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Read Along with Faye: Food of the Gods by Cassandra Khaw

Each year, Communications Director Faye Bi attempts to read the requisite 25 books to complete the Sirens Reading Challenge. In 2018, a Reunion year, she’ll be reading books from the past four years’ themes: hauntings, revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. If you’d like some structure—or company—on your own reading goals, we invite you to read along!

Going into Food of the Gods, I knew absolutely nothing except that Amy Tenbrink said this was her favorite book of 2017. Amy and I are book friends most of the time, so I knew I would pick this up eventually… and I now know so much about her in why she loves this book.

Rupert Wong is a cannibal chef for the gods by day, and a pencil pusher for the Diyu (the Ten Chinese Hells) by night. He does this to work off his karmic debt, having done some very bad things in his life so far, in the hopes that by the time he actually dies, his soul might not be condemned to eternal damnation slash Even Worse Things. And Rupert, bless him, is supremely talented as a chef, and also supremely witty as an employee, so much so that he’s (dare I say) kept around for both his skills and entertainment for the benefit of his divine employers.

But first, an aside: wow, I wasn’t sure how to feel while reading Food of the Gods. It’s obvious that Cassandra Khaw loves food as much as I do, but Rupert is literally preparing flesh—a deceased adult film actress features in a memorable scene—as he slices, dices, spices, reduces, seasons, smokes, and otherwise prepares feasts for his deific masters. I didn’t know whether to feel revolted or hungry, because Khaw does not hold back on the exceedingly gruesome detail, but all that flesh simmering in a curry, hmm… “Human is very similar to pork, after all.”

What Khaw also does fabulously is her modern, occasionally fourth-wall breaking mythology. It’s the cooler, hipper version of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods with a similar idea of the gods of different faiths being at war with one another, but with way more panache and way less pretentiousness. (The modern gods include a YouTube cat.) I didn’t know that Food of the Gods was a combination of two novellas, but after the fact, it makes sense that I’ve read two separate Rupert adventures that have two different, episodic plots.

Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef takes place mostly in Kuala Lumpur in the first half, where Rupert has to solve the mystery of who murdered the ocean god Ao Qin’s daughter—with a cast of ghouls, gods, spirits and divine beings you don’t normally see in fantasy (Rupert convincing a legion of kwee kwia spirits not to unionize is the funniest). This is followed by the most hilarious plane ride—those with annoying flight companions will relish Rupert’s revenge on a snotty teenager—and then Rupert Wong and the Ends of the Earth, which is set in London where the Greek pantheon has set up shop. There, Rupert is on loan for his cooking skills, but finds himself in the middle of a Sisyphean gambling ring and the family drama the Greek gods are well-known for.

As a reader who prefers less commonly-explored settings in urban fantasy, I preferred the first installment, but I appreciated Khaw’s lens of showing us London through Rupert’s eyes—he absolutely doesn’t understand how these Greek gods can be so callous and uncivilized. Some of the plot was lost on me, as I found myself distracted by witty zingers and descriptions of food and cooking. But the writing is so delightful, and Rupert, despite being a genuinely selfish asshole, still tries to do the right thing and often does, even for the “wrong” reasons (wanting to be a better person for your lady friend is not that bad, Rupert!). And even though Rupert’s the main character, most of his good deeds involve helping women do what they need to do on their own terms. It nearly kills him to take a compliment from Demeter, who tells him that he is a good person.

Will you like Food of the Gods? I don’t know, but I did. It’s truly absurd. It’s most definitely unique. (It’s not an easy read, especially if you’re reading a print copy and the page margins are smaller than average?) But if you love wordplay, clever mythology, copious descriptions of food, a plethora of witticisms and a bumbling, yet somehow endearing hero, you’ll overlook the out-of-left-field plot and enjoy the onslaught of detail. And most definitely, if you’re a lawyer, this is totally your jam. By the end of the novel, Rupert essentially gets his freedom through lawyering! And contracts! Two opposing gods with claims on his employment can’t decide which contract supersedes the other. Lulz.

Next month’s book: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado


Faye Bi is a book-publishing professional based in New York City, and leads the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.

