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To me, Heartland looks less like a murderous love story and more like a parable for our time

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

Heartland

In pursuit of perfection, I have spent endless hours of my life crafting plans: detailed plans, back-up plans, emergency plans, plans about plans. I have fretted and worried and micromanaged and micromanaged my micromanagement. I put plan-making on my to-do list. On my half-dozen to-do lists.

I’m certain that any therapist worth their salt could unpack about three dozen things from that: my need for control, my fearlessness, my impatience with people who worry, my contempt for people surprised by likely failures, my tactical skills in negotiations, my utter misery when people do not do what I thought they would or should.

In pursuit of perfection, I spent three decades of my life crafting and micromanaging plans — and the fourth decade of my life realizing that, while this superhuman planning has given me many gifts, it has also made me perfectly miserable. Not too long ago, a professional colleague I will identify only as Raging Bull Pete told me that, often, you can plan and manage and micromanage and stress and worry and control — and the outcome will be exactly the same as if you had done exactly none of those things. And when a man whose team calls him Raging Bull Pete says that maybe the raging bull approach to life is often fruitless, you listen. It is the single best piece of professional advice I have ever been given. I’m not sure it was intended as such.

So the fourth decade of my life has been about needing less control and therefore, engaging in less planning. Some things matter, a lot of things don’t. Some things I need to be done my way, some things I just need to be done and sometimes I just can’t watch the sausage being made. Plan A can stay, but with a lot fewer details and a lot more flexibility. Plan B for likely failure points can stay. Plan C had to go. Plan C was making me miserable.

Heartland by Ana Simo is about a plan: a detailed, micromanaged, overwrought sort of plan. It’s the sort of plan that 25-year-old me would have greatly respected and 43-year-old me side-eyes with great contempt. It’s a plan born of a need to decide something, a need to control something, a need for something to go perfectly, even if that something is, frankly, nonsensical.

Heartland is set in an alternate, failing United States. Our nameless Latina narrator begins the book in New York, where she is a writer who suddenly loses her ability to literally type words. First conjunctions, then adverbs, finally ending with nouns. In this United States, without the fundamental skill on which she relies, our narrator needs something firmly within her grasp. When she chances upon Mercy McCabe, who stole Bebe from the narrator some years prior, and learns that McCabe and Bebe are no longer together, the narrator concocts an elaborate plot: to lure McCabe to Elmira, the narrator’s hometown in the Midwest; convince McCabe to confess her guilt; and then execute her. You can perhaps imagine how much Bebe truly factors into this plan, which is to say really not at all.

What follows is a hyper-micromanaged, hyper-detailed, months-long plan that is much less about McCabe than it is about the narrator’s need to control something. The narrator convinces McCabe to rent a judge’s house in Elmira, the same house that the narrator’s mother used to clean. The narrator poses as a butler almost, hiring a local Latina to cook and clean, but to speak only to the narrator, never McCabe. As the narrator begins to gaslight McCabe, the reader begins to wonder — as 43-year-old me wonders about 25-year-old me’s endless plans — what is the fucking point?

But the point, of course, is that sometimes you need to control something, anything, just one thing. But also that if you hold something too tightly, it brittlely falls apart. If you micromanage something too much, you’ve created a thousand unnecessary failure points. If your murderous plan requires getting your victim to first confess her crime (what crime?!), you may never get to murder her at all.

And that’s how Heartland plays out: McCabe, as you might imagine, doesn’t always behave how the narrator expects her to — and every time she does not, it wrenches the narrator’s carefully crafted plan, often in small, worrying ways, sometimes in leviathan ones. A third of the way through the book, McCabe takes to her room in the judge’s house, seemingly having arranged with the housekeeper for meals that were not those meticulously planned by the narrator, only to emerge many days later so much thinner as to be a different person, both physically and in temperament. Two thirds of the way through the book, McCabe disappears entirely. How do you kill someone when she is no longer there?

Heartland’s flap copy calls the narrator’s plan “a homicidal masterplan so detailed as to be akin to love.” Maybe. But to me, Heartland looks less like a murderous love story and more like a parable for our time: When things around you are failing, and you have so little control, the natural instinct is to want to decide something, to control it, to plan it, to have something firmly and predictably within your grasp, and to have all that meticulous planning and execution result in something right. But that’s not how life works and it’s certainly not how other people work and sometimes, your homicidal masterplan fails not because it didn’t take every detail into account, but rather because it did.

One note: Heartland is satire. I am deeply conflicted about satire as a device because I frequently find that the intended message gets lost in the device. Simo, a queer Latina, uses a number of satirical mechanisms in Heartland, including racist and homophobic slurs and stereotypes. This may not be your cup of tea.


Amy 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.

 

Iron Cast’s heart is the friendship between two girls who are inseparable, who are better together than they are apart

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

Iron Cast

In 2012, I read Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and it shredded my heart. If you haven’t read it, you must, and then we will have shredded hearts together.

It’s a story of two girls, best friends, during World War II. One, a pilot, drops the other, a radio operator, into German-occupied France. Things end terribly.

I still, seven years later, burst into inconsolable tears at the thought of “Kiss me, Hardy! Kiss me, quick!”

Code Name Verity—despite my permanently shredded heart—is one of my favorite books in this history of the universe. It’s my heart book, the one that’s not for my head and not for my soul and not for my fearlessness or my ambition, but for the part of me that loves my best friend more than anyone else. Because Code Name Verity is nothing more and certainly nothing less than a story about the profound strength and depth and sacrifice of female friendship, which is a wondrous declaration in our world that doesn’t much consider or value or even like the idea that women might be friends.

So it is no small thing when I say that Iron Cast by Destiny Soria has patched up the tiniest bit of that gaping hole that Elizabeth Wein left in my chest seven years ago.

