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Archive for August 2017

Sirens Newsletter – Volume 9, Issue 9 (August 2017)

In this issue:

 

GUEST OF HONOR: VICTORIA SCHWAB

We’re interviewing each of our Sirens 2017 Guests of Honor about their inspirations, influences, and craft, as well as the role of women in fantasy literature, as befits this year’s theme of women who work magic.

Victoria Schwab

This month, we interviewed Victoria Schwab about writing to conquer fear, how much she owes to J. K. Rowling, all manners of monsters, ambitious characters, and being ambitious herself: “When I sit down to construct my characters, I first ask myself what they fear, what they want, and what they’re willing to do to get it. Thus, their ambition is one of the pillars of their design. And one of my own pillars, too.”

Our feature on Victoria also includes a review of A Darker Shade of Magic by B R Sanders, as well as a list of books recommended by Victoria herself centered on badass ladies and their power.

 

SCHEDULE & PROGRAMMING SUPPORT

The conference schedule for 2017 is up! Click here to see how many of your favorite things we scheduled across from your other favorite things!

There’s still time to sponsor our programming sessions; the cost is $35 per presentation. Thank you again for all your support!

 

INCLUSIVITY AT SIRENS

In our latest community post, Kate Larking shares with us her experience at Sirens versus the other literary conferences she attends: “One thing that unites us at Sirens is that we love developed, complex voices in speculative fiction. We embrace worlds that are different from our own and seek out the experiences of those who live within them.” Read the rest of her post here.

 

MENUS

Registered attendees, please check your inboxes for the full menus for this year’s conference. (You can also view our menus on our Conference and Sirens Supper pages.) If you have any allergies or dietary restrictions, please email us at (help at sirensconference.org) by September 8—after which, we’ll assume you can eat from our standard menus.

 

REGISTRATION TRANSFERS

Although Sirens is officially sold out for 2017, we have several attendees looking to sell their registrations (and sometimes other Sirens tickets as well). If you’re looking to sell yours and you’d like a signal boost, please tweet at us (@sirens_con) or feel free to post information on our Facebook. Please keep an eye on our Twitter for any announcements.

 

9 SIRENS SHUTTLE TICKETS REMAINING

Sirens offers a $95 round-trip shuttle from Denver International Airport to Vail, significantly cheaper than commercial shuttles which can cost upwards of $200. We encourage you to buy your shuttle ticket soon, even if you don’t have flights yet—there are only 9 spots left before our shuttle is sold out!

 

HOTEL RESERVATIONS

We are close to filling our block at the Hotel Talisa for the third and final time. If you have not yet made your hotel reservation, please do so as soon as possible. We have only four rooms left on the main nights of Sirens, and on September 22, the hotel will release all remaining rooms. Any reservations made after that date will not receive the Sirens discount. For more instructions on how to make your reservation, please visit our Hotel page.

 

AMY’S BOOK CLUB

Practical Magic

Sirens co-founder Amy Tenbrink read Alice Hoffman’s modern classic Practical Magic this month, which she admired for its focus on “a bunch of women…all doing the best they can. Sometimes solutions are magic, sometimes they’re determination, sometimes they’re taking your fears in hand and charging forward.” Full review on the blog and on Goodreads.

 

READ ALONG WITH FAYE

An Inheritance of Ashes

This August, Faye read Leah Bobet’s An Inheritance of Ashes for her Reading Challenge pick! She found it “a quiet book…full of surprises, and not shiny at all, in the best way possible.” Find out what that means by checking out her review over on the blog and on Goodreads.

 

SIRENS REVIEW SQUAD

The Guns Above

Longtime Siren Casey Blair read Robyn Bennis’s The Guns Above, which she loved for its complex world-building, amazing female characters, and masterful tone: “If you love wit and self-awareness in your fantasy to go with your airships, I highly recommend checking this one out.” Read her full review here.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT…


Interesting Links


Fabulous, Free Reads!

 


Questions? Concerns? Please email general queries to (help at sirensconference.org) and questions about programming to (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

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

Read Along with Faye tackles the 2017 Sirens Reading Challenge! Each month, Sirens communications staff member Faye Bi will review and discuss a book on her journey to read the requisite 25 books to complete the challenge. Titles will consist of this year’s Sirens theme of women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. We invite you to join us and read along!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 
Faye Bi is a book-publishing professional based in New York City, and leads the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.
 

