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Archive for 2020

Hearing the Siren Call in Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water

Each month, Sirens co-chair Amy Tenbrink reviews new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors—and occasionally invites other members of the Sirens community to do so. You can find all of these reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We hope you’ll read along and discuss!

This month, Faye Bi reviews Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water!

To my fellow Sirens,

It’s not a surprise to any of you that I claim the act of reading as revolutionary.

We know that reading is more than literacy and comprehension. We know that it’s about stories. Who tells them, who gets paid to tell them, and who can make a living off telling them. Whose books get more promotional budget online and off, whose books get placed front and center at bookstores and libraries, whose books get taught in schools instead of being outside reading, and whose books get revered as “great literature.” This discussion is not new to us. But you might be wondering, what can I do? I can’t singlehandedly force all these institutions and corporations to reckon with their racist, sexist, colonialist pasts.

But there is a lot we can do. So much we can do. While I am furious and dismayed on a daily basis, I control one realm entirely: Me. What I choose to read. What I choose to review. What I choose to recommend. What books I choose to buy and where I choose to buy them. And I know—like I hope you all do—that reading critically is an act of resistance.

And so, I am reviewing Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water for you, Sirens community. And I am reviewing it here, for Sirens, where I am not limited by wordcount or editing or pearl-clutching, and I can tell you exactly what I think.

A Song Below Water

A Song Below Water is set in Portland, featuring two Black teenage girls: Tavia, who is a siren, a group of magical people maligned for its association with Black women; and Effie, who plays Euphemia the Mer in the local Ren Faire and has a mysterious skin condition that is somehow linked to her childhood trauma. Effie currently lives with Tavia and her parents, and so the two are sisters, supporting and looking out for each other as they navigate family, school, life, secrets, and literal Black girl magic to save themselves.

To begin, Tavia’s siren identity is an elegant metaphor for being one of the most vulnerable in society. The book opens with a girl murdered by her boyfriend, and because of that girl’s suspected siren identity, her boyfriend will likely be acquitted. Because sirens are only Black women (but not all Black women are sirens), they are perceived as dangerous—and if you recall your lore, a siren’s voice can lure people into doing things against their will. That means sirens have incredible power, but because people fear Black women, sirens’ voices are literally stifled and silenced. There’s that girl on the reality show, for instance, who voluntarily uses a siren collar—designed to silence her voice and her power—to make others “feel safe” around her, and another Black girl, Naema, who wears one as a joke.

But can you imagine using a siren voice as a Black teenaged girl, when, say, the police pull you over?

Effie has her own grief to grapple with. She’s human as far as she knows despite her shedding skin, but she grew up without a father, and her only connection to her mother is that they both played mermaids at the local Ren Faire. Not only must she deal with the large gargoyle keeping watch over her and her grandparents’ continuing to keep family secrets from her, she’s known in the community as “Park Girl”—due to being the sole survivor of a mysterious attack when she was nine where all the other children were turned to stone. Now these “statues” are practically an attraction in a weird Portland tourist campaign, which underscores in a twisted way the variety of methods Black bodies are used for entertainment and how others trivialize her pain.

Morrow’s social critique is devastating, for all the reasons I detail above, but also because she lays out the emotional harm done by “well-meaning” allies, who are white, other races, and other magical identities.

An interesting foil for people of color or other marginalized groups is elokos—dwarf-like creatures who ring charismatic bells to lure human prey and then eat them. In Morrow’s world, elokos are a more socially accepted class of magical being, to the point that they hold political power, especially in Portland, which has attracted a significant eloko population because of that power. Tavia dates Priam, an eloko boy, before the start of the book, and in the best face-palming passage, she recounts the moment they broke up: when Priam bit her neck while kissing, and Tavia launched into an in-depth explanation on why that didn’t bother her despite eloko mythology. But on a more serious note, there are examples of Tavia and Effie at a police brutality protest with other honor students (of course, chaperoned by white parents!) that made me shiver and weep, and I could write an entire essay about Naema, another Black girl and also an eloko, who illustrates the trap of the model minority myth. Naema is especially fascinating as she is one of few outright villains on the page.

But besides pain and critique, there’s joy. Black joy. Tavia and Effie’s sister bond is strong and wonderful to read, and they are each other’s refuge when everyone else around them has failed them. Repeatedly. Not just allies, but also their families, other Black girls, and Black men. There’s a lovely scene at the climax of the book, where the two of them are in a mystical forest setting with lives on the line and literal chaos happening around them, and what do they do? Have a heart-to-heart about their emotional wellbeing.

Morrow brilliantly uses this mythos of sirens, gargoyles, elokos, sprites, mermaids, and magic to examine what it’s like to be a Black girl in America.

And with it, she seamlessly and ambitiously unpacks intersectionality, racism, sexism, police brutality, protesting, affirmative action, gentrification, education, beauty standards, and more. She calls out people who admire and consume Black culture but don’t see the pain of Black creators, and those who call themselves “woke” but are horrified and immobilized when their eyes are opened. I found the density of revelations to be necessarily challenging—and that effort allowed me to appreciate the skill involved in the telling. You know already that this book isn’t newly relevant in the summer of 2020, and that the protests, the pain, the violence, and the disenfranchisement of Black bodies and Black livelihood has been going on for a long, long time.

Tavia and Effie work together to save themselves because they have to. No one will do it for them. If you see parallels to Morrow’s sirens in your real life, I see your pain. I see it and am horrified, but I will do everything in my power so your voice can be heard, because you live these horrors daily. If you, like me, are not a Black girl, A Song Below Water is a call to action. There’s so much to do. Wherever you are on your journey to antiracism, this book is a part of it.

Let’s get to work.


Faye BiFaye Bi is the director of publicity at Bloomsbury Children’s Books, and spends the rest of her time reading, cycling, pondering her next meal, and being part of the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is equally happy in walkable cities and sprawling natural vistas. You can follow her on Twitter @faye_bi.

Ren Iwamoto: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Today, Sirens content coordinator Cass Morris speaks with Ren Iwamoto.

 

CASS MORRIS: Your graduate studies are focused on twentieth-century East Asian literature, Japanese colonialism, and post-colonial discourse. What drew you to that cross-section of topics? What impact do you think greater awareness of them can have on fantasy fiction?

Ren Iwamoto

REN IWAMOTO: It’s a topic I actually shied away from at first; I think I saw a post on Twitter about the erection of a statue commemorating the Korean comfort women who were abused during the Japanese occupation. I didn’t want to acknowledge it. Growing up in the diaspora, there is a certain degree of nostalgia for “the homeland.” But I’m also Canadian. I demand Canada be held accountable for concentration camps, residential schools, its well-buried history of slavery, the continued forced sterilization of indigenous women—why should I excuse Japan? Especially when even now, many people deny that such events as the Nanking Massacre even occurred. I deliberately fought my impulse to brush past the initial discomfort and instead sought out content that educated me.

Politics and history always have impacted the literary landscape, so as an academic my next step was to source material in my field. This was actually the most difficult part. My Japanese is too poor to read untranslated texts, so I, despite my best efforts, turned to manga (this isn’t a knock against manga, but unfortunately it’s a little difficult to get academic clout as an undergraduate studying comics). This turned out to be fortuitous, because Japan’s manga industry turns a multi-million dollar profit every year and is rife with magic, high strangeness, and future imaginings. As such, my interest in topics like nationalism, war, and industrialization found a fantastically large puddle to splash around in. The aim of my research is to unearth patterns in how the Japanese cultural context informs these themes.

To speak broadly of impact, any and all knowledge of real-world events alters how we interpret science fiction and fantasy. On a more personal level, seeing fantasy elements “inspired” by East Asia (but that actually just fetishize East Asia), or people who watch anime and think that means they understand what it means to be Japanese, I kind of want to smash someone over the head with a chair WWE-style. So I think awareness of the academic discourse—even on a relatively shallow level—helps generate a more complete knowledge and hopefully operates as a gateway for further investigation. There’s no ultimate goal for this sort of endeavor, but I do think compassionate, intellectually robust fiction helps compassionate, intellectually robust people bloom in the world. So.

