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Read Along with Faye: Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter

 Vassa in the Night

Read Along with Faye is back for the 2017 Sirens Reading Challenge! Each month, Sirens communications staff member Faye Bi will review and discuss a book on her journey to read the requisite 25 books to complete the challenge. Titles will consist of this year’s Sirens theme of women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. We invite you to join us and read along!

On paper, Sarah Porter’s Vassa in the Night should be my cup of very strongly brewed Russian tea. I love reimagined fairy tales, learning about Russian folklore, and gorgeous prose. I especially love books set in cities, and Vassa in the Night starts and ends in the gritty, non-gentrified parts of Brooklyn that do not yet have overpriced cafes and clothing stores with distressed jeans. I would even say that I do weird fairly well—though this is level of weird is somewhere between Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s short stories and Sarah McCarry’s All Our Pretty Songs.

Porter’s novel begins with teenager Vassa, living in a Brooklyn apartment with two stepsisters Stephanie and Chelsea. She has a magical doll, Erg, who talks, demands to be fed, and protects Vassa at all costs. The nights have begun stretching longer and longer, and one night, Vassa comes home to all the light bulbs broken. Stephanie, the mean stepsister, manages to cajole/convince/manipulate Vassa into going to the most dangerous bodega of all time called BY’s to pick up some light bulbs. BY’s is a neighborhood death trap—people go in, get framed for stealing (with the aid of dismembered hands and other body parts sneakily dropping in goods in customers’ pockets) and then get literally beheaded with their heads propped up on a stake to discourage future thieving. Except BY’s is run by Babs Yagg, an incarnation of Baba Yaga, and all the cops look the other way because BY’s is located in a neighborhood where poor people live and no one could possibly care about, plus it keeps their numbers down.

Here’s where I find out that Vassa in the Night follows the Russian folktale “Vassilisa the Beautiful” fairly faithfully, which I did not know much about going in but read up on after the fact. Had I known that, would I have felt delight instead of confusion? Predictably, Babs tries to frame Vassa for stealing, but with the help of Erg and some magical bartering, Vassa agrees to work for Babs for three nights in the store. The magic that follows is deftly updated for a modern retelling, with Vassa learning more about Babs’s past as well as her own, as well as how to win her freedom (and the freedom of other imprisoned entities).

Vassa in the Night is dark and poetic, and Porter doesn’t shy away from ruthless, gruesome detail. The scenes in which Erg is choked up within flesh, or the very thorough hacking and dismemberment of one of Vassa’s classmates, can’t be understated. Porter went there and did so fearlessly. At the same time, there are passages of such beauty and clarity, like when Babs scolds Vassa for using moral terms like “good” and “right” versus “bad” and “wrong,” and the physical manifestation of Erg as a metaphor for Vassa’s loneliness is simply breathtaking.

But yet, there was something I wasn’t getting. Despite being set in a non-gentrified neighborhood, I wasn’t able to detect much immigrant mentality or class struggle anywhere in the text, though someone with more experience reading Russian literature could speak more to this. The dream sequences were confusing, the stakes were high, and with the exception of one scene with Vassa’s classmates trying to “game” the store, the characters didn’t speak strongly to me. It’s hard for me to describe Vassa or Babs—both felt like fairy tale characters in the abstract, as did Tomin (categorically good) or Stephanie (evil enough to want to send her step-sister to near certain death). I almost wish we spent a little bit of time with Vassa at school, so those relationships could crystalize, or at home with her stepmother Ilissa, though Stephanie and Chelsea do get more airtime. The bulk of the book is Vassa in the store. It feels weird to admit this, but the character I felt most connected to was Dexter, the dismembered hand, who does Babs’s dirty work but later repents for it.

With that said, the ending of Vassa in the Night is delightfully subversive, with Vassa reuniting with the only family member who cares about her—her stepsister Chelsea! I wish we got more of the Vassa-Chelsea relationship, since how many fairy tale retellings have you read about stepsisters who get along?

 


 
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.
 

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B Reviews Guests: Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova

We’re excited to share a mini-series of posts by friend of Sirens, B R Sanders, who will be reviewing books by this year’s Guests of Honor. We’ll post one of each of B’s reviews during our featured Guest of Honor weeks. First up is Labyrinth Lost!

Labyrinth Lost is a quick, rich read. It is fast-paced and brimming with imagination. The book starts in Brooklyn, but quickly shifts to the netherworld of Los Lagos. In doing so, Córdova immerses the reader in the splendor and the weirdness of bruja magic. The story has an episodic, questing feel that is comfortable and familiar, but updated by the sharp banter between the three leads: Alex, Nova, and Rishi.

