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Archive for February 2020

Magic in Our Fingertips: Charmed Voices in Modern Fairy Tales

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 by Hannah V. Warren.

When I sat down to create this list, I thought about all the great books people miss because the texts are outside the kind of material they normally reach for. Thus, one of my goals was to incorporate books from a diverse range of genres that would appeal to anyone with a tinge of magic in their blood. In this list, I’ve included poetry that people may love if they’re always up for folklore, critical nonfiction that would grab the attention of someone who usually reads fantasy novels, a novella a reader might never pick up unless they knew it had a few monsters inside. If you’re into fairy tales, fanfiction, and lyrical language, you’ll find something to love in all these books.

 

boysgirls
1. boysgirls by Katie Farris (Genre: poems)

When the human body is broken down to its barest parts, when you trip over a femur or a jawbone, you recognize it as human. Underlying this book is the nibbling longing that makes us think about identity and our desire to “escape unscathed.”

Brute
2. Brute by Emily Skaja (Genre: poems)

Skaja’s Brute is a collection of battery, of bruising, of brutality, of body. The intersection of gender and violence rests at the core of these poems, forcing the reader to pause and consider with the speaker how one comprehends trauma.

Cendrillon: A Caribbean Cinderella
3. Cendrillon: A Caribbean Cinderella by Robert D. San Souci (Genre: illustrated picture book)

Told from the godmother’s point of view, Cendrillon is rich in dialect and magic. This Cinderella retelling is a joy for all ages, especially those who seek a focus on marginalized voices in reinvented fairy tales.

The City of Brass
4. The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty (Genre: novel)

When Nahri discovers the faux magic she practices has real effects, she’s whisked away to Daevabad, the fabled djinn city filled with political turmoil. Brimming with secrets and envy, this novel is a testament to unique reinventions of familiar stories.

Divining Bones
5. Divining Bones by Charlie Bondhus (Genre: poems)

Bondhus creates a conversation with the reader, asking that they consider Baba Yaga as not only a crone but also a guide to understanding gender. Here, magic and witchcraft are tools of resistance for marginalized bodies.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon
6. The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (Genre: novel)

The Girl Who Drank the Moon is surprising, well-crafted, and all the things you want from a fairy tale-esque forest narrative. The most impressive and transformative part of this novel is Barnhill’s focus on the love within a nontraditional family structure.

The Ballad of Black Tom
7. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle (Genre: novella)

A way better version of Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook, LaValle’s novella highlights America’s institutional racism in the 1920s (and now), embodying the notion that people create their own monsters.

Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale
8. Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner (Genre: critical non-fiction)

Most useful in this book is Warner’s synthesis of other scholars who look to achieve the same goal: to show how fairy tale scholarship supports feminist exploration of texts often mislabeled for a young audience and expose the heteropatriarchal values in traditional fairy tales.

Skin Folk
9. Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson (Genre: short stories)

From fantasy to horror to SF, Hopkinson’s collection is vivid and evocative, retelling fairy tales with the purpose of speaking directly to women’s bodies at all stages of life. While you may recognize some of the characters, the stories are entirely new and chilling.

Spinning Silver
10. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik (Genre: novel)

A retelling of “Rumpelstiltskin”, fanfiction and fairy tale themes intertwine deliciously in this novel. The writing is atmospheric and haunting, the very best of lyrical language that also includes a strange but enchanting love story.


Hannah WarrenHannah V Warren is a PhD student at the University of Georgia where she studies poetry and speculative narratives. Her chapbook [re]construction of the necromancer won Sundress Publications’ 2019 chapbook contest, and her works have haunted or will soon appear in Mid-American Review, Moon City Review, and Redivider.

 

Sirens Newsletter – Volume 12, Issue 2 (February 2020)

This month:

Whether you’ve been deep in winter coze, enjoyed an unexpected early spring, or battled a weather system that’s playing hopscotch with its seasonal choices, we hope you’ve had a great, story-filled month!

We hope, too, that some of those stories may have planted the seeds for conversations you’d like to have at Sirens this year, because the time of programming submissions is nearly at hand! Sirens needs you to make the conference’s many hours of presentations possible. It truly does take everyone: not only scholars and authors, but readers, librarians, lawyers, educators, retail workers, publishing professionals, booksellers, farriers, and other attendees from all walks of life. Sirens knows you have something important to share, and we hope you’ll submit a proposal to join this year’s sure-to-be-amazing slate of presenters!

Programming Series

On March 16, we will be opening the proposals system for submissions. We know that some of you have been champing at the bit with ideas—and that some of you might need help with inspiration and guidance. Sirens is here to assist!

In Unsex Me Here: Power, Gender, and Villainy, we answered the question: “Why Villains?” as the theme for Sirens 2020. It’s not only a natural counterpart to 2019’s theme of heroes; it also provides us with much fertile territory to explore in the realm of gender and power dynamics, revenge fantasies, and redemption. We can’t wait to see what our fabulous attendees will bring us this year.

But that said, all topics relevant to gender and fantasy literature are possible proposal topics. While proposals might address this year’s theme, they do not need do. Want to discuss monsters or witches or hauntings, as Sirens has in past years? Great! Or family structures or queerness or adventure—or all three? That’s great, too! How about race and portal fantasy and magic systems? Yes, please!

Have some nebulous ideas and want to talk them out? Join us for a Sirens programming chat on Sunday, March 22, 2-4pm Eastern (11am-1pm Pacific) or Monday, May 4, 9-11pm Eastern (6-8pm Pacific) to discuss your thoughts with Sirens staff and other attendees! Or maybe you know you’d like to participate in programming but are having trouble coming up with an idea? Check out the #SirensBrainstorm tag on Twitter to get those brain-juices flowing.

Be sure to follow our annual programming series for guidance on all the technical aspects of submitting to our system. The overview and tips and tricks posted earlier this month will give you a general sense of how submissions work. In the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing posts delving deeper into papers/lectures, panels, roundtables, and workshops/afternoon classes.

 

Registration Price Increase

On March 1, the registration price for Sirens 2020 will increase from the current price of $225 to $250. If you want to lock in your attendance at the current rate, be sure to register by Saturday!

Tickets are also still available for the Sirens Studio. This price ($100) will not increase on March 1, but these tickets are limited. In fact, we’re already half-sold-out, so guarantee your seat by registering soon!

