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Sirens-inspired school curriculum with books students actually want to read

As a high school Language Arts teacher, one of the more difficult aspects of my job is finding books for my students to read that are high interest, manageable, and have material that is teachable. Teachable, for me, means it presents opportunities for discussion about characters and their choices or how they fit or don’t fit into their world, and why or how this reflects the world we live in now—what can we learn from this book? Young adult fantasy literature can do this! The books on this list will bring profound discussion and teachable moments that teens are quite capable of engaging with.

All books have the necessary literary elements that teachers and students are beaten over the head with thanks to the Common Core and standardized testing. The average high school student does not need to be reading classics from fifty-some years ago that weren’t written for them. If we expect students to become lifelong readers, it’s vital they be given choice and be provided with opportunities to read broadly and outside of the very cis, very white, very male literary canon. So, I propose new options that are incredibly teachable and will leave your students engaged and wanting more.

Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim: The Count of Monte Cristo, but better. If your administrators are demanding you teach the classics, slip this one into the mix. You could even watch the film of The Count and have students compare the two stories. Sim’s version gives you all the literary elements you could ask for, it’s a million pages shorter, and Amaya and Cayo are teens. Spoiler alert: teens love reading about teens!

A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney: This is the version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that we don’t deserve. Not only can you compare it with the original text or any of the many movie adaptations, you can do a neat activity with the poem “Jabberwocky” and students will be making connections and engaging left and right. This book has so many teachable moments in it. Students will relate with Alice as she struggles to not only be a hero but maintain passing grades.

The Ship Beyond Time by Heidi Heilig: Time. Traveling. Pirates. This great story not only provides an avenue to discussion of not getting bogged down in the past, but deals with the history of Hawaii, which is super fascinating and not something that is widely covered in most history books. So, lots of opportunities for additional research students can do on their own to enhance learning. They can make presentations and talk about the different cultures in the books, all while discussing the moral complexities of whether or not we should be able to alter any given timeline.

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi: WOW. This book is everything you need. If you could get away with just studying one book for the entire year, this would be the one. Personally, I see books as a way to help students develop empathy and a sense of how much of the world they don’t yet know about. Pet deals with an adolescent who thinks the world is pretty perfect, but she’s about to find out that even in a perfect world, monsters still exist. Pet deals with current issues so deftly and can open the door to great moments of student insight.

Aru-Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi: This fantastic adventure features Aru having to navigate not only the perils of adolescents and middle school, but she’s also the daughter of a god and has to save the world. Like the others, this fantasy features a protagonist trying to figure out her place in a rapidly changing world. It offers discussion topics such as what is true bravery and what makes someone a friend—both excellent topics for students to discuss and write about. You also get to explore the legend of the Pandava brothers and aspects of Hinduism—things often not discussed in American classrooms, which can lead to lots of enhanced learning opportunities for students as they learn more about the rich and diverse world around them.

The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi: The best version of Jumanji ever made. After Farah is sucked into a dangerous and deadly board game, she must puzzle out the mystery to save her friends and escape. This book will not only drive great conversations about bravery and friendship, but you get to delve into Middle Eastern culture as well.

This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab. This book destroyed me in the most delicious way possible and it will leave your students desperate to read the sequel (you could even teach it!). August and Kate are at war. One is a monster who wants to be human and the other is a human who wants to be a monster. This book will lead to discussions about what it means to be human and what the worst kinds of monsters are as well as what does or doesn’t make a monster.

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland: What if the Civil War created zombies? If you want to know, read this book to find out! Dread Nation follows the story of a young Black woman trained to kill zombies. This book touches on so many social justice issues and opens the doors for the uncomfortable conversations about race and privilege that we need to be having with teens. I promise you’ll have content to teach for class after class.

The Fever King by Victoria Lee: This. Novel. Put this masterpiece in the hands of high school students and let them debate Noam’s strategy for taking down a corrupt government while its citizens are dying from a magical virus. There is so much to unpack in this novel and believe me, teenagers are ready for it.

The sky’s the limit with books that can be introduced into the classroom. But the bottom line is that today’s students deserve to be offered reading choice and be presented with books that are written for them. Books that present a diverse and inclusive world. Books that bring hope and magic into their lives. Representation matters—and the more we embrace it in the classroom, the better our world will be.


