The Midpoint of 2021: Favorite Speculative Fiction Books…So Far

Well, we’ve made it to the halfway point of 2021. I won’t begin this post with the usual current events, but I will mention that I’ve been enjoying ALL of the sporting events that are taking place (i.e. Euro Cup, Copa America, NBA & NHL Playoffs, Summer 2020/21 Olympic Trials, etc.). More attention has been given to both books and video games as those who’ve been at home continue to remember that they’re both entertaining and artistic.

As for me, I’ve been recovering from an exhausted winter and spring. This is because, as a few of you know, I went back to graduate school in order to earn a MA degree in Library and Information Science. For the last 2 years, I’ve been taking classes on an accelerated pace in order to complete the program sooner rather than later. No, COVID-19 wasn’t an “imminent” threat when I started back in Fall 2019; and yes, it was an interesting experience completing the program throughout the majority of the pandemic, work my part-time job outside of my residence, and continue working on my blog. In addition, I’ve only told my closest friends and acquaintances (including you) about this, meaning I’ve managed to work on a degree without my ENTIRE family knowing about it. And, unless they read this post, then it will stay that way until I am ready to make an announcement, which will be sometime after I get a job within my field (whenever that may be).

Why am I mentioning this now? Simple, it’s because during my last semester, I had to work on graduating on time and in order to do that I had to cutback on SOME of my reading. Those of you who follow me on Goodreads will notice that I’m behind on my Reading Goal and I’m lagging on completing the books I’m reading currently. I won’t get into my TBR piles both from Netgalley and Edelweiss! It’s NOT that the books are bad in anyway, I’m still mentally exhausted from all of the work I had to do in order to graduate on time; not to mention all of the other events called life.

I am starting to feel better and I started to catch up on both my reading and my writing (including reviews). You’ve noticed that I started posting reviews again, but remember I read faster than I write. Which brings me to another announcement: I realized that my 200th post is upcoming and I plan on writing another “special” piece in order to commemorate the milestone. What will it be? You just have to wait.

Now, for what you’ve been waiting for:

Books I’ve Finished Reading:

Across the Green Grass Fields

First, Become Ashes

Tower of Mud and Straw (It was nominated for a Nebula Award for “Best Novella”!)

The Bone Shard Daughter (Yes, it was released in 2020, but the sequel comes out later this year!)

The Light of the Midnight Stars

Chaos Vector (Just in time to read the final book in the trilogy!)

Fugitive Telemetry

Over the Woodward Wall (Along the Saltwise Sea comes out this fall!)

Shards of Earth (My 1st Book Tour!)

And, A LOT of Paranormal & Fantasy Romance Books by Indie Authors (That’s for a future post!)

Books I’m Reading Currently:

The Empire’s Ruin

The House of Always

She Who Became the Sun

The Unbroken

The Jasmine Throne

The Gilded Ones

Books I Want to Read by the End of 2021:

The Broken God

Firebreak

The Fire Keeper’s Daughter

House of Hollow

The Unspoken Name

The Witch’s Heart

For the Wolf

The Two-Faced Queen

The Next 2 Books in The First Argentines Series

The sequels of the upcoming books mentioned; more paranormal & fantasy romance books; and, several MORE books I can’t list here because otherwise, this post would be never-ending.

I don’t know whether or not I will be able to read the books mentioned by the end of this year. I’m still trying to catch up from last year’s TBR! So right now, I want to thank the authors, the other bloggers, Fantasy-Faction, all of the publishers and the agents for being both supportive and understanding as I continue to work my way through the last 6 months, and for encouraging me to continue working on my other writings.

Speaking of “other” writings, please keep an eye out for any upcoming essays and lists I will continue to share here. Any and all feedback are welcome.

We’re halfway through 2021. What are your plans for the rest of the year?

Also, if you haven’t already, then please read the essay I wrote that was published on the SFWA website! Click here to access it.

TBRcon21: Another Success for Virtual Cons

It’s 2021, the pandemic is ongoing, and it still sucks. Fortunately, we’ve gotten better at entertaining ourselves through our hobbies and interests. Readers and bookbloggers have been able to make the most of lockdown by reading (or, trying to read) our TBR piles and helping authors and publishers with promoting any books we get our hands on! Technology continues to be a lifesaver as we all continue to find ways to keep up with news surrounding our favorite authors and any upcoming book releases.

