Beth: What a contest for the BWGB team! This is my third year being a part of this contest and the second year of running a team and I have never seen a group as deep and brimming with talent as our pool is.
Which made things difficult..
In all honesty I can see any of our semi-finalists going through. Each of them had qualities that many of us seek out in novels. Even those novels that we were sadly forced to cut early in the competition enthralled many of our wonderful team and instead of finishing only a portion of the novel, they read the entire book outright. We also had plenty of positive things to say about every single book in our group.
I want to talk about two of the books I wrote reviews for, Stonebearer’s Betrayal by Jodi L. Milner and A Journey of Black and Red by Alex. Because of this competition I have found two new series to plow through. Both entirely different and outside of the normal style books I read. I read fairly heavy dark fantasy, Grimdark, and horror. Yet both series have their hooks in me. And that is what the joy of the competition is, I think. Everyone wants the selfie stick of course, but what I see happening more often is that these authors put their hearts out there in the form of prose and us readers scoop them up and hold them close to our chest. Is every reader making a connection? No. But a whole lot of them are, myself included and there is a bit of magic in that.
Dan: This is my first year as a judge, and WOW what a great lot of books we drew! I was expecting a mixed bag in terms of quality, but everything I read was really solid. Even our cuts were professional-quality books. That said, a few stood out from the rest, and I’d like to say a few words about them.
Thrice by Andrew Meredith is just such a well-done small-scale fantasy, which I crave. Epic is great, but smaller stories are my wheelhouse, and this one really told a great story in a compact format. Great writing, characters, and descriptions, and a main character who’s a needlemaker, of all things!
The Thirteenth Hour by Trudie Skies is a truly unique, immersive world quite unlike any other fantasy I’ve read. Gaslamp fantasy with magical tech, cruel gods, and themes of social inequality, plus some nice hints of romance, which I gather will be borne out in the future books.
Baker Thief by Claudie Arsenault is a perfectly queernormative fantasy mystery that does outstanding work with complex gender identities and brings a cozy aspect and a unique romance arc that pairs perfectly with the mystery.
Spirits of Vengeance by Rob J. Hayes has some incredible character work and worldbuilding, and some fantastic fight scenes. Reading this book is uncovering layer after layer of mystery and intrigue in this one-of-a-kind Asian-inspired fantasy. I consider all of these books to be premium works of fantasy literature that deserve readers’ attention, and I’m thrilled to have had the chance to read these for SPFBO. I can’t wait to see what comes next in the finals!
Whitney: I’m here with Dan in the newbies group and all I can say is, “WOW!” The dedication of the judging teams to be supportive, encouraging, fair, and honest is truly inspiring. Everyone at BWGB, and I’m sure the other teams as well, frets over each review and cut like a teenager worrying over a new hairstyle.
Aside from the amazing experience of being part of a judging team, the opportunity to read some truly stellar fantasy fiction by fearless writers is such an enormous privilege! I plowed through my initial draw of books pretty quickly and let me tell you, there wasn’t a dud in the bunch. The Seventh Cadence by Jim Wilbourne was an excellent foray into epic, intricate world building and magic craft. John Palladino wrangles a vast array of colorful, complicated characters in The Trials of Ashmount. As good as these stories are (and yes, they ARE!), there were minor disconnects for me as a reader which kept me from putting them forward as potential semi-finalists. Still, this won’t stop me from recommending them to fellow fantasy fanatics. They deserve a place on every magical bookshelf.
Envy by Tim Beeden ticked all the semi- boxes for me. I loved everything about this one. The relationships, the world, the character development, thematic elements, the journey…pick an element, I dug it. Enough to read it three times. And, I asked a fellow judge to read it just to make sure I wasn’t completely off my rocker. I wasn’t! (Always good to know.) She loved it too. Whew!
I didn’t stop with just the books I was assigned. I also read selections from other judges’ lists. (Not necessarily because they wanted me to read them…I’m just greedy.) Dan previously mentioned Thrice by Andrew Meredith and The Thirteenth Hour by Trudie Skies, and Spirits of Vengeance by Rob J. Hayes. Let me tell you, these books are EXCELLENT! Thrice is absolutely precious in the purest, coziest, non-saccharine sense of the word. I read Thirteenth as an ARC and it has Stuck. With. Me. So deftly and intricately constructed. Just delicious. Spirits dropped me into a Asian-inspired fantasy corner and I was gloriously out of my element.
