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We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia: Sirens Book Review

We Set the Dark on Fire Tehlor Mejia

Confession: Sometimes I suspect I’m not a natural fantasy reader. That doesn’t mean I can’t love fantasy, of course, but where some people are automatically excited to be dropped into a new world they don’t know anything about yet, I’ve been known to read a book and think, “So…why isn’t this just set in regular California instead of California where some people do magic?”

I never thought that reading We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia.

The world here—and this is the main thing I wish for in a fantasy book—felt immediately logical and real, even before I’d begun to explore it. The story—and the island nation of Medio—begins with a myth about two brother gods fighting over a woman. But the story isn’t about gods behaving badly. The myth, for Medionites, is there to provide justification for how their society operates. Sons of privilege take two wives. One wife, the Primera, is chosen for her logical, analytical nature. She’s the wife he takes to a state dinner. The Segunda is chosen for her passion and beauty. She’s the mother of his children.

Such an arrangement might have come across as bizarre or worse, hopelessly contrived to put our heroine, Daniela Vargas, into the terrible position she finds herself in when she’s chosen by Medio’s most eligible, wealthy bachelor, a man many believe will one day be president. Instead, it felt completely organic. Not just the marital situation, but the elite finishing school that prepares girls for one wifely role or the other. And the parts of the island said to have been cursed by the vanquished god, a place where Medio’s poorest are exploited and hidden from the wealthier inhabitants by a wall. Inequality, in myth and practice, is part of Medio’s soul, so the elite would have us believe.

Then there’s the Segunda, the other wife Dani’s going to live with. Imagine your worst enemy in school. The girl you trust least in the whole world. Now imagine sharing your husband with her…while you’re being blackmailed into spying on him for a group of rebels. None of this is a spoiler. The minute you’re introduced to Dani’s situation you know where she’s quickly headed. You just don’t know how she’s going to handle it once it happens.

Dani’s situation is dire, but never bleak. I’ve heard Mejia’s world referred to as a dystopia, but the book felt too hopeful for that label to me. The young people in this world are ready to fight and love (did I mention there’s queer romance? There’s a queer romance!) and build a better future for themselves. The beauty and joy of Medio is never completely obscured by the greed and cruelty of its ruling class.

The stakes of the story are very clear, both for Dani and for the people of Medio. The danger is real, and it’s not at all clear that Dani is up to the task. She may have graduated finishing school with a degree in strategy, manipulation and repressed emotions, but she’s really none of those things at heart. Sometimes she does risky things for emotional reasons, but rather than being impatient with her, I just found myself rooting for her to get out of this alive.

I was rooting for the rebellion as well. The world of Medio is painfully relevant to our world, while still standing on its own as a fantasy creation. Latin American culture, class conflict and feminism are woven into the DNA of the book and Dani herself. Her parents sacrificed everything to lift her out of poverty and give her a better life, but can she in good conscience enjoy the good life herself knowing others just like her are still oppressed? Even if she wasn’t being blackmailed? Either way she chooses, she’d be letting someone down, so she can only choose based on who she, Dani, is…once she figures that out.


Meg BelvisoMeg Belviso holds a BA in English from Smith College and an MFA from Columbia University. As a writer and editor, she chronicles angel encounters as staff editor of Angels on Earth magazine and has written for various fiction and nonfiction properties, including several biographies in Penguin’s Who Was…? series.

Programming Tips, Tricks, and Frequently Asked Questions

Earlier this week, we shared how programming works for Sirens—and we highlighted how, each year, our programming is the collective work of our attendees. Regardless of your vocation, your level of experience, or your number of years at Sirens, you have something to say. And we hope that you’ll take a crack at sharing your thoughts and expertise as part of our programming this year!

Today, we have general programming information, how to find help from real people, tips and tricks for proposing programming, and answers to frequently asked questions about our programming process. Here we go!

 

Conference General Information

  • We will open for proposals mid-April and accept submissions through May 15. All proposals must be submitted in full, including any supplemental abstracts for panels, by May 15, and all presenters must have “checked in” by following the links in emails that we send out when a main presenter indicates there will be a co-presenter.

  • The Sirens vetting board will make decisions by June 15. All accepted presenters must be registered and paid for Sirens by July 10.

  • We will have three scholarships (a 2021 Sirens registration and round-trip shuttle ticket) available for exemplary programming proposals. We also have one Sabrina Chin “Braver Than You Think” Memorial Scholarship available for a first-time presenter. You can apply for these scholarships as part of the submissions process.