The emotional stakes in the book remain high throughout—it helps that they are grounded in excellent character development. Alex grows immensely throughout the book, moving from a scared, insular girl to a self-possessed and confident person. She owns her mistakes and understands why she made them, which is the heart of growing up. For a coming-of-age story, this kind of growth from the protagonist is key to get the story to work. Nova borders on the edge of too heartbreaking—he is one more tragedy away from caricature, especially contrasted with Alex’s intact and loving family. As his exculpatory tragedies unfurl, I was left with more questions than answers.

Rishi, on the other hand, is both a breath of fresh air and a cipher. She is an outsider in all respects: the only one among the trio not from bruja culture, the only one not Latinx. Rishi is dragged into this bizarre situation purely through her worry for Alex and her innate curiosity. Yet, she is the most one-dimensional of the three leads. I wanted her character to be more than “Supportive Almost Girlfriend,” but really that’s what she is. She has very little interiority of her own; nothing about the surreal nature of Los Lagos or the many, many reveals about Alex shocks or fazes her. I kept expecting a twist or a reveal about Rishi, but nothing came. Just more devotion. But devotion is not character development.

Still, I enjoyed Labyrinth Lost. I enjoyed its scope, and its intimacy, and I look forward to the next book in the Brooklyn Brujas series. If you’re looking for a queer-friendly book full of wit and magic with where the worldbuilding and cast is steeped in Latinx culture, definitely pick up Labyrinth Lost. This is not a diverse cast for the sake of being diverse; this is a diverse cast where the story and the people are rooted in their culture, history and future.
 


 
B R Sanders is a white, genderqueer speculative fiction writer who lives and works in Denver, Colorado, with their family and two cats. Outside of writing, B has worked as a research psychologist, a labor organizer and a K–12 public education data specialist. They write about queer elves, mostly.

 

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Book Club: The Forbidden Wish by Jessica Khoury

The Forbidden Wish

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!

Several months ago, I read three young adult books in a row. No, I’m not telling you what they were, but yes, I did actually read all of them cover to cover. Unhappily for me, all of those books bugged me in exactly the same way, despite being very different books. And thanks to that unfortunate luck of the draw, now I have a new pet peeve as a reader: books set in historic or quasi-historic time periods, where women are supposed to want to get married and settle down and have babies and be silentand the feminism in these books can be summed up, more or less, as “I want to wear pants!” Sometimes there’s also an element of “And marry whom I want!” or “And have a career!” or “And work magic!” But there is, assuredly, always a desire to wear pants.

I’m not knocking pants. (Though pants became decidedly less attractive when people started adding pockets and shorts to skirts.) But I am struggling with this especially YA brand of feminism that seems to crop up in novels set in past time periods (or their fantastic equivalents), where we seem to stop at wearing pants (and maybe not getting married or working a spell or two). If Margaret Atwood can create a world in which women, yes, want to wear pants and still add something new and exciting and profound to feminist discourse, OMG, so can you! (I say while acknowledging that, obviously, not everyone wants to do that. Authors, write the books you want!)

More recently, I read a book — or, well, I tried to read a book. I didn’t get very far, and certainly not far enough to discover if it was actually a re-telling of Aladdin. But in the first 50 pages, there were a lamp, a jinni, and the usual panoply of accompanying characters (terrible master, fiery ifrit, and so forth). And the jinni was a girl.

Unfortunately for, well, everyone, this book went directly where you might have, maybe thirty years ago, expected this book to go: a slave girl in Hollywood, forced to dress in revealing clothing, forced to succumb to her male master’s sexual advances. Which would all be fine, maybe, if the book had had some level of awareness of its own racism and misogyny and had, maybe, bothered to deconstruct them. But it didn’t. And that book is no longer in this house.

I tell you all of this not to slag off on books, but so you will understand my recently developed reluctance to read The Forbidden Wish by Jessica Khoury. The Forbidden Wish is a re-telling of Aladdin. It has a female jinni. (She does wear pants sometimes.) She lives in a lamp. She falls in love with Aladdin. There is kissing and what, if not for the interruption, might have been intercourse.

Do you see the problem? As I opened this book, my feminism shrieked, “Why are you doing this to meeeeeeee?”

But I also tell you all of this as context. When authors put problematic tropes on the page, they have a choice: How deep do they want to go? In 2017, are you going to present a girl whose greatest wish is to don pants? Or a jiini who is a sex slave? Or are you going to present those tropes and then deconstruct their misogyny, their racism, their homophobia, their ableism?

The Forbidden Wish begins, more or less, with Aladdin discovering a jinni’s lamp. This is not your children’s Aladdin, though. When Aladdin rubs the lamp, a girl appears — and Aladdin uses his first wish to escape from the privileged son of the grand vizier who has followed him into the desert. Whatever. Aladdin’s a useful tool to get the jinni, Zahra, out of her cave, but he’s perhaps the least interesting part of this book.

