Archive for July 2019

This month’s Sirens Essays tackle the complexity of female relationships

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 11, Issue 7: July 2019

This month:


Programming Announcements

We are thrilled to announce the titles of this year’s accepted programming!

Click on the links to see what’s in store: Papers and Lectures, Panels, Roundtables, Workshops, Afternoon Classes, and Combination Presentations.

If you would like to support Sirens, our presenters, and our programming, we invite you to sponsor a program at $35 per presentation. The deadline is August 15 for us to include your name in this year’s program book with our profuse thanks!


Nia Davenport, A Master on Many Missions

We’re in the full swing of summer break, which means teacher and author Nia Davenport has swapped out her red grading pens and lab equipment for character profiles and plot building. We chatted with her this month as part of our get to know your Sirens Studio faculty series. Read the interview here to find out more about how she manages multiple disciplines in her work and demands the same diversity from her fiction. Fittingly, Nia will be leading a workshop “The Danger of the Single Narrative” at the Studio this fall.


New Sirens Essays Tackle Female Relationships

Introduced last month, our Essay series is a welcome breeze of fresh discourse from our community to keep you cool through the summer while we patiently wait for October:


Your Sirens Community

If you’ve been following Amy’s reading for even a little while then you probably know she’s not a big fan of science fiction. But why? This month, Amy spells out her problems with the genre in general and how Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories made it to the super elite pile of Amy-approved sci-fi on the blog and Goodreads.

Our review squad has been reading—and loving—illustrated texts!

Lani Goto offers up a fantastic list of comic books with nary a spandex suit or punch in sight, including collective volumes of webcomics, standalone graphic novels, and a D&D-inspired fantasy.

Bethany Powell analyzes the first volume of Yoshiki Nakamura’s Skip Beat series, a shojo manga starring a girl with multiple jobs struggling to make it in showbiz, and happens to have grudge-demon activated powers.


Books and Breakfast: Gender and Sexuality

Continuing our Books and Breakfast breakdown series, July focused on the two titles selected for bringing issues of gender and sexuality to the morning discussion tables: April Daniels’s Dreadnought and K Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter. Find out why we picked them, and why you should add them to your reading list here.


Hot-Hot-Hot New Books for July

Once again, we’ve rounded up a beautiful array of new titles in fantasy by women and nonbinary authors. Click here to look them over!

Erynn’s Pick:

House of Whispers

Though the issues of House of Whispers by former Sirens guest Nalo Hopkinson started coming out last fall, some people (me) may prefer to stock their shelves with a sleek volume edition. Part of a line of four stories chosen by Neil Gaiman to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his original Sandman Comics, House of Whispers is the sort of hybridized Afro-diasporan mythology that one expects from Nalo but set in the Sandman Universe. The tale starts when a Yoruba goddess, Erzulie, finds her otherworldly ship has veered off course and crashed into the Dreaming between the House of Mystery and the House of Secrets. Nalo’s goddess needs to find her way home while simultaneously solving a strange soul sickness breaking out among her people in the mortal realm.


Faye’s Pick:

Gods of Jade and Shadow

I have been impressed with Mexican Canadian writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia since reading her story collection This Strange Way of Dying from a years-ago Sirens Reading Challenge, and my reaction to hearing the premise of Gods of Jade and Shadow was instant obsession. Set during the Jazz Age in Mexico, it stars Casiopea, who opens a box while cleaning her wealthy grandfather’s house and accidentally frees the Mayan god of death. With a humble protagonist, a bargain with a god, and an odyssey that’ll take Casiopea from the Yucatan to Mexico City, this is bound to be an amazing blend of fantasy, fairytale, and Mexican folklore.


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Erynn Moss + Faye Bi

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Embracing Demons for The Fame in Skip Beat! Volume 1 by Yoshiki Nakamura

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 Bethany Powell on Yoshiki Nakamura’s Skip Beat! Volume 1.

Skip Beat! Volume 1

I started reading Skip Beat! about a decade ago with the same sort of sheepish self-indulgence that I picked up most shojo manga. I’m drawn to manga both for nostalgia value (I didn’t read manga as a teen, but I lived in Japan as a teen) and for the kind of unstinting wish fulfillment that fuels it. Now I’m unafraid to say the series is one of my favorite long-form stories ever. It doesn’t avoid the tropes that make manga so fluffy and readable, by any means. Superficially, it’s a delightful story of a girl fighting to succeed in show business, and everything I love about a showbiz story can be found here. Skip Beat! embraces tropes with the kind of loving attention that elevates them. The real core of the story, however, is about a girl discovering her own darkness and the power it can give her.

The first volume of Skip Beat! commences as it will go on: with a surface-level recognizable trope swiftly layered with something more complex. Kyoko Mogami greets customers and competently takes their orders at “Mozburger” with the kind of cheery compliance that promises a worthy heroine. This is, of course, only one of her multiple part-time jobs, further suggesting her hard-luck status. As she changes to get to her second food-service gig (which indicates the kind of grit this girl has) she overhears with pleasure a coworker admitting to switching idols for the emerging musician Sho. Her fangirl pride, however, is swiftly overridden by a darker energy when she finds out there was a poster giveaway for the album. She bought two copies, and got zero posters. The escalation of her desire and panic frightens her coworkers, unsettling in the prosaic world of part-time locker rooms.

Kyoko tears across Tokyo, commandeering a gangster’s bicycle through sheer spiritual intensity, and rushes to the music store in half the time it should have taken. She frightens the staff of the store as she drags herself in like a vengeful spirit, only to transform back again into the effervescent girl as soon as she touches her posters. Even so, the image of her crazed determination lingers. Is this just an exaggerated portrait of a fan? Or does Kyoko have something else going on?

By the end of this chapter, the latent powers suggested in this sequence are released by a betrayal that cuts so deep, she swears off love forever. Much more importantly, she vows to have vengeance with an unholy energy that propels the rest of the story, complete with little demonic manifestations. And I love this.

Kyoko isn’t asked by this narrative to overcome her hatred, or to put her scary dark power away. She isn’t here to learn to love again. She has begun a journey toward something much scarier: realizing her own power in that darkness. To eventually find love for herself, darkness and all. Even that is only once she chooses it, and is many volumes down the road. For now, Kyoko has freed her demons to fuel her, as she chases something for herself for the first time ever. Sure, the current impetus is to humiliate someone who has wronged her, but we all have to start somewhere. Why can’t a girl’s journey to self-actualization be kicked off by swearing to achieve some as-yet-undetermined celebrity?

I love any story where the protagonist has to face up to the uglier emotions of being human, and move on from there. This is one of the core facets of Skip Beat! that I keep reading for. I also am constantly delighted by the way no character is left as a two-dimensional trope. For example, Kyoko’s first rival is a young woman who is arrogant and unlikeable, trying to push Kyoko down on her way to the top. After they both fail an audition, they develop an unlikely alliance and later become true friends. Kyoko is someone who can learn from her enemies as well as friends, and many of her friends are former enemies.

