Gretel’s Challenge Pt. 3

Gretel stared at the girl’s hand. She shook it slowly. “Gretel,” she said.

Aura beamed. “I know. I came here to see you.”

Gretel frowned. “I don’t understand.”

Aura nodded, as though she’d expected to hear that. “Sometimes when I hear a story, my ears itch. That’s how I know it’s true. And then I can Travel to where the story is happening.”

Gretel stared at the girl. “But how did you hear about my story?”

“Oh, it’s a famous fairy tale where I come from.”

Gretel frowned. “I’ve never met a fairy. Are you a fairy?”

Aura giggled. “No.” She stopped and thought about it. “I don’t think so. Maybe. Maybe that’s why I can Travel.” She frowned. “But I don’t have a wand. Or wings. So I don’t think so.” She thought for another moment. “I’d like to have wings,” she said.

Gretel shook her head. They’d gotten off track. “And your dwarf mother just lets you ‘travel’ wherever you want, any time you hear a story?”

Aura looked guilty. She leaned toward Gretel. “I’m not supposed to Travel without her,” she said, conspiratorially. “But she doesn’t like Adventures as much as me and sometimes my ears itch — SO — BAD!”

Gretel couldn’t help but laugh. It sounded rough and it only lasted a moment, but it surprised her. “So, what does the story you heard say about me?”

Aura took a breath. She tilted her head back, and her eyes focused on something inside herself. “Hansel and Gretel lived with their father and mother. They were very poor and the mother said that they should leave Hansel and Gretel in the forest. The father was sad but he agreed. But Hansel and Gretel heard this and left breadcrumbs so that they could find their way home. But the birds ate the breadcrumbs, so Hansel and Gretel couldn’t find their way home.”

While Aura paused for breath, Gretel stared at the girl. She was confused, and little hurt, by the blase recitation that sketched an outline of the horrors Gretel and her brother had endured.

Aura didn’t register Gretel’s distress. She continued with the story. “But they found a house made of gingerbread and candy with frosting everywhere and started eating it. A witch invited them inside. At first, she seemed nice but then she locked up Hansel and made Gretel cook him lots of food to make him fat and tasty for the witch.”

She stopped, looking up at Gretel. “Why did she want to eat Hansel if her house was made of cake and she had more food to make him fat?”

“Oh.” Gretel was startled by Aura’s question. It was one she’d asked herself, time and again, but had never found a satisfactory answer for. “Um. She was Bad, I guess,” she said. The answer only rang partially true, to her own ears.

Aura tilted her head, considering Gretel’s answer. She didn’t seem any more satisfied with the answer than Gretel, but she shrugged and took another breath. “The witch couldn’t see good,” Aura continued. “So when the witch would check to see if he was fat yet, he’d hold out a bone from the chicken Gretel had cooked for him, and it tricked the witch into thinking he wasn’t fat.

“But one day, the witch decided to eat him anyway. She told Gretel to check if the oven was hot enough but Gretel said she didn’t know how, so the witch checked instead. Gretel locked the witch in the oven and went and rescued Hansel. They stole lots of gold and stuff from the witch’s house and took it home. Their dad was so happy to see them and to be rich now, and their stepmother was dead.”

The story over, Aura stopped to catch her breath. Her gaze focused on Gretel again. “Sometimes the stories aren’t very true. I guess if the witch ate Hansel some stuff was wrong….?”

Gretel processed Aura’s version of the story. Gretel’s story. Her living nightmare. It almost didn’t sound that bad, at least, not in the cavalier way that Aura told it. Gretel supposed that if she and Hansel had made it back to their father with pockets stuffed with gold, maybe the cruelty of him having left them in the woods in the first place might have balanced out. But, the heaviness in her heart knew that wasn’t true.

She was foolish to have believed that her stepmother had loved them, and she and Hansel had been foolish to believe that a magical house made of candy and cake in the middle of the forest wasn’t too good to be true. They’d been foolish to trust that the witch just wanted to give them a warm place to sleep and a loving home to live in. But the part that hurt — really hurt — was their father allowing himself to be persuaded to abandon them. Twice.

And, yes, Gretel and Hansel had left rocks and then breadcrumbs to help them find their way home, but Gretel had secretly hoped that her father would follow those breadcrumbs and rescue them. But Gretel, who had followed those breadcrumbs every day for the past 9 years, every day since she’d escaped the witch, had never seen her father on the trail. This knowledge created an abscess in her heart.

This bitterness made her want to lash out at Aura, to tell her to grow up. To tell her that stories that started with parents who abandoned their children didn’t end well. Then she remembered that Aura had been adopted, and she bit her tongue. The girl seemed happy enough, ridiculously so. Maybe it hadn’t been stupid to believe that her stepmother should have been able to love her and Hansel.

She shoved the thought away, and stood. It didn’t matter. ‘Should’ wasn’t real. What was real was that Hansel was about the be eaten by a witch, and only Gretel could stop that from happening. She’d have to ditch the kid first, of course.

Greta’s Challenge Pt. 2

Gretel awoke. Her head rested on an old almanac, and the barkeep had laid his apron over her before retiring for the evening. Gretel rose, groaning as her muscles protested. The sky through the window was bright blue, and the birds screeching outside tweaked at her pounding headache. Gretel replaced the almanac on the bookcase, the apron on the hook by the door that led up to the barkeep’s apartment, and downed the shot of moonshine that had been left on the bar for her.

She clomped over to the door, her boots feeling heavy, but her head feeling lighter. She unlocked the door and opened it up. A bright smile greeted her.

“Ugh,” Gretel said, offended by such unabashed cheerfulness this early in the morning. The kid looked familiar. The hair was braided instead of pigtailed, and the poofy dress was a different color, but the sparkly red shoes and the tiger-ish amber eyes were the same as the brat who’d been sitting next to her the night before. “What do you want?” She was started to feel persecuted by the child’s persistent friendliness.

The girl’s smile widened. “I’m here to help you!”

The girl’s voice chirped sweetly like birdsong and was equally annoying. No, it was more annoying. At least the birds left Gretel alone. Gretel snorted. “Alright,” she said. She shut the door to the bar and brushed past the kid. She strode toward the woods at her usual pace.

The kid had to run and skip in order to keep up, but she didn’t seem to mind, much to Gretel’s irritation. About a mile into the woods, Gretel started following the breadcrumbs she and Hansel had left for their father, so many years ago. The trail was so familiar to her by now that though the trail wound intricately around ancient oak trees like a labyrinth, the crumbs were no longer necessary. Still, they were a comforting presence, and the longer Gretel followed the trail, the stronger and more determined she felt.

The crumbs led to an oak tree so huge and old that an archway had been carved through it. The archway rose several feet above Gretel’s head and more than an arm’s breadth wide, but the tree was so massive that the size of the opening in the middle of its trunk didn’t affect the sturdiness of its structure.

No matter the distastefulness of Gretel’s destination, passing through the tree felt like a head-to-toe hug. She walked out of the other side of the tree, her scalp still tingling pleasantly.

