My Top Fictional Characters of 2019 (A Sort-Of Book Review)

This year, I was drawn to, over and over, without my realizing—fantasy, fantasy, and more fantasy—with strong heroines that ended up fighting for those they love (either physically, as warriors, or fierce nonviolent movers of fate. And yes, this includes rereads that I reread this year from my absolute-favorite library (so some books weren’t actually published in 2019)).

There were some men that made it into this list, but it was definitely girl power that leaves the most clear impression in my mind as I think of what I read this year.

Each book below is the first book (or only, if in a stand-alone) in which these characters appear.

Jael Furyk (Winter’s Fury, Furyk Saga) by A.E. Rayne A Viking princess-turned queen that is forced to marry a prince from an adjacent island, who happens to be entrapped in alcoholism and depression. I liked Jael from page one: first, she’s wise—she sees past vanity and people’s outward actions. She’s also hilarious without actually trying to be; as a stern person, she often makes those around her laugh with the no-nonsense approach she has for life. Eadmund (her husband) quickly falls in love with her fire, her love for her people, and her desire to challenge him in just the way he needs to be challenged. That love puts him on the series-long path to regain his former warrior self.

Aldrik Solaris (Air Awakens) by Elise Kova The crown prince of the vast Solaris Empire who can manipulate fire (i.e. Firebearer). While he is quite the angsty-brooding type, we learn he carries with him a fair amount of childhood trauma he hasn’t dealt with yet. (It’s not an excuse for him, but it does explain why he is the way he is). I like him as a character because the author doesn’t settle for the redemption=death trope, so I actually got to see the hard work that Aldrik needs put in to become better for himself—and for those he loves.

And later, in Vortex Chronicles, we see his daughter, Vi. She takes after him in many ways, and it’s delightful to see some of those traits show up in her!

Bayr (The First Girl-Child) by Amy Harmon He’s the son of the woman who cursed his clan—and because of that curse, he shoulders a unique burden of inhuman strength, but also a stutter. People treat him poorly for it, but it he doesn’t let it get in the way of living his life. He’s so lovable and innocent even to adulthood. I just loved him. And wished we got more of his story in a series.

Shahrzad (Wrath and the Dawn) by Renée Ahdieh She is bold, quick-witted, and a force to be reckoned with. I loved getting to see how her perceptions changed as she learned more about Khalid; she stays dangerous, but we see her humanity in her battles with herself and with what she used to know.

Paradise (The Bride Collector) by Ted Dekker One of the most relatable characters I’ve ever read. She’s complex, kind-hearted, intelligent, and we get to see the inside of her mind as she battles mental illness in the midst of awful circumstances. I honestly wanted the whole book to be about just her and her story.

Aren (Bound, Bound Trilogy) by Kate Sparkes The youngest prince of a brutal monarchy who is tired of living under the bondage of his cruel older brother, Severn. He has done terrible things with his magical abilities, and Severn has done everything in his power to make him forget that he actually has a soul somewhere past all the cruelty. In a rash change of heart, Aren quickly rescues the girl he actually kidnapped for his brother, Rowan, and tries to get her to safety. Rowan is kind and compassionate, and Aren is softened and challenged by those qualities. Characters who have this torn sense of good and evil, like Aren—ones that we can’t quite predict what they’ll do—I have such a special spot in my heart for them.

Vasya (Bear and the Nightingale, Winternight Trilogy) Ah, I could never leave Vasilisa Petrovna out of a list like this! Quite arguably my favorite female protagonist of all time at the moment.

Vasilisa is a girl-turned-woman (we see her grow up throughout the trilogy) that doesn’t fit into the world she’s born into: medieval Rus. She sees things other people don’t see—magical creatures connected to the world around her. Her family and everyone around her tells her that she needs to be a ‘proper’ woman: get married, have babies, be quiet, don’t speak, don’t look men in the eye, look down. (I’m not attacking women who want to be wives and moms, it’s a beautiful path to take—if it’s their choice to make.) But she looks straight ahead, in people’s eyes. Calls out foolishness. Rides a horse. Wanders the woods. Laughs unashamedly. Observes the men in her world—and sees the same chilling trait of ‘use-and-abuse’ in most of them; and because all of these things, she is met with baffling cruelty from the world. But it doesn’t stop her. Through trial and pain, she retains her tenderness and compassion and gains strength—both internal and external.

So, there you have it. There were more, of course, but I figured that the ones I could recall without having to go back and read multiple synopses were the ones that really stayed in my mind. Check these books out—and don’t judge them by their covers. Sometimes it really doesn’t convey how good a book is!


In the Gentle Rain—and the Thunder?

I was struck by the TV show Vikings a while back and was recently rewatching these episodes of interest — or at least, a subsection of the story, around season 2 and 3. It ended up being my favorite plot line amidst so many others.

Athelstan, a monk who is captured by Vikings and initially treated as a slave, becomes an important character for unfolding the show’s spiritual and moral themes that possesses implications for how today’s people, from the framework of a medieval context, can discuss the things that matter the most to them. Sure, there are night and day differences between 900 A.D. and now, but the spirit of the discussion is the same.

