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 four SPFBO eliminations, The Critiquing Chemist and her Bookish Boffins are done with their Phase One cuts. 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 eighth and last 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 first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh sets of eliminations.
Magical Friends by Barbara G. Tarn
Magical Friends is composed of a fascinating literary world filled with various magical species that ultimately seem underutilized in this tale of adventure and love. The story mainly follows two twin sisters and a pair of best friends. The best friends, Lambert and Torik, seem stuck in their everyday lives, miserable in the roles and responsibilities life has dealt them. When events conspire to alleviate them neatly from their aforementioned droll lives and set them on a path of boundless adventure, both characters are eager for the opportunity. The talented twins, Tamika and Babirye, on the other hand, have spent the past five years training tirelessly as a warrior and a priestess, respectively. As their training draws to a close, big decisions await them that will decide the course of their lives.
Tarn has created an expansive world filled with a wide array of magical creatures who our adventurers interact with on a daily basis. The magical aspects of this novel were my favorite, especially when combined with the extensive traveling that the protagonists engage in. That being said, despite our protagonists exploring large swaths of this literary realm, the visits are often so brief that we only have the barest glimpse of the new kingdom before the journey continues to the next city. By the end of Magical Friends, the worlds have blurred together, where only a few of the realms actually stand out as unique. I did appreciate Tarn including various regions in her world that challenge the traditional roles that women are typically relegated to in literature.
Magical Friends has one of the smoothest plots I’ve read in literature, with very few high or low moments while reading. Everything seems to work out for our protagonists on the first try, especially the second half of this read. With minimal strife encountered, the character depth stalls out after the initial backstories are established. Overall, with wide ranging travel and intriguing legendary magical creatures, Magical Friends had significant potential that didn’t quite develop beyond establishing the outline.
Princess of Shadows by A.G. Marshall
As captivating as the original can be, I’ve always loved reading tale-as-old-as-time fairy tales that’ve been overhauled. I especially enjoy when authors offer more depth to characters such that there’s more of a gray area to things than initially interpreted. Whether the work of fiction is a retelling, an alternative viewpoint (of a friend or foe), a modernized version, a prequel, or extrapolating what happens next, I’m game to check it out! Princess of Shadows definitely fits within these criteria as this novel is a reimagining of a story from children’s literature, just take a look at the enchanting cover if you’d like to know which one it represents. In fact, the entire Fairy Tale Adventures series by A.G. Marshall takes well-known tales and paints them in a new light. And so, while a common fairy tale has lent the bassline for this piece (with grace notes of others accompanying it), Marshall has composed something totally new from the original pitch. That last line would be funnier if you knew Marshall is also a professional pianist.
Princess of Shadows (first published in September 2016) is about Evangelina Shadow-Storm, the person, not to be confused with Evangelina Shadow-Storm, the legend. Upon awakening from a sleeping curse, Lina finds that things are not as she left them and her personal history has been reduced to a children’s bedtime story. In actuality, Lina is a military-trained shadow warrior whose job, with the aid of light wielders, is to keep the kingdom safe from the creatures of darkness that lurk in the realm of shadows. With the beasts she worked so hard to lock away edging closer to freedom, she must find a way to warn the region’s Council of Kings. At the same time, Crown Prince Alaric of Aeonia is in the process of hosting a ‘Princess Test’ in hopes of finding a bride who’ll quell the conflict brewing beneath the surface regarding his family’s rise to power. This test provides the perfect cover for Lina to slip into the castle and complete her mission! What could possibly go wrong?
Nearly every character within this story is distinct, and their responses and actions to the predicaments that arise help to speed the story along. The leads are played by Alaric, a royal who puts what’s best for his country over his own interests, and Lina, a guardian struggling to fulfill her duty of rooting out danger while adjusting to the fact that the world as she knew it is gone. Since the narrative alternates the point of view each chapter between Lina and Alaric, it is abundantly clear to the reader how the interactions of these two are riddled with misunderstandings as a result of what’s left unsaid. It was endearing to see flashes of vulnerability in Lina and Alaric (within their own thoughts though, of course) as they seek to understand and support each other. As an aside, Stefan is delightful. He is the perfect amount of sarcasm and sass to balance Alaric’s stoicism. It was also great to see strong women, in addition to Lina, integrated into the story (even though some are stifled by their public personas).
I enjoyed piecing together the events that transpired while Lina was otherwise engaged. Perhaps limited by what Lina can do without proper tools and assistance, however, the magic system doesn’t feel as fleshed out as it could be; it wasn’t as clear to me what the rules and limits are, and the reader really only has a chance to see one type of magic in fighting form. The writing contains a few errors, but is otherwise a clean and fun read full of heart. Considering the length of the original fairy tale (it’s shorter than this review), Marshall has done an impressive job using it as a basis to thread the story we find here. From the preview of Book 2 included in this copy of Princess of Shadows, Princess of Secrets appears to pick up where things leave off but focuses on new characters instead. Given the loose ends in Book 1, I’d be interested to see how different fairy tales will be tied together in this universe!
