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10 books celebrating queer monsters and magic

As an author of a couple of books about queer menopausal werewolves who are transformed by magic, it’s not surprising that I have a soft spot for queer monsters and magic as a reader too. What follows is a mix of book recommendations in which there are queer magic users and monsters, as well as queer monsters who are magic users, plus one additional book that I think is worth checking out. (I should also note that instead of relying solely on my memory and bookcases alone, I crowdsourced to see what suggestions other people might have and included a couple of stories that looked interesting.) I weighted more heavily toward the queer monsters, but all of these have some element of magic to them as well. What are some of your faves that I didn’t include? I don’t read much young adult fiction, for example, and I thought I would bow to Sirens attendee expertise in that arena.

(Editor’s Note: Given that until only recently, many mainstream publishers shied away from publishing books with LGBTQ+ protagonists, each entry includes the original publisher in English as well as the publication year. Title links lead to Bookshop.org book pages if available, or are otherwise linked to purchase pages.)

The Adventure of the Incognita Countess by Cynthia Ward
1. The Adventure of the Incognita Countess by Cynthia Ward (Aqueduct, 2017-2021)

This is the first of a four-book series set in Europe during World War II and features Lucy Harker (Dracula) and Carmilla (Sheridan Le Fanu’s famous lesbian vampire) as vampire lovers and spies—fighting zombies, Nazis, and sundry foes mortal and otherwise. There’s a ton of mashed up, pulpy adventure to be found in these volumes. There are also lots of guest star appearances that include many of the luminaries and creatives of the time. Ward also does a nice job of touching on the status and experiences of LGBTQ folks during the time period while keeping things fast-paced and engaging.

Silver Kiss by Naomi Clark
2. Silver Kiss by Naomi Clark (Queered Fiction, 2010)

Silver Kiss is the first book in Clark’s sexy f/f werewolf detective series, Urban Wolf. The series tackles mystery and homophobia amongst supernatural creatures and has one of the most glorious drag queen werewolves I’ve ever encountered on the page. They are marketed as erotic romance/urban fantasy, with several books and published stories in the series.

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez
3. The Gilda Stories by by Jewelle Gomez (Firebrand, 1991)

The celebrated, classic African American lesbian vampire book has been in print for over twenty years, and has also been adapted for the stage. Gilda’s story moves through time from the 1850s to the
fairly recent past, tackling timely and timeless issues along the way.

Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
4. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger (Levine Querido, 2020)

A young ace Lipan Apache woman, her family, and her ghost dog travel through a landscape of monsters and magic—in order to solve a murder in a North America that’s not quite the one we know.

The Devourers by Indra Das
5. The Devourers by Indra Das (Del Rey, 2016)

One of the novels that’s on everyone’s recommended list of queer literary horror with bisexual characters. A scholar and a werewolf meet in modern India, beginning a twisted journey through history, shapeshifting, sexuality, love, and more.

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
6. Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant (Orbit, 2017)

I’ve been fascinated by McGuire’s monstrous mermaids since I read her story “Each to Each” in the anthology Women Destroy Science Fiction. Please note that this is Seanan McGuire writing as Mira Grant, and that this is the first book of a two-book arc. A lesbian couple, as part of a team, solves an aquatic mystery involving murder, mermaids, and more.

Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson
7. Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson (Quirk, 2019)

An excellent collection of biographical sketches featuring women—including some queer women—who created and wrote about monsters of varying kinds. If you ever wanted to know more about our forebearers in the genre, this nonfiction book is a great introduction.

Temporary Agency by Rachel Pollack
8. Temporary Agency by Rachel Pollack (St. Martin’s Press, 1994)

Technically the second book in the series, but stands alone pretty well. Two queer women confront a demon who runs a temp agency in an office building, and face angels, financial shenanigans, and more! Pollack is one of the best writers of queer fiction, as well as being one of the first out transwomen in the field. This and the first book Unquenchable Fire are both quirky and brilliant. Though no longer in print, it can still be found used and as an ebook.

Werecockroach by Polenth Blake
9. Werecockroach by Polenth Blake (independently published, 2018)

A novella about gay werecockroaches, aliens, and more! This was one of my crowdsourced recommendations, but it’s been on my radar for a while. Reviews say that it’s a wry commentary on Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

Create My Own Perfection by E. H. Timms
10. Create My Own Perfection by E. H. Timms (independently published, 2021)

Another one of my crowdsourced titles that looked interesting! This novel features an aroace protagonist who chooses to become a Medusa to deal with trauma from her past.


Catherine Lundoff

Catherine Lundoff is an award-winning queer writer, editor and publisher from Minneapolis where she lives with her wife and the cats who own them. She is the author of over 100 published short stories that have appeared in venues ranging from Fireside Magazine to Sherlock Holmes and the Occult Detectives. Her books include Silver Moon, Blood Moon, Out of This World: Queer Speculative Fiction Stories and Unfinished Business: Tales of the Dark Fantastic and as editor, Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space). In addition, she is the publisher at Queen of Swords Press, a small press specializing in fiction from out of this world. Websites: Catherine Lundoff and Queen of Swords Press

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 13, Issue 6: August 2021

This month:

We are now fewer than two months from Sirens 2021! If you’re planning on joining us in Denver, we have guidance galore to help you plan your trip and prepare for an amazing, mind-expanding, soul-refreshing retreat. And if you can’t join us this year, we’ve got plenty of reading suggestions and online content to keep you engaged with and vitalized by the weird, wild, wonderful world of speculative fiction and the female and nonbinary people who love it.

