Now that our four semi-finalists are out and about (they fly out of the nest so quickly *sniff*), there is one last thing to do before we reveal our finalist! We have 5 books left we have to say goodbye to and believe me, in some cases that’s not an easy thing to do.
This means we’ll be eliminating 26 books out of our initial 30. We really are at the end of the road, and what a crazy ride it was! I’d like to thank every author in our group for being patient with us and for submitting their books. We all found books to love and new to us authors to follow and support. I also would like to thank those who were game and sent in a tale for Tales from the Asylum, making that feature a success. I hope you enjoyed your time with the Asylum and that we’ll see you around!
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. There will be some full reviews coming for the already cut titles in the coming weeks too. 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 for the last time – or wield the axe or scythe or… okay, I need to stop with this line of thought – and see who we say goodbye to.
The 19th Bladesman by S.J. Hartland
His duty is to die young, but fate has something far more lethal in mind
If Kaell breaks, the kingdom breaks with him. And prophecy says the 19th Bladesman will break …
The Bonded Warrior …
Kill. Die young. That’s what a swordsman bonded to the ancient gods does. Without expecting praise from the man who trained him to survive this centuries-old, malignant war against the inhuman followers of an invincible lord. But Kaell wants more. More of Val Arques’ attention, his approval. Just more.
The fire dancer …
Ice lord, spy, Heath never loses a fire dance. Yet he longs to know that thrill of danger down his spine as he kills for his god, to fight a warrior who might, just might be better than him.
The broken …
Val Arques is a bladesman of formidable power entrusted not only with Kaell’s life but with the truth that will destroy him. Banished to a grim outpost of this doomed kingdom of sorcery, poetry and treachery, he cannot afford to care about the young warrior. For love means loss. And Val Arques has a shameful secret …
A kingdom on the edge of chaos …
As a vengeful god escapes his ancient prison and Kaell is drawn into his web of deception, even Val Arques can’t protect him from the dark prophecy awaiting him. Because you can’t flee fate unless you’re willing to do the unthinkable.
Duty and love collide in this powerful epic fantasy about shattering loss, betrayal and the price of power.
2019 Readers’ Favorite International Book Awards gold medal winner for epic fantasy.
Winner of the 2019 CIPA EVVY award, fairytale/folklore/mythology
National Indie Excellence Awards finalist
2018 Foreward Indies finalist for fantasy
Jen: “This might have worked for me better if it had been a linear story, and there had been less jumping the timeline to fill in the peripheral characters backstories and information for later events that have already happened. Especially since it didn’t build any tension for those events or characters, we were just getting the details filled in. It just gave the story a messy feel.
The rest though, was a lot of fun. There are some great action scenes, lots of interesting ideas and Kaell has won himself a little spot in my heart. The story is worth checking out those reasons alone.“
Belle: “I wanted to like this book SO MUCH (also hi, look at that cover). All three of the main characters are exactly the kind of people I enjoy reading about and the plot seemed really interesting. Honestly, if I had read it in one go, I probably would have finished it, but life intruded at around 60%, and I have had zero motivation to return to it. At the point I stopped, the story was only just starting to gain momentum, and that definitely did not help. The first third of the book is a lot of set up, a lot of hinting, and not enough action to keep me engaged. The characters were intriguing enough, and well written, but the (assumed) attempt to keep the mystery alive made everything just a bit tedious.
I can definitely see this book finding its audience, and I will definitely be keeping an eye out on anything else SJ Hartland writes, this just wasn’t the book for me.”
Nick: “Hartland‘s writing is strong and she paints some really cool pictures with words. There are a number of action scenes that are done particularly well and that I found myself totally enthralled by. It just lacked a bit of focus that could be attributed to the fact that this is a hefty book with regard to page count.
There is much about the THE 19TH BLADESMAN that will appeal to many fantasy readers in my opinion. This is not a book that you should shy away from just because it didn’t work fully for me. Impressive writing, action scenes aplenty, and a nice story involving an ancient prophecy make this a solid fantasy book that deserves checking out. I enjoyed it enough to definitely want to read book 2 when it is released and revisit this world.”
|Our Combined Rating: 5.8/10||Available: Amazon|
Scions of Nexus by Gregory Mattix
Twenty years have passed since the Battle of Nexus. Although the forces of good prevailed, evil never rests, and bitter hatred spurs an overwhelming desire to destroy the Lady of Twilight and wrest Nexus from her control at all costs.
Taren and Elyas, the sons of legendary heroes, yearn for more than their simple life: for Taren, to follow in the footsteps of the parents he’s never known and discover magic and adventure; for Elyas, to escape the shadow of his father Wyat, the mighty warrior, and find his destiny as a soldier in the king’s army.
