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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.

 

A Life in Notable Books: Immersive Worlds with Charismatic, Relatable Characters

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 Kate Larking

In my childhood, I was not much of a reader. It seems so sacrilegious to admit here, to the Sirens community I so love, that I would sit in my grade six classroom reading time and turn more than one page at a time, impatient to make progress like my classmates did through their books but wholly uninterested in the material at hand. A lot of books in the school library felt drab to me, and I would much rather find vivid and colorful illustrations and imagine my own narrative around them than read black ink on white pages.

But my journey into becoming a reader rooted itself in fantasy. When I found fantasy, I found power in words others had written.

Let me take you on a trip through my life with the following stories and how I came back to reading over and over again.

 

Magic Knight Rayearth
1. Magic Knight Rayearth by CLAMP (6 volumes)

I first fell in love with stories blended with illustration. I was an anime junkie recording every episode of Sailor Moon that aired onto blank VHS tapes, and one of the first manga series I fell in love with was Magic Knight Rayearth.

Three young women from three different schools on a class trip to Tokyo Tower are overcome by a bright light and transported to the magical world of Cephiro (or Cefiro, as early manga translations were notorious for inconsistent translations). They have been summoned to save the Pillar, Princess Emeraude, from her abductor, High Priest Zagato, before the world held together by the Pillar’s prayers falls apart. It was the original hopepunk manga full of magical girls, mecha (giant warrior machines), and awakenings for both the young women and the world they had been tasked to save.

And I loved how CLAMP was an all-women collective of creatives.

Dealing with Dragons
2. Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

I found Dealing with Dragons at the very end of the fiction section of my junior high library. The room had an odd configuration so it was on a side back wall, away from most of the other books. But when I saw Cimorene on the cover, staring up at a dragon, her body taut with attitude and vigor, I knew I wanted to read her story. My reading skills were awful, so I didn’t learn how to actually say Cimorene’s name for an embarrassing number of years (I hybridized her name with Cinnamon and Rini from the English translation of Sailor Moon when I read it in my head), but I soldiered on to find a comedic series about a fierce princess, a dragon with a hankering for cherries jubilee, and a subversion of a patriarchal structure for dragon royalty.

The Assassins of Tamurin
3. The Assassins of Tamurin by S. D. Tower

In two years, after a reporter found me through my Livejournal to interview me about this internet craze called Neopets (It’s nostalgia hour, ya’ll), I was asked to write young adult reviews for my local newspaper. I was terrified—after all, my city just hit over one million residents—but I said yes. Since no one was reviewing fantasy or science fiction, the book editor sent those my way as well. And the very first ARC I received was The Assassins of Tamurin (I still have this ARC).

A girl no one wanted or valued starts a quest to simply survive, and becomes embroiled in a complex political controversy so much bigger than she could imagine, set in an empire modeled on Imperial China. With a spy-assassin sisterhood, magical contracts, and hidden heirs, the book had everything a teen could want in a romantic action adventure, despite being marketed to adults. It was also the first book I’d ever read written by a married couple.

When Demons Walk
4. When Demons Walk by Patricia Briggs

After I started reviewing, I wanted to be around books even more, so I got a job at the local library as a page. And in the small (at that time) young adult section, I found this gem totally mislabeled as YA. I snuck it to the checkout desk, hiding the scantily clad protagonist on the cover from my coworkers. (*brrrrring brrrrring* Yes, hello? Teenage Kate? You’re gay.)

Sham is a sorceress and thief, hired to save the very people from whom she steals, from a threat much stronger than them all. The Reeve, Kerim, uses a wheelchair for much of the book, commanding respect from the nobles he governs through more than military prowess. This book hit all sorts of buttons for me, some problematic but nevertheless guilty pleasures, and helped me see a future for myself in writing and crafting stories.

A Fistful of Sky
5. A Fistful of Sky by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

In my final days as a page, I found this book labelled as part of the sci-fi section at the library, and I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did.

The LaZelle family is a magical family, each member suffering a severe illness in their youth that either leaves them with magical powers or dead. All except Gypsum, a magicless character with a mundane life compared to her brothers and sisters. But it is within that mundanity that she emerged as one of the most relatable characters I have ever encountered in a book. Altria, a queer character, gives a manifestation to the slippery process of finding a love, queer or not, and peace that comes with that love, a theme not often found in literature.

