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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.

 

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.

 

Book Club: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

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!

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

Villain stories are, I think, inherently difficult.

Readers, as a construct, almost always root for the heroine. And why not? She’s inherently good: righting wrongs, battling monsters, usurping despots. She has killer talents: swordplay, magic, leadership. And because fantasy literature is so often aspirational, you know she’s going to prevail. Regardless of whether readers see themselves as the heroines of their own stories, almost everyone wants to take an hour or three to lead the life they would live if they were the heroine of someone else’s.

But hardly anyone envisions themself the villain.

A villain story is, by definition, about the bad guy. Otherwise, the villain wouldn’t be a villain at all, of course, but a deeply conflicted heroine or even an antiheroine. By framing a villain story as a villain story, all the writer has done is cast the villain as the protagonist. The framing itself—good vs. evil, or in this case, the people who eat the hearts of living things vs. those who don’t—remains the same. And the villain is, by definition, on the opposite side of that line from the reader. A reader who, again almost by definition, is rooting for someone else.

To complicate matters further, the question of what makes a woman a villain is deeply conflicting. So often, far too often—especially in young-adult works about female villains—the primary traits that cast the protagonist as a villain are those same traits that we teach young women are profoundly unattractive: rage, ambition, unlikeability, a desire for power, aging. Think back to your fairy tales: How many of those princesses actually sought their power? Craved it? Or alternately, how many were crowned almost accidentally: a fairy godmother and a shoe; an unbidden kiss in the woods; a forbidden curiosity about life on land. What makes a female villain is so often, far too often, a refusal to conform to what society demands: silence, passivity, youth. Which of course raises the necessary question: Are those women even villains at all?

All of which is to say that Forest of a Thousand Lanterns—a retold tale about the rise of the evil queen in Snow White—had a long row to hoe.

Xifeng—our protagonist, but not our heroine—is beautiful. Impossibly beautiful. The sort of beautiful that attracts stares from passersby and commands the attention of the manly Wei, her town’s apprentice blacksmith and amateur swordsman, and eventually will draw the notice of the Emperor. As you might expect in an Evil Queen origin story, much is made of Xifeng’s beauty, both to the reader and to Xifeng herself.

Xifeng lives with her aunt, a power-hungry, magic-practicing village crone named Guma. Guma abuses Xifeng, both emotionally and physically (though always avoiding her face). She’s convinced Xifeng, through blood magic and fortune-telling, that Xifeng is destined to be Empress, so long as she’s willing to sacrifice enough.

What Forest of a Thousand Lanterns never makes quite clear, though, is how inevitable this portent is. Are the cards simply showing the future? Are they showing but one possibility among many? Are they a manipulation of the gods? Are they a trick of Guma’s to bring her niece in line with her lust for power? Is Xifeng a tool—of fate or the gods or her aunt—or is she the master of her own future? Is she merely stepping along the path to her destiny, or making decisions that help her achieve her goal? One hopes for the latter, if only for the sake of agency, but fears that it’s the former, which lends the book an air of plodding inevitability. Did you really think that Xifeng wouldn’t become Empress?

After years of abuse from her aunt, the catalyst for Xifeng’s finally agreeing to flee with Wei is that Guma strikes her face. Something that perhaps Xifeng and this particular retold tale itself take as a greater affront than a different circumstance might warrant, but that, as written, after years of abuse, lacks gravity. Similarly, after years of avoiding Guma’s bloody brand of magic, Xifeng’s catalyst for finally overcoming her squeamishness is, of course, to fix the mark that Guma left on her face. At this point, with the amount of obsessing over a scar, one perhaps longs for an Evil Queen origin story that, for a number of reasons—including, not inconsequentially, a deconstruction of what it means to be beautiful—doesn’t rely quite so heavily on a perfect face. Beauty is frequently a weapon, of course: a distraction, a tactic, an enticement. Both before and after she reaches the imperial palace, Xifeng uses her beauty as all three. But the lack of attention paid to the underlying societal expectations of beauty, especially young women’s beauty, leaves Xifeng something of a silly girl who is willing to eat hearts to maintain her pretty face—and we’re left wondering if, after all this time, a pretty face is still the only way for a woman to get what she wants.

