Ren Iwamoto: I’m growing out of the habit of uncritical love

Before this year’s conference in October, we’re getting to know some members of our Sirens community. In this attendee interview series, we talk to scholars, creators, professionals, readers, and more: about their love of fantasy literature, their current work and passions, why they chose to attend Sirens, and what keeps them coming back. We think you’ll find that our community is truly exemplary, and hope you’ll join us!


AMY TENBRINK: I want to ask you everything, but that feels like such an imposition! Let’s start here: Your bio includes the following sentence: “Her areas of interest include studies in death, gender, memory, grotesquerie, and post-colonialism; she is in eternal search for the thesis topic that combines all of the above.” Tell me, how does one channel all that amazingness into a graduate degree? What is the focus of your work?

REN IWAMOTO: I’m sure my supervisor would also like the answer to that question, but to give it the old college try: Channeling ideas for me is mostly just spewing bullshit until someone says something like, “Wow, I never thought of that before!” Then I bullshit some more and suddenly I have a thesis. Right now I’m really focusing on twentieth century East Asian literature — specifically during and post-WWII — with the intent of investigating the effects of Japanese colonialism. I was raised and educated in Canada, so bringing attention to this part of history, which has dodged a deserved spot in Western mass consciousness, fully into postcolonial discourse is important to me.


AMY: Last year at Sirens, you presented, with Marcella Haddad, a lecture titled “Death in a Dress: Is the ‘Girl Assassin’ Really a Strong Female Character?” This year, you’re presenting again, this time “Fight, Loli, Fight!: Lolita Fashion, Cute Culture, and Heroic Girlhood in Contemporary Media.” How do you craft your topics and what do you hope audiences take away from your presentations?

REN: I’m growing out of the habit of uncritical love. I love many things — girl assassins and anime, for example — and for a long time I thought that because those things were worthy of being loved I didn’t need to find the flaws in them. Or perhaps more accurately: I worried that if I found the flaws in something, I couldn’t love it anymore. But that’s a lazy way to consume media, and lacking in nuance. Investigating the parts of media I didn’t want to think about before is the origin of both my papers. As with all my academic work, my only goal is to have my audience go, “huh,” and nod thoughtfully.

“Death in a Dress” was very pattern-oriented. I think stories featuring girl assassins, or girl warriors, or whatever, are often sold under the pretense of being subversive. “My heroine is strong and she doesn’t take any shit and also she’s sexy, but in a relatable way,” they seem to say. But all of them seem to say that. They all feature violence, subjugation, sex. Reading the novels, I thought that men could derive pleasure from seeing these female characters have violence inflicted upon them, and in turn perpetrate violence. So there’s really nothing subversive about them at all. That’s where the idea for the paper came from. Marcella generated a lot of questions about craft related to this idea, which I would never have even considered, so she added an invaluable dimension to the presentation.

“Fight, Loli, Fight” is actually pretty reactionary. There’s still a lot of media that equates the strong female character as either completely derisive of femininity, or otherwise she’s a femme fatale. To have a girl as hero — and I mean a girl, not a (young) woman — is many times more subversive. There is a nebulous distinction between young woman and girl that is essential here, and I hope to expand upon it in the full paper, but briefly: A girl can be feminine without being sexualized, have romance without sex, and yet their internal and external lives are still rich, nuanced, entertaining for viewers. That’s both refreshing, I think, and important. In any case, I picked on this thread because it happened to coincide with this year’s theme. So, essentially I started working on it on a whim and got in over my head, as usual.


AMY: What do you love about reading speculative fiction? What kinds of stories, worldbuilding, characters, or craft really speak to you?

REN: I think speculative fiction is all about boundaries: what’s acceptable, real, possible. All the givens of our world become mutable in spec fic, and that’s very special to me as both a reader and writer. The room for play is infinite, and the stories where I can see that sentiment reflected are my favourite.


AMY: And you’re a poet! You’ve described writing poetry as “Mostly, I just unleash a demon I have trapped in a rosewood box, and it does the work for me.” What about poetry as a medium appeals to you? Is it the demon?

Editor’s Note: We’ve included a selection of Ren’s poems at the end of the post. Please click on the titles to read their full text: Fruit Scissors; Obento; All-Saints Day.

REN: It’s the demon. The demon has special powers and makes me think that every day I’m alive fucking sucks, and tries to keep me in bed all day without eating or sleeping or anything, but that really doesn’t work for me. So we have a deal in which I’ll write poems as if every day I’m alive fucking sucks, but in reality I will live as happily, determinedly, uncompromisingly as I can.

As a medium—I’m very lazy, and a scrooge, when it comes to both writing and reading. To me, good poems are distillations, and say the most in the fewest words possible.


AMY: Why did you decide to come to Sirens? And then why did you decide to come back to Sirens?

REN: I was at a writers’ retreat run by Natalie Parker three or four years ago. Justina Ireland was there and said something to the effect of, “Sirens is the only conference I give a fuck about.” Last year I was finally able to scrape some funds together to attend, and now Sirens is the only conference I give a fuck about. It’s kind of like when you go to a party where you don’t know anyone, and you’re like, Ah, shit, but then you see someone wearing, like, a pin from a show you like. The relief you feel as you go to strike up a conversation! Sirens was like that except everyone was wearing a pin from a show I like.


AMY: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

REN: [Content warning: suicide mention]

Not to sound like a total Leo, but I change my own life. I tried to die twice! And yet I’m still here helping my friends out, writing poems, getting money, educating myself, and transmogrifying into something unspeakable beneath the light of the full moon! Isn’t it radical, equally destructive and constructive, for me, someone with one foot in Woman and one foot in Other, to keep living? This isn’t to say I didn’t have help — my parents, my therapist, my friends — but I’m the one who put in the work. It was me. It continues to be me.


Ren Iwamoto is a Japanese-Canadian grad student from the tenth dimension. Her areas of interest include studies in death, gender, memory, grotesquerie, and post-colonialism; she is in eternal search for the thesis topic that combines all of the above. Her poetry has been featured in multiple publications.