            David Walters—a.k.a. FanFiAddict—impressed everyone last spring with last year’s “MayDayCon2020” where he hosted 7 panels and 7 live readings in 14 hours! This time around, FanFiAddict reached out to a few of his fellow bookbloggers—Beth Tabler, Travis Tippens (from The Fantasy Inn), and Jason, a.k.a. Traveling Cloak—to assist with “TBRcon2021.” This virtual Con had 17 panels across 6 days, with several of our favorite speculative fiction authors participating in the panels discussing numerous topics within the genre, and about writing in general. In fact, I’m going to say that it was because of the “Writerly Advice—NOT” panel that led to #writingadvice trending on Twitter (with some “interesting” responses).

            Without listing all of the authors, this virtual con had authors ranging from debut to indie to “established” ones across the speculative fiction genre—epic fantasy, grimdark, space operas, historical fantasy, etc.—and, all of the S.P.F.B.O. finalists were there too, with the Con ending with a round of Dungeons & Dragons. So, what made this virtual Con so memorable? First, as I mentioned before, was the authors. Just about all of the subgenres and genres were represented by the participants—whom were from diverse backgrounds and from around the world (i.e. Australia)! Next, were the topics discussed on each panel. Topics from world-building to history to the future of the genre were talked about, and it was interesting to hear what each author had to say about them. Last, was the schedule. While it was impressive how David managed to host the first Con in a day by himself, how he managed to get even more authors to participate in 1 or more panels for a 6-day event is beyond laudable. Yes, this virtual Con was free, and could be viewed on YouTube, Twitch and Facebook, but I would argue that this is further proof that these virtual Cons are worthy fillers for all author events while the pandemic continues (yes, I want it to end, too).

            “TBRcon21” had something for everyone, and you can rewatch these panels online. Another reason I’m discussing virtual Cons again is because of what I believe fans are getting out of them. Although several Cons have moved to virtual, not all of them are accessible for everyone. Everyone who is interested has to register for tickets, and there are times when they sell out. It is too early to tell what will happen to virtual Cons whenever “normalcy” returns, but I don’t believe they will go away. This Con is proof authors are interested in interacting with fans and readers, and those fans and readers will find ways to attend these events. I hope agents, marketers and publishers are paying attention because it looks like bookbloggers have found a way to bridge themselves between the publishing industry and the readers who Google whether or not they should read a particular book. And before you ask, I’m not excluding BookTubers. In fact, if these virtual Cons were to become more ubiquitous, then I believe some BookTubers could give us a hand with certain panels. While we’re on the subject, I know some podcasters who would be interested in participating as well. 

            “TBRcon21” is another accomplishment by FanFiAddict, and it is proof the publishing industry is paying attention to us, and authors are willing to communicate with their fans and vice versa, and will find ways to keep at it no matter what it takes. So, what shall we do as we all decompress from this event? Well, Virginia McClain will be hosting “QuaranCon2021” this spring, and I’m looking forward to it. I hope to see more participants (and authors) at that event this year! I hope to see you all there participating in the live chats!

My Experience at FIYAH Con & What It Represents for Speculative Fiction

So, remember when I praised virtual cons (and creators) for finding ways to continue hosting their cons and presenting their content to everyone? And, how some groups and individuals decided to host their own con? Well, I was able to attend FIYAH Magazine’s 1st FIYAH Con! I won’t bore you or make you all jealous of what I enjoyed about this con—besides the panels of various topics and issues. Instead, I’m going to list what I considered to be the best parts of FIYAH Con; and, there are at least 3 of them.

            First, was the layout of the schedule. This con was 3 days long, but the first 2 days consisted of panels that ran over 24 hours straight. And no, I didn’t stay up for 24 hours to watch those panels! Yet, you know who did watch those panels? The guests and the attendees in other countries throughout the world who were able to enjoy these panels during their daytime hours. This was a very considerate idea because there are fans, authors, and staff within the speculative fiction community who live beyond the U.S., Europe and Asia. Allowing panels to run for those who reside in Africa, Australia and the Pacific was a very thoughtful idea. Many attendees from those regions were able to enjoy those panels live. It served as a reminder that there are people involved in this community who reside all over the world. 

