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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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

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

Children of Blood and Bone

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

Book Club: Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey

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

Miranda and Caliban

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

I wasn’t.

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

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

Or something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy
 


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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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.

 

Read Along with Faye: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

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

As someone who works in the publishing industry, I know a few things about what it takes to make a big book. Particularly, a big, popular, bestselling YA book. Have a fast-paced, competently plotted manuscript. Include elements that are immensely popular at the time: dystopias, revolutions, mythical creatures, love triangles, school stories, settings in Ancient Rome or Ancient Persia, athletic tournaments, an “edgy” quality. Have a spec’d out, shiny, eye-catching cover. Take an engaging author, and put her in front of gatekeepers and teens. Send plenty of early copies out for review. Time those ads, promotions and media pitches. Get buy-in from major accounts. Make sure that around the time of on-sale, anyone interested in YA, fantasy, or buying books sees this book everywhere.

I saw An Ember in the Ashes everywhere when it first came out. The book is wildly successful, with healthy sales, widespread media coverage, a full trilogy planned, and a movie deal. It is good to muse on why certain books do so well, so that the success can be replicated for other books. But this is, alas, not a campaign analysis. It’s a review.

I can easily see the strengths of An Ember in the Ashes: I read it in one huge gulp, eager to keep flipping the pages and find out what happened next. At the start of the book, Laia’s family is murdered and her brother is taken to prison; in order to save him, she ends up spying on the most ruthless, dangerous person in the empire—the Commandant, the head of the military training academy—who maims loved ones to discipline those who displease her. Despite my general indifference towards reluctant heroines, I like that Laia’s resistance isn’t flashy nor does she have any experience whatsoever at spying—she’s no Alianne of Pirate’s Swoop. She is insecure about her abilities, yet does everything she can to survive. Laia’s relationships, too, with her fellow slaves Izzi and Cook, are refreshing.

But, as someone who has read a lot of fantasy, a lot of YA, and a lot of fantasy YA that has this book’s basic premise, it’s disappointing. Absent are worldbuilding details that go beyond surface-level, most notably linguistic ones: The Martial Empire conquered the Scholar people (those are the names in the book), with a glimpse of tribes and magical creatures such as djinn, efrits, and ghuls; the military academy’s name is Blackcliff, there’s a character named Keenan. I know the Roman Empire reached the land of the Celts, but this struck me as far more modern than the historic era presented in the book. Absent is a consideration of technology—we know the Martials have steel, but that’s about all. Magic exists only to serve specific plot points or to deus ex machina a way out of a tricky situation. Absent, too, is a thoughtful contemplation of colonialism, and how resistance movements might actually gain steam and succeed.

But perhaps, I’m completely mistaken. Perhaps, you could argue, the main audience for this book doesn’t care about these details. But, as a reader who sees An Ember in the Ashes widely lauded for its worldbuilding, I think teens can and do recognize these failings. It bothers me when people cast down YA fantasy for being more simplistic and less rigorous than adult fantasy, with worldbuilding just the backdrop for the kissing, the angst, and the feelings.

I won’t even begin to touch on the eyeroll-inducing romantic subplots, particularly the—what does one call this? A love parallelogram?—where there are two simultaneous love triangles involving the two main characters. What troubled me most is the constant threat of violence against women, so ubiquitous that it practically becomes background noise, and the suggestion in writing by a sympathetic character that a girl’s chances of getting raped are directly correlated to how attractive she is. Contrasted starkly with the rather chaste romantic developments—there’s some dancing, and one consensual kiss—it leaves the reader with absolutely no examples of sex-positivity in this book.

Finally, as much as I did like elements of Laia’s point of view, An Ember in the Ashes also features the perspective of Elias, a privileged guy and the eventual love interest. I do think Tahir succeeded in that she captured Elias’s melodrama and whininess (really, he thinks that absolutely no one else in this rigid military academy thinks the way he does?) to a tee. The problem is, I think the reader is supposed to like him, and I would have much preferred his best friend Helene’s narration. As racist as Helene is, you don’t get to be the only girl in a generation to train at this fancy military school and not question some stuff, even if your one big failing is falling in love with an anguished privileged dude who thinks only he can save the Empire.

For me, there are too many books that do this age group, genre, and premise better. I recommend turning to Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives instead, which didn’t break out in the same way but improves on my complaints in An Ember in the Ashes on nearly every count. But I’m only one reader, and given the immense success of these books, there are plenty of readers who disagree.

