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Susie O’Brien: What I love most about speculative fiction is the new worlds that it opens up for me

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

Accompanying our interview is a selection of book covers Susie O’Brien references in her interview below: Theodora Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Mishell Baker’s Borderline, Artemis Grey’s Catskin, Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time, and Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.

 

AMY TENBRINK: Every year, for several years running, you have been the first person to finish the Sirens Reading Challenge! In fact, I know you would have been done with the 2019 challenge in probably 2018 if one of the required works had come out before April of 2019. About how many books do you read a year? About how many of those are speculative fiction? Do you finish them all?

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter

SUSIE O’BRIEN: Reading is my passion. It always has been. My mom says I taught myself to read when I was about four years old. I’ve been reading for 58 years. I read an average of two books per week when I’m reading fiction. It takes me longer to read nonfiction. I wouldn’t have finished the 2019 challenge in 2018, though. It would have taken me until the end of January 2019.

I would say, right now, that about 80 percent of what I read is speculative fiction. I immerse myself in the world of whatever book I’m reading. I consume books…about 100 of them per year. I usually finish every book that I start, even if I hate it.

 

AMY: So…how? How do you read all of those books? Are you the world’s fastest reader? Are you listening to audiobooks while you do everything else in your life? How are you getting all this amazing reading done?

Borderline

SUSIE: I’m definitely not the world’s fastest reader. And, even though I LOVE many of the books I read, if you ask me the name of the main character six months after I read the book, I probably won’t be able to tell you. But, I don’t have a regular job. (I do the bookkeeping for my husband Mike’s consulting business, but that only takes a few hours per month.) Also, with my health issues now, I am forced to spend more time sitting still, so I read. I’m a night owl, and Mike is a morning person, so I read with a book light for a couple of hours most evenings, plus about an hour or so during the day. I DO listen to audiobooks, but usually only when I’m on the treadmill, and then it’s often stuff like the Harry Potter books or The Lord of the Rings.

 

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

SUSIE: What I love most about speculative fiction is the new worlds that it opens up for me. I immerse myself fully in that world while I’m reading that book. I don’t think I can tell you what kinds of stories interest me most, but I can tell you some of my favorites from the past couple of years of Sirens challenges:

  • The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter: I loved the humor of this one, and I’ve always loved Sherlock Holmes stories, so….
  • Borderline: I LOVE the intersection of elves and humans in this series.
  • Catskin: Artemis Grey’s book is wonderful.
  • Aru Shah and the End of Time: I loved the characters in this one.
  • Where the Mountain Meets the Moon: What a wonderful lesson!

And then Dread Nation, Witchmark, The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, and anything by Victoria Schwab, Anna-Marie McLemore, N.K. Jemisin, Ursula Le Guin, K.B. Wagers, or Nnedi Okorafor. The Prince and the Dressmaker, The Mortification of Fovea Munson (SO funny!), Ms. Marvel, and Lumberjanes are also favorites.

 

AMY: You are one of the most spectacular seamstresses I’ve ever known, and every year, you and your daughter Jo donate a custom creation–a coat, a costume, a haute couture gown–to the Sirens auction. How did you learn to sew and what about it do you love?

Catskin

SUSIE: When I was 12, I learned to use my mom’s sewing machine…just straight stitching. When I was 16, I made a cloth doll and clothes for a two-year-old that I was babysitting. When I was 18, Mom taught me to sew clothes. I started creating simple costumes in college, and then when Jo was very little, I started sewing for her. As her tastes have grown, I have developed my sewing abilities to keep up with her. My dad’s oldest sister was a professional seamstress, and she taught the basics to my mom, and then my mom taught me. I love sewing for a number of reasons…it’s a very practical skill; it allows me to be creative; and the finished product makes people happy. When I was diagnosed with Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension, it was the thought of finishing Rosamund Hodge’s coat [purchased as part of the Sirens auction] that kept me fighting to live, and it gave me a purpose.

 

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

Aru Shah and the End of Time

SUSIE: I started to come to Sirens after making the coat for Yoon Ha Lee [purchased as part of the Sirens auction]. I wanted to see what the conference was all about, for one thing. And I was looking for a group of people who were like-minded about books. When Jo first started going, I thought it was mostly for writers, but now I know it’s also for readers—not to mention teachers, librarians, and more. And I have felt like I belong ever since I started going. I hope to be able to attend Sirens for the rest of my life. I love how accepting everyone is there. I find the discussions and talks to be very interesting, but mostly I just love being there where I feel I belong.

 

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?

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

SUSIE: My daughter Jo has changed my life. She is a wonderful person, and I can ask her anything. When I have needed to understand about the meaning of the terms that are being used to describe people, it’s Jo that I ask. I grew up in a time when “queer” was a slur, and as they have added more letters to LGBT (now they have added QIA+), I have asked Jo to explain them to me. I must say, the entire experience at Sirens has changed my life, too…it’s wonderful! Thank you!

 


Susie O’Brien was born the youngest of four kids in 1956 in Jackson, Michigan. Her sister Barbara was the oldest of the kids, and she was the first baby-sitter Susie ever knew. Her dad moved their family to Martinsburg, West Virginia, in 1962. He had been working for the IRS as a tax collector, but he passed the exam they gave him, and he was given a job in the first US government computer center. Growing up in a smallish town in WV was interesting. 

Susie went to college in Virginia to become a teacher and then moved to New Orleans to find better teaching opportunities. But the pay was so wretched that she found a better-paying job with an oil company. That’s where she met Mike, her husband of 33 years. Susie’s daughter Jo was born in New Orleans, but they moved to Houston soon after her birth. They left Houston after only four years and moved to Tulsa. When Mike was laid off in 1999 and started consulting with big oil, the family could live anywhere as long as there was an airport and a good home office. They chose Evergreen, Colorado, where they’ve been for 17 years now.

 

Julia Ember: For me, queer love stories are what come naturally

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

 

AMY TENBRINK: When did you fall in love with fantasy literature? And what do you love about it now?

Julia Ember

JULIA EMBER: I can’t remember a time before I was in love with fantasy! My mom read to me a lot when I was a kid, and we would record audio tapes (another era!) of the books we read together. I loved fantasy and fairy tales even then.

Now, I love that fantasy can be simultaneously escapist and a scathing political commentary. I love stories about secondary worlds, mythical creatures and monsters with conflicts that echo our own reality.

 

AMY: How did you decide to be an author? And in particular, how did you decide to be an author of the loveliest, most incandescent queer love stories about mermaids and unicorns and everything glittery and wonderful?

JULIA: Becoming an author was never really a conscious decision I made! I was a voracious reader as a child and teen and wrote fiction through college. I always dreamed of having something published, but in those years it wasn’t something I was actively working toward. Then, I went to graduate school and with all the reading and writing I had to do for the degree, fiction sort of fell by the wayside.

In 2014, I made the decision to leave academia as it was doing a number on my mental health. While trying to figure out what else I could possibly do, I interned for a literary agent. I started reading fiction again and remembered how much I had loved it. I got a full-time job working for a book distributor, immersed myself in the book world and started writing again.

