I went into A Cat’s Guide to Bonding with Dragons knowing nothing of the story. Judging by the title alone and the cover art, I expected a lighthearted romp with Terry Pratchett vibes where a cat becomes a dragon rider, and that is essentially what I received. The premise is fairly simple: an Earth cat is transported to a secondary fantasy world by an evil warlock. The evil warlock is a terrible pet owner (because duh) and uses our protagonist feline Ben to kill the demonic rats he inadvertently summons. When Ben finally escapes, he finds his way to a dragon academy where an obstinate dragon Salanraja decides to bond him. What ensues is a pretty standard fantasy adventure but with an anthropomorphic cat in place of the farm boy, which does provide enough of a change of pace to make this a unique experience.
Although there is an attempt at that Discworld humor, it didn’t resonate with me in a way I had hoped. It’s by no means bad or cringeworthy, and it is most certainly lighthearted. It just wasn’t laugh out loud funny. But considering that I was reading The Trouble with Peace concurrently, it provided a nice amount of levity.
At the end of the day, I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys lighthearted fantasy, and for me it was a nice palette cleanser, which is exactly what I want when I reach for something Pratchett-esque. So, check it out, I think you’ll enjoy it.
Also, on a side note, I blame Rick & Morty for making me imagine Matthew Broderick as Ben's voice.
I like a book that has something to say. That makes you think. One of the joys of fantasy stories is that they can take issues that are real and relevant and put them in a new context, giving the reader space to consider them outside their usual cultural environment, free from individual bias.
There is A LOT going on beneath the skin of Empire’s Daughter, and the more I think back on it, the more I find.
The story is set in ‘The Empire’ a country living under an extreme agreement called Partition, whereby all men serve in the military until retirement age, and all women live a peaceful, agrarian life in their villages, farming, fishing, smithing and raising children. Only during Festival, several times a year, do men come to the women’s villages for ‘liaisons’ intended to produce children. At 7, every boy is claimed by their father and taken away to be trained as a soldier. This agreement was reached several hundred years previously through an assembly designed to resolve the conflicting desires for peaceful or military life, which were apparently split along lines of sex.
The implications of this for the society of the Empire are fascinating. For a start, bisexuality is largely the norm, at least in the women’s villages. We don’t really see whether this is also true in the army, with the exception of meeting one soldier who is expressly gay.
Our main character is Lena, a 17-year-old fisherwoman who works a boat with her cousin and partner Maya. Their life is largely parochial. Lena has never left the village. She knows little of the outside world, beyond what she learns from visiting soldiers during Festival.
So, when a soldier, who was born in the village, arrives unexpectedly with news that the women are to be asked to train to fight, in order to protect their village, and the country, from a coming invasion, it proves a catalyst for huge conflict and change.
The village overwhelmingly votes to agree to the request, but at a cost. Several women dissent, one going so far as to accept expulsion rather than fight: Maya. Grieving for her departed lover, Lena is left to train for the coming invasion and adjust to her new reality. The first half of the book deals primarily with this, while the second follows the aftermath of the invasion and what it means for both Lena and the Empire. And it is a fascinating read.
Thorpe’s writing is by turns lean and beautiful. She tells the story efficiently, but also stops now and again to let us smell the flowers, painting their aromas vividly. I stopped numerous times to admire particularly lovely sentences. The worldbuilding is deep and extensive. You can feel how much research has gone into these ways of life, and thought to the implications of her society’s lifestyle.
At first, I felt the book was moving a bit too slowly, but I eventually realised that wasn’t it at all. What it does is earn the seismic changes that are coming. There is no instalove here, or epiphanic moments where a character suddenly changes. Lena’s evolution through the story is measured and so feels real. Her emotional development moves in increments, as it should, making her all the more real and relatable.
