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Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Do It!

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 book list or review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we welcome a book list by Tina LeCount Myers.

I have a penchant for willful, stubborn, go-against-the-grain heroines. Especially those with a goal or a vision. I enjoy reading these characters because they act as a reminder to me about what is possible when one stops being nice and says NO to others and YES to self. Seen as selfish or unreasonable by those around them, these heroines often struggle, not only against the outside world but also their intimate circle of family and friends. These heroines rarely have it easy: They suffer the consequences of their actions and convictions. But ultimately, they have a richer life for saying, “Don’t tell me I can’t do it!”

If you share my affinity for these kinds of heroines, you might like to read:

 

A Natural History of Dragons
1. A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

“Don’t tell me I can’t go on a scientific expedition to study dragons!”

In this Victorian-esque fantasy, main character Isabella Trent chafes under what is expected of a proper lady. While she agrees to marry, she does so for the man’s library and not his wealth. And when she grows tired of the social expectations of a wife, she convinces her husband that an expedition to find rock-wyrms (dragons) is just the ticket. Although Isabella tries to balance social norms with her own desires, it is her calling as a dragon naturalist that takes precedence. Her recounting of the expedition unfolds much like the diaries of intrepid British male explorers of the 19th nineteenth century. This is a book for readers who enjoy maps, illustrations, and crisp writing with their cup of tea.

Gods of Jade and Shadow
2. Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

“Don’t tell me I can’t have a life of my own!”

The roaring twenties in Mexico are alive with jazz and ancient gods in this book. Main character Casiopea Tun dreams of a life away from her small, dusty town in southern Mexico, where she is treated like a servant in her family. When she inadvertently frees the God of Death, she is drawn into his quest to regain his power. Acting as his ally, Casiopea risks her own death to get the life she has always dreamed of. This is a beautifully written book with tension at every turn. It is a story for readers who enjoy magical realism and a walk through the shadows of the underworld and perhaps a companion piece for those who have read Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova.

Binti
3. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

“Don’t tell me I can’t go to the best university in the galaxy!”

There is a world out there to explore, but while Binti’s people are focused on gaining knowledge, they do not leave Earth. However, main character Binti, who is mathematically gifted, has the chance to attend Oomza, a prestigious university on a distant planet. With her isolationist-family set against it, if Binti leaves, she risks hurting them. If Binti goes, she knows she will face deep prejudice. Although it is a novella, released in a series, this book has more world-building in 96 pages than most with 500 pages. A quick, engrossing read for those who enjoy Africanfuturism and the short stories of Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin. This book proves that small can be powerful.

The Guns Above
4. The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis

“Don’t tell me I can’t command a military airship!”

This steampunk novel comes with cannon-fire, dirigibles, and a snarky heroine. Meet Auxiliary Lieutenant Josette Dupre, who has good reason to have an acerbic outlook. While the Air Signal Corps of Garnia is co-ed, women are only allowed “auxiliary” roles. Josette, however, has her eye on command and nothing is going to stop her, not a dubious crew nor a dandy spy. Josette is tough, canny, and ready to trade barbs and pistol-fire—whatever it takes to win. I read and listened to this book in tandem. Both versions merit a “Huzzah.” Readers who enjoyed Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon will appreciate the military detail, this time with a woman at the helm and one who has a sense of humor.

Steeplejack
5. Steeplejack by A.J. Hartley

“Don’t tell me I can’t care for a baby and solve the theft of an artifact and the death of a young boy!”

In this post-colonial steampunk story, the scales are stacked against main character Anglet Sutonga. She’s an immigrant, she’s a female steeplejack, and she’s the third daughter—a curse to her family. When she finds her apprentice dead on the day an artifact disappears, she is not only convinced they are linked, she is determined to find out the truth. Caught between the machinations of apartheid leaders and the care for her sister’s baby, Anglet must convince others what she knows in her heart. She can do it. Readers of Nisi Shawl’s Everfair and Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation will find a heroine who does not take no for an answer


Tina LeCount MyersTina LeCount Myers is a writer, artist, independent historian, and surfer. Born in Mexico to expat-bohemian parents, she grew up on Southern California tennis courts with a prophecy hanging over her head: Her parents hoped she’d one day be an author. Tina lives in San Francisco with her adventurer husband and two loud Siamese cats. The Song of All is the first book of her epic fantasy trilogy, The Legacy of the Heavens. You can follow Tina on Twitter @tlecountmysters and learn more about her work on her website.

 

Casey Blair’s “Women Who Dream Big Dreams” Recommended Reading

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who write reviews and books lists of fantasy and related works by women or nonbinary authors. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review for publication, please email us! Today, we welcome a book list by Casey Blair.


Women in SFF Who Dream Big Dreams and Don’t Let Anyone Stop Them


Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

This is about a girl who has no reason to believe anything is possible but does anyway, and she sets off on a quest to find the answer to happiness. As one does.

A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

An untried but brilliant poet-diplomat thrust into the heart of a galactic empire, with Byzantine politics written by an academic Byzantinist? Yes, you can take my money.

Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword

Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien

This heroine is going to be the very best martial arts skater (yeah, you read that right) like no one ever was. Oh wait, she already is.

The Spirit Thief

The Legend of Eli Monpress series by Rachel Aaron

Pretty much every female character in these books, be she a sorceress, a scientist, a goddess-general or the demonically possessed, is completely uncontainable. Also no one has time for romance.

The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

No spoilers on this book’s heroines, but, uh, if you haven’t read this book yet I don’t know what to tell you other than you really, really should. It’s as stunning of an achievement as everyone says.

