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Judging for the first Speculative Fiction Indie Novella Championship

I’m no stranger to entering indie book competitions – I’ve entered the Book Bloggers Novel of the Year Award twice, the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off once, and also the new Indie Ink Awards! I also love watching these competitions every year as they’re a fantastic way to discover new authors and support the indie author community at large. So when a new competition was announced that focusses on novella-length books, I knew that a) my huge books meant I’d never be able to enter and b) I simply had to get involved! Some arm-wrestling later, and I’m proud to announce that I have joined Team JamReads as a judge for the very first Speculative Fiction Indie Novella Championship or SFINCS to you and me.

SFINCS (pronounced sphinx) is a new annual competition to celebrate novella books in all areas of speculative fiction, including fantasy, sci-fi, and horror as written by indie authors. What counts as a novella? These are basically shorter books between 15,000 to 40,000 words. Novellas are growing more popular, and I personally appreciate them as they’re shorter and quicker to read (meaning I can read more!), but unlike the major competitions I’ve listed above, there hasn’t been any way to recognize and celebrate them… Until now!

As the first year of SFINCS, there will be 100 novella-sized books split between five teams. To find out more, please visit the official SFINCS website.

The competition officially starts this Friday, 15th September 2023. I wanted to introduce the books that are part of Team JamReads and that I’ll be personally be reading and judging through the competition!

Team JamRead’s Books

Our team has been allocated twenty novellas covering an interesting range of genres. We’ll be aiming to read every book by at least two judges, though my personal goal is to also read every book with the exception of two that I will be abstaining from for personal reasons explained below. From these twenty books, the team judges will nominate five semi-finalists before moving onto the finalist stage.

Speaking of Team JamReads, see who we are! We don’t bite, honest.

Here are all twenty of our books:

Obviously the judges will all have their own tastes when it comes to reading, which can be very subjective. I consider myself open to new reading experiences and can’t wait to get stuck into these! I’m going to list each of these books below and share my first impressions based on the blurb and cover. As the competition progresses, I aim to post reviews for every book I read with my honest thoughts. So let’s meet the books!

A Mirage in the Memory by Simon Tull

Dogged by a digital ghost and his own murky past, he must scour the city to kill the killer … or lose the woman he loves.

Earth, post-Apocalypse. Thibault Allard is determined to save his wife. After he escapes the addictive virtual reality that enslaved them both, he works as a bounty hunter for their unsavoury captor to gain inside access and search for his beloved. But when the morally flexible immortal is handed a ruthless ultimatum, he derails his plans in order to pursue the man who terminated his boss’s spouse.

Getting close to the dangerous cult leader responsible for the woman’s death, he scrambles to survive after he’s captured and imprisoned. And thrown into a pit for a gladiatorial battle against a blood-lusting monster, Thibault fears he’ll die before he can rescue the bride he left behind.

Can he double down on his duty without losing the rest of his soul?

As the first book on the list, this has started off strong! I love the cover and I’m getting serious cyberpunk vibes from both the cover and blurb. With a post-apocalyptic setting, this story sounds like it’s going to be dark with some high stakes. I’m a fan of cyberpunk vibes and enjoy gritty stories which aren’t afraid to get bloody, which is what I think I’ll find here. As a prequel to a larger story, I’m hoping this also sets the scene for wanting more!

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A Wolf In Thief’s Clothing by Lily Anne Crow

Phrai joins a crew to pull off a dangerous heist. Little do her fellow thieves know that the end of their job is just the beginning of hers.

There isn’t much of a blurb here to speculate with, but I do enjoy a good heist story and reading about thieves or thieves guild, which is the vibe I’m getting from this one! I suspect this character may be part of a larger story as well.

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Bad Grains by Susanne Schmidt

In the quaint German town of Fels, Halloween takes a dark turn for eleven-year-old Jo. When her annoying older brother, Hektor, goes missing, Jo suspects he’s playing a prank. But then both her father and grandma forget Hektor’s name, and his stuff mysteriously disappears from his room.