Who is the fairest of them all, indeed?

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.

 

Book Club: The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

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 Monsters of Templeton

“The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.”

Thus begins The Monsters of Templeton.

I read somewhere north of 150 books a year—and when you do that, you have the luxury of tackling books for any number of reasons. I don’t have to jealously guard 12 or even 50 available slots a year, cautiously filling them only with books that come highly recommended. I can read for any reason under the sun. For example, I’m notoriously a sucker for well-designed covers, sometimes for good and sometimes for spectacular ill.

This might, however, be the first time that I chose a book because of its first line.

But look at it. Just look at it.

Even putting aside my preternatural love of monster narratives—which we absolutely should not because my love is legion and we’re going to discuss this monster in particular—that’s a magnificent first line. There’s a gravity to it, a weight, around not just a return to Templeton, but a return steeped (steeped!) in disgrace. But there’s an absurdity as well, as you read on to the dead monster surfacing on the lake. Oh, the questions! Who is the protagonist? Is Templeton formerly home? What is this disgrace? How bad was it? What is this monster? Do you have a lot of monsters in Lake Glimmerglass? Are there monsters everywhere?

I had to know.

And that’s what hooks a reader, right? That need to know what happens next.

Well, it worked.

The Monsters of Templeton, by Lauren Groff (yes, that Lauren Groff), is one of my favorite fantasy literature subgenres: the sort of adult fiction that is so literary and so real that the marketing team can readily sideline the fantasy elements, making it all-too-easy for booksellers to shelve it with the general market fiction. (Annoying!) Think Jesmyn Ward or Carmen Maria Machado or Violet Kupersmith, all of whom write fantasy works, but none of whose works live in the fantasy section of your local Barnes and Noble. (Someday, I’ll write an essay that starts with those three and then happily proceeds to Erin Morgenstern, then Helen Oyeyemi, then Cassandra Khaw, at which point we are well and truly down my very favorite rabbit hole.) The Monsters of Templeton lives somewhere in this procession between Ward and Machado: a number of ghosts, some magical realism-style conflagrations, and the aforementioned monster—but we’re wholly and resolutely in a thinly-veiled Cooperstown.

Willie Upton, an archeological doctoral candidate, magical only in the very slightest of ways, opens the book by returning to her hometown: Templeton, New York. The town is important, not only as a predicate for the plot that follows, but also as a foil for the larger, perhaps grander, sometimes more disappointing world outside. The book can suffocate: After Willie’s arrival, her story arc happens entirely in the town of her birth; only rarely does the outside world intrude (the occasional phone call, a single postcard, a number of scientists looking to examine the monstrous corpse). Those intrusions periodically remind Willie—and the reader—perhaps unwantedly, of Willie’s scholarship, her ambition, and her success navigating that outside world.

Willie’s reason for returning home—and indeed, her return home itself—is fraught. She’s had a (perhaps) ill-advised affair with her married professor, found herself pregnant, and fled her summer work in Alaska to return to the bosom of not only her single mother, but the hometown she hasn’t seen in years. Willie’s flight from Templeton was, in her mind, a necessity; her homecoming, even more so. Never underestimate the emotional trauma of returning to not only your family, but your tiny hometown, “steeped in disgrace.” You can never go home again, I suppose, until you think you have nowhere else to go.

Vi, Willie’s mother, is drawn unsympathetically in Willie’s first-person narrative: a hippie-turned-Baptist, a professional caregiver, a descendant of town founder Malcolm Templeton, a woman who (smugly) knows her daughter better than Willie knows herself. Upon Willie’s arrival home, Vi (cleverly) gives her academic daughter a research task: Discover who her long-secret father is. Vi tells her only that he’s a resident of Templeton—and also a descendent of the revered Malcolm Templeton. Willie the archeologist gets to work and uncovering her father’s identity becomes both mysterious plot arc and book structure: sections alternate between historical depictions of Willie’s ancestors and her modern-day discoveries of links between those same ancestors. It’s a clever conceit, but one that causes the book to lose steam about two-thirds of the way through; at that point, the reader yearns for a hastened pace, but the book stoically maintains its structure.

