Avon Van Hassel

Building Worlds and Filling Them With Magic

Once upon a time, there were three bears- a papa bear, a mama bear, and a baby bear- who all lived in a cottage in the woods. One day, they made porridge for breakfast, but it was too hot to eat, so they decided to go for a walk in the woods while it cooled down.

Meanwhile, in the village, a pretty little girl with shiny blonde curls was acting far too naughty for her poor mother, so she was cast out of the house. With nowhere else to go, she set off into the woods, where she stumbled upon the Bears’ home.

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Hello, everybody! We’re a few months into 2022 now, so I thought I’d give you an update on what’s going on with me.

January

I’m afraid I have to start with sad news. On December 19, my grandmother fell in her apartment and broke her leg. We took her to the hospital, where they fixed her up, but things got complicated. One thing and another, despite the stellar care of understaffed and exhausted hospital staff, she contracted pneumonia and passed on January 17. My family, who had been preparing for this outcome for quite some time (she was 96), was devastated. We’re still dealing with shockwaves every once in a while. She was a grand old dame and she left a massive hole in our lives that we’re still trying to map and navigate. Our only solace is knowing that we loved the hell out of her, and she loved us just as fiercely back.

Also, we all practice ancestor work, and she did too, so we know she’ll be around when she’s ready.

New Year’s has become one of my favourite holidays. It brings me fresh perspective and renewed energy to take stock and figure how to move forward. This two-year depressive spiral where I barely wrote at all, paired with a severe financial situation in my family, made me feel like I needed a change. Writing fiction will always be my greatest love, but despite everything I say about it being, you know, ‘1% inspiration, 99% perspiration,’ it’s still damn hard to do when you can’t focus. Fiction is hard, y’all. And it’s even harder when you can’t stop thinking about the critics. I don’t suffer from Imposter Syndrome, but I know when I’m off my game, and I don’t like putting out work that isn’t my best.

So I decided to freelance. It’s kind of perfect- my own hours, writing, and a bit of pocket change to remove my personal expenses from the family budget, with an option for setting some aside. Eventually, I was contacted by an academic ghostwriting company, and I took it.

NOW BEFORE YOU COME FOR ME about helping students cheat, first of all, homework is unethical to begin with. Kids already spend all day at school and then have to do more school in their free time. Bullshit. Mandatory school was hell for me and if I could have paid someone to do my homework, I would have. Two, these are Chinese students in English-speaking countries, where they’re held to the same expectations as native speakers, so they’re already at a disadvantage. Most of the essays I write are short projects for elective classes- I’m not writing dissertations and helping people skate through med school. Those sorts of qualifications have much stricter checks and balances. Three, the suicide rate amongst Asian students related to academics is higher than any other demographic, and if I can ease some of that stress for someone, I call that a good deed. And four, I’m a nerd- I like writing essays, and it’s awesome to get paid for it.

February

So, the new job is going well. It’s not bringing in much, but it eased some stress in the house, and I’m learning loads.

Despite the increased workload, I decided to dedicate February to self care. All of the stress of the last month, the burnout from the last six weeks, and the bleakness of the last two years, got to me. Also, February got HOT—FAST. Like, mid-May hot. In February. But climate change is a hoax 😂

So, I started spending more time outside in the hammock by the pool. It’s rough, I know. But I’d go out there with my drink, a podcast or a book, and chill with the dogs and the sun. It was glorious.

Be jealous

Part of this self care dedication involved starting a new diet. Now, to be clear, I don’t believe in diets. Diet culture is proven to be toxic and ineffective, however, I do have a number of health issues that my doctor is happy to ignore. I have to advocate for myself and I’d rather change my lifestyle than take pills. To be clear, I’m not arguing against medication wholesale, some issues need meds. I don’t believe my case does. But I don’t know because my doctor refuses to test me.

So, in February, I joined a 30-day challenge to give this lifestyle change a try and see if anything changes. I’ll update you guys if it’s successful. Essentially, it involves cutting out inflammatory foods, eating more of some of my faves, and *sigh* regular exercise. They promise an increase in energy, so if that happens, maybe I’ll hate exercise less, lol. I figure, what can I lose by eating more whole foods and exercising? Especially if I gain so much.

March

So here we are, at long last in March, and I feel like it’s March of 2020 and I’m living my best life again. A month of self care did me good.

I got a promotion at my job, after only a month of work (why yes, I AM good at research and writing, so kind of you to notice!), and a project a couple friends of mine and I are working on is once more underway. More details on that, once we’re further along.

The diet is going well. I can’t say I’m noticing much when I’m on it, but I certainly notice a change when I take a break and go back to eating junk food. So that’s promising.