With the adults of no help whatsoever, Jo starts her own investigation, and uncovers a gruesome A monster lives in the rye fields, and it has been preying on the children of Fels for centuries, ensnaring them into its world under the roots. With two days until the gate between their worlds closes, Jo races against time to save her brother.

Armed with a trusty turnip lantern, and her brother’s obnoxious best friend as her only ally, can Jo outsmart the ancient monster, or will the rye fields claim even more innocent victims? Embrace the magic of spooky season and join Jo on a pulse-pounding journey into German folklore where courage, friendship, and darkness collide.

This sounds interesting! I’m not that experienced with German folklore, but this time of year is perfect for a story set during Halloween. This story sounds like a middle grade adventure, and I will admit to not reading much middle grade, but I’m looking forward to correcting that with this.

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Blades of the Ice by Luís Falcao de Magalhães

In a land ruled by patriarchy, an assassin sisterhood delivers justice from the shadows. Now, their mysterious patron has charged burly fighter Erika Langeshen and lithe shadow-stalker Annah Barksdottir with uncovering a plot against the very rulers that have mistreated and oppressed them their whole lives. Their quest will take them to a faraway village on the borders of the Razor Teeth Woods, where they will need to use all the tricks of their trade to build a base of power and expose the machinations of the local lord and his allies. But before they do, they must break into one of the Patriarchate’s fortresses and retrieve an unlikely ally…

This sounds like traditional fantasy, possibly with a nordic vibe? I could be getting thrown off by the snowy setting, though I’m a fan of snowy settings! I’m also getting YA vibes from this one due to the character on the cover, though this to me isn’t a bad thing at all as I love reading YA fantasy. The concept of a ‘sisterhood’ of assassins implies assassin nuns, as well as a potential assassin school, so I’m interested to see how accurate I am with that guess. The cover for Blades of Ice is also gorgeous! I love the character and snowy background.

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Cthulhu’s Car Park by DS Ritter

There’s something creeping around in the parking structure. And this time it’s not one of Sam’s nightmare customers.

Sam’s job as a parking attendant has always been a drag. Until now.

A hole straight to hell has opened up and evil lurks in the shadows of the garage. When management fails to help and her trainee gets possessed, Sam turns to her friends and coworkers.

But, can a handful of burned out employees save a city? Especially when a tall handsome stranger is thrown into the mix who may know more than he’s letting on?

If you’re brave enough to find out whether Sam will discover the secret of the parking garage without dying—or getting fired—get your copy of Cthulhu’s Car Park today.

Just so you know, this horror novella contains strong language and some violence. And, slime. Lots of slime.

Okay, so this sounds hilarious! Mixing the stress of every day drudgery with the threat of eldritch horrors sounds like my kind of whacky humour. The cover is just as trippy as I’d expect from a story featuring Cthulhu, so I’m expecting some weird and wonderful fun with this one.

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Envoy by Andr Mos

Nearly eight hundred years after a war that left Terra off limits to the rest of Sol System, humanity has devolved into a de-centralized and bureaucratic miasma.

Kep, a Guide to new arrivals to Sol, has her world turned upside down when an envoy from a nearly forgotten people returns as a diplomat from a distant system.

Now, she is caught in a race to keep corporations and guilds from obtaining an advanced foreign technology and to find a worthy power to gift it.

The cover to Envoy is an interesting minimalistic choice. The circles and dots imply plants and a solar system, which combined with the blurb, gives me the first sci-fi book of the batch! I don’t actually read much sci-fi, yet I’m a fan of sci-fi video games and films so I’m looking forward to this opportunity to read more of the genre. This sounds like it could have some strong political themes.

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Finding Fae Artifacts by Isa Medina

Tricky Fae magic. Bloodthirsty creatures. One scrappy Artifact Hunter to-be.

Joining the Magical Artifacts Institute as an artifact hunter has always been my dream job. Problem is, they keep rejecting my applications. So when I find a dangerous Fae artifact stashed in my temp job’s basement, I know I’m about to prove them wrong.

Unfortunately, the arrogant stranger who interrupts my find doesn’t agree with my good fortune. Aidan belongs to the Institute and insists on following procedure and confiscating my artifact. He’s welcome to try, but there’s one small problem.