 

Sirens Review Squad: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we welcome a review from Amanda Hudson on Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone.

Children of Blood and Bone

In her debut novel Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi blends African heritage into a vivid new fantasy world called Orïsha, where a merciless king has driven away magic. By his decree, divîners—those capable of controlling Orïsha’s magic—are systematically killed, leaving their families discriminated against and forced into hiding. Adeyemi expertly weaves the themes of prejudice and oppression into Zelie, her brother Tzain, and the princess Amari’s quest to restore magic to the divîners before it is erased from the Orïsha for good.

Adeyemi tells the story of this journey with three point-of-view characters, and in doing so, creates a page-turner that is hard to put down when a chapter ends. I either wanted to know what happened next, or I wanted to get back to a particular character’s perspective. The book begins with Zélie, who was forced to watch the monarchy kill her divîner mother, yet still teams up with a fleeing princess who possesses an artifact required to restore magic to their lands. That princess, Amari, is determined to do what she believes is right, even if it goes against her father’s wishes. Inan, Amari’s brother and the prince, is desperate to show his father that he is capable and worthy of one day becoming king. Alternating between Zélie, Amari, and Inan’s perspectives reveals the complexity of the world Adeyemi has created, and delves deeper into the ethical and political issues of the king’s tyrannical regime.

Adeyemi creates a beautifully rich world, with deeply-drawn characters and social structures to match. There are gentle reminders every so often that this world is not my own, such as the animal Zélie and her family rides. This is what I look for in great fantasy—a place I can relate to, but also new and different in intriguing ways. Adeyemi’s Orïsha feels spellbinding and alive.

I cannot think of a book that does not contain at least one trope, but occasionally, the unexpected use of a popular trope completely removes me from the page. Children of Blood and Bone, for all its wondrous worldbuilding, contains a trope I’ve come to abhor in YA fantasy: children forced to fight other children in a tournament or arena setting until only one is left alive, explicitly for the entertainment of adults. Perhaps the inclusion of this trope would have been less irksome if it had not been entirely unnecessary to the plot.

It wasn’t surprising to me, given the overall predictable quest structure of Children of Blood and Bone, that Amari, Zélie and Tzain would find their way to a town of laborers living in miserable conditions, and that the laborers would be forced into stockades and treated like animals. From the setup, I knew that Zélie would likely learn that the princess (and maybe the prince) are not like their ruthless father. I also suspected that Amari would realize the extent of the king’s horrific regime. I was there, I was engrossed. But, at the mention of an arena, I disconnected from the story for several chapters. I wish I could have removed these chapters altogether; this one aspect jolted me out of a powerful, enticing world, and forced me into a generic, worn-out trope. Suddenly, I was comparing this book to the last one I’d read featuring the same trope.

The plot progresses fairly quickly from there, but then I was nervous about what other contrived trope would be thrown my way. By the end, my only other complaint was that I foolishly had not realized that Children of Blood and Bone is the first of a series. At 525 pages, I was so sure it would be a standalone. I wish it were! I picked it up when it was recently released, with the second book far off in the future. Now I’m completely invested in the world, the characters and Adeyemi’s language; and I crave closure. The wait for book two begins.


Amanda Hudson works full time as a game developer in Malmö, Sweden. She holds a JD from Baylor University and previously practiced law in Texas. When not reading or writing fantasy, Amanda enjoys eating delicious Scandinavian foods and playing video games and board games.

 

Book Club: Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her books from the annual Sirens reading list. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

Miranda and Caliban

Are you familiar with The Tempest, Shakespeare’s storm-swept comedy full of revenge and magic?

I wasn’t.

While I will happily deconstruct prophecies and the self-fulfillment thereof in Macbeth for hours and I can still quote entire passages of Julius Caesar that I learned almost 30 years ago and I once dated a Hamlet for five long years of indecision, I have yet to meet a Shakespeare comedy that I like. This dates back to, of course, my first Shakespeare encounter in ninth-grade English: Romeo and Juliet, which you’re about to tell me is not a comedy, to which I will respond, “Only the parts that I loathe.” Bring on the death, please, and leave the purportedly funny coincidences out of it.

