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Rine Karr’s Recommended Reading on a Theme of Dragons

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

If I had to choose one mythological creature to read about solely until the end of my days, I would choose dragons. Magnificent dragons—they appear in the folklore of many of the world’s cultures, both as fire-breathing monsters and revered serpentine beasts. I think that’s why dragons are so fascinating to so many people. Where did the idea of the dragon first come from? And why did it appear in the first place? Dragons have stirred the imagination of countless generations, and if you’re like me and you want to read more stories about them, here’s a list of some of my favorite dragon novels and novellas.

 

Dragon's Milk
1. Dragon’s Milk (Dragon Chronicles #1) by Susan Fletcher
An oldie but goodie, Dragon’s Milk may be the first book I ever read that contained dragons and was written by a woman. The main character, Kaeldra—who I’d like to dub the Mother of Dragons long before this title and its respective Queen even existed—must find a dragon mother and bring back some of the dragon’s milk in order to save her sister, Lyf. But when the dragon mother is killed, Kaeldra suddenly finds herself acting as the adopted mother to three wee draclings.
Dealing with Dragons
2. Dealing with Dragons (Enchanged Forest Chronicles #1) by Patricia C. Wrede
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles are some of my sister’s favorite books, not mine; however, I decided to include this book on this list because it is truly iconic. Princess Cimorene may be a bit of a “not like other girls” trope, but her headstrong nature, tomboyishness, and the fact that she’s not a princess who needs saving makes her story an excellent choice for young girls (and boys and everyone really), particularly if said girls like fairy tales, and, of course, a talking dragon named Kazul.
Tehanu
3. Tehanu (Earthsea Cycle #4) by Ursula K. Le Guin
No list of books about dragons is complete without including the Earthsea Cycle. Some might’ve cited the series’ namesake—A Wizard of Earthsea—on this list, but it’s not my favorite of the six. Tehanu, which shifts the focus of the story of Earthsea from that of its self-styled heroic male wizards to its just as powerful but often overlooked magical women, is my favorite of the cycle. Tenar stole my heart when she was a naive little girl in The Tombs of Atuan. In Tehanu, however, Tenar is a confident adult woman who readers can’t help but respect and adore.
Seraphina
4. Seraphina (Seraphina #1) by Rachel Hartman
In Seraphina’s world, dragons transform into humans in order to keep the peace between the two species. Unfortunately, the kingdom of Goredd is far from idyllic, and the two sides in this tale don’t get along. Seraphina can walk this divide for reasons I can’t reveal, and she must do so in order to solve a murder alongside the shrewd Prince Lucian Kigg, a character who reminded me of Char from Ella Enchanted.
The Last Namsara
5. The Last Namsara (Iskari #1) by by Kristen Ciccarelli
This is a story of a girl not allowed to tell stories. This is a story of a girl who broke the rules. This is a story of a girl learning to be true to herself. The story of Asha—dragon slayer and Iskari—mirrors the author’s own story. Of how when Ciccarelli grew up, she was led to believe that storytelling was no longer an activity for adults. Until she realized that this was simply not true and wrote The Last Namsara, a book that I love with all my heart.
In the Vanishers' Palace
6. In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard
Beauty and the Beast meets—at least in my mind—Spirited Away. That’s how I would describe this novella. Which is a gem! With an all-Vietnamese cast of characters, a sapphic relationship, a magical palace, a post-apocalyptic and post-colonial setting, and a dragon (of course), there’s a lot to unearth in this shorter tale. There’s even a library that I pictured à la Disney’s 1991 Beauty and the Beast, but it’s even better in this book, although I won’t reveal why here.
The Priory of the Orange Tree
7. The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
As the longest book on this list at a hefty 827 pages, I beg you: do not let the size of The Priory intimidate you. If you like high fantasy in the same vein as A Game of Thrones, but you’re looking for something more feminist, more LGBTQ+, and more diverse, then you’ll love The Priory. Written from four points of view and set in a sort of East–West dichotomy world, The Priory tells the story of Ead, Tané, Loth, and Niclays, and how each of these characters and the people around them respond to an ancient enemy threatening to destroy them all. Oh, and there are dragon riders!
Shatter the Sky
8. Shatter the Sky (Shatter the Sky #1) by Rebecca Kim Wells
Maren’s girlfriend, Kaia, is abducted by the Aurati. Maren loves Kaia, so to save her, Maren decides to leave her home, steal one of the emperor’s prized dragons, and storm the impenetrable Aurati stronghold. Enough said! I’m sold! This is a fun read for anyone looking for stories with dragons and bisexual representation.

Rine KarrRine Karr is a writer and aspiring novelist by moonlight and a copy editor by daylight, with a background in anthropology/archaeology, international human rights, and Buddhist studies/art history. When Rine is not writing or otherwise working, she can be most often found reading books and drinking tea. She also loves to travel, and her heart is located somewhere between Hong Kong and London, although Rine currently lives in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains with her partner. She’s also currently—and almost always—in the midst of writing a novel.

 

Sirens Newsletter – Volume 12, Issue 5 (May 2020)

This month:

The days here in the Northern Hemisphere are growing longer, stretching toward summer, and we hope that your world is growing a little brighter as they do. Our thoughts have been reaching out to all our friends, and we hope that we can all share some joy, even at a distance, through our love of fantasy fiction and the amazing people creating it.

Sirens Chats

And speaking of reaching out – we’re utterly delighted with how many of you have taken part in our Sirens Zoom Chats over the past month! It’s been wonderful to touch base, hear how you’re holding up, share some cheer, and trade new reading recommendations. Our next Zoom chat will be 8:00-9:30 p.m. Eastern Time (5:00-6:30 p.m. Pacific Time) on Saturday, June 6, and we’ll share news about more regional chats as they are arranged. If you haven’t been receiving our emails about these online events, send us a message at help at sirensconference.org, and we’ll make sure you’re added to the list!

We also have another Twitter chat coming up on Wednesday, June 3 at 8 p.m. Eastern Time. Follow the hashtag #SirensChat to participate, answer questions, and just generally geek out! This month’s theme celebrates fashion in fantasy and science fiction, so whether your preferred style is apocalypse chic or ethereal opulence, come share your sartorial opinions.

 

Guest of Honor Weeks: Dr. Kinitra Brooks and Sarah Gailey

Our celebration of our 2020 Guests of Honor continued this month with spotlights on Dr. Kinitra Brooks and Sarah Gailey! Dr. Kinitra Brooks is a lauded scholar of popular culture, specializing in black feminist theory and genre fiction, and Sarah Gailey is a Hugo Award winner and bestselling author of fiction and nonfiction. We’re tremendously excited to welcome them both to Sirens and introduce them to you!

Dr. Kinitra Brooks:

  • Kinitra’s Sirens interview discusses her work in black feminist theory and her celebration of black women writing genre fiction as a way of challenging societal assumptions.
  • Begin your exploration of Searching for Sycorax with Alyssa Collins’s review.
  • Kinitra supplies a list of novels, short stories, and nonfiction by marginalized authors to augment your TBR pile.
  • Dive deeper into Kinitra’s rigorous and insightful scholarship with her articles, essays, lectures, and interviews available online.

Sarah Gailey:

And with that, we have introduced all of this year’s Guests of Honor! We cannot wait to hear their keynote speeches and share their brilliance with the whole Sirens community.

 

Books!

It’s about to be summer reading season! On beach or in cabin, on the reopening roads or still safe at home, we offer tales of wonder and wandering to keep your imagination immersed and engaged.

Book Recommendations and Reviews:

And here are a few staff picks from May’s new releases:

The Thirty Names of Night

Erynn’s Pick: The Thirty Names of Night, Zeyn Joukhadar

Nadir is a closeted trans boy who has spent the last five years since the mysterious death of his ornithologist mother cloistered in his apartment caretaking for his grandmother. Shame and grief have cut off his ties to everyone he cares about. He finds freedom at night painting murals in Little Syria. Strange occurrences with birds bring back ghosts real and personal. When he discovers the journal of another Syrian artist who died 60 years before, the magic and secrets of his community, family, and self start to come out to the light. Written in the same beautiful prose as The Map of Salt and Stars, this is a story of art, the power of naming, and rediscovering magic after loss.

