SPFBO Review: Larcout, by K A Krantz

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 7/10
Author’s website
Publication date – June 1, 2015

Summary: Blood-beings can be chattel or char.

Fire seethes through the veins of every Morsam, demanding domination and destruction. Combat is a hobby. Slaughtering the inferior blood-beings is entertainment. Life is a repetitious cycle in the prison fashioned by the gods. But mix-race abomination Vadrigyn os Harlo suspects the key to freedom lies with safeguarding the blood-beings; until her blood-born mother uses foreign magic to turn the Morsam against Vadrigyn. Betrayed, bound, and broken, Vadrigyn struggles against the dying of her essential fire. Yet the ebbing flames unleash the dormant magic of her mixed heritage…

The magic to destroy free will.

Seized by the gods and dumped in the desert nation of Larcout to stop history from repeating, Vadrigyn discovers her mother’s legacy of treason and slaughter still festers. To survive the intrigues of the royal court, the roiling undercurrents of civil war, and the gods themselves, Vadrigyn must unravel the conspiracy behind her mother’s banishment. But manipulating free will unleashes a torrent of consequences.

If she fails the gods, she will return to the Morsam prison, stripped of all magic and all hope.

If she succeeds, she can rule a nation.

Kasthu. Roborgu. Inarchma.
Live. Learn. Burn.

Review: I’m going to say it right up front: I wasn’t initially sure I was going to enjoy Larcout. The opening chapters dump you right in the middle of things, gives you a plethora of new terms and alliances and relationships to learn and precious little context for them all, and then things change suddenly and the protagonist Vadrigyn is thrown into a new society with even more stuff to learn, and yes, it’s very chaotic and unclear and at times I seriously felt like Larcout was actually book 2 of a series and the reason I was so lost in the beginning was because I missed some essential backstory from a previous novel.

Bear with things. The book definitely improves.

Vadrigyn is half-breed being of fire, proudest of her Morsam heritage but undeniably related to the Larcoutian woman who raped Vadrigyn’s father in order to produce her. The violent life in Agenwold is what she knows, owning blood-beings as chattel, ruling over weaker things. Until she’s suddenly thrust into life in the Jewelled Nation, among blood-beings like her mother, forced to confront the other side of her heritage and to uncover the truth behind the mystery that is and was her mother. Larcout is something of a fantasy murder mystery in that regard, and it’s certainly a well put together one, full of intrigue and detail and some fascinating and frustrating cultural elements that Vadrigyn must wade through to solve the puzzle.

Krantz certainly put a lot of detail into the world in Larcout. The gods of the world have their particular nations, so that Larcout is both a place and a divine being. There are also elemental associations, with Jos, for instance, being of water, and Larcout seemingly being of earth (it’s never stated explicitly, but when you’ve got people who can telekinetically move rocks and who have precious stones sprouting from their foreheads and who turn to sand when they die, I think it’s safe to assume). The culture that Vadrigyn encounters when she finds herself in the land her mother came from is stratified and rigid, with gender inequality and class issues and full of tricky politics and alliances that need to be maneuvered around. Some things definitely felt more developed than others, but it’s clear that Krantz put the effort in and didn’t just make a fantasy analogue for a real-world culture and then call it a day. I find myself appreciating that more and more in the books I read.

If there’s any flaw I found with Larcout, it’s in the descriptions, or rather the lack thereof. I never felt like I had a really clear mental picture of things. I could tell you a little bit about what Dhaval looks like, or Vadrigyn, or a Grethmondor, or where Vadrigyn sleeps, but for the most part, I’ve honestly got no clue. Some details were mentioned, but for me it seems they didn’t really coalesce into a clear thing for me. However, personality-wise, I feel pretty familiar with a number of characters, because Krantz writes plenty of dialogue and all the characters have fairly distinct personalities, even if you don’t get to see them that often. I can tell you a few personality traits of just about everyone who got a name in the book.

A few other reviewers commented on the book’s lack of balance, and I feel I have to agree. The narrative vs dialogue issue is an example of it, and the one that stood out the most to me while reading it, but in retrospect, I think that might be in part because of the writing being a bit uneven. When it’s on, it’s on. It’s crisp and witty and you have a good understanding of what’s happening, even if you can’t always picture the finer details. And then other parts feel rushed or glossed over or inconsistent, and that might be a considerable part of what left me feeling unable to establish a good mental picture.

Despite that, though, Larcout was undeniably creative, and enjoyable to read even when I felt a bit lost, and once I let myself sink into the story I found myself compelled to keep pushing on, wanting to know more of the mystery that Vadrigyn was working to uncover. The threads of intrigue were strong, there were twists and turns to keep it all interesting, and it was endlessly entertaining to see Vadrigyn’s personality be at odds with the culture of the people around her. This is a book I think could be utterly brilliant if it was smoothed out and polished a bit more, but as it stands, it’s still a book worth checking out if you’re in the mood for something a little bit different and have the patience to push past the first few chaotic chapters.

 

SPFBO Review: Paternus, by Dyrk Ashton

Buy from Amazon.com
Rating – 7.5/10
Author’s website
Publication date – March 24, 2016

Summary: Gods, monsters, angels, devils. Call them what you like. They exist. The epic battles between titans, giants, and gods, heaven and hell, the forces of light and darkness. They happened. And the war isn’t over.

17 year old Fi Patterson lives with her stuffy English uncle and has an internship at a local hospital for the aged. She doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life, misses her dead mother, wonders about the father she never knew. One bright spot is caring for Peter, a dementia-ridden old man whose faraway smile can make her whole day. And there’s her conflicted attraction to Zeke — awkward, brilliant, talented — who plays guitar for the old folks. Then a group of very strange and frightening men show up for a “visit”…

Fi and Zeke’s worlds are shattered as their typical everyday concerns are suddenly replaced by the immediate need to stay alive — and they try to come to grips with the unimaginable reality of the Firstborn.