Nor does this story forget the girl Kyoko used to be. This might be another reason this story has my heart—despite her grudge-demon activated powers, Kyoko is also still the girl who had a masterful customer service facade. (One that later gets a lot more significance from her background.) That cheerful tenacity and tendency to be polite are still valued, even as she cultivates the powers of her hatred, too. It’s way more relatable that she still has both sides, even though she has dedicated her life to achieving fame to prove her nemesis wrong.

Skip Beat! continues to unfold a story where emotions have power, none of them are shameful, and integrating them offers the ability both to go on after heartbreak and to improve as a performer. If a girl and her demons are both determined enough, even the toughest showbiz challenge can’t keep them down.

Bethany Powell stumbled into speculative verse on the isolated plains of Oklahoma and has been in a fateful relationship with it ever since. Poems from this union have recently appeared in Asimov’s, Liminality, and the solarpunk anthology Sunvault. More are forthcoming, and all can be found at Bethany is also a certified health coach who specializes in writers—helping them finesse their lifestyles and habits to support creativity long-term. Learn more at


Comics: Not Just for Superheroes

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 welcome a book list from Lani Goto.

These are recent or currently running comics I’ve really enjoyed, all by creators who both write and illustrate the works. There’s a wide range of styles, both visual and narrative, which gives a small sampling of some of the amazing variety in sequential art. If you want to expand your horizons beyond spandex and punching, here are some books that offer excellent options.


Delicious in Dungeon
1. Delicious in Dungeon by Ryoko Kui

This fantasy series follows a team of adventurers as they descend into a magical dungeon full of traps and monsters. It sounds like a very standard setup, except that along the way, they find that the best means to survive is to cook and eat the creatures they encounter. For some—like Laios, the excitable human fighter—this is a dream come true, as each beast provides a new culinary delight. But for others—like Marcille, the skeptical elven magician—this is super gross and very, very weird. No matter their views on food, though, the adventurers must hurry to rescue one of their own before it’s too late. And as they go deeper into the dungeon, unusual provisions might be the least of their worries.

The effortless humor and incredible art (not to mention the surprisingly realistic recipes) set this apart from many other D&D-inspired works. Although the series does play with fantasy tropes, it’s much more than an RPG parody. As the plot continues, Kui deftly raises the stakes, but the comedy never takes a back seat to the thrills. The well-rounded characters and engaging story made me laugh, gasp, and eagerly look forward to the next volume. (As of this writing, six volumes have been released in English.) It also made me really hungry, so plan to read these books with plenty of snacks on hand.

The Chancellor and the Citadel
2. The Chancellor and the Citadel by Maria Capelle Frantz

This is a short but lovely read, set in a ruined world after a nameless catastrophe, where the Chancellor is the mysterious guardian of civilization’s last stronghold. Though she tries her best to protect everyone, things go awry, and her friend Olive might have to help despite not having the Chancellor’s power. But it’s no easy task when the precarious safety of the Citadel is threatened from outside… and within.

Frantz’s richly textured art creates an immersive realm of light and dark, bringing nuance to her story of fear, trust, and community. There’s a kind of coziness and charming strangeness in the setting, which draws you in even as Frantz leaves much to the imagination: What are the tiny ghost-like creatures that swarm curiously around? If the residents of the Citadel aren’t human, what are they? What exactly happened to the world? But these elements add to the interest, and encourage you to spend time enjoying the details of her evocative drawings.

On a Sunbeam
3. On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

In this queer coming-of-age story, two timelines unfold the experiences of uncertain teen Mia, one when she meets her friend Grace at an interstellar boarding school, and the other, five years later, where she joins a space-faring crew for her first job. Both threads follow Mia’s developing relationships with Grace and her crewmates, and eventually the two come together as Mia reaches a new point in her life.

On a Sunbeam was originally serialized as a webcomic, but reads as a seamless whole in its collected book form. Walden’s gentle storytelling is beautifully complemented by her atmospheric and meditative art. She presents a surreal setting—vast halls floating in glittering space, fish-shaped ships swimming through the darkness, a total but unremarked-on absence of men—with simple matter-of-factness. And like how the extraordinary is juxtaposed with the mundane, Walden matches dreamlike visuals with vivid, relatable emotions. As Walden explores familiar themes of loss, belonging, and growing up, she provides a quietly fantastical space to give shape to the way a young girl finds herself.

When I Arrived at the Castle
4. When I Arrived at the Castle by Emily Carroll

It begins with a dark and stormy night, but nothing else about this book is cliche. A catlike woman comes to the lair of a dangerous Countess, and the ensuing encounter rapidly descends into a seductive nightmare of guilt, fear, and rage. (Content warning for some gore/body horror—while not excessive, this comic might not be for the more squeamish.)

Carroll’s latest book is a prime example of her gorgeous, fairy tale-inflected horror. Her lush art spills across the pages, mostly in black and white, except for interjections of visceral red. As Carroll blends the erotic and the macabre, the imagery veers from decadent elegance to grotesque monstrousness. It’s the perfect medium for this sensual, unnerving story where ambiguous relationships and fractured histories make for a disorienting yet relentlessly eerie mood. There are no clear roles, the sense of urgency wanes into lassitude then flares back to dire intensity, and in the end, we’re left unsure of the outcome. Yet while there’s no tidy conclusion, there is still a certain grim satisfaction in knowing that something has changed, and the story could continue, but in a different way.

O Human Star
5. O Human Star by Blue Delliquanti

Al was an inventor who died before he could see his pioneering work in robotics come to fruition. But sixteen years after his death, he wakes up in a synthetic body exactly like his old one, and finds that humans and robots live in society together. As Al tries to figure out what has happened to him, he reunites with his former partner Brendan, now a respected inventor in his own right. Meeting Brendan also introduces Al to Sulla, a robot girl who closely resembles Al. As they work to uncover the mystery behind Al’s new life, they learn more about themselves and their relationships with each other.

This long-running webcomic is approaching its conclusion online, so now is a good time to get caught up; there are two books which collect chapters 1 through 5. (As of this writing, chapter 7 is underway, and the forthcoming 8th chapter will be the last.) Delliquanti has carefully crafted a suspenseful, intriguing story with two timelines—the past, where Al is still alive, and the present, where he is resurrected as a robot—building and reflecting on each other as they gradually converge. The clean, expressive art makes it easy to follow the sometimes complex plot, and conveys the emotional depth necessary for a work that examines identity in a profound and personal way. Delliquanti’s story delves into issues of sexuality and gender, not shying away from heartaches and struggles, but also warmly celebrating the joys of self-discovery. Along with the solid writing, the thoughtful character development and worldbuilding make this one of my favorite ongoing comics.