  • You can propose programming in a number of formats: papers or lectures (including as a set of pre-empaneled papers/lectures on a single topic), panels, roundtable discussions, workshops, afternoon classes, or a combination of multiple formats. (Please consult with the programming team before you submit a combination, though!)

  • You are welcome to present with co-presenters, except for roundtables, which may have only a single moderator. Please note that the person submitting the proposal will be our main contact for the proposal (and in the case of a panel, will be the moderator). Again, please make sure that your collaborators are aware that they will need to confirm their participation by May 15—and in the case of panels and pre-empaneled papers, will need to submit a 300–500-word abstract of their own (note that the vetting board will review all abstracts in determining whether to select a proposal).

  • All communication is via email. Please use an email address to which you’ll have access throughout 2021, and that you check regularly.

  • Programming is reviewed and approved by an independent vetting board. All proposals are kept confidential.

  • Additional information can be found in Sirens’s official Call for Proposals.

 

Conference Programming Help from Real People

  • Free Topics: Over the next several weeks, we’ll be tweeting programming topics that are free for you to take, develop, and use in your programming proposal. You might take them as is, you might use them as inspiration, or you might find that they get your brain moving! Follow us on Twitter @sirens_con or check out #SirensBrainstorm.

  • More Questions: Email us! You can contact our programming team at (programming at sirensconference.org). They can’t guarantee your acceptance, but they’re full of helpful advice, and are glad to help you figure out the best format for your proposal, answer questions about the process, and so on.

 

Conference Programming Tips and Tricks

  • Everyone is welcome to propose programming! Sirens is a conference where readers and students present alongside authors and scholars, who present alongside librarians, educators, and publishing professionals. Everyone’s voice is valid, valuable, and necessary to our conversations and our community!

  • Look at past programming schedules. Our vetting board knows what topics have been presented in past years—and you should, too, so you don’t repeat them! New topics, or brand-new takes on old topics, will be considered more favorably. We make all our past programming available in our conference archive.

  • Go beyond introductory topics and analysis. Sirens is over ten years old, and we assure you, most Sirens attendees are well-versed in basic topics like “Reclaiming Fairy Tales” and “What is Diversity?” Push the sophistication of your topic and your analysis further.

  • Consider what type of presentation suits your topic best. We’ll be doing a deeper dive on each of these in the coming weeks, but here’s a preview: papers and lectures are good for experts to convey information or frame an argument; panels are suitable for rigorous debate among experts with differing expertise or opinions; roundtable discussions are great for topics where every audience member will have an opinion or contribution; and workshops and afternoon classes are perfect for hands-on explorations of practical topics.

  • Focus on one or two proposals rather than several. This will help ensure your proposals are well-prepared and well-argued—and will increase their likelihood of acceptance.

  • Choose your co-presenters wisely. We strongly encourage you to seek out co-presenters with a variety of expertise, perspectives, and identities. Differences in expertise can bring additional thoughts and approaches to your work, while different perspectives and identities can enrich discussion and debate over your topic. (Bonus tip: If your topic is for people with complementary expertise to present information, we strongly encourage you to consider a paper or lecture with co-presenters, rather than a panel; the panel format is best suited for discussion and debate among panelists with different perspectives.)

  • Leave enough time to write a thoughtful summary and abstract. Since these descriptions are what the vetting board will judge your proposal on and will determine fellow attendees’ interest in your topic, it behooves you to not wait until the last minute! This is especially true for pre-empaneled papers and panels, where co-presenters must also submit an abstract by May 15.

  • You are not required to present on this year’s theme of villains. Proposal topics must be relevant to Sirens, but do not need to address our theme for this year. Please do be sure that, at minimum, you’ve mentioned how your topic relates to fantasy!

 

Conference Programming Frequently Asked Questions

What are the requirements for being a presenter at Sirens?
The only requirement is that you must be a Sirens attendee, which also means you have to be 18 years old by October 21, 2021. Otherwise, everyone is welcome to propose programming—and if accepted, to present it!

How can I find co-presenters or panelists?
You can tweet @sirens_con or post on the unofficial Sirens Attendees Facebook group. You might also be able to find co-presenters or co-panelists at our programming chats.

How many proposals can I submit?
There is technically no limit, but we recommend focusing on one or two as it usually makes for better-prepared (and better-received) proposals. If you already had programming accepted for presentation at Sirens 2020, we ask that you not submit additional proposals during the 2021 submission period.

