Melissa Blair is an Anishinaabekwe of mixed descent who splits her time between Treaty 9 in northern Ontario and Ottawa.
Blair has a prolific presence on TikTok, where she is part of the growing #BookTok community, where she engages in a discussion about her favorite types of books, including queer and indigenous fiction, feminist literature, and nonfiction.
And #BookTok is a big deal: It’s been credited with boosting book sales and movie adaptations. TikTok hashtag views have crossed the 70 billion mark.
Blair’s debut book, the fantasy novel a broken sword, is set in a world of magical beings that includes elves, fairies, and halflings. It is the story of Keera, a mysterious halfing known in the kingdom of Faeland as King’s Blade, a dangerous spy and assassin. When a figure known as the Shadow threatens the peace of the land, Keera is forced to track them down.
a broken sword was part of a unique social media mystery, created by Blair, to promote and get people excited about her book. she talked to CBC Books about the power of the #BookTok community and how a broken sword, the first book in The Halfing Saga series, it came to be.
Why #BookTok is cool
“I think #BookTok is an amazing place where people who love books and stories in all forms can connect with each other and talk about it in a really nerdy way.
“A lot of today’s readers have this experience of being super excited about the stories they’re reading, but not necessarily having friends in real life who are also book people or want to talk about that exact book with them.” #BookTok allows you to connect with a whole community or mini-fandom that could exist for any book. And if it doesn’t exist yet, you can start recruiting people by sharing your book and feeling passionate about it, and I’m reacting to that.
“What I love about #BookTok is a great place to connect. There’s a great discourse going on, at least the parts of #BookTok I’m in. Diversifying people’s reading, having more accessibility to reading and the importance of things like content warnings are part of this big talk.
What I love about #BookTok is as a place to connect.
“I was grateful for all of that; it helped inform how I structured the book, but also how I published it since I first self-published it.
“I think #BookTok has a lot of influence and a lot of great ideas, and I’m excited to see where it goes in the future for sure.”
CLOCK | How teens interact with #BookTok on CBC News:
building a mystery
“When I wrote the book, I knew early on that I had this idea for a game or scavenger hunt on how I was going to launch it on #BookTok.
“I emailed a group of #BookTokkers (25 people responded) and sent those 25 people a box. Everything was very well wrapped, inside the box was a physical copy of the self-published version of a broken sword.
“The book didn’t have my name on it, it was ‘Written by Anonymous.’ Also inside the box was a letter explaining the treasure hunt and the fact that a #BookTokker wrote this book. If they used the clues that were in the box and also read the book, they could probably piece together who wrote it. .
When I wrote the book, I knew early on that I had this idea for a game, or a scavenger hunt for how I was going to release it.
“From there, most of the #BookTok community made videos about the book. They shared their clues and tried to figure out the message. People started reading the book. They did live broadcasts about it. I also had an anonymous account a broken sword TikTok account where I joined live streams, answered questions and trolled people… and it was so much fun!
“Then after two weeks, people were able to find out what the message said. The message was: ‘This book was written by Melissa Blair, miigwech,’ which is Anishinaabe to thank.
“It was a really fun time!”
LISTEN | Melissa Blair in Ottawa Morning:
ottawa morning8:13Trend in BookTok
World building and storytelling
“Keera begins the story with more agency than many people in her position. She’s very aware of that. It’s part of what gives her a lot of guilt that she deals with throughout the story. She’s aware that she can travel with quite a bit freedom, you can make decisions on your own, and you have access to money that other halflings wouldn’t have.
“She begins to gain her full autonomy, and to feel that she can really help people in the way she’s always wanted to, when she begins to connect with other people in Faeland, where elves and fairies can live. Get to know them and feel that there is actually a hope for life after the king, if they were able to create that world, she begins to make decisions and feels comfortable doing so.
I informed much of the world about what happened to the First Nations people.
“Creating the world involved a big board and random doodles! For the physicality of the places, I also tried to make it feel like one big continent in terms of travel. That was helpful.
“As for the plot lines, I wrote it out on index cards first, writing out all the main beats. Then I took a big bulletin board and played around and rearranged the card. Once I got an outline I was comfortable with, I I transferred to the Scrivener computer program and then typed it all up on the computer.
“I informed much of the world about what happened to First Nations people. This is due to my knowledge of First Nations history, being First Nations myself, but also working in First Nations spaces. Indigenous nations and spaces. So I was very aware. It’s all informed by bits that happened on Turtle Island and the politics that were established here.
“And that’s something that will be revealed as the books progress.”
The need for representation
“Fantasy is a specific genre where the way people project or see characters in their heads can differ wildly between readers. As an indigenous person, I’m also glad to have the opportunity to write more indigenous characters, because there wasn’t many for me growing up
“I think it’s hard not to feel that pressure, or be aware of the lack of representation, when you’re writing, at least as an indigenous person. But I guess for all BIPOC people. You’re writing a story that in some way speaks to your own personal experience and you inform him that perhaps the industry has not yet allowed it.
As an indigenous person, I’m also glad to have the opportunity to write more indigenous characters, because there weren’t many for me growing up.
“With this show, I was very aware of that because I was specifically trying to write a fun paranormal fantasy romance. But he also didn’t shy away from the themes of colonization: he had it very woven into the narrative.
“That’s the importance of why we need people to write their own stories: people who have experienced these things, look, feel and live life like the characters they are writing in fantasy and other genres.
“Whether people know about it or not, or actively write it that way or not, I think it lends itself to better representation in every way.
“That’s what I like to tell myself anyway!”
Melissa Blair’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.