Justin was a professional writer and editor for 15 years before his debut novel, Carpet Diem, was published in 2015. He wrote restaurant and theatre reviews, edited magazines about football and trucks, published books about fishing and gold, wrote business articles and animation scripts, and spent four years as the writer editor, and photographer for an Edinburgh guide book.
Justin now writes full-time and is a partner in his own publishing company. He also writes scripts with his wife Juliet, who he met through the BBC Last Laugh scriptwriting competition.
His novel, The Lost War, won the sixth SPFBO.
So after reading six of this year’s SPFBO contenders, I found myself considering three of them for my semi-finalist pick. Three extremely different books, which made it difficult to choose one as ‘the best’.
In order of reading, my contenders were:
Bitter Sky by Tim Stretton: This is a classically-written steampunk novel about morality in war, how quickly clear waters muddy and how the common people are used as pawns of the powerful, with a little demonic twist.
Empire’s Daughter by Marian L Thorpe: This low fantasy historical drama about a world where males and females have split into constrictive societal roles considers many complex questions as the two sexes come together to fend off invasion.
Daughter of Flood and Fury by Levi Jacobs: A YA revenge/coming of age story about a magically-gifted young woman driven to investigate and avenge her father’s death against a backdrop of religious dogma, global politics, corruption and, again, rigid expectations of men and women.
I enjoyed all three of these books in different ways, and their varying styles and content made it difficult to pick a ‘favourite’, in the way that asking anyone to name their favourite book with no context is just cruel and unusual.
So, in the end, I tried to just be objective about which one was the best-written book, taking into account the prose, worldbuilding, characters and plot.
And so, I came up with a winner.
My semi-finalist for SPFBO 7 is…
DUH DUH DUH…
Daughter of Flood and Fury by Levi Jacobs.
Congratulations and good luck in the next round to Levi, and I hope people will also check out Bitter Sky and Empire’s Daughter.
Haven has an intriguing premise. Essentially, all mythological creatures are actually evolved forms of Fae. The Fae are believed to be long gone from the world, but some of them still live amongst humans, retaining a humanoid form until they evolve, unpredictably, into a new creature.
Into this, the protagonist, Owen is thrown with his wife and children. His wife’s sudden illness sees him rushing her to hospital, only to be involved in a fatal car crash. She dies, already partially transformed into a griffin. Owen’s shock at her loss and discovering she was Fae is further complicated when his kids are kidnapped in a home invasion, leading him on a quest to the heart of the Fae kingdom.
Sadly, that’s as far as I was able to get with this story. For me, the writing needs more development. I believe this is the author’s first book, and these are always tricky. The idea and the world are interesting, but the execution needs work. Unfortunately, I found the editor in me regularly wanting to make notes and give feedback, rather than being able to just read and enjoy the story.
The city of Serei is dominated by two religious factions. The male seers are gifted with ‘watersight’, a telepathic ability that works through connection to water. The female theracants, derogatorily called witches, work blood magic, allowing them to literally control people whose blood they have ingested.
Altheia is an oddity - a female seer. She is also the daughter of the previous Chosen, leader of the seers - which is the only reason she was admitted to the temple for training in the first place. But her father is dead - murdered, she suspects, by a faction of Traditionalists within the temple who were opposed to her father’s modernising ways.
When the new Chosen, Nerimes, attempts to have her executed, Altheia escapes the temple into the streets of Serei, where she must abandon her moral training and learn to live as a thief alongside her newfound friend Gaxna, herself a runaway from the Theracants. But she remains driven to uncover the truth behind her father’s death, and to find revenge.
The story is told in first person present tense, which itself gives an air of immediacy and pace to the story, but even allowing for this, it moves forward at speed. We begin with Altheia in the midst of combat and this sets the tone for the whole book. There is urgency and tension in almost every scene, driving the story on.
The writing is excellent, the worldbuilding rich and some descriptive passages truly immersive. On one occasion I was moved to stop and reread two paragraphs just to appreciate how well they set a scene. This is a book that drives the plot forward without sacrificing the world in which it is set. The magic Jacobs has created is both interesting and, to me, fresh.
And the scope of that world is wide. What seems like it will be a tight, personal story quickly expands to a grander scale, up to international politics and, literally, a potential apocalypse. The story, however, does not end here. The author explains there are at least 8 more books to come, so while there is a satisfying story arc completed within its pages, it is very much the first book of an ongoing series, with scope for exploring the much wider world hinted at within.
There are also a lot of interesting themes and issues to consider from the story. The most obvious is about gender and the binary infliction of gender roles within a traditional (religious) framework. Altheia does not fit into either camp completely and could easily be read as an allegorical, maybe even literal, nonbinary character, her very existence a challenge to the strict binary culture of Serei.
The story also involves a race called the Selim Deul, who are renowned inventors, and their sudden growth into global politics and trade can easily be seen as an analogue for the explosion of technology and how it affects a society, especially one still so dominated by religion. In fact, there are hints throughout the book about a potential lost race of more technologically advanced people, whose now incomprehensible works have been left behind. This, along with the historical references to worldwide flooding could be read as a cautionary tale for our own time.
So overall, a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking read. I did have one niggle, though. It’s impossible to completely describe without being a spoiler, but there is a piece of wordplay within the book that, almost immediately, I spotted as a major clue to the identity of a secret antagonist. In fact, it was more than a clue, it was a giveaway. And it stretched my incredulity a little as I considered why on Earth they would leave this huge clue as to their identity.
Now, this is another book I would say is firmly YA, with some standard YA tropes, and maybe this kind of clue was intended to be something that readers would spot and find some satisfaction in, but it leapt off the page at me and pulled me out of the story.
However, it was, in the end, a small thing that didn’t really take away from the quality of the book overall, except to remove one element of tension and mystery for me, personally.
I enjoyed this a lot, and found myself drawn back to reading it as often as possible. It’s an extremely well-written book that flies by and leaves you wanting more.