For me, queer love stories are what come naturally. I am a queer woman myself and find writing f/f stories much easier than m/f. I wrote Unicorn Tracks, my first novella, after a traumatizing breakup when I wanted to write a sweet love story to make myself feel better. The Seafarer’s Kiss duology allowed me to explore my feelings about the line between being true to yourself as an individual and being with another person. I think that my upcoming book, Ruinsong, is probably the most romantic of my stories, written at a time when I am about to marry the love of my life.

In terms of the glitter—I’ve always loved mermaids and unicorns! Ruinsong is in many ways a love letter to the power of musical theater, so it is pretty glittery too!

 

AMY: Would you please tell us a bit about your publishing journey? You have four books out now, and I know your path to publication hasn’t always been traditional.

JULIA: I stared my publishing journey with small presses, before signing with an agent and embarking on a more traditional path. My first works were novellas, which many major publishers don’t consider to be a commercial length. Additionally, when I first started querying in 2014, f/f books weren’t considered sellable commodities either. I stopped actively querying agents pretty early because so much of the feedback was about changing the girls into friends, or how there was no market. It was really discouraging!

Small presses are often willing to take more risks on books that are less commercial or genre—many of them were pushing the envelope with totally queer ensemble casts long before major publishers were willing to even read them. Interlude Press definitely did take a risk with The Seafarer’s Kiss as it blends Norse mythology with The Little Mermaid and dystopia. The duology is technically New Adult (the protagonists are 19), which also isn’t something a lot of major publishers work with.

In 2017, I decided to start looking for an agent again as my works were getting longer, firmly into novel territory rather than novella, and the commercial market was developing for queer stories. By then, traditional publishers had become more open to LGBTQ+ stories, both because they were realizing that they could sell and because a younger, more openly queer generation of editors were putting their stamp on the industry. I was lucky enough to find an agent who was hungry for queer stories and open to my gender-bending ways! Ruinsong will be published by Macmillan (FSG) in Fall 2020.

The Seafarer's Kiss duology

 

AMY: What advice would you give to authors writing stories—about queer heroes, say, or with protagonists that are not white or skinny or neurotypical—that aren’t common in publishing today? What do you tell that awful voice in your head that says, “No one will publish this. No one will buy this. No one will read this?”

JULIA: I think 2019 is a great year to be writing these stories. Only a few years ago, when I first started querying, I got rejections that said “f/f doesn’t sell.” The last few years (and several high-profile bestsellers!) have proven that this is not the case, and publishers and agents are starting to wake up to the potential of queer stories. Books like The Priory of the Orange Tree, Wilder Girls and Girls of Paper and Fire have done so much in terms of proving to industry professionals that books about queer women can sell given an actual marketing push.

There is definitely still work to be done in the industry. I write YA, and YA imprints and editors seem to be a little ahead of where adult publishing is right now in terms of representation.

 

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

JULIA: I first came to Sirens in 2015, prior to my first publication. I had never been to a conference of any kind before, and when I read about it online, a relatively small conference full of women and nonbinary people seemed a lot less intimidating than places like BookCon or Worldcon.

I came back because I had such a great time and met so many wonderful people! Some of the bigger conventions absolutely sap my energy. I’m an introvert and the rapid fire of new people, huge booths, panels and convention spaces can leave me feeling empty for days. Sirens is the opposite. The communal meals, the more relaxed pace of panels, spaces where everyone can write together, the views of the mountains…I found it very restorative. Both times I’ve attended, I’ve gone home ready to work again.

I’ve also gotten to meet some of my literary idols in a very relaxed setting. When I came in 2015, I got to meet Sherwood Smith, whose books I read when I was a teen! It was one of my favorite meetings because she was so down to earth and lovely.

 

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?

JULIA: My mom already got a whole book dedicated to her, as did my soon-to-be wife, so I’m sure they’ll forgive me for mentioning someone else! While I was in college, I took some creative writing classes with Professor Jennifer Boylan. She was really dedicated to her students, and I still remember her letting me tackle a senior creative project to write a historical novel even though she thought it over the top! At the time, I didn’t really understand a lot of her best advice. She was very big on writing what you know and writing from the deepest places of yourself. At the time, I misconstrued that advice to mean writing autobiographical. Much later, I came to understand that she meant exploring your beliefs, truths and fears. Once I figured out how to do that, it made me a better writer and it’s advice I still think about.

 


Julia Ember currently lives in Seattle with her wife and their city menagerie of pets with literary names. She has worked as an educator, bookseller and wedding cake decorator. She is the author of The Seafarer’s Kiss duology, which was heavily influenced by Julia’s postgraduate work in Medieval Literature at the University of St Andrews. The Seafarer’s Kiss was a finalist in the Speculative Fiction category of the Bisexual Book Awards and was named a “Best Queer Book of 2017” by Book Riot. Her upcoming novel, Ruinsong, will be published by Macmillan Kids (FSG) in Fall 2020. Julia also writes scripts for games and is the author of several published novellas and short stories.

 

Iron Cast’s heart is the friendship between two girls who are inseparable, who are better together than they are apart

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!

Iron Cast

In 2012, I read Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and it shredded my heart. If you haven’t read it, you must, and then we will have shredded hearts together.

It’s a story of two girls, best friends, during World War II. One, a pilot, drops the other, a radio operator, into German-occupied France. Things end terribly.

I still, seven years later, burst into inconsolable tears at the thought of “Kiss me, Hardy! Kiss me, quick!”

Code Name Verity—despite my permanently shredded heart—is one of my favorite books in this history of the universe. It’s my heart book, the one that’s not for my head and not for my soul and not for my fearlessness or my ambition, but for the part of me that loves my best friend more than anyone else. Because Code Name Verity is nothing more and certainly nothing less than a story about the profound strength and depth and sacrifice of female friendship, which is a wondrous declaration in our world that doesn’t much consider or value or even like the idea that women might be friends.

So it is no small thing when I say that Iron Cast by Destiny Soria has patched up the tiniest bit of that gaping hole that Elizabeth Wein left in my chest seven years ago.

It is Boston, 1919, on the verge of Prohibition, and two best friends work in a night club doing illegal magic. Ada Navarra, the biracial daughter of immigrants, is a songsmith, able to conjure feelings with music. Corinne Wells, white daughter of a rich Boston family, can create illusions by reciting poetry. Both are hemopaths, people whose abilities are possible through their unusual blood. But that blood also makes them vulnerable to iron in always painful, sometimes life-threatening ways.

And in Boston, in 1919, hemopaths aren’t welcome. While a number of hemopaths use their skill seemingly innocuously, such as playing happiness or conjuring a pastoral vision for paying patrons, others use their skill to commit crimes, manipulating unsuspecting marks into scams and robberies. Ada and Corinne do both, though they’ll pertly tell you that they take advantage of only those who deserve it, thank you very much.

The city has recently passed a law prohibiting hemopaths from using their skills, and clubs like the Cast Iron, where Ada and Corinne work, put on secret, illegal hemopathy shows for patrons. Police carry iron hemopath detectors and hemopaths are frequently rounded up and placed at the Haversham Asylum for Afflictions of the Blood “for their safety”—but in fact for extensive, deadly experiments attempting to find either a cure or a protection for non-hemopaths. In fact, Iron Cast opens with Ada in the asylum, waiting for Corinne to break her out.