Khoury is aces at a couple things. The Forbidden Wish is told from Zahra’s point of view — which is awesome, because we get to live in the head of this smart, assertive, earthshaking jinni for all 340 pages. (No sequels!) She’s out of her lamp for the first time in 500 years. She’s helping Aladdin achieve a position where he can exact revenge for the murder of his revolutionary parents. Oh, and she’s also made a deal with the King of the Jinn: If she can free his son from a lamp, she can have her freedom. And that deal may, or may not, be in conflict with Aladdin’s goals…

Khoury’s also a terrific world-builder. Parthenia, Aladdin’s city, seethes with violence and corruption, as the grand vizier cruelly puts down revolution in the name of the dottering king. The palace, by contrast, is lush, romantic, full of marvelous reader delights (the elephant!). This is where Caspida, the king’s daughter and sort-of betrothed to the grand vizier’s son, plots to help her people. Khoury is an evocative writer, and much like the work of Heidi Heilig, you’ll want to spend more time in her world. (No sequels!)

But here’s the problem: The Forbidden Wish is focused, almost of the exclusion of everything else, on Zahra’s budding romantic relationship with Aladdin. Which is troubling because their relationship is born of her slavery. Not only is Zahra bound when they meet (and, in fact, they meet only because Zahra is bound), but she remains bound as their relationship blooms. Zahra is compelled by the magical rules of the world to grant Aladdin three wishes, not to mention appear when commanded, go back to the lamp when commanded, and stay within 149 steps of the lamp. Despite all that, Khoury attempts to write their relationship as consensual — but never does she address, in any sort of meaningful way, the power disparity inherent in their relationship.

SPOILER: All that said, there is a piece of this book that’s terrific: Zahra’s relationship with the ruling family of Parthenia. 500 years before the story begins, she was great friends with the warrior-queen (and wow, that jeweled garden set piece). Without telling you what happened, since that is a huge part of the mystery of Zahra, that world — and Zahra’s relationship with the queen — was destroyed. Late in The Forbidden Wish, Caspida, that warrior-queen’s descendent in both blood and temperament, comes into possession of the lamp. I want that book. The book of two fierce, brilliant girls trying to figure out how to help people, that asks questions of power. But by the time Caspida gets the lamp, Zahra’s already in love with Aladdin, so we have to go save the boy.

Amy
 


 
Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling content distribution and intellectual property transactions for an entertainment company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and seven 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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Book Club: Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson

Sister Mine

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!

I like weird books.

A few of you know this first-hand, because every year I press weird books on you at Sirens with a rapturous, “You have to read this. It’s brilliant.” But for most of you, this might seem strange: The single fastest way to get me to pick up a book is to say, “I dunno. It’s weird?”

One of my happiest things as a reader is when a book surprises me. It doesn’t happen often. I read a lot of fantasy literature and, let’s just say that maybe it’s only when you’ve read huge swaths of the genre that you start to realize how derivative or unoriginal or predictable so many books are.

But weird books surprise me often. Perhaps it’s their casual-at-best attachment to traditional storytelling structure. Or their appreciation of metaphor, the absurd, that last bit left untold. Maybe a narrative voice that’s unreliable or unusually distinct. An awkwardness in a character or a setting ever-so-slightly askew. As a reader, I delight in being kept slightly off-balance.

I used to joke that there was no fantasy book too weird for me: I’ve delighted in a book comprised of vignettes based on women and monsters, in which a (friendly!) sasquatch penis featured prominently. I’ve exulted in a haunted house book, where the denouement is the house’s eating the protagonist. I’ve happily devoured a book that reads half like Machiavelli and half like a fairy tale, and that had no discernable ending. My favorite Angela Slatter story is about a world-class coffin-maker who poisons people, my favorite book so far this year about a cannibal chef to the gods.

I did discover, though, only last year, that I had to stop telling people that no book was too weird for me. I’d read a stack of short story collections, each stranger than the last, and wow, there are definitely books too weird even for me. (Please tell me which of you are my bookstore demographic seeking “books too weird even for Amy”!) At some point, I stumble from delight to confusion to discomfort to uncaring. It’s just that my delight goes a really, really long way.

Which is as good an introduction as any to Sister Mine, by Nalo Hopkinson.

I’m going to tell you what Sister Mine is about and you’re going to think, “Hell, that’s not so weird. I once read a story where a girl got pregnant from a pot-bellied stove.” (That is, incidentally, an actual, quite fabulous story.) But I’m here to tell you that, while the premise here may seem commonplace enough, the execution of this book is weird.