Inclusivity at Sirens: Kate Larking

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

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

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

Sabrina Chin and Amy Tenbrink, Conference Chairs
 


 

I’m Kate Larking, reading and writing enthusiast, and I am one of the few people who has had the pleasure of attending Sirens every single year. I have been on the literary convention circuit for ten years, nine of them spent visiting Sirens each and every October. It’s quite the commitment, given the Canadian-American exchange rate and the international travel fares. But is it a pilgrimage I gladly make.

Sirens is more than a conference that focuses on women and other marginalized identities in speculative fiction. Sirens has become a community—a family—to me, my writing, and my reading. I’ve developed into the person I am because my wonderful experiences there, above all other conventions. If I only have the opportunity to attend one conference a year, I would choose Sirens—no contest, no comparisons needed.

Sirens’s growth this year has far surpassed expectations. After all, since I’ve been attending, the conference has held steady at a certain size. But for the 80% more new people, I am exhilarated—so many new voices, new experiences, new reading recommendations, and new friends to make!—and yet terrified. Sirens has become a safe place for me where I can be challenged to grow. I’m afraid of what may happen to the literary sphere I love. But the actions of the coordinators, assembling a group to write on intersectionality to ensure a lovely and lively community while at Sirens, gives me hope.

So let me illustrate to you what Sirens means to me:

When I was asked to write an article on intersectionality at Sirens, I immediately felt unqualified. Anyone would, after all. Each and every one of us is a single person among the world’s population. But I have come to understand that I am a cross-section of identities.

I am a cis white married lesbian mother, and a born-and-raised atheist Canadian. I am under the influence of depression more often than I—well, anyone—would like. This identity contributes to everything I do and everything I experience. Primarily, everything I create and everything I read.

My main creative project at the moment is the queer space opera webcomic, Crash and Burn. I work with a non-binary illustrator, Finn, and together we challenge existing prevalent queer narratives. We work hard to retain control over the comic, which means self-publishing, hand-selling at conventions, and speaking up about queer identities both in real life and fiction. The more I work on the comic and interact with readers in public spaces, the more aware I am of microaggressions and the weight they carry. Each time someone makes an insensitive statement (or asks a question) about the comic or us, the heavier it is to carry on through the day.

Actual statement at a convention: “Queer space opera? Who thinks of this stuff?”

It doesn’t stop at dialogue. The derogative and challenging rhetoric continues online, in review channels and in award nomination roundups:

Actual review excerpt: “I notice that the artist found it necessary to note that ‘they’ is/are ‘agender,’ and uses the pronouns ‘they’ and ‘them’ in the preface; I do wonder why not use ‘xe’ and ‘xem’ as in the work? It would feel fitting—unless Finn is more than one person.”

As a queer person, working creatively in the face of these hurtful assumptions and comments can be difficult (understatement). On one hand, you want to create more, and assert the presence of these queer identities more. On the other hand, you are exhausted, frustrated, irritable, furious, and still trying to maintain a professional and affable exterior as required at a conference or convention. But it isn’t a queer person’s job to act as a sole ambassador and educator on their identity.

To combat these microaggressions and identity-challenges, we’ve deployed a few marketing tactics:

  1. We put “Queer space opera” on our biggest banner.
  2. Finn made a misgendering jar—like a swear jar but queer. Misgender one of us, pay a dollar (all proceeds go to an LGBT-supportive charity).
  3. We deployed flags from various queer identities represented in our work on the table, as a queer shorthand, to make that representation visible to those identities.

The banner does its job, I have to say. People see us across the hall, come over, and hear what we are about. And we love these passionate, enthusiastic, welcoming readers. They are kind and generous; they listen to our voices and learn from the context of our discussions of what they might need to Google and read up on later.

It works in other ways, too. Other people glance at the word queer and self-select away from our table. More often than not, it’s caregivers guiding their young charges away from us, as though we are more offensive than the scantily-clothed, misogynistic portrayal of women in comics at the table next to us. (In all honesty, we expect to meet the kids in person in a few years when this happens.) So while we’re fine with people self-selecting out, some of those would-be microaggressions become full-fledged aggressions.

Actual statement at a convention: “I want to let you know that I am not buying this because it is queer.”

I’m sharing these anecdotes because I want to make something very clear about these conventions versus this one:

Sirens is different.

