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Bring Me Your Monsters!

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 Sami Thomason

There’s nothing I love more than a ruthless heroine unleashing her power, be it through mental gymnastics like Jude in Holly Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy, or sheer force like Rielle and Eliana in Claire Legrand’s Empirium trilogy. Men may call them monsters, but these fiercely capable women show their teeth and claws without hesitating, and I love them for it.

 

The Bone Witch
1. The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

Rin Chupeco, one of Sirens’s 2020 guests of honor, has a brilliant book about a girl who can raise the dead and those foolish enough to stand in her way. The storytelling in this book is fantastic, and as Tea’s journey begins, you can tell that she may become the villain of this story, but she’s such a compelling character that I was on her side anyway.

Wicked Saints
2. Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan

Duncan’s intricate world of saints, heretics, blood magic, and old gods leaps off the page and straight into your subconscious, haunting you long past the last earth-shattering chapter. Seen as a savior by some and a monster by others, gods-blessed cleric Nadya will do anything to save her country for a heretical invasion, including teaming up with a blood mage and the enemy prince. Reylo shippers, this one’s for you, with two powerful teens pulled together by both dark and light forces.

Sawkill Girls
3. Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand

When a ravenous entity preys on the teen girls of the island, Sawkill Rock raises three girls to fight it off: lonely Marion, fiery Zoey, and slippery Val. Uncovering occult secrets and craving intimacy, the Sawkill girls are drawn together despite their differences and past woes. Men and monsters may assume that girls inherently seek the destruction of each other, but Legrand’s horror manifesto claims otherwise, with powerful prose and beautifully wrought characters.

Stepsister
4. Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

A searing dismissal of the typical fairy tale, Stepsister smashes every glass slipper and turns the dust into something entirely new. When Isabelle’s lovely stepsister is crowned queen of France, the village turns against her family, sneering at the “ugly stepsisters,” who stood in Ella’s way by maiming their feet. While Fate and Chance battle over the fate of one bitterly disappointed girl, France is under vicious attack from an evil conqueror. When Isabelle is given the chance to change her fate by collecting the pieces of her broken heart, she becomes more than the envy she wears like a cloak. This book is so earth-shatteringly brilliant that I want every girl who’s ever felt less than herself to read it.

Girls Made of Snow and Glass and Girl, Serpent, Thorn
5. Girls Made of Snow and Glass and Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

Told in alternating perspectives, Girls Made of Snow and Glass follows Mina, a woman with a glass heart, and her eventual stepdaughter, Lynet, a girl made of snow and blood. Desperate to feel love, Mina schemes her way to becoming queen of Whitespring, willing her heart of glass to open for the king and his young daughter, but finding it as cold as the Northern kingdom she now rules. Artificially-made Lynet longs to feel real and escape the shadow of her dead mother, whose image she was created in. When the king pits them against each other, Mina and Lynet will have to learn what love really is, or else destroy each other.

Bashardoust’s new book, Girl, Serpent, Thorn comes out this May and focuses on a princess cursed to be a monster. Not to be missed!

The Cold is in Her Bones
6. The Cold is in Her Bones by Peternelle van Arsdale

Living as a woman in a close-minded town can feel like a constant scream caught in your throat—a feeling Peternelle van Arsdale so beautifully articulates in The Cold is in Her Bones. Based in part off the myth of Medusa, our heroine Milla lives in a world in fear of demons, where she is always chided and constrained by her parents in order to “protect” her. But curses have a funny way of coming around, and when Milla’s only friend is afflicted, her parents’ worst dreams come true as Milla sets off to free her friend, uncovering dark family secrets and truths about the nature of demons and her own power.

Empress of All Seasons
7. Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean

An astonishing competition set in the four seasons, a ruthless emperor, and a brilliant inventor prince, with one girl to undo them all. A yōkai girl discovers her destiny as she enters a competition to become the Empress of her divided nation in this silk-painted story of dreams and nightmares. Think Hunger Games meets mythology!

Not Even Bones
8. Not Even Bones by Rebecca Schaeffer

If you like your YA on the gruesome side, Not Even Bones is definitely up your alley. A bloody, macabre, and masterful take on the supernatural, this book follows Nita, a girl with supernatural abilities who dissects other supernaturals for the black market. When the tables turn and Nita becomes the hunted one, she learns that being monstrous is more than skin deep.

Wilder Girls
9. Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Wilder Girls may have been marketed as “feminist Lord of the Flies,” but I think “young adult Annihilation” would be a more apt tagline. Not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, Wilder Girls is a brutal exploration of how toxicity, real and metaphorical, infects an isolated girls’ boarding school. Power’s gorgeously


Sami ThomasonSami Thomason is the events and marketing coordinator at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. Before that, she got a bachelor’s degree in English Literature at Millsaps College and worked briefly at Walt Disney World (she’s seen some stuff). She runs two book clubs for kids and a book subscription box called Teen’s First. You can find her on Twitter at @SamiSaysRead and Instagram as @sami.says.read.

 

Rin Chupeco’s Favorite SFF Books

Sirens Guest of Honor Rin Chupeco shares a list of favorite science fiction and fantasy works. If you’ve enjoyed Rin’s work, we encourage you to check out these other reads. Take it away, Rin!

 

Gideon the Ninth

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

I cannot stop screaming about this series. Lesbian swordfighting necromancers arguing in space as they explore a haunted house space station is the wildest description I never thought I would want. Muir’s prose is gorgeous, and I have never wanted to paint my face like a skull till I read this book.

The Bear and the Nightingale

Fantasy
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

How breathtaking is this book? A young Russian woman named Vasya who is worth her weight in magic, holding her own against a powerful zealot and the god of winter himself—this is a gorgeous, gorgeous delight.

Uprooted

Science Fiction
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
I don’t know how to even begin to describe this book. It hits all my favorite tropes, from surly cranky broody magician to powerful magical girls who finally understand their own worth.

