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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.

 

Read Along with Faye: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

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!

As someone who works in the publishing industry, I know a few things about what it takes to make a big book. Particularly, a big, popular, bestselling YA book. Have a fast-paced, competently plotted manuscript. Include elements that are immensely popular at the time: dystopias, revolutions, mythical creatures, love triangles, school stories, settings in Ancient Rome or Ancient Persia, athletic tournaments, an “edgy” quality. Have a spec’d out, shiny, eye-catching cover. Take an engaging author, and put her in front of gatekeepers and teens. Send plenty of early copies out for review. Time those ads, promotions and media pitches. Get buy-in from major accounts. Make sure that around the time of on-sale, anyone interested in YA, fantasy, or buying books sees this book everywhere.

I saw An Ember in the Ashes everywhere when it first came out. The book is wildly successful, with healthy sales, widespread media coverage, a full trilogy planned, and a movie deal. It is good to muse on why certain books do so well, so that the success can be replicated for other books. But this is, alas, not a campaign analysis. It’s a review.

I can easily see the strengths of An Ember in the Ashes: I read it in one huge gulp, eager to keep flipping the pages and find out what happened next. At the start of the book, Laia’s family is murdered and her brother is taken to prison; in order to save him, she ends up spying on the most ruthless, dangerous person in the empire—the Commandant, the head of the military training academy—who maims loved ones to discipline those who displease her. Despite my general indifference towards reluctant heroines, I like that Laia’s resistance isn’t flashy nor does she have any experience whatsoever at spying—she’s no Alianne of Pirate’s Swoop. She is insecure about her abilities, yet does everything she can to survive. Laia’s relationships, too, with her fellow slaves Izzi and Cook, are refreshing.

But, as someone who has read a lot of fantasy, a lot of YA, and a lot of fantasy YA that has this book’s basic premise, it’s disappointing. Absent are worldbuilding details that go beyond surface-level, most notably linguistic ones: The Martial Empire conquered the Scholar people (those are the names in the book), with a glimpse of tribes and magical creatures such as djinn, efrits, and ghuls; the military academy’s name is Blackcliff, there’s a character named Keenan. I know the Roman Empire reached the land of the Celts, but this struck me as far more modern than the historic era presented in the book. Absent is a consideration of technology—we know the Martials have steel, but that’s about all. Magic exists only to serve specific plot points or to deus ex machina a way out of a tricky situation. Absent, too, is a thoughtful contemplation of colonialism, and how resistance movements might actually gain steam and succeed.

But perhaps, I’m completely mistaken. Perhaps, you could argue, the main audience for this book doesn’t care about these details. But, as a reader who sees An Ember in the Ashes widely lauded for its worldbuilding, I think teens can and do recognize these failings. It bothers me when people cast down YA fantasy for being more simplistic and less rigorous than adult fantasy, with worldbuilding just the backdrop for the kissing, the angst, and the feelings.

I won’t even begin to touch on the eyeroll-inducing romantic subplots, particularly the—what does one call this? A love parallelogram?—where there are two simultaneous love triangles involving the two main characters. What troubled me most is the constant threat of violence against women, so ubiquitous that it practically becomes background noise, and the suggestion in writing by a sympathetic character that a girl’s chances of getting raped are directly correlated to how attractive she is. Contrasted starkly with the rather chaste romantic developments—there’s some dancing, and one consensual kiss—it leaves the reader with absolutely no examples of sex-positivity in this book.

Finally, as much as I did like elements of Laia’s point of view, An Ember in the Ashes also features the perspective of Elias, a privileged guy and the eventual love interest. I do think Tahir succeeded in that she captured Elias’s melodrama and whininess (really, he thinks that absolutely no one else in this rigid military academy thinks the way he does?) to a tee. The problem is, I think the reader is supposed to like him, and I would have much preferred his best friend Helene’s narration. As racist as Helene is, you don’t get to be the only girl in a generation to train at this fancy military school and not question some stuff, even if your one big failing is falling in love with an anguished privileged dude who thinks only he can save the Empire.

For me, there are too many books that do this age group, genre, and premise better. I recommend turning to Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives instead, which didn’t break out in the same way but improves on my complaints in An Ember in the Ashes on nearly every count. But I’m only one reader, and given the immense success of these books, there are plenty of readers who disagree.

Next month’s book: Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann


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: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

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!

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

Villain stories are, I think, inherently difficult.