Ragnar, his captor, and Athelstan, are very much opposite men. Athelstan, raised in the Roman Catholic Church, is frightened and disgusted with Norse cultural and religious practices. Athelstan resided at Lindisfarne before the raids, where he illuminated manuscripts for sacred texts. He is fluent in Anglo-Saxon and Latin. (Sidenote: I was not a particular fan of the Greco-Roman-centrism the writers put in (possibly unwittingly?) when Athelstan says, with sadness when King Egbert asks him about Viking culture: “They [Vikings] have no art.” Vikings had gorgeous metallurgy—that was art!) On the other hand, Ragnar is a farmer-turned-warrior who rose to fame and became an Earl and king among his people—legends soon springing up around his victories and intelligence. He has a hunger to explore and know the world and its ideas, and if that means upsetting the status quo within his own culture and close friends, then so be it.

As Athelstan lives with Ragnar and his family, and becomes part of it, he softens to their ways and practices—but is simultaneously haunted by them. He has trusted Jesus as his Savior—very tangibly—but when he runs into things in Norse religion that he can’t explain or shake—if he’s honest, he’s somewhat awed by them. He tells Ragnar as they walk one morning, “In the gentle fall of rain I hear my God. But in the thunder, I still hear Thor.” He is torn and perplexed by his questions. Has the church been missing something in its teaching about God’s power? Or did the medieval church just think of God in that one particular way: abiding in peaceful rain—when there were so many more facets to God that the Vikings would have related to? For example, God “will march out like a champion, like a warrior he will stir up his zeal, with a shout he will raise the battle cry and will triumph over his enemies” (Isaiah 42:13). I wonder, at least in certain parts of church history—if this zealous warrior part of God was highlighted—how different Viking perceptions would have been? Who knows—they could have been the same: the cross makes zero sense to any culture, no matter how “warriorlike” their God (or gods) might be described.

Ragnar is also intrigued with the Christian God. Why would this God send a part of Himself to die, to become the definition of weak and defenseless, to come to humanity’s rescue? Gods don’t do that. Gods demonstrate power. They win, they don’t lose. This God defies what Ragnar knows, and it makes him want to know more (albeit begrudgingly, at times). In a scene of inspiring curiosity, Ragnar asks Athelstan to teach him a prayer that Christians say to the Father (even though he goes flat lipped at the idea that the Christian God would have the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever and ever, amen). Athelstan is shown great kindness and mercy by Christ when he finds himself troubled and seeking answers; one morning, he wakes up to a gorgeous beam of light that shines through his house, and in that unexpected moment, Jesus speaks to him and reveals His goodness. When he tells Ragnar this, Ragnar listens intently and hears him out. This probably wouldn’t have happened early on, if not for their building friendship and mutual respect.

Athelstan teaching Ragnar the Lord’s Prayer. No copyright infringement intended, property of Octagon Films.

This kind of dignity and genuine searching was pleasantly surprising and refreshing  to see in a TV show that seems, at times, to be quite pro-Ásatrú (Norse religion). It’s a perspective the show is free to take, of course.

In any case, this subplot illustrates a monumental point: encouraging genuine searching for truth in mutual friendship, respect, and loyalty— without threat of coercion or force—creates room for grace to spread.


Book Review: The Winternight Trilogy

I had just finished, two days previous, my Master of Fine Arts. With surreal satisfaction, I pressed SEND to my faculty advisor all my relevant components required for graduation. It was early December, a bitingly cold evening.

I was ready to dive into reading for fun, reading that I didn’t have to critique or analyze. I’d had this series (at least, the first book when I started) on my TBR list for two years, and I was excited to dive in. Little did I know that I would love it so, so much.

The writing: lyrical, beautiful, yet precise. It doesn’t lag or draw attention to itself. I was lost in the phrases and wording, yet the language didn’t draw attention to itself. It’s rare that a writer can do this so effectively. A lush atmosphere emerges of what we would imagine medieval Russia to possess: a place that feels like soil, earth, warm fires, magic, snow, pines, ice, blood, beauty, pain, fierce strength, faith, mystery.

The characters: endearing, complex, and entirely their own. Vasilisa, the mysterious girl who knows more than she should by ways unknown, is flawed and wonderful. It is quite often that I encounter female main characters that don’t have agency or stand on their own — this is anyone BUT Vasya. She is fierce, but she is also tender. She lives her life raw, exposed, with courage. Morozko, the winter-king, the frost demon, the death-god of this cold place, is also known as Karachun. He can be kind, or cold. But one thing he is not is capricious. Konstantin, the beautiful monk that holds more than his surface betrays. The Bear, or Medved: holy smokes, he is absolutely frightening, but fascinating.

The pacing: I was never bored, wanting to skip ahead, or confused. The plot unfolded in a seamless stream and continued to build — and Girl in the Tower was THE strongest sequel I’ve read in years — perhaps ever.

If you love Russia, folk tales, good writing, and lyrical prose, PLEASE pick this up. Read it and get lost in Katherine Arden’s fantastic worldbuilding and characters.

