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Archive for June 2021

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 13, Issue 4: June 2021

This month:

Ah, June! The days stretched long, the flowers bloomed, and the book gods delivered unto us a veritable flood of new releases. Whether you’re the type to spend hours basking in the sun or you’re curled up in the comfort of shade and cool air, we hope you’ve got some good summer reads to keep you company—and if you’ve hit a reading slump, we’ve got some suggestions to help get you out of it!

Registration

If you haven’t yet registered to join us in October, now is a perfect time! We’re making all our plans, the hotel is open for reservations, and airlines have some amazing sales. So register now to take one thing off your to-do list.

Faculty Interviews

In June, we began introducing you to your Sirens Studio Faculty Members.

  • Jae Young Kim

    Jae Young Kim, who has worked as a nonprofit attorney advocating for immigrants, people of color, and survivors of domestic violence, will be presenting a career-oriented workshop: “Working for Change: Can We Wear Capes in Real Life?” during Sirens Studio. “I hope to share my real-life experience as a nonprofit attorney and provide insights into legal systems. I can share what it’s like working for social change as part of your job and the good and the challenging parts of my work.” Read about her work as an attorney, her thoughts on social change in and out of the courtroom, and her favorite types of fantasy stories in her interview.

  • Anna-Marie McLemore

    Anna-Marie McLemore, author of Blanca & Roja, Dark and Deepest Red, and the forthcoming The Mirror Season, among other works, discusses returning to Sirens as Studio faculty after having been a guest of honor in 2018: “It’s strange and wonderful coming back to Sirens knowing so much more about myself than I did a couple of years ago.” Their workshop, “Finding Magic: Enchanting Characters and Their Worlds,” will help Studio attendees think about magical realism and the interweaving of magic and character. Read their full interview for more of Anna-Marie’s insights on fairy tales, gender identity, and claiming our own stories.

  • Marie Brennan

    Author Marie Brennan, known for the Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent, among other works, is another former guest of honor returning as faculty—she first joined us in 2010! Her Studio workshop, “Faith in Fantasy: Building Believable Religions,” will draw from her extensive academic and non-academic work. “For any kind of worldbuilding, I think one of the most valuable things you can do is read about actual cultures in the real world; don’t just draw all your ideas from novels and other forms of fiction.” Read Marie’s full interview for more on developing character voices, color-coded reference charts, and the difference between teaching and doing.

Books

Remember being a kid and having your list of assigned summer reading? Isn’t the freedom of being able to choose your summer reads for yourself wonderful? To develop your own list, unbound by anyone else’s expectations, and secure in the knowledge that there will not be a quiz in September? And yet… at the same time… sometimes, it’s nice to have that guidance! Not to mention knowing that someone else has had the same reading experience, so that you’ve got someone to share your thoughts with, gush with, or vent to about what your brain has just consumed. As always, Sirens is here to help guide your bookish exploration!

Book Recommendations and Reviews:

  • Happy #SirensPride! To celebrate Pride Month, we’ve compiled a list of 30 Queer AF books for your enjoyment. Of course, we celebrate Pride and the works of LGBTQIAP+ authors all year long, so consider these titles but a sampler of the amazing speculative fiction produced by the queer community. We hope you’ll explore further, find more fabulous queer reads, and tell us all about them!
  • A new series on the blog reintroduces our Books and Breakfast selections for 2021, where we showcase a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme. This month, we’re spotlighting the graphic novels on the list: Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, and Nimona by Noelle Stevenson.
  • The third installment in this year’s Reading Challenge feature series centers books with the theme of Revolution: the act which transforms personal action and private battles into organized action and real societal change. These are the books “that make us see things about our world more clearly—and show us how change might be possible.” Visit the post to learn more about the Reading Challenge selections that we feel best embody this theme.
  • Isabel Schechter shares an “It’s on my list” list, for all those of us who really keep meaning to get around to everything on our high-stacked TBRs.
  • If you’re in need of hopeful, joyful reads to help get you through tough times, let Lily Weitzman help with a list of her favorite daring, optimistic, community-oriented pandemic reads.
  • June’s Read with Amy feature shares Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink’s thoughts on S. L. Huang’s Burning Roses, a fairy tale remix with a Latina Red Riding Hood and a Chinese trans woman as the Archer. “As they travel, we learn their respective mistakes, their pain, their trauma, and their hopelessness—why each continues to throw herself in front of monsters, desperation disguised as heroism. And why heroics, in the end, are the path to neither redemption nor happiness.”
  • July’s Book Club selection is Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel. If you’d like to join the Zoom conversation on Sunday, July 25, please email us (help at sirensconference.org) to be added to our list!
  • Still need more? Here’s our June Roundup of new fantasy releases!

Good luck to you in your summer adventures!

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).

 

Hope, community, joy in tough times: Lily’s favorite pandemic reads

speculative fiction pandemic book recommendations

This is, quite simply, a selection of books that have brought me joy over the last year or so, a time when I particularly appreciated daring, hopeful speculative fiction. These books all have the sense of wonder that I love in the fantasy genre, whether that wonder comes from whisking you off to a new world or from making it feel like magic is just in your peripheral vision, waiting for you to recognize it. In addition to a strong sense of place, these stories feature characters that embrace their identities and forge connections and community. I hope that they continue to bring joy to new readers.

  • The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

    After a run-in at a coffeehouse, Guet Imm, a devotee of the Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, decides to join a company of bandits—regardless of what the bandits think of this idea. The world of this wuxia story, inspired by Emergency Malaya, is clearly vast and complex. Cho, however, cleverly zooms in on this group of characters. There is a charm and lightness to her prose that she uses to weave between banter and explorations of identity. The result is a character-driven story that reveals new layers to its protagonists through their developing relationships.

