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Book Club: The Memory Trees by Kali Wallace

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

The Memory Trees

Once upon a time, the Sirens theme was “hauntings.” And there were ghosts and spirits and things that go bump in the night. We all read The Haunting of Hill House. We all talked for days about how, for more than a century, women disguised women’s issues as phantoms and shadows and slowly creaking doors. We all learned an awful lot about that liminal space where fantasy meets horror.

But that year, the aspect of “hauntings” that spoke to me was never the ghosts or the spirits or the bump-in-the-night things. Like everyone else, I did read The Haunting of Hill House. I did delve into its use of a supernatural manifestation as a proxy for Eleanor’s boundless mommy issues. I did marvel at Shirley Jackson’s cleverness and defiance. But I also failed to, as Edith Wharton might demand, meet Ms. Jackson “halfway among the primeval shadows”—and I couldn’t figure out why the book was supposed to be scary. After all, aren’t we all used to being undermined, shamed, ordered about? Even if by people who are perhaps more tangible? Is this because I read Hill House in a hotel room in Manhattan? Don’t @ me.

Rather, the part of the “hauntings” theme that resonated with me was the idea of being haunted by something somewhat less spectral: A family rift. A mistake made. A memory half-remembered. And then binding that up in a fantasy world, where magic is yet another, perhaps more limitless, opportunity to explore our more human connections. Such as in Redwood and Wildfire, where there are ghosts, yes, but where Redwood’s haunting is far more profoundly about overcoming her family’s history with slavery and lynching. Or in The Monsters of Templeton, which also did include ghosts, just a bit, but was really about trying to go home again and the roiling, barely-hidden monstrousness that you might find there.

Thus, why I chose to read The Memory Trees by Kali Wallace—and why I think it’s one of the best examples of both a non-ghost hauntings book, but also a fantasy book where the magic and the impossible provide another avenue of exploration. Let me tell you about it.

Sorrow Lovegood lives in Miami with her father and her step-family. But Sorrow has lived there only half her life: She spent her first eight years living with her mother in the matriarchal Lovegood family apple orchard in Vermont … until something terrible happened, something that Sorrow can’t remember, and she ended up in Miami. She has not been to Vermont, or seen her mother or maternal grandmother, since.

Sorrow is a fascinatingly unreliable narrator. Her memories of her first eight years are hazy at best, blank spaces or even false at worst, presumably rendered by the terrible event that precipitated Sorrow’s move to Florida. Even better, Sorrow knows she’s an unreliable narrator. (And even better than that, Wallace avoids the trap of having her heroine, in the fog of her memory, focus single-mindedly on her frustration for several hundred pages.) Sorrow’s unreliability allows, neatly, for both a first-person point-of-view and a mystery to be solved.

Sorrow, driven by her muddled memory, suddenly demands to return to Vermont, to the apple orchard, to the mother and grandmother she hasn’t seen in half her lifetime. And thus, the book truly begins.

Wallace quite cleverly sets, and then frequently twists, the tone of Sorrow’s time in Vermont. Sorrow’s hometown is much like many small American towns, and Sorrow’s return in summer plays, deliberately, on readers’ (presumably) nostalgic memories of their own (presumably) happy vacations in similar towns. But, despite the tourists and the ice cream and the annual town play (focused both hilariously and horrifically on the generations-long feud between the Lovegoods and their neighbors), Sorrow’s time in Vermont is most certainly not a vacation. The more time she spends there, the more she remembers: the orchard’s sometimes uncanny intricacies, the often shocking family history, how suffocating a small town can be—especially when your family is just a bit different. Memory, you can almost hear Wallace assert—perhaps smugly as the reader attempts to deconstruct what is on the page from what their own brains have oh-so-unhelpfully supplied—is a powerful tool.

Much like in The Monsters of Templeton, Wallace sets most of her book in the present, but some of it in the past. Chapters are dedicated to the history of Sorrow’s family, from the point of view of her female ancestors who founded and then held the orchard against the neighboring family’s onslaught). These chapters give the reader insight into the history of Sorrow’s family—and equally importantly, the orchard itself—even as Sorrow begins to (re)learn her own.

In the end, both Sorrow and the reader learn what happened eight years ago, and without spoiling too much, the true lens of the mystery, of Sorrow’s missing memory, of the struggles of her family, both past and present, is grief. Over the course of the book, as she learns pieces of her memory that she has lost and then found, Sorrow’s heart shatters again and again.

The Memory Trees is, in turn, going to shatter your heart. It’s a harrowing portrait of grief, loss, and the very best of what a hauntings book can be—even sans ghosts.

Amy
 


Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and eight years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

Read Along with Faye: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Each year, Communications Director Faye Bi attempts to read the requisite 25 books to complete the Sirens Reading Challenge. In 2018, a Reunion year, she’ll be reading books from the past four years’ themes: hauntings, revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. If you’d like some structure—or company—on your own reading goals, we invite you to read along!

Matilda at age nine. The Protector of the Small series at ages 12–14. Daughter of Smoke and Bone at 22.