Snow White with the Red Hair
6. Snow White with the Red Hair by Sorata Akiduki

Throughout my life, I continued to read manga and watch anime. And I always thought it didn’t count as real reading. As some readers have internalized resentment toward genre, I had managed to internalize a dismissal of manga and anime as a form of narrative one could appropriately indulge in as a writer. That is, until Year 9 at Sirens when I attended V. E. Schwab’s Sirens Studio workshop “Writer as Reader.” She made it very clear that she didn’t always look to books for relief from creative fatigue.

So when my favorite anime started to serialize English manga translations in 2019, I knew I had to have it. In the fairytale adjacent series, Shirayuki is an herbalist in Tanbarun who attracts the attention of the monarch because of her apple red hair. When he demands she become his concubine, Shirayuki nopes the hell out of there and flees to the neighboring kingdom of Clarines where she meets Zen, the second prince of Clarines. Over the course of the story, Shirayuki proves her resourcefulness and strength of character while Prince Zen grows into a true leader with integrity, driven by his heart. And there is love. And a lovable thief. And witty attendants. Because I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Shirayuki moves through life with ambition to become the best she can and faces compromises and conflicts with intelligence and grace. She’s someone who taught me that even when life gets rough, you can keep moving forward.


Kate LarkingDuring the day, Kate Larking works for an independent publisher. In her off hours, between binge-watching anime and leveling-up game characters, she writes speculative fiction for both YA and adult markets. Her queer space opera comic, Crash and Burn, was a multi-year finalist for the Aurora Awards for best English Graphic Novel. She resides in Calgary, AB, with her wife, daughter, and cats.

 

Fonda Lee’s Reading List

Sirens Guest of Honor Fonda Lee shares a list of written works that she’s enjoyed—and that all feature women wielding power. If you enjoy her work, we encourage you to check out these other reads, spanning a variety of subgenres and categories. Take it away, Fonda!

A list of books spanning different genres and categories that I’ve enjoyed and that all feature one thing in common: women wielding power. Sometimes that power is overt; sometimes it’s hidden. Some of these women shape nations and empires; others are simply trying to survive. Some are seen as heroes, others as villains, and some as both.

 

Empire of Sand

Fantasy
Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro

Fantasy
The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by KS Villoso

The Power

Science Fiction
The Power by Naomi Alderman

A Memory Called Empire

Science Fiction
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

The Year of the Witching

Dark Fantasy (upcoming)
The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

Circe

Historical Fantasy
Circe by Madeline Miller

Monstress

Graphic Novel
Monstress by Marjorie Liu

The Lie Tree

Young Adult Fantasy
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

What I Saw and How I Lied

Young Adult Contemporary
What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell

The Memoirs of Cleopatra

Historical Fiction
The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George

The Good Mothers

Non-fiction Crime
The Good Mothers by Alex Perry


 

Fonda Lee writes science fiction and fantasy for adults and teens. She is the author of the Green Bone Saga, beginning with Jade City (Orbit), which won the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, was nominated for the Nebula Award and the Locus Award, and was named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR, Barnes & Noble, Syfy Wire, and others. The second book in the Green Bone Saga, Jade War, released in 2019 to multiple starred reviews. Fonda’s young adult science fiction novels Zeroboxer (Flux), Exo, and Cross Fire (Scholastic), have garnered accolades including being named Junior Library Guild Selection, Andre Norton Award finalist, Oregon Book Award finalist, Oregon Spirit Book Award winner, and YALSA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. In 2018, Fonda gained the distinction of winning the Aurora Award, Canada’s national science fiction and fantasy award, twice in the same year for Best Novel and Best Young Adult Novel. She co-writes the ongoing Sword Master & Shang-Chi comic book for Marvel. Fonda is a former corporate strategist who has worked for or advised a number of Fortune 500 companies. She holds black belts in karate and kung fu, loves action movies, and is an eggs Benedict enthusiast. Born and raised in Canada, she currently resides in Portland, Oregon.

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

Hopeful Books for Hard Times

So much of speculative literature is about impossibly difficult things: revolution, the zombie apocalypse, hot teenaged vampires, and yes, pandemics. But so much of speculative literature is also about hope—unshakeable, enduring hope—during those hard times. For those of you looking for a light in the darkness, a distraction from the world, or just a good read, we have 15 speculative works full of hope.

