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Book Club: Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

Empress of All Seasons

It was with equal parts excitement and trepidation that I began Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean.

I love a good warrior-girl story. Even more than that, I love a good monster-girl story. And Mari, the half-human, half-yōkai, practically invincible protagonist of Empress of All Seasons, was both. A girl born to a tribe of monster-women, raised to be an indomitable warrior, a probable champion of a deadly game that pits warrior-girl against warrior-girl in a contest to marry the prince….

And there’s my trepidation. A deadly game that pits warrior-girl against warrior-girl in a contest to marry the prince. Again? How many books have I read—and even more, how many books have I not read—that contrive a deadly game that pits warrior-girl against warrior-girl in a contest to marry the prince? Way too many, that’s how many.

But while I might be able to ignore a warrior-girl, I cannot ignore a monster-girl, a girl of fang and claw, a girl of my heart. So off I went.

Mari is an Animal Wife, heir to a monstrous legend of beautiful, shapeshifting women who marry men and then steal their riches, returning to their sisters with more money, more wisdom, more power. But in Mari’s land, the emperor despises yōkai: anyone non-human, with often non-human appearances and always non-human abilities. And so the emperor has ordered all yōkai collared, thereby reducing their strength and abilities to something humans can overcome. That those collars are cursed and burn the yōkai is of no consequence, of course, so long as they are contained. Mari, living in a remote mountain village has so far escaped the collar, but she’s about to go into the proverbial lion’s den.

Unlike most Animal Wives, Mari wasn’t born beautiful, or at least that’s what she’s told. Much is made of her plain appearance, her short stature, her round face. In fact, she seemingly wasn’t even born with the full abilities of an Animal Wife, since she can change her human form only partially. And so, assuming she can’t trap a husband with her looks or her magic, Mari’s mother raises her to be a warrior. Because once a generation, countless human girls travel to the imperial city to compete in a competition for the next emperor’s hand in marriage. As with the first emperor, who loved a woman who bested all four seasons, each new empress must conquer four magical rooms, one devoted to each season. Unlike most other battle-for-the-prince books, Mari and her competitors aren’t supposed to kill each other; just like most other battle-for-the-prince books, they do so anyway—and many other girls are killed by the elements in the rooms. This is a deadly game, based on a legend, made possible by magic. And despite her non-human abilities, because of her human appearance, Mari has been raised to win and be the most successful Animal Wife of all: The one who steals the imperial riches.

This book has a lot to unpack. It wants, badly, to explore themes on femininity, beauty, and power, through Mari’s purported plainness, her part-monstrousness, her skill with the deadly naginata. It wants, badly, to dissect that preposterously large overlap between teenaged girls and monstrousness—a monstrousness that is often placed on them in order to remove their acceptableness and their power. It wants, badly, to deconstruct what it means for a girl to be monstrous, to want things she’s not allowed, to do things she’s not permitted, to be things she’s not supposed to become.

“We’re all monsters. No man, no human, will ever love us. That is the curse of the Animal Wife, never to be loved for who we truly are.”

And in some ways, Empress of All Seasons succeeds. Not through Mari, necessarily, even though her monstrousness and her power and her struggle are the driving force of the book. No, more notably through Akira, Mari’s friend, the half-yōkai, the Son of Nightmares, who sees her and her monstrousness and her competence and her power and her beauty, and loves her, exactly as she is. With a bit of luck and care, we all have people in our lives who see our monstrousness, our beastliness, our abilities as something gloriously more than we do, and Akira is that person for Mari.

And the book succeeds through Hanako, a yuki-onna, a Snow Woman made of ice and hard edges, known as the Weapons Master of the yōkai Resistance. She’s dangerous, she’s unapologetic, she’s ambitious. She’s a girl who knows her power and revels in her power and wields her power. She’s a girl to aspire to.

Somewhere in here, there’s an unflinching, uncompromising blade of a book that brooks no denial and makes no apologies. It tackles monstrousness as a necessity in a society that puts women in boxes and cages and collars. It tackles beauty as more flexible than we’ve been led to believe. It tackles gender and power and rebellion as both an everyday intersection and a grand-scale revolution. All of that lives somewhere in this book.

But all of that is nearly suffocated by the rest of this book. By Mari’s complicated relationship with her mother, her tribe, her best friend, who appears briefly in the first act, only to conveniently disappear in the third. By this nonsensical, deadly game of the seasons, that ridiculously pits powerful girl against powerful girl for marriage to a man known as the Cold Prince, only to repeatedly mock the girls who are there because they want to be empress. By a steady thread on brutality and othering people who are different than we are, but that never really gets its hooks in the reader. By Mari’s burgeoning, almost accidental love story with that prince. And finally, by the sharp left turn in the third act that twists the book into one of poorly planned rebellion.

And Mari—our protagonist, though only one of three point-of-view characters—drowns in all of that. She’s pushed along by the plot, rarely making her own decisions, rarely recognizing what she wants, as opposed to what her mother, her friend, the prince, the emperor want of her. She’s poorly skilled in court games, but for a book conceived around a game set at court, that hardly seems to matter. She’s even less skilled in rebellion, but Hanako conveniently shows up to take care of that. I had a hard time getting a handle on Mari; the prince and Akira, the other point-of-view characters, were both more one-note, but along those same lines, more consistent, while Mari seemed to have little personality beyond a bit of feminism, a bit of girlish head-over-heels love, and a lot of deadly skill.

In the end, Empress of All Seasons wanted to be so much: an interrogation of feminism and beauty and power; a parable about destroying each other because of our differences; a love story; a deadly game; a dazzling display of magic; a necessary rebellion. And in trying to do so much—for all those monster-girls of my heart—it ended up doing so little.


