Avon Van Hassel

Building Worlds and Filling Them With Magic

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

So, remember a thousand years ago, when I mentioned that I hardly ever read a sequel? And have you noticed how every year I promise I’ll read and review a book per month, but I hardly ever do? Well, friends, I have for you today, a unicorn. Not only have I read the third and final book in a series, but this is my second review- not just in a month, but in a week!

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My goal in 2020 was to diversify my TBR pile and try to read more books by BIPOC writers. Because of my time constraints and the fact that I’m a slow reader, I like to keep books under 300 pages, and I’m an escapist by nature, so I prefer fantasy. Lightfinder, by Aaron Paquette, was the perfect match.

I know I bought this book in 2020 and then I started it last month, but give me a break. I have a lot going on.

Characters

First, let’s start with Aisling. At first, because the audience knows more than the (pov) characters, Aisling comes off as a bit naive and stubborn, falling into the common ‘why me?’ attitude of many YA Chosen Ones. But, the characters around her support and embolden her petty quickly into finding her feet, or at least, finding the grit to keep finding her feet. She is bright, inquisitive, open-minded, loyal, respectful, and tough. I actually really liked her. I find that a lot of female YA protagonists can fall into the pick-me, not-like-other-girls trap, where the well-intentioned author tries to reach out to the disenfranchised audience by making the MC angry and bitter, resistant to the story for so long that I start to wonder if she’s ever going to move the story forward at all, or just scowl at peripheral characters’ efforts. Aisling takes on the mantle pretty quickly, albeit with bewilderment and frustration at every weird turn, but she takes her training in stride, and leans on the wisdom and support of the characters trying to help her.

Next is Eric, Aisling’s younger brother, and sort of unwitting antagonist. Eric is impulsive and hot-headed, fueled by anger, grief, confusion, and resentment. Being a kid is hard, and he has a lot he’s struggling with. Being a victim of bullying put him in a position to stay defensive and also cling to the acceptance of a seemingly cooler protector kid and dark magics. As a reader, I got frustrated with Eric a lot because he made a lot of bad choices, but as I writer I loved him because he made all the right ones. All the while I sympathized with him, while hoping someone would stop him.

My favourite character- no surprise, here- was probably Kokum. ‘Kokum’ is the Cree word for grandmother, and her name is Georgia, but she is mostly referred to as Kokum. She’s old and wise, as grandmother’s often are, but also tough as nails, crazy powerful, funny, warm, charming, knowledgeable, and brave. She’s seen it all, done it all, everyone knows who she is, and they all like her. She’s probably Aisling’s greatest support and teacher.

This, in my opinion, is where Paquette shines. It is so hard for a lot of dudes to write healthy and realistic relationships between women. Kokum comes with her daughter (Aisling’s aunt), Martha, and the three women are a tight unit. Aisling never casts her grandmother or aunt aside as being old or out of touch, they never dismiss her as being an airhead or shallow. They all rely on each other and share their unique gifts.

Kokum brought with her a young Aboriginal man named Matari, who had his own similar-yet-different kind of magic. I’m torn on Matari. He’s really cool, but the story is about the family. As a reader, I wanted more of him, but as a writer…it’s probably fine. I actually really like that he wasn’t at the showdown (spoilers) and I was kind of worried that he would swoop in and save the day. If he were real, I think he’d agree that it was best he take a backseat. He’s pretty chill like that.

Lastly, we come to Cor and, to a lesser degree, Jake. Cor is Eric’s friend and protector for a while, until his motives become clear. Then, the dynamic changes and he becomes more of a captive. I have complicated feelings about him. I immediately mistrusted him, but he was in an impossible position.

Paquette’s only misstep, imi, was in his name. I clocked him right away. However, I just now got the clue in Jake’s name. Like, as I’m writing this, it just clicked.

Jake is another of Aisling’s allies, and a sort-of romantic interest. Also, the only white character in the book, which…makes sense, not gonna lie, lol. I honestly didn’t see the twist with him coming.

Spoilers, crows, ravens, and Jays are members of the Corvid family. It was in front of my face, the whole time.