These are landmark books for me, books that I found at exactly the right time in my life, that now comprise my reading identity. At each of these moments, they were definitive—formative, even. They represented not just what I liked to read, but what I looked for thereon after. At nine, I wanted witty, plucky heroines who were whip-smart and got revenge on mean people who didn’t understand or care about them. In my early teen years, I wanted strength against bullies, deep friendships and family relationships, and a strong ethical core in my protagonists. When I had just graduated college, I was unsure about pretty much everything—as an ambitious person who didn’t know what the next chapter held, I wanted beauty, magic, and a feeling of wonder, even if it was beyond my control. I still love all these books like I love my limbs.

These days, I have a full-time job, a spouse, and a dog. I have bills to pay, white supremacy to dismantle, and patriarchy to smash. My time is limited; between sharing (and negotiating sharing) household management, working, keeping up with our social calendar, and planning for the future, gone are the days when I could read 100 books a year. So, there are books I no longer pick up if I don’t have to: books by men or unwoke white women, books that are super sad or pretentious, or books that do the same-old, same-old.

Carmen Maria Machado’s short story collection Her Body and Other Parties is brazenly none of those things. The stories are punch-you-in-the-face, unabashedly feminist. Darkly hilarious. Sex-positive. Queer. Smart as hell. More often than not, brutal. Her protagonists are easy for me empathize with and to cheer for. The stories, as I suspect Machado does too as in “The Resident,” know exactly what they are and do not have the time—or patience—to beat around the bush.

Having just turned 30, I consider Her Body and Other Parties a new landmark book.

I could wax poetic about several of the stories, and indeed, I will be presenting a paper at Sirens on “The Husband Stitch,” so I’ll be brief here. I read it, then made my husband read it, and then waited until my (male) friend visiting for cocktails also read it. The symbolism, voice, literary and cultural references, raw emotion, and agony of truth made it one of the best stories I’ve ever read. “Inventory,” a catalog of the narrator’s sexual encounters set against the backdrop of a zombie apocalypse, was so clever and tender I could only bow my head in awe.

Over and over again, Machado addresses the fears, insecurities, and horrors women and queer people often have. In “Motherhood,” a woman’s female ex-lover confronts her with a baby they’ve conceived, possibly out of their imagination. In “Real Women Have Bodies,” Machado creates a world where a pandemic renders no-longer-young-and-beautiful women invisible. (This one hit me like a metaphorical ton of bricks.) “Eight Bites” made me weep; as someone whose friends are starting to have babies, I can see just how fragile and toxic it can be to pass on your own self-loathing to your daughters. In “Difficult at Parties,” a young woman turns to pornography to cope and heal after her sexual assault. The only slight misstep, for me, was “Especially Heinous,” the Law and Order: SVU parody, which was funny after a few pages but went on a bit too long after that.

There’s too much to unpack in the confines of one review—each story deserves its own paper. There could be the running thread of gaslighting, body image, the female realm of domesticity, the influences of fairytale and folklore, or the grand tradition of ghost stories handed down by Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter. For women and queer people, the fears in Her Body and Other Parties are a day-to-day reality, and Machado’s stories give them validity, truth, and wings. Of her collection, Machado said in a previous interview, “I think of it as surreal, liminal horror about being a woman or a queer person in the world.” For men, shut up. Listen. Believe us.

Next month’s book: The Case of the Missing Moonstone by Jordan Stratford, illustrated by Kelly Murphy


Faye Bi is a book-publishing professional based in New York City, and leads the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.

 

Sirens Review Squad: From Unseen Fire by Cass Morris

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we welcome a review from Manda Lewis on Cass Morris’s From Unseen Fire.

From Unseen Fire

I’m not saying that while finishing Cass Morris’s From Unseen Fire that I donned a toga and took my meals lounging on a couch (chairs are so old-fashioned!), but I’m not saying that I didn’t either. I think those who know me know which is most likely.

At its heart, From Unseen Fire is a story about a woman discovering the depths of her own power, while overcoming abuse and repression to forge a new path instead filled with purpose and love. This is the story of Latona of the Vitelliae. Latona, a mage in the city of Aven who has spent years in the court of a vicious dictator, has traded her body for the protection of her family. When that dictator dies, she is free of his maltreatment and manipulation. Can she settle back into a loveless marriage of convenience and into the life of a noblewoman, supporting the political aspirations of her father, brother, and husband? It seems that the Goddesses who have blessed her with Spirit and Fire magic have other plans for her. Latona’s long repressed magic starts to manifest more powerfully, and with it, the drive to help her city and its citizens.

There were many things I enjoyed about Morris’s debut novel, which is part historical fiction and part fantastic re-imagining of a Romanesque republic. Aven is in a state of flux, as exiled leaders race back to the city in the wake of the dictator’s death. The Aventan society will have to weather rebellion, the threat of war, and political power struggles between several factions as it recovers from the terror under which it was living. I was easily pulled into the world with her rich descriptions of the city, its people, the architecture, the food, and even the fabric! Morris’s historical research shines through when showing us Latona’s day-to-day life, along with her family and several other power players in the republic.