Sorcery of Thorns

Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson

This is a heroine who just flatly does not understand giving up—and certainly not when there are magic libraries involved.

An Unkindness of Magicians

An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard

Unraveling institutional oppression with epic tournament battles. That’s it, that’s the pitch.

The Beast Player

The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi

No one is going to stop this quiet heroine from completely changing how the world understands magical creatures.

Unnatural Magic

Unnatural Magic by C.M. Waggoner

Pro tip: Don’t try to keep a genius magic scholar heroine down.

The Candle and the Flame

The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

In a city that’s a dazzling blend of cultural experiences, this story has so many amazing women across walks of life—princess or businesswoman or unstoppable djinn.

Dragonsbane

Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly

This heroine is devoted to her magic work first and foremost—even if she’s not good enough, even if no one else cares, she doesn’t sacrifice what matters to her for family or love or anything. Her children and husband (that’s right, a heroine older than the age of 30! sorcery!) cope.

Spin the Dawn

Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

Gonna be a seamstress and make clothes out of literal magic, nbd.

The Summer Prince

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

In a futuristic post-apocalyptic Brazil, this heroine weaponizes the power and clarity of art for resistance, rebellion, and change.

The Merciful Crown

The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen

This is a heroine with a chip on her shoulder a mile wide who does not know the meaning of letting anything go and will call out and hold absolutely everyone accountable—herself most of all.

The Shadows Between Us

The Shadows Between Us by Tricia Levenseller

This heroine is just straight-up an unabashed villainess, and it is SO MUCH FUN.

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

Being a young dragon when everyone is stronger is hard. Instead, consider getting transformed into an even weaker human and determining to learn all the secrets of chocolate. That will definitely go well.

Empire of Sand

Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Outcast from everywhere and everyone, this is a heroine who makes her own place and changes the world to do it.

And that’s what I want to read more of.


Casey Blair

Casey Blair writes adventurous fantasy novels for all ages, including the novella Consider the Dust and her cozy fantasy serial Tea Princess Chronicles. After graduating from Vassar College, her own adventures have included teaching English in rural Japan, attending the Viable Paradise residential science fiction and fantasy writing workshop, and working as an indie bookseller. She now lives in the Pacific Northwest and can be found dancing spontaneously, exploring forests around the world, or trapped under a cat. For more information, visit her website or her Twitter.

Lani Goto’s “Space Is the Place” Recommended Reading

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who write reviews and books lists of fantasy and related works by women or nonbinary authors. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review for publication, please email us! Today, we welcome a book list by Lani Goto.

Space Is the Place

From a galaxy far, far away to the final frontier, space as a setting allows for just about anything to happen. Stories can range from hard sci-fi to basically fantasy, and cover any of the blurry areas in-between. But one commonality that space stories often share is the invitation to consider big questions about humanity.

These books—some of my favorite space stories I read last year—span the spectrum. Some are more philosophical, some are more action-y, but each one has a unique and thrilling take on what happens when people look to the stars.

 

Six Wakes

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

A crew of clones awakes onboard a generation ship to incomplete memories and the dead bodies of their previous selves. With the ship’s computer sabotaged, they are trapped together, uncertain of who was the murderer, but knowing it must be one of them.

The story moves from one character to another as they confront the current crisis and consider their lives before. Lafferty keeps the action at a brisk pace, continually ratcheting up the tension while the crew struggles to solve the mystery before it’s too late. Each clone has a complicated past, and their histories unfold and entangle in increasingly dire ways. There are few easy conclusions when it comes to the ethics of cloning and questions of identity, and they’ll have to decide what they can trust.

Ancestral Night

Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear

Haimey Dz works on a space salvage tug with her small crew: pilot, shipmind AI, and two cats. When they take on a new job, they don’t expect much, but suddenly find themselves involved with a mysterious alien ship and a lot of very interested and very aggressive other parties. Haimey winds up facing various enemies and allies alone, and must consider her personal priorities and where she belongs.

One of the most disorienting and enjoyable aspects of this book is how casually Bear makes extraordinary things mundane; for the characters, things like body modifications for zero-G and neural interfaces are entirely normal. This matter-of-factness leads to a frank exploration of a society that spans planets and species, what that means for how personhood is understood, and how people choose to belong—or don’t.

A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare comes from a distant space station to the heart of the galactic Teixcalaanli empire, where she must uncover what happened to her predecessor and devise a way to save her people from encroaching annexation. She carries a hidden technology that could be the key to her station’s survival, but it also holds a tremendous challenge for her deepest self.

Martine delves into concepts of culture through incredible worldbuilding, creating a vast and intricate realm that feels vibrantly real. Mahit, a lifelong student of Teixcalaan society, pulls us into both the seductions and horrors of assimilation. It’s a piercing examination of colonization, and the way identity is endlessly created and recreated, despite—or sometimes even because of—our best efforts to preserve what we believe is true.

Sisters of the Vast Black

Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather

A small group of nuns tend to their living ship as they journey into the distant reaches of space, ministering to far-flung colonies. But they all have different reasons for choosing this unusual life—and when the Church back on Earth sends a priest to check on them, the nuns must face their personal secrets and make some difficult choices.

This novella packs a lot into relatively few pages: the legacy of war, threats of deadly plague, forbidden romance, and of course the pregnancy of the giant space slug that is the ship. Yet for all the wild elements, Rather crafts a story with tenderness towards the complexities of faith and human connection, allowing for quiet joy and moments of the sublime.

