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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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Inclusivity at Sirens: s.e. smith

Sirens is about voice: the voices of each individual attendee, how those voices come together in conversation, and how those conversations create a community. At Sirens, we want everyone to have an opportunity to use their voice, whether that’s as part of our programming schedule or late into the night over tea.

But we also know that building a space for those conversations—a space where everyone is willing to speak and, equally important, where everyone is willing to listen—is not so simple. So often, we as a society build barriers that prevent people from speaking, and so often those barriers are based on gender, sexuality, race, religion, ability, or other identity—and so often those barriers also help others ignore those voices.

This year, we are featuring a series of posts addressing diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality at Sirens in order to highlight voices that are both vital to our community and are too often unheard.

Sabrina Chin and Amy Tenbrink, Conference Chairs

 


 

I first came to Sirens in 2012 because a fellow literature-loving friend needed a roommate, and I had a flexible schedule. I was hesitant at first, because of the way it was pitched to me: As a conference “for women in fantasy literature,” which sounded like a place not for me since while I am many things, a woman is not one of them.

“It’s small and intimate,” she said. “You’ll like it,” she said. And she was right. (She usually is.) (I’ve been back every year since.)

“What is someone who’s not a woman doing at a lady conference?” is, it turns out, a bit of a trick question, although people ask some variation of that question with a depressing degree of regularity. Sirens isn’t a lady conference: It is a conference celebrating women in fantasy, and one where people of all genders participate in the conversation and work to push it further. It is a place where for a few days, cis men don’t get to be the center of the universe.

One of the things I love most about Sirens is that it is a place that is challenging. It is a place where I feel comfortable asking difficult questions, and it is one where the lens is turned back on me, as well—Sirens is the place that it is because we expect more of each other, on both a personal and institutional level.

For some attendees this is a novel and discomfiting experience, especially those in positions of relative privilege who may feel unsettled when confronted with world-shifting realities. While Faye referred to “taking off armor” in her discussion of experiences with diversity and inclusion at Sirens, this goes deeper than that—it is not simply that Sirens is a week where (some) attendees feel comfortable and confident, but also that taking off your armor leaves you vulnerable. Tender. Soft.

At some point during the weekend, it’s likely someone will say something that upsets you because it disrupts your worldview. Someone will critique a book you adore from the position of an experience you don’t share—as for example a co-panelist did on a religion panel I did several years ago. Someone will comment that a character archetype that feels very intimate, that speaks to you, comes laden with oppressive baggage you were blissfully unaware of. Someone will make a comment about the barriers holding underrepresented people back in publishing, will ask why we have to work four times as hard for half the recognition, and it will sting.

Perhaps it will sting because you’ve never thought about this issue before, or in this way, and it hurts to be confronted with the fact that diversity sometimes comes with hard truths. Or maybe you thought this would be a fun weekend of fantasy, and you weren’t expecting to be confronted with harsh realities. Your first instinct may be to lash out, to find a way to minimize the pain you’re feeling, to make this a problem for another time.

But that’s not what Sirens is about, and you will be shortchanging yourself if you take that route. When my co-panelist criticized a book I’d just professed to loving in front of a room full of people, my first reaction wasn’t to shut her down, but to take up the challenge. I wanted to learn more. And I did, because she spoke about how her experience of religious themes in the book differed radically from my own. Because a Hindu, a Jew, a Christian, and an atheist sat down to have a conversation in front of a room full of people, unafraid to contradict each other, our understanding of faith and literature was cumulatively enriched.

Learning is hard. Sometimes learning is scary. And Sirens is indubitably a place to geek out about books and celebrate our mutual love for the people who aren’t cis men who write and read and love and star in fantasy literature but it is also a place of learning. We develop programming because we want to share our thoughts and enthusiasms with the world, and we attend programming because we want to learn something fascinating about a text or issue; one of my panels this year is about gender and witchcraft, and I’m deliriously excited about all the things I hope to discuss, from reading The Mists of Avalon after hearing the truth about Marion Zimmer Bradley to how N. K. Jemisin explores gender in The Fifth Season. I’m hoping to learn things from my panelists, and I hope the audience does too. Along the way, panelists may challenge each other, or get challenging questions from the audience, and that will make the discussion stronger, more inclusive.