 

CASS: You’re also an intern at P.S. Literary Agency. Tell us a little about the agency and the work you do there.

REN: I was, from May to November 2019. It was a wonderful experience. I worked for Eric Smith and Kurestin Armada, both of whom represent SFF for teens and adults, amongst other things. My primary duty there was reading slush and writing reader’s reports, which essentially document what works, what doesn’t, and whether I felt the piece was worth the agent’s time to look at. I loved reading the slush. There’s something deeply personal, and yet anonymous about it. I was consistently impressed by the quality of submissions.

I’m hoping to leverage the experience I earned at P.S. Literary to pursue a more long-term career in fiction publishing, but for now I’m content to apply what I learned there to my freelance practice.

 

CASS: Speculative fiction has the wonderful potential to hold mirrors up to the past, present, and future. What are some topics you hope to see speculative fiction explore? What’s on your wish list?

REN: I’ve almost certainly said this before, but speculative fiction should destabilize. Topic is almost irrelevant to me so long as the story turns some stone over; then something meaningful was accomplished. Magic, futurism, historical reimaginings, whatever it is that straddles the line between science and magic—these all have the potential to interrogate heterocentrism, patriarchy, gender, race, and so on. Even concepts like time and space open themselves up to deconstruction. That’s very exciting to me as both a pleasure reader and an academic, so whether the story is about war or star-crossed lovers or two kids riding their bikes around the neighborhood becomes secondary.

 

CASS: How and when did you fall in love with fantasy literature?

REN: In the interest of honesty, I have to say H*rry P*tter. They were the first books I read for my own pleasure, not for school or because my parents had picked them out for me. But given current circumstances, I’ve had to re-evaluate exactly what I liked about them. The conclusion I came to is that they taught me to love magic. I was and am deeply interested in the idea of there being another layer to reality, a secret layer, which only a few could access. It appealed to my fantasy of being a Special Person who could see and do Special Things. Fortunately, there is an abundance of precisely that kind of content created by people I’m not morally obligated to throw hands at on sight.

On a less commercial level, Gabriel Garcia Marquez was the first “fantasy” writer I engaged with on an academic level. So lush and ripe with sentiment! I’m still in love. To me, magical realism and its cousin genres do the same thing as the portal fantasies I loved growing up—they reveal something secret. If you know, you know. You know?

 

CASS: At this year’s Studio, you’ll be teaching “Seasoned with Soy Sauce: Asianization in Western Speculative Media and What It Means to Be ‘Asian-Inspired.’ ” What do you hope attendees will take away from your session?

REN: In my experience, everyone at Sirens has come already having done much of the groundwork regarding cultural appropriation. So my goal isn’t to teach that, nor is it to discourage people who aren’t East Asian from creating content which draws upon East Asian inspirations. Rather, I’m interested in conveying how the fascination with “the Orient,” which has featured so heavily in Western colonial history, has translated into modern storytelling practices. The aesthetic of East Asia is very sexy to a Western audience. Westerners love the image of Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, Bangkok, and so on. It appeals to their idea of the Far East as either a hyper-sophisticated, hyper-urban paradise, or otherwise an overpopulated mega-slum riddled with opium dens and wet markets. Because this depiction is fundamentally shallow, and most often created by white people for white people, it’s impossible for its audience to fully appreciate the nuance of the East Asian experience (I, as a Japanese person, am only slightly more equipped). This is a rambling way of saying I hope the audience learns a little bit of colonial history in East Asia and world-building.

 

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

REN: This is a cop-out, but I’ve become keenly aware of how every social movement which has benefited me as a queer person of color has been championed initially by Black women. Some of the most innovative and inspiring intellectuals in my field are Black women. And, because this is Sirens, some of the most exciting literature I’ve read this past year, both within and beyond the confines of SFF, has been written by Black women. So: Black women.

 


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

Cass Morris works as a writer and educator in central Virginia and occasionally moonlights 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. Her debut novel, From Unseen Fire: Book One of the Aven Cycle, is a Roman-flavored historical fantasy released by DAW Books. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart.

New Fantasy Books: July 2020

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of July 2020 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!
 

Sirens Essay: Moral Disability: How Villainy Looks When You’re the Monster

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.

Sirens also offers an online 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 V. S. Holmes!

Moral Disability: How Villainy Looks When You’re the Monster
by V. S. Holmes

Our depiction of disfigurement and disability in villains—those in speculative works, particularly—taints our perception of disabled people in our own world with a dangerous morality. All of us know the ache of being unable to find yourself in a book and the annoyance when a character is just the lovechild of stereotypes and bigotry. So much of Sirens focuses on the importance and beauty in seeing ourselves—our strengths, our flaws, our lives—in speculative fiction. But when I search for a character like me, I find Captain Hook’s missing hand. I find Viren’s magical staff. I find villains.

Dr. Isabel Maru

We know the disabled villain trope well, from obvious monsters to the more human. Even works built on a platform of progressive ideals frequently fall short with ableism: Dr. Isabel Maru’s scars in the 2017 Wonder Woman film broke my heart (as did Steve Trevor’s cheap quip that Diana was blind). Sometimes it’s an offhand way to telegraph “This one’s the bad guy!” But when the character’s disability or disfigurement is part of their backstory, we often learn that their evil stems from the isolation and abuse they received because of their disability. Regardless of our fascination with darkness, if we look beyond the scarred, limping package of most classic villains, we see honest and understandable emotions.

Excluded, angry, desperate, misunderstood: We all have felt these at some juncture, and they are emotions disabled people carry with us every day. Frankly, they’re justified. So why are creators—including speculative creators—intent on making the disfigured and disabled evil?

Disability is feared because it is one of the few marginalizations that’s “catching.” As much as we want to believe we’re invincible, we aren’t. I’m often asked what happened to me when I use my cane or if I have a heart monitor strapped to me. Accidents happen. Genetics happen. I agree—finding out my body was unable to do what it used to was scary. Returning to the example of the Wonder Woman canon: Maru’s inception as a character was based on her terror that she might figuratively lose face, a fear turned literal in her modern film debut.

No one wants something traumatic and life-altering to happen to themselves or their families, even in a world as advanced as ours can be—have you seen the bionics from Hero Arm? Instead, we retreat to the rigid idea that people deserve what happens to them. Car accident leave you paralyzed? Maybe you shouldn’t have reached down to change the playlist. Connective tissue breaking down? Maybe you should have been better about taking those vitamins.

If the characters who limp, whose faces are scarred from birth or accident deserved it, then in turn, if you become disabled, you are also Bad.

The underbelly of these thoughts births horrific legislation and murder under the label of mercy. Husbands murder wives with dementia; parents murder children with development disabilities. These tragedies are termed “acts of love” when really it’s just fear and annoyance at a perceived burden.

The pervasive fear of illness and disfigurement in our world is seen so much more now as illness arrives on our doorsteps. Many think that, just by doing the right thing, they’ll be spared. As long as I follow the rules, I’ll be OK. As long as everyone likes me, I’ll be fine. As long as I do my yoga and take my vitamins and wear my mask, I won’t fall ill because, after all, I’m Good. Right? RIGHT?

It doesn’t work that way.

When we encounter disabled antagonists who have a redemption arc, the resolution is a magical cure—rewarded for being Good or Brave or Selfless and Doing the Thing. Suddenly they’re no longer blind, or their limb is restored, or the anxiety stops its incessant yammering. By this logic, disabled people must be Bad, because surely if we were Good, we would be cured by now.

