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Escape into these 7 Fantasy Books for Bibliophiles

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 from Sami Thomason.

I don’t know about y’all, but my favorite subgenre of fantasy is when books are made of magic themselves. A portal to the world of your favorite books? Count me in. A librarian zealously protects a mysterious library? Perfection. Anything that celebrates the joy of reading in a fantasy setting is my favorite kind of world to escape to. Here are a few of my favorite books, from middle grade to young adult to adult, about enchanted books, magical libraries, and the power of the written word.

 

Inkheart
1. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

Inkheart is the definitive book that made me love to read, which can be backed up by how much I cried when I met the author two years ago. Meggie, a bookbinder’s daughter, lives and breathes books, and when her beloved father disappears under mysterious circumstances, she discovers a dangerous book called Inkheart that the fate of her family depends on. Meggie is a fierce reader and a loyal daughter, and finds courage from the heroes of her favorite books, like the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings and the family in The Borrowers. This book is a journey into the written word that must be savored and shared with anyone who’s ever wanted to disappear into a book.

The Reader
2. The Reader trilogy by Traci Chee

I got chills when I read the first page of this series; it’s stunning, spellbinding, and absolute magic on the page. In a world where the written word is unheard of, Sefia must decipher and protect The Book, the only one in existence. The Book is more than it seems, however, and Sefia discovers stories from the past, present, and future as she struggles to understand her place in the Book’s mysterious prophecy. Not only is Chee’s worldbuilding truly phenomenal, but her gorgeous prose and riveting command of language are breathtaking.

Sorcery of Thorns
3. Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson

Coming out in June of this year, Sorcery of Thorns is for anyone with ink-stained fingers and dreams of living parchment and leather. Elisabeth lives in the Great Library of Austermeer, where sorcery can turn books into monsters. When the library becomes compromised and a dangerous volume is released, Elisabeth is banished and must team up with a ne’er do well sorcerer and his demon to clear her name and save the library. Rogerson’s visceral storytelling and charming characters will completely capture your heart.

The Invisible Library
4. The Invisible Library series by Genevieve Cogman

In Cogman’s bold and inventive series, librarian Irene works as a spy for The Library, a collection of every book ever printed throughout space and time. The concept may be a little confusing at times, but as sensible Irene and her dashing apprentice Kai duck through different times, dimensions, and universes collecting rare books, you’ll just be happy to be along for the ride.

Small Spaces
5. Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

A middle grade horror-style novel about power of words from the author of The Winternight trilogy. When bookish Ollie steals an old book, she gets wrapped up in a centuries old curse with moving scarecrows, creepy mist, and “the man with the smiling face.” To save her town, she has to team up with two classmates, the real horror for this introverted and somewhat cranky girl. I know it sounds impossible, but this novel is as heartwarming as it is terrifying, and Ollie becomes a fantastic heroine in the face of crisis.

Inkmistress
6. Inkmistress by Audrey Coulthurst

Inkmistress is a kickass fantasy with a bisexual heroine, dragons, and a revolution against a corrupt government; a.k.a. pretty much everything you would want in an epic fantasy novel. Hiding out above a small village, demigoddess Asra knows how to change the future by writing in her own blood—and is pretty unwilling to do so. When tragedy strikes and her quiet life is upended, Asra will have to accept her power to stop the one she loves the most from destroying the world she holds dear. Emotional, compelling, and totally heart-wrenching in the best way.

The Wrath and the Dawn
7. The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh

One of my favorite hate-to-love romances ever, driven by the power of storytelling. A retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, Ahdieh focuses on the power of oral storytelling but doesn’t take away the luster of the tales Shahrzad weaves to her unlikely husband. If you want to be spellbound by beautiful words, this is the book for you.

Please join me in diving headfirst into your new favorite book world! These books offer so much to explore just beyond the joy of reading. We read for pleasure, to escape, out of necessity, or to understand something new, but the important thing is that we read—and we celebrate reading.


Sami Thomason has been a bookseller at Square Books, Jr. in Oxford, Mississippi for three years. 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). Her lifelong love of books was encouraged by the staff at Jr. as a child, and she now runs the book club she used to attend. You can find her on twitter at @SamiSaysRead and instagram as @sami.says.read.

 

Ausma’s Fantastic Worlds

For our 2019 theme of heroes, Guest of Honor Ausma Zehanat Khan shares the book list she curated for the heroes theme. If you enjoy her work, we encourage you to check out these other reads. Take it away, Ausma!

