Sirens is a space that actively seeks to amplify voices that are pushing boundaries in speculative spaces—and specifically, are pushing those boundaries in the direction of a more inclusive, more empathetic, more just world. This year, we carefully considered what that means to us, and we’ve selected 25 works by female, nonbinary, and trans authors envisioning that world. We find that these works demonstrate the true wonder of what speculative spaces can be—and what our real world can also be. When we ask ourselves what Sirens is, and what Sirens could be, we look to these works and others like them.
Many of these works will challenge you. Some may make you uncomfortable. And some might be just the books you’ve been waiting for. We’ll be ready to discuss at Sirens in 2021!
This year’s reading challenge is simple: Read the 25 works listed below by October 1, 2021. Once you’re finished—and by no later than October 1, 2021—send an email to (help at sirensconference.org) with Reading Challenge as the subject line to let us know that you’ve finished the challenge. We’ll give all timely finishers a special button, suitable for gloating, at Sirens.
We have two exceptions to that rule:
- Many of you will have already read some (or even many) of the selected 25 works. For each work that you’ve already read, please select a work from the list of additional works below.
- Some of the works we’ve chosen include difficult content, such as sexual assault, self-harm, or racialized violence. If you need to skip one or more of the works on this list for any reason, we understand. Instead, please select a comparable number of works from the list of additional books below.
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2021 Reading Challenge
- A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter
While calling Angela Slatter the heir apparent to Angela Carter and Emma Donoghue may seem a bold assertion, it’s appropriately so. Carter and Donoghue reclaimed fairy tales, but their work, despite their obvious feminism, so often remained in conversation with more heteropatriarchal versions. By contrast, Slatter has little interest in correcting, instructing, or even raging at the heteropatriarchy. She—like her heroines—is busy. Busy being, if you will: being frightened and fearless, being brave and bold, being frail and fantastical. This collection is one to be savored one story, one revelation, and one smart, independent woman at a time.
- An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
When we think of speculative-fiction-as-transposition, illuminating in far starker realities what cannot be gleaned from history books or pedagogy, there’s no better example than Rivers Solomon’s seminal dystopia in space. Black, queer, autistic Aster lives on a starship organized like an antebellum plantation with Black and brown folks working backbreaking labor and brutally policed on the lower decks, while the white, wealthy upper deckers twist theocracy to cruel ends and live in blameless comfort. Solomon tells a story of structural racism and collective trauma with such thorough worldbuilding and such visceral pain you won’t look at science fiction the same way again.
- Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi
Books about female friendships are too few and oh-so-far between, but the (eventual) bond between Arundhati Shah and Yamini Kapoor-Mercado-Lopez will make your heart sing. When Chokshi’s middle-grade fantasy opens, lonely Aru discovers that she’s unleashed a great evil upon the world and that she’s a reincarnated Pandava brother tasked with saving it. She and Mini, who is also a reincarnated Pandava, have to navigate both a dangerous journey and their new relationship with each other in order to do just that. Aru and Mini are both magnificent characters in their own right, but their blossoming friendship is the beating heart of this adventure.
- Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore
It’s tough to reimagine familiar tales—but Blanca & Roja does just that, taking Swan Lake’s enchanted tale of love, transformation, and sacrifice, and bringing it into the modern day. Sisters Blanca and Roja are subject to a familial curse, one of them meant to become a swan, but neither knows which of them will be the “good” one and which will be spirited away, and they try, desperately, to break from the roles that have been given them. Meanwhile, they’ll grapple with queerness, colorism, ableism, transphobia, and so many other reminders that the world doesn’t always provide a happy ending. The luminous writing and sisterhood within these pages will take hold of you through all of their struggles.
- Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction by Sami Schalk
Schalk’s scholarly work is revelatory. She begins with the notion of the bodymind, or the intertwinement of the mental and physical. Then, using that as a foundation, she extrapolates the true political and social power of speculative spaces: creation of bodyminds that transcend reality’s limitations. Schalk examines works of Black speculative writers as she examines the intersections of marginalizations and creates a new framework for disability studies, Black studies, and gender studies. If the universe truly bends toward justice, it’s work like Schalk’s that makes that so.
- Borderline by Mishell Baker
Baker’s noir-ish romp is a simply spectacular reinvention of urban fantasy. As Borderline opens, we are in a practically sentient Hollywood, a year after Millie’s failed suicide attempt, when she’s recruited to join a shadowy organization that oversees the boundaries between our world and that of the fae. When a famous actor—also a noble of the Seelie Court—goes missing, nothing less than a war between the worlds is on the line. Spitfire Millie is a queer double amputee with borderline personality disorder—and the beauty of Baker’s work is that all these pieces of Millie are what make her an undeniable hero.
- Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski
We are, all of us, overcommitted and exhausted. In this groundbreaking work, sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski examine what it means, as a modern woman, to be burned out—and it’s not too much of a spoiler to tell you that we all are, brought on by our constant struggle to close the impossible gap between what’s expected of women and what it’s really like to be a woman. With science, cultural insights, and sheer common sense, Burnout helps you assess what you really need to get through your stress cycles and start feeling better. (Hint: It’s not more seemingly obligatory, anxiety-inducing self-care practices.)
- Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Ireland is unwaveringly brilliant at power deconstructions, especially when she’s applying them to examinations of race and America—and Dread Nation is all of that wrapped up in a bravura horror novel. In the aftermath of the United States Civil War, Jane is trained at combat school with other Black girls, because in this America, the dead rise as zombies. In Dread Nation, Ireland cleverly constructs an America both wildly different and ultimately not so different from our own: one with vital problems of oppression, marginalization, and humanity.
- Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper
Eloquent Rage is, in a word, fearless. Cooper is blazingly smart as she interrogates—consummately, furiously, hilariously—the warring messages of feminism for Black women. Traveling from topic to topic, from religion to relationships to hair care, Cooper offers equal parts insightful criticism and extraordinary compassion. She holds Black women’s sorrow and pain gently, and also nurtures their friendships, their love, and their rage, the latter an often untapped superpower. Cooper sees the world as it is, and as it could be, as clear as day.
- Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Machado’s ferocious, genre-bending collection is a series of feminist issues incarnate. Starting with “The Husband Stitch”—a virtuoso retelling of the Velvet Ribbon fairy tale as a modern fable of women’s privacy, women’s voices, and women’s truth—Machado incisively lays bare the constant oppression and all-too-familiar compromises of women’s shared experiences. Machado’s work will make you rage, cry, keen, and laugh helplessly—and then buy a copy to give to all your friends.
- Lumberjanes: Beware the Kitten Holy by Brooke A Allen, Grace Ellis, Noelle Stevenson, and Shannon Watters
Friendship to the max! Five best friends are determined to have the best time at summer scout camp—and they’re not about to let any three-eyed wolves get in their way. This ongoing comic is a little bit punk rock, a little bit girl detective, and a whole lot of joyous queer space all rolled up into a series of fantastical adventures. Main characters April, Jo, Mal, Molly, and Ripley are beautifully crafted as individual characters, but their relationships—which grow and change as they grow and change—are where Lumberjanes excels. We should all be so lucky to have friends like this.
- Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee
Jules and Sylvie are sisters and, even better, best friends. But when their mother passes away, they each deal with their grief a little bit differently—Jules hunkering down, Sylvie running away. One morning, when Sylvia races to throw one more wish rock in the river before school, she disappears; at the same time, a fox is born, one that seems destined to protect Jules as she searches with an ever-thinning thread of hope for her missing sister. Maybe a Fox is a delicate reflection on what it means to grieve and, ultimately, what it means to find hope again.
- The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi (translated by Cathy Hirano)
A giant of fantasy in her native Japan, Uehashi pens an epic tale about a young, unassuming girl who trains to be a doctor to fearsome beasts. In an impressively built world with an established government, history, complex geopolitics, warring groups use animals, often cruelly, for political advantage. The Beast Player will make you question which traditions should be kept and which left behind, our relationship to animals and nature, and how doing the right thing—no matter how small it seems—in a society that values power over goodness is an ongoing act of resistance.
- The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan
Khan’s speculative debut, set in an impressive, thoughtfully crafted fantasy Middle East and South Asia, is a meticulous, determined reclamation of Islam for women and others. Khan spins her tale as an epic adventure, but her themes are momentous: knowledge lost to time and apathy, people destroyed by an increasingly authoritarian rule, and a revolution led by unlikely allies resolute in their fight for justice. Khan’s work is truly epic, ranging skillfully from those global themes to the tiniest nuances of relationships and the most carefully laid allusions to seemingly lost legends.
- The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
New York has just awoken. It—and its vibrant, bustling people—have created the momentum necessary to transform it from a city to a city, an indelible place with its own sentience that will change the course of the stars. But New York is young and it needs its protectors: asshole Manhattan, artistic Bronx, ferocious Brooklyn, striving Queens, and even insular Staten Island. Jemisin’s dirty, messy, joyous, ambitious, in-your-face work plays by no one’s rules but its own. It’s a shining work that makes you want to stand up and be counted alongside New York’s fiercest defenders. It’s very human. And very New York.
- The Deep & Dark Blue by Niki Smith
After a terrible political coup, siblings (and twins) take on new identities and hide from their enemies in the Communion of Blue, an order of magical women who spin the threads of reality to their will. This middle grade graphic novel is full of stories that unravel and are weaved again—the twins discover much about the Communion and their own place in the larger politics—and one of the most compelling is how one twin finds her identity as a trans girl and embraces it, even as she fears it may separate her from her brother. It’s a magical, affirming tale of being true to yourself and forging your own path.
- The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
Like the novella’s titular character, one doesn’t realize just how fierce and fearsome The Empress of Salt and Fortune is until it has gotten under your skin and you realize you’ve been had. Styled like an Asian period drama, the story is framed by Rabbit, a former handmaiden to Empress In-yo, telling the Cleric Chih how an unassuming northern royal daughter upended an empire and brought it to its knees. Short, satisfying, and utterly marvelous, it’s worth reading at least twice—once to put the pieces together and again to admire the skill of the maker.