Let’s get to it.

Makeda has had enough, thank you very much. Tired of being hen-pecked to death by her more talented twin, she stalks off to find an apartment of her own, abandoning both her family home and her fraught relationship with her twin.

That is, of course, the same plot as a thousand books: unhappy family member flounces off to make a life of their own. But, of course, not all families are magic.

Makeda and her twin, Abby, are born of a godly father and a human mother. Their father’s family, pissed at the fraternization with a mortal, enact severe punishments: their father becomes a mortal, their mother a sea monster in Lake Ontario. And by the way, Makeda and Abby were conjoined twins, separated shortly after birth, an operation in which Abby lost part of a leg, while Makeda lost her mojo (think of that as her magic, her connection with her father’s family’s spirit world).

With their mother in Lake Ontario and their father a fragile human, the girls are left with each other for comfort, for antagonizing, for troubleshooting. (That comfort, by the way, includes twinsex.) And as I mentioned, as the book opens, Makeda has left Abby, off to find a place of her own.

The plot spirals out from there, bogged down in a number of subplots that may or may not become important later on. (Pay particular attention to the haint stalking Makeda.) In fact, in many ways, the subplots distract from and even suffocate the plot itself, including a sharp turn into a surprise focus in the third act.

Perhaps the most notable piece of the book is Nalo’s setting: mostly black characters in an urban Toronto infused with Caribbean folklore. As always, her dialogue is exquisite: her vocabulary, her vernacular, her speech patterns all carefully considered, conveying thousands of layers more than the same dialogue in another author’s hands.

Will you like it? How weird do you like your books? Because this one – while perhaps not as inaccessible as other work by Nalo – is weird. Nalo pushes the boundaries of what we find normal or acceptable behavior by a woman, all while making Makeda entirely sympathetic. Who hasn’t had family squabbles? Who cares if this family is divine? Who hasn’t been chased by a haint? Or had a mother turned into a sea monster? You see where I’m going with this… Nalo takes the ordinary and, through use of language, absurdity, and fable, turns it into the extraordinary, and that extraordinary is very weird, indeed.

Amy
 


 
Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling content distribution and intellectual property transactions for an entertainment company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and seven 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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Read Along with Faye: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker

The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic

Read Along with Faye is back for the 2017 Sirens Reading Challenge! Each month, Sirens communications staff member Faye Bi will review and discuss a book on her journey to read the requisite 25 books to complete the challenge. Titles will consist of this year’s Sirens theme of women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. We invite you to join us and read along!

What I love about the Reading Challenge is that it forces me to read outside my preferences, and I’m pushed to discover works by authors I’ve never read before. Most of the time I’m delighted. But occasionally in the case of Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, I encounter a book that simply doesn’t suit me.

When I read critically, there are parts of my brain I can’t shut off. Like, the “I love and have read a lot of fantasy” part. Or the “I’m a huge nerd and proud of it” part. Or the particularly large “I read everything through an intersectional feminist lens” part. The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic made all these parts of my brain flash warning signs, coupled with the fact that it was a long, 600-page tome that’s also a (surprise!) first of a series.

The novel starts off with our twenty-something protagonist, Nora Fischer, an English graduate student whose life is falling apart. Her thesis advisor tells her that she’s under performing and about to be put on academic probation, and her recent ex-boyfriend of several years has just invited her to his destination wedding to another gal. Because of um, masochism, Nora chooses to attend, but wanders off to an isolated part of the mountains and meets Ilissa, a glamourous faerie queen (she’s not called that, but that’s basically what she is. Surprise! Faeries!). Ilissa takes Nora on Henry Higgins-style and introduces her to a dazzling new world of beautiful people and parties, including her gorgeous faerie prince son Raclin.

Of course, because faeries are selfish monsters and treat humans as their playthings, everything turns to shit pretty quickly and Nora finds herself stuck in an alternate world where (surprise!) magic exists. The novel moves from a portal fantasy to attempt to be a pseudo-Western Europe medieval fantasy saga with politics and intrigue. With the help of the magician Arundiel, a Mr. Darcy-like character with a brooding past, Nora escapes the clutches of Ilissa and Raclin and tries to learn magic to get back to her real world.

I read somewhere that this is Emily Croy Barker’s debut novel. It borrows heavily from The Chronicles of Narnia, Pride & Prejudice, and despite Nora’s near-constant disparagement of nerd culture, Harry Potter. I found it oddly structured, with very little character growth and it dabbled in a lot of fantasy tropes without understanding or respect to their origins. Was there a reason Croy Barker’s magical world had to be built on Western Europe? It should be no surprise that patriarchy exists in the fantasy realm, but it felt like it these limitations were created just so Nora could rail against them in a burst of feminist credibility (ignoring that her burgeoning crush on Arundiel overshadows the fact that he killed his former wife).

