May Book Updates

Blushing pearsI got a wonderful review from Kirkus:

“Steeped in legend and myth, Hartsuyker’s debut is a swashbuckling epic of family, love, and betrayal that reimagines the Norse sagas.  At 20, hotheaded Ragnvald is old enough to be a warrior “and counted a man”—but not old enough to see betrayal coming. After he’s nearly killed in a plot orchestrated by his stepfather, Ragnvald swears allegiance first to King Hakon, then to King Harald , hoping to win enough power to take back the land that’s rightfully his. Meanwhile, his sister, Svanhild, abandons the protections of family and friends to escape an arranged marriage—only to find herself at the mercy of her brother’s betrayer, Solvi. Hartsuyker bases Ragnvald’s tale on the epic of King Harald Fairhair, one of her possible ancestors. The historic figure of Ragnvald rose to prominence as one of Harald’s fiercest warriors during the unification of Norway in the ninth century. In the gaps of recorded history, Hartsuyker weaves a tale of myth, magic, and superstition, where “the chilly fingers of Ran’s handmaidens” can pull a sailor to his death or an undead draugr can terrorize a village. The contours of Ragnvald and Svanhild’s reality are equally dangerous, and Hartsuyker doesn’t shy away from depicting the slaughter, rape, and deception that marked the raids and battles of the Viking age. While Hartsuyker’s prose is straightforward, the plot is as deliciously complex as Game of Thrones. And, in an era so dominated by the tales of men, it’s nice to see a complicated, cunning heroine like Svanhild swoop in and steal the show. Hold on to your helms and grab your shields—Hartsuyker is just getting started.”

The Historical Novel Society published an article showcasing The Half-Drowned King and other new voices in historical fiction.

The Half-Drowned King has made a bunch of very flattering lists:

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Should you get an MFA?

Sorry it’s been a while since I’ve done a blog update. I’ve been working on edits to The Sea Queen from my editor at HarperCollins–all done now! I’ve also written some essays that my publicist and I are trying to get placed in various publications to promote The Half-Drowned King.

Recently, I’ve been reconnecting with some friends from my MFA program. Also, one of my cousins is considering going for an MFA, and it seemed worthwhile to write about my experience for anyone who googles “Should I Get An MFA” as I frequently did when making that decision. When I was about 30, I was working at an internet startup that I was not particularly excited about. I had gone through several years of therapy to help with cycles of depression and anxiety that made my life rather unpleasant. I was starting to feel like I was not, actually, one mistake away from utter ruin, and that I could try different things with my life and it would be okay. At the same time, I was considering my career path, and where I might find meaning in my life. I loved writing and wrote whenever I had free time, but didn’t feel like it was a serious enough pursuit, or that I was good enough at it, to commit to it.

I was considering going back to school, possibly to get an MBA so I could be better at helping run internet startups. Maybe if I threw myself into that, I thought, it would start to feel fulfilling. I was ruminating on that possibility on a now defunct journalling platform. One of my online friends, who had seen me start and stop many writing projects, including what would grow into The Half-Drowned King, wrote, “You shouldn’t get an MBA, you should get an MFA.”

It was exactly the right thing to say to me. I thought: yes, I should get an MFA. But before committing the time and money, I wanted to make sure it was the right choice. I signed up for a Gotham Writers Workshop’s Intro to Creative Writing Class with Evan Rehill and then took several iterations of Gotham’s Novel-Writing Workshop with Diana Spechler.

I loved both of those classes, but eventually I found that wanted more than they offered: to study with students who were perhaps more committed to their craft (though I worked with many very serious writers at Gotham), to read and learn from published literature with my fellow writers, and most of all, I wanted to make a commitment to myself about writing. By the time I began my MFA program at NYU, I had finished writing a few drafts of The Half-Drowned King, and had representation for it, but I wanted to learn more, and continue down the path of becoming a more skilled and interesting writer.

It was the right choice for me. I had savings so I wouldn’t need to go into debt. I had an established career I could go back to. I had confidence in my writing, along with a desire to learn and change. I don’t think these are prerequisites for anyone doing an MFA, but they were for me.