Cosmoknights

Cosmoknights by Hannah Templer

Lesbian gladiators fight the patriarchy—literally!—In this neo-medieval space fantasy comic. Young mechanic Pan resents her backwater homeworld, and things get worse when her best friend Tara’s princess status takes her off-world to become a prize in an interstellar arena. Pan is lost…until she encounters two women who play to win a different kind of victory, and she sees a chance to rescue her BFF.

Templer’s colorful art and lively cast make for a vivid, action-packed adventure. As the story sweeps from glittering palaces to ominous back alleys, Pan eagerly jumps into the dangers of her new life, and begins to learn more about herself and the system she lives in. This high-energy, high-drama comic is like a good pop song that makes you want to grab your friends to dance and riot.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Four astronauts embark on a journey of exploration, observing and documenting unknown planets. As they travel further and further from home, encountering wonders and trials, contact with Earth begins to fray and their mission takes on a new kind of significance.

Chambers focuses on the relationships between the characters, each of them different but bound together in purpose and, remarkably, love. It’s an unusual direction for a subgenre that’s often based in the conflict arising from stuffing people in a tin can and flinging them into the dark. But this lens of genuine warmth and kindness makes the story hit harder as Chambers looks to space and asks what responsibility we have to science and to each other.


Lani Goto

Lani Goto grew up on a steady diet of fantasy books, but now it’s more like a mix of some fantasy, lots of sci-fi, and a bit of horror. In addition to reading, they enjoy cooking, hanging out with animals, and yelling at movies. They have a degree in art, and another in comics, though they currently work with engineering teams at the Wikimedia Foundation.

Rine Karr’s Recommended Reading on a Theme of Dragons

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who write reviews and books lists of fantasy and related works by women or nonbinary authors. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review for publication, please email us! Today, we welcome a book list by Rine Karr.

If I had to choose one mythological creature to read about solely until the end of my days, I would choose dragons. Magnificent dragons—they appear in the folklore of many of the world’s cultures, both as fire-breathing monsters and revered serpentine beasts. I think that’s why dragons are so fascinating to so many people. Where did the idea of the dragon first come from? And why did it appear in the first place? Dragons have stirred the imagination of countless generations, and if you’re like me and you want to read more stories about them, here’s a list of some of my favorite dragon novels and novellas.

 

Dragon's Milk
1. Dragon’s Milk (Dragon Chronicles #1) by Susan Fletcher
An oldie but goodie, Dragon’s Milk may be the first book I ever read that contained dragons and was written by a woman. The main character, Kaeldra—who I’d like to dub the Mother of Dragons long before this title and its respective Queen even existed—must find a dragon mother and bring back some of the dragon’s milk in order to save her sister, Lyf. But when the dragon mother is killed, Kaeldra suddenly finds herself acting as the adopted mother to three wee draclings.
Dealing with Dragons
2. Dealing with Dragons (Enchanged Forest Chronicles #1) by Patricia C. Wrede
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles are some of my sister’s favorite books, not mine; however, I decided to include this book on this list because it is truly iconic. Princess Cimorene may be a bit of a “not like other girls” trope, but her headstrong nature, tomboyishness, and the fact that she’s not a princess who needs saving makes her story an excellent choice for young girls (and boys and everyone really), particularly if said girls like fairy tales, and, of course, a talking dragon named Kazul.
Tehanu
3. Tehanu (Earthsea Cycle #4) by Ursula K. Le Guin
No list of books about dragons is complete without including the Earthsea Cycle. Some might’ve cited the series’ namesake—A Wizard of Earthsea—on this list, but it’s not my favorite of the six. Tehanu, which shifts the focus of the story of Earthsea from that of its self-styled heroic male wizards to its just as powerful but often overlooked magical women, is my favorite of the cycle. Tenar stole my heart when she was a naive little girl in The Tombs of Atuan. In Tehanu, however, Tenar is a confident adult woman who readers can’t help but respect and adore.
Seraphina
4. Seraphina (Seraphina #1) by Rachel Hartman
In Seraphina’s world, dragons transform into humans in order to keep the peace between the two species. Unfortunately, the kingdom of Goredd is far from idyllic, and the two sides in this tale don’t get along. Seraphina can walk this divide for reasons I can’t reveal, and she must do so in order to solve a murder alongside the shrewd Prince Lucian Kigg, a character who reminded me of Char from Ella Enchanted.
The Last Namsara
5. The Last Namsara (Iskari #1) by by Kristen Ciccarelli
This is a story of a girl not allowed to tell stories. This is a story of a girl who broke the rules. This is a story of a girl learning to be true to herself. The story of Asha—dragon slayer and Iskari—mirrors the author’s own story. Of how when Ciccarelli grew up, she was led to believe that storytelling was no longer an activity for adults. Until she realized that this was simply not true and wrote The Last Namsara, a book that I love with all my heart.
In the Vanishers' Palace
6. In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard
Beauty and the Beast meets—at least in my mind—Spirited Away. That’s how I would describe this novella. Which is a gem! With an all-Vietnamese cast of characters, a sapphic relationship, a magical palace, a post-apocalyptic and post-colonial setting, and a dragon (of course), there’s a lot to unearth in this shorter tale. There’s even a library that I pictured à la Disney’s 1991 Beauty and the Beast, but it’s even better in this book, although I won’t reveal why here.
The Priory of the Orange Tree
7. The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
As the longest book on this list at a hefty 827 pages, I beg you: do not let the size of The Priory intimidate you. If you like high fantasy in the same vein as A Game of Thrones, but you’re looking for something more feminist, more LGBTQ+, and more diverse, then you’ll love The Priory. Written from four points of view and set in a sort of East–West dichotomy world, The Priory tells the story of Ead, Tané, Loth, and Niclays, and how each of these characters and the people around them respond to an ancient enemy threatening to destroy them all. Oh, and there are dragon riders!
Shatter the Sky
8. Shatter the Sky (Shatter the Sky #1) by Rebecca Kim Wells
Maren’s girlfriend, Kaia, is abducted by the Aurati. Maren loves Kaia, so to save her, Maren decides to leave her home, steal one of the emperor’s prized dragons, and storm the impenetrable Aurati stronghold. Enough said! I’m sold! This is a fun read for anyone looking for stories with dragons and bisexual representation.

