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While most attention is focused on the ten finalists, there are plenty of other outstanding books to discover among the 300 submissions to Mark Lawrence’s ninth Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO9). Esmay Rosalyne and I have teamed up to share our love for the following ten hidden gems in SPFBO9. These are all books that inspire our passion but have received considerably less attention during the SPFBO9 competition.

The criteria that we used in making these selections are that (a) they are all non-finalist entries in SPFBO9; (b) we rated them all as four or five stars; and (c) to date, they have received fewer than ~100 ratings on Goodreads.

Before moving on to next year’s competition, please help us share the love for these ten underappreciated gems from SPFBO9.

A Quiet Vengeance by Tim Hardie

A Quiet Vengeance

Ever since I caught up with Hardie’s excellent The Brotherhood of the Eagle series, I have been hungering for more of his writing. So imagine my excitement when I learned of this new project, which takes place in the same fantasy world as his other series, but explores a completely different continent in the world of Amuran.

In A Quiet Vengeance, you will find immersive Middle-Eastern/North-African inspired world building, cutthroat political intrigue, intricate webs of conspiracy, morally gray characters with incredibly complex relationships, and of course, bittersweet vengeance.

This slow-burn and character-focused story is told in a dual POV narration, following Crown-Prince Dojan in the present and street-urchin Nimsah 17 to 13 years in the past. At first, you might wonder how the lives of these two people could ever end up intertwining, especially given that they come from such opposing backgrounds and have such different personalities. But then, we learn about how a single traumatic event in their childhoods has inextricably tied their fates together and get to see how seemingly innocent and insignificant actions can have serious and dire consequences, sometimes even years down the line.

I was completely invested in these characters’ lives from the very moment I met them. In my opinion, the dual timeline was executed to perfection here, allowing us to really get to know these characters intimately by following them both as children and as adults. It was so fascinating to see how their actions and experiences in their childhood have shaped them into the people they have become in the present timeline.

Nimsah was easily my favourite character, but that’s no big surprise given that I am always a sucker for a good street-rat type of character. She is a tough, resourceful and smart young girl with a heart of gold, but we quickly learn that she is also not afraid to be ruthless in order to survive in the brutal criminal underbelly of Bengarath’s City of Tents. And while you will quickly find yourself rooting for young Nimsah when reading from her POV, you can’t help but feel suspicious and wary of her older self when she shows up again in the present timeline. Just like Dojan, you will be left wondering if she is still the same loveable girl from the past or if she has gone down a much darker path since we last saw her.

I am truly so impressed with how this story examines the brutality of politics and explores the lengths people are willing to go to obtain and secure positions of power. These two storylines are brimming with tension and political intrigue, both on a small and personal scale in Nimsah’s case and on a much larger, geopolitical scale with Dojan. And when long-kept secrets come to light and conspiracies start to unravel, I can guarantee you that your jaw will be on the floor. What a riveting ride!

The world building is also absolutely entrancing and I loved how Hardie was able to completely transport me into this dazzling world with his vivid and evocative descriptions. We get to encounter a plethora of interesting and rich cultures, each with their own customs, histories, social structures and belief systems. This world feels so tangible and lived-in, which made for an incredibly immersive reading experience.

Safe to say, I am a big fan of this newest novel by one of my new favourite authors. I went in completely blind and was blown away by the captivating tale that unfolded before my eyes, THIS is how you write an exciting political fantasy! A Quiet Vengeance is a relatively short read and works perfectly as a standalone, so you can jump in here and get a taste of Hardie’s masterful storytelling if you haven’t already. I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

Read Esmay’s complete review of A Quiet Vengeance here.

The Garden Gnome by Jeff McIntyre

The Garden Gnome

The Garden Gnome by Jeff McIntyre is the perfect example of why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. While the cover artwork is undoubtedly beautiful, the image of a gnome hiding in shrubbery may lead you to believe this is a middle-grade novel, or perhaps even a cozy fantasy. However, The Garden Gnome could be more accurately described as a contemporary low fantasy crossed with a Michael Crichton-style thriller.