[Bywords Magazine,, August 2018]

i trace a line
of blood up
my thigh touch
pulpy red
meat a grapefruit
my lips

my legs cut
across streets
swiftly scissoring
towards a women’s
clinic my pants
are black they
show no

like rotten
plums my body
invites parasites
i pinch their
tender pink heads
their undeveloped

heads and
pull them out
in a burst of blood

my legs cut
across streets
swiftly scissoring
away from a women’s
clinic my pants
are black they
show no


[In/Words Magazine & Press, Issue 17.1, February 2018]

When Mama and Papa go to work
my obaa-chan makes me lunch. Rice,
pickled plum and radish, hardboiled eggs
marinated in shoyu and mirin.
Cucumbers cut into stars.

Some hakujin says, “Why are your eggs
black? Looks gross.”
I say, “Eat shit, Sarah. You have a
cheese sandwich every day. Look at this:
my grandma cuts my cucumbers into stars.
Shut up and drink your Five Alive.”

Detention (again).

At home: tuna sashimi,
red as an open wound.
Cold buckwheat noodles.

When Mama and Papa go to work,
my obaa-chan makes me lunch. White
bread. Juice box. Sarah keeps her mouth
shut; who’s eating shit


[above/ground press, GUEST Issue 1, November 2018]

my bones do not belong to me
alone like all saints
I donate this still-breathing
corpse to the faithful
may my blood be crystallized
tempered into glass
there you see my image
rendered in red casting
cursed light upon the praying
upon the back of the pastor’s neck
upon all the other holy things

the catacombs of my body
are for god alone to excavate
exhume my ugliest
pieces and gild them for display
under blessings and
the public eye
under the hands of popes
and preachers perhaps I
will become lovely

my ghost too
is a victim of love
chained down by devotion
caught in a jam jar
call me down like lightning
to pass through the veil
and inhabit your rivals
I will walk their bodies
into graves
into your arms
into a chapel done up in gold
and blood-colours
only the most loyal
servants haunt
their masters like I do

after death
humans are like empires
they collapse inwards
and disintegrate
I have seen the face of god
and it looks like your face
if you had seen a hundred-thousand
disappointing years


To me, Heartland looks less like a murderous love story and more like a parable for our time

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!


In pursuit of perfection, I have spent endless hours of my life crafting plans: detailed plans, back-up plans, emergency plans, plans about plans. I have fretted and worried and micromanaged and micromanaged my micromanagement. I put plan-making on my to-do list. On my half-dozen to-do lists.

I’m certain that any therapist worth their salt could unpack about three dozen things from that: my need for control, my fearlessness, my impatience with people who worry, my contempt for people surprised by likely failures, my tactical skills in negotiations, my utter misery when people do not do what I thought they would or should.

In pursuit of perfection, I spent three decades of my life crafting and micromanaging plans — and the fourth decade of my life realizing that, while this superhuman planning has given me many gifts, it has also made me perfectly miserable. Not too long ago, a professional colleague I will identify only as Raging Bull Pete told me that, often, you can plan and manage and micromanage and stress and worry and control — and the outcome will be exactly the same as if you had done exactly none of those things. And when a man whose team calls him Raging Bull Pete says that maybe the raging bull approach to life is often fruitless, you listen. It is the single best piece of professional advice I have ever been given. I’m not sure it was intended as such.

So the fourth decade of my life has been about needing less control and therefore, engaging in less planning. Some things matter, a lot of things don’t. Some things I need to be done my way, some things I just need to be done and sometimes I just can’t watch the sausage being made. Plan A can stay, but with a lot fewer details and a lot more flexibility. Plan B for likely failure points can stay. Plan C had to go. Plan C was making me miserable.

Heartland by Ana Simo is about a plan: a detailed, micromanaged, overwrought sort of plan. It’s the sort of plan that 25-year-old me would have greatly respected and 43-year-old me side-eyes with great contempt. It’s a plan born of a need to decide something, a need to control something, a need for something to go perfectly, even if that something is, frankly, nonsensical.

Heartland is set in an alternate, failing United States. Our nameless Latina narrator begins the book in New York, where she is a writer who suddenly loses her ability to literally type words. First conjunctions, then adverbs, finally ending with nouns. In this United States, without the fundamental skill on which she relies, our narrator needs something firmly within her grasp. When she chances upon Mercy McCabe, who stole Bebe from the narrator some years prior, and learns that McCabe and Bebe are no longer together, the narrator concocts an elaborate plot: to lure McCabe to Elmira, the narrator’s hometown in the Midwest; convince McCabe to confess her guilt; and then execute her. You can perhaps imagine how much Bebe truly factors into this plan, which is to say really not at all.

What follows is a hyper-micromanaged, hyper-detailed, months-long plan that is much less about McCabe than it is about the narrator’s need to control something. The narrator convinces McCabe to rent a judge’s house in Elmira, the same house that the narrator’s mother used to clean. The narrator poses as a butler almost, hiring a local Latina to cook and clean, but to speak only to the narrator, never McCabe. As the narrator begins to gaslight McCabe, the reader begins to wonder — as 43-year-old me wonders about 25-year-old me’s endless plans — what is the fucking point?

But the point, of course, is that sometimes you need to control something, anything, just one thing. But also that if you hold something too tightly, it brittlely falls apart. If you micromanage something too much, you’ve created a thousand unnecessary failure points. If your murderous plan requires getting your victim to first confess her crime (what crime?!), you may never get to murder her at all.

And that’s how Heartland plays out: McCabe, as you might imagine, doesn’t always behave how the narrator expects her to — and every time she does not, it wrenches the narrator’s carefully crafted plan, often in small, worrying ways, sometimes in leviathan ones. A third of the way through the book, McCabe takes to her room in the judge’s house, seemingly having arranged with the housekeeper for meals that were not those meticulously planned by the narrator, only to emerge many days later so much thinner as to be a different person, both physically and in temperament. Two thirds of the way through the book, McCabe disappears entirely. How do you kill someone when she is no longer there?

Heartland’s flap copy calls the narrator’s plan “a homicidal masterplan so detailed as to be akin to love.” Maybe. But to me, Heartland looks less like a murderous love story and more like a parable for our time: When things around you are failing, and you have so little control, the natural instinct is to want to decide something, to control it, to plan it, to have something firmly and predictably within your grasp, and to have all that meticulous planning and execution result in something right. But that’s not how life works and it’s certainly not how other people work and sometimes, your homicidal masterplan fails not because it didn’t take every detail into account, but rather because it did.

