News

Archive for book reviews

B Reviews Guests: The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

We’re excited to share the last in a mini-series of posts by friend of Sirens, B R Sanders, who has been reviewing books by each of this year’s Guests of Honor during their featured weeks. This week we welcome their review of N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season!

I loved this book. It was immensely hard for me to read, and I still loved it.

I read The Fifth Season hungrily, because it is a damn good book, cleverly structured and wonderfully written, always leaving you on the edge of your seat and wanting more.

The Stillness is a land that is never still. Stills are people who hate orogenes, people whose immense magic can bring order to the land. The world has a habit of ending. There are entire histories of apocalypses. This is the story of the most recent one, the most terrible one yet. And to understand how it happened, one has to understand how many injustices—small and large, premeditated and coincidental—came together to shape two very particular people in very particular ways.

It’s Jemisin’s choice to root this apocalypse in a handful of lives, and in a handful of choices, that makes the book work. She shows how those choices fracture a life, how the course of lives can and must sometimes change on a whim. How sometimes those forces are within our control, but how often they are not, and how terrifying it is that they are not. The actions that set the story in motion come as a cumulative response to this: a response to a lifetime of being corralled and cajoled and confined.

There is an immense amount of depth in this book. I am White, and I have rarely been as aware of my whiteness as I was reading this book. There is a reason that Essun and Alabaster are Black. Jemisin is articulating something here about what it is to be Black—the entire sequence while they are in Allia, while they have to navigate avenues of politeness that they are expected to perform but can’t expect to receive in kind, that is what it is to be Black in America, at least in part. She has captured here that kind of very particular containment that I am aware of but I will never experience, and she has written it into the minds of people who can literally tear the world apart with a fury-filled thought.

But they are not just their fury. Of course they aren’t; they are people, and they want and they desire, and they get tired and they break and they have hidden strengths. Jemisin knows these characters inside and out. Alabaster and Essun, especially, are deeply known and well-written. The book is both a quest and a tragedy, but the tragedy is at its heart the fact that people have limits, that they run out of will, that they can’t keep going. Or that some can, and others can’t by some weird fluke of fate.

The Fifth Season brutalized me and left me breathless. When it ended, I immediately preordered its sequel, The Obelisk Gate. I cannot wait to see what happens next.


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.

 

Share

Read Along with Faye: Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios

Read Along with Faye tackles 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!

I labored over this review. It felt like nothing I could write would be able to do Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios’s Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike justice. When we analyze text, we don’t just read the words on the page. We coax meanings from between the lines; we muse on the influences of a creator’s background and socio-historical context; we inevitably read texts in conversation with what came before. Comics add another layer. Not only must the reader understand and appreciate the interplay between art and words, there’s a reading style—proficiency level, so to speak—one needs to know how to read a comic, and it helps to know its position in the whole wide world of comics. In the case of Pretty Deadly, which is completely uninterested in holding the reader’s hand, I found myself pushed out of my comfort zone in a major way.

Pretty Deadly has influence from fairytales, myths, a western setting, and probably a million other things I’m not well-versed in. I have read Sandman, but not really Weird West (watching Firefly doesn’t count) so I’ve dabbled a baby bit in Death personified in comics. My reaction on those first few page turns were, “What is this?” and a little bit of “WTF?” It is kinetic, violent, and densely-packed with visual details. Words are sparse. If you don’t read a lot of comics—or even if you do—it can be demanding and intellectually challenging… but parsing out the text, bit by bit, was incredibly rich and worthwhile.

We begin with a bunny, who gets shot in the head by an unknown woman, and the butterfly who witnessed the kill, as framers of the narrative. It’s sometime in the 1890s in the American West (I think). We’re introduced to characters—an elderly blind man, Fox, and a young dark-skinned girl with differently colored eyes, Sissy—who are going from town to town telling the tale of Beauty and singing the Ballad of Deathface Ginny. Deathface Ginny, the daughter of Beauty and the personification of Death, is the reaper of vengeance, who can be called by victims of “men who have sinned.” (She has a lot of work to do!) Big Alice, a large, imposing woman in a black coat with silver hair, is sent by Death to bring Ginny back to the spiritual realm. And did I mention, Death isn’t a god, but a post—in the order of things, the mantle of Death gets passed on to the next gatherer of souls.