It is Boston, 1919, on the verge of Prohibition, and two best friends work in a night club doing illegal magic. Ada Navarra, the biracial daughter of immigrants, is a songsmith, able to conjure feelings with music. Corinne Wells, white daughter of a rich Boston family, can create illusions by reciting poetry. Both are hemopaths, people whose abilities are possible through their unusual blood. But that blood also makes them vulnerable to iron in always painful, sometimes life-threatening ways.

And in Boston, in 1919, hemopaths aren’t welcome. While a number of hemopaths use their skill seemingly innocuously, such as playing happiness or conjuring a pastoral vision for paying patrons, others use their skill to commit crimes, manipulating unsuspecting marks into scams and robberies. Ada and Corinne do both, though they’ll pertly tell you that they take advantage of only those who deserve it, thank you very much.

The city has recently passed a law prohibiting hemopaths from using their skills, and clubs like the Cast Iron, where Ada and Corinne work, put on secret, illegal hemopathy shows for patrons. Police carry iron hemopath detectors and hemopaths are frequently rounded up and placed at the Haversham Asylum for Afflictions of the Blood “for their safety”—but in fact for extensive, deadly experiments attempting to find either a cure or a protection for non-hemopaths. In fact, Iron Cast opens with Ada in the asylum, waiting for Corinne to break her out.

The plot of Iron Cast is, loosely, what you might expect from a magical Prohibition-era, speakeasy-style novel. There are some guns and some drinking and some dancing and some kissing. Because this is a fantasy work, there are also some magic and some revelations about some magic.

But Iron Cast sets the table with more than suits and hem lengths, jazz and champagne. In a thousand ways, some tiny and some monumental and some both tiny and monumental, Iron Cast is about what it means to be something other than what society privileges: to be a different color, to love someone of your own gender, to be able to do magic because of your iron-hating blood. It’s about courage and equality and doing something instead of standing idly by. And if Iron Cast sometimes feels a bit too pat, such as when Corinne learns that her mother is a closet Marxist who knows all about Corinne’s hemopathy, well, it feels too pat in that way where the universe bends ever-so-slowly toward justice.

And Iron Cast’s heart, which is not shredded at all, is the friendship between Ada and Corinne. Two girls who are inseparable, who are better together—at magic, at ambition, at boys—than they are apart. Two girls who encourage each other every day to be smarter, quicker, more ambitious, more relentless. You’ll love them both and you’ll love them both better because you get to see each of them through the other’s eyes: Corinne’s bravery, Ada’s intelligence, Corinne’s mouthiness, Ada’s kindness toward her mother.

And when Ada does something for Corinne late in the book, it will remind you so very much of Maddie and Queenie from Code Name Verity, and your heart will break—but this time everything comes out okay in the end and that happy ending patched up a tiny bit of my forever-broken heart. And if I skipped ahead to make sure that Iron Cast had a happy ending, well, a girl can only take so many heart-shredding best friend stories.


Amy 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.

 

Vandana Singh’s work, steeped in Indian tales, presented with a scientist’s awe, asks the question that I most need from my sci-fi reading.

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

Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories

Today, we need to talk about fantasy and science fiction.

And why they’re different.

And why I generally like one and not the other.

And what on earth any of this has to do with Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories.

Let’s start with a confession: As a general rule—and I do mean a very broadly applied rule with a ludicrously small number of exceptions—I don’t like science fiction. I do not like your spaceships or your far-flung planets. I do not like your artificial intelligence or your aliens. I do not like your Star Wars or your Star Trek or your Guardians of the Galaxy. I do not like any of that, Sam I am.

I often find that, when we’re talking about liking or disliking entire genres, it’s perhaps helpful to throw out the very good and very bad examples. If you put N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season in the hands of someone who doesn’t like fantasy, they might well like it anyway because it’s bloody perfect. It’s so perfect that the fantasy elements— despite being wholly necessary for the entire point—are almost secondary. In so many ways, it’s a slavery book, a climate change book, a middle-aged woman’s bildungsroman book, not a fantasy book. (Yes, you and I both know it’s actually a fantasy book.) Similarly, let’s not extrapolate anything from the fact that I really did like Kameron Hurley’s sci-fi The Stars Are Legion, despite that it was terribly damp, because it’s also terribly good. While I fully recognize that sci-fi tropes are necessary for a woman to give birth to a spaceship part, for me, The Stars Are Legion is a reproductive justice book and its (very damp) science fiction trappings are secondary.

Conversely, it’s probably not helpful to draw conclusions about genres from disliking their very bad books. Bad books are bad books, whether they have aliens or not.

But when you start to look at the middle swath of books, which are neither very good nor very bad, I am much more likely to find something that I like in the fantasy books than in the science fiction books. And Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, Vandana Singh’s collection, with its foundation of myth and its execution of science, was an interesting read for me because it almost begs the question, “Well, Amy, why is it, in fact, that you don’t like science fiction anyway?”

And here, I think, is the answer: Start, again, by removing the really great books from your calculus. And by that, I mean, more often than not, those books that use the possibilities of the genre as a necessary component of the actual story they’re telling: The Stars Are Legion’s use of forced birth of spaceship parts as a furious cry for reproductive justice, for example, or Ninefox Gambit’s shoving a resurrected, renowned, murderous strategist into the head of a crashhawk to explore the value, or not, of rule-following as a form of regime change.

Put those aside. What you’re left with is a lot of stories that, whether you love them or you don’t, maybe didn’t need that particular genre to tell its story. Because stories aren’t really about unicorns or spaceships or ghosts, are they? They’re about revolution or love or self. (And we could go down a serious rabbit hole right here about what the necessary components of a story are, but I will argue into the ground that spaceships are only very rarely one of them.) But for one reason or another or a thousand, the author chose a particular genre. So regardless of whether it’s unicorns or spaceships or ghosts (or all three, whee), you’ve begged certain questions that readers think comes with them: virginity issues, say, or the physics of warp speed, or what exactly is going bump in the night. So far, still okay!