And then there are those underlying themes I mentioned. Where to begin? Off the top of my head, we cover things like: How does childhood trauma shape a personality? Can a divided country be brought back together, once split? Is individual freedom an acceptable sacrifice for collective safety? What happens when a country adheres slavishly to a tenet agreed hundreds of years ago? When does tradition become dogma? What effect can climate change have on a society? How does the degradation of education influence culture? What happens when we forget our own history, and how do we trust those who record it to do so impartially? Can a society functionally include those who refuse to accept democratic choices?
And there’s more. All questions as relevant today, here and now, as they are in Thorpe’s novel. So, while Empire’s Daughter is a deeply personal tale of Lena’s evolution, as she sees more of her world and grows with each new experience, it is also a tale of a country’s evolution, and a lens through which to consider our own present.
There is an inevitable question.
Is it fantasy?
I hate that I’m having to ask this question after enjoying the book so thoroughly, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t explore it.
There is no magic. No supernatural creatures. The flora and fauna of the Empire are our own. There is nothing otherworldly or ‘fantastic’ in this story. So, what sets it apart?
Geography, largely. The country of the Empire is entirely fictitious. Thorpe relates having spent a great deal of time in England and Scotland researching the landscapes, and this certainly bears true for the hostile northerners beyond the wall who have red hair and use words like ‘lassies’. The world and the story are full of classic genre tropes, and I’m sure will be enjoyed by fantasy readers. There are swords and battles, assassins bearing knives in the dark and long journeys punctuated by inns.
I found myself, in considering this, wondering whether something like The Last Kingdom is fantasy. Or is it just alternative history? Is alternative history intrinsically fantasy? Does alternative geography plus alternative history add up to fantasy?
I read that this book was rejected from two other competitions, one because it wasn’t a fantasy book and one because the competition did not accept fantasy. That seems entirely believable to me, because I think it probably sits in a no man’s land, where some will consider it fantasy and some will not.
I realised in hindsight that I had actually been wary of reading this book, because of the cover. It didn’t work for me and, with some thought, I realised that’s because it reminds me more of an academic history book than a fantasy book - and I wonder how many others might have had the same experience. I’m delighted to have been wrong about my own enjoyment, but again wonder if perhaps this is a book that doesn’t quite know exactly where it fits in a genre.
And maybe it doesn’t have to. Maybe we shouldn’t be worried about pigeonholing a book’s genre any more than we should about defining its characters’ sexuality. Indie publishing allows writers to mash up genres and subvert expectations, and that is certainly a good thing. But for the purposes of SPFBO, is it fantasy? I don’t know, is the answer.
What I do know is that it is an immersive, intelligent and resonant book that I recommend highly.
The concept behind The War Stories of the Seven Troublesome Sisters series, of which this is the first, is a clever one. Essentially, it’s the same story from seven different perspectives. The realm of Ilari is under threat from an invading horde of Mongols and seven sisters play pivotal roles in its defence. Hence the ‘She’s the One…” part of each book’s title.
This first book follows eldest sister Ryalgar, whose failure to marry has been a source of consternation for some of her younger sisters. While Ilarian society is very sex positive and liberal towards women in some ways, openly endorsing sexual exploration in particular around their eight annual holidays, it still requires elder sisters to marry before their siblings.
In general, this book is about empowered women shaping their country. Having said that, Ilaria is made up of a number of principalities (nichnas), each ruled by its own prince. Prince, not princess. Pilk, the most powerul nichna, has a rule of succession that gives the throne to the eldest male, so long as he produces a male heir who survives to the age of three before one of his brothers produces one. So, women have some freedoms here, but nothing like equality.
Ryalgar discovers a connection to a group of elder, forest-dwelling, mystic women called the Velka, joins them and finds herself planning the defence of the realm against a coming invasion. Mixed in with this is her sort-of-secret relationship with Prince Nevik of Pilk and a hatful of family drama. Ryalgar’s parents and sisters drop in and out of the tale, hinting at larger stories to be told in their own books.
A great deal of worldbuilding has gone into this series, creating entirely new vocabulary and measures of time for this culture. Weeks are replaced with 9-day long ‘anks’. Months are replaced with ‘eighths’. In the best fantasy tradition, we even get unique swear words: ‘pruck’ and ‘scump’. There is no question this is a different world.
