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Mexican Gothic Holds the Precise, Beating Heart of Modern Women’s Horror

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!

Mexican Gothic

On page 186 of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, Noemí, our heroine, is mid-conversation with Virgil, the heir apparent of High Place, a crumbling family mansion in rural Mexico. She is in Virgil’s bedroom in the middle of the night, after experiencing a disturbingly vivid sexual dream featuring Virgil and his aggressive masculinity. The first words of the following exchange are Noemí’s:

“Were you in my room?”
“I thought I was in your dream.”
“It did not feel like a dream.”
“What did it feel like?”
“Like an intrusion,” she said.

As a reader, this is the sort of revelatory writing that requires that you put the book down and find something, anything—in this case, a Bath and Body Works coupon—to mark the page. Because this exchange is the precise, beating heart of modern women’s horror.


Let’s begin with a bit about Mexican Gothic. Noemí is a socialite in 1950s Mexico, mostly happy with her rounds of dresses and parties and beaux, but still, always, a girl who wants more: currently, a master’s degree in anthropology. When her family receives a nonsensical letter—troubling for all its nonsense—from her cousin, Catalina, Noemí’s father agrees to permit her to pursue that master’s degree, if only she’ll go check on Catalina and her new husband, Virgil, at High Point. Noemí takes the deal and is soon on a train, suitcases in tow.

Moreno-Garcia draws Noemí cleverly: She’s an assertive girl, but also a pretty one, and one who is accustomed to things being just so, one who thrives on appearances and flirtations and delicately upending social niceties with just the right amount of perceived danger. Because of who Noemí is, High Point reads initially as simply off-putting: dusty, moldy, faded, the home of an impoverished family unable to keep up with either cleaning or modern conveniences like electricity. Similarly, the household’s exacting rules—no talking during meals, no unsupervised time with Catalina, no second medical opinions—are designed to imply merely that Noemí has encountered a society foreign to her, one that a pretty girl cannot manipulate with smiles and teasing. But over time, through alarming conversations with her cousin, who seems only sometimes lucid, and forbidden conversations with locals, who share legends and mysteries, but rarely more, Noemí realizes that High Point is more menacing than simply unkempt, and the rules more dangerous than simply irritating.


Shirley Jackson’s seminal work of feminine horror, The Haunting of Hill House, was published in 1959, the same decade as the setting of Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic. In 60 years, though, women have gained new terrors—and new insight into familiar terrors. Jackson’s work is about mothers, domineering, demanding mothers who, even after death, haunt our lives. How almost quaint, through a 2020 lens, to focus on the issue with mothers, rather than the issues with the heteropatriarchy that so often make them that way. Moreno-Garcia’s work, while clearly an heir to Jackson’s, goes deeper and is not so willing to elide the roles that men play in women’s terrors.

Mexican Gothic is a work about intrusion, specifically a work about men’s innumerable intrusions into women’s lives. Without spoiling the mystery or the jump scares, Moreno-Garcia’s work turns on the many, many things that men take from women and the sacrifices that women are required to make to perpetuate men’s power. This isn’t a work about Noemí’s mother, who is nearly absent from the book, even in reference. It is a work about her father, in his wealthy naivete; Howard, the ailing, racist head of the High Point family; Virgil, the skillfully abusive heir apparent; and Francis, the weak-willed cousin. And it’s a work about the women who enable them—Florence, Francis’s mother and the household disciplinarian, and Catalina, Noemí’s compliant cousin—and Noemí, who does not.

At its best, Mexican Gothic uses its horrors to lay bare the quotidian horrors of women, forced to endure a lifetime of male intrusions.

At its worst, we need to talk about Moreno-Garcia’s use of rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault. Mexican Gothic is about male intrusions into women’s lives and, in many ways, very specifically about male intrusions into women’s bodily autonomy, both small (you may not take the car alone, you may not speak during dinner) and large (you may not leave High Point). In exploring those themes, Moreno-Garcia turns, often, to rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault. With a single exception (the final horror imposed on a woman, revealed at the book’s climax), in this work that is so much about bodily autonomy, Mexican Gothic assumes that rape is the ultimate intrusion that a man can force upon a woman. Regardless of whether you agree with that, Mexican Gothic uses rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault liberally—and in my view, too often. We know that Howard and Virgil are threats and, by the midway point of the book we know enough about High Point’s history to know that they are both sexual threats. Because we know that, most of these scenes read as unnecessary, no longer a horror that Howard or Virgil is imposing on Noemí, but a horror that Mexican Gothic imposes on its readers. Men intrude on women’s lives in so many ways; must the second half of Mexican Gothic rely so heavily on this one?

Setting aside its arguable overreliance on the horrors of sexual assault—if you are able to, of course—Mexican Gothic is a must-read for anyone interested in both female horror and its evolution. Moreno-Garcia takes Jackson’s themes from 60 years ago and transforms them, erasing the mother in favor of striking at the heart of the heteropatriarchy itself. In a world where we are all told to be more likeable, where our options are always limited, and yes, where we all fear assault, Moreno-Garcia’s house of horrors will be all too familiar.


Amy TenbrinkBy day, Amy Tenbrink dons her supergirl suit and handles strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president of a major media company. By night, she dons her supergirl cape, plans literary conferences, bakes increasingly complicated pastries, and reads 150 books a year. She is a co-founder and current co-chair of Sirens, an annual conference dedicated to examining gender and fantasy literature. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, flagrant ambition, and a well-planned revolution.

A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and Dissonant Chords

Each month, Sirens co-chair Amy Tenbrink reviews new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors—and occasionally invites other members of the Sirens community to do so. You can find all of these reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We hope you’ll read along and discuss!

This month, Hallie Tibbetts reviews Suzanne Collins’s A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes!

In 2008, at a book fair, I got an advance copy of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and then stayed up all night in what I remember as the dirtiest hotel room in all of Los Angeles reading it. Once, twice, maybe three times a year I run across a book that completely transports me and, when I’m finished, leaves me with the disorientation of falling out of the story’s world and back into my own. The Hunger Games was one of those reads. I’ll spare you the details of the room, but recall for you how it felt to be completely immersed in the story of a girl whose simple desire to save her sister became an uneasy attempt to save her world. Of a girl who wanted no part of heroism, but chose a path of survival, rebellion, and protection of others over and over.