Also, while you’re thinking about getting your attendance ducks in a row, we wanted to remind Sirens attendees from the U.S. that the REAL ID act takes full effect on October 1st. What does that mean? You’ll need a REAL ID-compliant form of identification to board a plane to get to Sirens! Check out the government’s info page for more information on how to make sure your ID will get you through the airport.

 

Scholarships

Thanks to the amazing generosity of the Sirens community, this year we are able to fund sixteen scholarships! Four will be allocated to people of color, four for exemplary programming proposals, four to those with financial hardships, and four to librarians, educators, and publishing professionals such as editors, agents, publicists, production personnel, and booksellers.

We also have three 2020 Sabrina Chin “Braver Than You Think” Memorial Scholarships. All first-time Sirens attendees are eligible for these scholarships, as are first-time presenters who receive one of our programming scholarships. Sabrina Chin co-chaired Sirens for a number of years before her passing in 2019, and her family has funded these scholarships to help us continue to welcome new voices to the vibrant Sirens community.

For more information on all these scholarships, as well as information on how to apply, visit our scholarships page. Please note that the deadline to apply for most of these scholarships is February 29th; the deadline for the exceptional programming scholarship and the Sabrina Chin scholarship for first-time presenters will be May 15th.

 

Sirens Essays

Sirens Essay Series

Our essay series continued this month with contributions that examine issues of representation, power dynamics, and audience reception of narratives:

In Autism in Seven of Nine, Mette Ivie Harrison explores the character from Star Trek: Voyager, nuances of Jeri Ryan’s performance, and the importance for women diagnosed with autism, particularly later in life, of seeing themselves represented in fiction.

In What Is It with Us and “Good Royalty”?, Emma Whitney interrogates the continued prevalence of savior-monarchs in fantasy fiction and asks why this trope endures rather than ceding ground to more egalitarian narratives.

 

Books!

Book Recommendations and Reviews:

  • On Twitter, Amy Tenbrink shared 150 speculative fiction books by female and nonbinary authors of color! Check out this list and be prepared for your TBR pile to swell.
  • Amy also discusses the drowning weight of Erin Morgenstern’s new portal fantasy, The Starless Sea.
  • Katie Passerotti raves about Tara Sim’s Scavenge the Stars, a genderbent, queer take on The Count of Monte Cristo.

We’re delighted to share a few staff picks from February’s list of new releases:

The Girl Who Lost Her Shadow

Erynn’s Pick: The Girl Who Lost Her Shadow, by Emily Ilett

One morning, Gail wakes up to see her shadow slipping away under the door. It’s expected as she has been barely keeping it together over the last two months since her father left and with him went her elder sister’s health and shadow. Realizing that she must be the one to bring the shadows back, she sets off on an adventure facing elements of magic mixed with light and grief, for her sister’s sake if not her own.

Emily Ilett’s debut novel is a middle grade, otherworld quest tale set on a remote island in Scotland. I immersed immediately into the place and the plight of the protagonist. Her prose is lyrical and full of all the passion Gail is trying to recover. She elegantly blends folktale allegory with real challenges of depression and mental illness. It is a well-told, heartwarming story of inner strength and sisterly love.

We Unleash the Merciless Storm

Cass’s Pick: We Unleash the Merciless Storm, by Tehlor Kay Mejia

If you came to Book Speed-Dating at Sirens in 2019, you know that We Set the Dark on Fire was one of my top picks, so I am of course incredibly excited for the sequel! We Set the Dark on Fire introduced us to a world where young women of high social class—or those aspiring to it—train to be wives for powerful men: either a primera, responsible for her husband’s business and social world, or a segunda, responsible for home and children. This society is cracking at the seams, and Dani, a lower-class girl whose whole life has been a con, gets swept up in the winds of rebellion.

Mejia is switching the POV for We Unleash the Merciless Storm, to Dani’s segunda, Carmen. I’m looking forward to seeing inside Carmen’s head and the way she operates. Given where things left off, she’s got a rough road ahead of her. I’m hoping Mejia will give us even more of the nuanced social commentary, rich interiority, and nail-biting suspense that I so enjoyed in the first book. Book One also turned the stereotype of the YA love triangle utterly on its head, and I’m eager to see where that goes.

 


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).

 

Emma Whitney: What Is It with Us and “Good Royalty”?

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 Emma Whitney!

What Is It with Us and “Good Royalty”?
By Emma Whitney

Girls of Paper and FireNatasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire is a treasure to me. Not because it is a perfect book (is there any such thing as a perfect book?) but because it is the first YA fantasy work I have read in years where the monarchy is clearly the antagonist. There is no “good” monarch waiting in the wings to rescue their people, but instead a whisper of revolution and behind it the knowledge that government structured around a concept of inherent inequality can never offer true freedom.

Why is it that, in YA fantasy literature, we so often write about the “good” monarch? Not that we don’t have bad ones, too. But the answer to a bad monarch usually seems to be a good monarch rather than the dismantling of a system that creates people with such a mass of concentrated power. For every Girls of Paper and Fire, I have seen a mountain of books where the seemingly problematic monarch is “only trying to do what is best” or, if we do have an evil king, the problems will be fixed by returning the “true” queen to the throne. There are a hundred variations on this, but only one story in a hundred seems to take the time to ask if it could maybe be the power structure itself that is creating the fundamental problems.

I know my personal feelings of antipathy towards royalty are particularly strong, and I don’t at all expect that others feel the same way. But I am continually surprised by the prevalence of “good” royalty in—particularly YA—fantasy literature. In this era, where many are focused on fighting for the equality of all, why do we continue to centralize in our writing a system that raises some above others merely by factors of birth and access? Does the presence of “good” monarchy in our stories mean we are longing for a monarchy to lead us?

I don’t think so.

Certainly I think it means we are (at least sometimes) fantasizing about good leaders in general. I think this is a common fantasy. Many “realist” pieces of fiction are indulging in that fantasy. (West Wing, anyone?) But why monarchy? What is it about that crown?

First, I think that we are accustomed to seeing monarchy in fantasy. I think we’ve seen so much of it that those are often the stories that grow in our heads. It is hard to get away from tropes we think of as normal. (Just like internalized misogyny.)

Second is an issue of scope. When someone without significant power has a piece of property stolen the story might be a mystery, a revenge story, or maybe a minor adventure. The theft may encompass their whole world but doesn’t expand to affect many others beyond their immediate circle. When that same thing happens to a monarch? Suddenly it becomes important to whole kingdoms, realms, worlds. Sometimes drama feels more meaningful when it has these expansive implications. It amps up the tension a hundredfold. If our heroes fail, the nation may fall or the world may end. (By the way, this is the same effect you get with a chosen-one story.)