The depth and breadth of talent in this year’s competition is breath-taking and I can hardly wait to see which book comes out on top!
Tyra: I first discovered SPFBO during the finalist phase of SPFBO 6 and I’ve been enamored with the creativity and talent that we see each year ever since. Each year I continue to read books that typically would not land on my shelf and every year I find new favorites. Last year I only judged the finalist pool with FanFiAddict so this year was my first experience being around for the first cuts and the whole pool of 30 books. The team at Before We Go Blog has been incredible, and we seriously went back and forth many times because this pool was so challenging. There is truly something for everyone in our list of semi-finalists.
Heartless Hette is a fairytale retelling and has a gritty protagonist ready to persevere through all her setbacks. The Order: Shadow of the Assassin is a prequel novella to a greater series but you’d never know that. It stands on its own as a story of a father balanced between hard choices and protecting his family.
Jason: Wow. Just wow. This is my second full year as a judge with Before We Go Blog and I can’t adequately describe how exciting this batch of books was for us as a team. This has been an extraordinary first round with a lot of great books to sift through. I won’t rehash what everyone has already said above, but I do want to note how difficult it was for us to pick a finalist this year. This team had multiple conversations about which book should advance as our finalist with messages flowing back and forth and lengthy discussion over many days because we were all passionate about these books (as you can see above). I’m thankful for everyone on this team who each bring different perspectives to the process and our discussions. Each person on this team has made me contemplate the pros and cons of any selection in new and helpful ways. Please know whether you are one of the authors in our batch or whether you are an observer following the competition this selection was not taken lightly.
Finally I want to thank the authors in our batch for sharing your stories with us. It takes a lot of faith and guts to pour your heart and soul onto the page and then offer it up for critique and judgement in a competition such as this one. I have found new authors to follow and new story lines to explore which would not have been the case if you had not taken the chance. So thank you and please keep telling your stories!
Ryan: This really was a strong batch, and our judging team was filled with praise for the books. I’ve been in the contest a few times and it was great seeing how the SPFBO works from the other side. I agree with the other judges and I also want to highlight Tom Mock’s The Long Nights, which was a vampire story with such a strong sense of voice and setting that it really stood out. The blues clubs and the art shows and the noir under it all really stood out as an exceptionally well-done setting.
Krystle: Ultimately, we had to settle on one book. No matter how strong our batch, no matter how many books we fell in love with, it was time to select one finalist. It came down to a vote. Which one book stood out the most, which ONE book captured the biggest pieces of each reviewer’s hearts? Eventually it became clear that it was going to be a choice between two books that just had that edge.
It came down to a vote between Spirits of Vengeance by Rob Hayes, and The Thirteenth Hour by Trudie Skies.
We went back… and forth… and back and forth again. We were so fortunate to have such a strong batch, and I have to commend all the other amazing books for the impression they made on the whole team.
Eventually, our votes came to a cohesive answer…
Anyone got a drumroll for us?
Beth: As you can see we had our hands full finding our champion! Honestly, our champion could have been any number of books, but we chose a story that we felt was the most concise, sharply written, entertaining, that appealed to us as a group.
And the champion for Before We Go Blog’s SPFBO8 is The Thirteenth Hour, book 1 of the Cruel Gods by Trudie Skies!
But wait there’s more….
Because we had so many incredible books in our group, we decided to do something not often done in this competition and that is to select a Senlin. The Senlin Safety Net is there if a blog feels it has two books both worthy of being finalists, and one of those will be offered to the other groups if they would like to pick it up.
Becky M has a video explaining the whole concept very well, from last year’s SPFBO cycle:
For our Senlin we, as a group, have selected, Spirits of Vengeance by Rob Hayes.
Spirits is up for the taking folks.
For the SPFBO finalist board, we have collected the scores from everyone who read The 13th Hour, and averaged them out.
BEFORE WE GO gives The 13th Hour a score of 8.5