When war, driven by the fiend Nesnys’s thirst for revenge, unexpectedly engulfs the kingdom, Taren and Elyas are forced onto the path of adventure under circumstances they never envisioned. Their fates encompass great challenges and hardships as the gods once again seek to manipulate their pawns and influence events that will affect the entire multiverse.
Scions of Nexus is the first book of an epic fantasy series from the author of the Nexus of the Planes trilogy.
Jen: “It’s easy to read, has an interesting world with the different planes (made me think of The Death Gate Cycle though I don’t know if they were element favoured) maybe it was a bit predictable characters-wise, though I loved the boys and hoped for a good buddy/brother story. But, I also felt I knew where the story was headed for them, and if I am reading tropey fun stuff – I want the tropes I like. Bromance, friendship and adventure and this (I am judging off the fortune teller riddle, so may be totally wrong) looks like it might veer into brotherly strife as it unfolds. Correct me if I am wrong, because I enjoyed it enough to come back if it is headed for my favourite tropes but for SPFBO purposes I will have to say goodbye.”
Timy: “There is certainly a lot going on in this epic fantasy adventure. Up to the 25% mark there were 4 POV characters. I’m generally not much into multiple POVs, but seeing how many plotlines is vowed into Scions of Nexus, I guess that was inevitable. The writing needs a bit of tightening, but a lot of effort went into the worldbuilding which shows, and the writing itself is enjoyable. What stopped me from really liking it though was the fact I couldn’t connect with any of the characters, which was a deal breaker for me. I also found myself skimming the fighting scenes. Although it didn’t really work for me, I can see people enjoying Scions of Nexus immensely, so if you are into epic fantasy, I highly recommend this one!”
Belle: “I enjoyed this one. It’s a pretty standard adventure fantasy, and a decent read the whole way through. I liked the contrasts between Taren and Elyas, Mira and Creel’s storylines were quite intriguing, and I’m looking forward to seeing how all of their paths converge. I didn’t much care for any of the other POVs, reading through them was more a means to an end than anything else. Assuming I’m not murdered by my TBR pile, there’s a very good chance I’ll continue reading this series in the future.”
Nick: “Where I was slightly disappointed in the book was in the overall story itself, which I thought was fairly standard fantasy fare for large portions. I thought that there could have been a bit more buildup to the main conflict between Nesnys and the forces of good in Nexus. I also would have liked to have seen a more thorough explanation of the history of the previous war and how and why exactly that came about.
While the main characters Taren and Elyas were certainly intriguing, I kept wanting more depth to them. We never really get to see a lot of what makes them tick unfortunately and they are pretty much thrown into the heat of battle to fight one threat after another as the story plays out. This is appealing to a point as I did enjoy the action a lot, but it just didn’t lend itself to a lot of expansion on their personalities and reasoning at times.
All in all I thought that SCIONS OF NEXUS was a fun fantasy book that kept my interest throughout. I would definitely pick up the next book in this series to see how things are advanced. If you are looking for something along the lines of R.A. Salvatore or Ed Greenwood, this book may be right up your alley. Loads of action and characters who are tested to the limits of their abilities make this a book worth checking out for most fantasy fans.”
|Our Combined Rating: 6.1/10||Available: Amazon|
Taika Town by Drew Montgomery
Taika Town. A place of crime, of poverty, of fear, of power. The kind of place that cops hesitate to go, that politicians use as a campaign rallying cry, where the old ways still live. The kind of place where anything can happen.
It’s election time, and the city has reached a boiling point. Fear of the Taika is at an all time high, driving the central issues of the presidential race. In the midst of the rhetoric, a Taika-friendly candidate fears for his life, a fear even his own security detail fails to consider a serious threat. Private Eye Jack Larsen, however, is not above taking the job, and for a job like this, it helps to have someone who knows the darker side of the city. But as the leads take Jack deeper and deeper into the conspiracy, he finds himself rushing to stop a plot that goes beyond just a simple assassination.
Lose yourself in a captivating fantasy noir thriller, set in a world where magic users are subjected to systematic oppression by a people who fear their powers. A world where those with the most power have the least pull, where everything is creeping closer and closer to a boiling point.
Jen: “This is a short story just over 200 pages, without the addendums there wouldn’t be much to it. Plot-wise, it’s pretty straight forward – a seemingly small job turns into a big conspiracy, much like when a magician pulls a handkerchief out of his sleeve that leads to another and another… it’s not overly complicated and if you are at all familiar with noir, you’ll have an idea of the shade of grey things will end in, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to see if you are right.
I thought the political speeches and news broadcasts were a neat way to build the world history/people and catch us up with what was happening within the city. It keeps that up-close and personal noir feel to the story without introducing us to all of the parties. I did feel the speeches were a bit long at times and repetitive in themes (though very keeping with politicians) and I did start skimming them after awhile. I also didn’t realize until about the third speech that it was different candidates’ speeches. That has probably more to do with my inability to keep the names straight until I can get them fixed in my mind with character traits than any else though.”
