SPFBO 6 The Reaping – Jen

Hello all! I am finally here to talk to you about my group of SPFBO 6 books!
This is the hardest part of competition for me – the breaking of hearts here in the first round.

As you all know, we opted to split our group of thirty, and luckily for me, I had some great books in my group – making my decision for my semi-finalist incredibly hard. Bravo to you all for that! And thank you to my authors, I had a great time reading your books and hope this was a good experience for you all as well.

Now to get down business – the reviews and the cuts!

I tried to be as clear as I could without too many spoilers. Keep in mind, reading is such a personal journey and my likes and criticisms are not going to be shared by everyone, so take these criticisms with the grain of salt they come with.

 Not to sound like I am whining about good books but I really wasn’t sure until I wrote the reviews and gathered my thoughts which to put forward and will be second guessing myself right ‘til the day this post goes up.

Also, I failed big time on the shorter review writing front, so, be prepared for a long post….

The Whisperings in the Shadows by Bekah Berge

Marble Moreno isn’t exactly human. When the Collection—a group of radicals dedicated to cleansing the land of magic—shows up in her village, all those tied to the mystical receive a spot on their kill list. Upon realizing that Marble is the daughter of a Sea Prince, and that magic runs through her veins, the head of the Collection captures her. Yet, instead of taking her life, he seizes the opportunity to force her into finding a cursed chest that no human can touch. A chest hidden deep within the walls of Stonegarde, a heavily protected school dedicated to educating the realms’ aristocratic Sovereigns and their servile Lackeys. But if she fails, he’ll put a knife through her mother’s heart.

Inspired by the resemblance between Marble and Princess Zamia—a Sovereign who has never found her decoy, her doppelgänger, her Lackey—the leader of the Collection weaves together a plan that places Marble in the Princess’s path, ensuring her entry into the school.

Marble is the daughter of a sea prince; making her the perfect candidate for Iron Glove (the leader of The Collection), to threaten into retrieving a chest for him.

This is a magic school setting but with a fun little spin on the ‘everyone has a twin in the world’ theory. Stonegarde is a school for royals, where they train the elites and their Lackeys – lookalikes that are lifelong companions, friends, protectors and body doubles when in need, to their royal counterpoints.

The school setting gave this a younger feel to me but the class learning was mostly in the form of escape room type games and tests, making this a lot more fun to read (at least for me) than the typical school setting and I really enjoyed the friendships. There are quite a few characters that get introduced in batches, ensuring that it is not too confusing but they weren’t overly developed either so after awhile, some of them started to lump together a bit for me.

The plot is quite involved, there’s a big power-play going on with The Collection led by Iron Glove (a radical group against magic) using Marble to put into play his plan to squash the Nine Realms and restart it to his liking. Running alongside that is Marble’s personal journey of finding her place among the elites and getting over her feelings of unworthiness because of her parentage, etc. There was always something going on in the story and it left off with some very interesting consequences to deal with in the next book.

A couple of things that were a little bothersome for me:

The scenes with the Ra’ffa – I thought the scenes spoke for themselves and I had no trouble telling when we were in Ra’ffa’s POV. So, the bolding felt unnecessary and coupled with some of the dialogue, gave the scenes an overly dramatic-villain feel.

Wesley was hard to pin down (and this may have been a writer’s choice) we don’t see a lot of interaction with him with anyone, outside of her so I had a hard time judging his character. I wasn’t sure if he was the person she sees, or the person we hear about. Sometimes he seemed like he was being pulled along and other times he seemed like a villain, which made the teachers’ and everyone’s reactions about him fall into the “why are you supporting him, he seems like a jerk” area. At the same time, this choice does make it exciting to see what happens with him and her, in the next book.

I think this will hit a lot of people’s button for fun school friendships, and the story itself went to a few darker places than you’d first expect when you see ‘royals and magic school’ in the summary giving it an older crowd appeal as well.

Read: 100%Rating: 6/10

Where Ravens Soar by Michelle Connor

Rifinn, or Finn as she prefers to be known, is an agent working for the Nine World Protection Agency. Her job involves getting to the bottom of events that are often beyond the understanding of humans. She is also the granddaughter of Odin.

While working on a shocking case where wolf-skin children are being kidnapped and then skinned for the black market, Finn and her partner Augustus track the suspect back to his palatial home where they discover a grisly scene that leaves them devastated.