The plot of Iron Cast is, loosely, what you might expect from a magical Prohibition-era, speakeasy-style novel. There are some guns and some drinking and some dancing and some kissing. Because this is a fantasy work, there are also some magic and some revelations about some magic.

But Iron Cast sets the table with more than suits and hem lengths, jazz and champagne. In a thousand ways, some tiny and some monumental and some both tiny and monumental, Iron Cast is about what it means to be something other than what society privileges: to be a different color, to love someone of your own gender, to be able to do magic because of your iron-hating blood. It’s about courage and equality and doing something instead of standing idly by. And if Iron Cast sometimes feels a bit too pat, such as when Corinne learns that her mother is a closet Marxist who knows all about Corinne’s hemopathy, well, it feels too pat in that way where the universe bends ever-so-slowly toward justice.

And Iron Cast’s heart, which is not shredded at all, is the friendship between Ada and Corinne. Two girls who are inseparable, who are better together—at magic, at ambition, at boys—than they are apart. Two girls who encourage each other every day to be smarter, quicker, more ambitious, more relentless. You’ll love them both and you’ll love them both better because you get to see each of them through the other’s eyes: Corinne’s bravery, Ada’s intelligence, Corinne’s mouthiness, Ada’s kindness toward her mother.

And when Ada does something for Corinne late in the book, it will remind you so very much of Maddie and Queenie from Code Name Verity, and your heart will break—but this time everything comes out okay in the end and that happy ending patched up a tiny bit of my forever-broken heart. And if I skipped ahead to make sure that Iron Cast had a happy ending, well, a girl can only take so many heart-shredding best friend stories.


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

 

Casey Blair: There is a problem when the only way we can imagine women in stories focusing on action and adventure is to make them reject feminine modes of power

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 Casey Blair!

Women Are Already Powerful:
The Problem of Privileging Masculine Modes of Power in Fantasy

By Casey Blair

The fantasy genre continues to change and grow in response to how we—the writers, book purveyors, reviewers, educators, publishing professionals, and most importantly of all, the readers—push it. When we challenge standards and accepted limitations of what we want to read and what sells, we shift the landscape of stories available to us. We have the power to effect change, when enough of us across intersections care enough to exert that pressure. We see that power in effect—that it exists, and that we have a whole lot more work to do—in the way the publishing industry is putting out and celebrating more fantasy stories by and about marginalized people, and in particular, more stories about powerful women.

Women lead revolutions, women wield unprecedented magical powers, and women punch gods and monsters. Women helm stories of action and adventure, the kinds of stories boys have never had to search for to see themselves in. Especially in the young adult space, we are swimming in stories of women starring in fantasy worlds, and that is a victory worth celebrating.

But what I don’t see as much of, and I wish I saw more, are stories that center women where masculine modes of power aren’t upheld as the pinnacle, as the most important, as the only power worth aspiring to. Women should absolutely star in stories of fantasy combat and commanding revolutions. As Kameron Hurley has discussed, women, in all ages of history and all around the world, have always fought—and we deserve to see that in our fantasy. But women have exercised lots of other forms of power, too, and they’ve fought in many different ways, and we are still all too often erasing those ways from our stories, as well as our conversations about and acclaim for why all those ways matter.

Publishing won’t put out those stories in greater percentages or put more marketing dollars behind them if we don’t demand it of them, so I want to dive into why these stories that uplift feminine-coded forms of power are so important, and what it means that they’re comparatively rare. Which is not to say they don’t exist at all, or that we should slow down on writing stories about women stabbing the patriarchy with swords especially now that people of color and queer folk are beginning to be centered in more of them. Just that feminine-coded power, and its problematic erasure or devaluation, gets a lot less attention or celebration even though it can be just as inspiring and revolutionary.

I’m going to be talking about “coding feminine” or “masculine” as shorthand, so let me define that briefly, if broadly: These are the acts, the work, and the presentations we, in our western social framework, traditionally and stereotypically associate with the male or female gender. Big muscles and taking up space are coded masculine; daintiness and humility are coded feminine. Solving problems by punching is coded masculine; with teamwork, feminine.

So a fantasy that gives us an outgoing and belligerent heroine who loves sports, excels at punching, doesn’t care about dresses, and refuses to work with people—this is coding her power as masculine. And that’s not a bad thing! Women characters wielding masculine-coded power challenge the gender stereotypes that only men are able to succeed with that kind of power, the swords and the aggression and the alone-ness. Women absolutely can too, and I love these stories. The problem is with trends, historical and current.

For decades, we’ve read troves of fantasy focusing on men wielding masculine-coded power and generally not even noticing feminine-coded power exists, or if it does devaluing it or even making it evil. And in our current era, while that kind of fantasy doesn’t eclipse all the other fantastic work out there, by and large most fantasy stories starring women cast them in roles wielding masculine-coded power. These women are dueling to the death. They’re breaking communities with revolutions. They’re throwing away their dresses and donning pants. And while none of those are problems in and of themselves, there is a problem when over and over feminine modes of power are consistently abandoned, trashed, buried, and erased.

There is a problem when the only, or even the primary, way we can imagine women in stories focusing on action and adventure is to make them reject feminine modes of power. There’s a problem when the vast majority of women our stories present as heroes, as powerful in their own right, are coded masculine. There is a problem when you have a whole lot of women in your story, and all the Aryas, the warrior women, are narratively favored, where the Sansas, who try to follow traditional paths for women, have the most horrifying storylines. Not all the heroes of any gender should have to wield masculine-coded power to be at the center of a story—whether or not the story focuses on action and adventure.

The problem, to be clear, is that we’re tacitly upholding toxic masculinity by not challenging the underlying assumption that women who don’t behave in traditionally masculine ways are not just as powerful and as capable and deserving of adventures, in our stories and in our reality. When the dominant trend in our stories is to privilege masculine modes of power over feminine, and those are the stories we dominantly celebrate, that’s the message we send, absorb, and perpetuate.

I don’t just want to see women in my fantasy books who decide they should be able to wear pants, too, and work to make that happen. I want to see women and people of all genders who wear dresses proudly in a pants-dominated world and are treated with just as much respect without working multiple times as hard for it.

Or, to put it another way: I don’t want women to have to reject dresses to be taken as seriously as the people who wear pants. Women shouldn’t have to reject femininity to be powerful, and that is just as important in our fantasy as it is in our reality.

Women are already powerful.

***

Stories are both mirror and window. They help us figure out who we are and who we can be. They help us cope with our reality and imagine other ways of being.

So when we see that our stories dominantly privilege masculine-coded modes of power—of physical strength, noncooperation, aggression—it matters. The prevalence of this trend sends a clear and awful message that traditionally feminine modes of power aren’t, in fact, worthwhile. That women who want to wear dresses and talk problems out instead of stabbing them in their fronts are weak, and passive, and can’t go on adventures. I reject wholeheartedly the premise that to have power in our stories, which reflect the truth of our reality and offer possible escapes, we have to reject femininity, too.