Pictured below: fan photo of Vasya.

No copyright infringement intended. Taken from tumblr.
confluence, the crimson redemption., treading in life.

Warming Rays Against Ping-Pong Thoughts

For me, in the last month or so, I have struggled a lot with knowing my worth. Professionally, personally. This is not a search for a pat on the back or validation — it’s merely me trying to be honest and real with myself, and maybe let people in on that process of figuring that out too.

There’s a thing about negativity. Well, there are a lot of things that are it, but I find that once it gets in through your ear canals, it likes to bounce around in your head, constantly finding fault, resting little. Soon after a while, you don’t notice that it sounds normal, sane, justifiable.  My thought patterns as of late tend to sound something like this: Hey, other ____ can do that…but not me. Other writers can get published, apply for and win grants and scholarships, have tenacity and drive and passion for their work. Oh…that’s other wives, they can actually keep a house clean. Oh, other granddaughters can keep up. But, really, I think it’s something deeper.

It’s a thread, perhaps, of a loss of hope. Of what’s true, what’s beautiful.

I suppose I usually pick a topic or piece or thing that needs shining in on, and I think what actually needs it…is myself. I need to pick out the grit and shine in on the beauty in those hiding places and spots that are just not lovable enough, not doing enough, not saying enough.

And, for days like today when I especially recognize I can’t do it my myself (which is essentially always), I simply, desperately need God’s light shining, warming, reassuring, restoring those places.




Film Spot: Song of the Sea

Once in a very great while, you come across a film that awakens mystery and wonder in you. You return to a childlike state and your cynicism and tasks of the day and bills and adult life and worries fade out. This is how Song of the Sea struck me.

It’s an animated Irish film that focuses on a small, hurting family living on a little island off the coast — they need to take a ferry go to into town. The father is grief-stricken from the loss of his wife many years ago, and he just can’t seem to outrun the sadness that follows him. He has two children, Ben and Saoirse (pronounced SEER-jah). Saoirse is a sweet little girl who doesn’t speak.

What ensues is the unfolding of the Irish legend of the selkie, the belief that some women were born with the ability to transform into seals. They long for the sea and need to be near water even before they know what they are.

I don’t want to give too much away to you, so I’ll simply say this: this movie masterfully weaves legend and real life together. They’re intertwined. There is no divide. Because of this, some pretty crazy healing and joy descends upon this little family.

The animation, the music, the script, everything has beauty that is for both old and young — especially those that want become childlike again for a little while.


Here’s the trailer for those interested:



Void & Verve

A blog regarding these cold days and burrowing down to find good from a fantastic writer named Brianna.


IMG_1051I’m finally beginning to understand what winter is for. In the spring, summer, and most of autumn, I’m so full of energy and industry. I ping pong from house to garden every two hours and push off any dull moment with running to the lake, digging in the dirt and DIY-ing anything that irks me about the house and yard.

The winter is not like this.

The winter is when I try to remember about books and painting and digging deep for the spirit I need to do even the smallest creative thing. I get so bored, I haunt around our house, hoping a project idea will come to mind. I think I might as well work as much as possible, because I’m just a husk-person who can’t appreciate free time.

For so many years, these months kept me in the depressive sub-soil of myself. I worried that soil was the deepest part of me. The…

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Film Spot: Far from the Madding Crowd

I watched this movie right before my wedding and on my honeymoon. I was enchanted.

Set in the same time period (Victorian England, 1870-ish) as Jane Eyre but having less Romantic and Gothic elements, this film has sweeping scenes of the English pastoral life. Green fields, soft hills, swaying barley fields, and an abundance of sheep. The uniqueness is striking right away: we’re not in brooding moors or Regency drawing rooms (think Pride and Prejudice). It’s neither — it’s a wild place, filled with sun and freedom and nature and peace. This is where our heroine resides: Bathsheba Everdeen.

She is an odd heroine for her time: she wears pants, she rides horses with a leg on each side, she owns and runs her own farm. She goes to sell her farm’s grain as her own representative in a room full of men who would rather her be elsewhere. She wants to be free but also wants love. She’s endearing at times, and others, completely frustrating — she has a sweet juxtaposition of impulsiveness and wisdom, childlikeness and an old-aged soul.

movies worth watching, far from the madding crowd, carey mulligan, period films

Carey Mulligan as “Bathsheba” in FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD. Photos by Alex Bailey.  © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
All Rights Reserved

The complexities of how people treat each other and subtle power struggles are also prevalent in this film. Three men want to pursue after her and they are vastly different from each other. One would think that at this point it’s just one huge love quadrangle, but the film draws out characters to their fullest extent and many hidden things in these mens’ hearts come to light because of several heart-wrenching circumstances. I think it’s a fascinating, subtle way of drawing out how and why people act how they do.

Oh, last but not least, the music is sweeping and does a great job of capturing Bathsheba and the events surrounding her. It heavily features the violin.

So, basically, grab yourself a cup of tea on a chilly night and enjoy. Really. It’s beautiful.