Can I change my proposal later?
Before the May 15 deadline, you can submit a correction or contact us to withdraw and resubmit the proposal. Following May 15, however, we will pass your proposal on to the vetting board and you can no longer make changes.

Can I contact the vetting board about my proposal?
Please direct any questions to (programming at sirensconference.org) instead. Vetting board members only review proposals, and we ask them to keep their reviews confidential.

Can I request a specific day and time to present?
The schedule depends on our ability to track presentations by type, theme, and audio-visual needs, so we can’t accommodate schedule preferences. If you have an immovable conflict, such as your grandmother’s 100th birthday party, please write to us at (programming at sirensconference.org).

I have more questions!
We have more answers! Write us at (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

Sirens Programming Comes From Attendee Proposals

How to Propose Programming for Sirens

Welcome to our annual programming series! In these posts, we’ll give you all the information you’ll need to propose programming for Sirens. We’ll have a post with tips, tricks, and frequently asked questions next week, and we’ll feature a post specific to each type of programming in the following weeks.

In 2020, we conducted our annual round of submissions. Because of the pandemic and our transition to Sirens at Home, many of the accepted submissions have rolled over to this year. We’ll open our proposals system mid-April for a second round so that we can arrange a full schedule of programming for 2021.

We invite all Sirens attendees and potential attendees to submit a proposal or two—though if you had a proposal selected for presentation at Sirens in 2020, we ask that you do not submit additional proposals during this secondary round.

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

Programming, for Sirens, is the dozens of hours of papers, lectures, panels, workshops, roundtables, and afternoon classes that make up the heart of the conference. While a thousand conversations happen at Sirens every year, the true vanguards of those discussions are the brave and brilliant individuals who share their wisdom and expertise as part of our programming. See the archives to find out more about the kinds of topics and discussions that have been presented in the past.

So how does Sirens create its programming?

We don’t create the Sirens programming. You do! We don’t want Sirens to be limited by the interests, knowledge, and networking of our staff, so we invite our attendees — readers, scholars, librarians, authors, and more — to propose programming for our schedule. And each year, dozens of individuals answer the call: they create, craft, propose, and present the lectures, papers, panels, workshops, roundtables, and afternoon classes that become the programming at Sirens.

A special note: We want our programming to represent a broad range of perspectives, experiences, and identities: readers, scholars, librarians, educators, publishing professionals, and authors, of course, but also individuals of different genders, sexualities, races, religions, and abilities. Similarly, we hope that, regardless of your vocation, your level of experience, or how many years you’ve attended Sirens, you’ll take a crack at sharing your thoughts and expertise as part of our programming. Every voice is important at Sirens, including yours.

And how does Sirens choose its programming?

Each year, an independent vetting board—a diverse group of tremendous individuals who know and love Sirens—review the proposals for thoughtfulness, relevance, and inclusiveness, and then select which ones to include on that year’s programming schedule.

  • Thoughtfulness: This means the vetting board considers the research, logic, and sophistication of the arguments. Is the proposal well-conceived? Is the proposal well-argued? Is it interesting? Is it innovative?

  • Relevance: Is the topic relevant to Sirens’s overarching topic of gender and fantasy literature? The topic doesn’t need to specifically address the theme of any given year, and doesn’t have to be about gender and fantasy and literature (but if your proposal doesn’t address at least two of the three, you might want to consider how you can make your topic more relevant to the Sirens audience).

  • Inclusiveness: Sirens values diverse perspectives, experiences, and identities. Does your topic address an inclusive selection of literature? Do your co-presenters represent a variety of perspectives, experiences, and identities, whenever possible?

In crafting your presentation, please also consider the following:

  • Audience: You are likely to find your presentation audience composed of voracious, critical readers, as well as accomplished scholars, librarians, educators, authors, and publishing professionals. Further, Sirens attendees tend to be quite experienced in discussing women in fantasy literature, as well as related topics such as feminism, social sciences (and occasionally hard sciences), and writing. Please plan the sophistication and complexity of your proposal accordingly.

  • Repetition of Past Presentation Topics: The vetting board is familiar with programming presented at Sirens in the past, and duplicative topics are often considered less relevant. Please make sure that you have reviewed our archive page before deciding on your topic and that, if you intend to propose a similar topic, you highlight the innovation of your work in your proposal.

