Roundup: August 3-9, 2015

1/1 cats agree: you should read ARIAH

1/1 cats agree: you should read ARIAH

Upcoming!

  • Mark your calendars! I’ll be discussing how to build a stronger and more diverse audience through blogging on the next episode of Radio Z this Sunday, 8/16, at 4pm PST.

Wanderings on the Internet

Writing Update

  • 1,500 more words went into The Search, too, which brings us up to 83K total so far. Sorcha and Shayat have been reunited after a separation. Both have some secrets to reveal to the other.

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Sex as Worldbuilding

A couple of days ago, I read Karin Kross’s recap of the Sex and Science Fiction panel that happened at SDCC. From Karin’s recap, it sounds like the panel was equal parts thoughtful1 and irritating2. In any case, the recap got me thinking about the role sex plays in my own writing.

Just narrowing the scope of this post to sex, the act itself, and how that has occurred in my fiction, I’ve tried to explore it in ways that mirror the way sex is used Ariah_FrontCoverOnlyin the real world. Which, yes, often sex is an expression of love. Or desire. But many times, sex is divorced from both of those things: it can be used as a weapon (either literallyy or figuratively). It can be used transactionally, economically. Sometimes these uses blend together, and you can’t separate one from another.

Sex for love and desire happens often in my writing; my characters tend to be sexually and romantically agentic people. Yay for them! That’s why Ariah was classified as a romance, after all3. But here are some other ways sex has appeared in my fiction:

Matters of Scale coverMatters of Scale” touches obliquely on the issue of sexual addiction. Both “Matters of Scale” and Ariah explore the intersection of sex and magic with regard to shapers, for whom sex is complicated—consent is tricky because they essentially black out4. Some shapers self-medicate with sex to escape the constant noise of their magical abilities, just like some real-life people use sex to keep anxiety or depression or other demons at bay.

Cargo is one of the very few places I’ve written about sexual violence. It’s a topic I write about infrequently, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s triggering and it’s often written about flippantly and inappropriately. But it does happen.

Cargo also introduced the Aerdh-pirate concept of tethers, or captain’s concubines. CargoMy current work-in-progress, The Search, is exploring the nuance and nature of tetherdom in greater detail. This is sex as transaction, or at the very least implied sex as transaction, but it’s not coercive. The Search is going further, too: what would a brothel that is not coercive and exploitative look like? What would a sex worker-run brothel look like?

All of these elements were as plot-driven and plot-driving as the romantic and lusty bits. All of these elements, I think, were also key to include from a worldbuilding perspective, as well. It’s false to think of sex one way. It has always been a flexible part of human nature, used and abused and traded in a hundred different ways. Hopefully one day we won’t abuse it anymore, but I think we’ll continue to trade it (hopefully ethically—because I think we can trade it ethically). At the very least, unless you’re writing in a utopia, your world needs to include all the permutations of how sex occurs.


1Wesley Chu

2Nick Cole

3Ariah was published by Love, Sex & Merlot, the Romance imprint of the Zharmae Publishing Press, not its fantasy imprint (Luthando Couer).

4I am coming to realize there is likely a whole separate post in this.

#LoveWins Sale! ARIAH available for $1

Ariah_FrontCoverOnly

The Supreme Court voted today to make gay marriage legal across the entire country. In honor of this momentous occasion, my publishing house, Zharmae Publishing Press, is having a sale on several LGBT titles, including Ariah, via https://payhip.com/tzppbooks.

The sale is running until 7/1/2015, and you can get an epub version of Ariah for just $1!

Support queer love. Support queer families. Support queer books. #LoveWins

Dissecting ARIAH’s Opening Paragraph

Every couple of months, a new listicle pops up on my Facebook or Twitter feed rounding up the greatest opening lines in literature. Or there’s pitchmases. Or there are improve-your-writing articles about landing an agent by sharpening your opening sentences. Obviously the start of a story is important. I think, on that, we can all agree. Today I thought I’d walk you through the evolution of some of my opening lines.