            Second, was the inclusion of all who participate within speculative fiction. There were authors, bloggers, YouTubers, editors, academics, publishers, artists, etc., who were guests of this con. This serves as a reminder that those who participate within this genre community is as diverse and as essential as the (remaining) identities of all of the panelists and the attendees. Everyone makes up the fandom and the community, and it was great to see that FIYAH knew that as well and had (some of) them as guests. In fact, it was interesting to see them all discuss numerous subgenres, issues, topics, changes, etc., within the genre. In addition, FIYAH took the liberty of inviting guests from numerous identities and gave them a panel to discuss their works and the inspiration surrounding them (I didn’t know there were Māori and Pasifika authors in this genre)! This was one of the most eye-opening experiences FIYAH Con offered because, yes more attention has been offered to diverse authors, but we continue to overlook other cultural groups who continue to expand this literary genre. My interest in their works has piqued and I’m looking forward to reading them.

            Last, is what FIYAH is doing after their Con. Remember, when I said that some of the panels occurred overnight in some time zones and during the daytime for other ones? Well, FIYAH is posting the archives of all the panels on the conference website for attendees to access what they missed during the Con. This is great because there were panels I missed due to the time difference and overlapping panels, I didn’t get to watch all of the panels—and, some of them seemed very interesting. This is a great opportunity to catch up on what I missed and learn more from all of the guests and the panelists. I know other attendees feel the same way, too. Right now, some of the panels are posted and available on the website. The rest of them will be posted as they become available. 

            In all, this was a virtual con that was just as amazing as the other ones I’ve attended this year. Yes, 2020 has not been the best year, but it forced everyone to find ways to bring members of various communities and/or fandoms together. Not to mention, FIYAH went beyond everyone’s expectations and made sure the guests were as diverse as the speculative fiction genre. I am guilty of forgetting that other regions in the world hope to present their works to the mainstream (of the community), and this Con presented some of what the rest of the world has to offer. Thanks to FIYAH and their (first ever) Con, I am more aware of other people who write, work and participate in the speculative fiction genre community.

            What did you think of FIYAH Con 2020?   

“Best of” Lists: The Greatest, the Essential and Personal Favorites

So, TIME Magazine is the latest publication to release its list of “The Best Fantasy Novels of All Time.” The magazine even went further than Forbes and known fan sites (and critics) and had a panel consisting of leading fantasy authors to form, to vote, and to finalize their “selections.” While this list is impressive with selections ranging across centuries, age groups and cultures, you are left wondering whether or not this list is more of the panel’s “favorites” and/or “suggestions” than the “best of all time.” Now, I’m NOT insulting the panel! In fact, this panel did an excellent job with including books that were released within the last decade by P.O.C. authors; not to mention, some of the books on the list are meant for readers “of a certain age” (children and young adult), but can be read and enjoyed by fans and readers of all ages. So, why are so many fantasy fans upset with this list? And, why do I feel that this list is still lacking some other great books? This is my opinion, but I’m impressed and perplexed by this list, and other ones from recent years. 

            What do I mean by this? First and foremost, it seems that some of the same titles and/or authors do appear on all of these lists (i.e. Forbes, Unbound Worlds, etc.). This is a good thing because it means certain books have the same level of merit across fans, readers, authors and critics. However, certain titles end up on certain lists which makes you wonder how they made that list. And then, there are titles (and even certain subgenres and formats) that are omitted from those lists, which leaves you wondering whether or not those titles were considered (or read) by those on the panel. Once this realization is made, these lists become nothing more than a “how many have you read?” list.

            Then, there is another question: is this supposed to be a list of “essential” reads? In this case, the answer is NO. There are lists of “essential fantasy books ‘every fan’ should read” and lists of recommendations. Note the difference between the former and the latter. The former is a list of books fans “should have” read, almost like assigned school readings. The latter is a list of books you may or may not enjoy, but should consider reading anyway. And, that’s the issue surrounding all of these lists. When you look over all of these lists and note which books continue to make them, you wonder whether or not those books are “essential” to the genre. When you read the history of the genre (and, there are several books on them, some of which I own and I have read), many of those books played a huge role in formulating the fantasy genre. Yet, fantasy, like imagination, is not a “fixed” concept. Eventually, readers decide to write “new” fantasy stories that allow for new worlds to be presented and for new fans to emerge. In fact, one of the things I like about TIME Magazine’s list is that 63 of the books were published and released within the last 30 years. That’s right, the list is in chronological order, so you can see how much the genre has changed and expanded during the last 3 decades. It’s an interesting homage to how quickly the genre has expanded. Then again, some titles are left off the list.