Rule

Cass’s Pick: Rule, by Rowenna Miller

I’ve loved this series since the start. It had me at “magical seamstress,” and it captivated me further with “sociopolitical upheaval in the fashion of eighteenth-century France and England.” Though set in an imagined secondary world, Miller’s Unraveled Kingdom series examines issues all too relevant to our own reality. Sophie begins her story as a woman leveraging her magical talents for economic gain, trying to beat a system that’s stacked against her. Falling in love with crown prince Theodor, however, places her at the epicenter of a rapidly changing world. In Rule, the civil war that she and her love have been trying to avert will break into open conflict. I can’t wait to find out how Sophie uses her charms and her wits to aid the Reformist cause and, hopefully, find some kind of victory for herself and all the people she cares about.

 


Onward into June!

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).

 

Sarah Gailey’s Book List with Four Words on Each

Sirens Guest of Honor Sarah Gailey shares a recommended reading list, with four descriptors for each. If you enjoy Sarah’s work, or you want a recommended reading list of exceptional works, this list is for you. Take it away, Sarah!

 

To Be Taught, If Fortunate

To Be Taught, If Fortunate
by Becky Chambers

beautiful
hopeful
honest
tender

The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian
by Han Kang

intense
harrowing
scathing
brutal

The Need

The Need
by Helen Phillips

gripping
dark
furious
surprising

Sisters of the Vast Black

Sisters of the Vast Black
by Lina Rather

unflinching
kind
confrontational
sweet

The Prince and the Dressmaker

The Prince and the Dressmaker
by Jen Wang

lovely
aching
immersive
perfect

An Unkindness of Ghosts

An Unkindness of Ghosts
by Rivers Solomon

cutthroat
direct
relentless
brilliant

The Only Harmless Great Thing

The Only Harmless Great Thing
by Brooke Bolander

furious
dazzling
ambitious
satisfying


Sarah Gailey

Hugo Award winner and bestselling author Sarah Gailey is an internationally published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Their nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe, and they won a Hugo award for Best Fan Writer. Their most recent fiction credits include Vice and The Atlantic. Their debut novella, River of Teeth, was a 2018 Hugo and Nebula award finalist. Their bestselling adult novel debut, Magic for Liars, was published in 2019; their latest novella, Upright Women Wanted, was published in February 2020. Their young adult novel debut, When We Were Magic, came out in March 2020.

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

Two Perspectives on Heists, Hippos, and the Harriet

In honor of Sarah Gailey’s Guest of Honor week at Sirens, today not one, but two members of the Sirens Review Squad tackle American Hippo, the collection volume that includes novellas River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow, as well as two shorter works. The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers who submit reviews of speculative works by women or nonbinary authors that they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review, please email us!


River of Teeth

HALLIE TIBBETTS

Before I read River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey, I believed I knew the following facts about hippos:

  1. There is a hippo named Fiona, who lives in a zoo somewhere, that people like a lot.

  2. Hippos eat a lot and poop a lot. In fact, they are champion poopers and thus need quite a bit of personal space.

  3. Hippos can’t jump.

  4. Hippos can kill people if you bother them. If you are farming reeds and pomegranates for the pharaoh, they might kill you even if you don’t bother them, because they’re upset that you’re not sharing or something. (I learned this from a video game.)

  5. There is a game called Hungry Hungry Hippos. Perhaps you have played it.

  6. Pretending you are playing Hungry Hungry Hippos is one way to complete a chore commonly known as “vacuuming.”

The idea for River of Teeth comes from a little-known but verifiable fact: At one time, the United States needed meat and considered hippo ranching in Louisiana. Yes, raising those dangerous, enormous beasts to grace our plates. Imagine it: a hippopotamus porterhouse with all the sides. Some of the largest beef porterhouses are 40 ounces, or 1.134 kilograms for the metric folks. Now, all things won’t be equal, but if an average steer weighs about 750 pounds (340 kg), and an average male hippo weighs about 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg), your server would be bringing you a porterhouse coming in just under 11 pounds, or about 5 kilograms. So of course this incredible excess might have seemed like an excellent enterprise to carnivorous folk.

In the end, the hippo did not enter the pantheon of sounds we make during a rousing performance of “Old MacDonald.”

But River of Teeth imagines they did—and that some hippos escaped their fate to infest part of the lower Mississippi, and went feral between the boundary of an upstream dam and a downstream gate. Our story begins when a group of hoppers—think cowhand, perhaps a term for anyone who can ride a domesticated hippo—is tasked by leader Winslow Houndstooth, who’s been contracted by the federal government, to get the feral hippos past the confining gate and out into the Gulf.

And this (very diverse) group of hoppers is wild. They’ve got skills ranging from thievery to explosives to murder. There is absolutely no question about the grayness of these morally gray characters, and nearly all whom they meet, as they lie, cheat, con, and otherwise go about the business of a feral hippo drive. (There will be violence, and it will be explicit.) It’s refreshing to encounter intriguing characters who are more intense and complicated than lovable rogues with hearts of gold, but who act in ways consistent and logical.

Another delightful aspect of River of Teeth is its specific way of incorporating history. There’s a sense of the stretch pre- and post-Civil War when this could have happened, and enough details for the reader to fill in the worldbuilding without overexplaining in this novella. Of course there would be steamboats hosting gamblers in hippo-infested waters; of course your local watering hole would need an actual watering hole for hippo storage instead of a hitching post.

Finally, this fast-paced read stands alone, but leads into a related novella and short stories—and no spoilers, but if you’re the sort of reader who, like me, ever enjoyed letting Godzilla loose in SimCity and is entertained by the speculative destruction in movies like Volcano (1997) or San Andreas (2015), there is satisfying chaos in store.

With hippos.


KAREN BAILEY

Sarah Gailey’s American Hippo gathers all of their stories (two novellas and two short stories) about an alternate version of the American West where hippo ranches line rivers and feral hippos roam the Mississippi River.

These stories are quirky, violent capers with a dangerous cast of characters—and that is just talking about the hippos!

The stories are based around the real proposition made in 1910 to import hippopotamuses from Africa to the Gulf Coast of the United States and raise them as a source of meat. While in reality, the scheme never came to fruition, Gailey moved the beginnings of the scheme back to 1857 and set their stories in the late 1800s. In this alternate history, the United States government dammed up a section of the Mississippi River in Louisiana to create more land for hippo ranching. Eventually, this section of the river, known as the “Harriet,” transformed itself from orderly hippo ranches to dangerous real estate filled with feral hippos and unsavory people.

It is in this world that Gailey’s work takes place. The first novella, River of Teeth, introduces Winslow Remington Houndstooth (with hippo Ruby). He is a former hippo rancher-turned-thief, who has accepted a commission from the United States government to rid the Harriet of the feral hippos. He gathers together demolitions expert Hero Shackleby (with hippo Abigail), con artist Regina “Archie” Archambault (with hippo Rosa), and mercenary Adelia Reyes (with hippos Zahra and Stasia). On the surface, this seems like an odd combination of people to gather to rid an area of feral hippos. However, ridding the Harriet of feral hippos is not Houndstooth’s only objective; rather, he plans to use the commission to strike a blow at corrupt businessman Travers. Travers runs a series of riverboats and he rules those with absolute authority: If you are caught cheating, you will be immediately thrown to the feral hippos in the river. We also find out that Travers had Houndstooth’s hippo ranch burned down, leaving him with nothing but debt and one baby hippo.

River of Teeth is a fast-paced, fun, and gory heist story with a twist of revenge.