One note: Heartland is satire. I am deeply conflicted about satire as a device because I frequently find that the intended message gets lost in the device. Simo, a queer Latina, uses a number of satirical mechanisms in Heartland, including racist and homophobic slurs and stereotypes. This may not be your cup of tea.

Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and ten 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.


Joy Kim: The hardest thing I’ve had to do as a librarian is try to unlearn my own natural perfectionism

Before this year’s conference in October, we’re getting to know some members of our Sirens community. In this attendee interview series, we talk to scholars, creators, professionals, readers, and more: about their love of fantasy literature, their current work and passions, why they chose to attend Sirens, and what keeps them coming back. We think you’ll find that our community is truly exemplary, and hope you’ll join us!


AMY TENBRINK: Why did you decide to become a librarian? What do you love about it? What about it do you find challenging?

JOY KIM: When I was growing up, I never imagined that one day I’d be a librarian. It just wasn’t a career that anyone ever suggested to me as a possibility. After I graduated from college, I worked for several years in nonprofit book publishing, mostly in the Boston area. I enjoyed working with smart, progressive, bookish people, but eventually I began to ask myself what my next step should be. I knew that I wanted a job that would allow me to have a more direct impact on people and communities. Around the same time, I was also rediscovering the joy of having a library card, and a close friend of mine was wrapping up his own graduate degree in information science. Eventually I put two and two together—and here I am.

I love books, and I love reading, but at the end of the day, libraries are about people. When the daily grind gets me down, I try to focus on how my work makes a difference in people’s lives—both individually and for the community as whole. Sometimes it’s still the moments of connecting a patron with a book or resource or experience. More often these days it’s working with my team, figuring out what support or resources they need to do their very best work, and then making that happen for them.

There’s so much unmet need in our communities, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed by how much work there is to do. Sometimes this shows itself as compassion fatigue, sometimes as good old burnout. The hardest thing I’ve had to do as a librarian is try to unlearn my own natural perfectionism and to remember that sometimes we have to settle for getting started or just moving the needle. That’s not a satisfying answer to the world’s problems, but often it’s the only and most honest one that I can give.


AMY: Two years ago, you presented a workshop intensive as part of the Sirens Studio titled Knowing Your Next Step: Navigating Career Pathways and the Leadership Pipeline. Would you share with us a lesson that you’ve learned in your career that you found to be especially valuable?

JOY: At every stage of my library career, I’ve been fortunate to work with amazing mentors and brilliant peers. One thing I’ve learned from them is the power of invitation and belief—of someone telling you, “I think you’d be great at this” or “I hope you put your name in for that opportunity” or just “Let’s work on this cool thing together.” You might be surprised to learn that I had no interest in management when I first became a librarian. When early mentors told me that I would be a great manager, that really opened my eyes to some new possibilities, and I think that’s led me to where I am now in my career. That’s something that I intentionally try to pay forward now that I’m in a formal leadership position. Most days, I’m not that interested in impressing people with my position—that’s not why I do this work. But when I can use the fancy title for good, I’m all in.


AMY: You’ve reviewed for Kirkus and you’ve chaired the William C. Morris Award Committee for the American Library Association. Do you find that there’s a difference between your professional reading and your personal reading? Do you approach books differently when you’re reading to review or for an award than when you read for pleasure?

JOY: Professional reading and personal reading are very different experiences for me. When I’m reading for a committee or reading for a review, there’s a part of my attention that’s never fully immersed in the story. Sometimes I’m literally pausing to take notes and to flag key passages with post-its. Sometimes it’s just the way that I notice how a plot is being structured or a character’s being developed. When I read for myself, I give myself permission to fall fully into the narrative. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, I let myself enjoy it. And if I’m curious about the mechanics of the author’s craft, I can always revisit that on a reread.


AMY: What do you look for in your personal reading? What kinds of stories, worldbuilding, characters, or craft really speak to you?

JOY: Nancy Pearl likes to talk about the four doorways to story—story, character, setting, and language. I used to think that I primarily read for character, but the older I get, the more I realize how much I read for a sense of place. It’s probably the reason that I’ve always liked fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction. I don’t need a map or a lengthy glossary of invented terms, but I do need a sense that the characters are living in a place that’s real to them.

When it comes to characters, the one thing that I can never resist is competence. Which is probably why I end up falling in love with so many supporting characters, since stories would end a lot more quickly if all protagonists were devastatingly competent at what they do!


AMY: Why did you decide to come to Sirens? And then why did you decide to come back to Sirens?

JOY: I first heard about Sirens from fandom friends who had attended the earliest conferences in Vail. When those friends shared that Sirens was moving to Stevenson, Washington, it was the perfect opportunity to give it a try, since it was now within driving distance. I had attended larger, well-established cons in the past, but I had never felt comfortable at them. I was always conscious of being young, and female, and a person of color. Even when I knew other people who were attending, I felt like an outsider when so few people looked like me. My friends told me Sirens would feel different, and they were right. Even though I only knew a small number of attendees at first, I felt like I was continually being invited in at Sirens, and that made all the difference.


AMY: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

JOY: It takes a village to raise a reader, but if I have to recognize one person, I would credit my late mother for my love of stories. I grew up surrounded by her collection of books, and I didn’t realize for the longest time that other people’s houses weren’t like that. It’s even more impressive when you consider that my mother was reading all those books in her second language. My mother wasn’t a fantasy reader. Her tastes ran more toward mysteries, spy thrillers, Victorian novels, Dostoevsky, and weighty biographies. But she never told me what I shouldn’t read, and aside from that one time she tried to sell me on Tess of the d’Urbervilles, she didn’t try to tell me what I should read. She let me find my own way. So I checked out what I wanted from school libraries, and bought what I wanted with babysitting money from the local bookstore. I took that freedom for granted as a child; now I realize that it was something pretty special.


Joy Kim works as a public librarian in Massachusetts. She is a past chair of YALSA’s William C. Morris YA Debut Award and Great Graphic Novels for Teens committees and a lifelong reader of speculative fiction. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, running, and watching Korean reality shows.


This is How You Lose the Time War is for anyone who has ever been bewitched by the magic of letters

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 Lily Weitzman on Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This is How You Lose the Time War.