Readers, as a construct, almost always root for the heroine. And why not? She’s inherently good: righting wrongs, battling monsters, usurping despots. She has killer talents: swordplay, magic, leadership. And because fantasy literature is so often aspirational, you know she’s going to prevail. Regardless of whether readers see themselves as the heroines of their own stories, almost everyone wants to take an hour or three to lead the life they would live if they were the heroine of someone else’s.

But hardly anyone envisions themself the villain.

A villain story is, by definition, about the bad guy. Otherwise, the villain wouldn’t be a villain at all, of course, but a deeply conflicted heroine or even an antiheroine. By framing a villain story as a villain story, all the writer has done is cast the villain as the protagonist. The framing itself—good vs. evil, or in this case, the people who eat the hearts of living things vs. those who don’t—remains the same. And the villain is, by definition, on the opposite side of that line from the reader. A reader who, again almost by definition, is rooting for someone else.

To complicate matters further, the question of what makes a woman a villain is deeply conflicting. So often, far too often—especially in young-adult works about female villains—the primary traits that cast the protagonist as a villain are those same traits that we teach young women are profoundly unattractive: rage, ambition, unlikeability, a desire for power, aging. Think back to your fairy tales: How many of those princesses actually sought their power? Craved it? Or alternately, how many were crowned almost accidentally: a fairy godmother and a shoe; an unbidden kiss in the woods; a forbidden curiosity about life on land. What makes a female villain is so often, far too often, a refusal to conform to what society demands: silence, passivity, youth. Which of course raises the necessary question: Are those women even villains at all?

All of which is to say that Forest of a Thousand Lanterns—a retold tale about the rise of the evil queen in Snow White—had a long row to hoe.

Xifeng—our protagonist, but not our heroine—is beautiful. Impossibly beautiful. The sort of beautiful that attracts stares from passersby and commands the attention of the manly Wei, her town’s apprentice blacksmith and amateur swordsman, and eventually will draw the notice of the Emperor. As you might expect in an Evil Queen origin story, much is made of Xifeng’s beauty, both to the reader and to Xifeng herself.

Xifeng lives with her aunt, a power-hungry, magic-practicing village crone named Guma. Guma abuses Xifeng, both emotionally and physically (though always avoiding her face). She’s convinced Xifeng, through blood magic and fortune-telling, that Xifeng is destined to be Empress, so long as she’s willing to sacrifice enough.

What Forest of a Thousand Lanterns never makes quite clear, though, is how inevitable this portent is. Are the cards simply showing the future? Are they showing but one possibility among many? Are they a manipulation of the gods? Are they a trick of Guma’s to bring her niece in line with her lust for power? Is Xifeng a tool—of fate or the gods or her aunt—or is she the master of her own future? Is she merely stepping along the path to her destiny, or making decisions that help her achieve her goal? One hopes for the latter, if only for the sake of agency, but fears that it’s the former, which lends the book an air of plodding inevitability. Did you really think that Xifeng wouldn’t become Empress?

After years of abuse from her aunt, the catalyst for Xifeng’s finally agreeing to flee with Wei is that Guma strikes her face. Something that perhaps Xifeng and this particular retold tale itself take as a greater affront than a different circumstance might warrant, but that, as written, after years of abuse, lacks gravity. Similarly, after years of avoiding Guma’s bloody brand of magic, Xifeng’s catalyst for finally overcoming her squeamishness is, of course, to fix the mark that Guma left on her face. At this point, with the amount of obsessing over a scar, one perhaps longs for an Evil Queen origin story that, for a number of reasons—including, not inconsequentially, a deconstruction of what it means to be beautiful—doesn’t rely quite so heavily on a perfect face. Beauty is frequently a weapon, of course: a distraction, a tactic, an enticement. Both before and after she reaches the imperial palace, Xifeng uses her beauty as all three. But the lack of attention paid to the underlying societal expectations of beauty, especially young women’s beauty, leaves Xifeng something of a silly girl who is willing to eat hearts to maintain her pretty face—and we’re left wondering if, after all this time, a pretty face is still the only way for a woman to get what she wants.

Who is the fairest of them all, indeed?

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: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

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!

What can I say about a book that’s won every accolade there is, including this year’s National Book Award?

Well, if you know me, you know I have an opinion on just about everything. I had the great fortune of convincing my local book club to read Sing, Unburied, Sing with me this month, and I confess I wouldn’t have picked it up—at least not for a long time—if it weren’t for peer pressure. The consensus of my book club was that, while none of us particularly considered it a book of our hearts, we were all glad we’d read it.