- The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg
The Four Profound Weaves, Lemberg’s debut set in their Birdverse universe, is particularly impressive for the depth of its layered and intricate world-building, meticulously crafted language, and complex characters. Elder Uiziya has spent much of her life waiting for her aunt to return and teach her the last secrets of her craft; a nameless man searches for belonging and purpose, unsure he will be welcome if he returns home. Together, they set off in search of Uiziya’s missing aunt, fully aware that the answers to their questions might have an enormous cost, and that they will each need to confront the pain of their pasts to find a new path forward. Themes of healing, faith, family, and friendship echo throughout the richly detailed, interconnected, and thoroughly queer universe.
- The Lost Coast by Amy Rose Capetta
In The Lost Coast, Danny arrives in Tempest, a tiny town in northern California among the towering redwoods. Danny almost immediately encounters the Grays: queer witches, outcasts at school who seem to think nothing of that status. The Grays need Danny. They summoned her to California to help find their missing friend. But Danny needs the Grays, too, in this shimmering, liminal work about accepting yourself as you are and supporting your friends as they are. Capetta’s quietly joyous, beautifully crafted work will mend the cracks in your heart.
- The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy
Unrelentingly furious, deliberately profane Eltahawy presents her version of the seven sins: those seven things that women and girls need to, as she exhorts, “fuck the patriarchy.” Through a combination of searing academic work and lived experience as an activist around the world, Eltahawy argues for a singularly blazing approach to feminist thought, one that demands that patriarchy fear the power of transgressive feminists to defy, disrupt, and destroy it. This brilliant, uncompromising work will teach readers how to be exactly those feminists.
- The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley
In a world of monstrous, living spaceships and endless war, we have two characters: one with amnesia, the other a known liar. The former has been dumped in the belly of the ship, for reasons mysterious and unknown, and must make her way on a very squishy journey back to the outer levels. The latter is playing a game of queens and pawns. Hurley uses this challenging set-up, a good amount of body horror, and an all-female cast to explore—brilliantly, powerfully—reproductive justice. Just wait until someone births a ship’s gear.
- This Accident of Being Lost by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
Simpson’s genre-breaking collection of stories and songs is wildly experimental and deliberately provocative. An award-winning Nishnaabeg storyteller, not to mention provocateur and poet, Simpson incisively analyzes and condemns colonialism in her work, often in surprising ways. (Have you ever guerilla-tapped maples in a residential neighborhood? Or considered that Lake Ontario may want to flood the world and remake it?) Simpson’s work is invariably smart, and often demanding, requiring that you consider the world differently than you did before, through rage, through despair, through sorrow, through joy.
- Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson
In Trouble the Saints, Johnson has penned a masterwork, novel simultaneously compulsively readable and astonishingly profound. In a dangerous, pre-WWII New York City, Phyllis LeBlanc has magic hands, saints’ hands. Hands with the ability to kill—and so she does, going to work for one of the most notorious gangsters in the city. She’s his angel and his assassin. But that’s not all she wants out of life, and in this truly American novel, in this uniquely fantastical world, we see the shape and yearning of Phyllis’s American Dream. But in this truly American work, we also see the racial fractures of the country through Phyllis and her talented hands.
- We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry
In 1989, in Danvers, Massachusetts—formerly Salem Village—a truly terrible girls’ field hockey team makes a deal with the devil in the form of a notebook with Emilio Estevez on the cover. If they want to win, they must commit acts worthy of the devil’s patronage. The girls start small—a lie here, a prank there—but as the season progresses, their matches become closer, and the girls commit more serious sins. But are these acts devilish—or are they transgressive? Barry’s clever, hilarious romp explores the dichotomy between objective bad acts and subjectively bad acts, the diminishing force of unrelenting stereotypes, and using a deal with the devil to find yourself and claim your power.
- Whipping Girl by Julia Serano
In Whipping Girl, biologist and trans woman Julia Serano explores gender, specifically with respect to trans women. While some language is dated—please read the second edition, which includes a preface that provides more recent context to a groundbreaking, but older work in this space—many of Serano’s themes remain critical today, from her exploration of transmisogyny to the disparagement of femininity to the continued and aggressive exclusion of trans women from women’s spaces. Serano’s work is a smart, bold collection of science, data, history, and lived experience.
Please see the Rules for when you may count books from this list toward completion of the 2021 Reading Challenge.
All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva
Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman
Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee
Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Morena-Garcia
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong
Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger by Soraya Chemaly
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves
Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker
The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison
The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders
The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith
The Girl and the Goddess by Nikita Gill
The Likeability Trap: How to Break Free and Succeed as You Are by Alicia Menendez
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley
The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg (now Daniel Lavery)
The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
Two Moons by Krystal A. Smith
We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia