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And just like that, it is already time for the 10th anniversary edition of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) competition. Though, as excited as I am to start a new round of judging (with Fantasy Book Critic), the start to SPFBOX also feels a bit bittersweet.

See, for those unaware, the submission process for this year was changed to a lottery instead of a ‘first come, first serve’ method, with the 300 entries being randomly chosen out of the nearly 600 submissions. So, you can imagine how many incredible stories missed out on their chance in the spotlight.

After seeing E.L. Lyons start up her SPFNO project (love that initiative and love that name, credit to Tom Mock, I believe), I decided I’d take part in the fun in my own way by sharing some of my personal faves that didn’t make the cut. While these books might not have made it into SPFBOX, they each got the ‘Esmay Seal of Approval‘ and are very well worth your love and time. Get ready for some damage done to your TBR, you’re welcome!

Renia by Karl Forshaw

ReniaKarl Forshaw’s debut novel Renia is an alluring genre-blendy gem of a book that defies expectations, expertly mixing fantasy with mystery, and then adding in some enticing dystopia, horror, and steampunk(ish) elements that will keep you on your toes. And while I realise that all might sound like a lot, Forshaw honestly just makes it work so well and executes this story to perfection.

In a time long past, a cataclysmic event known as the Moonfall created a mysterious and irradiated crater called the Moonwastes, where dangerously powerful Lightstones are scattered all across the land. Renia grew up in that desolate place, but now she spends her days peacefully transcribing books and hunting for knowledge in the grand Halls of Venn. That is, until the coveted book that was recently assigned to her gets stolen, setting off a course of chaotic events that puts Renia down a disturbingly dark path full of mysteries, secrets, and painful self-discovery.

While Renia is truly unlike anything I have ever read, I think fans of Mark Lawrence’s The Book That Wouldn’t Burn and China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station will be in for a real treat here. If you like the sound of a dark and genre-blendy fantasy story with character-focused storytelling, a contained institution setting, surprising character arcs, riveting mysteries, mystifying world building, and immersive and evocative prose, then Renia is the perfect fit for you.

Check out my full review here.

The Storm Beneath the World by Michael R. Fletcher

The Storm Beneath the WorldThe Storm Beneath the World is a wildly imaginative, morbidly captivating, and slightly unhinged gutpunch of a story that will have you buzzing with equal parts wonder and dread; this is fantasy like you have never read before.

To me, going blind into The Storm Beneath the World will be the most rewarding and exciting reading experience. All you truly need to know is that it’s got morally gray insect people living on warring creature-islands floating above a raging firestorm, corruptive deadly magical powers, intriguing authentic and alien flora and fauna, a matriarchal society with fascinating flipped gender dynamics, a brutally rigid divided class system, and not one, but TWO cutthroat assassin/spy schools. And honestly, that’s just scratching the surface!

If you are looking for an exceptionally unique and twisted take on a coming-of-age fantasy tale full of flawed yet loveable insectoid protagonists, richly immersive yet intriguingly mysterious world building, tragically ironic dark humour, and deadly political intrigue, then you simply have to check out The Storm Beneath the World; it is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Check out my full review here.

The Crimson Court by Brendan Noble

The Crimson CourtSet in an Eastern European-flavoured flintlock/gaslamp fantasy world where malignant spirits roam free, deadly conspiracies thrive, and magic comes at a high cost, Brendan Noble’s The Crimson Court is an utterly unique epic political fantasy perfect for fans of M.A. Carrick’s The Rook and Rose series and Thiago Abdalla’s A Touch of Light.

Now, as with any good and meticulously plotted multi-POV epic fantasy, it is nearly impossible to do the brilliance of such an ambitious story justice in a review. Yet at the same time, the premise of The Crimson Court is really rather simple: a strong-willed young noble woman with outlawed Death Reacher magic embarks upon a revenge quest to take down the elusive group of nobles that got her father killed, but soon she and her odd group of unlikely allies find themselves at the centre of an intricate web of conspiracies and schemes while a looming supernatural threat is becoming ever more dire and deadly.

If you like the sound of a slow-burn yet unputdownable political fantasy filled with flawed but loveable diverse characters, A Game of Thrones–esque political scheming, looming supernatural threats, a magic system that would make Sanderson jealous, and gorgeous interior illustrations, then you have to pick up The Crimson Court. Also, it features a crystal dragon, do I really need to say more?

Check out my full review here.

The Blood Stones by Tori Tecken

The Blood StonesThe Blood Stones is Tecken’s first foray into the epic fantasy genre, and she did not come to play. This is a deliciously dark blend of coming of age, political, and military fantasy, with some mystical rune magic, mystifying prophecy, and a good dose of sweet emotional turmoil sprinkled in. Welcome to the Legends of the Bruhai, welcome to Dry’llar.

After reading Phased, I already knew that Tecken was a gifted storyteller, but truly outdid herself and stepped up her game in every way imaginable with The Blood Stones.
Even though this almost feels like an extended prologue to the series, considering the large amount of set-up and relatively little pay-off, I was still fully captivated by this tale from start to finish. And now that all the pieces have been put into place, I am desperate to see how things are going to escalate and converge.

In tone, vibe and themes, I think this story is perfect for fans of The Sword of Kaigen, The Long Price Quartet, The Last War and Obsidian: Awakening.
The Blood Stones is an unflinching tale of endurance, brotherhood, fate, love, humanity, sacrifice, grief, and revenge that will leave you hungering for more in the best way possible. Highly recommend!

