The Qwillery | category: SPFBO Semi-Finalist


The Qwillery

A blog about books and other things speculative

SPFBO 5 Semi-Finalist Review - The Blackbird and the Ghost by Hûw Steer

The Qwillery is pleased to announce our fifth and last Semi-Finalist: The Blackbird and the Ghost by Hûw Steer.

This also means that the following books have been eliminated:

Someday I'll Be Redeemed (The Chronicles of Lorrek 1) by Kelly Blanchard;

Fractions of Existence by J Lenni Dorner;

A Shard of Sea and Bone (Death of the Multiverse 1) by L.J. Engelmeier;

A Wizard's Dark Dominion (The Gods and Kinds Chronicles 1) by Lee H. Haywood;


Husk by D. P. Prior.

The Blackbird and the Ghost
Boiling Seas 1
June 2019
Trade Paperback and Kindle eBook, 308 pages

SPFBO 5 Semi-Finalist Review - The Blackbird and the Ghost by Hûw Steer
The Boiling Seas are the mariner’s bane – and the adventurer’s delight. The waters may be hot enough to warp wood and boil a hapless swimmer, but their scalding expanse is full of wonders. Strange islands lurk in the steamy mists, and stranger ruins hold ancient secrets, remnants of forgotten empires waiting for the bold… or lying in wait for the unwary.

On the Corpus Isles, gateway to the Boiling Seas, Tal Wenlock, the Blackbird, seeks a fortune of his own. The treasure he pursues could change the world – but he just wants to change a single life, and it’s not his own. To reach it, he’ll descend into the bowels of the earth and take ship on burning waters, brave dark streets and steal forbidden knowledge. He’ll lie, cheat, steal and fight – but he won’t get far alone. The ghosts of Tal’s past dog his every step – and one in particular keeps his knives sharp.

The Blackbird will need help to reach his goal… and he’ll need all his luck to get back home alive.

Qwill's Thoughts

The Blackbird and the Ghost relates the story of Tal Wenlock, a slightly magical tomb raider and amateur historian. Tal is not perfect but is bright, mostly good-natured, and sort of has a heart of gold. He knows he's flawed. He acknowledges he's a thief and more, but he has a very good reason for the personal quest he is now on.

Steer slowly unwinds the reason that Tal is looking for a particular treasure never giving away too much until the ultimate reveal. The worldbuilding is exceptional. Steer's descriptive powers are top notch. The reader gets a true sense of place whether on a sailing ship crossing the Boiling Seas, in a local bar in the town of Port Malice, or underground in a long buried palace. The descriptions never overwhelm the story which is driven by Tal and his search.

In addition to the inventive worldbuilding, Steer develops his main character well. You really get to know Tal Wenlock and start to get to know a character introduced later in the story who I hope we see more of. (No spoilers here.)

As a rule I don't like prologues but the prologue in The Blackbird and the Ghost did not bother me much to my amazement. It is a nice starting point to the story, invests the reader in Tal, is not too long, and does not give the ending away. Well done.

Steer ties up the main story with no cliff-hangers and with intimations of adventures to follow. The Blackbird and the Ghost is an exciting and well-paced novel with wonderful worldbuilding, a terrific main character, and a deeply engaging plot. You'll find that this is one of those books that is hard to put down.

SPFBO 5 Semi-Finalist Review - Our 4th Semi-Finalist

SPFBO 5 Semi-Finalist Review - Our 4th Semi-Finalist

It is my first year as an SPFBO judge, and I am so excited and honored to participate on Team Qwillery. I was tasked to read six books at least 30% or at least 50 pages. From there, I am to choose which book should continue on to the semi-finals. Choosing was a difficult task because the books are so different in style, age range, and subject content. I have including some brief content review and some information on the various books.