Or is it?
This is where one of my niggles comes in - we have a well-built alternate world, threatened by Mongols. I couldn’t see why Cronin didn’t simply give her invading horsemen a different name, as she’d done so much to establish her otherworld. But I was prepared to overlook it until we got to discussion of Greek mythology, at which point I felt a great dissonance as to where our story was set. The answer seems to be a completely new culture placed into otherwise established history. To be fair, it is billed as historical fantasy / alternate history, and maybe I just haven’t read enough of that subgenre for this to be expected. It might work fine for many, but I personally found it jarring, when it would have been easy to set it in an entirely new world.
The vast majority of the book is Ryalgar preparing to defend the kingdom, while also dealing with her personal dramas. The prose is smooth and easy to read. However, there is an oft-quoted bit of advice in writing: ‘Show don’t tell’. While it’s advice that is often taken too literally and applied too strictly, in this instance I felt the story fell too far over the ‘telling’ line and, as such, I found it difficult to become immersed in the world. One could argue that it is told in what is almost akin to an oral storytelling style, which would most likely have been used at this point in ‘history’, and I have some sympathy for that viewpoint. Read from that perspective, perhaps it works fine, and many readers, I’m sure, will enjoy it.
The other issue that came up for me was that there was something of a lack of tension. Each time a problem presented itself for Ryalgar, the solution followed not long after. Her relationship with Nevik borders on becoming a problem, and suddenly it’s not because of an unrelated decision. She thinks of something she needs for the defence of the realm, and one of her sisters reveals a hitherto unknown talent that offers a solution. Everything goes a bit too smoothly, and things happen a bit too conveniently, I think, to really create the sense of tension, drama and threat required.
I suppose, though, that when the book blurb literally says:
“While these historical fantasy/alternate history books can be enjoyed as stand-alone novels, together they tell the full story of how Ilari survived.
Which sister do you think saved the realm? That will depend on whose story you read.”
You go in already knowing Ilari will be saved. The drama is in the ‘how’. In truth, then, this series is more of a family drama played out in seven parts, against the backdrop of a failed invasion. And in that, it probably succeeds, on the evidence of this first book. It’s not long for fantasy (236 pages) and perhaps the interest lies in seeing the story played out through the eyes of the other six sisters, particularly the one who is enigmatically missing for most of this book. The whole story from each perspective will likely create a rich, deep story of the two years culminating in the Mongol invasion.
But again, here at the end, there is an issue. As a standalone book, we don’t get to know the end. I mean, we already know, courtesy of the blurb, but She’s the One Who Thinks Too Much ends ostensibly on a cliffhanger. There are unsolved mysteries and questions still to be answered. And there, I think, is the crux of the thing. This series is very much designed to be read as a series, and I suspect only from completing all seven books will a rounded, satisfactory ending come. But there is enough here to pique interest in the rest of the stories, for those with the inclination to commit to all seven books.
THE BROKEN HEART OF ARELIUM (War of the Twelve #1) is a high fantasy novel that takes place in the Nine Baronies. It is a classic fantasy story with likable characters but suffers a bit from the straightforwardness of the narrative. The only real major twists don't occur until the very end of the novel. Still, it was enjoyable and I will probably pick up the sequel when time permits.
Good day gentle reader,
My first read for SPFBO 7 was The Bright Lord by Alex Knowles, a LitRPG cultivation novel concerned with Ryan Hart, an extremely powerful Guild Commander turned retired family man. Unfortunately, when his past catches up to him, Alex must shed the life he has taken up in favor of the one he discarded. To make matters worse, he will need to “reset” into a new body, which he must then cultivate and train before he loses everything he gave up and everything he gained.
For the purposes of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, I like to go in as cold as possible on a book. I don’t look at the summary. I don’t look at any reviews. I don’t want to know anything about the story or its characters. This is partially because I want to go in untainted by anyone else’s opinion, but it is also because I want the story to stand on its own without the aid of a description. Oftentimes this works out just fine as the author immerses the readers into the world of the story. However, with the Bright Lord, I wish I had glanced at the summary because I had no idea what was going on…for a while.
