Friday, October 30, 2015

Slow life writing

This is around the time of year when we all start with our NaNoWriMo posts. This is also the first year that I didn't even consider doing NaNoWriMo. I usually at least have a fleeting moment of maybe I should—nahhhhhh. The glib reason is that I've already drafted 50,000 fast, wrong words and then decided to throw them out this year.

Seriously, though, it has taken me a few years to come to understand I don't write well when I aim to write fast. I do believe that NaNoWriMo is an excellent opportunity to build the habit and create the discipline of writing every day. Word goals, specifically a consistent word goal, is how I keep the momentum going. It's less about the word count than it is the reminder to be writing, to be pushing the story forward. (This does not, at any point, become a post about how I changed my mind and will be doing NaNoWriMo this year.)

I don't do NaNoWriMo for other reasons, including that I find 50,000 words to be an awkward length. (That's a little over half a story worth of words.) There may be a year that I choose to participate just for the challenge of writing something that is that length. But it won't be 2015.

I've been working on something this year, that I tweet about occasionally and I talk about to people, but I've not really blogged it. Possibly because I've been busy putting words into it instead of writing words about it. Also, it's a bit difficult to refer to as it needs a new title, because the current one is connected to when I planned to do something overly complicated with the structure that I'm not doing anymore. (Past Me got too much sleep in late 2014 and then had this great idea about trying to write a David Mitchell book. No. We're not doing that.)

Usually I refer to it as the damn magpie book. It's new but not, as I completed a rough draft in January of 2014. But I had left it to gather dust for most of last year, because I'd spent far too much time with it. To be honest, I was certain I hated it. We have a long history of fighting each other to get the job done.

Earlier this year, I had the great idea to draft something new and come back to revising. So I stuffed the magpie draft in a folder on my harddrive, and I (gleefully) moved on. I wrote more than 50,000 words of something else. Something fun. But I stalled out. Because I was writing fast and thin and I could see the story going to pieces. I had these characters and this vague plot and a reaction to a few things, but I didn't have what made the story mine. Why was I writing it?

I don't think that stories should only be about our viewpoints and our experience, but I do think there needs to be something that connects the writer and the story. Because the writer is the first reader. Before feedback and revisions and everything else, you've got to be invested enough to finish that first draft. And I suffered through years of falling out of love with an idea but sticking to it so I could get something finished. I wasn't about to do it again.

When I decided to have a go at applying for writing grants in June, I pulled the magpie thing out and started working on making it suck less readable. (The grant I applied for is specifically targeted at works in progress and offers funding to complete them.) I cringed my way through it. It wasn't a bad story; it just wasn't the story I wanted to tell. It had been written too slow—too much time between its starts and stops—so that it was equally thin as something written too fast.

I tried revising, got 30,000 or 40,000 words in—it had topped out around 90,000—and realized revising wasn't going to do it. I had to rewrite it into something I could love enough to do what it takes to make stories good.

My new challenge was could I make the western—such an American genre—into something Canadian, but more importantly... could I make it feminist? It was a bargain story, but could I make it about the danger of transactional relationships in a way that wasn't heavy-handed? Could I write a revenge tale that was kind? And most importantly, how could I make it so magic spilled out the sides of it even if doing magic wasn't the focus of the story?

I stopped when I was doing job interviews or reading and reviewing... but I kept at writing it. I pulled the story apart, examined it with the same critical gaze I use for other people's stories, and put it back together better. I listened when people spoke of representation and the problems with historical assumptions and felt grateful I was at a stage where I could easily make those changes. I fed it songs. So many songs. (Seriously, there is a place reserved in the acknowledgements for the person who unintentionally half-built this story's playlist.)

And the story's getting there. It is well on its way to being something. I've got work left to do, but I know I'll have it finished and readable before the end of the year. That's really all I wanted.