Third is access. People with power have access that isn’t available to people without power. It’s why there are more millionaire superheroes than superheroes with student debt. Millionaires (and billionaires) can create the access they need to build freaking spaceships. And in the same vein, royalty often has easily substantiated access to armor and weapons, magical histories and relics. They do not have to worry about the family farm when they go on an adventure; they have retainers and servants for that.

But we know that your characters don’t need to have access, don’t need to be in control of the world they’re trying to save, to create an enthralling story. We have The Fifth Season, The Diviners, Texas Gothic. Stories where, while people may have the power to control earth or to commune with spirits, they don’t have power over other people. So why in high fantasy do we so often default to royalty?

We seem to love the story of the struggle to be a “good monarch.”

We have it in television (The Dragon Prince, She-Ra) and in comics (Sailor Moon), and in books (The Goblin Emperor, The Wrath and The Dawn, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga). Kate Elliot has done it and Patricia C. Wrede has done it and literally everyone who has ever had a go at writing about King Arthur has done it. But could you really have a monarch that is truly “good”?

Personally, I believe that the answer is no. Not without completely redefining the term. Not without letting “good” include a vast amount of systemic inequality. You cannot remake a system for true parity without undoing the structure that maintains a person or persons at the top, above their subjects. Monarchs, as we define the term colloquially, are people who live in a palace, who have resources that others do not, who take on the burden of final decisions when their main claim to the position is their birth, not their study, and if from their study, so often due to access available to the rich that is absolutely inaccessible to the people they supposedly protect. Good monarchs often “do the hard thing for their people’s good.” It is, regardless of the monarch’s gender, the ultimate paternal figure who sacrifices his daughters to save them from an evil greater than death. When the monarch “has to do a thing” to keep their country safe, why do we not question the power structure?

I’ve been watching The Dragon Prince. Besides being beautifully drawn and well written, it is generally a comfortably, and sometimes forcefully, liberal show. It explicitly prioritizes understanding and community over the slaying of any great enemy. It is one of the most diverse fantasy stories ever animated for a major platform (no shock as it comes from the people who created Avatar and The Legend of Korra). But why, in the midst of all this progressive storyline, do we still have Ezran held up as an idyllic “good king” who might save them all? Because when you really come down to it, a predominant factor in conflicts like this is the rulers. It was not the villagers of Katolis and the other human kingdoms who went to war against Xadia; it was people who wanted consolidated power.

Am I saying that every fantasy monarch is evil? I have to admit that my urge to say yes is strong, but no. It’s fantasy, after all. In a fantasy land anything is possible, including a ruler who truly is the protector and champion of their people. I still adore your classical Arthur (against all common sense), because in so many of the stories he is just trying to make a better life for everyone. I still cry when Boromir dies in Aragorn’s arms (and okay, if I’m spoiling that I don’t know what to tell you). But I believe that the vision of a “good monarch” is more fantastic than the possibility of dragons. (How is Archaeopteryx not just a small dragon?)

I do not want to discount what representation in the “classic” stories can give us. When I started reading Audrey Coulthurst’s Of Fire and Stars, having a classic princess scenario that I knew promised a queer romance warmed my cranky, bitter heart. I can imagine that is only a small part of the feeling others may get finally seeing a princess of color, a genderqueer princess, a disabled princess, all who lead the charge of their own stories. That warmth, that self-recognition, and empowerment, they are important. I do not want to ask for those stories to disappear.

All I want is to ask why we still tell these stories. Why do we want to relive the “romance” of the Tudors, when we have other history to revere in the shape of women like Dolores Huerta and Sojourner Truth, stories where no one was born to anything, but rather made their own fate?

Stories where someone took back a little piece of the power that had been hoarded by those with all the wealth, not by becoming part of their system, but by helping to fundamentally change it.

Ursula K. Le Guin famously said, “We live in capitalism; its power seems inescapable—so did the divine right of kings.” I feel this to the marrow of me. Why do we continue to write about power that has been consolidated under one person or family when we can fantasize about a world that destroys the oligarchy and offers a vision of a truer equality?

By the way? There’s more to that quote: “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.”


Emma WhitneyEmma Whitney is a math-brained aspiring accountant who would rather be thinking about dragons. She works as an administrative assistant but spends most of her time plotting to overthrow capitalism and making costumes for her niece (who is still a little too young to enjoy them). She currently lives in Portland, Oregon, with her wonderful roommate, an exponentially growing yarn stash, and a robotic dinosaur named Dot.

 

Programming Tips, Tricks, and Frequently Asked Questions

Last week, we posted about how programming works for Sirens—and we highlighted how, each year, our programming is the collective work of our attendees. Regardless of your vocation, your level of experience, or your number of years at Sirens, you have something to say. And we hope that you’ll take a crack at sharing your thoughts and expertise as part of our programming this year!

Today, we have general programming information, how to find help from real people, tips and tricks for proposing programming, and answers to frequently asked questions about our programming process. Here we go!

 

General Information

  • We are accepting proposals from March 16 to May 15. All proposals must be submitted in full, including any supplemental abstracts for panels, by May 15, and all presenters must have “checked in” by following the links in emails that we send out when a main presenter indicates there will be a co-presenter.

  • The Sirens vetting board will make decisions by June 15. All accepted presenters must be registered and paid for Sirens by July 10.

  • We will have four scholarships (a 2020 Sirens registration and round-trip shuttle ticket) available for exemplary programming proposals. We also have one Sabrina Chin “Braver Than You Think” Memorial Scholarship available for a first-time presenter. You can apply for these scholarships as part of the submissions process.

  • You can propose programming in a number of formats: papers or lectures (including as a set of pre-empaneled papers/lectures on a single topic), panels, roundtable discussions, workshops, afternoon classes, or a combination of multiple formats. (Please consult with the programming team before you submit a combination, though!)

  • You are welcome to present with co-presenters, except for roundtables, which may have only a single moderator. Please note that the person submitting the proposal will be our main contact for the proposal (and in the case of a panel, will be the moderator). Again, please make sure that your collaborators are aware that they will need to confirm their participation by May 15—and in the case of panels and pre-empaneled papers, will need to submit a 300–500-word abstract of their own (note that the vetting board will review all abstracts in determining whether to select a proposal).

  • All communication is via email. Please use an email address to which you’ll have access throughout 2020, and that you check regularly.

