said, there's something charmingly normalising about seeing this YA stereotype in a non-Western setting (and there are other, charmingly progressive additions as well, which I won't spoil).
A swift and interesting read, with a well-developed (if occasionally infuriating) character and a setting that stalks apart from the rest of the pack. (6)
Pilgrimage to Skara by Jonathan Pembroke
A straightforward - and promising - setup. In a (post-apocalyptic? dying?) world, those with magical auras take pilgrimages to distant shrines to tap into their magical powers. When Keilie, daughter of a wealthy family, exhibits one of the rarest auras, she needs to go to distant and forgotten Skara. And there's only one man than can help her: retired pathfinder Pell Wendt. Post-apocalyptic road trip!
The book turns, rather dramatically, at the halfway point when (er, spoiler?), they reach Skara. From here, the book picks up speed - and scale - epically as the road trip somehow becomes a revolution. Keilie's new powers are central to the book's hastily-sketched dystopian regime, and Pell, as Keilie's guardian(?), is caught up in very important events.
My main problem was Pell Wendt. He's mean and bitter: the walking personification of this meme. In the initial pages, he's a cock to everyone around him, but since the focus is on the minutiae of post-apocalyptic travel planning, that's easy to ignore. But when we learn he's spent years as a down-trodden hog farmer, simply because he got dumped, alarm bells start ringing. Upon collecting his young ward, he resents that she's got plans and motives of her own (and she isn't - weirdly - super-keen about marching to her impending and horrible death). His solution is to beat her unconscious (twice), contemplate raping her, tie her up and threaten her. [She tries to flirt her way free, btw, but Pell sees through her Jezebel ways. Yikes.] For the first half of the book, Keilie exists as a little more than a sounding board for Pell's infodumping, mansplaining and whining about her mother. For the second half, despite Keilie's status as The Chosen One, it is still all about Pell. Happily, his quest to get over being dumped is symbolically and literally resolved, so, you know, that's a thing.
I liked the road trip premise, the actual mechanics of survival were interesting (in a Golden Age SF kind of way), and, unlike many of the other entries, Skara never felt overstuffed. But not for me. (3)
Devil's Night Dawning by Damien Black
Good news, everyone! The fragile walls that protect the squishy mortal realm from the demon dimensions are crumbling! Fortunately, there's an order of monks - the Argolian Order - who exist to protect our tasty human bits from demon corruption and/or consumption. Moreover, Horskam, the greatest exorcist and witch hunter, is on the case. Once the civil war and betrayal and, you know, demons, are out of the way, victory should be inevitable.
Of course, it isn't. Narrated by Adelko, Horskam's precocious young novice, the reader is given (lots of) insight into the many nuances and difficulties of the problem facing the Argolian Order. Political, metaphysical, personal... what begins as a relatively 'simple' hunt for a possible demonologist turns into a much more sprawling ordeal.
Much more sprawling. We soon learn that Adelko's perspective is but one of many, and we are merely at the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Dawning is very well, um, detailed. The Argolian Order - its processes, rituals, characters, backgrounds - are all painstakingly thought out, and, for the most part, just as painstakingly communicated. Although Adelko and Horskam are, I suppose, the 'core' protagonists, Dawning also introduces a handful of other storylines - an ambitious young squire, a visiting knight, a noblewoman, etc. etc. They don't all intersect - and new characters keep popping up throughout the book. But each, for better or for worse, comes with a great deal of detail about a new facet of the world, the society, the cosmos, or (presumably) the greater plot.
I have, as you can probably infer, slightly mixed feelings. I can't help but be impressed by the scope and complexity of Dawning's vision. But I'm also not that scale alone makes for a satisfying epic. With a story this sprawling and with so many discrete elements, there needs to be some incentive to keep going - either a holistic, visionary glue that binds everything together (say.. Wheel of Time, I guess?) or enough engaging characters that you can stick it out, waiting for their POV, even as the story goes spiralling out of sight (GoT?). For me, at least, I'm not sure Dawning landed either. Too many of the characters existed to convey (or receive) information, rather than compel me to further reading in their own right. There's something of the Miles Cameron in here. Overall, pretty fun, and I can see this being to readers' taste more than mine. (5)
We probably need to talk about Christianity as the 'default religion' in epic fantasy at some point. I'd like to figure out where it originated from, for one thing (Tolkien, for all his trope-setting, didn't do this). What I see in most high fantasy novels isn't Christianity qua Christianity. Most authors are wise enough to avoid the obvious anachronism of a real faith in a secondary world. (The exceptions are often thought out in-world as well e.g. Kay's Fionavar, Lawrence's Broken Empire, etc.) But most epic fantasies still use the trappings and aesthetics - and often even the very language - of Christianity as the basis of their hand-wavey 'generic' religion. Priests, monks, nuns, churches, damnation, salvation, monotheism, Saviours, crucifixes, exorcisms, Heaven, Hell, Redeemers, crusaders; the way religious figures dress or speak, the specific tenets of the faith, etc. Obviously, individually, many of these things exist in other faiths. Collectively, they're an indication of how Christianity is the assumed default - the placeholder for all things 'religion-y'. Setting aside the problematic part (the assumption that that all readers share that default), it is limits the imagination. Just as all secondary worlds don't need to be built on the foundations of Middle Ages Europe, not all religions need to stem from the same core faith.