But if you are deciding whether or not to do NaNoWriMo, I would tell you that producing an arbitrary amount of words by a certain date won't make you a better writer. It may make you a faster writer. Few of us are fortunate enough to improve by accident rather than intent.

But if you want to do NaNoWriMo to put yourself in a position to have to make writing decisions faster and have the support of a community of people who are sharing that experience, then it's a good place and probably something you'll enjoy. Like everything, you get out of it what you put in.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Notes from a year named Kindness: October

It is a strange thing, job-hunting. Because you have to let yourself believe during the hiring process that this could be your job. You have to let that possibility in and grow it with each successful step forward. And each time it doesn't happen, each time reality diverges and this timeline we live in isn't the one where you get that job, you have to mourn the loss of the possibility.

That is not always an easy thing to do. But it is a thing I have to keep doing, even if it doesn't get easier. Because the goal is to get a new job, and not getting one isn't an alternative. It helps to know other people in this position; we're all doing our best to find something stable. When we discuss this, everyone agrees that the only thing to do is to keep going. Disappointment hurts, and when things are difficult it hurts more. But it still doesn't hurt like it did a year ago.

I had a job lined up earlier this month. Well, I was dead certain that I did. I cleared reference checks. I was the best candidate they had interviewed (they told me so.) And I wanted the job. It was the kind of challenge that channelled traits I have in healthy ways so I could thrive. Three weeks after the reference checks I was still waiting to hear next steps, so I called the company to get an update... and found out they couldn't hire me. They couldn't hire for the position until the end of their fiscal year—which is the end of March.

That possibility of not having to worry about income and paying rent and being on a salary when the end of my current lease comes up mid next year vanished. The little knot of dread in my stomach returned, tied up in the possibility that I might be in over my head. Then people showed up. They said I'm sorry. They said that sucks. They asked what do you need? And I remembered I have a small army, and the reason I stopped thinking about leaving this city is because I spent this year growing my in-person support network instead.

See, the company told me you didn't do anything wrong. I thought of course, I didn't. And it's difficult to know that—to know this is just something that happened that wasn't in my favour. Because things happen. It doesn't make it easier to accept. It doesn't make the disappointment hurt less. But things happen. So I let it hurt for a day or two, and then I got back to work looking and applying for jobs. Because I need full-time work.

I didn't get the literary grants that I applied for in June, either. Last year—or even six months ago—that would have been devastating. Now it was a moment of disappointment followed by another afternoon of putting words on the page. Continuing to do the thing I was doing anyway and would keep doing anyway. It would have be amazing if someone had paid me to do it, but that no wasn't going to be the thing to stop me. (I am old enough, and have been at this long enough, to recognize the only things that ever stop me from writing are me and exhaustion.)

When my family had a farm, I remember growing up with an understanding of how much of its success was beyond anyone's control. Wet summers. Early frosts. Fields flooded out, or the snow came too soon, and people lost entire crops. The precariousness of grain farming is part of why my family stopped doing it. But I learned that when it was nothing you had done or could have prevented, you did what you needed to prepare the ground for the winter. You looked at your options. Then in the spring, you went out and you planted more seeds. And you grew those possibilities all over again.

This might be why I've always been super goal-orientated. I was raised to set a goal and work towards accomplishing it. Then set another one and work towards that. To go out into the world looking for what I expect to find. And I realize this is a privilege in its own right, because not everyone has that support to fall back on. Occasionally, I do battle with the thought that accepting help is too easy. I could always be doing more, you see. I could always be trying harder.

That's why I applied for the writing grants, even though I had already decided what I wanted was full-time work. Because it was an option, and how much I needed it didn't affect my chances of getting it. The only thing I could ever guarantee would be to never get one because I didn't try.

190 people applied for the June Works In Progress grant, and 20 people got one. They're not stupendous odds, but they're not impossible ones, either. I've beat out more candidates than that for job interviews these past few months. Also, all of this job hunting has taught me that I have options. More options than I ever had when I restricted the paying work I wanted to do to a job in publishing or writing fiction.