This is the opening paragraph of my second novel, Ariah, which was released last week:

There are times I still have nightmares about that first day in Rabatha. I’d come from Ardijan, which is a small place built around the river and the factories. It’s a town that is mostly inhabited by the elves who work the factories with a smattering of Qin foremen and administrators. We outnumber them there. We’re still poor and overworked, we still get hassled, but there is a comfort in numbers. It was a comfort so deeply bred in me that stepping off the train in Rabatha was a harrowing experience. The train, a loud, violent thing that cloaked half the city in steam, plowed right into the center of the city and dropped me off only three streets away from the palace. Even with all the steam, I could see its spires and domes. Even with all the commotion, I could hear the barked orders and vicious slurs of the Qin enforcement agents.

In order to craft successful opening lines, you may need to take a step back and consider what you want them to do. This is your first interaction with your reader. These sentences have to set your tone, kick off your plot, introduce your setting and your characters—any number of things. Choose wisely. In the case of Ariah, I really needed to emphasize:

  • The story is told in retrospect
  • Ariah’s deep emotional sensitivity (he still has nightmares)
  • Ariah is an elf, which is an oppressed class in this world (there are slurs thrown at him when he arrives)
  • Create a sense of urgency and chaos in the reader

Ok, compare that to the opening of the first draft of Ariah*:

I honestly had no idea what to expect that day. I suppose that’s how most feel, though, when they first meet those who are supposed to take them on as apprentices. Then again, usually it’s already someone you know – someone from your town, someone that runs in the same circles with your parents. The kind of person whose children you played with growing up. So most probably at least knew what they were getting into. I didn’t. I was shipped off to the capital, a strange bustling city I’d never been to before, and told to go see someone whose name I’d only ever seen on the spines of books in my mother’s study. All I really knew was that I was terribly nervous. What if he didn’t like me? Would it be worse if he took me on as a pupil anyway or refused my parents’ request? What if I didn’t like him?

Clearly I rewrote this, which means I don’t think it’s that strong. I think this opening lacks urgency—it’s meandering where it should be gripping. It’s thoughtful where it should have some force to it. It’s more focused on Ariah’s unnamed mentor than on Ariah himself. It’s shot through with telling instead of showing: he says he’s nervous, but we, as readers, don’t feel that nervousness. We are not immersed in a situation that makes us feel nervous with him.

Most of my openings start like this in the first draft—bland, telling without the showing. They usually drastically improve in revisions. Often, simply because in the second draft I actually know the story I’m telling. For example, one reason the first draft opening is written about the mentor is because the story was originally supposed to be about the mentor. Ariah was only supposed to be a viewpoint character reflecting on the mentor, but then Ariah took on a life of his own and took over the narrative. He went rogue, and the opening lines became an artifact of a story that was never actually written.

In my writing, the opening lines of first drafts get written first—sloppily—simply because you have to write something. You have to start somewhere. The rest of the draft comes together, the writing tightens up as it does, you find your voice somewhere in the middle and get a cadence. By the end of the first draft you finally have figured out what the story is about. Then, you start rewriting. You fiddle with the first part, and you rewrite, and you rewrite, but those opening lines are actually the last thing to get seriously tweaked and polished precisely because they are the first thing everyone will actually see. Those lines are high-stakes, which makes them intimidating as shit, so you hold them off and perfect everything else, then you perfect them.

I am generally not a critical self-editor, except when it comes to the first paragraph and the last paragraph, these make-or-break-a-book lines. These are the ones that have to be just right. These are also the ones, though, that can be killed by too much fussing. You have to let them breathe; you have to resist the urge to over-write them. You have to trust your gut that you’ve finished them and done them as well as you have it in you to do them. You have to stop yourself from fiddling with them forever to stave off the terror of putting your work out there.

*Oh, man, showing you parts of a first draft is like showing you my messy bedroom. I know everyone has one, but it doesn’t make it any less embarrassing.

Roundup: May 25-31 2015

click through to purchase!

click through to purchase!

Obviously, the biggest thing that went down last week was the release of my second novel, Ariah! Beyond the rabid posting on this blog, I made a couple of guest appearances last week:

In case you don’t follow me everywhere all over the internet, here’s what you missed last week:

  • A fresh round of Supernatural Haikus went up on my tumblr.
  • I took a long overdue vacation from everything this week to visit a wonderful dear friend. I slept on her extremely uncomfortable couch, and we spent a week straight watching the Avengers-related Marvel Universe movies/TV shows in in-universe chronological order. I started live-tweeting my reactions somewhere around Iron Man. The tesseract makes so much more sense now…kinda.