In her younger days, Gretel had attempted to bring people through the archway with her. Grown adults with axes of every size, shape, and sharpness who had pledged to help her rescue her brother. Every one of them had been able to pass through the archway, but had instantly lost track of Gretel once on the other side. Gretel had tried holding hands, piggybacking, and even chaining herself to these people, but every time, she’d ended up on the other side of the archway, alone.

She was so accustomed to the idea that nobody could pass through the archway with her that she’d mentally dismissed the child who had promised to help her. Therefore, she was startled, a few minutes later, by the sound of crackling leaves and snapping twigs on the trail behind her. She turned, and for a moment wondered if she was dreaming. The little girl stopped skipping, and looked up at Gretel expectantly.

Gretel’s knees felt weak and she half-fell, have sat down on in the middle of the path. The girl followed Gretel’s lead, sitting down in front of Gretel and criss-crossing her legs.

“Who are you?” Gretel asked.

“I’m Aura,” the little girl said, holding out her hand.

Gretel’s Challenge

Gretel sat at the bar, nursing bruised knuckles and a beer. The witch had won again. The thought echoed in Gretel’s mind like a malignant mantra.

“You look sad.”

The voice came from the stool to Gretel’s right. She looked over, and then down. A little girl, who couldn’t be older than six years old, with bright, tigerish eyes and smooth brown pigtails, looked up at her.

The girl smiled, revealing a row of tiny white teeth except for a pinkish gap where a front tooth should be. “Maybe I can help,” she said.

Gretel snorted. She sneered down at the girl, several beers and many years worth of bile welling up at the offer. “Get lost, Dwarf,” she said. She drained the rest of her beer. Before she could signal for another, a fresh mug was sliding toward her. Gretel caught it. Cold foam slopped over her hand. A welcome pain ignited at the contact of alcohol on the split skin of her knuckles. A familiar warm numbness swept through the rest of her body as she gulped down half of the beer.

“I’m not a dwarf,” the girl said. Her tone was informative, rather than offended. “My mother is a dwarf. I am of a typical height — for my age.”

Gretel looked back down at the girl. She split and swam in Gretel’s vision, but there was a false note in her statement. Gretel followed the note through the river of her own blurry thoughts. “Your mother is a mermaid,” she corrected. The double vision faded enough for Gretel to be able to see the girl’s cheeks pinken.

The girl acknowledged the hit with a nod. “My birth mother is a mermaid. My adoptive mother is a dwarf.”

The girl’s quiet dignity chafed against Gretel’s conscience. Her words had been not been meant kindly. She opened her mouth to apologize, but a huge belch escaped instead. The girl’s bangs fluttered against her forehead and her eyes widened. Gretel swallowed her apology and turned back to her beer.

“Really, I’m good at helping,” the girl said. “I help a lot of folk.”

The vibration in the word folk rippled in Gretel’s brain. She turned to look at the girl again. Her tiger eyes glowed with that unshakable confidence of all little girls who had met many challenges but hadn’t yet been defeated. Once again, Gretel wrestled with her conscience before speaking. She lost, again. “My brother was eaten by a witch,” she said. “How would you like to help with that?”

To her relief, she was unable to register the girl’s response because the copious amounts of alcohol she’d consumed finally hit the sweet spot in her brain. She slid off the stool and crumpled gracelessly on a floor varnished with blood, sweat, and drool — a decent amount of which had once belonged to Gretel.

Book Review #3: Uncrowned by Will Wight

Uncrowned is the 7th book in the Cradle series. I read the first few for free, paid for the next couple, and then eagerly awaited this one but had quit my job and was broke by the time this came out. So, once I finished Lindsay Ellis’ new book, I knew exactly what I wanted to read with my Kindle Unlimited free trial.

SPOILERS!!!

The Cradle series follows Lindon, who is born without a magical talent, but who is interfered with by a — sci-fi goddess? — after which, he is able to rank up magically far beyond anything his village could even imagine. It’s an interesting mix of fantasy, sci-fi, and like, manga, except there are no pictures. It’s very martial art-ish and reads like what I assume Pokemon is like (never seen it). Or Magic the Gathering, if it was a book not based on a card game?

What I mean is, it’s pretty formulaic. Lindon levels up, while defying death at pretty much every turn. Most of him avoiding death is done through one-on-one combat wherein he is outmatched, by a lot. Uncrowned, in particular is based around a tournament that he and his friends fight in.

Having read the previous books in the series, but having finished with the 6th book, like, a year ago, it was nice to see Lindon’s pet turtle pay a visit to Lindon’s sister in the Prologue, but since we don’t see them for the rest of the book, I wondered why that scene was in there at all. It would have been nice to break up some of the monotony of the tournament, after a while.

The strength of these books comes from the characters. Every character, even ones we don’t know for very long, are multi-dimensional — often, it’s only two dimensions but that’s enough to create conflict and tension within themselves as well as within their worlds. Also, the dynamics between certain characters are fun to watch. I like to watch Eithan interact with pretty much anyone, and Yerin is such a badass. I also like that the romance between Lindon and Yerin is subtle, with Lindon respecting that Yerin’s ambition is, at the very least, equal to his own.

In this book, we finally get to see Lindon and Yerin fight each other, outside of sparring. In the tournament, anyone who dies is immediately resurrected by the judge, so neither has to hold back. I really love the moment when Dross convinces Lindon to really fight.

“She wants you to see her full power, and she wants you to trust her to handle yours.”

Uncrowned by Will Wight

That’s deep.

The series is framed by a larger, universal battle between chaos and order. Essentially, what Linden, and Yerin, and Eithan are training for is a sci-fi-ish type of godhood. Up until now, only Linden is really aware of this. But at the end of Uncrowned, the happenings on the planet Cradle catch up with the universal battle, and everyone left in the tournament is invited to become a god(ish).

Another strength of the series is the author’s way of sketching interesting, colorful, and diverse settings. We never get to stay in any particular location for longer than a portion of the book, and we don’t really go back to former settings, aside from Linden’s home town, but each setting is given its own sense of dimension and local culture. We get to meet a lot of characters in these settings who travel with us a ways, even as antagonists. The background settings add dimension to these characters that they bring with them. Generally speaking, because I have issues with visualization, I prefer stories that stick to one main character and few settings but Wight has a way of personalizing even characters whose heads we don’t spend much time with that I never feel lost or frustrated.

That said, the frame from the sci-fi god(ish) perspectives are a bit difficult to engage with because they’re told so clinically. The style effectively separates the warmer, flesh-and-blood adventures on Cradle from the cold, mental and technological battles in space but the characters are harder to like and I think I’d appreciate those parts better upon rereading them. Also, now that Linden is being invited into the universal battle, along with his friends, I think the space battles will become more engaging.

In this particular book, although the tournament started out interesting with more psychological challenges (my favorite, too brief, scene in this book is Eithan giving one of the test AIs a hard time), the battles started to get tedious after a while. Just when they did, the author changed things up, so that’s a minor irritation. Also, again, I loved the fight between Linden and Yerin.

