Friday, December 29, 2017

SPFBO 2017 - The Qwillery's Finalist

The Qwillery is pleased to announce our finalist for the 2017 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off:

Tiger Lily by K. Bird Lincoln with a rating of 7.5.

K. Bird Lincoln

Tiger Lily
Trade Paperback and Kindle eBook, 322 pages

"A beautifully-written genderbending tale of rebellious girls, shifting disguises, and forbidden magic, set against the vivid backdrop of ancient Japan."
--Tina Connolly, author of Ironskin

Lily isn't supposed to hunt game in the Daimyo's woods. She's just the cook's daughter. It isn't her place to talk to nobility. And she definitely isn't supposed to sing the forbidden old, Jindo religion songs.

But Lily was born in the year of the Tiger, and can't ever be like other village girls. In the woods snaring rabbits one day, she finds instead the Daimyo's son, Ashikaga, wounded, in the gooseberry brush. When the Pretender Emperor's men arrive to kill Ashikaga, Lily, desperate, sings a forbidden Jindo song.

The song wakes a powerful spirit – as well as Ashikaga's interest. The prickly lord has hidden secrets of his own and a burning desire to prove himself to his father. He will stop at nothing to defeat his father's greatest enemy.

All Lily wants to do is take care of her sisters. But the Pretender-Emperor's forces are drawing near, and now the Daimyo's son knows she communes with Jindo gods. She wants to trust Ashikaga when he swears he will not tell her secret, but he is a noble – and Lily only a peasant. Lily's heart is leading her down a dangerous path. She may have to defy her father, Ashikaga, and even the spirits themselves in order to defeat the Pretender-Emperor's magic and keep safe all that she loves.

Review and Rating

K. Bird Lincoln’s Tiger Lily is a quiet gem of a story, with each chapter heading based on tanka poems from the Japanese Classic Poem Tome, the Manyoshu. Lily herself is an awkward teenager living with her twin sisters and younger brother in a small village associated with the Ashikaga Shogun, a powerful warlord controlling the north of Japan. In Lily’s world, the Japanese emperor has dictated Buddhism to be the country’s religion, ignoring the spirits, or Kami, of the Jindo belief system. In the south, another has declared himself emperor in support of the Jindo system.

As the book opens, warriors from the Pretender Emperor are chasing Ashikaga Yoshinori, the young son and heir of the Shogun. After saving Lily from that threat, Lily herself becomes the rescuer when the lordling is wounded and left to die in the woods.

Lily’s mother had been a Jindo believer who worship and spoke to the Kami of the stream running near the village. As Lily is forced to first hide and then help fight the seeking warriors, she sings songs she remembers from her childhood, and the Kami from the stream respond and help her.

With gratitude a hugely important trait in their society, Yoshi summons Lily to the Great House, and from that, they enter a teasing relationship, with the lordling making comments intended to get a rise out of Lily, and her Tiger personality making her unable to keep her temper, forcing her to respond.

When Lily meets the leader of the rebelling soldiers, Prince Norinaga, a believer in the kami with the ability to shape-change into a fox and call other fox spirits to fight in his battles, she is somewhat torn between the prince and her lordling. The prince supports her abilities and offers her the chance to use them openly, while the lordling’s loyalties should force him to decry her ways and turn her over to be killed.

Halfway through the story, there is a reveal which cannot be discussed without major spoilers. Suffice to say it significantly changes the dynamics of the relationships.

The final battle is set on the high slopes of Asama-yama, an active volcano with its own Kami, a dragon. Yoshi’s plan is to use Lily’s abilities to take the mountain and defeat the Fox Prince and the Pretender Emperor himself, while Norinaga has invited Lily to change sides and support the group that acknowledges and worships the Kami.