            As a bookblogger, I read and I review books encouraging other readers to read them. There are so many books to read. And, while I don’t always get to finish reading certain books when I want to, and I read faster than I write, I take the time to mention all of the positives and the negatives within a book review. Meanwhile, I read reviews and I watch videos about books by other bookbloggers and Booktubers so I can learn whether or not books on my list should be read sooner rather than later, and whether or not we have the same thoughts for the same books. At the same time, these reviews are recommendations for other fans and readers. I don’t expect readers to enjoy the same books I do, and I’m not insisting that they should. This doesn’t mean I don’t look into books other fans and readers suggest, it’s how I ended up reading certain books no matter its genre. 

            Some of those books were not mentioned in TIME Magazine’s list. No graphic novels and no novellas or short stories were on the list. And, the grimdark and the witches subgenres were omitted. I’m not sure if any of those titles made the initial list, but it does make me wonder if we’re starting to limit what consists of “good” fantasy books. Yes, a few translated books made it on to TIME Magazine’s list, but I’m going to say that some works written by either Australian or indie authors should have been considered as well. Are we slowly becoming like Tom Shippey and Robert Silverberg (which is sort of scary)? So, are all books within the fantasy genre being considered? Should we be reading more of what is available BEFORE compiling such a list?

            Obviously, one cannot read all of the books within a genre, but all titles and all formats should be considered for a “best of all time” list. Yes, some titles will always end up on the list, but what about the other books? Think about your favorite books. Now, think about your favorite fantasy books. If we were to compare our lists, then we would expect to have some similar and some different books. In fact, my list is always changing. Some books will always be appealing to me, and others will fall off of that list. Who is to say that within the next 5-10 years this list will be exactly the same? If fantasy continues to expand as a genre, then I hope the list does alter, continuously, overtime. 

            In 2018, V.E. Schwab delivered the 6th annual J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature. Her lecture titled—“In Search of Doors”—she mentioned (and, I’m paraphrasing here) that just because one author made you a reader doesn’t mean that book should become “required reading.” Everyone has that one book which made them a reader; but, they’ve read more than one book, right? V.E. Schwab discusses what led her to write the stories she’s written, too; and, it’s simple. She was sick of reading the same sort of fantasy story over and over again. And, that’s what makes TIME Magazine’s list stand out from previous ones. Several of these stories move away from familiar fantasy tropes and are still amazing and well-written stories, which should be read. However, if any of those books don’t capture your attention enough to want to read them, then don’t feel obligated to do so. 

            I’m not going to nit-pick the genre or this list because I don’t have the time to start all of the never-ending debates that would come from it. Also, I still haven’t read all of the books on this list! For now, like the rest of the fandom, I’ll consider what should be included or excluded from the “best fantasy books of all time” list. I’ll keep reading the books as they are released, and I will offer my critical thoughts on each book. And, hopefully, whoever does the next list considers including me on the panel. I believe I could shake things up. Which books should you read next? Well, tell me the sort of story you enjoy and I will give you a suggestion or two (or three)!

Why You Need to Read: “The Wolf of Oren-Yaro”

Chronicles of the Bitch Queen, #1: The Wolf of Oren-Yaro

By: K.S. Villoso                                                                                             Audiobook: 14 hours

Published: February 18, 2020                                                          Narrated by: Catherine Ho

Genre: Fantasy

            I was Talyien aren dar Orenar, queen of Jin-Sayeng, daughter of Warlord Yeshin, wife of Rayyel Ikessar, and mother of Thanh. I did not just dream these things—I had a life before all this. I wanted nothing more than to return to it, (Chapter Thirteen: The Dragonlord in Distress).

            Curiosity is an interesting thing. It’s not really an emotion because it provokes thought before emotions. Then again, there are moments when one’s curiosity can lead to a strong feeling: elation, fear, etc. However, when it comes to reading, our curiosity either is sated or is ignored (i.e. you don’t read the book). Yet, author K.S. Villoso titled her series, Chronicles of the Bitch Queen; and, the first book is titled, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro. If those titles don’t capture your attention and pique your curiosity, then I don’t know what will.

