SPFBO 7 started off on June 1st and as many of you know, the Asylum is not a judging blog anymore. But not all of us stepped back from the competition – Jen joined Fantasy Book Critic, Peter and Belle decided to team up with The Fantasy Hive. Nick and I decided we needed a well-deserved break. Whether I’ll be back again or not is hard to say at this point, but never say never. Stubborn as I am, it’s hard to completely let the competition go especially as it was such a huge part of my life these past 3 years. In this post I’d like to talk about why I made the decision of stepping back, how SPFBO affected my (blogging) life, and highlight all the gems I got to find thanks to the competition. It will be a long post, so buckle up. I’ll try to keep the rambling to a minimum, but no promises…
In Need Of A Break
I first joined SPFBO as a guest judge in 2018, just a couple of months after I first started blogging. SPFBO and my blogger identity are basically inseparable at this point. But as much as I love the competition, these past 3 years took a toll on me. Between SPFBO, the backlog of review requests, and the ARCs I requested, I hardly had a chance to have a bit of a breathing room. Knowing my limitations (about 4 books/month), and the load I had, I built up schedules – which soon I learned were not good for me. I can’t read by a schedule, I need a wriggling room. And even then, picking up a book just because I fancied it at that moment was a rarity I missed. So, after 3 years of constantly running behind myself, it was time to stop and take a deep breath.
Not really surprisingly, this stop also happened right when I fell headfirst into burnout – both with blogging, reading, and other life stuff. Which was a huge red flag that it was time to give my place over to someone who will be able to better focus on the competition than I can be in this state. I promised myself that I’ll be taking things easy and won’t force myself to read if I don’t feel like it. With 30 books staring back at me from the abyss, this would have been a promise hard to keep. And honestly, I wouldn’t do any good for either myself or the authors if I just forced myself through it all again. Since the end of the previous SPFBO, I quit my job to save my mental health, and I likely will go back to working full time soon enough. It will take some getting used to, and consequently, SPFBO would have seen the brunt of it, not being able to focus on it as much as I should.
Another factor in this decision (stepping back from the competition, that is), was my involvement with Storytellers On Tour. We started our services last March and grew considerably this past year. We hosted events previously for 2 books that proceeded to be finalists in SPFBO 6. I spied a lot of familiar names on the entry list of SPFBO 7, which I’m sure would have caused a conflict of interest sooner or later. And the last thing I want is to cause drama. Even if I wanted to come back to the competition at a later point, I’m not sure if I’ll be able because of this.
What SPFBO Gave Me
I was aware of SPFBO before I had a blog. I was still new to self-published Fantasy, but I already had a couple of author friends who competed in SPFBO 3 – one of them even went into the finals. They were also a huge factor in my becoming a blogger in the first place. I think I started following some time in late 2017, but definitely the Final Phase of SPFBO 3. Around that time I launched my blog, not having any idea what I was doing, but with the dream that one day my little blog will be important enough to be among the judges. I was lucky enough to make some blogger friends and before I knew it, I was a guest judge for Fantasy Book Review just a few short months later. I could not believe it. I threw myself into it and I was super excited to make even more friends within the community, authors and bloggers alike.
When a year later a free spot among the judges appeared, I still thought I wasn’t good enough or important enough to fill that space. It was Belle who eventually talked me into applying anyway. I was pretty sure Mark would find a more worthy group, but to my surprise eventually, I got picked. Jen and Belle were naturally welcomed in my team and I also got to recruit Nick with whom I had become good friends over the years we worked together. Last year I also invited Peter to the team as we needed one more person to be able to divide our books equally and we couldn’t have wished for a more enthusiastic person. I really can’t thank enough for these people for being part of my team and living my dream with me.
I’m also grateful for all the friendships I made during the competition, some of them still going strong. I can’t say it all was rainbows and sunshine as there were hard times, both in relation to the competition and in my personal life (let’s not talk about 2019 at all, thank you – I’m pretty sure SPFBO was one of the things that saved my sanity back then), but it was totally worth it. I might not have been the most popular of the judges or the most liked, but even so, I hope that neither I nor my team members left a bad impression with our sometimes very critical reviews. I, for one, always tried to strike for a balanced review even if it was a book I did not enjoy. I also know that I landed in the minority when it came to the more popular titles, which probably did not help my reputation, lol. But I think that’s what makes this competition great – there never will be two judges thinking the same way about a book and the best we can do is try to be as honest as possible. Would I do anything differently? No, I don’t think I would.
