The Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO)

So. I’ve written my own book. I’ve published my own book. Now what do I do?

This was the position I found myself in during the Spring of 2017, and no doubt the position many other self-published authors have found themselves in. Writing a book seemed like hard work. Getting it on Amazon seemed like hard work. But in fact, that’s just the start. If you want people to read your books, you have to be proactive and go sell them. If you’re self-published, no-one is going to do that for you. But someone might…may…help you out a little.

If you write fantasy books, you have the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off. Created by fantasy author Mark Lawrence and supported by fantasy bloggers, the first competition ran in 2015. 300 books are entered into the competition. The only real rule, is that your book is self-published, and fantasy. It’s a gloriously level playing field, when such things rarely exist. I hadn’t sold a single copy when I stumbled my way into the competition in 2017 – Toric’s Dagger was on pre-order and not yet out. There were other authors like me, but I was also up against writers who had over ten books out, writers who had been traditionally published, writers with multi-thousand-dollar audiobook contracts. It didn’t matter. My book, along with 29 others, was sent off to one of the ten bloggers, and whichever one she liked the best, was going to reach the final. Name and reputation didn’t come into it.

Clearly, with a one in thirty chance of making the final, most writers don’t get much attention. I was luckier than most. Toric’s Dagger finished in the top ten or so in its group, and in doing so got a full review from the blogger. Who didn’t hold their punches. But new writers need to see the bad as well as the good. And anyway, even in a big competition like this, all opinions are subjective. Take on board the criticisms you agree with and forget about the rest. Did all of this get me any sales? Maybe. Not much. But I learned a hell of a lot from the experience and it’s also allowed me to get to know some of the other amazing authors out there, and learn from them.

Those books that win their ‘heat’ find their way into the final. They get reviewed by all ten participating blogs. This is the point where books can get a load of attention. And for the winner? The book that’s beaten 299 other contenders? That’s massive. Massive, free promotion for the book, and for the author. The winner of the 2016 contest, The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French, was picked up by a big publisher. Yes, agents and publishers are keeping an eye on this, and why not? They’re getting a proven winner out of it all.

 

 

So, the SPFBO. Good for self-published writers. Bloggers get to make a real impact in the genre they love. Agents and publishers get to pick up on new writers and trends. Fantasy readers get to find out about books they might otherwise not hear about. I’m declaring it a win-win and overall good thing.

If you want to find out more, the 2018 contest, aka #SPFBO 4, can be accessed via Mark Lawrence’s website

Finally, the casual reader of this article may just want to know, hey, what are the best books to come out of this thing? Well, that’s always going to be subjective, depending on what type of fantasy you’re into as much as anything else. Plus, with 900 books entered in the first 3 versions, there’s no doubt some very good books have been overlooked. That said, here’s a list of books from the competition, either that I’ve read myself and enjoyed, or that enough people have raved about to make me believe there’s a very good chance a fantasy fan will love it. The rest, as they say, is up to you.

2015 SPFBO
WINNER: The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids by Michael McClung
I would also recommend: What Remains of Heroes by David Benem, Bloodrush by Ben Galley

2016 SPFBO
WINNER: The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French
I would also recommend: Paternus by Dyrk Ashton, Path of Flames by Phil Tucker, Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft, Touch of Iron by Timandra Whitecastle

2017 SPFBO
WINNER: Where Loyalties Lie by Rob J Hayes
I would also recommend: The Crimson Queen by Alec Hutson, The War of Undoing by Alex Perry, The Eagle’s Flight by Daniel Olesen, Faithless by Graham Austin-King, Darkstorm by ML Spencer, The Woven Ring by MD Presley

 

 

Art of War Edited by Petros Triantafyllou

Art of War is a fantasy anthology put together by the BOOKNEST.EU blog featuring short stories by 40 fantasy writers. And it’s an impressive line-up: while I’ve only read a few of the authors in this collection before, I knew of and was interested in reading the work of well over half of them, which makes it a great introduction to some of the current writers in the genre. Of course, reading a short story isn’t the same as reading a novel, and (to be honest) I tend to prefer the latter. I think particularly in fantasy, it can be hard to get a story going in a few thousand words. And these stories are generally on the short side (I don’t know how long, and no, I’m not counting the words for you). So, a writer’s short doesn’t necessarily tell you what their series are like. Also, when I got to reading, I actually enjoyed quite a few from authors I hadn’t come across before, which is even better. The other point worth making here is that profits from sales go to Medecins Sans Frontieres, which some readers may want to know.