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

2021 Book Club: Our May pick is Maybe a Fox

Maybe a Fox book club discussion

The Sirens Book Club meets monthly to discuss a book from our 2021 Reading Challenge, which includes 50 works by women, trans, and nonbinary authors that imagine a more inclusive, more empathetic, more just world.

In May, we’re reading Kathi Appelt and Allison McGhee’s stunning novel for young readers, Maybe a Fox. Jules and Sylvie are sisters and, even better, best friends. But when their mother passes away, they each deal with their grief a little bit differently—Jules hunkering down, Sylvie running away. One morning, when Sylvie races to throw one more wish rock in the river before school, she disappears; at the same time, a fox is born, one that seems destined to protect Jules as she searches with an ever-thinning thread of hope for her missing sister. Maybe a Fox is a delicate reflection on what it means to grieve and, ultimately, what it means to find hope again.

The next book club will be on Sunday, May 30 at 12:00 p.m. Mountain time (2:00 p.m. Eastern) over Zoom. If you’d like to join us, please email us at (help AT sirensconference.org) to be added to our list; for safety and security reasons, we’ll be emailing the link out to interested folks closer to the discussion date.

We hope to see you there.

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 13, Issue 2: April 2021

This month:

Your Sirens team has been at a full gallop, busy as bees, getting our ducks in rows and our cats herded and other animal idioms properly aligned. But don’t worry, we’re not chasing any wild geese. We aim to give your brain and spirit some rejuvenation, because you’re the pick of the litter! So go hog wild with this month’s Sirens content.

2021 Sirens Programming Submissions

Did you know? Submissions are now open for 2021 programming. We’re looking for excellent roundtables, workshops, afternoon classes, panels, papers, and lectures to fill out the schedule of events. So if you have research to share, an idea to explore in conversation, or a skill you can help others build, and if you don’t already have programming accepted from a 2020 proposal, we hope you’ll submit!

Need help figuring out what to submit or how to structure your submission? Our ongoing annual programming series has the answers you need! You can also head to the #SirensBrainstorm tag on Twitter to find a plethora of ideas, free for the taking.

Submissions, including any co-presenter confirmations, are due May 15.

2021 Sirens Scholarships

We’re delighted to announce that, due to the overwhelming generosity of last year’s Sirens at Home attendees, we have thirteen additional scholarships to offer 2021 attendees. Four of those scholarships will be granted to those who identify as BIPOC, three for exemplary programming proposals, three to those with financial hardships, and three to librarians, educators, and publishing professionals (which may be anyone from an editor to an agent to a publicist to a cover designer to a bookseller).

We are also again offering three Sabrina Chin “Braver Than You Think” Memorial Scholarships to first-time attendees and presenters. Sabrina Chin co-chaired Sirens for a number of years before her passing in 2019, and her family has funded these scholarships to help us continue her work with Sirens.

If you need assistance, we hope you’ll consider applying for a scholarship by May 15!

Community Day

Thanks to everyone who attended our first Community Day on April 25th! We had an excellent BIPOC meetup, followed by a vibrant discussion of Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion with the Sirens Book Club. Kameron then revisited her 2018 Guest of Honor keynote speech, “Narrating Our Way to a Brighter Future,” and we followed that up with roundtable discussions in breakout rooms.

If you weren’t able to join us and are suffering the pangs of envy for those who did, fear not! We’ll be hosting more virtual events between now and October.

Guest of Honor Weeks

In April, we featured two more of 2021’s Guests of Honor! Both are dazzling writers with many award wins and nominations to their credit, and we are overjoyed to welcome them to Sirens.

Sarah Gailey Author

First, our showcase of Sarah Gailey included an exclusive Sirens interview, as well as the Sirens Review Squad covering Magic for Liars and American Hippo. We also compiled some Book Friends for Sarah’s work, in case you need some read-alikes on your shelves. Sarah also has a mountain of short fiction, essays, and interviews available online! We’ve rounded them up for your reading convenience. If you’re looking for some ultra-quick recommendations to plump out your to-read list, Sarah made a list of favorite reads described in four words each.

Fonda Lee Author

Our second Guest of Honor week in April helped you get to know Fonda Lee with an interview and a sampling of Fonda’s works from around the web. The Sirens Review squad read Jade City and Zeroboxer in hopes of tempting you to add them to your to-read list. Fonda gifted us with a rec list of books featuring women wielding power, and we compiled a list of Book Friends that we think complement Fonda’s work.