I still have not read The Tempest, incidentally, but the Internet was kind enough to tell me all about it: The white magician Prospero, inhabiting a deserted isle with his white daughter Miranda and a “savage” black boy named Caliban, who is the son of the dead witch Sycorax. Prospero contrives to bring those who exiled him to the isle, to be shipwrecked by a magical storm. Stuff happens, Miranda marries a prince of Naples, and all is well with the world.

Or something.

Jacqueline Carey’s Miranda and Caliban interrogates The Tempest, which one might presume, even from the brief summary above, is in need of a good interrogation. Miranda and Caliban opens several years after Prospero and Miranda’s exile to the isle: Miranda is a child of six or so, while orphaned Caliban is, at best guess, several years older. Very early in the book, Prospero works magic and compels Caliban to appear, only to lock him in a room in the hopes that confinement will impart refinement: language, posture, chamber pot usage, religion, and such. As you consider this, please remember that Prospero and Miranda are white, and Caliban is black.

Miranda’s gentle tutelage succeeds — for some value of “succeeds” — where Prospero’s aggression fails: Caliban learns their language and what is expected of him in this strange, new world ruled by an ill-tempered magician. Caliban eventually earns some measure of freedom — remember, though, that Prospero summoned him in the first instance, so “freedom” here is misleading notion — by supplying the name of the “evil” god that his mother worshipped. Prospero uses that name to free the wind spirit Ariel from a tree, only to bind him, too, to servitude.

As they age, Miranda and Caliban become friends, though it’s never clear if their friendship is born solely of their lack of options. Even after Ariel is freed from the tree, he’s mercurial, temperamental, and manipulative, not suitable for friendship for either Miranda or Caliban, and as you might expect from a volatile spirit in a Shakespeare play, in the end, Ariel’s impact on Miranda and Caliban’s friendship exceeds even their own. But Caliban remains Prospero’s servant, Miranda remains Prospero’s deliberately ignorant daughter, and Prospero’s plotting continues apace.

When Miranda blossoms, if you will, into a woman, Miranda and Caliban’s relationship changes. She menstruates for the first time, and thinks she’s dying. Her father gives her the world’s worst feminine hygiene contraption and collects her menstrual blood for his own magical purposes. (EW.) Caliban catches a glimpse of Miranda naked, and begins to understand the changes in his own body, only to be caught masturbating by Ariel, who calls him rude and savage, a monster. Miranda and Caliban attempt to consummate their relationship, only to be interrupted by an enraged Prospero, informed by a tattling Ariel.

Eventually, Prospero’s opportunity arises and Miranda and Caliban catches up with The Tempest: a magical storm, a shipwrecked boat, a betrothal, and Miranda sails away from the isle, leaving Caliban behind, but not without perhaps hollow promises to send for him when she’s a princess of Naples.

As I mentioned above, The Tempest is in need of a good interrogation. In the end, however, I found that Carey’s attempt was perhaps too gentle for me. I wanted more pointed criticism, more explicit condemnation of Prospero’s abuse and control of both Miranda and Caliban. I wanted some discussion of Sycorax other than, essentially, “the evil witch that used to live here, but she’s dead, and good riddance.” I don’t require a different, more thoughtful, more progressive ending, but I wanted a lot more deconstruction and complexity in getting there.

That said, I’ve been considering lately that simple truth-telling might be its own form of feminism. Sarah Pinborough’s Poison, for example, is a retelling of Snow White that (arguably) ends more poorly for Snow White than the fairytale itself. One might argue that that’s not feminist, simply because things go so badly for Snow White, but I find that that sort of truth-telling — here’s how things would actually go and they’re worse than you thought — is ultimately feminist.

While I might find the feminism in Miranda and Caliban less pointed than I would like, there is, at least, a form of truth-telling in it: Prospero’s use of his daughter for his own ends, Prospero and Ariel’s endless, on-page racism, Caliban’s enslavement. Explicitly marking these issues, if not addressing them fully, is perhaps its own form of feminism, even if it isn’t mine.