One thing that unites us at Sirens is that we love developed, complex voices in speculative fiction. We embrace worlds that are different from our own and seek out the experiences of those who live within them. At Sirens, we don’t attack character identities in our discussions, criticize cultures, or apply an arbitrary-binary the character may or may not belong in.

The reason we read, the reason we gather, and the reason we discuss is to open our eyes, challenge our identity-based perspectives on the world, support representation and those represented, and grow together. And when we go home, we are stronger, wiser, better-informed, supported and supportive in our community.

 


 
Kate Larking is a book buyer for an independent bookstore. In her off hours, between binge-watching anime and leveling-up game characters, she writes speculative fiction for both young adult and adult markets. Her queer space opera comic, Crash and Burn, was a finalist for the 2016 and 2017 Aurora Award for best English Graphic Novel. She cofounded Anxiety Ink, a community of writers dealing with the stress and challenges of writing. She resides in Calgary, Alberta, with her wife, daughter, and six pets.
 

Badass Ladies, Liminal Magic

By Victoria Schwab (@veschwab)
When it comes to my tastes, the strange and magical will always take the cake. Here’s a list of titles where strong female protagonists of all ages learn to wield their power.
 

The Bear and the Nightengale
1. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Blackbirds
2. Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig
Sabriel
3. Sabriel by Garth Nix
The Girl Who Drank the Moon
4. The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
Skullsworn
5. Skullsworn by Brian Staveley
 Deathless
6. Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

 
Victoria Schwab (also known as V. E. Schwab) is the product of a British mother, a Beverly Hills father, and a southern upbringing. Her first young adult novel, The Near Witch, was a dark original fairy tale and her next one, The Archived, is about a world where the dead are shelved like books (and has a sequel, The Unbound). Victoria’s first adult novel, Vicious, is about two brilliant and highly disturbed pre-med students who set out to generate their own superpowers and end up as mortal enemies; the series will continue with Vengeful, expected to be published in 2018. Vicious received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which named the novel one of its best books of 2013 for SF/Fantasy/Horror; the American Library Association’s Reference and User Services Association awarded it the top fantasy book in their 2014 Reading List. The first book in her adult series, A Darker Shade of Magic, is about Kell, a magician who can move through multiple versions of London, and Lila, the pickpocket who steals a talisman that could end them all (its sequels are A Gathering of Shadows, which is already out, and A Conjuring of Light, expected to be published in 2017). Most recently, Victoria published the first book in the Monsters of Verity Duology, This Savage Song, in 2016; the sequel, Our Dark Duet, is expected in 2017. When she’s not haunting Paris streets or trudging up English hillsides, Victoria’s usually tucked in the corner of a coffee shop, dreaming up monsters. She loves fairy tales, folklore, and stories that make her wonder if the world is really as it seems.

 

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

We’re excited to share a mini-series of posts by friend of Sirens, B R Sanders, who will be reviewing books by this year’s Guests of Honor during their featured weeks. This week we welcome their review of A Darker Shade of Magic!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


B R Sanders is a white, genderqueer speculative fiction writer who lives and works in Denver, Colorado, with their family and two cats. Outside of writing, B has worked as a research psychologist, a labor organizer and a K–12 public education data specialist. They write about queer elves, mostly.

 

Sirens Guest of Honor Interview: Victoria Schwab

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

S15_author_interview_graphic

AMY: You’ve said many times that you have an adversarial relationship with fear—and that, therefore, once you knew that you were afraid to write a book, you knew you had to. You’ve now written 12 published books, with more on the way. What still scares you about being a writer? How do you manage that fear?

 Victoria SchwabVICTORIA: Honestly, one of the most important things to realize is that fear doesn’t go away. Fear is something I experience every time I sit down to write—fear that it won’t be good enough. Fear that I won’t nail the style, the flow. Fear that the idea in my head won’t translate to the page. Fear that even if I succeed in finishing the book, it won’t be successful or well-received. Fear is a creator’s constant companion, so the challenge becomes learning to embrace (or at least acknowledge) it and then continue to create in spite of it. Sometimes that means tricking your brain into turning off your self-editing mechanisms for a short period of time, giving yourself permission to suck, or simply acknowledging that the only way out is through. I often switch to pen and paper, because for some reason it’s easier for me to ignore all those external voices when it’s just ink and page. I can cross things out, make mistakes, and keep going.

