Avon Van Hassel

Building Worlds and Filling Them With Magic

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

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.

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