Lani Goto grew up on a steady diet of fantasy books, but now it’s more like a mix of some fantasy, lots of science fiction, and a bit of horror. In addition to reading, they enjoy cooking, hanging out with animals, and yelling at movies. They have a degree in art, and another in comics, though they currently work with engineering teams at the Wikimedia Foundation.


Cass Morris: For women, isolation from one’s gender seems somehow an essential component of heroism

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 Cass Morris!

“She’s Not Alone”—Or Is She?: The History of Idealized Friendship and the Limited Scope of Female Bonds in Blockbuster Sci-Fi and Fantasy
By Cass Morris

One of the greatest essayists of the Renaissance, Michel de Montaigne, wrote of friendship as “a general and universal fire, but temperate and equal, a constant established heat, all gentle and smooth, without poignancy or roughness.” He qualifies, however, that “the ordinary talent of women is not such as is sufficient to maintain the conference and communication required to the support of this sacred tie; nor do they appear to be endued with constancy of mind, to sustain the pinch of so hard and durable a knot.”

Montaigne was a brilliant man in many respects, but in this, I think we can all agree, he was staggeringly deficient.

Montaigne took his ideas from a long tradition of what the Romans called amicitia, a concept of perfect friendship: selfless, noble, virtuous, occurring between two men. Always two men. Women, the ancients and centuries’ worth of their descendants believed, were simply incapable of forming such flawless bonds. Not that women were considered entirely without merit—Aristotle spoke of marriage between a man and a woman as “a kind of friendship,” capable of providing delight, but still imperfect, born in almost all cases of the two lesser varieties of interpersonal bond, utility and pleasure, and damaged further by the inequality of status and power between husband and wife.

In some degree of fairness, true amicitia was thought to be rare even among men. The second century Roman author Seneca counted only six pairs of men throughout all of history up to that point who could fulfill the requirements, largely because the two men had to be precisely equal. Brothers could not truly be friends, in this mindset, because issues of inheritance would always come between them. A king could have no friends, since he had no equals—except among other kings, who would necessarily also be his rivals. Friends could not be indebted to each other, nor quarrel over romantic entanglements. Cicero thought friendships developed in maturity to be the best, stating that “friendships should be formed after strength and stability have been reached in mind and age.”

Despite these strictures placed upon it, the ideal of amicitia persisted in Western tradition throughout the classical era. It took on new tones in the medieval era, influenced by Teutonic stories of brothers-in-arms. Writers of the Renaissance blended these two traditions to create something both cerebral and emotional, and the concept has survived to this day in the concept of the “bromance.”

Obviously, people of all genders are capable of deep and true friendships. We know this. But popular fiction has been slower to represent those friendships, particularly in the franchises with the most money and media attention behind them. Forget classical ideals of amicitia; just getting two women on-screen at the same time, let alone bonding, let alone anything approaching a “perfect” friendship, has been a decades-long challenge.

In many cases, the dominant trope of “The Chick,” the inclusion of a token female character in a cast of male heroes, left those female characters adrift without even the possibility of forming bonds with other women. In the original Star Wars trilogy, Princess Leia is scarcely ever in the same room as another woman. The original Star Trek gave us only Uhura on the main cast. In Lord of the Rings, Eowyn rejects female companionship along with traditional femininity, and while we may presume that the ethereally distant figures of Arwen and Galadriel interact with other female Elves, we never see those interactions on page or screen. In Marvel comics, Jean Grey and Susan Storm were initially the only female members of their respective teams. For women, isolation from one’s gender seemed somehow an essential component of heroism.

The same is not true for men. Even if we hold ourselves to the classical ideals, eliminating family bonds and those with significant power differentials, we don’t have to look far for an abundance of examples. Luke and Han, Han and Chewie, Poe and Finn, Steve and Bucky, Rocket and Groot, Merry and Pippin, Harry and Ron, Kirk and Spock—the list could go on and on.

Even in modern sci-fi and fantasy, where casts are more likely to clear the so-low-you-could-trip-over-it bar of gender diversity, it remains a rarity for the women to be shown forming significant bonds with each other. Particularly in the largest franchises, female characters are often divvied up like a resource to be shared among the various components of the story. Place a girl with each section of the team, someone to be the “heart,” the conscience, and/or the romantic interest/sex object, depending on the tenor of the story, and call it a day.

We can look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an example: A 2018 list of twenty-five MCU friendships included only one example of a friendship between two women among twenty-four bro-pairs or male-female bonds, and that was from the Netflix show Jessica Jones, not any of the mega-blockbuster films. Most sub-components of the franchise feature only one major female character at a time. Tony’s circle includes Pepper Potts (conscience and sex interest) and initially introduces us to Natasha Romanoff, but their few interactions are spoiled by internalized misogyny. Natasha also forms part of Steve’s circle, but never at the same time as Peggy (romantic interest). Natasha herself, the only female Avenger in the main line-up for the first three phases of the MCU, never leads her own story, but serves as the romantic interest/sex object, whether explicitly in the narrative or merely teased for the audience, to Hawkeye, Steve, and Bruce Banner at various points. Thor’s circle gives us Jane Foster (romantic interest), Frigga (conscience), the Lady Sif (conscience/heart), and Valkyrie (who blessedly defies those markers; if anything, Thor serves as the heart for her), but only brief interactions between any of them. Black Panther is a notable exception, with Shuri, Okoye, and Nakia, who clearly have their own relationships with each other outside of those they have with T’Challa. And, of course, 2019 gave us Carol and Maria (a relationship heartily embraced by much of the queer community as perhaps having a romantic and/or sexual component in addition to friendship). These may indicate a move in a positive direction, but it took the MCU a decade of mega-hits to get even this far.

Black Panther - Shuri Black Panther - Okoye Black Panther - Nakia

We can also consider A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones. Both the books and the show are replete with female characters, to be certain. The split of point-of-view characters is representative. And yet those female characters are rarely afforded the opportunity to form close bonds or even to interact with each other—and almost never outside the bounds of family. The traveling pairs are predominantly either all-male or male-female—Ayra and the Hound, Brienne and Jaime, Jon and Ygritte. Ygritte is the only woman in her pack of wildling raiders; Asha/Yara Greyjoy is likewise singular among her Ironborn reavers. We are told that Margaery Tyrell has a flock of cousins and friends, but in the show, we never learn their names, and in the books, Margaery is never a point-of-view character, while Sansa, whose eyes the reader mostly sees Margaery through, is shunted to the outside of their merry circle, so we are never afforded the opportunity to know just what those bonds are really like. Show!Margaery makes more of an effort to befriend Sansa, but politics intervene, and there remains a troubling power differential between them.