  • No Man’s Land by A.J. Fitzwater

    In World War II-era New Zealand, Dorothea “Tea” Gray arrives at a remote farm to work for the Land Service, where young women take on the jobs of men who have gone off to fight. As she gets to know fellow farm workers Izzy and Grant—who both worked with Tea’s brother before he shipped off to war—Tea starts to realize that the uncanny experiences she’s had on the farm speak to a magic within her. Tea’s magic, developing relationship with Izzy, and concern for her brother weave together into a moving conclusion that centers queer and indigenous identity.

  • Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger, illustrations by Rovina Cai

    It is such a joy to pick up a book and be swept away by a unique voice, which was precisely my experience reading Elatsoe. In a slightly more uncanny version of our world, Ellie, an asexual, Lipan Apache teen, investigates the murder of her cousin. As her investigation unearths the secrets of a seemingly perfect town, she must discover the truth and protect her family. I love the portrayals of community in this book: Ellie’s family and the way they retell their stories; her comedic, nerdy banter with her best friend; and her bond with her pet, the ghost of her childhood dog. Rovina Cai’s chapter illustrations tell a beautiful story that runs parallel to the text.

  • Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

    I finally picked up not one, but three of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s books in 2020. I enjoyed them all, but Gods of Jade and Shadow was my favorite, with a Jazz Age setting that reflects its explorations of tradition and change. In it, Casiopea Tun inadvertently pricks her finger on a shard of bone and frees the imprisoned Hun-Kamé, a Mayan god of the underworld. Bound together, they depart Casiopea’s home in the Yucatán and travel through Mexico as Hun-Kamé seeks to regain his former power. This book reads like an original fairytale and left me with a sense of beautiful melancholy.

  • The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk

    Beatrice Clayborn’s family is counting on her making an advantageous match this Bargaining Season, but that would mean abandoning her secret study of magic. Then she meets the Lavan siblings, catching the eye of handsome Ianthe. A lesser story might let Beatrice simply accept marrying for love, but Polk’s narrative takes a more nuanced route as Beatrice seeks a way to embrace her magical identity. This delightful fantasy romance blends Regency-style courtship (the costumes! the dances!) with magic and the fight for women’s rights. Polk is another author I kept returning to this past year, and I recommend their Kingston Cycle just as highly.

  • The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall

    The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea is a queer, anti-imperialist pirate story with sweeping adventure and lyrical romance. Flora has been sailing aboard the Dove as the pirate Florian. Evelyn’s imperial family has sent her away to marry an unknown man. When their paths cross, Florian and Evelyn not only fall in love, but also begin to reframe their views of themselves and their world. On their journeys, they encounter mermaids, magic, and lost memories. I adored so much about this book, from its queering of the “girl disguised as a boy” trope as an exploration of gender identity to its personification of the sea itself.


 

Lily Weitzman is a programming, outreach, and communications librarian in Boston, Massachusetts. 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.

Marie Brennan: Exclusive Sirens Interview

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

 

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

Marie Brennan

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

#SirensPride: 30 Queer AF speculative books to celebrate Pride Month

pride lgbtq speculative fiction recommendations

As a conference and community exploring gender in fantasy literature, with one of our primary goals to uplift works by women, nonbinary, and transgender people, we celebrate Pride all year long here at Sirens! We hope you know us as a destination for discovering glorious, wondrous, splendiferous books by LGBTQIAP+ authors, so we’re pleased to recommend 30 speculative works released in recent years.

It was nearly impossible to narrow this list down to 30, so please consider these works nothing more than a starting point in your glorious, wondrous, splendiferous trip through queer speculative fiction. Some listed here are new books by established favorites, others are dazzling debuts. Along the way, you’ll meet queer witches, nonbinary werewolves, angry bisexual dragons, trans necromancers, inclusive families, and queernormative worlds—as well as terrifying future worlds, reinterpretations of myth and folklore, complex political sci-fi, and bold, shimmering writing. (And if you’d rather get these recs on Twitter, we’ve been—and will continue!—tweeting a book out each day in the month of June at the hashtag #SirensPride.)

1. The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo
The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo Nghi Vo
Vo tackles Gatsby, folks, and it’s decadent, dangerous, utterly exquisite: a shining veneer of golf and champagne, a darker undercurrent of magic and mystery, all swirling around a queer, Vietnamese immigrant and socialite.

2. Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas Aiden Thomas
In Thomas’s celebration of identity and romance, trans boy Yadriel is determined to prove himself a brujo—and accidentally summons the wrong ghost. Now he’s stuck with a very cute, very uncooperative, and very dead bad boy.

3. Snapdragon by Kat Leyh
Snapdragon by Kat Leyh Kat Leyh
A delicately human graphic novel about finding yourself, whoever that person might be, and finding a community, however unexpected that might be—replete with skeletons, the town witch, and a sob-fest, happy ending about second chances.

4. The Unbroken by C.L. Clark
The Unbroken by C.L. Clark C.L. Clark
People, Clark’s alternate North Africa-set work is a sapphic epic, a brutal military fantasy, a searing deconstruction of colonialism—and an un-put-down-able tale chock-full of spies, lies, assassinations, rebellion, humanity, and love.

5. When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey
When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey Sarah Gailey
When We Were Magic opens with an accidentally burst penis, but what’s truly explosive about Gailey’s first foray into YA is the unrelenting hope. Six queer witches, despite the chaos around them, looking to the future with such anticipation.

6. A Pale Light in the Black by K.B. Wagers
A Pale Light in the Black by K.B. Wagers K.B. Wagers
Max’s Near-Earth Orbital Guard team, gearing up for the Boarding Games, is instead left shaken by a routine mission gone wrong, a mysterious enemy, and a dangerous secret. Rollicking, queer, propulsively readable hopepunk.

7. Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker, illustrated by Wendy Xu
Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker, illustrated by Wendy Xu Suzanne Walker Wendy Xu
This adorable graphic novel features two Chinese American teens, one a queer witch and the other a nonbinary werewolf, in a “spooky” New England town. Themes of family dynamics, young love, and finding yourself abound.

8. Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace
Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace Nicole Kornher-Stace
Firebreak is terrifying: a too-easy, too-near-future, siren-call book where corporations control what’s left of America. Aro/ace Mal is a low-level gamer scrabbling to get by in a war-torn city—and it all goes to hell from there.

9. Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon
Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon Rivers Solomon
Solomon’s consistently scorching dissection of the trauma inflicted upon Black bodies is on full, furious display in faer transformative new work. In fleeing a cult, intersex, pregnant Vern runs right into a Gothic nightmare.

10. Heartwood: Non-Binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy edited by Joamette Gil
Heartwood: Non-Binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy edited by Joamette Gil Joamette Gil
Gil curates a collection of nonbinary creators’ graphic works about finding yourself and your power in that most mystical of places: the wood. Buy the gorgeous gilt-edged hardcover if you can!

11. Burning Roses by S.L. Huang
Burning Roses by S.L. Huang S.L. Huang
In this fairytale remix, Huang gifts readers with two middle-aged lesbian heroes, called to service once more, but reckoning with their own monstrousness and the opportunity for forgiveness. A blazing, fierce, thought-provoking work.

12. In the Ravenous Dark by A.M. Strickland
In the Ravenous Dark by A.M. Strickland A.M. Strickland
Blood magic, undead spirits, and Greek influence abound in Strickland’s twisty YA fantasy. As pansexual Rovan seeks to escape her fate, she finds herself falling for both a captivating princess and a hunky undead guardian.

13. The Low, Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado, illustrated by DaNi, with Tamra Bonvillain
The Low, Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado, illustrated by DaNi, with Tamra Bonvillain Carmen Maria Machado, DaNi, Tamra Bonvillain
Machado’s trademark fuck-you feminism infuses this super-creepy, queer as hell exploration of secrets, misogyny, and small-town horror. The uncanny art alone will keep you up all night!

14. The Girl and The Goddess by Nikita Gill
The Girl and The Goddess by Nikita Gill Nikita Gill
Gill’s blazingly personal bildungsroman in verse draws upon Hindu mythology to help her queer heroine—struggling with everything from the heteropatriarchy to the wake of the Partition—gloriously, inexorably find herself.

15. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir Tamsyn Muir
Gideon hates every fucking second of her time as cavalier primary to Harrowhark, master necromancer, as they navigate an impossible puzzle in a house of death in space. Muir’s work is ferociously ambitious, defiant—and hilarious.

16. This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone Amal El-Mohtar Max Gladstone
Spy vs. spy, enemies to lovers, and nature vs. technology…and how they come together in a queer story about forging a connection beyond the boundaries of time. Wordplay fans, this one’s for you!

17. We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia
We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia Tehlor Kay Mejia
If you’ve ever wished that two girls fighting over a boy would just run away with each other instead, this YA fantasy’s for you! And the power dynamics, shifting alliances, and Latinx-inspired worldbuilding enthrall.

18. Tarnished are The Stars by Rosiee Thor
Tarnished are The Stars by Rosiee Thor Rosiee Thor
A rebel with a clockwork heart, the Commissioner’s son, and an assassin collide—and become friends—in this dangerous, secret-filled, steampunk YA that celebrates queerness (including aro/ace rep!), adventure, and rebellion.

19. Bestiary by K-Ming Chang
Bestiary by K-Ming Chang K-Ming Chang
Chang’s wildly inventive, fabulist debut opens with a girl who grows a tiger tail and proceeds to exquisitely decant a multi-generational story about immigration and belonging, roots and hauntings, queer stories and transformations.

20. Victories Greater than Death by Charlie Jane Anders
Victories Greater than Death by Charlie Jane Anders Charlie Jane Anders
Tina is literally a second chance: a secret clone of a renowned hero, disguised as an Earth human. But in Anders’ rollicking hopepunk, she’ll need her BFF, an amazing crew, and a cute girl to save the worlds.

21. Wicked As You Wish by Rin Chupeco
Wicked As You Wish by Rin Chupeco Rin Chupeco
Many clever fairytale retellings wrapped up into one all-too-real queer contemporary tale of magic, adventure, a lost kingdom, a dick firebird, ICE agents with magic, and a group of excellent, messy, hilarious warrior-teens.

22. Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim
Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim Tara Sim
In this queernormative, genderbent Count of Monte Cristo, Amaya, finishing her time on a debtor’s ship, is offered the opportunity for revenge. Plots, backstabbing, corruption, rich worldbuilding, and bravura characters abound!

23. Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee
Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee Yoon Ha Lee
Gyen Jebi paints, including magical sigils on automaton soldiers—until they learn of the government’s corruption and then they steal a dragon automaton… A magnificent story of the power of art, told with Lee’s peerless craft.

24. The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg
The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg R.B. Lemberg
Lemberg’s work impresses with its intricate worldbuilding, meticulously crafted language, and genuinely complex characters. Themes of healing, faith, family, and friendship echo throughout the thoroughly queer universe.

25. The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke
The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke Hannah Abigail Clarke
After doing magic at a party, misfit Sideways stumbles into, impossibly, friendship with her school’s queen bees. Queer witches, slippery magic, rage, revenge, and feminist transgression abound in Clark’s gritty, glittery debut.

26. We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker
We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker Sarah Pinsker
A single family—two moms, two kids—serves as a human touchstone in Pinsker’s nuanced SF exploration of technology and consequences. Pinsker shines at writing empathy, compassion, grace against the world—and she dazzles here.

27. The Deep & Dark Blue by Niki Smith
The Deep & Dark Blue by Niki Smith
After a political coup, twins go into hiding with women who spin the threads of reality—and one twin discovers her identity as a trans girl. Smith’s magical, affirming graphic novel cleverly unravels and weaves stories anew.

28. Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore
Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore Anna-Marie McLemore
McLemore’s gorgeous, lyrical craft continues to weave wonders—and in Dark and Deepest Red, they use red dancing shoes of fairy tales and a modern-day magical framework to tell a tale of history, identity, terror, and ultimately love.

29. This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron
This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron Kalynn Bayron
Bayron somehow stuffs deadly plants, a magical girl, a dilapidated house, family secrets, dangerous mysteries, nefarious strangers, awesome moms, and an enigmatic hot girl into a deliciously dark, compulsively readable YA.

30. Shatter the Sky by Rebecca Kim Wells
Shatter the Sky by Rebecca Kim Wells Rebecca Kim Wells
All we need to say, really, is angry bisexual dragon. But Wells’s smart, bold YA fantasy also critiques colonialism and entrenched power structures, and features a heroine who learns she’s more powerful than she ever imagined.

Anna-Marie McLemore: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Today, Sirens co-founder Hallie Tibbetts speaks with Anna-Marie McLemore.

 

HALLIE TIBBETTS: When we interviewed you in 2018, when you were a Guest of Honor at Sirens, you said of your then-newest release, Blanca & Roja is also a reimagining of Swan Lake, so in many ways it’s a story about the roles we get cast in—as women, as queer women, as women of color—and how we can write our own stories instead.” You’ve since come out as nonbinary and I imagine that this idea of writing our own stories is as important to you as ever. How do writers push back on expected roles and claim their own stories? Do you have recommendations—fiction, nonfiction, anything—that you think exemplifies people claiming their own stories?

Anna-Marie McLemore interview

ANNA-MARIE MCLEMORE: It’s strange and wonderful coming back to Sirens knowing so much more about myself than I did a couple of years ago. And it’s funny that you mention Blanca & Roja, because I think I was trying to tell myself something with that book. There’s a passage where Page, who uses alternating pronouns, is talking about gender identity, and says “what you are is more beautiful than what you once thought you had to be.” My writer heart was basically screaming at me to hear those words, but it took me months to get that. Sometimes our storyteller hearts just know things first.

Thinking about claiming our stories, two books that come to mind are Dark Triumph, by Sirens community star Robin LaFevers—Sybella is an unforgettable example of a character who accepts that trauma is part of her but decides it won’t determine her—and This Is My Brain in Love, the latest from I.W. Gregorio—this book just gets what it’s like to have your brain buzzing with anxiety, while showing the characters as the fully complex people they are.

 

HALLIE: You’ve described your newest work, Dark and Deepest Red, as “sort of the secret history of a fairy tale.” Fairy tales are important to you: you re-tell them, you write new ones, their themes are inherent in your work. What is it about fairy tales that makes them so important to you?

ANNA-MARIE: Fairy tales are not just universal—every tradition has them—they’re also a way to talk about things that sometimes go unaddressed. In my own writing, fairy tales—whether I’m creating my own or reimagining a classic—are a landscape where magic speaks when something goes unspoken. When the Moon Was Ours is a fairy tale about a boy who paints the moon and a girl who grows roses from her wrist; it’s also about transgender identity and recovering from trauma. Wild Beauty brings readers into a world of queer Latina girls and murderous gardens; it also brings them into a conversation about colonialism and worker exploitation. When I reimagined “Snow-White & Rose-Red” and Swan Lake in Blanca & Roja, I was writing about colorism, queerphobia, and ableism while writing about enchanted forests and vengeful swans.

 

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

ANNA-MARIE: I fell in love when I stepped into Narnia as a little kid, and I kind of never left. But my dyslexia meant that I had a complicated relationship with reading. I was slow to identify myself as a reader because I was slow at the actual act of reading. But there were books that drew me in, overcoming my self-consciousness about whether I was really “a reader.” Many of them were fantasy novels. Two that were huge for me were Grave Mercy, by the above-mentioned Robin LaFevers, and Ash by Malinda Lo.

 

HALLIE: Since you’re coming to teach a writing workshop at Sirens, let’s talk writing! You’ve now published five young adult novels. How have you evolved as a writer, and how has your process evolved with you?

ANNA-MARIE: With every book, I get a little braver, and louder, about who I am, the communities I come from, and the stories I want to tell. My most recent book, Dark and Deepest Red, reimagines “The Red Shoes” in the context of the 1518 dancing plague. To tell that story in a way that felt honest and true, I knew it had to be about two brown girls five centuries apart, and it had to be about the ways they take the worst things the world says about them and use them to fight back.

I’m rallying all those little scraps of bravery as I look toward my next book, The Mirror Season, going out into the world. It’s the book of my SA survivor heart. It’s a story about two survivors, a secret forest, an enchanted pastelería, and the ways we find magic within our broken hearts.

 

HALLIE: This fall—fingers crossed!—you’ll be teaching “Finding Magic: Enchanting Characters and Their Worlds,” a writing workshop on magical realism, as part of the Sirens Studio. What can attendees expect from this time with you?

ANNA-MARIE: “Finding Magic” will be part primer on magical realism, part workshop on interweaving the idea of magic and character. Magical realism is a point of view I often come from as a Latinx storyteller, and it’s going to be the starting point to get us talking about crafting unique and vibrant magic as an integral part of a story’s landscape, no matter what the particular magic in your story looks like.

 

HALLIE: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. When we asked you this question a couple years ago, you talked about how your mom would be a brilliant and stylish queen or the most glamorous of witches. Would you like to shout-out someone else? Could you 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?

ANNA-MARIE: Oh wow, thank you for reminding me that I said that about my mom, because I don’t think I ever told her, and that’s going to make her day.

