We decided to eliminate 5 more books before we start announcing our semi-finalists, so the next time you hear from us, we’ll bring good news! But before we can make anyone happy – or more anxious – first we have to be the harbringers of bad news. I know, I know, the job sucks, but hey, someone has to do it, and we signed up for it willingly (well, some of us did, I was talked into it by Belle, so blame her if you must!)
Err, um, anyway, this means we’ll be eliminating 21 books so far. I’m happy to report we are done slush piling, and we’ll discuss shortly which books we’ll roll forward to consider to be our semi-finalists and then finalist. Watch this space people, it really, really gets interesting!
At the time of posting this, not every one of us wrote up mini or full reviews of each book, so I will only use quotes from those that are available. You can always check our progress on my SPFBO page which I update regularly. Learn more about my team and fellow judges!
Without further ado, let’s rip off that bandage again – or wield the axe or scythe or… okay, I need to stop with this line of thought – and see who won’t survive the fourth Reaping.
The Ashen Levels by C.F. Welburn
When Balagir awakens at the fire with no recollection of his past, he discovers he is an ashen—a mysterious group of black-eyed vagabonds, addicted to the smoke they must pay the ghostly piper in exchange for power. With the help of a unique chisp (a sentient spark) and a band of nefarious companions, Balagir will have to traverse the northern wilds, cross seas and survive foreign wars if he is to discover the truth behind the Ashen Levels.
The Ashen Levels is dark, progression fantasy with underlying GameLit elements.
This is the COMPLETE version, and contains all five parts of Balagir's journey.
Jen: “Once I got the hang of the story, it’s kind of fun to see what he’d gain next – I found the oaths were creative and almost felt like fairytale/legend type stuff – which I liked. The Island one was on the creepy side and I loved the puzzle room. But I also couldn’t help but wonder at almost 700 pages (which felt like my 25 percent just barely dented) if that’s all there is; fetch, return, get smoke, rinse repeat until Baligr has powered up enough to do what he has to do. Which I am not too sure yet what that is (other than to regain his memories) because at this point, we were still building up. I hate to drop something that intrigues me but I also was feeling frustrated wanting to skip ahead to find out where it’s going, but knowing I’d be lost if I did.“
Timy: “I have to confess I’m not familiar with the LitRPG or Gamelit genres as I’m not a gamer myself. Not that I never play, but when I do, I prefer playing rather than read about it. That said, I had no idea what to expect. And honestly, this book didn’t make me any more interested in the genre, as I found myself bored of following Balagir around as he completed tasks and oaths seemingly without end and goal – well, except getting more smoke, and with that power and maybe his memories at the end of the road. I probably wouldn’t have minded the lack of explanation of some things – the Ashen for starters – if I could care about Balagir. But I couldn’t. In fact there wasn’t one single character who seemed likeable. Personally I think with trimming some parts and fleshing out more some others, The Ashen Levels could be an interesting read. But just not for me, sadly.”
Nick: “I wanted to connect with this book so badly. So much so in fact that I even gave it 50% instead of the required 25%. Ultimately, it just never had any focus or coherent story to grab onto in my opinion. Much of the book is simply following the main character Balagir after he awakens from a long slumber to find that he doesn’t know who or where he is. The problem is he spends the majority of half the book performing one task after another without any hint of why he’s doing these things. And it never really gets on track. So for the sake of time I had to cut bait. The writing is good but I need more direction in a story.”
|Our Combined Rating: 3.8/10||Available: Amazon|
After the Fall by Paul Freeman
No one knew where they came from or why they chose that moment to crawl out from the shadows. In a devastating orgy of terror and violence blood-drinking monsters rose from the dark to gorge themselves on the blood of humans. Facing this threat, mankind turned on itself in a devastating wave of self-destruction.
Twenty years after the Fall and what’s left of mankind is eking out an existence in a post-apocalyptic world. With much of the Earth now a nuclear wasteland, civilization has been knocked back two hundred years. By day the remnants of humanity gather together in small groups drawing from the land what they can in their new technological wasteland. By night they hide behind walls and bank up fires in an attempt to ward off the evil stalking the land during the hours of darkness.
The world needs a savior. A hero unafraid to face his own fears and terror of the vampires. An ex-preacher disillusioned by the world and his god is not that man… or so he says.
Jen: “This had some decent writing, tension, and good atmosphere at the point I left off (though the question of how the cows are ranging without being slaughtered like the horse, drove me nuts).