There is a fair amount of violence and not just from encounters with feral hippos. Houndstooth and company are all willing to do whatever they have to do to protect themselves. It is fascinating to see their relationships grow through the story. While Hero, Archie, and Adelia originally agree to join Houndstooth’s crew for mostly monetary reasons, their focus changes throughout the story and that change is one of the most satisfying aspects of Gailey’s work. The ending of River of Teeth wraps up enough to feel finished, but also leaves the door open for the next installment.

Taste of Marrow, the second novella of the collection, deals with the aftermath of the events in River of Teeth and has a much more somber feel. The group has been separated. Adelia and Hero are dealing with the aftermath of Hero’s injuries, the birth of Adelia’s daughter, and the bounty on Adelia’s head. Houndstooth is desperately trying to find Hero, while Archie is trying to keep Houndstooth alive and preferably clear-headed. This story shows a different view of the characters. While they were focused on money and revenge in the first story, now they are focused on reuniting with each other and eliminating the obstacles that prevent that reunion. It’s a messy, difficult journey that shows the challenges they face to continue to grow into a family. It’s hard for a bunch of people who are borderline criminals to have a relaxing retirement, but the ending does hint that this might be possible.

The two short stories included in American Hippo are much more light-hearted than either River of Teeth or Taste of Marrow, and expand on two incidents that are mentioned in the novellas. In “Worth Her Weight in Gold,” Houndstooth’s baby hippo has grown up into his mount Ruby. She is an ornery, vain hippo who would just as soon chomp on you as look at you, but she loves Houndstooth and he loves her. However, when he is on a job, Houndstooth isn’t always as careful about Ruby’s tooth care as he should be. It is a quick read, but it shows just how much Houndstooth loves Ruby and exactly what he will give up for her health and happiness. It also gives us a close-up view of Ruby’s personality, which is a delightful mix of charm and chomping.

“Nine and a Half” tells the story of a job that Houndstooth and Archie pull together when they meet U.S. Marshal Gran Carter. It also answers the ongoing question of how many times Archie has saved Houndstooth—or does it? This story ends with an excellent escape scene, which is a fun glimpse into the more ridiculous side of Archie and Houndstooth.

American Hippo offers an alternate historical world with fast-paced action and complex characters. The hippos are an excellent addition to the story, showing a variety of personalities from calm and placid to high-strung and energetic. They provide a way for their owners to show their humanity because the people are a fascinating mix of characters, none of whom could be classified as actually “good” people. However, they are charismatic and complicated, loving to friends and devoted to their hippos, and they will cheerfully steal the ring from your finger if it will help them. I love the fact that it is based in a real proposition and plays with a might have been. I love the variety of personalities and motivations, but mostly, I love the fact that the hippos get a story where they can be as sweet and brutal as they are in real life.


When she is not wrangling students (and co-workers) for a music non-profit, Karen Bailey can often be found working on completing the Sirens Reading Challenge. She also keeps busy with quilting, crocheting, and paper-crafts.

Hallie Tibbetts works in children’s publishing, editing books for all ages. She has a love of adventure, travel, interesting food, and dinosaurs (preferably all at once). She is one of the founders of Narrate Conferences, the presenting organization behind Sirens, and has served in various roles, including conference chair and programming coordinator.

Sarah Gailey: Further Reading

Have you already loved Sarah Gailey’s work? American Hippo? The Fisher of Bones? Magic for Liars and Upright Women Wanted and When We Were Magic? Are you looking for more? Have we got a treat for you! As part of Sarah’s Guest of Honor week, we’re pleased to compile some of their short fiction, essays, interviews, and other work from around the web.

Sarah’s Short Fiction:

  • Drones to Ploughshares (2020): “No one ever had to know that he noticed things he didn’t log.”

  • Away with the Wolves (2019): “I can’t feel anything, really. That’s how it always is when I wake up. I can’t feel anything, because I have not yet tried to move. When I do try to move, there will be pain. There’s no telling where it will be—my hips, my shoulders, my spine, my thighs, my hands. Some days it lives in the muscles between my ribs, making every breath feel like an argument.”

  • The Thing That Hides in Your Home (2019): “Knowing where it is won’t protect you from it, but that won’t stop you from reading, because some part of you believes that knowing is the same thing as safety.”

  • Reynard Is Coming (2019): “Reynard used to be just like you. He thought he was clever. He thought he was above the rules. He thought he didn’t have to watch his back when he was stretching his legs and straddling the centuries.”

  • An Augmented Reality (2018): “Denise was already late, even before her augmented-reality glasses decided to perform another endless system update.”

  • From the Void (2018): “The way I miss Esther is a slow-spreading bruise.”

  • Bread and Milk and Salt (2018): “The first time I met the boy, I was a duck.”

  • The Catch (2018): “They didn’t usually come right up to vessels, not without being lured in by chum over the course of an afternoon, but there she was. Lean, chap-lipped, hungry eyed. Her hair was black — no, blacker than that — and it fanned out in the water as she smiled up at him.”

  • STET (2018): “Anna, I’m concerned about subjectivity intruding into some of the analysis in this section of the text. I think the body text is fine, but I have concerns about the references. Are you alright?”

  • There Are No Hands in the River (2018): “All that I wanted: to escape the ghost-rattling chains shackled to the thing at the center of me.”

  • All the Stars Above the Sea (2018): “All the stars are closer now than they have ever been. If you were still beside me you’d reach up on tiptoes, fingers spread to touch the brightest one.”

  • An Introduction to Pain (2018): “How badly are you hurting? Please identify your pain by weight and measure it from end to end, please rank the force and flavor of this guest that’s wedged itself into your life.”

  • Anne and the Stairs (2018): “Anne told Edgar that she was barren on the day that the stairs appeared.”

  • As Simple as Vanishing (2018): “When Maurice decided that he wanted to vanish that first time, all he had to do was try.”

  • What Grew (2018): “Before I knew I was pregnant I would stand before the mirror and wonder why I was different why I was growing what was wrong with my too-small skin.”

  • Worth Her Weight in Gold (2018): “Winslow Remington Houndstooth had a problem. The problem was Ruby.”

  • The Legend of Tania and Lula (2018): Lula’s gold tooth glinted in the light of the dying sun as she stared into the barrel of Tania’s Pulsar-1500. Sand swirled in eddies around her dust-clouded boots. Her eyes watered, but she didn’t blink. The sweat that had beaded across her forehead during the hike back to the ship evaporated in the rising wind as she came to understand her situation. She would die at Tania’s hand.”

  • Go Home, Go Home, Go Home (2018): “Earth’s gravity pulled at Anton’s bones like an insult.”

  • Our Collection (2018): “She died in a sea of wind-swept fury, her arms spread wide to catch the waves, she died with her cheek to the wind.”

  • The Nightmare Stays the Same (2018): “In the nightmare, Bess is having a fistfight. In the nightmare, she is winning.”

  • Anonymous Croupier (2018): “It was a hot night. One of those nights that would feel like mid-afternoon anywhere other than Vegas, you know?”

  • Single Parent (2017): “The monster in my son’s closet is so fucking scary.”

  • A Lady’s Maid (2017): “Isaac hadn’t taken the news of the engagement well. Nadia reflected on this as she pressed her cheek against the cool wall of her washtub. She was strong, and Isaac Cornette was a small man, but wrestling his dead weight into the tub hadn’t been easy.”

  • The Art of Asterculture (2017): “Star-wine is very difficult to make. It’s a complex and sometimes dangerous process. But one must have a hobby, and this is mine.”

  • Rescue (2016): “When they went to the dog park, Malachai had to wear sweatpants to blend in with the humans that congregated there. Going to the dog park required him to use very un-demonic magic: a careful layering of glamours to make him look like a small, balding human male, rather than the top-tier demon that he was.”