Mostly, I was taken with the relationships between these players and how they affected the city. I enjoyed seeing Latona’s devotion to her two sisters and the interplay between them, as well as her new friendship with Sempronius Tarren, a recently returned senator who has his sights set on a praetorship and military power. In regards to Latona’s newfound power, Morris does a great job contrasting the support from Sempronius, her sisters, and the high priestess at the temple of Venus against the objections of her father, her husband, and the restraints of their society. I found myself asking: to whom will Latona acquiesce, and more importantly, will she follow her own heart?

I must admit, I did stumble a bit over the names of the many characters while reading, which sometimes meant I had to go backwards to remind myself who was whom. This made the early part of the book a little slow-going. Midway, I switched to the audiobook version, which helped me a lot with the pronunciations and keeping the characters straight. That said, their complexity lent to the historic authenticity and the Romanesque feel of the entire culture.

From Unseen Fire gives us an intriguing beginning to Aven Cycle, and Morris has much more to tell us in future novels. I look forward to seeing how Latona evolves and grows, both in her strength of magic and strength of character. I hope that we will see more of her working with the Aven people of different classes as she carves her place in the world; I also hope to see more of Sempronius, and how war and his growing relationship with Latona changes him. Then, the biggest question: will they do what they must to secure a prosperous future for Aven, or will it fall to ruin?


Manda Lewis holds a BS degree in aerospace engineering and a Masters of Tourism Administration, and served in the Air Force for seven years. She currently works for a children’s museum in Raleigh, North Carolina, hosting after-hours special events. She is also the caretaker of two small humans who look like her and often have dragon tea parties. Manda has always made it a habit to draw, color, and doodle on just about everything within reach and loves themes far more than anyone really should. Manda has been a volunteer for Phoenix Rising, Terminus, and Sirens for the last ten years.

 

Sirens Review Squad: When the Moon was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, in honor of Anna-Marie McLemore’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from B R Sanders on Anna-Marie McLemore’s When the Moon was Ours.

When the Moon was Ours

When Miel was five, she poured out of the water of the town’s felled water tower. Sam was the first person to talk to her, and the two of them have been inseparable ever since. Miel, her hem perpetually damp with water from nowhere, grows inexplicable roses from her wrist and lives with Aracely, who cures the town’s citizens of lovesickness. Meanwhile, Sam works the Bonners’ pumpkin patch and wrestles with his gender day in and day out. When the Bonners’ pumpkins start turning into glass, and the Bonner sisters turn their sights on Miel’s roses, Miel and Sam are faced with hard choices and harder truths.

If the description above doesn’t get you interested in reading When the Moon was Ours, then maybe this will: I love this book, and I really think you should read it. It is exactly, precisely, the kind of book I wish I could hand to a younger version of myself. It has not one, but two of the most sensitive and nuanced portrayals of trans people that I’ve read in a long, long time. I took this book slow; I luxuriated in it like you do a hot bath. I didn’t want it to end. As an AFAB (assigned female at birth) non-binary person, the depiction of Sam, especially, read so true that sometimes it made me tender and raw.

At the heart of the book is a rich depiction of small-town America, but that small town is diverse. There are people of color in that small town. There are people with disabilities in that small town. There are queer people in that small town. And there are transgender people in that small town. Just like in the small town where I grew up, where, yes, people were queer even though it was in Texas. My town was a mix of brown and black and white and Asian. It was poor, and with that came a bevy of people living with disabilities. McLemore weaves a story about surviving and eventually thriving in a small town that felt real and true and authentic.

McLemore is a gifted writer. Virtually every character is full of life. The town itself is a character, something living and breathing, a place at once constraining and comforting. This is an essentially character-driven book: one thread of the story hinges on Miel’s need to uncover her past and how it informs her future. Another thread is the Sam’s acceptance of his own gender identity. McLemore writes both characters’ arcs beautifully.

All books have a weakness. When the Moon was Ours suffers from an overstuffed and meandering plot. At times, the plot feels absolutely crucial to Miel and Sam’s self-discoveries, but at other times, the plot feels divorced and separate from them. McLemore is bursting with ideas here, and the world she builds is alive with texture, but there is, perhaps, too much texture. It is entirely possible that she could have had one book of just Sam, Miel, and Aracely coming to grips with each other, and entirely separate (and incredibly creepy) book of the Bonner sisters and their weird coffin and glass pumpkins. There are so many good ideas and flourishes here that some get crowded out. Some are not given the space to breathe and develop. This is a book that either needed to be bigger and longer and even more intricate, or sharper and smaller and more precise. But When the Moon was Ours, as it exists, is still extraordinary and well worth a read.

If you’re in the mood for a rambling witchy story of two teenagers shambling towards themselves and love and happiness, you should definitely check out When the Moon was Ours! This is a sweet and tender book I read months ago, and still think about nearly every day since I finished it.