Amy
 


Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and eight years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

New Fantasy Books: May 2018

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of May 2018 fantasy book releases by and about women and genderqueer folk. Let us know what you’re looking forward to, or any titles that we’ve missed, in the comments!

 

As always, we’d love to hear from you. If you’ve sold a fantasy work, read a great recently-released story, discovered a fantastic link that we missed, or if you’ve got a book or story review to share, feel free to leave a comment below!
 

Sirens Newsletter – Volume 10, Issue 5 (April 2018)

In this issue:

 

GUEST OF HONOR: VIOLET KUPERSMITH

Due to a very happy personal circumstance, Zen Cho will no longer be able to attend this year’s Sirens. Instead, the incomparable Violet Kupersmith will join us as our Hauntings guest this October! Violet is the author of The Frangipani Hotel, a collection of supernatural short stories about the legacy of the Vietnam War, and a forthcoming novel on ghosts and American expats in modern-day Saigon.

We’ve been enthusiastically recommending The Frangipani Hotel every year at Sirens since it was released. Her ghost stories are simultaneously retold Vietnamese folktales, an indictment of the Vietnam War, and an exquisite exploration of loss—of culture, of country, of family, of self. Her settings are palpable, her characters all-too-human, and her work brilliant, incisive, and subversive.

Please join us in welcoming Violet to Sirens! We have updated our reading lists and website, and you can read Violet’s full biography on our Guests of Honor page.

 

PROGRAMMING PROPOSALS DUE MAY 6

You have only seven days left to propose programming for this year’s Sirens! We hope that you’re considering submitting a proposal or two. You voice is valid and valuable, whether you’re new to Sirens or a ten-year veteran, and whether you’re a reader, scholar, librarian, farrier, secret-keeper, or heroine!

We are accepting proposals until May 6. For full information and instructions, please see our Programming Proposals page, as well as our series of blog posts on 2018 Programming, featuring programming types, tips, tricks, and general advice.

Have questions? Looking for a co-presenter? Need more inspiration? Check out the #SirensBrainstorm tag on Twitter; every Monday we tweet out fresh ideas free for the taking. We’ll also be hosting one more programming chat on our Chat page, which will be live at the scheduled time:

  • Tuesday, May 1, 9–11 p.m. Eastern (6–8 p.m. Pacific)

 

APPLY FOR SIRENS SCHOLARSHIPS

Due to the tremendous generosity of the Sirens community, we have 12 scholarships to award this year: three for people of color, three for exemplary programming proposals, three for those with financial hardships, and three for librarians, educators, and publishing professionals. The deadline for financial hardship and professional scholarships is May 13. For more information, visit our Scholarships page.

Each scholarship includes a conference registration and a round-trip shuttle ticket. Please spread the word! If you’re eligible for a scholarship, we very much hope that you’ll apply. Everyone needs a helping hand or some extra encouragement sometimes, and we’re so grateful to the Sirens community for making this support possible.

 

TICKETS UPDATE

Studio and Supper tickets are nearly sold out! We currently have only 14 tickets remaining for our Sirens Studio and six tickets remaining for our Sirens Supper. If you’d like to purchase a ticket, you may do so in our registration system.

 

SIRENS MEET-UPS

Though nothing replaces attending Sirens in October, we occasionally host casual get-togethers for the Sirens community throughout the year. It can be a great way to introduce us to your friends (and vice versa), share a meal or a cup of tea, and chat about books with fellow Sirens community members! Here are the meet-ups in Denver and New York:

  • Denver: Saturday, May 5, 2–4 p.m. Mountain
  • New York City: Saturday, May 19, 2–4 p.m. Eastern

Please note that attendees must pay for their own drinks and food. RSVP to Jennifer at (jennifer.shimada at sirensconference.org). Please see our post for the full details.

 

AMY’S BOOK CLUB

The City of Brass

Sirens co-founder Amy Tenbrink talks personal reading quirks, reluctant heroines, and dazzling world-building in her book club pick this month—S. A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass—which she called, “in many, many, ways … a tour de force.” Read her thoughts on the blog and on Goodreads.