  • Programming is reviewed and approved by an independent vetting board. All proposals are kept confidential.

  • Additional information can be found in Sirens’s official Call for Proposals.

 

Help from Real People

  • Programming Chats: Have questions? Looking for topic ideas or collaborators? Want some advice on selecting a presentation format? We’re holding two online chats with our programming team. They don’t make the selection decisions, but they’re full of thoughts that might be helpful! Chats will be held here at the following times:

    Sunday, March 22, 1–4 p.m. Eastern (11 a.m.–1 p.m. Pacific)
    Monday, May 4, 9–11 p.m. Eastern (6–8 p.m. Pacific)

  • Free Topics: All through February, March and April, we’ll be tweeting programming topics that are free for you to take, develop, and use in your programming proposal. You might take them as is, you might use them as inspiration, or you might find that they get your brain moving! Follow us on Twitter @sirens_con or check out #SirensBrainstorm.

  • More Questions: Email us! You can contact our programming team at (programming at sirensconference.org). They can’t guarantee your acceptance, but they’re full of helpful advice, and are glad to help you figure out the best format for your proposal, answer questions about the process, and so on.

 

Tips and Tricks

  • Everyone is welcome to propose programming! Sirens is a conference where readers and students present alongside authors and scholars, who present alongside librarians, educators, and publishing professionals. Everyone’s voice is valid, valuable, and necessary to our conversations and our community!

  • Look at past programming schedules. Our vetting board knows what topics have been presented in past years—and you should, too, so you don’t repeat them! New topics, or brand-new takes on old topics, will be considered more favorably. We make all our past programming available in our conference archive.

  • Go beyond introductory topics and analysis. Sirens is over ten years old, and we assure you, most Sirens attendees are well-versed in basic topics like “Reclaiming Fairy Tales” and “What is Diversity?” Push the sophistication of your topic and your analysis further.

  • Consider what type of presentation suits your topic best. We’ll be doing a deeper dive on each of these in the coming weeks, but here’s a preview: papers and lectures are good for experts to convey information or frame an argument; panels are suitable for rigorous debate among experts with differing expertise or opinions; roundtable discussions are great for topics where every audience member will have an opinion or contribution; and workshops and afternoon classes are perfect for hands-on explorations of practical topics.

  • Focus on one or two proposals rather than several. This will help ensure your proposals are well-prepared and well-argued—and will increase their likelihood of acceptance.

  • Choose your co-presenters wisely. We strongly encourage you to seek out co-presenters with a variety of expertise, perspectives, and identities. Differences in expertise can bring additional thoughts and approaches to your work, while different perspectives and identities can enrich discussion and debate over your topic. (Bonus tip: If your topic is for people with complementary expertise to present information, we strongly encourage you to consider a paper or lecture with co-presenters, rather than a panel; the panel format is best suited for discussion and debate among panelists with different perspectives.)

  • Leave enough time to write a thoughtful summary and abstract. Since these descriptions are what the vetting board will judge your proposal on and will determine fellow attendees’ interest in your topic, it behooves you to not wait until the last minute! This is especially true for pre-empaneled papers and panels, where co-presenters must also submit an abstract by May 15.

  • You are not required to present on this year’s theme of villains. Proposal topics must be relevant to Sirens, but do not need to address our theme for this year. Please do be sure that, at minimum, you’ve mentioned how your topic relates to fantasy!

 

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the requirements for being a presenter at Sirens?
The only requirement is that you must be a Sirens attendee, which also means you have to be 18 years old by October 22, 2020. Otherwise, everyone is welcome to propose programming—and if accepted, to present it!

How can I find co-presenters or panelists?
You can tweet @sirens_con or post on the unofficial Sirens Attendees Facebook group. You might also be able to find co-presenters or co-panelists at our programming chats.

How many proposals can I submit?
There is technically no limit, but we recommend focusing on one or two as it usually makes for better-prepared (and better-received) proposals.

Can I change my proposal later?
Before the May 15 deadline, you can submit a correction or contact us to withdraw and resubmit the proposal. Following May 15, however, we will pass your proposal on to the vetting board and you can no longer make changes.

Can I contact the vetting board about my proposal?
Please direct any questions to (programming at sirensconference.org) instead. Vetting board members only review proposals, and we ask them to keep their reviews confidential.

Can I request a specific day and time to present?
The schedule depends on our ability to track presentations by type, theme, and audio-visual needs, so we can’t accommodate schedule preferences. If you have an immovable conflict, such as your grandmother’s 100th birthday party, please write to us at (programming at sirensconference.org).

I have more questions!
We have more answers! Write us at (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim

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 review from Katie Passerotti on Tara Sim’s Scavenge the Stars.

Scavenge the Stars
  • Secret identities.
  • Opulent parties.
  • Tangled secrets.
  • Queernormative.
  • Betrayal.
  • Revenge.

If any of those criteria fit your reading checklist, you don’t want to miss out on Tara Sim’s Scavenge the Stars. This genderbent Count of Monte Cristo retelling is an absolute delight. Meet Amaya and Cayo, two protagonists that couldn’t have led more different lives. Amaya has spent the past seven years working off her parents’ debt on the Brackish and is only weeks away from earning her freedom. Cayo is the son of a wealthy merchant of Moray and spends his time gambling away his father’s wealth in the Vice Sector. But when Amaya rescues a drowning man, her fortunes change, and she’s given the opportunity to take down the man who destroyed her family and forced her into indebted-labor—Kamon Mercado, a dirty businessman and Cayo’s father. As a dangerous plague rips through the city, Amaya and Cayo have to decide where their hearts truly lie and if they are willing to accept the hefty price of revenge.

The Count of Monte CristoThis book was one of my most anticipated reads coming into 2020 and it did not disappoint. Thirty-some pages into the book, I had already decided it was one of my all-time favorites and was scheduling a re-read. The Count of Monte Cristo is my favorite “classic.” I adore the intricate revenge that Edmond Dantès develops along with his single mindedness in seeing it through to the end, no matter the cost.

Sim does the classic Dumas story justice and manages to make it even better because now it’s genderbent and queer.

Both Amaya and Cayo are complex characters that will win you to their side despite the less than perfect decisions they continue to make. I adored Amaya. She takes no prisoners and is willing to see her revenge carried out no matter what, but she’s always worried about those around her and she wants a happy ending. Cayo has all the hallmarks of your typical millionaire playboy, but he’s so much more complex beneath the surface. And when they’re on the page together, these two make a fantastic duo—even if they’re totally scamming each other throughout.