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 nine 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: Furyborn by Claire Legrand

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

Furyborn

The word “competent” means having the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully. (I looked it up!) But that’s not how we use it, is it? When we say someone is competent, we mean they’re fine, I suppose. They’re good enough. They’ll do. As if having the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully is not, in fact, success.

I think, societally, we underestimate competence. We underestimate how much work and skill it requires. We underestimate its value. We underestimate its importance. And I think much of this underestimating comes from the fact that competence is so often quiet.

Instead, we value any number of flashier things: talent, danger, a metaphorical or even literal high-wire act. As if, simply by instilling challenges or drama or a 30-foot drop into the process, the outcome will be more satisfactory. More successful.

I’ve been considering this recently for any number of reasons, not the least of which is watching the United States’ 2020 presidential campaign season roll out appallingly early. And while so much of so many things is gendered, even putting that aside, we—societally—would rather an Icarus than an Ariadne. Better to fly too high and perish than to quietly get shit done. Better to shout platitudes from a metaphorical mountaintop than to offer a workable, detailed plan.

And that goes for our media as well. I watch a ton of reality television, much of it competition reality shows. But I recently realized the profound difference between watching Top Chef or MasterChef and watching Ina Garten or Martha Stewart cook. The former is designed for fireworks: appliances that don’t work, forced partnerships, ingredients that no one should ever have to combine. In many ways, the show is the player’s antagonist, just as much as the other contestants. These shows are competitive, challenging, exciting—but they’re also very much designed for our “go big or go home” society, to elicit spectacular success and spectacular failure.

Conversely, have you ever sat down and watched Martha Stewart bake? Not with a guest, where she’s quite happy to show you her competitive side. (Her dirt cake is better than yours.) But just watched Martha, in a kitchen, by herself, doing what she does incredibly well?

It’s profoundly comforting, even relaxing. Sitting on your couch, watching a hyper-competent woman do what she does best. Nothing is going to go wrong. The oven will work, the ingredients will be there, the cake will not be burned, the decorating will be glorious. This experience—this experience of having a predictably successful outcome—is what we devalue, what we elide, what we gloss over and play down and underestimate. The pleasure of watching someone do something that they’re great at, no muss, no fuss, no fireworks, no disasters, just a dang beautiful cake.

I tell you this so that you will understand what high praise it is when I tell you that Furyborn is gloriously, magnificently competent.

Claire Legrand’s Furyborn is the first in the high-fantasy Empirium Trilogy. In the world of Avitas, legends tell of seven saints, each of whom mastered an element of empirium, which seems to be little magical particles that float around like golden dust motes. Even in the today of the immediate story, certain people have an affinity for one of those elements: sun, shadows, fire, and so on.

But prophecy tells of two women who will be able to master all seven elements, one queen of sun and one queen of blood. One seemingly good, one seemingly bad. One will save the world, one will destroy it. And so on. You all read a lot of fantasy: You know how this prophecy thing goes.

And after the usual sort of prologue that assures you that things will get very bad before the end, the book opens with Rielle, a lady of Celdaria, who is a pretty typical fantasy teen: She wants to skip her lessons, ride illegally in a horse race, and fuck the prince. Good for you, Rielle. But you find out pretty early on both that Rielle can wield all seven elements and that that fact is an unpleasant surprise to the (mostly male) leadership of Celdaria. She seems to be a queen of prophecy, but which one?

Rielle’s story is one of a headstrong girl, stifled all her life, told to keep her power secret and safe, told to stand aside as the boy she loves weds another. It’s the story of a grief-stricken girl who accidentally killed her mother years ago, which also cost her a relationship with her father. It’s the story of an immensely powerful girl who is still told that she is less: dangerous, uncontrollable, unpredictable—but that she can redeem herself by agreeing to use her power only to serve the king.

Rielle’s story is our story. And as so many of our stories do, Rielle’s story goes horribly wrong. Too many hot boys, too many overhearing men, too many people trying to control her rather than train her, trying to force her to do the right thing rather than supporting and trusting her.

But Rielle’s story is not the only story. Across the sea, 1,000 years later, we have Eliana, the Dread of Orline, seemingly crafted for all the Lila Bard fans of the world.

Eliana’s father is dead, her mother is disabled, her little brother is adorable, and she’s the sole breadwinner for her family. Which she does by catching and killing rebels for the Emperor. She’s not always happy about it, especially when best friend-and-lover Harken prods her about it, but it puts food on the table. Oh, and her body can magically heal itself. She is, for the record, both a woman of color and bisexual, though her on-page sex is only with men.

Eliana’s story blows wide open when, on the same night, her mother mysteriously disappears and she encounters the Wolf, a deadly rebellion operative. She strikes a bargain with him, which she regrets at least half a dozen times, and ends up making her way through the Red Crown revolution, picking up pieces of the puzzle along the way.

If Rielle’s story of power stifled is the one we live every day, Eliana’s story of power wielded is one we dream every night. While Rielle and Eliana are similarly angry and similarly mouthy, that reads as obstinance and disobedience in Rielle’s story, but as danger and sass in Eliana’s.

Legrand tells her story in alternating point-of-view chapters, which many of you know is a bit of a bee in my bonnet. Here, it’s frustratingly worse, because those alternating point-of-view chapters are set 1,000 years apart, and Legrand must compensate not only for the usual loss of momentum by shifting characters, but the additional challenge of shifting entire plotlines. Which she does by making each chapter, more or less, a cliffhanger, which makes for compulsive, if somewhat aggravatingly so, readability.

