reviews
Horns of the Hunter (Tales of Luah Fail #1) by Frank Dorrian Book Review
06, Nov

Last, but certainly not least. Horns of the Hunter is my final SPFBO read for 2022 and it’s a good one. Deeply rooted in Celtic mythology, this is a dark and gritty tale of revenge and the lengths some will go to for love. For the record, it’s not a romance. 

Naith is a warrior, renowned for his efforts against the Fomhoire, but has been ostracised for challenging those under the king's protection. Luw is a hunter, one who takes care of the forest. When he discovers that both he and Naith love the same woman, he decides to get rid of the competition. The problem is that he is not in the same league as Naith as a warrior, and both make questionable choices to come out on top.

This is the crux of the book, but it’s bloody and action-packed. It’s hard to refer to either as the “hero,” as their choices are hard to justify and their motivation is purely selfish. Of course, while this rules it out of the banner of epic fantasy, we feel some sympathy for these lovestruck fools who will do almost anything to win their “prize.” This woman, Sile, is quite the enigma. Is she the free woman she claims to be with no ties to any man, or does she have an ulterior motive? 

This book is well written, entertaining, and keeps you guessing to how things will go until the very end, and even then you may be surprised. This may be last review, but it was not the last one I read. I saved it for last as it was my choice to move on the next stage of the contest. I can assure you though, while it was my favourite, it was a really close decision. Maybe sometime I’ll release the pecking order. Or maybe not.

 

Heir to the Sun, The Chronicles of Parthalan #1, Jennifer Allis Provost
17, Oct

And on to review number 5 for SPFBO8, a YA novel with some teeth. This contains a lot of standard fantasy tropes such as elves and fae, but the author does a fine job of weaving an interesting tale. The Fae, self-proclaimed children of the gods, are being imprisoned, tortured and raped by demons who are helped by the human king of the land. Asherah, one of the imprisoned Fae, leads a jailbreak and then begins to free other Fae from different camps. When she learns of the King’s involvement, she goes to the Elf King, who rules the land. While the King wants to help, he also wants Asherah for himself, but will her unwillingness affect his decision?

I have to be honest, I find the earnestness of YA dialogue to be somewhat stiff, and this was no different here. However, this is a matter of personal taste, and this story has a lot going for it. Asherah was the most interesting character, having a mantle of leadership thrust upon her, despite her reticence about taking over. She takes the role on though, leading raids to free more fae and building what is becoming her army. Some I neglected to mention in the spiel above are Caol’nir and Alluria. Caol-nir is a temple guard, tasked with guarding the brides of a god (whose name eludes me). The brides' role is to bear the children of the god, but for their otherwise chaste behaviour, they are rewarded with magical powers. Of course, Caol’nir and Alluria fall for each other, with Caol’nir risking his life by spending an unwarranted amount of time with Alluria. Will their relationship cost Caol-nir his life, or will Alluria give up her power to be his? 

Both story strands are worth your time and, despite the pace slowing at times, the book is enjoyable and has many standout moments. While the author is well established, I believe this entry into SPFBO will earn her some new fans, win or lose. 

 

SPFBO 8 Semifinalist announcement
14, Oct

 

It's that time! We have a semifinalist announcement here at Booknest. Thank you to all the authors who submitted their work for assessment. It takes a lot of courage, and although there were things about each book that commend them, there can only be one. First I will have a brief summary of each of my books, and then at the end I will announce my semifinalist. 

The Courts of Fate and Fear by Elizabeth Trafalgar

Summary - A runaway princess is caught up in politics, intrigue, and war. The characters were well done, the writing flowed, and it needed some work on worldbuilding and a solidifying the magic system. Over all I enjoyed it. Full review here

A Matter of Dragons by Meredith Hart

Summary - a fun, sexy romp, with engaging characters. What it lacked in story line it made up for with pace and good writing. I quite enjoyed it. Full review here

Orange Storm by Ned Marcus

Summary - in my opinion this wouldn't have fallen under the fantasy category. It was more apocalyptic/science fiction. I did find it entertaining. Full review here

Augustine by Emerson Laine

Summary - an understated fantasy with a gothic feel. A great setting, with crisp writing, and well done characters. Full review here

The Assassin of Grins and Secrets by K.E. Andrews

Summary - immersive and captivating from the first chapter to the last. The worldbuilding, plot, characters, and themes interweave quite seamlessly, one not being sacrificed for the other. Full review here

The Last Lumenian by S.G. Blaise

Summary - a genre crossing story of friendship, courage, and triumph. I enjoyed this one, although the writing was too YA/MG for my taste. Full review here.

The Last Culling by Rachel Vaugh

Summary - unfortunately this was a DNF for me. The writing was good, but the worldbuilding was lacking and it was a very slow start. There is no full review. 

Child of the Moon by Audrey Simmons

Summary - this was also a DNF. Too little happened over the first few chapters, and it narrated every day life (eating, drinking, sleeping, getting dressed) in a way that slowed the story way down. There is no full review. 