Zuko

A good subversion of this was Katarra offering to heal Zuko’s burn scar in Avatar: The Last Airbender. The action is a classic symbol of his redemption, that he is accepted and loved by his new community, so now he can be Whole. However, the healing is interrupted and Zuko lives the rest of his life scarred—the rest of his fulfilling, long, and happy life, may I add.

This morality in our world is often mirrored in SFF worlds to show how terrible the world is, to show how tragic the history of war and magic and creatures has been. Where we do see disability addressed it is often on wealthy core planets that offer access to incredible therapies and technology or magic that all but erases our disability as nothing more than a fun worldbuilding quirk. Like in our own world, these treatments are gatekept by wealth. Additionally, we see this in heroes whose disability is the price for power, making it clear that no matter the world, being disabled is a negative.

Writing with this framework—which, like any privilege, isn’t easy to see and hard to disassemble—makes it tempting to cure the suffering and sickness in our speculative works.

In magical kingdoms and high-tech space stations, it’s easy to cleanse our world of hardship. Of scars. Of sickness.

I don’t want to be Clorox-wiped from the countertop or relegated to the corners as humans love to do with monsters. Disability cannot be erased. Many fall back on the reasoning that writing diverse characters isn’t realistic, but at Sirens we know that “reality” is based on a misunderstood, sanitized, and white-washed account of history—besides, what about the dragons? The realism argument does not hold up with disability, either. Gene therapy doesn’t prevent physical accidents. Nanobots and magical cures can’t stop evolution from testing countless new mutations—life will find a way, right? And honestly, not all disabled or disfigured people want a cure. In our world, seeking cures is often rooted less in our comfort than in freeing abled people of the “effort” of accommodating us.

Disability arcs grow complicated when we turn back to the villain’s past. There is no denying that enduring terrible things changes the way we view our world and the other people in it. Disability complicates our relationships with our bodies, our minds, and our entire sense of self. I’m in pain most days. It makes me short-tempered at the best of times. So, should I smile and make a go at world domination? I have my bad days like anyone else, but fascism seems a bit far.

Luckily for all of us readers and writers, cures are unnecessary with magical and advanced accessibility: A character doesn’t need to be able to walk without pain, because their hover chair can go anywhere on and off the electro-mag grid. Accessibility adds an incredible layer of worldbuilding from which to draw inspiration—both for worlds we can visit in our imaginations and those we can build from our own.

Plus, if you’re looking for a “wow” factor, changing a society’s perception is a way bigger miracle than just changing one person’s pesky meat-suit!

At its core, fantasy is about imagination, about pushing the boundaries of society and humanity on page and on screen. When building these worlds, it is easier to look backward at where we’ve been—and not just for our obstacles, but for our ideals. In small ways, we’re dismantling this framework: In 2018, the British Film Institute announced that they were banning disfigured villains to “remove the stigma,” though I’ve seen little mention of it since. If nothing else perhaps we’ll avoid a few poorly written origin stories that no one asked for, right?

I’d much rather imagine an accessible world where we can attend our places of worship, fan conventions, and job interviews. One where we don’t endure the embarrassment of being carried upstairs when there’s no lift. A world where someone will meet our eyes and we know they are looking at us, not the scar on our face, or the unique proportions of our body.

Casting a morality judgment on who becomes disabled or disfigured inherently changes the way disabled people navigate our world, often at the highest cost. Whether we are creatives or readers or activists, the worlds we imagine shape our perception of our own, and its people. Let’s envision a world not where people like me don’t exist, but where it’s easier for us to.


V.S. HolmesV. S. Holmes is an international bestselling author. They created the Reforged series and the Nel Bently Books. Smoke and Rain, the first book in their fantasy quartet, won New Apple Literary’s Excellence in Independent Publishing Award in 2015. In addition, they have published short fiction in several anthologies. When not writing, they work as a contract archaeologist throughout the northeastern U.S. They live in a Tiny House with their spouse, a fellow archaeologist, their not-so-tiny dog, and own too many books for such a small abode. As a disabled and queer human, they work as an advocate and educator for representation in SFF worlds. For more information about V, please visit their website or their Twitter.

Sirens Newsletter – Volume 12, Issue 6 (June 2020)

This month:

June has been a lot, hasn’t it? We know our Sirens community is full of caring, conscientious people who want to make a difference, whether your activism happens on the streets, on the page, in the houses of legislature and justice, or in your own living room. Your voice and your heart are important, so we hope that you’re taking care of yourself, too!

Black Lives Matter

One of the goals of Sirens is to make space for, and then actively amplify, marginalized voices. Our society is premised on structures and systems that relentlessly amalgamate power in the hands of white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied men. We are committed to dismantling those structures and systems.

Always, but especially now as we decry yet more murders of Black people at the hands of police, we strongly recommend that you put speculative works by Black women, nonbinary, and trans folks at the top of your reading list—and this month we offered you 50 brilliant speculative works to get you started.

These 50 works are about Black people, Black communities, about Black people seeking the stars, accomplishing six impossible things before breakfast, and changing the world. They are about Black heartbreak, Black defiance, Black resoluteness, and Black hope. And we hope you’ll buy these—and other works—from bookstores owned by Black people.

 

Pride Month

It’s Pride Month! And we are celebrating with 150 queer speculative works by amazing women, nonbinary, and trans authors! The first 100 we’ve read and enthusiastically recommend; the last 50 we’re excited to add to our TBR lists. And so, so many of these works don’t just feature queer representation, but are unabashedly, wonderfully, gloriously queer af.

Some of these works speak of discovering yourself and all your magnificent facets. Some speak of finding your place in an unwelcoming world. Some are all swashbuckling pirates and furious dragons and defiant witches, who just happen to be gay or bi or demi or ace.

These 150 books are just a drop in the proverbial bucket of LGBTQIAP+ representation in speculative works. May one new TBR book lead you to another and then another. Keep reading, writing, and going. Happy Pride from all of us!

 

Registration and Programming

Our vetting board was hard at work this past month, selecting a slate of programming sure to dazzle, challenge, and delight! This year’s panels, papers, workshops, and roundtables will celebrate so much of what we love about fantasy fiction, gender dynamics, and this year’s theme of villains. We can’t wait to explore these topics with you in October and see what conversations the programming generates.

Remember that if you’ve been accepted for programming, you must be registered by July 10! And that’s super-convenient, because…

On July 11, the registration for Sirens 2020 will increase to $275! If you haven’t registered yet, this is an excellent time to do so. Your registration gets you access to all programming, all keynotes, and a special T-Shirt featuring the Sirens 2020 logo. Visit our website to register!

 

Faculty Interviews

This month, we began introducing the incredibly talented people who will be running workshops during Sirens Studio. Each interview will help you get to know your Studio faculty a bit better, as well as previewing the material they’ll present in their workshops.

Jae Young
Jae Young, a nonprofit lawyer who will be teaching the career development workshop “Working for Change: Can We Wear Capes in Real Life?”, answers questions about advocating for immigrants and victims of domestic violence, avoiding burnout, escaping into fantasy fiction, and finding hope in adversity.
Anna-Marie McLemore
Anna-Marie McLemore will be teaching “Finding Magic: Enchanting Characters and Their Worlds,” a writing workshop on magical realism. In their interview, they discuss writing re-imagined fairy tales, coming out as nonbinary, and living louder and braver in real life and on the page.
Casey Blair
Casey Blair, author and bookseller, talks about the books she loves to recommend, gives us some tea-pairings for her Tea Princess Chronicles, and previews her workshop which will help attendees “Yeet the Patriarchy.”

Don’t those workshops sound fantastic? There’s still time to register for Studio, but spaces are going fast, so nab yours now!

 

Sirens Essays

Summertime means another round of amazing Sirens essays! We are delighted to share these brilliant minds exploring the fantasy genre in all its fabulousness and foibles.