How does someone propose programming?

Sirens operates its own proposals system specifically for programming proposals. We’ll open this system on mid-April and close it May 15, which is this year’s deadline for proposals. After May 15, our vetting board goes to work.

You need five things for a proposal:

  • Personal information: Your name, contact information, and a third-person biography that we can use on our website and in our program book;

  • A summary: 50–100 words about your topic and approach, which we’ll also publish on our website and in our program book (see our 2019 summaries for examples)

  • An abstract: 300–500 words explaining your presentation and approach to the vetting board; this should be far more in depth and should demonstrate your research, analysis, and conclusion on the topic

  • Audiovisual requests: Information on your requested audiovisual equipment for your presentation, if any

  • Contact information for any co-presenters: Your co-presenters will then receive an email asking them to provide their personal information and, in the case of panels, a supplemental abstract of 300–500 words demonstrating the perspectives and expertise that they will bring to the panel

So let’s do this!

We know that the proposal process can be intimidating, especially for those new to Sirens. It takes a lot of courage to put your thoughts and analysis out there, first to a review board and then at Sirens itself. But each year, dozens of individuals screw their courage to the proverbial sticking place and, in doing so, make Sirens smarter, more thoughtful, more interesting, and just plain better.

We hope that that will include you this year!

 

Book Friends: Rin Chupeco

Reintroducing… book friends! As part of our 2021 Guest of Honor weeks, the Sirens team recommends books that would be friends with a guest of honor's books. Below is a curated list of titles that we feel complement the works of Rin Chupeco, author of Wicked As You Wish, the Bone Witch trilogy, the Never Tilting World series, and The Girl from the Well duology.  If you enjoyed their work, we hope you check out these other reads that feature contemporary fairy-tale retellings; explorations of systemic racism, feminism, and villainy; awesome queer characters; really good book boyfriends; ghosts; snarky phoenixes; and the occasional second-world high fantasy.

Rin Chupeco’s Favorite SFF Books

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

 

Gideon the Ninth Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

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

The Bear and the Nightingale Katherine Arden

Fantasy
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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

Uprooted Naomi Novak

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

Magic for Liars Sarah Gailey

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

An Unkindness of Magicians Kat Howard

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


 

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

The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

Bone Witch Rin Chupeco

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

But damn, it’s so worth it.

Understanding The Bone Witch

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

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

What The Bone Witch is About

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

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

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

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

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

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


Faye Bi

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

Further Reading: Rin Chupeco

Rin Chupeco Author

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

 

Rin’s Short Fiction:

Rin’s Interviews::

  • Interview with PJ (2020): On what’s next for them, “Writing the third and final book of the Hundred Names for Magic series (the first book being Wicked As You Wish) and then finishing up some adult crossover books I’ve started working on – one about bi vampires in the vein of The Witcher and Castlevania, and another that’s basically Swan Lake meets Untitled Goose Game.”
  • Interview with Enthralled Bookworm (2020): “What I love most about YA, particularly in the SFF genre, is that a lot of issues are frequently discussed there, but…the fact that it’s set in fantastical worlds means readers can have that necessary distance to process real world issues tackled in the book.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Guest Post with Adventures in YA Publishing (2017): “Writing for a hobby is a lot different from writing for a living. Creative writing is the only profession I know where experience is not required, where you won’t know if you did well until it’s frequently too late for you to do anything about it, and where anything you come up with will be put under a microscope almost from the moment you submit your manuscript and long after it’s been published.”
  • Interview with The Witch Snitch (2015): “Living as a writer in the Philippines is a lot different from living as a writer in most first world countries, which is hard enough as it is. Writing fiction here is like making street graffiti—you don’t do it for the money, because there isn’t any, but you do it for everything else that matters. Most writers in Manila were either literary fiction novelists who had hefty contracts with schools to use their books in literature classes, or those who wrote Harlequin-esque romances in the local language. I didn’t want to do either of those.”

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

 

This post was updated on March 17, 2021.

Wicked As You Wish by Rin Chupeco

We Ride Upon Sticks

Rin Chupeco’s Wicked As You Wish is a wild, romping adventure

Speaking generally, I’m not the audience for boisterous, busy, weird ensemble novels, so Wicked As You Wish shouldn’t have been the book for me. It’s like a thousand-piece puzzle: you turn over all the bits and find them packed with little details, and then the picture doesn’t come together until you’re halfway through. This is not a reading experience that typically endears me to a book.