Magic for Liars

Science Fiction
Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey
It’s a murder mystery at a magical school by a hard-knock private detective who is both seasoned and salty at the same time. I love a lot of Gailey’s works, and they are just fantastic at this.

An Unkindness of Magicians

An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard This is urban fantasy at its best, and this was an amazing read. I am a sucker for magical fighting tournaments and seedy moneyed politics.


 

Rin wrote obscure manuals for complicated computer programs, talked people out of their money at event shows, and did many other terrible things. They now write about ghosts and fantastic worlds but are still sometimes mistaken for a revenant. They are the author of The Girl from the Well and its sequel, The Suffering; The Bone Witch trilogy; The Never Tilting World duology; and the A Hundred Names for Magic series, starting with the first book, Wicked As You Wish. They were born and raised in the Philippines and, or so the legend goes, still haunt that place to this very day. For more information about Rin, please visit their website or their Twitter

The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, in honor of Rin’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Faye Bi on The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco.


The Bone Witch

I’m going to confess: I picked up Rin Chupeco’s The Bone Witch with some trepidation. I had tried reading this YA fantasy before and stopped a few times before filing it away and ultimately restarting. The worldbuilding—freshly un-Eurocentric and inspired by the mythologies of the Middle East and Asia—was, at first, confusing. The novel’s structure demands time and patience, as it flips between short italicized chapters in the present, and longer, more narrative chapters set in the past before the storylines converge. And I’ll tell you upfront: Reading The Bone Witch is, at minimum, a two-book commitment—since the storylines don’t converge in the first book, nor the sequel. You’ll have to wait for the grand finale for that.

But damn, it’s so worth it.

And so, I do you a service because you all need to read these books. In the land of Eight Kingdoms, there are two rules of magic that, if you know them up front, will make the series easier to delve into. First is that magic is gendered in a fascinating and strange way. A chosen few have magic and can control the elements like fire, water, earth, etc. If you’re a girl when this talent is discovered, you are trained as an asha in the capital, where you learn how to wield your magic alongside learning etiquette, dancing, and entertaining heads of state in a diplomatic capacity. If you’re a boy, you’re conscripted into the Deathseeker army. There’s a lot to unpack here, especially through Likh, a trans girl who wishes to become an asha—and who is also one of my faves in this book.

And second, there’s a thing called a heartsglass that people wear around their neck, which is tied to one’s identity in complex ways. If your heartsglass turns silver, it means you have a capacity for magic; you can also give it away to a loved one in an act of romance or safety, but at the risk of that other person having control over you; if you are especially magically talented, you can read other people’s heartsglasses since they will change color depending on their true emotions (and you can tell if they’re lying to you).

Then there’s Tea. We’re introduced to the world of The Bone Witch through Tea’s eyes, and she is only twelve at the beginning, when she inadvertently raises her brother, Fox, from the dead. It’s discovered that Tea is not only an asha, but a dark asha, with magic that allows her to raise and control the dead. And so, Tea is one of two bone witches in the realm, a profession that, despite its importance, is much maligned. Ever since The False Prince used death magic to raise the daeva, monsters that terrorize people every so often, bone witches have done the dirty work to keep them at bay and are tainted with that reputation by association.

The Bone Witch is a painstaking book of set-up. With uneven pacing, we get all the above, plus Tea’s origin story where she’s whisked away to the palace to train as an asha by the only other bone witch, Lady Mykaela. Despite her aptitude, she faces setbacks, including some pranks by fellow ashas-in-training, a training master who hates her, and mounds of backbreaking chores. She reaps chaos by not knowing how to control her power and accidentally raises dead kings and monsters. She catches the eye of the prince and his cranky cousin-slash-bodyguard, and is thrust into the royal court’s political machinations.

The biggest and most satisfying arc in this book is Tea’s relationship with her brother, Fox, where they learn these nice things called healthy boundaries and how to be a family despite the supernatural link between them.

But please, have patience. This is no worse than The Name of the Wind, which many of you have enthusiastically or like me, begrudgingly, read. You can see the schematic of something bigger before you—a cast of characters you will cheer on and love, a thoughtful musing on women rebelling against the roles their society has trapped them into, a descent into villainy (or anti-heroism? Let’s do some more unpacking) when justice is denied with each betrayal, and a girl who learns how to command her power despite the trauma inflicted on her by her peers and foes.

And I’ll just say, I’ll just say. There’s barely a hint of a romance in The Bone Witch. But then you read The Heart Forger and it does things to you and what the heck, Chupeco? How dare you? Must you make me agonize over this slow burn relationship and then smash my heartsglass into a million pieces in The Shadowglass? The seeds of the romance planted in the first book turn out to not only be SUPER SWOONWORTHY but like, really screws you up especially during this quarantine life when your emotions are dialed up to eleven, okay? And that’s just the main couple, there are other relationships that are lovely and meaningful, fantastically queer, and too adorable for words—sometimes all at once.

Just do yourself a favor, and acquire The Heart Forger and The Shadowglass so you have the whole trilogy before you start. You’ll thank me later.


Faye Bi

Faye 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.

Further Reading: Rin Chupeco

Have you already loved the work of Rin Chupeco? The Girl from the Well and The Suffering? The entire Bone Witch trilogy? The Never Tilting Planet? Wicked As You Wish? Are you looking for more? Let us help you! As part of Rin’s Guest of Honor week, we’re pleased to compile some of their interviews and work from around the web.

Rin’s Short Fiction:

Rin’s Interviews::

  • Interview with Enthralled Bookworm (2020): “What I love most about YA, particularly in the SFF genre, is that a lot of issues are frequently discussed there, but…the fact that it’s set in fantastical worlds means readers can have that necessary distance to process real world issues tackled in the book.”