But, people, this book is competent. The world is good, the characters are good, the plot is good, the magic is good, the writing is good. And even better, the third rails that have been blowing up my enjoyment of an awful lot of young-adult high fantasy lately aren’t here. The worldbuilding makes sense: There are no absurdist canons, like a world that can have this but not that, a king but not a queen, a fall but not a spring. The characters aren’t hateful: Though both Rielle and Eliana are surrounded by too many men telling them what to do, most of the time they fight back, assert themselves, do what they want to do. While both Rielle and Eliana have unexplained powers, the magical rules stick and we don’t learn late in the game about that one last power that will help them save the world. (At least not yet. There’s no world-saving in book one.)

And what a lovely reading experience it was. About 100 pages in, when I realized that nothing was going to go horribly wrong in the reading process, that I could just relax and read the book…I just relaxed and read the book. What a delight. What a joy. What competence.


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 nine 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 Witch’s Market by Mingmei Yip

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

The Witch's Market

We all have those tropes, you know? Those tropes that, for whatever reason, we adore, we seek, we…yes, we excoriate.

One of those tropes, for me, is witches. I have sky-high expectations for books written by women about witches.

Terribly high? Assuredly.

Magnificently high? Perhaps.

Impossibly high? All signs point to yes.

Despite that I can’t seem to remember the last time that I liked a book about witches—any book about witches, regardless of author—I continue to read them.

And not just read them. Read them voraciously. I read them voraciously. If a book includes “witch” in the title, and it’s not written by some cisgendered, heterosexual dude, I’ve probably bought it. Maybe read it.

Likely been disappointed by it.

Unfair? Certainly.

In my dreadfully thin defense, I have bees in my proverbial bonnet. I expect my fantasy revolutions to address economic instability and I want my monster girls to be largely unrepentant and I need my witch books to come with a decidedly feminist bent. The word “witch” has been weaponized against women for a thousand years; I want that ostracization and persecution to be handled—and handled well, feminist-ly well. I want questions of power and answers of power and epiphanies of power. I probably want revenge, but that one might be just me.

For all the imaginable reasons, I have a hard time with a fantasy world with “witches” where this thousand years of shitty history isn’t addressed. And if that world isn’t so much a fantasy world, but our world, our contemporary world with its history of witch hunts and drownings and burnings and so on, but with real witches, well.

Well.

I picked up The Witch’s Market by Mingmei Yip because I am constantly in search of that book, that holy grail of a book, that will give my brain and my heart a proper witchly reclamation, redemption, and retribution. Spoiler alert: The Witch’s Market didn’t do it for me.

The Witch’s Market gets the broad strokes right. Eileen Chen, Chinese-American professor of folk religion, is chasing tenure. To date, her scholarship has focused on Asian traditions, primarily the Chinese incantations practiced by Eileen’s matriarchal line. Eileen isn’t sure that her grandmother really was a witch—but she isn’t sure that she wasn’t, either. And among her university crowd, Eileen deliberately cultivates the idea that maybe she is a witch, too.

Somewhat inexplicably, Eileen’s male department chair and mentor suggests that she needs to round out her scholarship with some white-people witchery in order to complete her research and achieve tenure. Why? No idea. But he offers her time off to do it, which conveniently coincides with a dream Eileen has indicating that she should go to the Canary Islands to seek some witches. Why the Canary Islands? I guess they’re full of witches? So Eileen leaves her pragmatic lawyer sister and her on-again, off-again, rich, that-guy boyfriend, and heads to the Canary Islands.

Within days of arriving on the islands, Eileen has seen a ghost, heard a disturbing rumor about the earth swallowing a man and a dog, danced naked in the moonlight with some witches, agreed to stay with a rich guy and his housekeeper in his castle, and met a seriously extroverted former cabaret singer. If that sounds like a lot, well, I haven’t even gotten to the dead daughter, the missing son, the seemingly endless list of men who fall for Eileen, or the rich guy’s jealous dead wife. It’s a lot. A lot.

Which could have all been fine! In terms of plot and scope, this book reminds me a lot of Dreaming in Cuban or The Island of Eternal Love. Grand, sweeping family mysteries, rife with ghosts and coincidences and mistaken assumptions, spanning decades or generations. Assuredly, the great lot of plot is not where The Witch’s Market lost me.

Where it lost me was its internalized misogyny, its relentless tokenism, its aggressive heteronormativism. While men fall all over themselves to chase Eileen—she receives not one, but three marriage proposals in the last third of this book—Eileen herself finds every other woman in this book lacking. And Eileen’s judgmentalness isn’t merely unnecessary, but hypocritical. She judges other witches for using their power, even as she hones her own. She judges an aging woman for sleeping with a young man, even as she sleeps with a man more than a decade her junior. She judges a housekeeper for drinking several glasses of wine and then sits down to pour herself some sherry. Unsurprisingly, the woman who got Eileen drunk and danced naked with her in the moonlight turns out to be evil. The frustrating list of this one woman denigrating all other women goes on and on. And on.

In a similar vein, The Witch’s Market is unyielding in its presentation of traditional heteronormative stereotypes as valid. Eileen turns down all three marriage proposals, but nonetheless seriously considers each one—despite that all three of these men assuredly suck—because each is considered a catch. Every major player in this book insists that Eileen seriously consider one or more of her suitors: He’s a good man. He’s a nice man. He’s a rich man. He’s a handsome man. He’ll take care of you. You wouldn’t have to work anymore. You would have all the time in the world to write your book. In fact, Eileen’s sister—her lawyer sister—berates her for turning down not one, but two rich men. I checked the copyright date on this book four times, but each time it somehow still said ©2015.

I could continue, but I presume that I lost most of you at “internalized misogyny,” so I don’t have to go into how Eileen others basically everyone (locals, witches, women who have sex, the neuroatypical character), how all the similes are also misogynist tripe (something mundane “fell open easily, like a prostitute’s legs”), how Eileen’s inner monologues are logically inconsistent (she can’t seem to keep track of a conversation), or how every man in this book sucks (I can neither confirm nor deny if all the women suck because Eileen hates them all).