Timy: “Going in, I expected to love Taika Town. I love noir and have absolutely no issue with urban fantasy. That my fellow judges liked it was a good sign. But I guess I had too high expectations, because it didn’t work for me. It started promising, I liked the setting, the fact that in this world politics played a prominent role. But then I quickly lost interest as it was too tropey for my likings. Enter Jack, the private detective, and a random beautiful woman who walks in his office asking for his help, tagging along and being anything but useful while likes to think she knows everything. And this is were Taika Town lost me. I rarely like female characters to begin with, so when they go to pissing me off, then no, I’m not interested anymore. That and this books would have needed another pass of editing and better formatting, because the .mobi file was a bit messy.”
Belle: “This SF Noir was a change of pace, but not one that worked for me. The world building was interesting and the writing was engaging, but the parallels to real-world experiences were a bit too grim and heavy-handed for my tastes. I like my grimdark to come with some hint that the world can be improved, and I didn’t find that here. That said, if you do like gritty noir mysteries, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy this book.”
Nick: “This book has so many echoes of what is happening in our world today in various countries. You can make definite connections to racial and ethnic injustices occuring in different parts of the world including right here in my own country, the United States. So there is an underlying message in this story that speaks to prejudice, racism, and the stereotyping of an entire segment of people. I won’t get overly political or make any personal comments in this regard, but I do want to point out that when you read this book it is simply unavoidable to not think of today’s headlines.
Getting back to the SF part of the book though, this is a really engaging story with a side-mystery that truly makes the book a winner for me. I thought that the world-building was solid and the political angle really held my interest throughout. Part of the reason why is that the history behind the main story of the Taika people and their oppression was laid out in the beginning of the book so well. I became instantly invested in who was going to win the election and how things would shake out afterward.
I was very impressed by this book and although there were moments in the middle where it slowed down considerably, I felt that the conclusion made up for that lull in the action somewhat. TAIKA TOWN is an enjoyable SF Noir book with a social message. I did not expect that going in and I’m happy to say that what I came away with in the end was a well-rounded story full of suspense, political intrigue, characters who fight for what they believe in, and pretty darn good writing to boot. Check out TAIKA TOWN if you haven’t already, it will be well worth your time and effort to do so.”
|Our Combined Rating: 5.7/10||Available: Amazon|
Belief’s Horizon by I. W. Ferguson
Treachery at home. Otherwordly visitors. What else lies beyond belief’s horizon?
Happen Fell lives on an isolated farm deep in the rainy woods on the magical planet Grith. It’s past time for him to go to the annual trade fair to begin his rites of passage, but one untimely trouble after another keeps him from exploring further than his home and the tiny school he attends with his cousin.And one person seems to lurk behind every trouble: Osgar.
Once Happen finally leaves on his journey, he fears his father’s loyal employee will turn up any moment. But when a stranger claims that Grith could be facing a threat from beyond the stars, Happen’s coming-of-age journey becomes much more treacherous—and mysterious.
That looming threat is the Lightfeeder Menace, and it could destroy everything. Almost no one on Grith—Happen included—believes it could be real. But what they don’t believe might kill them.
Belief’s Horizon is the first book in The Lightfeeder Menace series, introducing the world of Grith, where every river deep enough has its naiad, and every sea worth its salt has its dragon.
Timy: “I can’t really put my finger on why this book touched me, but it did which caught me by surprise. Belief’s Horizon is a coming of age/slice of life kinda story – or at least at the beginning until Happen starts his journey because from there on it’s coming of age/adventure. It has a slow space, but that’s also gives it a charming atmosphere without being boring or dragging. I felt compelled to follow Happen on his way to adulthood. Things seemed to pick up toward the end of Part I, and though I’m usually not a fan of travelling in books, here I didn’t mind. There was a lot of worldbuilding in the background, mostly hinted at which was intriguing, but I felt like some things would have needed a bit more explaining – the magic, for instance.
Despite it needing a bit of polishing, I’m definitely thinking about coming back to finish reading this book, but until then, I definitely recommend if you are looking for something less action packed but still full of wonders and likeable characters who form friendships while there is also a character – Osgar – who you are going to love to hate.”
Jen: “This is kind of a tamer, more thoughtful (or is that responsible) Tom and Huck style friendship/adventure story, in a sci-fi/fantasy world with magic, tech and other planets including Earth. It is an interesting blend and the inclusions of the off-worlders gives us a good idea of the scale of the in-story world, while keeping this a small and personal journey to adulthood for Happen.
This was a nice change of pace and even could be a little sweet at times. Because it has a slice of life/coming of age feel, and maintained the same pace almost throughout with not much build to the end, I just found it a little slower and more thoughtful in tone than the adventure tale I’d expected with a couple of boys off discovering the world, but I enjoyed it a lot.