Worse is to come, when Odin sends his raven, Huginn, to deliver dreadful news that three Valkyries are dead. Finn and Augustus discover that the killer has used the blood of the slain Valkyries to try to enter Asgard, the home of the Gods. But why?
As Finn begins to discover that the threads of fate and the tapestries are starting to unwind she is told that she must track down a warlock called Ask who can help her find those responsible.

Can Finn and Augustus work out who killed the Valkyries before something even more terrible happens? Or has the devastating fate of the Nine Realms already been decided?

This was quick-paced and short. Once you get past the beginning few pages, where I found the sentences to be a tad stilted feeling, it turns into a good actiony story that could easily take place in the Thor movie franchise. If you’re like me and that franchise is your whole education on Norse Mythology (cos what’s school again?) you’re golden. I didn’t feel like I was missing anything important by knowing so little, and there was enough in the body of the story to pick up what I didn’t know. 

Finn and her partner are members of the special branch of the FBI called The Nine World Protection Agency. I kind of thought of this as something like NCIS:LA portal world edition. Rifinn is a demi-goddess (her grandpa is Odin) and her partner Augustus, shapeshifts into a bear. There are other beings like dark elves etc. that populate the story and have specialized jobs at the branch too.

We see a bit of Asgard, among other planes, while investigating the deaths of Valkyries (of course this becomes something bigger) and we have some guest appearances by some favourites like Thor, Loki, Heimdallr.

This was a little light on characterization, and there was one clunky (and obvious what it was pointing to) insert scene about a weapon to tie-in to the end. But overall, I enjoyed the story and I liked Finn and her penchant for unicorns and I liked her partner Augustus. Finn felt a little softer and less snarky than the usual heroine (maybe it’s the unicorns) but I think most of that softness stemmed from the nice feel to her partnership with Augustus, and her obvious love of her grandpa Odin.

I think a lot of people will enjoy this fun blend of Norse Gods (among others) smashed into a crime story setting as much as I did.

Read: 100%Rating: 6.2/10

 Between Starfalls by S. Kaeth

Never leave the path. 

It’s sacred law, punishable by exile.

When her son goes missing in the perilous mountains, Kaemada defies the law to search for him. She enlists the help of her hero brother, a priestess berserker, and a fire-wielding friend.

But the law exists for a reason.

When the search party is captured by the mythical Kamalti, they learn that Kaemada’s son was sent to an ancient prison city. As they battle for freedom, they discover a horrible truth that will change the future of both races forever.

With their world in upheaval, Kaemada must find a way to peace if she’s to save her son—but tensions between the two races are leading to war. 

This was my first read in my group of books and I enjoyed it a lot.

Between Starfalls started strong for me. It is one of those learn as you go worlds and it bends all those built-in expectations of what you’d find in a fantasy. For instance, Kae’s people had a first nations feel; they lived off the land and there was a huge sense of community and family, and Kae herself, was bonded to a wolf. But then there were also these weird Angels, a Pegasus, and hints of other advanced places that made me think this was more of a portal world system.

So, I found I was constantly readjusting my mental picture to accommodate what I was reading. Seriously, a couple times as this story progressed, I began to wonder if they had strayed off the path into their version of “The People are Alike All Over” episode of the Twilight Zone.

I loved this for keeping me curious and for feeling like the book ran with the fantasy tag, letting my imagination go wild with the fun of figuring out the world.

On the other hand, some of that learn as you go style didn’t work as well for me, and it wasn’t quite filling my need for answers while creating more questions as it went.

The thing about this kind of world building is that you need damn good characters to support the story until you get those answers. And I’m not sure if I thought Kaemada and her group were rounded out enough to distract me from those questions and rougher spots in the story – even as much as I loved them and especially their close-knit family/friendship bond.

That strong start weakened for me, after Eian becomes lost, this turns into somewhat of a first-contact type story (this is in the summary so I am feeling safe enough about the spoilers) and they meet the Kamalti; whom have a myth-like status with Kaemada’s people.

The interactions and some choices, between the characters (Taunos’ behavior when first meeting the Kalamati) and politically (the interlude with the elders), that were made didn’t always make sense to me at first and/or occasionally, at all. The cultures clash horrendously and characters are very reactive on both sides, causing all kinds of trouble. But sometimes feeling like they were being stubbornly narrow-minded to get the plot/characters to where they needed to be.