That said, I had very similar issues with a couple other books, so if you liked A Discovery of Witches or The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, you might want to ignore me and give this one a shot!


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 nine 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: Fen by Daisy Johnson

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

Fen

Some days, I aspire to a more feral version of myself. To respond with fang and claw to admonishments to be more civilized—to calm down, stand down, take it down a notch. To be nothing more or less than my prodigious unfettered aggression.

Which is to say that, at a visceral, atomic level, I get Fen. I know this work in my bones and my fangs and my claws. I know this work in my violence and my solitude. This work and I met, bloodied and snarling, under a sliver moon in the wild.

This work and I know each other.

Maybe this work and you know each other, too.

Fen, by Daisy Johnson, is a collection of twelve short stories, each more feral and fantastic than the last. These stories come with titles like “Blood Rites,” and “A Bruise the Size and Shape of a Door Handle,” and “How to Fuck a Man you Don’t Know.” The titles are reflective of the work: a warning, a red flag of blood and bruises and fucking. You may not be ready for what you find here.

All of these stories revolve around the fen, an unnamed portion of Great Britain that is purportedly still wild, still free, still full of strange things that don’t go bump in the night so much as crawl into your bed, shaped like a fox or a cat or a girl, and worm their way into your bones. You may never be the same after what you find here.

But what Fen is really about, beyond its wildness and strangeness, is what men take from women. The quotidian existence of attention paid, and assurance granted, and bruises formed, and sex reluctantly given. The collection’s determined, insistent feral-ness is a furious reaction to all the desperate time and energy women spend trying to manage men’s demands: our smiles, our acquiescence, our sex, our blood. Attention must be paid, Willie Loman, but in Fen, it might come with fang and claw.

In “Starver,” a girl, trying to achieve impossible beauty standards, starves herself—perhaps accidentally, but perhaps not—until she turns into an eel. Is she happier as an eel, slim, sleek, and glossy? You tell me, and further, if so, tell me why. Did she finally get the form she wanted? Or did she finally escape the constraints of societal expectations?

In “Blood Rites,” three beasts, jittery from living on raw meat, consume men, gore and all. But they find themselves with those same men’s vile words in their mouths, demanding their attention, even after death. You would think death would be enough to finally get men and their words to leave you alone.

In “A Bruise the Size and Shape of a Door Handle,” which can—and perhaps should—be read in juxtaposition with Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is for Witching, a jealous house consumes Salma’s lesbian lover. While the house isn’t explicitly gendered, come on, that house is a dude.

In “Language,” a mother can’t live without her newly dead son, so she brings him back. But after death, every word he utters bruises his wife. The wife loves him—of course she loves him—but every single thing he says harms her. He doesn’t mean to—of course he doesn’t mean to—but that doesn’t change the hurt. Even one bruise is too many.

In “A Heavy Devotion,” a son’s growth robs his mother of her memories, both emotional and practical. She becomes a shell of herself, unable to recall even her name. Finding that his mother has nothing more to give, her son leaves—and pieces of her world slowly return.

In “The Lighthouse Keeper,” a woman wants to be left alone with a fish and even that’s too damned much to ask.

Fen is for when you’re ashamed, when you’re furious, when you’re desperate to regain just a piece of yourself from the daily exhaustion of being a woman in a world founded on men’s demands. Fen is for when you’re told you’re too loud, too shrill, too bossy, too big, too much. Fen is for the days of blood and bruising and fucking, when you need to remember that you’re dangerous, too. Fen is for your fangs and your claws.


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 nine 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 11, Issue 1 (January 2019)

This month:

Welcome back, Sirens! We have brilliant 2019 Guests of Honor to introduce you to, Sirens Studio summaries and faculty bios are up on the website (get your tickets!), we’re busy reading fantasy books.

Just a reminder: Sirens Studio is October 22–23, 2019; Sirens is October 24–27, 2019, and we’ll be at the Hilton Inverness Hotel in Denver, CO.

 

BE OUR GUEST

And let us reintroduce you to our 2019 Guests of Honor: Mishell Baker (Borderline), Ausma Zehanat Khan (The Bloodprint), Rebecca Roanhorse (Trail of Lightning), and for the first time at Sirens, a scholar, Dr. Suzanne Scott (Fake Geek Girls), and a Sirens Studio guest of honor, Roshani Chokshi (Aru Shah and the End of Time). We’ll be speaking to each of them in the coming months about their work, fantasy literature, and heroes, but get a head start reading their work here.

Register for Sirens

 

STEP INTO STUDIO

Pencils ready? Sirens Studio summaries are live! Here is the list of faculty with their topics for reading, writing, and career intensives:

Reading

Writing

Career

You’ll want to nab Studio tickets soon, since we’re limiting the attendance to 70. Read the full summaries and faculty bios over on the Sirens Studio page!

Read About Sirens Studio

 

AMY’S BOOK CLUB

Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble

Amy generally reads upwards of 150 books a year, and through the monthly Sirens book club, she shares her insights, opinions, and a teeny bit of her personal reading history. This month, she was smitten with Anna Meriano’s chapter book, Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble: “Please, fantasy authors… Give me more women with big business dreams and big family dreams and big dreams that they’ll achieve through hard work and smart business and just a bit of magic.” Read her full review on the blog and on Goodreads.

 

STAY TUNED

In February, we’ll have information on how you can apply for Sirens scholarships, Sirens co-founder Amy Tenbrink’s thoughts on our 2019 “heroes” theme, preliminary information about Sirens’s programming (which is presented by attendees!), and more.