 

READ ALONG WITH FAYE

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty

Communications Director Faye tried her hand at young adult poetry this month for her 2018 Reading Challenge pick, Christine Heppermann’s Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty. “The book is a handsome tome, pocket-sized with art and text laid out just-so, and Heppermann is clearly talented, even if her poems don’t speak to my experience as a former teenage girl.” Read her full review on the blog and on Goodreads.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT …


Questions? Concerns? Please email general queries to (help at sirensconference.org) and questions about programming to (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

Read Along with Faye: Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann

Each year, Communications Director Faye Bi attempts to read the requisite 25 books to complete the Sirens Reading Challenge. In 2018, a Reunion year, she’ll be reading books from the past four years’ themes: hauntings, revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. If you’d like some structure—or company—on your own reading goals, we invite you to read along!

Have you ever fallen into a reading slump? Sometimes, all I want to do is inhale romance novels or immigrant middle grade stories, and I’ll read a dozen one after the other before needing to catch a breath. Other times, the sight of yet another book feels daunting. Or the next read is bound to fall short of expectations. In the case of YA fiction, I’m afraid I find myself in the valley of the slump.

I first came back to YA as an adult in 2010. Since the start of high school, I’d mainly read books for coursework, and I was blown away by nearly every YA novel I read; I was reading the best of YA fiction from the ten years prior. And while I don’t admit to being magnificently well-read in a number of genres, in YA, and in fantasy, thanks to this conference—I am in this instance. And that’s when Christine Heppermann’s slim collection of poems, Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty just didn’t make it up the hill.

In today’s realm of Instagram poetry, Poisoned Apples is an antecedent—accompanied by high-contrast, black and white photographs—and could be a companion of a sorts to Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey. Originally published in 2014 and using the familiar framework of western fairytales, Heppermann’s poems address body image, toxic female friendships, eating disorders, beauty standards, sexual agency, and other topics that would typically concern a (probably) white, (probably) cis-gendered “modern” teenage girl in a (probably suburban American) high school. (I can’t confirm these details for sure, but with so much focus on self-image, the reader has to picture what kinds of girls are the subjects of these poems. And given a careless Romani slur in the collection’s sole villanelle, one has to assume…)

Which isn’t to say those are necessarily shortcomings. The book is a handsome tome, pocket-sized with art and text laid out just-so, and Heppermann is clearly talented, even if her poems don’t speak to my experience as a former teenage girl. “Red Handed,” a sexy retelling of Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, is a highlight, but I find Hepperman’s non-fairytale poems the strongest, which are interspersed between poems with fairytale inspirations. “If Tampons Were for Guys” is a sardonic, witty musing: “For pads with Wings, Kotex shows jet fighters. / For Heavy Flow, ninjas surf a tsunami.” “Nature Lesson” challenges readers to rethink school dress code policies for girls in order to not distract their male classmates: “We say / that if a hiker strays / off the path, trips, and / winds up crippled, / is it really / the canyon’s fault?” Best of all is “Photoshopped Poem,” which is clever as it is hilarious: “I took out most of the lines. / I left in a few / so it wouldn’t look unnatural.”

For the right readers, Poisoned Apples is a winner. I can picture (some) teenage girls quoting lines to themselves, excitedly sharing it with their trusted friends, and keeping it near to them in their backpacks. Though slim, I wonder if it isn’t meant to be read in one sitting, for the themes of body image and eating disorders came up quite often—more than the others—and felt over-emphasized.

For my personal fairytale itch, I would rather turn to Emma Donaghue’s Kissing the Witch or Francesca Lia Block’s Roses and Bones. For YA books with main characters facing eating disorders, I recall Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls or Sarah Dessen’s Just Listen. Poisoned Apples felt too much like trod ground, and my reading material these days is far more diverse and intersectional. I think, ultimately, I was looking for a very different type of book than what I read.

Next month’s book: Food of the Gods by Cassandra Khaw


Faye Bi is a book-publishing professional based in New York City, and leads the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.