 

There can only be 1 semifinalist...

 

 

 

My pick is.....

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Assassin of Grins and Secrets by K.E. Andrews!!!!

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and look forward to seeing what else comes of this story. 

The Binding Tempest by Steven Rudy is exactly the kind of book I hope to find when I participate in SPFBO. 

It has a compelling story, rich characters, and an interesting world with an advanced Victorian steampunk aesthetic I love. Magic and technology go hand in hand as conspiracies abound and the plot thickens. The story does struggle a little in the beginning as we’re introduced to new character POVs each chapter, but they very quickly overlap. Also, this level of front heavy worldbuilding feels necessary as the foundations are laid for the adventure. 

The story primarily revolves around Ellaria Moonstone, a hero of the Great War, who seeks to uncover the powers seeking to upend the young and vulnerable Collation of Nations. Unfortunately, for her and her comrades, the council has elected to raise a new king, which precipitated many of the problems that led to the war in the first place. 

From Ellaria, we move on to Kovan, a mysterious ally of Ellaria’s who seems instrumental in setting the world to rights, Tali, a Whisper Chain messenger, who gets more than she bargained for, and Learon, a young woodsman whose world is upended by his father’s mysterious journal and the enigmatic stranger Elias.

In conclusion, I very much enjoyed this book and will be picking up the sequel when money allows me a hardcover copy. The e-book struck such a chord with me that I ended up purchasing a physical copy for my personal library. It has remarkable quality with chapter designs and customs maps. 

I recommend this book for fans of the Black Prism by Brent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson’s Era 2 Mistborn books, or for those who enjoy some steampunk in their fantasy. I would compare it a little bit to V.E. Schwab's A Darker Shade of Magic, although I think I enjoyed this more. 

 

Fatal Shadow (Champions of Fate #1) by Noel Coughlan
19, Sep

This is my fourth SPFBO review, which was a good one, “forcing me to power through it. This was another author I was unfamiliar with, despite his publishing books since at least 2014. Of course, one of the joys of SPFBO is being assigned authors instead of choosing, as most of us tend to stick with what we know. Of course, not getting to choose your books can go belly up, but I have to say, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the books I’ve gotten. Anyway, back to Fatal Shadow.

The story revolves around Drinith, an ousted queen who lives on the run. She is protected by a disparate group, none of whom seem to like or even trust each other, and each has their own motivation for their role. This, of course, is kept from us initially and slowly unravelled, but not unveiled until near the end. Even the most loyal, Quiescat, wants to relinquish his power of premonition even though he can use it to protect the Queen. However, Drinith needs these guardians, as she is pursued by a cult of assassins. These are no ordinary killers as five are sent, and as one is bumped off, the next one will have absorbed the previous assassin’s strength - nice idea. 

The world-building is excellent. A planet torn apart between two suns, with a void separating its two continents. How does one travel between the lands? Well, dragons of course. Big-ass dragons kitted out as ships. Another nice touch is how they handled the deceased, tossing them into the void to a litany of odes and regret. The cities are not too different from the ones we know, with the obviously affluent separate from the seediest of slums. Drinith finds allies in both, much to her surprise, but even so, there is an element of doubt as to motivation.

The politics are very much on display here, which makes sense in a novel like this. In the city where the bulk of the novel is set, the ruling class, being, er, civilized take part in duels as opposed to full-scale battles. Each lord or lady would have someone to do their duels for them. These would be utterly devoted to their liege and would give their lives to protect them. In a world like this, those lives can be short. These were probably my favourite part of all the impressive worldbuilding.

 

In case you can’t tell, I really enjoyed this story. It was interesting, kept us on our toes throughout and just when we thought we had it figured out, something else would happen. If I had one complaint, it got a little flabby in the middle when the politics drowned out the real plot, but this is minor as it got back to business soon enough. Overall, this was definitely my kind of fantasy and I found myself intrigued throughout. I feel like this is the kind of novel that slips under the general indie fantasy radar and should benefit from the exposure that being an SPFBO contestant can bring.

I went into Shaun Paul Stevens Servant of the Lesser Good cold, as I do with all SPFBO books, and in retrospect, I kind of wish I had looked at the description first. I spent the first few chapters feeling like I was missing something. This isn’t abnormal for fantasy; there’s a certain level of acclimation that happens as the reader engages with the world, but I felt like I was missing colors in a palette instead of pieces to a puzzle. I only realized after reading the book that this is a companion novel to Stevens’ 2020 SPFBO entry Nether Light, which was a finalist. Had I read that first, perhaps I wouldn’t have had that missing feeling. 

The story follows Mist, a young woman tasked with sabotaging the upcoming marriage of Mistress Talia to the Count of Brecht. Mistress Talia is preparing to play a particularly cursed symphony, while her daughter is something of a social pariah due to her visions of the future and devil-worshipping father. While the world feels right up my alley, I never connected with the main characters and so it all fell a bit flat for me.