B R Sanders is an award-winning genderqueer writer who lives and works in Denver, CO, with their family and two cats. B writes fantasy novels about queer elves and short fiction about dancing planets. They have attended Sirens in 2015, 2016, and 2017 (and hope to attend again in 2019). They love drinking coffee and sleeping. B tweets @b_r_sanders.

 

Book Club: The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden

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

The Prey of Gods

If you ask me, on any given day, which characteristics I admire in someone (but especially in a woman), ambition will always make my top three. I like people who dream big and bold and bright. I like people who think six impossible things before breakfast. I like people who try to change the world.

And what The Prey of Gods is, more than anything, is ambitious.

Nicky Drayden’s first novel is a science-fiction/fantasy mash-up, a living mythology, an AI fever dream, a breakneck romp to the brink of apocalypse that is also—improbably, shockingly—funny. Nicky Drayden dreamed big and bold and bright, y’all.

We’re in a near-future South Africa: Personal robots abound, the government has scaled renewable energy, genetic engineering is a coveted industry. Yet, vast class and identity striations still exist: Rural villages struggle with basic needs, those personal robots certainly aren’t a societal entitlement, and several of the characters struggle with acceptance of their sexuality or gender presentation. And beneath the surface roil surprising challenges: a new hallucinogen, a sentient AI uprising, and a living goddess who wants (what else?) to take over the world.

In many ways, The Prey of Gods is a smart, cleverly structured Scooby Gang book: a group of seemingly random people, meeting purportedly by happenstance, saves the world. The cleverness here is taking those seemingly random people, most of whom don’t know each other at the beginning of the book—and one, for heaven’s sake, that speaks only binary at the beginning of the book—and constructing a plot that brings these people, with their unique talents, together at the right time to save the world. Drayden will see your Buffy-style these-are-my-friends Scooby Gang and raise you a cast-of-strangers Scooby Gang.

Toward that end, The Prey of Gods features six—count ‘em, six—point-of-view characters of different races, different sexualities, different genders, and different classes.

  • Muzi: a queer teenaged boy who can control minds and who is in (not-yet-confessed) love with his best friend
  • Nomvula: a ten-year-old girl with impossible powers that she doesn’t know how to control, who destroys her entire village early in the book
  • Wallace Stoker: a city councilman on the rise whose feminine alter ego is still secret
  • Riya Natrajan: a world-famous pop star with issues of her own, not the least of which is her physical relationship with her drug dealer
  • This Instance/Clever 4-1: a personal robot whose first thought is to worry about Muzi, and whose second thought is to worry about the fact that it’s worried
  • Sydney: the current incarnation of an ancient demigoddess

The Prey of Gods also features 59—count ‘em, 59—chapters in only 377 pages.

Hang on, I’ll do the math for you: That averages out to 6.39 pages per chapter, and 62.83 pages per point-of-view character. And I’m deeply conflicted about those numbers.

On one hand, The Prey of Gods reads like an accelerant. Those short chapters, their cliffhanger endings, and the constantly shifting points of view combine to make this read very much like the world is on fire. The pacing lends a highly skilled immediacy to the book, especially as you see the pieces start to come together.

On the other hand, I usually struggle with multiple points-of-view books, and I found the sheer number of point-of-view characters in The Prey of Gods and the constantly shifting viewpoints to be a huge challenge as a reader. In the end, I didn’t end up identifying with or liking or wanting to know more about most of the point-of-view characters. (Though I liked the robot a lot. Like, a lot a lot.) And I’m trying to reconcile that with the fact that there are characters with whom I’ve spent fewer pages (say, in short stories) that I love and why, in a larger work, 62.83 pages was so wholly insufficient. (I also really liked the drug dealer and he’s hardly on the page!)

So where I come out is this: I greatly, deeply admire Drayden’s ambition. To envision a realistic world, set in the near future, that includes both sentient AI and a living mythology, and then to envision that world saved by an almost random group of often-marginalized people is an act born of tremendous ambition. The Prey of Gods is smart and funny and inclusive—and if you’re looking for someone doing something different and aspirational and clever in the speculative space, this is it. But I also found that the execution kept me, as a reader, too far removed from the characters themselves. In a world of sentient AI, the fact that I liked the robot far and away the most of anyone perhaps means that Drayden’s characters were not, in the end, quite human enough.

Amy
 


Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and eight years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

Read Along with Faye: Food of the Gods by Cassandra Khaw

Each year, Communications Director Faye Bi attempts to read the requisite 25 books to complete the Sirens Reading Challenge. In 2018, a Reunion year, she’ll be reading books from the past four years’ themes: hauntings, revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. If you’d like some structure—or company—on your own reading goals, we invite you to read along!

Going into Food of the Gods, I knew absolutely nothing except that Amy Tenbrink said this was her favorite book of 2017. Amy and I are book friends most of the time, so I knew I would pick this up eventually… and I now know so much about her in why she loves this book.