A Siren’s Voyage

Our detailed guide to the Sirens adventure continues! In Part 2: Getting Here, we share details about our hotel, the Hilton Inverness. (Did you know it has a pool and a spa?) We also provide some tips on how to travel to Denver by plane, train, or automobile, as well as information on the Sirens Shuttle, a more affordable option for making it from the airport to the hotel.

Part 3: What to Bring spotlights that crucial pre-conference activity: packing! We give advice on handling the desert plains climate, the unpredictable October weather, and bringing an extra bag for all those books and auction items that will be begging to come home with you.

We Asked Sirens

Never been to Sirens and wondering what to expect? Attended many times but wondering how others experience the conference? Well, we conducted some informal surveys, and you can see the results in our We Asked Sirens series. We hope these posts will help you get psyched up for the unique energy you can only find at Sirens!

Books

Book Recommendations and Reviews:

  • There’s still time to join us for August’s Book Club, Sunday, August 29 at noon MT (2:00 p.m. ET). We’ll be discussing Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel. If you’d like to join the conversation, email us at (help AT sirensconference.org) to be added to our list.
  • Looking for a “hopepunk tale of the apocalypse” to get you through the world’s current and ongoing crises? Jazz Sexton reviews Catherynne M. Valente’s latest novel, The Past is Red-and even recommends some musical accompaniment to go along with it! “Long-time fans and newcomers will find Valente at her best, relishing in elaborate sentences packed with imagery that sort of make you want to visit Garbagetown despite it being the result of decadence and apathy.”
  • The fifth installment of this year’s Reading Challenge feature series focuses on the theme of “Saving Yourself.” We know that all Sirens have the capacity to be their own heroes—but a little inspiration from our fictional counterparts never hurts!
  • Continuing our Books and Breakfast series, this month we’re spotlighting our three young adult selections: Melissa Bashardoust’s Girls Made of Snow and Glass, Dia Reeves’s Slice of Cherry, and Rory Power’s Wilder Girls.
  • This month’s Read with Amy feature explores Hannah Abigail Clarke’s YA contemporary fantasy The Scapegracers and its tagline: Party Hard; Hex Harder. Amy is delighted to find a “mean girls” fantasy book that defies the patriarchy rather than reinforcing tired tropes. “Clarke couldn’t care less about some patriarchal notion of girls needing to relinquish their power in order to achieve an unnecessary redemption… This work is about characters to the exclusion of almost anything else and you’ll love these girls so much, admire them, respect them, that you’ll be back to pick up those dropped threads anyway.”
  • Still need a few more stories to keep you busy on a Labor Day weekend retreat or on a back-to-school or back-to-work commute? Be sure to look at our roundup of August’s new releases from female and nonbinary authors!

As summer winds down, we hope that you, yours, and our whole Sirens community are safe, well, and well-stocked with reading material!

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).

 

A Siren’s Voyage, Part 3: What to Bring

What to Bring to Sirens Conference

After a very unusual year, in which we transformed Sirens into an online gathering, we are again planning for an in-person event this fall. We are readying the programming schedule, collecting newly released books, searching for amazing auction items, and discussing how we can make Sirens—after a year away—feel as warm and welcoming as ever. We confess: This all feels a bit strange.

And we suspect that coming—or coming back—to Sirens might feel a bit strange to you, too. So we thought we’d offer a series of posts about what Sirens is (or isn’t), some travel tips and tricks, and how you might choose to engage with the conference and community. If you’re considering attending, we very much hope you do. And if you’re returning, we can’t wait to see you again.

You can read the first two posts in our Siren’s Voyage series, about whether Sirens might be the right conference for you and about making travel arrangements.This week, let’s talk what to pack—and why you might want to bring an empty suitcase!

Sirens Conference: Denver, Weather, and Altitude

Sirens takes place at the Hilton Inverness Hotel, located in south Denver, about 20 minutes from downtown. What dominates the Denver landscape, though, isn’t its skyscrapers, but the magnificent Rocky Mountains, which form the western edge of the city.

Denver was founded in 1858 as a mining town during the Pikes Peak gold rush in western Kansas Territory. Visitors today find that the city retains much of that western spirit: big dreams, expansive views, and a sometimes philosophical connection to the outdoors. We hike, we bike, we ski, and we do as much as possible four seasons of the year. If you’re looking to get outside during your trip to Sirens, no matter the weather, you won’t be alone. The Hilton Inverness offers a running/walking path right outside the hotel, but the hotel is also located just a couple miles from the nearest light rail stop (and offers a complimentary shuttle in a five-mile radius) and only a couple hours from the famous mountain towns of Breckenridge, Vail, and Winter Park.

The weather in Denver in October—not to mention September and November—can be changeable, so when we talk about what to pack, we’re talking layers. The weather usually hovers around highs in the 50s and 60s Fahrenheit (10-20 Celsius), with colder temperatures after sunset, but Denver usually gets its first significant snowstorm of the year in October, so anything is possible. Unless you’re planning on exploring, you’ll likely spend most of your time inside—where the weather will be more predictable, but also hotel-conference-space cold, so you’ll want those layers indoors and out. A jacket and sweaters, gloves and fingerless handwarmers, scarves no matter where you are.