“Keep an open mind. And forget everything you know…”

Review: Paternus has so many elements that I enjoy, particularly my love of stories that involve deities all over the place. No idea why that’s a thing I enjoy, but it is. And if you’re like me in that regard, well, you’ll probably have a grand old time with Paternus, because it has a mess of deities and mythology-mixing all over the place. It plays fast and loose with myths from many regions and religions, and what first looked like a complicated mess slowly ordered itself into a impressive array of twists that actually made sense.

And when you consider the scale of some of the things Paternus deals with, that’s something worth mentioning.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here. The story primarily centres around Fi, a young woman working at a hospital, who seems to have a particular bond with a patient named Peter, who doesn’t really react to anyone except her. Life seems relatively normal, until the hospital is attacked by a group of extremely violent people — who are not exactly human — who are after Peter. Fi and Zeke (the guy Fi has a crush on) flee the hospital with Peter, who slowly seems to be coming to his senses and reacting to things around him, and the three of them have to stay alive long enough to figure out just what it is their pursuers want. Mixed in are chapters told from the perspective of gods or mythological figures, such as Tanuki, who see signs that the excrement if about to hit the rotating blades very soon, in what could be an epic battle of gods.

If that description thrills you, I can’t blame you. It was actually a bit difficult to come up with a brief teaser like that without spoiling a fair bit of what gets revealed in the book’s pages. Ashton juggles a lot of very complicated elements and brings them together into a seamless whole by the end, and what starts off as a chaotic beginning that throws you right into the deep end makes a whole lot more sense by the time you reach the final chapters. In that regard, it’s a book with decent re-read value. It would be good to go back and read it again with the knowledge I have now, to see which aspects make more sense now that I fully understand what’s happening. I have to give Ashton credit where credit is due; that’s not an easy thing to accomplish, and I think it was done quite well.

Many of the problems I have with this book occur early on, and they’re small things, but they’re things that wouldn’t stop nagging at me. There are two that spring instantly to mind. 1) Fi’s gay coworker, who embodies gay stereotypes in an uncomfortable way, talking constantly about sex and being gossipy and hitting on every attractive guy and actually saying, “Ew,” multiple times during a conversation — which he himself started — in which breasts were mentioned. Given that he was the only explicitly gay character, this portrayal was awkward and uncomfortable to read. 2) The mention that Edgar, Fi’s prim-and-proper British uncle, pronounces potato as po-tah-to. In the “proper English manner.” I seriously kept waiting for the reveal that Edgar was just trolling Fi over that word, because seriously, no British person I have ever encountered pronounces it that way. And I am British. The whole “toMAYto/toMAHto poTAYto/poTAHto” thing is not meant to be taken as a serious representation of the differences between North American and British English.

See? Small things, none of which are particular relevant to the story, but they bugged me. I can’t say for certain, but to me they felt like Ashton was trying to write elements he wasn’t entirely familiar with, and they didn’t work well. Which is surprising because that goes against the sheer level of detail that goes into the rest of the work. Maybe that’s why those small things felt so jarring to me. They seemed out of place, and had greater impact due to context.

I also felt confused by the early presence of chapters talking about what was happening with other gods. Some made sense, and get revisited as the story goes on. The stuff with Tanuki and Arges, though? Gets a few chapters early on (usually during those chapters I was far more interested in getting back to what Fi was up to), and then dropped like a hot potahto for the vast majority of the book, only to be picked up again at the very end. And considering those chapters initial got equal page time with Fi’s chapters, they at first seemed a lot like unimportant filler, and ultimately pretty forgettable.

Other than that, the book’s biggest flaw is that it infodumps a lot. Which I didn’t mind so much, because it was infodumping about things I was legitimately interested in and hadn’t necessarily figured out for myself. And it made sense in context, too, as Fi and Zeke are encountering all of this world-shattering stuff for the first time and they needed it all explained to them. So I think in that regard it’s a flaw-that-isn’t, because while it’s a good rule of thumb to not infodump on your readers, there is a time and place for it every once in a while, especially in such a complicated situation where the characters are just as confused as the readers. Everybody needs to catch up.

Paternus has action by the barrel, and in that regard it’s a surprisingly quick read once you get into the meat of the story. I love the way mythology was toyed with. I love the idea of a primal being that may or may not be what we call God, that is capable of loving all things and creating some of the best and worst that the world could offer. I love the sheer level of detail that went into crafting the mythos, and I respect the work it must have taken to have it come together and make sense in the end. It’s not a perfect book, but it has a lot going for it, and I enjoyed the time I spent with it. Ashton has a lot of skill as a writer and storyteller, and I look forward to seeing what else he might do in the future.

Ratings vs Rankings

This post has been percolating in my head for a while now, since I saw on Mark Lawrence’s blog post about the final round of this year’s SPFBO that… Well, I’ll just quote it here:

I’m also encouraging bloggers to use the range of marks since if they mark all the books between 7 and 8 they will have a smaller impact on the final result than a blogger who scores between 2 and 9. (the range is 1 to 10).

There was also a comment there (and I’ve seen it suggested a few places elsewhere, too) that bloggers might instead rank books from 1-10 in order of preference, to similarly eliminate too many similar scores from multiple reviewers.

I’ve been thinking about the positives and negatives of both systems. Rankings can work when you’re dealing with a specific set of numbers, like the SPFBO. It clearly wouldn’t work for regular book reviews, since they’re done as part of an indefinite number of books over an indefinite period of time. I suppose I theoretically could keep track of everything and constantly renumber my reading preferences with every book I read, but that’s just ridiculous, and a waste of time I could spend reading another potentially good book.

So ranking does work for something like the SPFBO.

But I hate the idea of it.