What follows is a very, very, convoluted tale in which Death falls in love and wants to prevent the next Death from coming to power, ending death (his and everyone else’s) for all time. And at the forefront are multiple, fascinating, complex female characters who look very different and get a lot of shit done—Sissy, Big Alice, Sarah, Ginny herself and even Beauty. There’s betrayal, stabbings and vengeance—but also sacrifice and redemption. It’s like the animated sequence from Kill Bill with a splash of Sandman, but its own thing.  And it’s paced incredibly unevenly, with unexplained occurrences aplenty and characters that don’t show up again. But somehow, the denouement pulled it all together in a spectacular manner that made flip to the front page again. Ultimately, it’s an origin story for Deathface Ginny, as well as for the new Death.

It would also be remiss not to mention Rios’s artwork again, which is stunning, fluid and frenetic all at once, colored by Jordie Bellaire in a mostly desert-colored palette with beiges and pinks. Though it made me work for it, Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike is incredible, myth-making, myth-breaking stuff. My brain broke, too, from everything to take in, but I had a fine time putting it back together on re-reads.


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.

Share

Sirens Review Squad: The Mermaid’s Daughter by Ann Claycomb

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 Jae Young Kim on Ann Claycomb’s The Mermaid’s Daughter.

Ann Claycomb’s debut novel, The Mermaid’s Daughter, is a modern-day retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” mixed in with a healthy dose of opera and composition. Kathleen, an opera student at a conservatory, learns that the stabbing pain in her feet and the phantom sensation of her tongue being cut out are not signs of mental illness, but the consequences of a long and dark curse made generations ago. Kathleen is left with two choices—kill herself or kill her lover, Harry.

I love fairy tales. They’re old stories, some coming from oral traditions going as far back as a thousand years, changing over time with every retelling. Each omission, addition and embellishment reflects the teller’s perspective. So when we read a fairy tale retelling, we know, more or less, what the plot will be. It’s the little tweaks in the retelling that make the read worthwhile.

“The Little Mermaid” is one of my favorite fairy tales. Although I was a kid when the Disney animated version came out, I had read Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale before watching the movie, which could not be more different from each other. Disney’s version is a musical with cartoon animal sidekicks, an evil witch that turns into a giant monster, and a happy ending complete with a wedding between the mermaid and prince. Andersen’s tale is dark and bloody, with cut tongues and phantom knives stabbing the mermaid’s feet—and no happy ending. I love both of them, but I was disappointed with Disney’s: it felt too clean and safe, and was totally at odds with the Andersen’s original.

Claycomb does not go the cartoon route with The Mermaid’s Daughter. She does not shy away from the stabbing pains, the cutting of the tongue, and the gruesome trade made by the mermaid. Told in three acts through four viewpoints (Kathleen, Harry, Robin (Kathleen’s father), and the sea witches), the novel is bleak in tone and possibly even darker than Andersen’s fairy tale. Claycomb uses the first act to establish Kathleen’s life, beginning with Kathleen and Harry’s relationship, a great queer take on the usual heterosexual pairings in traditional fairy tales. She also focuses attention on the father-daughter relationship between Robin and Kathleen, and it’s clear that they love each other deeply. Since the novel has a modern-day setting, some time does have to be spent working through disbelief in magic and mermaids. I admit to being impatient that Kathleen didn’t realize the truth of her heritage earlier, but I did have the advantage of knowing she was a mermaid. The sea witches do provide a touch of fantasy as well as the stories of Kathleen’s ancestors, but it may feel dry for those wanting a book that jumps straight into the fantastical elements.