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

 

Book Club: A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

A Dash of Trouble

So often, fantasy books—even feminist fantasy books—are about women claiming men’s power. Seizing a throne held by a man, perhaps. Cutting down a sword wielded by a man, often. Sorcery taught by a man, sometimes. Dominance stolen from a man during sex, occasionally. As if power comes only in masculine forms. As if in order to gain power, we must rob men of theirs: take their leadership, their weapons, their knowledge, their seed. As if the only path to power is the one they chose, they covet, they permit.

And that’s all fine, I suppose, though not nearly enough attention is paid to breaking down those particular patterns in fantasy works. But I frequently grow weary of those same tropes, those same plots, those same imbalances and authorities and uprisings.

Which is to say that I have a soft spot for fantasy books about traditionally feminine skills made magic. There’s something compelling about taking our foremothers’ crafts—baking, singing, knitting, and thread-spinning—and rendering them magic. It’s a ready metaphor for claiming our stories and our power, not in traditionally masculine ways, but in the traditionally feminine ways we have always used to survive: through sisterhood and secrets and a damned good loaf of bread.

(Side note: You can imagine the incandescence of my rage when these books about traditionally feminine skills made magic feature a male protagonist mastering those skills to save a damsel in distress. But that is a whole different book review or twenty.)

Anna Meriano’s A Dash of Trouble, the first book in her Love Sugar Magic series, overflows with brujería de la cocina. Leonora Logroño’s family owns the most beloved bakery in Rose Hill, Texas. And from the first chapter, the book gathered me up with scents of cinnamon and cardamom and baking bread and sugary cookies—not to mention the fact that Leo’s mom is the businessperson of the family, the one working, working, working to achieve her dream of owning a larger house down the street from her Amor y Azúcar Panadería.

People, I was smitten.

Please, fantasy authors, give me more women with small businesses born of everyday magics. Give me more women who, on the page, are spectacularly resourceful in bookkeeping and customer service and magic. Give me more women with big business dreams and big family dreams and big dreams that they’ll achieve through hard work and smart business and just a bit of magic. Please, fantasy authors, please?

Eleven-year-old Leo is part of that family of big dreams, the youngest of five sisters—and her frustration is palpable: She’s the youngest, the one with the fewest freedoms and responsibilities, the only one who isn’t fluent in Spanish, the one who has to go to school while everyone else gets to stay home and prepare for the bakery’s Day of the Dead celebration. Even as she clings to her much-loved childhood traditions, like dressing up for Halloween, she wants so badly to be grown up, to be taken seriously, to have responsibilities equal to her older sisters, and to be part of whatever secrets her family is telling in Spanish.

So she does what any eleven-year-old protagonist full of curiosity and vexation would do: She sneaks out of school to spy on her family. Leo has more than a dash of Claudia Kincaid and Trixie Belden.

What she discovers through her spying is her family’s magia: The women of her family, including her four older sisters, are brujas: They can influence emotions, make objects appear from nowhere, and commune with the dead. And all those “lucky” cakes that Amor y Azúcar Panadería sells? Well, they really are lucky.

When Leo’s best friend Caroline has a falling out with another friend, Leo finds the perfect opportunity to prove—mostly to herself—that she’s just as smart and responsible and grown as any of her sisters. So she and Caroline start solving Caroline’s problem with spells, spells with hilarious, unintended, regrettable consequences. Spells with consequences that maybe Leo can’t fix on her own. Consequences that might cost Leo her best friend. Consequences that Leo might, gasp, not be able to hide from her mom.

A Dash of Trouble deftly navigates all those minefields of being eleven. Of still finding comfort in rituals and objects that you increasingly see as babyish. Of wanting to be given more responsibilities and more freedoms and more independence. Of just knowing that you can tackle anything, solve anything, fix anything—until you can’t. Of walking that tightrope between being a little kid and growing up, even as those who know you best don’t even notice that you’re bigger and braver and bolder than you were even last week. Of learning what responsibility really means, and what being a good friend and a good daughter really means, and what fixing your mistakes really means, even among a series of truly unfortunate events.

What I loved about this book—even more than its baking magic, even more than its panadería-jefe mom—is how active Leo is. Things don’t happen to Leo; she happens to them. She makes decisions, good and bad: She sneaks out of school, she convinces Caroline to cast spells, she fixes her own messes (with a bit of help from her dead abuela). Leo is a girl who gets shit done. And when you get to the big showdown between Leo and her mom, after her mom unravels everything that’s happened, Leo’s mom is equal parts exasperated that Leo didn’t tell her before and proud that Leo was independent enough and resourceful enough and determined enough to fix her own mistakes. Leo is more than my kind of heroine: She’s the sort of heroine that I give to my seven-year-old niece as she learns to navigate her independence and her mistakes and her power.


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 nine 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: Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

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!

Like Water for Chocolate

In 1989, when Like Water for Chocolate was first published, I was 13. I was reading my mother’s mysteries and bodice rippers, where the girls were either, respectively, dead or had to be told how much they wanted sex. I was consumed with my own perfectionism and already worried about achieving perfect grades, perfect attendance, and perfect extracurricular activities in high school, which I wouldn’t even start for another year. I did not read Like Water for Chocolate when it came out.

But maybe I should have.

In certain Spanish-speaking countries, the phrase “like water for chocolate” means “furious.” Often, in those countries, hot chocolate is made with near-boiling water, so the simile is, essentially, so mad that one is boiling over, rage-filled, livid. And Laura Esquivel’s book is so much like water for chocolate: a scalding, blistering work of fiery passions and violent anger and ultimately, literal conflagration.

