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Archive for June 2016

Read Along with Faye: Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Sorcerer to the Crown

Read Along with Faye is a new series of book reviews and commentary by Faye Bi on the Sirens communications staff, in which she attempts to read 25 books and complete the 2016 Sirens Reading Challenge. The series will consist mostly of required “theme” books and will post monthly. We invite you to read along and discuss! Light spoilers ahead.

Upon discovering Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown, I essentially flailed my arms in excitement. Magic in 19th century England with two charming protagonists and the wit and manners of a Jane Austen novel? It’s like the book fairy left me a package stamped FAYE on it.

Zacharias Wythe is the adopted African son of Sir Stephen, the Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers (a Royal Society of magicians if you will), but under mysterious circumstances, Sir Stephen dies and Zacharias is thrust into power. Magic is dwindling in England and other magicians are quick to point fingers at Zacharias as the cause. Meanwhile, at Mrs. Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches, where women are taught to suppress their magic because they don’t have the brains to be sorcerers, Prunella Gentleman makes the magical discovery of the century, and thus her and Zacharias’s paths cross, and mayhem ensues.

Other reviewers have put Sorcerer to the Crown in conversation with Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, though in this reviewer’s humble opinion, Sorcerer to the Crown handles systemic racism, sexism and oppression in ways that the latter doesn’t even begin to touch. The fact that the other magicians constantly blame Zacharias for all of England’s magical troubles and suspect seediness in Sir Stephen’s death, yet still must treat him with outward civility as demanded by the social requirements of the time, will resonate with anyone familiar with American politics in the last eight years. A black man, no matter that he occupies the most powerful magical role in the land, will always need to be better, more exemplary and more polite than his white counterparts, despite the countless microaggresssions lobbied at him each day at each moment, from ill-wishing colleagues to his own mother. It is no wonder he is read as cold or unreadable, unwilling to betray his emotions.

Prunella, whose parallel path puts her into the care of Mrs. Daubeney, is the daughter of an Indian woman and an English gentleman. She’s been taught all her life that her huge potential for magic is shameful and unladylike, but she kind of gives the middle finger to all her naysayers with a cheeky smile and wave. When Zacharias makes an appearance at Mrs. Daubeney’s school, she manages to convince him to take her with him to London and make a society debut. Prunella is the bright shining star of the book, a nosy, master manipulator with zero inhibitions who gets shit done. Her experience is intersectional: with mixed parentage, she’s light enough to travel in London’s fashionable circles, but brown enough to not be a society gentleman’s respectable wife. But the difference between her and Zacharias is that she isn’t afraid to stomp on toes. (“Your amoral ingenuity in the pursuit of your interest is perfectly shocking,” said Zacharias severely. “Yes, isn’t it?” said Prunella, pleased. Lulz.)

It’s no surprise that Prunella is the one who moves the plot, which I won’t comment on too much because of spoilers and in the interest of time, but because I just want to talk about voice. The voice of Sorcerer to the Crown is just so delightful. Take “A female may be poor or delicate or a spinster, but it does seem ill-advised of Miss Liddiard to combine all three” or “He was a typical specimen of the younger son in avid pursuit of medicority with which the Theurgist’s teemed…” Cho herself cites Georgette Heyer as one of her influences, along with Susanna Clarke. But what she’s done with Sorcerer is what I hope more authors will do: be influenced by the great works of the past and with similar wit and style, create new, original stories for all.

Sorcerer to the Crown is also a 2016 Books and Breakfast book. 

Next Month: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

 

Faye Bi works as a book publicist in New York City, and is a member of 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.

 

Artemis Grey on Sirens

Catskin

We’re so pleased to welcome a post from Artemis Grey, who published her first novel, Catskin, in March 2016! Artemis has attended Sirens since our first conference in 2009. Below she shares her Sirens journey. 

Once upon a time there was a feral girl who loved writing more than anything. She loved many things, horses, and other animals, running barefoot through the wilds, and drinking from springs on hillsides. But she loved writing just a little bit more. The feral girl wrote stories that weren’t very good, and she wrote stories that were a good bit better, and then she wrote stories that were very nearly good enough. But not quite.

She sought out other writers. Her writing, they explained did not say anything Important. In order to succeed, they told her, she needed to learn how to convey Important things. The girl did not know, then, that all of the Important things those writers were talking about were being written and perceived through the narrow gaze of the white, cisgendered male. What she did know, is that those things were not the things she wanted to write and perceive.