The main premise of The Garden Gnome is an imminent return of magic to our modern world dominated by science and technology. Although The Garden Gnome has a global scope, most of the book takes place in suburban Chicago. The story shifts among several different perspectives, weaving a complex web of personal and political intrigue.

We are introduced first to Tony, the ten-year-old son of Daniel, a history professor, and Sophia, a businesswoman with a powerful but enigmatic boss. Bullied at school, Tony finds solace from an imaginary friend he calls Bob. But Bob, like Tony himself, may offer more than meets the eye.

Jeff McIntyre blends science fiction into The Garden Gnome via an impending breakthrough at Fermilab, the U.S. Department of Energy’s national particle accelerator laboratory just outside of Chicago. For me, McIntyre’s incorporation of a particle accelerator within a fantasy novel brought back fond memories of reading The Wheel of Osheim, the excellent final volume of Mark Lawrence’s Red Queen’s War trilogy.

The Fermilab plot thread also provides the basis for introducing many of the other point-of-view characters in the book, most notably Leo, a science and technology reporter for the Chicago Tribune newspaper, and Deb, an FBI agent. Leo and Deb are both investigating Nadir, an organization that opposes the advances at Fermilab and might potentially cross over into the realm of violence and terrorism.

Altogether, The Garden Gnome is a delightful surprise, a Crichtonesque thriller that blends contemporary fantasy with science fiction, Arthurian legend, and Ian Fleming levels of intrigue. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and am eager to see what happens next in Jeff McIntyre’s Theory of Magic series.

Read John’s complete review of The Garden Gnome here.

Dream of Death City by P.J. Nwosu

Dream of Death City

I went into this book completely blind, but it took me exactly one page to realise that this book would just click for me on every single level. These days, it’s rare for me to get so sucked into a story that I simply lose track of time, but Dream of Death City accomplished exactly that and completely entranced me from the very first page.

Welcome to the Red Kingdom, a brutal and dark fantasy world where your caste decides your fate in life. The strict Red Reform Laws ensure that the wealthy Sun-Nobles keep thriving off the poor, while the lowly Dust-Caste slaves suffer and remain oppressed. Anyone even thinking of stepping out of line will be swiftly and brutally punished by the Purge House’s Red Warriors, but that doesn’t stop Dust-Caste slave Thora from daring to dream of a better life for herself.

When a young Sun-Noble daughter disappears from her tower in Death City, Thora seizes upon the chance to improve her lot in life and convinces Investigation House to put her on the case as assistant-investigator. Along with the recently demoted Low-Investigator Diem Lakein, she is sent off to the wild, icy Thousand Island Frontier. Neither are prepared for what they find in the strange Death City, though, and they must do everything in their power to survive the dangerous web of conspiracies that they quickly find themselves entangled in.

I am absolutely floored by the depth and breadth of the world building in this novel. As someone who struggles to visualise while reading, it’s rare for me to have a fully immersive reading experience. So imagine my wonder and excitement when I opened this book and discovered P.J. Nwosu’s incredible ability to transport me into her world.

From the peculiar speech patterns in the dialogue, to the vivid and evocative descriptions of the uncanny settings, to the fascinating death-worshipping culture with its elusive magic and finally to the all-encompassing oppression of the strict rules upholding this hierarchical society; it all just comes together into a hauntingly mesmerising story. The themes of corruption, oppression, sexism, and religious zealotry are also beautifully woven into the narrative and the messaging never feels on the nose. The world building bleeds through into every aspect of the story, which creates a unique flair that will completely entrance you.

But that’s not where these author’s talents end, because the character work was also simply outstanding. Diem and Thora are incredibly compelling characters to follow, because they both dare to dream of a better life in a world where dreaming could result in death.

This is not the story of heroes or rulers, but the story of scarred, flawed and honestly just average citizens trying to survive in a harsh and restrictive world. Both of them are haunted by their dark and mysterious pasts, which adds a captivating level of complexity and suspense to their stories. And even though we quickly learn that they have both done less than savoury things in order to survive, you can’t help but fall in love with them.