Next month’s book: Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann


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

 

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.

 

Read Along with Faye: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

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

What can I say about a book that’s won every accolade there is, including this year’s National Book Award?

Well, if you know me, you know I have an opinion on just about everything. I had the great fortune of convincing my local book club to read Sing, Unburied, Sing with me this month, and I confess I wouldn’t have picked it up—at least not for a long time—if it weren’t for peer pressure. The consensus of my book club was that, while none of us particularly considered it a book of our hearts, we were all glad we’d read it.

I’m very selective of my capital-L literary fiction, which I consider a bogus genre. To me, categorizing a book as literary means that hegemonic tastemakers have decided certain books are important and worthy of acclaim, and they’re not usually books I love. As an avid reader of fantasy, romance, and books written for children and young adults, I’m not impressed with Sing, Unburied, Sing’s widespread media coverage and fancy awards. I’m impressed with its lyrical, economical prose, its somewhat archetypal but expertly drawn characters, and its deft handling of the many challenges plaguing black communities in the rural south.

Set in rural Mississippi, Sing, Unburied, Sing centers around one family and two point-of-view characters: thirteen-year-old Jojo and his mother, Leonie. Jojo and his toddler sister Kayla are biracial, as Leonie is black, and his absent, incarcerated father Michael is white. He lives with his grandparents Mam and Pop; Leonie struggles to be a good mother but is too-often stymied by her drug addiction. Like many young black boys in his situation, Jojo has had to grow up quickly. His Mam is ill. His mother is an inconsistent influence in his life—when she’s there, she’s impulsive and often physically abusive. His paternal grandfather, Big Joseph after whom Jojo was named, refuses to even acknowledge his existence. The only father-figure Jojo has is Pop, who tells him stories of a young boy, Richie, whom he protected like a younger brother while they were both imprisoned in the Mississippi State Penitentiary decades before.

What follows is a relatively straightforward tale in terms of plot—when Leonie receives word that Michael is about to be released from prison, she rounds up Jojo and Kayla and drives there to pick him up—but so richly complex in atmosphere, theme, and detail. The novel begins with Jojo assisting Pop in gutting a goat, with unravelling innards and a smell to make anyone retch, and proceeds to Leonie’s meth-induced hallucinations. In Jojo’s, Leonie’s and occasionally Richie’s perspectives, the novel weaves together devastating truths about family, domestic violence, drug addiction, police brutality, the disproportionate incarceration of black men, prison conditions, and the most hateful kind of racism and cruelty inflicted on the young. And ghosts, who only appear after violent death: the kind that Richie experienced fleeing from prison, and the kind that Leonie’s brother Given experienced, being shot by Michael’s white cousin after beating him at a game. It tells these truths with gorgeous writing that feels emotionally detached in the way that you sometimes need to be, when you are wearied by generations of pain and loss. At the same time, Ward’s writing is so deeply empathetic, never making a clear villain of Leonie or even Michael, choosing to show the reader the various ways they are trapped in their circumstances but never absolving them of blame.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not well-read in the literary lineage Sing, Unburied, Sing descends from—I’ve read Beloved and some of Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographical work, but I know I have a gap. I’m not familiar with voodoo practices or Maman Brigitte, so there were parts of the book where I was actively confused. Was it magic, or was it a spiritual practice I don’t know? I had pointed out to me Ward’s deft use of imagery common in the shared imagination of African Americans, such as trees for lynchings or water symbolism alluding to the Middle Passage. My friend, a scholar of 20th century African American literature, says it’s an easy book to plop on a syllabus, since the lineages can be clearly traced. (There is a Beloved-like reveal near the end of the book, which, even if I knew about, I still would not have been ready for.)

Sing, Unburied, Sing also forced me to consider Hauntings as a theme, which I hadn’t fully engaged with back in 2014. I’d written off ghost stories as horror—perhaps revealing my failures as a reader, as I’m not well-read in that lineage either—but I now better understand the power of a ghost story. Why do ghosts come back to haunt? What compels them to attach to a person, or a place? In Ward’s novel, it’s the unburied voices of those unjustly killed, singing enraged songs of retribution and unrest, and seeking the peace they never found in life.

Next month’s book: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir


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

 

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.