And—I swear I’m coming to the point, hang in there—here’s why I read speculative fiction, generally: It gives authors a chance to create worlds that don’t have the same bullshit as ours. I read speculative fiction for the possibility of exploring a world that is better—more fair, more just—than ours. Or that explores issues that our world has in more thoughtful, more empathetic ways. And that’s why I get mad at both science fiction and fantasy for their thoughtless defaults to white, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical people. Speculative fiction presents the opportunity to make more people human.

But here’s the thing: When we’re talking about who gets to be human in speculative fiction, science fiction fumbles that issue way more often than fantasy. Which is not to say that fantasy isn’t rife with issues of slavery and consent and a thousand other problematic things. Your flowers might speak, Lewis Carroll, but do they get to vote? I fucking thought not.

But sheesh, in sci-fi, basically every setting and every plot begs questions of humanity. Every time there’s an alien or some artificial intelligence or a sentient plant or a jumped-up Roomba, I want to know whether that’s a human. In a world where a robot can run a planet, I want to know what the author thinks being human means. In worlds where computers can think on their own and people are technologically enhanced and aliens turn up every dang day, what does human-ness require? And some science fiction books interrogate this well (Semiosis), and some do not, and so many don’t even try, but when I read speculative fiction specifically so authors can explore worlds that are more fair or just or thoughtful than ours, and we’re not querying how we treat the independently thinking robots who are running entire planets, it makes me furious.

Which brings me, finally and in the most roundabout way possible, to Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories.

Vandana Singh is both a speculative fiction author and a theoretical particle physicist. And frankly, you can always tell when a sci-fi author is also a scientist, can’t you? It’s not even so much the facility with the science that’s apparent in the details, but the way of looking at the world around you as a place of infinite possibility. A proclivity to see the wonder of both the grand scale of the universe and every person’s tiny place in it.

Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories has all of that wonder and then some. Singh was born in India, to parents with graduate degrees in English literature, so she was raised on stories: Indian epics, the myths and legends of South Asia, Shakespeare, and more. Those tales are the foundation for her work: Even as we’re following a protagonist across the universe in pursuit of a robot, hell-bent on revenge, Singh is explicitly drawing parallels to the Ramayana. But perhaps even more than those tales, Singh’s awe of the universe seeps into the pores of every story. Her stories are about wonder and wondering: Is time truly linear? Can one person change the cosmic course of the universe? Is there a case to be made for an Anti-Occam’s Razor Theory? Her stories are an inherent exploration: of society, of the world, of the universe.

And of what it means to be human.

Through all those legends and all that wonder, in worlds of profound artificial intelligence and alien manipulation, Singh’s fundamental question is a humanist one: What does it mean to be human? It’s a question that she poses delicately, empathetically, in a profoundly exploratory way—but she’s relentless in her inquiry. Every story in the collection asks, in one way or another, what it means to be human. Is it love? Is it revenge? Is it duty? Is it self-determination? An ability to change the world? Is it, in fact, being able to wonder at the endless possibilities of the universe?

I could tell you more, of course. About how “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra” is an explosive take on the power of stories. Or about how “A Handful of Rice” contemplates both surprise and compromise. Or the reader’s own moment of wonder halfway through “Peripeteia.”

But I don’t need to, do I?

Because you already know the most important part: Vandana Singh’s work, steeped in Indian tales, presented with a scientist’s awe, asks the question that I most need from my sci-fi reading: What makes us human?


Amy 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 nine 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.

 

Book Club: Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean

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

Empress of All Seasons

It was with equal parts excitement and trepidation that I began Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean.

I love a good warrior-girl story. Even more than that, I love a good monster-girl story. And Mari, the half-human, half-yōkai, practically invincible protagonist of Empress of All Seasons, was both. A girl born to a tribe of monster-women, raised to be an indomitable warrior, a probable champion of a deadly game that pits warrior-girl against warrior-girl in a contest to marry the prince….

And there’s my trepidation. A deadly game that pits warrior-girl against warrior-girl in a contest to marry the prince. Again? How many books have I read—and even more, how many books have I not read—that contrive a deadly game that pits warrior-girl against warrior-girl in a contest to marry the prince? Way too many, that’s how many.

But while I might be able to ignore a warrior-girl, I cannot ignore a monster-girl, a girl of fang and claw, a girl of my heart. So off I went.

Mari is an Animal Wife, heir to a monstrous legend of beautiful, shapeshifting women who marry men and then steal their riches, returning to their sisters with more money, more wisdom, more power. But in Mari’s land, the emperor despises yōkai: anyone non-human, with often non-human appearances and always non-human abilities. And so the emperor has ordered all yōkai collared, thereby reducing their strength and abilities to something humans can overcome. That those collars are cursed and burn the yōkai is of no consequence, of course, so long as they are contained. Mari, living in a remote mountain village has so far escaped the collar, but she’s about to go into the proverbial lion’s den.

Unlike most Animal Wives, Mari wasn’t born beautiful, or at least that’s what she’s told. Much is made of her plain appearance, her short stature, her round face. In fact, she seemingly wasn’t even born with the full abilities of an Animal Wife, since she can change her human form only partially. And so, assuming she can’t trap a husband with her looks or her magic, Mari’s mother raises her to be a warrior. Because once a generation, countless human girls travel to the imperial city to compete in a competition for the next emperor’s hand in marriage. As with the first emperor, who loved a woman who bested all four seasons, each new empress must conquer four magical rooms, one devoted to each season. Unlike most other battle-for-the-prince books, Mari and her competitors aren’t supposed to kill each other; just like most other battle-for-the-prince books, they do so anyway—and many other girls are killed by the elements in the rooms. This is a deadly game, based on a legend, made possible by magic. And despite her non-human abilities, because of her human appearance, Mari has been raised to win and be the most successful Animal Wife of all: The one who steals the imperial riches.