I also feel compelled to state that the opening scene of the book might be triggering for some people as a young woman is restrained to a bed against her will and is left in peril…It made me feel uncomfortable and I’m not a squeamish reader. Do with that what you will.

Servant of the Lesser Good features some technically excellent writing. Apart from what I’ve mentioned above, I can’t fault the author’s ability to draw the reader into his world. This felt every bit as professional as I’ve come to expect from the very best of the SPFBO.

I will say I don’t see the comparisons to Sanderson, Hobb, or Rothfuss. To a small extent, I can see the similarities with V.E. Schwab and Neil Gaiman. The writing reminds me more of Peter McLean and Ed McDonald, which is absolutely not a bad thing as I adore the War for the Rose Throne books and the Raven’s Mark trilogy.

All in all, I enjoyed Servant of the Lesser Good, even if it didn’t immensely resonate with me. It was certainly an excellent entry point for me for SPFBO 8. 

The Shadow Courtesan by Willow Woods is a dark fantasy romance novel that follows the story of a twelve-year old girl named Reina as she is violently abducted from her home and raised to adulthood as a slave in the vampire city of Tenebrae. At the age of seventeen, she is purchased by kinder type of vampire and eventually created anew as a vampire herself. After a century as a vampire, she returns to the place of her imprisonment to exact revenge on the creature responsible for the destruction of her home and her life in a story I can only describe as Beauty & the Beast meets an Anne Rice novel I’ve never read.

Apologies, everyone. I’m a little out of my wheelhouse on this one.

Diving into the Shadow Courtesan, I was a little put off in the same way as with my first SPFBO read. When a story begins with violence against women or girls, I get a little uncomfortable. I’m no stranger to dark fantasy and grimdark, but there’s something about hitting the ground with it that unsettles me. This is especially true when the resolution to this comes so late coupled with a romance featuring a problematic power dynamic. 

Personal hang-ups aside, I actually enjoyed this book far more than I expected. It took me a few chapters to accept the story for what it was and follow it along, and to my surprise I became invested in the characters. 

And if that isn’t what you want from someone new to the genre, I don’t know what to tell you.

The writing is crisp and straightforward, giving insight into Willow’s world without beating the reader over the head with worldbuilding. There were a few spelling/grammatical errors, but no more than you would find in a traditionally published book.

All in all, if you are a fan of vampire romance novels, I would recommend you check it out. I mean, if I enjoyed it, I’m sure you will.

 

The Goddess of Nothing at All (Unwritten Runes #1) by Cat Rector - SPFBO Book Review
01, Sep

The Goddess of Nothing at All is told from the perspective of Sigyn, a goddess from Norse mythology who is a wife of Loki and a lesser known figure among those histories. In the vein of Madeline Miller or Pat Barker, Cat Rector tells the story of Sigyn and her relationship with Loki from the female perspective and tries to demonstrate that written history is not always accurate.

Blazing Coffins (The Monster Twins, #1) by Jowsey Jones - SPFBO8 Book Review
18, Aug

Blazing Coffins is a self-aware, irreverent caper full of magical creatures (or, monstrosities) set around a central core of family and belonging.

Queen of the Warrior Bees (Natural Forces #1) by Jean Gill
15, Aug

My third SPFBO review, which I actually read a couple of weeks ago but was waylaid by stupid exams and the like. I’d never heard of author Jean Gill before, despite her having written many books, and Queen of the Warrior Bees was a 2020 Kindle Book Awards finalist. Which I’ve also never heard of. This, of course, is more a reflection on me than the book or author, so on that note, let’s set forth.

This has a really interesting premise. Humankind, out of fear of allergies and other risks of nature, has shut itself up in a sterile city created by magic, known as The Citadel. Everything is controlled to the max, few are allowed outside and the city is run by a number of magicians. Think a Puritan 1984 meets The Book of Koli and you kind of get the idea. Mielitta is our erstwhile hero, a foundling who never feels like she belongs in the Citadel. When she sneaks out into the forbidden forest one evening, she is attacked by a swarm of bees and in true comic book style, she starts to develop bee-like powers. Said bees adopt her as their queen, teaching her that nature is not the terrible force the mages of the Citadel say it is. 

There’s a lot going on here, with many themes at play. The main one is the divide between humanity and nature and the huge lengths the mages go through (nature vs nurture?), but there is also an attempt at establishing a patriarchy, although from reading the entire book it sounds like it's already well-established. In addition, we have a Fifth Column that wants to return the people of the Citadel to nature, but it's somewhat glossed over. As it’s a young adult book (I believe), there are some melodramatic relationships too. One of the interesting dichotomies is the comparison between the life of bees and the society in which Mielitta grows up. The book is very well written - you can tell Jean Gill is a well-established author - and the story flows smoothly. If I had one gripe it’s the formerly mentioned melodrama. I know it’s par for the course for YA, but it does irk me a little when reading it. That aside, it’s an interesting tale and well worth a read.  

 

Page 1 of 2