 

Upright Women Wanted
1. Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Galley
In a near-future wild, wild West, Esther escapes her fascist, hanging-happy town by stowing away in a traveling Librarian book wagon. But she doesn’t (yet!) know that these Librarians are queer spies for the revolution. You’ll cheer Esther as she finds her place in this rough-and-tumble world of bandits, shootouts, revolution, kissing, and so much hope.
Hicotea
2. Hicotea by Lorena Alvarez
Alvarez draws from her Catholic school experiences in Bogotá, Colombia, to create utterly gorgeous, utterly wondrous graphic novels. In Hicotea, Sandy’s class goes on a field trip to the local wetlands, where Sandy meets a turtle, a frog, and other animals who teach her about protecting the environment. And Sandy discovers her own determination, power, and hope.
Bayou Magic
3. Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes
It’s Maddy’s turn to spend the summer with her grandmother in the bayou—but that bayou holds more magic than Maddy could ever have dreamed. As Maddy discovers the miracles of magic and mermaids, and the dawning horror of an oil spill, you’ll discover hope in this story of conservation, Southern community, and a girl who will change the world.
All the Names They Used for God
4. All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva
In her gorgeous short story collection, Sachdeva explores the liminal spaces where faith and fantasy meet, spaces full of wonder and hope. A man meets a mermaid, two girls practice something like witchcraft, a woman explores a subterranean cave, and more—but in each, you’ll find people awestruck by the ineffable.
The Lost Coast
5. The Lost Coast by Amy Rose Capetta
In Capetta’s The Lost Coast, Danny arrives in Tempest, a tiny Northern California town among the towering redwoods—and almost immediately encounters the Grays: a group of queer witches. The Grays summoned Danny to help find their missing friend, whose body is still going about its daily routine, but without any spark of the girl itself. Amidst all of that, The Lost Coast is an achingly lovely story about finding your community, finding yourself, and finding your hope.
Empire of Sand
6. Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri
Empire of Sand, the first of Suri’s Books of Ambha series, turns on the enduring power of women. Mehr, the daughter of a nobleman and a line of magical women, draws the attention of the cruel Maha, who wishes to use her magic in an ancient ritual. Suri skillfully weaves resolute threads of hope and love in her epic tale of good-vs.-evil intrigue.
Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer
7. Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones (illustrated by Katie Kath)
After her parents inherit Great-Uncle Jim’s farm, Sophie is stuck moving from Los Angeles—and her beloved abuela—to a confusing world of outdoor chores, distracted parents, and no friends. But then she discovers that Great-Uncle Jim had unusual chickens—and that unusual chickens are a great way to make new friends. Unusual Chickens is a story of hope in a new town, wrapped up in the hilarious escapades of magical fowl.
When the Moon Was Ours
8. When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore
When the Moon Was Ours is a transcendent love story. Sam, a part-Pakistani, transgender boy, paints moons and hangs them around town; Miel, a queer, Latina girl born of a water tower, has roses growing from her wrists. Through them, and for them, McLemore has crafted a fairy tale full of beauty and magic and hope specifically for people who so often don’t get to see themselves with such wonder.
A Pale Light in the Black
9. A Pale Light in the Black by K.B. Wagers
Wagers dives headfirst into hopepunk in this rollicking, queer af tale of the Near-Earth Orbital Guard. As Inceptor Team: Zuma’s Ghost is gearing up to avenge their loss in last year’s annual Boarding Games, they’re shaken by both a personnel change and a surprisingly dangerous mission. [Disclaimer: K.B. Wagers is a member of the Sirens staff.]
Heroine Complex
10. Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn
Evie Tanaka is the personal assistant of a superhero—who also happens to be her childhood best friend. And that’s not easy! But when Evie poses as her friend for a night, her world turns upside down: Her secret powers are revealed, there’s a hot boy, and Evie isn’t sure what she wants. And when her city is threatened and Evie must take charge, you’ll root for her—and her hope-and-karaoke-filled story—to the end.
The Beast Player
11. The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi (translated by Cathy Hirano)
In the wake of her mother’s execution for failing to save the kingdom’s ailing battle water serpents, Elin escapes—and soon discovers that she can communicate with the flying beasts that protect the queen. As Elin grows, the kingdom inches ever closer to war, and Elin must make hard decisions about the beastly tools of war that have become her friends. Through it all, The Beast Player clings steadfastly to kindness, morality, and hope.
Genuine Sweet
12. Genuine Sweet by Faith Harkey
Genuine Sweet, a poor girl in a poor town, discovers that she’s a wish fetcher—she can grant other people’s wishes. With nothing more than the few ingredients she has on hand, Genuine begins baking wish biscuits for the people of Sass, Georgia. Genuine Sweet is a starlit sort of book about how in providing a spark of hope for a community you so often provide a spark of hope for yourself.
Two Moons
13. Two Moons by Krystal A. Smith
Smith writes glorious stories of Black girl magic. A girl falls in love with the moon, a woman births a goddess and becomes a goddess herself, a woman and her heart want different things—Two Moons is a profound, thoughtful book full of fizzy happiness and hope.
Iron Cast
14. Iron Cast by Destiny Soria
A speakeasy-style novel, set in Boston 1919, where two inseparable friends can do magic—illegal magic. Soria goes all in on the bravery, humanity, and hope required to be someone society doesn’t privilege—and the determination necessary to change the world. Iron Cast is a beautiful story about friendship, love, and making the world a kinder place.
Green Witch
15. Green Witch by Alice Hoffman
The second in a series—but you can absolutely jump into Green Witch without reading the first—Hoffman’s slim work is about living in the aftermath of disaster. On the day of the bombing, Green lost her parents, her sister, and her love, and she’s been living with loss ever since. But change comes and Green must find a way to limn her new, ruined world with hope—with magical results.