This book has a lot to unpack. It wants, badly, to explore themes on femininity, beauty, and power, through Mari’s purported plainness, her part-monstrousness, her skill with the deadly naginata. It wants, badly, to dissect that preposterously large overlap between teenaged girls and monstrousness—a monstrousness that is often placed on them in order to remove their acceptableness and their power. It wants, badly, to deconstruct what it means for a girl to be monstrous, to want things she’s not allowed, to do things she’s not permitted, to be things she’s not supposed to become.

“We’re all monsters. No man, no human, will ever love us. That is the curse of the Animal Wife, never to be loved for who we truly are.”

And in some ways, Empress of All Seasons succeeds. Not through Mari, necessarily, even though her monstrousness and her power and her struggle are the driving force of the book. No, more notably through Akira, Mari’s friend, the half-yōkai, the Son of Nightmares, who sees her and her monstrousness and her competence and her power and her beauty, and loves her, exactly as she is. With a bit of luck and care, we all have people in our lives who see our monstrousness, our beastliness, our abilities as something gloriously more than we do, and Akira is that person for Mari.

And the book succeeds through Hanako, a yuki-onna, a Snow Woman made of ice and hard edges, known as the Weapons Master of the yōkai Resistance. She’s dangerous, she’s unapologetic, she’s ambitious. She’s a girl who knows her power and revels in her power and wields her power. She’s a girl to aspire to.

Somewhere in here, there’s an unflinching, uncompromising blade of a book that brooks no denial and makes no apologies. It tackles monstrousness as a necessity in a society that puts women in boxes and cages and collars. It tackles beauty as more flexible than we’ve been led to believe. It tackles gender and power and rebellion as both an everyday intersection and a grand-scale revolution. All of that lives somewhere in this book.

But all of that is nearly suffocated by the rest of this book. By Mari’s complicated relationship with her mother, her tribe, her best friend, who appears briefly in the first act, only to conveniently disappear in the third. By this nonsensical, deadly game of the seasons, that ridiculously pits powerful girl against powerful girl for marriage to a man known as the Cold Prince, only to repeatedly mock the girls who are there because they want to be empress. By a steady thread on brutality and othering people who are different than we are, but that never really gets its hooks in the reader. By Mari’s burgeoning, almost accidental love story with that prince. And finally, by the sharp left turn in the third act that twists the book into one of poorly planned rebellion.

And Mari—our protagonist, though only one of three point-of-view characters—drowns in all of that. She’s pushed along by the plot, rarely making her own decisions, rarely recognizing what she wants, as opposed to what her mother, her friend, the prince, the emperor want of her. She’s poorly skilled in court games, but for a book conceived around a game set at court, that hardly seems to matter. She’s even less skilled in rebellion, but Hanako conveniently shows up to take care of that. I had a hard time getting a handle on Mari; the prince and Akira, the other point-of-view characters, were both more one-note, but along those same lines, more consistent, while Mari seemed to have little personality beyond a bit of feminism, a bit of girlish head-over-heels love, and a lot of deadly skill.

In the end, Empress of All Seasons wanted to be so much: an interrogation of feminism and beauty and power; a parable about destroying each other because of our differences; a love story; a deadly game; a dazzling display of magic; a necessary rebellion. And in trying to do so much—for all those monster-girls of my heart—it ended up doing so little.


Amy 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 nine 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.

 

Book Club: Furyborn by Claire Legrand

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

Furyborn

The word “competent” means having the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully. (I looked it up!) But that’s not how we use it, is it? When we say someone is competent, we mean they’re fine, I suppose. They’re good enough. They’ll do. As if having the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully is not, in fact, success.

I think, societally, we underestimate competence. We underestimate how much work and skill it requires. We underestimate its value. We underestimate its importance. And I think much of this underestimating comes from the fact that competence is so often quiet.

Instead, we value any number of flashier things: talent, danger, a metaphorical or even literal high-wire act. As if, simply by instilling challenges or drama or a 30-foot drop into the process, the outcome will be more satisfactory. More successful.

I’ve been considering this recently for any number of reasons, not the least of which is watching the United States’ 2020 presidential campaign season roll out appallingly early. And while so much of so many things is gendered, even putting that aside, we—societally—would rather an Icarus than an Ariadne. Better to fly too high and perish than to quietly get shit done. Better to shout platitudes from a metaphorical mountaintop than to offer a workable, detailed plan.

And that goes for our media as well. I watch a ton of reality television, much of it competition reality shows. But I recently realized the profound difference between watching Top Chef or MasterChef and watching Ina Garten or Martha Stewart cook. The former is designed for fireworks: appliances that don’t work, forced partnerships, ingredients that no one should ever have to combine. In many ways, the show is the player’s antagonist, just as much as the other contestants. These shows are competitive, challenging, exciting—but they’re also very much designed for our “go big or go home” society, to elicit spectacular success and spectacular failure.

Conversely, have you ever sat down and watched Martha Stewart bake? Not with a guest, where she’s quite happy to show you her competitive side. (Her dirt cake is better than yours.) But just watched Martha, in a kitchen, by herself, doing what she does incredibly well?

It’s profoundly comforting, even relaxing. Sitting on your couch, watching a hyper-competent woman do what she does best. Nothing is going to go wrong. The oven will work, the ingredients will be there, the cake will not be burned, the decorating will be glorious. This experience—this experience of having a predictably successful outcome—is what we devalue, what we elide, what we gloss over and play down and underestimate. The pleasure of watching someone do something that they’re great at, no muss, no fuss, no fireworks, no disasters, just a dang beautiful cake.

I tell you this so that you will understand what high praise it is when I tell you that Furyborn is gloriously, magnificently competent.

Claire Legrand’s Furyborn is the first in the high-fantasy Empirium Trilogy. In the world of Avitas, legends tell of seven saints, each of whom mastered an element of empirium, which seems to be little magical particles that float around like golden dust motes. Even in the today of the immediate story, certain people have an affinity for one of those elements: sun, shadows, fire, and so on.

But prophecy tells of two women who will be able to master all seven elements, one queen of sun and one queen of blood. One seemingly good, one seemingly bad. One will save the world, one will destroy it. And so on. You all read a lot of fantasy: You know how this prophecy thing goes.

