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.
*I was assigned this book for SPFBO7*
I had high hopes for this story. From the cover to the description, it seemed right up my alley. And I wasn't disappointed.
The Mortal Blade follows four characters in a City. This City is ruled first and foremost by the God-King and God-Queen, and then is sectioned off to their children, demigods, to implement their rule. Each demigod has special powers - healing, for instance, or vision (where they can see into the the future or read minds), or battle-vision, where they are unstoppable in battle. From the outset, I was a bit confused as I tried to piece together each demigod and which section of the City they were in charge of. I wasn't aware of the explanation in the back of the book... oh well.
A large section of this book involves the politics, treason, and back biting of these demigods as they vie for power. 300 years ago, there was a Civil War, where gods were killing each other and scrapping for more power. The poor mortals under their rule couldn't do much about it. And now, in the present day, there is an upsurge in this type of behavior. A riot breaks out in the poorest part of the City, causing mayhem and carnage.
We are introduced to four characters - there is Corthie, a mortal who has battle vision, which is unheard of. Mortals are not supposed to have powers. There are hints that he is more than what he seems, and has come from another world. He was captured and enslaved, and was placed among the Blades, the men and women responsible for fighting the greenhides. They are large bug like monsters who have been besieging the City for a loooooong time. Corthie rises to fame, and the demigods want to use him and his prestige to their own ends.
Then there is Maddie, a private recently added to the Blades. Maddie is headstrong, doesn't follow orders, and is finally placed with just one other Captain as last-ditch effort to see if she can behave before becoming a Rat, the front-line soldiers fighting the greenhides. Maddie is sworn to secrecy with her new mission - and it is definitely NOT what she expected.
Next there is Aila - a demigod with the power to change her appearance. She is rogue god, not much interested in the politics of her cousins. She actually has a liking for the mortals, and wants what's best for them. But she hides it behind a tough exterior. If the other gods had inklings of this "weakness" they would do doubt exploit it. She spends her time hunting down the mortal gang leaders and killing them, if necessary, using an alter-ego called Stormfire.
Lastly, there is Daniel. He's part of the Aurelian nobility, and recently graduated from military school. He's assigned to lead troops to the outskirts of the riots, and in so doing, gains fame when he is in charge of a particular occurrence (no spoilers). He himself is disgusted with how he handled it, but the rest of the mortal nobility claim he is a hero.
It was interesting to me to see these four characters and how their stories intertwined. The pacing is well done, although it did take me awhile to get caught up in the story, initially, since I was still trying to figure out how the City infrastructure worked. It is complex, for sure. I wasn't a huge fan of Daniel's POV, and found it a bit boring. I didn't find him to be a character that I could root for. However, the other three were spectacular. There is magic, and mayhem, and monsters and dragons (!!!) and scheming and politics... I loved it.
The plot could have used some fine tuning. It took me awhile to figure out what the book was actually about, and where it was headed. This is a heavy dose of god-politics and scheming. The riot didn't seem to be the center-point of the story until more towards the end of the book. And the greenhides were just... there. I would have liked to see a bit more about the world as a whole, since the story only took place in one city. As mentioned above, there are hints of the existence of other worlds. I'm sure this will come out more in the sequel.
The writing is very well done. The author has a talent for drawing the reader in to the characters and their lives. It's clear that a lot of work was put into this City and the structure, which I appreciated. And the writing itself was crisp, with only a few grammatical errors. For an indie book, that is very well done, indeed.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and instantly downloaded the second installment when I was finished. It was intricate, exciting, engaging, and all around a worthy addition to the epic fantasy genre.
EMERGENCY SHIFT by Daniel R. Potter is a book that I was looking to pick up and read before I was assigned it for the SPFBO. I used to date an EMT in real life and she shared some truly fantastically weird stories of her job. Given I've had my fill of private detectives and demon hunters, I was interested in seeing how combining the story of a night shift paramedic with urban fantasy would work out.
*I was assigned this book for SPFBO7*
*TW - graphic suicide
Blood Spells caught me by surprise. I wasn’t expecting it to be what it turned out to be, and that’s a good thing. I expected a typical YA fantasy with lots of romance and teenager angst and a hunky guy who the girl pants over. What I got instead was a well-done whodunit, set in a very unique world, with deep themes of grief, loss, friendship, and a girl struggling with her identity.
The story is told from the first-person POV of Madison, a POC teenager who has lost her mom and dad. The book opens at a very graphic suicide. Maddy finds her stepmother with her wrists slashed, in a bathtub. Almost immediately, the reader is immersed in Maddy’s world turned upside down. She’s already lost her parents, and now she’s lost her stepmom, too. They had a loving relationship, and Maddy’s world is rocked. The reader gradually gets the sense that this world is modern, yet the existence of magic is a given. There is very little telling, which I appreciated. You experience the world as Maddy does - so some things are assumed.
The worldbuilding was done quite nicely. There are fault lines underground that house water, and inside these water lines live those who can practice magic. Also within these lines, magic messes with technology, making it almost unusable. Cars shut off, cell phones don’t work, especially the farther into the magic side you get. There are particles of magic that float within this boundary. Users create spells using their blood. Those who can practice magic are viewed with a healthy dose of fear, yet for the most part magic is seen as something to avoid unless you have the proper training. There is a Bureau that monitors magic users, and decides who can practice and who can’t, depending on their training. One spell, that of summoning the dead, is dangerous, and comes up quite often in this book.
Maddy strongly suspects her stepmother was murdered. The rest of the book is about how she and her two friends, Lauren and Marshall, investigate her death. Maddy is determined to figure out what is going on, and rushes headlong into it, putting herself and her friends at risk. What I found particularly different about this book than most YA books is that her friends push back on this erratic behavior instead of simply going along with Maddy’s often risky and irrational decisions. Marshall is often uncomfortable with Maddy’s illegal use of magic, challenging her on it. Lauren also challenges Maddy when she places their lives at risk, insisting to be treated with respect, and that her life matters. This theme of healthy friendship is played out throughout the book. Yes, Maddy’s friends are loyal and courageous. But they don’t let her walk all over them.
One theme I also found insightful was that of grief and loss. Maddy struggles with who she is now, apart from her parents and stepmother. She longs to summon them, and tries to a couple of times, providing a few powerful scenes of closure for Maddy as she gets to interact with the dead. She is better able to mourn them. It doesn’t make it easier for her - if anything, it’s harder for her - but the reader can’t blame her for wanting to see them again.
My only complaint with this book was the rushed and predictable ending. I don’t want to give anything away, but it ends exactly how I thought it would. Other than that, this was a good read, and fans of YA, urban fantasy, and strong themes are certain to enjoy it. This is perhaps one of the best YA books I’ve read in quite a while.