SPFBO 2017 – Phase One, my winner

And so I have finally got my final thoughts together for the first phase of SPFBO Year Three, 2017. Since starting back in May I have gone on two trips within Australia for conventions, one overseas to Worldcon in Helsinki with touristing to Belgium, Scotland and England on the side, enrolled in and (so far) completed half of a Diploma (HR), started a new job (month so far and got the hang of it finally), been on a pretty disappointing date, was referred to be diagnosed for Aspergers, and got a new tattoo. Pretty crazy six months.

But enough about all that – you want to know which title I’ve chosen to get through to the final ten of 300 entries! As we know, I first worked my list of 30 down to 8, and this is what I got:

Randy Nargi – A Conspiracy of Shadows – my review – 3/5 stars
Jamie Edmundson – Toric’s Dagger – my review – 3/5 stars
Harrison Davies – Destiny of the Wulf – my review – 3/5 stars

S.J. Madill – Magic Comes to Whiteport – my review – 4/5 stars
Daniel Olesen – The Eagle’s Flight – my review – 4/5 stars
Adam Steiner – The Censor’s Hand – my review – 4/5 stars
Harry Connolly – The Way Into Chaos – my review – 4/5 stars
Graham Austin-King – Faithless – my review – 4/5 stars

From the star rating we can see that it then came down to five titles, but it’s not always as easy as simply rating them by a few stars and writing a review. There’s so many things to look at when picking a winner – how everything fits together technically, overall quality, overall enjoyment… just because something is edited perfectly, does that mean it should get more merit than another? How about when you as a reader need to put aside your personal favourite for something that is a better overall package?

Personally… Magic Comes to Whiteport remains in my head as something I simply liked. The characters, the plot, the writing… all together, it’s just a nice, enjoyable and entertaining read. It was what I wanted at the time, and if I had time to read any of these again on an empty afternoon, it’s the one I’d pick up. Sadly, that’s not the same as recommending it as a winner for a competition.

The Eagle’s Flight and The Censor’s Hand are also of quality. They are solid reads, have very few errors, and do what they set out to do well. They don’t however have the spark that kept me reading, nor that I could put everything I have behind me and back it up to the other judges. But hey, out of 30 coming third and fourth is pretty dang good, guys.

So it comes to Faithless and The Way Into Chaos. It’s so close – so very close, guys. In the end it has to be The Way Into Chaos (and I’m so sorry, Faithless). These do what The Eagle’s Flight and The Censor’s Hand do, but just that little bit better. Editing and experience go a long way in a book, and I’m sure the rest of my shortlist will get there one day very soon. You’ve all done a marvellous job.

‘The Way Into Chaos’ by Harry Connolly is my pick to go into the final ten.

Review: The Censor’s Hand by A.M. Steiner

Published by: self-published
ISBN: 0995722900
ISBN 13: 9780995722903
Published: May 2017
Pages: 502
Format reviewed: mobi
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Four out of Five

Read for the SPFBO, this is one of the books that I chose to further consider out of my initial 30, trying to whittle them all down to a single title to put forward to the other judges – and it’s also one that I picked for the cover contest.

We meet two brothers – Daniel and Jonathan, who are out to better themselves. Daniel is trying to become a Censor – a job of great respect – while Jonathan is struggling somewhat. It’s always interesting to see what laws a man may break if it’s to protect people he loves – pretty much what Les Misérables is based on, after all. Then we have my favourite – a capable woman, Miranda, who is talented and determined to make a difference – in her case, be the first female student and knock aside the patriarchal society that contains them. She’s ruthless and driven, and currently it feels like the perfect time for her story.

When a Censor has been murdered it’s up to Daniel to prove himself. This is the running theme throughout the book, as each character is trapped in their own self-made jail of demands and goals, and we see them struggle, succeed and/or fall to meet them. This novel is certainly character-driven, which is my favourite. The plot is mostly centred around what has upset or provoked our characters next.

Overall, where this excels is in its magic system, which is unique and comes down to each individual as to how they utilise it. The pacing is also excellent, as is the mood and the way it all builds up around itself.

What I would have liked to see are characters with a little more sense – it’s tough, being a writer. You want to give your characters troubles, and they can’t solve them too easily because otherwise you have no plot, but then making them make a few too many silly decisions makes it a bit of a slog to read at times, and makes you doubt that the characters ‘exist’ and you can’t really follow or believe in people who don’t act in a way you can understand.

I say that I like character-driven novels, but not when it comes to the plot being just a little too loose, and not entirely wrapped up neatly – it almost seems like a few elements were forgotten by the end. While I did used to argue that it’s just how life is sometimes (it’s not like everything we see in the world is resolved), in this case, it just made it a little pointless to have it in the novel to begin with.

This is a strong contender and I recommend this book – it doesn’t feel entirely as edited as The Way Into Chaos, but I certainly liked the characters in this one far more.

Review: The Way Into Chaos by Harry Connolly

Published by: self-published
ASIN: B00R0G480U
ISBN 13: 9780989828420
Published: December 2014
Pages: 424
Format reviewed: mobi
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Four out of Five

Read for the SPFBO, this is the first book that I chose to further consider out of my initial 30, trying to whittle them all down to a single title to put forward to the other judges.

This book stands out initially because of the author’s backlist of decent books, and also that one of the main characters is older than most main POV characters that we usually see. He’s a warrior who has earned the trust of a king and queen, has already buried a wife and has a new family, and is seemingly retired from war – his body old and aching from a hard life (so possibly nearing or into his 50s?) It’s a sharp contrast to the spoilt prince and his friends who are really quite childish, despite being teenagers.