Denver sits at exactly 5,280 feet—one mile for those trying to do the mental math—above sea level, which sounds impressive to flatlanders, but isn’t nearly so high as mountain-town elevations (or standard airplane pressurization), where the elevation usually exceeds 8,000 feet. Denver’s elevation does not give rise to altitude sickness or other health concerns associated with mountain towns.

But! Denver does not have as much oxygen in the air as you might be used to at lower elevations. You’ll breathe more quickly, you’ll sweat more easily, you’ll be hungrier, and you’ll need more sleep. Further, as every Denver bartender will tell you, alcohol will have a greater effect. Denver’s altitude also comes with less atmosphere, so bring your sunscreen and sunglasses. Unless you’re coming to Sirens for a really long time, you won’t acclimate while you’re here! It often takes a week or more to stop getting winded climbing a flight of stairs at altitude—and it can take six months or more for your workout to feel normal again. Prepare to take it easy!

To add insult to injury, Denver’s prevailing climate is high-plains desert. It’s hard to see in the city, but if you drive 20 miles east, you’ll see miles of dusty ranchland between you and the horizon. Colorado is one of the driest states, especially the eastern plains, where Denver lies, so even while you’re sitting in our climate-controlled meeting space, please remember that you’re in the desert. You’ll need to drink a lot—a lot!—more water in Denver than you do at home, and if you start drinking a lot more water a few days before you arrive, you’ll be much happier. You might need to supplement with the occasional sports drink. You’ll also want to bring all those things that Coloradans take with them everywhere: a water bottle, lip balm, hand lotion, eye drops, saline nasal spray, and so on, as those items can help you feel more comfortable in a very dry climate. This dryness can also lead to insomnia or headaches, so you may want to bring sleep aids or painkillers, take it easy on the alcohol, and ask the Hilton Inverness for one of their guest-room humidifiers.

Sirens Conference: Packing

So with all that, let’s talk a bit about packing! First, let’s abandon the notion that you’ll be able to do Sirens with just a carry-on. The dry-climate toiletries aren’t going to fit in that tiny zippy bag! And once you’re checking one bag, hey, why not two? Because, friends, we are going to have over a thousand speculative titles by female, nonbinary, and trans authors at Sirens. We ship! But if you don’t want us to ship, how do you plan to get those books home? A second suitcase, of course!

Toward that end, have you thought about flying Southwest, where bags fly free? We know it’s the bus of the sky, but if you can manage their cattle-call boarding policy, you might be able to jettison the notion of trying to cram all your hydrating needs into a tiny bag and all your Sirens merchandise, auction items, and books into your single suitcase—and then lifting that suitcase over your head into the bin. Fly in style: with a suitcase for your lip balm and another for your books!

Here’s what we’d pack:

For the weather:

  • Outdoor coat or jacket
  • Outdoor mittens or gloves
  • Scarf
  • Sweaters or sweatshirts
  • Layering t-shirts or tank tops
  • Fingerless handwarmers for chilly conference rooms
  • Things to wear with pockets! For your lip balm, your hand sanitizer, and your tiniest notes

For the altitude/climate:

  • Lip balm (nothing beats original Chapstick!)
  • Hand lotion (heavy duty repairing, like for gardeners, is best)
  • Body lotion
  • Eyedrops
  • Saline nasal spray
  • Water bottle (though we’ll have Sirens water bottles for sale)
  • Healthy snacks (the hotel has a convenience shop with a limited, expensive selection)
  • Headache medicine
  • Sleep aids (if you’re prone to trouble sleeping)

For COVID-19 safety:

  • Masks (N95 masks are now readily available and come in colors!)
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Spray hand sanitizer for soft surfaces
  • Sanitizing wipes (for shared surfaces)

Just because:

  • Any books you’d like signed by our guests of honor (we’ll have copies for sale, but if you already have your own, you’re welcome to bring it)
  • Your shopping list
  • A notebook and your favorite pen
  • Whatever you’d like to wear to the Sirens Ball
  • That second suitcase!

And with that, we hope to see you at Sirens! With a bit of luck, these packing suggestions will make your journey to Sirens and back again just a little bit easier. And we’re all about making things easier as we continue to muddle through 2021.

The truth-telling optimism of Catherynne M. Valente’s The Past is Red

The Past is Red

I approached The Past is Red with gallons of glee and a drop of trepidation. Plenty of books disappoint me, even ones written by my favorite authors. I am happy to report The Past is Red is the hopepunk tale of the apocalypse I have been waiting for. Reading it felt like seeing my name up in lights on a marquee—surreal and marvelous. It filled me with warm feelings for humanity at large because if our narrator Tetley, someone with plenty of pain in her life, can love the future, so can I.

The Past is Red begins with Catherynne M. Valente’s novelette “The Future is Blue” and expands the story of the narrator. In Part I, Tetley Abednego is the most optimistic girl in Garbagetown. Despite living on a floating garbage heap in the ocean centuries after the oceans rose high enough to swallow all dry land on Earth, Tetley finds beauty and hope all around her. Her best friends are an elephant seal named Big Bargains, a gannet bird called Grapecrush, and her twin brother Maruchan. She finds solace in her savior St. Oscar the Grouch. When the mobile theme park Brighton Pier arrives in town with news of dry land, all of Garbagetown prepares to turn on their engine to get there—a journey that will use all of the electricity that powers the town. When Tetley discovers a terrible secret, she makes a choice that turns her into the most hated girl in Garbagetown, and she learns the brutal lesson that no good deed goes unpunished.