Widowed Mama Elena has three daughters: Gertrudis, Rosaura, and the youngest, Tita. Like Water for Chocolate is Tita’s story, born of Mama Elena’s insistence that, as in family tradition, Tita never marry and instead stay home to take care of her mother. As with life, instead, Tita is the first of the girls to fall in love, instantly and fervidly with Pedro, who promptly appears in Mama Elena’s living room to ask for Tita’s hand in marriage. Mama Elena refuses, of course, and instead offers Rosaura to Pedro, who…accepts. Pedro’s reasoning is that, by marrying her sister, he can be close to Tita. Tita is predictably heartbroken and bakes her sorrow into Rosaura and Pedro’s wedding feast, causing sickness and, ultimately, a magical realism river of vomit.

Like Water for Chocolate, while purportedly told in monthly segments full of recipes and cooking tips – as befits Tita’s passion for cooking – in fact covers over 20 years of Tita’s life: her love of Pedro; Gertrudis’s escape from the household (another magical realism moment of unquenchable passion that culminates in a naked race into the desert and sex with a stranger on a horse); Mama Elena’s death (and haunting of Tita); and finally Tita and Pedro’s eventual consummation of their passion, only to have Pedro’s orgasm cause his death – upon which Tita, unwilling to let him go, creates her own death, burning the ancestral family ranch to the ground in the process. Does that sound like a lot? That’s not even the half of it!

Like Water for Chocolate is, even more than Tita and Pedro’s story, Tita and Mama Elena’s. Tita is, fundamentally, a creature of her mother’s making: selfless, abused, oppressed, a perfectionist. The first story in the book is about Mama Elena refusing Tita’s heart’s greatest desire, not because Tita is too young or even that Pedro isn’t suitable, but because Mama Elena wants someone to cook her food, draw her baths, and care for her ranch. Like Water for Chocolate is a slowly accelerating burn, lit when Tita is refused Pedro. The book is Tita’s, as she discovers her agency and how to use it, but every action she takes is in reaction to her mother, her mother’s literal ghost, and her mother’s legacy in Rosaura’s beliefs about marriage, dignity, and eventually, her own daughter staying home to care for her.

Mothers are powerful. As we grow into ourselves and our feminism, so much of that growth is in reaction to what we learned from our mothers. Whether we were encouraged on that path. Whether we were told to be selfless and put our mothers, our fathers, our husbands first. Whether we were taught that cooking, cleaning, and sewing were fundamentally about caretaking. Whether we were taught to suppress our passions, physical and otherwise. Whether we were told that we had to be perfect.

Like Water for Chocolate is that book. It’s about a daughter’s journey as a reflection of her mother’s influence. It’s about finding her own agency and her own path–but always in reaction to what she learned from her mother. Tita’s situation is perhaps extreme–as Esquivel likely intended–but even without violence or a boyfriend given to a sister or a ghost, her story will be so familiar to so many of us because Tita’s story is, ultimately, about her boiling point: her rage, her passion, her reclamation that, in the end, is all about burning it all down.

I didn’t read Like Water for Chocolate at 13, but maybe I should have.

Like Water for Chocolate is a quick read. Twelve chapters, one for each month of a figurative year, each with a Mexican recipe important to Tita’s life. Esquivel is primarily a screenwriter, and it shows, as the book does a lot of telling rather than showing. If it were a longer book, perhaps the writing would be a more significant deterrent, but at a very quick 250 pages, it’s worth the time, if only for a moment of contemplation on how much of what we do, even today, is in reaction to our mothers.


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 Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch

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 Book of Joan

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the exchange between reader and writer.

I think we’re taught that if, as a reader, we didn’t connect with a book, it’s the writer’s fault. The writing wasn’t good enough. The story wasn’t true enough. The writer failed. And we, as readers, get to go on our merry way to other books that, maybe, wouldn’t fail us.

And before all the writers start fist-pumping and the readers start thinking that I’ve spit in their tea, there’s a lot of truth in that. Some writing isn’t good enough. Some books aren’t true enough. And while I wouldn’t say that writers necessarily have failed us, sometimes books do.

But sometimes, readers fail, too.

A few years ago, when Sirens tackled “hauntings,” and I read an awful lot of books about ghosts, I ran across a quote from Edith Wharton, herself a great lover of—and writer of—the ghost story: that she was conscious of a “common medium” between author and reader, where the reader actually “meet[s] [the author] halfway among the primeval shadows …” And I, who had been reading all of these ghost stories in sterile hotel rooms with their sterile lighting—which, in no one’s estimation, had any primeval shadows—took a moment to realize that, if I wanted to be scared by ghost stories (I didn’t), then I really should change my reading location (I didn’t). A stormy lamp-lit night might be a better breeding ground for the imagination required to truly appreciate Shirley Jackson than the New York hotel room where I actually read The Haunting of Hill House.

Which is a somewhat ridiculous example because, as many Sirens well know, my interest in ghost stories approaches zero. But this is true in a number of other instances as well. If writing doesn’t engage the reader, maybe it’s not the quality of the writing, but a failure of the reader’s focus. If the book doesn’t seem true to the reader, maybe it’s not the quality of the book, but a failure of the reader to recognize someone else’s truth. Or, you know, maybe it’s just a bad book.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Which brings me to The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch.

Let me start by saying, categorically, that this is not a bad book. It’s a good book. I just had a hard time deciding if it’s a great book.

As a reader, I bounce hard off most sci-fi. It’s not you, sci-fi, it’s me—except dude, it is so often you. Someone asked me recently if I liked The Stars Are Legion, and I made a face and said that, while I respect it greatly (I do) and I think it’s a great book (I do), I also found it very damp. (Not that fantasy can’t be very damp, too.) My best friend tells me that I read the wrong sci-fi; I tell her that the right sci-fi seems somewhat unicorn-ish, not to mix metaphors.

To add insult to injury, I read most of The Book of Joan on a plane (usually fine) seated next to a toddler who very much wanted to talk about his big red truck (somewhat less fine). He was quite well-behaved, given that he was being asked to sit quietly in a seat for four hours. But he was chatty. So, so chatty.