But moreover, I found Nora to be incredibly unlikable, in a way that I’m not sure the author intended. I found her feminism problematic (the casual way she dismisses her accomplished thesis advisor: “Last fall, in a single semester, she had produced both [a] baby and a book on sexual ambiguity in Dickens”). She comes from a privileged upbringing if academic probation and her ex-boyfriend marrying another drives her to frolic among the faeries. And despite the title calling Nora a “thinking woman,” she hardly analyzes anything critically, instead remaining passive for the bulk of the story.

But your mileage may vary! If you like reluctant heroines, this book might be for you. Readers new to fantasy might not mind the varying structure and treatment of tropes. If you can stomach unlikable protagonists like Quentin from The Magicians, you may have the patience to put up with Nora. And it can be occasionally funny. The one laugh-out-loud scene from the book was when Arundiel helps Nora deliver a message to her younger sister from fantasy world to the real world, and Nora’s sister looks at him and cries, “…Snape?” Yeah, it’s that kind of book. Now onto the next!

 


 
Faye Bi works as a book publicist 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.
 

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Read Along with Faye: Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Bayou Magic

Read Along with Faye is back for the 2017 Sirens Reading Challenge! Each month, Sirens communications staff member Faye Bi will review and discuss a book on her journey to read the requisite 25 books to complete the challenge. Titles will consist of this year’s Sirens theme of women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. We invite you to join us and read along!

Jewell Parker Rhodes once wrote that, despite not being from the area, “Louisiana profoundly stirs my heart, mind, and spirit.” This sums up my feeling as well, despite having only visited once—and too briefly, at that. Her Bayou Magic so strongly evokes a sense of place: the humidity and swampiness of the bayou, the aroma of Cajun spices and stews, the layers of family dynamics atop a multitude of geographies, religions and immigrant histories, the very real economic and environmental concerns of oil spills, and of course, magic.

As the youngest of four sisters, it’s ten-year-old Maddy’s turn to have a bayou summer with her Grandmere Lavalier, hours away from her family home in New Orleans. The people of the bayou have been waiting for her. Grandmere (or Queenie as she’s known) is famed for her magical abilities, and she’s picked Maddy to carry on her legacy. And it is indeed a magical summer. Rhodes sets Maddy’s journey of self-discovery against winking fireflies, menacing gators and fantastic food, and Maddy has some great interactions with the vibrant, diverse cast of locals. She and Bear, an eleven-year-old boy, become fast and adorable friends. Better yet, Maddy glimpses Mami Wata, a mermaid only she can see—which Rhodes reworked from an African diaspora folktale in a way that’s beautiful, unsettling and powerful.

It’s really hard not to love Bayou Magic. There’s just so much goodness and atmosphere, with some heartbreaking family moments (Bear and his father, for instance, keep reappearing in my mind), and is there anything better than the grandmother-granddaughter relationship that Rhodes has become known for? In the end, Maddy is a heroine easy to cheer for as she discovers her powers to save the bayou from environmental disaster. Spoiler alert: the book is set the same summer as the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

If there was one criticism, it’s that Bayou Magic is paced a little unevenly, because two-thirds through I did realize that there was a plot, and the resolution to the environmental conflict was fairly unsubtle. But it’s so easily forgivable for its wonderful themes and powerful setting. Read it, give it to your friends, and give it to your friends’ kids. Definitely read it out loud. And for black children in the United States, I’m so glad this book exists.
 


 
Faye Bi works as a book publicist 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.
 

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Book Club: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

The Girl Who Drank the Moon

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!

What do you think it is about fairy tales?

Are we taught to like them, do you think? Taught to think they’re important? Taught to think that, even with magical pumpkins and glass slippers, your window to snare your one true love is fleeting? That even if you give up your voice and spend your days walking on knives, a short-lived affair is reasonable recompense? That you might be curious, but if you’re too curious, death awaits. Fairy tales: where you really do start someone’s daughter, only to grow into someone’s wife and, if you’re lucky, someone’s mother. Except that you aren’t really lucky, are you? Because your husband will probably abandon your kids to a witch, who — in the grand tradition of powerful women everywhere — will obviously eat them.

As Sirens discussed at length in 2012, we — as women and non-binary people — spend a lot of time re-claiming our stories. Remembering that, in early versions, a gaggle of wise women saved Little Red from the wolf. Restructuring tales so that women’s power isn’t unusual or bad or based on chomping children. So that we have options other than being meekly grateful for our dowry as we’re married off to murderers. So that we have a role in life other than attempting to redeem our fathers’ failures.