In Part II, Tetley is some years older, and still suffering the consequences of her choice. She’s also still the most optimistic girl in Garbagetown, albeit one who lives on a boat circling the garbage heap. Told in alternating timelines, Tetley recounts how she made the choice to flee her punishment only to end up tricked into being the wife of a self-proclaimed king for thirteen whole days. Along the way she makes the acquaintance of a mysterious talking machine she calls Mister and the girl Big Red Mars, the only person to never hate her. What unfolds is beautiful, tragic, and wondrous.

It is unusual to find a bright and bubbly narrator in Valente’s work, which is part of what makes Tetley’s voice so thrilling. Longtime fans and newcomers will find Valente at her best, relishing in elaborate sentences packed with imagery that sort of make you want to visit Garbagetown despite it being the result of decadence and apathy towards the climate crisis left behind by the Fuckwits (that’s you and me, dear reader). I want to pull the tangled string of baby dolls so they wail at me like “the death of joy” as saltwater pours from their mouths, which I like to imagine arcs in high-order Bézier curves reminiscent of a fountain. I want to visit Tetley in her house made of wax candles and compliment her on her moringa tree. Then I want to go home. Of course, the tragedy of Garbagetown is that you can’t visit. Once you’re there, you’re stuck. You’re stuck among a group of humans with a concept of happiness so narrow that they would rather be told a lie they know is a lie than process the truth because a lie is so much easier to live with.

Much of the tension in the novel comes from the inability of others to understand Tetley. Why is she so happy when everyone wants her to be miserable? Why does she love Garbagetown when everyone else wants to leave?

It’s true that optimism can sometimes be insufferable, but our girl Tetley does not engage in toxic positivity. She very much understands the sorry state of the world, but still appreciates humanity’s innate goal, that North Star guiding every one of us: survival.

In her afterword, Valente writes, “The oceans can erase our cities, but they cannot drown our existential malaise.” I agree with Valente’s point here. It is easy and even comforting to be defeatist about humanity’s existence, to want someone else to call the shots. That’s why people like Tetley are necessary to help us progress. We are going to survive whether we like it or not. Yet to move forward, to change, to make things right, we need someone to tell us the truths we do not want to hear.

As for why Tetley has so much hope, consider this. The citizens of Garbagetown may live on a hideous trash heap, but what a miracle it is that they still live, worship, and love. It is with great pleasure I assure you this view of the apocalypse does not come with roving gangs of cannibals. Grimdark can launch itself to Mars in Tetley’s world.

If you want a soundtrack to accompany this brilliant book, fire up David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). There’s a reference to the track “Ashes to Ashes” in chapter 4, and the album encapsulates the tone of the book perfectly.


Jazz SextonJazz Sexton is a stay-at-home daughter taking care of her parents and working on a novel. She received her BA in English with a Certificate in Children’s Literature from the University of Pittsburgh, and her Certificate in Publishing from NYU. You can find her poetry in inkscrawl, Liminality, and Stone Telling.

Sirens Mission: Saving Yourself

Sirens conference speculative fiction book recommendations

Not being able to gather in person with the Sirens community in 2020 was heartrending. 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 four posts discussed finding and sharing those speculative and nonfiction works that, respectively, reclaim what it means for us to be from somewhere, to transgress boundaries, expectations, and limitations for all people of marginalized genders, to revolutionize our world through collective action, and to resolutely, radically hope. Today, we discuss both how necessary and how difficult it can be to save yourself from what can feel like an inexorable destiny of impossibility.

Saving Yourself

Secure your own oxygen mask before helping others.

If you’ve ever flown, you know the directive. In the event of a sudden drop in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop from above and you are instructed to don your oxygen mask before helping others don theirs. The notion is, of course, that you cannot care for others until you’ve established your own safety.

And over the past decade, women—and others of marginalized genders, but so often specifically women—have been admonished to secure their own safety masks so that they may continue to bear impossibly heavy loads of helping others: increasingly convoluted approaches to work-life balance, increasingly peppy assurances that we can have it all, increasing sacrifices of our own pleasures as unnecessary or even counterproductive—even as it becomes ever more apparent that until the white heteropatriarchy stops demanding endless burdens of us in support of white cisgender men, we will never have it all, our sacrifices will never find us enough time, and multitasking is a myth.

And even more troublesome, into this breach—into this divide between the “all” that we want and the “all” that we are instructed to achieve, this divide between what we try to accomplish and what we can actually achieve in any given life—intrudes, insidiously, the notion of self-care. Originally designed as permission for women to take a break—to take an hour for a bubble bath, twenty minutes for a cup of tea—self-care has become, as is our capitalist wont, a billion-dollar industry focused on making women feel guilty, not for failing others, but for failing to somehow conjure the time to spend an hour with an overpriced bath bomb. If you Google the quote above about securing your own mask, the primary search results are overwhelmingly articles, so many by cisgender men, scolding women about how they are supposed to—required to—engage in self-care as a method of securing their own masks so that they may continue caring for others. Something ostensibly for us, whether you like bubble baths or not, has inevitably achieved its endgame: a source of yet more guilt for not adding one more thing to our already impossible schedules, for not taking time for to use patriarchy-approved products in patriarchy-approved pastimes so that we’re more able to care for others.

As if we needed confirmation that we have to save ourselves.