 

AMY: You have a master’s degree in, more or less, monsters – though, as you’ve noted, in studying monsters, you’re truly examining what humans and society find monstrous. (In 2011, Sirens, too, examined monsters, and we delved deeply into the concept of the monstrous feminine (or the idea that women’s femininity, or sexuality, or unconventionality is viewed by society as monstrous). We hear you!) From your Monsters of Verity duology (featuring literal monsters) to Vicious (with its monster-slash-antihero protagonist), monstrousness, and perhaps relatedly, society’s othering of certain people are consistent themes in your work. Why do these themes speak to you? Who is your favorite monster, monstrous human, or antihero that you’ve created? Why are they your favorite?

VICTORIA: I’m so glad you phrased it that way, because the concept of “othering” is exactly what I love exploring, specifically the concept and creation of outsiders—both those born outside a society, and those born within a society but made to feel excluded. I’m fascinated by the multiplicity of forms, and the societal commentary, how outsiders are judged compared to insiders, how you can be from a place but not of it, and how outsiders can become insiders and insiders can be relegated to outsiders. Asking me to choose a favorite is a rather monstrous thing to do…I love them all for different reasons, but Victor Vale, from Vicious, is the closest thing to an autobiographical character I’ve ever written, so he occupies a special place in my heart.

 

AMY: In an interview with the Washington Post last year, you said, “I really just have no interest in weak females and dominating men.” Many Sirens would applaud this statement. But how difficult is it for you to subvert societal stereotypes and perceived norms in your writing? Do you find yourself accidentally writing weak women or domineering men?

VICTORIA: Not as difficult as you’d imagine. I simply write the kind of people I want to read, to be friends with, and/or to be.

 

AMY: You write about ambition in a way that few writers do: unabashedly, unashamedly, not only for your white, cishet male characters, and not only when ambition leads to reward. As a woman, I found Lila Bard’s unrelenting ambition to be a safe haven in a storm of literature where women are judged for seeking leadership or power. As a reader, I was fascinated that Vicious turned on its characters’ ambitions, which brought them first very close together and then drove them very far apart. How ambitious are you? And are you proud of that ambition?

VICTORIA: I am extremely ambitious, some would say to a fault. I am distrustful of ambivalence, have an aversion to mere contentment, and have a fear of stasis that leads me to be constantly striving for more. When I sit down to construct my characters, I first ask myself what they fear, what they want, and what they’re willing to do to get it. Thus, their ambition is one of the pillars of their design. And one of my own pillars, too.

 

AMY: My last question referenced power, and I find power a particularly interesting fantasy literature construct, especially in your work—whether it’s the contrast of politics of the four Londons in your Shades of Magic series or the leadership styles in This Savage Song, or the characters’ pursuit of literal power as seen in Vicious. You’ve also stated that you took great care in your Shades of Magic trilogy to ensure that non-white and non-heterosexual people were given immense power. Can you share some insight into your process for crafting power structures, be that social class, political theories, magical ability, or societal stereotypes? How do you ensure that your fictional power structures don’t suffer the same failures as our real-world power structures—and if they do, that you’re crafting those failures with intention and transparency?

VICTORIA: I’m certainly fascinated by power dynamics, both in relation to relationships (hence why my love of siblings, familial, and adversarial relationships outweighs straightforward romance) and in relation to the larger world. In the Shades of Magic series, the power structures of the world are molded to the individual Londons. The power dynamics within that world are driven not by gender or race but by magical prowess. In Vicious, the literal powers are determined by the psychology of those at the time of death. In the Monsters of Verity duology, the power structures are molded by morality and the absence of it.

As to your second point. I think a key element of power structures ARE the flaws, the cracks in the system. The world—along with its powers and paradigms—is the first thing I design when starting a series. The people who populate the world come next, because I want them to be a product of their environment, its strengths and its weaknesses.

 

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

VICTORIA: I’m going to say J. K. Rowling. The most obvious reason is that before Harry Potter, I was not a reader. That is to say, I was competent, even proficient, but I had little enjoyment. I’d never been so consumed with a story that I forgot the act of reading. She opened a door in me that has never closed. Then, long after I’d experienced Harry Potter, the longing for that kind of world, for magic and whimsy and darkness and a place you wanted to stay beyond the pages—those things led me to write A Darker Shade of Magic, which took my career—and my craft—to an entirely new place.