            Queen Talyien is the daughter of the last warlord, who led an army in a civil war, which ended with her betrothal and her marriage to the male heir of the opposing side, Prince Rayyel Ikessar. Talyien is the queen of Jin-Sayeng, but her husband left her and their son, Thanh (approx. 2 years-old at the time) the night before their coronation. Five years later, Talyien receives a letter from Rayyel, stating they should meet in Anzhao City, which is in the Zarojo Empire, which is across the sea. Although her council advises her against the meeting, Talyien makes the journey for the sake of her son. Once there, things don’t go as planned, and Talyien finds herself alone in a foreign empire, with assassins chasing her through the streets. With her allies and her guardsmen dead and/or captured, Talyien must rely on her skills and on her reputation as a lethal warrior, and as a “non-traditional female.” Talyien has a reputation of being rash, violent, stubborn and flawed, but she is nurturing, observant, and quick. Talyien develops as a character in that she must remember her status and embrace the demeanor she spent the last five years distancing herself from because it’s the only way she is going to survive her ordeal and return home. Fortunately and unfortunately, Talyien is not alone on her journey. The first person who is willing to help Talyien is Khine, a con artist. The second person is Lo Bahn, one of the Lords of Anzhao City. The third person is the (Fifth) son of the Emperor of the Zarojo Empire. Just like Talyien, there are more to these individuals than their facades.

            The plot is straightforward. A queen travels to a foreign land to meet with her estranged husband, the prince—for he was never crowned, they are attacked by assassins and are separated, leaving the queen alone and without allies as she hustles and fights her way home. That is the plot. The story is more complex. Throughout the story, Talyien struggles with her actions of the past and the present as she wrestles with the circumstances which led her to her current predicament. Her father’s legacy and parenting haunts her, and her nature turns people off. However, it is because of her upbringing as future queen, and as a “non-traditional” female that Talyien is able to survive her husband’s absence and survive in the Zarojo Empire. The subplot is all of the political and the historical moments mentioned throughout the novel. It is essential because readers learn of Jin-Sayeng’s history, of the war led by Talyien’s father which led to Talyien and Rayyel’s betrothal, and the real ongoings within the Zarojo Empire. In all, the plot develops at an appropriate rate alongside both the story and the subplot. 

            The narrative is told from Queen Talyien’s point-of-view, and the sequence moves between the present and the past. The past is told as flashbacks as Talyien recalls her meeting Rayyel for the first time and their tumultuous courtship throughout their childhood. Talyien remembers all of the harsh lessons her father gave her about ruling, marriage, and warfare; and, she cannot determine whether or not it is due to guilt or to desperation that she hears her father’s voice. The present is told through Talyien’s stream-of-consciousness, which lets the readers in on all of the emotions Talyien feels and expresses: fear, anger, rage, sadness, etc. All of Talyien’s thoughts make her a reliable narrator, which makes the narration easy to follow. 

            K.S. Villoso presents a fantasy story based on Asian influences. In addition, she wrote a narrative which uses realism to drive the story. If you found yourself lost in a foreign country, then what would you do? If you couldn’t trust anyone in that scenario, then what would you do to get yourself out of it? Queen Talyien is in survival mode, and while her training and her demeanor are viewed as “non-feminine,” those characteristics are why Talyien is able to survive her ordeal. She has to fight her way out of Anzhao City, literally. Then, she has to fight again, over and over. Many fantasy stories include scenarios where the protagonists comes out of a bad situation unscathed, physically and emotionally, but Villoso delivers the reality of such scenarios as cautionary tales. The reality is that not everyone wants to help you when you need help, and there are others who see your identity as a way to benefit themselves. The mood of this novel is hostility, and the tone is enduring (a bad situation). In other words, when you find yourself in a hostile environment, endure it until you can depart from it. 

            The appeal for The Wolf of Oren-Yaro have been positive. This novel was first published in 2018 as an indie book before the series was picked up by Orbit. Critics, readers and other authors have had nothing but praise for this book, and it is the same for me. This book is a great addition to the fantasy canon. And yes, readers and fans of Asian inspired fantasy will enjoy this book the most; and, it should not be overlooked by other fans and readers of the genre. The Ikessar Falcon, Book 2 in the Chronicles of the Bitch Queen trilogy, will be released on September 22, 2020. I’m just as excited as everyone else is for the sequel! I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by Catherine Ho—who will be narrating the sequel as well. Not only does she do an amazing job with voicing Queen Talyien and making her sound as fierce as the author made her out to be, but also she was a huge help with every pronunciation of all of the names of the characters and the locations. I wouldn’t have been able to sound them out on my own.

