“Once long ago, there was a seal who loved the sea…”

Writing is a strange business sometimes. We think we’re writing for readers, and then it turns out we’re writing for ourselves. We think we’re writing for our present selves, and then it turns out we’re writing for the children-we-were or the adults-we-will be.

Or both. Today I came upon ”Seal Story,” a selkie short I wrote more than a decade ago. Selkie stories are by their nature about the pull between two worlds, and when I wrote this one, I was thinking about my fears around one day becoming a mother, about the tensions between the creative world I already inhabited and the world of parenting, which are often presented as two very different, irreconcilable things.

But when I reread the story today, I found myself thinking instead about losing my own mother, and my struggles with being her adult child—about reconciling her need to be so many things to so many people with figuring out my own place in her life.

I don’t know whether Mom and I ever got to the final version of this story. I do know there are things I need to think about here, though, and that this was a story I needed to reread today.

In case it’s a story you need—or even just want—right now as well, I’m sharing it below.


Seal Story

You know this story.

Once long ago, there was a seal who loved the sea. On bright days she swam through the warm water, while waves crested with foam and salt scented the air. Yet she also loved the land, so on dark nights she shed her skin, took on human form, and danced, not through waves, but on cool, wet sand.

One night a young man caught sight of her, and when he crouched behind the rocks to watch her dance, he also caught sight of her gray skin shining in the moonlight. The young man couldn’t believe his good fortune. He stole the skin, and he hid it like the treasure it was.

The seal woman had no choice. She could not turn back to a seal; she could not return to the ocean. Instead she made her way to the young man’s home, and if the road that led there cut her bare feet, this story does not tell of it. It tells only that the man and the seal woman were soon married, and that they lived together in his house near the sea. Whether she grew to love him or hated him all her days–the story does not tell that, either.

What it does tell is this: in time, the seal woman had children. Her love for them was as deep as the sea, the joy she found in them as true as the stones beneath it.

And yet.

The young man’s house faced the ocean, and through its windows the seal woman could see the changing tides. Walking its halls, she could hear the crashing waves. Restlessly she paced those halls, long after her children slept, until one night she found the skin the man had hidden. In the attic, in the cellar, beneath a stone–again the story is silent. It says only that the sea grew loud, so loud, as she held her skin once more.

She could not ignore that call. She kissed her children as they slept, and she crept quietly down to the sea. But her eldest daughter woke, and heard, and ran after her mother.

The girl wasn’t fast enough. As she reached the sand a flash of gray disappeared beneath the water, and then she saw only waves.

This girl was human-born; she could not follow her mother. She returned to her father’s home, and the stones did not cut her feet. But even as she walked, she knew she would never forget that while her mother loved her as deeply as the sea, the depths of the sea were nothing, beside her mother’s love for being a seal. She would never forget, and she would never forgive.

You do not want this story. You are a child; you are unkind. The seal woman’s happiness means less, to you, than the girl’s.

Very well.

Once long ago there lived a seal who loved the sea. When she sought to return to it, her daughter ran after her.

The girl was fast enough. She cried out, before the seal woman disappeared beneath the waves, “Do not leave me!”

The seal woman heard, and her daughter’s voice pulled on her, as strong as the tides. She could not ignore that call. She shed her skin once more, and she carried it back to the young man’s house, her daughter clutching her hand all the way.

She found joy in her children for many years more.

And yet.

In the end her children grew up and moved away, even the daughter who’d begged her to stay. The young man grew old and died. The seal woman also grew old, too old to return to the ocean. She lived, bitter and alone, in the house near the sea.

She did not forget, and she did not forgive–not the young man who stole her from the water, and not the daughter who stopped her when she sought to return.

You don’t want this story either. You want the seal woman to be happy, and her daughter as well. You are trying to be kind.

Try this, then: The girl ran to the edge of the sea, and her mother heard her cries and knew she could not go.

Not that night, and not for many nights after. But one night, when her daughter was nearly grown, the seal woman returned to the waves after all. She did not kiss her children goodbye this time. She did not want anyone calling her back.