Season Six of Game of Thrones offered us something truly tantalizing: not quite classically perfect friendship, but an opportunity to see multiple powerful women working together towards a common cause. Daenerys Targaryen forms a matriarchal alliance with Olenna Tyrell, Ellaria Sand, and Yara Greyjoy—and yet that gets smashed almost as soon as it is offered. Any potential friendships have no chance to succeed. Other relationships are held away from amicitia by those impediments enumerated by classical authors: differences in status, as with Daenerys and her handmaidens or Cersei and her courtiers, or the rivalries of kinship, as with the Sand Snakes. Catelyn and Brienne are closer-matched, and perhaps the closest the narrative comes to depicting amicitia between women, but there is still an element of rank in their dynamic; Brienne pledges an oath not to a friend, but to a lady of her parents’ generation whom she admires and feels she needs to do right by.

A Game of Thrones

Season 8 continues the trend. Sansa and Daenerys are set up as rivals, each jealously growling in defense of her perceived territory, rather than transcending such peevishness in the name of a greater cause. It seems such a woeful missed opportunity. Both women have suffered heinous abuse and come through stronger-forged; both know what it is to be let down and betrayed by the men they have trusted; both women have lost their systems of support and had to build new ones. They could enjoy a magnificent friendship, but instead, seem to have fallen into the “there can be only one female leader” mindset.

We might attribute all those fractured and fractious relationships to the nature of that fictional universe, if not for the camaraderie that is afforded to many of the men. When disaster threatens on the eve of the Battle of Winterfell, men come together, including those like Tyrion Lannister and Davos Seaworth, who have previously fought against each other on the battlefield, and even those with personal grievances like Beric Dondarrion and Sandor Clegane who literally fought to the death. They are allowed to reconcile, fight alongside one another, and share a laugh and a skin of wine. The women are not afforded the same opportunity. The night before battle, they are either isolated from other women (Arya, Brienne, Missandei, Gilly, Lyanna) or prowling snappishly around each other (Sansa, Daenerys). The show could have given us any number of significant moments between them: Sansa and Daenerys finding true common ground and setting aside petty jealousy in the face of adversity, Brienne and Arya and Lyanna bonding over their warrior skills and teaching other women how to defend themselves, Gilly offering comfort to Missandei as another woman despised as an outsider by the Northerners. But none of those were stories the showrunners found meritorious. The series closes with Sansa surrounded by male knights in the North, Arya by male sailors on her ship, Gilly alive and pregnant but unseen in the finale episode, and Brienne apparently doomed to a lifetime of trying to get Tyrion and Bronn to stop talking about brothels long enough to govern. Each surviving woman is entirely isolated from any other female influence.

I am weary of it.

Certainly there are authors out there writing magnificent bonds between women, plenty of them—as well as friendships between women and men, and between people of all genders. N.K. Jemisin, Gail Carriger, Kate Elliott, Sarah Kuhn, Roshani Chokshi, Tomi Adeyemi, Noelle Stevenson, and numerous others have produced works featuring not only multiple female characters, but female characters who work with each other, appreciate each other, enjoy each other, bond with each other. Yet blockbuster media seems reluctant to embrace such stories. 34 years after the initial development of the Bechdel-Wallace Test, we still find it worth commenting on when a major film manages to pass it.

Things may be on the verge of changing. Audiences cheered the all-female splash-page-esque shot in Avengers: Endgame, which brought together the amazing ladies of the franchise in an echo of the A-Force comics. If the MCU embraced that, rather than assuming we will be satisfied with a mere moment of fanservice and began developing films centering not just singular female heroes but coalitions of women, it would be a major step forward for narratives of friendship in Western media.

Captain Marvel - Carol Captain Marvel - Maria

I’m not suggesting we need women to match the ideals of classical friendship. Amicitia is an ancient trope that has influenced centuries’ worth of storytelling, but it’s restrictive and rather dispassionate. Wouldn’t it be amazing, though, if female and non-binary characters in major franchises were afforded the same opportunities for the full spectrum of emotional bonds as male characters are? Sisterhoods forged in fire and trials, wise mentors and plucky youngsters, enemies-to-friends, forbidden friendships, intergenerational friendships, healthy rivalries without malice—I want to see all the tropes, represented in as many permutations as men have always enjoyed, for the benefit of worldwide audiences.

And wouldn’t it be a fine thing if we could get some media might behind those stories that already feature these bonds and forms of friendship? And celebrate the authors who have already created them?

The question, then, is how do we put pressure on media conglomerates to tell stories which feature friendship bonds other than those between two men? We can vote with our dollars, of course. We can make sure we buy books featuring a variety of women with complex relationships to each other; we can run up the box office on Captain Marvel. Women spend more money on entertainment than men do across almost every form of media. So. How do we harness that collective power?

Cass Morris

Cass Morris works as a writer and educator in central Virginia and as a bookseller in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She completed her Master of Letters at Mary Baldwin University in 2010, and she earned her undergraduate degree, a BA in English with a minor in history, from the College of William and Mary in 2007. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart. Her debut novel, From Unseen Fire: Book One of the Aven Cycle, is a Roman-flavored historical fantasy released by DAW Books.


Vandana Singh’s work, steeped in Indian tales, presented with a scientist’s awe, asks the question that I most need from my sci-fi reading.

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!

Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories

Today, we need to talk about fantasy and science fiction.

And why they’re different.

And why I generally like one and not the other.

And what on earth any of this has to do with Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories.

Let’s start with a confession: As a general rule—and I do mean a very broadly applied rule with a ludicrously small number of exceptions—I don’t like science fiction. I do not like your spaceships or your far-flung planets. I do not like your artificial intelligence or your aliens. I do not like your Star Wars or your Star Trek or your Guardians of the Galaxy. I do not like any of that, Sam I am.

I often find that, when we’re talking about liking or disliking entire genres, it’s perhaps helpful to throw out the very good and very bad examples. If you put N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season in the hands of someone who doesn’t like fantasy, they might well like it anyway because it’s bloody perfect. It’s so perfect that the fantasy elements— despite being wholly necessary for the entire point—are almost secondary. In so many ways, it’s a slavery book, a climate change book, a middle-aged woman’s bildungsroman book, not a fantasy book. (Yes, you and I both know it’s actually a fantasy book.) Similarly, let’s not extrapolate anything from the fact that I really did like Kameron Hurley’s sci-fi The Stars Are Legion, despite that it was terribly damp, because it’s also terribly good. While I fully recognize that sci-fi tropes are necessary for a woman to give birth to a spaceship part, for me, The Stars Are Legion is a reproductive justice book and its (very damp) science fiction trappings are secondary.

Conversely, it’s probably not helpful to draw conclusions about genres from disliking their very bad books. Bad books are bad books, whether they have aliens or not.

But when you start to look at the middle swath of books, which are neither very good nor very bad, I am much more likely to find something that I like in the fantasy books than in the science fiction books. And Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, Vandana Singh’s collection, with its foundation of myth and its execution of science, was an interesting read for me because it almost begs the question, “Well, Amy, why is it, in fact, that you don’t like science fiction anyway?”