We do ourselves a disservice upholding traditionally masculine roles as modes of power for women without also modeling femininity as strength worth aspiring to—by which I mean not inherently evil—by not also modeling that men don’t have to be brilliant warriors and ruthless princes to be heroes or to be desirable as heroes. We can’t unravel toxic masculinity if we don’t value other kinds of power for all genders, and worse, right now our stories are helping uphold it by dominantly privileging traditionally masculine modes of power for everyone.

And we can’t value other kinds of power when we erase and devalue them from our stories.

***

What other kinds of power do I mean? What does this look like? Happily, examples do exist in fantasy, even if they’re not the majority, so let’s look at some specifics.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

Nahoko Uehashi’s Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit subverts gender role expectations across the board. Our protagonist Balsa is a professional fighter not because she has to be, but because she chooses to be. She’s not the only female character, either: The Second Empress uses her political power, which functions differently than the Emperor’s, to thwart him and save her son; for contrast the oldest and most powerful shaman is a woman who is explicitly called ugly, making it clear her power is not connected to beauty or any kind of feminine wiles.

On another side, our primary healer character, who may or may not be a love interest, is a man, not a woman. And the character who is forced to give birth to a magical egg is a prince, not a princess. Balsa is our protagonist, but in this book she’s also just the bodyguard: The prince must do the work of bearing the egg, and Balsa couldn’t protect him without the work of the healer. With this framing, Uehashi makes it clear both that avenues for different kinds of women to exercise power exist and, importantly, that the traditionally coded feminine roles are valuable work, while simultaneously centering a woman.

So this is the first way to successfully navigate giving us satisfying stories of action and adventure while avoiding the problem of privileging masculine modes of power for women in fantasy: Center the women with masculine-coded power but still uplift feminine-coded power by granting it to leading male characters and making it integral to the resolution of the plot. Feminine-coded power doesn’t have to be the sole province of women, nor should it be, lest it function as a way to pressure women into exerting only feminine power, which is its own trap. But including feminine-coded power as a desirable mode for other genders is one way to keep from restricting valuation of that power.

Stories can apply this kind of reversal—subverting gender expectations for centered women while also valuing feminine-coded power—in a lot of ways. In Robyn Bennis’s The Guns Above, our heroine is an airship captain who is very good at soldiering, while the male dandy assigned to spy on her is the one who is sensitive to people’s emotional needs. The story requires both their skillsets to get them out of trouble. In C.L. Polk’s Witchmark, our gay male hero is a healer, and it’s his sister, mindlessly following in the steps of her father’s masculine-coded ruthless heartlessness, that is the villain. In this case, victory requires a complete rejection of the dominant power system that subjugates others.

Trail of Lightning

In Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning, our protagonist Maggie Hoskie is skilled and supernaturally talented at killing, while Kai Arviso is a medicine man still coming into his full power who needs Maggie to protect him—and he is also a love interest who is not preternaturally gifted at combat, and (BRIEF SPOILER) the one Maggie chooses (END SPOILER). Trail of Lightning is also in many ways a refutation of this kind of gender coding: others use the fact that Maggie Hoskie is a woman in possession of killing powers at all to make her out to be a monster, and unnatural, which she at turns embraces or rejects.

In Laini Taylor’s Dreamdark series, she sets up a similar dynamic in Magpie Windwitch, who is a champion because she’s the only faerie who can weave the tapestry of the world, but a hero not because of what she can do with magic or in battle, but because she’s committed to acting. And also in Talon Rathersting, who learns how to knit magic—so he can fly, and so he can keep his friend from being lost. Laini Taylor makes fiber arts and keeping people together, two skills traditionally associated with women, valuable in the world at large as well as for men specifically.

Sandry

In these stories, we get to have it all: action and adventure without privileging toxic masculinity. Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic series shows us another way to do this with a group of four main characters: Sandry, a noblewoman whose magic is tied not just to fiber arts, but specifically to the perceived lower-class craft of weaving which includes weaving people together; Daja, who hails from a merchant clan—which is not coded as a masculine endeavor—and whose powers are tied to blacksmithing, which is; Tris, whose magic is fantastically destructive—which the narrative paints as problematic, not desirable—and who gets to be an explicitly angry, emotional woman without that making her less worthy or powerful; and Briar, our one boy, whose magic is tied to plants and gardening, which we traditionally associate with women. Every protagonist, taken individually and as part of a collective, challenges our understanding of gender-coded modes of power.

***

All these examples so far largely feature gender flipping, so before I go any further we have to take a minute to talk about matriarchies in fantasy, when it’s not just individual characters challenging gender roles but the entire fantasy society. Some fantasy matriarchies do a simple, blunt gender role swapping, having women exercise masculine-coded power and devaluing or subjugating feminine-coded power in men. Others take a more nuanced approach and bake the analysis into text with more subtlety.

Wings of Fire

We can talk about the outrageously popular middle grade Wings of Fire series by Tui Sutherland, which follows a group of dragonets who think they’ve been chosen to save the world, and each book of the initial quintet focuses on one of them. Sometimes the female dragons are the strongest or best fighters, and sometimes they aren’t, but in this matriarchal world they are always assumed to be the natural leaders. The series evaluates the flaws of masculine-coded antagonistic, heartless, and physical strength-based leadership modes on the page, and ultimately, amidst all the combat and bloodshed and assumptions of their necessity, it’s the tiny female dragonet who wants everyone to work together who is able to figure out how to end the decades-long dragon war.

We can talk about In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan and its misandrist elves, how the narrative hilariously and blatantly critiques traditional patriarchal arguments by flipping them on their head. We can also talk about how our bisexual male hero navigates through and around his narrow-sighted, war-focused comrades with a combination of blithely ignoring rules, which is traditionally a men-only prerogative, but also a commitment to diplomacy, nonviolence, and bringing people together, which is associated with women.

We can also talk about Martha Wells’s Raksura series and its, as the author describes them on John Scalzi’s “The Big Idea,” “matriarchal bisexual polyamorous flying shapeshifting lizard-lion-bee people.” Her world-building is significantly more complex than a simple gender flip, problematizing and elevating different social roles, how they interact with gender coding, and what those consequences look like on both a societal and narrative level.

***

“This is all well and good,” you may be thinking, “but these are mostly women in masculine modes of power even if those modes aren’t privileged above feminine. Don’t you have examples of women centered and exercising valued feminine-coded power?” I do indeed, but not as many as I want.

Gender flipping and subversion is only one way to navigate the problem of privileging masculine modes of power. Some of the authors I cited above in fact operate in multiple modes: Tamora Pierce, for instance, gives us Alanna, who is not only a warrior but also a healer, and the latter is just as critical to her character even if people tend to focus on the swords. Nahoko Uehashi’s The Beast Player gives us Elin, who wants nothing more than to care for magical creatures and stay out of world politics and battles. Authors can successfully center women exercising feminine-coded power in fantasy adventures in so many ways, it’s infuriating to me how few I can point to and how little I hear this highlighted.