Her daughter mourned, but in time she did forgive. She knew her mother had stayed as long as she could. Besides, the girl lived in another town by then, or perhaps even in the city. She had a young man of her own, and she did not wish to return to the house by the sea, for her mother or anyone else. Instead she married, and in time bore children who pulled on her, strong as the tides.

And yet.

The story does not say whether the daughter ever longed to escape her own young man, or even her own children. It says only that she knew she could not leave, not when her mother had left her.

You are still not satisfied. You will have a happy ending, or else none at all.

I cannot give it to you. I can only give you this: The girl was fast enough, and the seal woman heard her cries, even before she pulled her seal skin over her human one.

So she did not go, but neither did she promise to stay. She drew her human daughter close. “I was a seal before you were born,” she said. “I will be a seal after you leave. I am a seal now, and I am also your mother. I will not be only one thing or the other.”

The girl did not understand. She only cried louder, because she thought her mother was leaving her after all.

“Trust me,” the seal woman whispered. She pulled on her seal skin then, and she slid into the sea.

I do not know this story.

Perhaps the girl goes home to mourn her loss, only to have her mother return to her, hours past dark. Perhaps she waits by the water’s edge until the seal woman reappears, dripping and human, to take her daughter once more in her arms.

What I do know is this: as her children grow, the seal woman spends time on land and time at sea. Perhaps the girl rages at this, and perhaps she weeps, because she misses the seal woman, when she is away. Because she wants her mother to be one thing, for her and no one else. I do not know whether the girl will come to understand, in time. Perhaps she’ll forever fear the day the seal woman will leave her for good.

And the seal woman will leave in the end, though not for the sea. You are a child, but surely you know this.

Still, when that day comes there will be nothing to forgive and nothing to forget. By then the girl might have children of her own, in this town or another. I like to think one day she’ll turn to them and say, “Your grandmother, she lived on land, but she also lived in the water.”

I hope there’ll be more joy than sorrow in her voice when she says it, and when she takes her human children into her arms. “Once long ago,” she’ll whisper to them, “there was a seal who loved the sea.”

Then she’ll smile, because she knows this story.


Seal Story” first appeared in Merry Sisters of Fate on February 28, 2011. You can find a full list of my stories here.

Free Bones of Faerie short story

Happy holidays! “Invasive Species,” a short story set in my Bones of Faerie universe, is now online. It’s also FREE this month wherever ebooks are sold.

You can download a copy now from Amazon Apple Barnes and Noble Kobo or Smashwords.

[Invasive Species: Book Cover]

The Bones of Faerie trilogy is set in the aftermath of a catastrophic war between the human and faerie realms, one that has left behind a world filled with deadly magic: stones that glow with deadly light, trees that seek blood and bone to root in, dark forests that can swallow a person whole.

While the main trilogy is set in the Midwest, “Invasive Species” is my look at what the war with Faerie might have looked like here in the Arizona, where even without magic, the plants know how to bite. Here’s an excerpt.


I held tight to my little cousin’s hand as we walked the road through Summerhaven, scanning the broken asphalt for weeds. Alex tugged at a stray thread on his faded Cookie Monster T-shirt and scuffed his sneakers against the ground. He’d been fidgety all day, like his skin felt too tight. Maybe it was the heavy gray clouds, promising rain, but giving us only another sticky summer day.

Maybe it was that for five years—since before Alex was born—our entire lives had been lived within a couple miles of this road. Thinking about it made me want to crawl out of my skin, too.

Alex spotted a fuzzy pink thistle poking through a crack in the pavement. He reached for it. I pulled him back. “Gloves on?” I asked.

Alex looked down at his bare hands, as if he had to think about that. He pulled leather gloves out of his jean pockets, tried to put them on, and got his thumbs stuck in the finger holes. I helped him straighten them out.

“Gloves on,” he said, as if it had been his idea.

“Go for it, then.”