The story begins with Ryan making dinner for his daughter while waiting for his wife to return from work. The dreaded phone call comes as does the police car and televised news that his wife has been in a terrible car accident. He makes arrangements for his daughter and heads with the police to see his wife in the hospital, meeting along the way some old comrades who inform him that his enemies are coming for him.
The next thing I know, he’s disappearing/evaporating and his consciousness is launched across the galaxy or into a digital space or a magic realm where he reanimates inside someone’s corpse at a prison/mine/training planet. This new body is really weak, but he manages to make a few friends and start leveling up his magic. Although he’s frail, he remembers doing this all before and so he provides advice for the two men bonded to him, and they begin cultivating their magical abilities.
It was around this point that I checked out. I continued reading, but I found it difficult to be invested in Ryan or his situation. The prose is very straightforward and descriptive so I had a clear mental image, but I felt no emotional investment. For me, a husband and a father of four, if something were to happen to my family, it would be all consuming. Even if, God forbid, I had to enter World of Warcraft as a level one mage and work my way up to level 80 because the Lich King had enslaved Northend.
I apologize for the dated reference.
Instead, this inciting incident is treated as a catalyst for the story, and I never felt like Ryan really cared all that much apart from a few fleeting moments in between training. If this internal conflict could have been elevated, I really think it would have done a better job at pulling me in. Instead, the Bright Lord ended up feeling a bit like I was listening to someone narrate a video game. Sure, I knew everything that was happening, I just didn’t know why I should care.
That said, if you are into stories about people trapped in video game style worlds where they gain experience, cultivate their abilities, and learn to fight the big bad evil guy, by all means check this out.
It did have Sufficiently Advanced Magic vibes even if it didn’t have as clear of worldbuilding or as dynamic of characters.
I really enjoyed this book. But I’m having a difficult time trying to describe it. One blurb calls it ‘a steampunk War and Peace’, which might well be accurate, but I haven’t read War and Peace. It certainly fits my idea of what a steampunk War and Peace would be like. Anyway, let’s get into the story before trying to dissect it.
The country of Lauchenland claimed its independence from the Empire in the first Air War, helped in no small part by their almost peerless aerostatic corps of dirigibles. The ruling Volksbund party, ostensibly a workers’ party diametrically opposed to the bourgeois ruling structure of the empire, are on a war footing, expecting imminent invasion by the empire to reclaim the young republic. Into this fractious climate falls Heino Voss, an ambitious young working-class man who has always longed to fly, and Erich von Eck, a member of the elitist Altenkirch aristocracy, whose family have sent him to fight for the Empire as part of a cynical plot to ensure they support the winning side, whomever that transpires to be.
While these two are our alternating POV characters, there is a third who is, to my mind at least, equally a main character: Saskia von Eck, Erich’s sister and Heino’s navigator. Saskia is the fulcrum that the story pivots upon and it is the three of them that the tale ultimately plays out for.
The story itself is one of war, as you would expect. It has a great deal to say about honour and duty, and just how murky these concepts become in battle. Erich in particular struggles with the moral complexities of being a military leader, while Heino is drawn into Saskia’s moral crusade, where her own staunch beliefs threaten to be their undoing.
The inspiration for the territories and culture is clearly Germanic, while other countries including France and the UK have obvious allegorical counterparts in the world. Whether or not the underlying conflict is inspired directly by the German revolution and the Weimar Republic I can’t say, as my knowledge of it is sparse, but the Volksbund managed to put me in mind of both the Bolsheviks and early Nazis all at once. There was little sign of a redeemable character connected to the party anywhere in the tale.
Equally, the Empire’s rulers are not painted favourably, but as distanced elites playing power games while ordinary people die in their name. The only man who really comes out well in a leadership sense in General Kurzbach, the head of the Imperial army who, by no coincidence, comes not from the landed gentry. He is a sensible, considered man whose instincts are to avoid conflict.