The following 5 books have been eliminated:

SPFBO 5 Semi-Finalist Review - Our 4th Semi-Finalist
by A.J. Ponder
Genre: Coming of Age Fantasy, YA, Fairy Tale Fantasy
Series/Standalone: Series - The Sylvalla Chronicles

This was a fun and quirky story. Set in the style of Terry Pratchett, the humor was great. It turns fantasy cliches on their head. Princess Sylvanna dreams of the life of high adventure and quests. It is pretty dull being a princess. We meet a cast of oddball characters and shenanigans. The writing is well done, although I got lost a few times in the multiple POV. It is a solid read, and I enjoyed it.

SPFBO 5 Semi-Finalist Review - Our 4th Semi-Finalist
The Dark Yule
by R.M. Callahan
Genre: Paranormal Suspense, UF
Series/Standalone: Series - Pumpkin Spice Tales

The Dark Yule is about a cat, specifically a Main Coon cat named Pumpkin Spice. Cats are not what they seem. They can see monsters, ghouls, and all the horrible creatures of the night that humans can not see. I loved this premise. I like to think that cats are actually like this and they battle the nefarious and evil. They basically just put up with us humans. It kind of fits if you have ever owned a cat. The characterization was fantastic. Pumpkin Spice is so cool, so proud and full of sass. Her adventure is dark and reminded me a bit of a Neil Gaiman book with Lovecraftian overtones.

SPFBO 5 Semi-Finalist Review - Our 4th Semi-Finalist
Love, Lies, and Hocus Pocus: Beginnings
by Lydia Sherrer
Genre: Humorous Fantasy, New Adult, YA, Supernatural Mystery
Series/Standalone: Series - The Lily Singer Adventures

This story is the adventures of Lily Singer, intrepid wizard not a witch.

Character-wise, Lily is stuffy and unsure of herself outside of magic. The first book is an adventure between Lily and Sebastian involving an old house, and ghosts. Sebastion is a witch, not a wizard, and in that, there is a bit of classicism as to what kind of magic is proper magic. This story was fluffy and fun, although the book as a whole was confusing. I was unsure how the various parts fit together as a single entity. It was more like short stories with a common set of characters and theme.

SPFBO 5 Semi-Finalist Review - Our 4th Semi-Finalist
Tooth Goblins
by Ash Teroid
Genre: Children's Sword & Sorcery
Series/Standalone: Standalone

Tooth Goblins is an original middle-grade fantasy story. It takes the legend of tooth Faires and turns it on its ear involving fairies, goblins, teenage boys, and a quest. The story was a lot of fun but lost me in some of the writing, and it dragged a bit.

SPFBO 5 Semi-Finalist Review - Our 4th Semi-Finalist
Alban's Choice
by Monica Zwikstra
Genre: Action & Adventure
Series/Standalone: Standalone

This story started strong, Zwikstra employed well-done worldbuilding and characterization. Alban and Rahan are strong characters put into a life-changing predicament. But as the story progressed, I became lost in the minor plot points. There was just too much to follow.

My Semi-Finalist Selection

Oblivion by Andy Blinston!

Rakkan Conquest 1
Falbury Publishing, November 1, 2018
Kindle eBook and Trade Paperback, 410 pages
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Greek & Roman Myth & Legend

SPFBO 5 Semi-Finalist Review - Our 4th Semi-Finalist
Darius wakes surrounded by blood. Most of his mind has been stolen, and the dark figure that took it wants the rest.

Caught in a raging war between the human empire and fiery rakkan invaders, he soon learns his fearsome powers have made him an enemy to both.

Unable to tell friend from foe, he must fight to escape a fate worse than death. His only helper is a mysterious female warrior who promises to restore him to former glory. But can she be trusted?

Is he ready to discover the horrifying truth of who he was, and why he's wanted?

If you like fantasy full of mystery and action, you’ll love this book.

Elizabeth's Review

Oblivion had me at the get-go. The opening scene is harrowing, and it sets the stage for the main protagonist's motivations throughout the story. Darius, the main character, is complicated. His memory has mostly disappeared. He does not know who he is or what he is capable of. The only thing he has is a traumatic memory of him as a child. Even though the "mind-wipe" can be tropey in most books, I found Blinston's use of the "mind-wipe" plot device interesting. Especially within the context of his created world. What would a great warrior do if he could not remember himself? This is especially true when set against other morally grey characters. Blinston kept the suspense and confusion as to what is right and correct for much of the novel.