And after the usual sort of prologue that assures you that things will get very bad before the end, the book opens with Rielle, a lady of Celdaria, who is a pretty typical fantasy teen: She wants to skip her lessons, ride illegally in a horse race, and fuck the prince. Good for you, Rielle. But you find out pretty early on both that Rielle can wield all seven elements and that that fact is an unpleasant surprise to the (mostly male) leadership of Celdaria. She seems to be a queen of prophecy, but which one?

Rielle’s story is one of a headstrong girl, stifled all her life, told to keep her power secret and safe, told to stand aside as the boy she loves weds another. It’s the story of a grief-stricken girl who accidentally killed her mother years ago, which also cost her a relationship with her father. It’s the story of an immensely powerful girl who is still told that she is less: dangerous, uncontrollable, unpredictable—but that she can redeem herself by agreeing to use her power only to serve the king.

Rielle’s story is our story. And as so many of our stories do, Rielle’s story goes horribly wrong. Too many hot boys, too many overhearing men, too many people trying to control her rather than train her, trying to force her to do the right thing rather than supporting and trusting her.

But Rielle’s story is not the only story. Across the sea, 1,000 years later, we have Eliana, the Dread of Orline, seemingly crafted for all the Lila Bard fans of the world.

Eliana’s father is dead, her mother is disabled, her little brother is adorable, and she’s the sole breadwinner for her family. Which she does by catching and killing rebels for the Emperor. She’s not always happy about it, especially when best friend-and-lover Harken prods her about it, but it puts food on the table. Oh, and her body can magically heal itself. She is, for the record, both a woman of color and bisexual, though her on-page sex is only with men.

Eliana’s story blows wide open when, on the same night, her mother mysteriously disappears and she encounters the Wolf, a deadly rebellion operative. She strikes a bargain with him, which she regrets at least half a dozen times, and ends up making her way through the Red Crown revolution, picking up pieces of the puzzle along the way.

If Rielle’s story of power stifled is the one we live every day, Eliana’s story of power wielded is one we dream every night. While Rielle and Eliana are similarly angry and similarly mouthy, that reads as obstinance and disobedience in Rielle’s story, but as danger and sass in Eliana’s.

Legrand tells her story in alternating point-of-view chapters, which many of you know is a bit of a bee in my bonnet. Here, it’s frustratingly worse, because those alternating point-of-view chapters are set 1,000 years apart, and Legrand must compensate not only for the usual loss of momentum by shifting characters, but the additional challenge of shifting entire plotlines. Which she does by making each chapter, more or less, a cliffhanger, which makes for compulsive, if somewhat aggravatingly so, readability.

But, people, this book is competent. The world is good, the characters are good, the plot is good, the magic is good, the writing is good. And even better, the third rails that have been blowing up my enjoyment of an awful lot of young-adult high fantasy lately aren’t here. The worldbuilding makes sense: There are no absurdist canons, like a world that can have this but not that, a king but not a queen, a fall but not a spring. The characters aren’t hateful: Though both Rielle and Eliana are surrounded by too many men telling them what to do, most of the time they fight back, assert themselves, do what they want to do. While both Rielle and Eliana have unexplained powers, the magical rules stick and we don’t learn late in the game about that one last power that will help them save the world. (At least not yet. There’s no world-saving in book one.)

And what a lovely reading experience it was. About 100 pages in, when I realized that nothing was going to go horribly wrong in the reading process, that I could just relax and read the book…I just relaxed and read the book. What a delight. What a joy. What competence.


Amy 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 nine 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.

 

Book Club: The Witch’s Market by Mingmei Yip

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

The Witch's Market

We all have those tropes, you know? Those tropes that, for whatever reason, we adore, we seek, we…yes, we excoriate.

One of those tropes, for me, is witches. I have sky-high expectations for books written by women about witches.

Terribly high? Assuredly.

Magnificently high? Perhaps.

Impossibly high? All signs point to yes.

Despite that I can’t seem to remember the last time that I liked a book about witches—any book about witches, regardless of author—I continue to read them.

And not just read them. Read them voraciously. I read them voraciously. If a book includes “witch” in the title, and it’s not written by some cisgendered, heterosexual dude, I’ve probably bought it. Maybe read it.

Likely been disappointed by it.

Unfair? Certainly.

In my dreadfully thin defense, I have bees in my proverbial bonnet. I expect my fantasy revolutions to address economic instability and I want my monster girls to be largely unrepentant and I need my witch books to come with a decidedly feminist bent. The word “witch” has been weaponized against women for a thousand years; I want that ostracization and persecution to be handled—and handled well, feminist-ly well. I want questions of power and answers of power and epiphanies of power. I probably want revenge, but that one might be just me.

For all the imaginable reasons, I have a hard time with a fantasy world with “witches” where this thousand years of shitty history isn’t addressed. And if that world isn’t so much a fantasy world, but our world, our contemporary world with its history of witch hunts and drownings and burnings and so on, but with real witches, well.

Well.

I picked up The Witch’s Market by Mingmei Yip because I am constantly in search of that book, that holy grail of a book, that will give my brain and my heart a proper witchly reclamation, redemption, and retribution. Spoiler alert: The Witch’s Market didn’t do it for me.

The Witch’s Market gets the broad strokes right. Eileen Chen, Chinese-American professor of folk religion, is chasing tenure. To date, her scholarship has focused on Asian traditions, primarily the Chinese incantations practiced by Eileen’s matriarchal line. Eileen isn’t sure that her grandmother really was a witch—but she isn’t sure that she wasn’t, either. And among her university crowd, Eileen deliberately cultivates the idea that maybe she is a witch, too.