I would say, though, that a lot of the tedium would have been broken up if we could have gone back to Linden’s village and his sister, as the Prologue seemed to imply would happen. I will also put it out there the hope that his sister gets to join him, at some point. I think she was the highest rank in Linden’s village in the first book, and she is a root-for-able character. I’m hoping that the fact that she was mentioned in this book means that she’ll be in the later ones more.

Book Review #2: The Vine Witch by Luanne G. Smith

I did First 500 blog posts for both Axiom’s End and The Vine Witch, so I won’t repeat too much of what I said about how The Vine Witch starts.

SPOILERS!!!

The Vine Witch is about a witch whose specialty in magic is wine. Before she was cursed and transformed into a toad, she helped her mentor run a vineyard. After she breaks the curse, she finds that the vineyard hasn’t made good wine since she’s been gone, and that it has been sold off to the MC’s new love interest. The mentor has been allowed to stay on as the cook. The MC believes that her ex-fiance is behind her curse and is determined to kill him. She also recognizes that the vineyard has been cursed (like, a LOT) and sets about fixing the vineyard.

As mentioned in my First 500, I genuinely enjoyed the way that The Vine Witch started. And I was well into the second chapter, before I started to get romance-novel vibes. Even though we meet the love-interest earlier in the story, we don’t really notice him (which I like) but here, he’s described thusly:

He snuck a glance at her while he polished the lenses, and she couldn’t help but notice the fine features of his face — the proud brow that tightened in thought, the geometric planes of the cheeks, and jawline taut from firm self-confidence.Excerpt of “The Vine Witch” by Luanne G. Smith

As John Mulaney would say, “Hmmm…gross!” And, sure enough, these two magically end up together without any romantic rivals, aside from the ex-fiance that the MC wants to murder. Now, just to clarify, there’s nothing wrong with romance novels, but I didn’t think that that was what I was downloading. Romance novels are great wish-fulfillment vehicles, and some are written better than others, but generally, the characters tend to be one-dimensional, the attraction is generally superficially-based, and the plot is predictable.

Somewhere in Chapter 3, I could predict the rest of the novel: the MC would work with the love interest to bring life back to the vineyard and fall in love. Love would heal the MC’s heart so that she would decide against murder. I will admit that aside from the dynamic between the prospective lovers, the overall book does not follow the predictable plot devices of a paranormal romance novel.

To be honest, I think it would have been more satisfying for focus to be on unravelling the malignant spells set on the vineyard, rather than the direction the rest of the book went in, but I will say that the plot was more interesting than what I imagined — in some good ways, in some that I didn’t like as much. Okay, where to start. First, the MC does get started on unravelling the malignant spells put on the vineyard, and she has to work around the love-interest because he’s too practical to believe in magic.

Before we can get to far with that, though, the MC’s ex-fiance shows up for a visit and offers to buy the vineyard. The MC hides upstairs so that she can avoid him, but runs into him later, in town. She is overheard threatening to ruin him for cursing her, and then he turns up dead, like, the next day. In the meantime, small animals have been found dead and drained of blood ever since the MC has been gone, so she’s arrested for her ex-fiance’s murder and accused of killing the small animals, which is a part of blood-magic and illegal.

The MC is arrested and put into witch-prison with two interesting cellmates. The love-interest used to be a laywer, so he’s determined to defend her even though he’s a) never been a part of a murder trial and b) didn’t believe in magic until, like, five minutes ago. The MC inadvertently helps one of her cellmates escape, who then helps the MC escape with her other cellmate. The cellmate and the MC go hide at the circus, where the cellmate knows some people.

We run into a psychic and are pretty sure that he put the curse on the MC but don’t know why. The MC doesn’t figure this out, but she steals a crystal from him so that she can place protection on the love-interest. For some reason, nobody has figured out that that ex-fiance’s wife is the one who killed him and is responsible for the dead animals, so the love-interest goes to visit her, and she ties him up and tries to feed him to a demon.

The MC shows up, just in time, and she and the cellmate save the love-interest and kill the demon. The love-interest and the cellmate go out to greet the police while the MC gets the bad witch to confess. The police magically overhear this (literally) and arrest the bad witch. She dies because the magical handcuffs cut off her magic and she’s centuries old. And everyone who is alive is probably going to live happily ever after. Oh, except that the MC’s mentor is (accidentally) responsible for the MC being turned into a toad and the mentor, angry at the carnival psychic poisons him and then, I think, herself. She dies, anyway, maybe from guilt. But not before telling the MC that her parents were snake oil salespeople, except that the snake oil was, like, poison and charms.

Okay, so, what I liked. I LOVE the cellmates, although I think that everyone escaped from prison too easily. I also really dug the circus setting and getting to know one of the cellmates better. I imagine that there either are or will be more books set in this world and can see each of the cellmates getting her own story, and possibly the barkeeper and the bakery owner (who is also a witch). I think the world-building overall was fantastic. I wanted to spend more time there and get to know the people better, and that’s all because of how specific everything in the world was. The circus is a run-away destination for people with magic but few options. The bar is also for magical people, and is on the rough side of town. The baker creates pastries that identify with the people buying them, particularly in regard to their romantic destinies.

I also loved that the MC had her own specific skills that are demonstrated to the reader. I really liked the idea of unravelling the spells put on the vineyards, and I also liked the idea of vine witches being a real thing. And beer witches, too. Hilarious. I half-suspect that this is based on a real thing, and I don’t care either way because I don’t believe in witches, but I’d keep reading about these ones.

What I didn’t like. I didn’t like the mentor and the psychic both dying rather than dealing with the consequences of their actions. Also, I would have wanted the mentor around for another book, even though her dying coincidentally meant that the vineyard was free and clear for the lovebirds. I didn’t mind the surprise of the ex-fiance dying, but I didn’t like that the murderer was SO obvious but the MC never picked up on it, even though she was, generally, pretty smart.

Overall, I liked the aspects of the book that had been focused on more because we’ll probably see them in future books, like some of the characters and settings. I don’t like that the characters we’ll never see again were one-dimensional, and I don’t like all the twists that didn’t need to be there. Similarly to Axiom’s End, it felt like the time period was a convenient excuse to allow the MC a certain level of naivety that the reader doesn’t share, which allowed the author to heavily rely on an overused trope. I also found it really frustrating that the vine witch was really knowledgeable about magic but didn’t know that a jinnie could be set free by giving her fire. I would have liked it better if she’d intentionally helped the jinnie escape.

The witch who kills small animals and people in order to stay young forever is not new, and every one of the scenes where the love-interest is being tortured and then rescued could have been deleted, and the word count put to use in other, more interesting areas. For instance, since we end up at the circus with the man who cursed the MC, why not make him fully responsible for her curse, as revenge for some nasty thing the MC’s parents did to him? Then, he’d have his own motivation to curse her rather than sheer laziness and greed, which made him as one-dimensional as the actual villain.

I will say that the villain’s back story was pretty interesting, but it was all exposition, and therefore, rendered boring. I would much rather have seen that character in her own novel in the same world. Maybe she would have had to fight her own demons as well as the one that she made a deal with. That would have been cool.