Willie, Vi and the rest of Templeton are written with a lot of sensitivity. Anyone from a small town will startle at Groff’s insightful depiction of both the unchanging sameness and the roiling, gossip-worthy drama. That same group of middle-aged guys runs around Templeton every morning, but the more Willie uncovers in her quest for her father’s identity, the more the reader learns about the scandals of the town’s past. That sameness and that long-buried gossip birth both security and contempt in Willie, but also provide an unexpected accelerant for a story of monsters premised on, of all things, familiarity. Harken back to that first sentence: Willie has gone home, but equally important, a monster has died.

For those of you looking for a “here be monsters” adventure, this is not your book. Instead, that dead monster is a ready metaphor for every small town and for Willie’s story in particular: those churning scandals—an affair, a death, a fire—made manifest and, not coincidentally, surfacing at last. Not an inapt parallel, once you stop to consider, and one that Groff mines to raw, honest effect. You can go home again, in the end, but heaven knows what you’ll find.

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.

 

Book Club: The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan

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 Bloodprint

Several years ago, Sirens featured a guest of honor who wrote one of my all-time favorite books. Despite not being a please-sign-my-book person generally, I sentimentally dragged my copy of this book to Sirens, and in asking the author to sign my copy, mentioned that I really loved their book.

This guest responded, quite drily and certainly correctly, that they had been sitting in the Sirens community room for two days listening to me talk about how much I loved all the books—with a strong implication that we were discussing but one book in an apparently very large pool of beloved literature. This is neither here nor there, but I did eventually convince this guest that there is love and there is love, and got them to sign my bloody book.

But, you know, they weren’t wrong. I do love many books. And upon reflection, I have come to realize that I do not love them in many different ways, but rather in three very specific ways.

Sometimes, I love a book because there’s something about it: world-building, perhaps, or a certain character, or the writer’s craft. The other elements of the book might be nonsensical dreck, but if I love an individual element or two enough, the book and I are good to go. Last year, memorably, I wrote a review of Kendare Blake’s Three Dark Crowns in which I wished for more coherent world-building and more competent characters and more stringent editing—and then proclaimed my love purely because in the end all three of those hatefully incompetent girl characters made bold, ambitious, hateful choices. Brava, I said, as I fell in love with a book whose world-building, characters, and writing style I did not like.

Other times, I love a book because it tells a good story. Maybe this is because of its world-building or characters or writing, or maybe this is essentially independent of those elements, but sometimes a book invites you to journey with its characters in a way that feels adventurous or relentless or shockingly human. These books are, I find, often compulsively readable. Perhaps A Crown for Cold Silver, where you’re halfway done before you take a breath. Or Bleeding Violet, where I would have followed Hanna and her unreliable narration and her weird hellmouth town anywhere.

But the best books, for me, are the books that—putting plot and characters and story aside—have something to say. They may also, and often do, have great plot and great characters and great story, but they’re something more: an exploration of gender, maybe, or a portrait of grief, a commentary on racism or an examination of the importance of friendship as we age. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, with its all-feminine pronouns, is a terrific example: a great story, a fascinating main character, but also an epiphany for a reader. Or Alif the Unseen, with its incisive intersections of myth, religion, and technology.

The Bloodprint, by Ausma Zehanat Khan, has something to say.

The setting for The Bloodprint, while fictional, will be familiar to anyone who follows the news: a patriarchal group known as the Talisman, led by a mysterious One-Eyed Preacher, is amassing power quickly and over an increasing large area. The Talisman’s methods are insidious: control communications by destroying reading materials, brutally execute rebels to sow fear, and enslave any woman not protected by a father or husband. It’s not too much of a spoiler to mention that, rather late in the book, we discover that many of the people now living under the Talisman’s rule—even for only a single generation—aren’t really bothered by their authoritarian rule. They don’t remember anything different. How horrifyingly quickly things change.