Even our heroes are presented with clear flaws. Heino can be selfish and, arguably, cowardly, while Erich is an unreconstructed snob. Both, however, manage to be likeable in different ways, and I soon found myself caring about them and Saskia.
It’s in describing the flavour of the book I have some difficulty. It’s written in a classic style, by which I mean it could easily pass for a Victorian novel in many ways, using archaic language (I had to look up ‘abstracted’ to confirm its old meaning, despite being able to work it out from context) right down to the historically accurate swearing of ‘damn’ and ‘blast’ being censored just as they would have been in their day: ‘d—’ and ‘b—‘. I smiled as these little details took me back to my English degree days.
And, indeed, the book probably has more in common with these novels than modern fantasy. It is split into ‘books’ of multiple chapters, with each book following a different character. Book One is essentially an academy story, following Heino as he trains in the aerostatic corps, including a number of familiar tropes. Book Two takes a radical shift, following Erich in a tale that could have been written by Jane Austen, about propriety and social niceties as a garrisoned soldier (Erich) flirts with the daughters of a local doctor. It’s in this book, though, that war begins and life changes for everyone, as much of tale goes on to consider the horrors of war and its human casualties.
It’s a thrilling ride of moral complexity, mystery, legal drama, romantic entanglements, class tensions and secret missions.
But where, you might reasonably ask, is the fantasy? There is no doubt, from the very beginning, that this is a fantasy novel. The opening gambit is a short prologue set 250 years before Book One, telling the tale of a botched demon summoning and an ambitious underling who advantageously works it to his benefit. But then? For 90% of the book, that’s it. The demon element is relegated to background information. We get snippets about how the empire was built on the back of demonic powers hundreds of years ago, but it’s held at a distance. It’s absolutely relevant to the book and to the story - crucial, even - so it hasn’t just been tagged on as a fantasy element. But if you like your fantasy steeped in magic and wonder, you might find yourself disappointed in how long it takes to come back around.
But again, I did really enjoy it. It was different and yet familiar, and most importantly I cared about the characters, staying up too late and reading when I should have been doing other things in order to find out what happened to them.
If I have criticisms, they are mild. There were places where the world felt a little ‘thin’ for lack of a better word, and I just wanted more. And the climax, while a satisfying (if at least a little expected) crescendo, felt slightly rushed, and was over too soon. Some elements of the story would have stood to be told in a little more detail, but then, I suppose, wanting more from a book is a sign that it’s doing what it does well. Some of the supporting characters could perhaps have been a bit more fleshed out and with such a large supporting cast, an occasional reminder of who a character is when they are reintroduced would have been welcome. In fact, perhaps the book could have even more fully embraced its classic roots and gone for a full dramatis personae alongside a map (who doesn’t love a map?) at the beginning. But really, these are small complaints.
If you are intrigued by the question ‘What if Jane Austen wrote a steampunk War and Peace with demons?’ I think you’ll enjoy this. I’ll certainly be reading the sequel.
*I was assigned this book for SPFBO7*
The Lady of Kingdoms, although marked as #2 in a series, can be read as a standalone. It's part of the Watchers of Outremer series, and A Wind in the Wilderness, the first book, made it to the finalists of SPFBO6 (review here).
The Lady of Kingdoms primarily follows the story of Marta Bassarion, a Syrian girl who, from the beginning pages of the book, faces many unwanted circumstances. In a series of events, she is transported from the AD 600s to the 1100s, without her family, entirely alone. Things, of course, have drastically changed in the years she missed. She finds herself unable to speak the language of those in Jerusalem and the surrounding area, and is forced into servitude weaving. She is quite good at it, and is bought by the prestor of the Watchers, a group of people committed to doing good and righting wrongs. This Watcher has an artifact she recognizes as her father's, something called the Brassarion Lance, which is a magical spear that makes its holder unstoppable in battle.