And here, I think, is the answer: Start, again, by removing the really great books from your calculus. And by that, I mean, more often than not, those books that use the possibilities of the genre as a necessary component of the actual story they’re telling: The Stars Are Legion’s use of forced birth of spaceship parts as a furious cry for reproductive justice, for example, or Ninefox Gambit’s shoving a resurrected, renowned, murderous strategist into the head of a crashhawk to explore the value, or not, of rule-following as a form of regime change.

Put those aside. What you’re left with is a lot of stories that, whether you love them or you don’t, maybe didn’t need that particular genre to tell its story. Because stories aren’t really about unicorns or spaceships or ghosts, are they? They’re about revolution or love or self. (And we could go down a serious rabbit hole right here about what the necessary components of a story are, but I will argue into the ground that spaceships are only very rarely one of them.) But for one reason or another or a thousand, the author chose a particular genre. So regardless of whether it’s unicorns or spaceships or ghosts (or all three, whee), you’ve begged certain questions that readers think comes with them: virginity issues, say, or the physics of warp speed, or what exactly is going bump in the night. So far, still okay!

And—I swear I’m coming to the point, hang in there—here’s why I read speculative fiction, generally: It gives authors a chance to create worlds that don’t have the same bullshit as ours. I read speculative fiction for the possibility of exploring a world that is better—more fair, more just—than ours. Or that explores issues that our world has in more thoughtful, more empathetic ways. And that’s why I get mad at both science fiction and fantasy for their thoughtless defaults to white, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical people. Speculative fiction presents the opportunity to make more people human.

But here’s the thing: When we’re talking about who gets to be human in speculative fiction, science fiction fumbles that issue way more often than fantasy. Which is not to say that fantasy isn’t rife with issues of slavery and consent and a thousand other problematic things. Your flowers might speak, Lewis Carroll, but do they get to vote? I fucking thought not.

But sheesh, in sci-fi, basically every setting and every plot begs questions of humanity. Every time there’s an alien or some artificial intelligence or a sentient plant or a jumped-up Roomba, I want to know whether that’s a human. In a world where a robot can run a planet, I want to know what the author thinks being human means. In worlds where computers can think on their own and people are technologically enhanced and aliens turn up every dang day, what does human-ness require? And some science fiction books interrogate this well (Semiosis), and some do not, and so many don’t even try, but when I read speculative fiction specifically so authors can explore worlds that are more fair or just or thoughtful than ours, and we’re not querying how we treat the independently thinking robots who are running entire planets, it makes me furious.

Which brings me, finally and in the most roundabout way possible, to Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories.

Vandana Singh is both a speculative fiction author and a theoretical particle physicist. And frankly, you can always tell when a sci-fi author is also a scientist, can’t you? It’s not even so much the facility with the science that’s apparent in the details, but the way of looking at the world around you as a place of infinite possibility. A proclivity to see the wonder of both the grand scale of the universe and every person’s tiny place in it.

Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories has all of that wonder and then some. Singh was born in India, to parents with graduate degrees in English literature, so she was raised on stories: Indian epics, the myths and legends of South Asia, Shakespeare, and more. Those tales are the foundation for her work: Even as we’re following a protagonist across the universe in pursuit of a robot, hell-bent on revenge, Singh is explicitly drawing parallels to the Ramayana. But perhaps even more than those tales, Singh’s awe of the universe seeps into the pores of every story. Her stories are about wonder and wondering: Is time truly linear? Can one person change the cosmic course of the universe? Is there a case to be made for an Anti-Occam’s Razor Theory? Her stories are an inherent exploration: of society, of the world, of the universe.

And of what it means to be human.

Through all those legends and all that wonder, in worlds of profound artificial intelligence and alien manipulation, Singh’s fundamental question is a humanist one: What does it mean to be human? It’s a question that she poses delicately, empathetically, in a profoundly exploratory way—but she’s relentless in her inquiry. Every story in the collection asks, in one way or another, what it means to be human. Is it love? Is it revenge? Is it duty? Is it self-determination? An ability to change the world? Is it, in fact, being able to wonder at the endless possibilities of the universe?

I could tell you more, of course. About how “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra” is an explosive take on the power of stories. Or about how “A Handful of Rice” contemplates both surprise and compromise. Or the reader’s own moment of wonder halfway through “Peripeteia.”

But I don’t need to, do I?

Because you already know the most important part: Vandana Singh’s work, steeped in Indian tales, presented with a scientist’s awe, asks the question that I most need from my sci-fi reading: What makes us human?

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 nine 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.


Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning lifts you up without holding your hand

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, in honor of Rebecca’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Casey Blair on Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning.

Trail of Lightning

Buckle up, friends and neighbors, because if you haven’t already read Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning, you desperately need to check it out. Reading Trail of Lightning with Sirens’s mission of engaging with the remarkable, diverse work of women and nonbinary people in fantasy literature in mind, all the while knowing that this year’s conference theme is heroes, was, in complete honesty, a revelation.

In short, Trail of Lightning is the first of Roanhorse’s Sixth World series, a post-apocalyptic urban fantasy adventure centering on Diné / Navajo characters and culture with magic drawn from its mythos. It stars Maggie Hoskie, a woman monster hunter living in Dinétah, the ancestral homeland of the Navajo tribe, which encompass parts of what was Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Dinétah has been isolated from the rest of what’s left of the United States, protected by magical walls after climate change and rising sea levels have flooded much of the country. But we’re going to go long here, because even in that abbreviated conception, this bears unpacking. Roanhorse is so intentional about what she’s doing in this book that I am still reeling.

First, and I feel that it’s important to lead with this—Trail of Lightning is an enormously fun read. It’s everything I want from urban fantasy: adventure, magical battles, mystery, and banter; it’s fast-paced and action-packed. And while packing in the physical punches, Roanhorse manages to get in the emotional punches at the same time without ever slowing down.

It also, in the true sense of “urban” fantasy, explores a situation tightly predicated on its setting. While Trail of Lightning doesn’t only occur in one specific city or even a specific urban landscape, it’s a story so embedded in its setting that it literally couldn’t take place anywhere else. And this is where Roanhorse’s take on post-apocalypse really shines, because as she points out in the novel, the Diné can survive and thrive in this world in part because indigenous peoples on this continent have already experienced an apocalypse.

This is not a world that Roanhorse could have chosen just any cultural history for: it’s uniquely and intentionally centered on native experiences, which is what distinguishes it from other post-apocalyptic fiction. Surviving and thriving, and surviving versus thriving, are concepts that recur throughout the book—on both the cultural and individual level. Roanhorse offers those of us who aren’t Diné a window into Navajo culture, which is so rarely centered in mainstream fiction. I love that she doesn’t hold the reader’s hand through unfamiliar words or concepts—everything we need is on the page, and if we want more background about the tales she’s drawing from? Her task isn’t to educate the reader; it’s to tell a story, and she does a fantastic job of it.

