SPFBO Review: Balam, Spring by Travis M. Riddle

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Balam is a cozy little town by the sea where everyone knows each other. Nothing exciting happens…until, of course, the town’s white mage dies to an unknown sickness. To make matters worse, other townspeople begin to fall ill with the same symptoms.

Balam’s new white mage, Aava, teams up with a bored ex-mercenary to get to the bottom of the mysterious illness. The stakes rise when insectoid monsters are drawn to the corpses of those killed by the disease. Together with the help of a young schoolteacher, the three attempt to stop the illness before it afflicts the entire town.

Unlike many fantasy stories, this book doesn’t have a grand villain, end-of-the-world stakes, or even a focus on magic or violence. Instead, it’s a slice-of-life mystery that explores the various lives of the townspeople of Balam in depth.

The heart of this story is the characters. We get to spend a lot of time inside each of the main characters’ heads, seeing their thoughts, hopes, and memories. This was a bit of a double-edged sword, though. A good bit of the characterization was accomplished through lengthy description and detailed flashbacks rather than showing someone’s personality in the moment. I much preferred the characterization through little quirks and how each POV saw the world around them, which the author excelled at.

The editing was superb. I can’t recall a single typo or misuse of grammar, and every scene had a clear purpose. My only minor criticism of the writing style is the overuse of the past-perfect tense. Scenes would begin with a character recounting the events that brought them to the start of the scene instead of simply starting the scene at the start of those events (e.g. Theo had walked to the diner, where he’d eaten breakfast before arriving at the clinic). Some of the flashbacks were told this way, while others were told as if the characters were experiencing them in the moment.

In addition to being vivid and detailed, the world of Balam was also refreshingly hopeful. There are multiple characters across the LGBTQ spectrum portrayed in a positive light, women hold positions of authority, and nearly every character had more likable qualities than not. The world had some pretty dark aspects, but the overall feel was hopeful.

Balam, Spring was a cozy mystery centering around a cast of intriguing characters. Despite the story occurring in spring, this would make for an excellent cozy winter read. It’s written as a standalone, but I could see future books written in this world. I enjoyed reading it and I look forward to seeing what the author writes next.

SPFBO Rating: 7.5

Character (25 points) 20
Worldbuilding (20 points) 16.5
Plot (15 points) 10
Pacing (10 points) 7
Prose (5 points) 2.5
Dialogue (5 points) 3
Editing (5 points) 5
Presentation (5 points) 4
Personal Enjoyment (10 points) 6
Total Score 74 (4 stars)

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