And yet in this case, I was invested from the first page, long before I could see what it was doing. Maybe it was the book’s brightness, or the total matter-of-fact conviction with which Rin Chupeco presents the worldbuilding. Maybe it was the chapter titles, which include such gems as “In Which Government Agents are Assholes, But What Else is New” and “In Which the Firebird is an Absolute Unit”. Or maybe it’s the fact that this is the kind of book that grins at you sidelong and says, “okay, but what if ICE are double agents for an actual evil Snow Queen?” (It was all of these things. This book is extremely charming.)

But then, past the halfway point, Wicked As You Wish looked me dead in the face and told me: in a world so like our own, where everyone in power is making terrible mistakes and everyone is trying to fix them in the same flawed ways, concepts like good and evil are based at least in part on jingoistic bias. And it clicked. In with all the shiny parts, this book is very real.

Wicked As You Wish takes place in an alternate present with a blended mythology that assumes all fairy tales and fairy tale-adjacent classics (Arthurian legend, Wonderland, et al.) are based in reality. Magic is real, albeit tightly bound by law. It has all the wonder of those old stories, stuffed into all the bureaucratic capitalism of the world we know.

This worldbuilding is handled at breakneck speed to make room for the story: Tala is a Makiling, the daughter of a line of spellbreakers, training with her extended family to protect a prince. The prince, Alexei, is less in exile and more in magical witness protection. His kingdom was frozen in time at the end of a war with the Snow Queen, and he’s waiting for his eighteenth birthday to see if a firebird shows up to declare him the rightful king so he can go save Avalon.

It does. So off they go with a motley crew of elite adolescents and their familial relics to thaw an extremely magical kingdom that’s been separated from the world for twelve years.

The beauty of Wicked is in the moments when you fall in love with these characters. They’re all doing their best, juggling a world-saving quest with justified teenage feelings. The responsibility of saving and ruling a kingdom makes Alex act like an asshole, which it would probably do to most teen boys with complicated social lives. Tala feels like a burden as much as she does an asset most of the time, and doesn’t understand why her best friend is being such a dick to her and everyone else. There’s a ranger with a magical staff that turns into a toothpick when they need it to, whose dads defied aristocratic convention to be together. There’s a boy with twin swords, one that actively drives people to terrible violence, while the other will cut no living thing. One of the party is a douchey Nottingham descendant with necromancy in his bloodline and a heart of gold. (The Locksleys got rich and pretty somewhere along the way and they’re an awful lot less cool now, in my opinion. It’s a far-removed sidenote, but I’ve made my choice.)

Tucked into this glitterbomb of a story, though, are big ideas. Important ideas. This is one of the first young adult novels I’ve read that really understands the problems with idolizing royalty—or anyone in a position of political power. At its heart, Wicked As You Wish is not just a novel about teenage heroes. It’s a novel about what we do to live with ourselves. It’s about redemption, not in a single great act, but as a path one walks for the rest of one’s life. It’s about trusting complicated people, including yourself. And it’s about power: who gets it, who is burdened by it, and who is willing to use it.

These things hum in the background, harmonizing with a wild, romping adventure. This book is complex, with a great cast of chosen ones on a quest with a lot of moving parts. There’s so much to it that it took me a while to latch on securely enough to enjoy the ride, but it was well worth it. It surprised me and moved me and got me deeply invested before the end. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

And it doesn’t hurt that it is an absolute delight.


Jo O'Brien
Jo O’Brien is a writer, artist, cosplayer, mythical creature, and Viking who lives in northern Colorado, wrangling a host of familiar spirits. She draws and writes about ambitious, unrepentant, sometimes vicious women in novels and for live steel horse theater. She has been a member of the Sirens community since 2011.


The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women or nonbinary authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us!

Rin Chupeco: Exclusive Sirens Interview

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

 

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

Rin Chupeco Author

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

Katherine May’s Wintering is the book I needed during this pandemic

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times

Just over a year ago, I was in a borrowed office in Miami running financial models with a colleague when I learned that my company, due to COVID-19, had grounded us from all nonessential travel. I wondered how long it would last, since I was supposed to be in New York in a couple weeks and I didn’t want to miss that trip: I had tickets to SIX, a Broadway musical about Henry VIII’s wives reimagined as, more or less, the Spice Girls.

