SPFBO 6 Finalist Review: Nether Light by Shaun Paul Stevens

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I really wasn’t sure what to make of this book. The description on Amazon gives almost nothing away of the plot, but I knew my co-judges had quite enjoyed it, and so I went into it with high hopes. Nether Light opens with a tale of two brothers at their binding. In the world Stevens has created all children are Bound shortly after birth with a concoction that keeps them from madness and wreaking havoc. The binding is tied intrinsically to a caste system based upon profession, which seems almost iron-clad and dictates much of the way your life will play out. For reasons which are unclear at the beginning of the book, neither Guyen or Yemelyan are actually bound, but this seems to have little impact upon them until they are forced to move to the nation of Sendal.

As immigrants, they are looked down upon in an intensely xenophobic society. Life seems certain to be hard for the family, and soon gets worse as tragedy strikes. After the death of their father Yelmelyan is badly injured and Guyen is forced to take on the role of bread-winner. When his binding is tested and he is revealed to be Purebound, Guyen is taken to the capital of this nation he despises, and entered into an academy of the elites. Once there Guyen is forced to make a decision whether to stay, or try to escape, but with his father dead, his mother destitute, and his brother in a coma, it seems Guyen has little choice but to try and make the most of it, and search for anything that might help his brother.

This is not an easy read. I found the opening extremely slow and the world-building, whilst broad, seems to have little relevance in many ways. The academy-like institution Guyen is forced into reads quite a bit like Rothfuss’s university in The Name of the Wind. However, for me it lacked the development needed to really flesh the place out and make it real in my mind’s eye.

If I’m honest I’d say the book is desperately in need of a strong editor. Whilst most of the book isn’t badly written, a good chunk, possibly up to a third of it, could be cut. The term “killing your darlings” is often misunderstood. It isn’t about killing characters, it’s about cutting the unnecessary sections/lines in a novel. There needs to be some blood spilt here.

The magic system is great and has huge potential. Based on a natural force called Faze, it’s mysterious, and very original. Nether Light has a Victorian level of technology and there’s a lovely mesh of magic and science. I’d have really liked to see it explored more.

For all my complaints about the editing, the proofreading was superb. I didn’t spot a single typo or grammatical slip up, which is extremely rare and something I would love to be able to claim myself.

All in all I found Nether Light to be very original. It needs some work, and it wasn’t for me, but those who like a vast sweeping world, and a slow build, will lap this up.

SPFBO score 6/10


This was the Fantasy Inn finalist and I was very interested to see what they picked. I went into this one cold on purpose, I had never read anything or heard about this author before so I enjoyed the uncertainty of it all.

What a strange and unique book. I have to admit I was a little lost at first, this is a book that gives almost no exposition whatsoever. As a reader you’re dropped into this world and you need to figure it out on your own. And like, that’s fine – I often take points off for being too heavy on exposition because that can get very boring if the whole world is spoon fed to you. This is the opposite of that, so be prepared if you’re going to pick it up and don’t give up too early. 

Two brothers are born into a society where most people are Bound at birth for a certain professional class. Once the “class” is chosen, the citizen is tattooed with that class on their neck and then that’s that – they are bound for life to that professional class. There is a little wiggle room for choice though, a Metalurgist can be a blacksmith but they can also be anything else that revolves around metals – each “class” of people has at least a few options to choose from. Anyway, at the start these two brothers are denied the injection that Binds people. His father doesn’t believe in that nonsense. People who refuse to be bound are called Unbound. It’s believed the Unbound become sick and then die, but regardless if that’s actually true they are considered enemies of the state. 