I have a certain amount of privilege that allows me more choices about how I'm going to get to where I want to be. But I still have to get there. As does everyone else. We don't all necessarily want to travel the same route. Living life is a lot like writing in that everyone has a process and it's individualized. What works for me doesn't necessarily work for someone else, and may not even be what they want to work.

This is not revolutionary news. It's not an epiphany. It's mostly a peptalk for me, a reminder that I may need again later, that getting up and putting one foot in front of the other is still only way to get anywhere. Because somedays that feels harder than others, and somedays I still need to hear it.

If this happens to be a day that you also need to hear it, there's a shorthand among some friends of mine for this: Do the work. Prep the fields. Plant the possibilities. Let them grow.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

My complicated relationship with The Flash

I have a complicated relationship with CW's The Flash. You see, I watched most of its first season with dedication because it appeared to be doing something interesting. Ha, surprise, turns out it wasn't doing that thing—it was doing something far less interesting. It left me wondering why I felt the way I did in that previous post but stopped feeling that way when the show went in a different direction. I'm good at recognizing when someone is telling a story that's not the one I would and respecting the story they want to tell.

But The Flash didn't go in a different direction so much as it fell apart after I stopped trying to fill in its gaps. Thus what our complicated relationship really is: I try to make The Flash make sense and it can't decide if it wants to make sense. That would be a great deal easier to accept and move on if it would commit to being nonsensical. Instead it lurches and stumbles, because all its gears are mismatched, but it thinks it's not broken.

I don't know why I'm writing another blog post about a broken show. Maybe it's the curse of recognizing something's potential and wondering why it stubbornly refuses to use it. Yes, it's probably that.

To be fair, the writers were surprised by the show's success and were caught unprepared. (From the articles/interviews I've read, there was a solid plot for about thirteen episodes and then they had to scramble when the full season was greenlit.) This is not to suggest that you can't pants your way through a narrative, but you have to set aside more time to revise and tidy up something when you don't know what you're going to do next. You end up with pacing issues and inconsistencies—and television is a lot less forgiving because when you get to the season finale, you can't go back and fix things. The other episodes have already aired.

Some characters, like Eddie, benefitted from the extra opportunity to shine. Others, like Joe, seemed to spin themselves in circles. (Seriously, Joe becomes worse at due process and respecting other people's agency.) There were moments when the show did things that were interesting or responsive—but they always came across as tagged on. It viewed like a rush job—like the cameras needed to roll—instead of a season that served a greater story arc.

Up to the reveal of Harrison Wells as Eobard Thawne, alternate fan theories about his identity scanned. They better explained visual consistencies happening on the show. (The fan theories were also more interesting.) After the reveal, the plot got sloppy—fast. The question of why does he look like Harrison Wells was answered with technology that appeared on Fringe. Then the writers wrote themselves into a corner with a paradox by erasing a character from existence who was the driving force of the backstory plot. But then... he's not gone because Cavanagh is a series regular for season two?

It's time travel! Parallel Worlds! Alternate Timelines! And none of those easy answers address how someone can be erased from existence without having any impact on the world/plot/characters. It's not a matter of do the producers have an answer—it's never been that, because they've always come up with one—it's a matter of their answers continually don't make sense when I think about them. In our social media dominated world of TV viewing, where the shows are discussed at length between episodes, asking the viewer to Not Think About It isn't a sustainable approach.

The Flash could really benefit from doing the deep-think about where it's going more than a season at a time, and the problematic underpinnings of its narrative. The show is bad with how it writes anyone who isn't a hetro-male. (It's not great with class or race or gender.) It's bad with respecting the agency of anyone who isn't the protagonist. (Its attempt in the season two premiere to give Iris more agency negated Barry's agency.) It's bad with understanding how consequences work. (You can't erase someone out of existence and have them still exist.) It's super bad at understanding why these problems persist.

