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

 

 

The Eagle’s Flight by Daniel E Olesen

I first noticed Daniel Olesen’s The Eagles’s Flight in the 2017 Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off. It was in the same section as Toric’s Dagger, and while neither book won through, they both made it to the semi-final stage, with Daniel’s book getting a rather more positive review than mine. It sounded like complex, historical, epic fantasy, which is right up my street, and so I treated myself to a read. I certainly wasn’t disappointed, though it’s a book that may not be for everyone. File under historical. With a capital ‘H’.

 

Characters

Like good epic fantasy should, The Eagle’s Flight gives us a feast of characters who inhabit the lands of Adalmearc. The point of view shifts from one character to the next with rapidity. Yes, some people don’t like this, but I do, and I appreciate that the writer trusts that I am intelligent enough to cope with it. The first part of the book centres on the capital, Middanhal, where the powerful nobility gather and politic in the reign of a vulnerable child king. The houses of Isarn and the Vale feud over political office – we are introduced to the leaders of each house, their brothers, children, cousins – and then, there are lesser houses, each with their own ambitions. Some men serve the Order, a military organisation whose duty is to preserve the unity of the kingdom and serve the royal house. Some serve in the Order while also serving themselves. Two characters who stand out are Athelstan, a famous knight and younger brother of the Duke of Isarn, and his squire Brand, scion of a family with royal blood.

In the second part we are transported to Haethiod, a border region where a foreign army has invaded. A new cast of characters are introduced here, including the young Queen of Haethiod, Theodora, the domineering dowager queen Irene, and Lord Leander, illegitimate son of the previous king. Finally, we return to Middanhal, where the complex politics of the capital have led to a state of war.

Given the highly medieval setting, the main movers and shakers in the story are noblemen, but we also follow characters with lower social standing and a number of female characters, who operate in a typical male dominated, medieval society. There is the odd elf and dwarf character, but these are fairly peripheral to the story, in this first volume at least.

I think it is fair to say that this book focuses on world-building and plot, and is therefore less character driven. The characters aren’t as obtrusive as you may find in A Game of Thrones or Joe Abercrombie’s books. But they are arguably more realistic, behave logically, are motivated by their own desires and loyalties, and I found the huge cast to be memorable and I cared what happened to them.

 

Worldbuilding

This is one of the strengths of the book, in particular the historical accuracy which underpins this creation of a medieval European fantasy world. Yes, nothing original about doing this, but it is done very well, which is more important. Right from the beginning, the world is given centre stage, as the narrator introduces the lands of Adalmearc to the reader. We are not yet looking through the eyes of any particular character, and Olesen often starts chapters with this omniscient view.

This is a fully thought out, functioning world. Does the reader need all the detail? Personally, I like this kind of detail to fully immerse myself in a fantasy story. But I know some people will be running for the hills at the thought of this overwhelming historicity. And that’s OK, not everyone’s the same. Can you stand one character asking a second about battle tactics to allow the author to give a lecture on army formations? This can be a bit clunky. But the trade off is battle scenes and sieges where characters have to make real choices with the resources available to them. And honestly, this is pretty rare in fantasy. There are no supermen here who can wield a sword and defeat an army. Archers don’t have limitless supplies of arrows. Generals can’t raise armies in a day. You get the point.

Finally, this is a fantasy book, is there any magic? Well. There are hints of it, of a bigger story emerging in the later books. But much like GRR Martin in A Game of Thrones, Olesen has kept tight control over this storyline to allow himself the space to introduce a realm largely inhabited by humans.

 

Plot

So, without giving too much away, we have internal power politics driving the plot, the kind of strife that can divide people in the same realm. Then, an old threat returns. The border defences are breached by outlanders, a people who have raided in recent generations but now lead an army into Adalmearc. And, perhaps, the two are somehow connected. Can the rulers of Adalmearc unite to fend off the more serious threat? Olesen does a good job of not overfeeding us here, so that we are still not clear about the exact nature of this external threat…

 

…and that brings us to a question – Daniel, when the hell is the next book coming out? This one was apparently published in 2016. It’s a meaty read at 500 pages and I have no doubt was a time consuming thing to write. But hopefully book two is coming soon. I will certainly be encouraging people to read this one – no doubt Daniel would appreciate a purchase, but he is also giving away free copies on his website and through Sigil Independent, where loads of cool fantasy writers hang out.

 

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?