  • Interview with Rin Chupeco, author of The Never Tilting World (2019): “I was in Boracay, an island resort in the Philippines, when the super typhoon Haiyan hit, and it first made landfall there. It was a frightening time; the power was out, all routes out of the island were unavailable, and all communication lines were down, which meant we had no way of contacting friends and family for days. In that time, it felt like the world had shrunk down to just that one tiny island. That experience stuck with me ever since, obviously, so when I thought about writing a book where climate change is the villain, where the world seemed to have decided that the only way for it to survive is to get rid of the parasitical humans on it, this was what I drew from.”

  • Interview with JeanBookNerd (2019): “[…]I’m now in the position to talk to other writers who want to take the same path and tell them that yes, this is a feasible option and that it’s possible, and it’s been gratifying to have people tell me that my books are their incentives to be writers themselves, especially among other Filipinos living in the Philippines!”

  • Interview with Fae Crate (2019): “I think I’m very partial to most of the characters in The Girl from the Well, simply because that book is my first ever baby (I like to joke that it’s my autobiography couched as fiction). That said, Okiku, my ghost girl in that series, and I share similar worldviews, but it’s Tark, the boy unfortunate enough to be haunted by every ghost within his reach, that has my personality and ridiculousness, so he tends to be my favorite.”

  • Who Stokes the Fire: Talking about The Bone Witch and World-Building with Rin Chupeco (2019): “The problem with [writing] hard magic, though, is that you need to make sure your magical system or your world-building answers every problem you might come across while writing the book.”

  • Interview with Rin Chupeco for The Shadowglass Blog Tour (2019): “The Bone Witch came at a difficult, sleep-deprived time in my life. I just had my first son, which was an emotional time. I had a brother I never knew, who died before I was born, and I started wondering about what our relationship would have been like had he lived. It’s how Fox first came to be, who’s sort of an idealized version of the brother I would have liked to have.”

  • Spooky Q&A: Rin Chupeco (2018): “My absolute favorite ghost is the kuchisake-onna—a pretty girl wearing a flu mask who’ll ask you if you think she’s beautiful if you encounter her along a dark road. If you answer wrong (and based on the legend, practically all possible answers are the wrong ones) she removes her mask to reveal a long slitted mouth, and kills you.”

  • Interview with The Witch Snitch (2015): “Living as a writer in the Philippines is a lot different from living as a writer in most first world countries, which is hard enough as it is. Writing fiction here is like making street graffiti—you don’t do it for the money, because there isn’t any, but you do it for everything else that matters. Most writers in Manila were either literary fiction novelists who had hefty contracts with schools to use their books in literature classes, or those who wrote Harlequin-esque romances in the local language. I didn’t want to do either of those.”

  • Filipino YA horror author Rin Chupeco on life and The Girl from the Well (2014): “Okiku kills other murderers. She has the same triggers and sadistic tendencies as in the original. In my book, she goes to different places looking for murderers. Think Sadako with a conscience.”

 

Rin Chupeco: Exclusive Sirens Interview

We’re pleased to bring you the third in our series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor, covering everything from inspirations, influences, and research, to the role of women in fantasy literature, and discussing our 2020 theme of villains! We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Denver this October. Today, Sirens co-chair Amy Tenbrink speaks with author Rin Chupeco.

 

AMY TENBRINK: In your Bone Witch series, you spend 1,500 pages brilliantly deconstructing how society creates a villain of a powerful woman. I would say more, but you already did in Wicked As You Wish, when one of your characters says, “To be a hero, you need a bad guy. And when there are no bad guys available, you wind up forcing that role on something or someone people already irrationally fear. If you need a villain, sometimes all you need is a good long look in the mirror…” Most fantasy literature has villains, much of fantasy literature has female villains, but yours are, frankly, special. What do you hope that your work says about gender and villainy?

Rin Chupeco

RIN CHUPECO: Thank you! When it’s a woman or a nonbinary person who are the villains in my stories, I try my best to give them reasons to be villains—reasons that people understand and sympathize with, even if they might disagree with how they accomplish their objectives. I’m not interested in female or enby lackeys who are simply following orders; I love to present my villains as people who make their decision to defy society not because someone has convinced them to follow some ‘evil’ agenda, but because they themselves had been wronged and are trying to regain their own agency, even if it’s through more despicable means than most would want. It’s easy to write character caricatures. It’s damn hard to humanize villains. It’s easy to disapprove of some of their actions that you might find repulsive. It’s hard to admit that you might do the exact same thing in their place, given the same desperation. That admission from the reader is my goal.

The next step is breaking down why they become villains in the first place. What aspect of society failed them? With Okiku in The Girl from the Well, it was a system that favored men and considered women property. For Tea in The Bone Witch—and I very deliberately wrote Kion as a matriarchal society, to show that just having a kingdom run by women isn’t enough, if it’s also being managed poorly—the series was my version of Ursula Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” where society flourishes but only if one child be kept in perpetual suffering. In my series, it’s Tea who’s that child, except she’s mutinying because she is officially done with everyone else’s crap.

With The Never Tilting World, the villains are actually Odessa’s and Haidee’s mothers who, despite all the foolish decisions they make, do so out of genuine love for their daughters and fear for their safety. The Snow Queen in Wicked as You Wish probably has the most selfish of reasons to be a villain—loneliness—but I also think it’s one that people can relate to the most.

 

AMY: You’ve joked that The Girl from the Well, your first published book, is autobiographical. Surely that’s not just because Japanese office workers used to mistake you for Sadako Yamamura. (“When the [elevator] door would open…you should hear them, ang tataas ng mga boses nila when they scream.”). What about this book, of all your work, feels autobiographical to you?

RIN: The Japanese businessmen weren’t the only ones to mistake me for a ghost; they were just the loudest about it! I’ve been teased about looking like a revenant all my life; they called me Lydia Deetz (from Beetlejuice) in high school, and I have decidedly startled more than a few people at night.

And I think most authors are partial to the first book they’ve ever published. It was, for me. I’m a Chinese-Filipino living in the Philippines, and had very little knowledge back then of how the US publishing industry works. It was an intimidating process, being told you’re at a disadvantage in this business right from the start. There was always that worry at the back of my head that if my debut book didn’t sell as many copies as was needed everyone would consider me a failure and turn down any other future projects I might have. I thought it was my first and possibly final chance.