This is How You Lose the Time War

My last semester of college, I took an elective called Great Letters. All about the art and history of correspondence, it sparked a love of letter writing. For several years after college, I corresponded via snail mail with any friend who would put pen to paper. This year, in an effort to regrow friendships after an isolated winter, I decided to start again. On a warm spring day, I took some stationery to a nearby park, picked a bench, and wrote a letter to one of my oldest friends.

It feels only right that I returned to letter writing shortly before reading This Is How You Lose the Time War. This is a book for anyone who has ever been bewitched by the magic of letters.

This Is How You Lose the Time War is an epistolary spy-versus-spy romance co-written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Red works for Agency and Blue for Garden, agents on opposing sides of a war spanning space and time. Red and Blue begin leaving letters for each other, at first taunting but soon growing profound as the two women fall in love.

That, of course, is just the set-up, even if it is an intriguing one. That is just what the book is about, not how it feels at its core. And This Is How You Lose the Time War feels profound, beautiful, and magical.

This is a book that is unapologetic in its beauty, its intelligence, and its openness. Its language is lyrical and poetic, though never in a way that makes it too dense or difficult to read. And El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s voices work well together, as she pens Blue’s sections and he Red’s. The epistolary form gives both authors and characters the freedom to explore big questions and revel in glorious language. And the ways Red and Blue find to write each other are wonderful, from words grown into tree rings to a bee dancing out a message.

And while it is soaring and romantic, This Is How You Lose the Time War is also gloriously fun and funny. It revels in wordplay, from a pun on wax seals to the new ways Red and Blue address each letter. With all of space and time at its disposal, the book is not shy about referencing song lyrics or recommended books. These references made me feel more seen as a reader as they worked their own form of time travel: A line from a folk song brought me back to the college dorm where I first learned it, and a reference to an earworm had me groaning in recognition. (Said earworm may get stuck in your head; it’s worth it.)

While this story is labeled science fiction for the time travel and Red’s techno-society Agency, there is just as much a feel of fantasy, especially in the ways Red and Blue find to correspond.

And the time travel, which is usually a hard sell for me, works. So often, time travel is employed in ways that make the logical part of my brain hurt. Not so here. The narrative travels lightly over the workings of time travel so it can better dwell in its possibility. The work of these two agents recognizes the grand scope and infinite complexity of a conflict across space and time. To win a time war, it is just as important to send a doctor to visit her relatives as it is to point an army toward victory. With so many threads of time at play, there are endless narrative possibilities—and as enemy agents fall in love, their ability to recognize new possibilities is all the more important.

The imagery—timelines as threads, Red traveling upthread, Blue braiding strands—is a delight. All the more so for embracing the language of traditionally feminine arts. Similarly, it is a joy to read these two women proclaiming confidence in their skill.

It turns out that letter writing and time travel go together perfectly. As Red points out, letters are their own form of time travel. Each one captures a moment in time, preserving it to be read in the future. And, as I learned in that college class, letters are a format that lends itself to honesty and openness. Strong bonds can form between correspondents. Red and Blue write each other truths. They explore what it means to hunger, to seek, to be seen. That, perhaps more than anything, is the great joy of This Is How You Lose the Time War: two women speaking to each other, sincerely and unreservedly, across all of space and time.

Lily Weitzman is a programming, outreach, and communications librarian at the Public Library of Brookline, MA. That means that on any given day, she might be found leading a poetry reading group, managing the science fiction and fantasy collections, teaching technology skills, or helping you find the title of that book you heard about on public radio. She has previously worked on a Yiddish oral history project and volunteered as an aquarium educator. Outside the library, Lily chairs the Yiddish Committee at Boston Workers’ Circle.


New Fantasy Books: September 2019

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of September 2019 fantasy book releases by and about women and nonbinary folk. Let us know what you’re looking forward to, or any titles that we’ve missed, in the comments!

Casey’s World Guide to Non-Western Fantasy

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women or nonbinary authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we follow writer and indie bookseller Casey Blair on a world tour of some of her favorite non-western fantasy books in this book list.

People often think of the fantasy genre as all knights and castles in analogs of medieval western Europe, but there is so much more to fantasy than that, inspired by cultures and histories around the world. So let’s take a tour of some fantasy in different settings centering different people!


Moribito: Guradian of the Spirit
1. Moribito: Guradian of the Spirit (Moribito #1) by Nahoko Uehashi

From the author of the newly published The Beast Player comes the story of a warrior woman in a fantastical Japan who becomes the bodyguard of a prince possessed by a legendary spirit as they embark on a journey with the power to destroy the kingdom. Moribito does incredible work with power dynamics, anthropology, and complicating and flipping gender roles as well as the value judgments associated with them.

Jade City
2. Jade City (The Green Bone Saga #1) by Fonda Lee

This book was pitched to me as The Godfather meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and after reading it I still find this description incredibly apt. This world reminiscent of gangster Hong Kong movies delivers all the profound family drama you can ask for and the best magical action scenes around.

Empire of Sand
3. Empire of Sand (The Books of Ambha #1) by Tasha Suri

In a setting inspired by Mughal India, Empire of Sand is a gorgeous story of a woman navigating her cultural heritages of the ruling court and the desert nomads and finding her power as a woman within oppressive systems through magical, ceremonial dance. I love Tasha Suri’s take on survival as agency.

The Dreamblood Duology
4. The Dreamblood Duology by N.K. Jemisin

This is fantasy Egypt with dream assassins, which would have been enough for me on its own, but it’s also by the legendary N.K. Jemisin, bringing all her knowledge and challenge of dominant and accepted power structures to bear. You can read this duology as two separate books, but let me just advise you that while The Killing Moon is a satisfying book in its own right even as it lays the groundwork, The Shadowed Sun takes things to a whole other level you should not miss. Read them both.

Coronets and Steel
5. Coronets and Steel (Dobrenica #1) by Sherwood Smith

This novel was my introduction to Ruritanian romance, a genre of stories featuring adventure, romance, and intrigue among the ruling class of a fictional Eastern European country. A fearless girl from modern LA with a penchant for fencing duels and ballet finds all the magic and mystery she dreamed of—and a lot more complication besides–in a world outside of time.