The book opens with Arian and Sinnia about to attack a caravan taking a number of enslaved women to who-knows-where. This has been Arian’s work for years, though despite the number of women she has freed and the number of Talisman men she has killed, she has yet to discover where the Talisman takes the women. She knows only that, until she learns more about what the Talisman is doing, she can’t free them all.

Shortly after the book opens, Arian and Sinnia are summoned home. Both women are Companions of Hira, a group of powerful women whose magic and authority is based on the Claim, a work of sacred scripture. But even in this group of women, called to a higher purpose, intrigue abounds and Arian cannot trust things she thought she knew.

The Bloodprint is Arian’s story: from her traumatic childhood, to abandoning her great love for her calling, to her commitment to saving her country and her people. The driving force behind the book is her discovery that a piece of the Claim, called the Bloodprint, is real—and if Arian can recover it, that might provide the Companions of Hira the power they need to truly fight the Talisman on a grand scale. As Arian journeys through the long-forgotten legends of her land, she learns the true power of perseverance, not only her own, but that of oppressed people.

Note: The Bloodprint is the first in a series, and has a seriously cliffhanger ending. If you like your series finished, you might want to wait.

I don’t usually include pieces of author bios in my book reviews, but this seems especially relevant: Khan holds a PhD in international human rights law with a specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. In reading this work focused so much on war crimes, you’re in good hands.

Should you read it? Absolutely. While this story is purportedly Arian’s, it’s really the story of every rebel against an authoritarian regime who has found that their fight is against not only the regime, but their own people’s fear, blindness, carelessness, and ignorance. And if that doesn’t convince you, perhaps the book’s tag will: The only defense against the ignorance of men is the brilliance of powerful women.

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 Newsletter – Volume 9, Issue 10 (September 2017)

In this issue:

 

SIRENS 2017 RELOCATION

By now, many of you already know that because of the Hotel Talisa’s renovation delays, this year’s conference is moving to the nearby Park Hyatt in Beaver Creek. Dates for Sirens Studio (October 24–25) and the conference (October 26–29) will remain the same, as will the programming schedule. Due to credit card security protocols, all attendees must make a new hotel reservation. For full information including reservation instructions, please visit our relocation page.

Thank you all so much, in advance, for your patience and assistance as we tackle all the tasks necessary to move Sirens. Our staff is working hard to ensure that Sirens will be the same brilliant conference for the same brilliant community that it would have been if we’d planned to hold it in the Park Hyatt all along. Thank you, too, for your understanding and support!

 

UPCOMING INSTRUCTION EMAILS

In the weeks leading up to Sirens, we’ll be sending important instruction emails to this year’s registered attendees regarding updated menus, meeting the Sirens Shuttle, checking in for the Sirens Studio and Sirens, and finding the Sirens Supper. Presenters will also receive detailed instructions—so keep your eye on that inbox!

If you’re riding the Sirens Shuttle and you have not yet provided us with your flight information, please write to us at (help at sirensconference.org). We’ll track your progress toward Sirens and make sure that you haven’t run into any delays along the way.

 

INCLUSIVITY AT SIRENS

In the final post in our 2017 inclusivity series, Justina Ireland explains the history behind the term “intersectionality” and what makes Sirens stand out from other conferences: “Attending Sirens is like having a good meal after years of living off of crumbs. Your identity will be respected and embraced, your opinion valued, and you will learn so much it will feel like a weekend of machine gun epiphanies, each one more amazing than the last.” Read the rest of her post here.

 

VOLUNTEERING

We always need great volunteers to help at Sirens! Volunteer shifts vary in length and responsibilities, but most volunteer shifts are during programming and allow you to attend presentations. If you’re planning to stick to a room for the whole morning or afternoon, and don’t mind flagging down help if any problems arise, we, our presenters, and our community thank you immensely.

For more details, please visit our volunteer page. If you’re a returning volunteer, you don’t need to fill out the form—just follow the directions in the email sent through the Google Group.