So, on to the book itself. It’s well designed for a start, and after reading a lot of eBooks recently, it was nice to have a chunky book in my hands. The theme is obviously war. As a collection of writers, obviously the authors approached this from a number of angles. The most common was ‘war is hell’. This is something of a truism and therefore didn’t always spark my interest. Linked to this was a number of stories that were set in trenches, which I found slightly odd in a fantasy story. Given that despite the central truth of war is hell, humans are still engaged in war in the twenty first century, is a depressing fact, but still one that could be explored. War as a driver of social change is explored in Sebastian de Castell’s The Fox and The Bowman, one of the reasons that particular story stood out for me.

Clearly, with 40 stories, the reader is going to find some they liked better than others. There were a few I thought were pretty poor, but only one I didn’t finish, which isn’t a bad hit rate. When writers decide what to write they have to decide whether to build on their previous material or produce something new and self-contained. Obviously the former goes down well with existing fans but can be a barrier to new readers if dependent on prior knowledge of the author’s work.

I’ll give a mention to my top ten – these haven’t been chosen in a systematic way, but rather are the ones that stayed with me for some reason – I could remember the characters and their situation. In compiling this list I think it’s fair to say that the odds of being remembered are higher if the story comes at the beginning or end of the book rather than stuck in the middle. So, in the order they appear in the book:

The Breaking of the Sky by Ed McDonald – what’s in the box? Nothing nice, I fear.

The Last Arrow by Mitchell Hogan – captured the unpleasantness of war without becoming hyperbolic.

This War of Ours by Timandra Whitecastle – original, atmospheric, definitely made me want to read more from her.

The Fox and the Bowman by Sebastian de Castell – clever, almost like a fable, with some insight on war.

Violet by Mazarkis Williams – made me root for this character.

Sacred Semantics by Nicholas Eames – genuinely funny, and clever, and about war.

The Undying Lands by Michael R Fletcher – another strong female character, lighthearted feel to it.

The Storm by Miles Cameron – the world-building/setting was interesting.

Flesh and Coin by Anna Stephens – mercenary bands encounter, struck a chord with me because I’m currently writing something quite similar.

The Hero of Aral Pass by Mark Lawrence – my first introduction to Jalan Kendeth, already on my TBR pile.

 

As I say, nothing very systematic about this list and on another day no doubt the list would be slightly different. There are another twenty-odd quality short stories in this book, so would definitely recommend to fantasy fans, it’s a nice one to dip into in between longer reads.

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

Mark Lawrence has been one of the biggest names in Fantasy for a while, so it was well past time I got round to reading him. I’ve come close a couple of times, even buying his books for other people with the intention to borrow them when they had finished with them (what? You don’t do that?), but for various reasons they didn’t work out until I picked up my own copy of Red Sister. I’m not a prolific reader, but there’s no doubt that this book shot to to the top of my ToBeRead pile because of this man’s inexplicable generosity in support of indie fantasy writers through the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) competition that he founded.

Not having read his stuff before, I had few expectations, though those who follow Fantasy will know that Mark is strongly linked to the Grimdark subgenre. As the name suggests, this is associated with adult themes, dark or flawed characters and a depressing/realistic/cynical (depending on your point of view) world view. So before I started reading, I was interested to find out how dark things would get. And…I was a little surprised.