When a prequel for the series was announced, it was rumored that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes would be Mags’s story. I was on board for finding out how Katniss’s octogenarian ally in the 75th Hunger Games achieved victory in the 11th, and then went on to be a mentor who volunteered in the place of others. But it was not to be: Songbirds and Snakes is instead set during the 10th Hunger Games, and about Coriolanus Snow, the president and main villain of the original trilogy.

I lost interest completely.

As it happens, though, I was given a copy of Songbirds and Snakes this summer. I work in publishing, and am always buried under my to-read pile; it’s sometimes enough to know the gist of a juggernaut for comparison titles and cocktail parties, so I still didn’t plan to read this book. Curiosity eventually won out. Consternation kept me reading.

Coriolanus Snow, Coryo to his closest friends, equivalent to a high school senior, lives with his cousin and grandmother in a once-glamorous penthouse apartment. His parents—a general and a woman described as vapid—are dead. His cousin picks up a little tailoring and fashion design work; his grandmother has embraced the Capitol’s propaganda. Soon, an increase in taxes will force them out of their home, which is a great embarrassment to Coriolanus. He struggles, at times, with memories of the war. The cannibalism. The bombings. The way his family fell from being wealthy to just hanging on (a fact that he hides through indelible charm, but he won’t be able to keep up the charade for much longer).

From the beginning, there are hints of Coriolanus’s affluenza, and of his seeming inability to truly see any other human as his equal. At first, his detachment can be excused by his care for his remaining family and the psychological consequences of the atrocities he witnessed. Still, early on, he describes his cousin as the sort of girl who “invites abuse.” For a moment, I was breathless, seeing that so blatantly stated. Why would an author whose work I respect allow this character to promulgate something so untrue? It takes a while for Coriolanus’s character to become clear, and for it to become clear that Collins intended this callousness as a defining trait. Coriolanus believes his cousin “invites abuse” because he understands abuse. Other people are not individuals. Their lives are not precious. Here is a boy who would never, ever volunteer as tribute.

This is where my readerly consternation comes in.

We already know that Coriolanus is a villain; we have the rest of the story, and we know there is no possibility of redemption. I question, very much, whether we need more stories of how young white men become villains. You can try to say that we have to unravel the reasons, that we have to understand the downward spiral so we can prevent it. You can say that there are infinite tales in this trope alone. But I’m pretty sure I’ve heard them all.

And yet, I found myself wishing to see Coriolanus at an earlier point in his story because I wanted to see what makes him choose, of all possible paths, the ones that lead him to his eventual end. Maybe I wanted to feel how his love for his family prompts his decisions—but then again, I don’t want any more stories of women dying to give a man purpose, or even portrayed as incapable of playing some part in their own rescue. Collins avoids this to an extent; cousin Tigris is hustling to start her career, and it’s hard to fault the grandmother for clinging to the post-war regime for her survival when a broken elevator means she can hardly leave her crumbling building. It’s a long way, though, from scrambling for a leg up to becoming the leader of a country that sacrifices children for entertainment—the circus for Panem—and then I think: I don’t need any more stories that show a villain’s fraudulently reasoned choice to be evil. I can turn on the news and be inundated with that right now. But we’re not meant to have a reader-character connection, at least not at the beginning. Where The Hunger Games uses a compelling first-person narrative, The Ballad of Snakes and Songbirds follows Coriolanus in a surprisingly cold third. Collins keeps readers at a stiff arm’s length, and—perhaps too kindly—gives us insight into his mindset, but doesn’t let us get too close.

Something Suzanne Collins does very well is incorporate the dark side of media into her stories while asking readers to critique their own engagement as consumers. (I speak about the books, and not about such things as movie tie-in makeup product campaigns where one can purchase a palette of Capitol-inspired eye shadow without ever considering the absurdity of the optics.) During the 10th Hunger Games recounted in Songbirds and Snakes, the games have been flagging. Coriolanus and his graduating classmates are selected to act as the first ever mentors, and the one who mentors the winner will receive a full ride to university, something Coriolanus desperately wants to leverage for salary and security as well as to cover up his family’s depleted finances. The mentors get a taste of fame when they’re interviewed to break up the coverage of the less-technological (almost analog) competition of the time. The longer a tribute stays in the games, the longer a mentor stays on TV. Even a bad death is good publicity when you understand the power of the screen.

The students are also tasked with coming up with ways to add excitement to the games. Some of the excitement invents itself: Rebels bomb the arena, creating hiding spots that allow the tributes to survive longer than the previous bare-bones venue allowed. But the government solicits the younger generation for new audience engagement schemes; their ideas spin the games toward the future high-tech nightmare. Coriolanus offhandedly suggests betting on the tributes, and this becomes a new initiative that brings in money for the government while ensuring the odds won’t be in any tribute’s favor.

The tributes, too, must work the public’s magnanimity. Lucy Gray, the underdog tribute from District 12 who Coriolanus suspects is assigned to him so that he will lose the games, is a singer, an entertainer—a master storyteller—who is so charismatic, one wonders why Coriolanus of the future doesn’t immediately suspect Katniss Everdeen of manipulation. Of course, for Coriolanus, no one else could be as clever as he. He cannot see that he is a teenager, lacking a mentor, raised in a world with little compassion, blithely throwing out ideas for the games with no regard for humanity. There are no adults in his life who ask him to analyze the results of his ideas for inherent harm, only those who encourage stripping others of their autonomy.

All of Coriolanus’s machinations would be stifling to read about if not for a secondary character that I more than once wished were the protagonist instead. Sejanus Plinth moved to the Capitol from District 2 as a child after his father became wealthy. Though Coriolanus sees the Plinths as hopelessly backward and sneers at their new money, he secretly wants their comfort for himself. Sejanus is, in Coriolanus’s mind, naïve to care about class differences and rebellions when fitting in is the path to safety and power. I’d also have enjoyed the story of a small group that included Sejanus and Coriolanus working through the difference between what they’ve been told to believe in the Capitol and the truth of their world, because realization and awakenings are central to young adult literature and also themes that follow people throughout their lives. Because, again, as we all know, Coriolanus is choosing villainy, and Sejanus is choosing something else.