Rine KarrRine Karr is a writer and aspiring novelist by moonlight and a copy editor by daylight, with a background in anthropology/archaeology, international human rights, and Buddhist studies/art history. When Rine is not writing or otherwise working, she can be most often found reading books and drinking tea. She also loves to travel, and her heart is located somewhere between Hong Kong and London, although Rine currently lives in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains with her partner. She’s also currently—and almost always—in the midst of writing a novel.

 

Sarah Gailey’s Book List with Four Words on Each

Sirens Guest of Honor Sarah Gailey shares a recommended reading list, with four descriptors for each. If you enjoy Sarah’s work, or you want a recommended reading list of exceptional works, this list is for you. Take it away, Sarah!

 

To Be Taught, If Fortunate

To Be Taught, If Fortunate
by Becky Chambers

beautiful
hopeful
honest
tender

The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian
by Han Kang

intense
harrowing
scathing
brutal

The Need

The Need
by Helen Phillips

gripping
dark
furious
surprising

Sisters of the Vast Black

Sisters of the Vast Black
by Lina Rather

unflinching
kind
confrontational
sweet

The Prince and the Dressmaker

The Prince and the Dressmaker
by Jen Wang

lovely
aching
immersive
perfect

An Unkindness of Ghosts

An Unkindness of Ghosts
by Rivers Solomon

cutthroat
direct
relentless
brilliant

The Only Harmless Great Thing

The Only Harmless Great Thing
by Brooke Bolander

furious
dazzling
ambitious
satisfying


Sarah Gailey

Hugo Award winner and bestselling author Sarah Gailey is an internationally published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Their nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe, and they won a Hugo award for Best Fan Writer. Their most recent fiction credits include Vice and The Atlantic. Their debut novella, River of Teeth, was a 2018 Hugo and Nebula award finalist. Their bestselling adult novel debut, Magic for Liars, was published in 2019; their latest novella, Upright Women Wanted, was published in February 2020. Their young adult novel debut, When We Were Magic, came out in March 2020.

For more information about Sarah, please visit her website or her Twitter.

“Do you understand the sadness of geography?”: Heritage and Myth in East Asian Fantasy Lit

By Faye Bi

“Do you understand the sadness of geography?”

To borrow a quote from Michael Ondaatje, this sentiment—and my identity as a half-generation Chinese immigrant—has informed my reading in no small way. May is Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and those of you who know me know that I am enthusiastic about finding books that help me connect to my heritage.

With everything going on right now, I’m sharing a list of fantasy titles that have touched me emotionally, personally, on my journey to understand my native and acquired cultures, my family, and myself. I’ve read several books by Asian and Asian American writers for Sirens over the years as part of the Reading Challenge, and reviewed and edited my fair share of those reviews (some are recommended below). And if you’ve attended Sirens, I most definitely tried to sell you these in the bookstore. I also prepare myself for an acute sadness each time I hold up these books as a mirror.

This list is not meant to be comprehensive, as it focuses entirely on East Asia and especially China, since that’s my personal background. It also includes several short story collections (almost half!), likely as the result of the form’s postcolonial legacy and popularity among diasporic authors.

 

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

Grace Lin’s beautifully illustrated middle grade fantasy stars a young girl, Minli, who goes on a quest to bring fortune to her impoverished village and meets the Jade Dragon. Heavily influenced by Chinese folklore, this won a Newbery Honor shortly before I started my career in publishing and now has two companion novels. I gave it to my dad—he loved it too, and confirmed that the tales referenced were familiar to him as well.

Returning My Sister’s Face and Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice

Returning My Sister’s Face and Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice by Eugie Foster

Eugie Foster, rest in peace, was a treasure. These are charming, whimsical, occasionally hilarious tales inspired by Chinese, Japanese, and Korean mythology—my favorite is the one where a tanuki spirit disguises himself as a tea kettle. It reminds me just how out there these stories can be, and is the best of my Asian Humanities syllabus back in college to explore themes like filial piety, vengeance, and honor.

The Frangipani Hotel

The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

Violet! Violet! Come back! Sirens veterans might remember Violet Kupersmith as our Hauntings Guest of Honor in our 2018 Reunion year, and her debut collection of short stories is so good that it enrages me. She writes about hauntings, belonging, colonialism, intergenerational trauma, monsters, foodways (so much good food!), and more, in relation to Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora. Please write more, Violet. In the meantime, I need a snack.

Monstress

The Monstress series by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Currently on its fourth volume, Monstress is an epic fantasy comic set in an alternate Asia with a stunning art-deco/steampunk/manga art style. The world of Monstress has its own creation story, mythology, and religion, and explores themes of racial prejudice, feminism, and trauma through its teenage protagonist Raika Halfwolf. It’s also a complete assault on the senses with the amazing combination of storytelling and visuals.