This DNF mostly comes down to taste I think, as post-apocalyptic vampire/zombie stories aren’t my favourite thing, so they really have to grab me to keep my interest, or have a character I want to see succeed.
This was feeling a little “been there done that” and is also on the bleak-side. That combo and no character that I was invested in was the killer and though the writing was great, I was easily distracted and/or losing interest.”
Timy: “I’m actually sad we have to cut this title, because even though everything about it screams that it’s not something I normally would be interested in, it hooked me. I don’t like apocalyptic settings or vampire stories for that matter, but I couldn’t not read it. Due to time issues, I had to stop by 24% to move on to other titles, but I’d like to come back to it at one point, because I want to know what happens to Pastor, Jeb and to the people of Colony. I know October is over, but I think this is a decent read for the season.”
Nick: “I hung in with this one for a long time compared to the other titles that I did not finish but in the end it just wasn’t a book that I thought was worthy of keeping under consideration. The plot is by no means new, a dystopian setting where vampires are now at the top of the food chain, while small pockets of uninfected humans live scattered across the country trying to survive. It definitely reminded me a lot of Justin Cronin‘s Passage series, but seemed to borrow much from that series without breaking any new ground. It’s a decent read, just not anything that I haven’t read a bunch of times already. I kept waiting for that breakout moment where something totally unexpected would happen and it just never came. For those reasons, I have added it to my DNF pile.”
|Our Combined Rating: 5.3/10||Available: Amazon|
Hound of the Mountain by Stephan Morse
The weight of the world shouldn’t rest on a 17-year-old’s shoulders, but that’s what it feels like for Chase Craig. With his daddy’s last breath, he was given a goal: save Momma from The Mountain.
Escaping this monstrous shadow will take money, lots of it, and Chase’s best option is to join The Rangers—an elite group who hunt dangerous ink-touched beasts that spawn from The Mountain’s depths. Only one person will be chosen out of the several dozen who apply, and if he doesn’t get a magic tattoo before the Trials, he’ll be out of the running.
Jen: “There were a few places where I felt the story kind of wandered maybe not too far off-track but it did take it’s time to get where it was going. Places where we are being introduced to acquaintances and so forth and especially near the end where the prolonged Ranger trials and aftermath became almost frustrating for me because of my impatience to get answers to things that had been building and hinted to over the story. And maybe I was a bit worried too, that we weren’t going to get those answers but I did appreciate touching base and letting us see how everyone fared while tying up all the loose ends – it just seemed a little drawn out at times.
This felt like a whole new side to the weird west genre. Very cool, very different story – worth checking out for the ink magic and if you like the western style genre of fantasy.”
Timy: “I honestly don’t know where to put this book. I expected to like it because the blurb and the premise sounded really cool and I’m a sucker for stories where tattoos play an important part in the character’s life. Also because it sounded similar to R. S. Belcher‘s Golgotha series. There were ideas I liked in this book – the ink mining, that every color had a different power/meaning though up the 25% we only get hints at this and not much explanation how actually tattoos and ink work, and why they are important in this culture. We can guess though, and I expect that once our MC gets closer to getting one on his own, we’ll get more answers. I kind of liked Chase, he was hard working, determined but a bit too passive I think, for my liking. “
|Our Combined Rating: 4.8/10||Available: Amazon|
When the Elves Are Gone by J.B. Allen
When the elves of Solinthilus are gone, blotted from the pages of history, who will say they remember them? I wish to say at that time, 'I do.'"
When an extraordinary power is discovered deep within the bowels of the elven kingdom of Solinthilus, the fragile peace among the races of Solinth is threatened. As war looms once again, the dwarves of the kingdom of Stone Deep must now deliberate working with the human's they've spent a lifetime waging war against to claim that power.
The enslaved elves of Solinthilus must face unimaginable odds to survive the army at their doorstep--or risk the annihilation of their race.
Agonni Grimweller, second son to the deputy clan chief of Clan Grimweller, was once revered in the kingdom of Stone Deep as a devoted husband and fierce soldier with an unsatiated taste for human blood. But one horrible event twenty years earlier had changed everything. Now, the tortured dwarf finds himself unexpectedly cast from his home and set on an impossible journey with unlikely companions to confront this new threat on Solinthilus.
The race to seize this great power has begun. Will diplomacy triumph? Or will war be the only option?
Warning: This is not a children's book. It contains graphic violence and adult themes of war and politics.