But that very centering—and not catering to a “default” white audience—is political, and Roanhorse doesn’t shy away from that. Whether she’s weaving depictions of microaggressions to build an impression of their combined weight, or taking on the inevitability and scope of climate change at a time when it’s more relevant than ever, she doesn’t soften or obfuscate her intentions. That matters.

Trail of Lightning is also one of the best takes on monstrous women I’ve ever read. Maggie Hoskie has awesome powers, but they are powers predicated on combat and death, subverting a historical stereotype of women’s magical powers in fantasy to be associated with life (healing, fertility and growth, bringing people together, etc.). In her eyes, if she has such abnormal, destructive powers, it must be that she is a naturally destructive person.

Maggie believes she’s a monster. We see throughout the book why, and how she feels about that—but we also see why other people believe she’s either better or worse than she is. We see the power of community to punish or lift up, and specifically how, in this world with communities that survived an apocalypse, it affects this powerful, devastated woman’s ability to thrive. We see the trap of Maggie’s survivorship trauma from the inside and out, as Roanhorse forces us to consider: what is a monster, what makes a person a monster, how people learn to believe that they’re monsters, how they internalize that belief and become complicit in maintaining and passing it on, what that allows them to do—and can people change? If so, how? And does it even matter?

How do the stories that we hear, that we tell ourselves, and that we forget, define who we are? And can we choose to tell different stories that still feel like truth?

We can’t always prevent disasters and apocalypses, be they personal or on a grand scale, but for better or worse we can reshape and redefine ourselves and our worlds in their wake. As Maggie’s sense of self and her power break past the cage she was induced to help build for them, what does that mean for the larger-than-life men who try to control her, whether through treachery, sweet promises, or literal branding?

No spoilers, but…let’s just say that doesn’t work out how they planned. And it is so very, very satisfying to watch Maggie learn to fight, fight to rise, and not just survive, but thrive.

Maggie’s adventures continue in Storm of Locusts, which came out this past April, and trust me: you want to know where Roanhorse takes her next.

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.


2019 Books and Breakfast: queer people saving the world

Each year, Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through our Books and Breakfast program. We select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme, and then attendees bring their breakfast and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary authors are doing in fantasy literature!

This year, as we interrogate what it means to be a hero and what actions are seen as heroic, our Books and Breakfast program features titles in four areas to broaden our definition of heroism: religion, race, gender/sexuality, and body—and please note that some titles sit on multiple axes, not just the one they’re listed under! We’ll be highlighting all of these titles this summer: You can read more about our religion picks here and our race picks here; below are our Books and Breakfast selections exploring heroism, gender, and sexuality; and look for our body selections in a few weeks.



The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson
The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner


Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich


Dreadnought by April Daniels
The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera


Faith Volume 1: Hollywood and Vine by Jody Houser, Francis Portela, and Marguerite Sauvage
Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge


So much of our societal notion of heroism is wrapped up with the assumption that the male hero gets the girl. After all, how many stories have you read where the hero puts on his armor, picks up his sword, and clanks off to the remote forest to slay the dragon and rescue the damsel? A quite literal getting the girl, if you will, but let’s not forget that he usually marries her, too, because this pervasive form of heroism is so often about both reward and possession. But what if the hero isn’t cisgender? Or heterosexual? What does heroism look like then? Our Books and Breakfast gender/sexuality picks—April Daniels’s Dreadnought and K Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter—ask that very question.


Dreadnought by April Daniels


Dreadnought by April Daniels begins with Danny painting her toenails. That’s a pretty ordinary activity for a girl, but at the beginning of the book, only Danny knows that she’s a girl. Then, a superhero passes his powers to her, and inexplicably, in the space of a moment, her body goes through the transition she’s been dreaming of. So begins a story that is about what you present or hide from the world, how you want to be seen and perceived—and very importantly, a story about heroism and what you choose as opposed to what you don’t.

Danny lives in a near-future world that has been in upheaval due to various factions of superheroes warring against one another. Because she inherited the “good guy” Dreadnought’s powers, she’s invited to—even expected to—join the side of righteousness and help save the day; Danny’s not so sure about that. Classic comic hero(ine) struggles, yes—but what happens when you’re not sure you want to join the grownups in their infighting? What if you don’t want to save the world so much as save yourself from a living at home situation that’s not safe or supportive? And, in larger metaphors, who gets a say in your (secret) identity? Must you reveal it to everyone? Must you be an activist, a hero, if you will? And who should get to decide what you disclose, even what you will fight for, and when?

Dreadnought can be read on the surface as an adventure story, but there are many themes to consider: Our relationships to our bodies. The perception and treatment of women in society, and the difference between being an outsider and an insider to an identity. The struggle to be seen exactly as you are. The price of heroics. Those who love a reluctant heroine will find one in Danny and Dreadnought, wrapped up in a pacey, high-concept, capes-and-villains package that nevertheless has plenty of depth.



The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera

The Tiger's Daughter

Perhaps I don’t need to say anything about K Arsenault Rivera’s Mongol-inspired epic fantasy, The Tiger’s Daughter, other than that it’s about two formidable girls, born of formidable mothers, learning to be heroes while also falling in love with each other? Duty-bound Shefali, who never misses with a bow and can see spirits, is the daughter of Burquila Alshara, the relentless leader of the nomadic Qorin. Arrogant O-Shizuka, preternaturally skilled with both sword and calligraphy brush, who can make flowers bloom, is both the daughter of O-Shizuru, the empire’s best swordsperson, and the niece of the emperor, next in line to take the throne. They are both destined to be legends, even gods.

The Tiger’s Daughter queries much about heroism: Rivera deliberately contrasts the heroism of the girls’ mothers—in the past and therefore somewhat neater and even glossier for its lack of detail—with the chaotic, terrifying routes that Shefali and O-Shizuka take toward their own heroism. You can readily see the elements of their lives that will create their immortality—the tiger in the garden, the demon by the fire—but heroism is a muddy, messy, raw sort of thing in practice. It’s something that, even if you believe in destiny, you must choose over and over again. And despite the personal cost, Shefali and O-Shizuka do choose it over and over again.

And in all of that, the girls’ great love for each other is front and center, not a side plot or a few chaste kisses, but an equally muddy, messy, raw sort of thing. Their love is not a distraction from their heroism or a consolation prize for their sacrifice, but a beautiful, wild, glorious thing that makes it possible for them to relentlessly choose heroism, that bronzes their legacy, that makes them worthy of their seeming godhood. Their love makes each of them more—more brave, more brilliant, and yes, more heroic—than either could have been individually. And in Rivera’s work, that is what heroism looks like: tumultuous, profound, and in love.



Rebecca Kim Wells: I grew up as an irrepressible tomboy who fell victim to the unfortunate misogynistic belief that I wasn’t like “other girls.”