One of the best parts of Oblivion is the supporting character of Lex. Often in dark fantasy, female characters can be written flatly. They can be the seductress or the crone. Or, they could be haughty and overly-harsh. I find this especially true in the Wheel of Time stories. Jordan had a difficult time writing female characters that didn't always pull their braids or fluff their skirts when angry. It gets old. Blinston did a good job with Lex. She is tough, as one would need to be tough existing in the Oblivion world, but she has broken parts of her that make her a more realistic character. It allows the audience the opportunity to understand her actions and her emotional plight. It gives her three dimensions when often women are written in two. I am looking forward to reading the next books in the series to see how her character develops. Her story was left on quite the cliffhanger, and if it plays out, can drastically change the path that she takes.

Darius, as the main protagonist, was solid. He isn't perfect. He makes some stupid decisions and behaves in childish ways occasionally through the story. I think the childish reactions to some situations were a good conscious choice on the author's part. Again, a character that is too much of one thing can ring flat. Darius has parts of him that are emotionally broken, much like Lex. This allows the reader to understand and empathize with his plight. Empathy makes this story work.

The villain of the story, Archimedes, is scary. Not, horror movie scary. But so dark and morally gray that his intentions, which are entirely logical and fine to him, shock and appall other characters in the story and by extension the reader. It is often that the scariest characters in books are ones that are entirely sure of their actions, even if those actions are horrendous. They don't think of themselves as the villain. They think themselves as the hero and act accordingly. Archimedes is like that. Although the reader does not understand the entirety of his actions until later in the book, the effects and consequences of disobedience to him are stark; he is too powerful not to obey.

The only slight detractor to this story was pacing. The story lulled in a few spots where Blinston was building backstory. This slowed down the pace significantly for me. The story picks up immediately, usually in the form of an action sequence, and moves the plot forward. But those lulls slowed the pacing down.

In conclusion, I enjoyed this story immensely. It is a great dark fantasy read up there with other notable works in the genre. Blinston left the story wide open for the next book, which is exciting. I want to know what is going to happen with the characters and look forward to reading the next one.

SPFBO 5 Semi-Finalist Review - Lykaia by Sharon Van Orman

The Qwillery is pleased to announce our third Semi-Finalist: Lykaia by Sharon Van Orman.

This also means that the following books have been eliminated:

Heart of Dragons (Chronicles of Pelenor 1) by Meg Cowley;

The Pact by Adam Craig;

Bloodlight by Edward Nile;

Litany of Wrath by Levi Pfeiffer;


A Time of Turmoil (In the Eye of the Dragon 1) by N. M. Zoltack.

Sophia Katsaros 1
Lir Press, March 7, 2015
Kindle eBook and Trade Paperback, 292 pages

SPFBO 5 Semi-Finalist Review - Lykaia by Sharon Van Orman
"We are the terrors that hunt the night.And we have never been human"

In Greek mythology there’s a story of King Lykaonas of Arcadia and his fifty sons who were cursed by the father of the gods, Zeus, to become wolves. The very first Lycanthropes. Forensic pathologist, Sophia Katsaros, receives a cryptic phone call from Greece telling her that her brothers are missing and leaves to search for them. With the help of Illyanna, her brother’s girlfriend, Sophia examines the evidence but cannot accept a bizarre possibility: Has one or both of her brothers been transformed during the Lykaia, the ceremony where Man is said to become Wolf? Who is Marcus, a dark stranger that both repels and excites her? And what is the real story behind the 5000 year old curse of King Lykaonas?

Jenn's Review:

Lykaia is the first installment of the Sophia Katsaros fantasy series by Sharon Van Orman, and is the story of Dr. Sophia Katsaros, or Dr Kat as she is often called, and her search for her two missing brothers, Dimitri and Ciro. This search takes her from her job as a forensic scientist in America all the way to the homeland of her ancestors, Greece. Along the way Sophia discovers things about the world and about her family that she never could have imagined possible, things that challenge her belief in reality and go against everything she knows as a scientist.

