Archive for August 2015

Six Secondary World Urban Fantasies

By Casey Blair (@CaseyLBlair)

Secondary world urban fantasy is not precisely a new subgenre, but it’s one that has been growing in popularity in recent years. This delights me, because the secondary world urban fantasy (henceforth referred to as SWUF for the sake of brevity and odd acronyms) I’ve read has consistently challenged my notions of what fantasy as a genre can do while being sheer fun. SWUF, for me, is where a lot of the most interesting work and stories are emerging right now in fantasy.

But what is SWUF? Genre definitions are tricky and never fixed, and in this one we have two essential parts: the “secondary world” and the “urban fantasy.” “Secondary world” is a term coined by Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” to refer to a world that is not our world, but is internally consistent and fictional. (Most of what we call high fantasy or epic fantasy falls under this umbrella.) As for “urban fantasy,” when it comes to SWUF I mean this in the classic sense, where the city itself is such a strong presence in the story it’s practically a character in and of itself.

So without further ado, these are six SWUF books or series that keep me turning pages, that are pushing genre boundaries, and that leave me reeling with a sense of wonder and inspiration.


ThreePartsDead 1. Three Parts Dead (The Craft Sequence), Max Gladstone
I must begin with Three Parts Dead, because I do not possess sufficient eloquence to convey all of the things I love about this book and the installments that follow. Each book in the series is set in a different city with a different real-world inspiration: Two Serpents Rise draws on Aztec mythology and Full Fathom Five on Polynesian. They tackle fantasy versions of issues like the financial crisis and water rights through familiar but subverted tropes like god wars, magical craftsmen, and power armor. There are dense theoretical and academic arguments and explosive, numinous magical battles. Each follows different point-of-view characters: all are well-drawn with satisfying arcs, and the casts are diverse and inclusive of different races, genders, and sexualities. In short, this book and its series are filled with awesome, and you should check Three Parts Dead out as soon as possible.
CastinShadow 2. Cast in Shadow (Chronicles of Elantra), Michelle Sagara (also known as Michelle West)
I started reading the ongoing Chronicles of Elantra years before I had any idea what it was. In some ways, this follows the contemporary urban fantasy narrative structure of a female protagonist investigating magical crimes, but the similarity basically ends there. Our protagonist Kaylin Neya is a police officer charged with upholding the law in the capital city of an empire that is a dragon’s hoard. But there is more magic in this world than even the experts understand, and it’s grouchy yet compassionate Kaylin’s job to resolve not just magical calamities, but also disputes between the different non-human races that are attempting, unprecedentedly, to live together instead of killing each other.
Swordspoint 3. Swordspoint (The World of Swordspoint), Ellen Kushner
Given that negotiation of traditions among fantastic cultures, I naturally segue into Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, one of three books set in a world sometimes referred to as Riverside (though this not the name of the city itself). Swordspoint is also called a “fantasy of manners,” which I find apt. The unnamed city captures the same feeling I get visiting a city like London or New Orleans for the first time—not the same feel of those particular cities, but the same sensation of vibrancy and life and gilded shadows. As the protagonists grapple with expectations of class, gender, and sexuality—and dueling, naturally—Kushner’s wit is scathing. For me, the gems in these books are so often in the spaces between her words, in what she chooses not to say. If you prefer young adult books, The Privilege of the Sword is another novel set in this world that functions as a stand-alone.
TheGoblinEmperor 4. The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison (also known as Sarah Monette)
The Goblin Emperor is also arguably a fantasy of manners with all of its court intrigue, and in this novel it’s not so much that the whole city is the setting, but the palace is like a city in and of itself. In many ways Addison is flipping the archetypal hero’s journey on its head: our protagonist Maia doesn’t go on a quest; rather, becoming emperor means that he Maia is effectively trapped at court. This is an ethical character navigating a world full of metaphorical and literal daggers and trying to learn how to make a home, how to build bridges, and how to choose compassion in a world that values force. This is the most gorgeous and breath-taking stand-alone that I’ve ever read.
TheKillingMoon 5. The Killing Moon (The Dreamblood duology), N. K. Jemisin
Jemisin is best-known for the Inheritance trilogy, but I think this duology—in particular the second installment, The Shadowed Sun—break a lot of new ground. The political machinations and undercurrents in the city were as complex and fascinating as I’ve come to expect from her writing, and I love that she consistently challenges racial constructs and the definition of what it means to be a woman. However, it was the magic of the first book that compelled me to pick up the second, and it was the second that broke my brain. Her magic system blends Egyptian mythology, medicine, psychoanalysis, and especially dreams. The magic, world, characters, and their struggles are immersive and lyrical and nuanced and utterly riveting.
CityofStairs 6. City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett
Last but certainly not least is City of Stairs, a novel that will be followed with a sequel, City of Blades, in January of 2016. City of Stairs is set in the conquered city of Bulikov, where once the gods wielded their power to conquer the world, and is now ruled by the Saypuri Empire that overthrew those gods. It’s a shattered city, a shadow of its former glory, caught and broken between this new secular world and the traditions it held inviolable if not dear. Our protagonist Shara Thivani, a highly accomplished spy masquerading as a diplomat, arrives to get to the bottom of a murder and ends up unraveling threads of history and empire and theology all tied together in an explosive knot. It’s a rollicking adventure that periodically gut-punches the reader with the poignancy of its matter.