They persist because season one of The Flash tells the viewers things to appease their concerns then fails to follow through with real change. Example? When the show told us Iris was upset about being lied to so it could tick that box and go back to everything being all right between her and the rest of Team Flash by the end of the episode. Could this patchjob approach to character development get addressed and resolved in season two? Sure, but it means spending season two fixing season one, instead of the forward motion that the show wants to pursue. (There was a speech with a toast and Team Flash made a pact. It was that kind of sweetly optomistic The Flash gets when it really hits its stride.)

So why did I keep watching? Because Tom Cavanagh played two different characters (three if you want to count the brief feature of actual Harrison Wells in one episode) with more apparent ease than most of the CW can play one. (The exception being Rose McIver on iZombie, who is amazing.) Harrison Wells was consistently the best part of The Flash, because he was the only character with any semblance of depth. Watching Cavanagh, you could believe Wells had an internal life; he was off doing things—probably crimes—when he wasn't on screen.

Here was the genesis of that comic book relationship of the archnemesis, the antagonist who respects the protagonist (even admires him a little) and pushes him to grow and become better. An antagonist who has a different approach and perspective, but the viewer can recognize legitimate motivations to all of the character's actions. That was neat. It was a thing worth tuning in for. It was a welcome alternative to watching a show where moral complexity means you like to eat people as part of your grimdark aesthetic. (I do not demonize Hannibal. That show stared into the abyss long enough to demonize itself.)

The problem was The Flash couldn't decide if Wells/Thawne was an exercise in empathy—someone with a character arc—or just a Bad Guy tricking the Good Guy. One episode would get the complex morality right—like when we saw Wells somehow complete the process that made Barry become the Flash—and then the next episode would undo it. The season finale undid it within the same episode.

Why would Wells/Thawne want Barry dead after telling us repeatedly that Wells/Thawne's goal was to get home? Why go out of his way to kill someone he no longer hated and felt a sense of paternal pride for? I know the easy answer is because Wells/Thawne only views the world through the lens of whether or not others and their actions benefit him. So he says whatever he needs to because he's soooooo evil. But that's not internally consistent behaviour with the character arc the show kept trying to insist he had.

Then we get season two's premiere. A video message from Wells delivers a confession to the murder of Barry's mother. It's the most emotionally impactful minute of the episode. (Maybe just for me.) I'd love to interpret this as some gift of kindness—the swell of sentimental music implies the show knows Barry's third dad loves him best. (Victor Garber is more like Barry's benevolent science uncle.) This won't make you happy, Wells says, but I'm going to give you what you want.

I don't even know what to do with that, because it's the same problem as the season finale. It's easier to torment Barry by not giving him what he wants, by forever keeping that out of his reach. It requires no effort from Wells to do so. It would be the crueler thing to do. But Wells makes the makes the effort. He even warns Barry it won't help in the long run. "I'm not the thing you hate," Wells says. "We were never enemies."

How even—but no, there was textual—WHUT. Ok. Ok. There's a video message from someone who was erased from existence? Was he taken from another timeline and we'll find out there were two of him lurking around the corners of season one—one smirking Bad Wells/Thawne and one helpful Good Wells/Thawne? Are we, the viewer, experiencing a shift to a new timeline that Barry fell into post-Singularity that is identical except for Wells/Thawne not being erased from existence? Are these character inconsistencies deliberate to indicate a bigger plot— oh, for fuck's sake this is beyond ridiculous.

Do you see? Because The Flash season one is the TV equivalent of publishing a messy first draft, it creates an additional frustration of never knowing which of its internal inconstancies it will decide were intentional. Manifesting something in season two that fixes season one is still bad writing. It's still a lack of consequences. If nothing sticks, nothing happens. It can always un-happen should it turn out to be an unpopular decision.