I finally reached a major milestone. When the pandemic hit, a bunch of things in my house failed in rapid succession: the oven, the dryer, and the freezer. We had a microwave that could act as an oven, so we muddled through with that until it completely failed at Thanksgiving, but the freezer had been my best strategy for trying to save money on food and see us through an unknown future. So I taught myself how to can. We only had a big stock pot, so I was limited to things I could can in a hot water bath: high acidity foods like jams and pie fillings. If I were better at social media, I would have posted pictures because I set myself the challenge of canning a hundred recipes before I had earned my pressure canner. It was fun and I was getting good practice and not letting fruit go to waste, but it wasn’t exactly stocking the cupboard with food. I needed a pressure canner. But those are expensive and with appliance repairs, emergency medical bills, our notoriously untrustworthy plumbing, and skyrocketing prices in every sector of life, the household couldn’t afford one, even if it would save us money in the longterm.

Well, this month, through some savings, tax returns, and my new job, I was able to buy my pressure canner! So now, I can make salsas and sauces from all those tomatoes that are inexplicably fruiting in March!

MY BABY CAME HOME AT LAST

So, that’s about it from me. I’ve had a decent start to the year, and am looking forward to the next quarter. What about you guys? How’s 2022 treating you, and what do you have to look forward to?

Love. L’amour. Is there anything sweeter than a deep intimacy between two people and the legacy it leaves behind?

Unless, of course, it goes south and one of them mysteriously disappears and the other one has blood on their hands. Sometimes that legacy evolves into one of my favourite genres of music, the precursor to today’s true crime podcasts- the murder ballad.

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Let’s try something new, shall we? I have a tonne of books, I’m sure you can relate, and I need to organise them so that I can inch through them. So maybe it’ll help to make a list here, that I can access, and so that you guys can see what I’m working on.

Books that I have finished that I need to review:

  • A Chorus Rises
  • Brambles in the Wishing Well
  • The Mark of Zorro
  • A Thousand Dreadful Curses
  • Caraval
  • Legendary
  • I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

Books in progress:

  • Tower of Ravens, by Kate Forsyth

Books to Read Next:

  • The Wild Girl
  • Vasilisa the Wise
  • The Beast’s Garden
  • Witches of Eileann Series
  • Birds of Rhiannon Series
  • The Last True Poets of the Sea
  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces
  • The Five
  • Ramona
  • The Uses of Enchantment
  • The Chronicles of Prydain Series
  • The Chronicles of Narnia Series
  • Once Upon a Broken Heart
  • Throne of the Crescent Moon
  • The Wyrd Sisters

This is obviously very, very bare-bones and not attributed correctly, but I promise when I post the reviews, they will be properly credited. This is just to keep me honest and chugging along.

Every year, I poll my Misfits on Facebook and ask what topics they’d like me to cover in the coming year. Inevitably, someone will ask about time management. My very best advice is the Pomodoro Method, but sometimes, despite your best intentions, you just can’t seem to find the time.

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Do you ever look so forward to savouring something that you almost dread consuming it? Like you worry that your excitement is bigger than the satisfaction of having the thing? Or you’re saving it for just the right moment, but the Right Moment never comes? That was what happened with this book.  It’s difficult and expensive to get here in the States, but a friend in Australia sent it to me in September,  2019, and I just let it sit, Schroedinger’s literary experience,  both read and unread simply by owning it. It’s silly, I know. But I found a moment, after mowing down three books since the first of January,  and took the plunge.

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The language of flowers refers to a system of subtle communication by using plants as symbolic images. It combines horticulture, mythology, and and psychology to form a sort of lexicon that can convey messages.

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I picked up this book because I’m actively trying to read more by BIPOC writers because my literary background is rooted in fantasy, which is traditionally woefully Eurocentric. I wanted to read some Afrocentric fantasy, and my friend and editor, Breanna, recommended Children of Blood and Bone. It had been out a while and got huge accolades, so I figured I’d see what all the hype was about.

My first impression is that it is dark. Don’t expect any levity or really many laughs. Even the lighter moments are tinged with darkness, straining under the heaviness and oppression that the main character carries.

It came as something of a discomfort for me because I usually prefer books I read for pleasure to be more lighthearted fun, an escape from whatever I’m struggling with, but Adeyemi’s author’s note made it very clear what events pushed her to write this book, and I felt a bit humbled and ashamed that I wanted more humour to soothe my white nerves. This is a book for our age. This isn’t a fun adventure story about the heroes forging friendships through daring do- it’s 500 pages of anger and fear and loss and exhaustion. It’s beaten and broken people pushing through internal and external obstacles for a glimmer of an impossible feat that could give them a hope of surviving genocide.

It’s intense. It’s hard work. It’s worth it.

Characters

It’s hard to like Zelie. I’m a person who holds emotion close to her chest, so I struggle to identify with people who don’t, and that’s a problem in my personal life, too. But Adeyemi does a good job of making you root for Zelie, all the same. She is defined by her rage and the very raw pain she feels over every loss she’s ever suffered, and she’s carrying an enormous burden that’s almost too much for a healthy person to carry. But she’s also selfish. Though she justifies her decisions as being the best for everyone, she rarely discusses them with others, and it’s clear that she uses the others to distract from the fact that she does do things for selfish reasons. Yet, you can’t fault her for it. After all, survival is selfish, and the poor girl has to work harder than others to survive.