The Beast Player

The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi, translation by Cathy Hirano

Uehashi is a giant of fantasy in her native Japan, and I first came across her work with the Moribito books. If you’re used to YA fantasy published for a western audience, you might be a little unmoored reading The Beast Player—the pacing is different, the characterization is subtle but incredibly rich, and the worldbuilding is nuanced, intricate, and … slow. It ends on a cruel cliffhanger, and I don’t even care. It’s unlike anything I’ve read recently and really ponders questions of environmentalism, ethics, and freedom.

Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen

Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen by Marilyn Chin

I love this slim little tome. It’s a thoroughly modern, loose collection of parables, vignettes, and short stories featuring two Chinese-American twins as they grow up working in their grandmother’s Chinese restaurant, and become two very different adults. I laughed, I cried, I cheered, I got occasionally upset—despite its quirks, it’s a wonderful musing on the first-generation immigrant experience and the beauty and baggage that comes with it.

Conservation of Shadows

Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee

We are big Yoon fans here at Sirens, and his short story collection has been featured several times (and is one of Amy’s favorites!). It’s complex, demanding, and definitely veers into the territory of “Is this book too smart for me?”—and I say this as a lover of math. But, I super-love how it incorporates mathematics, war tactics, and eastern philosophy in a beautiful, literary package. The first story, “Ghostweight,” hits you in the face with its brilliance and sets the tone for the rest of the book.

The Poppy War

The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

My junior year of high school, my history teacher assigned me Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking as extra credit reading. I can’t begin to delve deeply into how fucked up that was, but aside from that, and with a main character modeled after Mao Zedong, The Poppy War is not subtle in its mission to use fantasy to shine a spotlight on modern Chinese history. Despite its boarding school start, this is not YA, this is not light reading, and it comes with every content warning imaginable.

Spirits Abroad

Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho

For more uplifting fare, I can’t stop recommending Cho’s story collection, which is so feminist and funny and true to my heart I read most of it with a smile on my face. Cho is Chinese-Malaysian, based in the UK, and her collection has a lot to recognize and appreciate, from the social commentary to the family dynamics (aunties!), the descriptions of food to the depiction of language. Add some zombies, myths, nerd references, and fables, and you have one heck of a party.

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo & Peasprout Chen

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F. C. Yee and Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien

I debated for a while what to put in this last spot, waffling between these two, which are both YA fantasy books with awesome girl leads written by—surprise!—dudes. I read these in close proximity and I think they are an interesting pairing, so I’ve included them both. Genie Lo is a modern-day retelling of Journey to the West set in California, and Peasprout Chen is wuxia figure skating (I KID YOU NOT) at a magic school set in fantasy-Taiwan. Both have clever cultural touches, epic badassery, and sequels. Go forth! Or as they say, jiā yóu!


Faye BiFaye 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.

Kinitra Brooks’ Recommended Reading

Sirens Guest of Honor Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks shares a recommended reading list of novels, short fiction, and nonfiction. If you enjoy her work, or you want to learn more about what writers, especially black women writers, are doing in the speculative space, this list is a spectacular place to start. Take it away, Kintra!

 

Conjure Women: A Novel

Conjure Women: A Novel by Afia Atakora

This book is next on my “To Be Read” list. I’m so excited because it focuses on everything my current research project is centered on: Black Southern women and the spiritual/medicinal practices highlighted in the practice of conjure. I can’t wait!

Boondock Kollage: Stories from the Hip Hop South

Boondock Kollage: Stories from the Hip Hop South by Regina N. Bradley

Bradley clearly talks to the ancestors. It is evident in her ability to raise the dead and conjure the spirits of the Black South in her short story collection.

Speculative Sankofarration: Haunting Black Women in Contemporary Horror Fiction

“Speculative Sankofarration: Haunting Black Women in Contemporary Horror Fiction” by Kinitra Brooks, Stephanie Schoellman & Alexis McGee

I know it can be a bit gauche to recommend your own work, but this is a short scholarly article I wrote with my graduate students that further teases out my approaches to black women’s horror writing since the publication of Searching for Sycorax. It’s heavy on the theory and disciplinary language, but I did want to offer it as an option for readers.

Let's Play White

Let’s Play White by Chesya Burke

A great collection of short horror stories. Burke takes an interesting turn on the classic zombie story in “CUE: Change” making it hella black in its examination of what constitutes humanity. Burke also revises the evil child trope with the character Shiv in “I Make People Do Bad Things,” which takes place in 1920s Harlem.

LaShaun Rousselle Mystery Series

LaShaun Rousselle Mystery Series by Lynn Emery

A quirky little series about a small-town outcast that returns to rural Louisiana to continue the conjure tradition of her ancestors while solving paranormal mysteries and battling the monsters that cause them. A great representation of contemporary Southern rural life and black women’s long history in these places.

The Crown of Shards Series

The Crown of Shards Series by Jennifer Estep

I just discovered this series as I am an avid fan of Estep’s Elemental Assassins series. But Crown of Shards is just different enough as it is placed in an alternate medieval monarchical society. If the magical assassins and gladiator fighting doesn’t manage to kill Evie Blair—palace politics just might do the job

Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo

Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert and Margarite Fernandez Olmos

So many times I discuss the influence of traditional African religious practices in horror. This book begins to clear up a lot of the misinformation that continues to exist about these practices, some which are actual religions while others are often supplemental practices to black folks’ Christianity. Each chapter focuses on a different religious practice and the knowledge begins to take away the fear of these Africanized practices that is historically steeped anti-black ignorance.