Kathleen also has the beautiful voice of Andersen’s mermaid, making music and opera an integral part of this mermaid’s story. I am a fan of opera and have sung in choirs all my life, so reading about the various singers and the roles and songs they perform was loads of fun. Robin is a famous composer and I loved reading about his composition process, even though I don’t know a thing about songwriting.

The build-up to the reveal of Kathleen’s mermaid secret is long but necessary. Love and music are central to this retelling of “The Little Mermaid.” Once Kathleen learns of her mermaid curse, third act flies by as Robin and Harry help Kathleen resolve it. I won’t spoil the ending but I think it’s clever and fitting for a fairy tale retelling. The book also includes a bonus short story connecting Hans Christian Andersen to Kathleen’s ancestor. It provides some context for final act and is a welcome addition.

I recommend Claycomb’s The Mermaid’s Daughter and look forward to reading her next book.

 


 
Jae Young Kim is a born-and-bred New Yorker and a lifelong fan of fairy tales, fantasy and science fiction. She is a non-profit attorney by day and writes when she can, not always by night. The only thing that keeps her up until dawn is a good book.

 

Share

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

When the Moon Was Ours

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

Books have to have a plot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy
 


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

 

Share

Read Along with Faye: An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet

Read Along with Faye tackles 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!

It’s the end of August! Which means, according to the rules of the Reading Challenge, I have just over a month to read nine-or-so books. At this point, I’ve read books that were on my radar but hadn’t tried yet, or had been itching to read anyway. But due that other rule that I must read works by authors I’ve never read before (and I have read a lot of these authors’ other works), the books remaining are mostly quiet books, or by authors I haven’t heard of, or hard to find.

Fortunately, Leah Bobet’s An Inheritance of Ashes wasn’t too hard to find—I’d managed to check it out from my library. Without having read her previous Above, I went into this one without any expectations, nor any idea of the plot, setting or level of shininess (a standard YA measure for me, or also known as: how much kissing, swooning, or angst over a hot, beguiling, usually male love interest is in this book, as oft characterized by their foil-effected covers?). And, well, Ashes certainly is a quiet book. And I’m pleased to say, full of surprises, and not shiny at all, in the best way possible.

Hallie (full name Halfrida Hoffmann) and her pregnant sister Marthe run their family farm in what feels like a pre-industrial, agrarian society. There’re goats to be milked, barns to be repaired, barley to be harvested, and talks of “courting” when considering romantic interests. The next-door neighbors, the Blakelys, look in on Hallie and Marthe, since Marthe’s husband and father of her future child has not returned from the war. The two sisters are struggling, each one emotionally isolated from the other, and they’re barely surviving. But then two things happen: Hallie hires a veteran soldier, Heron, to help out on the farm before winter sets in (even though there’s something off about him), and she finds a Twisted Thing on her property.

Then, another detail. It turns out we’re not in the past. We’re in the aftermath of war—a victorious one, whatever that means—set in a society in post-industrial decline, after cities and all their tech “went dark.” The war that Heron, Tyler Blakely and Marthe’s husband Thom all fought in was one of, well, portal magic, and the Twisted Things are instruments of a Wicked God in another dimension, presumed to be eradicated after the war ended. This unusual setting allows Bobet freedom to come up with new norms and new standards of normalcy: a queer couple’s relationship is featured prominently and unremarked upon, the best scientist for miles around is a young girl, and her characters are a melting pot of ethnicities and skin colors.

But where Bobet shines the most is what I like to call the “low fantasy” stuff—not the epic battlegrounds or complex intrigue of kings and generals, but the mundane, every day, equally significant events in the lives of farmers, soldiers and small townspeople. Heron must come to terms with his past and how the rest of the Great Army perceives him. Tyler, injured from his service in the war, feels constricted by his caring mother and sharp sister who only want him to be healthy. Hallie’s coming-of-age is easy to believe and root for: here’s a girl who constantly feels like she can’t do anything right, but still tries so damn hard. Her fraught relationship with Marthe has scabbed over wounds from years of abuse from their now-dead father—wounds that have festered, reared their ugly heads, and taken flight before finally being healed.