 

Read Along with Faye: The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

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

We’re back, Read Along! January was cold (insert your favorite bomb cyclone pun here), it was dark (it’s finally still daylight when I leave the office, but barely), and it was bloated with the aftermath of rich holiday food and the promise of reading resolutions. I thought we would ease our way into this year’s challenge with Isabel Greenberg’s brilliant, irreverent, pure delight of a graphic novel, The One Hundred Nights of Hero. It’s perfect for long winter nights in a cozy reading chair and a big mug of tea, and it won’t take long to read—perhaps a few glorious hours if you can prevent yourself from being transfixed by every page—and it will be so worth your time to go back and savor it all over again.

The title alone might have you believe this is an homage to Scheherazade, and it is, in a way. The prologue starts almost more ambitiously: with the god BirdMan (gendered male, mansplainer extraordinaire, whom fans of Greenberg’s previous work The Encyclopedia of Earth may recognize) messing with a perfectly good thing a woman has created. In this case, it’s Earth, which was created by his daughter, Kiddo. She’s fascinated by these perfect humans she’s made, who grow up, eat, sleep, love, and eventually die. But of course, BirdMan, a foil for a certain kind of blowhard every woman knows, decides that Kiddo’s Earth is boring and that the humans should worship him instead. So he creates religion, which leads to disciples (who are . . . you guessed it, dudes) called the Beak Brothers and by the time the main story starts, Earth is a weird medieval theocracy-dystopia ruled by the patriarchy. Sigh.

It is in this world that the heart of the story begins. Two dudes, real POS dudes, decide (of course!) that they should have a bet. Manfred bets Jerome that he can seduce Jerome’s wife Cherry while Jerome is away for hundred days. Jerome is like “omg no way, my wife is way too faithful, she’s the pinnacle of purity blah blah let’s compare dick sizes” (not an actual quote) but needless to say, they make this bet and Manfred starts his quest. Little does he know that Cherry is totally in love with her maid, Hero, who is part of the League of Secret Storytellers. Hero does the Scheherazade thing where she saves Cherry from Manfred’s advances each night by weaving a tale he’s desperate to hear the end of. And Manfred, because he’s a cocky dude, just goes, “oh, well I’ll just rape Cherry the next night, no biggie” (also not an actual quote) except this happens for all the nights until Jerome comes home, because Hero lives up to her name.

There’s so much more I could say about Hero’s stories. They’re lovingly illustrated, and Greenberg draws from folklore, mythology, ballads, and fairytales. There’s the story based loosely on the Twelve Dancing Princesses, one based on the child ballad Two Sisters, and one where a man falls in love with the moon and she just goes, “Oh, well I’m the moon. What did you expect besides heartbreak?” (still not an actual quote). Stories of women who lived their lives defiantly, despite jealousy, rage, forbidden love, and accusations of witchcraft; stories of super brilliant, crafty women who find ways to resist and fight back against the oppression they’re expected to endure; stories of “brave women who don’t take shit from anyone” (actual quote). Stories of women who paid for it.

There’s a kind of dark humor and light sadness Greenberg’s gorgeous book portrays in the fantastical, whimsical illustrations. Her the dark line art and limited palette aren’t unlike those of Emily Carroll or Kate Beaton, but I find Hero and Cherry’s clapbacks harder and funnier. And yet for me, there’s so much truth to these stories not-so-buried under the rapid-fire witticisms each page offers, like these gems (all actual quotes): “Lesson: Men are false. And they can get away with it. Also, don’t murder your sister, even by accident. Sisters are important.” And “Whatever we say will make no difference. Our fates are set. They always were.” And my favorite, “No, I’m not finished yet. I’ve had quite enough of staying quiet thank you very much (sic).”

I won’t say too much about the ending, but Hero and Cherry live in a dystopia, and things don’t always turn out the best for women who dare to dream beyond the confines of their societal roles. Still, their actions and legacy spark something greater-a storytelling revolution among the women of this weird beaky world.

It’s hard to imagine another book that speaks as strongly to Sirens’s themes as The One Hundred Nights of Hero. Present in it are lovers, revolutionaries, many tales retold, various women who work magic, and probably more if I think about it hard enough. Save it for a particularly tiresome day when you’ve had enough of, oh, everything, and you need to rail against another ridiculous, unconscionable patriarchal standard. Or read it again, using Hero and Cherry’s strength as a balm when you need to feel inspired and a little less helpless about the world. You won’t regret it.

Next month’s book: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward


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

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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