Books

Whether the full flourishing of spring has you frolicking in the daisies or reaching for the antihistamines, we hope you’re getting the time (and un-allergy-bedeviled eyes) to do some reading!

The 2021 Sirens Reading Challenge seeks to amplify voices that are pushing boundaries in speculative spaces. We’ve picked works that are innovative, challenging, and even uncomfortable, but that we think look toward a more inclusive, more empathetic, more just world. This month, we started a six-part series featuring the themes and messages important to Sirens, beginning with “Reclamation”, and used works from the challenge list to highlight that theme. We hope you’ll take a look, see why those titles made this year’s list, and decide to dive into them yourself.

Book Recommendations and Reviews:

  • Has a year of quarantine shortened your attention span for reading? You’re not alone; we’re hearing that from a lot of the Sirens community. Fortunately, the Sirens Review Squad is here to help: Emory Noakes shared a list of five LGBTQ+ fantasy novellas ideal for pandemic brain!
  • The Sirens Book Club pick for May is Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee. If you’d like to join the conversation on Sunday, May 30, email us at (help AT sirensconference.org) to be added to our list.
  • Need yet more potential new reads? Be sure to check out April’s roundup of newly-released fantasy fiction by women and nonbinary authors!

Well, cats and kittens, that wraps up the things we have to crow about this month. If we’ve put a bee in your bonnet, convinced you to feather your nest with new books, or persuaded you to take a gander at a new author, we hope you’ll howl about it till the cows come home.

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).

 

2021 Programming: Roundtable Discussions

At Sirens, programming means the dozens of hours of papers, lectures, panels, roundtable discussions, workshops, and afternoon classes that make up the heart of Sirens. In our 2021 programming series, we’re doing a deeper dive on each presentation format; this information will both help potential presenters select the proper format for their concept and provide details on proposal requirements. We also suggest that potential presenters read how Sirens programming works and our tips, tricks, and frequently asked questions. Previously, we’ve taken a deep dive into papers and lectures, panels, and workshops/afternoon classes. You can submit a proposal any time until May 15.

Sirens roundtable discussions are moderator-led conversations which usually have a participating audience of roughly 25 people. In 2021, that number may be smaller due to pandemic restrictions. These presentations approximate college discussion sections, and because of this format, they are best suited to topics where everyone in the audience is likely to have something to contribute. A discussion of the merits of various social media platforms for reading groups, a dialogue about effectively retold fairy tales, or a conversation about ideal books for introducing new readers to the fantasy genre could all be excellent roundtable topics.

Roundtable moderators lead the discussions through a series of questions and are responsible both for facilitating the conversation and keeping the audience on track. Moderators who wish to tackle an esoteric topic or convey their research, analysis, or viewpoint should strongly consider presenting a paper or lecture where their knowledge can shine, instead of a roundtable discussion—here, it’s essential that the audience not need an introduction to the topic.

Roundtable discussions may have only one presenter. Since the moderator is the facilitator in a roundtable discussion, we limit this presentation format to only one presenter.

Roundtables are always 50 minutes long. Presenters should plan enough questions to fill the entire time. As audience participation is the heart of this presentation format, presenters need not save time specifically for audience questions. Usually, ten solid questions and follow-ups will be more than enough for a 50-minute discussion.

Proposal requirements include a presenter biography (50–100 words), a presentation summary (50–100 words), and a detailed abstract (300–500 words). We will publish the biography and the summary on our website and in our program book to help attendees navigate our programming and decide which presentations they’d like to attend. The abstract is for the vetting board. It should explain your topic and approach to the vetting board and be far more in depth than your summary. Roundtable abstracts may be in the form of a series of at least ten questions (with appropriate follow-up questions), rather than a more traditional paragraph format, if the presenter prefers.

Room set-up includes tables and chairs arranged in a square or U-shape. As the rooms hosting roundtables are small, no audio-visual equipment will be provided. However, a small white board and an easel will be available.

Looking for conference programming help or inspiration?

  • Free Topics: This spring, we’ll be tweeting programming topics that are free for you to take, develop, and use in your programming proposal. You might take them as is, you might use them as inspiration, or you might find that they get your brain moving! Follow us on Twitter @sirens_con or check out #SirensBrainstorm.
  • More Questions: Email us! You can contact our programming team at (programming at sirensconference.org).