Things to know about MFA programs:

  1. They do not guarantee a writing or teaching career, but they can help An MFA is a degree that qualifies its bearers to teach Creative Writing. Many programs help writers meet agents. But teaching jobs can be scarce, and agents accept plenty of writers who don’t have MFAs.
  2. Workshops are both good and bad. I plan to write a whole separate post about this, but they are not the be-all, end-all of learning to write. I think, at their best, they reflect your writing back to you, so you can see if it had the effect you wanted.
  3. It’s a Masters of Fine Arts, with the emphasis on arts. I view writing as both craft and art, and like to make sure my craft is solid, while art comes like grace. Some of the works we studied felt to me like diving in at the deep end of the pool, looking at novels and stories that broke every rule and still succeeded before learning how and why the rules exist in the first place.

Things I loved about getting an MFA:

  1. Spending so much time with other writers. We’re an awkward, introverted, vain bunch, infuriating and wonderful at the same time. Most of us see our own foibles and each other’s far too clearly for comfort, but there’s something wonderful about that as well, like being with family. I don’t always love the workshop format, but some of my best workshops were great because of my fellow students at least as much because of the faculty.
  2. Reading, reading, reading. My dearest hope going into an MFA program was to get to read things I would not otherwise read, and expand my horizons that way, and I did, in many wonderful classes, and then I filled notebooks with lists of books I should read in addition to those.
  3. Devoting the time and mental energy to writing. For two years, my whole life was about reading and writing. When I graduated, I did get a full time job again, but I knew writing was my most important pursuit and chose my job accordingly.

So should you get an MFA? Yes, if you want to, and:

  • You can afford it
  • You’re serious about writing and want to spend 2 or more years thinking about writing
  • You’re open to growing and changing as a writer
  • But also have a clear vision of and commitment to who you are as a writer. I was very glad I took a number of writing classes before getting an MFA, was practiced at taking critique, and had some experience sorting helpful critique from unhelpful.

Getting an MFA was the right choice for me, that continues to pay wonderful dividends in my creative life, but it is not the only choice for writers.

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UK Cover and Other News

I am very pleased to announce the UK Cover of The Half-Drowned King from my UK publisher, Little, Brown.

Also, The Half-Drowned King has been chosen for Barnes and Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program for Summer 2017. It will be featured in the Discover display in Barnes and Noble in stores across the country. I am currently working to arrange events at various bookstores in August, so it looks like I will have a mini book tour after all!

Yesterday I recorded a short video for HarperCollins’s Genre-Bending video blog, which should be available in a month or so. Previous entries here: http://harperlibrary.typepad.com/genre_bending/

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Arcadias

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, but I’ve been having some hardware trouble. My computer is a Surface Pro 2, which I bought in early 2012, and has served me well and faithfully for all that time. However, the keyboard/cover, is a bit more touchy, and now it won’t let me type the letter “i” “o” or use the backspace button. o_O

So I have a new one on the way, but in the meantime I’m typing on a rather challenging wireless keyboard, and don’t really have a working mouse. This time, let’s blame my typos on that.

A month or so ago I read Arcadia by Iain Pears with my book group. It’s the first book of his I’ve read, though he’s most famous for The Instance of the Fingerpost. Like many of his books, Arcadia has a rather complicated structure, switching between several POVs and four(ish) different timelines.

It begins with the following events:

  • An Oxford professor tinkers with his fantasy novel setting, but never really gets his plot off the ground
  • A psychomathematician in a dystopian future plots her escape
  • A young boy in a pastoral world has a strange encounter

Eventually all of these characters and plotlines intersect and recombine, exploring time travel, history, the effects of events on the future, the truth behind the beautiful Arcadias, for of course et in Arcadia ego. Along the way, it pays homage to J. R. R. Tolkein, Aldous Huxley, Tom Stoppard, Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and John Le Carre, among many others I’m sure I’m missing.

One of the things I really loved about Arcadia was how it played with the notion of history, causation, and time travel. It posits time as a string, you can move a piece of string around, but it is always connected to the rest of the string. If you change past, the future will change, and if you change the future, the past will have to change to accommodate the cause and effect that connects future and past.

I’m sure someone could poke holes in that, but it is a pleasing way of handling time travel in a narrative. In many narratives, like the TV show The Flash, time travel is a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card. Traveling in time to fix things has challenges, and causes unforeseen problems, but those problems often do not feel organic to the plot; they feel levers the writers can pull whenever they want.