The two brothers grow up in Krell but they are spirited away to a hostile land that views immigrants as third class citizens. It’s going to be a hard life, but if they had stayed in their fishing village they likely would have died via invaders since their country was at war. So, the two brothers are given an Assignment and they think that will be that… But it wasn’t. It turns out one of the brothers, Guyen, is Purebound, and he gets swept up into a college-like establishment called the Gates. It’s where the elite are given special Assignment classes to rule over the rest of the citizens. The thing is, though, Guyen doesn’t want to be at the Gates, he wants to go back home to help his brother who has fallen into a coma like state. The cure for his brother’s illness may lie in the teachings at the Gates, so he tries to both find a cure for his brother and find a way to escape at the same time. 

I liked Guyen as a character, I would have liked for him to have a bit more of a personality at the start. He seemed pretty generic at first and it felt like he was reacting to what was going on around him rather than driving the plot forward himself with his decisions. There wasn’t a huge cast of characters, and once Guyen goes off the ‘school’ and his brother is home in a coma his character starts to take on more of a voice and I felt like he took on a bit more depth. The first 150 pages were slow for me, really slow. There is a lot of build up and I honestly think it could have been trimmed down. The book itself is 660+ pages and I think with a good editor it could be much more compact. 

So, the world here is nuts, the originality is off the charts and you know you’re in a high fantasy right away. Storms carry in hot black rain, there’s red lightning, and both of the brothers have simulacra. The simulacra read more like secondary characters since they have what looks like a mind of their own. I sort of envisioned it as Peter Pan’s shadow. They’re always around, they can “fold back into” their hosts, or they can wander freely… it’s all very bizarre and I didn’t know what to make of it at first.  Guyen is special because he can see Faze, which is described as the “life blood” of the world. His ability to see Faze will help him out in his new Assignment – Bindcraft. 

This will appeal to people who enjoy complex world building, epic stories, and plots that reveal themselves slowly over time.


  • Plot: 11/15
  • Characters: 11/15
  • World Building: 13.5/15
  • Writing: 11/15
  • Pacing: 7/15
  • Originality: 13/15
  • Personal Enjoyment: 6/10

Final Score: 72.5/100 


I went into this one not having any idea what it was about, and I have to admit that it took me a bit of time to fully get into it. Nether Light is the story of Guyen and his twin brother Yemelyan. They’re from the nation of Krell, which is more or less at war with the land that they now live in, which treats them very much like second class citizens. Everyone in the world is bound by a special serum when they are infants, to keep them from going mad. People who are ‘unbound’ who either never got the binding done or lost it, generally go insane and cause chaos across the land. 

When Yemelyan is injured and ends up in a coma, Guyen becomes the breadwinner for his family. His binding is tested and when he is found to be ‘Purebound’ he’s sent to the capital city to train as a Bindcrafter. And many, many shenanigans ensue. 

Nether Light was very long, and I think that some good solid line edits would have brought it together a little better, especially in the beginning. But, in terms of copy edits, I thought it was really well taken care of. I don’t think I found one spelling error in it, and that’s rather like tripping over a unicorn for me. For a book this long, that in itself is an impressive feat. 

I liked Guyen, and cheered for him to win the day, but this kid makes some colossally silly decisions at times. That said, he does very much grow as a character as the book goes on. The Guyen we know at the end of the book is very different in a lot of ways from the kid we met in the beginning. He’s not as impulsive. He’s not as quick to hate the people of the empire, no matter how much they hate on him for being a foreigner. 

Some of the ideas presented were really interesting to imagine, like the idea of simulacra, which are sort of like a ghostly copy of yourself that nobody else can see. Most people lose them when they’re still children, but both Guyen and Yemelyan have theirs still. Guyen’s simulacrum helps him out sometimes in certain situations. It’s nice to have a friend nobody else can see to look around corners and things. The magic system, which was based on a sort of natural occurrence called Faze (similar, I think to The Force), was interesting and well put together.

All told, I liked Nether Light. There were twists and turns that surprised me, with characters I liked, and a few that were quite fun to hate. It wasn’t my favorite book in the contest, but it was certainly entertaining enough, especially in the second half, to keep me up late a few times.

7.5/10 stars!

FINAL TEAM SCORE 6.91 rounded up to 7.0/10 for SPFBO