But we need to save ourselves in ways that work for us. And maybe that is a bubble bath and a glass or wine, or a cup of tea in a cozy nook. But maybe that’s a hike or a bike ride, a theme park with friends or a solo vacation. Maybe it’s deciding what we—we—give a fuck about and what we don’t. Maybe we abandon dust-free homes, makeup at the grocery store, and perfect school science projects. Maybe we decide to spend our fucks on new relationships, hobbies that make us happy, and learning cool things.

We need time: time to breathe, time to reflect, time to decide which of our endless tasks are necessary, which make us happy, which are fun—and ditch the rest. We need time: To remember who we are and what we want. We need time: to save ourselves.

And so, in the speculative space that is Sirens, our fifth mission statement is saving ourselves: to find and share those stories that show us, in a thousand different ways, how to save ourselves from intrusive, invasive societal demands and dangers.

Whether we save ourselves with a sword or a blaster, politics or propaganda, escape or revolution, we need stories that show us how: how to remake not our world, but our safety in it. That remind us that we are vital, valid, and valuable. That we’ve been tasked with the impossible, to satisfy a series of unwanted, unwelcome intrusions, and convinced that, no matter how many bubble baths we take, we are a failure for not achieving someone else’s to-do list. If we must save ourselves, we must see that in our stories.

And we must—determinedly, resolutely—save ourselves, in our own time, in our way.

Saving Yourself Works

Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, the groundbreaking work by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski, examines what it means, as a modern woman, to be burned out—and we all are, assuredly, burned out from the daily challenge of trying to meet society’s impossible expectations. With science, cultural insights, and sheer common sense, the authors examine the physical impact of burnout, how it impacts our daily lives, and what we can do to, if not reduce our stressors, convince our bodies to cease their fight or flight responses. (Hint: It’s not more self-care.) For every overcommitted and exhausted woman on the planet, this book is literally a lifesaver.

Pulitzer Prize finalist Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, by poet, essayist, and daughter of immigrants Cathy Park Hong, deconstructs racial consciousness in America via heartrending memoir, insightful cultural criticism, and ferocious commentary. In a series of essays, Hong puts America’s racism into indelible truth and then reinvents the American experience as something more just. Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, always undeniably thoughtful, Hong’s work of minor feelings—minor meaning not small, but dissonant—is a must-read for anyone looking to understand why saving yourself is necessary for so many.

In The Girl and the Goddess poet Nikita Gill introduces us to Paro, an Indian girl in a family still struggling with the effects of the Partition, just as queer Paro struggles with the tumultuous effects of her family’s expectations. A series of poems interspersed with conversations with Hindu gods, The Girl and the Goddess tells Paro’s bildungsroman from India to the UK, from her first love to her arrival at college. Gorgeously told and beautifully illustrated, Gill’s most personal work to date will convince readers that saving yourself is no small task, but a nonetheless necessary one.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi takes saving yourself perhaps more literally, as it follows Ada, born “with one foot on the other side,” who has a head full of gods. As Ada gets older, especially as she comes to the United States for college, her dormant gods become increasing assertive—until Ada is lost. Emezi’s searing work queries what it means for any of us to have other people’s voices in our heads, a constant reminder that we are at war between what we want and what others want of us. Emezi’s prose is exquisite, and Freshwater is un-put-down-able.

Borderline, Mishell Baker’s noir-ish romp, is a spectacular reinvention of urban fantasy. As Baker’s compulsively readable work opens, we are in a practically sentient Hollywood, a year after protagonist Millie’s failed suicide attempt, when she’s recruited to join a shadowy organization that oversees the boundaries between our world and that of the fae. Spitfire Millie is a queer double amputee with borderline personality disorder—and the beauty of Baker’s work is that, as Millie makes the difficult choice to save herself, she also discovers that her flaws are what make her an undeniable hero.

In Trouble the Saints, Alaya Dawn Johnson has penned a masterwork—a novel simultaneously compulsively readable and astonishingly profound. In a dangerous, pre-WWII New York City, Phyllis LeBlanc has magic hands, saints’ hands, which make her both angel and assassin for one of the most notorious gangers in the city. But that’s not all she wants out of life, and in this truly American novel, in this uniquely fantastical world, we see the shape and yearning of Phyllis’s American Dream. And as Phyllis travels a racially fractured country, we see the choices she’ll make to save herself from a seemingly inevitable fate.

K Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter may initially seem like two fierce girls—one a future empress, the other a warlord—saving their nation or even each other, but fundamentally, each must first save herself. Rivera’s work is lavish, elegant, an epic fantasy that is undeniably intimate, focusing on individual choices and ultimately unstoppable love, in spite of a nation’s relentless demands. As O Shizuka and Barsalayaa Shefali battle the gods, they also battle for their own truths, their own voices, and their own destinies.

Books about female friendships are too few and oh-so-far between, but the (eventual) bond between Arundhati Shah and Yamini Kapoor-Mercado-Lopez in Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time will make your heart sing. When Chokshi’s middle-grade fantasy opens, lonely Aru accidentally unleashes a great evil upon the world—and discovers that she’s a reincarnated Pandava brother tasked with saving it and so is irritating, cry-all-the-time Mini. As Aru and Mini navigate a dangerous journey and their new relationship, you’ll find that their blossoming friendship, and how they teach each other to save each other and more importantly themselves, is the beating heart of Chokshi’s propulsive adventure.


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

We Asked Sirens

Sirens, at its very heart, is about community. As we gear up for our in-person conference this October after two years physically apart, we thought we’d ask our community a series of questions about their impressions, memories, and favorite conference programs. In this case, we thought we’d put your responses into a bingo card. Please play along and see what you’ve done too!