Writing Update:

  • What with all the book promotional stuff (all those blog posts to write!) and all that Marvel Universe watching and the relaxing there was not a ton of writing that happened. The Search continues to hover at 50kish words.

ARIAH Release day!

click through to order!

click through to order!

It’s here! It’s happened! It’s release day!!!!!!

It’s just really exciting!

Hey, and if you maybe want a free copy of Ariah, well, shoot, why not enter this giveaway? It’s open until midnight this Saturday!

I don’t have much else to say except:

iwroteabook

ARIAH Countdown: Excerpt & Giveaway!

click through to pre-order!

click through to pre-order!

We’re a mere two days out from release day! If you’d like a sneak peak of Ariah, I’ve posted the first chapter here for free! If you like what you read, enter the giveaway! Two lucky entrants will win a free ebook of Ariah! The giveaway closes midnight, Saturday 6/30, so enter now for your chance to win!

CHAPTER 1
There are times I still have nightmares about that first day in Rabatha. I’d come from Ardijan, which is a small place built around the river and the factories. It’s a town that is mostly inhabited by the elves who work the factories with a smattering of Qin foremen and administrators. We outnumber them there. We’re still poor and overworked, we still get hassled, but there is a comfort in numbers. It was a comfort so deeply bred in me that stepping off the train in Rabatha was a harrowing experience. The train, a loud, violent thing that cloaked half the city in steam, plowed right into the center of the city and dropped me off only three streets away from the palace. Even with all the steam, I could see its spires and domes. Even with all the commotion, I could hear the barked orders and vicious slurs of the Qin enforcement agents.

I was searched. My single bag of clothes and books was searched. Everything I had brought with me except my citizenship papers was confiscated, including what little money I had. I was one of exactly seven elves on that train, and all of us were detained, and all of us were robbed. On the train, the seven of us had shared a single compartment. I knew, intellectually, that the train was full of Qin people, but I was with my own, like I had always been, and the nearness of that truth was lost on me. The train station was a sea of brown skin and fangs. I came to Rabatha for training, and as is traditional I came to my mentor on my thirtieth birthday. Thirty is when we consider a child to be grown. Before I got on that train, I felt grown. I felt adult. I felt ready. But when I looked around and saw no one who looked like me, it scared the thoughts right out of my mind. I was thirty, but I felt like a child.

So it was that I arrived alone in Rabatha, penniless and empty-handed. I arrived and had the securities of my youth brutally ripped away. I also arrived in the mid-afternoon, with only a few hours before curfew to find the man who would be my mentor. My parents had made me commit his address to memory, which had been good foresight, but the shock of the train station drowned the memory of it. All I knew was that he lived in the Semadran borough, and the Semadran boroughs inevitably sprang up on west side of town. That’s where the Qin like us to be. They know that magic in the westlands is stronger than in the east, and so they prefer to live east of anything and everything. I went west. I got to the borough without incident, though the walk took three hours. I was born in the summer, so it was a miserably hot day. I thought I’d die of thirst, but I wasn’t brave enough to ask anyone for water, not even other elves.

I never found his place. No matter how hard I wracked my brain, I couldn’t remember the address. He found me. The borough in Rabatha is cramped—it houses twice as many elves as Ardijan, in half the space—but Semadran boroughs are alike all over. The center had a schoolhouse. Elvish homes were planted around it in ever-widening circles, all facing outward, like sentries. When you are Semadran and you are lost, or hurt, or in need, you find the schoolhouse, and eventually what you need finds you there.

I made it to the schoolhouse a little before dusk fell, just when the streets were beginning to empty. I sat on the steps, cowering in the schoolhouse’s shadow. It was a stately building, two floors tall with real glass windowpanes. I don’t know how long I sat there. My mind was numb, my body was sore; I was tired inside and out. I hated everything about everyone. I was well-entrenched in these thoughts, the arrogant and bitter thoughts very young men think, when my mentor found me. “Are you Ariah?” he asked.

I looked up. I didn’t know whether or not to answer him. I didn’t know before then that Dirva was not fully Semadran. I am certain my parents didn’t know. My father likely would not have cared, but it would have been a deal breaker for my mother. It would have been hypocritical of her, but she had her standards, and she stuck to them.