But because Arcadia insists on cause-and-effect chains connecting future and past–in both directions!–the narrative feels much more satisfying. It also makes the book a special pleasure for a novelist to read. As I work on The Golden Wolf, and have a handful of events for which I need to come up with interrelated causes, I feel just like one of the characters in Arcadia, creating an effect in the future and then watching causes line up to create that effect.

The characters are also rather charming, especially the three main women, a plucky lass in 1960s Oxford named (of course) Rosalind, our psychomathemetician from the future, and a noblewoman in the pastoral fantasia. For a book that explores some dark possibilities, the experience of reading it is rather humorous and lighthearted. It sends up some aspects of pastoral fantasy (and Tolkein’s fantasy), though in an affectionate way, asking why a psuedo-medieval fantastical world would endure for millennia when in the real world, technology tends to progress. The answers make sense but are not always pleasant to contemplate. I recommend this book for any thoughtful reader of fantasy or dystopian SF.

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The Mists of Avalon is Real! (Sorta)

I was a child who never stopped pestering my parents for books to read, and after running through everything in the house remotely targeted toward kids or teens by the time I was eleven, I asked my dad for a book, and he handed me The Mists of Avalon. I imagine, he figured 800 pages of Arthurian legend would keep me busy for a little while.

And it did, because I became obsessed. There are books with tighter plots, more sympathetic characters, characters who spend less time moaning about their cruel fate. There are books written by authors who haven’t had fairly horrific child abuse allegations made against them, but there is probably no better book to give to an imaginative pre-teen growing up in the middle of the woods. If I could have stepped through a patch of mist into Avalon, and become a priestess of the Goddess, I would have done it in a second.

Now that I write historical fiction, and have done a good deal of research about Early Medieval Europe (i.e. The Dark Ages), I can appreciate the difficult task Bradley had creating a world full of Arthurian romance, while also trying to be true to the times. She doesn’t dwell on the mud and stench of turf fortifications, but neither does she shy away from the dark and difficulty of travel, the superstitions, or the bondage of women to tasks of making fabric.

It is also made difficult by the face that so much of the Arthurian legend was written long after the time it purports to describe. Nothing about King Arthur appears in the historical record until the 9th century Historia Brittonum, but some of the characters identified as his contemporaries have better historical attestation. One of those is Urien of Rheged, (married to Morgaine in TMoA), who is praised in the Welsh Manuscript The Book of Taliesin. However, until recently the location of the kingdom of Rheged was unknown.

All of which is preamble to this news: the kingdom of Rheged has been found.

“…new archaeological evidence from the excavation of Trusty’s Hill Fort at Gatehouse of Fleet in Dumfries and Galloway now challenges this assumption.

‘What drew us to Trusty’s Hill were Pictish symbols carved on to bedrock here, which are unique in this region and far to the south of where Pictish carvings are normally found,’ said Ronan Toolis of GUARD Archaeology, who led the excavation which involved the participation of over 60 volunteers. ‘The Galloway Picts Project was launched in 2012 to recover evidence for the archaeological context of these carvings but far from validating the existence of ‘Galloway Picts’, the archaeological context revealed by our excavation instead suggests the carvings relate to a royal stronghold and place of inauguration for the local Britons of Galloway around AD 600. Examined in the context of contemporary sites across Scotland and northern England, the archaeological evidence suggests that Galloway may have been the heart of the lost Dark Age kingdom of Rheged, a kingdom that was in the late sixth century pre-eminent amongst the kingdoms of the north.’

The excavation revealed in the decades around AD 600, the summit of the hill was fortified with a timber-laced stone rampart. Around the same time supplementary defences and enclosures were added to its lower-lying slopes transforming Trusty’s Hill into a nucleated fort, a type of fort in Scotland that has been recognised by archaeologists as high status settlements of the early medieval period.”

And if this is true, a part of me can still hope that, in a world divided from our own by a misty lake, the priestesses of Avalon still weave their magic and keep the old religion alive.

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Visual Aids

I have a marketing meeting (my first!) with my publisher today, and I’m bringing some visual aids that I thought you might enjoy also. (Credit for most of these photos goes to my husband Seth Miller.)