One of the things that bothered me (and maybe only because it mirrored how our society can be) was that there was almost no interest in learning about one another. Some of this I understood because of the circumstances and the plot, but also, I thought there should be a little curiosity and growth between them sooner than there was. Which is why I ended up loving Rael’s sections the most, because there was some growth, curiosity and kindness from the other side – which was missing for me outside of friendships of our main group until later in the story.

There was a lot I loved about this book – there always seems to be one book in the competition that I feel is a diamond in the rough. The writing style is very enjoyable and as I said before, the creativity of the world was a plus, but I did think it would benefit from a little tightening here and there.

Other notes I couldn’t fit in

The Kamalti official, Answer, seemed to have the best arc of personal growth – I hated her guts at the beginning and grudgingly hated her less by the end.

EBR – sounds like it should be a military term like MRE or UAV

Read: 100%Rating: 6/10

Ironshield by Edward Nile

A pile of scrap, held together by an ideal.
It’s been almost thirty years since the budding nation of Arkenia used Kaizer Warsuits, gas-powered mechanical giants, to wrestle independence from a tyrannical empire.
Now, Arkenia is pressured into disarmament by that same power, strong-armed into a deal that will strip them of the very weapons that won their sovereignty.
The Southern provinces agree to the terms.
The Northern Industrialists do not.
Led by commander James Edstein, heir to the legacy of the mighty Ironshield Warsuit, the North defies the Southern Appeasers, intent on keeping their Warsuits, and their nation’s hard-fought independence, from Imperial rule.
Senator Samuel Mutton, veteran of the Revolution and a key leader in the South, wants nothing but peace for his nation, no matter how high the cost.
As the Civil War ramps up, both men are forced to question their morals, forced to decide what matters more.
Victory, or Honor.

The first volume of an epic dieselpunk saga, IRONSHIELD is set in a world of dire stakes, conflicting ideals and, most of all, giant mechs duking it out for the freedom of a nation.

I think this book will appeal to a lot of people. I was pretty thrilled when it landed in my lot. Diesel run mechs in a civil war setting? Sign me up right now! Very cool and a lot of fun to read. This one also came very close to being a semi-finalist.

It did take me a while to get into this story, even though I kind of had an idea what to expect structure-wise because I had read United States of Japan sometime back. Like that book, Ironshield has a deeper, more complicated plot underneath, that doesn’t fit the big action mech-battles into the story very easily (except of course the big build-up to the end battle) since the war has long been past for Arkenia, and disarmament is in the immediate future for them.

So, to get to that mech-action that the cover promises faster; in the first thirty-percent we get a nice big battle and a little character history and world history on the fly. I totally understand the choice but I found it didn’t work on that level for me as well I would have liked, because it felt like a long prologue.

As fun as the battles were, I wasn’t too interested until “one year later” and we begin to get a clearer picture of why the North and South were in disagreement over the disarmament, and more importantly for me, an idea of who I should root for character-wise. Though both sides had people that were in the right, there are a lot of shades of grey involved with some of their choices, making you wonder whose side they’re really on.

The book was much stronger after the jump. The characters seemed less reactive, the dialogue smoother and the plot was just a huge amount of fun (I love these kinds of political plots so I quite enjoyed where this went).

Ironshield ended very strongly. The whole book was worth reading just to see the Taisen assembling – which kind of felt like a Power Rangers’ Megazord – it was just cool as hell. Definitely a must read!

Read: 100%Rating: 7.2/10

Aegyir Rises by Amanda Fleet

Reagan Bennett has always felt like an outsider. Left at the doors of a hospital at birth, her relationship with her adopted family hasn’t been easy. Especially when one of them almost killed her. Now he’s due to be released from prison and Reagan’s settled world is about to be turned upside-down. But not by him.

Something old—something evil—is about to be released. Something that can kill you by ripping all of your energy out. Aegyir. Who believes Reagan Bennett is an old enemy, and is out to destroy her.

All of her life, Reagan has dreamed of living in another place – The Realm. Can these dreams really be memories? If so, who is Reagan Bennett?

Reagan needs to figure out who her enemy is, before they slaughter everyone she loves. And to do that, she needs to figure out who she really is.

Aegyir Rises made my choice for semi’s incredibly difficult. It was neck and neck between this and my final choice. I had more of an emotional attachment to this story, but my stumbling block was whether there were enough fantasy elements soon enough to appeal to the other judges in my group, and the other blogs. It was the only thing that held it back from being my choice. That, and no matter how much I whined, my teammates wouldn’t let me pick two.