This is, I hasten to add, not a problem specific to (or specifically with) Devil's Night Dawning. This book is simply one of many, many examples of a detailed, pseudo-Christianity that is very carefully not Christianity, while also very much not not Christianity. See also: every. other. high. fantasy. series.
Sufficiently Advanced Magic by Andrew Rowe
I reviewed this book a few months ago, and, with the passage of time... I feel pretty much the same. (Which is comforting.) Sufficiently is an example of the 'LitRPG' sub-genre, where the mechanics of the world aren't just on full display, they're the very point of the book. It is, (un?)generously, a bit like having someone talk through playing a video game, including lengthy internal monologues about character design, min/maxing stats, inventory management, etc. It is high fantasy text-Twitch.
Sufficiently isn't a book for everyone, as you might imagine: but there's clearly a school of people that read, say, Brandon Sanderson, and are like, 'pls could we have even less character development, a slower plot, and more detail about the atomic weight of allomantic properties'. Rowe somehow manages to make the seemingly unappetising... well,... oddly palatable. The book takes a while to hit its stride, but miraculously, out of the math and mana rises Corin: an oddly likeable misfit of a character. Genuinely, my own conversion to Corin-ism came as something of an epiphany. My initial reading experience of Sufficiently somehow began as 'curious', spent a very long time in the valley of 'hate reading', and somehow emerged into 'I'm enjoying this'. A year on, I'm still a little shaken.
Sufficiently is overlong, plot-light, and deliberately pedantic, but it is also progressive, bizarre, and occasionally charming. This is an utterly niche book, and not particularly for an audience of, uh, me. I have a hard time judging it, but I also have a lot of respect for what it accomplishes. (7)
Where Loyalties Lie by Rob J. Hayes
Drake Morass wants to be the king of the pirates. And they need, well... if not a king, they need something. The non-piratical powers are getting tired of their piratical depredations, and have launched a crusade to wipe out our seafaring chums. Drake's long-held ambitions and slow-burning schemes need to kick in now, before it is too late...
Loyalties is an odd one. One level, it is a very slick book. Lots of clever cliffhangers, lots of exciting set-piece action scenes, in exotic and fantastic locations. There are bar-brawls and executions, duels and sea monsters, jungle exploration and naval battles, sex and swordplay. There's a lot going on, and it is all sleekly executed in a way that kept my attention from page to page.
On another level, slaughter and fuckery isn't far off from sound and fury - and Loyalties, despite plenty of both, never adds up to much. Drake's motivations are either moronically simple (he wants to be king because being king is being king!) or so astoundingly abstruse that, one book in, we're still waiting for any hint of them to be revealed. There are parts of his plan that are revealed to us after they cease to be relevant (an entire floating city of literally hundreds of ships!), and others that are there because, well, they are (the 'Oracle' commands that Drake recruit a certain sidekick because, well, because). The result is a zero-twist heist novel: a character is out to do something because that's what he wants to do, and he will achieve it because of things that he has already done, that are shown to us as they happen, faced with barriers that we can't see coming because we don't know anything about it. There's no anticipation, as there's nothing to anticipate; stuff simply happens, and we're told later that said stuff was, for reasons unknown to us, significant. It is telling that 'The Oracle commands it' is, quite possibly, the best explanation we ever get for anyone doing anything.
It is also hard to muster any sympathy for Drake's greater cause. The pirates are legitimately awful: they rape, steal and murder. As far as protagonists go, they make Kylo Ren seem like a beacon of positivity. If the governments of the world want to band together and wipe out the pirates, well,... ok. Loyalties fails to provide any persuasive argument in favour of their preservation.