  • Homesick (2016): “I close my eyes, but it doesn’t really help, because it’s more the feeling than the seeing that’s the problem. I feel Moira’s dry lips scratch closed around my finger; I feel her split tongue wrap around my knuckle and slide up and down my fingernail. Then, a blessed numbness creeps up my hand, all the way to the wrist, and I don’t have to feel anything she’s doing anymore.”

  • Haunted (2016): “When he came inside, he kept his shoes on. That was my first clue. She took her shoes off, and looked around like she was standing in a cathedral. He rapped his knuckles hard on a wall, and I flinched.”

  • Stars (2016): “Maria can feel his voice, the vibration of it, but she cannot hear him over the ringing in her own ears. The ringing is loud, and she isn’t going to try to hear over it because she knows it would be impossible, like trying to see over the top of the horizon.”

  • Bargain (2016): “Malachai worked exclusively with those humans who had found themselves at the limit of how much power they could possess. They called him to bend the rules of time and space around their whims, so that they might be even more feared and loved by the other mortals.”

  • Look (2015): “Caroline raised her head a few inches to see the thing the doctor held up—a loud, purple thing, covered in white smears of vernix. She let her head drop. Her vision blurred with fatigue. The past thirty-seven hours had been pain and blood and screaming and working and waiting and then pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing. She knew the moment should be beautiful, but all she could think was ‘finished.’”

Sarah’s Articles and Essays:

  • Aging, Which Is Linear (2020): “I’ve decided, with this birthday, to let some things go.”

  • What Makes a Story Queer? (2019): “Magic for Liars is a book that is immensely concerned with identity, and whether or not identity is immutable.”

  • Magical Accessories, Definitively Ranked (2019): “A staff is a great magical accessory… for your great-grandfather to wield. A staff tells everyone who looks at you that you’re a very powerful wizard who doesn’t know how to use email and will never be on time. It’s the rotary phone of spellcasting.”

  • The Enduring Legacy of Bunnicula, a 40-Year-Old In-Joke That’s Still Hilarious (2019): “James and Deborah Howe were two struggling actors in their late twenties, married and underemployed, and they thought the idea of a vampire rabbit was funny.”

  • Imposter/Abuser: Power Dynamics in Publishing (2019): “We tell ourselves that we’re not important for a lot of reasons, many of which boil down to self-protection.”

  • Leave the Hookhand Murderer Alone (2019): “This story punishes the would-be-killer by taking away the device that functions as his prosthetic hand. This is a punishment that’s repeated often in media across genres: a disabled villain is separated from his adaptive device, and the audience is asked to view it as justice.”

  • Whiskey, Trauma, and The Doctor (2019): “[U]ntil recently, whiskey has tasted to me like burning death.”

  • Between the Coats: A Sensitivity Read Changed My Life (2018): “I thought I was writing in-genre. Fantasy stories have magic. Science fiction stories have rules that I don’t always understand because I somehow got through high school without taking a physics class. Queer stories have death.”

  • Iconic Outwear of Science Fiction & Fantasy Literature, Ranked (2018): “When I was in grade school I would have given my right arm for a way to get through my day without anyone seeing me. But does this cloak really deserve to beat out all other forms of fantasy outerwear? I say no.”

  • Fear No Evil: On Sorting Hats and Forest Gods (2018): “The hat does not require your input. The hat knows.”

  • The White Mountains (2018): “Occam’s razor: if you’re walking among gods and something is strange, think magic, not physics.”

  • Gods and Beggars (2018): “Simply put, a God disguised as a beggar isn’t testing the individual–they are testing the world that has created that individual. They are testing the health of the community.”

  • Fear of the Female Voice (2017): “For millennia, Western society has insisted that female voices—just that, our voices—are a threat. We’re afraid of wolves, and we’re afraid of bears, and we’re afraid of women.”

  • Harry Potter: A Beginner’s Guide to Evaluating Authority (2017): “Harry Potter is not a resistance manual. Harry Potter is a guidebook.”

  • The Hubris of Icarus: Women Who Fly into the Sun (2017): “There are two kinds of hubris. There are two kinds of hope. And the sky is so wide. If she could only fly.”

  • A Woman, Explaining Things (2017): “If they had the opportunity—if this new woman arrived at their front door with an extended hand, inviting them to come into the blue box with her and see a universe full of new and frightening things—I wonder what these furious people would do.”

  • River Song in Hades (2017): “She loves the adventure. She loves the journey. Like Persephone, she knows that winter and death are coming for her, but she rushes at them headlong, because she knows that the path she’ll travel to get there is one to be savored.”

  • Why Millennials Yearn for Magical School (2017): “We were told that a better world was waiting for us. We were told that a letter was on the way. We’ll just have to write the letter ourselves.”

  • On Feasting (2017): “You are a character in a fantasy novel. Congratulations: you have been invited to a feast.”

  • Finding Facts: American Identity Is Based on Alternate History (2017): “It’s the story told in my American History textbook, and it’s one of the most comprehensive works of fiction I’ve ever read.”

  • The Ecology of Alt-History, Or: The Hippos, the Hippos, the Hippos Are on Fire (2017): “The water hyacinth was a problem, and the meat shortage was a problem, and for a time—for a brief, glorious time—America saw a solution. We were going to fight an invasive species with the power of our big, important brains. We were going to get ourselves some hippos.”

  • Storytelling Through Costume: The Woman in White (2017): “In a blood-soaked world where survival is dependent upon grit and determination, the woman in white is spotless. She is radiant. She is pure.”

  • Storytelling Through Costume: The Badass Black Tank Top Walks the Line (2017): “She can wield a flamethrower the size of a Prius while biting out the word “fuck” and lighting a cigar, her boot firmly planted on the jugular of the man she just finished beating up for calling her a girl.”

  • Storytelling Through Costume: The Allure of the Red Dress (2017): “But the red dress isn’t just a costume; it’s an archetype. When we see the red dress, we already have an idea of what we can expect from the woman inside of it. She’s not bad; she’s just drawn that way.”

  • Mentally Ill Women Belong in Your Stories, Too (2016): “[R]egardless of the treatment mentally-ill women receive at the hands of literary authors, we are seen. We exist, and we participate in the world, and we hurt and heal and struggle and live. But we are not invited into space. We are not invited to attend on the Faerie Queen. We don’t attend Hogwarts or fly TIE fighters.”

  • Why We Write About Witches (2016): “When we write witches, we are writing about our expectations of women, and what we hope—and fear—they would do if they had access to power.”

  • Do Better: Sexual Violence in SFF (2016): “I want to be furious that SFF writers seem to have an easier time imagining faster-than-light travel than they do imagining a world in which sexual assault isn’t a constant threat.”

  • In Defense of Villainesses (2016): “We love her and we hate her in equal measure. We feel that way because she revels in being all the things that we are told we aren’t allowed to be.”

  • Dissociation Is Scary. Dissociation Is Safety. (2016): “And when I’m in the little dark room of memory, surrounded by words that remind me who can hurt whom, the only thing to do is to grope around in the blackness, trying to find a doorknob.”

  • The Harry Potter Series Is Actually One Long Story About PTSD: “When you read Harry Potter through the lens of trauma psychology, what you start to realize is that these books explore the aftermath of trauma in a surprisingly deep and compelling way.”

Sarah’s Interviews:

  • Q&A: Sarah Gailey, Author of When We Were Magic (2020): “I’m proud to have written something that, as I was writing it, reminded me that things can be good even when they’re messy and hard.”

  • Talks at Google (2019): On bringing fantasy and noir together in Magic for Liars, “I was really able to answer them with each other. They fit together like puzzle pieces.”

  • Spotlight On: Sarah Gailey (2019): “Some characters grow best in haunted houses, and others grow best in spaceships, and still others will only be able to put down roots in the house next door to mine.”

  • Interview with an Author: Sarah Gailey (2019): “I would definitely be into theoretical magic. It’s dangerous and ambitious and will kill you if you do it wrong, which is totally my jam. Also, it’s hard to explain at cocktail parties, which seems to be a central theme in all of my interests.”