 

The Throne of the Crescent Moon
1. The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Clever, inventive, and thoroughly original, this trailblazing Middle Eastern-inspired fantasy resonates with Ahmed’s characteristic wit. An anti-hero to remember.

The City of Brass
2. The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

A gorgeously detailed world infused with the author’s passion for Islamic history, and for 18th century Cairo. A vibrant love triangle unlike any other brings this story to life.

The Poppy War
3. The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

An unforgettable and epic evocation of 20th century China, war as you’ve never seen it, rich in mythology and heart-wrenching to the end.

The Night Circus
4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus is a place of beguiling enchantments and mysteries, with prose that demands you linger until you’ve deciphered the many layers of its beauty.

Station Eleven
5. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

A group of traveling actors find love, hope and humanity in art as they traverse the pitfalls of the end of civilization. Reading this book is like falling into a dream.

Empire of Sand
6. Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

An opulent fantasy inspired by the Mughal empire, with fascinating insights into the devotional and magical powers of dance. An intimate story of longing and belonging.

The Bird King
7. The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson

A fable of Andalusia deeply imbued with nostalgia, with notes of both darkness and light, told in the stunning prose of a master storyteller.


Ausma Zehanat Khan holds a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law with a specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. She is a former adjunct law professor and was Editor-in-Chief of Muslim Girl magazine, the first magazine targeted to young Muslim women, and is the award-winning author of both the Khorasan Archives (The Bloodprint, The Black Khan) and the Rachel Getty and Essa Khattak series (beginning with The Unquiet Dead). Originally from Canada, Khan now lives in Colorado with her husband.

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

 

5 Books with Lonely, Neurodivergent Heroes

For our 2019 theme of heroes, Guest of Honor Mishell Baker shares the book list she curated for the heroes theme. If you enjoy her work, we encourage you to check out these other reads. For an additional insightful perspective, Mishell wrote about how her Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) affected her creation of this book list in a recent Twitter thread. Take it away, Mishell!

Some of the books that leave the biggest impression on me are those that capture a protagonist’s sense of isolation. Heroism, doing the right thing, is almost always a lonely undertaking. The idea of a fellowship is romantic and comforting, but in truth, many heroes stand alone, both literally or figuratively.

For this reason, I find some of the most compelling heroes are the ones who are in some way alien or removed, unable to relate to or understand those around them, but still willing to face overwhelming obstacles with or without support.

Here are a few examples of books that scratch this particular narrative itch for me:

 

An Unkindness of Ghosts
1. An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Featuring an intersex (using she/her pronouns) and starkly neuroatypical protagonist, this novel by Rivers Solomon is a bleak tale of a generation ship with dark secrets and a punishing social hierarchy. There is little moralizing in the story, its spine is the protagonist Aster’s dogged determination to find answers despite the scarcity and unreliability of her allies. Aster barely understands and is barely understood by those around her, but her own internal compass leads her eventually to the truth in this haunting, disturbing, and ultimately satisfying story.

Vita Nostra
2. Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

Written by Ukrainian couple Marina and Sergey Dyachenko and recently translated into English by Julia Meitov Hersey, this is a book about a young woman who starts as just another high school senior, but who has a brush with the otherworldly that slowly turns her into something utterly incompatible with her own family and former life. It would be oversimplifying to call this story a fantastic metaphor for the terrifying process of coming of age; it’s much more ambitious, intellectual, and at times deviously “meta” and self-aware than that. Like Sasha’s own journey, the story begins simply, almost banally, but then spirals into chaos, slowly rearranging itself into something staggeringly vast.

Planetfall
3. Planetfall by Emma Newman

This novel by Emma Newman combines two of my favorite tropes—planetary colonization and religious cults. Better yet, Newman tells the story through the eyes of a woman with a psychological fault line so well hidden that even the reader has no idea until halfway through the novel. The story continues in After Atlas, meaning that this book ends on rather a dark and inconclusive note ironically rife with religious symbolism. But even taken on its own, it’s a powerful story of human redemption, power dynamics, and the price of secrets.

On the Edge of Gone
4. On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis

Corinne Duyvis—autistic author of this page-turner of a novel about a teenager with autism struggling to earn a place on an already-full generation ship—literally invented #ownvoices. Denise, the protagonist of the novel, is fighting not only for herself but for her mother and sister, who will be stranded on a doomed planet if they’re not allowed to board the ship. The stakes literally couldn’t be higher, and the task would be daunting for any teenager, even without a neurological variance that at times seriously impedes her ability to communicate with the people who hold her fate in their hands. The story explores, among other ideas, the question of who “deserves” to survive when not everyone can be saved.