There are many more SWUF books out there, and it’s a subgenre that is growing rapidly. While I am happy to have many more on my inexhaustible reading list, these are my current favorites to get you started.

Sirens Accepted Programming for 2015: Panels

By Hallie Tibbetts (@hallietibbetts)

Have you seen the panels that will be presented at Sirens in October?

Panels feature several speakers discussing a topic before an audience. Panels may take questions or discussion from the audience, but are not required to do so. Typically, a panel will be focused on discussion among the speakers, who might have something in common, who might have very different perspectives on a topic, or who might conduct a debate. Panels allow you to hear several perspectives without leaving your seat!

Follow this link to find out about the presenters and what they’ll be talking about in these presentations:

Generation K

The Great Big Interfaith Dialogue

The Iconoclastic Revolutionary

Mother of the Revolution: Self-Actualization as a Form of Rebellion

Women of the Revolution: Changing Genre and the World

Women of War: Trauma and Healing in Speculative Fiction

Writing the Fantastic: Insurrection, Intersection, and Evolution

If you would like to support both Sirens and our presenters, we invite you to sponsor these (and other) presentations. The cost is $35 per presentation, and we will include your name next to your chosen topic on the accepted programming page. We’ll also list your sponsorship in our program book for this year’s event if we receive your sponsorship by August 21, 2015.


Sirens Newsletter – Volume 7, Issue 10 (August 2015)

In this issue:



Kate Elliott Yoon Ha Lee

We recently posted Sirens interviews with two of our guests of honor for 2015: Kate Elliott and Yoon Ha Lee, and they’ve got some fascinating things to say about reading, writing, and women in fantasy. Coming soon, we’ll interview our third guest of honor, Rae Carson, as well!


The deadline to register for Sirens is fast approaching. If you haven’t purchased your registration yet, please make sure to do so before registration closes on September 12. After that, you must register at the door at an increased price. If you have any questions, please contact us at (registration at


Tickets for the Sirens Shuttle, Sirens Supper, and Sirens Studio are still available. The Sirens Shuttle offers discounted group transportation to and from Denver International Airport, for you and any friends or family who’d like a ride too. The Sirens Supper is our annual pre-conference dinner, and a great way to kick off the conference. Finally, our new offering, the Sirens Studio, features two days of workshop intensives (for readers, writers, and professionals), discussion, networking opportunities, and flexible time for you to use however you wish. If you’d like to join us for some—or all—of these, tickers can be added to a registration until registration closes on September 12 . Tickets for these events are unlikely to be available at the door.


Don’t forget to make reservations to stay with us at the Inverness Hotel in the south Denver metro area. Rooms are filling up quickly, especially for the Sirens Studio days (and nights)! If you’re seeking roommates, let us know on Twitter so we can retweet your search, or make a post on Facebook or our website message boards. If you have any issues making a reservation and getting the Sirens discount rate, please do let us know at (help at; if we can help, we certainly will. Read more about why staying at the hotel helps us and why you will want to stay at the Inverness.


You can see the presentations we’ve accepted from Sirens attendees on the accepted programming page. (The schedule is undergoing proofreading as you read this!) If you see a presentation you love, consider sponsoring the presentation under your name or on behalf of a group! Presentation sponsorships cost only $35, and the proceeds go entirely to Sirens’ expenses. We appreciate your donations, and if you sponsor a presentation by August 21, we’ll be able to list your donation not just on the website, but in the printed program book that all attendees receive.


Would you like to help out during Sirens? Volunteer shifts vary in length and responsibilities, but most volunteer shifts are during programming and allow you to attend presentations; you might help people find seats, turn microphones on or off, give presenters their five-minute warnings that time is up, and gather lost and found items. See the volunteers page on our website for more details. If you’re a returning volunteer, you don’t need to fill out the form—just keep an eye out for email from the Google Group. We’ll be sending information about available volunteer shifts to group members. Thank you!




Come read with us! Sirens co-founder Amy leads the Sirens Book Club each month. August’s book is In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield. Join the discussion here on Goodreads.



Books for Friday’s Books and Breakfast and Saturday’s Books and Breakfast have been announced.

Sherwood Smith: Influential Fantasy for Heroines

Hallie Tibbetts: Sirens Accepted Programming for 2015: Papers

June Recap: Sirens News, Book Releases, and Interesting Links has become its very own special feature, with links, book releases, and more. We’ve rounded up June, and July is on its way…

Yoon Ha Lee: Six Fantasy Works for Sirens

Shveta Thakrar: Seven Fantasy Books Featuring Non-Western Mythology and Folklore

Kate Elliott: Five Fabulous Epic Fantasy Works by Women

Hallie Tibbetts: Six Fantasy Books with Non-US Settings

Testimonials and a Love Letter


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


Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.


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