And, again, it’s not that we can’t or shouldn’t read about villainy, or tragedy—and it is a tragedy when any one of us refuses responsibility to care for others—but why this?

I’m a fast reader, but it took me two months to read all of Songbirds and Snakes; I stalled out just past the halfway point in frustration (and, admittedly, due to life events, social media overload, too much bad TV, work deadlines, a surfeit of email, overdue personal projects, and other distractions). In the meantime, I zipped through a copy of Goldilocks by Laura Lam, which engages with some of the questions I’d been turning over in my mind while trying to figure out the why of this prequel, and that prompted me to finish my read and review project. Surely, there had to be more to Songbirds and Snakes.

I picked the book back up as the 10th games come to a close and Lucy Gray is named victor. Coriolanus should be fine—he’s passed himself off as a clever and kind soul. His education will be paid for. The girl he grew to love over the course of the games (oh, you expected that, didn’t you?) lives. Then, a moment when he gamed the games comes to haunt him. Not all is lost, as he becomes a Peacekeeper to avoid punishment, and asks to be assigned to District 12. It’s not the life he wanted, but perhaps he can make something of it with his love nearby. The reality of life in the districts and the monotony of the military seems at times a soporific routine and at others brings the despair of a bleak, dull, and impoverished future—and then Sejanus reappears. Sejanus, instead of being a model for Coriolanus, is an unwitting catalyst for Coriolanus’s beliefs. Coriolanus doubles down: “The Hunger Games are a reminder of what monsters we are and how we need the Capitol to keep us from chaos.” (343)

As Peacekeeper duties begin, and Coriolanus witnesses his first death at the hanging tree of song in The Hunger Games, he wonders how the rebellion, distant then and underpowered now, survived on anger instead of might. He knows that there used to be a District 13 and it is gone, so he believes that rebellions can be truly stamped out if there is a big enough show of power. The toxicity in him grows. He patrols, gun in hand. In District 12, poverty is everywhere, and he finds it reasonable to blame the poor for their plight. He sees why the Capitol should send money for property over people. It’s Sejanus who questions the Peacekeepers, and as before, Sejanus’s compassion perversely causes Coriolanus to dig in his heels, deny his own misgivings, and further embrace authoritarianism.

In spare hours, Coriolanus spends time with Lucy Gray’s (found) family, the Coveys, a tight-knit group of performers that get by, in their way, with strength and grace. Their story incorporates both old and invented Appalachian music, a real hidden gem for series readers, as we find out how some of Katniss’s songs came to be. Music nerds might know that Appalachian music has many influences, and that late nineteenth and early twentieth century historians avidly traced back snippets of song to sources overseas. Even when the memory of origins was lost, the rhythms and melodies and lyrics remained. In Songbirds and Snakes, the inclusion of songs nods to the other books in the series, set in the future, while reminding us how easily the past is wiped away.

History lost—and suppressed—is doomed to be repeated, and it’s bittersweet to see the cycle of loss and erasure in this plotline.

But back to the Coveys. Even surrounded by a working collaborative effort, Coriolanus can’t comprehend how humans might be kind to one another without force; he thinks that only authority can prevent a descent into disorder. Perhaps that’s the tragedy—the distrust, the lack of empathy, the anger at losing control over others. Perhaps you know a tragedy yourself.

I won’t spoil the ending, other than to say that Coriolanus takes brave actions for himself that also betray the people he claims to care about. I sometimes say that the challenge of being a human is pretending you aren’t an animal. It’s Lucy Gray who sums up for me how one can fail this choice: “You know when you’ve stepped across the line into evil, and it’s your life’s challenge to try and stay on the right side of that line.” (493) The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is Suzanne Collins’s exploration of what happens when one doesn’t care about the right side of the line, especially when good is in danger of being usurped by evil.

It’s in the last pages that I finally find the gut punch, leaving me dazed. Coriolanus is smart. Arrogant. He believes himself exceptional. As a child, I was all of these things; you can draw some weird conclusions from praise and success stories. While I didn’t grow up to be the tyrannical leader of a country that sacrifices children, there is a frightened part of me that recognizes the desire to be in control, to be perfect, to save myself first. I didn’t grow up to be an abjectly horrible person, so what nudged me, over the years, to be more open minded, to be kinder, to lick my wounds and learn from mistakes and try to do better next time?

I don’t have to look far to see people operating with an open lack of empathy and every bad trait I could have exemplified. Every terrible, miserable, alternate-reality version of me.

If someone had known how to tap into my deepest, unspoken fears and offered me everything I wanted, would I have taken their hand?

There it is. Suzanne’s Collins knack for drawing us into the actions of others, and reminding us that the filter of entertainment is no excuse. We must constantly, consistently ask if we are complicit. And we must keep choosing to be on the right side of the line.

G – Bb – A – D.


Hallie Tibbetts works in children’s publishing, editing books for all ages. She has a love of adventure, travel, interesting food, and dinosaurs (preferably all at once). She is one of the founders of Narrate Conferences, the presenting organization behind Sirens, and has served in various roles, including conference chair and programming coordinator. On occasion, she tweets: @hallietibbetts

Summer Nights with Amanda Hudson

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! Today, we welcome a book list from Amanda Hudson on summer vibes and escapist reading.

Now that it’s summer, I’m longing for vacation and daydreaming about setting off on an adventure with friends. Given the state of the world, I can’t exactly turn on my out-of-office response, pack my bags, and leave town on a spectacular summer trip. What I can do is pour myself a cup of tea, snuggle down in my PJs, and crack open one of the dozen books sitting on my bookshelf.

If you, like me, are craving that summer vibe and an escape from the here and now, then I’ve got a book list for you. Not everyone is looking for the same summer experience, so pick the mood you’re craving below.

A Walk Through the Woods

Silver in the Woods

Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh

This queer Green Man myth retelling is beautifully written and is perfect if you’re looking to walk into the woods, risking unknown dangers for the beauty you find there. And if you fall head-over-heels in love, have no fear, the sequel Drowned Country is due out in August. At just over 100 pages, this novella is the perfect afternoon escape, although I’ll warn you that you might find yourself lingering in the world for days after you finish.

Road Trip!