Torn

So what does this look like in practice? Let’s start with Rowenna Miller’s Torn, which values feminine-coded work from top to bottom. In this book, our heroine is a professional seamstress who stitches charms into dresses. It’s protective work and homemaking in fiber arts in particular, disciplines traditionally associated with women. Moreover, she’s also a business owner and pillar in her community, sharing her knowledge and uplifting other women in feminine-coded skills when she can. When men discover just how powerful her ability can be, they try to control her and twist her ability, and she masters her power to subvert their violent goals without having to follow their toxic paths to power.

The thread of community-building leads me to modes of leadership that code feminine rather than masculine, based less on dominance than on coming together, and for this reason two books I will tell everyone to read forever are Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore and The Goblin Emperor by Sarah Monette writing as Katherine Addison. I group them together in this context because both are fundamentally about whether it is possible—and how—to rule, to exercise power inherited from a deeply toxic foundation and history, with compassion. In Bitterblue, our heroine learns how to bring people together to begin healing not by ignoring the past or forcing people to expose their pain, but by creating a space where it is safe to do so. The Goblin Emperor codes Maia’s power feminine, is clear that he has been and is punished for it, and nevertheless, little by little, inexorably, he learns how to use his power to build bridges, literally and figuratively. He learns how to accept the institutionalized and personalized traumas the people he wants to lift up are starting from, and he surrounds himself with women who are likewise committed to lifting each other up. Both books analyze the failures of privileging masculine modes of power and actively work to uplift feminine modes.

Bitterblue The Goblin Emperor

Mirage by Somaiya Daud, a Moroccan-inspired space fantasy, not only centers compassion, it includes an incredible variety of women in positions of power: princesses and fighters, old and young, from the ruling culture and from the oppressed. That variety isn’t limited to living women, either: Even in the world-building, revered cultural heroes are women, and they are both warriors and poets, providing acknowledged, valued paths for women to wield different kinds of power. In this book, our heroine Amani doesn’t lead a revolution. Her true power is borne out of her ability to understand and communicate with different groups of people, to weave the foundations of peace when no one else is even looking for it. And she still gets action, adventure, and romance out of it.

Listening, sharing, adapting, negotiating, and leveraging networks—all of these traditionally feminine-coded skills are incredibly powerful. The Inda series by Sherwood Smith, which is at once epic fantasy, military fantasy, and fantasy of manners, is a masterful example of the many different kinds of power women can wield, or are forced to wield, when dealing with patriarchal frameworks. There are women for whom beauty is a curse or a weapon or both; there are women who fight in quiet ways, smiling ways, or stabbing ways. There are women who take the lessons of power from one culture and then have to apply them or learn new ways in different cultures. There are women who form networks to work together to survive patriarchal systems as we simultaneously watch those systems, and the men who internalize their ideals, rot from the inside.

Empire of Sand

Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand is one of my latest favorite examples of the different kinds of feminine-coded power women can wield in fantasy, one reason being she gives us multiple modes of feminine-coded power exercised at the same time, because why choose? In this book with its setting inspired by Mughal India, Tasha Suri gives us a window into what power looks like for women at court: those on the top, and those distinctly not, and how it functions differently within the sphere of other women and also more broadly—we see the power of controlling who sees women’s bodies, and we see women both lifted up and undercut by other women. We also see women’s power exercised outside the court: We see women leading nomadic communities, managing logistics, information, strategy, and social bonds. We see women in dangerous magical cults, as the enforcers and as the ones who create community bonds there, too.

More than that, we see our heroine Mehr with her complicated heritage navigate through these different spheres, finding her strength when people are always trying to control her, which is a narrative that rings deeply true to the experience of being a woman in a patriarchal world: survival and agency in the face of oppression. Mehr’s magical power, and that of her love interest, is borne out of dance, which is coded feminine—and it is in learning to exercise her power as a woman inside and outside these systems that she succeeds: she learns how to embrace her power but refuses to burn the world with it.

The Gilded Wolves

And last but the opposite of least is Roshani Chokshi’s The Gilded Wolves, firstly because one of the best ways to accomplish everything I’m talking about here is just by having multiple important characters, and specifically multiple important women characters. Going back to gender subversion, even just among our group of main characters, there are boys who want nothing to do with violence and boys whose talents lie in communicating with others, which are feminine coded skills, and one boy who wants to rise to the top no matter what in traditionally masculine-coded fashion, which the narrative paints as tragic and flawed. Then there’s Zofia, an autistic Jewish girl who has difficulty understanding people, but she’s brilliant at mathematics, engineering, and explosions. And what more can you want in a heroine, right?

The answer to that is Laila, who doesn’t subvert gender roles at all except in the expectation of their comparative weakness, because she embraces her feminine coding powerfully. Her power is so fundamentally, fantastically coded feminine. Laila may not be human but understands people perfectly: her emotional intelligence is practically psychic, and she always knows what someone needs, whether it’s words or cake. She’s not just a genius at emotional management, but at baking, dancing, and consciously wielding her beauty and sensuality. Because that’s the critical second part of how The Gilded Wolves succeeds in navigating the problem of privileging masculine modes of power: it’s not just a matter of having multiple kinds of men and women; it’s how the narrative depicts that power. Laila, with her strong coding as feminine, is undeniably, unabashedly powerful, not only to the reader but within the narrative of the story, and the fact of her fictional existence is inspiring.

Domestic arts and crafts, logistical organization, physical appearance, healing, protection, compassion, community-building. Traditionally feminine-coded modes of power are power. And I think it’s worth pointing out, too, that every single book I’ve cited here features action and adventure while uplifting feminine-coded forms of power. Every. Single. One.

Power, adventure, and heroism for women do not have to come at the cost of feminine coding, because they are not mutually exclusive, and we need our stories to stop perpetuating that erasure and devaluation.

***

So again, I’m not saying that books that center feminine-coded power as worthy don’t exist; they clearly do. Nor am I saying that now that we have a lot of stories about women—and, let’s be clear, a lot of stories particularly about cisgendered, heterosexual white women—exercising masculine-coded modes of power that we don’t need or want more of them.

What I want, and what we need and deserve as a society full of women who have always exercised a wide variety of power, is a fuller variety of stories and appreciation of that diversity. We can read, value, and push for more than one kind of story at the same time. I don’t just want to be able to point these stories out as exceptions to the trend, for the work they’re doing to be so rare or rarely noticed that it merits highlighting. Because I don’t just want stories that say women can wield a sword as well as a man can; I want stories that say also that sword-wielding may not be the best way to resolve our problems. Women can lead just as powerfully in the ways they always have—and that includes fighting the way men are usually credited with, but it also includes ways we erase. We’ll never value feminine power if we don’t write it into our stories as valuable, and valuable to everyone.

The first part of that task is on all of us: It’s being aware of the messages we’re sending, whether we’re creating stories or promoting them, what we’re absorbing as readers and what we’re choosing to read, what those implications mean when we follow the logic all the way down, and what it means for these stories to be the exception rather than the norm in mainstream fantasy. I hope if nothing else this essay provides some tools to think about the ways we tend to privilege masculine-coded power in fantasy going forward and the many incredible other ways we can set up our stories, and demand from our stories, if we choose to.