  • An Exclusive Interview with Sarah Gailey (2019): “Everything I write has a queer perspective, even if the characters aren’t engaged in a storyline that interacts directly with queer sexuality or relationships. Themes of isolation, self-examination, identity, and found family are common in my work.”

  • Author Interview: Sarah Gailey (2017): “Fortunately, like any good writer, I happen to have a close relationship with an explosives expert.”

  • Sarah Gailey Talks Heists, Hope, Feral Hippos, and Defiantly Joyful Characters (2017): “River of Teeth imagines that Broussard’s dream came true, and that hippos came to America…and immediately did what hippos do—which is to say, whatever the hell they want because you try telling a hippo it has to stay behind a fence.”

  • Sarah Gailey on Sexual Violence in SFF (2017): “Everybody’s argument is, ‘Oh, we need to reflect real life.’ But really when you look at genre fiction, that’s not what we’re about. We’re not writing in order to reflect real life; we’re writing to paint new worlds and new social norms.”

  • Hugo Award Winner Sarah Gailey on Self-Care, Self-Imposed Deadlines, and Where Ideas Come From: “If I can get outside with a good book and some fresh fruit and maybe a glass of wine, I’m the happiest I can be.”

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Sarah Gailey: Exclusive Sirens Interview

We’re pleased to bring you the final 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 and nonbinary folk 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 Sarah Gailey.

 

AMY TENBRINK: The home page of your website says, big and bold and just after your name, “Writer. Reader. Enthusiast.” I first encountered your work with your novella, River of Teeth, which I adore for the unrelentingly fuck-you subversion among all the gleefully ahistorical hippos, but almost immediately thereafter, I ran across your essays, which I adore for their unflinching and hilarious insight. Would you tell us about these three parts of you—writer, reader, and enthusiast—and why you think each deserves a place of proclamation on the home page of your website?

Sarah Gailey

SARAH GAILEY: I think that those three words summarize pretty much all of what I do and who I am! I read compulsively, because stories are the fuel my brain feeds on. They’e nourishing and I’m lucky enough to be reading during a golden era of storytelling. Reading isn’t just a thing I do; being a reader is a part of my identity.

I write for a living, which is an enormous blessing. I am so fortunate to be able to support myself by doing the thing I love most. Of course, that means that I write way too much—when you do what you love, you never stop working a day in your life. I’m still learning how to set boundaries for myself, to take time away from work and nurture myself in ways that have nothing to do with being an author.

Which is why it’s crucial that I’m also an enthusiast. I love to be excited by the world around me, to learn new things, and share the thrill of discovery with others. I find cynicism and incuriosity to be a form of cowardice — people let themselves be governed by a fear of looking foolish, or a fear of having to apologize for things they believed in the past, or a fear of the pain that comes with growth. I’m not interested in letting that kind of fear shape my life, so instead I run fast as I can in the opposite direction, with great enthusiasm.

 

AMY: In Upright Women Wanted, you use the phrase “gallows courage,” a phrase that’s not out of place in a work that opens with a hanging. But Upright Women Wanted is dedicated “[t]o everyone who thought they’d never live this long,” which is a reference to your 2018 essay “Between the Coats: A Sensitivity Read Changed My Life” about your claiming queerness as part of your identity and how, for a number of reasons relating to your queerness, you didn’t think you’d live this long. You’ve also said that your short story, “Bread and Milk and Salt”, about cycles of abuse, is your most personal short story. I think your work—your honesty, your rawness, your admitted errors and apologies and desire to grow—takes gallows courage. Would you share some of your thoughts about putting so much of your heart on a page?

SARAH: For a big part of my life, the circumstances I was in required me to keep too many secrets. That secrecy is a hallmark of abusive environments and relationships. You internalize this idea that it’s wrong to tell anyone what’s happening inside your home, what’s happening to your body, what’s happening inside your heart. Saying “I’m hurting” or “I’m scared” or “I’m sad” feels dangerous and forbidden.

When I started trying to build a life for myself that didn’t include space for abusive dynamics, one of the things I found to be most healing was transparency. I learned how to invite people into my space, physically and emotionally, in ways that are safe for everyone involved. It was really scary, and I did a terrible job for a while—it’s a very steep learning curve that I’m still climbing—but at this point, secrecy isn’t a part of who I am or who I want to be.

I draw a very firm distinction between “secrecy” and “privacy,” which is crucial when you write about yourself and your life in the ways I do. There are a lot of things about me that I don’t share with the world. But the things I do share, I share because I think there can be healing in that sharing, for me and for readers. This last birthday, I finally stopped being private about my age; I publicly discussed the dynamics that made me hide it for so long, because I know that there are readers of mine who have struggled with the same issues. If I can safely reveal parts of myself and, in so doing, help a reader to feel more seen and more safe in the world, then I think my work can have real meaning.

 

AMY: In 2019, after Magic for Liars, your noir magical boarding school novel, was released, you wrote an essay, “What Makes a Story Queer?,” in which you say, “Were I to end Magic for Liars on an optimistic note, I would allow Ivy’s story to continue mirroring mine: Ivy Gamble would find a community of people who were, in fact, just like her…. Through the love and support of that community, Ivy would come to understand herself. She would develop a sense of security. She would develop a sense of self. She would develop a sense of pride.” In When We Were Magic, your new young-adult novel, you give Alexis, struggling with her identity and her friends and her failures and fears and hopes, just that optimistic ending. In many ways, when I read the three works you’ve published in the last year—Magic for Liars to Upright Women Wanted to When We Were Magic—I can follow a single thread from struggle to defiance to joy. Would you please talk about what you hope readers take away from your books?

SARAH: That’s an incredibly astute observation! I put a lot of myself onto the page, intentionally and unintentionally, and I love that the journey I’ve taken in my own life — from struggle to defiance to joy — is visible on the page.

In every book I write, I want readers to take away something different. In Magic for Liars, I wanted readers to take away an understanding of how everyone is involved in their own story and their own struggle, and those narratives aren’t always visible to the people who are living inside of them. Ivy Gamble is lying to herself, and she’s lying to herself about why she’s doing it, and she’s lying to the reader about how honest she’s capable of being. She’s not doing that on purpose, to be sneaky or malicious—she’s doing the best she can, and she’s still failing, because sometimes that’s what we do.

In Upright Women Wanted, I wanted readers to take away the idea that tragedy isn’t inevitable, and it doesn’t have to be the end of a story. For so many people, especially queer people, hardship feels defining, and tragedy feels final. But Esther’s story begins with tragedy, and from there, she finds triumph and joy alongside her grief. I wanted readers to feel in their bones that they can have both.

When We Were Magic is the story of what life can be when you lean into that joy. It’s a story of supportive community, emotionally healthy and loving friendships, good boundaries and tenderness even in the midst of conflict and trauma. I wrote it for the teen I once was, who needed to hear that it’s okay to let your friends love you even when you’re a mess, and that’s the message I hope readers—especially young readers—take away from those pages.

 

AMY: In your work, both fiction and nonfiction, you dive deep on gender issues, particularly those affecting people who aren’t cisgender men. As a few examples, you did a boatload of research into abortion and abortion ethics in order to write Magic for Liars; your short story “STET” delves deeply into a mother’s grief and the societal silencing thereof; your nonfiction is rife with intersectional feminist issues, such as “Fear of the Female Voice” and “A Woman, Explaining Things.” How do you do your research? What do you read? Who do you talk to?

SARAH: I’m so fortunate to be part of a community with a ton of brilliant people in it! Often, when I need help learning about an issue—like, for instance, abortion and abortion ethics—I start with general reference material from reputable sources. I check out Wikipedia and look at the citations on articles, and there’s often great information available from trustworthy organizations like Planned Parenthood. Once I feel like I have a good grasp on baseline information, I reach out to closed sections of my community, like private slack channels or broad group chats. That’s how I add color and texture to the reference material. I get most of my information from one-on-one conversations. I find that the best way to learn is to talk to people who are passionate about their area of expertise, both because then you get the really good, reliable intel, and because there are nuances to information that reference material can rarely supply.