 

AMY’S BOOK CLUB

When the Moon Was Ours

Sirens co-founder Amy Tenbrink debates whether books have to have plots in her review this month, of Anna-Marie McLemore’s When the Moon Was Ours, but found it “transcendent. McLemore took the best parts of fairy tales and the best of who we, as people, might be, and with her stunning craft, put it all on the page.” Full review on the blog and on Goodreads.

 

READ ALONG WITH FAYE

Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1

Are you done, or almost done the 2017 Reading Challenge? Faye is… not as close as she would like. But she found Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios’s Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1 “demanding and intellectually challenging… incredible, myth-making, myth-breaking stuff.” Read her full thoughts on the blog and on Goodreads.

 

SIRENS REVIEW SQUAD

Mermaid's Daughter

Friend of Sirens Jae Young Kim read Ann Claycomb’s The Mermaid’s Daughter, a modern-day retelling of The Little Mermaid set in at a musical conservatory, whose main character is an opera student. “Love and music are central to this retelling…it’s clever and fitting.” Read her full review here.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT…


Interesting Links

 


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

 

Book Club: When the Moon Was Ours Anna-Marie McLemore

When the Moon Was Ours

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!

Books have to have a plot.

I said that recently to my six-year-old niece. Last winter, an author-illustrator of children’s books visited her school, read them his books, and taught them to draw a tree. She — a tremendous lover of books — was rapt. And ever since, she’s wanted to be an author-illustrator. That is, when she doesn’t want to be a mom or a boss.

So we make her books. We take a few pieces of paper, fold them in half, and staple them. Then she can write and illustrate her books to her heart’s content.

Her first books were what you might imagine. Pages after pages, and books after books, of scintillating prose like “This is blue,” with an equally scintillating blue dot.

On her own, she progressed. Her next round of masterpieces had pages after pages of statements like “I eat the egg,” accompanied by a picture of an egg. (Not even a fried egg, or perhaps a scrambled egg, mind you. Just an egg, still in its shell.) Each page had the same action, but a different food. Though there was no clear context of time or progression, one could assume that she would eat the egg prior to eating the grapes on the next page.

Next, she moved on to her friends. “I talk to Jenna,” with a drawing of Jenna looking lovely with her stick arms and blue skirt. “I talk to Ben.” Clearly, my niece is a fan of the present tense.

At this point, we had a talk. About plot and how, in the most interesting books, things happen. About how maybe she talked to Jenna, but then went home, learned some Spanish, ate her dinner, read some books, and didn’t talk to Ben until the next day. My niece was shockingly unconcerned about this thing called plot, though in her next book, Ben did accomplish a series of chores at the pet store. (Sorry about those hamster cages, Ben.)

As I read When the Moon Was Ours, though, I considered the accuracy of my assertion that books have to have a plot.

When the Moon Was Ours is a love story. Sam, a boy who paints moons and hangs them around town, and Miel, a girl who has roses that grow out of her wrists, are best friends who find that best friendship can be a harbinger of more. SMALL SPOILER Or, put another way, Sam, a part-Pakistani, transgender boy, and Miel, a queer Latina girl, are best friends who find that best friendship can be a harbinger of more. /SMALL SPOILER

I don’t draw that dichotomy to be reductive. Rather, Anna-Marie McLemore’s second novel is two things: one of them lovely, the other transcendent.

First, When the Moon Was Ours is a fairy tale, a story of two teens, one who paints moons and hangs them all over town, the other who has maybe magical roses growing out of her wrists. It’s about love and community and relationships and magic – maybe not always spells or potions, though there are some of those as well, but more the magic of finding your community, your family, and your romantic love. It’s about discovery and forgiveness. And even if that’s all When the Moon Was Ours were, it would be lovely because Anna-Marie McLemore is one of most lyrical fantasy authors writing today.

But that’s not even close to everything that When the Moon Was Ours is.

SAME SMALL SPOILER
McLemore has crafted a fairy tale – a lovely, magical, hopeful fairy tale – for people who don’t often see themselves represented in such things. Sam is a transgender, part-Pakistani, part-Italian boy with a single mom. Miel, a queer Latina girl who appeared from a water tower, has been raised by Aracely, the town’s curandera. These identities, so remarkable to readers who too rarely get to experience an enchanted love between people like Sam and Miel, are utterly unremarkable to Sam and Miel themselves. Not because Sam doesn’t have to work to come to terms with his gender (just like Miel has to work to come to terms with her water-tower origins), but because it never occurs to Miel not to love Sam, no matter his gender (just like it never occurs to Sam to judge Miel for, essentially, being born of a water tower). /SPOILER

And that, that layering of inclusive identities on top of painted moons and roses grown from wrists, on top of a fairy-tale love story, on top of McLemore’s dazzling prose, that makes When the Moon Was Ours transcendent. McLemore took the best parts of fairy tales and the best of who we, as people, might be, and with her stunning craft, put it all on the page.

That said, here’s where some of you might struggle with this book: The plot is virtually non-existent. There’s a bit about four sisters, maybe witches, who very much want Miel’s roses. There are some revelations, especially regarding Miel’s family, but they don’t drive the story so much as shape the characters. The tension and the minimal action, indeed, are almost entirely character driven. This is a book about coming to terms with yourself, your family, and your community, rather than antagonist witches or saving the world.

It turns out, not every book has to have a plot.

Amy
 


 
Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling content distribution and intellectual property transactions for a media 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 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 Newsletter – Volume 9, Issue 9 (August 2017)

In this issue:

 

GUEST OF HONOR: VICTORIA SCHWAB

We’re interviewing each of our Sirens 2017 Guests of Honor about their inspirations, influences, and craft, as well as the role of women in fantasy literature, as befits this year’s theme of women who work magic.

Victoria Schwab

This month, we interviewed Victoria Schwab about writing to conquer fear, how much she owes to J. K. Rowling, all manners of monsters, ambitious characters, and being ambitious herself: “When I sit down to construct my characters, I first ask myself what they fear, what they want, and what they’re willing to do to get it. Thus, their ambition is one of the pillars of their design. And one of my own pillars, too.”

Our feature on Victoria also includes a review of A Darker Shade of Magic by B R Sanders, as well as a list of books recommended by Victoria herself centered on badass ladies and their power.

 

SCHEDULE & PROGRAMMING SUPPORT

The conference schedule for 2017 is up! Click here to see how many of your favorite things we scheduled across from your other favorite things!

There’s still time to sponsor our programming sessions; the cost is $35 per presentation. Thank you again for all your support!

 

INCLUSIVITY AT SIRENS

In our latest community post, Kate Larking shares with us her experience at Sirens versus the other literary conferences she attends: “One thing that unites us at Sirens is that we love developed, complex voices in speculative fiction. We embrace worlds that are different from our own and seek out the experiences of those who live within them.” Read the rest of her post here.

 

MENUS

Registered attendees, please check your inboxes for the full menus for this year’s conference. (You can also view our menus on our Conference and Sirens Supper pages.) If you have any allergies or dietary restrictions, please email us at (help at sirensconference.org) by September 8—after which, we’ll assume you can eat from our standard menus.

 

REGISTRATION TRANSFERS

Although Sirens is officially sold out for 2017, we have several attendees looking to sell their registrations (and sometimes other Sirens tickets as well). If you’re looking to sell yours and you’d like a signal boost, please tweet at us (@sirens_con) or feel free to post information on our Facebook. Please keep an eye on our Twitter for any announcements.

 

9 SIRENS SHUTTLE TICKETS REMAINING

Sirens offers a $95 round-trip shuttle from Denver International Airport to Vail, significantly cheaper than commercial shuttles which can cost upwards of $200. We encourage you to buy your shuttle ticket soon, even if you don’t have flights yet—there are only 9 spots left before our shuttle is sold out!

 

HOTEL RESERVATIONS

We are close to filling our block at the Hotel Talisa for the third and final time. If you have not yet made your hotel reservation, please do so as soon as possible. We have only four rooms left on the main nights of Sirens, and on September 22, the hotel will release all remaining rooms. Any reservations made after that date will not receive the Sirens discount. For more instructions on how to make your reservation, please visit our Hotel page.