The supporting cast is just as fabulous and diverse, and the main side characters are as fully realized as Amaya and Cayo. My personal favorites are Deadshot (I am such a sucker for a sharpshooter and she is positively DIVINE) and Romara (the deliciously dark daughter of the Slum King who will shank you as soon as smile at you). Sim’s worldbuilding shines in how inclusive it is to people of all skin tones, genders, and sexualities. And perhaps the best part of this is how it’s simply the norm for the world.

None of these topics are causes for animosity or hatred in the world or between characters, making it a safe space for marginalized identities to come and enjoy a swashbuckling story of revenge with just a hint of romance.

On the technical side of things, I can’t write this review without praising Sim’s writing. It’s magnificent. The Count of Monte Cristo is a BEAST of a book and if you’ve read it, give yourself a huge pat on the back. Scavenge the Stars is the pocket edition—it’s taken all the best parts and homed in on them. The pages flew by. I would sit down to read a chapter or two and suddenly I was a hundred pages further and my dog was wondering why I wasn’t getting his dinner ready. Sim trusts her readers to make the connections and unravel the mystery right along with Amaya and Cayo. Her word choice was excellent, and from the first line of “The first thing Silverfish had learned on board the Brackish was how to hold a knife,” (What a fabulous first line!) to the final line of the story, prepare to be swept away. Both Amaya and Cayo have agency, constantly making difficult choices that in the moment seem like the right thing to do but end up causing way more problems than they fix. I love when characters create their own problems, and Amaya and Cayo excel on that front.

Scavenge the Stars is book one in a planned duology and if you’re anything like me, you are going to be demanding book two when you get to the last page. I can’t wait to read the next book—I have theories and questions and I need answers! Scavenge the Stars has gained a place of honor in my heart and on my shelf and I can’t recommend it enough. Happy reading!

 


Katie Passerotti

Katie Passerotti is a writer, teacher, and fangirl. She is obsessed with villains and will probably assist one in taking over the world. When she’s not making diabolical plans, she and her wolfhound are off exploring forests and parks or she’s reading stories about fierce, fantastical girls. Follow her on Twitter @KatjaBookDragon

 

Sirens Programming Comes From Attendee Proposals

Welcome to our annual programming series! In these posts, we’ll give you all the information you’ll need to propose programming for Sirens. We’ll have a post with tips, tricks, and frequently asked questions next week, and we’ll feature a post specific to each type of programming in the following weeks. On March 16, we’ll open our proposals system.

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

Programming, for Sirens, is the dozens of hours of papers, lectures, panels, workshops, roundtables, and afternoon classes that make up the heart of the conference. While a thousand conversations happen at Sirens every year, the true vanguards of those discussions are the brave and brilliant individuals who share their wisdom and expertise as part of our programming. See the archives to find out more about the kinds of topics and discussions that have been presented in the past.

So how does Sirens create its programming?

We don’t create the Sirens programming. You do! We don’t want Sirens to be limited by the interests, knowledge, and networking of our staff, so we invite our attendees — readers, scholars, librarians, authors, and more — to propose programming for our schedule. And each year, dozens of individuals do: they create, craft, propose, and present the lectures, papers, panels, workshops, roundtables, and afternoon classes that become the programming at Sirens.

A special note: We want our programming to represent a broad range of perspectives, experiences, and identities: readers, scholars, librarians, educators, publishing professionals, and authors, of course, but also individuals of different genders, sexualities, races, religions, and abilities. Similarly, we hope that, regardless of your vocation, your level of experience, or how many years you’ve attended Sirens, you’ll take a crack at sharing your thoughts and expertise as part of our programming. All voices matter at Sirens, including yours.

And how does Sirens choose its programming?

Each year, an independent vetting board—a diverse group of tremendous individuals who know and love Sirens—review the proposals for thoughtfulness, relevance, and inclusiveness, and then select which ones to include on that year’s programming schedule.

  • Thoughtfulness: This means the vetting board considers the research, logic, and sophistication of the arguments. Is the proposal well-conceived? Is the proposal well-argued? Is it interesting? Is it innovative?

  • Relevance: Is the topic relevant to Sirens’s overarching topic of gender and fantasy literature? The topic doesn’t need to specifically address the theme of any given year, and doesn’t have to be about gender and fantasy and literature (but if your proposal doesn’t address at least two of the three, you might want to consider how you can make your topic more relevant to the Sirens audience).

  • Inclusiveness: Sirens values diverse perspectives, experiences, and identities. Does your topic address an inclusive selection of literature? Do your co-presenters represent a variety of perspectives, experiences, and identities, whenever possible?

In crafting your presentation, please also consider the following:

  • Audience: You are likely to find your presentation audience composed of voracious, critical readers, as well as accomplished scholars, librarians, educators, authors, and publishing professionals. Further, Sirens attendees tend to be quite experienced in discussing women in fantasy literature, as well as related topics such as feminism, social sciences (and occasionally hard sciences), and writing. Please plan the sophistication and complexity of your proposal accordingly.

  • Repetition of Past Presentation Topics: The vetting board is familiar with programming presented at Sirens in the past, and duplicative topics are often considered less relevant. Please make sure that you have reviewed our archive page before deciding on your topic and that, if you intend to propose a similar topic, you highlight the innovation of your work in your proposal.

How does someone propose programming?

Sirens operates its own proposals system specifically for programming proposals. We’ll open this system on March 16 and close it May 15, which is this year’s deadline for proposals. After May 15, our vetting board goes to work.

Five things are needed for a proposal:

  • Personal information: Your name, contact information, and a third-person biography that we can use on our website and in our program book

  • A summary: 50–100 words about your topic and approach, which we’ll also publish on our website and in our program book (see last year’s summaries for examples)

  • An abstract: 300–500 words explaining your presentation and approach to the vetting board; this should be far more in depth and should demonstrate your research, analysis, and conclusion on the topic

  • Audiovisual requests: Information on your requested audiovisual equipment for your presentation, if any

  • Contact information for any co-presenters: Your co-presenters will then receive an email asking them to provide their personal information and, in the case of panels, a supplemental abstract of 300–500 words demonstrating the perspectives and expertise that they will bring to the panel

So let’s do this!

We know that the proposal process can be intimidating, especially for those new to Sirens. It takes a lot of courage to put your thoughts and analysis out there, first to a review board and then at Sirens itself. But each year, dozens of individuals screw their courage to the proverbial sticking place and, in doing so, make Sirens smarter, more thoughtful, more interesting, and just plain better.