Oops, make that two: he’s triggered a binding spell that won’t allow more than a few feet between us, and someone has unleashed a nightmarish Fae hound that’s trying to turn us into lunch.

Now I must break the bond, escape the hound, convince Aidan that I’d be the best Institute worker ever, and figure out who’s willing to kill to get to my artifact. Sounds hard? That’s okay—I might be only one-sixteenth Fae, but I’ve got plenty of tricks up my sleeve.

Finding Fae Artifacts is the first book in the Magical Artifacts Institute series—a fun, fast-paced Urban Fantasy series featuring tricky magic, plenty of adventure, and an opposites attract slow burn romance.
Perfect for fans of Annette Marie, Linsey Hall, Helen Harper, K.M. Shea, and W.R. Gingell.

Sadly, the is the first of two books that I will be abstaining from as I’ve already ready and enjoyed the entire series! I’m also a big fan of Isa Medina’s writing, and thus I won’t be judging this one out of fairness for the other entries. However, if you enjoy fun urban fantasy with Fae creatures and light-hearted banter, then I’d recommend checking this one out!

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Huntress of Hearts by Blanka H. Madow

One minute he’s living the magical life he was supposed to — and the next, going on a mission to a human land.

When the warrior, Avieles, is asked to bring humans to the land of the witches, he can’t resist the challenge. He assembles a team of eleven witches, each with unique birthstones and abilities to assist him. He arrives and discovers that humans aren’t as helpless as he believed, and most of all, they don’t want to be saved.

Faced with convincing five factions of the human race that he’s their only hope of survival, he must use everything in his arsenal from threats to charm all in hopes of saving them all.

One person stands between him and his mission, and she’s the one he desperately needs to save.

This one sounds interesting though I’m not picking up on the genre from the cover or blurb. Is it more traditional fantasy or urban fantasy? I’m leaning more toward the latter. Anything involving witches and magical clans sounds fantastic in my book. I’m curious by the concept of having to convince humans to allow witches to save them, though it’s not clear on what the humans need saving from (themselves?) so I look forward to learning more about that. This appears to be a fifth book in a series, but I’m assuming it works as a standalone.

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Infernas by West Ambrose

Dante Alighieri, amateur grifter and recent college graduate, has no plans for the Summer after his senior year, except to finally have sometime off and relax. After several months in New York City, he strikes up a deal with Virgilio “Virgil” Eco Olivares, carefree and semi-well known writer on a visa always almost expiring : a two-week trip to Italy together to find their old bodies to beat those reincarnation blues.

A journey that was meant to be about reconnecting with past lives and recovering what was lost in ancient times suddenly turns to peril. With danger at every corner and turbulent emotions running high, relaxation is quickly thrown out the window. In this satirical work of verse-novel, the trip of a lifetime leads to daunting revelations about Italian-American culture and the Western canon’s perspective of literature, fraught with raising important questions about cultural collectivism and the complicated intersection between race, sexuality, disability, age, and gender identity under Capitalism. While in transit, the important personal questions revolving around both Dante and Virgil’s present lives still persist– a truth that neither is ready to confront:

What does it mean to love someone too late? What does it mean to be you when you don’t live in your own body anymore?

This definitely sounds like an interesting book! I don’t get much of a feel for the genre from the cover, but I pick up on the Italian vibes. It sounds like this story may be a mythical retelling or parody of Dante and Virgil, but with a focus on modern day moral issues. I’m certainly interested in learning more.

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Lost Cargo by P.A. Cornell

When Parker signed up for the new colony world, they said the journey would be easy; just a nice, long stasis nap, followed by a smooth descent in landing pods.

They were wrong.

When an asteroid impact damages their pod, Parker and her fellow passengers are prematurely launched and left stranded on a wild, uninhabited moon–the remnant of a failed terra forming experiment.

With no way to call for help, the group must race against a rapidly-closing window of time to reach
an abandoned camp before their slim chance at rescue is gone forever.
Their journey will be far from easy as the dangers of this new alien landscape reveal themselves at every turn.
The only one who can lead them through it is Parker.
But she has her own priorities-
Survival may not be one of them.