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 a personal essay from Rebecca Kim Wells!

How Tamora Pierce’s Books Saved Me from the Curse of “Not Like Other Girls”
By Rebecca Kim Wells


I grew up as an irrepressible tomboy who fell victim to the unfortunate misogynistic belief that I wasn’t like “other girls.” I roughhoused, played competitive sports, wore oversize jeans and t-shirts every day of my teenage years, and secretly thought of myself as better than the girls around me who wore dresses or nail polish. I was encouraged to be strong, healthy, smart, and athletic—and I was all those things. I heartily encourage those things. But what I didn’t understand as a child was that gender presentation is a fluid exercise, not an either/or situation in which anyone who chooses incorrectly (and in my mind there very much was an incorrect choice) is “shallow.”

There are lots of reasons for this, and I don’t mean to say that being a tomboy by definition means rejecting “other girls.” One of those reasons almost certainly was the fact that I grew up in a house without an adult female presence, and as a result, felt as though the door that unlocked the secrets of womanhood—whatever secrets those were—had been hidden from me. I considered myself an alien among girls, and over the years my feelings of superiority mingled with feelings of insecurity as I wanted desperately to know how the girls around me seemed to effortlessly understand things that for me, might has well have been written in a language I didn’t understand. (When I bought my first razor, I didn’t realize that electric razors needed to be charged, and ended up locking myself in the bathroom for close to an hour as my family was getting ready to leave the house. It was dire.)

Then I discovered Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series.

The Tiger's Daughter The Woman who Rides Like a Man

Most of you are likely already familiar with these books—so formative to so many fantasy readers in the 1990s—but for those who aren’t, here’s the brief overview. Alanna (a dedicated, smart, physically capable girl without a mother) is determined to become a knight in a kingdom where (you guessed it) only men can hold that title. So she pretends to be a boy and trades places with her twin brother so that she can take his place at court. I loved Alanna, and devoured the quartet whole. From Alanna I learned dedication and determination and how to stand just as tall as any boy. But I also learned lessons from several other female characters in the series, lessons that were more important than I realized at the time.

Once at court, Alanna does pretty well at being a knight, but struggles with aspects of traditional femininity. When she gets her period, she doesn’t immediately understand what is happening. It takes an older woman, the mother of one of her acquaintances, to explain menstrual cycles, pregnancy, and birth control to her. “The talk” is a common occurrence in the lives of people assigned female at birth, but the scene as depicted in Alanna: The First Adventure sent the message home to me that there is a wealth of wisdom in traditionally female domains.

One can certainly argue with many ways in which gender is presented in the Song of the Lioness series. Alanna in particular struggles mightily with her own lack of understanding of things that are coded female in the world of Tortall, as well as the fact that her livelihood depends on her being as good or better than the boys around her—even after she is knighted and has proven herself worthy, gender aside. The third book in the series is literally titled The Woman Who Rides Like a Man. (What does a man ride like? Why is “like a man” the gold standard?)

Lioness Rampant

But later books in the series (and further series in the same world) begin to interrogate these boundaries. In Lioness Rampant, the final book in the quartet, Alanna encounters Thayet, a princess of a neighboring kingdom who is in desperate need of assistance. Though Alanna initially expects her to be a simpering princess (she is exceptionally beautiful), Thayet soon shows her principles and proves her own intelligence. She advises Alanna on romantic entanglements, refuses to be led anywhere by the nose, and, after marrying King Jonathan, founds the Queen’s Riders, a battle troop that accepts both women and men. Thayet is beautiful, intellectual, and formidable, a woman written into the world of Tortall in part to challenge Alanna’s—and my—assumptions about what a woman can look like and be.

First Test

Further books by Tamora Pierce press further upon this issue. The third quartet set in Tortall, the Protector of the Small series, features Keladry, the first girl to apply to become a knight since girls have been allowed to join. Though she is similar to Alanna in many ways, Kel also spent several years of her childhood in the Yamani Islands, and trained with the noblewomen there in the use of the glaive and fan. Though in the Islands the weapons are meant to be used primarily for self-defense, the fact that noblewomen are expected to be competent with them helps deepen the gender portrayals in the world.

Sandry's Book

Going beyond the world of Tortall, Tamora Pierce also explores the idea of strength in the traditionally “feminine” in the Circle of Magic quartet, wherein three girls, a boy, and two crochety guardians are thrown together to form one of the best found family series I read as a child. The series is notable for the connections it draws between magic and “feminine” arts—Sandry’s magic is tied to threadwork, Tris’s weather magic is deeply tied to how in touch she is with her emotional landscape, and Briar (a boy) finds his magic in greenery and growing plants.

Power and legitimacy in the feminine. Like many books published in this time, Tamora Pierce’s work is not immune from criticism—of its portrayal of different races, sexualities, and even gender roles. But immersing myself in these stories still meant finding all sorts of female characters to respect and to emulate—warrior women, intellectuals, empaths; women who wore dresses and finery and those who did not; women of all sorts, all with their own individual power. Reading Tamora Pierce’s books provided me with a lens through which I saw and understood new ways of being female, ways that complicated the “strong female character” mantra I’d lived by without interrogating since childhood.

I wish it were so easy—that reading a book could immediately undo every impression of gender stereotyping and internalized misogyny I’ve ever experienced or perpetuated. But understanding the world and my place in it is the work of a lifetime, as are the choices I make every day in expressing my gender when I decide how to dress, what to put on my face, how to interact with the people around me. I’ve grown a lot from who I was as a child (I hope we can all say the same thing about ourselves!). I no longer make assumptions about someone’s seriousness based on how they choose to express their gender. Though I’m still a t-shirt and jeans sort of person, I sometimes wear dresses—and when I do, I don’t feel awkward about it. I’ve learned, and am still learning, a lot about internalized misogyny, toxic masculinity, and the fallacies of gender essentialism. And I can credit many of the books I read as a child, especially those set in Tortall, as opening the door.

Rebecca Kim Wells

Rebecca Kim Wells is the author of Shatter the Sky, an angry bisexual dragon YA fantasy novel coming from Simon & Schuster on July 30, and its sequel Storm the Earth, forthcoming in Fall 2020. She holds a BA in Political Science from UC Berkeley and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Simmons College. When not writing, reading, or talking about writing or reading, she sells books at a fiercely independent bookstore in Massachusetts. She can also be found drinking tea, singing along to musicals, or playing soccer. (Usually not all at once.) If she were a hobbit, she would undoubtedly be a Took.


Nia Davenport: In the collective conscience, literature defines who matters and who is human enough to have stories told about them…

Sirens Studio takes place October 22–23, 2019, just prior to the official start of the conference, and gives attendees the opportunity to enrich their learning in the form of small-group workshop intensives. We’re thrilled to interview a few members of our tremendous faculty on their work, reading, inspirations, and workshop topic! Today, we’re chatting with Nia Davenport, who will lead the reading workshop “The Danger of the Single Narrative” this fall. To learn more and register, please visit our Sirens Studio page.

