First and foremost, thank you to the authors again for sharing their literary world with the Critiquing Chemist and the Bookish Boffins!
With the following three SPFBO eliminations, The Critiquing Chemist and her Bookish Boffins are 1/5th of the way through Phase One. Elimination posts, such as this one, will serve as a general announcement regarding the titles to be cut with a short spoiler-free overview included for each novel. In the following days, the spoiler-free overview will be expanded upon in a full review post for each eliminated novel. That being said, it would be appropriate to add the following disclaimer that DNF books will not have their own post outside of the initial elimination one. These full posts will follow the traditional formatting style for reviews on The Critiquing Chemist by including a spoiler-abundant insight section in addition to the overview sans spoilers. The eliminations and semifinalists will ONLY be announced in specific posts regarding those aforementioned topics and not in the individual novel full reviews.
Without further ado, our second set of eliminations can be found in the next section. Please keep in mind that these titles are in no particular order or ranking, whether within this post, or the rest of our Phase One cuts. Click here to view our first set of eliminations.
As an aside, stay tuned next week for our first semifinalist reveal!
Limbo by Thiago d’Evecque
We first meet the nameless narrator of this journey as they are roused from a deep sleep, discovering that they are a luminous being with no memory of anything prior to here and now. This character – I’ll dub them ‘MC’ for ‘main character’ – is tasked with recruiting twelve individuals in Limbo whose combined qualities offer the best chance of saving humanity from certain destruction. No pressure. In general, Limbo is organized in a systematic way where each chapter focuses on one such individual, revealing their backstory and why they are an ideal fit for this mission, with our protagonist going to great lengths to convince them to take up the cause. Unfortunately, these ‘negotiations’ between MC and the potential-Earth-saving characters start to feel a little repetitive in later chapters, as if following a standard operating procedure. Along the way, MC is grudgingly joined by Chuck, a god who thrives on chaos and fear. Their exchanges tend to lighten the mood, although Chuck is most definitely not politically correct.
As new characters are introduced, the reader may discover that there’s something familiar about them, because in actuality, d’Evecque has constructed a storyline that incorporates individuals from tales that already exist. Some folks are well-known, most were new to me, but for each, d’Evecque modifies their stories ever so slightly to fit the narrative he wants to explore. Overall, I found Limbo to be well-written (though not error-free), with beautiful passages describing the surroundings, recounting memories, and exploring why MC is so intent on completing this mission. That said, there were also moments where I grimaced because an action or word choice was a little disconcerting. In my opinion, the best part about this book is that, with each new character, MC is reminded of something from their past, allowing them to slowly piece everything together over the course of the story to an unexpected, satisfying conclusion. Now that’s character development! And although it’s listed as another standalone, given what I know from Limbo, I’m curious to see what unfolds in d’Evecque’s Tales from Limbo.
Crown of the Sundered Empire by JC Kang
Crown of the Sundered Empire brings to life a fascinating literary realm with a detailed backstory that interweaves magic, conflicted empires, and expansive legends. Much of the tale revolves around several princes and princesses who have recently come into adulthood and are struggling to balance their families’ expectations with the desire to forge their own paths. Weighing most on the minds of these youthful royals is the conflict that arises from opposing paths proposed by heart and duty, something that is further complicated and tangled when their sense of honor is also wrapped up in the mix.
Tomas’ adventure, however, commanded my curiosity far more than the chapters that focused upon the royals, as their plights seemed paltry in comparison to the perils faced by our rather unlucky fisherman. In many ways, Tomas’ storyline can be viewed as largely separate from the rest of this novel, with the two arcs only overlapping by the slimmest of margins. Being isolated in a village his whole life, his world gets upended quite abruptly with devastating consequences, but this ultimately leads him to explore forgotten ruins and ancient magic not experienced by anyone in ages. I kept expecting his story to connect more concretely with the other dramas taking place throughout the realm, however they never quite merged.
While the world Kang created is detailed and multilayered, the characters, by comparison, seem one-dimensional as they each fit into formulaic roles and stereotypes, making their actions quite predictable: the wild Princess who chaffs at the regimented expectations of ruling, the Prince with the forbidden lover who is bound tightly by duty, the ambitious heir with corrupt morals, and the talented spy who sees everything. Complex backstories are alluded to that would have added significant depth, but, given the predicaments, there wasn’t a chance for these layers to be fleshed out.
Overall, in Crown of the Sundered Empire, Kang has pieced together an intriguing, rich literary world with characters whose oversized ambitions threaten to plunge the balance into chaos, delivering an entertaining fantasy read with danger lurking around every corner.
This Cursed Flame by Selina J. Eckert
This Cursed Flame introduces the reader to events taking place in the Djinn Realm and the human one (more specifically, Philadelphia). The djinn – where one is classified as either djinn, jenari, or genie based on their magical ancestry – are a people whose talents tend to lie in one of four areas: manipulation of air, water, fire, or electricity. Interestingly, there are inherent differences in how one is able to call upon their magic, the results of which amplify either light or shadow (among other side effects); this disparity has led to unrest in the past. The resulting imbalance of power, the treatment of marginalized groups, and the discussions surrounding these topics interspersed throughout the book feel relevant to what’s going on in our own world.
Eckert alternates the third person limited point of view between a pair of teenage female characters: Janan, a genie, and Laurelin, a human. Setting the story up this way effectively allowed for cliffhangers to be sprinkled in every so often. These two main characters are distinctly different, where one is more closed off as a result of past trauma, while the other is primarily driven by emotions evoked by real and perceived slights. As much as I wanted to, I had a difficult time connecting with these characters and the choices they made for the first quarter of the book or so. Accompanying these two on their journey to safety and self-discovery are Ghadir (a no-nonsense djinn with a penchant for water-based magic) and Safiyya (my favorite djinn, who also happens to be stuck in the form of an ocelot).
The generally fast-moving plot has these four traveling across many diverse environments and facing a number of unforeseen obstacles and foes; the ensuing fight scenes, however, felt more like sitting on the sidelines and watching your favorite sports team take a beating, since the predispositions of our two storytellers left them more or less benched. And in case you were wondering, yes, there are mentions of chemistry and laboratories and experiments to be found on this adventure! I appreciated how characters’ backstories were teased, leaving me with many questions, before slowly answering them in unique, interesting ways in later chapters. As with any good manuscript, This Cursed Flame is an original story that offers plenty of avenues to explore in the upcoming sequel.