The writing in Tiger Lily is simple but precise, with the chapter headings beautiful poems themselves that always have some relationship to the actions in the chapter. In this story, the year of one’s birth has a major impact on one’s personality. As a Tiger, Lily is forthright and outspoken, attributes not normally considered to be romantic. The relationship that grows between Lily and Yoshi is sweet and tender. Yoshi’s secret is an incredible one that would get him killed and should turn Lily away, yet her personality supports her loyalty.

The setting of this novel and the richness of the time period are very enjoyable. The story of the reluctant heroine, Tiger Lily, is described with such realism that you could almost be convinced she was an actual person.


Our semi-finalists (in alphabetical order by author):

M. R. Anthony

Soldiers' Redemption
First Cohort 1
Kindle eBook, 355 pages

The land is torn – the savage Duke Warmont sends his armies to murder his rebellious people. The soldiers of the First Cohort have lived through it all – two hundred years of fighting for a man they despise. Their captain, Tyrus Charing, knows that something has to change. His men grow tired of eternal bloodshed.

There is hope for them – a saviour has come and she needs good soldiers in order to overthrow the Duke.

As the First Cohort try to pay for the sins of their past, they discover they’ve taken on far more than they could have imagined. The Duke does not care how many die, so long as he stays in power. Amongst his generals are sorcerers of great power, and an inhuman brute of callous evil, all of whom are eager to face Charing on the battlefield.

Soldiers’ Redemption is a dark fantasy epic, about strength, loyalty and an unwavering determination to beat the odds.

Review and Rating

M. R. Anthony’s Soldiers’ Redemption is a dark story. He sets the reader into his world with very little exposition and lays out key pieces slowly throughout the tale. Early on, the reader is introduced to Captain Tyrus Charing, who commands the First Cohort, but it takes a while to learn that these soldiers have dedicated and sacrificed their lives to an evil Emperor in return for eternal life. It only slowly becomes apparent that they are virtually zombies with no need to eat, drink, or sleep unless they desire, and the ability to continue fighting even with their throats cut or limbs lost. They have been fighting on behalf of the Emperor and his Duke Warmont for over two hundred-fifty years, trying to keep down rebellions in the north of his lands.

But Charing has noticed that his men are becoming world-weary, tired of fighting townspeople whose only offense is the desire to be free. Anthony does a good job of indicating Charing’s own weariness and almost disgust with the atrocities of other imperial staff, when he is relieved after taking control of one of the rebellious cities. It is apparent that Charing holds his soldiers and himself to a higher standard, fighting for a cause, even if that cause may not be great.

However, word has come of a Savior, who could consolidate and lead the rebellion. When one of the Duke’s pet sorcerers takes the Cohort to search for the Savior, they find her. She is a young teenager living peacefully in the hills. When the sorcerer attempts to kill her, Charing and his men come to her aide. Charing, sensing a power in the Savior that may compare to the emperor’s, commits himself and the Cohort to her service.

Although young and inexperienced, the Savior is determined to free the North, and the First Cohort are willing to support her drive. As they start heading towards the first major Northeastern city, they begin encountering more of the Duke’s leaders, and the battle is engaged.

Anthony’s description of the battle violence is specific, but not overly graphic. Individual fights are described well, as are the strategies that Charing and his commanders use. It is obvious that Anthony has choreographed the fights carefully, describing how individual soldiers taken on an enemy and how groups work together to take over another enemy group. He also demonstrates how the Savior’s magical powers allow her to engage groups of soldiers at a time, as well as engage the individual sorcerers as well.

Throughout the story, Charing begins to change from caring about nothing but his own men to caring about the farmers, wives, and children in the cities that are being affected by the battles. At the start, he describes how his men have no doubts and no fears because they have faced death itself and no longer have anything to fear. He also describes how they talk amongst themselves about experiences they had as real men – good meals, good wine, fine women - but never about anything they have experienced since their deaths. Anthony uses these to demonstrate not only the Cohort’s weariness, but Charing’s own as well. He also goes on to show how Charing’s key staff members acknowledge and mirror the changes in Charing as he begins to care more fully

As the story progresses Charing is forced to divide the Cohort and send parts of the group elsewhere, until near the end, the focus is on only the Captain and fifteen men. In a city called Gold, the small group finds itself surrounded and outnumbered, running a guerrilla-style warfare at night by going out and harrying the occupiers. The Captain and his men keep experiencing defeat and withdrawal, but his men maintain their good spirits despite the overwhelming odds, even making wagers on which solider will die next. These spirited men are completely different from the men in the first chapter who might have briefly talked about a long-ago meal but whose humor and joy in life was completely lost.