 

AMY: In 2020, the Sirens theme is villains, so let’s talk about gender, sexuality, and villainy. Society, of course, frequently demands that we cast women and queer folk as villains, often simply for defying the limitations imposed by the heteropatriarchy. And often, given that your characters, across genders and sexualities, walk a fine line between antihero and villain—from the River of Teeth gang to Alexis’s killing a boy in When We Were Magic—I imagine you have something to say on this particular topic. Talk to me about villains!

SARAH: I have always loved villains. I don’t think this is rare—villains are often the more complicated characters in children’s media, the characters whose motivations feel grounded in emotions that children can relate to. Heroes in children’s media often exhibit more grown-up behavior than villains do—they don’t tend to throw tantrums or get petty and pouty—and so they can feel a little out-of-reach. Villains are also visually fascinating in a way heroes often aren’t (picture Jafar vs. Aladdin in Disney’s Aladdin—only one of them has facial features you can grab onto). And of course, as a tiny queer baby, I saw the queer-coding in those villains and identified with it in ways I didn’t really understand.

As an adult, I find villains fascinating for a different reason. I think the best villains, the most fascinating ones, are the ones who are truly trying to Do Right. Few people act in ways that they believe to be evil or selfish, but doing bad things is a part of the human condition that we’ve never been able to escape. In my writing, I want to explore the things we do to hurt each other, and why they feel so necessary and inescapable.

The one exception to this is in Upright Women Wanted, where the villain is a fascist police-state. I think we’ve had more than enough media that aims to humanize those particular types of villains, and so in writing that book, I let them be a little more one-dimensional than I usually would. The villain in Upright Women Wanted is a villain because he wants to hurt you and the people you love, and sometimes, that’s enough.

 

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?

SARAH: My friend Elisabeth. I met her during the year I lived in Portland, and our friendship has been completely transformational for me. Elisabeth has taught me how to take up space, how to expect support and love from my friends, and how to demand that my emotions be acknowledged and attended to. For so much of my life, I accepted the idea that my feelings had to be reasonable, logical, and explainable in order to deserve care. I will never forget the day that Elisabeth told me “it’s okay to be emotional sometimes—it’s an expression of what you’re feeling, and the people who love you should make space for that.” All of my relationships have flourished so much with that perspective. I started asking for space for my own feelings—and refusing to have my feelings shut down by men saying “you’re just being dramatic” or “you need to calm down.” The result has been that my friends, family, and loved ones have started asking for space for their needs and feelings, and we all have so many more opportunities to see, acknowledge, and care for each other. It’s been stunning, and I owe it all to Elisabeth.

 


Hugo Award winner and bestselling author Sarah Gailey is an internationally published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Their nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe, and they won a Hugo award for Best Fan Writer. Their most recent fiction credits include Vice and The Atlantic. Their debut novella, River of Teeth, was a 2018 Hugo and Nebula award finalist. Their bestselling adult novel debut, Magic for Liars, was published in 2019; their latest novella, Upright Women Wanted, was published in February 2020. Their young adult novel debut, When We Were Magic, came out in March 2020.

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

We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry

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

We Ride Upon Sticks

In the fall of 1989, I was not a senior in high school, but in my last year of junior high. I didn’t live in coastal Massachusetts, but in western Michigan. I didn’t play field hockey, but rather softball and volleyball—and a year later I starting running cross-country and track.

These differences between me and the girls of We Ride Upon Sticks are, however, mere details in the grander scheme of things. Because Quan Barry seemingly wrote this book for me.

As We Ride Upon Sticks opens, it is, indeed, just about the fall of 1989. The girls—and one boy—of the Danvers Falcons women’s varsity field hockey team are utterly terrible. So terrible that, at sports camp, they make a pact with the devil: a devil that, in Barry’s endlessly hilarious work, is embodied by a notebook with Emilio Estevez on the cover. Tired of losing games, and with all the vagueness of people who haven’t yet learned the necessity of precision, the players ambiguously commit themselves to the devil in exchange for a winning field hockey season.

The Salem witch trials loom large in We Ride Upon Sticks, and not only in the title’s witchy, pithy reference.

In 1692, Danvers was known as Salem Village, just down the road from the more affluent Salem Town (now known as just Salem, home of the famed witch museum and annual Halloween celebration). The original accusers were residents of Salem Village, and the what and who and why of the witch trials is steeped into the Danvers Falcons women’s varsity field hockey team from birth. It’s no coincidence that, when the girls look to the supernatural for help on the field, they turn, as their forebears allegedly did, to the devil. But the critical themes of the Salem witch trials—discussions of power and expectations and conformance—are threaded through We Ride Upon Sticks as well.

Barry’s work is structured around the 1989 field hockey season, from summer camp to the state championships, with a brief epilogue decades later. The story arc is nominally that field hockey season—and how, to maintain their success, the girls must perform increasingly bad acts to sate Emilio. Things start small—a lie, a cheat, a prank—and escalate over the course of the book as the girls attempt to reap the continued success of their bargain.

But this book is about so much more than a notebook with Emilio Estevez on the cover. The narration—cleverly crafted as first-person plural, simultaneously committing to the team collective and bringing the reader along for the ride—jumps from one game to the next, and from one player to the next, without losing the forward momentum of the story. We start with Mel, who is the first to strike a bargain with Emilio, and her suddenly magnificent goalkeeping at summer camp. As the team improves, we meet co-captains Abby Putnam (descendant of a Salem accuser) and Jen Fiorenza (whose bleached and hairsprayed bangs, called the “Claw” by both the book and the team, has a mind of its own). We learn about Girl Cory, who has a stalker, and Boy Cory, who is queer, and Becca, who has very large breasts and all the issues that come with them, and adopted Julie, who now wants to be called Julie Minh to represent her heritage. We spend time with all of these players and more, with their insecurities and unhappinesses, their goals and skills, their families and frustrations.

And that’s the thing about We Ride Upon Sticks: The girls perform bad acts to placate the devil, and while the book is initially sympathetic to the framing of those acts as bad, that frame gradually shifts—even as the magnitude of the acts escalates—until things that were initially “bad,” things girls “shouldn’t” do, instead become acts of self-affirmation.

The relentless feminism of We Ride Upon Sticks is the inexorable recasting of societal transgressions as undeniable reclamations.

Emilio, it seems, doesn’t want you to be bad; he wants you to be you.

Assuming, of course, that Emilio is the devil in the first place. We Ride Upon Sticks never quite answers if the Danvers Falcons women’s varsity field hockey team has actually made a deal with the devil or if, instead, their collective belief supports the notion that they need to be “bad”—and that their societally-imposed construction of “bad” ultimately leads them to a place of self-discovery. But in the end, do we really need to know? The thrust of We Ride Upon Sticks isn’t any of these girls’ relationship with the purported devil, not in any significant way. The thrust is their personal journeys toward independence and freedom.

In 1989, I was in eighth grade. I lived a small town. I was an athlete on a series of mostly terrible teams. We Ride Upon Sticks was true for me, with all the force of nostalgia. Despite that the age is slightly different, the towns are half a country away, and these girls played one of the only sports I never did, these girls’ experiences are my experiences. Barry reconstructs my early 1990s youth, with its two-a-day workouts and Kool-Aid hair dye and lacey prom dresses, with its endless rules and “good girl” notions and inequalities, through a 2020 feminist lens. And she does so incisively, seemingly effortlessly, with a number of epiphanies along the way.

But that doesn’t mean that We Ride Upon Sticks works only for sports girls from small towns who are currently fortyish. We Ride Upon Sticks is two things: First, terrific fun. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, and not only for those who get the in-jokes and the cultural references. Barry’s insight is acute and she uses that to tremendous, hilarious effect. Second, it’s uncompromising in its feminism, in finding a feminist story through a thirty-years-later lens. Barry’s insight serves her—and the reader—here as well, as you relive an earlier time through the contemporary analytic eye of someone who really, really gets it.