Rupert Wong is a cannibal chef for the gods by day, and a pencil pusher for the Diyu (the Ten Chinese Hells) by night. He does this to work off his karmic debt, having done some very bad things in his life so far, in the hopes that by the time he actually dies, his soul might not be condemned to eternal damnation slash Even Worse Things. And Rupert, bless him, is supremely talented as a chef, and also supremely witty as an employee, so much so that he’s (dare I say) kept around for both his skills and entertainment for the benefit of his divine employers.

But first, an aside: wow, I wasn’t sure how to feel while reading Food of the Gods. It’s obvious that Cassandra Khaw loves food as much as I do, but Rupert is literally preparing flesh—a deceased adult film actress features in a memorable scene—as he slices, dices, spices, reduces, seasons, smokes, and otherwise prepares feasts for his deific masters. I didn’t know whether to feel revolted or hungry, because Khaw does not hold back on the exceedingly gruesome detail, but all that flesh simmering in a curry, hmm… “Human is very similar to pork, after all.”

What Khaw also does fabulously is her modern, occasionally fourth-wall breaking mythology. It’s the cooler, hipper version of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods with a similar idea of the gods of different faiths being at war with one another, but with way more panache and way less pretentiousness. (The modern gods include a YouTube cat.) I didn’t know that Food of the Gods was a combination of two novellas, but after the fact, it makes sense that I’ve read two separate Rupert adventures that have two different, episodic plots.

Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef takes place mostly in Kuala Lumpur in the first half, where Rupert has to solve the mystery of who murdered the ocean god Ao Qin’s daughter—with a cast of ghouls, gods, spirits and divine beings you don’t normally see in fantasy (Rupert convincing a legion of kwee kwia spirits not to unionize is the funniest). This is followed by the most hilarious plane ride—those with annoying flight companions will relish Rupert’s revenge on a snotty teenager—and then Rupert Wong and the Ends of the Earth, which is set in London where the Greek pantheon has set up shop. There, Rupert is on loan for his cooking skills, but finds himself in the middle of a Sisyphean gambling ring and the family drama the Greek gods are well-known for.

As a reader who prefers less commonly-explored settings in urban fantasy, I preferred the first installment, but I appreciated Khaw’s lens of showing us London through Rupert’s eyes—he absolutely doesn’t understand how these Greek gods can be so callous and uncivilized. Some of the plot was lost on me, as I found myself distracted by witty zingers and descriptions of food and cooking. But the writing is so delightful, and Rupert, despite being a genuinely selfish asshole, still tries to do the right thing and often does, even for the “wrong” reasons (wanting to be a better person for your lady friend is not that bad, Rupert!). And even though Rupert’s the main character, most of his good deeds involve helping women do what they need to do on their own terms. It nearly kills him to take a compliment from Demeter, who tells him that he is a good person.

Will you like Food of the Gods? I don’t know, but I did. It’s truly absurd. It’s most definitely unique. (It’s not an easy read, especially if you’re reading a print copy and the page margins are smaller than average?) But if you love wordplay, clever mythology, copious descriptions of food, a plethora of witticisms and a bumbling, yet somehow endearing hero, you’ll overlook the out-of-left-field plot and enjoy the onslaught of detail. And most definitely, if you’re a lawyer, this is totally your jam. By the end of the novel, Rupert essentially gets his freedom through lawyering! And contracts! Two opposing gods with claims on his employment can’t decide which contract supersedes the other. Lulz.

Next month’s book: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado


Faye Bi is a book-publishing professional based in New York City, and leads the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.

 

Sirens Review Squad: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we welcome a review from Amanda Hudson on Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone.

Children of Blood and Bone

In her debut novel Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi blends African heritage into a vivid new fantasy world called Orïsha, where a merciless king has driven away magic. By his decree, divîners—those capable of controlling Orïsha’s magic—are systematically killed, leaving their families discriminated against and forced into hiding. Adeyemi expertly weaves the themes of prejudice and oppression into Zelie, her brother Tzain, and the princess Amari’s quest to restore magic to the divîners before it is erased from the Orïsha for good.

Adeyemi tells the story of this journey with three point-of-view characters, and in doing so, creates a page-turner that is hard to put down when a chapter ends. I either wanted to know what happened next, or I wanted to get back to a particular character’s perspective. The book begins with Zélie, who was forced to watch the monarchy kill her divîner mother, yet still teams up with a fleeing princess who possesses an artifact required to restore magic to their lands. That princess, Amari, is determined to do what she believes is right, even if it goes against her father’s wishes. Inan, Amari’s brother and the prince, is desperate to show his father that he is capable and worthy of one day becoming king. Alternating between Zélie, Amari, and Inan’s perspectives reveals the complexity of the world Adeyemi has created, and delves deeper into the ethical and political issues of the king’s tyrannical regime.

Adeyemi creates a beautifully rich world, with deeply-drawn characters and social structures to match. There are gentle reminders every so often that this world is not my own, such as the animal Zélie and her family rides. This is what I look for in great fantasy—a place I can relate to, but also new and different in intriguing ways. Adeyemi’s Orïsha feels spellbinding and alive.