I dedicated Blanca & Roja to two women who changed my life in a way they probably didn’t even realize at the time. But I’ve been trying to get in touch with them ever since. I’m a little heartbroken today, because I just found out that one of them died recently. She and her wife were together for over six decades. Still working on getting in touch with her wife. I’m really hoping I get to tell her how the two of them changed everything for me. Wish me luck <3

 


Anna-Marie McLemore (they/them) is a queer, Latinx, non-binary author who grew up hearing la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. Their books include The Weight of Feathers, a 2016 William C. Morris YA Debut Award Finalist; 2017 Stonewall Honor Book When the Moon Was Ours, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature and was the winner of the 2016 James Tiptree Jr. Award; Wild Beauty, a Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Booklist best book of 2017; Blanca & Roja, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice; Dark and Deepest Red, a Winter 2020 Indie Next List title; and the forthcoming The Mirror Season.

For more information about Anna-Marie, please visit their website or Twitter.

Hallie Tibbetts has been involved with Narrate Conferences since its inception in 2006, serving variously as education officer, communications officer, and vice president, along with chairing a number of conferences (including many years of Sirens). She works in editorial at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on books for children age zero to eighteen, but doesn’t mind if grownups like those stories too.

Sirens Mission: Revolution

Sirens Conference Mission Revolution

Not being able to gather in person with the Sirens community in 2020 was heart-rending. But it also gave us the gift of time: a chance, after more than a decade of work, to take a breath and consider what Sirens is today—and what we want it to be tomorrow.

Sirens is a conference that actively seeks to amplify voices that are pushing boundaries in speculative spaces—and specifically, are pushing those boundaries in the direction of a more inclusive, more empathetic, more just world. Since we featured works on this year’s villainous theme last year, this year’s Sirens Reading Challenge instead showcases 50 works by female, nonbinary, and trans authors that envision that better world—and we’re exploring what that means to us in a series of six posts, using those works as reference points.

Our first two posts discussed finding and sharing those speculative and nonfiction works that, respectively, reclaim what it means for us to be from somewhere and transgress boundaries, expectations, and limitations for all people of marginalized genders. Today, we discuss revolution and the collective action we need to transform our quotidian skirmishes into a new and better world.

Revolution

We wake up every day and go to war.

And our battles are fought at all times, on all fronts, with little succor or relief. We battle partners who race to work while we scramble, last night’s dishes still in the sink and the plumber on the way, before finally tackling our own day. We battle wolf-whistles on the street, groping in the subway, and snide comments about our gender presentation, everyone telling us to “smile” like we should be grateful for any kind of attention, no matter its intrusion or danger. We battle mediocre white, cisgender male bosses, who pay us less and promote us less and sideline us because we are too assertive, too passive, too emotional, too sure of ourselves, too focused on our families. We battle female thought-leaders—rich, white-woman beneficiaries of tokenism—who encourage us to lean in or proclaim that, if we just tried harder, we could have it all. We battle cisgender non-white men in our own communities, a result of extremist interpretations of religious teachings or a consequence of colonialism. We battle the empty fridge, the overflowing laundry basket, the unfinished work project, all perceived failures of our past selves.

But those are just the skirmishes, the quotidian clashes that we’ve largely learned to shrug off or ignore, the daily indignities of being a person of a marginalized gender, especially for those of us with multiple axes of oppression. The constant conflict that is meant to distract us, to exhaust us, so that we aren’t focused on the larger war: the one against our white heteropatriarchy-designed society, with its demands and limitations and lies. The rotten systemic mores that are designed specifically to create and maintain power for only white, cisgender men—who make up less than 30% of America—and those who enable them.

We wake up every day and go to war. We fight our own battles, alone. We reclaim and transgress until we are exhausted. We assert our truths and our needs and ourselves, until we feel like our bodies are, themselves, a battlefield. Every day, the war comes to us, and every day, we fight it.

But we can do only so much alone. We need collective action. We need foundational change. We need a revolution.

We need an unequivocal rejection of the societal structures that have been built by the white heteropatriarchy, by colonizers, by capitalism. We need an essential reimagining of irredeemably biased systems. A full-throated commitment to valuing our reclamations, our transgressions, and ourselves, not just when convenient, but every day and in every way. A determined bending of the universe toward justice.

And so, in the speculative space that is Sirens, our third mission statement is revolution: to find and share those stories that revolutionize how we see our society, our structures and systems, and our place within them. That make us see things about our world more clearly—and show us how change might be possible. That ink blueprints for reshaped, reimagined worlds. Even more so, that create worlds devoid of the battles we must fight in our own. Worlds where we are accepted for who we are, who we love, who we want to be. Worlds where people of all genders are already fundamentally human, and can grapple with new issues, new concerns, new truths. Worlds that are revolutionary.

Because we need a revolution. We need a thousand revolutions.

Revolution Works

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls—queer, Egyptian-American feminist Mona Eltahawy’s fuck-you feminist anthem—exhorts women and girls around the world to deliberately, uncompromisingly practice seven “sins” forbidden them by the patriarchy: anger, ambition, profanity, violence, attention seeking, lust, and power. Through a combination of searing academic work and lived experience as an activist around the world, Eltahawy argues for a singularly blazing, deliberately profane approach to feminist thought, one that demands that patriarchy fear the power of transgressive feminists to defy, disrupt, and destroy it. Eltahawy’s work, centering queer, BIPOC feminism, is a raised fist, a relentless repudiation, an inexorable revolution.

Brittney Cooper’s luminous, fearless brilliance is on undeniable display in Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. In this collection of essays, Cooper interrogates—consummately, furiously, hilariously—the warring messages of feminism for Black women. But Cooper’s work is more than a refusal to allow mainstream feminism to elide Black women, or even a rage-driven conflagration, though it is certainly both: She also addresses Black women with extraordinary compassion, holding their sorrow and pain gently, nurturing their friendships, their love, and their selves. Her revolution is driven by equal parts anger and kindness. And she sees the world as it is, and as it could be, as clear as day.