So the feral girl looked elsewhere, to the writers she so admired, who wrote stories about women who slew dragons, women who became dragons, and women who ruled nations and ended wars. Stories which were not written from one narrow perspective but through many and varied visions. And she discovered that some of those authors were going to a place called Sirens. It was a conference. The first of its kind. No one quite knew what to expect.

She had never gone on a trip alone, not halfway across the country, through airports congested with people, and on airplanes choked with them. But she wanted to know if there was a place for her, if there were other feral girls out there who wrote stories that were almost good enough, and other women who glided between the borders of expectation and propriety. So she went to Sirens, and everything changed.

The girl was welcomed not as a stranger, but as a sister returning home. She was brought into a fold where authors sat in circles on the floor and discussed how to find ways of writing things that were important, and yet did not fall into the mainstream definition of Important. How to change society’s definition of what was Important. She discovered, within Sirens, a world of women supporting women, supporting ideas, and processes, and points of view. A world of women embracing everything that makes them different while finding unity in everything that they share. Her Sirens Sisters did not teach her how to change herself in order to speak out, they taught her that once she discovered her own voice, it would be loud enough to be heard.

It’s been eight years now, and the feral girl has attended every Sirens. She will always attend Sirens. It is home to her heart, and her sisters of the written word. Sirens was where she grew to become the writer she is, where she wants to grow old as she continues to evolve as a writer, and where she wants to help show other feral girls that they are not alone. That their differences are what make them strong, and that their views, what they have to say, and the stories they want to tell, are all Important.

 

Artemis Grey was raised on fairytales and the folklore of Appalachia. She’s been devouring books and regurgitating her daydreams into written words since childhood. She can most often be found writing by a crackling fire or rambling barefooted through the woods and mountains, napping (yes, napping) on horseback, searching the depths of random wardrobes and wriggling into hollow tree trunks. In her downtime, she herds cats, which is just as entertaining as it sounds. She hopes to make her readers look at the world they’ve always seen, and see the world they’ve always envisioned. Her debut contemporary YA, Catskin was released March 17, 2016.

 

Book Club: Living Next Door to the God of Love by Justina Robson

LivingNextDoortotheGodofLove

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!

Not too long ago, a friend told me, in no uncertain terms, that I had selected Justina Robson’s least accessible work for this book club. “But,” I cried, full of woe, “It’s about the god of love! Living next door to the god of love!” She was unmoved.

And so, with no small amount of trepidation, I began Living Next Door to the God of Love.

And many, many days later, with no small amount of confusion, I finished Living Next Door to the God of Love.

Things started out so well. Robson’s first chapter is killer: so smart and fast that it’s almost a dare. It’s dangerous, complicated, bleeding-edge speculative fiction, with a main character who is instantly fascinating and stakes that are instantly apparent. It pulls you in, sucks you down, and makes you think, “Wait, what the hell is happening?!”

I loved that first chapter. I loved that first chapter more than anything else I have read this year.

It was the second chapter where the wheels started to wobble.

In the first chapter, I was blissfully unaware. First chapters always let me live in a beautiful utopia where the book will only ever have a single point-of-view character – and will have to convince me to care about only a single point-of-view character. When a book adds more point-of-view characters, I often end up not caring about any of them.

The second chapter of Living Next Door to the God of Love introduces a second point-of-view character. A third shows up not long after. And then more. They are all (maybe almost all) in the first person.

And that is only the beginning.

This book has stories to spare. There’s a lot of plot – and subplot upon subplot. It’s a complicated, complex endeavor, for both author and reader. If you like a good rabbit hole, Robson has them in spades.

Robson’s world-building is a tour de force, several times over. But that same world-building is frequently rough on the reader, with sudden scenery shifts and incomprehensible tech.

Then there’s the jargon. Robson is quite happy to make a noun proper with no explanation. Sometimes that works – sometimes the meaning is intuitive or the context is sufficient – but often, it leaves the reader floundering, trying to figure out a key component of a sentence or plot point without enough guidance. As I understand it, much of this stuff (fellow readers will get the inexcusable pun) is explained in another book – Natural History – that is not a prequel, but should apparently be a prerequisite.

Despite – and sometimes because of – all that, there are lots of things to like about Living Next Door to the God of Love: A killer opening. Unbelievably skillful, detailed world-building. Writing that is both rich and careful. Fully realized characters. Universe-level themes of love and humanity and society.