I cannot think of a book that does not contain at least one trope, but occasionally, the unexpected use of a popular trope completely removes me from the page. Children of Blood and Bone, for all its wondrous worldbuilding, contains a trope I’ve come to abhor in YA fantasy: children forced to fight other children in a tournament or arena setting until only one is left alive, explicitly for the entertainment of adults. Perhaps the inclusion of this trope would have been less irksome if it had not been entirely unnecessary to the plot.

It wasn’t surprising to me, given the overall predictable quest structure of Children of Blood and Bone, that Amari, Zélie and Tzain would find their way to a town of laborers living in miserable conditions, and that the laborers would be forced into stockades and treated like animals. From the setup, I knew that Zélie would likely learn that the princess (and maybe the prince) are not like their ruthless father. I also suspected that Amari would realize the extent of the king’s horrific regime. I was there, I was engrossed. But, at the mention of an arena, I disconnected from the story for several chapters. I wish I could have removed these chapters altogether; this one aspect jolted me out of a powerful, enticing world, and forced me into a generic, worn-out trope. Suddenly, I was comparing this book to the last one I’d read featuring the same trope.

The plot progresses fairly quickly from there, but then I was nervous about what other contrived trope would be thrown my way. By the end, my only other complaint was that I foolishly had not realized that Children of Blood and Bone is the first of a series. At 525 pages, I was so sure it would be a standalone. I wish it were! I picked it up when it was recently released, with the second book far off in the future. Now I’m completely invested in the world, the characters and Adeyemi’s language; and I crave closure. The wait for book two begins.


Amanda Hudson works full time as a game developer in Malmö, Sweden. She holds a JD from Baylor University and previously practiced law in Texas. When not reading or writing fantasy, Amanda enjoys eating delicious Scandinavian foods and playing video games and board games.

 

Book Club: Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey

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

Miranda and Caliban

Are you familiar with The Tempest, Shakespeare’s storm-swept comedy full of revenge and magic?

I wasn’t.

While I will happily deconstruct prophecies and the self-fulfillment thereof in Macbeth for hours and I can still quote entire passages of Julius Caesar that I learned almost 30 years ago and I once dated a Hamlet for five long years of indecision, I have yet to meet a Shakespeare comedy that I like. This dates back to, of course, my first Shakespeare encounter in ninth-grade English: Romeo and Juliet, which you’re about to tell me is not a comedy, to which I will respond, “Only the parts that I loathe.” Bring on the death, please, and leave the purportedly funny coincidences out of it.

I still have not read The Tempest, incidentally, but the Internet was kind enough to tell me all about it: The white magician Prospero, inhabiting a deserted isle with his white daughter Miranda and a “savage” black boy named Caliban, who is the son of the dead witch Sycorax. Prospero contrives to bring those who exiled him to the isle, to be shipwrecked by a magical storm. Stuff happens, Miranda marries a prince of Naples, and all is well with the world.

Or something.

Jacqueline Carey’s Miranda and Caliban interrogates The Tempest, which one might presume, even from the brief summary above, is in need of a good interrogation. Miranda and Caliban opens several years after Prospero and Miranda’s exile to the isle: Miranda is a child of six or so, while orphaned Caliban is, at best guess, several years older. Very early in the book, Prospero works magic and compels Caliban to appear, only to lock him in a room in the hopes that confinement will impart refinement: language, posture, chamber pot usage, religion, and such. As you consider this, please remember that Prospero and Miranda are white, and Caliban is black.

Miranda’s gentle tutelage succeeds — for some value of “succeeds” — where Prospero’s aggression fails: Caliban learns their language and what is expected of him in this strange, new world ruled by an ill-tempered magician. Caliban eventually earns some measure of freedom — remember, though, that Prospero summoned him in the first instance, so “freedom” here is misleading notion — by supplying the name of the “evil” god that his mother worshipped. Prospero uses that name to free the wind spirit Ariel from a tree, only to bind him, too, to servitude.

As they age, Miranda and Caliban become friends, though it’s never clear if their friendship is born solely of their lack of options. Even after Ariel is freed from the tree, he’s mercurial, temperamental, and manipulative, not suitable for friendship for either Miranda or Caliban, and as you might expect from a volatile spirit in a Shakespeare play, in the end, Ariel’s impact on Miranda and Caliban’s friendship exceeds even their own. But Caliban remains Prospero’s servant, Miranda remains Prospero’s deliberately ignorant daughter, and Prospero’s plotting continues apace.

When Miranda blossoms, if you will, into a woman, Miranda and Caliban’s relationship changes. She menstruates for the first time, and thinks she’s dying. Her father gives her the world’s worst feminine hygiene contraption and collects her menstrual blood for his own magical purposes. (EW.) Caliban catches a glimpse of Miranda naked, and begins to understand the changes in his own body, only to be caught masturbating by Ariel, who calls him rude and savage, a monster. Miranda and Caliban attempt to consummate their relationship, only to be interrupted by an enraged Prospero, informed by a tattling Ariel.

Eventually, Prospero’s opportunity arises and Miranda and Caliban catches up with The Tempest: a magical storm, a shipwrecked boat, a betrothal, and Miranda sails away from the isle, leaving Caliban behind, but not without perhaps hollow promises to send for him when she’s a princess of Naples.