Alex grabbed the thistle and pulled, throwing all his four-year-old strength into the job. The stem came up in his arms, wriggling like a thorny green snake, while the fluffy bloom at the end thrashed wildly, trying to break free. I opened my leather weed-gathering bag, and Alex threw the thistle in. Once it was dead, we’d feed it to the goats and rabbits, just like all the other weeds.

“Take that, stupid plant.” Alex laughed, as if hunting down killer weeds was all in a day’s work. He’d never known a plant that was safe. He’d never known a world more than a few miles wide, either.

I knelt beside him and dug the thistle’s roots out with my knife, ignoring the strap of my quiver as it dug into my shoulder.

Sweat plastered my I Love Mount Lemmon T-shirt to my back. “Never forget the roots,” I said.

Never forget the roots.” Alex threw them into my bag, too, grinning like a preschooler learning his ABCs. Except Alex hadn’t been to preschool, either, hadn’t learned his letters and numbers anywhere but by the fireplace with Aunt Anna and Uncle Doug.

I sighed and stood, looking at the familiar cabins that dotted the hillsides east and west of us, the snags of burned trees punctuating the earth between them. Beyond the houses, terraced fields of beans, squash, and corn moaned as they reached for the sky. Most of the town was up in those fields today, reinforcing the scorched rings of earth that surrounded the crops and kept them from marching down the hillside into town.

Five years ago, if someone had told me plants could march, I’d have told them they’d been streaming too many bad movies …


Read more! Download “Invasive Species” from Amazon Apple Barnes and Noble Kobo or Smashwords.

Doing the “you” things—honoring our (highly individual) writing processes

I’m a messy writer. I jump in, with little more than a character or an idea, a few sentences or a scrap of voice, and I just start writing.

I don’t know where the story is going. I don’t know where it will end. Or maybe I think I know these things now, but I’ll find out later that I’m wrong. Either way I dive in, doing the story equivalent of throwing word-clay on the wheel and letting that clay splatter all over my hands and clothes, creating a rough draft that will ultimately bear only a ghost of a resemblance to my final one. I keep writing and rewriting over the course of five or more drafts, shaping the story, layering things in.

I love my writing process. There’s energy and joy in it, and in the end, I wind up with stories I’m proud of. If there’s angst along the way, a fear that this time, unlike all the other times, the story won’t happen, well, some part of me knows that’s part of my process, too.

My process.

For some reason we seat-of-the-pants, outline-eschewing writers are an insecure bunch. I hear new — and not-so-new — writers stressing about how they “need” to learn to outline, because not outlining is too slow or too inefficient or too … something.

Meanwhile, the Internet is filled with posts about how to map out our stories ahead of time. In one-on-one conversations with planning writers, I hear things like, “I don’t have the time not to outline” and “It’d be lovely to jump in, but I don’t have that luxury.”

As if it’s a luxury to write in the way that gives you the absolute best story possible.

I’m all for experimenting, for testing new processes, for trying new things. None of us should be hobbled by assuming that the way we do things now is the only way we can do things, ever. But there also comes a point when, no matter what our best process and best writing practices, we really do know what works for us.

When that point comes, I believe in accepting it — not with anxiety or fear, but with joy.

How much word clay you get on your skin and clothes doesn’t matter. Only the story you come away with in the end matters.

As for time, that thing none of us has enough us — well, nothing wastes time like fighting the way your story wants to be written, and along the way, the writing itself is usually much less fun.

Two stories:

One. A writer friend called me one day, wanting to know how I “organized” the work for my research-intensive novel Thief Eyes, because she was working on a research-intensive project of her own. After some hollow laughter at that word, organized, I allowed as how I didn’t write Thief Eyes with an up-front organized plan. Instead, I jumped in, and wrote, and let the story tell me what I needed to know. Only once I had words on the wheel did I begin researching and revising in earnest.

There was a moment’s silence, and then my friend asked, “So what did you do, then? Use notecards?”

Fortunately this was a voice call. When I banged my head against the wall, there was no one there to see.