I have always felt conspicuous. I have always been conspicuous. There is red blood in my family, and red blood rises to the surface. Both my mother and I have her mother’s green eyes. My mother even has freckles. I just have the green eyes; everything else about me is appropriately silver. My green eyes had always been an ambivalent thing for me. My father loves them, loves difference. My mother thinks them a curse. It is true that she and I got strange looks, that there were children growing up who were encouraged to play with boys other than me. And it’s true that some sought me out, curious and fascinated. As I said, I was very young then, and I had not yet lived enough or grown enough to know really how I felt about my diluted blood.

When you’re very young and you’re different, you begin to believe that no one has ever been as different as you and that no one has ever felt that difference as keenly as you. But there was Dirva. He was a tall man and broad-shouldered, a big man. He was a dark man, with skin a deep, deep gray, nearly black. And his hair was the same color—inky black. His eyes were green, like mine, but they were green in a vibrant and forceful way, the pupils a hair too small and the irises a hair too wide. He had whites in the corners of his eyes. He was a man with blood a far sight more muddled than my own, a man who looked like he had at least a dash of mundanity in him. His blood was so muddled that my mother’s suspicions took root. I didn’t answer. It was the strangest thing, but I felt when I saw him that I’d seen him before. I knew I hadn’t, but I felt it anyway. It made me trust him less.

He frowned and glanced out at the street. The shaper in him had cut its teeth on noticing the fear and disgust of those around him. He held out a hand to me anyway. “I am sure you are Ariah. I am Dirva. We have corresponded.”

There was nothing to do but take his hand. I was there in that unknown city, alone, with no money. I could not have gotten back to Ardijan. I knew no one else in Rabatha. All I had was him. “I am glad to meet you,” I said.

He laughed. Like most people, he has many laughs. This one was sharp and cold. He looked me over and sighed. “Oh, you came on the train.”

“Yes.”

“You have had a long day.”

Suddenly the weight of it all bore down on me. I felt tears well up. Oh, it was awful; the shame of it was a force to drown in. I wrapped my arms around myself and stared at the ground. I nodded and somehow managed not to cry. I felt I would die if he saw me cry, if that was the first thing about me he saw.

He took me gently by the elbow and led me down the street. “I have had long days, too,” he said.
“Tomorrow will be kinder.”

* * * * *The next morning, I woke facing The Reader. The actual painting, the original. At first I thought it was a dream. When he is not working the assembly line, my father is an artist who specializes in portraits. He is something of an expert on the Nahsiyya Movement. He has copied The Reader himself for at least a dozen dignitaries. He invented a press to print paintings with a high level of fidelity. He prints books of art, and his books end up in Qin libraries all over. Every one of those books has a print of The Reader in it. In short, I was extremely familiar with this particular painting, this monstrously famous painting, which inexplicably hung on the wall in a cramped set of rooms in an elvish ghetto.

Food sizzled in the kitchen, and it smelled slightly strange. I crept out of bed, barefoot and timid, and studied the painting, which my father himself had seen only once. It had hung in a gallery in Tarquintia for a fortnight many years ago, and my father spent all of his money to get there and see it. He wanted to drink it in, absorb it, let it burn into his mind so he could replicate it again and again. No one was entirely sure what had happened to it after that. No one besides me, Dirva, and the artist.

My father’s copies are excellent copies, but they are still copies. The copies couldn’t quite show the way the bold lines captured movement and obscured it at the same time. The palette was brighter than in the copies—the blues and the greens burned bright and ice-cold at once. I think it might have been a matter of the medium, of his use of ink instead of oil paints. The paint gave it a dimensionality lacking in the prints. The artist slapped it on thick, in ridges that cast subtle, shifting shadows. The shadows made the subject look like he was breathing, like he was just about to turn the page. I studied the figure: a black-skinned boy with black hair and green eyes. He wore a subtle smirk. He had broad shoulders and long, graceful fingers. It was a face I’d seen a thousand times before, and it dawned on me as I stood there that it was a face I had seen the day before.

Curiosity got the better of me. I crept around the corner and peered into the kitchen. Dirva was at the stove. I watched him for some time, star-struck, before he noticed me there. “You survived the night,” he said. “Are you hungry?”