Mojo Workin: The Old African American Hoodoo System

Mojo Workin: The Old African American Hoodoo System by Katrina Hazzard-Donald

A nonfiction book that begins to discuss the concept of conjure/hoodoo and the West and Central African practices that influenced them.

Skin Folk

Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson

A great short story collection that examines the magical and the peculiar that populates Caribbean folklore. My personal favorites are “Ganger (Ball Lightning)” in which a couple strengthens their relationship when they must battle their animated sex suit and “Greedy Choke Puppy” in which a young graduate student discovers the magical history of the women in her family.

Tell My Horse

Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston

A collection of Southern oral culture gathered and transcribed by Hurston as an ethnographer in the first third of the 20th century. These stories show that black folks have long enjoyed horror stories and the characters that define them.

Dread Nation

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Black girl protagonist in a zombie uprising initiated by The Civil War? Yes, please. I’m currently reading the sequel, Deathless Divide.

How Long ‘til Black Future Month?

How Long ‘til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin

The short story “Red Dirt Witch” is worth the purchase of this entire collection. I enjoy others, such as “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters” and “The City Born Great” but “Red Dirt Witch” is as close to perfect as one can get in a short story. This is Jemisin firing on all cylinders while also giving us a preview into the importance of black mother/daughter relationships she explores so thoroughly in The Broken Earth series.

Jade City

Jade City by Fonda Lee

I’ve almost finished this book on Audible. It’s a gangster family drama set in an alternate history steeped in multiple Asian traditions. There is a unique complexity as her world-building is organic while her fight scenes are described like you are right there in the mix—you can smell the blood and feel the jade.

Talking to the Dead

Talking to the Dead by LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant

This nonfiction ethnographic project interviews multiple women of the Gullah community and examines the traditions that define them. Manigault-Bryant examines the phenomenon I discussed in my interview, the concept of “tending to the dead,” that shows our folkloric practice of how the living dead manifest in black life.

A Blade So Black

A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney

A fun retelling of Alice in Wonderland with great world-building and a complex protagonist who has to save the world and remember to take the beef out of the freezer for dinner.

Mama Day

Mama Day by Gloria Naylor

The first of the two novels I consider the perfect example of black women’s horror writing tradition. Mama Day is a conjure woman who is at least 80 years old and rules the island of Willow Springs with her medicinal knowledge, ancestral ties, and her knack for baking perfect coconut cakes. Just don’t piss her off….

Stigmata

Stigmata by Phyllis Alesia Perry

This novel is the second of the two books I consider black woman horror writing perfection. It has everything, possession, ancestral traditions, black mother/daughter bonds, time travel…I discover new things every time I read it. Simply amazing.

White Trash Zombie Series

White Trash Zombie Series by Diana Rowland

These books are simply fun. A great little romp inside of an interesting mythology. Protagonist Angel Crawford is a delight who knows who she is and works the hell out of her lane.

The Santeria Habitat Series

The Santeria Habitat Series by Kenya Wright

A fun series that has were-leopards, fairies, demons…and a Prime—a sexy fantastical creature based in an alternate history Miami. Miami is now a caged city divided into different regions named after major orisha. The protagonist is a half demon solving paranormal mysteries and choosing between two sexy shifter men. I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment that will feature were-dragons.

Honorable Mentions:

The Black God's Drums

The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

The Ballad of Black Tom

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Salsa Nocturna

Salsa Nocturna: A Bone Street Rumba Collection by Daniel José Older


 

Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks

Kinitra D. Brooks is the Audrey and John Leslie Endowed Chair in Literary Studies in the Department of English at Michigan State University. She specializes in the study of black women, genre fiction, and popular culture. Her current research focuses on portrayals of the Conjure Woman in popular culture. Dr. Brooks has three books in print: Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror, a critical treatment of black women in science fiction, fantasy, and horror; Sycorax’s Daughters, an edited volume of short horror fiction written by black women; and The Lemonade Reader, a collection of essays on Beyoncé’s 2016 audiovisual project, Lemonade. She is also the co-editor of the New Suns book series at Ohio State University Press. Dr. Brooks spent the 2018–2019 academic year as the Advancing Equity Through Research Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

For more information about Kinitra, please visit her website or her Twitter.

Bring Me Your Monsters!

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 book list or review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we welcome a book list by Sami Thomason

There’s nothing I love more than a ruthless heroine unleashing her power, be it through mental gymnastics like Jude in Holly Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy, or sheer force like Rielle and Eliana in Claire Legrand’s Empirium trilogy. Men may call them monsters, but these fiercely capable women show their teeth and claws without hesitating, and I love them for it.

 

The Bone Witch
1. The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

Rin Chupeco, one of Sirens’s 2020 guests of honor, has a brilliant book about a girl who can raise the dead and those foolish enough to stand in her way. The storytelling in this book is fantastic, and as Tea’s journey begins, you can tell that she may become the villain of this story, but she’s such a compelling character that I was on her side anyway.

Wicked Saints
2. Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan

Duncan’s intricate world of saints, heretics, blood magic, and old gods leaps off the page and straight into your subconscious, haunting you long past the last earth-shattering chapter. Seen as a savior by some and a monster by others, gods-blessed cleric Nadya will do anything to save her country for a heretical invasion, including teaming up with a blood mage and the enemy prince. Reylo shippers, this one’s for you, with two powerful teens pulled together by both dark and light forces.