Carmen Maria Machado’s ferocious, genre-bending collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is a series of feminist issues incarnate. Unlike Eltahawy’s and Cooper’s works, Machado’s medium is fiction, made all the more honest for its invented stories. Starting with “The Husband Stitch”—a virtuoso retelling of the Velvet Ribbon fairy tale as a fabulist, modern tale of privacy and the inevitability of male intrusions—Machado incisively lays bare the constant oppressions and all-too-familiar compromises of women’s shared experiences. Revolution can come only after fully realizing the rapacious horror of our quotidian lives—a gift that Machado provides.

Speaking of quotidian horrors, The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror, by Mallory Ortberg (now Daniel M. Lavery), uses familiar tales—fairy tales, folklore, children’s classics—to unearth unavoidable truths. Here is someone who understands the original, cautionary nature of our stories and how those stories travel societies changed, not to mention the everyday horrors of societal expectations, biased systems, and expected gender performance, rendered all the more apparent for their quasi-familiar, fantastic settings. Lavery detonates all of that in his revolutionary short story collection, sometimes slyly, sometimes heart-shatteringly, always with tremendous humanity.

A clarion cry for the world to better treasure humanity, and for humanity to better treasure the world, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s This Accident of Being Lost, a genre-breaking, ground-breaking collection of stories and songs, is wildly experimental and deliberately incendiary. An award-winning Nishnaabeg storyteller, not to mention provocateur and poet, Simpson incisively analyzes and condemns colonialism in her work, often in surprising ways. (Have you ever guerilla-tapped maples in a residential neighborhood? Or considered that Lake Ontario may want to flood the world and remake it?) Simpson’s work is invariably smart and often demanding, requiring that readers consider the world differently than before, through rage, through despair, through sorrow, through joy.

Kameron Hurley’s work always insists on revolution, an explicit rejection of hypermasculine nihilism combined with a purposeful centering of radical, communal kindness. The Stars Are Legion is her battle cry for that revolution, a work that eschews male characters entirely in its unremitting exploration of reproductive justice. Hurley centers two unreliable narrators in her space opera: one with amnesia, the other a known liar. As the former makes her very squishy way through a living spaceship, and the latter plays a game of queens and pawns, Hurley weaves science fiction with body horror to explore—fiercely, powerfully—a world of women’s issues.

Justina Ireland is undeniably dazzling at power deconstructions, especially when she’s interrogating the history of race in America—and Dread Nation is all that wrapped up in a bravura horror novel. In the aftermath of the United States Civil War, the dead have risen as zombies, and Black and brown girls are pressed into combat schools in order to develop the skills necessary to protect the more genteel members of society. As Jane navigates this new reality, Ireland cleverly constructs an America both outrageously different from, but with all-too-familiar reflections of our own: one that tells the terrible truth of oppression, marginalization, and humanity in America.

Tehlor Kay Mejia dismantles power structures as well in We Set the Dark on Fire, her shining, subversive young-adult novel. In a Latinx world with shades of The Handmaid’s Tale gender dystopia, young women are trained at the Medio School for Girls for one of two roles: to manage a husband’s household or to raise his children. While both options offer privilege—comfort, security, luxury, freedom from the turmoil of the lower classes—top student Dani, recruited as a spy by those who wish for a more equal, more just society, wants something bigger, including a forbidden love. Mejia’s incisive, riotous feminism imbues her propulsive tale of rebellion, revolution, and finding yourself.

When we contemplate speculative revolution, an indictment of monarchy is required—and Nghi Vo somehow stuffs an epic’s worth of high-fantasy political intrigue into her novella, Empress of Salt and Fortune. Told in retrospect by Rabbit, a handmaiden sold for five baskets of dye, Vo’s slim work chronicles the story of In-yo, a woman from the north sent south as a trophy of war for a political marriage, and how she—alone, hated, in virtual exile—crafts her vengeance. Incandescent, gorgeous, dangerous, with Vo’s trademark carefully wrought prose, The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a revolution, one where even marginalized people can bring history to heel.

This post is the second of a six-part series on Sirens’s mission. You can find the first two posts here: reclamation and transgression. We will update this post with links when all posts are published.

S. L. Huang’s Burning Roses will change how you see the world and your place in it

Read With Amy

What if?, S. L. Huang seems to ask in her latest work. What if the stories were wrong? What if once upon a time were wrong? What if it were really twice upon a time? Or thrice upon a time?

Or as many fucking times upon a time as you need to get it right?

We talk a lot about heroes. In our books, on the speculative shelves, we know those heroes as illustrious warriors: hypermasculine, cisgender men saving the countryside from marauding monsters through practiced, performative violence, discarding slain tyrants and murdered dragons in their wake. We know, now, that others can be heroes, too—though even here, we generally reserve the word “hero” for only those white, cisgender women who also slay tyrants and murder dragons.

We talk a lot, too, about monstrousness. Not so much about monstrousness of cisgender men, but the perceived and impossibly expansive monstrousness of those of marginalized genders: sirens and furies, yōkai and harionago, la llorona and banshees. About monstrousness as the living embodiment of transgression, a deliberate re-casting of our rage and grief and power and pleasure as monstrous.

And of course we talk a lot about redemption. Not for heroes, who need no redemption from the violence that society demands they perform. But redemption for cisgender male villains, whom we all know need just one more chance—always just one more chance—to find the right path. Sometimes, we even talk about redemption for those of marginalized genders, from our presumed monstrousness, where redemption is less about choice and more about subjugation: through renunciation of power, through marriage, through death.

But what we don’t talk about a lot is forgiveness. Or the notion that, as much as we may want the forgiveness of others, sometimes what we need is to forgive ourselves. To salve the damage and the pain and the trauma that we have wrought, and to recognize that for all the damage we have done to others, we have inflicted even more upon ourselves.