If diversity is the presence of historically underrepresented groups, inclusion is the belief that we have equal footing, a right to speak and a right to be heard—in any contexts, but particularly when we are wounded. Sirens creates a space for having conversations about those wounds, even if they are sometimes sticky and uncomfortable, as they spill from panel to dining room to after hours next to the fire to next year’s conference. For those who haven’t been in diverse and inclusive spaces before, it can be a bit of a shock—and for those who have been in environments where lip service and buzzwords define these issues, it can be awakening to realize that “diversity and inclusion” isn’t just a phrase but a way of being.

Even as a member of several underrepresented groups at Sirens, I must constantly acknowledge that I am not exempt from challenge. My experience isn’t universal, nor is it applicable across sociocultural backgrounds, and I hold privilege, not least as a white person, even as I am also on the receiving end of oppression. Even as I warn others to prepare to shift their worldview, I warn myself, as well—someone may say something that hits a tender point of my own, that forces me to expand my understanding, that questions an internalized belief. This is a dance, a give and take, not a one-sided dynamic.

This applies to microaggressions as well—the seemingly small instances of oppression that get tossed off without thinking, making members of underrepresented groups feel uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s the casual racist joke, the reference to someone disliked as “crazy,” a flip comment about someone with ambiguous gender. When you belong to one or more underrepresented groups, you spend a great deal of time in a complex calculus of deciding whether individual instances of oppression are “worth it” to deal with. Do you correct the dinner guest who refers to you by the wrong pronouns when you’ll likely never see that person again? Do you patiently tell the TSA officer that he’s pronouncing your name wrong? Do you swallow it, for the thousandth time, when people pointedly exclude the disability community from public discourse? Or do you speak up, be “that person”?

Sirens is filled with “those people” and that is why I keep returning—but it is up to the attendees of Sirens to support “those people” and cultivate an environment that fosters conversation and exchange.

 


 
s.e. smith is a Northern California-based writer with a focus on social justice issues. smith’s publication credits include The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Teen Vogue, Bitch Magazine, Vice, and In These Times, along with entries in several anthologies, including the upcoming (Don’t) Call Me Crazy.
 

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Young Adult Novels That Defined My Young Adulthood

By Zoraida Córdova (@zlikeinzorro)

As an author of young adult books, I’m often asked, “Why write YA?” The answer is simple: young adult novels are versatile; they span countless genres and subject matters; and these books contain some of the strongest protagonists out there. I started writing as a young adult and the protagonist was always me. Years have gone by, but I still find it’s my voice. Here are some of the teen novels that defined my teen years.

 

In the Forests of the Night
1. In the Forests of the Night by Amelia Atwater Rhodes
Published when the author was 14 years old, In the Forests of the Night is one of the reasons I became a writer. When I first read it I was obsessed with anything vampire and fell in love the with the mysterious world of the Den of Shadows. Risika was turned into a vampire as a teen, and has spent 300 years living a quiet (vampiric) life. But when a black rose appears on her doorstep, the same thing that appeared on the night she was turned, she knows she’s being followed. It’s time for her to confront her past. I haven’t read it in years, but when I lost my copy in a move a few years ago I HAD to replace it. This was the book that let me know I could be a writer even though I was only 13, just like the author when she started.
Hawksong
2. Hawksong by Amelia Atwater Rhodes
This is a fantasy retelling of Romeo and Juliet, but with two royal shapeshifters—an avian queen and a cobra king. They marry to create peace between their warring kingdoms only to discover that peace is not so easily won. It’s a really short read, and the way YA books are now, it would probably be a novella.
Sirena
3. Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli
And this is where the mermaid obsession progresses. I hadn’t read a novel about a mermaid before. It was also the first sex scene (though the sex was alluded) that I’d read in my early teen years. Sirena saves a human and nurses him back to health. He’s from an ancient Greek ship (if I recall correctly). The way the romance is developed is beautiful.
Blood and Chocolate
4. Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause
Vivian Gandillon is confident in her skin and sexuality, and loves the way her body changes into a wolf’s under the full moon. This book marked the first time I’d ever seen this on the page: a girl who was undeniably herself, but suffering from the loss of her father and pack leader. She’s desired by the wolves in her pack, but can’t help falling for a “meat-boy” from her high school, Aiden. Aiden is sweet, charming, and innocent, but he doesn’t fit in her world. As she tries to determine her place, Vivian deals with pack politics and the desire to reveal her true form to Aiden, a choice that could endanger everyone she cares for.
Tithe
5. Tithe by Holly Black
At this point in my life, I hadn’t been introduced to urban fantasy like this. Holly Black’s combination of beautiful fairies and the grit of the city changed the way I saw my own stories. This is one of the defining books for my writing career because it let me see where I fit in the fantasy genre. Plus, Roiben was my original fairy boyfriend, before Legolas.

