Alright. You’ve all been very patient with us (mostly me, because Esme’s been done for months), and it has finally happened. We have decided on a thing. Let’s take this one step at a time! Review time!
Our Semifinalists (in order of appearance as semifinalists):
Kalanon’s Rising by Darian Smith
Esme: I picked this one as a semifinalist for a few reasons. It was clear from the start that the editing and prose was a step above many of the other entries in my batch. I am not an editor. There are many errors that escape my notice that other people catch while reading . So, if I’ve noticed a bunch of errors in a book it absolutely needs another editing pass. This entry was also just a bit different from everything else. It’s a murder mystery mixed with forensics and old school wizard magic, which I mean c’mon, that’s neat. I read an assload of fantasy each year and coming across something different always catches my attention. The characters in this also were a notch above many of my other entries. I became attached pretty easily, I felt like they all had depth, they all had their own motivations which were both clear and consistent. I also appreciate the fact that Jessamine did not fall into stereotypical writing, she had her own believable persona and depth that didn’t go near the “menwritingwomen” memes you’ll see floating around the twitterverse. There are wizards, shamans, undead, assassins, and a nice array of old school magic. This is a slower burn kind of book, if you want a ton of action or battle scenes this may not be for you. However, if you like “whodunnit” mixed with fantasy forensics, go ahead and pick this one up!
Kristen: This was an entertaining story with a premise that seemed very unique. It was a forensic investigation, if it took place in a fantasy world with kings, mages, knights, and zombies. CSI: Westeros? Something like that. Brannon is a former-soldier and King’s Champion who has trained as a physician to try and help people instead of kill them. When someone murders a Duke’s son, it’s up to him and his team of rather interesting people to solve the case… and maybe save the world?
The characters were the high point in this one for me. I really liked Brannon as a character. He’s got a bit of a tragic past, which comes to light at times over his investigations, but it’s not a constant depressing reminder of his war days. He is trying to better himself, and save lives. I also really, really liked Taran, the priest with a knowledge of poisons. The story was plotted well, the mystery unfolded well and wasn’t too predictable (until nearer to the end when I started guessing more). There were twists and turns to the tale that I legitimately did not anticipate, and so it kept me on my toes. I could have done without the fake swears, but they didn’t grate on me too hard as they seemed to fit into the environment and were mixed with actual swearing a lot as well.
The Crumbling Kingdom by Jeffrey Hall
Kristen: This is an interesting book that takes place in a city surrounded by a very dangerous jungle. Wish and his partner Moso are jungle divers, in that they forage things from the jungle to sell in town. Mostly to feed Moso’s gambling addiction.
The characters in this one are interesting. While Wish is just a plain ol’ human, Moso is what is known as a Chassa. They are simian creatures who are more or less like monkeys. Moso is mute, as his tongue was removed to settle a debt, but he uses a form of sign language with his tail to communicate. I wasn’t sure what I thought of this book right up until I was entertaining the idea of monkey-tail-sign-language for ‘fuck you’ – I was on board after that, lol. This book has a lot of different anthropomorphic animal-people, and it was interesting. The worldbuilding was good. The jungle-encroaching-on-the-city idea and the city itself being full of poverty and corruption from within idea melded well together here. I liked but didn’t love the characters, but I thought that they were believable and hoped that they would win the day.
Esme: Crumbling Kingdom was a neat entry, I really enjoyed the different humanoid animals all co-existing in this city in the jungle setting. For people who follow my reviews more closely, you’ll notice that I tend to click with opposites paired together to create great foils. Whether it’s Nanny and Granny, or Snorri and Jalan, or Locke and Jean – if you put two characters together who are opposites I’m probably going to enjoy it. It’s not often that I see addiction represented in fantasy, let alone gambling addiction, and watching the ever evolving relationship between the two main characters and how they struggle with Moso’s addiction was interesting. This has more of an adventure/treasure hunt vibe to it and would appeal to people with a taste for classic fantasy.