In the final pages of the novel, Charing suffers a devastating loss that makes him question his decision to rebel in the first place. Anthony has certainly demonstrated the “redemption” described in his title, but the question remains: where does the captain and the First Cohort go when redemption seems useless?


D.K. Holmberg

Soldier Son
Teralin Sword 1
Trade Paperback and Kindle eBook, 315 pages

Endric wants only to serve, but he's destined to lead.

As the second son of the general of the Denraen, Endric wants only to fight, not the commission his father demands of him. When a strange attack in the south leads to the loss of someone close to him, only Endric seems concerned about what happened.

All signs point to an attack on the city, and betrayal by someone deep within the Denraen, but his father no longer trusts his judgment. This forces Endric to make another impulsive decision, one that leads him far from the city on a journey where he discovers how little he knew, and how much more he has to understand. If he can prove himself in time, and with the help of his new allies, he can stop a greater disaster.

Review and Rating

Soldiers Son is the first novel in the The Teralin Sword fantasy series by D.K. Holmberg. This novel is set in the same world as Holmberg's Lost Prophecy series, but in an earlier time frame.

The main character, Endric, is the black sheep his family. His father is the general of the Denraen forces. His older brother, who he looks up to, is also a leader in the Denraen. Endric, however, apparently doesn't understand what it means to be Denraen. He's pushed to grow into his role as soldier and perhaps future leader by various methods. Unfortunately Endric does not have the self awareness yet to learn from all of this. He continues to push back against his father and those in authority in various unproductive and childish ways.

Endric is devastated when a tragedy hits his family. He sees no response to the tragedy from his father and that exacerbates his already foolish behavior. In his grief, he makes some truly unwise decisions and continues to exercise poor judgment. He is very impulsive.

Throughout a great deal of the novel Endric comes off as whiny. It's hard to love a novel when you really can't stand the main character. Holmberg does give glimpses of who Endric hopefully will become initially through his interactions with his friends and the deep relationships he has formed with them.

As a backdrop to Endric's behavior there is a growing threat facing the Denraen and the people they protect and the world in which the live. Endric will have to grow up a lot faster than he is if he is to be of help to the Denraen and find his real place in the world.

Holmberg's writing and worldbuilding is very good. There are some exceptional fight scenes and the pacing is quite good. Holmberg has created an interesting and often intricate world as the backdrop to Endric's story.


James Jakins

Son of Thunder
Thunder's War 1
Trade Paperback and Kindle eBook, 278 pages

In the country of Sohlgain, all young men are expected to chain a dragon and claim its charge. For Berun Toirnach, the eldest son of the nation’s ruler, this means venturing onto a dragon reserve and hunting a wild dragon. A tradition his family has upheld for generations.

The aftermath of this hunt will shape Berun’s life. He is given a position as a Thunder Priest and gifted the power to control lightning, Berun must decide what to do with this new power. Will he use it selfishly, or will he use it for the benefit of his country?

Years later, in an attempt to escape responsibility for a short time, Berun and his friends take a trip to the idyllic beachside city of Hurthow, where an ancient festival is celebrated by locals and foreigners alike.

But the safety and warmth of the sun and sand is an illusion. Dangerous enemies wait, hiding behind smiles and cold eyes.

Soon the lives of Berun’s friends and family are put in danger, and the young prince must rely on his power and his allies, old and new, to save them. His father's most trusted bodyguard, a disgraced assassin known for his skill and ruthless precision. A young God Mage and her companions. And a coward with a power he's afraid to use. All of them will be needed to save those threatened.