 

AMY’S BOOK CLUB

Practical Magic

Sirens co-founder Amy Tenbrink read Alice Hoffman’s modern classic Practical Magic this month, which she admired for its focus on “a bunch of women…all doing the best they can. Sometimes solutions are magic, sometimes they’re determination, sometimes they’re taking your fears in hand and charging forward.” Full review on the blog and on Goodreads.

 

READ ALONG WITH FAYE

An Inheritance of Ashes

This August, Faye read Leah Bobet’s An Inheritance of Ashes for her Reading Challenge pick! She found it “a quiet book…full of surprises, and not shiny at all, in the best way possible.” Find out what that means by checking out her review over on the blog and on Goodreads.

 

SIRENS REVIEW SQUAD

The Guns Above

Longtime Siren Casey Blair read Robyn Bennis’s The Guns Above, which she loved for its complex world-building, amazing female characters, and masterful tone: “If you love wit and self-awareness in your fantasy to go with your airships, I highly recommend checking this one out.” Read her full review here.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT…


Interesting Links


Fabulous, Free Reads!

 


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

 

Book Club: Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

Practical Magic

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!

We’re always a product of our time, aren’t we?

While Practical Magic takes place in three acts, the setting changes significantly between the first and second. The book opens in a small town in Massachusetts, one that, if you’re the right age and grew up reading the right books, you can see with very little textual assistance: old houses, wrought-iron fences, trees that turn riotously orange in the fall, only to have their leaves fall and cover the sidewalks, because, heavens yes, there are sidewalks and everyone walks to school and Halloween is blustery as clouds skid across the sky and summers are endless and full of sunny promise. I could go on, but if you’re the same age as I and read the same books, you don’t need me to.

Reading the first act of Practical Magic was, for me, sentimentally wistful. Strange, since I’ve never read Alice Hoffman before, and I’ve never lived in Massachusetts or even New England, and I’ve never lived in town, let alone a town with old houses and wrought-iron fences. But I must have read a hundred books with that exact setting as a kid, enough to produce a sort of sentimental wistfulness for a place where I’ve never lived and rarely visited, a place that is profoundly different from my rural childhood, where my mile-long block had exactly six houses and four kids.

Do books that do depict the rural Midwest, settings with more animals than people and Halloweens with snow and summer vacations to rundown lake houses, produce the same wistfulness? Not even a little bit.

Which goes to show, I suppose from my very small sample size of one, how very much books affect our hearts and our subconscious. How even now, at 41, the first act of a book with the right setting can produce a nostalgia not so much for a place I’ve never lived, but for the reading experiences of my childhood that transported me, time after time, to a quaint New England full of blowing leaves and black cats and cracked sidewalks. Memory is a powerful thing, even when – or especially when – it’s playing tricks on you.

When Practical Magic opens, in that small Massachusetts town, Sally and Gillian Owens are kids, living with their “ancient” aunts after their parents’ deaths. Their aunts, like all Owens women, are witches, which the town both loves and loathes: they’re terrified and contemptuous of the Owens women, but then seek them out, under the cover of night, for spells for the lovelorn. Sally and Gillian grow up secretly watching their aunts perform those spells, and they solemnly swear that that sort of nonsense will never happen to them.

Enter boys.

As Gillian blossoms, she goes from being shunned to having a string of boys, one of whom she runs away with while still a teen. Sally stays home, shocked by her sister’s seeming betrayal, and vows never to marry. But of course she does, and has two girls before her husband is hit by a car. Sally, stifled by her family history, her lost husband, and the town’s expectations, takes her girls and moves to a New York suburb. Where some years later Gillian turns up with a dead boyfriend in the passenger seat.

The second and third acts of Practical Magic are set in that banal suburb, where the juxtaposition of that studied banality with the thin veneer of the Owenses’ magic is itself a commentary about everyday lives and small magics. Hoffman’s brand of magic is a sort of magical realism, not with the same passion and grandeur that you might expect from Laura Esquivel, but with a more measured inevitability. No matter how normal they try to be, no matter how many times Sally avoids conversations with her daughters, no matter how determinedly Gillian avoids both her aunts and her hometown, the Owens’ women are witches. Things are bound to happen.