Another character this book follows is Sybilla, sister of the king, with ambitions for the throne. She marries a warrior, hoping that between his might and her intelligence, they can make an unstoppable bid to be named the king's appointee for the throne when he dies. The king, Baldwin, is also called the Leper King. He's had leprosy since he was a boy, and I really enjoyed his character. He struggles between doing what is right, and what is necessary, whereas Sybilla has no qualms to do whatever is necessary to get what she wants. She is, in fact, quite ruthless. She manipulates others for her own ends.
Miles of Plancy is a squire to the prestor, and Marta and he strike up a friendship when she is brought into the Ibelin family. Marta falls for him, and he for her, but Miles is also ambitious. A bastard, he has no inheritance, so he must forge for himself a name in order to obtain a fief. He irked me, to be honest. Marta, who is sweet tempered and will stand up for what's right no matter what, is often passed over by his ambition. I wanted to wring his neck.
There is magic in this book, mostly centered around demons and Fiery Ones - angels, to be exact. Marta is protected by the angels, and can often escape harrowing situations by the righteousness of her soul. She is "kissed" by a Fiery One on her forehead, and can sense evil intentions when the scar from the kiss burns. It was a fascinating addition to the book.
One aspect I really enjoyed was the politics. Although this is an alternative history story with some splashes of magic thrown in, the politics seemed quite real, with infighting, religious factions, treason, war, and believable motives by all those involved. Another part I really enjoyed was the friendship between Marta and King Baldwin. Marta has a lot of compassion for him, and he clearly is drawn to her. Their friendship was a bright spot in an otherwise dark book filled with people who were out for their own ends. And the King being disabled was done quite well.
Marta is a very strong main character. In fact, all of the characters in this book are good, even the ones you're supposed to hate. But Marta in particular is strong in her convictions, always wanting to do whats right (even if it gets her in trouble), and always willing to stand up for her friends.
There are a couple of complaints I have, but they aren't too strong. One thing is the plot - it meanders a bit, with several inciting events that aren't necessarily cohesive. There's a lot of plot lines going on, and although they were easy to follow, I feel like it could have been a bit tighter. Perhaps it makes more sense in the larger context of the series? But since I haven't read A Wind in the Wilderness, it does read as a bit haphazard. Second, I was a bit confused by the climax of the book. So as to not throw in any spoilers, I'll just leave it at this: there is a certain scene between Marta and Baldwin that didn't seem to fit in with the book as a whole.
Otherwise, this is an enjoyable read. Fans of good politics, intriguing characters, historical fantasy, medieval fantasy, and a healthy dose of magic are sure to enjoy it.
*I was assigned this book for SPFBO7*
Birthright starts off with a group of young girls in a group home playing hide and seek. Right off the bat, I assumed this was a Middle Grade story. The writing was more simple, we have a young protagonist named Arleth (great name!) who is clearly without a family. You get the sense that these girls ARE her family. And the headmaster of the group home is likable and Arleth definitely loves her.
So I'm innocently reading along when suddenly - yeah, this wasn't a Middle Grade story. Monsters appear out of a portal and attack the group home. There is blood everywhere, people are dying, being thrown into walls, more blood... it was a bit disconcerting, to be honest. The monsters were really well done. Like, truly scary.
Fast forward a few years, and we find Arleth having escaped the awful attack and is now enslaved to a true psychopath. Her owner was completely, outlandishly narcissistic, with a son who loved to torture Arleth.
I must admit, I ended up DNF'ing the book at this point. The plot, while it seemed to be well done, didn't quite fit with the simplicity of the writing. I was having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that, although it's written with a Middle Grade style (which I typically don't go for Middle Grade books) the content was definitely adult. I just couldn't get over it. I apologize profusely to the author. It's one of the downfalls of SPFBO; we judges are randomly given a batch of books, whether we like them or not. I wouldn't ever pick up a story like this in real life. But I'm sure there is an audience for this story. I'm just not not it.
Fans of Middle Grade books who don't mind adult themes, with scary monsters and truly hateful antagonists will probably like this one.