Setting

Most of the material world is set in the winter in Canada, so I can’t say much about the geography. Paquette is Canadian, though, so I’ll just trust him.

A lot of it takes place in what we in Western Mysticism call the Astral Plane, but Matari calls the Dreaming, or the Dreamtime, where the characters can cross wide swathes of terrain. There’s also a Summerland forest where humans take on their animal totem forms.

The final scenes on Turtle Mountain give me strong Mordor vibes.

Plot

The plot structure is what is called The Parallel. We follow Eric’s journey to meet Cor’s dad, and we follow Aisling’s journey to save Eric and bring him back. Running through both of these lines is the story of Raven versus Sky Father and Mother Earth, Eric’s descent into darkness, and Aisling’s assention to Lightfinder.

I don’t want to give away too much because it’s very well done.

Themes

I think the primary theme of this book is family. Good versus evil is huge, of course, as is truth versus illusion, but in my opinion, family is at the heart. Eric is lost because he thinks his family doesn’t care about him, he’s disappointed in actions some family members take, and in the end, it’s family (blood and found) that save him. Even Matari, Cor, Jake, and the anthropomorphic fox, Skia, are considered family at one point or another, for good or ill.

Style

I’m trained in the current style of storytelling, which is as succinct as possible. No extra words, easy on the adverbs, match your sentence length to the pace of the scene. Therefore, it took me a little minute to get into the rhythm of Paquette’s style. But, after a while, it starts to take on almost an oral tradition kind of vibe, as though it’s meant to be heard, rather than read, and then it flows a lot better.

Style is an intensely personal thing. No two authors write totally the same, just like no two people speak the same. So, my only real criticism here is that I wish there were general pop culture references. I feel like those may add something to the contemporary feel, but they get dated fast and detract from the timelessness of the larger story. But I’m fussy about things like that.

A few years ago, a friend of mine asked himself what one word he would use going forward in that year. The idea struck me as romantic, and I’ve been doing the same, ever since.

2020 was a shitshow, plain and simple. Some of it wasn’t our fault, a lot of it was, a lot wasn’t entirely our fault but we made it worse, and a lot of it seemed to come out of nowhere because we ignored the dire warnings. It felt like every day, there was a new catastrophe, from fires to murder hornets to protests against police brutality, spiralling through the gruelling non-stop news cycle pumping vitriol into our brains 24/7.

If you went a little crazy, I understand. I did, too.

I thought quarantine would be My Jam. No outside distractions, no errands to run, hell- no doctor appointments. Just me and my work and nothing to keep me from it.

I was SO wrong.

Ear infection, tooth infection, dad’s company closing and forcing him to work out of town during the week and come home on weekends, new mosquitos, multiple heat waves, a financial crisis caused by retail therapy, and under all of it the steady drip-drip-drip of the news cycle: rampant racism, cases spiking, anti-maskers, an attempted coup…

The wheels fell off pretty damn fast for me.

I published a book the day George Floyd was murdered. Like most of the country, I was overcome with outrage at the police and solidarity with the people of colour who have been screaming at their white allies for generations about injustice. To see it play out on screen was sadly, nothing new. But this year, this year, something snapped. Maybe it was the pandemic, maybe it was the fact that it was an election year, maybe it was the way the media handled it in the days following. Something felt different. I hope it’s real, and won’t fall prey to the news cycles like so many of 2020’s cataclysms

But it’s over, now. The year; not the racial inequality, the environmental crisis, the pandemic, or the sham of a presidency- though that, thankfully, will be the next to fall. But 2020 is squarely behind us.

So, what do we do when life knocks us down? We stand back up.

I always flag before the end of the year, that’s to be expected. I get tired, my best laid plans fall through, shit happens. But this year, I tapped out before the summer. No amount of swims in the pool or hours gardening or writing exercises or Nintendo games kept my feet solid under me. Every time I thought I could stand again, the sand shifted and I was on my ass.