So, for those of you who are interested: Living Next Door to the God of Love takes place in multiple worlds, all of them impossibly different. Jalaeka, the current incarnation of the god of love, has been many things, each stranger than the last, but what they need to be now is something that can fight a creator of worlds. Francine, a runaway, is looking for love, one might say, in all the wrong places. And as you might expect, gods are about to collide. BOOM.

Also, trigger warning for rape and violence.

Amy

 

Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling content distribution and intellectual property transactions for an entertainment company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty 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 six 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 Newsletter – Volume 8, Issue 3 (June 2016)

In this issue:

 

PROGRAMMING
Thank you to everyone who proposed programming last month! The vetting board has been busy reviewing those proposals and determining which to select for presentation at Sirens in 2016. Decisions will be emailed to presenters by June 13, and presenters must be registered by July 9. Decisions on scholarships will be emailed at about the same time proposal decisions are sent. We can’t wait to share this year’s programming with you.

 

SCHOLARSHIPS! AND A DEADLINE!
Thanks to the generosity of the Sirens community, we were able to fund eight scholarships for 2016. Three have been provided to Con or Bust, which helps people of color attend events, to be allocated in accordance with their policies. Another three will be provided for exemplary programming proposals, as determined by our scholarship committee. The final two scholarships are designated as financial hardships scholarships, open to anyone. A short application, at https://www.sirensconference.org/attend/scholarships.php, is required, and due by June 15. Recipients will be chosen randomly.

 

BOOKS AND BREAKFAST
For 2016, we’re kicking off our Books and Breakfast program early! Each year, Sirens selects a variety of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books on our theme—and invites attendees to bring their breakfast during the conference and have an informal conversation about those books. We’ll hope you’ll read a book or two and join us!

Friday, October 21

About a Girl by Sarah McCarry
Pantomime by Laura Lam
Joplin’s Ghost by Tananarive Due
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Saturday, October 22

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Project Unicorn, Vol. 1 by Sarah Diemer and Jennifer Diemer
Song of Blood and Stone by L. Penelope
There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

This year, for extra motivation, we’re giving copies of each Books and Breakfast book, two each month starting this month. Check out how you can win About a Girl and Song of Blood and Stone in our post here.

 

COMING SOON
Keep an eye on social media and your inbox! We’ve got a number of announcements coming your way as soon as final details are in place, and we know you’ll want to know who’s on the Sirens Studio faculty, which proposals are on the programming schedule, and most importantly, what’s for lunch. Some of these emails may request a response at your earliest convenience.

 

BEHIND THE SCENES
In mid-May, Sirens had to move our website to a new hosting provider. Our tech team did a great job, and we hope that the change means fewer connectivity issues. If you emailed us, or were expecting an email, in May and didn’t receive a notice or response, please check your bulk email (you might be finding messages from us in bulk, especially if you use Gmail, and we’re finding messages from you in our bulk folders too), and please don’t hesitate to contact us again if you think your message might have gone astray.

 

AMY’S BOOK CLUB

TheGildaStories

What is Sirens co-founder Amy Tenbrink reading this month? Check out her review of Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories on the blog and on Goodreads, which was written in 1991 and “features a protagonist that is black, a lesbian, and a vampire. It depicts slavery. It addresses racism and homophobia. It is unrepentantly feminist.”

 

READ ALONG WITH FAYE

Bone Gap

This month Faye Bi reads Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap in an effort to complete the 2016 Reading Challenge, which she found full of “stunning ruminations on the burden of beauty, consent and redemption.” Will you Read Along with her? Check out her review on the blog and Goodreads.

 

SIRENS REVIEW SQUAD

Vermilion

Our Sirens Review Squad is back! Sharon K. Goetz puts in her two cents on Molly Tanzer’s Vermilion, which she praised for its premise and setting—“Steampunk-era San Francisco (“weird Western”) with an embrace of the city’s Chinese traditions.” Read the review here.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT…

Testimonials:

 


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

 

Books and Breakfast: June Giveaway

As Sirens veterans know, each year, Sirens selects a variety of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books related to our theme—and invites attendees to bring their breakfast during the conference and have an informal conversation about those books. Over the years, this program has highlighted the depth and breadth of each year’s theme and given early risers both company and book talk!

For 2016, we’re kicking Books and Breakfast off early! So often, attendees haven’t had a chance to read the selected books in time for Sirens—but not this year. Today, we’re not only announcing all eight books for 2016, we’re also launching a giveaway program to get these books into your hands prior to Sirens.