Ancillary Justice
5. The Imperial Radch series (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy) by Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie’s gender-blind space opera Ancillary Justice and its sequels have been talked about and read a great deal, but I bring them up again here because there’s an aspect to these books that I find particularly and personally intriguing. While the main character Breq is (spoiler alert) a fragment of an AI that was once embodied in multitudes of separate bodies, her experience is a profound metaphor for some very human psychological conditions, including BPD. It’s worth a re-read just to examine her through this filter.

Accustomed to being able to view the physical or emotional pain of one of her bodies as just one of many varying inputs, she finds the emotions of a single body overwhelming and intrusive in a way that is for her, at certain points in the story, suffocating and debilitating. This mirrors the experience of BPD—where emotions that for most people would be one signal amid other noise become something that instead fill the entire mind, inescapable. Neurotypical people have other places they can “shift” their awareness or focus when their emotions become intense, as Breq once moved her awareness between different bodies. Those with BPD often feel caught and completely immersed in an emotion: it becomes their entire existence for its duration.

Breq, of course, does not truly count as human at all. Her feeling of belonging to a separate species from others is not simply “all in her head,” but her struggles so closely resemble certain human conditions that it makes her easy to relate to, even if she has trouble relating to others. We see this in the way other characters interact with her.

In fact, that is a common theme in all the books in this list, and perhaps the reason they all stayed with me: the message that even if we don’t feel understood, there are always people around us who do care about us—people who either understand us better than we think they do, or who are willing to love even those people they can never fully understand.


Mishell Baker is a 2009 graduate of the Clarion Fantasy & Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Redstone Science Fiction, and Electric Velocipede. Her urban fantasy series The Arcadia Project, released by Simon & Schuster’s Saga imprint, includes Borderline, Phantom Pains, and Impostor Syndrome. The series is narrated by Millicent Roper, a snarky double-amputee and suicide survivor who works with a ragtag collection of society’s least-wanted, keeping the world safe from the chaotic whims of supernatural beasties. When Mishell isn’t convention-hopping or going on wild research adventures, she lives in Los Angeles with her co-parent and two changelings.

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

 

Book List: Violet Kupersmith

For our 2018 theme of reunion, we chose Guests of Honor with work exemplifying the themes of the past four years: hauntings, rebels and revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Today, Guest of Honor Violet Kupersmith shares the book list she curated for the hauntings theme. If you enjoy her work, we hope you check out these other reads!

Let’s get haunted! Some of these books are positioned more squarely beneath the fantasy umbrella than others, but all of them are written in or about that space where our world and the spirit world meet, the crevice that the ghosts come crawling out of.

 

Hauntings
1. Hauntings by Vernon Lee
Classic shivers. The kind of lush and extravagant prose that you want to read by candlelight during a thunderstorm.
Freshwater
2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Brutal and too slippery and brilliant to categorize. A haunted house story where the house is your own mind.
The Ghost Bride
3. The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
I gobbled this up in a day. It’s the kind of historical fantasy that’s so richly imagined, when I finished it I immediately flipped back and reread the last chapter another two times in a row because I wasn’t ready to have to put it down and return to Pennsylvania.
Through the Woods
4. Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
Hello, nightmares! The art in this graphic novel is stunning—it takes familiar ghosts and monsters constructed from timeless fairy-tale DNA and makes them new in terrifying ways.
The Goddess Chronicle
5. The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino
I love Kirino’s detective stories and I love her here, where she is working deep in Japanese mythology. Her female characters are always cunning, poisonous, subversive and wonderfully real.
She Weeps Each Time You're Born
6. She Weeps Each Time You’re Born by Quan Barry
A gorgeously written chronicle of Vietnam’s ghosts, past and present. It’s a book that you feel in your spine long after you’ve finished reading it. I don’t think I’ll ever get it out of me.
The Haunting of Hill House
7. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
I have to end the list with a genre classic. I return to Hill House over and over. The book is compelling on every level, from its supernatural elements to its feminist themes and queer subtext, and more magnificently creepy than any film adaptation of the story could ever hope be. It is the genuine article.