Examples of summaries of past roundtable discussions from Sirens:

  • Can You Go Home Again?: Fantasy, Re-Reading, Childhood Favorites, and Nostalgia by Faye Bi: This roundtable will explore the transformative joy of re-reading an old favorite, as well as the flip side of discovering that a beloved book is no longer a favorite. With influence from Jo Walton’s and Laura Miller’s ideas on re-reading, we’ll delve into the books read long ago and see how time, successive reads, and reading companions change our relationships with them.
  • Female Game-Changers by Sherwood Smith: Let’s talk about heroines as catalysts in revolutions. Not all heroines are battle commanders, though we can take time to appreciate the ones who are. Many begin with little besides their wits and skills. Some have special gifts, some do not. Some are born to rank, others are outsiders in various ways. In this roundtable discussion, we will talk about the different ways heroines in genre literature bring about change.
  • Obligatory Horrors by Jen Michaels: Daughter, sister, girlfriend, mother, wife, companion, princess–murderer. Fairy tale stories have always had a dark side, but in a number of new story collections, such as Angela Slatter’s A Feast of Sorrows: Stories and Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s The Merry Spinster, a repeated commonality between protagonists in roles traditionally held by women in fairy tales is how choices and circumstances lead them to murder. In this roundtable discussion, we will examine how societal expectations and obligations are the true horrors in many of these stories and how the authors enable us to root for those who might have been portrayed as villains in traditional fairy tales.
  • Reinventing the Literary Canon—Why Don’t We Teach That? by Katie Passerotti: In high school English classes, students are required to read books considered classics within the literary canon. With few exceptions, these books are written by white, cis-het men. The adherence to this list is stifling today’s students. The world is changing, and the current educational system no longer meets the needs of its students. This discussion will examine how the needs of students are evolving, what the purpose of English classes should be going forward, and ways to expand the curriculum to include more diverse books that better represent not only the student population, but the world students live in.
  • The Socioeconomics of Magic: Correlations Between Class Structure and Use of Magic in Fantasy Narratives by Emma Whitney: In the struggle for power that constitutes the plot of many fantasy novels, magic is often the primary tool. This use of magic generally confers a particular social status to the user. Frequently, especially in classic “epic” fantasy, this is an elevated status, but that is not always the case. In this roundtable we will discuss how magic is used to reinforce or break down social structure, and what this might say about how we view class distinctions.
  • There’s No I in Hero: A Discussion of Communities as Agents of Change by Jennifer Shimada: One of the most pervasive American myths is the idea of “rugged individualism”–that individual heroes can save the world or push their society toward progress. However, real, lasting change never comes from a single hero fighting on their own, or even from a small band of heroes working together. Real progress and change comes from movements and communities, with many people working together and separately over a long period of time. In this roundtable, we’ll discuss the problems with depending on individual heroes to save the day, and the ways in which fantasy stories can center movements and communities instead.

For more examples of past programming, visit our archive.

Book Friends: Fonda Lee

As part of our 2021 Guest of Honor weeks, the Sirens team recommends books that would be friends with a guest of honor's books. Below is a curated list of titles that we feel complement the works of Fonda Lee, author of the Green Bone Saga including Jade City and Jade War, as well as YA sci-fi novels Exo, Zeroboxer, and Crossfire.  If you enjoyed her work, we hope you check out these other epic fantasy stories with amazing worldbuilding with themes of family, duty, and codes of honor; badass women, interrogations of toxic masculinity, and deadly negotiations; swords, galactic war, and plenty of politics.

Fonda Lee’s Book Recommendations

Fonda Lee Book Recommendations

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 Fonda Lee recommendation

Fantasy
Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro Fonda Lee recommendation

Fantasy
The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by KS Villoso

The Power Fonda Lee recommendation

Science Fiction
The Power by Naomi Alderman

A Memory Called Empire Fonda Lee recommendation

Science Fiction
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

The Year of the Witching Fonda Lee recommendation

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

Circe Fonda Lee recommendation

Historical Fantasy
Circe by Madeline Miller

Monstress Fonda Lee recommendation

Graphic Novel
Monstress by Marjorie Liu

The Lie Tree Fonda Lee recommendation

Young Adult Fantasy
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

What I Saw and How I Lied Fonda Lee recommendation

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

The Memoirs of Cleopatra Fonda Lee recommendation

Historical Fiction
The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George

The Good Mothers Fonda Lee recommendation

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: Sirens Book Review

Jade City Fonda Lee book review

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.

Jade City by Fonda Lee review

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.