This is the second sci-fi book on the list, which is clear to see from the cover! This is a good thing, as a cover’s job is to a) attract potential readers and b) show what genre it is. This sounds like a sci-fi thriller that I could see as a potential film. It has the perfect setting and a character with secret motives! I’m definitely expecting some action from this one.

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Misadventurous Episode One: It Has to Start Somewhere by Shawn Drew

Adventuring looks so easy on paper, but in the real world, well…

MISADVENTUROUS is a series of fantasy-comedy novellas where adventuring is big business and accidentally burning down towns is just another day on the job.

Beden spent his entire childhood dreaming about becoming an adventurer, just like his hero, Proper John Gallant. When he left home and crossed paths with a mysterious warrior and a sometimes-competent wizard, he was sure he was on the right path. But adventuring is a tough business, and skeletons come in hordes, so now he’s more unsure than ever about his future.

Jyden set out on her own, adventuring to prove that she wasn’t just a product of her upbringing. The group she found was with a pair of strange siblings and a misplaced, somewhat forgettable pirate, but she figured her natural skills would pull them through. But the adventuring world is a harsh one, and a few mistakes have her questioning her choices.

Together, these two mismatched groups have to learn that to make a group more than the sum of its parts, it takes more than just a small failure in math. And unbeknownst to them all, forces are in play that will drag them, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the fate of the world itself.

Another humour-fantasy on my list! Excellent! I love humour in my fantasy and look forward to getting stuck into this. The setting sounds intriguing to me as you have a band of adventurers trying to make a living from their adventures and wondering if it’s worth it. I definitely get some D&D based vibes from this and expect some hilarious catastrophes.

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Rat City – Book One in The Rat City Chronicles by Laurie Silvers

“Full of thrilling twists and turns that kept me guessing, profound emotions, and colorful characters, I was entertained, captivated, and thoroughly swept away.” – Gabriella Saab, author of The Last Checkmate

In the walled city of Aman Kala, the grisly murder of a sacred Rat Keeper pulls Detective Derya Mack into an investigation that threatens to expose the power struggles that guarantee the very safety the fortress offers from the plague world.

The year is 986H/1578CE and Derya Mack lives and works in Aman-Kala, a plague fortress located between Arab, Persian, and Turkic lands. The rebel Zanj have toppled the Abbasid Caliphate, outlawed slavery, and turned regions and cities into client states. The Zanj Caliphate governs from Baghdad backed up by the force of their empire-wide army. Regional militaries are outlawed and cities are left to govern themselves without police or jails. In Aman-Kala, private detectives solve crimes, large and small. Derya Mack is one of those detectives.

Rat City is a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo and will be republished in 2024 in a collection of novellas based on the classic novel entitled Revenge in Three.

I’ll confess that I’ve never read The Count of Monte Cristo, and given the size of it, I probably won’t get around to it during this competition! So I won’t be able to judge this novella based on that, but will instead read it on its own merits. I really like the simplicity of the cover and find the concept of a detective in a plague-infested walled city intriguing, so I look forward to reading this! And who knows, maybe it’ll convince me to read The Count of Monte Cristo!

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Staff of Justice by Noelle Nichols

Saving a life may have just cost him his own

Protecting the innocent was all Kilo ever wanted. With a noble heart, he began his training as a warrior, pursing a path of compassion and justice. But when a seemingly ordinary mission goes wrong, he’s forced to break his creed, betraying the very thing he’s dedicated his life to.

Because of his actions, others are forced to bear the consequences. To one upholding honor, the shame is almost unbearable. His friends try to comfort him, but without his creed, who is he? And how can he possibly make amends for what he’s done?

Staff of Justice is a short prequel novella to the Asian-inspired, noblebright series, The Shadow’s Creed Saga. Witness the moment that changed Kilo’s life forever and shaped the entire course of his future—for better or for worse.