 

Guest of Honor: Violet Kupersmith

Due to a very happy personal circumstance, Zen Cho will no longer be able to attend Sirens this year. Instead, the incomparable Violet Kupersmith will join us as our hauntings guest this fall.

If you aren’t yet familiar with Violet or her work, here are some details: Violet is the author of The Frangipani Hotel, a collection of supernatural short stories about the legacy of the Vietnam War, and a forthcoming novel on ghosts and American expats in modern-day Saigon. She spent a year teaching English in the Mekong Delta with the Fulbright program and subsequently lived in the Central Highlands of Vietnam to research local folklore. She is a former resident of the MacDowell Colony and was the 2015–2016 David T.K. Wong Fellow at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. Her writing has appeared in No Tokens, The Massachusetts Review, Word Vietnam, and The New York Times Book Review.

To that, we’ll add that The Frangipani Hotel, which we’ve been enthusiastically recommending to everyone every year at Sirens, is a brilliant, incisive, subversive work. Her ghost stories are simultaneously retold Vietnamese folktales, an indictment of the Vietnam War, and an exquisite exploration of loss—of culture, of country, of family, of self. Her settings are palpable, her characters all-too-human, and her work unforgettable. We hope you’ll check it out before Sirens!

 

Book Club: The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her books from the annual Sirens reading list. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

The City of Brass

People often ask me about my favorite type of books.

My reading volume is something of legend, not only at Sirens, but in professional circles where my bio—prompted by a public relations person who wanted to add some humanity to my list of accomplishments—has for a number of years included the number of books I read annually. Books are an easy conversation starter, right? What do you read? What’s the best book you’ve ever read? Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo or The Underground Railroad or inevitably some other borderline fantasy work by a dude? What should I read? What is your favorite type of book?

I have different answers for different people, of course. Some people struggle with the notion of fantasy generally, and then we have to talk about Game of Thrones and Westworld and how both are speculative, but only one is fantasy (and ahem, how only one is good). Some people are deep into fantasy, but read mostly white male authors, so we have to talk about Nnedi and Nora and Yoon and Guadalupe. Occasionally, people are well-versed in what I actually read, and I can discuss my deep and abiding love for fantasy-literary crossovers and high-fantasy adventure.

But if you ask me, unfettered, to tell you my favorite type of book, the answer has nothing to do with category or genre or women authors. If you ask me, unfettered, to tell you my favorite type of book, here it is: the sort of book where a woman—a powerful woman, a smart woman, a skilled woman—makes decisions.

They don’t have to be good decisions or smart decisions or immediate decisions, mind you, but she has to make decisions.

For a couple reasons, right? Partly because main characters who make decisions are more likely to be active, interesting, driven. They’re more likely to be protagonists or even antagonists, rather than simply narrators. Main characters who make decisions—good decisions, bad decisions, smart, foolish—tend to move the plot, redefine relationships, or even further the reader’s understanding of the story. Those characters, those characters whose decisions make things happen? Those characters are interesting. I want to ride with those characters.

But perhaps even more importantly, women spend so much of their lives without agency, without the power to make things happen, that it’s at best fundamentally uninteresting, and at worst, devastating, to see female characters without that agency. I want female characters who have agency, who can make decisions, whose decisions are powerful, whose decisions mean something.

Now some of you, probably many of you, don’t have this same quirk. Some of you, probably many of you, might even like heroines who are dragged, often kicking and screaming, into adventure and intrigue. Therefore, some of you, probably many of you, aren’t going to share my impatience with The City of Brass.

S. A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass opens in eighteenth-century Cairo, with Nahri—who despite having readily apparent magic, refuses to believe in it. (What?) She gets by on the streets by reading palms, stealing, and performing some rather miraculous healings. As part of a con, Nahri accidentally summons Dara, a djinn, and then all hell breaks loose. The dead rise from the mausoleum, Dara forces Nahri to flee from Cairo on a flying carpet, and a giant bird of unknowable power appears in the desert. How about that magic now, Nahri?

Nahri goes kicking and screaming. Despite her life on the streets in Cairo, she wants nothing to do with Dara, his magic carpet, or his impossible stories of ancient beings of fire and water. Or, for that matter, their destination: Daevabad, a magical city with mysterious ties to Nahri’s magical heritage.