Zoraida Córdova was born in Ecuador and raised in Queens, New York. She is the author of The Vicious Deep trilogy, which centers around Tristan, who discovers his heritage and is thrown into a battle going on beneath the ocean, fighting for his future, his friends, and his life. Her other works include the On the Verge series, which are about 20-something-year-old-girls searching for love and the meaning of life, and Labyrinth Lost, about Alex, a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation who hates magic so much that she performs a spell to rid herself of her power. Zoraida loves black coffee and snark, and still believes in magic. She is a contributing writer to Latinos in Kid Lit because #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Zoraida studied at Hunter College and the University of Montana in Missoula.

 

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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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Sirens Guest of Honor Interview: Zoraida Córdova

We’re pleased to bring you the first in a series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor. We’ll cover a variety of topics relevant to Sirens with each author, from their inspirations, influences, and craft, to the role of women in fantasy literature, and discuss our 2017 theme of women who work magic—particularly women who have power and wield it. We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Vail this October! Today, friend of Sirens B R Sanders interviews our first guest of honor, Zoraida Córdova.

S15_author_interview_graphic

B: You’ve written about how the brujas and brujos in Labyrinth Lost practice a different religion than brujeria as it exists in our world, and how you wanted to parallel the development of your brujas’ religion with the brujas themselves. That is, that there are elements of their religions that are from the indigenous people of South and Central America, from Europe, from displaced African slaves. With that in mind, I was wondering if you could talk a little about how you see colonization/decolonization playing out in the narrative of Labyrinth Lost?

 Zoraida CordovaZORAIDA: Labyrinth Lost has become many things to me. It’s my seventh novel, but my first “big” novel as far as reviews and things go. It’s funny for me because I struggled so much while writing it. I didn’t think people were going to receive it well. I was afraid that my protagonist, Alex Mortiz, was too much or not enough. The reception has been quite surprising. Alex is born and raised from Brooklyn, but she’s also a bruja. I touch on her ancestry, but at the end of the day, she’s a New Yorker. She’s Latinx but she doesn’t speak Spanish. She’s a brown girl, but her area of Brooklyn is multi-ethnic and so her otherness isn’t her skin or gender. It’s her magic. For Latinx kids who’ve assimilated in the states, there’s this fine line to bridge. Tradition at home vs. the outside world. Alex very much likes to keep those things separate. She fears her mom showing up at school smelling like incense and carrying her beaded good luck charms and looking very much bruja. It isn’t until she sees the consequences of her power, the fact that she might lose her entire bloodline, that she embraces her power. The world of Los Lagos mirrors her inner journey because the clans and magical beings have also given up their power to the Devourer. In that sense, Alex and Los Lagos go through the same process of liberating themselves.

 

B: What draws you to the paranormal, and more specifically, what draws you to the idea that there are worlds within our world, hidden from view? The Vicious Deep trilogy was about teenagers drawn into mermaids’ battles. Labyrinth Lost and its upcoming companion novels are about a secret society of brujas who, sometimes, have access to other worlds. What is it about stepping across those thresholds that intrigues you?

ZORAIDA: I’ve loved magical things from a very early age. I was hungry for it, but coming from an immigrant family that didn’t have access to books, I didn’t know where to look for it. My mom worked full time and so did everyone in my house, so when it came to reading, I was given contemporary “sad immigrant” narratives from very well-meaning teachers. I was very quiet back then because I’m sure if I had told my elementary school teacher “I want to read fairy tales instead of The House on Mango Street” she might’ve hooked me up with The Hobbit. What I did have were animated TV shows and magical movies. I discovered the library when I was 13 or 14 and I kept looking for stories with supernatural and magical elements. For me it was an escape from the mundane world. I loved them so much that I wanted to put my own spin on the worlds I grew up with.

 

B: You’ve been active in both Latinxs in Kid Lit and #OwnVoices. What Latinx authors working in young adult today do you recommend, and why?

ZORAIDA: Latinxs in Kid Lit has helped me find so many Latinx authors. I highly recommend everyone go to the website for it. One thing I’d like to see more are Latinxs in fantasy and science fiction. For me it’s an interesting place for Latinxs because where do we belong in a place where Spain and colonization never happened? There is so much to think about.

#OwnVoices is more of a hashtag than a prerequisite for anything. My only books that are OwnVoices are Labyrinth Lost and Love on the Ledge (adult romance) because they have Latinx protagonists.