Ugh. What do you think it is about fairy tales?

As I sit down to write this, I wonder: How many fairy tales do I really love? How many retellings? How many reclamations? Perhaps The Little Mermaid, in its Andersen form, where abandoning yourself for a dude you’ve only seen, only to wind up sea foam when he casts you aside for another, seems like maybe how things go. Maybe Dark Triumph, Robin LaFevers’ almost unrecognizable Beauty and the Beast, where Beauty is, by many measures, more terrifying than the beast. Definitely Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi, where a bro writer’s fed-up female muse makes him retell Bluebeard over and over and over again.

Which is, perhaps, the long way of saying that I’m a fairy-tale skeptic. To me, they feel like more of the patriarchy: something cautionary, punishing, limiting. Something that tells girls to be good, to be kind, to behave. That if you stay on the path, and out of the forbidden room, and you just give up your voice, you’ll get your familial reward.

And then, here we are: The Girl Who Drank the Moon, Kelly Barnhill’s both familiar and not-so-much fairy tale.

It must be hard to write original fairy tales, don’t you think? Something that feels both comfy and wondrous. Something that resounds with all the import that we’ve assigned to fairy tales over the years, with gravitas, with profundity. And yet something that delights. Something that takes something so very patriarchal and transforms it into something feminist, inclusive, empathetic. How Sisyphean.

And yet, Barnhill does it. The Girl Who Drank the Moon is breathtaking: both original and reclaimed, both philosophical and whimsical, always compulsively readable.

In The Girl Who Drank the Moon, the Protectorate is a Puritan-ish society. A group of men — not necessarily white, but neither clearly not-white — runs the show: they boss everyone around, skim money off the trading, and oh yes, once a year, sacrifice the youngest child in the village to a witch — a witch that the bloody jerks don’t think exists. They purportedly made her up to terrify the villagers, and they just sort of assume that a wild animal eats the baby every year.

But there is a witch. Her name is Xan, and she has no idea why these great idiots leave a baby in the woods every year, but every year, she collects the baby and delivers it to a family on the other side of the woods, feeding it starlight across the way. How lovely is that?

Until whoops, Xan accidentally feeds one baby moonlight instead of starlight, which enmagicks the baby. Xan keeps this baby, naming her Luna, and raises her as both granddaughter and nascent witch — or rather a village raises her: Xan, a friendly swamp monster, and a perfectly tiny dragon.

So much of this story is about growing up and growing older: how children see things differently, how the older generation steps aside (or doesn’t) for the younger, how much puberty sucks, how memory can trick you or fail, how time runs out. And, of course, this story is about concrete things, too: A volcano. Seven-league boots. A woman with a tiger’s heart. A boy who thinks sacrificing babies is horrible. A girl afraid of nothing. A story told all wrong.

The Girl Who Drinks the Moon is the sort of fairy tale I wish I’d had growing up: one where women are powerful and monsters are kind and growing up is hard and the right person saying the right thing at the right time can change the world.

Amy
 


 
Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling content distribution and intellectual property transactions for an entertainment company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and seven 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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Read Along with Faye: Monstress, Vol. 1 by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Monstress, Vol. 1

Read Along with Faye is back for the 2017 Sirens Reading Challenge! Each month, Sirens communications staff member Faye Bi will review and discuss a book on her journey to read the requisite 25 books to complete the challenge. Titles will consist of this year’s Sirens theme of women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. We invite you to join us and read along!

Whoa, whoa, whoa. People, I have thoughts about Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening, issues 1-6. First, that I didn’t read the flap copy nor did I know much about it except that it was highly recommended, which challenged me to formulate the details of the intricate world as I was reading (thanks Professor Tam Tam!), and second that the art was beautiful. Takeda’s artwork is an inventive combination of Art Deco architecture, steampunky science, manga-style characters icon magic inspired by Arabic or Egyptian myths, set in an alternate world Asia. It’s a stunning feast for the eyes and the cover alone is a showstopper.

Raika Halfwolf is a teenage Arcanic and former slave girl, with a missing arm and a past she can’t remember. Arcanics are a mixed breed race resulting from humans and the immortal, animal-shaped Ancients. Some of them, like Raika, look human barring a slight detail like animal ears, others have paws or a fox’s tail (Kippa! My innocent lamb!). Monstress, Vol. 1 is set in the city of Zamora on the edge of truce lands, with a bloody history of violence between the magical Arcanics and the scientific “witches” of the Cumaea (humans) who experiment on them. Raika’s story starts with revenge, and a quest for answers, all with the teenage angsty anger I love and a monster living inside her.