 


 
Victoria Schwab (also known as V. E. Schwab) is the product of a British mother, a Beverly Hills father, and a southern upbringing. Her first young adult novel, The Near Witch, was a dark original fairy tale and her next one, The Archived, is about a world where the dead are shelved like books (and has a sequel, The Unbound). Victoria’s first adult novel, Vicious, is about two brilliant and highly disturbed pre-med students who set out to generate their own superpowers and end up as mortal enemies; the series will continue with Vengeful, expected to be published in 2018. Vicious received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which named the novel one of its best books of 2013 for SF/Fantasy/Horror; the American Library Association’s Reference and User Services Association awarded it the top fantasy book in their 2014 Reading List. The first book in her adult series, A Darker Shade of Magic, is about Kell, a magician who can move through multiple versions of London, and Lila, the pickpocket who steals a talisman that could end them all (its sequels are A Gathering of Shadows, which is already out, and A Conjuring of Light, expected to be published in 2017). Most recently, Victoria published the first book in the Monsters of Verity Duology, This Savage Song, in 2016; the sequel, Our Dark Duet, is expected in 2017. When she’s not haunting Paris streets or trudging up English hillsides, Victoria’s usually tucked in the corner of a coffee shop, dreaming up monsters. She loves fairy tales, folklore, and stories that make her wonder if the world is really as it seems.

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

 

Book Club: Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

Practical Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter boys.

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

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

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

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

Amy
 


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

 

Books and Breakfast: August Spotlight

This month, we’re spotlighting three more popular, controversial and just plain brilliant Books and Breakfast titles related to our 2017 theme of women who work magic! You can check our highlighted titles for June (which also includes the full list) and July.

Read the descriptions below of Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s This Strange Way of Dying, and Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Bayou Magic. Thoughts? Let us know on Twitter at @sirens_con and at the hashtag #Sirens17.

 

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, Vasilisa spends her winter huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. She loves the tale of Frost, a blue-eyed demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil. After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings back a devout new wife, who is vehemently against the family’s honoring household spirits. But as crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer and misfortune stalks the village, Vasilisa must find her own power to protect her family from a threat that seems pulled from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

Even in fantasy literature, the word “witch” is so often a slur. The Bear and the Nightingale, beautifully crafted and set in a Russia bound by tradition, picks relentlessly at this trope: gendered expectations that limit women to marriage, children, and faith; how quickly society cries “witch” when women defy those expectations; and what it means when those allegations, so rooted in ignorance and fear, are actually true.

 

This Strange Way of Dying: Stories of Magic, Desire and the Fantastic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This Strange Way of Dying

Spanning multiple time periods and the genres of fantasy, science fiction and horror, Moreno-Garcia’s collection of short stories is infused with Mexican folklore, yet firmly rooted in a reality that transforms into the weird and fantastical. The stories lift the veil of the everyday to expose the realms of what lies beyond, with creatures that shed their skin and roam the night, vampires in Mexico City that struggle with disenchantment, an apocalypse with giant penguins, legends of magic scorpions, and tales of a ceiba tree surrounded by human skulls.

This Strange Way of Dying is full of wild, beautiful prose and with Mexican folklore and myths—and Moreno-Garcia shines when she’s writing about liminal spaces and being caught between identities such as heritage, class, and race. And we think you’ll love the bold, empowered Jaguar women who go after what they want.

 

Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Bayou Magic

It’s Maddy’s turn to have a bayou summer with her grandmother. At first she misses life back home in New Orleans, but soon she grows to love everything about her new surroundings—the glimmering fireflies, the glorious landscape, her grandmother’s famous gumbo—but then there’s something else, deep within the water, that only Maddy sees. As her grandmother shares wisdom about sayings and signs, Maddy realizes she may be only the sibling to carry on her family’s magical legacy. And when a disastrous oil leak threatens the bayou, she knows she may also be the only one who can help.

Bayou Magic is all about a girl finding her power. Set in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, Maddy’s grandmother’s community and the bayou are practically tangible, and how a bayou summer changes Maddy is equally vivid. Bayou Magic celebrates hope, friendship, and family with a clear conservationist bent.

 

Sirens Review Squad: The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis

The Guns Above

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we welcome a review from Casey Blair on Robyn Bennis’s The Guns Above.

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

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

Spoiler: the whole book is fantastic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

 

August Fantasy New Releases

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

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

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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