The Summer of Mariposas

Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

This is a book about the bond of sisters. I don’t have sisters, so what drew me to this book was the promise of an Odysseus-like journey from Texas to Mexico with five sisters seeking to return the body of a dead man. I feel the need to admit that I was born and raised in central Texas, and so this book is on my list not only because it’s an epic road trip that makes me miss those too-hot Texas summers and the mischief of my past, but also because it takes place across lands I know well.

Wayward Son

Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell

Yes, this is a sequel to Carry On. If you liked Harry Potter, or even if you didn’t, but you like the sound of a chosen-one wizard who is bad at being the chosen one, and a snarky vampire roommate who wants to kill him, then jump on this series! That being said, if you wish you could get in your car and go on a classic American road trip, then Wayward Son is for you. Simon, Baz, and Penny are back and trouble keeps finding them as they speed across the American West with the top down (poor Baz) on their convertible.

Carefree Summer Nights

Night of Cake & Puppets

Night of Cake & Puppets by Laini Taylor

This novella is part of the Daughter of Smoke & Bone series but you don’t have to have read the series to be able to read this book. Here is where I admit that I have not read Daughter of Smoke & Bone. Sorry Amy. [Ed. note: Sirens co-chair Amy is also sorry!] I bought this book partly on recommendation of Sirens staff, and partly because the cover and book itself is delightfully bright pink and blue with artwork I loved. Then last fall I was having a rough day and I just wanted to pretend for a little while that I was completely carefree. This novella is the stand-alone story of a magically sweet first date. The book transported me to this feeling that anything was possible, and that taking a tiny risk would have a big reward. It made my heart swell with the potential of requited love. It made me smile into the palm of my hand and made my cheeks hurt with the sweetness of two kind of weird kids finding each other.

Taking to the High Seas

Seafire

Seafire by Natalie C. Parker

Caledonia is captain of an all-female pirate ship and she’s on a revenge mission. This book has friendship, romance, and tons of action. It’s a fast read that left me wanting to round up my best, most awesome friends, and captain a boat out into the open sea.

Dark Shores

Dark Shores by Danielle L. Jensen

Dark Shores introduces a new world with meddling gods and magic that blend so beautifully into the mysteries of the oceans. Teriana is blackmailed by rather Romanesque soldiers into helping them cross the “Endless Seas” so that they can conquer the East. In addition to the new world and magic system Jensen creates here, I have this book on the list because it made me feel like I was out on the open water with Teriana, and made me long to be back aboard a boat.

Traveling to Other Worlds

Furthermore

Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi

So far most of these books have been young adult or adult, but I’m including this middle grade book on the list because I read it back in 2017 and I still find myself thinking about its vibrant worlds years later. This is a book about a girl who has no color in a world where color is a currency and essentially magic. She goes on a quest with a boy who is not yet her friend to find her father who has disappeared. This book is about finding your value and it’s also about friendship. It’s a journey, and at its core, it reminds me of childhood summers spent with my friends, learning something about them and myself.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

January Scaller is a young girl left in the care of a rich white man while her father travels the world finding oddities to bring back to his boss. January finds a book that tells stories of magical doors to other worlds, and the tale of two people from different worlds who meet and fall in love. This portal fantasy took me all over the map. I thought I had it figured out at one point, and then it kept going. If you’re looking to go on a journey of emotions and wishing for a book that keeps you turning the page well after you should be asleep, dig right in to The Ten Thousand Doors of January.

Venturing to New Worlds

For some, nowhere on this planet is far enough away for the kind of voyage they’re looking for this summer. If that’s you, then let’s go to new worlds.

Dawn

Dawn by Octavia E. Butler

A friend of mine recommended this to me at a time when I didn’t think I liked science fiction. By the time I’d finished this book, I realized I was oh so wrong about the genre. The first in a trilogy, Dawn takes you far in the future to a spaceship with an alien race that at first seems completely foreign and new. I put this book on this list because Dawn stretched my imagination in ways that were not always comfortable, but I look back on it in the same way I look back on the part of vacation that at the time was ‘super intense’ but later is one of the best stories you can share. I find myself randomly thinking of this book sometimes just like I’ll randomly think of that time my car broke down on a tiny hardly-ever-used backroad in Costa Rica. Both make me smile. And both were summer adventures I won’t ever forget.

Binti

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

I’ll be honest, I’m recommending the whole trilogy really. They’re novellas, so you might as well get them all. Binti is the first of her people to be offered a spot at the best university in the galaxy. Going away to this university is a big deal for so many reasons, and Binti struggles to hold on to her customs and stay connected with her family while tackling higher education. At its heart, this is a classic story of venturing away from home for the first time and finding out who you are in the process. The trilogy is on this list because it’s a rich tapestry of African culture blended with science fiction that takes the reader on a trip that feels familiar but new.


 

Amanda Hudson

Amanda Hudson drinks far too much black tea and is frequently caught carrying at least one book in her purse. In past lives, she practiced law in Texas and was a lore master for a video game developer in Sweden. When not reading or writing fantasy, Amanda is usually lifting weights, practicing yoga, or trying to con her friends into playing just one more board game with her.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

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 review from Chelsea Cleveland on The Power by Naomi Alderman.

The Power

There is a certain type of book that I call a “chicken noodle soup” book. It’s a delicious escape; a beautiful little world that you want to return to when you catch a cold or a wave of homesickness. From a quick glance at the book flap, you might think Naomi Alderman’s The Power is that sort of title. It is not. But—in an entirely different way—it’s just as nourishing of a read.

Alderman’s latest comes out of the gate with a premise fit for any YA blockbuster. Something strange is happening, not just here, but around the globe. At first, it just seems like a rumor. A mad internet fad. Videos edited with special effects. But it isn’t long before the truth becomes impossible to ignore. More and more young women are developing a remarkable new power: an ability to generate electrical charges. And they’re not just creating electricity. They’re learning to use it.

We see the resulting shifts in the social and political landscape primarily through the eyes of four characters: Roxy, the illegitimate child of a UK crime boss and one of the first few to experience the power; Margot, a midwestern mayor and the mother of a teenage daughter with a secret; Tunde, a Nigerian college student who documents the growing turmoil from behind the lens of a camera; and Allie, a young woman who receives guidance from a voice in her head.