The main plot of the story is Sophia’s search for her two missing brothers, but she quickly discovers that this might not be an ordinary missing persons case, that her brothers may have in fact have been taken or even killed by something that she can’t fathom, something that makes no sense to her as a serious and methodical doctor. Her brothers may be involved with werewolves. Sophia delves into local werewolf lore scientifically as she tries to disprove what her senses are telling her is true. She meets various characters that either helps or hinder her in her search for the truth. Most notably Illyanna, a girl her brother Ciro seems to have been involved with, and Meleanus, a strikingly handsome and extremely mysterious local resident.

The story alternates between present time and the distant past, showing the reader glimpses of how werewolves may have come to be and what this might have to do with the brothers disappearance. This is done in a way that is cohesive and organic. The characters are easy to relate too and exchange thoughtful and realistic dialogue. The pace of the story moves well, building to an epic cliff hanger at the end. Normally I am not a huge fan of book cliff hangers unless very well done, but in this instance it was wonderfully done, and definitely leaves the reading wanting to rush to read the second book in the series.

Lykaia is a fun and fast paced fantasy that any fan of werewolf stories can enjoy. I for one have already gotten the sequel, Erato, and am very happy that I did. The story continues exactly where Lykaia left off and instantly captures the reader’s interest, and is a wonderful novel in itself.

SPFBO 5 Semi-Finalist Review - Blade's Edge by Virginia McClain

The Qwillery is pleased to announce our second Semi-Finalist: Blade's Edge by Virginia McClain.

This also means that the following books have been eliminated:

Stone Bound (Chaos and Retribution 1) by Eric T. Knight;

The Borrowed Souls by Paul B. Kohler;

Broken Crossroads (Knights of the Shadows 1) by Patrick LeClerc;

Skies of Olympus (The Immortality Trials 1) by Eliza Raine;


Heavy Dirty Soul by A. A. Warne.

Blade's Edge
Chronicles of Gensokai 1
Artemis Dingo Productions, January 23, 2015
eBook, 314 pages
 Also available in Hardcover and Trade Paperback

SPFBO 5 Semi-Finalist Review - Blade's Edge by Virginia McClain
Mishi and Taka live each day of their lives with the shadow of death lurking behind them. The struggle to hide the elemental powers that mark the two girls as Kisōshi separates them from the other orphans, yet forges a deep bond between them.

When Mishi is dragged from the orphanage at the age of eight, the girls are unsure if or when they will find each other again. While their powers grow with each season-cycle, the girls must come to terms with their true selves--Mishi as a warrior, Taka as a healer--as they forge separate paths which lead to the same horrifying discovery...

The Rōjū council’s dark secret is one that it has spent centuries killing to keep, and Mishi and Taka know too much. The two young women have overcome desperate odds in a society where their very existence is a crime, but now that they know the Rōjū’s secret they find themselves fighting for much more than their own survival.

Phil Parker's Review:

The success of this story comes from its originality and vivid portrayal of life for two orphan girls in medieval Japan – at least a fantastical version of that country. I quickly became fascinated with not just the plight of Taka and Mishi, but by the culture in which they lived. The world created by Virginia McClain is so utterly realistic. Beautiful. Violent. Unfair.

The author lived in Japan for some years and her love for the country and understanding of its distinctive culture is apparent in every aspect of the story. It’s so easy to assume that the challenges the girls face are no different to those of a few hundred years ago. The only difference is that in this story, magic exists. It’s what makes it such an original story. Magic operates in harmony with the natural world, derived from fire, water, air, and the earth.

And this is where the inherent tension is derived. Females are not allowed to possess magic. Discovery of their ‘kiso’ at birth leads to their death. Taka and Mishi survive only by the help of people desperate to eliminate this barbaric practice. The story follows the girls’ journey (both physical and allegorical) as they develop their distinctive kiso while growing up into women capable of fighting in this underground movement.