I’m very selective of my capital-L literary fiction, which I consider a bogus genre. To me, categorizing a book as literary means that hegemonic tastemakers have decided certain books are important and worthy of acclaim, and they’re not usually books I love. As an avid reader of fantasy, romance, and books written for children and young adults, I’m not impressed with Sing, Unburied, Sing’s widespread media coverage and fancy awards. I’m impressed with its lyrical, economical prose, its somewhat archetypal but expertly drawn characters, and its deft handling of the many challenges plaguing black communities in the rural south.

Set in rural Mississippi, Sing, Unburied, Sing centers around one family and two point-of-view characters: thirteen-year-old Jojo and his mother, Leonie. Jojo and his toddler sister Kayla are biracial, as Leonie is black, and his absent, incarcerated father Michael is white. He lives with his grandparents Mam and Pop; Leonie struggles to be a good mother but is too-often stymied by her drug addiction. Like many young black boys in his situation, Jojo has had to grow up quickly. His Mam is ill. His mother is an inconsistent influence in his life—when she’s there, she’s impulsive and often physically abusive. His paternal grandfather, Big Joseph after whom Jojo was named, refuses to even acknowledge his existence. The only father-figure Jojo has is Pop, who tells him stories of a young boy, Richie, whom he protected like a younger brother while they were both imprisoned in the Mississippi State Penitentiary decades before.

What follows is a relatively straightforward tale in terms of plot—when Leonie receives word that Michael is about to be released from prison, she rounds up Jojo and Kayla and drives there to pick him up—but so richly complex in atmosphere, theme, and detail. The novel begins with Jojo assisting Pop in gutting a goat, with unravelling innards and a smell to make anyone retch, and proceeds to Leonie’s meth-induced hallucinations. In Jojo’s, Leonie’s and occasionally Richie’s perspectives, the novel weaves together devastating truths about family, domestic violence, drug addiction, police brutality, the disproportionate incarceration of black men, prison conditions, and the most hateful kind of racism and cruelty inflicted on the young. And ghosts, who only appear after violent death: the kind that Richie experienced fleeing from prison, and the kind that Leonie’s brother Given experienced, being shot by Michael’s white cousin after beating him at a game. It tells these truths with gorgeous writing that feels emotionally detached in the way that you sometimes need to be, when you are wearied by generations of pain and loss. At the same time, Ward’s writing is so deeply empathetic, never making a clear villain of Leonie or even Michael, choosing to show the reader the various ways they are trapped in their circumstances but never absolving them of blame.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not well-read in the literary lineage Sing, Unburied, Sing descends from—I’ve read Beloved and some of Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographical work, but I know I have a gap. I’m not familiar with voodoo practices or Maman Brigitte, so there were parts of the book where I was actively confused. Was it magic, or was it a spiritual practice I don’t know? I had pointed out to me Ward’s deft use of imagery common in the shared imagination of African Americans, such as trees for lynchings or water symbolism alluding to the Middle Passage. My friend, a scholar of 20th century African American literature, says it’s an easy book to plop on a syllabus, since the lineages can be clearly traced. (There is a Beloved-like reveal near the end of the book, which, even if I knew about, I still would not have been ready for.)

Sing, Unburied, Sing also forced me to consider Hauntings as a theme, which I hadn’t fully engaged with back in 2014. I’d written off ghost stories as horror—perhaps revealing my failures as a reader, as I’m not well-read in that lineage either—but I now better understand the power of a ghost story. Why do ghosts come back to haunt? What compels them to attach to a person, or a place? In Ward’s novel, it’s the unburied voices of those unjustly killed, singing enraged songs of retribution and unrest, and seeking the peace they never found in life.

Next month’s book: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir


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 Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

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 Monsters of Templeton

“The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.”

Thus begins The Monsters of Templeton.

I read somewhere north of 150 books a year—and when you do that, you have the luxury of tackling books for any number of reasons. I don’t have to jealously guard 12 or even 50 available slots a year, cautiously filling them only with books that come highly recommended. I can read for any reason under the sun. For example, I’m notoriously a sucker for well-designed covers, sometimes for good and sometimes for spectacular ill.

This might, however, be the first time that I chose a book because of its first line.

But look at it. Just look at it.