Right now there are some Latinx authors to look out for. Adam Silvera writes thought provoking speculative fiction; Lilliam Rivera’s debut, The Education of Margot Sanchez, is contemporary, but she also has a speculative fiction short story in Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine; Anna-Marie McLemore is our magical realism queen, and I think anyone who wants to write in that genre now should read her work to understand the foundation of Latinidad and magical realism.

 

B: Why do you write young adult fiction? Labyrinth Lost oozed with adolescent turmoil—the weight of choices, the ache to make them, but the fear of doing the wrong thing in front of the wrong person. That the narrative happened largely in Los Lagos instead of our world didn’t dampen that feeling at all. What draws you to that?

ZORAIDA: I write young adult novels because they are full of hope. That’s the major difference between adult and YA. I feel like the angst, heartbreak, end-of-the-world emotions are there for both. Teens are just more resilient.

 

B: You’ve mentioned that when you first started writing as a kid, even though you based your characters on your friends, who were all kids of color, the characters came out all white. Now you’re writing biracial protagonists and extended matriarchal Latina families. Can you speak to how this process of shedding white as normative in your writing looked for you? Is it easy for you now, or do you still sometimes struggle with it?

ZORAIDA: We Need Diverse Books has changed the way we talk about diversity in publishing. When I got into this business it was 2006 and I was an intern at a literary agency. I was 18 and had just finished my first novel. It was a coming of age, very Sarah Dessen, but about an Ecuadorian girl. Our rejections were consistently “this is funny and voicey but we already have a Latino book for the season.” That’s just how publishing worked. I think in some ways, it still does, but no one would say that in public or put it on writing. Though you’d be surprised.

I want you to keep in mind that when I wrote those stories that white washed my friends, I was 13. All of my media reflected whiteness with the brown people being the “other.” The first time I vaguely saw myself in my favorite TV show, Buffy, was when that Inca mummy woke up and started killing people/dating Xander (unbelievable). Cue the pan flutes. In high school I hated the way I looked. I hated having brown hair and brown eyes. I’m fairly light skinned, and if I had grown up in Ecuador (where I was born) I would be considered white. I dyed my hair and wore contacts because the ideal beauty when I was growing up was anything that didn’t look like me.

I’ve gotten over that now, and I love myself and all that, but it didn’t happen overnight. Just like the change in publishing isn’t happening overnight.

After WNDB’s launch as a non-profit organization in 2014, I heard a lot of comments akin to “Why do I have to write diverse characters when so called diverse authors don’t write diversity?” The reason is because we had a harder time selling our own stories. A person of color (POC) author writing an #OwnVoices stories might be “authentic” now, but even so much as a year ago, it was “too exotic.” The politics of the industry are complicated and it’s something readers and bloggers might not understand when they’re a lot less forgiving of books by POC.

This has been a long way of saying, I feel more comfortable writing POC protagonists now because it’s in the zeitgeist. I don’t want diversity to become another publishing trend. Because unlike vampires and dystopian novels, POC are real.

 

B: Lastly, tell us about a remarkable woman of fantasy literature—an author, reader, agent, editor, scholar, or someone else—who has changed your life.

ZORAIDA: Libba Bray is my favorite author and one that shaped my early writing years. I remember buying A Great and Terrible Beauty at my local B&N (which no longer exists), and this book changed the way I look at my own stories. Back then in 2005, I thought I wanted to write a historical novel. It wasn’t so much that I was discouraged as much as I realized that I had a different path. I’m not a researchy author, so it worked out. Libba’s words meant everything to me. I read her LiveJournal religiously and she was always honest about politics and personal stuff. Her words have always been important to me.

 


Zoraida Córdova was born in Ecuador and raised in Queens, New York. She is the author of The Vicious Deep trilogy, which centers around Tristan, who discovers his heritage and is thrown into a battle going on beneath the ocean, fighting for his future, his friends, and his life. Her other works include the On the Verge series, which are about 20-something-year-old-girls searching for love and the meaning of life, and Labyrinth Lost, about Alex, a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation who hates magic so much that she performs a spell to rid herself of her power. Zoraida loves black coffee and snark, and still believes in magic. She is a contributing writer to Latinos in Kid Lit because #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Zoraida studied at Hunter College and the University of Montana in Missoula.

For more information about Zoraida, please visit Zoraida’s website, blog, or Twitter.