            The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is a fantasy story about a “non-traditional” queen who must rely on her “true nature” in order to survive an unconventional situation. While the plot may seem “unrealistic,” the reality of it is very realistic because readers are not used to having a royal female save herself from such plights. This makes for a unique tale in that the protagonist is the heroine in this story. The author does an amazing job in giving readers a character who must balance her identity and her kingdom. Do not miss out on this book!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

What We Can All Learn From Virtual Cons and Events

The obvious difference between this pandemic and those of the past is how humanity has been spending their time throughout the outbreak. Yes, many public places and events are closed, cancelled and/or postponed; and, there have been several cases and deaths due to COVID-19 throughout the world. Yet, it seems a lot of people have forgotten that our modern technology has been a huge help in maintaining work, shopping and entertainment. Now, while the process to maintain safety and livelihoods haven’t been easy, it seems that few people are willing to use this time as an opportunity to pursue new activities and a chance to return to old ones.

            Please understand that I’m not bashing or criticizing people who lost their jobs, had their jobs suspended and/or moved online, parents, teachers/academics/scholars/educators, farmers, contractors, etc. I speak of people who hassle healthcare workers about when they’ll reopen their practices and scold essential workers when told they cannot enter the store or the supermarket without a face mask while trying to cut the line. These people ignore the guidelines for safety and go to locations that are closed because they are bored. Whatever happened to getting a new hobby or going back to a former pastime? Stories of people learning how to sew, how to cook, and stories of people learning how to draw using an app or creating “how to” content online have been circulating on the international news. Yes, many people have realized that creating content for YouTube, podcasts and blogs isn’t as easy as it looks, but that doesn’t mean you cannot offer your support by checking out the content. 

            While many Cons and events have been moved to online as virtual events, there have been a few creators who have made the decision to upping their game and putting together events as a means of entertainment and sharing new content with other creators and fans. QuaranCon 2020 was a virtual con put together by Virginia McClain and a few other fantasy authors (many of them from S.P.F.B.O.), and presented live panels over the course of 2 weeks. MayDayCon 2020 was a virtual con which was organized and moderated by 1 person—FanFiAddict! There were 7 panels and 7 live readings with over 30 authors all within 14 hours! And yes, I watched that entire con as it was going on live! Next, GeekCon1 will be taking place in July. This virtual con is aimed at all content creators with more information coming as we get closer to the date. GeekChat1 and his friends—other content creators—will be putting the event together.  

            As for “professional” cons that will be virtual, there will be plenty of those as well. Both BookExpo and BookCon will be streaming live on Facebook. Orbit Books has been hosting and announcing several live chats with their authors every week! Several authors have been chatting on their Instagram accounts as well, which is a great opportunity to interact with some of your favorite authors and other famous people. And, several literary award organizations have turned to YouTube to announce both the nominees and the winners of their awards such as the BSFA and the Hugos. Yes, not everyone will be able to stream these events live (I still have my job to attend to in person), but the best thing about streaming live events is that you can watch the playbacks when they become available. 

            This post is not meant to put anyone down. Instead, I wanted to remind everyone that people are working behind the scenes in order to present new content and events to everyone who is living in lockdown, which is everyone! Think about it, wouldn’t it be better for you in the future if you mentioned what you did during the pandemic isn’t of what you weren’t able to do? Yes, the pandemic sucks, but it’s a shared experience and you have the opportunity to find a way to stand out and do something you always wanted to do. What do you have to lose? 

The Popularity and the Revolution of Fantasy Thanks to S.P.F.B.O.

S.P.F.B.O. 5 is over, and this year’s winner—The Sword of Kaigen by M.L. Wang—received one of the highest scores in the competition’s short history, 8.65. While this year’s competition was fierce and resulted in a close 2nd place, the hype and the feedback circulated to where bookbloggers with a larger platform started discussing the competition and published authors shared their thoughts on the books—the finalists—on social media. This competition has amassed such a huge following in such a short time and a few of the finalists did get picked up by big name publishers to become the published authors they already were. Mark Lawrence is the perfect example of “paying it forward” and “sharing the wealth.” In 5 short years, this international best-selling author has used his platform to kickoff careers of these emerging authors.  