  • In “Have You Seen Her? Looking for Shuri on the Pages of Her Comics Series”, comedy and fiction writer Kaia Alderson examines the frequent absence of the title character in the Marvel trade paperback written by Reginald Hudlin and the 10-issue run of the standalone Shuri comic written by Nnedi Okorafor and Vita Ayala. “With a woman of African descent as the main writer penning the story, I expected a storyline that centered a heroine of African descent. Instead, it soon veered off into adventures where Shuri teamed up with other (mostly male) people and non-human lifeforms.”

  • Author Ausma Zehanat Khan offers a deep dive into in Pakistani Pashtun culture and its influence on her writing in “Feminism, Patriarchy and Faith in The Khorasan Archives”. “I decided that I would write a series that put women at the front and center of the Islamic tradition, a tradition they would then use to liberate themselves from oppression and to reclaim their personhood and dignity. In writing the series, I began with the minute and personal—my own background—then expanded to encompass the astonishing sweep of the Islamic civilization.”

 

Sirens Chats

Connection is so important in trying times, and we have loved seeing your faces through virtual means when we can’t be together in reality! Our next Sirens Zoom chat will be Friday, July 10 at 8 p.m. Join us to talk about what you’ve been reading, release some tension, and take some time away from the stresses of daily life to hang out with your amazing fellow Sirens. To receive emails about these online events so you always know when to click that camera on, send us a message at help at sirensconference.org, and we’ll add you to the list.

For a video-free option for interaction, you can join us on Twitter! Our June hashtag chat got rescheduled for Thursday, July 2 at 8 p.m. Follow the hashtag #SirensChat to participate in a discussion about fashion in SFF, mundane and magical, ridiculous and sublime.

 

Books & Breakfast

Many of you are familiar with our Books and Breakfast program, but in case you aren’t: Each year at Sirens, we select a number of brilliant, controversial, and just plain popular books relevant to the theme and then invite attendees to bring their breakfast and discuss them during Sirens. This is a tremendous way to showcase the breadth of each year’s theme—and a great excuse to gather to discuss great books.

Here are this year’s selections, on a theme of villains! And check out our mini-reviews of the first two, Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda and Nimona by Noelle Stevenson; we’ll review the rest later this summer.

  • A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter
  • Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust
  • Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
  • Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
  • Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
  • Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves
  • The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley
  • Wilder Girls by Rory Power

 

Yet More Books!

June has been an amazing month for readers! Let us help you find your new favorite read!

Book Recommendations and Reviews:

And here are a few staff picks for this month:

Erynn’s Pick: Emblem Island: Curse of the Night Witch by Alex Aster

Curse of the Night Witch

A mix of delightful and dark, this middle-grade quest book by debut author, Alex Aster, takes place in a world built from memories of the Latin American folktales she heard as child. The people of Emblem Island are born with their talents and destinies marked upon their skin. Not happy with his fate to follow in his Chieftess mother’s footsteps, twelve-year-old Tor Luna uses the New Year’s festival as an opportunity to make a forbidden wish – for a less mundane lot in life – only to wake up with an extremely short life line and the Night Witch’s mark.

Journeying across the island with two friends, he must conquer the trials from The Book of Cuentos, a collection of tales of strange enchantments of Emblem Island. Each tale is told separately between the main story chapters as a book-within-a-book that young readers can follow along and decipher clues to help Tor regain his old life and come to appreciate its value.

Cass’s Pick: A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin

This book is just screamingly good. I like my fantasy politically complex and absolutely drenched in mythos, and A Song of Wraiths and Ruin delivers so magnificently that I found myself annoyed at all the things in my life that took my attention away from it. (Why hasn’t someone invented a way to read books in the shower yet?)

Inspired by West African folklore, this YA novel twines the stories of two determined people with mutually exclusive goals: Malik, who must kill the Crown Princess of Ziran in order to free his sister from an evil spirit and who enters the Solstasia competition for the chance to get close enough to do it–and Karina, the Crown Princess, who needs the heart of a king for a ritual to resurrect a murdered loved one and decides that offering her hand in marriage to the winner of the Solstasia competition is the quickest way to obtain one. But neither challenge is as simple as it seems, particularly when Malik and Karina start falling for each other. The tale that unfolds is exciting, original, and utterly magical.

 


And that wraps up June! Next month, we’ll be bringing you more faculty interviews, more Sirens essays, more Books & Breakfast previews, and more exciting news from the world of Sirens. Keep yourselves and your loved ones safe and well!

This newsletter is brought to you by:

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

 

Marie Brennan: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Today, Sirens registrar Erynn Moss speaks with Marie Brennan.

 

ERYNN MOSS: Can you believe it has been a decade since you were a guest of honor at Sirens? Our theme that year was faeries and you were in the midst of publishing your Onyx Court series, a centuries-long epic following the fae of London. But I recall you also led us in a workshop on writing fight scenes and your methods, like your writing, were so clear and enjoyable that it’s no surprise you’ve continued to dedicate time to teaching. Recently you held a similar workshop at Clarion West in Seattle and your New Worlds Patreon is essentially a world-building encyclopedia of knowledge gleaned from your folklore and anthropology background, which some of us love for the nerdy sake of human culture factoids. How are you balancing your time/efforts between teaching/essays and your own writing?

Marie Brennan

MARIE BRENNAN: This really has been the year of me diving back into teaching—not just the in-person workshop for Clarion West, but also a slew of online ones, plus I’ve taught for Cat Rambo’s Academy for Wayward Writers and the Kelly Yang Project, which works one-on-one with students in Hong Kong. The good news is, unlike when I taught in an academic context, I don’t have to do any grading!

To some extent I’m able to do both because they come out of different buckets in my brain. Writing nonfiction doesn’t make the same demands on me as fiction does—which isn’t the same thing as saying it doesn’t make any demands, but I’m able to shift gears and work on A when I’m tapped out on B. I’ll admit, though, that the Patreon is intermittently draining: it’s been running for over three years now, with an essay every single week, and I’m not anywhere near done yet. I’m still excited by the project as a whole, but I go through periods where I drag my feet on actually writing that week’s essay, because ugh didn’t I just do this last week?

In the long run, though, the New Worlds project has also been really good for my fiction. Brainstorming possible topics of discussion doubles as reminding me of cool things I could be doing with my worldbuilding—which has particularly fed into the Rook and Rose trilogy I’m writing with Alyc Helms. They’ve got the same academic background I do, and I’m only sort of joking when I call the trilogy “When Anthropologists Attack.” We’ve been having a blast thinking through all the different elements of the setting and how they could feed into our story. And hey, the other day I re-read my own Patreon essays on security systems as a refresher before Alyc and I worked out a plot problem—so they’re becoming a resource I can use, too!

 

ERYNN: A mythically rare and majestic beast, your dragon-naturalist heroine, Lady Trent, is—gasp!—an older female main character. Her story starts off in her youth but continues over a lengthy career of adventuring and all told from her post-retirement perspective. She frequently stops the flow of her story to inject humorous details and opinions from her mature viewpoint. As a reader, I felt like you were having a lot of fun with her. Can you tell us a bit about writing from this particular point of view? And to follow up, your latest book in that world, Turning Light into Darkness, is the story of Lady Trent’s granddaughter, Audrey Camherst, and written in an entirely different style. What was it like continuing in this world, but with such a different voice?

MARIE: I don’t think I’m the type of writer typically cited as having amazing character voices…but man, when they click, they click. It took all of a paragraph for Lady Trent’s voice to materialize when I first started poking at her story. And although I didn’t realize it at the time, the approach I took to the viewpoint was absolute gold for the story. It isn’t just first-person; it’s her consciously relating her life story to an audience presumed to exist in her own world. Which meant I could get away with absolutely everything, because in the end, it’s all characterization. I need to describe a jungle? You’re not just getting the jungle; you’re getting Isabella’s experiences and opinions of the jungle. I need to explain something about the setting? Drop in a line where she says, “You young people won’t realize this because things have changed so much, but here’s how it used to be.” I can play freely with foreshadowing and irony, because she has fun pulling her audience’s strings on purpose. I won’t say that suits every kind of novel, but for this series, it worked out perfectly.