This is the best book I’ve read so far in 2020. And I’ve already read over 100.


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

“Do you understand the sadness of geography?”: Heritage and Myth in East Asian Fantasy Lit

By Faye Bi

“Do you understand the sadness of geography?”

To borrow a quote from Michael Ondaatje, this sentiment—and my identity as a half-generation Chinese immigrant—has informed my reading in no small way. May is Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and those of you who know me know that I am enthusiastic about finding books that help me connect to my heritage.

With everything going on right now, I’m sharing a list of fantasy titles that have touched me emotionally, personally, on my journey to understand my native and acquired cultures, my family, and myself. I’ve read several books by Asian and Asian American writers for Sirens over the years as part of the Reading Challenge, and reviewed and edited my fair share of those reviews (some are recommended below). And if you’ve attended Sirens, I most definitely tried to sell you these in the bookstore. I also prepare myself for an acute sadness each time I hold up these books as a mirror.

This list is not meant to be comprehensive, as it focuses entirely on East Asia and especially China, since that’s my personal background. It also includes several short story collections (almost half!), likely as the result of the form’s postcolonial legacy and popularity among diasporic authors.

 

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

Grace Lin’s beautifully illustrated middle grade fantasy stars a young girl, Minli, who goes on a quest to bring fortune to her impoverished village and meets the Jade Dragon. Heavily influenced by Chinese folklore, this won a Newbery Honor shortly before I started my career in publishing and now has two companion novels. I gave it to my dad—he loved it too, and confirmed that the tales referenced were familiar to him as well.

Returning My Sister’s Face and Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice

Returning My Sister’s Face and Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice by Eugie Foster

Eugie Foster, rest in peace, was a treasure. These are charming, whimsical, occasionally hilarious tales inspired by Chinese, Japanese, and Korean mythology—my favorite is the one where a tanuki spirit disguises himself as a tea kettle. It reminds me just how out there these stories can be, and is the best of my Asian Humanities syllabus back in college to explore themes like filial piety, vengeance, and honor.

The Frangipani Hotel

The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

Violet! Violet! Come back! Sirens veterans might remember Violet Kupersmith as our Hauntings Guest of Honor in our 2018 Reunion year, and her debut collection of short stories is so good that it enrages me. She writes about hauntings, belonging, colonialism, intergenerational trauma, monsters, foodways (so much good food!), and more, in relation to Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora. Please write more, Violet. In the meantime, I need a snack.

Monstress

The Monstress series by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Currently on its fourth volume, Monstress is an epic fantasy comic set in an alternate Asia with a stunning art-deco/steampunk/manga art style. The world of Monstress has its own creation story, mythology, and religion, and explores themes of racial prejudice, feminism, and trauma through its teenage protagonist Raika Halfwolf. It’s also a complete assault on the senses with the amazing combination of storytelling and visuals.

The Beast Player

The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi, translation by Cathy Hirano

Uehashi is a giant of fantasy in her native Japan, and I first came across her work with the Moribito books. If you’re used to YA fantasy published for a western audience, you might be a little unmoored reading The Beast Player—the pacing is different, the characterization is subtle but incredibly rich, and the worldbuilding is nuanced, intricate, and … slow. It ends on a cruel cliffhanger, and I don’t even care. It’s unlike anything I’ve read recently and really ponders questions of environmentalism, ethics, and freedom.

Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen

Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen by Marilyn Chin

I love this slim little tome. It’s a thoroughly modern, loose collection of parables, vignettes, and short stories featuring two Chinese-American twins as they grow up working in their grandmother’s Chinese restaurant, and become two very different adults. I laughed, I cried, I cheered, I got occasionally upset—despite its quirks, it’s a wonderful musing on the first-generation immigrant experience and the beauty and baggage that comes with it.

Conservation of Shadows

Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee

We are big Yoon fans here at Sirens, and his short story collection has been featured several times (and is one of Amy’s favorites!). It’s complex, demanding, and definitely veers into the territory of “Is this book too smart for me?”—and I say this as a lover of math. But, I super-love how it incorporates mathematics, war tactics, and eastern philosophy in a beautiful, literary package. The first story, “Ghostweight,” hits you in the face with its brilliance and sets the tone for the rest of the book.

The Poppy War

The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

My junior year of high school, my history teacher assigned me Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking as extra credit reading. I can’t begin to delve deeply into how fucked up that was, but aside from that, and with a main character modeled after Mao Zedong, The Poppy War is not subtle in its mission to use fantasy to shine a spotlight on modern Chinese history. Despite its boarding school start, this is not YA, this is not light reading, and it comes with every content warning imaginable.

Spirits Abroad

Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho

For more uplifting fare, I can’t stop recommending Cho’s story collection, which is so feminist and funny and true to my heart I read most of it with a smile on my face. Cho is Chinese-Malaysian, based in the UK, and her collection has a lot to recognize and appreciate, from the social commentary to the family dynamics (aunties!), the descriptions of food to the depiction of language. Add some zombies, myths, nerd references, and fables, and you have one heck of a party.

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo & Peasprout Chen

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F. C. Yee and Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien

I debated for a while what to put in this last spot, waffling between these two, which are both YA fantasy books with awesome girl leads written by—surprise!—dudes. I read these in close proximity and I think they are an interesting pairing, so I’ve included them both. Genie Lo is a modern-day retelling of Journey to the West set in California, and Peasprout Chen is wuxia figure skating (I KID YOU NOT) at a magic school set in fantasy-Taiwan. Both have clever cultural touches, epic badassery, and sequels. Go forth! Or as they say, jiā yóu!


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

Kinitra Brooks’ Recommended Reading

Sirens Guest of Honor Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks shares a recommended reading list of novels, short fiction, and nonfiction. If you enjoy her work, or you want to learn more about what writers, especially black women writers, are doing in the speculative space, this list is a spectacular place to start. Take it away, Kintra!

 

Conjure Women: A Novel

Conjure Women: A Novel by Afia Atakora

This book is next on my “To Be Read” list. I’m so excited because it focuses on everything my current research project is centered on: Black Southern women and the spiritual/medicinal practices highlighted in the practice of conjure. I can’t wait!

Boondock Kollage: Stories from the Hip Hop South

Boondock Kollage: Stories from the Hip Hop South by Regina N. Bradley

Bradley clearly talks to the ancestors. It is evident in her ability to raise the dead and conjure the spirits of the Black South in her short story collection.

Speculative Sankofarration: Haunting Black Women in Contemporary Horror Fiction

“Speculative Sankofarration: Haunting Black Women in Contemporary Horror Fiction” by Kinitra Brooks, Stephanie Schoellman & Alexis McGee

I know it can be a bit gauche to recommend your own work, but this is a short scholarly article I wrote with my graduate students that further teases out my approaches to black women’s horror writing since the publication of Searching for Sycorax. It’s heavy on the theory and disciplinary language, but I did want to offer it as an option for readers.

Let's Play White

Let’s Play White by Chesya Burke

A great collection of short horror stories. Burke takes an interesting turn on the classic zombie story in “CUE: Change” making it hella black in its examination of what constitutes humanity. Burke also revises the evil child trope with the character Shiv in “I Make People Do Bad Things,” which takes place in 1920s Harlem.

LaShaun Rousselle Mystery Series

LaShaun Rousselle Mystery Series by Lynn Emery

A quirky little series about a small-town outcast that returns to rural Louisiana to continue the conjure tradition of her ancestors while solving paranormal mysteries and battling the monsters that cause them. A great representation of contemporary Southern rural life and black women’s long history in these places.

The Crown of Shards Series

The Crown of Shards Series by Jennifer Estep

I just discovered this series as I am an avid fan of Estep’s Elemental Assassins series. But Crown of Shards is just different enough as it is placed in an alternate medieval monarchical society. If the magical assassins and gladiator fighting doesn’t manage to kill Evie Blair—palace politics just might do the job

Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo

Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert and Margarite Fernandez Olmos

So many times I discuss the influence of traditional African religious practices in horror. This book begins to clear up a lot of the misinformation that continues to exist about these practices, some which are actual religions while others are often supplemental practices to black folks’ Christianity. Each chapter focuses on a different religious practice and the knowledge begins to take away the fear of these Africanized practices that is historically steeped anti-black ignorance.

Mojo Workin: The Old African American Hoodoo System

Mojo Workin: The Old African American Hoodoo System by Katrina Hazzard-Donald

A nonfiction book that begins to discuss the concept of conjure/hoodoo and the West and Central African practices that influenced them.

Skin Folk

Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson

A great short story collection that examines the magical and the peculiar that populates Caribbean folklore. My personal favorites are “Ganger (Ball Lightning)” in which a couple strengthens their relationship when they must battle their animated sex suit and “Greedy Choke Puppy” in which a young graduate student discovers the magical history of the women in her family.

Tell My Horse

Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston

A collection of Southern oral culture gathered and transcribed by Hurston as an ethnographer in the first third of the 20th century. These stories show that black folks have long enjoyed horror stories and the characters that define them.

Dread Nation

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Black girl protagonist in a zombie uprising initiated by The Civil War? Yes, please. I’m currently reading the sequel, Deathless Divide.

How Long ‘til Black Future Month?

How Long ‘til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin

The short story “Red Dirt Witch” is worth the purchase of this entire collection. I enjoy others, such as “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters” and “The City Born Great” but “Red Dirt Witch” is as close to perfect as one can get in a short story. This is Jemisin firing on all cylinders while also giving us a preview into the importance of black mother/daughter relationships she explores so thoroughly in The Broken Earth series.

Jade City

Jade City by Fonda Lee

I’ve almost finished this book on Audible. It’s a gangster family drama set in an alternate history steeped in multiple Asian traditions. There is a unique complexity as her world-building is organic while her fight scenes are described like you are right there in the mix—you can smell the blood and feel the jade.

Talking to the Dead

Talking to the Dead by LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant

This nonfiction ethnographic project interviews multiple women of the Gullah community and examines the traditions that define them. Manigault-Bryant examines the phenomenon I discussed in my interview, the concept of “tending to the dead,” that shows our folkloric practice of how the living dead manifest in black life.

A Blade So Black

A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney

A fun retelling of Alice in Wonderland with great world-building and a complex protagonist who has to save the world and remember to take the beef out of the freezer for dinner.

Mama Day

Mama Day by Gloria Naylor

The first of the two novels I consider the perfect example of black women’s horror writing tradition. Mama Day is a conjure woman who is at least 80 years old and rules the island of Willow Springs with her medicinal knowledge, ancestral ties, and her knack for baking perfect coconut cakes. Just don’t piss her off….

Stigmata

Stigmata by Phyllis Alesia Perry

This novel is the second of the two books I consider black woman horror writing perfection. It has everything, possession, ancestral traditions, black mother/daughter bonds, time travel…I discover new things every time I read it. Simply amazing.

White Trash Zombie Series

White Trash Zombie Series by Diana Rowland

These books are simply fun. A great little romp inside of an interesting mythology. Protagonist Angel Crawford is a delight who knows who she is and works the hell out of her lane.

The Santeria Habitat Series

The Santeria Habitat Series by Kenya Wright

A fun series that has were-leopards, fairies, demons…and a Prime—a sexy fantastical creature based in an alternate history Miami. Miami is now a caged city divided into different regions named after major orisha. The protagonist is a half demon solving paranormal mysteries and choosing between two sexy shifter men. I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment that will feature were-dragons.

Honorable Mentions:

The Black God's Drums

The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

The Ballad of Black Tom

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Salsa Nocturna

Salsa Nocturna: A Bone Street Rumba Collection by Daniel José Older


 

Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks

Kinitra D. Brooks is the Audrey and John Leslie Endowed Chair in Literary Studies in the Department of English at Michigan State University. She specializes in the study of black women, genre fiction, and popular culture. Her current research focuses on portrayals of the Conjure Woman in popular culture. Dr. Brooks has three books in print: Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror, a critical treatment of black women in science fiction, fantasy, and horror; Sycorax’s Daughters, an edited volume of short horror fiction written by black women; and The Lemonade Reader, a collection of essays on Beyoncé’s 2016 audiovisual project, Lemonade. She is also the co-editor of the New Suns book series at Ohio State University Press. Dr. Brooks spent the 2018–2019 academic year as the Advancing Equity Through Research Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

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

Writing Fluidly: Black Women and Horror in Searching for Sycorax

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 Kinitra’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Alyssa Collins on Searching for Sycorax by Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks.


Searching for Sycorax

Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror is a literary monograph by Dr. Kinitra Brooks. In it, Brooks presents black women characters as both stereotypical fodder and literary backbone of the horror genre. Making an argument both about what horror is and what it can do, Brooks excavates intersections of black women’s representation in the genre and presents new ways of reading and understanding black women’s role in horror writ large.

Picking up the book, I was very curious about the title, especially the invocation of Sycorax in a work about horror and haunting. Haunting in relation to blackness and fiction is not necessarily a novel concept. There are many black ghosts that haunt the canon of American literature and African American literature (reference chattel slavery and years of racial terror and violence). So I really wanted to know: why call on Sycorax? For Brooks, calling on Sycorax is about interrogating the influence, absence, and power of black women in horror. Invoking Sycorax is about looking to the obscured, erased, and othered women who both influence and haunt while being maligned. Searching for Sycorax, then, is a quest to highlight how black women are represented in contemporary horror and to reveal how black women authors are actively changing it. Each of the five chapters presents an argument that progresses from excavating characters like Michonne from The Walking Dead and outlining connections between horror as a genre to conversations and literary canons of black feminism; to looking at the ways black women authors write through an intersectional framework and detailing what a black women’s horror aesthetic might look like.

This is fully an academic monograph so be prepared for a lot of close readings, canon generation, and a nimble use of a varied theoretical toolbox that includes black feminist theory, genre theory, and contemporary literary theory. I’m not a huge horror buff, but I found Brooks’ arguments about horror both inviting and innovative. Brooks is able to both critique the genre, revealing a good deal about the failures in representing black women by the horror genre, and argue for the efficacy of having black women authors use horror elements in their work.

For me, Brook’s most important intervention is not her practice of unveiling mischaracterized black women in the genre, or her interest in revitalizing the horror genre, but her articulation of what she calls “fluid fiction.”

Fluid fiction is “a racially gendered framework that revises genre fiction in that it purposefully obfuscates the boundaries of science fiction/fantasy/horror writing just as black women confound the boundaries of race, gender, and class.” (p.71) Brooks argues that just as black women are the founders and proponents for intersectional approaches to politics, they also undermine genre distinctions because telling stories that engage black women honestly necessitates such mixing. As a scholar of black speculative fiction, I really enjoyed Brooks’ framework because there is often an incredible amount of handwringing when it comes to black authors and how their work “fits” into canons or genres. I’ve seen many arguments about fluidity or intersection but few that ground dismantling narratives of genre fixity with intersectional analysis so clearly. The possibilities of reading (and re-reading) texts by black women using Brooks’ framework are powerful and endless.

While reading an academic book is definitely different from perusing a novel, if you are a fan of contemporary horror, a student of contemporary literature, or simply have a bit of time on your hands, you might give this book a try.


Alyssa Collins is an assistant professor of English and African American Studies at the University of South Carolina. Her work explores the intersections of race and technology as depicted in 20th century and contemporary African American literature, digital culture, and new media. When she’s not working, she writes about race, superheroes, television, and embodiment around the internet.

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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