**

The Realm has always been a part of Reagan’s life, she has drawn it and lived it in her dreams. Lately the Realm is starting to feel real and the danger that comes with it has entered the inner circle of her friends and protectors.

Here’s the thing. I rarely read the summaries after the initial handout, I choose my order by cover and page count. I do this with most things in my e-reader, relying on key words when the cover doesn’t scream UF or Dragon book to help me compartmentalize for later, since I am very much a mood reader.

So, the cover of this book, in my opinion, really does this book a disservice. Especially because it gives off a UF vibe. You go in expecting this fast-paced girl-power kind of thing that is typical of the UF genre and this isn’t that it all! Don’t get me wrong, there is still some girl power but the bulk of this story is actually more of a restrained and quieter style that I’d almost want to categorise into magical realism but I am not sure if that fits either.

**

Reagan has had a rough life. The kind of family and relationship dysfunction that can cripple a person but Reagan is a survivor, and I loved that about her. And I loved her support system – her friends and especially Finn (to whom I’d say marry me now to but I have a Finn already).

The story takes its time introducing us to Reagan, building up her character, her relationships, her life, and really letting us get a feel and become attached to everything she is now, has been, and hopes to be.

I loved that as the worlds merge and Reagan is starting to believe the Realm is real – it isn’t an overnight thing but a slow slip down the slope into believing what’s in her mind is actually a real place. If I hadn’t been reading an entry in a fantasy book contest, I would have and did start to wonder, if I was reading a story about a couple’s relationship breaking down as she tumbles down the rabbit hole of insanity. That’s how convincing I felt her slide was.

I appreciated the time that was spent here letting us slowly believe in the reality of this dream-world while also making us question if it was real or not, ourselves.

There were some genuinely creepy moments, and moments of dread for things that might happen, when we were able to put together the pieces that she hasn’t quite placed yet.

 A lot of this book is Reagan going about her life and I have to admit there were a few times when I thought to myself, “Ok, when is this going to kick-in?” and found I was getting a bit antsy about it until I settled into the story and let it do its thing.  

There were also a few times when I felt maybe Stephen and her fears surrounding the events that sent him to jail were to the point of “ok. I get it already” but the PTSD Reagan suffers from that event, is supremely well-handled. This is something that doesn’t disappear as the story unfolds, but makes up her character and affects every decision she makes from start to finish. (After reading the author’s bio I understand why.)

Fabulous all around – editing, pacing (slow but steady build to the end), characters (I cried in this book), story (the fantasy part is a bit light but you can see it’ll be full-fledged in the next one).

The end was a bit abrupt but definitely is going to make you want to come back.

Aegyir Rises gets an honorary mention and I encourage you all to give it a try. I know I hope to read the second book as soon as I can squish it in to my reading schedule.

Read: 100%Rating: 7.5/10

Drumroll please…..

The Dragon’s Banker by Scott Warren

Finance: The lifeblood of any country’s beating heart and the life’s work of Sailor Kelstern — Merchant Banker. While wizards brood in their towers and great warriors charge into battle Sailor is more interested in the price of ore, herbs, and alchemicals carried by the trade ships.

But when a spell of bad fortune and bitter rivalry leaves him scrambling to turn a profit on little more than winds and whispers, one such whisper catches Sailor’s ear— a dragon has been seen in the west.

Sailor soon finds that the dragons are very real, and not at all what he expected. And they practice a very different sort of economy — one of subterfuge and fire.

With bonus novelette: Forego Quest

What if you were the hero of every song, story, and legend?
What if you didn’t want to be?
Find out in this hilarious fantasy short.

I will leave you with the opening quote from my forthcoming review (code for I haven’t finished it yet).

“To be honest I wasn’t sure about this one when I saw it. I loved the cover and I like finance, surprisingly, considering I hate math and balancing my checkbook used to mean round every deduction up a couple bucks to cover banks fees. But I did kind of think to myself “Hmm. A book about a banker…this might be a real good way to fall asleep”. Obviously, it proved me wrong.”

Thank you and good luck to all the authors in your future writings. Hope to see you again! And congratulations to Scott Warren – hope you can take me to the finals!

Congrats to our first semi-finalist, The Dragon’s Banker by Scott Warren! Look out for our joint review later on.

To keep up with our process and the competition, please check out my SPFBO 6 Phase 1 page!

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