Simply put, I think that ranking the books in order of preference would tell too little and also do some books a disservice. Let’s face it; one book has to be dead last. And let’s say all the books in the final round are excellent, and under normal circumstances, I’d have rated it 8/10.

It coming in last place gives a much worse impression of the book than that 8/10 would.

Ranking like that gives no real indicator of whether or not a book is good, or even enjoyed by the reader. It says which books the reader enjoyed more or enjoyed less, but I think all it’s really good for is giving comparative information. It doesn’t really say at a glance whether I enjoyed it or thought it had merit or thought it was a terrible piece of writing.

It would make it easier to tell if a certain book stood out in the minds of the SPFBO judges, and for that reason, I can definitely see why some people would want a scoring system like that in place. If there’s a book that keeps hitting high on everyone’s lists, then chances are you know which book is going to be the winner. It’s an easy decision.

In theory. There’s always the possibility that all of us could rate the same 2 books at an even split between top spot and second spot on the list, resulting in a tie, and then we’re back at square one to figure out a fair way to decide the winner. Unlikely. But possible.

But as much as I dislike the idea of ranking the books, I can’t deny that the current system of scoring does pose its own challenges. We currently rank books between 1-10, not as an indicator of where they fell on a personal preference list but more akin to a star-rating system that you see on every website ever. Most book reviewers have a system like this, or at least some form of it. We use it as a general indicator of quality, and usually we’ve got our guidelines pretty clearly posted. When we give a book a rating, you generally know wouldn’t what it means in terms of how we judged the book’s quality.

This is where Mark Lawrence’s comment above comes into play, encouraging us to use a full range of numbers for our ratings. It’s not so easy. We all have our different preferences and ways of judging what we read, but for starters, all the books in the final round have been vetted by someone, and judged to be the best of their initial batch. Sure, that might not mean the book they chose to pass forward is objectively good, but it’s still a book that someone has said, “Yes, the rest of you should read this.” There’s already a skew to the positive, the higher end of the rating scale.

And yes, that means a lot of books are going to get similar numbers.

But that’s partly why I think it’s difficult to encourage us to use a wider variety of numbers. It mostly only works on paper. It’s easy to say, “Don’t be afraid to rate books low if you don’t like them,” (admittedly, advice I should probably have paid closer heed to last year), but if all the books are pretty decent ones that you enjoyed? It might come down to nitpicking small things in order to artificially create that wider range that makes the final score more varied and easier to pull a winner from.

Both methods have their ups and downs, especially in different circumstances. It was pointed out that a ranking system would either require no updates from judges until we’d read all the books, or else constant updating every time we read a new book in order to shuffle around the positions on the ranking scale. One’s less entertaining for people following the challenge (and, I imagine, fairly nerve-wracking for the authors), and the other requires extra work. Ratings are no less tricky, since, as previously said, if we all rate most of our books within the same narrow range, it runs the risk of having multiple people with the same final score and thus makes it difficult to choose a winner.

Myself, I’m fond of ratings over rankings. But that’s just personal preference, and it’s also partly based on what I’m used to doing. I don’t think either one is generally superior to the other. I guess it all comes down to preference and suitability for the task at hand.

But I am definitely open to opinions and discussion on it all here, especially as it pertains to the SPFBO. How would you like to see the books dealt with: raked or rated?

SPFBO Review: Assassin’s Charge, by Claire Frank

Buy from Amazon.com
Rating – 6/10
Author’s website
Publication date – April 10, 2016

Summary: A cold-hearted assassin. A boy with a price on his head.

Rhisia Sen is one of the Empire’s highest paid assassins. Living a life of luxury, she chooses her contracts carefully, working to amass enough wealth so she can leave her bloody trade. She is offered a new contract on the outskirts of civilization, and almost refuses—until she sees the purse. It could be the last job she ever has to take.

But when she reaches the destination, she discovers her mark is a child.

The contract, and her reputation, demand she kill the boy—if she can banish his innocent face from her mind. But another assassin has been sent to kill her, and a notorious bounty hunter is on her trail. She doesn’t know why the boy is a target, or why her former employer wants her dead. Saving the child could be her only chance at survival.

Review: Rhisia Sen, better known as Rhis, is an assassin. She’s not picky about who she kills, so long as she gets paid. When she’s offered a job with an extremely high payment, one that could let her retire comfortably, she takes the chance. Until she realises that her mark is only a young boy, and that she’s reached her limit: she can’t bring herself to kill a child. So she takes the boy with her to protect him from the people who want to kill her (probably the Emperor himself, but definitely someone within the Emperor’s palace), and in so doing she has to dodge others chasing the boy, chasing her in order to kill her, and generally making her moment of compassion prove very costly indeed.

Assassin’s Charge is definitely a quick-moving book, jumping from event to event pretty smoothly and pulling the reader along with a very strong, “What happens next?” feel to it. From the early scenes where we get introduced to Rhis’s profession, to her flight with Asher, to her multiple attempts to escape pursuit and gain her freedom, the whole thing is fairly fast-paced and it makes for a quick and engaging read.

But the book does have its weaknesses, and they’re both complaints I had through the whole novel. The first is that absolutely no conclusive reason is ever given for Asher’s contract. The Emperor wants him dead. The best reasons anyone can come up with is because he might possibly be descended from a race of people that the Emperor couldn’t conquer. Maybe. There’s a lot about Asher that has no explanation, and there are a lot of hints at some larger scheme, but nothing ever actually comes of it. It was extremely frustrating, and it felt a lot like there was no reason for it. Like the only purpose to someone wanting Asher dead was to lead Rhis on this grand adventure from city to city, trying to protect him. And that felt very flimsy.