Features And Other Fun Things
When I first became a guest judge, I knew I wanted to do more than just find gems and judge the books. I wanted to feature as many authors as I could. So, in SPFBO 4 I reached out to our 30 authors and offered them a spotlight on my blog in the form of a guest post, interview, or another type of post. Not surprisingly, most people choose the interviews and I had a blast with them! Later on, some of the finalists also joined in the fun.
In SPFBO 5 more blogs offered interviews and as fun, as they were I had enough of them, so I created a new feature, Tales from the Asylum. This time I invited our authors to write a short story set in an Asylum, and they delivered brilliantly. I don’t know why but most of the stories were about characters wanting to get out. Rude. I had three favorites that really stood out to me: Anela Deen’s, Paul Freeman’s, and Graham Austin-King’s.
True to myself, I created yet another feature for SPFBO 6, Party with the Stars, in which I asked our authors to throw a party and invite their characters and other literary figures. For the finalists, I decided to use my most favorite feature of them all, To Be Continued…! 8 of the finalists agreed to play and so we had two stories written: Sanctuary of Arrows and The Blade of the Gods.
Okay, I think I rambled enough, so let me show you what were my favorite books in the past 3 years and which gems I found I can still wholeheartedly recommend to check out!
I only picked books that were in any of the Asylum’s (or in one case Fantasy Book Review’s) groups or in the finals in the years the Asylum/I acted as a judging blog. The order of the books is totally random. I also give special mentions to those finalists I either read before the competition or knew the author beforehand.
Hero Forged by Josh Erikson came very close to become our finalist in SPFBO 4, but the Fantasy Book Review team eventually picked another one. Hero Forged is the first book in the Ethereal Earth Urban Fantasy series. It’s ongoing, there are currently 3 books published.
Symphony of the Wind by Steven McKinnon eventually knocked Hero Forged out and became Fantasy Book Review’s finalist. It blew all of our minds so it was very well deserved. It ended up being fifth in the finals. Symphony of the Wind is the first book in The Raincatchers Ballad Epic Fantasy series. Currently, there are two novels and a novella published and I believe Steven will have more news soon regarding book 3.
The Endless Ocean by Toby Bennett was one of those gems you never see coming. It was one of our semi-finalists and an all-around very pleasant surprise. The Endless Ocean is the first book in an Epic Fantasy series, The Inner Sea Cycle. There were only two books published in the series.
If I remember correctly, Servant of Rage by A.Z. Anthony was the first book I’ve read for SPFBO. It had some cool ideas going on and I loved the brotherhood between the characters. Servant of Rage is the first book in the Bloodrage trilogy, though there are no more books published yet.
Beneath Cruel Fathoms by Anela Deen was one of our semi-finalists and one that eventually totally won me over. I put it aside after 25%, but it was one that still stayed at the back of my mind. It was not my pick, but later on, I picked it up and got absolutely sucked in. Beneath Cruel Fathoms is the first book in the Bitter Sea Trilogy and a perfect blend of Mythical Fantasy and Romance. The second book is currently in progress.
A Sea of Broken Glass by Sonya M. Black had become our finalist after a lot of debate. Eventually, it ended up being 9th in the finals. A Sea of Broken Glass is the first book in the Lady & the Darkness series, although it appears there were no further books released yet.
Books and Bone by Victoria Corva came really close to becoming our finalist, and it was certainly my favorite in our batch. It has a unique setting, interesting characters and it’s fun. I believe the sequel will be coming next year.
Kalanon’s Rising by Darian Smith was my favorite finalist in SPFBO 5, although I probably was in the minority. But it blended Fantasy and Murder Mystery and I was totally there for it. Kalanon’s Rising is the first book in the Agents of Kalanon series. There are currently two books published.
Beneath Black Sails by Clare Sager was one of the most pleasant surprises for me in SPFBO 6. It was one of our semi-finalists and I admit that I wasn’t really hopeful as Romance is not really my thing. Guess who couldn’t stop reading? Beneath Black Sails is the first book in the series of the same title, which currently has 3 novels and a novella.
Black Stone Heart by Michael R. Fletcher definitely was one of my favorite books in SPFBO 6 and I was really happy when it landed in our batch. It was picked as our finalist and it came second. I was rooting for it to win, but alas. Black Stone Heart is the first book in the Grimdark series, Obsidian Path. There are currently two novels published and I believe the third is in progress.
Finally, I’d like to thank all the support I and my team got during these 3 years from the community – the authors and our fellow judges alike. It was an honor to me to be part of this big family. And fear not, I’ll be lurking on the sidelines, keeping an eye on the competition and discovering even more gems 🙂 Good luck to everyone in SPFBO 7 and please know that my door is always open if you’d like to be featured in any way. The Asylum always has a room or two free for newcomers 😉