Something I’m not sure how I feel about is the involvement of the Catholic church in the story. On the one hand, Christianity in general is responsible for a lot of atrocities and has a historically negative view of witchcraft. It also served as a device that separated the MC into the “good” side of witchcraft with the villain as firmly “bad”, which just takes away dimensionality. On the other hand, I did like the priest and I know that a lot of converts were lured away from paganism with the promise that Christianity was basically paganism + Jesus, so maybe that’s the direction the author intends to go in.

Overall, the characters were interesting, but superficially so. I would love to spend more time in this world and see how it develops. I would like to see the author be less clever, plot-wise, because, honestly, every story has been told. You can only surprise us so far with what happens, but the how and the who are unlimited, so I’d like to see more focus on those aspects of storytelling.

Knowing that this was the author’s first novel and seeing how much creativity and detail she displayed in her world-building, I would definitely read another book from her. In fact, as soon as I’m done with this/these review(s), I’ll probably go look her up.

Book Review #1: Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

I rarely review things because I have a tendency to change my mind over time, and I hate disagreeing with myself. But I’ve read three books this week, and they’re still floating around in my head, so I thought I’d give brief thoughts on each book. (This was going to be short reviews of each book, but they all ended up too long, so I’m splitting them up.)

SPOILERS!!!

First, yes, I do have copious amounts of free time, but no, I did not spend them reading. I actually listened to Axiom’s End on Audible and then used the text-to-speech function on my Kindle app to listen to the other two. To be honest, I prefer reading text-to-eyeballs, but I won’t refer to that as “real” reading because even though I personally prefer the tactile function of reading, the journey is comparatively the same whether the book is read or listened to. I won’t devalue the experience of people who can’t read for whatever reason due to a sensory snobbery that is based on the fact that my ability to process spoken words isn’t as good as my ability to process written words. Also, if you’re going to judge me by anything in this paragraph, how about the fact that I supported the same corporation that treats its employees unethically and whose standard of quality has declined with its popularity, like most monopolies do — twice?

Second, I’ve always had a thing about listening to books but I was working on a crafting project with a strict deadline, so I signed up for free trials of Audible and Kindle Unlimited so that I could listen while my hands were busy. (I actually purchased Axiom’s End, but couldn’t stop to read it, so I signed up for Audible so that I could listen to it.) Anyway, due to the fact that I don’t like listening to books, I won’t be reviewing the voice actors in Axiom’s End. I preferred the text-to-speech function in the Kindle app because it allowed me to choose my own emphasis. There’s a lot of internal arguing when I don’t like how a voice actor chose to interpret a section of writing, and the text-to-speech function works really well, as long as the book is edited properly with lots of good punctuation. Although, that said, I will say that Ollie of Philosophy Tube did a great job and that he has a remarkably soothing American accent, even when he’s playing a character who is kind of a turd of a human being.

Anyway, disclaimers out of the way, I’ll start with the first book I read this week, which was Lindsay Ellis’ Axiom’s End. I have been waiting for this book to come out ever since I found out that Lindsay had a book coming out, which was about 9 months ago, when I watched her X0X0 speech. I’ve been watching her video essays for a couple of years and I always find her videos to be entertaining, insightful, and the most important thing in a good author — empathetic.

My first impression of Axiom’s End wasn’t good. I was genuinely disappointed, which was — disappointing. It occurred to me that even though I’ve been training myself to like audio books more by listening to Terry Pratchett and Georgette Heyer books that I’ve already bought/read multiple times, that maybe I was missing something due the sensory experience of listening.

So, I cracked open my Kindle version one night — okay, who are we kidding, one morning, before bed. I started from the first chapter and found that, yep, the visual process of reading allowed for a depth and comprehension that listening to the book wasn’t giving me. I was still on a crafting deadline so I went back to listening to the book with more trust in the author, and found myself becoming more engaged. I’ll probably read this book again in a few months and like it a lot better than I remembered.

But, that said, here is a short synopsis: The book follows Cora, whose father is a famous conspiracy theorist. Their relationship is estranged because Cora thinks her dad is crazy, and because he basically abandoned her family when she was younger. Cora lives with her mother, brother and sister (both younger) and their two dogs. Cora dropped out of college about six months before the story starts, doesn’t believe in aliens, and doesn’t particularly like her job as a temp.

In the first chapter, we find that Cora and her family are being followed (probably by the CIA), a meteor flies past the building Cora works in and shatters the windows, and Cora is fired for leaving work without checking out with anyone. Later that night, Cora sees an alien. So, action-wise, we get into it pretty quickly. I will say that, from Lindsay Ellis, I was expecting more of a wise-cracking, uber-jaded main character, but Cora was earnestly confused, scared, and tongue-tied throughout the book.

I liked the choice, as sincerity seems to be making a comeback and it also made Cora’s journey feel more authentic, as opposed to wish-fulfillment. Also, Ellis mentioned that Ender’s Game was a huge influence on this book, and Ender was a very earnest character (even though, as Ellis acknowledges, Orson Scott Card’s politics are toxic and BAD). I could see the influence in the way that Cora was either emotionally or physically isolated from the secondary characters in the book. This means that the reader was as forced to emotionally connect to the robotic alien, Ampersand, as much as the main character was (Almost, haha).

I would say that the secondary characters were pretty cardboard. I think that the best way to handle secondary and tertiary characters that the reader only gets glimpses of is the Georgette Heyer method. Instead of trying to make each character fully dimensional, she gives the character a very strong opinion on a specific thing or a very specific characteristic. This might sound like the recipe for a one-dimensional caricature, which is would be, if the story was based around this character. A main character should have strengths and flaws, and moments of humor mixed with moments of pathos. A tertiary character only needs to be interesting for a moment, so why not catch them in a moment in which they are interesting?

Also, specificity doesn’t need to be silly. Some of my favorite moments in Georgette Heyer novels is when the omniscient narrator jumps into the head of a servant observing his employer’s guests at dinner, or reacting to the first appearance of the heroine in their employer’s house. The fact that Georgette Heyer specializes in Regency romance novels means that pretty much any Regency convention allows the reader a glimpse into an entire world, so what’s conventional to the servant is automatically alien and therefore interesting to the modern reader.

This is not to say that Ellis would have done better with an omniscient POV, just that you can make a character endearing, ridiculous, or detestable with just a few words. One of my favorite interactions in a Georgette Heyer novel is in Sylvester, between the hero of the story and his widowed sister-in-law’s new fiance. The fiance is a vain idiot, but Sylvester is not, and we find him amusing himself during a conversation he’d rather not be having with a person he has no respect for, and he does it without being noticeably rude. So, just a short excerpt, and honestly, this is probably my favorite scene in one of my favorite Georgette Heyer novels, so if you don’t like it, you probably wouldn’t like her books.

In the scene, Sylvester is referred to as “Duke”, and the sister-in-laws’s new fiance is “Sir Nugent”.

“She did,” asseverated Sir Nugent gravely. “`My sweet life,’ I said – you’ve no objection to that, Duke?”

“Not the least in the world.”

“You haven’t?” exclaimed Sir Nugent, slewing his body round to stare at Sylvester, an exertion which the stiff points of his collar and the height of that Oriental Tie made necessary.

“Why should I?”