My second complaint is that it was very hard to pin Rhis down as a character. From the first dozen chapters, she feels very solid in my mind, and I know who she is and how she feels when reading her. She does her job with cool efficiency, likes her comforts, doesn’t take crap from people. Then she has her crisis on conscience and refuses to kill Asher, coming up with this plan that I still don’t fully understand the logic behind that involves taking Asher with her as leverage to get the contract against her cancelled. As she spends more time with Asher, and with Rickson later on, she changes from someone who’s done years of assassinating with a relatively clear conscience and who doesn’t mind blackmailing people into someone who feels bad that her servants might not make enough money (which is something she previously and explicitly stated she doesn’t care about), and gets teary-eyed over reunions with people she hasn’t seen for a few weeks.

And I’m not saying that people can’t ever change in response to circumstance. They absolutely can, and do. But Rhis’s transformation seemed reminiscent of numerous other stories I’ve read and seen where children awaken some sort of “caring” ability in people. Often this is done as some attempt to state that being around kids makes people want to be parents, and thankfully this didn’t seem to be the case here, but it seems like the catalyst for Rhis getting in touch with her sensitive and emotional side does seem to be protecting the kid she has little reason to protect. It does from, “I draw the line at killing kids,” to, “I have to protect this boy no matter what, and along the way I’m going to develop relationships I previously didn’t want, and go out of my way to solve a mystery that really has nothing to do with me.” The driving force behind the plot stemmed from Rhis’s desire to do these things, but there’s nothing that really shows how she developed the desire. I think it’s just meant to be taken as a given that being in someone’s presence for long enough will make you care about them, but that isn’t true for everyone, and it doesn’t seem to mesh with the Rhis we see at the beginning of the novel.

The world in which this all took place seemed fairly fleshed out and developed, though, and that was nice to see. It wasn’t all a hue voyage of discovery, either, since Rhis has been quite a few places in her time and so wasn’t about to gape at the marvels of some new city. As such, new places weren’t given grand and overblown descriptions, though the detail given is certainly enough to get a basic mental image. I felt like this was a story that took place within a world, rather than a story that partly existed only to show off the worldbuilding skills of the author, if that distinction makes any sense. The worldbuilding was there, absolutely, but it was a backdrop to the story at hand, making it seem all the more real.

Assassin’s Charge is a novel I definitely have mixed feelings about. It’s not a bad novel. The author’s writing skill is evident, and Frank knows how to write something that will keep readers turning the pages. But for all that, I’d say its biggest weakness is that despite it being a fast-paced adventure, it lacks real motivation for any of that fast-paced adventure to play out, and the motivations it does give don’t really stand up well to being poked at. It works well so long as you don’t question anything, and just take what you’re told at face value. It’s a quick fun read on the surface, and really, it doesn’t have to be any more than that, though I do prefer my novels to have a bit more depth to them, and I think that’s why this didn’t resonate so well with me.

SPFBO Review: The Music Box Girl, by K A Stewart

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 7/10
Author’s website
Publication date – April 19, 2016

Summary: FOR THE LOVE OF MUSIC

Steam and steel are king, nowhere more so than Detroit, the gleaming gem of the world’s industrial crown. A beacon of innovation and culture, it is the birthplace of the mechanical automatons, and the home of the famed Detroit Opera House. It is where people come with their dreams, their plans, and their secrets.

A young man with the voice of an angel and dreams of stardom.

A globe-trotting heiress with a passion for adventure and memories of a lost childhood love.

A mysterious woman with a soul made of pure music and a secret worth killing for.

Beneath the glitter and sparkle, something sinister lurks at the opera, and three lives will collide with tragic consequences.

Review: It only took reading a few chapters for it to start dawning on me just what this book was. It’s a genderflipped steampunk Phantom of the Opera. With robots.

Really, that could be the 2-sentence tagline of The Music Box Girl. If you’re familiar with the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, at least (I can’t say much about the original novel, as I haven’t read it), then just about nothing in this story will come as a surprise. There are a few pieces of curiosity here or there, such as wondering just what little differences there are between the book and Phantom, but beyond that, it’s all fairly set in stone from the moment you realise the story’s inspiration.

The Music Box Girl gives you three character perspectives from which to watch the story unfold. Anton, who starts off as an opera stagehand, quickly attracts the attention of a mysterious women — known to many as the opera ghost but who gets names Melody by Anton himself — who offers to train his singing voice, to get the skill that will allow him to replace the opera company’s ageing tenor. Bess, Anton’s childhood friend turned adventurous globetrotter who is at the centre of no few scandals, reunites with her friend and they kindle a romance that has lain banked since they separated so many years ago. But Melody takes exception to Bess’s arrival and Anton’s attraction to her, and jealously seeks to keep the two apart so that she and her plan for Anton can stay central in his focus.

Melody is, of course, not human, but in fact an automaton, gears and switches in a human shape, with all the strength that comes with being made of metal. In the steampunk Detroit that Stewart sets up, automatons are physically stronger than humans, which is why they were created in the first place, but require human assistance to stay active. They also possess what’s known as an aether core, which houses their memory, the sum of their experiences, but after a while, imperfect machinery being what it is, when an automaton has experienced enough to develop a personality of their own, those memories also begin to clog the core and become disconnected, erratic, and the automaton becomes dangerous. As such, aether cores are often wiped clean, preventing a personality from forming so that the automaton can stay an obedient servant to human needs without any pesky moral issues of slavery coming into play. Melody is unique, an automaton that has no need of humans to keep her running, but has thus developed that dangerous personality. She hears voices from those in her past who are no longer there, the memories accumulating in her aether core coming and going at random, and she strives to overcome that as she teaches Anton to hone his singing voice.

It was interesting to note the subtle ways in which Stewart referenced the original Phantom story, even when dealing with new elements. For instance, Melody’s face isn’t disfigured by scars or anything of the sort, as she’s made of metal, but instead one side of her face is warped and tarnished, a callback to the reason that, well, the mask is so iconic. Stewart provides a fresh SFF look at a story that has been ingrained in public consciousness for years, melding familiar content with new twists.