Nice presentation all around but the story could use a little urgency at times, to keep things interesting and moving along.”
Belle: “The world building was a high point for me. Often sci-fi/fantasy mash ups end up being a confusing mess of tropes, but it was done really well here. I hope there’s more exploration of the galaxy beyond Grith, especially with the tantalising glimpses we’re given as we learn more about his companions. I also enjoyed all of the characters, and the deft way their backgrounds and personalities were worked into the story, especially as Happen is the only POV (and often a sceptical one at that).
One thing that let it down for me was the lack of information about the Big Bad of the series. We get a lot of information about Osgar, but not so much on the larger conflict. I assume this will be fleshed out more in future books, but being kept in the dark was occasionally frustrating.”
Nick: “What I was somewhat disappointed in were certain components of the story and how they were relayed to the reader. For instance, the thing that made this just an okay book for me was how most things happened far too easily. A lot what took place was told rather than shown which is not what I normally prefer in a story. Also, quite a few situations that arise are resolved too quickly without a lot of buildup beforehand or explanation afterward.
While BELIEF’S HORIZON was pretty enjoyable overall, I felt like there was not enough tension and I wasn’t completely satisfied in the end due to the reasons that I just mentioned. But that is simply my own opinion and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to readers who enjoy SF stories with interesting otherworldly space travellers, a decent coming-of-age plotline, and a mystery that ties everything together. I liked it enough to want to check out book #2 in The Lightfeeder Menace series once it is released to see what happens (no pun intended) next to these characters.”
|Our Combined Rating: 6.6/10||Available: Amazon|
Blood and Shadow by Robin Lythgoe
A vengeful mage. A powerful gift. A naive youth.
Sherakai never wanted to become a warrior like his father and brothers. Satisfied with being fourth in line to inherit title and responsibility, he wants only to be Master of the Horse. But on the eve of his sister’s wedding, a terrible gift arrives and Sherakai’s course changes forever. His magic is the key to secrets he does not know or understand, and he must learn to fight to escape a future he doesn’t believe in. Now he must use what he hates to regain what he loves.
This latest novel from Robin Lythgoe, Blood and Shadow, is a new addition in the wonderful high fantasy tradition of Lois McMaster Bujold, R.A. MacAvoy, and Carol Berg.
Timy: “Upon reading 25% of each book, I was pretty sure Blood and Shadow will be a serious contender in getting my semi-finalist position. I loved the setting, the relationship between the brothers as well as Kai and his friend. I liked Kai himself as well and was looking forward to spend more time with him. As I couldn’t make up my mind, I decided to read a bit further. By 44% I knew it won’t be my pick. It started out really strong and I was emotionally invested, but then the travelling part began and I lost my interest. Partly because I realised it was full of clichés, and partly because Kai had become a bit insufferable – well, I’ll give him some slack as he went through some trauma, but that still doesn’t deem him to act like a spoiled noble brat, which he is. I think the plot would have worked better without the prologue which already foreshadowed some things and the culprit is named way too soon to make the mystery interesting. In the end, I decided to let Blood and Shadow go.”
Jen: “This was one that I thought would be my cup of tea, some of the ideas made me think of Courtney Schafer’s Whitefire Crossing, which I really enjoyed and I even thought I had an idea how this one might play out.
I started getting frustrated though when it seemed like the story came to a stand still, events that I thought were going to spur the mc into action resulted in a few false starts- making me wonder when this was going to get the show on the road or if Kai was just going to be learning how to be an heir.
I did enjoy seeing the family interact and there are lots of playful banter and sweet moments between the siblings. There isn’t enough of that sort of thing for me in fantasy so I am always happy to find great relationships. I might come back to this one later and give it a bit more time to get moving but for spfbo purposes, I am moving on.“
Belle: “The world building is deftly handled, although I would have liked to learn more about the wider world. I assume that as Kai sees more, we’ll learn more, so it’s a relatively minor quibble and didn’t overly detract from my enjoyment. The writing style is smooth, and kept me hooked from beginning to end.
Overall, it’s a very solid read and time well spent for any fantasy fan. I already have book two waiting for me!”
Nick: “This one was a little tropey for my taste and also moved at kind of a slow pace. Both of which made me abandon it a little past the quarter mark. The specific trope in this story that turned me off was the unwilling “fourth in line” prince who wants nothing more than to follow his own pursuits but then gets thrust into being the savior of whatever conflict arises. It’s just something that I’ve read numerous times and I tried to hang in there with this book but didn’t see anything new that would make me connect with it in any meaningful way. The writing was very good and the world-building was solid, but this one just reminded me of too many books that I’d read previously.”
|Our Combined Rating: 5.5/10||Available: Amazon|