As for Audrey, figuring out how to make her different was pretty much the first challenge I faced—especially since I decided to keep up the conceit where every story from that world exists in the world. Audrey’s novel is assembled out of many different kinds of documents, from diary entries to letters to newspaper articles to police reports…and yes, that did make for some interesting hurdles along the way, as I had to figure out how to get certain bits of information across. Audrey primarily shows up via her diary, which was a more immediate kind of first person than Isabella’s—told immediately after the fact, rather than decades later—but I also tried to modernize her tone, since she lives in a period that’s more like the 1920s than the late Victorian era. A lot of it also boiled down to thinking about the ways in which her situation is different from her grandmother’s: Her drive to prove herself comes less from facing sexism and more from feeling the burden of having famous relatives. She’s much more rash in some ways, and also much more careless of the consequences, because she trusts that her family will always be there to help her out.

 

ERYNN: You’ve got a reputation for very structured worlds and defined characters—and there was talk of color-coded reference charts on your coming collaborative trilogy. By contrast, one of your amazing short stories, “This Is How,” is so poignant and elegantly pared-down that it’s almost a poem. It’s essentially about transformation and makes me wonder how you, consciously or not, go about achieving that kind of squishy organic space for your characters when they might have the span of an epic series or less than 2,000 words.

MARIE: Now, let’s be clear: Those color-coded charts for Rook and Rose are very much an anomaly! On my own, I tend far more toward the “discovery writing” end of the spectrum, figuring out my plot as I go along. But when you’re working with someone else, and furthermore when you’re writing a two hundred thousand-word novel with complex intrigue and multiple viewpoint characters, you can’t just hold it all in your head as a vague cloud and hope the other writer can read your mind. Especially not when you find yourself describing your characters’ lives as “a layer cake of lies and deception”—that’s when you wind up having to chart who knows what, which persona of theirs knows it, who knows they know it, and when they learned it. There was a point along the way when Alyc and I realized our cleverness had looped clear around and stabbed us in the back; it took something like two hours of chewing on the problem before we found a way to un-break our plot.

A short story is not only a different beast, I think it might belong to a different taxonomical kingdom entirely. “This Is How” fell out of my head when I was getting ready for bed one night: I sat down and wrote the whole thing in a single go, and when I was done I wasn’t even sure what I had. Was it a story? Was it just a weird pile of words? It’s an intuitive creation, not one I consciously built. I’ve yet to have a novel happen that way, though I know for some writers it’s possible.

So I think part of the answer is that they’re different skill sets. I used to be abysmal at writing short stories, because I was a natural novelist first; it took me years before I even learned what a short story-sized idea looked like. But at this point I’ve published more than 60 short stories, so I’ve had lots of practice in how to do cool character stuff both in a few thousand words and in tens or hundreds of thousands.

Articulating how to do it, though…? Let’s just say there’s a reason I teach things like worldbuilding and fight scenes, not short story techniques. Just because I can do a thing doesn’t mean I can explain it.

 

ERYNN: As I mentioned, you are currently working with fellow anthropologist, Alyc Helms, under the joint pseudonym M.A. Carrick on a series called Rook and Rose, the first book of which (The Mask of Mirrors) is currently expected in January. The two of you met on an archaeological dig in Wales, which is a great backstory. You’ve mentioned how helpful travel and richness of experience has been to getting the factual historical details of your books correct. Since your Sirens Studio workshop will be “Faith in Fantasy: Building Believable Religions,” what sort of non-academic experiences have been helpful for you to accurately and sensitively represent cultural practices and beliefs?

MARIE: It’s a bit of a fuzzy boundary between academic and non-academic experiences, because a lot of it boils down to “I’ve read things.” For any kind of worldbuilding, I think one of the most valuable things you can do is read about actual cultures in the real world; don’t just draw all your ideas from novels and other forms of fiction. And while it’s fine to start with the simple, Wikipedia level of research—especially when the topic is one you aren’t very familiar with, and you need that kind of basic orientation—you can’t stop there. It takes an investment of time and energy, not just to understand X, but to understand the things around X that affect it and give it context. Especially since that can help you find the places where you have unexamined assumptions coloring how you process everything else.

But it helps not to rely entirely on books, either. That’s why travel is good, if it’s something you can afford, and anything else that helps get you out of your familiar zone. Sometimes I think the brain has a range of motion just like the body does, and building up mental flexibility means it’s that much easier to learn about New Thing #17.

 

ERYNN: Speaking of your Sirens Studio writing workshop, what can attendees expect from “Faith in Fantasy: Building Believable Religions”?

MARIE: It’s going to be a ground-up approach, focusing not on high-level theological concepts like “let’s design a pantheon” or “write a myth for how the world got created,” but on what it means to be a character in that world who follows that religion. When a faith is strongly felt, it tends to permeate people’s lives in a hundred different ways—and those ways are what’s going to show up the most frequently in a story.

 

ERYNN: 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?

MARIE: There’s no contest: Diana Wynne Jones.

Some of you reading this probably recognize her name, but for those who don’t: She was a British fantasy author, writing primarily for children and young adults (though the YA category didn’t really exist as we think of it now for most of her career). I credit her with turning me into a writer.

Like most kids, I made up stories. But when I was about nine or ten, I read her novel Fire and Hemlock—which, in addition to starting my fascination with the ballad “Tam Lin,” featured two characters who were writing a story together. It was the first time in my life I’d thought about that as a thing I could do, not just to entertain myself, but to entertain other people. I more or less decided on the spot that I wanted to be an author, and never let go of that decision.

(Though if you want to sample her work, I’m not sure I would recommend Fire and Hemlock as the place to start. It’s amazing, but its ending is also…really weird, and it was decades later that I found out part of the reason for its weirdness and half-comprehensibility was that I hadn’t read the T.S. Eliot poem woven into the logic and imagery of the climactic scene. Basically, I love that book even though I can’t entirely explain it.)

 


Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to Turning Darkness into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of the Doppelganger duology of Warrior and Witch, the urban fantasies Lies and Prophecy and Chains and Memory, the Onyx Court historical fantasy series, the Varekai novellas, and nearly sixty short stories, as well as the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides.

For more information about Marie, visit her website or her Twitter.

Erynn Moss is an enthusiastic reader who likes refreshing her soul by spending time with the brilliant people she finds at Sirens. She’s into comics, sewing, knitting, costumes, and camping. She currently lives in Louisville with her bff spouse and their toddler trainee-Siren.

Lani Goto’s “Space Is the Place” Recommended Reading

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who write reviews and books lists of fantasy and related works by women or nonbinary authors. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review for publication, please email us! Today, we welcome a book list by Lani Goto.

Space Is the Place

From a galaxy far, far away to the final frontier, space as a setting allows for just about anything to happen. Stories can range from hard sci-fi to basically fantasy, and cover any of the blurry areas in-between. But one commonality that space stories often share is the invitation to consider big questions about humanity.

These books—some of my favorite space stories I read last year—span the spectrum. Some are more philosophical, some are more action-y, but each one has a unique and thrilling take on what happens when people look to the stars.

 

Six Wakes

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

A crew of clones awakes onboard a generation ship to incomplete memories and the dead bodies of their previous selves. With the ship’s computer sabotaged, they are trapped together, uncertain of who was the murderer, but knowing it must be one of them.

The story moves from one character to another as they confront the current crisis and consider their lives before. Lafferty keeps the action at a brisk pace, continually ratcheting up the tension while the crew struggles to solve the mystery before it’s too late. Each clone has a complicated past, and their histories unfold and entangle in increasingly dire ways. There are few easy conclusions when it comes to the ethics of cloning and questions of identity, and they’ll have to decide what they can trust.