When I say I don’t plan or outline, I mean I don’t plan or outline, not that I plan and outline differently. I think this process is sometimes alien to those who do follow a more outwardly organized process that they can’t imagine it working at all.

But it does.

Two. A while back, I had a book I wanted to write whose shape was already clear in my head, much more so than most of my books are. I could have honored that gift and made use of it by taking it with me into a messy first draft, but instead I thought, “Oh! Maybe this book is one that I actually can outline. Maybe I can finally speed everything up after all!”

That should have been my warning right there, that voice in my head looking, not for a new technique that would make my story better, but for a shortcut instead.

I now have that book outlined in a file, and no desire to work on it, because the story feels dead to me.

I put all the bright shining first-draft energy of discovery into an outline that in the end was nothing like a first draft for me, and now instead of joyous momentum and something I can revise into a second draft, I have lifeless words on the page.

Fortunately, this was a spec project, so I set my outline aside in the hopes that, with enough time and forgetfulness, that outline will fade from memory and the first draft energy will return. Which is fine, but also pretty much the opposite of saving time.

For another writer it might have been different, which is actually the point. We all have our own glorious processes, messy or otherwise. We need to honor them, not fight them.

Some years ago, writer Leah Bobet was talking about honoring her processes, and also about, just once, trying to fight them for a difficult project. “Everything just worked again when I just did Me Things,” Bobet said.

That strikes me as excellent of summarizing the most important thing I’ve learned in a decades-long career.

Learn your processes, challenge them even, and push yourself as hard as you can to write better. But in the end?

Just do the you things. It’s the best writing advice I know.


A version of this post originally appeared on my blog here, because some things really don’t change. Except that now, of course, I’d have to make sure I didn’t have video turned on when I banged my head against that wall.

Life isn’t a story. That’s probably a good thing.

Life isn’t a story.

This is, for the most part, a good thing. Stories need conflict. Stories need drama. Stories need, more often than not, for the worst possible thing to happen at the worst possible time.

No one wants to live in a well-written story.

The pandemic isn’t a story. But if it were, I think we’d be at the part where it looks like everything is about to wrap up and wind down at last — but it isn’t, quite.

Vaccines are here and widely available, even if not as many people as hoped for are taking them. Covid case numbers are down, at least in our country and at least in certain communities within our country. Some of the time, for some of the people, things are beginning to feel almost … normal.

Which is why this would be the part of the story where readers begin flipping through the pages (physical books) or checking out the status bar (ebooks) to see if we’re really as close to the ending as we think.

It would be the part of the story where we realize that there are so many more pages left to go than we expected — too many for the story to really be winding down, too many for the resolution to be as simple as it seemed.

It would be the part where at least one more unexpected-yet-somehow-inevitable thing needed to happen. One more threat, one more unexpected twist, one more call for our weary characters to find their strength and rise above their weaknesses, to endure the unendurable and overcome one last overwhelming obstacle.

It would be where we realize the pandemic and its consequences aren’t over yet, that we were in too much of a hurry to think they were, that we need to keep reading for a while yet before we reach the satisfying conclusion and cathartic sigh of relief we’re longing for.

I’m glad the pandemic isn’t a story.

I’m glad those of us who hear those pages flipping have as much chance as being wrong as of being right. Maybe the pandemic still is building up to a dramatically satisfying ending. There are certainly enough unresolved plot threads left for one. But maybe, if we’re lucky, it’s instead just staggering to an undramatic, unsatisfying, mostly meaningless, utterly weary end.

Stories need meaning. Life, thankfully, does not.

But life also doesn’t let us skip ahead, doesn’t let us read the ending ahead of time for reassurance before returning to our carefully bookmarked place.

I hope the pandemic isn’t a story.

But if it is a story, I hope it’s a standalone story.

Because as readers know, if the pandemic isn’t a standalone story, then the end of book one is just a lull. A chance for readers to catch their breath — right before all those unresolved plot threads come crashing down, with all the force of a world that extends far beyond our own borders and a tale that was always, always more complicated than it seemed.

No Contrition (a found poem)

No contrition
Or regret.