 

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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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Books and Breakfast: July Spotlight

Sirens veterans know that each year, we select a variety of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books related to our annual theme—and we invite attendees to bring their breakfast on Friday and Saturday mornings during Sirens to discuss them. Last month, we announced our 2017 Books and Breakfast books on women who work magic, and you can check them all here.

Every month, we’ll be highlighting a few titles chosen, in the hopes that you pick up these great books in time for Books and Breakfast! For July, our spotlight is on Charlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky, Rin Chupeco’s The Bone Witch, and Laura Anne Gilman’s Silver on the Road. Questions or thoughts? Comment below or sound off on Twitter at @sirens_con and the hashtag #Sirens17.

 

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

All the Birds in the SKy

Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn’t expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during high school. After all, the development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine could hardly fail to alarm one’s peers and families.

But now they’re both adults, living in the hipster mecca of San Francisco, and the planet is falling apart around them. Laurence is an engineering genius who’s working with a group that aims to avert catastrophic breakdown through technological intervention into the changing global climate. Patricia is a graduate of Eltisley Maze, the hidden academy for the world’s magically gifted, and works with a small band of other magicians to secretly repair the world’s ever-growing ailments. Little do they realize that something bigger than either of them, begun years ago in their youth, is determined to bring them together—to either save the world, or plunge it into a new dark ages.

All the Birds in the Sky asks hard questions: about magic and morality, about technology and the ethical use thereof, about people and life. Its near-future setting, and its almost magic vs. technology structure, allows Anders to explore these questions and more about our societal mores and ambitions. Notably, even as the book careens toward the end of the world as we know it, humanity remains center stage.

 

The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

The Bone Witch

Tea is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy makes her a bone witch, who are feared and ostracized in the kingdom. For theirs is a powerful, elemental magic that can reach beyond the boundaries of the living—and of the human.

Great power comes at a price, forcing Tea to leave her homeland to train under the guidance of an older, wiser bone witch. There, Tea puts all of her energy into becoming an asha, learning to control her elemental magic and those beasts who will submit by no other force. And Tea must be strong—stronger than she even believes possible. Because war is brewing in the eight kingdoms, war that will threaten the sovereignty of her homeland…and threaten the very survival of those she loves.

If you like ambitious girls, this one’s for you. Because while Tea starts the novel quite young and understandably afraid, by the end of the novel, she’s a woman who makes choices—and you’ll be waiting breathlessly to see what she does in the second installment. Further, the novel’s bifurcated timeline structure allows the reader to compare Tea in her childhood with Tea today: a luxury for readers who love character-driven novels.

 

Silver on the Road by Laura Anne Gilman

Silver on the Road

A heroic fantasy about a young woman who is trained in the art of the sinister hand of magic, but at what price?

On her sixteenth birthday, Isobel makes the choice to work for the Devil in his territory west of the Mississippi. But this is not the devil you think you know. This is a being who deals fairly with immense—but not unlimited—power, who offers opportunities to people who want to make a deal, and makes sure they always get what they deserve. But his land is a wild west that needs a human touch, and that’s where Izzy comes in. Inadvertently trained by him to see the clues in and manipulations of human desire, Izzy is raised to be his left hand and travel the circuitous road through the territory. As we all know, where there is magic there is power and chaos…and death.

Silver on the Road is a slow burn of a book. Izzy’s choice to become the Devil’s Left Hand happens quickly at the beginning, and you spend the rest of the book traveling the Wild West with her as she learns what it really means to have made a deal with the Devil. But it doesn’t mean what you expect: There’s both good and bad for Izzy, great power and, yes, great responsibility, and all of it much more subtly wielded than your usual deal-with-the-devil fare.

 

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Sirens Support

When we created Sirens, we created something different: something smart, something friendly, something inclusive. Something that is as much a community as it is a conference. An inviting space full of respect, brilliance, and inspiration, where people both speak and listen, and where many people now feel at home.

In order to foster that community, we include elements in Sirens such as our Thursday afternoon tea and our keynote addresses that bring all attendees together, often over a shared meal. These elements raise Sirens’s costs significantly.

Yet, despite these costs, we remain committed to keeping the price of Sirens as low as possible, so that more individuals have an opportunity to attend our conference and participate in our community. As a result, we run an unusual budget structure: the costs of presenting Sirens exceed our registration revenue by over $12,000. In fact, every time someone registers for Sirens, we lose money.