Ashes has all this, plus musings on small-town politics and what it means to be a hero or a villain. It’s set against the backdrop of a refreshingly different time period and a vague but real magical threat. It starts slowly, is sparse with flash, and though there is some kissing, it’s pretty quiet. I am someone who loves quiet books. If you do too, An Inheritance of Ashes won’t just be up your alley, but the reason you bowl.

(I read this on e- so I don’t know if the cover is shiny. Is it?)
 


 
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.
 

Share

B Reviews Guests: A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab

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 during their featured weeks. This week we welcome their review of A Darker Shade of Magic!

V. E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic tells the story of four parallel Londons, each linked and locked by magic, each with its own history and relationship with magic. Within each of those worlds, there are only two people—Kell and Holland—who can walk across the worlds. Only two people who can see these other worlds and report back and forth. Or, at least, we think there’s only two who can travel between them.

Throughout the book, Schwab plays with the idea of distorted reflections. The various Londons are all distorted reflections of each other: each are very different, but each are wed together by peculiar bones, similarities of names and fixtures of space. The two travelers who can walk between these Londons are also distorted reflections of each other. Both are brilliant, secretive, complicated men bound to the rulers of their London. Both live lives where they are valuable tools as much as they are independent people. But Kell, from Red London, is young and brooding and nostalgic for a life he’d wish he’d lived. And Holland, from White London, is older, and ruthlessly, viciously pragmatic in pursuit of his goals.

Everything about A Darker Shade of Magic is contrasted sharply with Grey London—our London—a London which exists without magic. Schwab’s masterful and tragic opening scene sets up the dynamic between Grey London and the other Londons in a way that beautifully sets the stage for everything to follow. Kell visits Grey London with news. On his way out, as an act of mercy, or pity, or both, he visits Mad King George. It’s clear from their interaction that they have known each other for years, and that the knowledge of other Londons and magic has thrown King George’s life completely off-kilter. It’s also clear that, while Kell knows this, and knows that he is part of this, that he is reckless with it. This is a tale of obsession and sacrifice, and all of that is spelled out in those opening interactions Kell has.

Grey London also gives us the heart of the book: Lila Bard, hungry thief and sharp-tongued street rat who dresses in men’s clothes and dreams of being a pirate. Kell and Holland are interesting characters, but Lila was what I was reading for. She is smart, and she is alone, and she can smell danger on the breeze, but she has absolutely no safety net. She is a girl with hidden talents just breaking through caught in a mess not of her making, drawing on strengths she did not know she had. She is a wonderful and lively character. When her life and Kell’s grow tangled, they cut a blood-soaked trail from one London to the next, plagued by an artifact they only half understand, while hunted by the sadistic rulers of White London—a London hungry for power and dominance.

V. E. Schwab has two enormous strengths going for her in this book: first, she can write; second, she can fascinate. She constructs effortlessly emotional sentences. For example, when she writes that Lila “would rather steal a thing outright than be indebted to kindness,” I laughed, but my heart broke in the same moment. And she is just as good with worldbuilding: “Kell—inspired by the lost city known to all as Black London—had given each remaining capital a color. Grey for the magicless city. Red, for the healthy empire. White, for the starving world.” She has a way of quickly, efficiently punctuating her prose with these asides that cut you to ribbons and emotionally fill in the gaps and leave you craving more.

I loved this book. It wasn’t perfect—the plot took too long to fall into place, which meant the pacing was uneven, but the story and the world was fascinating enough that I kept going anyway. I wanted to know more about the histories and cultures of each of the other three Londons. Why do they have different languages? Why is the magic distributed differently across them? What, exactly, happened in Black London?

A Darker Shade of Magic is great fun. It’s exciting and adventurous, with a rich and evocative world. Plus Lila Bard, the fast-talking pants-wearing pickpocket is my new book crush for the foreseeable 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.

 

Share

Book Club: Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

Practical Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter boys.