But time is against them and their enemies have secrets of their own.

Review and Rating

Berun, the oldest son of the ruler of Sohlgain, looks forward to chaining a dragon, the time honoured right of passage to adulthood. When he manages to chain a wild dragon he gains powers that no one would have ever imagined, including Berun. Still in his teens Berun becomes a Thunder Mage and unsure how best to use his newly found powers. Unfortunately, before he has the chance to learn to channel his powers properly Berun, his pampered brother Rei and their friends come to the notice of a gang of criminals. When Rei and their friends are kidnapped its up to Berun and a motley collection of allies to master their powers and save the day.

Jakins has created some interesting aspects to the world in which Berun lives. For example, power is generated from dragons that are farmed in a similar way as we farm cows. He has also created a complex magic system with different tattoos called Knots that give the wearer different abilities such as enhanced hearing or strength. However, in my view the world building is let down by the characterisation. There are simply too many characters and too many that are one dimensional and uninteresting. Berun's brother Rei is one of the characters that the story could have easily have done without and I kept expecting Yol, the antagonist, to shout MWAHAHAHA every time he thwarted one of the good guys plans.

When I started this story I thought it was going to be another fantasy aimed at younger readers however, there are soo many characters combined with a fair amount of violence that it confused me as to what the genre was supposed to be. I wanted to like this story but didn't. I couldn't drum up any interest or empathy with any of the characters and with so many of them you really needed to like at least one of them to stay interested. I am afraid there was a significant amount of skim reading near the end. This could have been a really good book with few characters that were better developed.


Matt Moss

The Path of Man
Soul Stone Trilogy 1
Trade Paperback and Kindle eBook, 271 pages

The war has just begun.

The Dark Society has finally emerged from the shadows after years of silence. Their mission is clear and they won't stop until the Order is destroyed.

The Order has been waiting for this day. The Prophet has already assured their victory.

Buried within the riddles of an ancient text lies a place of legend that contains an unspeakable power. Many believe it to be a myth. But if the rumors are true, the Dark Society may already know of its location.

Arkin's world is changed forever when a stranger rides into town. Suddenly, he's thrown into the age-old war between the Order and the Dark Society. Choices made in the past ripple through time as Arkin puts the pieces together. His choices will determine the future of all as he follows the Path of Man.

The Soul Stone Trilogy:
Book 1 - The Path of Man
Book 2 - The Shepherd of Fire
Book 3 - Coming 2018

Review and Rating

The Path of Man by Matt Moss is the first novel in the Soul Stone Trilogy. It's tells a story of the struggle between the Order (good) and the Dark Society (not good). The Order has training grounds in Grand Highlands for members of the Order. The Prophet leads the Order in Grand Highlands. The Dark Society is led by Victor and its base Sanctum is hidden away, but not for much longer. There are plots put in motion and double crosses in the works. This is very much a good versus evil story with magic.

The Dark Society is more or less a mirror to the Order with several breakaway former members of the Order among its ranks. They are clearly up to no good and seek the full destruction of the Order. Victor wants absolute power and he will do anything for it. He also wants a book titled 'The Path of Man', which holds clues to where to find the legendary Garden of Stones. In the Garden are supposed to be various stones which imbue the user with special abilities. Whether the Garden is reality or myth is unclear. What is clear is that stones with magical abilities do exist as a few are used during the course of the story.

Several characters are introduced and multiple points of view are used - Arkin, the son of Levi (who had the book The Path of Man); Lucian a former friend of Levi's; Paul, the Prophet; Victor, the head of the Dark Society; Lyla who wants to be a doctor; Cain, a trainee with the Order and others. There are secondary characters that we get to know a bit as well.