Sawkill Girls
3. Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand

When a ravenous entity preys on the teen girls of the island, Sawkill Rock raises three girls to fight it off: lonely Marion, fiery Zoey, and slippery Val. Uncovering occult secrets and craving intimacy, the Sawkill girls are drawn together despite their differences and past woes. Men and monsters may assume that girls inherently seek the destruction of each other, but Legrand’s horror manifesto claims otherwise, with powerful prose and beautifully wrought characters.

Stepsister
4. Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

A searing dismissal of the typical fairy tale, Stepsister smashes every glass slipper and turns the dust into something entirely new. When Isabelle’s lovely stepsister is crowned queen of France, the village turns against her family, sneering at the “ugly stepsisters,” who stood in Ella’s way by maiming their feet. While Fate and Chance battle over the fate of one bitterly disappointed girl, France is under vicious attack from an evil conqueror. When Isabelle is given the chance to change her fate by collecting the pieces of her broken heart, she becomes more than the envy she wears like a cloak. This book is so earth-shatteringly brilliant that I want every girl who’s ever felt less than herself to read it.

Girls Made of Snow and Glass and Girl, Serpent, Thorn
5. Girls Made of Snow and Glass and Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

Told in alternating perspectives, Girls Made of Snow and Glass follows Mina, a woman with a glass heart, and her eventual stepdaughter, Lynet, a girl made of snow and blood. Desperate to feel love, Mina schemes her way to becoming queen of Whitespring, willing her heart of glass to open for the king and his young daughter, but finding it as cold as the Northern kingdom she now rules. Artificially-made Lynet longs to feel real and escape the shadow of her dead mother, whose image she was created in. When the king pits them against each other, Mina and Lynet will have to learn what love really is, or else destroy each other.

Bashardoust’s new book, Girl, Serpent, Thorn comes out this May and focuses on a princess cursed to be a monster. Not to be missed!

The Cold is in Her Bones
6. The Cold is in Her Bones by Peternelle van Arsdale

Living as a woman in a close-minded town can feel like a constant scream caught in your throat—a feeling Peternelle van Arsdale so beautifully articulates in The Cold is in Her Bones. Based in part off the myth of Medusa, our heroine Milla lives in a world in fear of demons, where she is always chided and constrained by her parents in order to “protect” her. But curses have a funny way of coming around, and when Milla’s only friend is afflicted, her parents’ worst dreams come true as Milla sets off to free her friend, uncovering dark family secrets and truths about the nature of demons and her own power.

Empress of All Seasons
7. Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean

An astonishing competition set in the four seasons, a ruthless emperor, and a brilliant inventor prince, with one girl to undo them all. A yōkai girl discovers her destiny as she enters a competition to become the Empress of her divided nation in this silk-painted story of dreams and nightmares. Think Hunger Games meets mythology!

Not Even Bones
8. Not Even Bones by Rebecca Schaeffer

If you like your YA on the gruesome side, Not Even Bones is definitely up your alley. A bloody, macabre, and masterful take on the supernatural, this book follows Nita, a girl with supernatural abilities who dissects other supernaturals for the black market. When the tables turn and Nita becomes the hunted one, she learns that being monstrous is more than skin deep.

Wilder Girls
9. Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Wilder Girls may have been marketed as “feminist Lord of the Flies,” but I think “young adult Annihilation” would be a more apt tagline. Not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, Wilder Girls is a brutal exploration of how toxicity, real and metaphorical, infects an isolated girls’ boarding school. Power’s gorgeously


Sami ThomasonSami Thomason is the events and marketing coordinator at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. Before that, she got a bachelor’s degree in English Literature at Millsaps College and worked briefly at Walt Disney World (she’s seen some stuff). She runs two book clubs for kids and a book subscription box called Teen’s First. You can find her on Twitter at @SamiSaysRead and Instagram as @sami.says.read.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claiming Fan Spaces: Eliza and Her Monsters, The Princess and the Fangirl, and Slay

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 reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

In All Rise, CBS’s new courtroom drama, Simone Missick stars as Lola Carmichael, a former prosecutor who, as of the pilot, has just been appointed to the bench. Judge Carmichael is an inspirational role: a black woman searching insistently for justice from a position of power. And in the second episode of All Rise, another powerful black fictional character makes an appearance: One of Carmichael’s long-time friends gifts her with a picture of Carmichael’s hero, Commander Uhura, as played by Nichelle Nichols.

This is not a review of All Rise (well-intentioned, but middling). But that moment—when a primetime network show acknowledges the indelible influence of a powerful black female character from Star Trek on its own powerful black female character—encapsulates what so many have been saying for so long: representation matters. Representation matters in every aspect of our lives, from the boardroom to the newsroom, including, specifically, in the media we consume. Representation matters even—or perhaps especially—in speculative works.

But let’s take that one step further. Judge Carmichael has not, to my knowledge, cosplayed Commander Uhura. But lots of powerful black women have. And as we talk about representation in speculative works, we must—not should, but must—talk about representation in fan spaces.

Over a decade ago, I did my tour of duty in a fandom: as a lawyer, a convention planner, a worker bee and a leader. And I found fan spaces terribly but unsurprisingly reflective of all our other spaces: Even in fandoms populated primarily or even almost exclusively by marginalized folks, white cisgender men (and the white women who enable them) run the show. Celebrity fans—those made famous by, and whose livelihood depends on, fandom—are almost exclusively cisgender male, almost exclusively white, almost exclusively heterosexual, almost exclusively abled and neurotypical. As in so many of our spaces, marginalized folks do the lion’s share of the work, but are ultimately pushed to the side (or even out) in favor of familiar, destructive power structures.