This is why I feel like I have to tap out of watching The Flash. It's not that it turned out to be a bad show—it might've always been one—but that I'm not a viewer who can just Not Think About It. I do think about it—and trying to make sense of it eats up time. It's an exercise in futility. I could be putting that thought into something that is going to give back.

So here's what we're going to, The Flash. I'm going to give you two more episodes to make a decision about what you're doing and commit to doing it. If this isn't back on track—and not just showing the potential that it might one day find its way—by episode three of season two, you go on that list with Doctor Who and Arrow of things I had to stop watching because I grew out of them.

Friday, October 02, 2015

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

In A Thousand Nights, E.K. Johnston builds a historical desert kingdom of sand and magic as she reimagines the framework for the A Thousand And One Nights folktale collection. Readers may be familiar with Scheherazade and how she outsmarted the tyrannical Shahryar by telling him stories; she left each story unfinished so that he would have to allow her to live to the next night so he could hear its ending. In many adaptations of A Thousand And One Nights Scheherazade's tales are often what get the glory. In A Thousand Nights, we know from the opening line that this is a story well-aware of the danger of being a woman under a blood-thirsty king's rule.

Like Shahryar, Lo-Melkhiin has had many wives. When he uses one up, he kills her and takes another. Some women last a night. Some a week. No one makes it more than a month. When A Thousand Nights opens, he's already killed three hundred women.

Against this backdrop, Johnston tells the tale of a young spinner—of thread and stories—who loves her sister enough to take her place as Lo-Melkhiin's bride. From the impactful opening line to the last page, this unnamed narrator's lyrical voice weaves a spell over the reader. By carefully selecting the right details and words, Johnston enables us to feel the danger/wonder of this kingdom—be it during a flash flood or a dictator's rooftop star-viewing party. The desert is a dangerous place, her narrator tells us, but there is also much life to be found there.

That perspective is the key to A Thousand Nights. This is less the story of how a brave young queen wins over a tyrannical king than the story of how women come together and draw on each other's strength. Ladies have each other's backs in this book, and it changes their world. There is a love story in A Thousand Nights; there is also a story about how much the sisters love each other, and a healthy, functional poly family. There is no shortage of love, but I wouldn't call this a romance.

We hear from various sources within the story that Lo-Melkhiin was once a good, kind prince. This changes when a supernatural force hungry for magic and power possesses him. Potentially this could create a reading that goes oh, his mental illness is to blame. However, it's less about mental illness and more about a toxic belief that people are disposable. What I appreciate is how A Thousand Nights holds him accountable—it addresses how he became complacent in these acts. His complacency motivated the demon within him to keep escalating things, to keep trying to get a reaction.

Complacency—from people, from the world—in violence against women is what allows the arrangement to be put in place that sacrifices daughters and sisters to keep the kingdom safe. Lo-Melkhiin does all these things and the men of his kingdom don't ask him to stop killing. They ask that the victims be evenly distributed among the camps. Even if reading the possession as mental illness, the book doesn't use it as an excuse. It's something that the kingdom is refusing to address, half out of fear and half out of how it doesn't directly affect them.

The catalyst for change in A Thousand Nights is its narrator and her perspective. She asks for what she needs, she listens to what other people need, and she respects their agency. The book consistently presents that being kind is an active choice; one that courageous people want to make. It suggests attitudes can be changed without resorting to violent measures or domination.

To help reinforce this, Johnston adds the concept of the small-god—a form of ancestor-worship practiced by the characters. It allows the book to explore the power of support, and the responsibility that comes with having power given to one. While Johnston explored this theme to some degree earlier this year in Prairie FireA Thousand Nights takes the use of world as metaphor a step further. She is obviously an author growing her craft, which promises more great stories to come.

This story, A Thousand Nights, is about the power of consent—and about how not respecting it is what makes people into monsters. It is full of superb world-building, women looking out for each other, and the occasional wisdom learned from goats. If any of those things sound interesting, then this tale is one you'll want to hear.

