SPFBO Phase One Eliminations (VI)

General Housekeeping:

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 3/5ths 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 sixth 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 the appropriate link to view our firstsecondthird, fourth and fifth sets of eliminations.

Priestess of Ishana by Judith Starkston

Priestess of Ishana was easily one of the top reads from my SPFBO batch, as it has the rather unique feel of a crime fiction novel in a fantasy-laced world. While crime-based tales are not my genre of preference due to the suspense leaving me as overwrought as the main character by the end, the Priestess of Ishana eloquently manages this stress by volleying between several key perspectives and interspersing heavy doses of magic. Starkston even nails the typical pacing expected of a detective novel that intermixes helplessness along with an ever narrowing window of opportunity to save the day. The buildup was steady and evenly distributed, serving to keep the reader actively engaged without feeling exhausted before finishing strong with a finale that has its fair share of danger and intrigue. 

While I enjoyed the plot of the Priestess of Ishana, I found myself yearning to know more about this world, the people, cultures, and just more details in general. For most of this book, the ‘bad’ guys are the Egaryans and the Paskans, who are portrayed as barbarians seeking vengeance due to being conquered. The true perpetrators and their motivations turn out to be much more complicated. There are key individuals who could have served more to expand upon these other cultures, e.g., Kety or ‘the Paskan’, but they are kept in mostly one-dimensional roles. 

Starkston’s main characters have detailed motivations, with depth being added each chapter, albeit mostly for Tesha and Hattu. Marak and Daniti are two characters who were relegated mostly to the role of loyal sidekick, but whose complexity the reader could perceive just under the surface. While I liked Tesha’s strong resolve, convictions, and personality, her spoiled nature grew a bit tiresome and seemed to oppose many of her other redeeming traits. There are instances where she lied, repeatedly betrayed others, almost murdered a slave, and secreted away restricted information with no consequences and her reputation ever stronger. Although almost all of those examples could be explained away as a means of doing good and pursuing the truth, nonetheless Tesha hardly seems impacted by the contradictions. For example, Tesha almost kills a slave using a forbidden power when she jumps to the worst-case conclusion. When discovered and thwarted, she apologizes to the mentor who caught her, but never to the slave who she potentially caused irreversible harm. Also, the incident blows over within a paragraph or two as new evidence comes to light, without Tesha fully taking responsibility for the abuse of power.

These issues aside, Priestess of Ishana is a suspenseful, entertaining read that merges family expectations, sorcery, religion, and murder into a twisting roller coaster that will keep the reader puzzling over the evolving clues until the very end. Starkston has laid a solid foundation in book one of the Tesha series to continue building upon the magic and details of this fascinating literary world.

The Owl at The End of The World by Staś Rolla

At 118 pages, The Owl at The End of The World is both the shortest of our SPFBO Phase One Batch and one of the more eloquent, unique novels in our set. The length made this book feel almost like a short story or novella. It should be noted that any fantasy elements were mostly past tense references or brief interactions, but the imagery and overall story left me intrigued until the very end. Rolla paints vividly dark descriptions of a post apocalyptic world as the age of living beings is drawing to a violent close. The dramatic scenes are further cemented for the reader as they are captured by the protagonist using various forms of art, from painting to tattooing. The latter caused me physical discomfort as the descriptions of her various methods are described in prolonged, great detail. That said, between the elaborate descriptions of crumbling ruins and Gray translating them to art, even thinking about this book in passing draws forth very distinct images for the reader. Rolla’s writing style is flowing and elegant, making reading The Owl at The End of The World engaging throughout, as we explore this tragically desperate world he has created.

While The Owl at The End of The World feels like a complete story despite being on the shorter side, I would have loved to learn more about the captivating bread crumbs that Rolla spread throughout Gray’s journey toward shifting  targets. I am left pondering many questions about the owls, elves, orcs, and Starlight Demons. Also, the seemingly magical aspects of the read were left unexplained, which fits, considering the earth is in decay and actively dying. Even though these loose ends are not offensively left hanging, expanding upon this potential laden foundation would have served to provide more delightful fodder for the reader in this enthrallingly dark literary world. 

Overall, Rolla brings evocative imagery to his post-apocalyptic world in The Owl at The End of The World where he manages to merge a love of art and rapidly eroding conditions into one suspenseful fight for survival.

Dravincia by Blake Severson

Dravincia brought back so many fond memories of the hours I spent as a kid playing Zelda on my brother’s Game Boy. This book one of The Dimensional Wars series, is the first role playing game book I’ve ever read, and it is genuinely a lot of fun. Severson captures a lot of the minute details that make old school video games so entertaining, from leveling up and going on quests to developing new skills and acquiring treasures. The only comparable book that comes to mind is Ready Player One; however, Dravincia isn’t based in virtual reality, instead the world itself is the game. Another major difference is that Severson’s novel mainly takes place in one small village, inhabiting a remote corner of a much larger realm. Keeping a more localized setting allows a thorough development of the complex leveling up and skill building potential and general limitations of this world. With the game rules established, Severson has seemingly countless ways he could expand and evolve this world beyond the confines of this little village. 

Much effort was expended in Dravincia to outline the various available skills and the tedium of leveling up such that the pacing throughout large swaths of this book seem to crawl. And yet, even though I recognized the slow development of the story, I still highly enjoyed the read. In this way, I am also reminded of a video game because often one needs to take significant time to build skills and power before advancing. If anything, my main complaint is that everything came too easily to our protagonist. Despite being new to this strange world, he manages to ace everything he tries on the first attempt, regardless of how difficult or rare the feat. It would have served to humanize him by making him sweat for at least a few victories.

The dialogue is occasionally choppy and (as someone who loves details I can’t believe I’m making this complaint) the details are selectively specific, but these issues didn’t deter from the story as a whole. Overall, any video game lover will be highly entertained by Severson’s unique literary RPG world in Dravincia, where creativity and ingenuity are significantly rewarded. 

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