 

Joamette’s Recommended Readings

Sirens Studio Guest of Honor Joamette Gil shares a list of fantasy and other works that she loves. If you enjoy her work, we encourage you to check out these other reads, spanning graphic, short fiction, and novels. Take it away, Joamette!

 

Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements
1. Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements edited by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha
Knights-Errant
2. Knights-Errant by Jennifer Doyle
Spiritwalker Trilogy
3. Spiritwalker Triology (Cold Magic, Cold Fire, and Cold Steel) by Kate Elliott
Mooncakes
4. Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu
Brown Girl in the Ring
5. Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
Through the Woods
6. Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
The Haunting of Hill House
7. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
On a Sunbeam
8. On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden
So Pretty / So Very Rotten
9. So Pretty/Very Rotten: Comics and Essays on Lolita Fashion and Cute Culture by Jane Mai and An Nguyen
The Temple of My Familiar
10. The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker
This One Summer
11. This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
Verse
12. Verse by Sam Beck

 

Joamette Gil is the head witch at P&M Press, an independent comics micro-press specializing in speculative fiction by creators of color, LGBTQIA creators, and creators at the intersections. Best known for her Prism Award-winning publication Power & Magic: The Queer Witch Comics Anthology, she also made the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award’s 2018 Honor List and received nods from the Ignatz Awards and Lambda Literary Awards over the course of P&M Press’s three-year existence. Her newest titles are Heartwood: Non-binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy and Power & Magic: Immortal Souls. Another new title, Mañana: Latinx Comics from the 25th Century, is forthcoming in 2020. Joamette’s own comics work has been featured by IDW, Margins Publishing, EverydayFeminism.com, TheNib.com, Oni Press, Lion Forge, and Abrams ComicArts. She also contributed to the Eisner Award-winning Puerto Rico Strong anthology benefitting hurricane disaster relief on the island. When she’s not inhaling graphic novels, she’s off plotting silly play-by-post scenarios or watching horror movies with her friends and familiars in Portland, Oregon.

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

 

Princesses, Tea Dragons, & Underwater Kingdoms: Community & Healing in Katie O’Neill’s Middle Grade Graphic Novels by Maria Dones

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 Maria Dones.

At my new job as a children’s library assistant, the children’s front desk is shaped like a ship. The front has a helm, and the kids who come in love to steer and bang on the wheel. Behind the desk, there’s a shelf filled with children’s graphic novels, our fastest-growing collection.

As someone who had read only a handful of manga and superhero comics, I was pretty unfamiliar with the graphic novel genre. When I was growing up in the early 2000s, there weren’t collections like these at the libraries around me, and the term “graphic novel” wasn’t as widely used as it is now. Still, I couldn’t resist looking at the different colors and shapes of the graphic novels shelved behind me, and soon I was getting recommendation after recommendation from my coworkers. I quickly fell in love with the art form.

It upsets me when I hear parents discourage their children from reading graphic novels because they don’t consider it “real reading.” Not only does discouraging children from pursuing their reading interests run the risk of children losing an interest in reading completely, visual rhetoric is a skill all in itself. And even without the factor of skill development, stories for the sake of fun and companionship are vastly underrated.