“You’ve put your finger on the nub, Duke!” said Sir Nugent. “Why should you? I can’t tell, and I believe I’ve cut my wisdoms. `My love,’ I said (if you’ve no objection) `you’ve got a maggot in your Idea-pot.'”

“And what had she to say to that?” enquired Sylvester, conscious of a wish that Phoebe had not cantered ahead.

“She denied it,” said Sir Nugent. “Said you were bent on throwing a rub in our way.”

“Oh?”

“Just what I said myself! `Oh!’ I said.”

“Not `my love’?”

“Not then. Because I was surprised. You might say I was betwattled.”

“Like a duck in a thunderstorm.”

“No,” said Sir Nugent, giving this his consideration. “I fancy, Duke, that if you were to ask all round the ton if Nugent Fotherby had ever looked like any species of fowl in such a situation the answer would be, in a word, No!”

Excerpt from “Sylvester”, by Georgette Heyer

So, if you’re not familiar with Regency-ese, Sir Nugent is someone who likes to think of himself as very fashionable and he wears his shirt collar so high that he can’t turn his neck. He has to turn at the waist in order to look over at Sylvester. The modern-day equivalent might be Lady Gaga choosing to make full shoulder spikes a daily choice rather than saved for special occasions. In the scene, Sir Nugent is surprised to find that Sylvester has no interest in breaking up his engagement to Sylvester’s sister-in-law. Also, Phoebe is the heroine of the story, and Sylvester is starting to like her and is sad that she has ridden on ahead (they’re on horses).

So, in this small portion of this scene, we get a sketch of Sir Nugent’s character, Sylvester’s character, and his vague admission that he’s interested in Phoebe — which, if you read the first chapter, is VERY interesting. Also, similarly to Darcy and Wickham in Pride & Prejudice, both Sylvester and Sir Nugent are presented as arrogant, but one is more forgivable. On a side note, I would say that between Sir Nugent and Wickham, Sir Nugent is more likable, but that’s only because he’s amusing. Wickham tries to rape an underage girl and Sir Nugent succeeds in kidnapping a five-year-old, so neither is a great guy.

Anyway, to apply this to Axiom’s End, my emotional investment in Cora’s family is really low because Cora’s mom is a workaholic who thinks about work a lot, her brother is a teenage know-it-all who sneaks into the computer room to download porn in the middle of the night, and Cora’s sister is a sweet six-year-old. Her temper tantrum when she finds out that aliens are real strikes me as one-note and contrived. However, Cora’s sister worships Avril Lavigne and thinks that Ani DiFranco is boring. This was Ellis introducing a secondary character without a lot of screen time in a memorable way. I even remember that her family had to talk her out of wearing ties to school (like Avril) because that is the one unique detail we’re given about her. We assume the ordinary stuff about her but this simple detail hints at depth.

I will say, too, that Cora’s brother is introduced as kind of an ass but as soon as there’s an alien in the house, he acts more his actual age than the full adult every thirteen-year-old thinks they are. He’s happy enough to let his older sister take charge, but is a willing second-in-command. He’s also protective of his younger sister.

Unfortunately, the mother is the most one-dimensional, shrill, selfish, and useless person to have around, particularly in a crisis. This makes me sad because even though my mom was a drunk mess, she was amazing in a crisis and would have killed to protect her children. If Cora’s mother had taken control in that scene, I would have liked her better and she would have come off as more dimensional.

The scene could still have ended with Cora running out to try to find the dog because it wouldn’t have made sense for the mother to do that. So, Cora still would have found the alien and our adventure still would have started here. Overall, I think that the word count spent with Cora’s family should have been utilized more effectively or just cut entirely. If the book started at the beginning of Chapter 9, I would have had a similar level of emotional investment in rescuing her family from the CIA.

Throughout the book, I wished that Luciana was around to answer some questions, but any time she’s in a scene, she’s so tight-lipped and defensive that she might as well not be there. Again, not handled in an unrealistic way, but not particularly engaging either. Also, Cora and Luciana get into a verbal fight near the end of the book and then for a while we’re not sure if Luciana is dead or alive and Cora feels really bad about the fight but, I, as a reader, was not particularly invested. To clarify, I’m never happy to hear that someone died, but I wasn’t sad that Luciana’s essence was no longer a part of our world, because I never really got a sense of her essence. Also, I never believe a character is dead until I see the body, and even then, I’m only 20% sure they won’t come back. I’ve watched too many soap operas and sci-fi, fantasy, superhero, and wrestling shows.

I also feel like the scene where Cora visits Luciana and her crew — all of whom know about the aliens — is wasted. Cora initially describes her close encounter to Luciana in the woods with no one else around. Luciana doesn’t believe her, but she introduces Cora to the group. Then she takes Cora up to find a new outfit and lets her shower. Then she’s taken down to tell the group what happened. This is the direct passage of Cora’s interaction with the group.

Now having had the time to calm down and run through it in her mind, she was better able to explain what happened.

Did the entity make eye contact? She couldn’t be sure; she’d run away. Did it actually touch her? She couldn’t be sure; it felt more like a magnetic force than being touched. Did it show interest in the computer? Yes, it had dismantled the computer. She saw it hiding in the neighbor’s yard when she was at the mailbox? She couldn’t be sure — at the time, she thought she’d imagined it. Did it make any noise? She didn’t think so, but she couldn’t be sure. Did it make any bid to communicate? She didn’t think so, but she couldn’t be sure.

With all this ambiguity, she was started to see why Bard and Luciana were skeptical.

She didn’t get a sense of antipathy from the group. It seemed as though what she was saying just didn’t compute. Like they had been expecting an invading Hun army but she was describing a horde of invading spiders. But what was more noteworthy wasn’t the way they treated her but the way they treated Luciana — the way they interrupted her or stepped over her questions and comments made it seem like Luciana was on thin ice.

Luciana sent Cora back outside onto the porch while the grown-ups talks over what she’d just told them.

Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

Bad, but not un-fixable. The first thing I’d do is cut the finding a new outfit scene, a lot. Here’s how I’d handle that. “Cora arrived at the safe house. Her aunt escorted her up to shower and gave her a change of clothes. Then Cora went downstairs and met the group.” Boom! The least interesting part of the chapter whittled down to three sentences. Also, I’d probably go back further than that. The scene between Bard and Cora effectively makes me dislike him the same way that Cora does, but then very similarly dialogue is immediately repeated between Cora and her aunt, so by the time we get to tell the story to the group, we’re all exhausted of this story. Not only did we live it, but we’ve had a phone conversation with Luciana, an in-person conversation with Bard, and in-person conversation with Luciana rehashing it.

If Cora had waited to tell the full story to the group, that scene would have been better and the scenes with Bard and Luciana could have been cut down without any loss at all to the story. I would transport the actual dialogue Cora had with her aunt to the scene with the group. This way, Ellis could show, instead of tell us what the interaction was. The group could interrogate her with dialogue tags and everything.