They’re all shaken to their core when the night of celebration, where they usually receive gifts of magic from another realm, is instead riddled with chaos and bloodshed – monsters come instead of magic, and wipe out the king and queen, and most of the city.

From there it is an exciting and engaging fight to the last page in order to regroup and get their revenge, feuding characters who have to realign their alliances, and all over a good feast of world building with a decent class-system that really gives depth and feeling to this novel.

Overall this is a solid book of quality. There are no grammar or spelling errors that caught my eye, and the formatting is decent. The pace and writing voice are quality also – you can tell that this book has been edited more than once, and fine-tuned to where it doesn’t take any effort to read and keep reading – where a few of the other SPFBO books fall over is that they simply haven’t had as much time put into them, taking the words and working them again and again to make them better.

It helps that this has an interesting magic and class system – it builds on the genre, doing something a little different that will make those very familiar with the fantasy genre interested to see what happens next. At the same turn, that does make this book a little harder to pick up if a reader were new to the genre.

Overall, this is a strong contender, and recommended if you’ve been following along in the SPFBO journey.

Review: Steal the Stars by Nat Cassidy

Published by: Tor
ISBN: 1250172624
ISBN 13: 9781250172624
Published: November 2017
Pages: 416
Format reviewed: eVersion from NetGalley
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Five out of Five

Written by Nat Cassidy, this is based on the podcast everyone is currently talking about, Steal the Stars, which was written by Mac Rogers.

First things first – I haven’t yet listened to the podcast, wanting to provide a review from the aspect of someone behind on the times and not yet invested. I assumed the majority of reviews would be from people who are already fans, and so while I download each episode as they come out, I haven’t yet jumped in.

What strikes me immediately about this is the sense of self of Dak (Dakota) – the novel is written in a very personal view which helps, but her attitude and thought patterns shine through. It’s written with stark honesty, which, in a place of secrecy is a weird justification that makes for writing you simply can’t put down.

You’re drip-fed facts. We know she works for a company that is a front for something that freaks out the locals. They think they deal in weapons, that there’s a chance for something like Chernobyl, or god knows what. From the outside it appears to be a company that has ‘marine’ in the title, but it certainly doesn’t repair boat motors. We see her enter her place of work and that immediately there’s a deadline, but also a ridiculous amount of security that needs to be passed… and left wondering why.

Of course we’re given a new guy to follow, which is the easiest way to introduce the readers – everything has to be explained to him, and we get to learn alongside. And he, too, is someone instantly likeable. Possibly because we know Dak doesn’t want to have to shoot him in the back of the head, so we don’t, either. Also because he’s taking in all this utterly batshit crazy circumstances pretty cooly, and is in awe of Dak herself.

I always love seeing that. Two highly-capable people who respect and appreciate the abilities the other has – and especially when the man is military also and knows the woman could kick his highly-skilled ass? Excellent. I’m hooked.

From here it gets real pretty quickly. I won’t say much more because 1. Spoilers, and 2. I’m still reading and don’t want to waste any more time here. Let’s just say this book gets the full five stars, and I’ll be listening to the podcast tonight. Coz I’ll certainly be done with the book by then.

(Review written previously and set to auto-post closer to publication date of the book. Podcast will have long since be enjoyed so come talk to me about it!)

Review: The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club by Sophie Green

Published by: Hachette Australia
ISBN 13: 9780733636561
Published: August 2017
Pages: 384
Format reviewed: Paperback
Site: Publisher Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Four out of Five

Set in the Northern Territory we have five excellent women who come together initially for a bookclub, but stay together for friendship and in order to cope through the hard demands of living remotely, and life in general. In 1978 Darwin would have recently had Cyclone Tracy (which destroyed over 80% of houses, and the majority of the township were airlifted out by Ansett (which is how my father came to live here, incidentally) to live throughout the rest of Australia until Darwin was rebuilt in the early 80s). So when this book is set, Darwin would have barely had 30,000 people, and the majority of these would be highly transient – posted here for 2-5 years in order to rebuild or fill some type of service. Even today a high percentage of the population here is from the defence forces or mining industry… so you can only imagine how isolated and bare it must have been out of Darwin.

Katherine is a township that’s now a three hour drive from Darwin, however in those days without the roads we do now, it would have been much longer. Especially with the setbacks thanks to the cyclone. One character lives there, burdened with a husband who loves a drink. – sadly common in that time. The stations that hold three of the characters are nearby, and the fifth character is a nurse with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, though she is based in Alice Springs – a township located in the very middle of Australia (that had about 1,000 people living there at the time).

I don’t think there’s anything I could say that would really get home just how remote it would have been back then. The telephone lines were few, the roads were harsh, and the weather could be wild – in the wet, even today we have many communities that are inaccessible by car for months when the floods come in. A significant number in the NT get their food from the shops via satellite order and by barging it in.

Anyway, I think what I’m trying to say is that this is what spoke most to me, reading this book. I’m from the Territory. I’ve worked for the same area for 12+ years, and it’s always been about getting people and schools out in the most remote parts of the Territory their most basic things. The friendship is literally what keeps these people sane – each other is all they would have in these harsh conditions, and having someone to natter on with would be a life saver.

What makes this book even better is the books they read as a club – a list of very worthy Australian literature. Readers get to know about the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the Country Women’s Assoc., and how the Territory has always been made up of travellers – one character is from England, and another from America. (It would have been excellent to have someone there from, say, China, left over from the gold rush… as one of the best things of the Territory is about not just being from other countries but the cultures they bring with them… but it was still pretty good.)

The book is beautifully written, and did our Territory well.