The Music Box Girl‘s main drawback, though, is that it doesn’t so much pay homage to its source material so much as it just rewrites it. It’s basically a retelling, albeit with a steampunk flair and some very good crisp writing. And as much as there’s nothing inherently wrong with retelling an old story, it does unfortunately come off as being derivative. It’s not a nod to a franchise that can be appreciated by fans in the know, but, as I said in the beginning, a genderflipped Phantom of the Opera, with robots. If that’s what you hear when going into this book, very little will surprise you. You’ll know how the story will play out, because you know the story of Phantom.

Do I think that means The Music Box Girl isn’t worth reading? Not by a long shot. Given the source material, I think this will appeal massively to fans of Phantom, and believe me, there are plenty. But even aside from that, there’s plenty to like here. Stewart’s writing style, as I said before, is crisp, with plenty of clarity and detail, and it flows smoothly. The characters all feel different when you’re reading about them, and more than that, they don’t feel like they’re just rehashes of someone else’s characters. It’s a fun journey, even if you know the destination. Seeing things from Melody’s perspective — the perspective of an automaton, gives opportunity for great lines like this:

One voice, though, one voice stood out to her, and some apparent malfunction in her glass eyes tinted the world red.

The classic descent into obsessive madness, as told by a robot. It’s interesting, and I think I enjoyed reading Melody’s sections most of all, to see the perspective of someone who is both victim and villain.

So overall? Yes, definitely read The Music Box Girl. It may not be the most original, but it brings original twists to a familiar story, and it’s a smooth-flowing tale of ambition and sacrifice, which is exactly what I expected. It’s quick and engaging, the characters are interesting and very much themselves, and it’s quite enjoyable, at least from where I’m standing. I can see steampunk fans enjoying this dive into musical pop culture.

SPFBO 2016 Finalist Announcement

The time has come. I’ve looked at each book, read a bunch of them fully, and come to my final decision about which book I’ll be passing forward for all the other judges to read and (hopefully) enjoy as much as I did.

Drumroll, please!

The book that gets passed on is…

Congrats to Jonathan French’s The Grey Bastards!

It came down to a tie, score-wise, between this and Jess E Owen’s Song of the Summer King. If you’re curious as to why I’ve chosen The Grey Bastards, feel free to take a look at my review. But in a nutshell, aside from being an action-packed gritty ride on the back of a giant hog, I figured that this book was more likely to appeal to the other judges than Song of the Summer King. Song of the Summer King was definitely an enjoyable book (so much so that I want to read the rest of the series when I can), as I mentioned in my review of it, but most of the judges — myself included — gravitate more to adult than young adult, and while I figured it would be decently received, I also figured it probably wouldn’t quite get the same reception as something like The Grey Bastards.

Think about that one for a moment. The biggest reason I’m passing one forward and not the other isn’t because I enjoyed one over the other, but because I figure more people involved in the judging would enjoy one over the other. Song of the Summer King is a damn good novel and people interested in YA fantasy will probably really like it!

Maybe there needs to be a YA subcategory for the SPFBO or something. But I guess with people already wanting a blog-off for sci-fi novels too, adding a third competition for YA SFF stuff might be creating too much to keep track of, given that we’re already dealing with 10 judges and a few hundred novels over the course of a full year.

Anyway, once more, congratulations to Jonathan French’s The Grey Bastards, and I can’t wait to see what others think of it!

SPFBO Review: The Grey Bastards, by Jonathan French

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 8/10
Author’s website
Publication date – October 16, 2015

Summary: LIVE IN THE SADDLE. DIE ON THE HOG. Such is the creed of the half-orcs dwelling in the Lot Lands. Sworn to hardened brotherhoods known as hoofs, these former slaves patrol their unforgiving country astride massive swine bred for war. They are all that stand between the decadent heart of noble Hispartha and marauding bands of full-blood orcs. Jackal rides with the Grey Bastards, one of eight hoofs that have survived the harsh embrace of the Lots. Young, cunning and ambitious, he schemes to unseat the increasingly tyrannical founder of the Bastards, a plague-ridden warlord called the Claymaster. Supporting Jackal’s dangerous bid for leadership are Oats, a hulking mongrel with more orc than human blood, and Fetching, the only female rider in all the hoofs. When the troubling appearance of a foreign sorcerer comes upon the heels of a faceless betrayal, Jackal’s plans are thrown into turmoil. He finds himself saddled with a captive elf girl whose very presence begins to unravel his alliances. With the anarchic blood rite of the Betrayer Moon close at hand, Jackal must decide where his loyalties truly lie, and carve out his place in a world that rewards only the vicious.

Review: Every once in a while, you come across something that makes you sit up and take notice. You read a book and make a mental note that the book’s author is one to keep an eye on. Jonathan French is one such author, after having read The Grey Bastards.

Take a band of half-orcs, people typically born of interspecies rape, and give them a hard land that nobody else really seems to want. Tell them that they’re the only things stopping a second war between orcs and humans. Have then breed and ride very large boars as their mounts. Then throw in an idealistic young half-orc named Jackal who sees that his leader is making strange and unwise decisions, especially after a mysterious wizard arrives, and you get a story of action and intrigue that had me turning pages long past the time I should realistically have gone to sleep some nights.

It’s not a comfortable world that French sets up in The Grey Bastards. It’s full of violence, racial conflict, and if men treating women with anything but respect is something that rankles you, then you’re going to find a lot to dislike here. Women are often treated like walking genitalia, good for nothing but keeping a man’s sexual urges satisfied. Most of the female characters here are whores, with two exceptions: Fetching, a female half-orc who earned her place in an all-male band of fighters by not taking crap from anyone and giving as good as she got; and an elf named Starling, who says nothing in an intelligible language and doesn’t actually do much related to the plot. It’s probably not a book that will rate highly on the lists of those looking for books that feature equality between the sexes.