The Gilded Wolves
6. The Gilded Wolves (Book 1) by Roshani Chokshi

Although set in an alternate historical Paris, The Gilded Wolves makes this list because of who it centers: the core protagonists include an Indian dancer, a Filipino historian, and a Jewish engineer. In this magical heist story, Roshani Chokshi does a fantastic job with the nuances of colonialism and broad understanding of global history and diversity, including myriad macro- and micro-aggressions across intersections.

The Black God’s Drums
7. The Black God’s Drums by P. DjèlÍ Clark

Centering women thieves, airship captains, prostitutes, and nuns, this steampunk adventure in an alternate New Orleans highlights awesome and dangerous Orisha magic as well as the legacy of black slavery in the Americas. In this novella P. Djèlí Clark delivers a fantastic meditation on what it means to be free along with all the explosions.

The Summer Prince
8. The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

And last but in no way least, in a futuristic Brazil recovered from an apocalypse, Alaya Dawn Johnson brings us a story fundamentally about the power of art, and it blew me away. The Summer Prince is a stunning challenge and examination of technology, accepted traditions, rebellion, identity, and love.

Casey Blair is an indie bookseller who 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 forests, spoiling cats terribly, and drinking inordinate amounts of tea late into the night.


Katie Passerotti: I want all the stories about girls doing fantastical things and who have zero fucks about adhering to societal norms

Before this year’s conference in October, we’re getting to know some members of our Sirens community. In this attendee interview series, we talk to scholars, creators, professionals, readers, and more: about their love of fantasy literature, their current work and passions, why they chose to attend Sirens, and what keeps them coming back. We think you’ll find that our community is truly exemplary, and hope you’ll join us!


AMY TENBRINK: You teach English at a high school in Pennsylvania. How do you use fantasy books in your curricula? What kind of books do your students get the most excited about?

Katie Passerotti

KATIE PASSEROTTI: Sadly, there is little room for fantasy books within the constraints of my school’s Common Core curriculum. But I bring discussion of fantasy books into the classroom whenever possible because they do contain so many of the elements that we’re required to teach and the majority of students have made closer connections with those texts than they do with the required reading material and in teaching, I try to keep that as my focus—the personal connections and how they interact with the text—in order to help develop empathy and encourage active learning. The books that my students were most excited about this past year were the two YA books I added to my curriculum, Ruta Sepetys’s Salt to the Sea and Jason Reynolds’s Long Way Down. My students found the characters so relatable and were able to recognize themselves in different moments in these stories. They resulted in excellent conversations. This year I am adding Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X and I’m excited to see how my students react.


AMY: This fall, you’ll be leading a roundtable at Sirens where attendees can discuss re-examining the literary canon that educators use in their classrooms. What was the genesis of your idea and what do you hope to cover in the discussion?

KATIE: The idea for this discussion came from realizing that we teach adult books to teenagers and while there are absolutely some excellent themes and ideas to be discussed from those stories, they are rarely relatable to the students. Especially when we read stories based in a world that is vastly different on a technological and economic scale. I find that I spend more time teaching the history of a novel and the social background of the novel instead of focusing on the connections students can make to the text. I struggle to find books that are of high interest to students, have accessible language and can be deemed “school appropriate.” I also feel that the purpose of Language Arts classes have changed and that, as teachers, we need to adjust to fully meet the needs of our students. We need books that are inclusive, diverse and help students to develop empathy and critical thinking skills. I’m looking forward to talking to and brainstorming ideas with fellow attendees on what books to include and how to navigate the sometimes tricky process of getting books into the curriculum without incurring the wrath of parents and the community.


AMY: What do you look for in your personal reading? What kinds of stories, worldbuilding, characters, or craft really speak to you?

KATIE: I want all the stories about girls doing fantastical things and who have zero fucks about adhering to societal norms. I have always loved fantasy. I want to escape into magical worlds filled with magic and mayhem and mythical creatures. I tend to stick to YA as I like the pacier writing style. I want witty dialogue and slow burn romance and stories that have amazing plot twists with bonus points if the characters keep causing their own problems. And I love villains and anti-heroes. I want moral greyness and bad choices and the line between what’s right and wrong to be blurred. I love stories that make you question who’s really the bad guy.


AMY: We have so many equestrians at Sirens, including farriers and jousters. Would you share a bit about your love of horses, your horse Bastian, and your accomplishments as a para-equestrian?

KATIE: I have always loved horses and I’ve been riding since I was twelve. My first degree is even horse related—a B.S. in Equine Management. After I was involved in a severe riding accident resulting in a spinal cord injury and partial paralysis of my left leg, I became involved with the Para-Equestrian problem in order to continue competing in dressage. My horse at the time, Bastian, was fantastic and together we managed to successfully compete for several years. I have always enjoyed riding and find every aspect of horse ownership to be rewarding. It’s an interesting team sport as the rider develops a harmonious relationship with their horse—all built on layers of trust and respect. While Bastian and I were ultimately unable to continue pursuing a place on the USA Paralympic and WEG Teams, we did place second at our of CPED*** event after having to completely rewrite my freestyle from scratch the day before. When I went in the ring to ride my test, I had never had the opportunity to practice it beforehand. Overall, I was thrilled to be able to continue to ride and compete despite my injury and disability.


AMY: Why did you decide to come to Sirens? And then why did you decide to come back to Sirens?

KATIE: I saw people tweeting about this amazing conference called Sirens and when I looked it up, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. So, I started putting money away and signed up. 2018 was my first year and while I was nervous because I didn’t know anyone other than one of my writing buddies who had signed up to go with me, I was also very excited. It was an entire conference devoted to not only fantasy, but WOMEN IN FANTASY. YES PLEASE. Upon arriving everyone was so welcoming and kind and as I listened to the opening remarks, I realized that I was, for the first time in my life, in the perfect place. I was surrounding by amazing people who loved literature and fantasy and recognize the strength in women and non-binary people. I remember crying, because I had never felt so at home anywhere in my life. And pretty much the rest of the weekend was like that. I came home feeling sad that I had to return to a reality that was not as accepting, but also refreshed from having spent a weekend with some of the most amazing and kind people I have ever met. I am so excited for this year!