 

2016 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

Friday, October 21

About a Girl by Sarah McCarry
Pantomime by Laura Lam
Joplin’s Ghost by Tananarive Due
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Saturday, October 22

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Project Unicorn, Vol. 1 by Jennifer and S. E. Diemer
Song of Blood and Stone by L. Penelope
There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

 

JUNE GIVEAWAY

For June, we’ll be giving away, to one lucky winner, two Books and Breakfast selections: About a Girl and Song of Blood and Stone. You can read more about the books below, but here are the rules:

To enter, you must tell us your favorite fantasy book written by a woman. All entries must be submitted by June 30, 2016, either by Tweeting them to @sirens_con or by emailing them to (help at sirensconference.org). Each individual may enter only once and you must currently reside in the United States in order to win. By entering, you grant Sirens the right to use your entry and to name you (by name or Twitter alias) in connection with that entry. The winner must provide their address to Sirens in order to receive the prize. This offer void where prohibited.

 

About a Girl

About a Girl by Sarah McCarry

Tally is quite certain of her life—and its trajectory—thank you very much. Despite abandonment by her mother, and never knowing her father, she’s got it all figured out: her substitute family, her rock-solid best friend, and her unwavering commitment to a PhD in astronomy. Until her friend throws her for a loop, a friendly acquaintance pulls the right string, and the tidy boxes into which she’s stored her life start to collapse. She sets off—as all the best adventurers do—in search of one thing, but finds another something entirely: a mesmerizing girl who steals her heart.

About a Girl is for anyone who likes a strong authorial voice, a bit of a mystery, or a book that seems to be entirely grounded in reality until the magical realism smacks you upside the head. It’s bold, unpredictable, inclusive, and surprisingly dreamy.

 

Song of Blood and Stone

Song of Blood and Stone by L. Penelope

An outcast orphan girl. An injured spy. Enemy soldiers—and mages. What would lovers year be without a bit of fantasy romance?

Jasminda is an outcast in her country, a child of a bicultural marriage that visibly marks her both as different and as a magic-worker. She keeps to herself, living in the remote mountains and only traveling to town when necessary. As the book opens, she travels back from town to her home, only to encounter an injured spy held by enemy soldiers—enemy soldiers who should have been blocked from entering her country by a magical shield. Jasminda is forced to shelter both the soldiers and the spy in her home. [Trigger warning for rape.] She and Jack, hopeless smitten, escape together, and Jack is forced to reveal his true identity. (If you’re a regular romance reader, you’ve already guessed that identity.)

In a world of armies, politics, and magic, Penelope makes her characters and their evolution intimate and personal. The racism against Jasminda is never handled lightly; nor is her lesser status than Jack’s. But love (and sex) conquer all, even prejudiced politicians and evil mages.

 

Sirens Review Squad: Vermilion by Molly Tanzer

Vermilion

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 Sharon K. Goetz on Molly Tanzer’s Vermilion

Long before I was asked to review a book in this venue, Molly Tanzer’s Vermilion caught my interest. Its cover uses neutral browns, greys, greens, and blues to depict a figure swinging a medical-style bag while crossing windy grassland. Like the almost garish brush-strokes of the title, the figure’s goggle lenses are picked out in bright cinnabar tones. The synopsis is good, too, since I don’t usually twig to cover art: “Gunslinging, chain smoking, Stetson-wearing Taoist psychopomp Elouise ‘Lou’ Merriwether might not be a normal 19-year-old, but she’s too busy keeping San Francisco safe from ghosts, shades, and geung si to care much about that.” Steampunk-era San Francisco (“weird Western”) with an embrace of the city’s Chinese traditions? Yes, please.

The unitary Lou whom we see on the cover comes apart once the narrative begins. Lou, who dresses male both for work and for reasons that Lou doesn’t quite examine, has been contracted to exorcise the spirit of an unpleasant Army lieutenant’s dead wife. Naturally, the lieutenant has lied about how long ago his wife died and by which means; Lou’s pragmatic concern is to avoid being overpowered by the spirit. The exorcism’s physical and psychological depletion sets an agreeable tone of an alt-San Francisco with better texture than some, and with the intriguing inclusion of sentient bears and sea-lions. Lou’s mother, a herbalist, soon steps forward despite estrangement to ask Lou to investigate rumors of a ghostly railroad and the disappearance of young Chinese men: “I am inclined to believe something more earthly is stealing away the sons of the Middle Kingdom, but I do not know what it might be” (p. 45). Between the earthly and unearthly stands Lou, whose sympathy and righteousness are engaged as she learns what little may be learned about the case in San Francisco.