Sweetblade by Carol A. Park
Esme: I very much enjoyed Carol A Park’s novel, Banebringer, and I was super stoked to see she had landed in our pile for SPFBO 5. I quickly jumped into this wanting to know more of the backstory to one of my favorite characters – I’m a sucker for prequels and backstories after all. I didn’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I got in this book, and that’s not at all a bad thing. Being surprised and having the unexpected happen is definitely a plus for me. I found this to be a very well edited entry, the characters all had a good amount of depth to them, and there were difficult topics that were handled well. This will not be a book for people who need to avoid self harm or sexual assault. These topics have come up in the past in this contest and although I’ve been outspoken against certain entries, I’ll speak up in favor of this one. The difference between being “handled well” and being “handled poorly” in my humble opinion, is how the characters work through their trauma. I don’t like it when bad shit happens just to make sure the reader knows the villain is a bad person. I don’t like it when it’s overused and ever present, and I don’t like it if it’s brushed away after the encounter. Having a character work through their feelings, acknowledge what happened and have it be an integral part of their being is how it gets done “right” in my opinion. This book had a great atmosphere, professional prose, and a lot to offer for readers who already enjoyed Banebringer. My score was a little lower than the other semifinalists because of pacing. Up through 75% of the book we get one story, and then we conclude that and jump a few years ahead to another story and it felt a bit awkward to me. Mileage may vary with that opinion, so go ahead and try this one if you liked the above description.
Kristen: Unlike Esme, I haven’t read any other work by Carol A. Park, so this is my introduction. We start off seeing Ivana as a street urchin beggar, though we do see glimpses of her past through flashback chapters. I never really clicked with Ivana as a character, and I’m not certain that it’s because I have never seen her from ‘the other side’ so to speak. She ends up as a badass assassin, but here we see… a teenage girl from a middle-class working family who makes some of the most ridiculously poor decisions and it ultimately ends up kickstarting her education in the stabbing.
The book was well written and well edited. It read quite easily and was never boring. I read half of it in one sitting, to put that in perspective. I liked this world that it takes place in, and hope one day to read into more of it. I did enjoy some of the other characters, just not Ivana. C’est la vie, I guess. However, even despite not 100% jiving with this one, the writing and the world has definitely put Banebringer on my TBR.
The Watermight Thief by Jordan Rivet
Kristen: This book apparently takes place after the events of a different series by this author, and it should be said that I have not read that series at all end yet had no trouble getting enjoyment from this book. This was a dragon-filled YA romp through several different lands. I started out not completely convinced that I was going to like it. Mainly because I didn’t start out really liking Tamri as a character, but it also took me a while to get really into the story. I did get there, though. This one got markedly more interesting as it went along, and as Tamri grew as a character, I was more and more on board. I listened to the last half of this one in one sitting, to put that in a bit of perspective.
The magic system is somewhat similar to Avatar’s idea of bending, though people are able to wield more than one element and require a specific magical substance to do anything. There is a bit of romance in store for each of the main characters, and I will admit that I was absolutely on board for both of them. The relationships were quite cute at times, and fleshed out really well. All told, I thought this was a well-written and enjoyable YA romp, with a slower start, but plenty of action, intrigue, magic, romance, and dragons overall.
Esme: YA and I have a complicated relationship… some of the most common tropes used in YA get under my skin and make it difficult for me to enjoy the story. Eg: The chosen one, love triangles, adults = bad, kids = good, magic schools etc. For this contest part of my job is to put aside personal feelings and act more like an agent, asking myself “does this have broad appeal to those who like the genre?”. The answer here is yes, I do feel like those who enjoy chosen one tropes, lots of dragons, and “cute” relationships between characters would get a lot of mileage from this one. I did find myself warming up to it as I read along, and what made it enjoyable for me was the magic and the world building … not so much the plot (since it did fall into one of those tropes that I don’t gel with). Elemental magic is a pretty neat system to use, and when done well, which this was, it can be highly entertaining. It’s got lots of dragons, and not the typical mindless fire breathing asshole kind of dragons. They are intelligent dragons with an established culture, a kingdom, and a queen. So, for those of you who are nutty over dragons this would definitely be your cup of tea. Like Kristen, the further I got into the story the more I enjoyed it, and by the end I was glad I read it despite it falling outside my typical wheelhouse. This one has a rather utilitarian approach to prose (which isn’t a bad thing), it was cleanly written and the style kept the story moving and towards the end the pacing really picked up.