And finally, maybe it wasn’t the right year for me to tackle The Book of Joan, which is fundamentally about, not to put too fine a point on it, the end of the world as we know it, a bossy totalitarian dude, and a Joan of Arc character who is supposed to either end the world or save it (sometimes it’s hard to tell). Maybe this year I could use some more escapism in my escapism?

But, all that said, even taking into account the many, many ways in which I failed The Book of Joan, I think it’s an important book, a good book … but not a great book. Let’s discuss.

Several decades in the future, war has devastated the earth and remaining approximation of humanity—virtually genderless, colorless computer ports—lives in a space station named CIEL. Our first narrator, Christine, has just turned 49, which means she’s a mere twelve months away from being recycled, if you will. As she begins her last year of existence, she also begins what she thinks will be her last act of resistance: telling the story of Joan, literally burning the words onto her own body.

Joan, you see, was the leader, the figurehead, the most visible of the “eco-terrorists,” or alternately the revolutionaries, the losing side in the war. (To the victor go the spoils and also the definitions.) When Joan’s side lost, Jean de Men (seriously), the leader of the winning side, had her burned at the stake—a method suitably flashy and final. Joan’s story remains in the hearts of those who resent Jean’s rule, and Christine intends to take this to the extreme, echoes of Joan’s fiery demise burned into Christine’s post-apocalyptic flesh.

SPOILER

But Joan didn’t die at the stake. Her friend and most constant companion, Leone, saved her, only for the two of them to wander the ravaged planet, alternately avoiding and fighting the other few thousand remaining people. As Joan’s story converges with Christine’s, an uprising, a second apocalypse, a re-birth, if you will, happens—and much is made about how the earth has survived much, though humanity as we know it has not. END SPOILER

The Book of Joan is largely experimental, vaguely feminist, with thinly explained worldbuilding, a non-traditional narrative structure, shifting points of view (made all the more confounding by the fact that both Joan and Christine use “she”), and tenuous timelines. So much of it is, more than anything, resistance-as-performance art, in a Russian nesting doll sort of way, as the climax of the book literally hinges on Christine’s performance art.

And for once—and I may never say this again—I wanted more book with more explanation. I didn’t need more plot, but I did find myself wanting more understanding, more details. How did we turn into neutered, hairless, space-dwelling creatures only a few decades in the future? How did our technology evolve so quickly? How did Leone save Joan from the stake? In many ways, this reads less like sci-fi and more like a religious text that demands that we accept things on faith—which may well be the point.

Which is the (very) long way of saying that, in the end, The Book of Joan worked for me (sometimes) as commentary, as an interrogation of faith and humanity and truth, but rarely worked for me as a story. The sole exception to that, incidentally, was Joan’s relationship with Leone, which gutted me several times, for many of the same reasons that Maddy and Queenie’s relationship in Code Name Verity gutted me. The denouement of The Book of Joan feels right and good and heartbreakingly terrible.


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 Memory Trees by Kali Wallace

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 Memory Trees

Once upon a time, the Sirens theme was “hauntings.” And there were ghosts and spirits and things that go bump in the night. We all read The Haunting of Hill House. We all talked for days about how, for more than a century, women disguised women’s issues as phantoms and shadows and slowly creaking doors. We all learned an awful lot about that liminal space where fantasy meets horror.

But that year, the aspect of “hauntings” that spoke to me was never the ghosts or the spirits or the bump-in-the-night things. Like everyone else, I did read The Haunting of Hill House. I did delve into its use of a supernatural manifestation as a proxy for Eleanor’s boundless mommy issues. I did marvel at Shirley Jackson’s cleverness and defiance. But I also failed to, as Edith Wharton might demand, meet Ms. Jackson “halfway among the primeval shadows”—and I couldn’t figure out why the book was supposed to be scary. After all, aren’t we all used to being undermined, shamed, ordered about? Even if by people who are perhaps more tangible? Is this because I read Hill House in a hotel room in Manhattan? Don’t @ me.

Rather, the part of the “hauntings” theme that resonated with me was the idea of being haunted by something somewhat less spectral: A family rift. A mistake made. A memory half-remembered. And then binding that up in a fantasy world, where magic is yet another, perhaps more limitless, opportunity to explore our more human connections. Such as in Redwood and Wildfire, where there are ghosts, yes, but where Redwood’s haunting is far more profoundly about overcoming her family’s history with slavery and lynching. Or in The Monsters of Templeton, which also did include ghosts, just a bit, but was really about trying to go home again and the roiling, barely-hidden monstrousness that you might find there.

Thus, why I chose to read The Memory Trees by Kali Wallace—and why I think it’s one of the best examples of both a non-ghost hauntings book, but also a fantasy book where the magic and the impossible provide another avenue of exploration. Let me tell you about it.

Sorrow Lovegood lives in Miami with her father and her step-family. But Sorrow has lived there only half her life: She spent her first eight years living with her mother in the matriarchal Lovegood family apple orchard in Vermont … until something terrible happened, something that Sorrow can’t remember, and she ended up in Miami. She has not been to Vermont, or seen her mother or maternal grandmother, since.

Sorrow is a fascinatingly unreliable narrator. Her memories of her first eight years are hazy at best, blank spaces or even false at worst, presumably rendered by the terrible event that precipitated Sorrow’s move to Florida. Even better, Sorrow knows she’s an unreliable narrator. (And even better than that, Wallace avoids the trap of having her heroine, in the fog of her memory, focus single-mindedly on her frustration for several hundred pages.) Sorrow’s unreliability allows, neatly, for both a first-person point-of-view and a mystery to be solved.