Personally, my mind jumped immediately to Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which I read in my early twenties and became formative in my deciding what kind of fantasy I like. Monstress, while set in a wholly different world and in a different format, touches on similar themes and conflicts: a girl main character with a mysterious past and game-changing magical powers; an ongoing, extremely violent war between races, one of which has animal parts; an interesting religious overtone/alternate creation story; sumptuous world details in every way possible; hamsas all around; what makes a monster. If you like Daughter of Smoke and Bone, you’ll really like this.

But on the other hand Monstress is its own ball game. It’s epic in scope, and there are 10 more volumes and counting. It’s predominantly matriarchal and there are very few male characters, at least in the first volume. In interviews, Liu has mentioned basing some of the stories of war, slavery, torture and trauma on her Chinese grandparents’ experiences in World War II, and the very fact of its alternate Asian setting makes it a clear commentary on racial politics, feminism and identity. Even if the Arcanics “pass” as human, they’re still seen as beasts, subject to constant abuse and scientific experiments.

Ultimately, even with the gorgeous setting and peeled-onion worldbuilding, the series is centered around Maika—her rage, her power, and her agency. She’s flawed, defensive, and can’t always control the monster within her, physical and metaphorical. And that makes her perfect. (But bonus points for Master Ren, who can now make my list of top 10 fantasy cats!)
 


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

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Book Club: Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

Three Dark Crowns

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!

It has taken me seven days to realize that the reason that I can’t find my way into this book review is because I couldn’t find my way into this book. Which is not to say that I didn’t like this book. Like, really like it. Because I did.

And thus began the world’s most conflicted book review ever.

I don’t, usually, love books unreservedly. I’m generally a quite critical reader, and I rarely find books where I don’t struggle with something: plot, world-building, characters, magical systems, pacing, logic, cliff-hangers, something.

But I do, quite commonly, love pieces of books: a character, a fictional political system, surprise plot twists, a beautifully crafted narrative voice. And I, also quite commonly, extrapolate love for the entire book from love for pieces of the book. Does that make any sense? I really love The House of Shattered Wings, despite that I loathe books about angels, because of how de Bodard handles colonialism in an alt-reality fantasy book. I love The Rabbit Back Literature Society, despite its so-very-vague ending, because of my great love of basically everything else in that book. I love Throne of Glass, despite its overwhelming YA sparkliness, because Assassin Barbie is all that. And I love Silver on the Road, despite its molasses pacing, because being the Devil’s Left Hand is that interesting to me.

Which is to say, through a rather circuitous route, that as long as I can find something about a book that I love – a way in, if you will – I often love the book itself.

But I don’t think that I’ve ever before loved a book when I didn’t love any of its pieces. Enter Three Dark Crowns.

Three Dark Crowns is the incomparable Kendare Blake’s first foray into high fantasy. Many of you will remember Kendare from Sirens in 2014, when she was a Guest of Honor and I made everyone read Anna Dressed in Blood because I heart it so.

Three Dark Crowns takes place on Fennbirn, an island protected from the mainland by mysterious mist, an island whose people have magic, an island that crowns magical queens once every sixteen years. But Fennbirn’s traditions are so much more than that: Every generation, the then-current queen bears triplets, all girls, all magical: one a poisoner, one a naturalist, one an elemental. Upon birth, the queen cedes her right to the island, and leaves, with her king-consort (never king, always king-consort), to live happily ever after (or whatever) on the mainland. Meanwhile, her daughters are raised separately, within the seats of their respective power on Fennbirn – and when they turn sixteen, will spend the year trying to kill each other to take the crown.

Yes, you read that right: sixteen-year-old sisters are raised to kill each other. No, Three Dark Crowns doesn’t really explain why that is the case.

We open, of course, on the sisters’ sixteenth birthday, four months before Beltane, when the killing can start. And you spend the first 180 pages on, basically, world-building and character development. You meet Katharine, a poisoner, whose gift is weak, but who is expected to take the crown for the poisoner line that has held it for a century. Her training, especially given her weakness, is thinly veiled abuse and readers might have a hard time with her chapters. Then you meet Arsinoe, a naturalist, whose animal familiar refuses to appear – but whose best friend (with her cougar familiar) is the most powerful naturalist in over half a century. Finally, you meet Mirabella, an astonishingly powerful elemental, who is controlled by the Temple, Fennbirn’s priestesses who want, in equal parts, to stop the poisoner control of the island and put in place a queen who will do their bidding. The presumption, as Three Dark Opens is that Mirabella will easily dispatch her sisters to claim the crown.

Beginning about page 180, though, the plot thickens. (Or starts. Whatever.) It’s not too much of a spoiler to tell you that a fleeing Mirabella saves Arsinoe’s friend’s boyfriend from drowning – and with that, the first unplanned contact between the players in this toxic game, things become a lot more interesting. Murder isn’t allowed yet, but positioning, gamesmanship, and misunderstood communications certainly are.