Which brings me to Tzain. Tzain is noble and steady and only wavers once (though, it’s difficult to believe he’s serious, and events transpired in such a way that we’ll never know), yet through Zelie’s eyes, it’s hard not to see his privilege. He gives so much to Zelie because he has so much to give. For him, this quest is a gift to her, his survival isn’t dependent on it. He was a star athlete at home, he is a man, and a good looking one. Zelie was a pariah from birth, marked out by her white hair.

Amari is the character I identify with most. She’s a princess of the realm, the daughter of the man responsible for the subjugation of people like Zelie. She makes the decision to steal the tool that could bring magic back, directly challenging her father’s policies of genocide. She and Zelie clash terribly at first because she’s even more privileged and out of touch than Tzain. That mixed with her family connections infuriates Zelie, no matter how hard the princess tries to show that her intentions are genuine. I feel like she could almost be an analogue for white allies who try to use their privilege to help Black activists and just end up as liabilities. She does learn, eventually, and earns Zelie’s trust by fighting as hard as she can against the powers of the king.

Inan- what is there to say about Inan? The crown prince is weak, he just is. He struggles with his own budding magic, but can’t seem to fully disconnect from the psychological abuse and expectations on him. He wavers between sympathetic and tragic, and frustratingly inert.

Saran is a complicated character for me. From a writing standpoint, he feels flat, evil for evil’s sake. His backstory of his first family destroyed by magic is very meh. It’s not enough to make him sympathetic. But I suspect Adeyemi didn’t intend to make him sympathetic. How do you justify genocide? What is a tragic enough backstory to make that seem like a path any of us could take? There’s almost a fetishistic need these days to hear and validate both sides of the story, and y’all, sometimes the other side is just evil. That’s it. And it happens in real life, in real history, in the real world today. Sometimes the other side’s argument is not valid and doesn’t need to be respected. And I think that’s the message, here.

Setting

The settings in this book are rich and vibrant, from the fishing village of Ilorin to the capital city of Lagos, to the desert city of Ibeji with its colosseum of massive naval bloodsport, to the beautiful temples of the vanished gods. I just now, when checking my spelling, realised that these are the names of real cities in Nigeria. So again, I’m kind of embarrassed at not knowing that previously. Adeyemi does an excellent job of giving each settlement and community a strong identity and feel unique from the others.

Plot

I’ve been resisting talking about the plot because it’s so damn depressing, but that’s the point. It’s a finely crafted epic with big impressive settings, complicated and deeply flawed characters, and big big themes. That alone is an intense story. But running through it is this dizzying hope of a broken people clawing their way out from under crushing oppression, mingled with the absolute certainty that it will fail because their history is bleak and every step they take toward their goal is fraught with betrayal, loss, and doubt. Even down to the very last sentence, it’s difficult to say if they succeeded or not.

And now I need to read the sequel. *shakes fist at cliffhangers*

Themes

The themes in this book are not subtle, but we live in an age where subtlety benefits the oppressor. Not for today is the ‘who is the real bad guy?’ debate. In her author’s note, Adeyemi clearly outlines her inspiration for this book- the hundreds of senseless killings of Black people at the hands of law enforcement, and calls for sympathy for the victims and critical examination of the officers. This book is meant to enrage, to frustrate, to break your heart over and over, because that is the daily experience of the Black community in this country. It’s a history of genocide, of mistrust, of hatred, of internalised self-loathing, and of weak people who believe that if they side with the oppressors, they can fix the problem from within. It doesn’t work. As Martin Luther King Jr said, ‘Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.’ I suspect this is the reason for the accolades this book received. I can imagine many Black people saw in Zelie their rage, their grief, their feelings of hopelessness, and I’m sure that her quest to restore the power and dignity of the Magi was a source of inspiration for them.

Conclusion

Children of Blood and Bone is not a fun book, but it is a good book, and I feel that it is an important book. The protests following incidents of police brutality are growing bigger and lasting longer for every instance because people are fed up. We’re in the midst of a revolution because while things have gotten better since the end of slavery, things are still very skewed against the rights of Black Americans. The statistics are clear and not open for debate. Anyone with eyes, critical thinking skills, and compassion for human life must be outraged by the injustices that continue to be perpetrated, often on film, with no consequences for the offenders simply because their job gives them permission to kill and immunity from justice.

If you want to help make this country truly free from systemic racism, please consider donating what you can to the following organisations (or other reputable organisations)

https://nymag.com/strategist/article/where-to-donate-for-black-lives-matter.html

Or visit my Activism page to see where I send my money

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