Katie O’Neill’s graphic novels are beautiful, magical, and nuanced. The characters in these stories discover their place in the world while navigating the communities they live in and forming life-changing friendships. And the characters themselves are diverse in skin color, ability, gender identity, sexuality, and size.

I wished I’d had these stories as a kid, but they still left their mark on me as an adult. These are stories that feel like watching your favorite Miyazaki film for the first time, like making a friend who really “gets you,” like drinking a warm cup of chamomile tea picked from the leaves growing around a tea dragon’s horns.

Princess Princess Ever After (2016)

Princess Princess Ever AfterPrincess Princess Ever After was the first graphic novel by Katie O’Neill that I picked up. My coworker recommended it to me, and I couldn’t resist a story about a princess rescuing a princess. This fairy tale more than delivered.

The titular princesses are both hiding from something. Princess Amira hides from her overbearing parents and royal responsibilities by rescuing princesses. Princess Sadie hides in her tower from a world who, according to her sister, will hate her for being a fat princess. When these two princesses embark on an adventure, each obstacle leads them closer to facing their insecurities and embracing what makes them unique—all as they fall in love with each other.

Part of why this romance is so swoonworthy is how different (but complementary) the princesses are. Amira is courageous, headstrong, and always ready for a battle. Sadie is kind, compassionate, and a great listener. Each challenge they face requires both of their strengths, and in seeing each other’s strengths, they learn how to love themselves and love one another.

The Tea Dragon Society (2017)

The Tea Dragon SocietyHow could I resist this gorgeous cover? But what’s inside is just as beautiful—a story about memory, healing through community, and looking towards the future.

Blacksmith apprentice Greta finds a lost tea dragon, a creature whose horns grow tea leaves that store memories. When she returns the tea dragon to the husbands who own the tea shop, they offer her the chance to learn the skill of tea dragon keeping. As Greta gets to know them and their ward—a girl with memory loss who has developed a bond with the chamomile dragon—Greta learns that friendship requires the same patience and compassion as tea dragon keeping.

This book—with all its whimsy, soft magic, and young characters discovering their place in the world—gave me the same warm fuzzy feelings watching Kiki’s Delivery Service does. All while giving me the same WHY-CAN’T-THESE-CREATURES-BE-REAL heartache as Pokemon (1997) and How to Train Your Dragon (2010).

Aquicorn Cove (2018)

Aquicorn CoveHow do you follow up tea dragons? With mysterious seahorse unicorns, of course!

To help her aunt after a hurricane, Lana visits the seaside town she used to live in before her mother died. There, Lana finds an injured baby aquicorn. As she helps the aquicorn and her hometown recover, Lana confronts her own grief and slowly learns about her aunt’s romance with the underwater sea queen who looks after the aquicorns as well as the dangers the aquicorns face because of overfishing.

Even though it’s a sweet story with a happy ending, this book made me cry more than any other Katie O’Neill book. Partly because of Lana’s resilience, partly because of the too-real coral reef metaphor.

In a world where being an environmentalist is increasingly difficult, Aquicorn Cove reminds the reader how to hope again.

The Tea Dragon Festival (2019)

The Tea Dragon FestivalThe Tea Dragon Festival is a companion to The Tea Dragon Society.

In a village where tea dragons are raised by the community, Rinn wakes Aedhan—the guardian dragon (not tea dragon) of Rinn’s alpine village. To his horror, Aedhan discovers he was enchanted to sleep for eighty years. Through Rinn and Aedhan’s friendship, they both explore their identities—Rinn in terms of their aspirations and gender fluidity and Aedan in terms of his clan and how he fits in within the village he accidentally neglected for decades.

Readers will also delight in seeing the tea shop owners from The Tea Dragon Society—including Rinn’s uncle—in their adventuring youth as bounty hunters.

I loved seeing a community sharing the care of the tea dragons, who the reader encounters in all their versatility. Tea dragons can be adorable, haughty, pompous, and grouchy—sometimes nuisances, sometimes beloved pets, and sometimes independent companions.