Sorrow, driven by her muddled memory, suddenly demands to return to Vermont, to the apple orchard, to the mother and grandmother she hasn’t seen in half her lifetime. And thus, the book truly begins.

Wallace quite cleverly sets, and then frequently twists, the tone of Sorrow’s time in Vermont. Sorrow’s hometown is much like many small American towns, and Sorrow’s return in summer plays, deliberately, on readers’ (presumably) nostalgic memories of their own (presumably) happy vacations in similar towns. But, despite the tourists and the ice cream and the annual town play (focused both hilariously and horrifically on the generations-long feud between the Lovegoods and their neighbors), Sorrow’s time in Vermont is most certainly not a vacation. The more time she spends there, the more she remembers: the orchard’s sometimes uncanny intricacies, the often shocking family history, how suffocating a small town can be—especially when your family is just a bit different. Memory, you can almost hear Wallace assert—perhaps smugly as the reader attempts to deconstruct what is on the page from what their own brains have oh-so-unhelpfully supplied—is a powerful tool.

Much like in The Monsters of Templeton, Wallace sets most of her book in the present, but some of it in the past. Chapters are dedicated to the history of Sorrow’s family, from the point of view of her female ancestors who founded and then held the orchard against the neighboring family’s onslaught). These chapters give the reader insight into the history of Sorrow’s family—and equally importantly, the orchard itself—even as Sorrow begins to (re)learn her own.

In the end, both Sorrow and the reader learn what happened eight years ago, and without spoiling too much, the true lens of the mystery, of Sorrow’s missing memory, of the struggles of her family, both past and present, is grief. Over the course of the book, as she learns pieces of her memory that she has lost and then found, Sorrow’s heart shatters again and again.

The Memory Trees is, in turn, going to shatter your heart. It’s a harrowing portrait of grief, loss, and the very best of what a hauntings book can be—even sans ghosts.


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 Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden

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 Prey of Gods

If you ask me, on any given day, which characteristics I admire in someone (but especially in a woman), ambition will always make my top three. I like people who dream big and bold and bright. I like people who think six impossible things before breakfast. I like people who try to change the world.

And what The Prey of Gods is, more than anything, is ambitious.

Nicky Drayden’s first novel is a science-fiction/fantasy mash-up, a living mythology, an AI fever dream, a breakneck romp to the brink of apocalypse that is also—improbably, shockingly—funny. Nicky Drayden dreamed big and bold and bright, y’all.

We’re in a near-future South Africa: Personal robots abound, the government has scaled renewable energy, genetic engineering is a coveted industry. Yet, vast class and identity striations still exist: Rural villages struggle with basic needs, those personal robots certainly aren’t a societal entitlement, and several of the characters struggle with acceptance of their sexuality or gender presentation. And beneath the surface roil surprising challenges: a new hallucinogen, a sentient AI uprising, and a living goddess who wants (what else?) to take over the world.

In many ways, The Prey of Gods is a smart, cleverly structured Scooby Gang book: a group of seemingly random people, meeting purportedly by happenstance, saves the world. The cleverness here is taking those seemingly random people, most of whom don’t know each other at the beginning of the book—and one, for heaven’s sake, that speaks only binary at the beginning of the book—and constructing a plot that brings these people, with their unique talents, together at the right time to save the world. Drayden will see your Buffy-style these-are-my-friends Scooby Gang and raise you a cast-of-strangers Scooby Gang.

Toward that end, The Prey of Gods features six—count ‘em, six—point-of-view characters of different races, different sexualities, different genders, and different classes.

  • Muzi: a queer teenaged boy who can control minds and who is in (not-yet-confessed) love with his best friend
  • Nomvula: a ten-year-old girl with impossible powers that she doesn’t know how to control, who destroys her entire village early in the book
  • Wallace Stoker: a city councilman on the rise whose feminine alter ego is still secret
  • Riya Natrajan: a world-famous pop star with issues of her own, not the least of which is her physical relationship with her drug dealer
  • This Instance/Clever 4-1: a personal robot whose first thought is to worry about Muzi, and whose second thought is to worry about the fact that it’s worried
  • Sydney: the current incarnation of an ancient demigoddess

The Prey of Gods also features 59—count ‘em, 59—chapters in only 377 pages.

Hang on, I’ll do the math for you: That averages out to 6.39 pages per chapter, and 62.83 pages per point-of-view character. And I’m deeply conflicted about those numbers.

On one hand, The Prey of Gods reads like an accelerant. Those short chapters, their cliffhanger endings, and the constantly shifting points of view combine to make this read very much like the world is on fire. The pacing lends a highly skilled immediacy to the book, especially as you see the pieces start to come together.

On the other hand, I usually struggle with multiple points-of-view books, and I found the sheer number of point-of-view characters in The Prey of Gods and the constantly shifting viewpoints to be a huge challenge as a reader. In the end, I didn’t end up identifying with or liking or wanting to know more about most of the point-of-view characters. (Though I liked the robot a lot. Like, a lot a lot.) And I’m trying to reconcile that with the fact that there are characters with whom I’ve spent fewer pages (say, in short stories) that I love and why, in a larger work, 62.83 pages was so wholly insufficient. (I also really liked the drug dealer and he’s hardly on the page!)

So where I come out is this: I greatly, deeply admire Drayden’s ambition. To envision a realistic world, set in the near future, that includes both sentient AI and a living mythology, and then to envision that world saved by an almost random group of often-marginalized people is an act born of tremendous ambition. The Prey of Gods is smart and funny and inclusive—and if you’re looking for someone doing something different and aspirational and clever in the speculative space, this is it. But I also found that the execution kept me, as a reader, too far removed from the characters themselves. In a world of sentient AI, the fact that I liked the robot far and away the most of anyone perhaps means that Drayden’s characters were not, in the end, quite human enough.


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.

 

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