Accompanying our interview is a selection of book covers Nia references in her interview below: Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes, Roshani Chokshi’s The Gilded Wolves, Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels books (first in series is Angel’s Blood), Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter books (first in series is Magic Bites), and L.A. Banks’s Vampire Huntress Legend books (first in series is Minion).


AMY TENBRINK: Let’s start at the very beginning! You have a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences, a master’s degree in public health and another in teaching, you’ve worked in public health, you currently teach both science and English to kids (and lead the Science Department), and you write fiction. How do you manage to do it all?

Nia Davenport

NIA: Haha. That is an excellent question. If I was asked this question four years ago, I would’ve said a lot of sleepless nights, cramming tasks into every spare second of my day, and forgetting to feed myself a lot of the time. I’ve learned that my former way of doing things isn’t healthy or sustainable. Now, I’ve found a better rhythm. Teaching provides me the privilege of having summers off. So, I draft new writing projects during the summer when I can give them full-time attention without running myself into the ground. I use the fall and winter, when I’m back at work, to work with my agent to revise those summer projects. For me, book edits are much less time consuming than writing initial drafts. With edits, the foundation is already laid.

Teaching is also a job that comes relatively easy for me because I have amazing students. I love what I do, and when I’m at work it doesn’t feel like actual work. Since I write a lot of Young Adult stories, it also helps me write better. I’m constantly around young adult voices, having meaningful conversations with them about real-world issues. So, it allows me to see the world from a teenager’s perspective, and I employ that cool advantage in my writing.


AMY: What ultimately drew you to teaching? What do you love about being in a classroom and working with students?

NIA: I was a tutor before I decided to teach. The fact that working with students as a tutor never felt like a drag and it was a job that I never dreaded going to, is what drew me to teach. I realized I have a passion for learning and working with kids. Kids are amazing. Teaching them is also a constant learning process for me. I think I learn as much from them as they do from me.

The thing I love most about being in the classroom and working with students is being able to engage them in conversations about real-world issues. So often, adults dismiss teens as not having anything intelligent or competent to say. This couldn’t be further from the truth. A lot of them see things with more clarity and intelligence than us adults.

As a teacher, it’s never my mission to just deliver instructional content to my students. I care more about if they leave my classroom having more confidence in who they are as a person and having a greater love of critical analyses, reading, and investigating new things than I do them knowing the difference between a complex sentence and a compound-complex sentence or how DNA is replicated.


AMY: What kinds of fantasy books do you use in your classrooms? How do you incorporate them into your curricula? How do your students respond to these books—and which ones have they loved?

Six of Crows

NIA: I teach Sophomores who are pretty mature, so I use fantasy books skewed toward older YA or adult books which fit nicely in a crossover space. I pick books with thrilling plots, a good amount of gore, intrigue, betrayal, deception, fights—you know, all the things that in my experience easily hook a good number of reluctant teen readers into loving a book. In fact, I use exclusively fantasy books in my curriculum because by the time my students get to me as sophomores, they’ve had years and years of English classes with virtually no fantasy books and they are bored to death with realistic fiction. Not that there aren’t some really amazing realistic fiction stories that have been recently published. But a lot of educators elect canon stories that lack diversity and that fail to reflect the identities and experiences of the students reading them—which fosters an aversion to books in my opinion. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo and An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir are both books that I incorporate into my curriculum every year.

An Ember in the Ashes

I use Six of Crows to teach literary elements such as symbolism, theme, tone, mood, etc. More powerfully, I use it to facilitate discussions about dealing with grief, trauma and PTSD. I also use Six of Crows to discuss themes of identity, belonging, tolerance and acceptance. It’s a book that is intentionally diverse, and it does diversity pretty well. Before we start reading the book, we talk about how literature functions as a compact between readers and society. In the collective conscience, literature defines who matters and who is human enough to have stories told about them and who can be discarded or isn’t a part of humanity enough to have stories told about them. This then segues into a discussion of why diverse storytelling matters and why kids, teens, and adults need stories that reflect their individual identities and experiences.

The Gilded Wolves

My students really enjoy our fantasy reads and many of them tell me that the books have prompted them to enjoy reading when they did not before, specifically because they’ve seen themselves within the pages of the book and that is a powerful experience.

I keep talking about Six of Crows, but it is always an automatic hit with my students. It offers a plethora of diverse protagonists that make it easy for most of my students to see themselves reflected in some way in one of them. The same is true for The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi which I used in my classroom for the first time this past year.


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

NIA: In my personal reading, I love books with female protagonists who refuse to be pushed around and who are fighters. Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels books, Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter books, and L.A. Banks’ Vampire Huntress Legend books are my all-time top three treasured reads in no particular order. If you’re familiar with any of these, that should give you a pretty good idea of my reading tastes. I like immersive stories with epic world-building that are rooted in mythology. I like myth and magic and paranormal creatures and worlds with powerful, ruthless beings who are lethal and brutal. I also like a pretty steamy romantic subplot.

Magic Bites Angel's Blood


AMY: This fall, you’re presenting a workshop intensive for readers titled “The Danger of the Single Narrative” as part of the Sirens Studio. Would you please give us a preview of what Studio attendees can expect to discuss and learn?

NIA: Sure! I intend to lead a discussion on the harm that’s caused when only one type of representation of an identity is depicted over and over again in books. When stories feature Black characters, are there certain tropes, conflicts, or settings we automatically expect? Furthermore, do we judge the merit of those stories by the amount of pain or trauma inflicted on Black protagonists? “The Danger of the Single Narrative” will discuss several popular SFF books written by Black authors which feature Black protagonists. We will explore the struggles, settings, and identities put forth by these works and examine why stories that do not explicitly deal with Black pain are just as valid and necessary as stories which do.


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?


NIA: L.A. Banks is that person for sure. Her Vampire Huntress Legend books were the first time I ever picked up a paranormal series and saw myself, a Black woman, featured in the genre I adore. I was in college, and I bought all of her books and devoured them in one summer. I’ve always had a knack for writing, and I’ve always been an avid reader, but L.A. Banks’ stories are what prompted me to start dreaming about writing my own stories professionally. Her stories didn’t just give me a Black heroine. They gave me my culture, my unique experiences as a young Black woman, and a reflection of my family and relationships and friendships in a book.


Nia Davenport has always harbored a love of both science and crafting stories. After college, Nia studied and worked in the public health sector before discovering a passion for teaching. As an English and Biology teacher, Nia strives to make a difference in the lives of young people, minimize disparities in education for youths of color, and help students realize their dreams and unlimited potential. As a Black writer, her goals are much the same. Nia is also a freelance reviewer for Booklist.

For more information about Nia, please visit her Twitter.


New Fantasy Books: July 2019

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of July 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!

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.


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