I’ve not read much Asian-inspired fantasy, so I’m looking forward to giving this a try. I am a fan of noblebright-based fantasy however! It sound like this story is a prequel for a character’s past that sets up a greater adventure, so I’m hoping they’ll be enough juicy action here to carry me over to the series.

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The Demon’s Dagger – A Noir Urban Fantasy Novella by Douglas Lumsden

Once he checked in, checking out became an obsession!

Crawford the were-rat checks into a shady hotel and promptly stumbles over a dead man. A mysterious troll is obsessed with finding the dagger that killed him—a dagger possessed by a demon! The demon denies that he is a demon and is obsessed with regaining his freedom. Meanwhile, the hotel’s night clerk is obsessed with the hooker on the third floor. Crawford is obsessed with what’s in the hooker’s room: a solid gold statuette of a demon-slaying goddess! Crawford has checked in, but, when obsessions collide, does he have any hope of checking out?

Content Advisory: This book is intended for a mature audience. It contains misogynistic characters, language, and acts. It also contains graphic violence (including violence against women), smoking, drinking, drug use, graphic sexual acts, and crude language and images.

This is the second book that I will be abstaining from. I’ve not actually read it yet, and will read and review it separately from the competition. However, I am a big fan of Douglas Lumsden’s main noir series and may have been caught on social media describing Douglas as my favourite author. For that reason, I’ll be avoiding any bias by skipping this one. Sorry Douglas! But I’d recommend his books if you’re interested in detective noir in a urban setting with fantasy creatures.

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The Long Lost War by Jeff Walker

Far from Earth, in a distant solar system, clone soldiers are stuck in an on-going battle against colonial separatists. John 999801 must battle against an enemy that refuses to give up, and dreams of a woman he feels he’s seen before. The life of this low ranking clone soldier is about to take a turn for the worst. Or is it going to open his eyes to the truth? Can one clone soldier make a difference? And who is the woman in his dream? Answers and horrors await him as he joins his fellow replicas to the surface of a planet called… Hell.

Another sci-fi book on the list. This cover has a lot going on and definitely screams space wars! I mean, the clue is in the name. Based on the blurb, this is giving me Clone Wars vibes, so I’m expecting a lot of action with a touch of mystery.

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The Records of Zaiza Moon – The Last Delivery by Tim Bahr

Meet Zaz, a scrappy space trader with a knack for trouble. On her final delivery of Tycho-sheen nanites to Taric Donstan, one of the system’s most well-known doctors, Zaz can’t resist a quick side job to sell some Helix tech for a quick profit. But when she unknowingly accepts a job offer from a vagabond drifter named Zavon Dash, she finds herself at the mercy of a ruthless defacto leader who leaves her stranded on a remote planet. Forced to rely on old friends and new allies, Zaz sets out on a thrilling space adventure to take back what’s rightfully hers. But when she uncovers the dark secret behind the nanites she’s delivering for Taric, Zaz realizes that her mission is bigger than just getting revenge on her enemies. With the fate of the galaxy hanging in the balance, Zaz must risk everything to stop a powerful weapon from being unleashed on innocent worlds. Chasing down Zavon Dash, Zaz embarks on an epic journey filled with unexpected twists, epic battles, and a fierce heroine who will stop at nothing to save the day.

I love the colours on this cover! It’s very bright and gives me retro space vibes. This definitely sounds like a classic space adventure with some moral choices that I’m all here for!

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The Revenge of Thousands by Michael Roberti

Before we were TRAITORS…
Before there was a GRAVE waiting for us all..
While more than WORMS remained…
It started with a war. It began with REVENGE.

Praise for the Crown and Tide
“The narrative voice really shines here. Every character has a unique voice and interesting perspective…” —Timothy Wolff, author of Platinum Tinted Darkness

“…the author makes so many great character observations that I’m reminded of Brent Weeks in the lightbringer series and of Joe Abercrombie in the First Law trilogy.” —Dylan West, the author of Scribes’ Descent

“Wow. What a great study in well-laid intrigue. It had all the right pieces, from those who thought themselves clever, to those that were. It was a rolling stone with not a bit of moss growing upon it as it rolled toward its inevitable and well-laid end.” —Andrew D Meredith, author of Needle and Leaf and the Kallattian Saga

“Michael is another writer on my list of when their book releases, it goes to the front of my TBR. He’s hooked me, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store!”—David’s Best Reads

This novella seems to be a prequel to a larger series that I’ve not had chance to read yet. The blurb doesn’t really say much about the story, except the cover makes it very clear there’s a war going on! I’m expecting some good old fashioned medieval sword fighting and battles from this one, and possibly some sea-faring?