I heard of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off while searching for fantasy books on Amazon. If you recall my essay—“Factions in Technology that Made a Difference: e-Readers and Self-Publishing Companies”—then, you’ll remember that I mentioned a few authors who are indie authors and/or publish through “smaller” publishers, thus embellishing the sort of books I’ve been reading ever since. As I browsed through ebooks to purchase, a few covers caught my attention, and they all had the same acronym: S.P.F.B.O. When I finally Googled the letters, I learned of the competition organized by Mark Lawrence. And, my first question was: Who is Mark Lawrence? Yes, I learned about S.P.F.B.O. before I read and reviewed any books written by Mark Lawrence. When I started contributing to Fantasy-Faction, I realized that this competition was growing into an event indie authors, bookbloggers and fantasy fans look forward to, and it’s been going on for 5 years! 

I experienced S.P.F.B.O. 5 from the entries to the semi-finalists to the finalists, and of course, the winner. While I haven’t read all 300 books that were entered, I did read a few before the competition—because their descriptions intrigued me, and some titles and book covers caught my attention as well. And, I purchased the books of all 10 finalists! So far, I’ve read only The Sword of Kaigen, but I started reading both Blood of Heirs by Alicia Wanstall-Burke and Never Die by Rob J. Hayes, and I am blown away by what would have been overlooked stories if not for the competition. It’s because of bookbloggers and fantasy review sites that more indie authors are willing to enter S.P.F.B.O.! At this rate, Mark Lawrence might have to expand the entry pool (please don’t take that suggestion too seriously)! 

So, will S.P.F.B.O. continue to influence the market and the industry that is the fantasy—and the speculative fiction—genre? Yes, I believe so, especially if it hasn’t already. I’ve noticed on social media that these “indie” books are being read and enjoyed by “mainstream” and award-winning authors as well (i.e. C.L. Polk reading Fortune’s Fool by Angela Boord). And, this is more than authors supporting other authors, it’s about how indie authors and small publishers continue to strive to get their stories out there with the threat of them being overlooked…until the right attention is given to them through their published books (i.e. J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter). S.P.F.B.O. is both introducing and promoting the works and the creativity of these authors to a platform that is willing to keep an open mind. And, because of this competition set up by Mark Lawrence, readers get to experience and to witness this transcension, which is expanding the speculative fiction genre, too.

I’ll end my experience with S.P.F.B.O. 5 by saying the following: Congratulations to M.L. Wang; read The Sword of Kaigen and the books by the other finalists; good job to all of the reviewers, the bookbloggers, and the vloggers for all of the time and the effort you put into this from reading the 300 submissions to the 10 finalists to the winner; and, a huge THANK YOU to Mark Lawrence for starting this competition and turning it into an annual event. The number of books that have been added to my TBR pile has increased yet again, and I’m okay with that. I can’t wait to see what happens during S.P.F.B.O. 6!

Why You Need to Read: “The Sword of Kaigen”

The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story

By: M.L. Wang

Published: February 19, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Asian Literature/Standalone/Self-Published

            When Misaki hid her sword, she nailed the floorboards down over it. It was a promise to herself. She might never be able to destroy the part of her that was aggressive and willful, but she could bury it. That was what she had thought at the time, (Chapter 7: The Sun). 

            Thanks to the Internet and e-readers, creativity has propelled to levels beyond the zenith. Many e-books of all genres have allowed indie authors to become bestselling authors and several more have been able to transcend from self-published to contracted authors (i.e. Amanda Hocking). M.L. Wang is the latest self-published author who proves that indie authors should not be ignored or overlooked. The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story demonstrates the evolution of the speculative fiction genre with an unlimited freedom for creativity. 