We hope that that will include you this year!

 

The Starless Sea

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 reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

The Starless Sea

A few years ago, I burned through The Night Circus in a day.

I adored Erin Morgenstern’s nighttime world, where glass-shard ruthlessness saves a love story from being sticky sweet. I loved the in-world-game-as-antagonist construct, the wonder of the gameplay transformed into love letters, the lush language. It’s the sort of book I’ve never revisited, for fear of shattering that singular, perfect reading experience.

On December 14, 2019, I started The Starless Sea, Morgenstern’s newest. On January 7, 2020, I finished The Starless Sea. I took so long to read The Starless Sea that it had three boarding passes in it before I was through.

I could make many excuses: work, the holidays, exhaustion, not the right time or the right place—though, please, a plane is always the right place. But let’s get real: I read three books a week. If I’d loved The Starless Sea, or even liked The Starless Sea, I would have finished it in December. The middle of December.

Curioser and curioser.

The Starless Sea is Morgenstern’s paean to readers. To those who love stories. To those who take a book everywhere. It’s about the power of stories—but not stories qua stories, rather the power of stories as given to them by readers.

Every ounce of power in this book—every decision, every act, every love—is clasped in the hands of someone who loves to read books.

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a master’s student in the field of video games, with a focus on video games as storytelling devices. His mother is a fortune teller; his father is absent. He lives, as far as one can tell, a completely unremarkable, issue-free life. He studies video games, teaches his students, spends a lot of time in the library.

As far as Zachary Ezra Rawlins is concerned, his story starts with a book he stumbles across in the library, a very old book, with a chapter about him—and a painted door he encountered, but did not try to open, as a child. But the story is much, much older than that, as Zachary Ezra Rawlins is about to discover. And thus, begins a portal fantasy to end all portal fantasies—if only because it references Narnia, Wonderland, and all the rest. It’s a very self-aware sort of paean.

So Zachary Ezra Rawlins—so sorry to belabor the point of his cumbersome name, but the book does and so, by God, shall I—starts a DaVinci Code-style adventure, following keys and bees and amorphous clues to a party in New York where he meets a woman dressed as Max, King of the Wild Things, and a man in the dark who makes Zachary Ezra Rawlins’s world turn upside down. And unlike the painted door encountered in his youth, adult Zachary stumbles through a new painted door, into a vestibule with an elevator, and down down down to a foyer with a cup that says, inevitably, “Drink Me.” There are also dice. Zachary rolls the dice. You think this means something, and it probably does, but it’s never quite clear.

And so Zachary enters the Harbor, a labyrinthine, library-filled maze of stories in books and stories on ribbons and stories on shrouds and stories in candies and stories whispered in hallways and also cats. Ancient history is hinted at, clues continue to appear, and as a reader, you’re vaguely annoyed—as is Zachary Ezra Rawlins—at being pulled away from all these things to read.

Where the book lost me is exactly where the book should have snatched me up by the throat and held me captive to its wonder and delight.

Interspersed with chapters about Zachary Ezra Rawlins and his floundering quest to, ultimately, save the Harbor (this is not a spoiler because, in a world populated with supreme knowledge of both Narnia and Wonderland, what else would this book be about?) are smatterings of tales. About Time and his love of Fate. About the Moon and the Sun—and their secret meeting at an inn. About the Owl King, or several Owl Kings, sometimes it’s hard to tell. About bees. So many bees.

And as we journey along with Zachary Ezra Rawlins and Max and the man in the dark, of course this is all a single tale: Zachary meets Fate and Time and the Moon and the Owl King. And the bees. And, of course, there’s a happy ending for Zachary and his man in the dark.

But I cared about so very little of it. I wish on a thousand blown dandelions that Morgenstern had told the entire story of Fate and Time and the rest up front, or in larger pieces between her acts, and not in the tiniest of confusing snippets between every two-page chapter of Zachary Ezra Rawlins stumbling through life not dissimilarly to how I stumbled through this book: confused, overwhelmed, and vaguely annoyed. (SPOILER) And when Zachary Ezra Rawlins dies toward the end of the book, by his love’s own hand, I could only think: Thank God. But of course two pages later he’s hanging out with the bees and by the end, there is a happy ending. (END SPOILER)

Ultimately, The Starless Sea drowned under the weight of its own storytelling. Is the pirate a pirate or a metaphor? Is Max a monster or a woman? Why has the inn moved to God-knows-where in the ancient layers of the Harbor? How do you sail a boat through honey? I just…couldn’t.

But I kept reading all the way to the end, lured on by love of The Night Circus and my certainty that surely, surely a woman who loves reading so much as to write a book about the power of readers would have an earth-shattering, starlight-beautiful denouement. But there…wasn’t. The point was the journey, not the mystery or the resolution. The point was the description-laden prose. The pirate-as-metaphors. The exquisite world in the dark by the honeyed, starless sea. The stories on ribbons and shrouds and candies.

In hindsight, what I really wanted was the story of Fate and Time, in this lush world of wonder. In a novella.


By 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.

Autism in Seven of Nine – Mette Ivie Harrison

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 Mette Ivie Harrison!

Autism in Seven of Nine

When I throw my autism diagnosis into a social situation like a bomb, which is apparently the only way I know how to offer it, the most common response is “You can’t be autistic.” I’m too empathetic. I’m too successful. I’m too smart. I’m too, well, normal. But all of that is “masking.” If you were told for so many years that it’s mostly boys who are diagnosed with autism, it turns out this was only because girls weren’t being given attention. Just like women with heart attacks, the symptoms present differently, and that means that a lot of so-called “high-functioning” autistic women are now being diagnosed in our forties and fifties, after we figured out for ourselves why social interaction is so difficult, why we’re accused of being “cold” or “unemotional” or “masculine,” what meltdowns look like for us, and why we’re always apologizing for everything as we’ve been trained to do both as women and as autists.