Charkraborty has said that The City of Brass began as, essentially, history fanfiction. Scant references to djinn and Suleiman and myths that she researched and then wove into an entire secondary fantasy world stretching from Morocco to Ethiopia to China. In many, many ways, The City of Brass is a tour de force: breathtaking world-building, near-seamlessly dropped into actual history and geography; an extensive fantastic history, about which the reader salivates to know more; myriad distinct cultures premised on war or culture or art. This world is as impressive—and as interesting—as Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse or Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire universe; the art and culture as well-designed as Cassandra Khaw’s Food of the Gods or Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus; the secondary characters as developed and fascinating as Fonda Lee’s or Alex Marshall’s.

But where Chakraborty stumbles a bit is her point-of-view characters. Nahri spends almost all of the book kicking and screaming—about everything. Even when she and Dara have reached Daevabad, she continues to kick and scream about big things and little things, not only impingements on her freedom, but also, early and often, about how much practice it takes to learn to use her magical heritage. And because she’s so often in the dark, and kicking and screaming to stay that way, she’s not much of a decision-maker; indeed, she spends much of the book manipulated by a bunch of men. If she’d just point all that energy in a useful direction, maybe she’d claim her agency long before the end of the book. (In her defense, I suppose, her intended character arc stretches across multiple books; the fact that she stops acting like a brat at the end of The City of Brass bodes very well indeed for the next book.)

The other point-of-view character is Alizayd, a younger prince trained in war to serve in his brother’s future government. Alizayd disagrees vehemently, impoliticly, and often rudely with his father’s rule, finding numerous inconsistencies between their holy texts or tenets of law and his father’s practicalities. Alizayd tends to come off condescending and prudish, especially in contrast to his older brother—and while the prudishness didn’t bother me, his hauteur regarding his father’s regime, especially in light of his ignorance about how to actually rule, was grating. Lord save me from young men who think they know everything.

In hindsight, I think you have to consider this book as a multi-book arc: not just for plot, which is so common in fantasy, but in terms of character arcs as well. I firmly believe that both Nahri and Alizayd will start making decisions further down the line, and when they do, they’ll almost by definition become far, far more interesting. In the meantime, enjoy the dazzling show that is Chakraborty’s magical world.

Amy
 


Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and eight years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

Sirens Meet-Ups: Denver and New York City!

Each spring, we at Sirens like to break up the long year in between our conferences with some in-person meet-ups! While these casual get-togethers aren’t quite the same as the official conference in October, we’ve found that it’s a great way to connect with the Sirens community in the meantime. The following two meet-ups are hosted by Sirens staff members—Amy in Denver and Faye and Jennifer in New York, so if you live near those cities or happen to be in town, we hope you’ll join us!

We welcome all members of the Sirens community, whether you’ve attended the conference before and want to catch up, or have never attended and are curious. Bring your questions! Bring your friends! Bring your book recommendations! Whether over drinks, dinner, nibbles, or a pot of tea, books are always on the menu.

DENVER
Date: Saturday, May 5, 2018
Time: 2:00–4:00 p.m. Mountain Time
Location: La Sandia as 8419 Park Meadows Center Drive in Lone Tree, Colorado
RSVP on Facebook

NEW YORK CITY
Date: Saturday, May 19, 2018
Time: 2:00–4:00 p.m. Eastern Time
Location: Radiance Tea House and Books at 158 West 55th St, NY between 6th & 7th Avenue
RSVP on Facebook

Note: Participants must pay for their own food and beverages.

If you think you might join us, you can RSVP at the Facebook event pages above, to @sirens_con on Twitter, or to Jennifer at (jennifer.shimada at sirensconference.org).

Hope to see you there!

 

New Fantasy Books: April 2018

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of April 2018 fantasy book releases by and about women and genderqueer folk. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!

 

As always, we’d love to hear from you. If you’ve sold a fantasy work, read a great recently-released story, discovered a fantastic link that we missed, or if you’ve got a book or story review to share, feel free to leave a comment below!
 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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