Ancestral Night

Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear

Haimey Dz works on a space salvage tug with her small crew: pilot, shipmind AI, and two cats. When they take on a new job, they don’t expect much, but suddenly find themselves involved with a mysterious alien ship and a lot of very interested and very aggressive other parties. Haimey winds up facing various enemies and allies alone, and must consider her personal priorities and where she belongs.

One of the most disorienting and enjoyable aspects of this book is how casually Bear makes extraordinary things mundane; for the characters, things like body modifications for zero-G and neural interfaces are entirely normal. This matter-of-factness leads to a frank exploration of a society that spans planets and species, what that means for how personhood is understood, and how people choose to belong—or don’t.

A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare comes from a distant space station to the heart of the galactic Teixcalaanli empire, where she must uncover what happened to her predecessor and devise a way to save her people from encroaching annexation. She carries a hidden technology that could be the key to her station’s survival, but it also holds a tremendous challenge for her deepest self.

Martine delves into concepts of culture through incredible worldbuilding, creating a vast and intricate realm that feels vibrantly real. Mahit, a lifelong student of Teixcalaan society, pulls us into both the seductions and horrors of assimilation. It’s a piercing examination of colonization, and the way identity is endlessly created and recreated, despite—or sometimes even because of—our best efforts to preserve what we believe is true.

Sisters of the Vast Black

Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather

A small group of nuns tend to their living ship as they journey into the distant reaches of space, ministering to far-flung colonies. But they all have different reasons for choosing this unusual life—and when the Church back on Earth sends a priest to check on them, the nuns must face their personal secrets and make some difficult choices.

This novella packs a lot into relatively few pages: the legacy of war, threats of deadly plague, forbidden romance, and of course the pregnancy of the giant space slug that is the ship. Yet for all the wild elements, Rather crafts a story with tenderness towards the complexities of faith and human connection, allowing for quiet joy and moments of the sublime.

Cosmoknights

Cosmoknights by Hannah Templer

Lesbian gladiators fight the patriarchy—literally!—In this neo-medieval space fantasy comic. Young mechanic Pan resents her backwater homeworld, and things get worse when her best friend Tara’s princess status takes her off-world to become a prize in an interstellar arena. Pan is lost…until she encounters two women who play to win a different kind of victory, and she sees a chance to rescue her BFF.

Templer’s colorful art and lively cast make for a vivid, action-packed adventure. As the story sweeps from glittering palaces to ominous back alleys, Pan eagerly jumps into the dangers of her new life, and begins to learn more about herself and the system she lives in. This high-energy, high-drama comic is like a good pop song that makes you want to grab your friends to dance and riot.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Four astronauts embark on a journey of exploration, observing and documenting unknown planets. As they travel further and further from home, encountering wonders and trials, contact with Earth begins to fray and their mission takes on a new kind of significance.

Chambers focuses on the relationships between the characters, each of them different but bound together in purpose and, remarkably, love. It’s an unusual direction for a subgenre that’s often based in the conflict arising from stuffing people in a tin can and flinging them into the dark. But this lens of genuine warmth and kindness makes the story hit harder as Chambers looks to space and asks what responsibility we have to science and to each other.


Lani Goto

Lani Goto grew up on a steady diet of fantasy books, but now it’s more like a mix of some fantasy, lots of sci-fi, 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.

Books and Breakfast: Monstress: Awakening and Nimona

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 breakfasts and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary are doing in fantasy literature!

This year, as we examine gender and villainy, and relatedly, redemption—fraught topics full of artificial constraints and defied stereotypes—our Books and Breakfast program features titles meant to broaden that examination. We’ve chosen eight works, full of questions, but few answers; dastardly villainy, and occasional redemption; and a number of female and nonbinary villains who may, despite or because of their villainy, be someone worth celebrating.

This summer, we’ll be highlighting all eight of these titles, which we hope will allow you to make your choice and tackle your reading before Sirens. Below are our list of selections and our first two summaries; we’ll have the other six in the months to come.

 
2020 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter
Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust
Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley
Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu, illus. by Sana Takeda

Monstress: Awakening

Do you like pretty things and want to cry? If you read fantasy for worldbuilding, there is so much to admire in Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress, a lush, fantasy comics series currently on its 30th issue. The first volume of Monstress: Awakening collects the first six issues, and the world is an incredible combination of Art Deco architecture, steampunky science, magic inspired by Middle Eastern myths, and a matriarchal society—all set in an alternate-world Asia.

With its own creation myth, religion, and history, Monstress centers around the conflict between Arcanics—a mixed race resulting from humans and the immortal, animal-shaped Ancients—and the Cumaea, a “scientific” order of witches (humans) who consume and experiment on them to fuel their magic. The wars have been gruesome and violent, with their legacy carrying trauma and deep emotional scars in our protagonist, half-Arcanic and former child slave Maika Halfwolf. Maika, who can pass for human, has very big fish to fry—hell-bent on avenging her dead mother, she is the occasional host of a terrifying and supremely powerful monster, who emerges from the stump of her severed arm.

It’s hard to put into words just how breathtakingly epic Monstress is, how dark, and how beautiful. Though interspersed with moments of levity and wisdom from adorable cats, and rife with whimsical details (unicorn horses!), the themes here are heady: Liu drew on her Chinese grandparents’ experiences during World War II to show just how broken life is for the Arcanics. Like with Maika, sometimes the monster inside all of us just wants to burn it all down—and that destructive power is readily available to her. Takeda’s artwork deserves all the superlatives and can’t be understated, with fine detailed architecture and manga-style characters. Comes with major content warnings.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Nimona

For tonally lighter fare, Noelle Stevenson’s web comic-turned-graphic novel Nimona will bring about giggles and snickers, as a teenage girl strongarms her way into being the sidekick to the “villainous” Lord Ballister Blackheart. Here be dragons! Knights who communicate via videocall! The properties of magic getting debated by goggle-wearing scientists! Ballister fits reluctantly into the role of villain ever since his arm got blown off by his archnemesis, the lushly locked Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin of the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics. Who better to give him a push than orphaned, impulsive, sarcastic Nimona, a shapeshifter who can take the form of any living being of any size or strength?

Though the novel starts with quippy dialogue and witty punchlines as Ballister and Nimona form a rapport, there is a darker, more serious undertone amongst all the charm: Nimona is, well, an extremely efficient killer. Since Ballister is truly a cinnamon roll who eventually just wants to be loved, he’s at odds with himself when he realizes Nimona’s full and true power—and the chaos she brings. And since this fun blur between science and magic of a world doesn’t exclude patriarchy, teenaged girls must be controlled, right? They’re dangerous when they’re unpredictable.

Still, feel assured under Stevenson’s confident pen. Her artwork drives the heartfelt character design, and the amazing expressions on their faces are a joy—especially the eyebrows! And overall, Nimona is a tender, funny exploration of what makes a hero a hero and a villain a villain, with a sweet romance, enough silliness to give you a bellyache, and a moody girl to root for, even on her bad days. Because who doesn’t have those days?

Casey Blair: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Today, Sirens communication team member Faye Bi speaks with Casey Blair.

 

FAYE BI: If you had to describe your “reading profile” to a stranger (or to a bookseller, librarian, or other gatekeeper), what would you list as some of your favorite themes, subgenres, or tropes in fantasy literature? What makes a “Casey book”? (We know dragons and magical cats can’t be beat!)

Casey Blair

CASEY BLAIR: These days the story features grabbing me most are ambition, irreverence, and radical compassion. Often in combination: There’s nothing quite as satisfying to me as a woman who doesn’t hesitate to dare to give the finger to anyone who would keep her down, who lifts up others as she rises, who understands from the start that she’s valuable, and who is unabashedly competent—as well as inspiring—by virtue of existing without shame in the world we live in and taking up narrative space.