Finally, throw in a riveting mystery plot with lots of jaw-dropping twists and turns and a satisfying resolution, and the whole picture is complete. I am completely satisfied with this entire story… and yet I am left hungering for more (in the best way possible). These are exactly the types of reading experiences that I am always on the hunt for, making this an instant new favourite for me.

If you enjoy dark fantasy stories with rich world building, compelling characters, riveting mysteries, strange and macabre settings, thought-provoking themes and incredibly immersive and unique prose, then Dream of Death City is the book for you. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Read Esmay’s complete review of Dream of Death City here.

The Exile of Zanzibar by Daniel Maidman

The Exile of Zanzibar

The Exile of Zanzibar is Daniel Maidman’s debut fantasy novel set in a fictional version of Florence during the Bronze Age. King Ambrosius the Ninth of Florence wages war with the neighboring city of Genova as a mysterious woman appears in a glowing gold palanquin.

The visitor is Claire, a “patricia of Zanzibar” and student of metaphysics who has constructed a device that folds space and time. But everything goes wrong when she finds herself in the middle of a faraway war zone. Claire desperately wants to return to her home of Zanzibar.

Claire recognizes that she needs help from the local populace if she has any hope of returning home. She befriends Marcus Diophantus, a Florentine city man and former pickpocket who rises to become a respected military leader. Claire and Marcus work together to forge peace between Florence and Genova.

Daniel Maidman’s writing is erudite but accessible, reminding me of the late Italian master, Umberto Eco. There is a gravity to Maidman’s prose that has a feel of ancient history brought to life. Maidman obviously shares Eco’s love of history and philosophy, constructing a sophisticated, labyrinthine plot worthy of Foucault’s Pendulum. Although it’s not mentioned in his biography, I wouldn’t be surprised if Daniel Maidman is also a scholar of semiotics: the detailed attention that he pays to symbols and colors throughout The Exile of Zanzibar also echoes the great Eco.

The author, Daniel Maidman, is also an artist and an art critic. His art is included in several American art museums and is part of the permanent collections at the Library of Congress Department of Prints and Drawings. Maidman brings his artistic talent to The Exile of Zanzibar with his gorgeous interior artwork, depicting several characters and scenes from the novel.

Overall, The Exile of Zanzibar is a meticulously crafted debut and a must-read for fans of Umberto Eco. The story will continue with Lucky Angel, the second volume of the Railroad to Zanzibar series.

Read John’s complete review of The Exile of Zanzibar here.

The Briar Crown by Helen Rygh-Pedersen

The Briar Crown

I knew virtually nothing about this story before going into The Briar Crown, but I had heard such amazing things about this author’s debut, Waking Ursa Minor, that I just took a leap of faith and hoped for the best. And wow, what a wonderful surprise this was! A sweeping and heartwarming fantasy romance with great political intrigue and alluring nature magic, what more could you want?!

This is the story of the young and fierce Roslyn Pleveli, who wants nothing more than to see her land and people be freed from the iron rule of their invaders, the Oderbergs. For 25 years, the Domovnians have been oppressed and persecuted for their nature magic, but now sparks of rebellion are stirring. As a lowly Hedgie, able to command but a mere few weeds, Roslyn always thought that she wouldn’t be of much help in her people’s quest for revenge. Yet, when she finds herself ordered to live at the Oderberg stronghold after saving their prince’s life, she might just end up being the key to freedom and equality for her people. If only her feelings don’t end up getting in the way of her mission to kill the royal family…

I was utterly enchanted by this story from the moment I started reading. This might be a harsh and brutal world, but the story never felt bleak to me. For one, I loved the way the nature magic made this world feel so vibrant and alive. The author has created a deep history and rich lore for this world and its inhabitants, which was woven seamlessly into the story. I loved learning about the different magical abilities, they just filled me with a sense of wonder.

But aside from that, these characters are also just delightful to follow. They are generally just good people who refuse to give up hope, which makes it so easy to root for them. They might not be the most complex characters ever, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t well-developed. Both Roslyn and her love-interest have their own internal struggles to overcome and their dynamic is complex and compelling. There’s a bit of a star-crossed lovers scenario going on and I loved seeing them grapple with their conflicting duties and feelings. The love-interest is also just unfairly charming and I can’t fault Roslyn for falling head over heels in love.