Because it’s not much of a choice to wear pants or wield a sword if the alternative is passivity, victimhood, villainy, or the inability to be the star a fantasy adventure centers around. I want more worlds that understand that isn’t the only option. I want more stories that are able to see other ways, and value them, and model them for all of us—not just as a mirror to hold up to nature, but also as a door, to escape into what we all can be. And I hope that’s a direction where we can encourage the fantasy genre to grow.


Casey Blair

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.

 

A YA fantasy recommendation for every Star Wars Episode, in story order

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 Maria Dones.

I fell in love with Star Wars very late to the game. The fandom always felt so unattainable—there was too much I could never learn, could never get right, could never be a part of so I never gave it a chance.

I began watching the movies for the first time this year because I wanted to understand the love so many of my friends have for the franchise. At first, it was just as I feared—I didn’t get it. There was so much unfamiliar to me in A New Hope (1977) that it was hard to wrap my head around the story. Then, one day, as I drove home after watching Return of the Jedi (1983)—Darth Vader’s death still heavy in my mind—I had the shocking realization that, holy crap, I think I actually, accidentally love this thing.

So much about what I love about Star Wars is what I love about YA fantasy—court intrigue, gray morality, coming-of-age narratives, banter, worldbuilding with stories centered around characters, and themes of hope. With that in mind, give me your favorite Skywalker Saga movie, and I’ll recommend a recent YA fantasy novel for you to read!

 

Girls of Paper and Fire
1. Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) / Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan (2018)

In Girls of Paper and Fire, the Demon King chooses eight human girls a year to be his concubines, his Paper Girls. Only a few years after demon raiders took her mother, seventeen-year-old Lei is kidnapped by demons for her supposedly lucky golden eyes. With her father under threat, Lei agrees to become the ninth Paper Girl.

Like Anakin, Lei is a slave who discovers her own inner power and fights for what she believes in. Bonus points: birth pendants with words that describe your future, magical castes based on animal characteristics, and Lei doesn’t ask her badass female love interest if she’s an angel.

Descendant of the Crane
2. Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) / Descendant of the Crane by Joan He (2019)

Princess Hesina of Yan must solve the mystery of who murdered her father. Desperate, she commits treason by asking a soothsayer, a magic-user, for help. With her life at risk, she uncovers secret after secret as she tries to rule the divided kingdom she inherited.

This novel has it all: political intrigue, evil lurking in unexpected places, and occasional flirting. Sound familiar? Attack of the Clones is basically YA fantasy as it is. Bonus points: endless mysteries and plot twists, characters who surprise you, and a morally ambiguous protagonist.

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
3. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) / Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao (2017)

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is an East Asian retelling of the “Snow White” fairytale that’s centered around the Evil Queen’s rise to power. Xifeng, a peasant girl, has been told that her destiny is greatness. Desperate to get away from her abusive mother and embrace her destiny, she struggles between choosing to do what is right and what will lead her to the future she’s always wanted.

Like Anakin, Xifeng loses a first love, questions her morality, and hurts innocent people on her path to evil. Bonus points: gorgeous prose, a villain protagonist, and immersive details that make a well-known fairytale feel new again.

Children of Blood and Bone
4. Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) / Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (2018)

Years ago magic disappeared, and the ruthless king of Orïsha killed many of the now powerless magi. Those left of the white-haired magi became second-class citizens who live in constant fear of losing their livelihoods. When teenage magi Zélie learns how to restore magic, she goes on a quest that challenges what she’s always been told: to stay out of trouble, to stay quiet, to never speak out against injustice because of what could happen to her if she does.

Like A New Hope, this story contains a determined but inexperienced protagonist, a rebel princess, and an oppressive government. Bonus points: fantastic action scenes, immersive world building, and complex relationships.

Labyrinth Lost
5. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) / Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova (2017)

Alex hates magic. The problem for her is that she’s an Encantrix, the most powerful kind of witch there is. Scared of her growing powers, she tries to cast a spell to erase her magic. Instead, she accidentally makes her family disappear. To save her family, she’ll have to travel to an in-between world and trust a stranger she can’t quite trust.

Like Luke, Alex learns about her family as she explores new worlds and navigates a love triangle. Bonus points: portal fantasy, a bisexual witch, and worldbuilding woven with Latinx-based mythology.

Carry On
6. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) / Carry On by Rainbow Rowell (2017)

For a Chosen One, you’d think magic school student Simon Snow would spend more time practicing his not-so-great spellcasting and less time obsessing over his vampire roommate nemesis Baz who he is definitely not in love with.

Carry On has so much of what’s great about Return of the Jedi: Bicker-flirting, unexpected twists, and a protagonist who reexamines what it means to be the Chosen One. Bonus points: spells based off language evolution, A+ slow-burn enemies-to-lovers romance, and trope reinventions.

Blanca & Roja
7. Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) / Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore (2018)

The del Cisne family is cursed. In every generation, two sisters are born, and one sister is doomed to be taken by the swans and become one of them. Blanca and Roja del Cisne know it will be Roja who is chosen to become a swan. After all, Blanca is sweet and gentle, and Roja is angry and stubborn. Still, they’ll do anything in their power to make sure Roja isn’t taken. But the swans have tricks up their wings.

Just as The Force Awakens reflects A New Hope, Blanca & Roja reflects the fairytale “Snow White and Rose Red” with themes involving friendship, family, and rebellion. Bonus points: lyrical prose, murderous swans, and queer characters.

In Other Lands
8. Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) / In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan (2017)

The Borderlands aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Sure, there’s elves, harpies, and mermaids. But in the Borderlands, kids from our world are trained to protect the magical one. A pacifist like Elliot isn’t exactly into the idea of kid soldiers. Or kids his age in general.

Just like The Last Jedi, In Other Lands’s main character Elliot is divisive. And like The Last Jedi, this book breaks away from traditions in genre. Similarly to Rey, Elliot’s worldview is challenged throughout his time in the Borderlands as he reexamines his place in the world and his relationships to other people. Bonus points: laugh-out-loud funny, trope reinventions; matriarchal elves; and enemies-to-lovers queer relationship with A+ awkward flirting.


When Maria Dones isn’t writing stories about angry girls armed with magic, you can find her playing tabletop games or befriending other people’s pets. She recently graduated from the University of Kansas with an MFA in Fiction, and she’s had YA short fiction published in Cicada, Gingerbread House, and Inaccurate Realities: Love.

 

Juliet Grames: When you read literature from a culture other than the one you grew up in, you learn to make a habit of challenging your own assumptions

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 Juliet Grames, who will lead the reading workshop “Not All Who Wander Are Lost in Translation: A Behind-the-Scenes Discussion About Translated Literature” this fall. To learn more and register, please visit our Sirens Studio page.

 

AMY TENBRINK: You have a B.A. in History. What drew you to that major—and what can one do with a history degree? How does having a history background help you as a reader, editor, and writer?