The beauty of Practical Magic is that it’s about a bunch of women – a coven, in a different sort of book – all doing the best they can. Sometimes solutions are magic, sometimes they’re determination, sometimes they’re taking your fears in hand and charging forward, and sometimes they’re calling your aunts and asking them what to do about the dude you buried in your backyard who just won’t bloody well stay buried. Mistakes abound, people get angry, a frog vomits a really ugly ring, and life goes on. Life, with your girls, goes on.

And so often, you just do the best that you can do with what you’ve got. Even when you’re a witch.

Amy
 


 
Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling content distribution and intellectual property transactions for a media 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 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 Newsletter – Volume 9, Issue 8 (July 2017)

In this issue:

 

GUEST OF HONOR: ZORAIDA CÓRDOVA

We’re interviewing each of our 2017 Guests of Honor about their inspirations, influences, and craft, as well as the role of women in fantasy literature, as befits this year’s theme of women who work magic.

Zoraida Cordova

Our interview with Zoraida Córdova addresses Latinx identity, being drawn to fantasy and magic from a young age, bruja magic and religion in Labyrinth Lost, and becoming a young adult author in the wake of We Need Diverse Books: “I feel more comfortable writing POC protagonists now because it’s in the zeitgeist. I don’t want diversity to become another publishing trend. Because unlike vampires and dystopian novels, POC are real.”

Our focus on Zoraida and her work also featured a review of Labyrinth Lost by B R Sanders and a fantasy book list compiled by Zoraida herself!

 

ACCEPTED PROGRAMMING

Got your planner ready? Visit our Accepted Programing page for the full lineup of this year’s topics, summaries, and presenter biographies. Our brilliant presenters will be examining everything from witches to beauty, inclusion to activism, and so much more—in the form of papers, panels, roundtables, workshops, and afternoon classes. Thank you, presenters!

All presentations are available for sponsorship for $35 per presentation. You might choose to sponsor a friend or family member, or select a presentation on a topic that speaks to you, or show your support for underrepresented voices. Should you like to sponsor a programming session, we will include your name next to your chosen topic and in the program book, provided we receive your donation by August 15. Thank you for your support of our programming.

 

SIRENS SUPPORT

For other ways to support Sirens, we accept monetary donations of any amount, as well as items or services for our auction. Please visit this post to learn more about how we use your support to help keep the price of Sirens as low as possible.

 

INCLUSIVITY AT SIRENS

This month, we’re thrilled to share a post by s.e. smith, who often has to contend with questions like, “What is someone who’s not a woman doing at a lady conference?” Their response is perfect: “Sirens isn’t a lady conference. It’s a conference celebrating women in fantasy, and one where people of all genders participate in the conversation and work to push it further.” Read the rest of their post here.

 

REGISTRATION UPDATE

We have one registration remaining for 2017! If you’re planning to attend and haven’t registered yet, please do so immediately at this link—or pass it along to a friend.

 

HOTEL TALISA

All of the Sirens programming and events will take place at the Hotel Talisa, and we’ve negotiated a fantastic deal on standard room rates: $139/night for 1–2 people (plus tax and resort fee). But rooms are filling up quickly! We’ve already expanded our room block three times, but when these rooms are gone, you’ll have to book at the Hotel Talisa’s regular rates or find a roommate. Right now, we have only six rooms left in our room block for the conference dates. For more instructions on how to make your reservation, please visit our Hotel page.

 

AMY’S BOOK CLUB

The Forbidden Wish

In July, Sirens co-founder Amy Tenbrink read Jessica Khoury’s The Forbidden Wish, which she found “full of marvelous reader delights,” but also “troubling.” Read her review over on the blog and on Goodreads.

 

READ ALONG WITH FAYE

Vassa in the Night

For the Reading Challenge this month, Faye read Sarah Porter’s Vassa in the Night, a “dark and poetic” modern-day retelling of the Russian folktale “Vasilisa the Beautiful” set in Brooklyn. Read her review on the blog and on Goodreads.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT…


Interesting Links

 


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

 

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