Even putting aside my preternatural love of monster narratives—which we absolutely should not because my love is legion and we’re going to discuss this monster in particular—that’s a magnificent first line. There’s a gravity to it, a weight, around not just a return to Templeton, but a return steeped (steeped!) in disgrace. But there’s an absurdity as well, as you read on to the dead monster surfacing on the lake. Oh, the questions! Who is the protagonist? Is Templeton formerly home? What is this disgrace? How bad was it? What is this monster? Do you have a lot of monsters in Lake Glimmerglass? Are there monsters everywhere?

I had to know.

And that’s what hooks a reader, right? That need to know what happens next.

Well, it worked.

The Monsters of Templeton, by Lauren Groff (yes, that Lauren Groff), is one of my favorite fantasy literature subgenres: the sort of adult fiction that is so literary and so real that the marketing team can readily sideline the fantasy elements, making it all-too-easy for booksellers to shelve it with the general market fiction. (Annoying!) Think Jesmyn Ward or Carmen Maria Machado or Violet Kupersmith, all of whom write fantasy works, but none of whose works live in the fantasy section of your local Barnes and Noble. (Someday, I’ll write an essay that starts with those three and then happily proceeds to Erin Morgenstern, then Helen Oyeyemi, then Cassandra Khaw, at which point we are well and truly down my very favorite rabbit hole.) The Monsters of Templeton lives somewhere in this procession between Ward and Machado: a number of ghosts, some magical realism-style conflagrations, and the aforementioned monster—but we’re wholly and resolutely in a thinly-veiled Cooperstown.

Willie Upton, an archeological doctoral candidate, magical only in the very slightest of ways, opens the book by returning to her hometown: Templeton, New York. The town is important, not only as a predicate for the plot that follows, but also as a foil for the larger, perhaps grander, sometimes more disappointing world outside. The book can suffocate: After Willie’s arrival, her story arc happens entirely in the town of her birth; only rarely does the outside world intrude (the occasional phone call, a single postcard, a number of scientists looking to examine the monstrous corpse). Those intrusions periodically remind Willie—and the reader—perhaps unwantedly, of Willie’s scholarship, her ambition, and her success navigating that outside world.

Willie’s reason for returning home—and indeed, her return home itself—is fraught. She’s had a (perhaps) ill-advised affair with her married professor, found herself pregnant, and fled her summer work in Alaska to return to the bosom of not only her single mother, but the hometown she hasn’t seen in years. Willie’s flight from Templeton was, in her mind, a necessity; her homecoming, even more so. Never underestimate the emotional trauma of returning to not only your family, but your tiny hometown, “steeped in disgrace.” You can never go home again, I suppose, until you think you have nowhere else to go.

Vi, Willie’s mother, is drawn unsympathetically in Willie’s first-person narrative: a hippie-turned-Baptist, a professional caregiver, a descendant of town founder Malcolm Templeton, a woman who (smugly) knows her daughter better than Willie knows herself. Upon Willie’s arrival home, Vi (cleverly) gives her academic daughter a research task: Discover who her long-secret father is. Vi tells her only that he’s a resident of Templeton—and also a descendent of the revered Malcolm Templeton. Willie the archeologist gets to work and uncovering her father’s identity becomes both mysterious plot arc and book structure: sections alternate between historical depictions of Willie’s ancestors and her modern-day discoveries of links between those same ancestors. It’s a clever conceit, but one that causes the book to lose steam about two-thirds of the way through; at that point, the reader yearns for a hastened pace, but the book stoically maintains its structure.

Willie, Vi and the rest of Templeton are written with a lot of sensitivity. Anyone from a small town will startle at Groff’s insightful depiction of both the unchanging sameness and the roiling, gossip-worthy drama. That same group of middle-aged guys runs around Templeton every morning, but the more Willie uncovers in her quest for her father’s identity, the more the reader learns about the scandals of the town’s past. That sameness and that long-buried gossip birth both security and contempt in Willie, but also provide an unexpected accelerant for a story of monsters premised on, of all things, familiarity. Harken back to that first sentence: Willie has gone home, but equally important, a monster has died.

For those of you looking for a “here be monsters” adventure, this is not your book. Instead, that dead monster is a ready metaphor for every small town and for Willie’s story in particular: those churning scandals—an affair, a death, a fire—made manifest and, not coincidentally, surfacing at last. Not an inapt parallel, once you stop to consider, and one that Groff mines to raw, honest effect. You can go home again, in the end, but heaven knows what you’ll find.

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: The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

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!