Check out my full review here.

Soul Cage by L.R. Schulz

Soul CageIn Soul Cage, L.R. Schulz gives Sanderson a run for his money with his incredibly wild imagination and unbelievably cool yet terrifying soul-transference magic system. Darkly disturbing yet casually diverse and full of heart, this first instalment in the Soulbreaker series will sing to the souls of any and all dark fantasy lovers.

Through the perspectives of three very compelling and uniquely diverse characters, we are transported into the bleak world of Otor, where murder breeds magic. The most powerful mage in existence, who also happens to be a drunkard and drug addict; a neurodivergent young man training to become a strong mage in the ranks of the Knights of Aen; and a soul-broken woman on a revenge path, seeking enough power to sustain the magical apparitions of her dead friends. War is calling, and the course of history lies in their hands, whether they like it or not.

Schulz has truly outdone himself with Soul Cage, and I honestly think he deserves to be up there with the greats of the genre. If you are not afraid to dive into a story that will challenge you mentally and emotionally, while also filling you with a deep sense of escapist wonder and suspense, then you have to check out this refreshingly diverse and beautifully character-driven dark fantasy. What a wild ride, I need more!

Check out my full review here. 

The Switchboard by Christina K. Glover

The SwitchboardFilled with endearingly oblivious chaos queers, unexpected found family vibes, lots of magical mayhem, and plot-necessary pasta breaks, The Switchboard is a delightfully quirky and highly imaginative low-fantasy romp perfect for fans of T. Kingfisher and Good Omens (the show).

Set in an alternate magical version of modern-day Earth, The Switchboard follows a messy immortal and a grumpy mortal (who should absolutely never have met) as they are launched into a dangerous quest in the Between to save the world by restoring all magic (that one of them destroyed, oops). And as if that wasn’t enough to handle, they also have to face their own inner demons and deal with their increasingly confusing feelings for each other; in other words, cue the chaos!

This book is the perfect example of why I love to take gambles on new (indie) authors. Glover took me on a fun, charming, and wonderfully chaotic adventure that I didn’t even know I needed in my life, and now I want to read anything and everything that she ever publishes! If you are looking for an action-packed yet character-driven fantasy romp that will both warm your heart and rip it out of your chest, then I can’t recommend The Switchboard highly enough.

Check out my full review here.

Undead Samurai by Baptiste Pinson Wu

Undead SamuraiIn Undead Samurai, Baptiste Pinson Wu expertly blends historical fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery to create a deadly entertaining and refreshingly diverse samurai tale full of action, honour, redemption, purpose, (queer) love, and a whole lot of heart.

Undead Samurai smoothly transports the reader back to an alternative version of 1625 Japan, which is under dire threat of the Izanagi curse. The last hope of the nation lies in the hands of a motley crew of warriors gathered by the young daimyō of Owari. But as they set out on their quest to destroy the source of the curse’s power, hunted by undead samurai and shinobi mercenaries, they soon learn that their own haunting pasts and inner demons might be the biggest dangers and challenges to face after all.

Undead Samurai truly feels like a love letter to Japan, and I am deeply impressed with how brilliantly Baptiste Pinson Wu executed this story. It beautifully balances the action with the emotion, creating an unforgettable tale that will tug on your heartstrings in the most unexpected ways. So, no matter your reading preferences, I guarantee you don’t want to miss out on this genre blendy gem of a book!

Check out my full review here. 

Partial Function by J.C.M. Berne

Partial FunctionBerne is back and better than ever with Partial Function, his first foray outside of the Hybrid Helix series. It’s got a kick-ass and snarky mom out on a revenge quest, thrilling martial arts fights, dinosaurs, a loyal dog named Dog, heartwarming found family vibes, and, most importantly of all, SO much humour and heart. Honestly, this is the entertaining wuxia-inspired epic fantasy you didn’t know you needed.

Once, Akina Azure, better known as the Spiral Witch, roamed the Wilds as one of the legendary Five. Yet, despite inheriting the most powerful weapon in the martial world, she has left her monster hunting days behind and now lives a peaceful life raising her twin girls. That is, until her daughters are kidnapped by The Reaver, who intends to use them as a bargaining chip in exchange for that powerful weapon. Akina will do anything to get her girls back, and she intends to show everyone just how fearsome an angry momma bear can be.

This was easily one of the most fun reading experiences I have had this year and I am now desperate for more adventures with Akina and co. And while this story wraps up in a satisfying way and stands completely on its own, there were some subtle tie-ins to the Hybrid Helix series that have me incredibly excited to see how this universe is going to expand in the future. I highly recommend this to anyone who wants an entertaining, fast-paced, and action-packed cultivation fantasy with a whole lot of humour and heart.

Check out my full review here. 

Well, there you go, 8 incredible books that showcase why indie is simply winning the game these days. I hope you found some new hidden gems to check out, and if these recommendations weren’t enough for you, then I highly encourage you to check out the official SPFNO spreadsheet started by E.L. Lyons.

And obviously stay tuned for all the updates on the 300 lucky entries that did get into the official contest, which kicks off on June 1st. Happy reading, friends!

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Esmay Rosalyne

Esmay is a self-proclaimed professional book devourer from The Netherlands. While (dark) fantasy will always have her heart, she is also a big indie/self-pub enthusiast and will probably read anything if the premise sounds intriguing enough. Or, you know, if it promises complete emotional destruction. When not reading books, she is probably reviewing books, talking about books, or watching videos of fellow bookworms talking about books.

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