Bonus: Dewdrop (2020) April 7

DewdropKatie O’Neill’s first picture book Dewdrop will be released April 7, 2020. I’m kind of cheating here, because I’ve only read the preview on Amazon, but I’m already in love with this story of an axolotl who reminds her overachieving friends to practice self-care and enjoy every step of their progress as they prepare for a yearly sports fair. With nods to graphic novel layout design, adorable art, and Katie O’Neill’s characteristic themes of friendship and self-love, Dewdrop has all the makings of a heartwarming and memorable story.


Maria Dones

When Maria Dones isn’t writing stories about angry girls armed with magic, you can find her working as a children’s library assistant, rewatching Sailor Moon, or befriending other people’s pets. She recently graduated from the University of Kansas with an MFA in Fiction, and her young adult short fiction appears or will appear in Cicada, Gingerbread House, and Bourbon Penn.

Magic in Our Fingertips: Charmed Voices in Modern Fairy Tales

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 Hannah V. Warren.

When I sat down to create this list, I thought about all the great books people miss because the texts are outside the kind of material they normally reach for. Thus, one of my goals was to incorporate books from a diverse range of genres that would appeal to anyone with a tinge of magic in their blood. In this list, I’ve included poetry that people may love if they’re always up for folklore, critical nonfiction that would grab the attention of someone who usually reads fantasy novels, a novella a reader might never pick up unless they knew it had a few monsters inside. If you’re into fairy tales, fanfiction, and lyrical language, you’ll find something to love in all these books.

 

boysgirls
1. boysgirls by Katie Farris (Genre: poems)

When the human body is broken down to its barest parts, when you trip over a femur or a jawbone, you recognize it as human. Underlying this book is the nibbling longing that makes us think about identity and our desire to “escape unscathed.”

Brute
2. Brute by Emily Skaja (Genre: poems)

Skaja’s Brute is a collection of battery, of bruising, of brutality, of body. The intersection of gender and violence rests at the core of these poems, forcing the reader to pause and consider with the speaker how one comprehends trauma.

Cendrillon: A Caribbean Cinderella
3. Cendrillon: A Caribbean Cinderella by Robert D. San Souci (Genre: illustrated picture book)

Told from the godmother’s point of view, Cendrillon is rich in dialect and magic. This Cinderella retelling is a joy for all ages, especially those who seek a focus on marginalized voices in reinvented fairy tales.

The City of Brass
4. The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty (Genre: novel)

When Nahri discovers the faux magic she practices has real effects, she’s whisked away to Daevabad, the fabled djinn city filled with political turmoil. Brimming with secrets and envy, this novel is a testament to unique reinventions of familiar stories.

Divining Bones
5. Divining Bones by Charlie Bondhus (Genre: poems)

Bondhus creates a conversation with the reader, asking that they consider Baba Yaga as not only a crone but also a guide to understanding gender. Here, magic and witchcraft are tools of resistance for marginalized bodies.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon
6. The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (Genre: novel)

The Girl Who Drank the Moon is surprising, well-crafted, and all the things you want from a fairy tale-esque forest narrative. The most impressive and transformative part of this novel is Barnhill’s focus on the love within a nontraditional family structure.

The Ballad of Black Tom
7. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle (Genre: novella)

A way better version of Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook, LaValle’s novella highlights America’s institutional racism in the 1920s (and now), embodying the notion that people create their own monsters.

Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale
8. Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner (Genre: critical non-fiction)

Most useful in this book is Warner’s synthesis of other scholars who look to achieve the same goal: to show how fairy tale scholarship supports feminist exploration of texts often mislabeled for a young audience and expose the heteropatriarchal values in traditional fairy tales.

Skin Folk
9. Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson (Genre: short stories)

From fantasy to horror to SF, Hopkinson’s collection is vivid and evocative, retelling fairy tales with the purpose of speaking directly to women’s bodies at all stages of life. While you may recognize some of the characters, the stories are entirely new and chilling.

Spinning Silver
10. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik (Genre: novel)

A retelling of “Rumpelstiltskin”, fanfiction and fairy tale themes intertwine deliciously in this novel. The writing is atmospheric and haunting, the very best of lyrical language that also includes a strange but enchanting love story.


Hannah WarrenHannah V Warren is a PhD student at the University of Georgia where she studies poetry and speculative narratives. Her chapbook [re]construction of the necromancer won Sundress Publications’ 2019 chapbook contest, and her works have haunted or will soon appear in Mid-American Review, Moon City Review, and Redivider.

 

Casey’s Fantasy Romance List

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’re introduced to five fantasy romance books by writer Casey Blair.