Our attendees are comprised of incredible readers, scholars, librarians, educators, publishing professionals, authors, and fans—but they also identify as veterans, graphic designers, lawyers, immigrants, cat-lovers, superheroines, and even the occasional Aquarius. We hope to count you among us!

Sirens conference bingo

Amy’s Book Club: The Scapegracers

Read with Amy
scapegracers Hannah Abigail Clarke

I have a bit of a thing for the mean-girls trope. I find it, simultaneously, to be a ferociously defiant fuck you to the demand that teenaged girls be submissive, passive, and silent, and an endlessly frustrating manifestation of the tokenism that white women so often enforce in order to control others. Much like my quest for a Bluebeard reinvention that doesn’t simply claim the violence inherent in the patriarchy (and more on that coming in my Sirens presentation this fall), I have read an untold number of books looking for a mean girls book that celebrates teenaged girls’ power without reinforcing patriarchal structures and false narratives.

Enter: The Scapegracers, Hannah Abigail Clarke’s young adult contemporary fantasy with the tag “Party hard. Hex harder.”

And I read it. Of course I read it. For all that I love A. R. Capetta’s The Lost Coast (with its delicate prose, liminal forests and enigmatic witches) and Sara Gailey’s When We Were Magic (with its accidentally-burst-penis opening and indomitable, hope-filled denouement), there’s been a hole in my heart just waiting, waiting, waiting for teen witches aggressive in their rebellion. Teen witches who are more likely to hex someone than disappear among the redwoods—and if a penis bursts, you know damn well that they did it on purpose.

Party hard. Hex harder.

Sideways Pike—teenager, outcast, lesbian, witch—has suddenly hit it bigtime. Used to exchanging small magics for Cokes, she’s about to take center stage at a party—and not just any party, but a Halloween party thrown by Jing, Yates, and Daisy, the school’s queen-bee mean girls. And they are paying her forty whole dollars.

Sideways does her magic, and things go, well, sideways. The magic is too easy, the circle broken too early. A girl disappears, but no one knows that yet. Sideways, buzzing, does more magic to impress a girl. Weird writing appears on the walls. Later that night, four dead deer, and the missing girl—alive—turn up in the bottom of Jing’s empty pool. You’d think that all of this would be the end of a girl’s social life. As if being the weird girl with magic wasn’t enough.

But Clarke’s characters surprise—and refuse the patriarchy’s expectations.

Jing, Yates, and Daisy don’t destroy Sideways, like they certainly could have with barely a thought. Instead they adopt her as their new best friend, a ready fourth, an equal. And while you’ll wait the entire rest of the book for Clarke’s ravenously cruel girl gang to pull the rug out from under Sideways, for things to go horribly wrong, for the false friendship to develop fangs, for Sideways to have to somehow fucking redeem herself back into a good girl, here’s the thing: That never happens. Sideways never wanted to be popular, she didn’t sell her soul for lipstick and a boy, and Clarke couldn’t care less about some patriarchal notion of girls needing to relinquish their power in order to achieve an unnecessary redemption. And Jing, Daisy, and Yates really do like Sideways. These girls become friends—and stay friends. You can take a breath. Clark’s book doesn’t betray its feminism or its readers.

Instead, Clarke’s teenaged girl gang is a revelation: girls who fight, girls who fuck, girls who are smart, girls who are claiming their identities and their power and their ambition. Girls who—maybe not just Sideways—have magic. Glass-shard Jing, violent Daisy, gentler, fiercer Yates, and Sideways, more wild, less sure. Girls who are gorgeous and glittery and gritty all at once.

Clarke does such a magnificent job of crafting such an undeniable sort of epiphany, where powerful girls are just powerful girls and not tools of the never-ending patriarchy, of crafting a feral work full of feelings and uncertainty and too much certainty, with indelible prose that doubles as the occasional gut punch, that the plot (and the acutely uneven pacing) almost doesn’t matter. This is the first of a series so a couple things that feel like dropped threads—the witch hunters, a book that’s something more and maybe has possessed Sideways—aren’t resolved here, but saved for a future installment. But this work is about characters to the exclusion of almost anything else and you’ll love these girls so much, admire them, respect them, that you’ll be back to pick up those dropped threads anyway.


Amy TenbrinkAmy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and ten years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

A Siren’s Voyage, Part 2: Getting Here

Getting to Sirens conference

After a very unusual year, in which we transformed Sirens into an online gathering, we are again planning for an in-person event this fall. We are readying the programming schedule, collecting newly released books, searching for amazing auction items, and discussing how we can make Sirens—after a year away—feel as warm and welcoming as ever. We confess: This all feels a bit strange.

And we suspect that coming—or coming back—to Sirens might feel a bit strange to you, too. So we thought we’d offer a series of posts about what Sirens is (or isn’t), some travel tips and tricks, and how you might choose to engage with the conference and community. If you’re considering attending, we very much hope you do. And if you’re returning, we can’t wait to see you again.

You can read the first in our Siren’s Voyage series, about whether Sirens might be the right conference for you, here. This week, let’s talk about traveling to Sirens!

Sirens Conference: Hotel

sirens conference accommodations
Sirens conference hotel

Sirens—all conference programming and events, including the Sirens Studio—will take place at the Hilton Inverness Hotel, just south of Denver, Colorado. And let us tell you: Having everything under a proverbial one roof makes things super-easy for you and for us! We love having a sunny, warmth-filled lobby, a cozy bar, a convenience shop, and a quiet, soothing spa available for you, and a one-stop destination for meeting room setup, on-site catering, and audiovisual support available for us.