A Thousand Nights is available from Disney-Hyperion at your local bookstore,, and Kobo. Thanks to HGB Canada and Ardo Omar for the opportunity to read this as ARC.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Anatomy of Curiosity

Tessa Gratton, Maggie Stiefvater, and Brenna Yovanoff are three accomplished authors and critique partners who form the Merry Sisters of Fate. For four years, they alternated posting a short story each week online. Many of these are collected in The Curiosities, which doubles as an anthology and a look at the critique process that went into those stories. (Notes from the author as well as her critique partners introduce each story and are sprinkled through the text as footnotes.) In recent months selected stories have been shared on Tumblr, as part of the lead up to the release of The Anatomy of Curiosity.

Much like their first collection, this one can be read as a trio of novellas and as a trio of approaches to the writing process. Stiefvater focuses on characters, Gratton focuses on world, and Yovanoff focuses on the idea. The collection begins with an introduction of intent from the authors and their thoughts on the three elements. Additional material—notes on revisions, facing doubt, and the concept of "write what you know"— is also included.

Stiefvater's Ladylike is an elegant and dark tale of an unusual friendship between a shy young woman and a composed older woman. In addition to its intriguing and compelling characters, Ladylike also explores the idea of being—surprise—a lady. Who defines what beauty and refinement mean? Is the traditional notion of "dignified" behaviour a trap or a means to hide what we don't want others to see? Can it also be a way to reveal our best features? Ladylike is not so much a story of how one affects class, as it is a story of how one grows confidence. (There is a reading about who benefits from ideas of what is proper behaviour, but the author notes focus on the intent of overcoming shyness.)

Stiefvater is, frankly, a master of writing characters who are both awful and admirable—often at the same time. Her stories are frequent practitioners of complex morality; people who make bad decisions for good reasons—do the wrong thing with the right intent. However, they also possess a unifying undercurrent of people coming together, finding the good in each other, and growing positively through the support and strength their friendships provide. Ladylike expertly displays this kind of character growth while staggering its arcs to have the most impact through the narrative. I don't know that I would say Ladylike is a happy story, but it's an optimistic one about the valour of kindness.

Gratton's Desert Canticle is a richly imagined and well-crafted love story across cultures set in a desert landscape that is both dangerous and gorgeous. Gratton notes the story was inspired by IEDs (improvised explosive devices,) and the idea of magic bombs led to creating a world in which they would exist. A world where the desert hums with power and explosions are shaped like flowers. A world with its own food, beliefs, and linguistic tics. Gratton's strength is in how she doesn't settle for free-floating concepts of cultures; she sinks her worlds all the way down.

There's also Gratton's economy of prose in building her worlds. After finishing Desert Canticle, I felt like I had read an entire novel. Her process notes cover everything from creating tension to layering meaning to using the world details as reinforcement for the theme. She's so good at storycraft and presenting how it's done in a way that is easy to follow. This peek into how she writes these stories that make a reader feel good about the world—without ever sacrificing consequence—is invaluable.

Yovanoff takes a slightly different approach in Drowning Variations; she creates a fictional version of herself to tell the story of trying to write the same story over a number of years and through various iterations. The story she's using appeared in the first Merry Fates collection, but this retelling effectively shows her writing process. When considered as "look what you can do with structure to tell a story better," it's the strongest example in the collection.

The idea of the story that we are always telling, the one that grows with us—changes as we do—is something I find fascinating. Yovanoff manages to deconstruct what writing the story only you can means, as well as illustrating how revision is key to refining an idea. This fictionalized memoir through revision is a great example of how her work is often more than one genre knitted together in a way that makes it look deceptively easy to do. All authors take narrative risks, but Yovanoff takes them in an unconventional way.

I love the characters and the worlds and the ideas in all three stories; seeing the different approaches allows for a much greater appreciation of not only what Stiefvater, Gratton, and Yovanoff each do—but what they are learning to do from each other.