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The Skald by Gregory Amato

Ansgar the Skald just needs to make a simple delivery. One very fine sword, made by his foster father, needs to go east. Over the mountains, into the woods, and almost to the land of the Swedes. Once he does that, he can go home and warm his feet. All he needs to do is choose the right path through the forest.

This is one foreboding forest, though, and a part of the world Ansgar has never traveled through. In that bleak part of the north, outlaws want to take his sword, wargs want to eat his face, and witches want him for things he would rather not think about.

As a skald, Ansgar knows the kind of lore that can keep a man alive in the far north. Tales of heroes and trolls, of gods and dwarves. He’s got the best stories. He’s got his wits. And he’s got a cynical raven to give him advice. Maybe.

The right direction has a warm fire and a horn full of mead waiting. The wrong direction has wolves the size of ponies. Or worse.

The cover really drew me in with this one and gives me Skyrim vibes! I wasn’t wrong, and this is definitely Nordic fantasy. As a big Skyrim fan, I’m not only intrigued by an adventure through a dangerous forest, but also the concept of the character using stories of myths and legends to help get through it. Magical ravens are always a plus.

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The Sorceress Transcendent by Casey Blair

Once mortal enemies on the battlefield, what can they become supporting each other instead?

When Varius, the greatest general of the Aurelian Empire, is forced to flee his homeland, there’s only one person he can turn to.

A powerful sorceress and once his most deadly enemy, Theira is the only combatant who’s ever escaped the war between their peoples. But with the memories of how they kept each other going from opposite sides of a battlefield, when a bleeding Varius knocks on her door, she lets him in, even knowing what will follow.

Theira may have gotten away, but as long as the war goes on, she’ll never really be free. Now with both their peoples actively hunting them, the two most dangerous fighters in a never-ending war will have to join forces to do the end it once and for all, on their terms.

And if they can dare to dream boldly enough, maybe find happiness for themselves, too.

The Sorceress Transcendent is a stand-alone enemies-to-lovers epic fantasy romance novella about badasses who enjoy a cozy cup of tea after a long day wreaking epic destruction, because why choose? This story is for everyone who knows what’s coming when your former mortal enemy and best rival knocks on the door in the middle of the night and says, “I had nowhere else to go.”

I love the cover! The concept sounds like a lot of fun with some of my favourite tropes, and I too have wondered what would happen when the villain comes knocking on your door for help. Fantasy romance is a genre that I enjoy reading, so it sounds like this one should be a cozy read for me.

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The World-Maker Parable by Luke Tarzian

Guilt will always call you back…

Rhona is a faithful servant of the country Jémoon and a woman in love. Everything changes when her beloved sets the ravenous Vulture goddess loose upon the land. Forced to execute the woman she loves for committing treason, Rhona discovers a profound correlation between morality and truth. A connection that might save her people or annihilate them all.

You are a lie…

Varésh Lúm-talé is many things, most of all a genocidal liar. A falsity searching for the Phoenix goddess whom he believes can help him rectify his atrocities. Such an undertaking is an arduous one for a man with missing memories and a conscience set on rending him from inside out. A man whose journey leads to Hang-Dead Forest and a meeting with a Vulture goddess who is not entirely as she seems.

I’ve come across Luke Tarzian’s writing before in short stories and know they tend to veer into the dark and surreal, as reflected by the cover, which is what I’m expecting from this book, despite not reading his ‘main’ books before. I’m looking forward to an opportunity to sink my teeth into this and see if these are my kind of dark fantasy!

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Are you as excited for the very first SFINCS as I? Have any of these novellas caught your interest? Let me know in the comments!

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