Juliet Grames

JULIET: I’m obsessed with historical storytelling—it’s the reason I majored in history and the reason I didn’t pursue it professionally. (Real historians aren’t supposed to look for narrative in data—in fact they’re supposed to try to reject narrative assumptions! I was going to fail at that.) There is a lot you can do with a history degree—it was one of the two most common at my college, and a lot of my cohort went into law or government jobs. I ended up devoting my life to storytelling as a writer and an editor instead, but my history background has been really helpful for developing research and analytical skills.

 

AMY: As readers, we see a lot of books shelved or classified as literary works, crime fiction, or romance novels when they could be fantasy, and vice versa. And so often, these mis-shelved works examine myths, folklore traditions, or experiences that a mainstream U.S. audience might not be familiar with. What, in your opinion, makes a work one of fantasy as opposed to something else? Do you find these categories useful or not?

JULIET: In my opinion, the single genre-defining characteristic of fantasy is worldbuilding. It’s the reason a devout SFF reader can find satisfaction in a well-crafted historical novel with no speculative elements in it. What we (fantasy readers) want is richly and responsibly developed worlds that allow us a completely immersive reading experience. Worldbuilding is the reason we as readers are willing to accept elements of the fantastical—we are there to be convinced and transported if the writer upholds their end of things.

I love and hate categories. I love and hate genre distinctions. As a crime fiction editor who has professional reasons to both be frustrated by and adore genre conventions, I appreciate the readers who devote themselves to a genre but strongly dislike when genre labels are used as disparagement.

 

AMY: You’re the Associate Publisher of Soho Press, and you also curate the award-winning Soho Crime imprint. What does being Associate Publisher entail? What has been your biggest surprise in working with crime fiction?

JULIET: As Associate Publisher my main job is helping the publisher with day-to-day big- and small-picture running of the press (things ranging from budget planning to making sure inventory of individual titles is at the right level). That’s about half my job; the other half is the editorial side, acquiring and editing the Soho Crime imprint. I was surprised ten years ago when I started at Soho to find out how much I loved crime fiction—my only preferred genre up until that point had been SFF. Now I will happily get up on my apologist soapbox about either or both!

 

AMY: Your debut novel The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna came out in May and is based on your own tight-knit Italian immigrant family. How do your experiences reading and editing international fiction and fiction in translation affect your writing process—or is it the other way around?

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna

JULIET: Reading translations is a brain-breaking and -remaking practice that every writer of any genre should engage in. When you read literature from a culture other than the one you grew up in, you learn to make a habit of challenging your own assumptions, which makes you more creative. Thinking about different frames of reference and available lexicons is a hugely important part of character building—and of course character building is the most important part of storytelling. (Editing, which requires a really granular level of applied thought about word choice and phrasing to avoid cultural imperialism, has also been extremely important to me.)

 

AMY: This fall, you’re presenting a reading workshop intensive titled “Not All Who Wander are Lost in Translation” as part of the Sirens Studio. Would you please give us a preview of what Studio attendees can expect to discuss and learn?

JULIET: We’ll outline the translation process from country of origin through English-language publication, talking about the access points, financials, and shortcomings of our systems for encountering literature in translation. We’ll cover different ways to be involved in literature in translation for those who are interested, including as translators, as publishers, or as advocate readers. And we’ll share favorite literature in translation!

 

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?

JULIET: I have been gifted with a life jam-packed with wonderful, generous, inspiring women. I have lingered a long time here over trying to pick one of them. In the end I will go back to the beginning and tell you about my Great Aunt Connie Sanelli, who passed away in April at age 97—she desperately wanted children but was never able to have her own, and instead raised my mother and her brothers, then later me and my cousins, like we were her own children. She emigrated from an impoverished village in Italy in the 1930s and made a different life for herself here through hard work and sheer force of will. She gave me my pride in my cultural heritage, my first access to language other than English, and my devotion to telling women’s forgotten stories, which I hope I have succeeded in doing by fictionalizing hers. Thank you for offering me the chance to talk about her.

 


Juliet Grames is the associate publisher at Soho Press, where she acquires and edits a range of fiction and literature in translation, and where she curates the award-winning Soho Crime imprint. Her debut novel, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna, was published in May 2019 by Ecco/HarperCollins in North America and by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK.

For more information about Juliet, please visit the Soho Press website or her Twitter.

 

2019 Books and Breakfast: superheroes come in all sorts of bodies

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, our race picks here, and our gender and sexuality picks here; below are our Books and Breakfast selections exploring heroism and differing bodies, because it’s not all about ripped abs and bulging biceps.

 
2019 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

Religion

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

Race

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

Gender/Sexuality

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

Body

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

 
BODY SELECTIONS

If you ask a random sampling of people on the street what they think a superhero looks like, you’ll probably get a lot of expected answers: protein-shake muscles wrapped in a package of lycra and latex, bulging at the seams. Even our superheroines often suffer the same fate, though they notably get much less lycra and latex to work with. We’re so bound to the notion that superheroism looks like Superman or Batman or even America’s ass that sometimes we need to stop and ask ourselves, quite literally: What if it didn’t? Our Books and Breakfast body picks propose alternate heroes: in Faith: Hollywood and Vine by Jody Houser, Francis Portela, and Marguerite Sauvage, an overweight superheroine saves the world as we know it; in Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge, an anxiety-ridden girl with a neurodivergent sister who becomes the hero her people needs.

 

Faith Volume 1: Hollywood and Vine by Jody Houser, Francis Portela, and Marguerite Sauvage

Faith Volume 1: Hollywood and Vine

Faith, as a character, got her start in Harbinger, the Valiant comic about a group of outcast teenagers with superpowers. As author Jody Houser explains, “[S]he’s the one person in that group who was super-excited about having superpowers, because she’s a big fan of comics and sci-fi and fantasy… [s]o, she had a very strong sense of who she wanted to be as a superhero.” In Hollywood and Vine, Faith is an adult who has moved on from the group of outcasts and is living on her own, donning a wig and glasses for her secret identity as Summer, a journalist.

You don’t need to have read Harbinger to be able to follow Faith: Hollywood and Vine, authored by Houser and illustrated by Francis Portela and Marguerite Sauvage. Faith’s backstory, including that she was orphaned and raised by her grandmother, is quickly summarized at the start before diving into her perfectly average, perhaps even boring secret identity. As with many new series, the first issue of Faith is mostly setting the stage and grounding us in Faith’s daily life. The second issue introduces a potential villain while fleshing out a bit more of Faith’s personal history. The third issue shows Faith in action fighting the baddie, but also gaining more allies when her cover is partially blown, and the fourth is the big battle with the villain.

What’s really new and fresh about this graphic novel is that the main character is both plus-sized and comfortable with her body. For example, while her ex wanted to be in the spotlight doing reality television, Faith chose the path of a secret identity in the hopes of quietly doing good. She isn’t pining for lost love, but rather disappointed in the life he’s established since she left him—which is great because then when we meet his stereotypically thin and airheaded new girlfriend, Faith isn’t focused on weight and looks, but rather what it means to be a superhero. Throughout the graphic novel, Faith’s weight isn’t negatively cast or even something she has to “deal with.” Instead, Faith’s struggles are centered around trying to fight crime while establishing a new independent life.