As I mentioned above, The Tempest is in need of a good interrogation. In the end, however, I found that Carey’s attempt was perhaps too gentle for me. I wanted more pointed criticism, more explicit condemnation of Prospero’s abuse and control of both Miranda and Caliban. I wanted some discussion of Sycorax other than, essentially, “the evil witch that used to live here, but she’s dead, and good riddance.” I don’t require a different, more thoughtful, more progressive ending, but I wanted a lot more deconstruction and complexity in getting there.

That said, I’ve been considering lately that simple truth-telling might be its own form of feminism. Sarah Pinborough’s Poison, for example, is a retelling of Snow White that (arguably) ends more poorly for Snow White than the fairytale itself. One might argue that that’s not feminist, simply because things go so badly for Snow White, but I find that that sort of truth-telling — here’s how things would actually go and they’re worse than you thought — is ultimately feminist.

While I might find the feminism in Miranda and Caliban less pointed than I would like, there is, at least, a form of truth-telling in it: Prospero’s use of his daughter for his own ends, Prospero and Ariel’s endless, on-page racism, Caliban’s enslavement. Explicitly marking these issues, if not addressing them fully, is perhaps its own form of feminism, even if it isn’t mine.

Amy
 


Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and eight years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

Read Along with Faye: Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann

Each year, Communications Director Faye Bi attempts to read the requisite 25 books to complete the Sirens Reading Challenge. In 2018, a Reunion year, she’ll be reading books from the past four years’ themes: hauntings, revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. If you’d like some structure—or company—on your own reading goals, we invite you to read along!

Have you ever fallen into a reading slump? Sometimes, all I want to do is inhale romance novels or immigrant middle grade stories, and I’ll read a dozen one after the other before needing to catch a breath. Other times, the sight of yet another book feels daunting. Or the next read is bound to fall short of expectations. In the case of YA fiction, I’m afraid I find myself in the valley of the slump.

I first came back to YA as an adult in 2010. Since the start of high school, I’d mainly read books for coursework, and I was blown away by nearly every YA novel I read; I was reading the best of YA fiction from the ten years prior. And while I don’t admit to being magnificently well-read in a number of genres, in YA, and in fantasy, thanks to this conference—I am in this instance. And that’s when Christine Heppermann’s slim collection of poems, Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty just didn’t make it up the hill.

In today’s realm of Instagram poetry, Poisoned Apples is an antecedent—accompanied by high-contrast, black and white photographs—and could be a companion of a sorts to Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey. Originally published in 2014 and using the familiar framework of western fairytales, Heppermann’s poems address body image, toxic female friendships, eating disorders, beauty standards, sexual agency, and other topics that would typically concern a (probably) white, (probably) cis-gendered “modern” teenage girl in a (probably suburban American) high school. (I can’t confirm these details for sure, but with so much focus on self-image, the reader has to picture what kinds of girls are the subjects of these poems. And given a careless Romani slur in the collection’s sole villanelle, one has to assume…)

Which isn’t to say those are necessarily shortcomings. The book is a handsome tome, pocket-sized with art and text laid out just-so, and Heppermann is clearly talented, even if her poems don’t speak to my experience as a former teenage girl. “Red Handed,” a sexy retelling of Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, is a highlight, but I find Hepperman’s non-fairytale poems the strongest, which are interspersed between poems with fairytale inspirations. “If Tampons Were for Guys” is a sardonic, witty musing: “For pads with Wings, Kotex shows jet fighters. / For Heavy Flow, ninjas surf a tsunami.” “Nature Lesson” challenges readers to rethink school dress code policies for girls in order to not distract their male classmates: “We say / that if a hiker strays / off the path, trips, and / winds up crippled, / is it really / the canyon’s fault?” Best of all is “Photoshopped Poem,” which is clever as it is hilarious: “I took out most of the lines. / I left in a few / so it wouldn’t look unnatural.”

For the right readers, Poisoned Apples is a winner. I can picture (some) teenage girls quoting lines to themselves, excitedly sharing it with their trusted friends, and keeping it near to them in their backpacks. Though slim, I wonder if it isn’t meant to be read in one sitting, for the themes of body image and eating disorders came up quite often—more than the others—and felt over-emphasized.

For my personal fairytale itch, I would rather turn to Emma Donaghue’s Kissing the Witch or Francesca Lia Block’s Roses and Bones. For YA books with main characters facing eating disorders, I recall Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls or Sarah Dessen’s Just Listen. Poisoned Apples felt too much like trod ground, and my reading material these days is far more diverse and intersectional. I think, ultimately, I was looking for a very different type of book than what I read.

Next month’s book: Food of the Gods by Cassandra Khaw


Faye Bi is a book-publishing professional based in New York City, and leads the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.

 

Book Club: The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

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

The City of Brass

People often ask me about my favorite type of books.