So I wound up putting a huge chunk of myself into Okiku, and also into Tark. Tark, I think, is a lot like me in real life, and channels a lot of my own fears and hopes. But Okiku was where I put all my rage, and hers felt more potent in those pages, with more far-reaching results, than my anger could ever have in my own life. So it was cathartic. And I look at their relationship as my own struggle with constantly trying to find the balance between her anger and his optimism. My other books are also about angry women screaming defiantly into the void, but there is something I find especially freeing about Okiku’s fury in particular.

 

AMY: So much of your work is built around creating extraordinary trust among your characters: Okiku and Tark (The Girl from the Well), Tea and Fox (The Bone Witch), Tea and Kalen (The Bone Witch), Arjun and Haidee (The Never Tilting World), Tala and the Bandersnatchers (Wicked As You Wish). Conversely, some of the most heartrending moments in your work are born of a lack of trust: Lan and Odessa (The Never Tilting World), Tala and Kay (Wicked As You Wish). Your plots—and in many cases, saving the world—turn on your characters’ ability to, or failure to, trust. What about trust, and trustworthiness, is important to you?

RIN: It’s important for me to show that even the best ones don’t always get it right, and the ups and downs of those relationships is what makes them all the more compelling. The Chosen One in my books are almost always Chosen Ones—I like the idea of a collective of people who can bolster each other’s strengths and counter their flaws. I think it’s a bigger payoff for readers to see characters going through all the different stages in their relationship, to show how they become better for each other. Kalen and Tea’s relationship in The Bone Witch usually gets the most compliments for that, but to understand how they got there I knew that space had to be given to show their initial distrust, including the mistakes they’d committed that made things worse. I think there’s more emotional investment, seeing how they overcome those obstacles and make it the basis for forgiveness and trust. Especially since we know how it feels to trust someone, or break their trust in turn, or have your own broken.

 

AMY: Reading Wicked As You Wish, I could have sworn it was a reaction to the world’s, and especially America’s, politics today—but no, you’ve said that Tala is the first main character you ever wrote, it just took Wicked As You Wish seven years to get its own book deal. Though all your books have spectacular representation of both people of color and queer characters, and frequently non-Western fantasy world settings, all of which are regrettably politicized in far too many ways, Wicked As You Wish is, in many ways because of its modern-day American setting, flagrantly political. White characters refer to half-Filipina Tala as “Mexican”; the jocks attack Alex after finding a picture of him with another boy. ICE features prominently in the first act. Much is made of power and control, including by corporations who patent and manufacture spelltech for consumers. Everything in this book is timely, especially for one that you started the better part of a decade ago. How does it feel to have this book out in the world now?

RIN: Quite frankly, even without taking into account that I had to deal with some resistance over making my protagonist a Filipina instead of a white person, I never actually thought that this book would see the light of day. There’s a lot of criticism there about America as a system, and if there’s a lot of things I’ve learned since then, it’s that a very vocal subset of people in the US would rather throw themselves off a cliff than admit that their democracy has flaws. And that they would resent the fact that I, who am not even a US citizen, should ever be in a position to criticize.

I think few people realize it’s just as much about Filipino politics as it is American, though. There’s a lot of anger in the Philippines still about foreign governments meddling in Filipino affairs, and it explains in part the Philippines’ stagnation after being under different colonizers, which also inspired Avalon’s own stagnation at the start of the book. A lot of the casual racism I wrote was something I’ve gone through myself, both in the Philippines and outside of it. My darker-skinned in-laws have been called Mexicans. I remember people initially avoiding me in college in Manila because they assumed I was Korean and couldn’t speak English. The first time I’d set foot in Las Vegas, a casino staff member very loudly told his fellow worker to “keep the chink away from the machines if they can’t show ID,” assuming I wouldn’t understand them, either. And I remembered thinking, well, I suppose people aren’t so different after all, regardless of where they live. And in my life I’ve also gone from being comfortably off to poor to middle class, so the anti-capitalist stance I’ve taken on is also based on my own experiences.

Immigration has also been a problem in the Philippines since the ’90s, so I thought to emphasize that in the book. We were very much aware of what ICE agents do, long before they hit prominence back in 2016. We’ve got a lot of flaws as a nation, and most Filipinos rather resignedly know this, but the one thing we’ve always taken pride in was that we would never turn away refugees, given our history of having been refugees ourselves. We took in Jewish people during World War II, the Chinese chased out because of the Cultural Revolution (like my grandfather), Vietnamese fleeing the US-Vietnam War, and now Muslim people like the Rohingyas. I think Americans who read the book would see a lot of relevant US issues there, but Filipinos would also associate them as Filipino problems. More proof that we’re not that different after all!

 

AMY: You’ve mentioned that you don’t want to be a hero, that you’ve never imagined yourself as The Chosen One. What about that role doesn’t work for you?

RIN: I write my villains the way I do because I can very easily imagine myself in their shoes. People I’m close to often joke that I’m a lot like Gregory House from House or Alan Shore from Boston Legal. But if I’m to be honest with myself I’d say I would be Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter’s lovechild. I’m a chaotic good-to-neutral paladin, and I don’t care if that gives me penalties. Give me a superpower and I will absolutely be paying back my enemies a billionfold and adding the lamentations of their women into a Spotify playlist. I would get so many jerks in trouble. If someone gave me the ability to punch people through a computer screen I would take out at least a third of Twitter. Many will applaud, because of course I will only be going after the absolute wombats, but sooner or later someone important’s gonna question whether or not I’m wielding far too much power for one enby to handle, and before you can even blink they’ve passed the Superhero Registration Act so now I gotta go fight all the militaries.

Don’t put me in charge of anything. I know my own weaknesses. Let me be a lazybutt.