AMY: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

KATIE: There are so many! And although each individual has made a small change, they have all added up to help me better understand who I am and helped me to exist in a world that constantly tries to take away my self-worth. One of the people who has had a huge influence on my life is my friend, Ally. She is positively amazing, and I rely on her strength and amazingness on a daily basis. She has been there for me whenever I’ve need her—whether it was to celebrate, vent, or just cry. Our friendship has been the first time in my life where I have felt 100% comfortable being me and I don’t feel as though I needed to try and fit into what’s expected of me. She is brilliant and kind and resilient, and I am honored to call her my friend.


Katie Passerotti lives in the hills of Pennsylvania where she works as a high school English teacher. She loves sharing her passion for reading and for language with her students and helping them to find their voices. When she’s not teaching, Katie can be found reading or writing about messy girls completing fantastic quests, at the barn riding her horse, or eating cookies and geeking out with her friends.


How reading translated fiction challenges your cultural assumptions

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 11, Issue 8: August 2019

This month:


Juliet Grames both loves and hates genre distinctions

Readers of fantasy chasing the thrill of world immersion, please follow along as we learn how editor-publisher-author Juliet Grames leaps over barriers of language to roll and delight in the words of other cultures. In our interview, she tells us more about her feelings on genre and what fantasy must deliver, and the writing of her debut novel, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna. This fall, Juliet will be leading the Sirens Studio reading intensive: “Not All Who Wander Are Lost in Translation: A Behind-the-Scenes Discussion About Translated Literature.”


Hurry up with those registrations and tickets!

Remember, we stop selling online registrations for Sirens on September 21. After that, we’ll have limited availability at the door, but no guarantees. We’ll also stop selling tickets for the Sirens Studio, the Sirens Supper, and the Sirens Shuttle on September 21—and those will not be available at the door. Get them before they’re gone!

Find out more!


Our 2019 Conference Schedule is live!

Are you ready to see when we scheduled your favorite things, ostensibly at the same time as your other favorite things? Get your quills out, and check out this year’s Sirens conference schedule here.


In our Sirens Essay series this month…


Get to know some members of our amazing Sirens community

As our conference creeps closer, we’ll be chatting with some of our returning attendees to find out more about them and what they love about Sirens. We recently spoke with Seattle-based YA author, Julia Ember, who shared with us her personal path to glittery gender-deconstructing fantasy writing, as well as Susie O’Brien, a voracious reader and spectacular seamstress.


Books and Breakfast: Body Selections

Still looking for some books to discuss first thing in the morning with your fellow Sirens attendees? This month we looked at the titles that were selected for breaking the typical body mold of heroism. Get the rundown here on the first volume of Faith and the novel Gullstruck Island to see how they fit your fancy.


What we’re reading

Too much heart shredding already happening in the world? Join Amy in her latest monthly book club read for a much-needed heart-soothing tale of female friendship, Destiny Soria’s Iron Cast on the blog and Goodreads.

From our review squad:


Awesome August Book Releases

See the beautiful new books we rounded up for you here!

Erynn’s Pick:

Hollow Kingdom

A feast for crows it is not. When humanity succumbs to self-inflicted fleshy decay, Kira Jane Buxton’s foulmouthed narrating protagonist S.T., a domesticated crow, would much rather have some Cheetos. Unfortunately, his kind-but-pathetic human companion has also fallen victim to the zombie malady afflicting Seattle. So along with a new dimwitted dog, S.T. sets out to use his television education to save all the silly people. Described as both heartwarming and tragic, transformative and funny, Hollow Kingdom is a post-apocalyptic tale that I can sink my beak into.


Faye’s Pick:

The Magnolia Sword

I have never met a Mulan retelling I didn’t like. The 1998 animated Mulan was formative for me as a wee Chinese North American girl, and my feelings for the live-action remake aside, each version comes with different interpretations of Chinese identity that I know are found in multitudes both on the mainland and in the diaspora. I already love Sherry Thomas’s romance novels, so when I found out she was taking on this fierce genderbending iconic warrior in this wuxia-inspired romantic YA… just take all of my money already!


This newsletter is brought to you by:

Erynn Moss + Faye Bi

Questions? Concerns? Please email general queries to (help at and questions about programming to (programming at


Shaista Fenwick: Fantasy literature, although a product of culture, has more freedom to transgress than other media

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Shaista Fenwick!

Fantasy Literature as Epistemological Frontier: Inclusion and Centering of Marginalized Voices as a Laboratory and Library of Experience
By Shaista Fenwick

Nonbinary understandings of sex, gender, and marginalized identities including gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, race and ability (among other flavors of difference) must be represented in fantasy literature in order for us to build an intersectional lens of sufficient complexity to imagine a future that has the possibility of approaching functionality for our real contemporary and future world. As Franz Boas held in the early days of American anthropology, psychology, not race or environment, was the core driver of culture and development. He also argued strenuously that differences in socioeconomic development were not indicative of cultural complexity and that cultures could not effectively be compared to each other in terms of relative development. This understanding is inherently oppositional to the idea of cultural hegemony and its related ideas of hegemonic masculinity as characterized by violence. The tool of fantasy literature is a natural home to explore complexities of nonbinary sex construction, gender, and intersectionality inclusive of historically marginalized cultures, specifically because it is unfettered by historic constructions of power. The power to reframe history outside traditional hegemonies is necessary in creating the language capable of imagining a future similarly unbound by limited understandings and perspectives of power. We cannot imagine a new way of thinking, feeling, and being without a place to explore that newness. Fantasy texts provide that space.