In Burning Roses, S. L. Huang wants to talk about heroism and monstrousness and redemption. But she also wants, very much, to talk about mistakes and pain and, yes, the seemingly impossible task of forgiving yourself.

In this fairytale remix, Huang gifts readers with two middle-aged lesbian heroes, living together somewhat grumpily, levering their creaky bones off the porch to go fight monsters, pining for their respective lost wives, drowning in the pain and trauma of their respective mistakes. Rosa, a relative stranger in this land, is a Latina Red Riding Hood, raised in an abusive household, a crack shot with a rifle, but who, in seeking vigilante justice, was so oblivious to the injustice of her actions—finally fleeing both consequences and her wife and daughter.

Hou Yi the Archer, reimagined as a Chinese trans woman, was a legit hero in her prime, adored by the people, fêted by the gods. She loved her wife, and took a child as her own son, but her choices cost her both, and now, even well past her prime, she continues to readily, perhaps eagerly, throw herself in the path of monsters. She found Rosa by the side of the road some time ago, brought her home with her, and now both seek literal monsters to battle, knowing any one could be their last, in order to better ignore their respective figurative monsters.

As Burning Roses opens, sunbirds—fire-breathers—are ravaging the countryside and Hou Yi and Rosa gather themselves for battle once more. But these sunbirds are controlled by a man from Hou Yi’s past, and Hou Yi and, despite both their protests, Rosa, set off across the countryside after him. As they travel, we learn their respective mistakes, their pain, their trauma, and their hopelessness—why each continues to throw herself in front of monsters, desperation disguised as heroism. And why heroics, in the end, are the path to neither redemption nor happiness.

Huang’s fierce, blazing deconstruction of the respective pain of Hou Yi and Rosa—and how that pain distorted their memories and perceptions, and how those distortions frustrated any attempt that either might make to forgive herself for her mistakes—also functions as a similar deconstruction for all of us. Pain is sometimes an easy distraction, all too familiar, a deserved punishment that diverts us from the real work of perceiving things as they were or are, and finding a way to forgive ourselves our mistakes. And Huang’s deconstruction does, for all that, come with happy endings for both Hou Yi and Rosa—and maybe for us, too.

Burning Roses is a novella, a mere 153 pages. You can read it in an hour—but it will sit with you for days because Huang has a lot to say about heroics and monstrousness and redemption, about pain and mistakes and forgiveness. She’ll offer you a chance at something kinder, gentler, more thoughtful. She’ll change how you see the world and your place in it.

Before each conference, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy and other interesting books by women, nonbinary, and trans authors. You can find all of her reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!


By day, Amy Tenbrink dons her supergirl suit and handles strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president of a major media company. By night, she dons her supergirl cape, plans literary conferences, bakes increasingly complicated pastries, and reads 150 books a year. She is a co-founder and current co-chair of Sirens, an annual conference dedicated to examining gender and fantasy literature. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, flagrant ambition, and a well-planned revolution.

Meet your Sirens Studio faculty: An interview with Jae Young Kim

As we look forward to welcoming—and welcoming back—attendees at Sirens this fall, we’re pleased to rerun last year’s interviews with our brilliant Sirens Studio faculty by members of our conference staff. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of Sirens Studio, a two-day, pre-conference event that requires a separate ticket. . You can learn more about the Sirens Studio, with full course descriptions and faculty biographies, on our page here.

 

CANDICE LINDSTROM: You’ve spent your career as a non-profit attorney providing free services to survivors of domestic violence and immigrants looking to start a new life in the United States. Did you always know you wanted to work as an advocate for those who can’t defend themselves, or did something draw you to this specific area of the legal profession?

Jae Young Kim

JAE YOUNG KIM: I went to law school in part to appease my parents, because they believed, as Korean immigrants, that the way to succeed would be getting a professional degree. In some ways, I was a disappointment because I did not go to medical school, as that was the pinnacle of achievement in their minds! I always received pressure to take the socially acceptable path and strive for mainstream acceptance. But once I was in law school, I knew I wanted to work for the public interest at a non-profit. I had always had a strong moral sense of justice. I had understood racism and sexism permeated the United States, but I had not ever really thought about using my degree and my work to fight those structural oppressions. In law school, I was fortunate enough to become friends with organizers and folks committed to fighting for social justice and realized that this was an option. In my third year of law school, I was in a year-long clinic defending immigrants in the legal system. I felt like this was a perfect fit for my passion for justice and my critical thinking and advocacy skills. Also, when I was in law school, the world of immigrant legal advocacy was much smaller and I knew there was a need for smart, competent immigration attorneys. Immigration legal work was not being funded; it took me a while to find a job where I could provide immigration legal services, so I started my legal career representing survivors of domestic violence on family law matters.

 

CANDICE: What do you love about your work, and what is challenging about your work that might surprise those of us outside it?

JAE YOUNG: I love that my work immediately and materially improves the lives of my clients, as orders of protection (restraining orders in New York), custody orders, and immigration status can dramatically change their lives. One of the challenges I face in my work is balancing the tension between knowing what may be “best” from a legal perspective while acknowledging that clients are human and ultimately, they must make the decision about their lives that extend beyond a case. Making informed choices in the legal system is not easy and, at the end of the day, I have to take comfort that I have done everything I can for a client, but they must make the decision they can live with. Law is still a service industry, which lawyers forget a lot.

 

CANDICE: What keeps you strong and hopeful in the face of the adversity that your clients face?

JAE YOUNG: Knowing that lawyers are not the way we will achieve justice. I am answering these questions while the protests sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countless Black people take place.

 

CANDICE: Did you have any assumptions about or expectations of your clients that changed after you had been in this field for some time? Do you tend to see a lot of similarities or overlap in the legal problems faced by the different groups you serve, or is every case dramatically different?