First some pictures from Strongman competitions I’ve done. While 9th century vikings did not pull trucks, they did some of the Strongman events that are seen in competitions today. For instance, the Husafell stone carry, which today is usually done with an object that looks like a small metal coffin, was originally done with a 418-lb Icelandic stone. (That is more than I can lift–usually I use a 200-lb stone.)

Me pulling a 17,000-lb truck
Me having gotten a 150-lb atlas stone to my shoulder for the first time.

Then some pictures from my research trips:

Out sailing at the Viking Ship museum in Roskilde

 

The site of this Norwegian farmhouse was settled in the 1100s; the building on the left dates back to the 1700s

 

Great views from up at the farmhouse

 

Suitor Falls in Geirangerfjord, Norway as seen from the farmhouse across the way where we camped

 

The Oseberg ship at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.

 

Decoration on a cart at the Viking Ship Museum, Oslo.

 

Detail from a Viking-Age Icelandic vertical loom at the National Museum of Iceland. It would take more than a day to weave a yard of cloth.

 

One of the Faroe Islands, seen from a helicopter.

 

Sheep! More specifically, Faroese sheep that welcomed us back to earth after our helicopter ride.

 

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More announcements!

First, check out this spiffy draft of my Dutch cover! I’m gathering that “The Half-Drowned King” does not translate particularly well into some European languages, so the Dutch title is “The Legend of Svanhild”. And the German title is “Crown and Fire”.

I had a great meeting with my agent last week about marketing and publicity, so this is where I start spamming you every few minutes with reminders to…wait, where are you going????

Nope, this is NOT where I start doing that. No matter how much I love an author’s writing, I end up annoyed if they spend all their time prodding people to buy their book. I’ve done some rearranging of this website, and will do some more, but this will continue to be a space where I write about my life, what’s on my mind, what I’m doing, and what I care about.

I have made some changes to the website based on my agent’s feedbac:

  • The landing page is now my books page
  • My bio page now has more pictures of me
  • I have links in the right nav to pre-order the books from all major booksellers
  • I now have a Goodreads author page–where you can ask me questions!

Some people have been asking what you can do to help the book’s success:

  1. Pre-order it! Amazon | B&N | Google Play | IndieBound | iBooks | Kobo
  2. But even if you don’t, you can set it as “Want to Read” on Goodreads and that helps
  3. If you have read it *waves at my mom and dad*, please leave a review, or even just a star rating on Amazon
  4. If you have a book blog and you’d like an Advance Reader Copy so you can read and write about it, please let me know

Thanks for being here with me on this journey!

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Please pitch in

Doing a little City Council lobbying with some other SURJ volunteers and rock star City Councilperson Carlos Menchaca

I’ll have some cool book news tomorrow, but today I want to talk about activism. I went to the Women’s March in NYC the other weekend, and it was so heartening to see so many people out marching in person, and all around the country and the world. We’re going to need that good energy over the next few years.

I sprained my ankle Tuesday night, and was very upset that I couldn’t go and protest with people at airports on behalf of my immigrant friends, and my friends with immigrant parents, some of whom can no longer go home to visit their family. But it was also heartening to see so many people protesting, and it made a difference.

Speaking of which, I haven’t been updating my Making A Difference blog, not because I am not doing anything, but because I am doing too much to write about all of it, and in this case I feel like my effort is better put to doing things than documenting them. I am doing things. Every day.

And I want to ask you to do something as well. I have my own priorities that I’ll go into below, but I want to ask you to step up, and be active for a cause you care about.

It doesn’t have to be the exact right cause. You don’t need to wait for the perfect opportunity to come along. You don’t need to know it will work. It might not, but you will learn something for next time. Or the way it works may be too small and subtle to see now. Try something, see how it feels, and then try something else. Take a little time out to rest, and then help some more. I have listed some suggestions below.

We are going to lose a lot of battles, probably even most of them. But no matter what happens, in two, four, eight years, wouldn’t you rather look around and say you tried to help?

Some things that are keeping me going:

  1. Getting into informal groups, in person and online, with like-minded people. I don’t love Facebook for this, but it’s better than nothing. My more motivating online groups are through Slack. My most motivating groups are my in-person friends who I’ve organized, and who have organized me.
  2. Getting involved in local, in person efforts where I can learn from people who have been active longer than me.
  3. Doing things that get me out of my comfort zone, like going to protests, and doing things that leverage my skills, like project/product managing Sister District
  4. Limiting the amount of time I spend consuming or disseminating bad news rather than trying to do something about it
  5. Looking at good news, like the news collected in this twitter stream.