While I was personally more invested in the characters and their messy emotions, I did end up being pleasantly surprised by the way this plot developed and played out. The author did a great job of balancing the romance and the political elements, which made this story just incredibly engaging. And while the final resolution was maybe a bit predictable, I liked that there were some surprising reveals and revelations along the way. The brilliant pacing and the captivating writing style also just kept me glued to the page, so I ended up breezing through this comforting story like nobody’s business.

Overall, I had a fabulous time with this story. If you need a good, comforting fantasy romance with loveable characters, dangerous political intrigue, satisfying reveals and enchanting nature magic, then I highly recommend checking out The Briar Crown.

Read Esmay’s complete review of The Briar Crown here.

Dyer Street Punk Witches by Phil Williams

Dyer Street Punk Witches

Dyer Street Punk Witches by Phil Williams is an urban fantasy thriller featuring a trio of punk rock musicians led by the vodka-swigging social activist Kit “Fadulous” Hamley on bass, together with the quiet genius Clover on lead guitar and their friend “Big” Mad on drums. The trio live on Dyer Street, the most dangerous street in the city of Ordshaw. Kit is a rather intimidating figure, admired by some and feared by others as she fights to bring peace, justice, and accountability to a region overrun by gang warfare.

In addition to leading their punk band, Dyre Grrls, Kit serves as chief editor and publisher of a local magazine that makes a business of upsetting powerful people. Their basic tenets, as enumerating by Kit, include “challenging the establishment, defending freedom of expression, fighting for equal rights, defeating all forms of bigotry, rejecting the mainstream.”

The other lead protagonist of Dyer Street Punk Witches is Aaron, a young man whose book smarts outweigh his street smarts by a considerable margin. Kit had previously saved Aaron’s life, coming to his rescue during a violent mugging. Aaron returns to Dyer Street to face his fears and come to peace with that traumatizing (and somewhat embarrassing) event.

Aaron also suspects that Kit may have tapped into some supernatural powers to aid in his rescue. He decides that the best way to learn more about his savior and, perhaps, overcome his own self-doubt, would be to volunteer for Kit’s magazine. She immediately puts her new volunteer to work, pushing him out of his comfort zone.

The worldbuilding in Dyer Street Punk Witches is outstanding, with just the right amount of occultist magic to balance the realistic street grit that sets the backdrop for the novel. I especially enjoyed the social justice aspects of the story, as well as the plentiful punk rock references. Any book that name-drops Sleater-Kinney automatically gets bonus points from this reviewer.

Altogether, Dyer Street Punk Witches brilliantly captures the feminist riot grrl spirit in a dark urban fantasy setting. I hope Phil Williams will share more stories with these characters in the future.

Read John’s complete review of Dyer Street Punk Witches here.

Of Thieves and Shadows by B.S.H. Garcia

To say that Of Thieves and Shadows is an incredibly ambitious and impressive debut would be a huge understatement. Filled with rich cultures and lore, vivid settings, diverse characters, and plenty of imaginative races and creatures, this sprawling multi-POV fantasy story of truly epic proportions kicks off The Heart of Quinaria series with an absolute bang.

For centuries, the land of Quinaria has been in a state of tenuous peace, but all that is about to crumble as rumours of an ancient evil long presumed banished are starting to stir again. Led by the rare human-nyrian hybrid Elaysia, a ragtag group of unlikely allies are launched into a dangerous quest which finds them at the centre of a web of ruthless political machinations and centuries-old schemes. It’s up to them to uncover the truth and save their world from a catastrophic war, if only they can keep their own secrets, insecurities, and hidden agendas from bringing them down first.

Of Thieves and Shadows hits the ground running with an incredibly gripping, dark, and ambiguous prologue that just immediately hooked me. And before you can even start to process those mind boggling events, the focus shifts and we are smoothly transported into one of my favourite types of settings ever: a sprawling tree-city. Right from the get-go, the intrigue, tension, and stakes are just sky-high, which resulted in me devouring the first 150 pages in one morning (no, I truly have no regrets).