For me, there are two wasted opportunities with the way the scene is written. First, Ellis named the characters in the group after her friends, a lot of them her fellow YouTubers. So, if Ellis had fleshed out this scene, we would have gotten actual cameos of these people, which would have a) been a great fan moment for me, but also b) would have demonstrated not only Cora’s burgeoning dynamic with the group but her aunt’s “thin ice” dynamic. We would have seen, rather been told, that Luciana was constantly being interrupted and would have been able to infer and internalize that dynamic.

The way it happened, Cora could have been abducted in the park near her house, and we would have gotten to the Google campus several chapters earlier, and not missed anything. The Google campus is Chapter 9, and this is when the story gets interesting. Cora is confronted by the alien in the woods, and then wakes up at Google headquarters. The alien psychically tells her to try to get into the server room, and Cora is apprehended by security. The power in the building goes out, and Cora escapes. She finds Bard’s van magically in the parking lot with the alien inside, and Cora escapes with the alien.

From here (once the alien wakes up) Cora and the alien, nicknamed Ampersand, are able to communicate. Cora needs to rescue her family from the CIA who may or may not be brainwashing them to make them forget about the alien in the living room, and Ampersand needs to rescue his friends. They agree to work together. I can’t critique much about Cora’s and Ampersand’s relationship because it’s layered and confusing to both of them and builds up believably over the rest of the book.

I say “believably”, but again, not in a wish-fulfillment way. In a wish-fulfillment way, we’d find Ampersand to be extremely sweet and super relatable and we would start to root for him. Instead, his voice is mechanical due to the device he uses in order to communicate with Cora, and there’s a lot about himself that he can’t explain because his culture is so different from hers, and he’s been pretty brutal to humans in the past (including Cora). Similarly, there is a lot that he doesn’t understand about Cora. Also, as an interesting point, he has physical vulnerabilities that, despite his size and strength, makes him afraid of her.

I think that my only dispute with the way that their relationship progresses is that she is later shocked by certain revelations about Ampersand’s choices both before and after she met him — like killing humans. Also, that Ampersand was the one brainwashing people who knew about aliens, not the CIA. These revelations, to me, seemed obvious and shouldn’t have been confusing to Cora at all.

I think, in these areas, the device of setting the story in 2007 was supposed to camouflage some of these “surprises”. Because Roswell wasn’t yet a TV show (twice), Cora could be naive about certain things. But the reader is still in 2020, and is very familiar with aliens. Hell, I’ve never watched a single episode of X-Files, but I still know who Mulder and Scully are, which of them is the skeptic and the believer, and whether or not Mulder was ever vindicated (no, but Scully got to meet lots of aliens and she still didn’t believe in them). I also know that there’s a dude with a cigarette in a lot of the episodes, for some reason.

So, the rift between Cora and Ampersand when she finds this out feels poorly contrived and just sad. It’s interesting that Ellis, who is a brilliant video essayist, could have pointed this out as a reader, but missed it as a writer. Also, having gone the traditional, rather than self-published route, I have to wonder where the hell her editor was for this part of the book. It’s also frustrating to know that she had bestselling authors who were direct mentors and who wrote blurbs for the book, who didn’t point any of this stuff out to her. It seems cruel, knowing what a large platform Ellis has and the amount of backlash she’ll get from non-fans, for these bestselling authors not have nudged her in more dimensional directions with her book.

Also, speaking of editors, Ellis uses two to three words where one will do. Okay, here’s another un-requested confession: I still don’t understand the technical difference between an adverb and an adjective. I do know that they both describe stuff, I can use them correctly, and I know that using two or three where one will do is frustrating to my critique partners, so I’ve tried to cure myself of that. This is not something that Ellis’ editor seems to ever have pointed out, so there are a lot of unnecessary adjectives or adverbs, or both. I do understand that too many can undermine urgency, authority, and conciseness but other than that bad habit, I found the writing to be clear, organized, and enjoyable.

Overall, I liked the progression of the book, and I will definitely read Ellis’ next book. This is partially, but not entirely, due to being a fan of her video essays. I think that she has a lot of interesting things to say and this book barely skated across the tip of the iceberg. I think that a lot of the disconnect I felt toward the story and the characters had to do with a combination of my audio comprehension issues and her determination to make her first book “perfect”. This a) isn’t possible, and b) is an attitude that snuffs out creativity at the spark. One of my favorite things about reading Inkitt or Wattpad stories is that the stories are un-apologetically over-the-top, ridiculous, and — fun.

I used to look back at my earlier writing and cringe at some of the more unfeasible aspects of the plot, but I looked at my first real attempt at a fantasy novel a couple of years ago, and actually found it charming. Directionless and silly, but surprising in ways that I hadn’t allowed my writing to be in a long time. I think that this fear of seeming silly while writing a love story between a human and an alien is probably the biggest flaw in Axiom’s Edge. I hope that as Ellis continues to grow as a writer that she’ll feel freer to embrace the absurdity inherent in creating any kind of story.

First 500 Words: The Vine Witch by Luanne G. Smith

I recently signed up for the free trial of Kindle Unlimited (hashtag notsponsored) and, after finishing Lindsay Ellis’ new book and Will Wight’s new book, I realized that there wasn’t anything in particular that I wanted to read next. So, I went through the fantasy section of Kindle Unlimited. I really just wanted a female author with a female protagonist, and this was the first book title that jumped up that I thought looked promising.

Original First 500 Words:

Her eyes rested above the waterline as a moth struggled inside her mouth. She blinked to force the wings past her tongue, and a curious revulsion followed. The strangeness of it filtered through her toad brain until she settled on the opinion that it was best to avoid the wispy, yellow-winged ones in the future.

Unperturbed, she propelled herself into the murky shallows to nestle among the reeds. As her body absorbed the late-season sun sieving through the half-naked trees, she let her eyelids relax. But with the sun’s energy came new hunger. She swiped a forelimb across her mouth and considered hunting for snails along the mud bank when a second peculiarity pricked her instinct. Shapes and colors intensified in her vision, and not merely by a seasonal trick of the light. A brown leaf fluttered onto a ripple of black water. A silver fish with pink gills nibbled at an insect just beneath the surface. A dragonfly zipped across the pond, a blaze of neon green.

Her toad brain latched on to the insect’s emerald color and held it in its cortex like an amulet even as her nostrils filled with the sudden stink of fish slime and putrid muck. How had she not noticed the stagnant, vile smell of the shallows before? A muddy chill needled her leathery skin, prodding her to back out of the foul water.

The skin. It was time to shed again.

The shudder began involuntarily, as it had once a week since her toad memory began. Her body writhed, compelled by an uncontrollable urge as the outer layer of skin stretched and lifted, sloughing loose from feet, back, and tender belly. Tugging and twisting with her forelimbs, she pulled the spent casing over her head like a woman removing a sheer nightgown. Then she gathered the wad of skin in her mouth and began to swallow. Yes, she must always remember to do that, though the reason flickered just outside her grasp.

She blinked hard, maneuvering the skin deeper into the gullet, when a queer stirring in the bones halted her midswallow. Her insides churned and tumbled, and she coughed the skin back up. A lacerating sting, like claws tearing into flesh, gripped her hunched back. Panic ignited her instincts. Jump! Back to the water before Old Fox takes another toe with his teeth! But then her other mind, the one that had been wrapped and tucked away like a jewel deep within her subconscious, snapped awake. The hidden emerald of intelligence recognized the pain for the sign of hope that it was. It had her hold steady even as a fissure opened along her spine, agony nearly splitting her in two.