Somewhat inexplicably, Eileen’s male department chair and mentor suggests that she needs to round out her scholarship with some white-people witchery in order to complete her research and achieve tenure. Why? No idea. But he offers her time off to do it, which conveniently coincides with a dream Eileen has indicating that she should go to the Canary Islands to seek some witches. Why the Canary Islands? I guess they’re full of witches? So Eileen leaves her pragmatic lawyer sister and her on-again, off-again, rich, that-guy boyfriend, and heads to the Canary Islands.

Within days of arriving on the islands, Eileen has seen a ghost, heard a disturbing rumor about the earth swallowing a man and a dog, danced naked in the moonlight with some witches, agreed to stay with a rich guy and his housekeeper in his castle, and met a seriously extroverted former cabaret singer. If that sounds like a lot, well, I haven’t even gotten to the dead daughter, the missing son, the seemingly endless list of men who fall for Eileen, or the rich guy’s jealous dead wife. It’s a lot. A lot.

Which could have all been fine! In terms of plot and scope, this book reminds me a lot of Dreaming in Cuban or The Island of Eternal Love. Grand, sweeping family mysteries, rife with ghosts and coincidences and mistaken assumptions, spanning decades or generations. Assuredly, the great lot of plot is not where The Witch’s Market lost me.

Where it lost me was its internalized misogyny, its relentless tokenism, its aggressive heteronormativism. While men fall all over themselves to chase Eileen—she receives not one, but three marriage proposals in the last third of this book—Eileen herself finds every other woman in this book lacking. And Eileen’s judgmentalness isn’t merely unnecessary, but hypocritical. She judges other witches for using their power, even as she hones her own. She judges an aging woman for sleeping with a young man, even as she sleeps with a man more than a decade her junior. She judges a housekeeper for drinking several glasses of wine and then sits down to pour herself some sherry. Unsurprisingly, the woman who got Eileen drunk and danced naked with her in the moonlight turns out to be evil. The frustrating list of this one woman denigrating all other women goes on and on. And on.

In a similar vein, The Witch’s Market is unyielding in its presentation of traditional heteronormative stereotypes as valid. Eileen turns down all three marriage proposals, but nonetheless seriously considers each one—despite that all three of these men assuredly suck—because each is considered a catch. Every major player in this book insists that Eileen seriously consider one or more of her suitors: He’s a good man. He’s a nice man. He’s a rich man. He’s a handsome man. He’ll take care of you. You wouldn’t have to work anymore. You would have all the time in the world to write your book. In fact, Eileen’s sister—her lawyer sister—berates her for turning down not one, but two rich men. I checked the copyright date on this book four times, but each time it somehow still said ©2015.

I could continue, but I presume that I lost most of you at “internalized misogyny,” so I don’t have to go into how Eileen others basically everyone (locals, witches, women who have sex, the neuroatypical character), how all the similes are also misogynist tripe (something mundane “fell open easily, like a prostitute’s legs”), how Eileen’s inner monologues are logically inconsistent (she can’t seem to keep track of a conversation), or how every man in this book sucks (I can neither confirm nor deny if all the women suck because Eileen hates them all).

That said, I had very similar issues with a couple other books, so if you liked A Discovery of Witches or The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, you might want to ignore me and give this one a shot!


Amy 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 nine 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.

 

Book Club: Fen by Daisy Johnson

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

Fen

Some days, I aspire to a more feral version of myself. To respond with fang and claw to admonishments to be more civilized—to calm down, stand down, take it down a notch. To be nothing more or less than my prodigious unfettered aggression.

Which is to say that, at a visceral, atomic level, I get Fen. I know this work in my bones and my fangs and my claws. I know this work in my violence and my solitude. This work and I met, bloodied and snarling, under a sliver moon in the wild.

This work and I know each other.

Maybe this work and you know each other, too.

Fen, by Daisy Johnson, is a collection of twelve short stories, each more feral and fantastic than the last. These stories come with titles like “Blood Rites,” and “A Bruise the Size and Shape of a Door Handle,” and “How to Fuck a Man you Don’t Know.” The titles are reflective of the work: a warning, a red flag of blood and bruises and fucking. You may not be ready for what you find here.

All of these stories revolve around the fen, an unnamed portion of Great Britain that is purportedly still wild, still free, still full of strange things that don’t go bump in the night so much as crawl into your bed, shaped like a fox or a cat or a girl, and worm their way into your bones. You may never be the same after what you find here.

But what Fen is really about, beyond its wildness and strangeness, is what men take from women. The quotidian existence of attention paid, and assurance granted, and bruises formed, and sex reluctantly given. The collection’s determined, insistent feral-ness is a furious reaction to all the desperate time and energy women spend trying to manage men’s demands: our smiles, our acquiescence, our sex, our blood. Attention must be paid, Willie Loman, but in Fen, it might come with fang and claw.

In “Starver,” a girl, trying to achieve impossible beauty standards, starves herself—perhaps accidentally, but perhaps not—until she turns into an eel. Is she happier as an eel, slim, sleek, and glossy? You tell me, and further, if so, tell me why. Did she finally get the form she wanted? Or did she finally escape the constraints of societal expectations?

In “Blood Rites,” three beasts, jittery from living on raw meat, consume men, gore and all. But they find themselves with those same men’s vile words in their mouths, demanding their attention, even after death. You would think death would be enough to finally get men and their words to leave you alone.

In “A Bruise the Size and Shape of a Door Handle,” which can—and perhaps should—be read in juxtaposition with Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is for Witching, a jealous house consumes Salma’s lesbian lover. While the house isn’t explicitly gendered, come on, that house is a dude.

In “Language,” a mother can’t live without her newly dead son, so she brings him back. But after death, every word he utters bruises his wife. The wife loves him—of course she loves him—but every single thing he says harms her. He doesn’t mean to—of course he doesn’t mean to—but that doesn’t change the hurt. Even one bruise is too many.

In “A Heavy Devotion,” a son’s growth robs his mother of her memories, both emotional and practical. She becomes a shell of herself, unable to recall even her name. Finding that his mother has nothing more to give, her son leaves—and pieces of her world slowly return.