The Lord of Stariel by A.J. Lancaster
Kristen: This was a very entertaining read! It takes place in a very interesting world, which is not unlike our own. There is electricity, telephones, and cars, but these are fairly new technologies, so this one felt, not Victorian or Steampunk, but sort of adjacent to them at times. Gaslamp fantasy. There is of course magic in this world, as the fae are a fairly big presence in this story, though to the humans, they are as much fairy tales as they would be in our world. There is still magic outside of that, however. Hetta has some skill with pyromancy, and is an illusionist by trade, and she is very good at what she does. But, her talent and desire to work magic put her at odds with her father, and so she has been exiled from Stariel for some years.
I absolutely loved Hetta as a character, which as you can imagine, made this one an easy read for me. I wanted her to win the day, to find out the mystery, to get the guy, to give the antagonists their comeuppance, and all sorts of other good things one wants for a good protagonist.
It was well written, flowed well, was never boring, so I can safely say that I thoroughly enjoyed The Lord of Stariel. I even bought the sequel about halfway through it, because I think I kind of need more Hetta in my life at this point, and I am going to go ahead and just have that thing. It ends in a way that encourages reading the next book without being a cliffhanger.
Esme: This was one of the most professionally edited and produced books in our batch. The cover is amazing, the quality of prose was fantastic, and the editing was top notch. The pacing for this was also very well done with a nice even pace throughout – at no point was this dragging or overly rushed. The world building was unique, as Kristen mentions it’s not quite steampunk, it’s not quite Victorian, it’s not quite turn of the century – it’s got bits and pieces of all of those all mixed together in a way that works, and works well. I really enjoy it when the Fae aren’t necessarily the ‘good guys’ and when authors take an old school race and puts their own twist on them. This one has a much lighter tone and would appeal to people who need a break from grim dark and want a character they can root for. There are feminist themes throughout and a strong main character that would have broad appeal to many readers. Although I wouldn’t qualify this as a romance per se, there are heavy romance elements. This is another one that fell outside my wheelhouse, however, the quality of the writing is undeniable. This author has talent, they know how to capture their audience, they know how to write characters, and they know how to put a unique spin on old tropes to keep them fresh. I encourage people to check it out if the above description sounds good to you.
The Average: 8.13/10
….I won’t leave you in suspense for too long, because if you were looking at the numbers as you went, this isn’t that much of a surprise. 😅
Our Finalist is Kalanon’s Rising by Darian Smith!
🎉 Many congrats! 🎉
We would also like to put forward The Lord of Stariel by A.J. Lancaster as our ‘Senlin Safety Net’ pick.
It was SUCH a hard decision to make between these two books, as we truly liked both. One of us liked one more than the other, and the other vice versa, and so it came down to scores. We really do think that both of these books are worth your time. All of these books are worth your time. BUT, THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE, HIGHLANDER MEME HERE, ET CETERA.
TL;DR: Books – Check ’em out. Also, they’re writing up some good fantasy down in New Zealand, and you should take a gander.
Lastly, many thanks to every single author who submitted their work into this contest, and thanks from us especially to those who ended up in our group. It’s tough to put your work forward, and it’s tough to hear criticism of it, or have it cut from the contest. You’ve all been very cool and understanding with us through this process. Thanks for being awesome! Most of all, don’t stop doing what you do! ^_^
TEAM SUPERSTARDRIFTER OUT!