You can probably tell by how I frame that that what I personally look for in any books are excellent characters—not necessarily likable, but depicted in nuanced and interesting ways. I’ll forgive silly plot holes and unrealistic world-building if I care about the characters’ journeys. The specific tropes I respond to are necessarily informed by how they have worked or failed for me in media I’ve consumed historically, and over the years my fantasy tastes have broadly morphed from “whatever shounen anime and epic fantasy I can find” to “shadowy worlds and darkness are Cool” to “holy shit The Goblin Emperor.” They’re all part of me: A shounen-passion-style protagonist who triumphs in spite of all odds through sheer determination is always going to speak to me; I’m a sucker for dark lords and secret guilds of assassins; and a character who can bring people together toward difficult growth and actively reckons with oppressive legacies is inspiring.

Ultimately, a Casey book is fun to read, makes me think, and prominently features women characters owning their power. It’s hopeful without making light of real problems. If you have an action-packed story about a woman burning down the patriarchy with magic, I’m pretty much set.

You know what, I feel like you planned this, but now I have a book list for you: Women in SFF Who Dream Big Dreams and Don’t Let Anyone Stop Them. Those are Casey books. [Ed. note: Coming soon to the Sirens blog!]

 

FAYE: Speaking of dragons—because we know you love them—what are some of your favorite, semi-recent depictions of dragons in fantasy? How do they compare to the dragon books you read as a child?

CASEY: What a question. SO many semi-recent dragons, and I’m sure I’ll miss some anyway but here we go: the Heartstrikers series by Rachel Aaron, Tea Dragon Society by Katie O’Neill, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi, The Forbidden Library series by Django Wexler, the Wings of Fire series by Tui Sutherland, The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis, Given by Nandi Taylor, and the Chronicles of Elantra series by Michelle Sagara.

As for how they compare, in general the dragons of my childhood were less accessible than dragons often are now. Like, you weren’t going to be friends with Smaug and Shenron, and even dragons in Harry Potter were mostly separate from human concerns. You certainly weren’t going to presume some understanding of their internal emotional state! Whereas many semi-recent dragons are treated more like characters than physical embodiments of natural forces and magic. There’s certainly space for all kinds, but I do like this trend because it increases the dragons’ agency. And I typically find increased character agency makes stories more narratively satisfying.

Mind you, this isn’t to say all dragon books were like that in my childhood—like, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia Wrede existed, though I tragically didn’t know about Kazul until much later. But when we talk about trends, I think that’s the major difference.

 

FAYE: You are also the author of the online serial, the delightful Tea Princess Chronicles, which has baby dragons, a tea shop, a princess who finds a new purpose in life, and best of all, a community of awesome women. After nearly three years, what has surprised you most about this publishing journey? And please match a tea to each book in your trilogy—and tell us why.

CASEY: What’s surprised me most about this journey has been the reception, and that it has largely reflected the same earnestness as the story. Tea Princess Chronicles aims to be hopeful and validating by acknowledging bullshit is real and then doing something about it—and gradually empowering more and more people to work together to fix bigger and more entrenched injustices. A really broad spectrum of people have responded to that core. But someone once described this series to her husband as “fantasy for chicks,” and she would have been surprised to hear that the majority of the most vocal supporters of this story—that unabashedly focuses on things like female friendship and cozy domesticity—actually present masculine.

So many people over my life have told me that I couldn’t be a real shounen anime or action movie fan—that they’re too violent for a girl, especially one who presents as femme as I do; that they’re not romantic, aka for girls; and that I must be pretending. You know, classic fake geek girl nonsense. But I am here to tell you that the dudeliest of dudes will read romance and like it. We don’t have to force people into categories, actually! A lot of publishing wisdom advises authors to write for a specific reader, but I think this approach can actually do people a disservice: Targeting readers, and what people respond to in stories, is more complex than that. But it’s been truly lovely that people who needed this story found it, and I hope that will be true of everything I write.

As far as matching tea goes, another surprise has been how many people now assume I’m a tea expert! My friends, I know enough to fake what someone who actually knows about tea would look for, but I am writing MAGIC tea. (I am a tea enthusiast only: It’s not that I can’t appreciate the difference with a really special cup of tea, but I am also happy to drink tea that comes pre-bagged and is extremely over-steeped when I inevitably forget about it and have to reheat my cup. I will drink All The Tea. Except for chamomile, so please enjoy my share of that one.)

So the only possible answer here is for me to give you magic tea recommendations in line with the theme of each book. And each of these fantasy ingredients has a short story to go with it on the serial website. =)

For A Coup of Tea, it has to be the ever starbloom green tea blend. It’s a very smooth flavor but also a blooming tea that, once open, constantly changes form and makes every second worth attending to. This is the book where the heroine learns how to live in the world outside the royal court and discovers new possibilities in the smallest moments.

For Tea Set and Match, I’ll go with a red tea brewed with lellabean extract and honey, which has a full, robust flavor. This book is about fostering the connections between people, and this is a tea for feeling rooted but not tied, and what that combination of freedom and community support makes possible.

For Royal Tea Service, I’d go with a white tea with a drop of dreamreacher, light like floating but with a zing at the back. This is a tea for believing in your power to achieve whatever you can imagine without limit, and doing it.

 

FAYE: You love talking about books! In your time as an indie bookseller, which new-at-the-time or little-known book(s) did you make it your mission to hand-sell? What makes a book talk successful?

CASEY: Not including some of the dragon books above: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, Mirage by Somaiya Daud, The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, Witchmark by C.L. Polk, An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard, Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri, The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark, Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone, Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee, Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik, and In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan. I know it’s a good book talk when I can literally sell it every single time I try. It’s always satisfying when I nail that from the get-go, but sometimes it takes me more tries to find the right angle to connect with people. Ultimately that’s what I’m trying to do: Connect a reader to a book they’ll love.

Book talking involves first understanding what a reader is actually looking for, which is often not what they say they are looking for. Pro tip: ask them what books/authors they’ve read and liked rather than what kind of book they want.

The second important part is being able to isolate what makes a book unique. It’s not enough to say it has great world-building—what kind of world-building? Does the book have magical action scenes that would translate epically to film, or numinous magical struggles focusing on interiority? Is this a light-hearted adventure or grimdark? Dry humor or silly humor? The same person can like multiple things, but if they don’t want to have to think about consequences, I’m not giving them The Goblin Emperor even though it’s a brilliant book that changed me. That’s not how targeting audience works. If you don’t pay attention to what someone actually wants or cares about, you’ll only get to give them a recommendation once.

Those two pieces, weirdly enough, seem to be what a lot of people miss. You have to understand the books, and you have to understand the reader’s interests. I can successfully recommend (by which I mean, people acquire them and later tell me they liked them) plenty of books I didn’t actually enjoy based on being able to isolate and match those features.

But the other piece is understanding at some level what people think they’re interested in. If you keep talking about a brilliant trope subversion to someone who doesn’t know they like that, you’re not going to get very far.

 

FAYE: A fellow Siren once described one of your Sirens papers as “incisive thoughts about intersectional feminism delivered with pointed and precise fury.” We can’t be more excited about your workshop intensive for readers titled “Yeet the Patriarchy: How Fantasy Stories Can Undermine Systemic Oppression” as part of the Sirens Studio. Would you please give us a preview of what Studio attendees can expect to discuss and learn?

CASEY: Absolutely. I feel like I’ve been tiptoeing around facets of this topic with papers at Sirens for a while, so I’m excited to just dive in and be like, fuck it, we are looking at patriarchy as a whole, on a broader level, and how to actually deal with it in our fantasy stories.