This time of transition yields a narrative rich in characterization, nuanced strategy, and thrilling fight choreography as the Green Bones of No Peak fight for their clan. As the conflict unfolds, the next generation of Green Bones are finishing their training, adopted Kaul cousin Anden among them. 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.

Gangster family sagas are rich with tension between the familial sphere and ruthless, violent business. Jade City makes excellent use of this tension. The Kaul siblings carry the baggage of lifelong family dynamics as they calculate their next move in clan business. They reckon with their relationships to Kekonese traditions even as times change and international politics loom ever larger over their small island. Jade City has all the elements I enjoy in gangster stories, from strategizing to family legacy. Yet it avoids the casual sexism and erasure of women that can occur in the genre. Kekon isn’t free from sexism, but Lee examines it and features women characters who claim their agency. The story is refreshing in its self-awareness.

Jade City blends intricate worldbuilding with emotional resonance, and each new piece of Kekonese history or folklore adds depth to the characters and setting. The ways the Kaul family grapples with tradition, continuity, and change feel real and nuanced. I felt deeply for these characters, whether my heart was breaking for them or I was raging at them. This is equally true of the sequel, Jade War, which expands the geographic and cultural scope of its storytelling. I look forward to the final volume, Jade Legacy, and I trust that Fonda Lee will steer her world and her characters exactly 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:

  • Interview with Fonda Lee (2020): “Anden going to Espenia and navigating a culture that’s foreign to him was a really compelling storyline for me. As an Asian-American, I rarely see diaspora culture reflected in fantasy fiction. Other cultures, even fictional ones, are so often depicted as a monolith.”
  • Fantasy and Science Fiction Award-Winning Author Fonda Lee On Research, Letting Ideas Age, and Getting Clear On WHY You Write (2020): “I don’t believe in writer’s block as a syndrome or as an excuse; it’s usually a signal that something is not working, either in my story, or with my own motivation or creative state of mind. I usually deal with it by backtracking and re-evaluating my manuscript for where it seems to have stalled.”
  • 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.

Zeroboxer by Fonda Lee: Sirens Book Review

Zeroboxer Fonda Lee book review

Zeroboxer by Fonda Lee is a book that pairs perfectly with a Friday evening after a long week and your biggest bowl of popcorn. It’s a fast-moving YA debut that cuts out the filler and leaves a lean, entertaining, action-movie-like tale. In fact, the fight scenes were so well done that I sometimes felt as though I was watching them instead of reading them.

Carr “The Raptor” Luka is a talented 17-year-old up-and-comer in an MMA-style sport called zeroboxing. The twist? The “zero” in zeroboxing is for “zero gravity.” Carr has been training to go pro since he was seven, finally making the move from Earth to orbit on Valtego Station a year and a half ago. However, as he begins the final fight in his current contract, he isn’t sure whether management will bother to renew him, let alone ever give him a shot at a title. And then everything changes. Thrown into the limelight by a spectacular fight and a highly marketable look and story, Carr finds himself with an incredible offer from the association’s head, a fancy PR agent, and fresh set of problems that his growing fame only intensifies.

At its heart, Zeroboxer is a sports drama, but the science fiction component isn’t simply window dressing. While the futuristic setting does provide the foundation for some fantastic zero-G fight choreography—of which the book delivers in spades—that’s not the only reason for the genre mash-up. It also makes space for the author to explore the potential societal ramifications of a time in which humanity and genetic engineering have extended their reach. On Earth, gene therapy has become common and glasses little more than a vintage accessory, but on Mars, gene editing has gone further. Residents of the red planet have long utilized genetic modification to help them adapt to their environment’s colder temperatures and punishing radiation. A side effect is that it has created even more visible physical differences between Terrans and Martian colonists. While genetic modification is just one among a portfolio of political and economic differences between these populations, it has obvious implications and is a clear contributor to growing tensions between Terrans and Martians. For Carr, nothing matters more than zeroboxing. It’s not about the fame, the fans, or the money; it’s about the next fight. Nevertheless, he finds himself unwillingly pulled into the conflict as a Terran athlete in a Martian-dominated sport and as he begins a romantic relationship with his half-Martian PR agent.

While fight sequences are fantastic—no doubt enhanced by the author’s experience as a black belt in both karate and kung fu—what impressed me most was how easily she drops you into the world. The prose, much like the protagonist, is skillful, quick, and efficient; it has no time to slow down for exposition. Instead, you are off and humming along from the start, following Carr though his pre-fight routines, ruminating on the downsides of zero-G bathrooms, and entering a world—of the future, and of professional fighting—with just enough of everything you need to connect and keep moving.