And I’m often pretty sensitive to that when it crops up in books. But for all that, I found myself really enjoying The Grey Bastards, even when some of the story (or rather, what some of the characters did and said) made me uncomfortable.

The story we get to see is from Jackal’s perspective, a half-orc who has ambitions of leadership but who doesn’t dare challenge the current leader, known as the Claymaster. That is, until the Claymaster starts making some very questionable decisions, and Jackal wonders if the old man is past his prime as is actually more of a danger to his people than a good leader. A newly-arrived wizard seems charming enough at first, but then begins having far too much influence over the Claymaster. Plans fall apart, they go nowhere, and Jackal decides it’s high time he challenged the Claymaster for leadership after all.

And here’s the fun thing about The Grey Bastards. Every time I thought an event would have a particular conclusion, it didn’t. I expected that challenge to go a certain way, and it didn’t. I expected a big reveal about a certain character, and it was about someone else. And those things made perfect sense in context; they didn’t seem designed to make a reader think one thing would happen while the author secretly mocks them for being unimaginative. French’s storytelling made everything flow well, with surprised working as well for the characters as they worked for the reader. It all kept me on my toes, and was a big reason I kept reading. I wanted to see what I’d be surprised by next, what expectations would be broken, and where the story would ultimately lead. The brutal world that French created had a certain charm to it, partly because while the Lot Lands of Jackal’s home are admittedly a wasteland between a rock and a hard place, Jackal loves them and is loyal to their defense and it’s hard to not let some of that rub off on you. You may not like the world or what kind of people it has helped to shape, but you can’t ignore that Jackal’s sentiments about it all have an effect as the story progresses.

The Grey Bastards put me in mind of something that Jeff Salyards might have written. The banter between characters is similar, full of crude camaraderie and foul-mouthed exclamations. The balance of idealism and experience is there, alongside the whole “things are far more complicated than they seem and you don’t know everything about everything” that I’ve seen in Salyards’s writing too. And my reaction to the works were so similar, making me think that while both Salyards and French are writing about things that you’d think wouldn’t appeal to me, given my other taste in novels, in the end I was surprised and impressed by just how much I’d enjoyed the stories contained within the pages.

So on that note, I can say that if you’ve read Salyards (or other authors like him) and enjoyed those books, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy French’s The Grey Bastards too. It’s a wild ride on the hog, filled with brutality, battle, and bravery. It’s coarse and crass and also loveable, and after this, I have high hopes for what French might do in the future. This was an excellent introduction to his work, and I’m pleased to have gotten it as part of my SPFBO book package. It’s a fine example of why you shouldn’t underestimate self-published authors or write them off as “not good enough;” The Grey Bastards is the kind of novel you dream of finding when you’re looking for underappreciated and worthy works.

SPFBO Review: Thread Slivers, by Leeland Artra

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 7.5/10
Author’s website
Publication date – May 25, 2015

Summary: She craves fame. He wants freedom. When their worlds crumble, even survival may not be an option.

The world is driven by wizards, gods, and an imperial space marine 20,000 years into our future. Fame-hungry female mercenary Ticca is willing to skirt the edges of her warrior’s code if it brings her the fame she desires. Her hopes of making a name for herself by spying on assassins are dashed when she’s forced to kill the assassin she was hired to watch.

Lebuin is a rich journeyman mage who’s just discovered his new rank involves actual journeying. He hires Ticca to help him advance to master and return to a life of comfort as quickly as possible. He’s willing to spend all he has to make it happen, but the mage and his mercenary get much more than they bargained for.

Trapped in the crossfire of a vast power game, Ticca and Lebuin must survive a battle between rulers, guilds, and gods. In a land of magic and technology, they’ll need to give everything to keep the world and themselves in one piece.

Thread Slivers is the first book in an epic fantasy/speculative sci-fi trilogy set in a distant future. If you like heroic, humorous, and exotic characters in a world that mixes elements of paranormal and hard sci-fi, then you’ll love this beautiful, original, and thought-provoking adventure.

Review: Ticca is a mercenary who wants to make a name for herself. Lebuin is a sheltered mage who finds himself targeted by people who want him gone. The two are thrown together, trying to uncover why a powerful mage was murdered and what secrets they both carry, all while trying to stay one step ahead of the dangerous people who follow them. Meanwhile, Duke, a powerful… werewolf-type person, has his own plans for the world, plans that involve taking down the reigning Princes and bringing back the history he once lived.

Thread Slivers is a complex story, or rather a complex mix of stories that all tie together in various ways. A good story should have more to it than just a straightforward and uncomplicated A-to-B plotline. And when it does all come together, it’s rather satisfying to see the way all the stories intertwine and become more cohesive. But I have to admit, at first, it didn’t seem like there was much cohesion at all. We start off from Ticca’s perspective, then later switch to Lebuin’s, and they’re the focus of the story for a while. Until other characters start coming in, and sections are chapters are told from their points of view, and I spent a good chunk of the book wondering who most of them were and why I ought to be interested in them, because their aspects of the story seemed almost incidental compared to what Ticca and Lebuin were focusing on.

But that isn’t to say those viewpoints served no purpose. They do. Without them, so many events and revelations would come from nowhere, and the story would come across like a big mess with poor planning. And that was, thankfully, avoided. But even so, it sometimes took long enough for it to become clear that the viewpoints were serving a greater purpose than just adding detail and flavour to the story, so I found myself often wishing that I could just get back to the main arc.

Especially because so many characters often engaged in monologues, both internal and external. Makes for tough reading sometimes, when you see it from every character you encounter.