“I…yes?” I said, though it came out closer to a question. He glanced at me quickly. His eyes were overly expressive; you could tell precisely where he looked. He is a reserved man, but his eyes give him an air of penetrating intensity.

“Did you sleep well? Will the cot suffice?”

“Yes?” Again it came out like a question.

He turned towards me. It was then I learned he is not a patient man, that he has a brusqueness rooted to the core of him. “You seem to have some question for me. It would make sense for you to have questions, considering the circumstances. You should ask it.”

“What?”

“You should ask your question.”

I blinked. I likely blushed. “I don’t have any questions.”

Dirva stirred the food, but kept his gaze pinned on me. “If you have no questions then there is little I can do for you as a mentor. Curiosity is a virtue, so say the wise.”

“The wise say curiosity, in moderation and used with tact, is a virtue.”

He frowned slightly. “Just ask it. Whatever it is, just ask it.”

“There’s nothing to…” He looked at me again. I laughed erratically, nervously, and he frowned a little more. “I have…I have just a little question for you. I guess. You don’t have to answer it. I didn’t ask because…I don’t know…it struck me that the answer might be personal? I didn’t want to pry. There’s no reason for me to even know the answer, whatever it is, and…”

“Ariah. Please, just ask it,” he said, turning his attention back to the stove.

So I asked it. “Is that…is that the actual Reader? The original?”

“Yes.”

My mouth fell open. “How?”

“How what?”

“How is it here?”

“Where there are borders and guards, there are also smugglers, Ariah,” said Dirva. “It was smuggled to me.”

“It must have cost a fortune.”

“I am sure it cost quite a lot to smuggle it, yes, but it cost me nothing. It was a gift.” He turned away from me. He opened his mouth to change the topic.

And I couldn’t let him do it. My heart thudded against my ribs. I had to know. “Is that you? Are you The Reader?”

He froze. His eyebrows knit together, then he sighed and looked over. “Your father is an artist. He mentioned that. You know about art. Yes. It’s me.” He pulled the skillet off the stove and emptied the contents into a bowl. He gestured at the table and laid out flatbread for each of us. I sat across from him and scooped up some of the potatoes and peppers in a bit of flatbread. They had been spiced with something uncommon in the Empire, which was not bad, but was unfamiliar. I couldn’t help but stare at him. It was him, undeniably him, but he had none of the magnetism or quiet enthusiasm of the figure in the painting. The sharpness was there, the quickness, but in the painting, as a boy not much older than myself, he looked happy. Across the table, as a man approaching middle age, he seemed mostly irritable. How did one grow into the other?

“Please don’t stare,” he said. His eyes flicked up at me when he said it. I tried to stop, but I couldn’t quite do it. I resorted to staring at him from the corner of my eye while pretending to be very much interested in the floor. He let out a short, impatient noise. “It is me. Yes, I know the painter. I trained in the City of Mages, and I knew Liro when I was young. He sent me this painting some years ago. Please don’t ask me why he did such a fool thing. He was always prone to grand gestures. I do not follow art closely, but I know enough to know that, if word got out it was here, I would be very quickly robbed. Please don’t say anything to anyone about it. Do not write of it in your letters to your father, for example. I do not want to be robbed. Do you have any other questions?”

I stopped chewing. I swallowed. I felt vaguely sheepish. I cut a quick glance at the painting, just visible through the doorway, then back at him. “Just one.”

He flicked one hand at me, dismissively, irritably, and rested his forehead in the palm of his other hand. “Ask.”

“I’ve always wondered. What are you reading? In the painting, what book is it that you’re reading?”
Dirva looked up at me. “That’s your question?”

“Yes?”

“That is an odd question.”

“Well, it’s, uh . . . it’s my question.”

Dirva smiled. He stood up from the table and went into the other room. I followed closely at his heels. He studied the painting and began to laugh. “I’ve never looked. You know in all these years, I never looked. It could have been anything. It’s not really a book.” He covered his mouth with his hand and looked over at me. His eyes were bright; they crinkled happily at the edges. It brought out a warmth in him that I had not thought he had. When he looked at me like that, conspiratorial, surprised, that was when I began to trust him. That’s when he became my mentor, and I became his student. He laughed again. “I am not proud of this. I can’t believe he painted me like this. That’s not a book. That’s my brother’s diary. I’d stolen it. I used everything I read in there to get under his skin. He never knew I read it.”