You don’t have to stay at the Hilton Inverness to attend Sirens, of course, but if you’re looking to simplify your Sirens experience, especially if you’re coming in from out of town, we recommend that you do. As you navigate Sirens, you may find that having everything just steps away from the conference is a convenience that can’t be beat: You’ll have both guest rooms and dining options just steps away from the conference, not to mention that, if you want to take a break from Sirens for a quick visit to the gym or the pool, or even to take a break in your hotel room, you can—and if you want to continue programming discussions over happy hours or late at night in the hot tub, you can do that, too!

Sirens attendees have access to a discounted rate at the Hilton Inverness: $169/night, regardless of occupancy, beginning on October 15 and ending on October 26. This is significantly lower than the hotel’s usual rates at this time of year, and we hope that this discount makes traveling to Sirens more affordable for everyone. Also, your stay at the hotel helps Sirens meet its financial obligations to the hotel, which also helps us keep the cost of Sirens lower for everyone.

To make a reservation at the Hilton Inverness for Sirens, just click here. If you prefer to call, you may telephone the hotel at (303) 799-5800, and please make sure to use the discount code “10NC.” For more information about the hotel, check out its website, and for those seeking accessibility information, you may find that here.

If you’re seeking roommates, we invite you to tweet us @sirens_con or post on our Facebook page. And if you have any questions or concerns about the Hilton Inverness’s policies or encounter any difficulties in making a reservation, we invite you to contact us, as we can often assist.

Sirens Conference: Travel

But how do you get to Sirens in the first place? Planes, trains, and automobiles all work, so let us tell you how!

By plane: The closest airport to the Hilton Inverness Hotel—about 30 miles away in the hinterlands of the high plains desert east of Denver—is the massive Denver International Airport. While some may find the sheer size of DIA somewhat daunting, we can assure you that the moving walkways (almost always) work, there is (almost always) food to be found, and there is (always) a place to sit. Especially if, like conference chair Amy Tenbrink, you sometimes fly in a blizzard.

Denver airport during blizzard

Please note that DIA is currently undergoing a massive, multiyear renovation, so be prepared for large sections of it to be walled off. DIA has attempted to compensate for this inconvenience by providing windows so you can see the construction progress and also by putting up posters that lean into the rampant conspiracy theories about the airport. If you see an alien, please let us know!

Denver Airport Aliens

If you choose to fly, you might look at Southwest or United, both of which occupy almost an entire terminal at DIA. Southwest, for those who don’t know, doesn’t permit you to purchase specific seats, so you’ll want to check in 24 hours early to secure your place in line—and then make sure that you’re at your gate on time—but often offer terrific sales. United tends to be more traditional, but also more expensive. And a number of other airlines fly in and out of DIA as well.

By train: If trains are your thing—and they’re definitely ours—Amtrak’s California Zephyr route runs right through Denver, stopping at Union Station downtown, where you can transfer to Denver’s very much improved light rail station. The light rail will bring you within just a couple miles of the Hilton Inverness Hotel—just a quick cab ride or Uber away. When you arrive, we’d love to see your pictures!

By automobile: While we love planes and trains, if you ask us, road trips are that most American of adventures. If you’re looking to reduce your human contact—and we all are in these difficult times—Denver sits at the junction of I-70/I-76 and I-25. For those of you who think of cars and automatically think “traffic,” let us assure you that driving across the Midwest is flat and fast—and driving through the mountains is a joy, though in October, you never know when there might be snow. Once you arrive, the hotel offers free parking—and we’ll want to hear about every weird thing you saw along the highway on your way.

Sirens Conference: Ground Transportation

If you choose to fly to Sirens, you’ll still need to make it those last 30-ish miles to the Hilton Inverness Hotel—and we can help you with that! When we researched commercial shuttle options, not to mention cabs and Uber, we saw the outrageous prices and thought, “Wow, we can definitely do better than that.”

So we chartered a bus! If your travel is flexible, we can offer you a cheaper option for getting from DIA to the Hilton Inverness and back again, and to meet other Sirens and their families and friends along the way. The Sirens Shuttle costs $45 each way, or if you buy a round-trip, only $75. A shuttle will leave Denver International Airport at 8:00 p.m. on Monday, October 18, and at 4:00 p.m. on both Wednesday, October 20 and Thursday, October 21; the return trip for all shuttle riders will depart the Hilton Inverness at noon on Sunday, October 24. Because of travel time, and to leave room for any delays, we recommend that you arrive in Denver no later than 7:00 p.m. on October 18, or 2:00 p.m. October 20 or October 21, and depart no earlier than 2:30 p.m. on October 24. We hope to see you on the Sirens Shuttle!


And with that, we hope to see you at Sirens! With a bit of luck, this travel information will make your decisions and your journey to Sirens and back again just a little bit easier. And we’re all about making things easier as we continue to muddle through 2021.

New Fantasy Books: August 2021

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

Books and Breakfast: Girls Made of Snow and Glass, Slice of Cherry, and Wilder Girls

As we look to welcome new and returning attendees to our postponed conference this October, we’d like to re-introduce 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.