While the plot centers around these four individuals, the real story—and truly the most fascinating part of the book—is the author’s exploration of power and gender.

With the simple twist of giving women the ability to create electricity with their hands, Alderman overturns a key differentiator between men and women: physical power. And this one change affects everything.

I don’t want to say too much more about what happens. It’s best if you discover it yourself. I will say that while this isn’t the first title I’ve come across where supernatural abilities were attributed to one gender, I have never seen it done with such gut-punching impact or specificity. It’s a specificity that actually makes me think of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

There’s no denying Atwood’s influence on The Power. Even if you didn’t know Atwood and Alderman had been paired though a mentorship program, the literary giant’s book blurb—a cheeky “Electrifying!”—is prominently displayed on the novel’s cover. I was particularly reminded of The Handmaid’s Tale in a couple of ways: the intimacy of the book’s setting (a breath away from present day) and the manner in which the most shocking fictional events were clearly and purposefully inspired by things that have really happened. It’s something Atwood has talked about as a guiding principle and as a reader, you can feel how the truth in these details gives a speculative work a terrifying sense of realism.

The Power is not a title that I would recommend anyone turn to for comfort. On the contrary, it’s at once foreign and yet unsettlingly all-too familiar. Instead of finding myself reading straight through until sunrise as I often do, this was a book that I frequently closed, put aside, and contemplated. It’s a book with ideas that inspire discussions and debates outside the context of the characters and events. It’s intriguing and conceptually satiating. Rather than chicken noodle soup, I’d call it something else. Maybe quinoa or kale. It’s a nutrient-rich brain food that sticks with you and keeps you thinking things over long after the last pages have been turned.


Chelsea Cleveland is a Seattle-based marketer and copywriter. She has particular experience in the fields of books, design, travel, and technology. Her other passions include standing on tall things, feeding animals (human and otherwise), collecting art supplies, and discussing movies. She writes short stories, largely because it’s very difficult to finish long ones.

Hearing the Siren Call in Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water

Each month, Sirens co-chair Amy Tenbrink reviews new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors—and occasionally invites other members of the Sirens community to do so. You can find all of these reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We hope you’ll read along and discuss!

This month, Faye Bi reviews Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water!

To my fellow Sirens,

It’s not a surprise to any of you that I claim the act of reading as revolutionary.

We know that reading is more than literacy and comprehension. We know that it’s about stories. Who tells them, who gets paid to tell them, and who can make a living off telling them. Whose books get more promotional budget online and off, whose books get placed front and center at bookstores and libraries, whose books get taught in schools instead of being outside reading, and whose books get revered as “great literature.” This discussion is not new to us. But you might be wondering, what can I do? I can’t singlehandedly force all these institutions and corporations to reckon with their racist, sexist, colonialist pasts.

But there is a lot we can do. So much we can do. While I am furious and dismayed on a daily basis, I control one realm entirely: Me. What I choose to read. What I choose to review. What I choose to recommend. What books I choose to buy and where I choose to buy them. And I know—like I hope you all do—that reading critically is an act of resistance.

And so, I am reviewing Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water for you, Sirens community. And I am reviewing it here, for Sirens, where I am not limited by wordcount or editing or pearl-clutching, and I can tell you exactly what I think.

A Song Below Water

A Song Below Water is set in Portland, featuring two Black teenage girls: Tavia, who is a siren, a group of magical people maligned for its association with Black women; and Effie, who plays Euphemia the Mer in the local Ren Faire and has a mysterious skin condition that is somehow linked to her childhood trauma. Effie currently lives with Tavia and her parents, and so the two are sisters, supporting and looking out for each other as they navigate family, school, life, secrets, and literal Black girl magic to save themselves.

To begin, Tavia’s siren identity is an elegant metaphor for being one of the most vulnerable in society. The book opens with a girl murdered by her boyfriend, and because of that girl’s suspected siren identity, her boyfriend will likely be acquitted. Because sirens are only Black women (but not all Black women are sirens), they are perceived as dangerous—and if you recall your lore, a siren’s voice can lure people into doing things against their will. That means sirens have incredible power, but because people fear Black women, sirens’ voices are literally stifled and silenced. There’s that girl on the reality show, for instance, who voluntarily uses a siren collar—designed to silence her voice and her power—to make others “feel safe” around her, and another Black girl, Naema, who wears one as a joke.

But can you imagine using a siren voice as a Black teenaged girl, when, say, the police pull you over?

Effie has her own grief to grapple with. She’s human as far as she knows despite her shedding skin, but she grew up without a father, and her only connection to her mother is that they both played mermaids at the local Ren Faire. Not only must she deal with the large gargoyle keeping watch over her and her grandparents’ continuing to keep family secrets from her, she’s known in the community as “Park Girl”—due to being the sole survivor of a mysterious attack when she was nine where all the other children were turned to stone. Now these “statues” are practically an attraction in a weird Portland tourist campaign, which underscores in a twisted way the variety of methods Black bodies are used for entertainment and how others trivialize her pain.

Morrow’s social critique is devastating, for all the reasons I detail above, but also because she lays out the emotional harm done by “well-meaning” allies, who are white, other races, and other magical identities.

An interesting foil for people of color or other marginalized groups is elokos—dwarf-like creatures who ring charismatic bells to lure human prey and then eat them. In Morrow’s world, elokos are a more socially accepted class of magical being, to the point that they hold political power, especially in Portland, which has attracted a significant eloko population because of that power. Tavia dates Priam, an eloko boy, before the start of the book, and in the best face-palming passage, she recounts the moment they broke up: when Priam bit her neck while kissing, and Tavia launched into an in-depth explanation on why that didn’t bother her despite eloko mythology. But on a more serious note, there are examples of Tavia and Effie at a police brutality protest with other honor students (of course, chaperoned by white parents!) that made me shiver and weep, and I could write an entire essay about Naema, another Black girl and also an eloko, who illustrates the trap of the model minority myth. Naema is especially fascinating as she is one of few outright villains on the page.

But besides pain and critique, there’s joy. Black joy. Tavia and Effie’s sister bond is strong and wonderful to read, and they are each other’s refuge when everyone else around them has failed them. Repeatedly. Not just allies, but also their families, other Black girls, and Black men. There’s a lovely scene at the climax of the book, where the two of them are in a mystical forest setting with lives on the line and literal chaos happening around them, and what do they do? Have a heart-to-heart about their emotional wellbeing.