ARIAH Countdown: ARIAH and Overlapping Timelines in Aerdh

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click through to pre-order!

As I’ve mentioned in other posts , Ariah is set in the same secondary universe—Aerdh—as many of my other pieces of fiction. If curious to see where Ariah fits in chronologically to those other pieces of Aerdh-based fiction, check out this handy timeline I made below!

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

The width of the boxes above corresponds to the timeline below: longer boxes mean the story covers more years. The height of the boxes corresponds to the word count of the piece: taller boxes mean the story took more words to tell.

The blue boxes are “canon” works—those which have been published or accepted for publication. I consider something canon when it’s accepted for publication because that’s the point at which I stop fiddling with it, and it becomes a fixed point in the world of Aerdh; these works serve as scaffolding, or the ‘bones’ of the other works.

The gray boxes are unpublished works that are ready or very nearly ready to be submitted for publication. They’re included to give you a sense of scope and the degree of overlap between my Aerdh-based fiction.

ARIAH Countdown: The Value of Magic

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click through to pre-order!

A defining trait of Ariah is the presence of magic. It’s a key element of the world of Aerdh, the book’s setting, and it’s a defining feature of the titular character. The fact that Ariah is, among other things, a magical creature, gets the narrative going—the book starts with him seeking out a mentor who will guide him to mastery over his magical gifts. Such training is traditional for Semadran elves like him, and his particular combination of gifts are rare enough that finding a suitable mentor takes him far from home. Ariah’s gifts are strong enough, formidable enough, that he eventually must take on a second mentor even farther from home to fully understand himself.

Writing fiction is an art defined by choice. So, what drove my choice to weave magic into this book, and to place it so prominently? What makes magic, as an idea, valuable to the reader? And what makes magic, as a fact in Ariah’s world, valuable to him and those around him?

The truth is that magic as an idea is only as valuable as I make it to the reader and to Ariah. It is a clear case of “show, don’t tell.” I can tell you it’s valuable—but unless I shore up that claim with worldbuilding and details and narrative tension then you, as the reader, won’t feel that value. It won’t add anything to your experience of the book.

For Ariah, the value of his magic is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it grants him great insight into those around him. It makes him prescient; it makes him astute. Given his social position as an elf in a Qin-led society, there is value in this. Anyone who has ever been marginalized knows that it pays to pay close attention to those in power. It’s always useful to be the most knowledgeable man in the room. Over the course of the book, his magic saves his life and others’ lives quite literally.

But there is a danger to his magic, too. As protective as his magic can be, the use of Ariah’s magic has the potential to get him arrested, impressed into military service against his will or rejected by friends and loved ones. The use of it sometimes comes at a steep cost for complex, layered reasons: issues of personal privacy, issues of cultural confusion and purity, issues of outright oppression. All of these things weigh on Ariah’s mind in the moments when he must decide when to use his magic and when not to.

For me, a recurrent theme in Ariah is the toll exploitation takes on marginalized people. This is best captured in the relationship the Qin Imperials have towards the Semadran elves’ magic—they use it, constantly, to improve the Empire, but berate it, constantly, as unclean and impure. Elves with a facility for what is called patternwork (something akin to real-world engineering) are assigned work in research laboratories and paid a pittance to design bigger, better factories and military machinery. Those elves continue to live in the ghettos while the Qin profit off their magically influenced creations. Ariah and his mentor, Dirva, get work as linguists, helping to translate in diplomatic parleys between far-flung ambassadors. That Ariah and Dirva know these languages and can learn them extremely quickly due to their magical biological wiring only seems to matter functionally insomuch as it means they can be paid very little.

The Qin have evolved religious reasons why magic is impure. Rationales always spring up to explain away injustices and support the status quo; this is a social fact. By the time Ariah tells his story, these rationales have been ensconced in law, codified and enshrined. His life is structured such that the Qin are able to get the maximum value out of his magic while he reaps the least amount of profit from it—because he is impure for having magic in the first place.

But magic, because it so totally shapes how Ariah perceives and relates to the world around him, also becomes a primary means of his small acts of resistance against the system exploiting him. In the doing, Ariah exists in that tension between the value and the danger of his magic for much of the book.