I used to be scared of activism, because I worried I’d get something wrong. But I’ve decided that I’m just going to keep trying to help where I can. If I get feedback, I will try to do better, but I’m not going to stay away for fear I’m going to get bad feedback. And though I will accept critique from people who have been in the fight for longer than I have, I am not going to pay attention to people standing on the sidelines critiquing those of us who are actually trying to help.

You can’t do everything, but you can do something. I think it helps to commit to a number of hours or number of events you can do in a week or month, make it achievable with your schedule, and do it. If you have more time, do more. I am giving a couple of hours a day to this from hom, and as soon as I am on my feet again, at least two in-person events per month, and likely more.

It also helps to choose one or two issues to focus on. Other people will be focusing on different things, and that’s fine. Our safety is under attack from so many directions, we need people focusing on a wide variety of issues.

Here are my priorities:

  • Helping people in New York, often times following SURJ’s leadership on issues of racial justice, immigrant justice, etc.
  • Getting the GOP out of power as soon as we can, including at the state level, which is where we can fight voter rights infringements. I’m volunteerng with Sister District.
  • Environmental justice–here I’m focusing on the NoDAPL efforts right now, and the plastic bag legislation in New York State

Here are some sources of ideas for things to do if you’re not sure. You can go beyond calling and emailing and signing petitions, though. There is no substitute for being with like-minded people trying to make a difference.

If you’re upset about the way this country is going, if you see people who are hurting, if you are afraid of the future, please do what you can to make a change. Nothing is helped by panic and despair, though it is understandable, and I give into it more often than I like. You are not alone and there are many groups that need you, whatever your skills and abilities. Your country and your world need you.

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I started book 3, and other news

Have a picture of a shaggy seal in the Orkney Islands! Book 3 will have quite a bit of action set here.

The Half-Drowned King is in Goodreads!

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I added some blurbs and praise to my Books page. Check it out to read what authors Paula McClain and Madeline Miller have said, as well as Luit van der Tuuk, the Conservator of the Dorestad Museum in the Netherlands.

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A few weeks ago I started working on Book 3, The Golden Wolf, which I think is going to be harder than Book 2–it covers more time, and has two separate climaxes. The beginning is certainly hard. I haven’t settled into a routine yet. I have some new POV characters and I’m not sure what’s going on with them. My previous POV characters are older and more settled but they still need to grow and change. It’s taking a little longer to get into this book than the last one…I think. I’m not sure. It’s hard to compare.

This time my process for getting it off the ground is:

  1. Put all the major historical and narratively necessary events/proposed chapters into Aeon Timeline. So far that’s 25 items. The previous two books have 39 and 38 chapters, so I know there will be more, stemming from various subplots. Create those chapters in Scrivener as well. (Aeon and Scrivener work very well together.)
  2. Start writing 500 words a day. This is a pretty small number of daily words. The main point is to put my mind in the world and characters; it is not as much about making forward progress.
  3. Do a lot of longhand writing in my notebook to ask myself questions about plot and characters and answering them. I find this incredibly helpful at any stage in the process. Whenever I feel slightly stuck or blah about characters or story lines, I write to myself about them longhand. I will write down, “Why am I bored of character X’s story line?” and then write down anything that comes to mind as an answer. I can’t recommend doing this enough.
  4. Recently I upped my daily word-count goal to 1000 words a day. This is still pretty small, but it’s important to me to end each writing day with a lot of energy and enthusiasm for the next day, and that means stopping well before I’m written-out. I think next week I will up it to 1500 words. I max out at 2000 or so.
  5. At this stage I’m still working on whatever story lines and POVs that seem the most fun, to keep my momentum going. At some point I will end up working more linearly. Still, the previous book, the first chapters were some of the most vague, written later, rearranged frequently.

It all feels like pulling teeth right now, and I’m just trying to trust that it will come together and gain momentum like the last book, that the more I work on it the more clear it will be and the more my brain will solve plot problems without me consciously thinking about it.