We quickly sympathise with the girls’ plights, we cheer those who support them and despise those who use violence to maintain the repressive and immoral Roju regime. World building is highly detailed. It takes time to familiarise yourself with so many terms for roles, clothes, weapons, rituals and the like but this is one of the features that makes the story so unique. Ms McClain sets her story on the imaginary island of Gensokai. This medieval land is vividly drawn, using language which is rich and vibrant, immersing you in its landscape, ecology, cultures and society.

And yes, there is even a dragon.

I really enjoyed this book. Read it within a few days. It’s not filled with battles and swordplay, there are no wizards and even the dragon is restricted in its involvement. It is a story of great subtlety. The two protagonists are not the inevitable ‘kick-ass’ type that pervade fantasy stories either. Their disciplined development is painful, harsh and mirrors the process of acquiring finesse in any martial art. It’s just that the finesse includes magical expertise too. These are real women, with flaws and doubts, but with the determination to fight inequality. In this respect this is a story which resonates with our own world and that makes this book an even stronger, more commercially viable, product as a result.

SPFBO 5 Semi-Finalist Review - Knight and Shadow by Flint Maxwell

SPFBO 5 Semi-Finalist Review - Knight and Shadow by Flint Maxwell

The Qwillery is pleased to announce our first Semi-Finalist: Knight and Shadow by Flint Maxwell.

This also means that the following books have been eliminated:

A Triad in Three Acts: The Complete Forester Trilogy by Blaine D. Arden;

A White Horizon (Stars and A Wind 1) by Barbara Gaskell Denvil;

Sea of Lost Souls (Oceanus 1) by Emerald Dodge;

Apprentice Quest (Ozel the Wizard 1) by Jim Hodgson;


Masters of Deception (A Legends of Tivara Epic Fantasy) by J.C. Kang.

Knight and Shadow
March 2019
Trade Paperback and Kindle eBook, 268 pages

SPFBO 5 Semi-Finalist Review - Knight and Shadow by Flint Maxwell

Many years ago Ansen Kane prevented the end of the world by killing an insane king. Instead of praise, Kane and the rest of his order were shunned for their efforts.

Now he is the last living gun knight.

With a price on his head bigger than anyone in the kingdom of Aendvar, Ansen Kane traveled west, toward the Infected Lands, where he’s been hiding ever since.

But in the capital city, evil rises again.

And whether he likes it or not, Ansen Kane will be forced to pick up his weapon and fight.

Melanie's Review:

Ansen Kane is the last Knight of the Gun and  hiding out in the Infected Lands barely eeking out a living.  Many years ago Kane saved the world by killing an insane and malevolent king but rather than being celebrated as a hero Kane was hunted, all of his companions killed. He is alone and vulnerable. When the evil force rises again Kane is a target and his life is in danger.

On the other side of the continent Issac Bleake's 17th birthday ends in tragedy. His mother is brutally murdered on the eve of his birthday by a shadowy creature. With her dying breath Issac's mother gives him a mysterious gun and tells him to find Ansen Kane, in the Infected Lands. A long an perilous journey awaits the teenager as he travels across the country in search of the last Knight of the Gun. He better be quick as time is running out.

Maxwell sets a frenetic pace for his characters with a brutal murder and rise of evil in the first few pages. Issac's journey across the continent is action packed but not as action packed as what awaits Ansen Kane in the Infected Lands. I liked these characters and Maxwell develops the story quickly and well. My main criticism with this story is that it is far too short. The majority of the story sets up Ansen and Issac as characters and then it ends rather abruptly after the first main battle. I felt kind of ripped off and that this was a plot to get me and others to buy the next book. It was good but I don't think I want to invest in a story that is a bit of a drip feed.
SPFBO 5 Semi-Finalist Review - The Blackbird and the Ghost by Hûw Steer SPFBO 5 Semi-Finalist Review - Our 4th Semi-FinalistSPFBO 5 Semi-Finalist Review - Lykaia by Sharon Van OrmanSPFBO 5 Semi-Finalist Review - Blade's Edge by Virginia McClainSPFBO 5 Semi-Finalist Review - Knight and Shadow by Flint Maxwell

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