My reading volume is something of legend, not only at Sirens, but in professional circles where my bio—prompted by a public relations person who wanted to add some humanity to my list of accomplishments—has for a number of years included the number of books I read annually. Books are an easy conversation starter, right? What do you read? What’s the best book you’ve ever read? Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo or The Underground Railroad or inevitably some other borderline fantasy work by a dude? What should I read? What is your favorite type of book?

I have different answers for different people, of course. Some people struggle with the notion of fantasy generally, and then we have to talk about Game of Thrones and Westworld and how both are speculative, but only one is fantasy (and ahem, how only one is good). Some people are deep into fantasy, but read mostly white male authors, so we have to talk about Nnedi and Nora and Yoon and Guadalupe. Occasionally, people are well-versed in what I actually read, and I can discuss my deep and abiding love for fantasy-literary crossovers and high-fantasy adventure.

But if you ask me, unfettered, to tell you my favorite type of book, the answer has nothing to do with category or genre or women authors. If you ask me, unfettered, to tell you my favorite type of book, here it is: the sort of book where a woman—a powerful woman, a smart woman, a skilled woman—makes decisions.

They don’t have to be good decisions or smart decisions or immediate decisions, mind you, but she has to make decisions.

For a couple reasons, right? Partly because main characters who make decisions are more likely to be active, interesting, driven. They’re more likely to be protagonists or even antagonists, rather than simply narrators. Main characters who make decisions—good decisions, bad decisions, smart, foolish—tend to move the plot, redefine relationships, or even further the reader’s understanding of the story. Those characters, those characters whose decisions make things happen? Those characters are interesting. I want to ride with those characters.

But perhaps even more importantly, women spend so much of their lives without agency, without the power to make things happen, that it’s at best fundamentally uninteresting, and at worst, devastating, to see female characters without that agency. I want female characters who have agency, who can make decisions, whose decisions are powerful, whose decisions mean something.

Now some of you, probably many of you, don’t have this same quirk. Some of you, probably many of you, might even like heroines who are dragged, often kicking and screaming, into adventure and intrigue. Therefore, some of you, probably many of you, aren’t going to share my impatience with The City of Brass.

S. A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass opens in eighteenth-century Cairo, with Nahri—who despite having readily apparent magic, refuses to believe in it. (What?) She gets by on the streets by reading palms, stealing, and performing some rather miraculous healings. As part of a con, Nahri accidentally summons Dara, a djinn, and then all hell breaks loose. The dead rise from the mausoleum, Dara forces Nahri to flee from Cairo on a flying carpet, and a giant bird of unknowable power appears in the desert. How about that magic now, Nahri?

Nahri goes kicking and screaming. Despite her life on the streets in Cairo, she wants nothing to do with Dara, his magic carpet, or his impossible stories of ancient beings of fire and water. Or, for that matter, their destination: Daevabad, a magical city with mysterious ties to Nahri’s magical heritage.

Charkraborty has said that The City of Brass began as, essentially, history fanfiction. Scant references to djinn and Suleiman and myths that she researched and then wove into an entire secondary fantasy world stretching from Morocco to Ethiopia to China. In many, many ways, The City of Brass is a tour de force: breathtaking world-building, near-seamlessly dropped into actual history and geography; an extensive fantastic history, about which the reader salivates to know more; myriad distinct cultures premised on war or culture or art. This world is as impressive—and as interesting—as Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse or Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire universe; the art and culture as well-designed as Cassandra Khaw’s Food of the Gods or Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus; the secondary characters as developed and fascinating as Fonda Lee’s or Alex Marshall’s.

But where Chakraborty stumbles a bit is her point-of-view characters. Nahri spends almost all of the book kicking and screaming—about everything. Even when she and Dara have reached Daevabad, she continues to kick and scream about big things and little things, not only impingements on her freedom, but also, early and often, about how much practice it takes to learn to use her magical heritage. And because she’s so often in the dark, and kicking and screaming to stay that way, she’s not much of a decision-maker; indeed, she spends much of the book manipulated by a bunch of men. If she’d just point all that energy in a useful direction, maybe she’d claim her agency long before the end of the book. (In her defense, I suppose, her intended character arc stretches across multiple books; the fact that she stops acting like a brat at the end of The City of Brass bodes very well indeed for the next book.)

The other point-of-view character is Alizayd, a younger prince trained in war to serve in his brother’s future government. Alizayd disagrees vehemently, impoliticly, and often rudely with his father’s rule, finding numerous inconsistencies between their holy texts or tenets of law and his father’s practicalities. Alizayd tends to come off condescending and prudish, especially in contrast to his older brother—and while the prudishness didn’t bother me, his hauteur regarding his father’s regime, especially in light of his ignorance about how to actually rule, was grating. Lord save me from young men who think they know everything.

In hindsight, I think you have to consider this book as a multi-book arc: not just for plot, which is so common in fantasy, but in terms of character arcs as well. I firmly believe that both Nahri and Alizayd will start making decisions further down the line, and when they do, they’ll almost by definition become far, far more interesting. In the meantime, enjoy the dazzling show that is Chakraborty’s magical world.

Amy
 


Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and eight years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

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