The other thing that unites these novellas is the ease with which all three authors convey a sense of wonder, of horror, of the world being awesome. While their stories tackle real issues in metaphorical ways, they never lose sight of how magic can be found in people and places and ideas. In the act of being curious enough to look for it.

The Anatomy of Curiosity is available from Carolrhoda LAB at your local bookstore,,, and Kobo. An ARC was obtained from the publisher at BEA thanks to Read and Riot and Lost In A Great Book.

Monday, September 21, 2015

An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet

Leah Bobet's second novel, An Inheritance of Ashes, is a multitude of stories woven into one. It is a tale of two sisters struggling to keep the family farm. It's an exploration of how to build a courtship to be what it needs to be instead of what is expected. It's an epic fantasy novel that never leaves home. It's a discussion of war, its costs, and its aftermath. It's a blueprint for healing.

Hallie Hoffman, 16, is the younger of the Hoffman sisters. She and Marthe have been managing Roadstead Farm on their own since their father died. Historically speaking the farm has always gone to the older sibling, and Hallie lives with the memory of the night her father drove her uncle off. She fears if she isn't perfect, if she doesn't hold up her end, the farm will not only fail—she will be cast out by Marthe.

After Marthe married Thom, he and Hallie managed to work the fields and tend the goats together. But Thom was taken south to fight in the war against the Wicked God months ago. A war that ended victorious, but the men who fought it are haunted and broken. Tyler Blakely returned with a twisted leg and his eyes blasted from having looked upon the Wicked God. Thom has not yet returned. Marthe is pregnant with his unborn child, and the farm is failing. So Hallie hires on a veteran named Huron for the winter. Huron is quiet, starved for any kindness, and harbouring secrets and secret wounds of his own.

Then the spider-bird—one of the Twisted Things—appears on Hallie's windowsill one morning, and she knows the war with the Wicked God may have been won... but it's not over.

I can't be impartial about this novel, because I've read three times in various stages and it reduced me to tears each time. Because the characters in it are trying so hard to be better. To learn how to shoulder and share enormous responsibilities. To heal from wounds that go heart-deep.

An Inheritance of Ashes is one of those quiet books that tell vast stories, full of both farm chores and strange monsters. It's weird, wonderful, complex. I'd recommend it to readers of David Eddings or The Lord of The Rings, as they'll recognize the trope set that Bobet is pushing against. Instead of a young farm boy heading off to win the great war against the evil god/lord/demon, here is a young farmgirl who just wants to save her home.

If you're unfamiliar with epic fantasy, and more familiar with YA then I'd say An Inheritance of Ashes is for readers of Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races. While An Inheritance of Ashes has no horses, they are both novels tightly contained, intimate yet overflowing with emotion. Struggling with rural life and complicated family situations. Understanding that something like getting from one November to the next is no more simple than getting the crops in and the barely malted.

Much like The Scorpio Races, you can read An Inheritance of Ashes along the top two layers and be satisfied with it, but you can also read three, four, five layers down and be amazed. This and Erin Bow's The Scorpion Rules are two of the most accomplished books I've read this year, and if you love one of them then you'll also love the other. An Inheritance of Ashes defies genres with the same fierce spirit its narrator uses to defy defeat.

It's also a very empathetic story. It manages to be distinctly the voice and viewpoint of this particular young woman, while allowing a reader to parse how none of the characters are strictly good or bad. It's a complicated, messy morality—just like our world. Hallie and Marthe grew up hard, and much of the story is about Hallie learning how to apply her hardness in ways that are forward-moving. How to see the world the way people who aren't her do, and learn that she and her sister don't have to be be their uncle and father. It's an empowering theme for readers who need it to hear that doing the hard emotional work will be worth it.