The mob?
Stormed lives?
Totally appropriate.

Sidestepped questions?
Deadly riot?
Totally appropriate.

Defiance.
Assault.
Violence.

Ransacking.
Anger.
Violence.

His mob.
His anger.

He should leave.
Leave everyone alone.


Found poetry from “In first public appearance since the Capitol siege, Trump expresses no contrition for inciting the mob,” The New York Times, January 12, 2020

Love and Perfection

“We love the things we love for what they are.”

That’s from Robert Frost’s “Hyla Brook.”

Variations on the line had been bouncing around in my head for a while before my husband and fellow writer, Larry Hammer, reminded me where it came from.

I’d been thinking about Frost (without knowing it was Frost I was thinking about) because I’d been thinking about how once we reach a certain basic level of craft, writing is no longer about avoiding mistakes or carefully not doing anything wrong.

It’s about the things we do right.

No one ever loved a book, after all, simply for not making any mistakes, for all that there are (varied, individual) things that can throw each of us out of a story. But we don’t love a story just because we aren’t thrown out of it, either.

We love books for what they do, not for what they manage not to do. We love them for the thing or things that hit each of our particular story buttons, that reach out to bridge the gap between story and reader, that pull on us and make us want to or need to read on. A flawed book that does the things it does very right is far more powerful than an unflawed book that doesn’t.

None of my favorite books—the books I imprinted on as a child and teen, the books that have remained touchstones for me throughout my life—is perfect. I can see that clearly enough when I look at those books as a writer focused on craft—and that has never once stopped me from returning to those books, from treasuring them. 

We don’t love books for the things they aren’t, but for the things they are.

My bookshelves—filled with imperfect books that I adore.

But there’s more to it than that. A while back, in a stray moment when I thought I was thinking about a manuscript-in-progress, I found myself thinking instead: And the same thing is true for people.

On one level, I’d always known this. On another I hadn’t, or had forgotten, or needed to relearn it on that particular day in that particular way. People no more need to be perfect than stories do.

As writers who spend much of our time looking inward that we can become as critical of ourselves as of our stories, this is worth remembering, too. I doubt many people hold their friends and loved ones dear simply because they never make mistakes. Lack of mistakes is not the place love comes from.

We love one another for the same reason we love stories: not for what we aren’t, but for what we are.

As I dig deep to put words on the page, I find that a comforting thought.


Love and Perfection first appeared as a guest post on Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations. I find I return to it every year or two as a reminder to myself.

Happy writerversary to me

Oh, right. It’s 2020.

Okay, you don’t need me to tell you that. What with the election and the pandemic and the wildfires and a thousand thousand other things, 2020 has seen to it that it won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

But February 2020 was also, as this ten-year-old post just reminded me, my writingversary. As I explained then:

Back in February 1990, just a few months out of school, I spent the last of my student loan money on a computer with two 5 1/4″ floppy drives, promised myself I would write at least something every single day when I got home from my new day job, and decided to see if I could make a go of this writing thing. I knew enough to know it would take time, so I gave myself ten years before I would step back, evaluate, and decide whether to keep going.

In February 2000, I’d sold the three middle grade Phantom Rider books and a couple dozen short stories, though the Phantom Rider books were by then out of print and I was feeling more than a little anxious about not having sold any more novels. But I stepped back, looked around, and decided I was in for a second ten years.

I completely missed February 2010, because I was frantically finishing a draft of a sequel the YA fantasy I’d started on that first student-loan funded computer but not finished and sold until late 2006. That was the third YA fantasy I’d sold in the second half of that decade; along the way I’d also sold another middle grade novel. Being too busy to step back and decide whether to keep writing is, of course, an answer of its own. Still, it’s good to actually state these things, so: I’m in for a third decade. I’m in, as I pretty much knew before the end of that first decade, for the long haul.

[Author at keyboard]
One of a great many devices I’ve written on through the years.