I read so many books that are clearly trying to be feminist but only managing the level of “girls can wear pants too,” which, okay, baby steps matter, but also very obvious and not sufficient; it’s a shallow level of engagement that often misses how institutionalized oppression works entirely. It’s not enough for one girl to be so awesome she gets to wear pants, because patriarchy will always adapt to defend itself: That’s how we get exceptionalism and “you’re not like other girls,” which, spoilers, is also sexist!

But how can stories actually meaningfully and dramatically—as in, in a narratively satisfying way that can be depicted through prose—say anything about sexism as a whole? If we accept that sexism is systemic (uh, further spoilers: we will indeed be starting with that premise), how can a single character, or story, make a difference that acknowledges the layered ways the system works and addresses it in a way that isn’t reductive?

There’s not one simple answer—I mean, obviously; systems are entrenched and complicated. But we’re going to talk about the challenges of depicting communal action. We’re going to talk about not erasing traditionally feminine-coded modes of power, and not shoehorning only women into them. We’re going to talk about how we talk about stories, what gets termed “universal” or “fun” or “narratively satisfying” and why, and how that translates financially and intersectionally. We’re going to talk about how stories shape our understanding of what is, what is possible, and what is desired, and how in so doing they reinforce or undermine sexism. Stories train readers, and we can use that—we can also learn how to understand what a book is in fact doing, and we can learn to reach for and demand different kinds of stories.

Not dealing a single blow to patriarchy that it can watch for and defend against, but unraveling it with a thousand cuts from every direction.

 

FAYE: 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?

CASEY: Sirens was the first con I ever attended, back in 2009 when I was 20 years old. I arrived at the welcome banquet apparently way earlier than anyone else but the staff, so I dropped my stuff at a seat and desperately lingered over choosing desserts from the buffet so I wouldn’t be sitting alone at a table having obviously missed the memo on when Cool Folk Who Know How to Con show up. When I finally returned, other people had thankfully camped there, and in short order I was enthusiastically analyzing Saiyuki (the anime, not the epic) with a person whose nametag I eventually looked at and struggled not to do a double-take when it read Sherwood Smith—one of the guests of honor.

For Sherwood’s keynote, she eschewed the usual fantasy topics and instead burst out with an academic lecture on salon culture in 18th century France. It was amazing. At the ball when we were all dressed up, I asked to take a picture with her, and she asked, “Normal or funky chicken?” The only possible answer was, “Funky chicken, OBVIOUSLY,” so I have a fantastic picture doing the funky chicken in a ballgown with the first pro fantasy author I ever met.

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Sherwood better since then, and she is the best model I could have wished for the kind of author I want to be. On the artistic side, she has written everything under the SFF sun without limiting herself and done it all excellently. (In fact, Banner of the Damned was the first book I read with an explicitly asexual protagonist and helped me start connecting dots for myself, before pushes like #WeNeedDiverseBooks started improving the landscape of inclusivity.)

On the professional side, she doesn’t hide how smart she is, she doesn’t act like she’s better than anyone else and is always happy to learn, and she goes out of her way to support writers, with no disdain toward anyone less experienced, or self-published, or any of the many ways people often find themselves unwelcome or looked down on in SFF publishing spaces. I am lucky to have met a woman so early in my publishing journey who demonstrates the space she makes in her worlds, and I hope I can do the same.

 


Casey Blair writes adventurous fantasy novels for all ages, including the novella Consider the Dust and her cozy fantasy serial Tea Princess Chronicles. After graduating from Vassar College, her own adventures have included teaching English in rural Japan, attending the Viable Paradise residential science fiction and fantasy writing workshop, and working as an indie bookseller. She now lives in the Pacific Northwest and can be found dancing spontaneously, exploring forests around the world, or trapped under a cat. For more information, visit her website or her Twitter.

Faye Bi works as a publicity director in New York City and spends the rest of her time cycling, reading, pondering her next meal, and leading the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over and is equally happy in walkable cities and sprawling natural vistas.

Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea Is a Work for Our Time

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

Sooner Or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea

Sometimes the right book finds you at the right time.

I purchased Sarah Pinsker’s Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea in April 2019. This will surprise none of you who are familiar with my particular reading predilections: Sooner or Later is a collection of speculative short stories, critically acclaimed, compared to the work of Kelly Link, repeatedly described as “weird.” If I were to read only three things the rest of my life they would be: fantasy/literary crossovers, young-adult high fantasy, and speculative short story collections described as “weird.”

However.

My to-be-read pile being what it is, and the Sirens bookstore stocking process being what it is, I put Sooner or Later on a shelf and there it sat for over a year. This is not an unusual occurrence, regardless that it is a sometimes regrettable occurrence.

I unearthed—not an egregious exaggeration—Sooner or Later in March 2020, as we were compiling Sirens’s ginormous list of spectacular speculative queer works. Pinsker is queer and Sooner or Later was, by reputation, full of queer representation. Surprising precisely no one, I claimed Sooner or Later as one of the spectacular speculative queer works that I’d read and recommend. (Surely you are not surprised that at Sirens we quite happily presume spectacularness in works by women and nonbinary authors?)

Let’s pause there.

I certainly do not need to tell you that, in the interim, a few cases of COVID-19 have ballooned into a worldwide pandemic or that yet another Black man murdered by the police has sparked worldwide protests. The world feels more dangerous, perhaps, than it did a few months ago, and more fragile. A world where you must choose between maintaining your quarantine and begging for justice. Like many of you, I am not immune from anxiety, despair, rage, or surprise sobbing. There is a certain isolation, a certain desolation, that comes with this dangerous, fragile new world.

And into this desolation comes Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea.

Pinsker’s masterwork—and it is a masterwork—thrives on desolation, nurtures it, consumes it.

She has, with great care, woven the inescapable misery of isolation into thread that binds both her craft and your reading experience. Her stories are lonely, yearning, destructive, elegiac. Her collection is loss made tangible, in ink and paper.

Sooner or Later opens with “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide.” A man has just lost an arm in a farming accident and, before he wakes, his parents authorize the hospital to attach a cutting-edge prosthetic: a metal claw of an appendage with a corresponding chip in the brain. The man wakes and soon discovers that his new arm believes itself to be 97 kilometers of road in eastern Colorado, a fiercely bleak stretch of the United States that looks at distant mountains. The man can see this stretch of highway through the wonder of his arm—and it intersects with his own feelings of love and loss. When his chip malfunctions and the hospital replaces it, his arm no longer yearns for eastern Colorado—and the man feels the surprising ache of that loss as well.

“A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide” is Pinsker at her best: impossible worlds that nevertheless clearly and incisively reflect our own humanity. I have driven 97 kilometers of barren two-lane highway in eastern Colorado. It is a road that looks like a road trip: sky-high speeds, desert winds, a visible goal in the distant mountains. I, too, feel the ache of that man’s arm, even while my brain marvels at the craft necessary to build this desolation into a computer chip, a metal arm, a man comprised of parts.

Pinsker’s stories unwind from there: a post-apocalyptic survivalist waiting, waiting, waiting for her wife to find her; an elderly woman suddenly recalling the single moment that changed her husband from a dreamer to someone lost; a touring band in a vast Midwest where people fear congregating with strangers. Each captures incarnations of that same two-lane highway desolation: a wistfulness, a single-minded determination even in the face of disaster, a sudden wondering of what might have been. If only…

Pinsker’s collection isn’t easy, especially in a moment when we’re all feeling desolate, emotional, raw. You might want to save this for a sunnier day, a happier time, when your heart isn’t quite so breakable. But if you’re ready to, as I tell my niece we eventually must, feel your feelings, Pinsker’s collection is a work for our time.


Amy TenbrinkBy day, Amy Tenbrink dons her supergirl suit and practices transactional and intellectual property law as an executive vice president for a media company. By night, she dons her supergirl cape and plans Sirens and reads over a hundred books a year. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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