For those of you who have been following the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off Mark Lawrence has been running for the last six months, you’ll know that we’re into the final round where, theoretically, the ten best novels of the approximately 275 that were submitted are now in our hands. For those of you who weren’t aware of this…you now are. The reading process has moved along smashingly well for me. In fact, significantly better than it should be. As of this moment, I’ve placed my completion mark on all of the stories I’ve been given thus far and only completely finished reading two of them: the one that we submitted to the pool from the first round (THE THIEF WHO PULLED ON TROUBLE’S BRAIDS) and this one. Unlike any of the other stories in the finalists’ pool, this one immediately grabbed me, immediately impressed me, and immediately impressed upon me that it was going to be a brilliant read.
CITY OF BURNING SHADOWS is a self-published novel written by Barbara J. Webb. It’s a blend of science fiction and fantasy set in a unique world that reads like an urban fantasy. I don’t know that I’ve ever read, or even heard of, very many stories that land in this category. I was quite surprised at the level of writing when I got into this one, and inside of finishing the third chapter, I knew that this was truly going to be one of the best of the contest. The first chapter gave me the character. The second chapter was the setting. The third chapter detailed the problem and the potential solution. So good. Just wow. There have been times since I finished this one that I’ve wondered if I’m so high on it because of my thoughts on other stories I read during this contest, or because it’s just genuinely that good. I’ve come to the conclusion that I am probably over-inflating my opinion a little. But not by much, people. Not by much at all.
Joshua “Ash” Drake is a priest of the now-absent gods. He’s living in a city where several humanoid races coexist, where technology raises some above the scattered dregs of those that survived the fallout following the disappearance of the gods. Before the apocalypse, their city was an oasis in the desert, a haven for those who wanted to avoid the politics of other major cities. Now the surrounding desert’s attempts to return the conscripted land back to its origins are beginning to take hold, it hasn’t rained for two years, and the death of everything these people know is quite literally staring them in the face. As tensions in the city rise from the growing water shortage, Ash is contacted by someone he knows, a name from his past, another priest of his same god, with a plan, a solution to their predicament. Does he know how to call back the gods? To bring back the peace and prosperity that they long to return to? No. He doesn’t. In fact, he only represents another.
But that person believes that she can make it rain.
The characters in this story were, quite simply, great. Very well-drawn, very well-placed. Their speech, their mannerisms, their actions/reactions in each scene portrayed things about who they were and where they belonged in the world that has changed and developed around them. This is especially true for Ash. The world that he lives in is tolerant and leery about priests of the old gods. So many of them were killed in the aftermath and chaos of the gods’ disappearance. It was, after all, their fault that the gods weren’t responding, right? They should be doing something, and if they weren’t going to do anything about it, then there were people who were going to force them to do something about it. There is a bitterness and cynicism in Ash that is perfect for his character, and yet a drive and a nobility and sarcasm that makes him instantly likable. All of the secondary characters were also well-balanced, each with their own quirks to make them memorable. Two of the secondary-character women are in a relationship, and the only reason I mention that here is because their relationship was so well-done. Not sensationalized; not marginalized. Probably the best portrayal of a homosexual relationship in a fantasy novel that I’ve ever read. Period. And I’m not over-inflating that in the slightest.
The pacing of the story also was very well done. Information and events lead the main character from one location to the next, from one character to the next, from one reveal to the next. I never really felt like the story slowed down. Although, there was a span of chapters in the middle third of the book where Ash’s movements got a little repetitive, with him bouncing between four different locations, trying to put the puzzle together. The development was there, just the scenery got a little hashed over.
Now, there were definitely a few things that I think could be improved. The magic system that is part of this world is really pretty meagre. There’s not much definition to it. Especially once Ash starts using the magic in ways other than what he’s been taught. It was never really clear to me why he changed things up, or how those changes affected the way things worked. There also didn’t seem to be any direct impact upon him for making those changes to the way he used his magic, which kinda stuck out like a sore thumb. Also, the development of the tension in the city, while present, could have been made much more immediate by having Ash actually see some of the fallout or riots that were occurring due to the water shortage. There’s a scene in the later half of the book where things relating to this tension come to a head, and although it felt justified (because I’d been told about rising tensions and such) it wasn’t as impactful because Ash hadn’t interacted with any of it directly up to that point in time. Still, small potatoes, and things that could easily be fixed by a little drafting.
In my estimation, there’s no reason at all why this book should not be published right now. It deserves the attention. It’s easily good enough. Thus, I can only come to the conclusion as to why this story is even part of Mark Lawrence’s contest instead of being on shelves with a publisher’s logo is because it hasn’t been found yet.
FIND THIS ONE, SOMEBODY!
Because seriously, this one needs to be found. It’s just that good. Thanks, Barbara, for submitting your story to the contest. It has made ALL of my time reading feel like time well spent. Your novel is exactly what I was hoping to find.
Recommended Age: 15+
Profanity: Some, infrequent but strong
Violence: Quite a few deaths, but actual violence is fairly mediocre
Sex: A couple scenes that are glossed over with relationship development stuff during the racy parts
CITY OF BURNING SHADOWS: Amazon