Traits of autism include:

  • Lack of social reciprocity
  • Repetitious behavior
  • Intense focus on unusual subjects
  • Difficulty with change/rigidity
  • Unusual use of language
  • Blunt honesty
  • Lack of eye contact/facial expression/body language
  • A sense of apartness from the rest of society
  • Sensory issues
  • Difficulty with touch and other intimacy

When I first went in for an official diagnosis, the assessment from the clinician was incredibly painful to read over. Here is what she said of me:

[Mrs. Harrison] described a need for solitude as she can become overstimulated with sounds and smells. She takes earplugs with her everywhere and has always hated perfumes and common cleaning products. She also described a sensitivity to medication, for example, she has tried antidepressants, but experienced vomiting after taking them. She also cannot tolerate Novocain and becomes overly ill with any use of prescription pain medications. Additionally, Mrs. Harrison described a dislike for touch and noted that this can make relationships difficult as she feels she needs a concrete rule for the frequency of things like holding hands or hugging her husband.

Mrs. Harrison demonstrated the following concerns in her social affect:

  • Rapid speech with limited variation in pitch
  • Formal use of words and phrases
  • No response to examiner’s social leads
  • Limited or uncomfortable response to examiner’s comments
  • One-sided conversation
  • Inconsistent eye contact with difficulty modulating with other means of communication
  • Limited range of facial expressions
  • Reduced integration of gesture, gaze and facial expression
  • Reduced demonstration of shared enjoyment
  • Somewhat awkward social response
  • Reduced amount of reciprocal social communication

As I’ve tried to deal with what I now realize is society’s disgust with autism, I’ve recognized a lot of self-hatred in my autistic traits, despite the fact that they are, in fact, what has led to being as successful as I am.

If I didn’t have an intense focus and a lack of interest in social interaction, I wouldn’t have graduated with an MA at age 19 nor would I have gotten a perfect score on the GRE and gone to Princeton for a PhD, where I graduated at age 24. I wouldn’t have been able to manage a writing career with five children in which I’ve published fifteen books since 2002. I wouldn’t be an All-American triathlete.

Part of my self-healing has been going back to my childhood heroes, among them Spock from the original Star Trek series, who is, in my opinion, a hidden depiction of autism. Later in life, I found Seven of Nine, who, whatever the intention was, interacts in the world in a particularly autistic way. I love her characterization, even if I struggle with people who say that she is “learning to be human again.” No.

Seven is already human. Autistic people are human. I am human, and I’m on a quest to make the world accept autism in all its variety as fully and authentically human.

Go back and rewatch any episode with Seven of Nine from Voyager and this time think of someone you know who is autistic. Notice the similarities? Like Spock, Seven seems uncomfortable in her own body. She has an uprightness to her posture, a lack of facial expression other than a minimal curiosity. She doesn’t do Spock’s raised eyebrow, but something more like a tilt of her head. Look at the way she walks, as well. It isn’t very feminine, with much hip sway. She walks in a rather masculine way, which reminds me of the many times I’ve been told to act more feminine in one way or another. I do not understand gender and it seems Seven of Nine does not either.

Notice also how Jeri Ryan holds herself apart from the other actors on screen. When she’s in a scene, she tends to take it over. The camera focuses on her. But it’s rarely a warm, emotional moment. Occasionally, she has something like that with Captain Janeway, but even then it tends to be understated. There’s no hugging, weeping, or other obvious displays of emotion.

Watching her, I feel very much like I’m seeing myself on the screen. I have emotions, but they don’t appear in ways that other people recognize as emotional. I might shake slightly or start to sweat when I’m sad or angry. Other people would shout, and their faces would show emotion. It’s also true that Seven, like me, tends to misread or misunderstand people’s expressions or body language. It could be argued that this is because she’s never had a reason to learn to read that, because she’s connected to the Collective and gets direct information that way. But it’s also a kind of unconscious depiction of autism.

I was surprised at what I thought was an autistic response when Seven tasted food for the first time. I don’t like trying new food (I don’t like surprises in general), but when I do try new food, my first reaction is often a visceral one like Seven’s disgust. Then, perhaps, it moves to an analytical one, where I try to explain to myself how the food tastes. It’s also clear that Seven is struggling to be inside her own body, as I often feel inside of my body. Of course, there’s no way to be outside of her body, but Seven has long seen her body as a tool, a machine, and not as herself. It’s hard for her to stop thinking that way.

Whereas McCoy plays the part of the denigrating human who doubts the autist’s humanity in the original series, B’Elanna Torres, the half-human, half-Klingon engineer, plays that role in Voyager. She presses Seven to express remorse or guilt about her experiences killing others or assimilating them while she was part of the Borg. Seven says “no,” and B’Elanna says, “That’s it? Just no?” Seven asks, “What further answer do you require?” And then she says, “Guilt is irrelevant,” which incenses B’Elanna but from my perspective is just the reality. Guilt will not change what happened when she was a Borg.

Seven says of humans, “You are erratic. Conflicted. Disorganized. Every decision is debated, every action questioned, every individual entitled to their own small opinion. You lack harmony, cohesion, greatness.” I’m reminded of this every time I’ve tried to work with a committee. What Seven says is exactly how I feel about “talking” things over. It’s inefficient, a waste of time. Snap! Can we move to the part where we have a list I can focus on?

As for Seven’s sense of humor, it is also very autistic by my reading. Seven says, “I understand the concept of humor. It may not be apparent, but I am often amused by human behavior.” Seven is outside of normal society, which enables her to see things in some ways more clearly. She also sometimes makes us laugh at ourselves at her acute but quirky realizations, such as when she says, “Love bears a striking similarity to disease. A series of biochemical responses that trigger an emotional cascade impairing normal functioning.”

Seven struggles also with how to be “human.” It seems she wants a rulebook, something that I have often wished for. If you could just explain all the rules to me, then I could follow them. But the rules are always changing, and no one wants to admit they are what they really are, because they make no sense and they’re different for everyone. I love that in one of her first episodes, Seven says to Janeway, “I don’t understand the rules and procedure for this type of social occasion.” The audience laughs because there’s no book on this. Of course there isn’t! But in fact, most of my life has been taken up with trying to create just such a book. That’s what a lot of my writing is, my analysis of how humans interact.

I love the scene where Seven is trying to be social with the other crew members by simply asking them a list of questions, letting them have a very brief response, and then moving on to the next question. If the point of asking questions is to get answers, then she is doing it exactly right. But the point of asking questions in social situations is something else, something far more difficult to explain. There is also a fine irony in the Doctor, who is a holographic computer program and no more human than Seven is, being the one to try to explain humanity to her, because he is apart from it, as well. Being removed actually does make us acute observers. We’re the only ones who can explain the rules because they don’t make sense to us, either.

Being autistic is a wonderful variation in humanness, not something that makes us different or in need of teaching to be human.