Which is why the three young-adult books I’ve chosen to review this month are so important. Each is about fandom—for a comic, a video game, a movie—and each purposefully makes space for marginalized groups in constructing its fan spaces. You can’t even properly call these works a reclamation because there’s nothing to reclaim; fan spaces never welcomed these groups in the first place. But these works upend that exclusion in brave and thoughtful ways, ways that make readers braver and more thoughtful, too. Representation matters—and it matters in how we talk about and express our love for speculative works.

So let’s get to it.


The Princess and the FangirlAshley Poston’s The Princess and the Fangirl is a glorious, hilarious, romantic romp set at a sci-fi convention. It’s technically a sequel, but truthfully, I read Geekerella so long ago that I can’t remember anything about it other than that it, too, is a glorious, hilarious, romantic romp and…that it included a pumpkin-shaped food truck? At any rate, you don’t need to read one before the other—and unlike Geekerella, The Princess and the Fangirl centers a queer romance—so let’s jump right in.

The movie is Starfield. The con is ExcelsiCon. The character is Princess Amara, who seemingly died in a giant explosion at the end of the most recent movie. Imogen is a Starfield fangirl on a mission to keep Amara, her favorite character, from being deader than a doornail. Jess, who plays Amara and is trying to avoid both pigeonholing and toxic fandom, is hoping like hell that Amara is, in fact, deader than a doornail. In a plot worthy of a heist novel, Imogen and Jess look alike and when the script for the upcoming movie leaks, they have to switch places (I mean, of course they do) in order to find the culprit.

As you decide whether to pick up The Princess and the Fangirl you should know three things. First, it’s a meet-cute book for people that you will love to see meet-cute. Disguised as Imogen, Jess encounters Imogen’s online friend Harper, a smoking hot female fanartist who shows Jess the welcoming, creative community side of fandom. Meanwhile, Imogen-as-Jess spends time with Ethan, Jess’s hot bodyguard. The cast is diverse (Imogen and Jess are white, Harper is black, and Ethan is Japanese-American), the romances are adorable, and the whole thing is a rollicking good time. Second, Poston does a decent deconstruction of fandom. Wrapped up in this fizzy romance are incisive thoughts about fandom itself: who is invited, who is elevated, who is harassed, who is excluded, who must scratch and claw to find the smallest bit of space to celebrate the things they love. Finally, The Princess and the Fangirl is geektastic. The details are a dang delight.

Eliza and Her MonstersNext up is Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia. Unlike The Princess and the Fangirl, which tends toward fun and frolic, Eliza and Her Monsters will break your heart and then patch it back up—and trust me, having read Eliza, you wouldn’t trade that for an unbroken heart. Eliza Mirk is living a double life: her real life, where she’s a shy, awkward girl who doesn’t really have any friends, but does have an awful lot of anxiety; and her online life, where she’s LadyConstellation, creator of Monstrous Sea, an absurdly popular webcomic. Then a dude named Wallace Warland (no kidding), Monstrous Sea’s most popular fanfiction writer, transfers to Eliza’s school. And he and Eliza strike up a tentative friendship, maybe more.

Only thing is, with only a few exceptions, LadyConstellation’s identity is secret. Until it isn’t. When her secret spills and all of Eliza’s carefully constructed boundaries disappear, she falls apart, her anxiety spiraling into panic attacks and suicide ideation.

Eliza and Her Monsters is a beautiful, heart-rending work, a love letter to creators and fans and online friends, a delicate exploration of what it means when the foundations of our worlds crumble—and it feels like the foundations of ourselves have crumbled. It’s about living in a place, perhaps an online place, that feels like your own. It’s about anxiety and selective mutism and feeling adrift. It’s about finding the space you need in order to create the forgiveness you deserve. It is, in a word, lovely.

SlayFinally, in Slay by Brittney Morris, Kiera Johnson is the creator of SLAY, a multiplayer online role-playing card game specifically for black people—half a million black people worldwide as the book opens. Kiera specially built the game with black experiences in mind—you’ll delight at the battle cards—and the game has such a massive-but-secret following that there are code words to say to someone if you want to know if they SLAY. But Kiera’s complication is, like Eliza, that she’s anonymous. Not even her sister knows that she’s the creator, moderator, and queen of SLAY.

Toward the beginning of Slay, a SLAY player kills another over something that happened in the game. Suddenly, Kiera’s baby is out in front of the world—in front of white people who call it racist, in front of black people who say it’s not model behavior—and even her sister and her boyfriend have unwelcome opinions. And then a new player enters the game, and a threatens both SLAY and Kiera—and SLAY itself is on the line.

In addition to Kiera’s escalating problems, Morris writes a host of characters that address contemporary racism: the white guy who asserts reverse racism, Kiera’s white friend who wants Kiera to approve her getting dreads, Kiera’s sister who wants Kiera to behave just a little bit less, and Kiera’s boyfriend who wants her to behave just a little bit more. Slay is a smart, timely deconstruction of what it means to be black, especially in America, premised on a piece of popular culture crafted by and for black people—and specifically questioning what it means for a marginalized group to inhabit an interactive, communal fan space.


By day, Amy Tenbrink dons her supergirl suit and practices transactional and intellectual property law as an executive vice president for a media company. By night, she dons her supergirl cape and plans literary conferences and reads over a hundred books a year. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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