But once you settle in for a slow build-up, Thread Slivers does end up pretty satisfying. It’s the kind of book that demands you put your expectations aside before you get going, I think, in part because while this appears at first to be secondary-world fantasy, it’s actually far-future fantasy, that kind of uncommon fantasy novel that takes place many centuries from now, a possibility of what may. But without knowing that in advance, some aspects of the novel seem a little sloppy, such as people saying Latin phrases. I admit I raised an eyebrow when a character said, “Semper fi,” because, similar to my reaction to Shakespeare being mentioned in Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns, I had to wonder what a thing specifically from this world and its history was doing so incongruously in a fantasy novel. It can take a reader by surprise, and the surprise isn’t always a pleasant one.

That’s something that strikes me more than it strikes most others, though, I think. For other readers, this mention may just be glossed over and won’t be thought of again. They jump out at me, however, and I had to take a step back to look over the book’s summary to see that it is indeed meant to be that way, the world is meant to be a far-future one, and it wasn’t just an unthinking oversight on the author’s part.

Thread Slivers is an interesting fantasy novel, once you get into it. It takes a long time to really get going (the first half of the book felt like little more than set-up for when the story actually began), but the characters are interesting and rather varied, and Artra’s writing style flows well. There was clearly plenty of planning and detail that went into the creation of this world, and it pays off in the end. Not one to go into if you’re looking for something light and quick, but if you’re into books that slowly sink their hooks into you, then this is one you ought to check out.

SPFBO Review: Song of the Summer King, by Jess E Owen

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 8/10
Author’s website
Publication date – July 12, 2012

Summary: Shard is a gryfon in danger. He and other young males of the Silver Isles are old enough to fly, hunt, and fight–old enough to be threats to their ruler, the red gryfon king. In the midst of the dangerous initiation hunt, Shard takes the unexpected advice of a strange she-wolf who seeks him out, and hints that Shard’s past isn’t all that it seems. To learn his past, Shard must abandon the future he wants and make allies of those the gryfons call enemies. When the gryfon king declares open war on the wolves, it throws Shard’s past and uncertain future into the turmoil between. Now with battle lines drawn, Shard must decide whether to fight beside his king… or against him.

Review: I judge YA novels a bit differently than I judge adult novels. That isn’t to say that I expect less of them; often I find that I end up expecting more, because so many YA novels recycle the same old story elements and tropes that I’m quite bored of by now, so my standards for a good YA novel have gotten pretty exacting over the years. But when it comes to writing style, for instance, there are different expectations for a YA novel than for anything else.

When I first started reading Song of the Summer King, I’d forgotten that it was a YA novel, and so at first the writing style came across as a bit stilted, a bit more juvenile than I’d hoped. It made for an awkward beginning, not because it was badly written, but because my expectations were skewed. I mentioned this primarily because that awkwardness was part of my overall experience, even if I came to realise my error pretty quickly.

But once I remembered that oh, right, different set of expectations at play here, I settled more firmly into the story and started to really enjoy what was playing out on the pages.

Shard is a gryfon in a conquered pride. He can’t remember his father, can’t remember a time before the conquerors came, and he is loyal to the current king, a red gryfon named Sverin. On Shard’s first hunt, he encounters a wolf named Catori, and despite wolves being enemies to gryfons, he listens to her advice and emerges victorious. Shard gains the attention of Sverin, and his place within the gryfon pride seems to be on the rise, but so too is his unease about that place, his past, and the future to come.

It’s rarer to find YA fantasies than it is to find YA urban fantasy or YA dystopias, so I tend to keep my eyes open for this sort of book. Maybe there’s the assumption that secondary-world fantasy just won’t appeal to teens, I don’t know; it sure would have appealed to most of the SFF-loving friends I know when they/we were teens. Extra points for me in this case, because I found four-legged creatures fascinating, so give me an entire book where all the characters are gryfons or wolves? Yes please!

I thought it was interesting the way the author pulled elements from Norse mythology to construct parts of the story. I’m no expert on that particular branch of mythology, but I know enough to recognise a few names and a couple of references to particular myths. That aspect of the story made me even more curious as to how it was all going to play out, especially in future novels. (This is the start to a series I definitely want to see through to the end; unlike a lot of YA I’ve been reading lately, I don’t feel burned out on the subgenre after reading Song of the Summer King, and that’s an increasingly rare occurrence for me!)

It’s a small world that Owen paints in Song of the Summer King, taking place on only a small handful of islands. There are hints at a wider world beyond, but so far Shard’s world is small, limited, a suitable backdrop for a character who learns that he has much to learn. Shard is inexperienced but not innocent; he can fight, he pushes his boundaries, he doesn’t meet the world with wide-eyed wonder but with confusion and aggression and the attempt to figure out how all these new things fit into his worldview. He’s actually an interesting character, a good one for the reader to ride along with, because he’s neither a blank slate nor somebody who just accepts the yoke of destiny that the universe places upon him. He doubts, he refuses, he makes mistakes. And by the end, his character growth is reflected in the world around him; the next part of the story seems like it will involve places much further away than the Silver Isles, and Shard will once again have to grow.

Some of the characters, however, I found a bit two-dimensional. Particularly the antagonists, which amounted to anyone who disliked Shard, really. Halvden didn’t like him because Shard was Vanir, born of the pride that was conquered by the Aesir. Hallr didn’t like Shard for much the same reason. Sverin seemed every inch the cold calculating king, and while Shard himself sought to prove his loyalty, Sverin turning on him was no surprise. It was an inevitable confrontation. Unlike the others, though, Sverin at least had the benefit of being a bit more ambiguous in his approach to Shard, until he let his hatred of the Vanir overtake him. But for the most part, if a character disliked Shard? It was obvious, and you weren’t meant to like them, and they weren’t meant to have any reason that didn’t boil down to general prejudice. That seemed to be the whole of Hallr and Halvden’s characters, really.