 

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

RIN: Embarrassingly enough, I had a huge crush on Arwen from Lord of the Rings just because I thought Liv Tyler was hot, and it was the first time teenage me started questioning their sexuality. I’m not even a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings books, but the internet was just a gleam in Al Gore’s eye back then, and I wasn’t sure if there were any series beyond the big titles like it. (It wasn’t until the early 2000s when that other fantasy books aside from LOTR became more prominent in bookstores here.) Ironically enough, it was the movies that made me start thinking about how powerful (and hot) Arwen was, using waterfalls to wash away the nazgûl (which is also a hot move)—and so why was she (being powerful, but also hot) not a part of the Fellowship? And the more I did the research, the more annoyed I got. She doesn’t even have a sword in the books? Her scenes at Helm’s Deep where she fights with the guys were cut from the movie? You’ll give some sentient slow-moving trees a chance at glory, but not the hot elf woman?

And then it snowballed from there. Why does Eowyn feel more like a clever plot twist than actually being portrayed as being worthy as a woman to kill the Witch-king of Angmar? Galadriel could kick everyone’s ass and proved she could resist the temptation of the One Ring, but she’s not on the team and Boromir is?? “Because she’s too powerful” feels less like a concrete explanation and more like an author who was just really committed to making the Fellowship a sausagefest. And that’s when I actually started deliberately searching for fantasy titles that didn’t leave that bitter, unrequited taste in my mouth, and found Tamora Pierce for the first time, which then opened portals into other worlds created by Robin Hobb and Margaret Weiss and Ursula Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones.

So in a very weird, roundabout way, I stumbled into the fantasy genre because I was spiteful about what Arwen could have been in the books and in the movies. And because I was also hot for her. Fate moves in mysterious ways.

 


Rin Chupeco wrote obscure manuals for complicated computer programs, talked people out of their money at event shows, and did many other terrible things. They now write about ghosts and fantastic worlds but are still sometimes mistaken for a revenant. They are the author of The Girl from the Well and its sequel, The Suffering; The Bone Witch trilogy; The Never Tilting World duology; and the A Hundred Names for Magic series, starting with the first book, Wicked As You Wish. They were born and raised in the Philippines and, or so the legend goes, still haunt that place to this very day.

For more information about Rin, please visit their website or their Twitter.

Claiming Fan Spaces: Eliza and Her Monsters, The Princess and the Fangirl, and Slay

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!

In All Rise, CBS’s new courtroom drama, Simone Missick stars as Lola Carmichael, a former prosecutor who, as of the pilot, has just been appointed to the bench. Judge Carmichael is an inspirational role: a black woman searching insistently for justice from a position of power. And in the second episode of All Rise, another powerful black fictional character makes an appearance: One of Carmichael’s long-time friends gifts her with a picture of Carmichael’s hero, Commander Uhura, as played by Nichelle Nichols.

This is not a review of All Rise (well-intentioned, but middling). But that moment—when a primetime network show acknowledges the indelible influence of a powerful black female character from Star Trek on its own powerful black female character—encapsulates what so many have been saying for so long: representation matters. Representation matters in every aspect of our lives, from the boardroom to the newsroom, including, specifically, in the media we consume. Representation matters even—or perhaps especially—in speculative works.

But let’s take that one step further. Judge Carmichael has not, to my knowledge, cosplayed Commander Uhura. But lots of powerful black women have. And as we talk about representation in speculative works, we must—not should, but must—talk about representation in fan spaces.

Over a decade ago, I did my tour of duty in a fandom: as a lawyer, a convention planner, a worker bee and a leader. And I found fan spaces terribly but unsurprisingly reflective of all our other spaces: Even in fandoms populated primarily or even almost exclusively by marginalized folks, white cisgender men (and the white women who enable them) run the show. Celebrity fans—those made famous by, and whose livelihood depends on, fandom—are almost exclusively cisgender male, almost exclusively white, almost exclusively heterosexual, almost exclusively abled and neurotypical. As in so many of our spaces, marginalized folks do the lion’s share of the work, but are ultimately pushed to the side (or even out) in favor of familiar, destructive power structures.

Which is why the three young-adult books I’ve chosen to review this month are so important. Each is about fandom—for a comic, a video game, a movie—and each purposefully makes space for marginalized groups in constructing its fan spaces. You can’t even properly call these works a reclamation because there’s nothing to reclaim; fan spaces never welcomed these groups in the first place. But these works upend that exclusion in brave and thoughtful ways, ways that make readers braver and more thoughtful, too. Representation matters—and it matters in how we talk about and express our love for speculative works.

So let’s get to it.


The Princess and the FangirlAshley Poston’s The Princess and the Fangirl is a glorious, hilarious, romantic romp set at a sci-fi convention. It’s technically a sequel, but truthfully, I read Geekerella so long ago that I can’t remember anything about it other than that it, too, is a glorious, hilarious, romantic romp and…that it included a pumpkin-shaped food truck? At any rate, you don’t need to read one before the other—and unlike Geekerella, The Princess and the Fangirl centers a queer romance—so let’s jump right in.

The movie is Starfield. The con is ExcelsiCon. The character is Princess Amara, who seemingly died in a giant explosion at the end of the most recent movie. Imogen is a Starfield fangirl on a mission to keep Amara, her favorite character, from being deader than a doornail. Jess, who plays Amara and is trying to avoid both pigeonholing and toxic fandom, is hoping like hell that Amara is, in fact, deader than a doornail. In a plot worthy of a heist novel, Imogen and Jess look alike and when the script for the upcoming movie leaks, they have to switch places (I mean, of course they do) in order to find the culprit.

As you decide whether to pick up The Princess and the Fangirl you should know three things. First, it’s a meet-cute book for people that you will love to see meet-cute. Disguised as Imogen, Jess encounters Imogen’s online friend Harper, a smoking hot female fanartist who shows Jess the welcoming, creative community side of fandom. Meanwhile, Imogen-as-Jess spends time with Ethan, Jess’s hot bodyguard. The cast is diverse (Imogen and Jess are white, Harper is black, and Ethan is Japanese-American), the romances are adorable, and the whole thing is a rollicking good time. Second, Poston does a decent deconstruction of fandom. Wrapped up in this fizzy romance are incisive thoughts about fandom itself: who is invited, who is elevated, who is harassed, who is excluded, who must scratch and claw to find the smallest bit of space to celebrate the things they love. Finally, The Princess and the Fangirl is geektastic. The details are a dang delight.