            There are two protagonists, and they are members of the same family, the Matsuda Clan. Mamoru is the eldest son of Takeru and Misaki, and possible heir to the household—his uncle is the Lord and his only child is a girl. Mamoru has lived his entire life in the Kusanagi Peninsula—in the isolated mountain town of Takayubi—in the Kaigenese Empire. He doesn’t want for anything more than to become a warrior and master the sword technique of his family and ancestors, “The Whispering Blade”; and, at 14 years-old, he has yet to master the skill. When a new transfer student, Kwang Chul-hee, slams the lifestyle of the denizens of the Peninsula, Mamoru wonders whether or not his doubts go further than his family’s expectations. Like any other adolescent, he challenges everything his family has taught him to his father’s horror and to his mother’s humor. After his father fails to discipline him and to keep him on the “traditional” path, it is his mother who confirms his suspicions and assists him with his training and swordsmanship, much to Mamoru’s surprise. Misaki is the wife of Takeru and she hates it. A former warrior from the city of Ishihama from the Tsusano Clan, Misaki’s marriage to Takeru has left her in a state of depression and anger. While she finds solace in her sister-in-law, Setsuko, and in their friend and fellow housewife, Hyori Yukino, part of her wishes she can return to her days as a warrior doing missions for the Theonite Daybreak Academy with her former classmates: Ellen, Koli and Robin. Unknown to her husband, Misaki is close to having a breakdown due to her husband’s abuse and mistreatment of her. Both mother and son are characters who reflect the on goings of the bigger world. Mamoru must learn to uphold his family’s expectations while learning how the rest of the Empire operates from his classmate and friend; at the same time, Misaki must find a way to remain calm before her emotions get the best of her. Both protagonists represent the reality and the complexity of the lifestyles they must live and suppress amongst the ignorance of their family and their community. 

            The plot of this story centers on family and family expectations. Misaki is reminded of her role and her place as the wife of the leading household in a place far away from, and different, from where she came from. She is suffering from the stifling expectations. Mamoru sees himself as a failure because he has not been able to live up to the expectations of his family and his community. All he wants is the chance to prove himself to everyone and himself. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the conflict of isolation from and involvement within one’s community. Mamoru is the son of a close-minded father and a secretive mother. When he is told how the Empire operates truly, it is his mother who allows him to seek the truth in his own way. Mamoru learns before his father that living in isolation could lead to death and stagnation. The second subplot is war: the cause of it, what happens because of it, the propaganda surrounding it, the cost of it, and the aftermath of it. War is coming to the Kaigenese Empire and denial from the government leaves everyone unprepared, and many people will die due to this neglect. 

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Misaki and Mamoru, with one or two moments where other characters’ P.O.V.s pop-up to enhance the story. The narrative is told in chronological order from the first-person P.O.V.s and streams-of-consciousness of the characters. In a story where a battle occurs, the perspectives, the actions, and the emotions are essential to how the events of the story are executed through the readers by the author. The way the narrative is written presents the P.O.V. characters as reliable narrators.

            The style M.L. Wang displays in The Sword of Kaigen will remind readers of both The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang and any anime series. Her combination of Asian storytelling and tradition with the allusion to pop culture references make this novel both informative and entertaining. The language and the word choice illustrate the culture and the influence of the author; and, the word choice presents the way the narrative is told and which character is perceiving it, an adolescent boy or his mother. The mood of this novel is tension. Tension within a family and the tension within a community before and after it’s been attacked. The tone is the steps each individual takes towards overcoming from the results of the tension. Even after the battle, the initial tension does not go away, but must be dealt with before any type of battle ensues. And, the way the author resolves both tensions in the narrative is bold and realistic. I should mention that the maps and the glossary are a huge help to reading this book as well. 

            The appeal surrounding this book have been extremely positive. Several bookbloggers, booktubers and I, have heard about how the author wrote a fantasy story about war and family including sword techniques and a magic system which will remind readers of any Asian influenced medium. I was lucky enough to learn of this book from other bloggers and to have the author sent me a print copy of the book (I still bought the e-book edition)! I should reiterate that this book was one of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019! This novel is one of the most recent works of the genre, which demonstrates the future of speculative fiction. Alongside N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth TrilogyThe Sword of Kaigen demonstrates the direction the genre is moving towards. And, while the author is taking a break from her Theonite series, the time will allow other fans of the genre to read this book and the other ones in her series and see why this book is one of the 10 Finalists for the 2019 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO), which is operated by Mark Lawrence and fantasy bloggers from the most revered fantasy reviewers and review websites in the community.

            The Sword of Kaigen is a powerful story that exploded in 2019 to the shock and the delight of the entire fantasy fandom. The themes of family, war, conspiracy, and consequences are not new to fantasy readers and fans. Yet, the way M.L. Wang writes her story make it standout and away from duplicates using a similar format. This book is the best example as to what the genre can evolve into and why self-published authors should be recognized and commended. I look forward to witnessing, experiencing and reading any and all books published by M.L. Wang in the years to come!

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!