I completely missed February 2020 because, well, it was part of 2020. Writing has brought its challenges over the past decade, as it does; parenting has brought its own challenges to the second half of that decade, as it also does. But I’m still here and I’m still writing and it feels good to say it aloud:

I’m in for a fourth decade. I’m in for another ten years.

“Do you believe that spring will come?”

Bones of Faerie, the first book of my Bones of Faerie trilogy, is about uncontrolled growth: plants that bloom in every season, crops that fight their harvesters, trees that seek human blood and bone to root in.

[Faerie Winter Cover]

Faerie Winter, the second book of the trilogy, tells the opposite story. It’s about endless winter, failure to grow, and the fear that spring might never come.

During our current physical and psychological winter, Faerie Winter is the book I’ve been thinking about.

The story’s protagonist, Liza, is surrounded by adults who remember countless other winters, followed by countless other springs. Liza was born after the war between faeries and humans banished winter from her world, though. She’s never known anything but deadly, unbounded growth. When that growth stops at last, Liza’s first thought is about how much safer the forests have become. Later, when she realizes that those forests have also stopped producing the things humans need to survive, she has no mental roadmap for what might happen next.

When Jayce, a member of Liza’s town’s council, talks about preparing for spring planting, Liza wonders at the fact.

If he feared that the spring crops wouldn’t grow, he gave no sign. Adults believed, somewhere deep inside, that spring would come, for all that they were careful of our rations. Some part of them couldn’t imagine that green wouldn’t return to the world, as if green was something we were born to. I did not understand it. Deep inside I felt as if this gray had surely gone on forever and the forests I’d fought all my life had been merely illusions.

Not all the adults in Liza’s world share Jayce’s certainty, though. As the story progresses, Liza flees a danger that comes from beyond the dying forest with Karin, a fey survivor of the War. Karin is a plant mage, keenly aware of the changes winter has brought to the world, and she asks aloud the question that human adults have not.

The grasses sighed wearily and retreated back into the snow. “They’re not dead,” I said. “Not completely, not around you.”

“They are not dead.” Karin sounded as tired as the grasses had. “But they are dying. Tell me, Liza, do you believe that spring will come?”

Why ask me? I was no plant mage. “The adults in my town believe it.” They believed in spite of the gray trees and the gray skies, the failed crops and the too-long winter.

“So it is with the human adults in my town as well.” Karin held a hand out to the falling snow as we walked on. Snowflakes melted against her skin. “Yet I have never heard the trees so quiet. They yearn for darkness, and some have given way to it. Others slip into sleep, accepting that they may never wake. I am told this is the way of your world. It is not the way of mine. I have never known a forest that was not green. What do you believe?”

Do you believe that spring will come? It’s a question I’ve returned to many times since I wrote Faerie Winter. It’s a question I was asking before I wrote that book, too, before fiction led me, as it so often does, to put into words the things I was already saying.

Because Faerie Winter is fantasy, the question of spring’s return is not merely metaphoric. It turns out the danger of endless winter is real, and so Liza’s inner crisis is echoed by the world’s outer one. Fantasy does that, sometimes—lets us transform internal struggles into external realities so that we can face those struggles head on and in a more concrete way than other types of stories allow.

Do you believe that spring will come? Things have changed so much already—in Liza’s world, in our world. There’s no changing them back. Do we believe that forward change will continue instead, leading us on to someplace new, someplace viable, someplace where things can grow once more?

Do you believe that spring will come? There’s a strange comfort simply in putting the question into words.

On one level, I know the answer, always have known it. If I didn’t believe, deep down, that spring—that the future—would come, writing a book where spring was called into question would have been too much to bear.

On another level, I need, just as deeply, to hear the question asked, and I need to travel the hard path toward its answer, again and again, not just in the books that I’ve written but also in the countless books that I’ve read through the years, ever since I knew how to read. Stories were the thing, after all, that got me trough childhood and adolescence and all that came after. Every misunderstood kid who had adventures and saved the world and found their place in that world was, in their way, another needed answer.

An answer, and also a map—the map Liza lacks—for what the journey might look like. Spring comes. Not always easily, not always painlessly, not always as quickly as we want or as we need, but in the end and at the last. Spring comes. Deep down, I know that.