Earlier this summer, we highlighted our graphic novel selections: Monstress: Awakening and Nimona; and our adult selections: A Feast of Sorrows, Queen of the Conquered, and The Mere Wife. Today, we’re showcasing our three young adult selections: Girls Made of Snow and Glass, Slice of Cherry, and Wilder Girls. We hope these features will help you make your choice and tackle your reading before Sirens—in case you didn’t get to them last year!

 
2021 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST 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

Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust

Girls Made of Snow and Glass

In this take on “Snow White,” sixteen-year-old Mina, missing a heart, escapes one abusive household for another—where she can capture the love of the king for herself, even his power, provided she is ready, so young, to become a stepmother. She’s to be mother to Lynet, who has been conjured to life in her mother’s image from a snowfall. And as in “Snow White,” the two are set at odds. Mina has been loved too little, and wants the crown any way she can have it. Lynet, conversely, has no desire to be queen, and would be happy enough to spend her days with her girlfriend and to be looked on as something besides the embodiment of her mother.

The evil stepmother is a classic villain: cold, beautiful (but in a scary way), a usurper. In Bashardoust’s version, the stepmother must take that role, whether she wants to or not, and her relationship with Lynet, close in age, is complex and painful. It’s bittersweet that the two have been positioned as enemies, and the wedge between them makes the story compelling. Rarely do we see mother-daughter relationships in stories about young adults; even more rarely do we see them in fantasy books for young adults. Mina and Lynet’s intertwined stories provide a rich exploration of relationships between women—with all the twisty, messy, emotional resonance that non-romantic relationships have in real life, and don’t always get their due on the page.

Girls Made of Snow and Glass is full of icy atmosphere and fairytale references, but at its heart—no pun intended—it’s a story about love. What we do to receive love. How we choose whom to hate, and whom to mark as villain. How villains can be created by society. And it’s also about mothers and daughters, and how we make families. How we tell stories, and how the telling makes heroines and villains. And how, in the end, we can choose the stories told for us or choose to make our own.

Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves

Slice of Cherry

Kit and Fancy Cordelle are sisters, daughters of the infamous Bonesaw Killer, a serial killer who ravaged Portero, Texas, before being caught and jailed. But no matter how strange Portero is—if you’ve read Reeves’s Bleeding Violet, surely you remember how strange Portero is—no matter how much Bonesaw Killer fan mail still arrives at the house, and no matter that neither Kit nor Fancy had anything to do with their father’s murders, Kit and Fancy are ostracized. Surely the apple couldn’t have fallen too far from the tree—a convenient statement when one seeks to oppress Black girls. But never mind that: Kit and Fancy will tell you that they don’t mind. They’re the best of friends (as Fancy says, practically the same person).

And despite their previous innocence, they are perhaps not so different from their father after all—or perhaps assumptions are a powerful catalyst: Kit and Fancy both harbor a desire to harm, to carve people up and stitch them back together, to pull them apart until they crack, to kill. Unlike their famous father, though, Kit and Fancy will be the first people to tell you that they harm only those who truly deserve it, those who touch or invade or harm first. They’ll also tell you that they’re smarter than their father: They use a mysterious doorway to another world to cover their tracks. And everything would be fine, perhaps—Portero surely won’t look too hard for a few missing predators—except that, despite Fancy’s assertion, Kit and Fancy aren’t the same person at all. Kit wants to grow and change, make friends, and have a boyfriend, while Fancy wants to stay in her tiny, controlled world, happily basking in the gore that she and her sister share.

Slice of Cherry is, in every way that matters, a Black feminist revenge story. In Kit and Fancy’s vigilantism, Reeves claims violence for Black girls harmed by the world. Kit and Fancy are broken by their father’s crimes, their mother’s absence, the town’s ostracization, and seemingly everyone’s assumptions. But that brokenness creates neither victims nor, despite the carnage, villains. Kit and Fancy take their power, claim their power, every time they cut an attempted rapist, every time they stab an intruder. Don’t shy away from the danger and violence of Portero; Reeves’s story of Black girls who are cast as villains but who will not be victims is one for our world, too.

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Wilder Girls

As you begin Wilder Girls, the students and instructors at Raxter School for Girls in rural Maine have been quarantined for 18 months. That’s when the Tox began ripping through the country, causing grotesque mutations in people, fauna, and flora alike: second spines, new organs, scales, eventually death. Outbreaks are individual and unpredictable, but at this point, the girls are just holding on, relying on supplies from the outside world, and hoping for a vaccine.

Hetty, one of the students, is unexpectedly chosen for Boat Shift, one of the few jobs that can get a girl off school grounds, in this case to retrieve those all-important supplies. With this new responsibility comes new knowledge, and Hetty sees the transformations and destruction around her in a new, even more desperate light. And that desperation pervades Wilder Girls, which is built on the dawning horror that things can always, and so often do, get worse. Without giving too much away, after 18 months of increasing desolation, Hetty finds a villain—and it’s worse than she could have imagined.

The foundation of Wilder Girls is its (almost) all-female cast—and the possibilities born of crafting a book around only female characters. The mean-girls trope you often see in YA is absent—jettisoned along with boys and the omnipresent white heteropatriarchy—and instead Power creates girls that are just girls: sometimes smart, sometimes ambitious, sometimes mean. Sometimes they get along and sometimes they don’t. Some are heroes and some are villains and some are neither. This isn’t some quarantine-created feminine utopia, but rather a cast of real girls who are real people in an impossible situation. You might call it a feminist utopia. And that is magnificent.

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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