In “The Lighthouse Keeper,” a woman wants to be left alone with a fish and even that’s too damned much to ask.

Fen is for when you’re ashamed, when you’re furious, when you’re desperate to regain just a piece of yourself from the daily exhaustion of being a woman in a world founded on men’s demands. Fen is for when you’re told you’re too loud, too shrill, too bossy, too big, too much. Fen is for the days of blood and bruising and fucking, when you need to remember that you’re dangerous, too. Fen is for your fangs and your claws.


Amy 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 nine 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.

 

Sirens Newsletter – Volume 11, Issue 1 (January 2019)

This month:

Welcome back, Sirens! We have brilliant 2019 Guests of Honor to introduce you to, Sirens Studio summaries and faculty bios are up on the website (get your tickets!), we’re busy reading fantasy books.

Just a reminder: Sirens Studio is October 22–23, 2019; Sirens is October 24–27, 2019, and we’ll be at the Hilton Inverness Hotel in Denver, CO.

 

BE OUR GUEST

And let us reintroduce you to our 2019 Guests of Honor: Mishell Baker (Borderline), Ausma Zehanat Khan (The Bloodprint), Rebecca Roanhorse (Trail of Lightning), and for the first time at Sirens, a scholar, Dr. Suzanne Scott (Fake Geek Girls), and a Sirens Studio guest of honor, Roshani Chokshi (Aru Shah and the End of Time). We’ll be speaking to each of them in the coming months about their work, fantasy literature, and heroes, but get a head start reading their work here.

Register for Sirens

 

STEP INTO STUDIO

Pencils ready? Sirens Studio summaries are live! Here is the list of faculty with their topics for reading, writing, and career intensives:

Reading

Writing

Career

You’ll want to nab Studio tickets soon, since we’re limiting the attendance to 70. Read the full summaries and faculty bios over on the Sirens Studio page!

Read About Sirens Studio

 

AMY’S BOOK CLUB

Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble

Amy generally reads upwards of 150 books a year, and through the monthly Sirens book club, she shares her insights, opinions, and a teeny bit of her personal reading history. This month, she was smitten with Anna Meriano’s chapter book, Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble: “Please, fantasy authors… Give me more women with big business dreams and big family dreams and big dreams that they’ll achieve through hard work and smart business and just a bit of magic.” Read her full review on the blog and on Goodreads.

 

STAY TUNED

In February, we’ll have information on how you can apply for Sirens scholarships, Sirens co-founder Amy Tenbrink’s thoughts on our 2019 “heroes” theme, preliminary information about Sirens’s programming (which is presented by attendees!), and more.


Questions? Concerns? Please email general queries to (help at sirensconference.org) and questions about programming to (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

Book Club: A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano

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

A Dash of Trouble

So often, fantasy books—even feminist fantasy books—are about women claiming men’s power. Seizing a throne held by a man, perhaps. Cutting down a sword wielded by a man, often. Sorcery taught by a man, sometimes. Dominance stolen from a man during sex, occasionally. As if power comes only in masculine forms. As if in order to gain power, we must rob men of theirs: take their leadership, their weapons, their knowledge, their seed. As if the only path to power is the one they chose, they covet, they permit.

And that’s all fine, I suppose, though not nearly enough attention is paid to breaking down those particular patterns in fantasy works. But I frequently grow weary of those same tropes, those same plots, those same imbalances and authorities and uprisings.

Which is to say that I have a soft spot for fantasy books about traditionally feminine skills made magic. There’s something compelling about taking our foremothers’ crafts—baking, singing, knitting, and thread-spinning—and rendering them magic. It’s a ready metaphor for claiming our stories and our power, not in traditionally masculine ways, but in the traditionally feminine ways we have always used to survive: through sisterhood and secrets and a damned good loaf of bread.

(Side note: You can imagine the incandescence of my rage when these books about traditionally feminine skills made magic feature a male protagonist mastering those skills to save a damsel in distress. But that is a whole different book review or twenty.)

Anna Meriano’s A Dash of Trouble, the first book in her Love Sugar Magic series, overflows with brujería de la cocina. Leonora Logroño’s family owns the most beloved bakery in Rose Hill, Texas. And from the first chapter, the book gathered me up with scents of cinnamon and cardamom and baking bread and sugary cookies—not to mention the fact that Leo’s mom is the businessperson of the family, the one working, working, working to achieve her dream of owning a larger house down the street from her Amor y Azúcar Panadería.

People, I was smitten.

Please, fantasy authors, give me more women with small businesses born of everyday magics. Give me more women who, on the page, are spectacularly resourceful in bookkeeping and customer service and magic. Give me more women with big business dreams and big family dreams and big dreams that they’ll achieve through hard work and smart business and just a bit of magic. Please, fantasy authors, please?

Eleven-year-old Leo is part of that family of big dreams, the youngest of five sisters—and her frustration is palpable: She’s the youngest, the one with the fewest freedoms and responsibilities, the only one who isn’t fluent in Spanish, the one who has to go to school while everyone else gets to stay home and prepare for the bakery’s Day of the Dead celebration. Even as she clings to her much-loved childhood traditions, like dressing up for Halloween, she wants so badly to be grown up, to be taken seriously, to have responsibilities equal to her older sisters, and to be part of whatever secrets her family is telling in Spanish.

So she does what any eleven-year-old protagonist full of curiosity and vexation would do: She sneaks out of school to spy on her family. Leo has more than a dash of Claudia Kincaid and Trixie Belden.

What she discovers through her spying is her family’s magia: The women of her family, including her four older sisters, are brujas: They can influence emotions, make objects appear from nowhere, and commune with the dead. And all those “lucky” cakes that Amor y Azúcar Panadería sells? Well, they really are lucky.