JAE YOUNG: I mentioned this in my earlier answer, but I learned very quickly that clients make the decisions that are best for themselves and that is not always the decision you counsel them to make.

I would say that racism, sexism, classism, ableism, heteropatriarchy and other points of oppression can really inform the legal issues my clients face. I have worked with people across race, gender, class, disability and sexuality, and those with privilege engage in legal systems usually more easily than those without.

 

CANDICE: Does a successful career in non-profit work take a different set of skills or values than regular for-profit office work? Is burnout more of an issue here than with traditional for-profit legal work, and how does one work around or overcome that?

JAE YOUNG: I don’t think there is that much of a difference between the skill set for non-profit services work and regular for-profit services work. Law is a field whose guiding principle is zealous advocacy and that is true whether you work at a corporate firm or a non-profit. Strong written and oral communication skills, relationship building, critical thinking skills, creativity, thinking on your feet, crisis management—these skills are essential across the board. The values may be different in that a for-profit legal office has to focus on making money, but I think the same is true of non-profit organizations. We are funded by local, state and federal government and foundations and have to provide deliverables and outcomes to justify our funding. The metrics are different, but no organization can function without money within capitalism.

Burnout is common in both non-profits and for-profits because zealous advocacy is the polar opposite of healthy boundaries and self-care. With non-profits, we have the added burden of vicarious trauma as most of our clients are marginalized people who have suffered often many forms of trauma throughout their lives. I always remind people to take care of themselves and be a bit selfish. If you quit, they will always find someone else to replace you. You have to sustain yourself and take care of yourself, no one else will. I learned this lesson after being very hard on myself in my twenties. Drinking water, eating regularly, taking breaks, moving more, vacations are all important to survive in this field!

 

CANDICE: What one thing would make the biggest difference in your work? Changes in governmental/law-enforcement policy? More donations? More lawyers choosing to advocate for the marginalized members of society? Something completely different?

JAE YOUNG: I do think social change has to happen outside of the courtroom. I think non-profit lawyers do important harm-reduction work, but the legal systems are created by those with power and protect those in power. Marginalized people having competent lawyers reduces the harm the systems cause but that doesn’t change the laws that work to maintain the same power structures. So I guess I am saying change the government!

 

CANDICE: Do you find that your work influences the stories you’re drawn to in fantasy? Do you need an escape, or stories where justice is served? If the latter, are there any books where you feel justice (through the courts or otherwise) was served in a satisfying way?

JAE YOUNG: I definitely use fantasy as an escape in that I don’t necessarily want to read stories about law or deep political intrigue. I also really love stories that focus on relationships between characters: friendship, romance, family, all of it. Sometimes I wonder if there could be books that really critique the legal systems and the injustices in fantasy versus a legal thriller.

 

CANDICE: This fall, you’re presenting a career development workshop intensive titled “Working for Change: Can We Wear Capes in Real Life?” as part of the Sirens Studio. Would you please give us a preview of what Studio attendees can expect to discuss and learn?

JAE YOUNG: I hope to share my real-life experience as a non-profit attorney and provide insights into legal systems. I can share what it’s like working for social change as part of your job and the good and the challenging parts of my work. Also, as someone who has also worked as manager for several years, I can talk about my transition to becoming a manager and share my experiences working with interns and staff with different strengths and weaknesses.

 

CANDICE: 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?

JAE YOUNG: I would say Darshan, one of my best friends from law school, a South Asian queer woman. She has really been a mentor and the big sister I never had in many ways, sharing ways of navigating being a daughter of Asian immigrants and a woman of color in the non-profit world. She has also taught me so much about centering myself and my self-care and doing what is right for me.

 


Jae Young Kim has worked as a nonprofit attorney advocating for immigrants, people of color, survivors of domestic violence, and low-income people for fifteen years in New York City. Currently, she is Director of the Family and Immigration Unit at Bronx Legal Services. The Family and Immigration Unit (FIU) is an interdisciplinary team of attorneys, paralegals, and social workers that provides holistic services to meet the family law and immigration law needs of low-income residents in the Bronx. She received a JD from New York University School of Law and a BA in Philosophy, Politics, and Law from Binghamton University. Jae Young is also a lifelong fan of fairy tales and speculative fiction. In her free time, she tries reading for the book clubs she cannot stop joining, looking for the next meal, and watching too much reality TV.

For more information about Jae Young, please visit her Twitter.

Candice Lindstrom is an assistant editor for a business magazine publisher covering women, LGBT, minority, and disabled-veteran enterprises. In a past life she edited young adult and adult fiction for a paranormal publisher. When not reading for work, she’s reading for pleasure in almost any genre, but speculative fiction is her first love.

Books and Breakfast: Monstress: Awakening and Nimona

As we look to welcome new and returning attendees to our postponed conference this October, we’d like to reintroduce our Books and Breakfast selections, now revived for 2021! Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through Books and Breakfast, where we select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme. On the Friday and Saturday mornings of Sirens, attendees bring their breakfasts and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary are doing in fantasy literature!

For this year’s conference, we’ll still be examining gender and villainy, and relatedly, redemption—fraught topics full of artificial constraints and defied stereotypes. We’ve chosen eight works that broaden that examination, full of questions, but few answers; dastardly villainy, and occasional redemption; and a number of female and nonbinary villains who may, despite or because of their villainy, be someone worth celebrating.

 
2021 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

We’ll be highlighting all eight of these titles, which we hope will allow you to make your choice and tackle your reading before Sirens (in case you didn’t get to it last year!). Here are our list of selections and reviews of our two graphic novel selections:

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

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

Monstress: Awakening

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

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

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

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Nimona

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

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

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

New Fantasy Books: June 2021

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of June 2021 fantasy book releases by and about women and nonbinary folk. Let us know what you’re looking forward to, or any titles that we’ve missed, in the comments!
 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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