While Garcia nails pretty much every aspect of her storytelling, it was without a doubt the imaginative and breathtaking world building that kept me glued to the page. I simply cannot overstate how incredibly impressed I was by the richness of this world, both in terms of its breadth and depth. This is on par with the greats of the genre (think Lord of the Rings or ASOIAF), but because it is not your typical medieval Europe-inspired fantasy, Of Thieves and Shadows feels exciting, refreshing, and ultimately just stands out from the crowd.

From the imaginative settings, to the deep lore and history, to the intricate and tense political landscape, to the conflicting religious views, and to the plethora of diverse cultures, creatures, and races; everything was just so wonderfully well-realised and organically introduced. What’s more, we get to explore this stunning world in all its glory through the eyes of our six compelling and diverse protagonists. The multi-POV storytelling structure is just executed to perfection in Of Thieves and Shadows, with each character providing a fresh perspective through their unique cultural backgrounds, worldviews, and life experiences. Themes of duty, honour, fate, freedom, morality, and mental health were all explored with surprising depth, and added so much heart to this exhilarating story.

All in all, this was an incredibly gripping, exciting, and promising fantasy debut that just kept me turning the pages. And after that shocking epilogue, I have a feeling we have barely scratched the surface and things are only going to explode from here. If you are looking for a fast-paced epic fantasy with immersive world building, lots of travelling, complex character dynamics, ruthless political scheming, cute baby animal companions, and numerous jaw-dropping revelations, then you have to pick up Of Thieves and Shadows. Highly recommend!

Read Esmay’s complete review of Of Thieves and Shadows here.

Deathless Beast by Andrew D. Meredith

deathless beast

Andrew D. Meredith combines maximalist worldbuilding with a nuanced character-driven plot in Deathless Beast, the first volume of his epic fantasy series, The Kallattian Saga.

With Deathless Beast, Meredith has created a marvelously complex world that feels Tolkienesque in its scope and detail, but without falling into the usual epic fantasy trap of copying The Lord of the Rings. Meredith looks past the use of classic Tolkien fantasy elements (elves, dwarfs, orcs, etc.) to create his own world that feels wholly original, complete with its own set of fantastical fauna, races, religions, and more. If your goal with reading fantasy is to lose yourself in a wondrous new world, then look no further than Deathless Beast.

The worldbuilding itself is introduced through Malazan-style immersion, without any handholding or info dumps in the main text. Fortunately, readers can consult several glossaries in the back of the book to help keep track of the characters and other elements of worldbuilding. The glossaries gave just the right level of detail so that I never felt lost reading the novel.

Despite the vastness and intricacy of the worldbuilding, Deathless Beast is fundamentally a character-driven story. My favorite characters are Hanen and Rallia Clouw, a brother-and-sister duo that serve as part of the Black Sentinels, a group of mercenaries for hire who have their own code of honor. Mercenary work is a family business for the Clouws, but the other Black Sentinels don’t necessarily share the same sense of loyalty.

Andrew D. Meredith’s prose has a classic feel but without the stiffness sometimes associated with epic fantasy. The plot itself is a slow burn, full of introspective dialogue. Meredith’s unhurried, contemplative writing recalls Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. But Deathless Beast also features several well-written action scenes interspersed throughout the longer, more introspective passages.

At its best, Deathless Beast will restore your faith in classic epic fantasy, combining Tolkienesque worldbuilding with a Proustian level of elegance and introspection. I look forward to reading more in this world.

Read John’s complete review of Deathless Beast here.

Beautiful Undone by Melissa Polk

Beautiful Undone

Beautiful Undone by Melissa Polk is a character-driven fantasy romance that’s pitched as a queer retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Though, in the acknowledgements of this book the author admits that it somehow became “more like a reimagining gone awry,” and I honestly love it all the more for that.

This story follows childhood friends and estranged lovers Victor and Quade, who haven’t seen or spoken to each other in nearly 10 years. But when Quade suddenly gets an unexpected letter from his long lost love, he doesn’t hesitate a single moment to pack his stuff and travel to Victor’s estate. Upon arriving, though, it immediately becomes clear that something nefarious is going on and it doesn’t take long for total chaos to ensue.