Sex is the biological construction and secondary sex characteristics of an individual, and provides a canvas for how gender is expressed in society. Sex and gender are two different things, but they inform one another. Sex and gender expression have a long history of being recognized as nonbinary in various cultures globally. The hijaras of India, the two-spirit people in indigenous Americans, and the Guevedoces in the Dominican Republic all occupy complex spaces between polar binary understandings of sex and gender. However, nonbinary understandings of sex have become controversial in the Euro-American context despite a long history of normalized nonbinary sexes in nonwestern and indigenous western cultures. The normalizing of western structures in fantasy and literature therefore reduces the complexity of lived gender and sex to an absurdly incomplete story. The dangers of a single story, as Chimimanda Adiche codified, is that the story becomes a vehicle for essentializing cultures and is never wholly complete. Single stories are rarely capable of containing the complexity of human experience and pluralism. On the rare occasion that they do, it takes a lifetime to tell and live them. Where fantastic literature enters the fray is through its flexibility of worldbuilding and norm-setting. The hegemonic forces of prescribed identity allow power to be designated as inherently restricted to specific social locations and siloed away from nonconforming social locations. This interlocking of siloed power and prescribed understandings of sex goes a long way to explaining the resistance to accepting sex nonbinaries as normal despite the well-documented failure of the dual-sex construct. Guevedoces (literally translating to “penis at twelve,” which is a form of androgen deprivation that leads to male sex-differentiation being delayed until after puberty) are accepted as unusual but still within the realms of normal development in the Dominican Republic, where a statistically significant percentage of children change sex at the secondary influx of hormonal development. Guevedoce kids who present as female prior to puberty develop a penis during puberty. Similar conditions have also been documented in Papua New Guinea. Pediatric urologists document that over one in a hundred babies present as intersex, and over one percent of those children are indeterminately sexed long after infancy. These numbers are hardly rare or inconclusive, and they have been obscured primarily as a reflex to the constructed need for siloed legitimacy of institutional power because those silos have been almost exclusively male, white, and cisgender. Any deviation allows power to leak, and that is dangerous for the status quo. The idea of a safe transgression of these norms is similarly dangerous.

Fantasy literature, although a product of culture, has more freedom to transgress than other media. The portrayals of science are, like other cultural products, couched in the language and trappings of power. The voice of science is couched in the power to change the face of the planet, our knowledge of the universe, and the long held understandings of what that power should look like. Art based on our understandings are themselves products of our culture, created to dig further into those constructions and nuances. Even when we reach for the sublime, we bear the burden of our years, and the softly repeated rivulets of history create channels through which our minds pass. DaVinci’s old bearded white male god dispensed knowledge and anima to someone cast in his image, just as the construction of that image is based on what we understand about power, inheritance, and what transferring power looks like. Fantasy itself is constructed on the differences between what we understand about how the world works and the way we believe it could work.

Fantasy not only plays on what we have understood and known to be real, but goes beyond the construction of our current world, delving purposely into the realm of the exoticized other and bringing it into the normalized now. In so doing, fantasy offers the opportunity for a reconceptualization of normal. Fantasy offers the opportunity for discovered histories to become forever-known histories. The worlds we find in fantasy offer power, reason, and the immanentization of what could always have been powerful in our own world. In so doing, fantasy offers the opportunity to try on futures and discover where we truly fit in the world that could be, and then migrates those possibilities into the world that is. Once they are there, those experiences aren’t exotic or other or different any longer. Instead of coding for otherness, the stories become touchstones that offer the opportunity for parallax shift. This shift in perspective from one social location to another isn’t a simple shift between what was and what is, but allows growth incorporating old understandings and blending them with new ones. One of the compelling ideas about sex is that it is reassignable against the interpretation and identity of an individual. That idea was based upon a study conducted by Dr. John Money, based on the Reimer twins. [Content warning: The linked article contains disturbing material.] That data was misreported, and the twins were unable to conform to sex reassignment contrary to their own sex identity as was reported, despite excessive and forceful compulsion by adults around them. The importance of non-sex binary thinking directly impacts survivability of adolescence, policy construction, and justice frameworks.


Gender is frequently thought of interchangeably with sex, despite being a wholly different construct. Gender is the expression of sex through the lens of culture, resulting in a vast array of practices and interpretations of what normalcy is for different sexes. What is “inherently male” changes vastly with location, class, security, and time. Even during western history, cultural markers like heel height, hair length, color choice have moved from being restricted to cismales to exclusive coding for cisfemales, to the point where transgression of those expressed gender norms is met with ‘corrective’ violence. Fantasy literature provides a mechanism of exploring different ways of being within one’s sex, no matter what it is, in a normalized context. The burden of history is particularly relevant here as women, nonbinary individuals, and nonconforming individuals of any sex have been consistently hamstrung and dehumanized in western colonial cultures. Fantasy allows for those differences to be explored, deconstructed, lauded, and overcome as limitations.

However, there is a strong dissonance between observed experience and shared experience. Cultural exchange where marginalized voices tell the story and are centered within it show an entirely different realm of established and possible histories to everyone who comes into contact with it. Joseph Campbell believed stories were at the heart of the human experience. Although those ideas of universal story are constructed in the very specific language of colonial classed masculinity, Campbell found archetypes, constructions, sequences of events that spoke to many people and revealed things we all hope for even across cultures. Although Campbell’s voice is limited, Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ “Women who Run with the Wolves” picks up on similar parallels. When voices speak with authenticity and equal respect, the shared experiences common to humanity speak with them and are similarly heard.

Including marginalized voices in not only the story, but also as storytellers provides all audiences the richness of human experience and histories of multiple interlocking cultures to draw from. Centering those voices in their narratives and in genre similarly offers a more nuanced view of their stories for all readers. There is a qualitative difference to the experience a person within their identity can relate versus that which a person witnessing an experience relates. Both perspectives may be equally valid, but the lived experience provides a textured and nuanced richness relating directly to the experience that someone witnessing it cannot absorb in the same way. The bystander or witness experiences can be equally rich, but not equally related to the central concerns. Proximity matters. And the idea of being “a voice for the voiceless is bullshit,” as Indigenous American activist, Sarah Adams-Cornell said. Don’t speak for others, but use proximity to audience to instead pass the mic to marginalized people so that they may effectively represent themselves, then use privilege of social location to legitimize their viewpoint. Fantasy literature is doing a much better job of centering marginalized voices in publishing, even among the larger houses, and especially at events where those voices and their perspectives are being normalized. Like feminism, a rising tide does tend to lift all boats. The increase in representation and legitimization of marginalized voices can help many intersections of marginalization. The stories told by Native and Indigenous cultures of two-spirit people and other nonbinaries intersects with Indian subcontinent stories of hijaras and the Guevedoces of the Dominican Republic to provide historical context for the holistic legitimization of nonbinary people in the West. We turn ultimately to the fantastic to tell stories that speak to real experiences we feel unsafe telling in their original frame. Just as Sherri Tepper and Margaret Atwood told their feminist dystopic stories using real experiences while setting them in speculative worlds, fantasy allows us to skip some of the steps, and move directly into the whole ‘what if’ of alternate constructions. Fantasy allows us to center the margins from inception, instead of in apocalypse, and on a scale as grand as is needed to encompass the whole.