We’re back, Read Along! January was cold (insert your favorite bomb cyclone pun here), it was dark (it’s finally still daylight when I leave the office, but barely), and it was bloated with the aftermath of rich holiday food and the promise of reading resolutions. I thought we would ease our way into this year’s challenge with Isabel Greenberg’s brilliant, irreverent, pure delight of a graphic novel, The One Hundred Nights of Hero. It’s perfect for long winter nights in a cozy reading chair and a big mug of tea, and it won’t take long to read—perhaps a few glorious hours if you can prevent yourself from being transfixed by every page—and it will be so worth your time to go back and savor it all over again.

The title alone might have you believe this is an homage to Scheherazade, and it is, in a way. The prologue starts almost more ambitiously: with the god BirdMan (gendered male, mansplainer extraordinaire, whom fans of Greenberg’s previous work The Encyclopedia of Earth may recognize) messing with a perfectly good thing a woman has created. In this case, it’s Earth, which was created by his daughter, Kiddo. She’s fascinated by these perfect humans she’s made, who grow up, eat, sleep, love, and eventually die. But of course, BirdMan, a foil for a certain kind of blowhard every woman knows, decides that Kiddo’s Earth is boring and that the humans should worship him instead. So he creates religion, which leads to disciples (who are . . . you guessed it, dudes) called the Beak Brothers and by the time the main story starts, Earth is a weird medieval theocracy-dystopia ruled by the patriarchy. Sigh.

It is in this world that the heart of the story begins. Two dudes, real POS dudes, decide (of course!) that they should have a bet. Manfred bets Jerome that he can seduce Jerome’s wife Cherry while Jerome is away for hundred days. Jerome is like “omg no way, my wife is way too faithful, she’s the pinnacle of purity blah blah let’s compare dick sizes” (not an actual quote) but needless to say, they make this bet and Manfred starts his quest. Little does he know that Cherry is totally in love with her maid, Hero, who is part of the League of Secret Storytellers. Hero does the Scheherazade thing where she saves Cherry from Manfred’s advances each night by weaving a tale he’s desperate to hear the end of. And Manfred, because he’s a cocky dude, just goes, “oh, well I’ll just rape Cherry the next night, no biggie” (also not an actual quote) except this happens for all the nights until Jerome comes home, because Hero lives up to her name.

There’s so much more I could say about Hero’s stories. They’re lovingly illustrated, and Greenberg draws from folklore, mythology, ballads, and fairytales. There’s the story based loosely on the Twelve Dancing Princesses, one based on the child ballad Two Sisters, and one where a man falls in love with the moon and she just goes, “Oh, well I’m the moon. What did you expect besides heartbreak?” (still not an actual quote). Stories of women who lived their lives defiantly, despite jealousy, rage, forbidden love, and accusations of witchcraft; stories of super brilliant, crafty women who find ways to resist and fight back against the oppression they’re expected to endure; stories of “brave women who don’t take shit from anyone” (actual quote). Stories of women who paid for it.

There’s a kind of dark humor and light sadness Greenberg’s gorgeous book portrays in the fantastical, whimsical illustrations. Her the dark line art and limited palette aren’t unlike those of Emily Carroll or Kate Beaton, but I find Hero and Cherry’s clapbacks harder and funnier. And yet for me, there’s so much truth to these stories not-so-buried under the rapid-fire witticisms each page offers, like these gems (all actual quotes): “Lesson: Men are false. And they can get away with it. Also, don’t murder your sister, even by accident. Sisters are important.” And “Whatever we say will make no difference. Our fates are set. They always were.” And my favorite, “No, I’m not finished yet. I’ve had quite enough of staying quiet thank you very much (sic).”

I won’t say too much about the ending, but Hero and Cherry live in a dystopia, and things don’t always turn out the best for women who dare to dream beyond the confines of their societal roles. Still, their actions and legacy spark something greater-a storytelling revolution among the women of this weird beaky world.

It’s hard to imagine another book that speaks as strongly to Sirens’s themes as The One Hundred Nights of Hero. Present in it are lovers, revolutionaries, many tales retold, various women who work magic, and probably more if I think about it hard enough. Save it for a particularly tiresome day when you’ve had enough of, oh, everything, and you need to rail against another ridiculous, unconscionable patriarchal standard. Or read it again, using Hero and Cherry’s strength as a balm when you need to feel inspired and a little less helpless about the world. You won’t regret it.

Next month’s book: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward


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 Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan

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 Bloodprint

Several years ago, Sirens featured a guest of honor who wrote one of my all-time favorite books. Despite not being a please-sign-my-book person generally, I sentimentally dragged my copy of this book to Sirens, and in asking the author to sign my copy, mentioned that I really loved their book.