As noted, this is a slick book, in which a lot of stuff happens. It may be strangely hollow, but it is well-constructed, exciting, and never, ever boring. If it slows - well, wait a page, invariably something will jiggle and/or explode to entertain you. Page-turning and pretty fun. (4)
One obvious comparison is Pirates of the Caribbean, which got me thinking. How does Pirates make us care about - in this case, 'real world' historical monsters? Pirates' scumbuckets are sympathetic by a) giving each character a compelling, interesting and human motivation (live forever, avoid a curse, etc), b) creating a larger villain in the East India Company (therefore positioning the pirates as the guardians of free will vs imperialism - the lesser evil!), and c) never having them do anything irredeemable (their worst crimes are sartorial). This isn't to say that a pirate story needs to be Disneyfied to succeed - but there are ways to make bad guys the (relative) good guy without losing that greater sense of recognition that they are, in fact, shitbirds.
The Way into Chaos by Harry Connolly
Peradain is the center of a vast empire. Although built with both steel and magic, it is more precarious than it seems. There are, as always, enemies on the borders and rebellion in the (recent) past; the government, as such, is a tentative alliance of grumpy feudal lords. The monopoly on magic that underpins the empire is equally fragile. The wizards, such as they are, get their gifts from flighty inter-dimensional music critics (for reals!), and, if they over-indulge in magic, they turn into sorcerous serial killers. So, you know, that's a risk.
At the start of Chaos, the high and mighty of Peradain - including the veteran bodyguard to the flighty high prince and a cross young noble/hostage - have all gathered, awaiting the visit of their cosmic benefactors. But when the portal opens, instead of the expected procession of haughty Tolkienate folk music fans, a bunch of monsters spill out. Oops.
And then we learn exactly how fragile the empire is. One well-placed pack of hungry hell-monsters, and, whammo - total, well, chaos. As the city falls, our POV characters are amongst the few survivors, and the world they flee into is not a friendly one. The lords are rebelling, the monsters are everywhere, and all sorts of other nasties are coming crawling out of the pan-dimensional woodwork.
Chaos is spritely. There's a jaunty pace from start to finish, as the characters Tigger-spring from one horrible situation to another. There's a campaigning construction to the novel, with each episode ending in a tidily-enticing cliffhanger - an RPG-type tone to it. The magic system is well-structured - specific schools and talents and restrictions and rules - and the characters spend a significant amount of their time trying to game it. (Chaos isn't as extreme as Sufficiently Advanced Magic, but it is also highly methodical in its own way.) The fighter classes aren't quite as defined, but there's certainly a feel of experience gained and levels earned. Between that, the unsubtle railroading and the sense of character 'advancement', Chaos feels like an epic and more like a campaign. As the venerable Dragonlance - and fellow nominees like The Crimson Queen - have shown, this is an entirely valid approach to epic fantasy. Low-risk, as the episodic, peripatetic structure is friendly to world-building, quick-moving plots, and entertaining action. But also, potentially, harder to embed with a holistic sense of purpose, softer character development, or thematic depth. And, thus, Chaos is, well - pretty fun. (5)
The War of Undoing by Alex Perry
I've reviewed this at length, so I'm not going to add much here. Undoing is a little too long, with a slightly generic world and a start that is glacially slow. Undoing is also emotionally powerful, exceedingly clever, and beautifully crafted. If the magic system is simple, the plot is complex. If the journey seems digressive, it all pulls together by - or at - the end. The way it tackles topics such as responsibility and forgiveness - not simply as monologues, but as subtly interwoven themes throughout - puts it in rare company. The world is simplistic, but it is a sandbox, used to provide a cool adventure, but also prompt a more thoughtful discussion..
This, to me, is doing the hard stuff. And my criticisms about Undoing (and they certainly exist - see previous review), are all bunched together on the easier end of the spectrum. World-building is nifty, but theme-building is impressive. Flashy cinematic action gets me to turn pages; meaningful character development keeps me reading all night. Pacing is important; strong themes are unique. Some of the other finalists that are very solid in their own way. And many are, as noted, pretty fun - but Undoing was the one that also felt pretty special. (8)
- Check out what the other judges had to say.
- If something sounds cool, have a read and see what you think. I'm just me, my taste is my own.
- Thanks again to everyone for taking part and bravely running to the SPFBO gauntlet.
- Probably a follow-up post to come. Maybe.