Are you interested in books combining fantasy settings with prominent romance arcs? Then have I got a list for you!

Wherever your preferences fall on the spectrum of fantasy romance to romantic fantasy, these are some of my recent favorites that bring brilliantly imaginative worlds and breathtaking romance together.

 

Empire of Sand
1. Empire of the Sand (The Books of Ambha #1) by Tasha Suri

In a setting inspired by Mughal India, this book excels at actually everything, whether it’s dancing magic or navigating different cultural heritages. There are no easy choices in this book, and Tasha Suri does absolutely stunning work with consent under oppression.

Radiance
2. Radiance (Wraith Kings #1) by Grace Draven

Grace Draven is my go-to for fantasy romance. She’s particularly good with the nuances of cultural exchange in this book, and whether it’s in the midst of battles or feasts or private jokes, the protagonists take pains to be respectful and gentle with each other despite their obvious external differences.

Witchmark
3. Witchmark (The Kingston Cycle #1) by C.L. Polk

This is an m/m gaslamp fantasy murder mystery between a mage doctor in hiding and the most gorgeous fae he’s ever seen. Their romance is the sweetest, but they find time to also fundamentally challenge the entire oppressive system their world operates under, as one does.

Troubled Waters
4. Troubled Waters (Elemental Blessings #1) by Sharon Shinn

This book starts out slow and immersive and just builds and builds. The entire series is brimming with political intrigue, and I adore this heroine who will literally move oceans to save people, heedless of propriety. As a bonus, this series is perfect for readers looking for romance without explicit sex on the page!

Polaris Rising
5. Polaris Rising (Consortium Rebellion #1) by Jessie Mihalik

This is the rogue space princess adventure romance we all need in our lives. The heroine is incredibly self-aware and competent, she does not compromise for alpha male bullshit, and it’s the best.


Casey Blair writes fantasy novels for adults and teens, and her weekly serial fantasy novel Tea Princess Chronicles is available online for free. After graduating from Vassar College, her 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 is prone to spontaneous dancing, exploring forests around the world, and spoiling cats terribly.

 

Six Contemporary Twists on Non-Western Myths

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’re introduced to six contemporary twists on non-western myths by writer and indie bookseller Casey Blair.

I love when the fantastic intrudes on our everyday world, the idea that magic can be waiting around any corner. There have been countless contemporary fantasies featuring fae over the years, and I’m beyond delighted that twists on non-western myths are growing in the market! These are some of my recent favorites.

 

Aru Shah and the End of Time
1. Aru Shah and the End of Time (Pandava #1) by Roshani Chokshi

Hilarity and adventure combine with the tragically relatable realities of middle school in this action-packed story of friendship and sisterhood. Roshani Chokshi brings Vedic mythology and tales from the Mahabharata to glorious life.

Akata Witch
2. Akata Witch (Book #1) by Nnedi Okorafor

A black albino girl who is an incredible athlete but struggles outside moves from the US to Nigeria, where she discovers she has unique magical powers and joins a secret group of fellow teens also learning their way around this brilliant world of Nigerian folklore.

Wicked Fox
3. Wicked Fox (Gumiho #1) by Kat Cho

Set in modern Seoul, this book smashes YA and Kdrama tropes together magnificently. Fox spirits, ghosts, romance, misunderstandings, family drama, poignant friendships, and complicated definitions of heroism and villainy abound.

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo
4. The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee

I am a sucker for Journey to the West adaptations. On top of being a fantastic take on Chinese mythology, this book features a heroine who not only gets to punch absolutely everyone who deserves it, she’s a champion at setting boundaries and holding people accountable. And she navigates it all while figuring out how her friendships are changing and applying for college.

Love Sugar Magic
5. Love Sugar Magic Book 1: A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano

The power of family, baking, and Mexican magic and how they all overlap come alive in this delightful story of a girl who is desperately sure she is ready to be treated as an adult and then has to deal with the consequences accordingly.

Trail of Lightning
6. Trail of Lightning (Sixth World #1) by Rebecca Roanhorse

This urban fantasy adventure is not only brimming with Navajo folklore, it’s also one of the best takes on the monstrous feminine I’ve ever read. Rebecca Roanhorse delivers both awesome action and moments that stab the reader straight in the heart.