The Steel Road by Edie James
Dreyah is the product of an elven father and a human mother, the second crossling known to exist. When the prophecy concerning the first one came to pass, a world-wide war ensued, resulting in countless casualties and finally ending with the separation of elves and humans, and with humans forsaking magic. So, just imagine what that same prophecy has in store for Dreyah as she grapples with where she truly belongs. The story also features Kennason, a woman chosen to steward a people in a land that she doesn’t call home. Sparked by loneliness, she embarks on a journey that forces her to face past hardships and reveals unexpected truths about her family. At the same time, things have been stirring in the north recently, an area that’s been deserted since the first war…
Published in December 2016, The Steel Road by Edie James is the first book in The Ardent Halo series. Its accolades include being an honorable mention winner in the Fiction – Magic/Wizardry section of the 2018 Readers’ Favorite Book Award Contest (and bonus fact, Book II of the series was also a finalist in the 2019 competition). As much as I enjoyed the other SPFBO entrants to grace my kindle app, I was looking forward to something darker, where I wasn’t sure if the main character(s) would live to fight another day. And considering this comes with maps and an Appendix to explain the complex character relationships, The Steel Road is definitely meatier as well, earning its place in epic fantasy. In fact, it jumps right in with name dropping that had me turning to the Appendix, wondering if a name reflected a person or a weather phenomenon (i.e. Ahnara’s winds). The prose is also a more formal style that, once you’ve grown accustomed to it, fits well with the high fantasy setting (that also manages to effectively mix in steam engines and electricity).
Interestingly, some things are given names that one may not automatically attribute to them. They are clever, but the reader is left to parse out what it actually refers to sometimes or wait until it becomes apparent and relevant later on (e.g. cloud and nightflier both refer to a bat). In general, information tends to be offered after the fact to make sense of what has already happened. Not only are we following characters in different places, but events are being explained out of sequence. And I love that! I like it when a story doesn’t follow a linear path, where the next steps aren’t straightforward or expected. However, it is also a style that can be confusing as all get-out if you’re not paying close enough attention as the puzzle unfolds. Fortunately, James expertly weaves past and present moments together to complete the complex picture of how all of these characters fit together. I should also mention that the characters of the Arizware Expanse are crafted in such a way that they don’t fit neatly into the binary boxes of good versus bad.
A criticism would be that it felt like a large portion of the book is spent waiting for the weather to change. To be fair, during that time, many connections are established and plot holes are filled; I was just excited for folks to venture to new settings and continue their mission! I especially enjoyed their investigation of the now uninhabited areas, uncovering past messages and civilizations that time forgot. Although there are quite a few minor errors, making this novel a contender for another round of editing, they don’t diminish the extensive world that the reader explores and the detailed relationships that James has penned. In fact, there were a number of times when I stopped to highlight great quotes within this body of work. I also appreciated the connection between the chapter titles and the chapter content. If an epic fantasy featuring magic, captivating, multi-dimensional characters, and looming conflict sounds like something you’d be interested in, be sure to check out The Steel Road!
First Steps by Luke Daher
First Steps follows three storylines, that I can only assume will meet in the end. The main story is that of Normyn, a farm boy whose destiny is much more grandiose than “farm boy” suggests. The book opens with a young Normyn being told about The Hero of the Wilds, a hitherto unknown man about whom a prophecy was made long ago. While he doesn’t realize that he’s the subject of the prophecy, the reader can easily read the clues. As a result, I was ready to read about Normyn’s adventures, and was somewhat surprised when the book jumped about 10 years to the future.
Normyn is now grown up and messed up: he’s been through a lot, lost his friends and mentors, and has to make his way through the world alone. Well, not for long: he meets his sidekick, Ley, shortly after the book starts. Normyn is mourning and brooding, convinced that he’s not the hero his friends thought he would become. He’s defeated and ready to throw the towel, and the very last thing he wants is a sidekick to look up to him. Ley, however, is stubborn enough to win him over, and he’ll probably win you over, too. He’s the classic street urchin: alone, hurt, but still hopeful and willing to trust (some) people.
The setting is somewhat tropey: defeated hero, dealing with loss, depression, and imposter syndrome, ready to throw in the towel, meets street urchin looking for a mentor. Hero tries to shake off the kid, but he wins him over, and off they go on the quest that the hero had abandoned when his friends and mentors died. Since I haven’t finished this book, I can’t tell you whether they succeed, but I assume they will (enduring some losses along the way, I’m sure). Tropey as it is, I enjoyed this part of the book: Ley is adorable in his way, and Normyn is a good guy, even if he doesn’t believe it.
The second storyline in this book is centered around Xylia, who is an artist and temple initiate in the main part of Kyrel (the region where this all happens). She’s supposed to be the Strong Female Character: beautiful, accomplished, somehow misunderstood. As much as I wanted to, I could not like her, so I didn’t engage with most of her story. This changed somewhat around 55% into the book, where it becomes clear why her story is relevant to the book and how it connects with Normyn’s. The problem is, when you have to read about a character whose struggles you really don’t care about, and whose story takes you away from the one you enjoy (Normyn’s), it’s hard to get really invested.
Additionally, other chapters in the book introduce other (seemingly less important) characters, whose connection to the two main storylines is not quite clear at this point. The book is building up to a complex story that has yet to unravel.
The characters in First Steps are believable and human. There is depth to them, which makes some of them very likeable and others not so much. It is clear that there’s a carefully crafted world and overarching story, but the connections within it take a while to reveal themselves, and that made me lose interest in some stories. Despite its rather slow beginning, I believe the second half of the book is more promising, as the connections become apparent and the stories unravel.