Sex and gender nonbinary persons are far from the only marginalized identities experiencing erasure. The process of radical inclusion involves the deliberate seeking out and centering of those with differing experiences. Underrepresented differences include differences in nationality, ethnicity, ability, class, and security. These intersections also need to be represented by those who understand the nuance of lived experiences. Although authors follow story, even to discussing and representing experiences they have not personally had, the risk of inaccurate representation my result in essentializing and a story which is less-complete and complex than the actual experience. Stories that misrepresent experiences of marginalized populations not only detract from the appeal to authentic audiences, but also absorb market share and may depress business prospects for authentic voices in publication if they fail to connect with audiences. In any case where marginalized experiences are incorporated or represented in a cultural text (movies, books, plays), the use of beta readers is extremely helpful to critically engage with the narratives and help point out significant areas of concern. It is potentially a higher bar than is frequently expected, but the payoffs are equally powerful. Purposeful representation matters. Moreover, powerful, purposeful representation matters. And it matters even more when marginalized identities are centered, made powerful, and portrayed with integrity.

Centering marginalized populations, plural gender, and sex nonbinary voices forms the beginning of another way of reading, experiencing, and speculating about the world. There are many voices which look at the newer policies of inclusivity in publishing and entertainment media, feel a loss of their previously unquestioned ownership of primacy, and are compelled to say, “This is enough, haven’t we ceded enough ground already?” These outcries are normal and unsurprising, because the loss of privilege feels like oppression. They highlight that the work of plurality and inclusion will never be fully done because of the shifting ascendancies of political power within society, but it is critical for the ongoing improvement of our literary body of work, and for our development as reasoning social primates that we think and process incrementally better and deeper with each iteration of examination and improvement. As we work to mitigate erasure of voices of color, gender, sex, security or class marginalization, it seems inevitable that we will identify new areas of difference. Change, it seems, continues to be the only constant. Difference is not any person’s central and unyielding story. Instead, difference feels internally normal. It feels holistic. The problematizing of difference through the smaller normal lens is what turns difference into marginalization. Fantasy gives us the power to normalize a whole history, reframe identities, and form new normals. Ultimately, that is what we strive for as readers, writers, editors, and thinking humans. We do not want an end to difference, but to move to a social space where difference is respected as a needed additional perspective. The goal is not an end to questions, but the advent of an incrementally more interesting set of questions and a broader toolset and horizon from which to explore answers. Fantasy thrives in that unknown universe, allowing us to create the language we need to create alternate epistemologies, and import those frameworks home.

Shaista Fenwick was born in Trinidad and Tobago to two economists who spoke nine languages between them, and has been involved in both politics and education since she was a toddler. She serves on the board of the Future Society of Central Oklahoma and is hotel liaison for SoonerCon. She earned her bachelor’s degree in anthropology, her master’s in professional writing, and is currently pursuing her PhD in instructional leadership and curriculum. She is a founding partner of Cobalt Prairie Consulting LLC in Norman, working to elect progressive, justice-oriented candidates to public office throughout Oklahoma. She is an author, spouse, educator, student and adoptive mom to many furbabies, plants and wayward students. Her favorite hobby in addition to consuming and making stories, gardening, cooking, singing, sewing, and kayaking…is sleeping.


Level up with Anthea Sharp’s The Dark Realm, a gamelit novel in the world of fairies

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 Darla Upchurch on Anthea Sharp’s The Dark Realm.

The Dark Realm

This summer, I am utterly addicted to LitRPG and Gamelit books. Each one draws you into a new and imaginative game world while usually managing to maintain an intriguing non-game-world, or “real-world,” story at the same time. Anthea Sharp’s first in her Feyland YA series, The Dark Realm, blends all of the fun gamelit elements with a game world of fairies.

In the beginning of The Dark Realm, the protagonist Jennet loses her mortal essence to the Dark Queen of Feyland in a prototype of the sim game her father is developing. When he relocates them to a new town for his job, Jennet is desperate to find a fellow gamer to help her reach the Dark Queen in-game for a rematch to reclaim her soul. Of course, the best gamer at her new high school is Tam, a guy from the wrong side of the tracks.

Throughout the real-world story, the little rich girl in a blue-collar town motif is used to good effect. The juxtaposition between Jennet’s life of privilege and Tam’s life of struggle is explored as the two try to navigate and understand each other’s worlds. The game serves to bring them to a common ground where they can work together in ways that they can’t in their real lives. In-game, he is given some preferential treatment (with strings attached) by the Queen, while Jennet has been stripped of even the basic right to level alone, essentially swapping their real-world socio-economic power dynamic, which gives each an insight into how the other lives in real life. Although neither character ruminates on it in this book, their in-game experiences affect their interactions in and out of game with more empathy. This introduces their potential in later books to change how they confront the roles their society thrusts upon them.

The real-world story is also populated with interesting side characters. Tam’s daily struggles include interacting with his special needs little brother and drug-addicted mother. And Tam’s best friend Marny delivers some fabulous lines: “I don’t want to look like somebody’s idea of the perfect woman. I want to look like me.” If only we could all have that kind of confidence in high school, or adulthood! I hope to see more of her in the rest of the series.

The game world in The Dark Realm is based on a ballad collected in the 1800s and is rich with fairies, magic, and an evil queen intent on crossing over to the real world. This part of the book is intriguing, and I found myself only wanting more of it. I wanted the levels of the game to be longer, and I wanted more of them. But overall, the stakes rise in-game as they heighten in the real world, which crescendos the pace of the entire book till I found myself flipping pages past my bedtime to see what happened.

The game world story does lack big stat blocks, detailed character creation, and skill and stat advancement, so if that’s your thing, this might not be the book for you. But if you’re in it for the story, this one is delightfully fun all the way through. The author strikes a good balance intertwining the plot of the real world with that of the game world, and my only complaint really is that I wanted more of it all!

Darla Upchurch has been in love with magic and fantasy in literature since she stumbled upon Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy at the library as a kid. Today she remains an avid reader and works as a copy editor. She dabbles in writing horror, romance, and fantasy under various pen names, and when she’s not drinking coffee and typing furiously with a cat in her lap, she also enjoys Jazzercise, jogging, and catching up on Forged in Fire episodes.


Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.


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