Chelsea Cleveland is a Seattle-based marketer and copywriter. She has particular experience in the fields of books, design, travel, and technology. Her other passions include standing on tall things, feeding animals (human and otherwise), collecting art supplies, and discussing movies. She writes short stories, largely because it’s very difficult to finish long ones.

Fonda Lee: Exclusive Interview

We’re pleased to bring you the second 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 Fonda Lee.

 

AMY TENBRINK: Let’s talk gender and villainy, especially in speculative fiction. What does it mean to you for a woman or nonbinary person to be a villain? What does it mean for you for Ayt Madashi, the Pillar of the Mountain in your Green Bone Saga, to be a villain? To you, her creator, what is her villainy? And was she always a woman—did gender come into play as you developed her character?

Fonda Lee

FONDA LEE: For me, the concept of the fictional villain is simply this: someone whose goals and actions are in direct opposition to those of the protagonist. Throughout history, it’s typically men who are held up as heroes, both in real life and in fiction, while women are presented in supporting roles or as villains. Yes, there are many notable female heroes, and far more now than there used to be, but I suspect that if you look across the history of literature and storytelling, they’re outnumbered by the famous villainesses who stand in the way of the man—just think of every wicked witch or seductress ever written. When there’s a woman or nonbinary person opposing a man, I’m frankly inclined to think they probably have their own very understandable reasons for their villainy.

Moral ambiguity is something that you’ll find in almost all of my work. I’ve often said that I don’t really write heroes and villains because I could just as easily and sympathetically have written the story from the perspective of the antagonist. Ayt Madashi is a good example of this. She’s a villain in the story because she’s such a strategic and tenacious rival to the protagonist Kaul family, but when you consider her rationale, it makes an awful lot of sense. I envisioned Ayt Mada as a woman right from the start. Her toughness, ruthlessness, and need to be publicly flawless are all a result of her climbing to power in a highly male-dominated culture. She murdered her way into power—but how many men have done the same? What choice did she have, when she was clearly the most capable and qualified leader, and was passed up because she was a woman? She has a plan that she truly believes is the best way forward for the country—one that involves her being the one in charge. Like many powerful authoritarian leaders, she can be a hero to some and a villain to others.

 

AMY: While we’re on the topic of your epic, dangerous Green Bone Saga, I’d love to know your view on the feminism of the world you’ve built. Your wuxia fantasy is full of hypermasculinity and violence, some of which is permitted women, but there’s an underlying thread that women must transgress to achieve Pillar-level leadership, which is perhaps why my heart skips every time Kaul Shae and Ayt Mada interact—and I gasped aloud at that moment in Jade War (you know which one, but no spoilers here). What do you hope your work says about feminism and the roles of women in society?

FONDA: My goal is to write speculative fiction with as much verisimilitude as possible. I’m not trying to shape the world to my liking or to something in particular, but to hold up a mirror to our own world. I want the places, the people, and the societies I write to feel entirely real to the reader, and that extends to the roles of women. To me, that means presenting a range of women and the roles they take on in a hypermasculine culture—everything from the willfully ignorant and passive mob wife (Shae’s mother, Kaul Wan Ria), to the supportive partner and soft power behind the throne (Wen), to the exceptional strongwoman who succeeds by outcompeting the men (Ayt Mada).

Verisimilitude to me also means not leaning into the hypersexualized fantasy stereotypes of female villains. There’s a scene in Jade City when Anden meets Ayt Mada for the first time and thinks to himself that she looks like an ordinary woman in comfortable pants reading reports in her office. (Because that’s exactly what a female CEO or stateswoman or Green Bone clan leader would do!)

Another thing that I wanted to do was write a fantasy story that was not static in terms of cultural development. The Green Bone Saga takes place in the modern era, and there are forces of globalization and modernization as well as technological and societal change at play. And those forces very much affect the clans, and the evolving role of women as it plays out over the trilogy.

 

AMY: In Jade City and Jade War, Kekon is incredibly violent and your fight scenes are spectacular—which isn’t surprising given your black belts in both karate and kung fu. Further, the fighting in your world is deliberately designed to be close, hand-to-hand rather than with guns, which are of limited use due to Green Bone magic. And this style of fighting is tangled up with the Green Bone honor code, which includes phrases like “I offer you a clean blade” to invoke a duel, and the idea that some deaths are clean and others are not—but also includes aisho, a prohibition on a Green Bone attacking someone who doesn’t wear magical jade. Talk to me about your view of violence and honor codes.