Seven learns things, but is she ever less herself? I would argue not. And in the same way, I have no need for a “cure” for autism. I have always lived in the world in this way and I think it’s a good way. I think I have things to teach the rest of you about yourselves, and about me. I think all autists do.

 


Mette Ivie Harrison

Mette Ivie Harrison (she/her) has published numerous YA fantasies, including the award-winning and acclaimed Mira, Mirror, and The Princess and the Hound. In 2014, Harrison began to publish mysteries for adults with Mormon amateur sleuth Linda Wallheim in The Bishop’s Wife. She continues to publish the Linda Wallheim series while also publishing essays on Mormonism and the post-Mormon life on Huffington Post, Religious News Service and Medium. She currently works as fiction editor for The Exponent II. She was diagnosed with autism in January of 2017 and writes about autism.

 

Unsex Me Here: Gender, Power, and Villainy

In Act I, Scene v of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth learns three things in quick succession: that a trio of witches has prophesied her husband’s rise to Thane of Cawdor and later king; that her husband has, as prophesied, already been made Thane of Cawdor; and that the king will visit her house that night. Seeing an opportunity to bring the rest of the prophecy to pass, she—one of literature’s most infamous villains—gives her first great, bloody, fanged speech.

And in that speech, she laments her gender.

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect, and it. Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief.
– Act I, Scene v of Macbeth

Gender and villainy—and relatedly, redemption—is a fraught topic, one full of artificial constraints and defied stereotypes.

In the wake of Lady Macbeth’s yearning to be free of her gender so that she might take the action—killing the king—necessary to feed her ambition, Macbeth progresses, and we come to a tired realization: One of literature’s greatest villains isn’t so villainous at all. She shames her husband into killing the king, but never wields the knife. Her bloody hands are born of framing the guards, not murder. She’s not, frankly, guilty of much more than a bit of nagging and bloodying up some already dead men.

In the absence of her hand in regicide or other dastardly deeds, we can conclude only that Lady Macbeth’s villainy, as it were, is her female ambition, a shocking defiance of societal stereotypes. Women are meant to be silent, not assertive; passive, not dominant; happy as a wife, not yearning to be queen. Lady Macbeth’s villainy is nothing more—or less—than the intersection of her gender and her thus-forbidden aspirations.

For that defiance, Lady Macbeth is punished. And as with so many female villains, her punishment comes in the forcible relinquishment of any power she may have: in Lady Macbeth’s case, her descent into madness, her frantic scrubbing of her outsized guilt from her hands. By the time we reach Act V, her husband, too, is well and truly mad, but his power grows alongside his madness. Note, too, the difference in their deaths: her presumed suicide off-stage contrasts with Macduff’s parading her husband’s severed head around for all to see. His ending is suitable for a great villain; hers is an afterthought, a mere footnote highlighting her apparent irrelevance now that she’s properly lamented her unwomanly ambition. Ah, Shakespeare…


To deconstruct female and nonbinary villainy you must, in many ways, start with male heroism—and the inexorable notion that male heroism is fundamentally based on performative hypermasculinity: physical prowess, superpowers, and future tech that enable physical dominance. In 2019, Sirens examined heroism and what it means for women and nonbinary folks to be heroes in a world where the very definition of “hero” is “illustrious warrior.” The societal construct of heroism was designed for cisgender men, and all too often, the notion of heroism as applied to anyone else is absurdly limiting, frequently available only to white cisgender women with swords—and even then generally requiring passive, sacrificial, or even charitable underpinnings.

Given this gendered dichotomy in heroism, you would be right to expect a similar dichotomy in villainy. As the tests for male heroism tend to be forgiving, rewarding hypermasculinity rather than treating aggression and violence as disqualifying, the tests for male villainy are certainly not as simple as “Have you killed anyone?” or “Do you want to be king?” Male heroes, indeed, have killed someone and they of course want to be king. Instead, the test of male villainy seems to be one of either intent or unfairness/mass harm. Do you intend to be villainous? Or are you just misunderstood? Do you perpetuate harm? The right sort of harm? Certainly, perpetuating the white heteropatriarchy is not the right sort of harm. You begin to see how difficult it is to qualify as male villain….

By contrast, it’s all too easy to for everyone else qualify as a villain. Given that everyone else’s heroism is so limited, and often requires a sacrifice, creating female and nonbinary villainy is often as simple as removing that sacrifice. The test is then not of intent or perpetuating unfairness or mass harm, but rather of defiance or power. Lady Macbeth’s villainy was never truly about nagging or planting knives on the guards—or if you want to get technical, co-conspiracy—but about both her refusal to operate within the boundaries prescribed for women and her active seeking of power.

All of this is, of course, by heteropatriarchal design: the overwhelmingly demanding test for female and nonbinary heroism, the seemingly accidentally but meticulously planned casting of all other women and nonbinary folks as villains, the notion that even women who are too effective at reinforcing gender roles are villainous.

Defiance. Ambition. Power. The three things most dangerous to the heteropatriarchy are conveniently the three things that will inevitably cast a female or nonbinary character as a villain.


Villainy, of course, prompts the question of redemption. Because we live in a world of good versus evil, and because we see ourselves as good, we always want to give evil a choice and a chance: redeem yourself or be vanquished.

But redeem yourself from what?

Presumably from that which made them villains in the first place. So male villains must be redeemed from their malicious intent and perpetuation of mass harm, while female and nonbinary villains must be redeemed from… their defiance, ambition, and power.

When you consider villain stories, redemption is a cisgender male story. In fact, women are raised to believe that they should aspire to be the sort of good woman who convinces an evil man to give up his villainous ways and settle down and, one supposes, just stop with the torture and killings. He gets to choose, this male villain, and as long as he chooses correctly, he is free to go on his merry way, terrible no more.

Female and nonbinary villains do not get to choose. Rather, as with so many things, they are forced: forced to relinquish their power, forced into death or madness, forced to be subjugated by magic or marriage or children. They must be fragile, destructible, shattered. They must be relieved of their defiance, their ambition, and their power. They must be forced back into the constraints of the heteropatriarchy.

Is it any wonder that so many of our villain stories are feminist revenge fantasies?


In 2019, Sirens examined heroes—and found societal constructs of female and nonbinary heroism unrelentingly limiting. We demanded heroism far greater than what we were permitted.

In 2020, Sirens will examine villains—and we will also demand villainy far greater than what we are permitted.

We very much hope you will join us this October.

New Fantasy Books: February 2020

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

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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