After all, I’ve taken this journey before.

“The only way to cope with something deadly serious is to try to treat it a little lightly.”

1. I have a piece in the Weekly Humorist this week.

Buy My Book, It Will Protect You from the Coronavirus, Says Author Whose Public Appearances Have All Been Canceled

(For the record, I didn’t have any launches or appearances planned. But a great many authors have, and you should totally buy their books.)

2. Good Unicorn, Bad Unicorn.[Good

(Good Unicorn: “Feeling ill? Here, let me cure you with my magical horn.” 
Bad Unicorn: “Get your unicorn-purified hand sanitizer here—just $500 a bottle!”)

Hang in there, everyone.

The Rise of Skywalker: New hopes, old choices, and spoilers

I have a fondness for seeing worlds torn apart.

Fictional worlds, that is.

I’m not talking about post-apocalyptic fiction, though I enjoy the genre and have even written in it. I’m talking in the broader sense, when a fictional world is built on assumptions that the reader or viewer comes to accept, and then those assumptions get questioned, and one way or another it becomes clear they cannot hold.

When I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I loved it for affirming a science fantasy world that I’d loved since elementary school. But when I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I loved it for questioning that world, for showing characters I loved as flawed, for giving us the sense that the Jedi, in their way, were as problematic as the Sith, or at the least, problematic enough that a something had to give, to change.

When Luke Skywalker said the Jedi had to end, he seemed to have a point. And at the very end of the movie, when we saw an unnamed young stable sweeper using the force, without training and without any apparent danger, I saw what seemed to be the first hints of a new world, a new way of looking at the force and its place in the world, and what it was for and who it belonged to.

After all, we’ve been hearing for ages about the need to bring balance to the force. Perhaps balance meant moving beyond the rigid dichotomy of Sith and Jedi, of black and white, of starkly clear-cut good and evil.

So I settled in to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker with hopes that I was about to see this universe that had for so long been a part of my life undergo a fundamental, mythic transformation.

Perhaps I should have known better.

But for much of the movie, it seemed the story was heading just that way. Time and again, Rey found third options, alternate solutions, instead of going with the standard attack or retreat, fight or flight responses I’d come to expect.  She got creative, thought outside the teachings of the first eight movies, and even, in the end, figured out that the force could be used for healing, not just for inflicting damage and teleporting small objects and convincing the occasional stormtrooper that you’re not worth bothering with. (I’ve long thought that magical healers and magical warriors must have, at the core, the same basic magic.)

And then there were Rey and Kylo, both closer to the middle than the edges of their respective orders, so close they could fight back to back, surely poised to set that fundamental change in motion.

But in the end, the final battle is literally a battle between all the Sith that ever existed and all the Jedi that ever existed. If the Jedi fought defensively, and with love rather than hate, in the end it was still their greater power that won the day.

A friend who writes tie-in novels for another fictional universe once told me that he had the freedom to do whatever he wanted, so long as he put everything back where it started by the last page.

I felt like this is what happened in The Rise of Skywalker, which is in retrospect unsurprising for a franchise with many more stories to tell.

I enjoyed the movie, which may not be clear from all I’ve said about it so far. At times I enjoyed it a lot. There are bits that I’m squeeeeeing about in various forums, even now. The importance of chosen family. The fact that the force can heal. Jedi master Leia Organa. Flying stormtroopers. C3POs sacrifice. A certain Wookiee, receiving his medal at last.

The importance of remembering we’re not alone, no matter what fear tries to tell us.

Yet in the final moments of The Rise of Skywalker, that unknown stablehand is forgotten. Rey buries Luke and Leia’s lightsabers, letting me think, for just a moment more, that maybe everything was going to change after all. Then Rey pulls out her own lightsaber, consciously chooses Team Skywalker over Team Palpatine, and the status quo—a dichotomous world with two choices and two sides, is affirmed.

The universe I’ve long loved was still there, intact.

Unchanging and unchanged.