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

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

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

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

Amy
 


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

 

Share

Sirens Review Squad: The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis

The Guns Above

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 Casey Blair on Robyn Bennis’s The Guns Above.

The Guns Above, released just this spring, is the first in the Signal Airship series by Robyn Bennis. It’s a flintlock military fantasy following the adventures of a nation’s first female airship captain and all her associated challenges—including dealing with the dandy assigned to spy on her.

Captain Josette Dupre’s strength is sheer competence in her career as an airman, though she doesn’t relate to people well. The foppish Lord Bernat can read people exceedingly well, but otherwise does not understand the realities of the world at all. The contrast between their perceptions is fantastic.

Spoiler: the whole book is fantastic.

Actual spoiler: Although Josette and Bernie are both point-of-view characters, there is not a romance between them. Which I loved. I was initially worried the book would go down that path due to the chapters with alternating perspectives; what Bennis does instead is develop an unlikely friendship between the two of them—and it’s delightful. The characters are complicated, and so is how they relate to one another. Even if a romance develops later in the series, I’m glad Bennis didn’t tack that on, because the friendship strengthened the core of this book. And because of the two main characters’ respective strengths, when there is emotional labor to be done, it’s not assumed that the lead female character will do it. That’s something I really appreciated.

Bennis is also great at using point-of-view to highlight power imbalances and structural nonsense with humor that avoids punching down. The target of the joke is never the person being oppressed, unless the narrative is actively presenting that joke as A Problem rather than supporting it.

All that said, what drew me to The Guns Above in the first place was the promise of amazing women (yes, there’s more than one!) participating in explosive airship battles, which it absolutely delivers. The book also delves into strategy, on both small and large scales—in terms of the military battles as well as the political ones—and it’s clear Bennis knows what she’s talking about. While reading, I knew I was in good hands, able to relax and enjoy military airship shenanigans without nitpicking the world-building and questioning whether the physics held up. That’s a rare feeling for me, and that alone is enough to keep me seeking out Bennis’s next book.

But what makes The Guns Above truly special is the tone. Many books pay lip service to war being terrible, but either those effects never actually touch the characters or else the books wallow in their awfulness. Bennis strikes a balance in between: the awfulness is there. It’s present. It affects the characters. They acknowledge that, and still they keep moving. And there is still space for naps and meals, games and flirting and laughter, and worrying about money and family members while still getting the job done. This book struck me as one of the most fundamentally human approaches to war I’ve ever read.

I mentioned jokes earlier, but really, I was not at all expecting the high quantity of humor. It’s the constant thread that ties all the pieces together and makes everything work. Bennis is brilliant at shifting from wry humor to poignancy or absolutely scathing critique in the space of a line, and more often than not, she accomplishes all that simultaneously. Even when a situation is dire, and both the readers and characters recognize how dire, the book’s tone still trends towards fun rather than overwhelming.

I’m a sucker for daring women adventuring, but it’s really the heart of The Guns Above that pulled me in and has me eagerly anticipating the sequel, happily planned for publication next year. If you love wit and self-awareness in your fantasy to go with your airships, I highly recommend checking this one out.

 


 
Casey Blair writes speculative fiction novels for adults and teens, and her weekly serial fantasy novel Tea Princess Chronicles is available online for free. She is a graduate of Vassar College and of the Viable Paradise residential science fiction and fantasy writing workshop. After teaching English in rural Japan for two years, she relocated to the Seattle area. She is prone to spontaneous dancing, exploring ancient cities around the world, wandering and adventuring through mountains, spoiling cats terribly, and drinking inordinate amounts of tea late into the night.

 

Share

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.
 

Share

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.

 

Share
Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

RSS Feed

The news archive for Sirens is linked below as an RSS feed. If you need instructions or would like more information, please click here. If you have questions about our RSS feed, please email us at (web at sirensconference.org).

RSS Feed Button

 

Meet Our Guests of Honor
About the Conference
Attend
Sirens Twitter
Present Programming
Sirens Facebook

Connect with the Sirens community

Sign up for the Sirens newsletter