Eliza and Her MonstersNext up is Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia. Unlike The Princess and the Fangirl, which tends toward fun and frolic, Eliza and Her Monsters will break your heart and then patch it back up—and trust me, having read Eliza, you wouldn’t trade that for an unbroken heart. Eliza Mirk is living a double life: her real life, where she’s a shy, awkward girl who doesn’t really have any friends, but does have an awful lot of anxiety; and her online life, where she’s LadyConstellation, creator of Monstrous Sea, an absurdly popular webcomic. Then a dude named Wallace Warland (no kidding), Monstrous Sea’s most popular fanfiction writer, transfers to Eliza’s school. And he and Eliza strike up a tentative friendship, maybe more.

Only thing is, with only a few exceptions, LadyConstellation’s identity is secret. Until it isn’t. When her secret spills and all of Eliza’s carefully constructed boundaries disappear, she falls apart, her anxiety spiraling into panic attacks and suicide ideation.

Eliza and Her Monsters is a beautiful, heart-rending work, a love letter to creators and fans and online friends, a delicate exploration of what it means when the foundations of our worlds crumble—and it feels like the foundations of ourselves have crumbled. It’s about living in a place, perhaps an online place, that feels like your own. It’s about anxiety and selective mutism and feeling adrift. It’s about finding the space you need in order to create the forgiveness you deserve. It is, in a word, lovely.

SlayFinally, in Slay by Brittney Morris, Kiera Johnson is the creator of SLAY, a multiplayer online role-playing card game specifically for black people—half a million black people worldwide as the book opens. Kiera specially built the game with black experiences in mind—you’ll delight at the battle cards—and the game has such a massive-but-secret following that there are code words to say to someone if you want to know if they SLAY. But Kiera’s complication is, like Eliza, that she’s anonymous. Not even her sister knows that she’s the creator, moderator, and queen of SLAY.

Toward the beginning of Slay, a SLAY player kills another over something that happened in the game. Suddenly, Kiera’s baby is out in front of the world—in front of white people who call it racist, in front of black people who say it’s not model behavior—and even her sister and her boyfriend have unwelcome opinions. And then a new player enters the game, and a threatens both SLAY and Kiera—and SLAY itself is on the line.

In addition to Kiera’s escalating problems, Morris writes a host of characters that address contemporary racism: the white guy who asserts reverse racism, Kiera’s white friend who wants Kiera to approve her getting dreads, Kiera’s sister who wants Kiera to behave just a little bit less, and Kiera’s boyfriend who wants her to behave just a little bit more. Slay is a smart, timely deconstruction of what it means to be black, especially in America, premised on a piece of popular culture crafted by and for black people—and specifically questioning what it means for a marginalized group to inhabit an interactive, communal fan space.


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 literary conferences and reads over a hundred books a year. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

A Life in Notable Books: Immersive Worlds with Charismatic, Relatable Characters

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 Kate Larking

In my childhood, I was not much of a reader. It seems so sacrilegious to admit here, to the Sirens community I so love, that I would sit in my grade six classroom reading time and turn more than one page at a time, impatient to make progress like my classmates did through their books but wholly uninterested in the material at hand. A lot of books in the school library felt drab to me, and I would much rather find vivid and colorful illustrations and imagine my own narrative around them than read black ink on white pages.

But my journey into becoming a reader rooted itself in fantasy. When I found fantasy, I found power in words others had written.

Let me take you on a trip through my life with the following stories and how I came back to reading over and over again.

 

Magic Knight Rayearth
1. Magic Knight Rayearth by CLAMP (6 volumes)

I first fell in love with stories blended with illustration. I was an anime junkie recording every episode of Sailor Moon that aired onto blank VHS tapes, and one of the first manga series I fell in love with was Magic Knight Rayearth.

Three young women from three different schools on a class trip to Tokyo Tower are overcome by a bright light and transported to the magical world of Cephiro (or Cefiro, as early manga translations were notorious for inconsistent translations). They have been summoned to save the Pillar, Princess Emeraude, from her abductor, High Priest Zagato, before the world held together by the Pillar’s prayers falls apart. It was the original hopepunk manga full of magical girls, mecha (giant warrior machines), and awakenings for both the young women and the world they had been tasked to save.

And I loved how CLAMP was an all-women collective of creatives.

Dealing with Dragons
2. Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

I found Dealing with Dragons at the very end of the fiction section of my junior high library. The room had an odd configuration so it was on a side back wall, away from most of the other books. But when I saw Cimorene on the cover, staring up at a dragon, her body taut with attitude and vigor, I knew I wanted to read her story. My reading skills were awful, so I didn’t learn how to actually say Cimorene’s name for an embarrassing number of years (I hybridized her name with Cinnamon and Rini from the English translation of Sailor Moon when I read it in my head), but I soldiered on to find a comedic series about a fierce princess, a dragon with a hankering for cherries jubilee, and a subversion of a patriarchal structure for dragon royalty.

The Assassins of Tamurin
3. The Assassins of Tamurin by S. D. Tower

In two years, after a reporter found me through my Livejournal to interview me about this internet craze called Neopets (It’s nostalgia hour, ya’ll), I was asked to write young adult reviews for my local newspaper. I was terrified—after all, my city just hit over one million residents—but I said yes. Since no one was reviewing fantasy or science fiction, the book editor sent those my way as well. And the very first ARC I received was The Assassins of Tamurin (I still have this ARC).