When Leo’s best friend Caroline has a falling out with another friend, Leo finds the perfect opportunity to prove—mostly to herself—that she’s just as smart and responsible and grown as any of her sisters. So she and Caroline start solving Caroline’s problem with spells, spells with hilarious, unintended, regrettable consequences. Spells with consequences that maybe Leo can’t fix on her own. Consequences that might cost Leo her best friend. Consequences that Leo might, gasp, not be able to hide from her mom.

A Dash of Trouble deftly navigates all those minefields of being eleven. Of still finding comfort in rituals and objects that you increasingly see as babyish. Of wanting to be given more responsibilities and more freedoms and more independence. Of just knowing that you can tackle anything, solve anything, fix anything—until you can’t. Of walking that tightrope between being a little kid and growing up, even as those who know you best don’t even notice that you’re bigger and braver and bolder than you were even last week. Of learning what responsibility really means, and what being a good friend and a good daughter really means, and what fixing your mistakes really means, even among a series of truly unfortunate events.

What I loved about this book—even more than its baking magic, even more than its panadería-jefe mom—is how active Leo is. Things don’t happen to Leo; she happens to them. She makes decisions, good and bad: She sneaks out of school, she convinces Caroline to cast spells, she fixes her own messes (with a bit of help from her dead abuela). Leo is a girl who gets shit done. And when you get to the big showdown between Leo and her mom, after her mom unravels everything that’s happened, Leo’s mom is equal parts exasperated that Leo didn’t tell her before and proud that Leo was independent enough and resourceful enough and determined enough to fix her own mistakes. Leo is more than my kind of heroine: She’s the sort of heroine that I give to my seven-year-old niece as she learns to navigate her independence and her mistakes and her power.


Amy 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 nine 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.

 

Book Club: Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her books from the annual Sirens reading list. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

Like Water for Chocolate

In 1989, when Like Water for Chocolate was first published, I was 13. I was reading my mother’s mysteries and bodice rippers, where the girls were either, respectively, dead or had to be told how much they wanted sex. I was consumed with my own perfectionism and already worried about achieving perfect grades, perfect attendance, and perfect extracurricular activities in high school, which I wouldn’t even start for another year. I did not read Like Water for Chocolate when it came out.

But maybe I should have.

In certain Spanish-speaking countries, the phrase “like water for chocolate” means “furious.” Often, in those countries, hot chocolate is made with near-boiling water, so the simile is, essentially, so mad that one is boiling over, rage-filled, livid. And Laura Esquivel’s book is so much like water for chocolate: a scalding, blistering work of fiery passions and violent anger and ultimately, literal conflagration.

Widowed Mama Elena has three daughters: Gertrudis, Rosaura, and the youngest, Tita. Like Water for Chocolate is Tita’s story, born of Mama Elena’s insistence that, as in family tradition, Tita never marry and instead stay home to take care of her mother. As with life, instead, Tita is the first of the girls to fall in love, instantly and fervidly with Pedro, who promptly appears in Mama Elena’s living room to ask for Tita’s hand in marriage. Mama Elena refuses, of course, and instead offers Rosaura to Pedro, who…accepts. Pedro’s reasoning is that, by marrying her sister, he can be close to Tita. Tita is predictably heartbroken and bakes her sorrow into Rosaura and Pedro’s wedding feast, causing sickness and, ultimately, a magical realism river of vomit.

Like Water for Chocolate, while purportedly told in monthly segments full of recipes and cooking tips – as befits Tita’s passion for cooking – in fact covers over 20 years of Tita’s life: her love of Pedro; Gertrudis’s escape from the household (another magical realism moment of unquenchable passion that culminates in a naked race into the desert and sex with a stranger on a horse); Mama Elena’s death (and haunting of Tita); and finally Tita and Pedro’s eventual consummation of their passion, only to have Pedro’s orgasm cause his death – upon which Tita, unwilling to let him go, creates her own death, burning the ancestral family ranch to the ground in the process. Does that sound like a lot? That’s not even the half of it!

Like Water for Chocolate is, even more than Tita and Pedro’s story, Tita and Mama Elena’s. Tita is, fundamentally, a creature of her mother’s making: selfless, abused, oppressed, a perfectionist. The first story in the book is about Mama Elena refusing Tita’s heart’s greatest desire, not because Tita is too young or even that Pedro isn’t suitable, but because Mama Elena wants someone to cook her food, draw her baths, and care for her ranch. Like Water for Chocolate is a slowly accelerating burn, lit when Tita is refused Pedro. The book is Tita’s, as she discovers her agency and how to use it, but every action she takes is in reaction to her mother, her mother’s literal ghost, and her mother’s legacy in Rosaura’s beliefs about marriage, dignity, and eventually, her own daughter staying home to care for her.

Mothers are powerful. As we grow into ourselves and our feminism, so much of that growth is in reaction to what we learned from our mothers. Whether we were encouraged on that path. Whether we were told to be selfless and put our mothers, our fathers, our husbands first. Whether we were taught that cooking, cleaning, and sewing were fundamentally about caretaking. Whether we were taught to suppress our passions, physical and otherwise. Whether we were told that we had to be perfect.

Like Water for Chocolate is that book. It’s about a daughter’s journey as a reflection of her mother’s influence. It’s about finding her own agency and her own path–but always in reaction to what she learned from her mother. Tita’s situation is perhaps extreme–as Esquivel likely intended–but even without violence or a boyfriend given to a sister or a ghost, her story will be so familiar to so many of us because Tita’s story is, ultimately, about her boiling point: her rage, her passion, her reclamation that, in the end, is all about burning it all down.

I didn’t read Like Water for Chocolate at 13, but maybe I should have.

Like Water for Chocolate is a quick read. Twelve chapters, one for each month of a figurative year, each with a Mexican recipe important to Tita’s life. Esquivel is primarily a screenwriter, and it shows, as the book does a lot of telling rather than showing. If it were a longer book, perhaps the writing would be a more significant deterrent, but at a very quick 250 pages, it’s worth the time, if only for a moment of contemplation on how much of what we do, even today, is in reaction to our mothers.


Amy 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 eight 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.

 

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