We’re asking for your help. Each year, Sirens covers that monetary gap by raising funds, in three ways, from those who can perhaps provide a bit more support. These funds go directly to covering Sirens’s costs, and are critical to our ability to continue providing registrations at lower prices so that our community can continue to flourish.

We hope that you’ll consider supporting Sirens this year in one of the following ways.

 

MONETARY DONATIONS

Each year, thousands of dollars of the costs of presenting Sirens are offset by monetary donations, in amounts ranging from $5 to $1,500. The donors are members of the Sirens community, friends and family, and even strangers who simply believe in our mission of providing a space to discuss and debate the remarkable, diverse women of fantasy literature. All monetary donations go directly toward the elements of Sirens that provide immediate value for attendees: catering, t-shirts, registration bags, audiovisual equipment, event insurance, and so forth. (In fact, it’s worth noting that Sirens does not incur many of the indirect expenses that most events incur, such as salaries or office space rental, as our staff are volunteers who not only donate their time, but also use their personal computers, cellphones, and living space to plan Sirens.)

If you’d like to make a donation, in any amount, please visit our donations page. We will acknowledge you on our website, in our program book, and at Sirens.

For those of you particularly interested in programming, very soon you will be able to sponsor individual presentations for $35, and in doing so, support and encourage particular presenters or the inclusion of particular topics on our schedule. If you’d like to sponsor a programming presentation, please visit our accepted programming page. (We expect to begin posting summaries of accepted presentations July 24!) We will acknowledge you in connection with your chosen programming presentation on our website, in our program book, and at Sirens.

For those of you particularly interested in other elements of Sirens, we’re always happy to discuss sponsorship of other programming and events. If you’re interested, please email us at (donate at sirensconference.org).

 

AUCTION

The Sirens auction has become an unexpected source of significant revenue in recent years, and one that we especially love: while raising money for Sirens, we’re also providing attendees the opportunity to obtain amazing items and services. Our auction includes both a silent component, culminating at our Toil and Trouble Ball, and a live component, which provides an always-raucous element to our final breakfast.

All items in our auction are donated by individuals: Sirens staff, Sirens attendees, and other Sirens supporters. These items are frequently fun, sometimes one-of-a-kind, occasionally startling, and often a terrific deal on professional services. We’ve featured everything from unique articles such as t-shirts, pillows, journals, and jewelry; to professional services such as manuscript critiques and query letter reviews; to art pieces such as custom digital artwork, character naming rights for upcoming books, and original watercolors.

The sky’s the limit, and if you are interested in donating an item or two for our auction, please email us at (donate at sirensconference.org).

 

NARRATE BOOKSTORE

A few years ago, Narrate Conferences, Inc., the presenting 501(c)(3) charitable organization behind Sirens, began operating the Sirens bookstore as a fundraiser. This gives us the opportunity to use the bookstore profits to support Sirens. But it also gives us the opportunity, in defiance of the commercial market, to stock our bookstore exclusively with fantasy books written by, or featuring, amazing women—books that we and the Sirens community love.

In many ways, our bookstore operates like any other bookstore: we acquire new books for sale just like anyone else. But in two ways, our bookstore is different. First, our community frequently donates new books, just to make sure that the bookstore includes them in its inventory; sometimes these attendees work for publishers, but more often, these attendees are simply Sirens supporters who want to help make our bookstore as wonderful as possible. Second, we have a used section of our bookstore where we offer gently used fantasy books for $5 each. That section of our bookstore is stocked entirely through donations.

If you would like to donate books to our bookstore, please send your books to the following address, to arrive no later than August 1, 2017. (And remember, if you’re shipping only books, the USPS media mail option is terrifically cheap, but terrifically slow, so please leave time for your package to arrive.)

Sirens
c/o Narrate Conferences
P.O. Box 149
Sedalia, CO 80135

 

TAX DEDUCTIONS

Narrate Conferences, Inc., the presenting organization behind Sirens, is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. Therefore, all donations to Sirens are eligible for tax deduction in accordance with U.S. law.

 

THANK YOU

Regardless of whether you are able to provide us with additional support this year or not, and if so, regardless of the type or amount of that additional support, we thank you. This community means the world to us, and we’re both honored and humbled to say that we’re presenting our ninth year of Sirens this October.

 

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July Fantasy New Releases

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of July book releases of fantasy by and about women. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments.

As always, we’d love to hear from you. If you’ve sold a fantasy work, read a great recently-released story, discovered a fantastic link that we missed, or if you’ve got a book or story review to share, please get in touch and leave a comment below.

 

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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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