FONDA: I’m fascinated by honor cultures, and I researched everything from the samurai code of bushido to the history of the code duello commonly adhered to in Europe and the southern U.S. Then I set about creating a fictional honor culture with strictures specifically designed for my fantasy world with magic martial arts powers. I love to write stories with explosive, gripping scenes of action and violence—but I’m also a stickler for immersive and believable worldbuilding. No society can survive constant arbitrary violence and out-of-control vendettas—there have to be rules that clearly stipulate when and how grievances are settled by violence. The idea, for example, that soldiers would not target women and children has been commonplace for most of military history; magically enhanced super warriors would have a similar prohibition against targeting those without jade. Duels are meant to contain feuds and prevent them from spiraling into further violence—hence the idea of a “clean blade” that would prohibit retaliation. In short, I’m satisfying both my desire for sociologically sound worldbuilding and kickass fight scenes!

 

AMY: Duty is a recurring theme in your work. In fact, you spoke to Lightspeed Magazine about something similar in 2018, the idea that your characters believe they have a choice, but ultimately, they do not. Shae’s journey, in particular, highlights this theme for me: She removed her jade and went to Espenia, only to return home in a time of crisis, resume wearing her jade, and assume a top-tier leadership position in her clan. Why is the idea of duty—or perhaps family—so important to your work?

FONDA: Throughout the Green Bone Saga, family is both a source of great strength and great personal conflict. The main characters go through a lot—but they do it together. So many fantasy stories in Western canon are based on the “hero’s journey”—the singular hero gradually leaving behind all that is important to him in order to triumph alone. It’s a very individualist mentality. I’m inspired by both Western and Eastern storytelling traditions and very much wanted to write a different kind of epic fantasy. I believe that my sensibilities of what’s important to me to portray in fiction are influenced by the fact that I’m a second generation Asian American; my parents were immigrants who struggled in a new country in order to give their children a better future, and they stayed together for years longer than they should have out of a sense of family duty and sacrifice.

This experience is far from culturally exclusive; family and duty are so important and entwined in so many people’s lives, and that constant tension between love and frustration, personal desire and obligation to others, independence and belonging are themes that make for deeply compelling and relatable human drama in any story, even one about magical gangsters.

Fonda Lee Quote
 

AMY: You’ve wanted to be a writer since you were a kid—but your first career was as a corporate strategist before you came back to writing. You’ve written young adult (Cross Fire, Zeroboxer) and adult (the Green Bone Saga) works, and now you’re moving into comics, of which you’ve said, “In short, comics is a far more rapid, free-flowing, collaborative creative environment. That presents challenges as well as fantastic opportunities. There’s a sense of “we’re all making this up together as we go along” energy that is both mildly terrifying as well as very energizing and freeing, and it’s a nice counterpoint to the way I work on novels.” How do you approach risk, as a former corporate strategist, as a writer, and as a person?

FONDA: I tend to be an all-or-nothing sort of personality. When I decided to make a career switch into writing, I went for it almost obsessively and never looked back. At the same time, I’m a very pragmatic person, and I’m always planning ahead, always mulling possibilities and contingency plans. So I would say that I’m definitely a risk taker, but the sort of risk taker armed with a spreadsheet! I’m easily bored and always want to push myself and take on new challenges, but every step has to make sense to me, I have to feel like I’ve done my research. Sometimes, things don’t work out, or they don’t happen the way I planned, but that’s life, and you move on. When it comes to writing, I take the long view. This career is a risk, every project is a risk, but at the end of it all, I want to have a large body of quality work that I’m proud to look at on my shelf.

 

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?

FONDA: My high school English teacher, Ms. Carson, was one of the first real fans of my writing. She told me that I had a true gift for words, and she encouraged me to nurture my skills and to continue writing. And I sorely disappointed her! I’ll never forget the look on her face when she found out that I was going to study finance in college. “Finance?!” I could tell she believed that wasn’t my true calling, that I should follow my passion and talent. She was right, of course. I lost touch with Ms. Carson, but many years later, when I began writing seriously for publication, I would often think of her voice in my head and her supportive notes in the margins of my early work and take comfort knowing there was one person, at least, who’d believed I had what it took to be a writer.

 


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.

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