But it’s 2021, and though the fights are not over, though the danger has not passed, we can take solace in the fact that 2020 is done and we’re standing in the doorway of 2021. We’re all a little battered, a little bruised, a little battle-weary, but we’re also warmed up and prepared. This is not a time for rest or for giving up and giving in. This is a time for battle positions. We know what can happen if we’re not paying attention, and our eyes are open, now.

Maybe you did what I did, and when you got knocked down, you stayed down for a little while. I hope you got more rest than I did. It’s time to get up, now. Dust yourself off, check in on yourself. Keep doing what you need to, but get back in there and keep fighting. We have so much left to do.

My word this year is REGROUP. I took my licks and I wallowed a bit. I’m not as strong as I was last year when I did everything ahead of time to make it easier.

And I did so much, y’all. I planned out every little detail: I wrote my blog posts in advance, I reworked my book club system, I made quizzes, I planned games and giveaways, I had schedules and automation and contingencies. And almost all of them failed.

There’s a post going around Facebook that says, ‘If all you did today was survive, that’s enough,’ and I feel that way about 2020. If all you did in 2020 was make it to 2021, you should be proud. A LOT of people didn’t. Don’t beat yourself up for not having accomplished more, we are living in unprecedented times- no one knows what to do, no one has the answers.

But don’t give up. Regroup and keep going. Gather your strength around you and keep pushing. If you’re strong enough to carry the weight for others, good. Go out there and fight in the streets. If you only have the strength to fight for yourself, then that’s fine, too. Keep the home fires burning. And if all you can do is make it to 2022, then at least you can say that you didn’t give up.

So, if you’ve read my free holiday story, Wintersufel, you’ll know all about Princess Rona and the rite-of-passage of a sumptuous dish symbolically served during the Midwinter feast.

If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s adorable. And there’s a lot of food in it.

So here, for the last blog post of this hellish year, I offer a recipe I’ve been obsessing over for 7 years, yet somehow just now actually attempted: Rona’s Wintersufel, a bread pudding with pears poached in mulled mead.

Behold!

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Ingredients:

(Pudding)

  • 8 eggs
  • 1 Loaf of bread, stale (light wheat or sturdy white)*
  • 1/2 cup Half and half
  • 1 1/2 cup + 1Tbl Heavy whipping cream
  • 1/4 cup Honey
  • 2 tsp Cinnamon
  • 1 tsp Nutmeg
  • 1 tsp Ginger

(Pears)

  • 4 bartlett Pears
  • 1 Bottle of mead
  • 1Tbl Mulling spices 

Directions:

  • In advance, bring a whole bottle of mead with mulling spices. Do not add sugar like with traditional mulled wine.
  • Halve and core pears and boil in mulled mead for 10 mins or until soft.
  • If you can’t use them within the next couple of days,  you can preserve them using a hot water bath canning method.
  • On the day of, cut the bread into cubes and put into a large soup pot. 
  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  • In a large mixing bowl, combine half and half, honey, spices, and 1 1/2 cups of heavy cream. Mix with a whisk until mixed to your satisfaction. 
  • Add egg mixture to bread cubes and stir until mixed and the bread has broken completely down to a uniform mush. If you have a few chunks of tough crust, it’s ok.
  • Transfer pudding to a round casserole dish. 
  • Bake at 350 for 30 mins.*
  • While doing that, slice the pears as thin as you can.
  • Take the pudding out, poke deep holes into the almost-done pudding and pour leftover spiced mead over it, as much as you think is enough to keep it from overcooking.
  • Place pear slices in fan patterns all over the top.
  • Put back into the oven for an additional 15 mins.
  • Take out of the oven. Sprinkled with powdered sugar* and serve immediately with heavy cream, if desired.
It was so good, y’all

I’m actually really pleased with the way this turned out, especially since I made it up on the fly, completely without a recipe! If you decide to give it a try, let me know what you think!

I hope you all have a fabulous holiday season, and that 2021 treats you better than 2020 did.

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  • * My mum made me a loaf from her bread machine. Commercial loaves of may yield different results
  • *Our oven died in August, so I’m using the convection oven setting on my microwave
  • *I didn’t dust mine in powdered sugar, and I wish I had, lol.
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