 

Violet Kupersmith is the author of The Frangipani Hotel, a collection of supernatural short stories about the legacy of the Vietnam War, and a forthcoming novel on ghosts and American expats in modern-day Saigon. She spent a year teaching English in the Mekong Delta with the Fulbright program and subsequently lived in the Central Highlands of Vietnam to research local folklore. She is a former resident of the MacDowell Colony and was the 2015–2016 David T.K. Wong Fellow at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. Her writing has appeared in No Tokens, The Massachusetts Review, Word Vietnam, and The New York Times Book Review.

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

 

Book Friends: Violet Kupersmith

Introducing … Book Friends! A new feature of this year’s Guest of Honor weeks, where the Sirens team recommends books that would be friends with a guest of honor’s books. Today, we curate a list of titles we feel would complement Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel. If you enjoyed her work, we hope you check out these other reads!

Book List: Kameron Hurley

For our 2018 theme of reunion, we chose Guests of Honor with work exemplifying the themes of the past four years: hauntings, rebels and revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Today, Guest of Honor Kameron Hurley shares the “unapologetically revolutionary books” she recommends for the rebels and revolutionaries theme. If you enjoy her work, we hope you check out these other reads!

 

The Female Man
1. The Female Man by Joanna Russ
We Who Are About To ...
2. We Who Are About To … by Joanna Russ
Parable of the Sower
3. The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
The Power
4. The Power by Naomi Alderman
Planetfall
5. Planetfall by Emma Newman
Infomocracy
6. Infomocracy by Malka Older
The Broken Earth
7. The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
Ancillary Justice
8. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Sultana's Dream
9. Sultana’s Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain
Ammonite
10. Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
The Mount
11. The Mount by Carol Emshwiller
Everfair
12. Everfair by Nisi Shawl
The Summer Prince
13. The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Afterwar
14. Afterwar by Lilith Saintcrow
American War
15. American War by Omar El Akkad

 

Kameron Hurley is an award-winning author and advertising copywriter. Kameron grew up in Washington State, and has lived in Fairbanks, Alaska; Durban, South Africa; and Chicago. She has a degree in historical studies from the University of Alaska and a Master’s in History from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, specializing in the history of South African resistance movements.

Kameron is the author of the nonfiction collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, which contains her essay on the history of women in conflict “We Have Always Fought,” which was the first article to ever win a Hugo Award. It was also nominated for Best Non-Fiction work by the British Fantasy Society. Her nonfiction has appeared in numerous online venues, including The Atlantic, Bitch Magazine, Huffington Post, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Entertainment Weekly, and she writes a regular column for Locus Magazine. Kameron’s space opera, The Stars are Legion, was published by Simon and Schuster’s Saga imprint in February 2017. Her epic fantasy series, the Worldbreaker Saga, is comprised of the novels The Mirror Empire, Empire Ascendant, and The Broken Heavens (forthcoming in March 2019). Additionally, her first series, The God’s War Trilogy, which includes the books God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture, earned her the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer and the Kitschy Award for Best Debut Novel. Kameron’s short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed, Vice Magazine’s Terraform, EscapePod, and Strange Horizons.

Kameron has won two Hugo Awards and a Locus, and been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her work has also been included on the Tiptree Award Honor List and been nominated for the Gemmell Morningstar Award. In addition to her writing, Kameron has been a Stollee guest lecturer at Buena Vista University and taught copywriting at the School of Advertising Art. Kameron currently lives in Ohio, where she’s cultivating an urban homestead.

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

 

Book Friends: Kameron Hurley

Introducing … Book Friends! A new feature of this year’s Guest of Honor weeks, where the Sirens team recommends books that would be friends with a guest of honor’s books. Today, we curate a list of titles we feel would complement the works of Kameron Hurley, the author of the God’s War Trilogy, the Worldbreaker Saga, The Stars Are Legion, the nonfiction collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, and the just-released Apocalypse Nyx. If you enjoyed her work, we hope you check out these other reads!

Book List: Anna-Marie McLemore

For our 2018 theme of reunion, we chose Guests of Honor with work exemplifying the themes of the past four years: hauntings, rebels and revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Today, Guest of Honor Anna-Marie McLemore shares the book list she curated for the lovers theme. If you enjoy her work, we hope you check out these other reads!