Splayed toes dug into the mud as four phalanges morphed into five, elongating joint by joint. A human face pressed beneath the speckled skin, forcing the toadish nostrils and mouth to tear and peel away. The metamorphosis accelerated. Shoulders, arms, and stomach grew. Brown hair, slick with a sort of

What Works:

The description of the book says that it’s about a witch who awakens from a curse to find her world is a total mess (my synopsis of the synopsis). I was down, so I sent it to my Kindle app and read the first chapter. For me, a first chapter should be action-oriented (not like a fight scene or anything, but something other than the MC sitting around, thinking — or waking up and getting ready for their day, or a few lines of a cool action scene followed immediately by the author backing up to tell us how we got here and starting with the MC thinking or getting ready for her day — uuuuuuugggggghhhh!). So, to find the MC in the middle of the curse wearing off, was great!

The next thing I look for is vivid and evocative language, so the first sentence being, “Her eyes rested above the waterline as a moth struggled inside her mouth.” Yes. I’m instantly transported to another location, inside another body, with an unexpected physical sensation. There are a few things I can be right now, but toad springs to mind, and that guess is confirmed in the same paragraph. So, something mystical is happening, but I pretty much immediately have a grip on what it is. The author doesn’t leave me to wallow in suspense or confusion.

Also, as the POV character starts to transform, the action is coherent, without losing the mood of the scene. There are a lot of ways to start off a book well, and this is one of them. Especially having read a brief description of the book, I understood that I was reading a curse wearing off of a witch, but I was intrigued by the author’s way of handling it. As a reader, it’s easy enough to find stories with interesting premises, but it can be more of a challenge to find an author who, from the the first sentence, draws me in and compels me to keep reading. More often, I have to be patient and give the author the benefit of the doubt that they’ll get to an interesting part — soon, hopefully. Figuring out how to start a story is hard, so I do try to be patient with the first couple of chapters, but the author immediately gained my confidence in her by having her first chapter written so well.

What Needs Work:

Not much. Maybe a few wording things, like the toad blinking in order to swallow. Is that a toad thing? They swallow as they blink? (After a quick Google search, yes. Yes, they do. So, I would maybe make that a bit more clear, even if it took a few more words.)

Also, I’m not sure why, if the toad has to re-swallow its shed skin every week, why does doing so only break the curse this time? Has the witch forgotten to swallow the skin every other week? That’s not clear.

Honestly, there aren’t enough flaws with the writing for me to re-write this, so this is my first First 500 where I won’t even try. I probably wouldn’t even have shared this except that I really liked it. I think it’s important to point out that there isn’t one perfect way to start a story but, again, based on the description, this seems like the perfect way to start this story, so I can already see myself enjoying the rest.

First 500 Words: Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

So, Lindsay Ellis is one of my favorite YouTubers. She does video essays, mostly about popular fiction, movies, and TV shows. She’s smart, funny, and thought-provoking, and any time she uploads a video, I watch it as soon as possible. Her first novel debuted on July 21st, and I’ve been listening to it on Audible. I thought it might be fun to do a First 500 on her book. This is the first time I’ve chosen to do a book that I’ve a) purchased and b) actively wanted to read. I actually pre-ordered this in December of last year, I think.

In between chapters, there are “leaked memos” written by the MC’s father. I’m going to skip the one that precedes Chapter 1, partly because it’s so prologue-ish/foreshadowy that critiquing/editing it wouldn’t do much and partly because I prefer to just jump into the beginning of the story. Here are the first 500 words of Chapter 1:

On the morning of the second meteor, Cora’s 1989 Toyota Camry gave up the ghost for good. The car was a manual transmission with a stick shift its previous owner had wrapped in duct tape years ago, a time bomb the color of expired baby food that should have gone off sooner than it did. At $800, she had paid more for it than it was worth, but back then, she had been a freshman in college and desperate for a car. In the two years since, she’d grown accustomed to the ever-loudening squealing of the fan belt, but on this morning, after she put her key in the ignition and the engine turned, the squealing turned into a hostile screech. A disheartening thunk thunk thunk followed, then a snap, then an angry whirr, all before she could react. But by the time she turned off the ignition, it was clear that the car, her first and only car, was dead forever.

And she was already late for work.

As the Camry went into its final death throes, Demi, who was locking the front door on her way to work, froze mid-motion as she beheld the scene, wearing an expression of disappointment, but not surprise. Cora’s feeling of horror that this was even happening quickly hopped to embarrassment before settling into her old standby: numbness. She got out of the car, with no choice but to leave it on the street despite it being street cleaning day, approached her mother, and asked, “Can you give me a ride to work?”

Demi looked at her like she had just lost their house in a drunken bet. “Sure.”

It was the last word she said to Cora for about half an hour.

In short order, Cora was suffering the indignity of her mother driving her to work through the vehicular sludge of the 110. In any other circumstances, Demi would have told Cora she was shit out of luck, that she should have gotten the car fixed months ago, and that she could find her own damn way up to downtown LA. But it had been through PMT, the temp agency Demi worked for, that Cora had her temp job, and it had been Demi who had vouched for her. And so, here they were, crawling under the 105, Demi sacrificing her own punctuality for her negligent daughter’s.

“What happened to the $200 I loaned you?” asked Demi just after they passed Rosencrans, her anger now cooled enough that she was capable of speech. “You were supposed to replace the belt and get your hair done, and you have done neither.”

Cora resisted the urge to pull her hair behind her ears, as though that would hide her mess of a dye job. She’d bleached it blond several months ago, before she’d dropped out of college, but about six inches of her natural wet-hay hair color had grown in since.

“I had to use it for gas,” lied Cora, keeping her gaze

What Works: The book is set in 2007 and is centered around a young, college dropout who is estranged from her father who she thought was crazy but may actually be correct about the government trying to hide extraterrestrial visits from the public. Nice and angsty, and even though I like fantasy better than sci-fi, but I probably would have tried whatever genre of fiction Ellis put her hand to.

The way that the story starts is good in that we get to experience the strained relationship between the MC and her mother, a sense of her financial status, and overall priorities. Just after the first 500 words, we find out that Cora spent the money her mother lent her on a concert. She’s feeling disenfranchised and is ready to grasp at fleeting happiness, because of an assumption that investing in her future won’t pay out.

What Needs Work): There are a lot of wasted words. For instance, the first 500 words describes the MC’s car dying and needing to get a ride to work from her mother. This is a great start to the story because it gives the reader a glimpse at the dynamic between the mother and daughter and a snapshot of how the MC’s life is going. However, the first interesting thing that happens in this chapter is that Cora realizes that her mother’s car is being followed. AND that her mother has seen the car before. But the best part is that neither woman is surprised. This is about 600-700 words in. So, anything before that should be a lot more succint.