The next day, sitting in that same office with that same colleague, I learned that the company had grounded us from all travel. I do not live in Miami. I had to explain to my company’s travel department that I needed an exception: I needed to go home.

Exactly a year ago, I sat terrified in a crowded gate at the Fort Lauderdale Airport. None of us wore masks. I was perhaps the only person on that plane with antibacterial wipes. The plane was packed. When I landed in Denver, I got in my car and stopped at the grocery store on the way home: for soup, Gatorade, and medicine. Certain that the onset of COVID-19 symptoms was imminent, I was prepared to become very, very sick. Alone.

I did not get sick, but over the last year, my well-being, like everyone’s, has vacillated. Some days are fine. Some days are desperately terrible. I could write a book about companies’ behavior in a public health crisis as a microcosm of late-stage capitalism. I have never worked harder in my life: alone in my house for twelve months. And while my own personal desolation is isolation, I know that for others it’s impossibility: the impossibility of caring for elderly relatives or trying to manage virtual school for kids; the impossibility of trying to work in a studio apartment; the impossibility of trying to weather serious illness.

I vacillate wildly between tears and rage. I, whose constant rage muffles all other feelings, vacillate wildly between tears and rage.

On a plane to Miami, just over a year ago, I made myself read, despite my burnout—which is so profound that it’s practically a lifestyle—a book called Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski. This is the last book I read before the onset of the pandemic, and I needed it. Without blaming people for their burnout, as we are wont to do, it talks about the physiology of stress and how, even if your stressors are immutable, you can tell your body that it’s safe, that it can stop its fight-or-flight response. (Hint: The answer to everything is, always, exercise or human touch. Sorry.)

But while Burnout was the book that I needed a year ago—and the book I recommended to just about everyone last year—it wasn’t the book that I needed during the pandemic.

That book was Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May.

Before you stop reading, Wintering is not, in any way, a book about self-care. I find the idea of self-care, in its current incarnation, as yet another source of guilt for the already stressed and anxious people who are somehow supposed to find time to indulge an industry, not so different from the beauty industry, built on the idea that accomplished women can somehow have it all, despite the absolute mountain of demands on their time and energy. If bubble baths work for you, that’s terrific. But I hope that you don’t feel guilty for not finding time for a glass of wine and face mask when the kids are screaming and the house is a disaster and work keeps calling you over Microsoft Teams.

Instead, Wintering is about, well, wintering, which May describes as “a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress or cast into the role of an outsider.” The catalyst for May’s collection of creative nonfiction is a series of events in her life—things that could happen to anyone—that coalesced into something larger: her husband’s appendicitis that resulted in a ruptured appendix, her own stomach issues that left her unable to work, her son’s anxiety that prevented him from attending school. We can’t control life, and May’s changed, in unexpected ways, which left her feeling unmoored and unsettled.

Rather than dismissing her challenges as “somehow silly, a failure of nerve, a lack of willpower,” May speaks eloquently about the idea of leaning into hard times as a crucible, something that may burn as you pass through, but will release a different you in the end. The idea of wintering is, of course, nothing more—nor less—than finding not so much the time, but the focus to feel your feelings, to understand what your psyche and your soul are traversing, to allow yourself the space to feel sad, or desperate, or confused, or furious. It’s a gentle, lovely admonishment that life will happen, whether we will it or no, and that trying to resist it, to control it, may make us feel safer for a while, but will not help us burn brighter in the end. As May says, “We may never choose to winter, but we can choose how.”

Comparing our own times of trouble—of isolation or grief or rage—to winter is, I found, ultimately beneficial. Winter, after all, is a cyclical period, a necessary period, something during which people hunker down, but that in the end gives way to a world reborn. So, too, are our hard times, our fallow periods, cyclical, though they may not seem so when the world is darkest.

Wintering is a beautiful book, born of sadness and despair and pain, but also a determination to meet one’s personal hardships with acceptance and self-knowledge and the understanding that these deeply heartrending periods, these times when life is hardest, are also opportunities for self-reflection and growth.

I found, as I read Wintering during not only a year when virtually everyone experienced a personal winter, but during the literal darkest time of the year, that May’s thoughtful work confirmed what I’ve found during my life. My growth—my becoming smarter or kinder or more determined or more certain—has always occurred during difficult periods: of uncertainty, of grief, of fear. May’s work was a powerfully validating collection for me, and as we attempt to collectively survive a pandemic that affects us all in the most personal of ways, I hope it might be for you, too.

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

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.

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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