 

The Secret of a Heart Note
1. The Secret of a Heart Note by Stacey Lee
A mother-daughter team of perfume artists, a character who feels so deeply you’ll fall in love alongside her, and a touch of magic that shines through this heart-warming book.
Furyborn
2. Furyborn by Claire Legrand
The word ‘epic’ doesn’t even begin to do justice to Claire Legrand’s latest fantasy, which will pull you completely into its world, and have you swooning into its pages.
Undead Girl Gang
3. Undead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson
In this contemporary fantasy, you’ll find love interests depicted with the same detail and brilliance Anderson brings to every character, but the love for the ages in this novel is the best friendship between Mila and Riley.
The Prince and the Dressmaker
4. The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang
A designer who’s equal parts innovative and endearing, a prince who loves wearing brilliantly crafted gowns, in a book that has historical atmosphere and romantic chemistry spilling from the pages.
Picture Us in the Light
5. Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert
This one comes from the contemporary side, but it so beautifully captures the romantic longing that simmers between two best friends, set within an incredibly moving story about family.
Like Water for Chocolate
6. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
I know this one has made Sirens reading lists before, but I have to include it here, both as an essential work of magical realism, and a depiction of love and heartbreak so visceral you’ll taste it.

 

Anna-Marie McLemore is the Mexican-American author of The Weight of Feathers, a 2016 William C. Morris YA Debut Award Finalist; 2017 Stonewall Honor Book When the Moon Was Ours, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature and won the 2016 James Tiptree, Jr. Award; and Wild Beauty, a fairy tale of queer Latina girls and enchanted, murderous gardens. Blanca & Roja, a magical realism reimagining of Snow-White & Rose-Red meets Swan Lake, is forthcoming in 2018.

Anna-Marie’s historical short stories are forthcoming in the anthologies All Out, The Radical Element: Twelve Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other Dauntless Girls, and Toil and Trouble. Her shorter work has previously been featured in The Portland Review, CRATE Literary Magazine’s “cratelit,” and Camera Obscura’s Bridge the Gap Gallery, and by the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

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

 

Book Friends: Anna-Marie McLemore

Introducing… Book Friends! A new feature of this year’s Guest of Honor weeks, where the Sirens team recommends books that would be friends with a guest of honor’s books. Today, we curate a list of titles we feel would complement the works of Anna-Marie McLemore, the author of The Weight of Feathers, When the Moon was Ours, Wild Beauty, and the upcoming Blanca & Roja. If you enjoyed her work, we hope you check out these other reads!

Five Earth-shaking, Epic Books to Read After The Fifth Season

So, you’ve inhaled N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. Maybe you’ve read The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky too—and found the books in The Inheritance Trilogy and the Dreamblood duology. What next? We’ve got you covered! Read on below, and remember that all these books will be in our on-site conference bookstore next week.

1. The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

On the surface, The House of Shattered Wings might not feel similar, but look beyond the Paris setting in aftermath of a devastating war between fallen angels, you’ll find one of the finest explorations of colonialism in fantasy. There’s an elegance to de Bodard’s writing with intrigue, court politics and icy antiheroes, but what’ll stay with you most are the ruminations on displacement, ownership of one’s self, and belonging.

2. The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

In this standalone prequel to Okorafor’s award-winning Who Fears Death, Phoenix is a two-year-old “accelerated human” with a body of a 40-year-old, a scientific experiment built by a government-backed corporation. She lives in Tower Seven with other genetic specimens, also usually of African descent. The Book of Phoenix expertly combines mythology, religion and futurism with contemporary racial and gender politics and a revenge story for the ages. And yes, not unlike orogenes, she also has the immense power to destroy the world.

3. Court of Fives by Kate Elliott

No epic fantasy list would be complete without Kate Elliott’s many intricately crafted sagas, but we find her young adult series Court of Fives (and sequels Poisoned Blade and Buried Heart) to be among her best. With immersive world-building with inspirations from Ancient Egypt and the tensions between the native population and the Patron upper class, Jessamy’s mixed-race family is at the crux of rebellion and political change. We also think the obelisks would wink at the Fives court.

4. Monstress by Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda

If you want vengeance, you’ll have a ball with Raika Halfwolf, the Arcanic protagonist and former slave girl.  Arcanics are a mixed race between humans and the immortal, animal-shaped Ancients, and though some of them “pass” as human, their bodies are systematically used for magical experiments. With large realms, an extensive cast and expert meta-commentary on race and politics, it’s just as well that Monstress is a comic, with sumptuous visuals to pore over.

5. The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley

This all-female space opera has alien tech, organic ships, and no small dose of messy bio-evolution and body horror.  Zan wakes up a prisoner on a ship with people who say they love her, while Jayd also finds herself navigating dangerous political schemes among the Legion. It seems pretty far removed from The Fifth Season, but it’s innovative, eye-opening, gruesome, and visceral—and you probably haven’t read anything like it before.

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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