So here’s the thing about Three Dark Crowns: The world-building, magical systems, and politics were opaque, the characters were mostly boring and dithering, the pacing was ridiculously slow, the book has three main point-of-view characters so it took a long time to learn to care about any of them, the book probably needed a good edit for metaphors, and the bloody thing ends on a cliffhanger.

BUT. Somehow, improbably, I loved it anyway. I think because Kendare, in many ways more than a lot of authors that I read, takes risks that I respect. She built a world in which powerful women kill each other for a throne – regularly, as part of a tradition, a beloved tradition. She built women who are unlikeable, who make stupid decisions, who fail and pick themselves back up and try again. She made poison, of all things, a magical trait. She wrote a suffocating book that, simply because it’s about deadly women with ambition seeking power, has something remarkable to say.

And not to spoil things too much, but by the end of this book, when these women finally do find both their power and their resolve, Kendare hooked me for round two: One Dark Throne.

Amy
 


 
Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling content distribution and intellectual property transactions for an entertainment company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and seven 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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Read Along with Faye: The Story of Owen by E. K. Johnston

The Story Of Owen

Read Along with Faye is back for the 2017 Sirens Reading Challenge! Each month, Sirens communications staff member Faye Bi will review and discuss a book on her journey to read the requisite 25 books to complete the challenge. Titles will consist of this year’s Sirens theme of women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. We invite you to join us and read along!

E. K. Johnston’s The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim came highly recommended to me by several people whose reading tastes I trust. In fact, few books come to me so fully primed and ready for the Faye stamp of approval as much as this one: it’s set in Canada, it has amazing worldbuilding, it’s got dragons, and it’s from the point of view of a teenage girl named Siobhan who, though she is called a bard, is essentially a glorified publicist.

Johnston has created a masterful alternate present world where industrialization and carbon emissions have tangible consequences: dragons. Dragons of various varieties terrorize local human populations—property damage, maiming and even death are commonplace, perhaps even expected. The most important buildings are fireproofed (“the hospital, the schools and the hockey arena,” natch, as this is Canada); lighting a fire outside is akin to leaving food out for a bear; hybrid cars are prized as the most safe; and most importantly, dragon slaying is corporatized to defend large cities. The Story of Owen starts with Lottie Thorskard, THE pre-eminent dragon slayer, relocating from the city of Hamilton to rural Trondheim after a major injury. With her is her wife, Hannah, badass swordmaker, her brother Aodhan who had to take up the primary dragon slaying mantle, and her weedy teenage nephew Owen, slayer-in-training.

Siobhan and Owen meet one fateful day at the high school, and Siobhan is introduced to the Thorskard clan as a talented musician, tactician and student of history. Lottie asks Siobhan to be Owen’s bard, a role that combines storytelling with PR, to interesting results. Siobhan takes her role seriously, and she reminds me of other storytellers-as-narrators (Emras in Sherwood Smith’s Banner of the Damned comes to mind). She intersperses the present-day narrative with bardic retellings of important events in history, highlighting Johnston’s cleverness as it now includes dragons (!) such as the start of the (Lester B.) Pearson Oil Watch, Ford’s ambitious auto industry plan that devastated Michigan, and the origin of the Detroit Red Wings’ logo (ha ha).

While the smart and witty worldbuilding details are the best part of the book, the pacing was uneven and exposition-heavy. I felt like I was kept at an arm’s length from the characters. Owen and Siobhan’s platonic friendship is refreshing, but Sadie, a classmate who harbours her own dreams of being a dragon slayer, was regretfully underused. I loved hearing about Hannah and Lottie’s relationship from how they met, what they’ve each sacrificed and how they run their household, but I remain bemused by Aodhan and Owen’s long lost mother. I’m reminded time and time again, and remain absolutely fascinated by people’s individual reading experiences. Maybe if I knew that this was a) Johnston’s debut novel, b) the first of a duology (! very important detail!) and c) not really The Story of Owen despite the title and I find Owen kind of boring to boot, I would have been more forgiving of the exposition. I honestly wonder if The Story of Owen and its sequel, Prairie Fire, were written as one book, which were then spliced up into two 350-page YA novel chunks. As it stands, the emotional payoff at the end of the the first book doesn’t feel like it warrants the front-heavy exposition, and there’s a lot of action in the last 50 pages.

With that said The Story of Owen is wonderfully Canadian that it kind of makes up for everything. If you aren’t Canadian or not well versed in Canadian history or politics, you’d probably still enjoy it, but perhaps would find it less funny. Or maybe you wouldn’t? Only one way to find out.
 


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

 

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