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Engaging Honestly

Or, Why Captain America: Civil War did not work and Rogue One did. Spoilers for both.

I did not like Civil War. There were enjoyable parts of it (Spiderman), but mostly I couldn’t stand it, and the thing that bugged me the most is that the script refused to engage honestly with the central problem: should superheroes have to be registered and overseen by some kind of representative government?

I only read some of the Civil War comics, since they are spread over almost every character in the pantheon, often imposed on the storyline in a way that feels inorganic, and tend to derail the arc of each character when it intersected with the Civil War story. And since the “event” was so clearly a ploy to try to get you to read other comic lines that you might not be in, it was annoying, as blatant cash-grabs often are.

But at least in the comics Tony/Iron Man has legitimate reasons to be in favor of superhero registration, versus Steve/Captain America, who is against it as registration as its enforcement becomes more and more draconian and fascist. Registration is anti-freedom, as far as he is concerned, more about who the superheroes are than what they do. Steve and Tony both come at a difficult question from different perspectives, and address it in ways that are more or less true to their characters.

In the Civil War movie, the conflict is much more one sided. After several horrific missteps and attempted genocides by people with superpowers, the government wants some oversight. After The Age of Ultron, in which several of the characters are walking weapons with nuclear-bomb-level destructive capacity, it seems like they should not simply be independent actors who get involved with global conflicts whenever they feel like it. And in the movie, Captain America is against having oversight because governments want to bring Bucky Barnes, who has murdered a lot of people, in for questioning.

Captain America is proved right through the laziest storytelling possible: the government is both corrupt and being suborned by this Zemo character, so it actually is better for the world, and more fair to Bucky, for Captain America to win. But he “wins” because the story entirely undercuts his character and the central conflict. It’s a narrative cheat. In an internally consistent world, with the conflicts set up by previous movies, some civilian, government-driven oversight of superpowered individuals would be highly preferable to superpowered vigilantes and terrorists who rarely think through the consequences of their actions, even if they intend good. Heck, maybe just coordinate with local medical facilities if you’re going to risk injuring people. Governments aren’t always right, but at least in theory, they represent the interests of the social contract and hopefully the majority of their citizens.

A more interesting conflict would have been if Tony wanted full out registration and control of superheroes, and Captain America wanted consequences only if superheroes violated laws. Perhaps control versus cooperation and guidance. Or a question of whether governments should care about who people are or what they do.

If you want to tell a story about corrupt governments, that’s fine, but that is not the story Civil War set up; the corruption was tacked on to stack the deck for Captain America’s side. Winter Soldier was a much better telling of basically the same story: the helicarriers’ mission was wrong because that much government intrusion and targeting people because of who they are or who they have the potential to be is inherently wrong–made worse when it’s controlled by Hydra, but wrong in and of itself.

Engaging honestly with a premise is one of the reasons that I thought Rogue One worked, even after with any number of storytelling missteps and missing scenes. Most of the characters were paper thin and hard to connect with, but the movie engaged honestly with both the idea of war and what it requires of individuals, as well as the consequences of going up against a bigger and stronger foe.

The reason people are saying that it’s the first Star Wars story that felt like a war story is because it is the first one that acknowledged that even if you’re on the moral side of a war, it will still exact a terrible price from you. Cassian Andor has murdered for the Rebellion and hates himself for it. The Rebellion may be right, but his actions eat away at him. He is the cost and consequence of war writ small. (Saw Guerrera is possibly supposed to be another example of that, but he had way too little screen time.)

And the end, in which everyone dies, engages more honestly with the premise of the final act than I’ve ever seen in a blockbuster movie before. I was sure that at least Jyn and Cassian would be saved, but no. They went up against impossible odds and they died. We’re so used to seeing suicide missions where side characters die, maybe even beloved side characters, to make it feel “real”, but by the conventions of blockbuster storytelling, our heroes will never die. So endings lack punch and real stakes. Rogue One never pulled any narrative punches. People die in war; not just the plucky comic relief, or the guy who’s already lost his whole family so has nothing to lose. Many people die. Good and bad people. Doing the right thing is its own reward, not something that earns a happy ending with the romantic partner of the character’s choice. The fact that Rogue One killed off all of its main characters shows astonishing narrative honesty, and elevates this film far above any of its problems.

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