In Part Two, Lou carries her investigation by train to Cheyenne; she shares tobacco with a bear, then is picked up unexpectedly by a polite, ruthless person named Shai. Having the wit to offer guest-right to the bear is the last clever, thoughtful, or even selfishly savvy thing Lou does for most of Part Two. You will have readerly expectations different from mine, whoever you are, and you may enjoy how the narrative overtakes any given character’s subjectivity for the sake of crafting a whiz-bang adventure featuring treachery, a gender range wider than binary, and an immortal with unusual employees. Many other reviewers have (e.g., NPR)! To be clear, I love those things, too, and gender in particular is handled with a care and vibrancy that would be belied by any reviewer’s attempt to match specific characters with labels.

Two things detract somewhat from my enjoyment of Vermilion as a whole. For me, it’s all right that Lou’s various partial memberships—neither comfortably female nor male, neither white nor yellow, neither fully in the earthly world nor out of it—come with certain shorthand tags. A narrative needs to make a story of recognizable things or risk bogging down. Thus, the invocation of the common topos of the ungrateful daughter and misunderstanding mother is acceptable; that Lou manages the odd feat of passing as Chinese to every single non-Chinese character, including one who I’d thought would know better, yet also passing as white till choosing to out herself two ways at the brothel, is acceptable. (In real life, double-passing is rare to non-existent.) What I hadn’t expected is for Part One’s worldbuilding mode to come with careful characterization and Part Two’s action mode to flatten it, at times sacrificing character to plot. To put it another way, Lou of Part One is proactive; Lou of Part Two is much more reactive. Part One does its job too well, in a way!

The aspect of the book’s final chapters which cements my sense of flattened characters is extremely spoilery, so I can’t describe it in detail. It involves bears, and it involves them in a peculiarly typed way that evokes stereotypical descriptions of Native Americans. Since no Native characters appear here in what is otherwise a strongly built US Western setting, it would be encouraging to learn more about them in Lou’s world, to see more of the bears and sea-lions, and to journey again with Lou, should Tanzer decide to continue Lou’s adventures.

 

Sharon K. Goetz works for a print-and-digital project that creates critical editions. Too fond of textuality for her own good, she has also written software manuals and completed a PhD investigating medieval English chronicles amidst their manuscript contexts. As time permits, she reads widely and plays computer games.

 

Why did you decide to attend Sirens for the first time?

s.e. smith (@realsesmith)
I attended Sirens at the urging of someone who had been going since the very first year. She encouraged me to hop on the Sirens train on the basis of our mutual love of women in fantasy, and the need for spaces where people can talk about literature in an environment dedicated specifically to exploring women and intersectional issues. Many larger cons are too sprawling for the conversations that happen at Sirens, and she promised me an intimate, rewarding experience. She was right. 
 

Karen Bailey
I decided to attend Sirens because of the Guests of Honor, Tamora Pierce and Sherwood Smith. I was so excited that both of them would be at the same place, I signed up right away.
 

Gillian C. (@gnomes_g)
A friend invited me. I’d never been to any kind of con before, so Sirens was my first ever con experience, and now I tell people that it’s ruined me for all other cons!

I am a writer and I love Sirens because the community is so supportive and inspiring. Telling stories is difficult, often lonely work, especially when you have to balance it with a demanding day job, but every year I leave Sirens with a renewed belief in my voice and the stories that I have to tell.
 

@jazzagold
I’ve been an avid reader of fantasy and sci-fi since I was a little girl, but I had always felt a bit isolated as most of the people I knew who were into fantasy growing up were male and mostly white. I didn’t feel as if I could discuss the things I liked about books with them. This continued even on the Internet; I’m old enough to remember a time when fandom didn’t really have the Internet as a space for discourse about fantasy. I would engage in fandoms for many types of media, books, etc. but not necessarily fantasy, as those spaces also felt very male and white. I also hadn’t considered conventions as a place to find that community.

Fast forward to 2015. I’ve since started writing my own stories while still being a reader. I often talk with Kate Elliott on Twitter, and she’d been telling me for at least two years that I should consider going to Sirens as she knew I was both a reader and a writer. As Kate is someone I respect, whose books I had read for years, I decided to take a risk and go to Sirens!
 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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