Another issue I have with the first part of Chapter 1 is that Cora’s father has made the news. Unfortunately, the author holds back this information until later. In the scene, Cora’s father is referred to just by his name. When his name is mentioned on the radio, Cora’s mother changes the station. Cora indicates that she doesn’t mind having the station changed, but we don’t know why our viewpoint character doesn’t want to hear about this “Nils” person. We find out pretty quickly that Nils is Cora’s father and that their relationship is estranged, but I would have felt more engaged if this had been mentioned when his name came up.

One of the quickest ways to separate me from the MC’s experience is for the author to create purposeless mysteries. It’s a weird power-play a lot of authors like to perform. Terry Pratchett is the only one I can think of who does this effectively, but that’s because the information that he does let the reader in on is at least as interesting as what he’s purposely holding back. For most authors, it’s more effective to have the reader on the same page as the viewpoint character, rather than constantly lagging behind. The story should (generally) be a mystery that the reader and MC are solving together.

Anyway, with my edit of the first 500 words, I’ll focus on condensing the beginning so that we can get to the interesting parts quicker, without losing the dynamic between Cora and her mother that the author has set up.

My Version:

Cora was already late for work when her 1989 Toyota Camry went into its final death throes. Cora’s mother, Demi, in the middle of locking the front door of their three-bedroom house, turned, her attention attracted by the last, furious screech of the Camry’s transmission. Cora winced. She could feel Demi’s glare though the grimy, bug-spattered windshield.

If Cora hadn’t gotten her job through the temp agency Demi worked for, Cora would have been shit out of luck. Then again, she wasn’t feeling super lucky as her mother’s immaculate, but ancient, Olds Cutlass trudged through morning traffic on the way to downtown LA.

“What happened to the $200 I loaned you?”

This was how Demi chose to break the silence after — Cora glanced at the dashboard clock — twenty-seven minutes.

I had to use it for gas,” Cora lied. Demi had wanted Cora to replace the fan belt on her car and get her hair done. She’d bleached it platinum blond before she’d dropped out of college, but, since then, about six inches of her natural wet-hay hair color had grown in.

Drawing: Giant Tess

Sketch of Giant Tess circa 2010.

I’ve been kind of obsessed with drawing very tall, thin figures so that I can cram them over to the side of the page and make stationery out of them, for a long time. I never dated this sketch because I never finished it but I scanned it in 2010 and it looks like my art style/skill level from about that period, so we’ll go with that. Maybe even 2009.

I never did anything with her until 2018, when I finally made lineart out of her. I uploaded her to the now-defunct PortraitAdoption.com but nobody bought her, so I get to keep her. She’s a very exaggerated version of my usual cartoony style but I seriously dig her face, hair blouse. The main difference between the initial sketch and the original lineart is that, at some point, I decided that she was a giant and added a human for scale. I also finished her left arm. I wanted it to be very long and thin, like the rest of her, to show that the proportions were exaggerated on purpose.

Today, I was on YouTube and found an artist named Sinix who paints over his Patreon supporters’ drawings and paintings. He took a fairly bland giant, warped it quickly using the Perspective tool, and — boom! The drawing was instantly more dynamic. I remember Tess and the fact that she never really looked like a giant, so I opened her up in Photoshop and played around with her.

I tried a few different things, but ended up shrinking her head before using the Perspective tool on her. The tool also adjusted the climber’s proportions, so I ended up copying and pasting the original climber over the warped one.

I finally learned how to use Illustrator a couple of years ago, but I’m still more comfortable doing lineart in Paint.NET, especially for finishing touches, so I opened Tess up in Paint.NET and got to work.

Initially, I was just going to fix her neck and have the bottom of the rope fly across Tess’ pants, for a bit of movement. But after I did that, I realized that the hem of her shirt should flare out toward the viewer, so I worked on that for a bit before I realized that the focal point was her waist, instead of her face. So, I thickened her waist (which is still ridiculously narrow but more in proportion to the rest of her body) and simplified her shirt. I also made the climber’s rope swing away from the viewer, instead of toward.

Lineart: Giant Tess in Perspective, 2020.

At first, I was really sad at the idea of making Tess’ face so much smaller because that’s my favorite part, but simplifying the bottom half of her and making her waist more proportional lets the eye immediately find her face. I also super dig the way that the pearls get smaller at the top. In the initial sketch and lineart, they’re all the same size.

I thought I was done but I ended up adjusting her chest, a bit. It’s far from perfect but it does look like you’re looking up at it instead of at the profile. I’m still not sure how to put the face in perspective without completely ruining it, but, hey, there are limits to my genius.

I’m overall happy with the changes, especially since it’s obvious that she’s a giant, now. She never quite read that way, even with the climber for scale. I might color or paint her at some point, but I’m good with this for today. I think it’s much easier to appreciate the details without having them compete with each other. I also think she’d make badass stationery, now. 🙂

Here they are together so that you can compare the changes. Essentially, I shrunk the head, warped her using the Perspective tool, thickened her waist, simplified the bottom part of her top, and had the lines of her breast curve up instead of down. I tried adding a second arm, but — neh….

Giant Tess Before and After

Oh, and bonus points if you can tell me what I modeled the climber after (Hint: a particular episode of the original 90’s MacGyver). You won’t actually win anything, but you’ll make me smile.

Blog #10: Whoops!

*ahem* So, my last few blog posts have been a bit bleak. I have thought about taking them down, several times, but they are real, even if they don’t paint me in the most mentally stable light. And the truth is, I’m not mentally stable. I’m genuinely struggling right now. I am worried about money and I am struggling with suicidal ideology pretty much daily.

However, I feel okay today. Also, I recognize that people love me and want me to be alive. That voice in my head that tells me that I’m worthless and that nobody will ever really love me — I don’t think it’s trying to be a liar. I just think it’s desperate. It’s really hard to walk around in this world and keep having to realize that no matter how old or wise you get, no matter how financially stable you are, no matter how many people love you or how many people you love, none of the good stuff is promised or permanent.

We can lose everything in one fell swoop or we could lose it piecemeal over years, or it can be just one hit after another until your face goes numb and your inner narrator is just wailing incoherently. Existence is scary and painful and multidimensional.

I think about it like people who pin butterflies to a board. Yes, the the colors are pretty and the delicate detail of the wings are impressive, but the most beautiful thing about a butterfly is that it’s alive. You can’t pin that down without killing it. And that’s life — this butterfly that we’re always trying to get to stay still long enough to figure it out, but if we try too hard, we end up snuffing out it’s true beauty.

Unclench. It’ll be fine. And it won’t. And people will get fed up with you, and you with them, and then you’ll remember why you like each other and focus on that, and life is off and fluttering again.

I don’t regret the past several blog posts I’ve made, even if thinking about them makes me wince. I really have this terror of letting people get to know me, and I I’ve shared WAY too much about the worst parts of me on here, but only showing the best parts of myself is like pinning myself to a board.

However, I think I can probably provide a more balanced blogmosphere if I also pop in when I’m feeling great and life is going good. If that happens, I’ll let you know — haha! Right now, I’m okay. I don’t feel like a mistake. I don’t know how long that’ll last, but even a few minutes is a relief.