What follows is a tale full of eerie gothic vibes, devastating curses, alternate worlds, nefarious doppelgangers, and, of course, a whole lot of steamy queer love. Oh, and we can’t forget about the unruly comedic relief cat, what an icon!

Now, the fact that this is not a high fantasy with a grand scope doesn’t mean that the stakes are any less high than in those sweeping epics, they are just a lot more personal.

This book absolutely shines in its character work and I really liked that the author made this a multi-POV story that includes the perspective of the ‘villain’, because that made the whole conflict so much more nuanced and complex.

These characters are very passionate and often let their emotions drive their actions, which sky-rocketed the levels of tension and made everyone feel so relatable and human.

The slow unravelling of the whole mystery behind all the uncanny things that were going on at Victor’s estate was riveting and I particularly loved the exploration of the parallel world. And even though the magic does remain elusive and largely unexplained, I personally appreciated that and thought it really fit with the overall ethereal and fever dream-like vibe of the story.

Speaking of fever dream vibes, the prose here is incredibly stunning and just utterly mesmerising. In my opinion, Polk masterfully emulates Poe’s trademark atmospheric and haunting storytelling, but without ever feeling like a copy-cat. This book has the intense levels of delicious melodrama that only (classic) gothic literature can pull off without becoming annoying, and I loved that. The evocative and lush writing style just made all the emotional and sensual scenes hit all the harder, which was perfect for this story.

Safe to say, this book was just one wild and titillating emotional rollercoaster from start to finish. The ending was very satisfying yet also beautifully bittersweet, which is exactly how I like it. Beautiful Undone contains everything you’d expect from a Poe retelling, except it’s a bit quirkier and a whole lot more queer! So, if you are looking for a queer gothic fantasy romance with messy characters, soul-stirring prose, insane levels of tension, and lots of steam, then this is the book for you.

Read Esmay’s complete review of Beautiful Undone here.

The Way of Unity by Sarah K. Balstrup

The Way of Unity

Religion and politics collide in The Way of Unity, the dark fantasy debut from Sarah K. Balstrup and a semi-finalist in SPFBO9.

A psychic priesthood known as the Intercessors oversees blood rites and spiritual purity in the Seven Lands of Velspar. The Intercessor priests can probe individual minds, leveling harsh punishment against those with sinful “red” thoughts. The unchallenged religious authority of the Intercessors leads to their heightened political influence, which puts them on a collision course with the elite Skalen families who rule Velspar.

The Way of Unity is built around a central event known as the Fire, a fateful attack by the Intercessors that leaves Skalen Sybilla of Vaelnyr as its sole survivor. Sybilla rises to power in the painful aftermath of the Fire, intent on religious reform and pursuing justice against the Intercessors. However, a rogue Intercessor is bent on Sybilla’s own destruction.

Sarah K. Balstrup excels in her nuanced worldbuilding. Of particular note is the Meridian, a magical headband that prevents intrusion into one’s thoughts and also hampers the wearer’s psychic vision and sensory perception. The Meridian is also used as a symbol of personal autonomy.

Balstrup’s prose is beautiful and well-polished, conveying a sense of gloomy mysticism throughout the story. Although The Way of Unity emphasizes religion as its main theme, there is also a touch of romance, which is tastefully done and helps in the development of Sybilla as a character.

Overall, The Way of Unity is a melancholic tale that explores the darker side of organized religion and its impact on the individual psyche.

Read John’s complete review of The Way of Unity here.

Ten Hidden Fantasy Gems in SPFBO9

Ten Hidden Fantasy Gems in SPFBO9

Ten Hidden Fantasy Gems in SPFBO9

Ten Hidden Fantasy Gems in SPFBO9

Ten Hidden Fantasy Gems in SPFBO9

Ten Hidden Fantasy Gems in SPFBO9

Ten Hidden Fantasy Gems in SPFBO9

Ten Hidden Fantasy Gems in SPFBO9

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

One Comment

  • Veronica Palacios says:

    Great list, thanks for writing this up! I added Beautiful Undone to my tbr although a lot of these sound great!

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