A girl no one wanted or valued starts a quest to simply survive, and becomes embroiled in a complex political controversy so much bigger than she could imagine, set in an empire modeled on Imperial China. With a spy-assassin sisterhood, magical contracts, and hidden heirs, the book had everything a teen could want in a romantic action adventure, despite being marketed to adults. It was also the first book I’d ever read written by a married couple.

When Demons Walk
4. When Demons Walk by Patricia Briggs

After I started reviewing, I wanted to be around books even more, so I got a job at the local library as a page. And in the small (at that time) young adult section, I found this gem totally mislabeled as YA. I snuck it to the checkout desk, hiding the scantily clad protagonist on the cover from my coworkers. (*brrrrring brrrrring* Yes, hello? Teenage Kate? You’re gay.)

Sham is a sorceress and thief, hired to save the very people from whom she steals, from a threat much stronger than them all. The Reeve, Kerim, uses a wheelchair for much of the book, commanding respect from the nobles he governs through more than military prowess. This book hit all sorts of buttons for me, some problematic but nevertheless guilty pleasures, and helped me see a future for myself in writing and crafting stories.

A Fistful of Sky
5. A Fistful of Sky by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

In my final days as a page, I found this book labelled as part of the sci-fi section at the library, and I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did.

The LaZelle family is a magical family, each member suffering a severe illness in their youth that either leaves them with magical powers or dead. All except Gypsum, a magicless character with a mundane life compared to her brothers and sisters. But it is within that mundanity that she emerged as one of the most relatable characters I have ever encountered in a book. Altria, a queer character, gives a manifestation to the slippery process of finding a love, queer or not, and peace that comes with that love, a theme not often found in literature.

Snow White with the Red Hair
6. Snow White with the Red Hair by Sorata Akiduki

Throughout my life, I continued to read manga and watch anime. And I always thought it didn’t count as real reading. As some readers have internalized resentment toward genre, I had managed to internalize a dismissal of manga and anime as a form of narrative one could appropriately indulge in as a writer. That is, until Year 9 at Sirens when I attended V. E. Schwab’s Sirens Studio workshop “Writer as Reader.” She made it very clear that she didn’t always look to books for relief from creative fatigue.

So when my favorite anime started to serialize English manga translations in 2019, I knew I had to have it. In the fairytale adjacent series, Shirayuki is an herbalist in Tanbarun who attracts the attention of the monarch because of her apple red hair. When he demands she become his concubine, Shirayuki nopes the hell out of there and flees to the neighboring kingdom of Clarines where she meets Zen, the second prince of Clarines. Over the course of the story, Shirayuki proves her resourcefulness and strength of character while Prince Zen grows into a true leader with integrity, driven by his heart. And there is love. And a lovable thief. And witty attendants. Because I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Shirayuki moves through life with ambition to become the best she can and faces compromises and conflicts with intelligence and grace. She’s someone who taught me that even when life gets rough, you can keep moving forward.


Kate LarkingDuring the day, Kate Larking works for an independent publisher. In her off hours, between binge-watching anime and leveling-up game characters, she writes speculative fiction for both YA and adult markets. Her queer space opera comic, Crash and Burn, was a multi-year finalist for the Aurora Awards for best English Graphic Novel. She resides in Calgary, AB, with her wife, daughter, and cats.

 

Fonda Lee’s Reading List

Sirens Guest of Honor Fonda Lee shares a list of written works that she’s enjoyed—and that all feature women wielding power. If you enjoy her work, we encourage you to check out these other reads, spanning a variety of subgenres and categories. Take it away, Fonda!

A list of books spanning different genres and categories that I’ve enjoyed and that all feature one thing in common: women wielding power. Sometimes that power is overt; sometimes it’s hidden. Some of these women shape nations and empires; others are simply trying to survive. Some are seen as heroes, others as villains, and some as both.

 

Empire of Sand

Fantasy
Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro

Fantasy
The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by KS Villoso

The Power

Science Fiction
The Power by Naomi Alderman

A Memory Called Empire

Science Fiction
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

The Year of the Witching

Dark Fantasy (upcoming)
The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

Circe

Historical Fantasy
Circe by Madeline Miller

Monstress

Graphic Novel
Monstress by Marjorie Liu

The Lie Tree

Young Adult Fantasy
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

What I Saw and How I Lied

Young Adult Contemporary
What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell

The Memoirs of Cleopatra

Historical Fiction
The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George

The Good Mothers

Non-fiction Crime
The Good Mothers by Alex Perry


 

Fonda Lee writes science fiction and fantasy for adults and teens. She is the author of the Green Bone Saga, beginning with Jade City (Orbit), which won the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, was nominated for the Nebula Award and the Locus Award, and was named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR, Barnes & Noble, Syfy Wire, and others. The second book in the Green Bone Saga, Jade War, released in 2019 to multiple starred reviews. Fonda’s young adult science fiction novels Zeroboxer (Flux), Exo, and Cross Fire (Scholastic), have garnered accolades including being named Junior Library Guild Selection, Andre Norton Award finalist, Oregon Book Award finalist, Oregon Spirit Book Award winner, and YALSA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. In 2018, Fonda gained the distinction of winning the Aurora Award, Canada’s national science fiction and fantasy award, twice in the same year for Best Novel and Best Young Adult Novel. She co-writes the ongoing Sword Master & Shang-Chi comic book for Marvel. Fonda is a former corporate strategist who has worked for or advised a number of Fortune 500 companies. She holds black belts in karate and kung fu, loves action movies, and is an eggs Benedict enthusiast. Born and raised in Canada, she currently resides in Portland, Oregon.

For more information about Fonda, please visit her website or her Twitter.

Jade City by Fonda Lee

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, in honor of Fonda’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Lily Weitzman on Jade City by Fonda Lee.


Jade City

Midway through Jade City, I realized that I felt complete trust in its author to a degree that I had never felt before. I trusted that Fonda Lee knew her world, from its geopolitics to its cuisine. I trusted that she knew her characters, how they would act and react, and where they would clash. I trusted that she knew her craft, that she knew how to spin character, setting, and conflict into the thread of the story. And that the story would be moving but never manipulating—that any triumph or heartbreak I felt for these characters would be thoroughly earned.