Casey Blair is an indie bookseller who writes speculative fiction novels for adults and teens, and her weekly serial fantasy novel Tea Princess Chronicles is available online for free. She is a graduate of Vassar College and of the Viable Paradise residential science fiction and fantasy writing workshop. After teaching English in rural Japan for two years, she relocated to the Seattle area. She is prone to spontaneous dancing, exploring ancient cities around the world, wandering and adventuring through forests, spoiling cats terribly, and drinking inordinate amounts of tea late into the night.

 

Casey’s World Guide to Non-Western Fantasy

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 follow writer and indie bookseller Casey Blair on a world tour of some of her favorite non-western fantasy books in this book list.

People often think of the fantasy genre as all knights and castles in analogs of medieval western Europe, but there is so much more to fantasy than that, inspired by cultures and histories around the world. So let’s take a tour of some fantasy in different settings centering different people!

 

Moribito: Guradian of the Spirit
1. Moribito: Guradian of the Spirit (Moribito #1) by Nahoko Uehashi

From the author of the newly published The Beast Player comes the story of a warrior woman in a fantastical Japan who becomes the bodyguard of a prince possessed by a legendary spirit as they embark on a journey with the power to destroy the kingdom. Moribito does incredible work with power dynamics, anthropology, and complicating and flipping gender roles as well as the value judgments associated with them.

Jade City
2. Jade City (The Green Bone Saga #1) by Fonda Lee

This book was pitched to me as The Godfather meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and after reading it I still find this description incredibly apt. This world reminiscent of gangster Hong Kong movies delivers all the profound family drama you can ask for and the best magical action scenes around.

Empire of Sand
3. Empire of Sand (The Books of Ambha #1) by Tasha Suri

In a setting inspired by Mughal India, Empire of Sand is a gorgeous story of a woman navigating her cultural heritages of the ruling court and the desert nomads and finding her power as a woman within oppressive systems through magical, ceremonial dance. I love Tasha Suri’s take on survival as agency.

The Dreamblood Duology
4. The Dreamblood Duology by N.K. Jemisin

This is fantasy Egypt with dream assassins, which would have been enough for me on its own, but it’s also by the legendary N.K. Jemisin, bringing all her knowledge and challenge of dominant and accepted power structures to bear. You can read this duology as two separate books, but let me just advise you that while The Killing Moon is a satisfying book in its own right even as it lays the groundwork, The Shadowed Sun takes things to a whole other level you should not miss. Read them both.

Coronets and Steel
5. Coronets and Steel (Dobrenica #1) by Sherwood Smith

This novel was my introduction to Ruritanian romance, a genre of stories featuring adventure, romance, and intrigue among the ruling class of a fictional Eastern European country. A fearless girl from modern LA with a penchant for fencing duels and ballet finds all the magic and mystery she dreamed of—and a lot more complication besides–in a world outside of time.

The Gilded Wolves
6. The Gilded Wolves (Book 1) by Roshani Chokshi

Although set in an alternate historical Paris, The Gilded Wolves makes this list because of who it centers: the core protagonists include an Indian dancer, a Filipino historian, and a Jewish engineer. In this magical heist story, Roshani Chokshi does a fantastic job with the nuances of colonialism and broad understanding of global history and diversity, including myriad macro- and micro-aggressions across intersections.

The Black God’s Drums
7. The Black God’s Drums by P. DjèlÍ Clark

Centering women thieves, airship captains, prostitutes, and nuns, this steampunk adventure in an alternate New Orleans highlights awesome and dangerous Orisha magic as well as the legacy of black slavery in the Americas. In this novella P. Djèlí Clark delivers a fantastic meditation on what it means to be free along with all the explosions.

The Summer Prince
8. The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

And last but in no way least, in a futuristic Brazil recovered from an apocalypse, Alaya Dawn Johnson brings us a story fundamentally about the power of art, and it blew me away. The Summer Prince is a stunning challenge and examination of technology, accepted traditions, rebellion, identity, and love.


Casey Blair is an indie bookseller who writes speculative fiction novels for adults and teens, and her weekly serial fantasy novel Tea Princess Chronicles is available online for free. She is a graduate of Vassar College and of the Viable Paradise residential science fiction and fantasy writing workshop. After teaching English in rural Japan for two years, she relocated to the Seattle area. She is prone to spontaneous dancing, exploring ancient cities around the world, wandering and adventuring through forests, spoiling cats terribly, and drinking inordinate amounts of tea late into the night.

 

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