Timy: “I was genuinly surprised by this book. I don’t know what I was expecting exactly, but it sucked me in. This book is in no means an easy read. It deals with violence, depression, grief, oppression, judgement, etc. It definitely needs a certain frame of mind to enjoy it, but if you are into grimdark and you are looking for a unusual setting, then you definitely should check this one out. The writing needs a bit of polishing though, I was annoyed by Agonni being referred to as “dwarf” a lot of time, or Jaar as “half-ogre”. It’s also a slow burn kind of book, things only just started to pick up by the 25% mark, and I could a lot of conflicts coming, so the slow, miserable, unhappy life of the characters is about to change and be a lot more miserable I expect. “
Nick: “WHEN THE ELVES ARE GONE is an incredibly dark read. If you decide to check this book out, please know that going in. The cover almost suggests a sort of fun DnD type of book, but this is not the case at all. As the story unfolds, the reader is exposed to unbelievable sadness, brutality, hateful bigotry, and heartbreaking loss. And it doesn’t really get “happier” from there as these characters are put through some of the worst circumstances and treatment imaginable.
The interesting thing about this WHEN THE ELVES ARE GONE is it takes the customary roles of dwarves, elves, and humans, and flips them on their head to test our preconceived notions of how these races have always been portrayed in traditional fantasy books. The dwarves in this story are highly intelligent and calculating, often holding councils to deliberate on the current conditions of the day. “
|Our Combined Rating: 5/10||Available: Amazon|
Rook by Alexzander Christion
Sheath has just learned that he is not a boy, but a Chimera, a weapon created by powerful dragon magic to be the perfect warrior and win a war almost one believes is coming. One of an army of 300 child soldiers, he must master every art of war and become powerful enough to defeat a threat that frightens even the Council of Dragons. Can a boy, no matter how powerful his magic, win against assassins, politicians, giants, the Blood Soldiers of Loria and all the strange creatures, beasts and monsters that call Fuumashon home? He would say yes.
Jen: “The beginning is hard – it’s a bit bumpy, it’s slow and it takes a while to work its way into something understandable. It’s full of history, information, names, events etc. all that fun stuff that I need to either take in little chunks, or cram down in an hour. Either way, I’m not going to remember half the names or events. The effort it took to get to the understanding almost made me give up a few times, but it’s a big book and I try to allow extra time for the story to get going, especially when you can feel it’s going to be a huge-scaled one.
The first 25% is setting up the world and showing us the rookery, the children, the war, the special ones and how they’re going to train them. The story becomes more entertaining as the council and children start to show their personalities.
The world brimmed with fantastical creatures. I felt like a bestiary exploded in it. The neatest thing about it was how every creature just is with no thoughts about how unusual they could be from one another or even how some of the hybrids would even work. I also loved the acceptance of the kids and of their differences, and the message that they were all worth fighting for and once we felt they weren’t worth it, then we were the beasts.“
Timy: “I’ll be honest, I didn’t like this one, and skimmed through a big portion of the first 25%. I’m trying to figure out what exactly prohibited me from getting into the story. Partly the huge set of characters – we have 7 masters, and 300+ chimera kids with different personalities, looks, etc. That’s quite a lot to take in, even if we don’t get to know all 300+ kids. Though the handful we get to know do have distinct personalities, I have to give the author that. None of them likeable, but at least they are all different and that’s good. One another reason was that some of the scenes were too graphic for me – I absolutely didn’t want to read about how one character bit off and eat another’s nose, or how exactly another character was dying as a huge branch went through him. But what really put me off was the lenghty description of the events of the Great War and then another lenghty description of one of the battles. It was a bit too much and I honestly couldn’t say why it was necessary to include this all in a huge dose. Where I left off, the kids were about to sorted and tested for their abilities – though none of them were asked what they want to learn. Oh, and did I say one of the characters is called Na-zii?”
Nick: “From the description, I kind of expected this one to be a D&D type of book along the lines of R.A. Salvatore or Margaret Weis. And at times it had that kind of feel to it. What made me abandon this book though were the uber-violent descriptions that cropped up pretty much every five pages or so. I don’t mind some violence, but there’s a A LOT of action in this book and also some very vivid descriptions of brutal carnage. Unfortunately, I thought that there wasn’t a lot of story to serve as a backbone. It almost felt like the author tried to cram in as much action as possible, but what I didn’t get was a coherent plot through the first 40% of the book. And yes, the over-the-top violence was a bit off-putting at times, so I just couldn’t hang in there with this one.”
|Our Combined Rating: 3.3/10||Available: Amazon|