—Amanda

 

Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge

Gullstruck Island

In the ordinary way of things, Hathin of the Hollow Beasts tribe of the Lace would never be the protagonist of her own story. Hathin is the younger sister of Arilou, the only Lost born to the Lace on Gullstruck Island. That status makes Arilou a profitable rarity and Hathin an indispensable figure in her tribe, young as she is, for she was born for the purpose of caring for Arilou. But the Hollow Beasts are not actually sure that Arilou is a Lost: There is precious little evidence that she is consciously sending her senses outward independent of her body like a true Lost, rather than just someone whose intellectual disability makes her seem like a Lost. Not everyone on Gullstruck is content with the supremacy of the Lost Council over the governors of the colonial bureaucracy, and when all of the Lost but Arilou turn up dead one unremarkable night, Hathin, Arilou, and all of the indigenous Lace tribes find themselves caught in a deadly conspiracy. Hathin must keep Arilou alive when all the rest of their tribe have been slaughtered: She joins the Reckoning, the semi-legendary Lace group of revengers, and finds herself contending with volcanoes, towners, other Lace, and the Nuisance Control Officer Michard Prox, who may himself be a pawn of more central, unseen forces at work on the island. The uneasy status quo that prevailed since the Cavalcaste colonists’ arrival two hundred years before is shattered, and Hathin and Prox become the fulcrum of irrevocable change.

In the ordinary way of things, Gullstruck Island would be Arilou’s story and Hathin would be lost to history, unnoticed and voiceless. Instead, Hathin finds herself holding the entire island’s future in her small hands. If Arilou’s challenge is that she is too often not present enough in her own life, Hathin’s is that she is too present: Called a worrywart, she is prone to bouts of near-debilitating anxiety in her role as Arilou’s voice and keeper, anxiety that only increases when both sisters are forced far outside their comfort zones. Hathin even worries that she isn’t bloodthirsty enough to be a proper revenger, compared to her fellow members of the Reckoning. And yet, she couches all her worries in terms of their impact on Arilou, not realizing that she, rather than her Lost sister, is the protagonist of her own story.

Gullstruck Island is the story of a girl shaking off her self-imposed habit of self-denigration in the shadow of her gifted sister, of a society wracked by racial distrust teetering on the brink of genocide: The Lace are termed an “infestation” in their own ancestral land, rounded up into concentration camps, their families separated—concepts that seemed remote when the book was published in 2009 but which are all too relevant in 2019. It is a story about colonialism, about grappling with the poisonous legacies of the past and the need for systemic change, about a malicious dentist whose soul is bound up with a bird, about a family of volcanoes whose torrid passions for one another have ruinous effects on the island’s human inhabitants. And it is a story about a small, anxious girl who learns to consider herself apart from her sister, who does not set out to be a hero but who, by right of revenge and by virtue of being ignored but observant all her life, winds up being the quiet, unassuming, effective hero that her island needs.

—Andrea

 

April Daniels’s Dreadnought doesn’t care what boxes you try to shove it in

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 Amy Boggs on April Daniels’s Dreadnought.

Dreadnought

Dreadnought is the angry, hurt, determined, super-powered girl book my soul desperately needed, offering fierce hope to combat a world where it’s so easy to get overwhelmed into apathy.

As a trans girl who is not out to her family, 15-year-old Danny Tozer has a plan: keep quiet, survive, and get out at 18. But when the world’s most powerful superhero transfers his powers to her before dying in her arms, everything changes. Part of Dreadnought’s powers is their body becomes their ideal self. Other Dreadnoughts got taller or broader; Danny has her dream transition. She also has all the powers any superhero fangirl could want.

But things aren’t that simple. Dreadnought’s superhero team is divided about accepting Danny, her family is trying to “fix” her, and even her best friend is acting weird. Danny realizes just because your dreams come true, doesn’t mean the world will celebrate you. On top of that, Dreadnought’s killer is still on the loose, and any supervillain able to take out the world’s greatest superhero is bound to hit a new one like a hurricane.

Dreadnought is the very best of what the realist superhero genre can offer, delving into heroism, trauma, and acceptance both within and without. The story never takes the easy way out. Often a narrative of overcoming is portrayed as one sweeping upward arc. Here, however, Danny revels in her power and self-love in one scene, only to have her father harangue her into a ball of self-hate the next. Just because you’ve claimed your self-worth doesn’t mean you always feel worthy, and it’s beautiful to have a book recognize that so clearly. A note: Transphobia shows up in many forms in the book, from violence to microaggressions, but by centering Danny, it feels like the author is reaching to trans readers to show they are not alone and their experiences are not trivial.

The exploration of Danny’s powers is similarly nuanced. Slingshot from helpless and hurt to one of the most powerful people on the planet, she faces dangerous temptations and a great mental toll, although those themes are more deeply explored in the book’s sequel, Sovereign. (As is the romance, but no spoilers about that.)

Dreadnought also delivers what I love most about sci-fi/fantasy: tremendous world-building. In the book, powers have been around a while but in 1944, Dreadnought appeared with greater powers than ever seen, becoming the first superhero. More followed, and then, as is wont to happen, supervillains. But this isn’t just backstory duct-taped to our world. It is woven into modern society. There are government-licensed superheroes with support and funding based on success-rates, and vigilantes technically breaking the law but largely ignored in the face of super villains. There are also people with abilities who look at life-endangering superhero work and decide to take a job as a well-paid flying courier instead. Sirens go off when a super-powered battle goes on so people can flee to shelters, and there’s a semi-annual superhero convention in Antarctica. There are also the little realistic details, like when Danny doesn’t use a car like a baseball bat because modern cars are designed to crumple as gently as possible. (Rip the engine out, though, and you’ve got yourself a proper weapon.) It feels like the tip of the iceberg we see on the page is tiny compared to the amount of thought and research that went into it, really focusing on the consequences of these changes to our world.

Add in some of the best fight scenes in the superhero genre, and that includes movies. I’m particular about my fight scenes: they must be tied to the plot, they must have an emotional impact or drive, and they must make enough sense that even if you pick apart every move slowly, it’s believable. Dreadnought is brilliant at this. (I did feel the sequel got a little glutted with fight scenes, but honestly it was all worth it for the final battle.)

The book is YA, but the kind that people who don’t normally like YA might love. And the kind some devoted YA readers might balk at. This goes double for the sequel, which dives out of high school and deeper into the world of professional superheroism. But much like the duology’s determined protagonist, Dreadnought doesn’t care what boxes you try to shove it in. It is exactly what it is meant to be, and that is glorious.

This is April Daniels’ debut novel and she has made me an eager fan. She is reportedly working on the third book, and I’ll be ready to pre-order.


Amy Boggs currently works in contracts and previously was a literary agent. She is a devoted fan of fantasy, science fiction, and all the wibbly-wobbly of speculative art. In her spare time, she tiptoes through fandom and rants about media on Twitter @notjustanyboggs.

 

New Fantasy Books: August 2019

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

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.

 

This newsletter is brought to you by:

Erynn Moss + Faye Bi


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

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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