Morrow brilliantly uses this mythos of sirens, gargoyles, elokos, sprites, mermaids, and magic to examine what it’s like to be a Black girl in America.

And with it, she seamlessly and ambitiously unpacks intersectionality, racism, sexism, police brutality, protesting, affirmative action, gentrification, education, beauty standards, and more. She calls out people who admire and consume Black culture but don’t see the pain of Black creators, and those who call themselves “woke” but are horrified and immobilized when their eyes are opened. I found the density of revelations to be necessarily challenging—and that effort allowed me to appreciate the skill involved in the telling. You know already that this book isn’t newly relevant in the summer of 2020, and that the protests, the pain, the violence, and the disenfranchisement of Black bodies and Black livelihood has been going on for a long, long time.

Tavia and Effie work together to save themselves because they have to. No one will do it for them. If you see parallels to Morrow’s sirens in your real life, I see your pain. I see it and am horrified, but I will do everything in my power so your voice can be heard, because you live these horrors daily. If you, like me, are not a Black girl, A Song Below Water is a call to action. There’s so much to do. Wherever you are on your journey to antiracism, this book is a part of it.

Let’s get to work.


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.

Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea Is a Work for Our Time

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

Sooner Or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea

Sometimes the right book finds you at the right time.

I purchased Sarah Pinsker’s Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea in April 2019. This will surprise none of you who are familiar with my particular reading predilections: Sooner or Later is a collection of speculative short stories, critically acclaimed, compared to the work of Kelly Link, repeatedly described as “weird.” If I were to read only three things the rest of my life they would be: fantasy/literary crossovers, young-adult high fantasy, and speculative short story collections described as “weird.”

However.

My to-be-read pile being what it is, and the Sirens bookstore stocking process being what it is, I put Sooner or Later on a shelf and there it sat for over a year. This is not an unusual occurrence, regardless that it is a sometimes regrettable occurrence.

I unearthed—not an egregious exaggeration—Sooner or Later in March 2020, as we were compiling Sirens’s ginormous list of spectacular speculative queer works. Pinsker is queer and Sooner or Later was, by reputation, full of queer representation. Surprising precisely no one, I claimed Sooner or Later as one of the spectacular speculative queer works that I’d read and recommend. (Surely you are not surprised that at Sirens we quite happily presume spectacularness in works by women and nonbinary authors?)

Let’s pause there.

I certainly do not need to tell you that, in the interim, a few cases of COVID-19 have ballooned into a worldwide pandemic or that yet another Black man murdered by the police has sparked worldwide protests. The world feels more dangerous, perhaps, than it did a few months ago, and more fragile. A world where you must choose between maintaining your quarantine and begging for justice. Like many of you, I am not immune from anxiety, despair, rage, or surprise sobbing. There is a certain isolation, a certain desolation, that comes with this dangerous, fragile new world.

And into this desolation comes Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea.

Pinsker’s masterwork—and it is a masterwork—thrives on desolation, nurtures it, consumes it.

She has, with great care, woven the inescapable misery of isolation into thread that binds both her craft and your reading experience. Her stories are lonely, yearning, destructive, elegiac. Her collection is loss made tangible, in ink and paper.

Sooner or Later opens with “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide.” A man has just lost an arm in a farming accident and, before he wakes, his parents authorize the hospital to attach a cutting-edge prosthetic: a metal claw of an appendage with a corresponding chip in the brain. The man wakes and soon discovers that his new arm believes itself to be 97 kilometers of road in eastern Colorado, a fiercely bleak stretch of the United States that looks at distant mountains. The man can see this stretch of highway through the wonder of his arm—and it intersects with his own feelings of love and loss. When his chip malfunctions and the hospital replaces it, his arm no longer yearns for eastern Colorado—and the man feels the surprising ache of that loss as well.

“A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide” is Pinsker at her best: impossible worlds that nevertheless clearly and incisively reflect our own humanity. I have driven 97 kilometers of barren two-lane highway in eastern Colorado. It is a road that looks like a road trip: sky-high speeds, desert winds, a visible goal in the distant mountains. I, too, feel the ache of that man’s arm, even while my brain marvels at the craft necessary to build this desolation into a computer chip, a metal arm, a man comprised of parts.

Pinsker’s stories unwind from there: a post-apocalyptic survivalist waiting, waiting, waiting for her wife to find her; an elderly woman suddenly recalling the single moment that changed her husband from a dreamer to someone lost; a touring band in a vast Midwest where people fear congregating with strangers. Each captures incarnations of that same two-lane highway desolation: a wistfulness, a single-minded determination even in the face of disaster, a sudden wondering of what might have been. If only…

Pinsker’s collection isn’t easy, especially in a moment when we’re all feeling desolate, emotional, raw. You might want to save this for a sunnier day, a happier time, when your heart isn’t quite so breakable. But if you’re ready to, as I tell my niece we eventually must, feel your feelings, Pinsker’s collection is a work for our time.


Amy TenbrinkBy 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 Sirens and reads over a hundred books a year. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

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.

Two Perspectives on Heists, Hippos, and the Harriet

In honor of Sarah Gailey’s Guest of Honor week at Sirens, today not one, but two members of the Sirens Review Squad tackle American Hippo, the collection volume that includes novellas River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow, as well as two shorter works. The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers who submit reviews of speculative works by women or nonbinary authors that they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review, please email us!


River of Teeth

HALLIE TIBBETTS

Before I read River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey, I believed I knew the following facts about hippos:

  1. There is a hippo named Fiona, who lives in a zoo somewhere, that people like a lot.

  2. Hippos eat a lot and poop a lot. In fact, they are champion poopers and thus need quite a bit of personal space.

  3. Hippos can’t jump.

  4. Hippos can kill people if you bother them. If you are farming reeds and pomegranates for the pharaoh, they might kill you even if you don’t bother them, because they’re upset that you’re not sharing or something. (I learned this from a video game.)