We get to see a great deal of the workings of the Order training camp, which is interesting. We see developing relationships and camaraderie and we see new rivalries developing. Moss provides enough background so that the world is understandable and that old rivalries (Lucian and Levi), which are having effects now, are clear. The relationship between Levi and Lucian reminds of what may be developing between Arkin and Cain.

Moss provides some surprises with the political and religious plotting taking place in the capital, Kingsport. These are background to what is happening with the Dark Society and show how much it has insinuated into all aspects of life.

In The Path of Man events are put in motion that will reverberate throughout the series. The character development s good, but with so many characters it's difficult for many of them to have real depth. The action and fight scenes are well done. The world building is good. On the whole, The Path of Man is a nice start to the Soul Stone Trilogy.


Pauline M Ross

The Dragon's Egg
Brightmoon 6
Trade Paperback and Kindle eBook, 259 pages

A stand-alone epic fantasy set in the Brightmoon world…

Garrett has been many things in his time… street hustler, warrior, professional gambler, spy. He’ll do whatever is asked of him, legal or not. Now he’s paid to search for those with a touch of magic in them. But magic is unpredictable and hard to find, and he doesn’t have much luck until he meets Dru, whose family claim she hatched from a dragon’s egg. She looks different, doesn’t say a lot, and likes to talk to the chickens, though they don’t listen much. There might be real power behind her strangeness, if she could only learn how to reach it.

When Garrett is asked to escort Dru on a journey, accompanied by a scholar, a princess, a guard and a priest, it seems like a simple enough mission, until they fall into the hands of raiders. Garrett has lived on his wits all his life, but he’ll need all his talents, and a little magic too, to get them out of this mess and reach safety.

If he can manage that, maybe he’ll find out the secret of the dragon’s egg, and the girl who hatched from it.

Review and Rating

On a distant shore, dueling dragon's drop a pale green egg. It is recovered by a goatherd, who in his obsessive desire to possess a dragon, creates a hatching fire so large, the flames consume him. His final attempt at hatching the egg was successful, but instead of a dragon, a little girl is found sitting unharmed in the hot ash. The goatherd's family raise her as their own, but Dru is not like other children. At thirty, she still resembles a young girl and coupled with her magical abilities, the family decides they must bring Dru to see the Guardian. The Guardian understands that there is a greater mystery about the child, and chooses some of her trusted advisers to accompany Dru on a journey to discover who or what she really is.

I was immediately thrown for a loop because the book starts off in a third person format and inexplicably changes to first person in chapter two. It took me a little while to realize that Garrett, the shady jack of all trades with his own bit of magic power, is the story's protagonist. Once I got going, however, it was smooth sailing.

The Dragon's Egg is a quest of discovery. Who or what is Dru? The story starts off strong. Dru comes from simple folk who know nothing of magic. She is brought to a sophisticated and educated place where she is deemed as special. In order to learn more about the girl, a team is selected to accompany her to distant magical scholars. But reaching their destination is more difficult than it seems. Among some of their mishaps, the travelers are captured by pirates and sold into slavery. Fortunately, Garrett, the Guardian's right hand, is able to procure their freedom. Almost immediately the group, which shrinks by one member after each dangerous encounter, are jailed by hostile authorities. This formulaic arrangement throughout makes the story very predictable.

Speaking of Garrett, he is absolutely the most fun. He is the life of the story and Ross does a great job making him both likeable and slightly despicable. He treads a fine line between self-interest and duty, responsibility and loyalty that I found refreshing. His relationship with Dru and to a lesser extent the other characters are undoubtedly the highlight of the book.

The Dragon's Egg is Book 6 in Ross's series The Brightmoon Annals. It is definitely a standalone but I haven't read any of the other books in this series. This leads me to wonder if reading more of the series would have changed my feelings. I think the story has some fantastic elements. However, I found it to be highly predictable and I wasn't really invested in what was happening to the characters, with the exception of Garrett and Dru. The Dragon's Egg has all the essentials to be a pleasurable fantasy, but unfortunately, it lacks a powerful bite.



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