None of this trust was misplaced. Jade City, the first entry in the Green Bone Saga, is a masterclass in crafting an epic fantasy that resonates on personal and thematic levels.

On the island of Kekon, Green Bone warriors train in the use of jade. The island’s culture is entwined with this magical jade, which heightens strength and senses. Green Bone clans are integral parts of society, from their head families, to the Fists and Fingers who fight for them, to the lantern men whose businesses are pledged in their service.

In the No Peak Clan, leadership has recently passed to the patriarch’s grandson, the new Pillar Kaul Lan. Lan’s fiery brother, Hilo, is at his right hand; his sister Shae is just returning to Kekon after years abroad, determined to live her life outside the clan. But the Mountain Clan is moving to challenge No Peak, and a new drug is letting others use jade with no regard for Kekonese traditions and training. Now the Kaul siblings must figure out how to steer their clan forward in a changing world.

The magical jade itself is fodder for rich characterization and thrilling fight choreography as the Green Bones of No Peak use their training to fight for their clan. Adopted Kaul cousin Anden is finishing his own training to become a Green Bone. He and his classmates build jade tolerance and learn how to harness disciplines like Strength, Perception, and Lightness. Yet Anden worries about his high sensitivity to jade, which makes him powerful but potentially susceptible to overexposure.

In addition to its jade-enhanced martial arts, Jade City has all the elements I enjoy in gangster stories, from the strategizing to the family saga. Yet it is self-aware enough not to fall into the casual sexism and erasure of women that are so common in that genre. Kekon isn’t free from sexism, but Lee examines it and features women characters who claim their agency. It’s refreshing to read a gangster story that reframes the genre and addresses its problematic elements.

With pre-industrial Europe still a default epic fantasy setting, it is also refreshing to read a secondary-world fantasy that takes place in an Asian-inspired setting, and also in a relatively modern one. Characters in Jade City drive cars, they talk on the phone, they work in factories. The magic and the modernity exist side by side, and neither feels out of place. In fact, with the way jade and Green Bone clans structure society, they make sense together.

One reason Jade City works so well is that Lee knows her world on both large and small scales. So much of the tension at the core of gangster family sagas comes from the clash of the familial sphere with ruthless, violent business. These characters carry the baggage of lifelong sibling dynamics as they calculate their next move in clan business. They reckon with their relationships to Kekonese tradition even as times change and international politics loom ever larger over their small island.

The craft of Jade City is not limited to the more technical aspects of its prose and world-building. This book is emotionally resonant: I felt deeply for these characters, whether my heart was breaking for them or I was raging at them. For a slow reader like me, Jade City was a gradual immersion into Kekon’s culture and history. As more of the world and the characters were revealed, my investment in the story grew stronger. This is equally true of the sequel, Jade War, which expands the geographic and cultural scope of the storytelling. I look forward to how Lee concludes the series, and I trust that she will steer her world and her characters where they need to go.


Lily Weitzman

Lily Weitzman is a programming, outreach, and communications librarian at the Public Library of Brookline, Massachusetts. That means that on any given day, she might be found leading a poetry reading group, managing the science fiction and fantasy collections, teaching technology skills, or helping you find the title of that book you heard about on public radio. She has previously worked on a Yiddish oral history project and volunteered as an aquarium educator. Outside the library, Lily chairs the Yiddish Committee at Boston Workers Circle.

Further Reading: Fonda Lee

Have you already loved the work of Fonda Lee? Jade City and Jade War? Exo and Cross Fire? Zeroboxer? Are you looking for more? Let us help you! As part of Fonda’s Guest of Honor week, we’re pleased to compile some of her interviews and work from around the web.

Fonda’s Guest Posts:

Fonda’s Interviews:

  • Fonda Lee: When the Alien Invaders Win (2018): “My dad takes credit for introducing me to SF. He says when I was an infant he’d hold me on his lap in this battered yellow rocking chair, and bathe me in the glow of Star Trek original series reruns, so I must’ve been osmosing science fiction stories as a baby.”

  • Interview: Fonda Lee (2018): “I’m very interested in creating worlds that feel as though they’ve been around for a long time and are now on the cusp of another chapter in history.”

  • Portland author Fonda Lee builds worlds that give readers ‘things to think about’ (2018): “All alien stories are fundamentally human stories.”

  • Author Interview: Fonda Lee (2017): “To me, there are two equally wrong-headed extremes when it comes to portraying women in a testosterone-dominated culture, fictional or not. One is to ignore or marginalize them completely. The other is to pretend that there is no systemic prejudice and to make them every bit as prevalent and accepted as the men. Both are unrealistic.”

  • Michelle Rial and Fonda Lee: “I find it frustrating that people feel compelled to draw judgmental distinctions between “high art” and “commercial art.” Of course, there are differing objectives and audiences for different types of art, but I think that as creatives, we’re all just trying to express our own truth.”

Fonda’s Short Fiction:

  • “I (28M) created a deepfake girlfriend and now my parents think we’re getting married” (2019): “I filled out some information about myself, put in my preferences for gender and age, and in seconds I had an AI-generated virtual girlfriend named ‘Ivy.’ ”

  • “Welcome to the Legion of Six” (2019): “Call it idealism if you will, but when I joined the Legion of Six at the height of the Cold War, we really believed we had a calling. A solemn responsibility to use our powers to save the world from destruction. You know what? I think it’s just not the same for young superhumans these days.”

  • “Universal Print”: “Art Strung stared at the grounded vessel, then turned in a slow, disbelieving circle. The afternoon Thedesian sun beat down on the scrubby, arid landscape: dusty, rolling purple hills dotted with copses of bushy blackish-green trees, and in the distance, piled rock formations that made Art think of enormous heaps of animal dung. I’m screwed, Strung decided. I am so going to be fired.

  •  

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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