  5. There is a game called Hungry Hungry Hippos. Perhaps you have played it.

  6. Pretending you are playing Hungry Hungry Hippos is one way to complete a chore commonly known as “vacuuming.”

The idea for River of Teeth comes from a little-known but verifiable fact: At one time, the United States needed meat and considered hippo ranching in Louisiana. Yes, raising those dangerous, enormous beasts to grace our plates. Imagine it: a hippopotamus porterhouse with all the sides. Some of the largest beef porterhouses are 40 ounces, or 1.134 kilograms for the metric folks. Now, all things won’t be equal, but if an average steer weighs about 750 pounds (340 kg), and an average male hippo weighs about 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg), your server would be bringing you a porterhouse coming in just under 11 pounds, or about 5 kilograms. So of course this incredible excess might have seemed like an excellent enterprise to carnivorous folk.

In the end, the hippo did not enter the pantheon of sounds we make during a rousing performance of “Old MacDonald.”

But River of Teeth imagines they did—and that some hippos escaped their fate to infest part of the lower Mississippi, and went feral between the boundary of an upstream dam and a downstream gate. Our story begins when a group of hoppers—think cowhand, perhaps a term for anyone who can ride a domesticated hippo—is tasked by leader Winslow Houndstooth, who’s been contracted by the federal government, to get the feral hippos past the confining gate and out into the Gulf.

And this (very diverse) group of hoppers is wild. They’ve got skills ranging from thievery to explosives to murder. There is absolutely no question about the grayness of these morally gray characters, and nearly all whom they meet, as they lie, cheat, con, and otherwise go about the business of a feral hippo drive. (There will be violence, and it will be explicit.) It’s refreshing to encounter intriguing characters who are more intense and complicated than lovable rogues with hearts of gold, but who act in ways consistent and logical.

Another delightful aspect of River of Teeth is its specific way of incorporating history. There’s a sense of the stretch pre- and post-Civil War when this could have happened, and enough details for the reader to fill in the worldbuilding without overexplaining in this novella. Of course there would be steamboats hosting gamblers in hippo-infested waters; of course your local watering hole would need an actual watering hole for hippo storage instead of a hitching post.

Finally, this fast-paced read stands alone, but leads into a related novella and short stories—and no spoilers, but if you’re the sort of reader who, like me, ever enjoyed letting Godzilla loose in SimCity and is entertained by the speculative destruction in movies like Volcano (1997) or San Andreas (2015), there is satisfying chaos in store.

With hippos.


KAREN BAILEY

Sarah Gailey’s American Hippo gathers all of their stories (two novellas and two short stories) about an alternate version of the American West where hippo ranches line rivers and feral hippos roam the Mississippi River.

These stories are quirky, violent capers with a dangerous cast of characters—and that is just talking about the hippos!

The stories are based around the real proposition made in 1910 to import hippopotamuses from Africa to the Gulf Coast of the United States and raise them as a source of meat. While in reality, the scheme never came to fruition, Gailey moved the beginnings of the scheme back to 1857 and set their stories in the late 1800s. In this alternate history, the United States government dammed up a section of the Mississippi River in Louisiana to create more land for hippo ranching. Eventually, this section of the river, known as the “Harriet,” transformed itself from orderly hippo ranches to dangerous real estate filled with feral hippos and unsavory people.

It is in this world that Gailey’s work takes place. The first novella, River of Teeth, introduces Winslow Remington Houndstooth (with hippo Ruby). He is a former hippo rancher-turned-thief, who has accepted a commission from the United States government to rid the Harriet of the feral hippos. He gathers together demolitions expert Hero Shackleby (with hippo Abigail), con artist Regina “Archie” Archambault (with hippo Rosa), and mercenary Adelia Reyes (with hippos Zahra and Stasia). On the surface, this seems like an odd combination of people to gather to rid an area of feral hippos. However, ridding the Harriet of feral hippos is not Houndstooth’s only objective; rather, he plans to use the commission to strike a blow at corrupt businessman Travers. Travers runs a series of riverboats and he rules those with absolute authority: If you are caught cheating, you will be immediately thrown to the feral hippos in the river. We also find out that Travers had Houndstooth’s hippo ranch burned down, leaving him with nothing but debt and one baby hippo.

River of Teeth is a fast-paced, fun, and gory heist story with a twist of revenge.

There is a fair amount of violence and not just from encounters with feral hippos. Houndstooth and company are all willing to do whatever they have to do to protect themselves. It is fascinating to see their relationships grow through the story. While Hero, Archie, and Adelia originally agree to join Houndstooth’s crew for mostly monetary reasons, their focus changes throughout the story and that change is one of the most satisfying aspects of Gailey’s work. The ending of River of Teeth wraps up enough to feel finished, but also leaves the door open for the next installment.

Taste of Marrow, the second novella of the collection, deals with the aftermath of the events in River of Teeth and has a much more somber feel. The group has been separated. Adelia and Hero are dealing with the aftermath of Hero’s injuries, the birth of Adelia’s daughter, and the bounty on Adelia’s head. Houndstooth is desperately trying to find Hero, while Archie is trying to keep Houndstooth alive and preferably clear-headed. This story shows a different view of the characters. While they were focused on money and revenge in the first story, now they are focused on reuniting with each other and eliminating the obstacles that prevent that reunion. It’s a messy, difficult journey that shows the challenges they face to continue to grow into a family. It’s hard for a bunch of people who are borderline criminals to have a relaxing retirement, but the ending does hint that this might be possible.

The two short stories included in American Hippo are much more light-hearted than either River of Teeth or Taste of Marrow, and expand on two incidents that are mentioned in the novellas. In “Worth Her Weight in Gold,” Houndstooth’s baby hippo has grown up into his mount Ruby. She is an ornery, vain hippo who would just as soon chomp on you as look at you, but she loves Houndstooth and he loves her. However, when he is on a job, Houndstooth isn’t always as careful about Ruby’s tooth care as he should be. It is a quick read, but it shows just how much Houndstooth loves Ruby and exactly what he will give up for her health and happiness. It also gives us a close-up view of Ruby’s personality, which is a delightful mix of charm and chomping.

“Nine and a Half” tells the story of a job that Houndstooth and Archie pull together when they meet U.S. Marshal Gran Carter. It also answers the ongoing question of how many times Archie has saved Houndstooth—or does it? This story ends with an excellent escape scene, which is a fun glimpse into the more ridiculous side of Archie and Houndstooth.