The book extrapolates a future version of our world, set after a never-defined catastrophe has rendered recognizable technology useless. People farm and barter and live in smaller-sized communities, because that's what sustainable life now looks like. (While a state is never explicitly named, the ruins of nearby Windstown are meant to be the former city of Detroit, Michigan.) As a result the world of An Inheritance of Ashes is populated by all of the races and religions and cultures that exist in our own. It's a book where a stable, loving marriage exists between two men. Where the Huang butchers come to help with the goats in the fall. Where a group of tinkers and scientists forms their own found-family/compound on the edges of town.

It's also a world haunted by spider-birds and fox-lizards, where a Wicked God made of sand and despair and burning wind might swallow a town whole. Where an wayward army searches for their missing hero, who slew that Wicked God. It's a little bit about the stories we tell ourselves to get through the night. It's more about the magic that ordinary people can do when they come together, when they choose to try. It's a very kind book, and a very brave book—and it does it all without ever having to leave the Shire.

An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet is available from Scholastic Canada at your local bookstore, and Kobo. (You can also get it on Amazon.)

Friday, September 18, 2015

Notes from a year named Kindness: The last of 33

This is the last night of being 33; it passes quietly, after having finished running errands, getting supplies, and preparing to host some friends tomorrow.

Oh, 33. They do not lie when they tell you it's a year of trials. It's a year that demands you be brave and you grow. I got to it first, but I wasn't alone. Everyone I know who turned 33 this past year is being tested and having to stretch in different—and often very personal—ways.

For me, I had to learn how to be a person and how to live with other people. It was the first time in a long while that I had the space and emotional capacity to figure out what I wanted instead of relentlessly moving towards what it felt like everyone else wanted for me.

It was a year of learning that I could leave things. Stop doing them. Let them be someone else's responsibility. (I spent my time being 32 as not a lot more than the work I got paid to do.) After six years of customer service, of being the one who solved everyone else's problems, that kind of freedom can be bewildering.

It starts to feel counterintuitive to hold back and trust people will come to you if they need something. To remember it's no longer your job to be proactive for everyone else. It wasn't about learning how not to give a damn entirely, but how to conserve my damns—because they're a finite resource—and apply them in the best way for me and my needs. (It had been a long time since I got to use that power to do the things everyone else thought impossible for myself.)

I wanted to write, and I did. I wrote over 100,000 words spread between two projects. Some of those words are great; some of them aren't. What matters is I wrote them. I wanted to apply for literary grants, and I did. Not on the timeline I expected, but on the one that was best. I made an effort to blog more, and to not care whether anyone read it or not.

I went to two great concerts. I found new bands and read great books. I signed my best friend's marriage license. Showed up to help my other best friend with her newborn. Did my own taxes. And I got by—by wit, by sheer determination—without a fulltime job while I mastered learning how to look for and apply for new ones.

I spent a lot of this year telling people no, and I learned that it didn't end the world. I quit a terrible job three days in. I withdrew applications for others, because they weren't right for me. I unfollowed people I didn't want to see. I blocked others whom I didn't want to share my life or my content with.

I stopped being nice, because I stopped having to be angry all the time. I didn't have to rely on the bright, cheery niceness to keep my sword in my sheath. Instead, I got to be kind and to have full agency over who received that kindness. Which is not to say that I didn't get angry or that this year was without crisis or hardship. It was a struggle, but I made it through.

This past week has been its own challenge, because there are things I wanted to have accomplished by now and this isn't necessarily what I thought my life would look like on the eve of 34. Honestly, there was a large part of this year that was hijacked by someone else's crisis. Someone else's refusal to be brave and grow.

But it wasn't mine. This is the first birthday in two or three years that I feel like celebrating—and that I have time to celebrate. I feel like I'm gaining a year instead of losing the previous one.

And I already know what I want to do with it. I'm going to get a new job. I'm going to finish a writing project. I'm going to travel outside of the country before my passport needs renewing. I'm going to learn how to make tortillas and be unstoppable.

I'm going to be brave. And I'm going to grow. And I'm going to keep conserving my damns for myself and the people who deserve them.