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
ASIN: B0719DZW8Z
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.