American Hippo offers an alternate historical world with fast-paced action and complex characters. The hippos are an excellent addition to the story, showing a variety of personalities from calm and placid to high-strung and energetic. They provide a way for their owners to show their humanity because the people are a fascinating mix of characters, none of whom could be classified as actually “good” people. However, they are charismatic and complicated, loving to friends and devoted to their hippos, and they will cheerfully steal the ring from your finger if it will help them. I love the fact that it is based in a real proposition and plays with a might have been. I love the variety of personalities and motivations, but mostly, I love the fact that the hippos get a story where they can be as sweet and brutal as they are in real life.


When she is not wrangling students (and co-workers) for a music non-profit, Karen Bailey can often be found working on completing the Sirens Reading Challenge. She also keeps busy with quilting, crocheting, and paper-crafts.

Hallie Tibbetts works in children’s publishing, editing books for all ages. She has a love of adventure, travel, interesting food, and dinosaurs (preferably all at once). She is one of the founders of Narrate Conferences, the presenting organization behind Sirens, and has served in various roles, including conference chair and programming coordinator.

We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry

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

We Ride Upon Sticks

In the fall of 1989, I was not a senior in high school, but in my last year of junior high. I didn’t live in coastal Massachusetts, but in western Michigan. I didn’t play field hockey, but rather softball and volleyball—and a year later I starting running cross-country and track.

These differences between me and the girls of We Ride Upon Sticks are, however, mere details in the grander scheme of things. Because Quan Barry seemingly wrote this book for me.

As We Ride Upon Sticks opens, it is, indeed, just about the fall of 1989. The girls—and one boy—of the Danvers Falcons women’s varsity field hockey team are utterly terrible. So terrible that, at sports camp, they make a pact with the devil: a devil that, in Barry’s endlessly hilarious work, is embodied by a notebook with Emilio Estevez on the cover. Tired of losing games, and with all the vagueness of people who haven’t yet learned the necessity of precision, the players ambiguously commit themselves to the devil in exchange for a winning field hockey season.

The Salem witch trials loom large in We Ride Upon Sticks, and not only in the title’s witchy, pithy reference.

In 1692, Danvers was known as Salem Village, just down the road from the more affluent Salem Town (now known as just Salem, home of the famed witch museum and annual Halloween celebration). The original accusers were residents of Salem Village, and the what and who and why of the witch trials is steeped into the Danvers Falcons women’s varsity field hockey team from birth. It’s no coincidence that, when the girls look to the supernatural for help on the field, they turn, as their forebears allegedly did, to the devil. But the critical themes of the Salem witch trials—discussions of power and expectations and conformance—are threaded through We Ride Upon Sticks as well.

Barry’s work is structured around the 1989 field hockey season, from summer camp to the state championships, with a brief epilogue decades later. The story arc is nominally that field hockey season—and how, to maintain their success, the girls must perform increasingly bad acts to sate Emilio. Things start small—a lie, a cheat, a prank—and escalate over the course of the book as the girls attempt to reap the continued success of their bargain.

But this book is about so much more than a notebook with Emilio Estevez on the cover. The narration—cleverly crafted as first-person plural, simultaneously committing to the team collective and bringing the reader along for the ride—jumps from one game to the next, and from one player to the next, without losing the forward momentum of the story. We start with Mel, who is the first to strike a bargain with Emilio, and her suddenly magnificent goalkeeping at summer camp. As the team improves, we meet co-captains Abby Putnam (descendant of a Salem accuser) and Jen Fiorenza (whose bleached and hairsprayed bangs, called the “Claw” by both the book and the team, has a mind of its own). We learn about Girl Cory, who has a stalker, and Boy Cory, who is queer, and Becca, who has very large breasts and all the issues that come with them, and adopted Julie, who now wants to be called Julie Minh to represent her heritage. We spend time with all of these players and more, with their insecurities and unhappinesses, their goals and skills, their families and frustrations.

And that’s the thing about We Ride Upon Sticks: The girls perform bad acts to placate the devil, and while the book is initially sympathetic to the framing of those acts as bad, that frame gradually shifts—even as the magnitude of the acts escalates—until things that were initially “bad,” things girls “shouldn’t” do, instead become acts of self-affirmation.

The relentless feminism of We Ride Upon Sticks is the inexorable recasting of societal transgressions as undeniable reclamations.

Emilio, it seems, doesn’t want you to be bad; he wants you to be you.

Assuming, of course, that Emilio is the devil in the first place. We Ride Upon Sticks never quite answers if the Danvers Falcons women’s varsity field hockey team has actually made a deal with the devil or if, instead, their collective belief supports the notion that they need to be “bad”—and that their societally-imposed construction of “bad” ultimately leads them to a place of self-discovery. But in the end, do we really need to know? The thrust of We Ride Upon Sticks isn’t any of these girls’ relationship with the purported devil, not in any significant way. The thrust is their personal journeys toward independence and freedom.

In 1989, I was in eighth grade. I lived a small town. I was an athlete on a series of mostly terrible teams. We Ride Upon Sticks was true for me, with all the force of nostalgia. Despite that the age is slightly different, the towns are half a country away, and these girls played one of the only sports I never did, these girls’ experiences are my experiences. Barry reconstructs my early 1990s youth, with its two-a-day workouts and Kool-Aid hair dye and lacey prom dresses, with its endless rules and “good girl” notions and inequalities, through a 2020 feminist lens. And she does so incisively, seemingly effortlessly, with a number of epiphanies along the way.

But that doesn’t mean that We Ride Upon Sticks works only for sports girls from small towns who are currently fortyish. We Ride Upon Sticks is two things: First, terrific fun. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, and not only for those who get the in-jokes and the cultural references. Barry’s insight is acute and she uses that to tremendous, hilarious effect. Second, it’s uncompromising in its feminism, in finding a feminist story through a thirty-years-later lens. Barry’s insight serves her—and the reader—here as well, as you relive an earlier time through the contemporary analytic eye of someone who really, really gets it.

This is the best book I’ve read so far in 2020. And I’ve already read over 100.


Amy TenbrinkBy 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 Sirens 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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