 

Characters

Lawrence is known for his single character led writing and Red Sister is no exception. Front and centre we have Nona, a young (9?) girl raised in poverty and ignorance but claimed by the Sweet Mercy Convent due to the potential of the powers she exhibits. The story of a child with magic powers is hardly a new one in Fantasy and it’s easy for the reader to settle in to a familiar journey. Nona herself is great company, Lawrence mostly succeeds in looking at the world with a child’s eyes and this child is brave and admirable as perhaps only children can be. I find it hard to imagine a reader who wouldn’t warm to her. And this was one reason for surprise – this is surely a departure from Lawrence’s Grimdark roots, making it a more mainstream title. I’m not sure that Nona displays a serious character flaw, does anything reprehensible or is faced with a decision where she doesn’t automatically take the heroic path. Maybe this is because she is a child, maybe it’s because she’s a girl. Maybe these tough choices come in the later books. But for now, she is simply likeable. Nona doesn’t like herself, this is true. The nature of her powers means that she considers herself a monster, in fact. But the reader doesn’t.

The supporting cast is largely made up of the students and teachers at Sweet Mercy Convent. She makes friends here but also has enemies, mostly outside the safety of the Convent. It’s mostly a female cast, which makes the story interesting and distinctive at times. But for me, it didn’t always make it distinctive enough. Two words loomed large while reading this. Harry Potter. It was hard not to compare. ‘Abbess Glass is Dumbledore’, ‘Sister Apple is Snape’ my brain kept telling me. And this is totally unfair, because the characters were well drawn and not copies by any means. But there it is nonetheless. If you want a Grimdark Harry Potter, of course, then you’re in heaven right now.

 

Worldbuilding

The world of Abeth has some interesting sci-fi elements. Four races arrived here, by spaceship. Each race had certain powers – one giants (strength), two magic, one speed (this race is called hunska). These powers have largely died out amongst humans, but some people have retained them in smaller or greater measure – and, in effect, this makes such characters magical. Nona, we soon realise, has hunska powers. Some people may even have more than one of these 4 powers, making them extra special. All this is fine, and for those who like an explanation for magic in fantasy, this one is satisfying and has its own logic and rules. It means that the Convent can offer different classes to suit these different abilities.

Abeth is also distinctive because it exists in a solar system where the sun is dying. Huge walls of ice have enclosed most of the planet. All that is left is a thin corridor in the middle, where the ‘Focus’ moon passes and heats the terrain enough to keep the ice at bay. It’s an interesting idea and by the end of the book starts to drive the plot, presumably taking an even bigger role in the sequels. On the other hand, despite this crisis the parts of Abeth we see are surprisingly ordered. The kind of dystopian chaos one would assume a dying sun would engender happened a long time ago, turning the technological clock backwards, but humans have managed to come through fairly civilised. There is an Empire with currency, a prison system and all the other trappings of civilisation. There are convents and academic institutions and a universal church. It’s a familiar fantasy world despite the unique setting.

 

Plot

[Reviewer’s Disclaimer: I have spent many years as a teacher and this may have affected the following section of this review]

Red Sister is a Coming of Age story set in a school/convent. When I realised this my reaction was ‘meh’. And this is purely personal. But these stories are so dominant in literature right now, plus they are not really my thing anyway, that I struggle to get excited by them. Children’s/teen books, whether fantasy or otherwise, are dominated by the school setting. And in Fantasy, it’s not just Harry Potter. Most books that I have read recently and reviewed here follow this format. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss has a magic school at is heart. Blood Song by Anthony Ryan has a military type school. I understand the appeal and these books are incredibly popular. But I hanker after something different.

Otherwise, the plot chugs along well and there is a neat climax of themes at the end while leaving room for Book Two. Lawrence knows what he is doing and is in full control of the story from beginning to end.

 

Overall, this is a great book with no weaknesses that looks set to develop into a great series. The sequel, Grey Sister, has now hit the stores. I will be reading on, there’s no doubt about that. Now, how do I get my hands on that copy of Prince of Thorns that I bought myse…-cough- that I bought someone as a gift?