For my part, I thought Song of the Summer King was an enjoyable novel, fast-paced and fun and filled with adventure and discovery from an uncommon character. None of the characters here are human, or even humanoid; you’re dealing with a book filled with gryfons and wolves and birds, and exploring what lies between them and unthinking savage animals. Owen has hooked me on Shard’s quest, and I want to spend more time being entertained by the far-reaching adventures of these gryfons. This is a novel to pay attention to if you’re a fan of YA fantasy, and I expect there are quite a few people out there who will enjoy it just as much as I did.

SPFBO Review: Beneath the Canyons, by Kyra Halland

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 6/10
Author’s website
Publication date – November 4, 2014

Summary: Cowboys and gunslingers meet wizards in this high fantasy series inspired by the Old West. Silas Vendine is a mage and bounty hunter, on the hunt for renegade mages. He’s also a freedom fighter, sworn to protect the non-magical people of the Wildings from ambitious mages both lawless and lawful. It’s a dangerous life and Silas knows it, but when he comes to the town of Bitterbush Springs, he finds more danger and excitement than he bargained for…

In Bitterbush Springs on the trail of a dangerous rogue mage, Silas meets Lainie Banfrey, a young woman both drawn to and terrified of her own developing magical powers. Though Lainie has been taught all her life to hate and fear wizards, she and Silas team up to stop the renegade who has brought her hometown to the brink of open warfare. The hunt takes them deep beneath forbidden lands held by the hostile A’ayimat people, where only Silas’s skills and Lainie’s untamed, untrained power can save them from the rogue mage and the dark magic he has loosed into the world.

Review: Westerns are really hit-or-miss for me. I don’t have a spectacular amount of interest in them as a genre or subgenre, though I do admit that the setting can hold some appeal for certain types of stories. I wouldn’t say that Beneath the Canyons is a story that can only be told with a wild west setting, since it has many elements that appear in dozens of other stories, but it wasn’t incongruous. It fit, it wasn’t jarring, and I can’t say that I minded it in this case. The story overrode the setting, so to speak.

The story uses the alternating viewpoints of Silas — a bounty hunter and mage come to investigate reports of a rogue mage and bring them to justice — and Lainie — a girl who lives and works on a ranch in the Wildings, hiding her own magic from the fearful and superstitious townsfolk. Strange things have been happening in the town of Bitterbush Springs, something to do with the wealthy man Carden, and both Silas and Lainie get mixed up in events that take them into uncharted territory.

Being a setting based very much off old tales of the wild west, the world in Beneath the Canyons is very familiar. There’s civilized country, there’s the frontier where men and women tough it out to get by, the whole shebang. Which is great if that’s the kind of setting that really appeals to you. For my part, though, some of the worldbuilding seemed lackluster, and like it was the same old building with just a new coat of paint on the outside. The world’s religion might be pantheistic instead of monotheistic, but society still plays by the Judeo-Christian societal rules we’re used to thinking of: no sex until marriage (unless you’re one of those women), women are subservient to men, men wear pants and women wear skirts/dresses, and so on. It wouldn’t have taken much to mix things up a bit, and it would have added something to the story, something to distinguish it and make it stand out.

And I completely understand that mixing it up probably wasn’t what the author was going for. For people who are really into this kind of setting, they like it as it is, with all the bells and whistles that typically come along with it. It’s part of the genre. I get that. This is purely a matter of personal taste. It was nothing I hadn’t seen before, and not in a genre I particularly have a thing for, and so all those bells and whistles just didn’t do it for me. It felt uninspired in that regard.

I was of two minds when it came to the whole “science/magic” dichotomy. On one hand, it’s a parallel of the science/religion controversy that some people face. On the other hand, both aspects of that are based on an utterly flawed idea of what science actually is. In Beneath the Canyons, science is used as a shorthand for certain kinds of technology. Sewing machines, things powered by electricity, etc. People who use magic eschew ‘science,’ and vice versa, each side believing the other to be inferior. Really, though, if magic has quantifiable results, it can be called a science. And not all technology is anathema, or else humans would still be living in caves and eating whatever they could shovel into their mouths instead of having axes and saws to cut wood and build houses, stoves to cook food, looms to weave cloth for clothes and blankets, and so on. Call it a pet peeve of mine, but it bothers me when people use science and technology like the two terms are completely interchangeable, and then ignore so many things that involve technology we take for granted because it’s been around for so long.

Whether this was intentional — for instance, if it was meant to show that people generally dislike what they don’t understand and often don’t use the correct terms for things — or if it was a mistake on the part of the author, I can’t really say.

The bulk of the story revolves around trying to uncover the mystery of the ore that Carden wants miners to dig up, that he’s paying them a small fortune for. Why does he want it so badly? Is the ore related to the reports of spooky things happening at night around Bitterbush Springs? And what of the A’ayimat, the blue-skinned people who live in forbidden land beyond the town’s boundaries? The story unfolds at an even pace, and Halland’s writing is smooth and uncomplicated, making the story feel quick and easy to digest. There’s some action, but most of the story is mystery rather than brawls in the saloon or shoot-outs at the corral.

From the first couple of chapters it’s pretty clear that the intended romance is between Silas and Lainie, and to be honest, I really couldn’t feel it. I can see her being attracted to him, since he’s a stranger from far away and there’s always that appeal, plus he discovers her secret magic, so he’s in close confidence, but beyond that, what develops throughout the story is more akin to a friendship than a romance. They don’t see much of each other until closer to the end, when the plot gets hairy and people are in danger, and then Silas pulls the, “I think I loved you the moment I met you,” and I didn’t see anything there beyond brief infatuation at best.

When all is said and done, Beneath the Canyons wasn’t a bad novel, but it wasn’t anything great either. The story itself was interesting even if the setting didn’t do much for me, and though I had my other issues with it, it’s definitely on par with numerous other books I’ve read in my life. I may not go back and read it again, but I don’t regret reading it now. If Westerns and fantasy trip the right triggers for you, then Halland’s novel will probably entertain; don’t let me sway you away just because it wasn’t really my thing.