This guest responded, quite drily and certainly correctly, that they had been sitting in the Sirens community room for two days listening to me talk about how much I loved all the books—with a strong implication that we were discussing but one book in an apparently very large pool of beloved literature. This is neither here nor there, but I did eventually convince this guest that there is love and there is love, and got them to sign my bloody book.

But, you know, they weren’t wrong. I do love many books. And upon reflection, I have come to realize that I do not love them in many different ways, but rather in three very specific ways.

Sometimes, I love a book because there’s something about it: world-building, perhaps, or a certain character, or the writer’s craft. The other elements of the book might be nonsensical dreck, but if I love an individual element or two enough, the book and I are good to go. Last year, memorably, I wrote a review of Kendare Blake’s Three Dark Crowns in which I wished for more coherent world-building and more competent characters and more stringent editing—and then proclaimed my love purely because in the end all three of those hatefully incompetent girl characters made bold, ambitious, hateful choices. Brava, I said, as I fell in love with a book whose world-building, characters, and writing style I did not like.

Other times, I love a book because it tells a good story. Maybe this is because of its world-building or characters or writing, or maybe this is essentially independent of those elements, but sometimes a book invites you to journey with its characters in a way that feels adventurous or relentless or shockingly human. These books are, I find, often compulsively readable. Perhaps A Crown for Cold Silver, where you’re halfway done before you take a breath. Or Bleeding Violet, where I would have followed Hanna and her unreliable narration and her weird hellmouth town anywhere.

But the best books, for me, are the books that—putting plot and characters and story aside—have something to say. They may also, and often do, have great plot and great characters and great story, but they’re something more: an exploration of gender, maybe, or a portrait of grief, a commentary on racism or an examination of the importance of friendship as we age. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, with its all-feminine pronouns, is a terrific example: a great story, a fascinating main character, but also an epiphany for a reader. Or Alif the Unseen, with its incisive intersections of myth, religion, and technology.

The Bloodprint, by Ausma Zehanat Khan, has something to say.

The setting for The Bloodprint, while fictional, will be familiar to anyone who follows the news: a patriarchal group known as the Talisman, led by a mysterious One-Eyed Preacher, is amassing power quickly and over an increasing large area. The Talisman’s methods are insidious: control communications by destroying reading materials, brutally execute rebels to sow fear, and enslave any woman not protected by a father or husband. It’s not too much of a spoiler to mention that, rather late in the book, we discover that many of the people now living under the Talisman’s rule—even for only a single generation—aren’t really bothered by their authoritarian rule. They don’t remember anything different. How horrifyingly quickly things change.

The book opens with Arian and Sinnia about to attack a caravan taking a number of enslaved women to who-knows-where. This has been Arian’s work for years, though despite the number of women she has freed and the number of Talisman men she has killed, she has yet to discover where the Talisman takes the women. She knows only that, until she learns more about what the Talisman is doing, she can’t free them all.

Shortly after the book opens, Arian and Sinnia are summoned home. Both women are Companions of Hira, a group of powerful women whose magic and authority is based on the Claim, a work of sacred scripture. But even in this group of women, called to a higher purpose, intrigue abounds and Arian cannot trust things she thought she knew.

The Bloodprint is Arian’s story: from her traumatic childhood, to abandoning her great love for her calling, to her commitment to saving her country and her people. The driving force behind the book is her discovery that a piece of the Claim, called the Bloodprint, is real—and if Arian can recover it, that might provide the Companions of Hira the power they need to truly fight the Talisman on a grand scale. As Arian journeys through the long-forgotten legends of her land, she learns the true power of perseverance, not only her own, but that of oppressed people.

Note: The Bloodprint is the first in a series, and has a seriously cliffhanger ending. If you like your series finished, you might want to wait.

I don’t usually include pieces of author bios in my book reviews, but this seems especially relevant: Khan holds a PhD in international human rights law with a specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. In reading this work focused so much on war crimes, you’re in good hands.

Should you read it? Absolutely. While this story is purportedly Arian’s, it’s really the story of every rebel against an authoritarian regime who has found that their fight is against not only the regime, but their own people’s fear, blindness, carelessness, and ignorance. And if that doesn’t convince you, perhaps the book’s tag will: The only defense against the ignorance of men is the brilliance of powerful women.

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.

 

B Reviews Guests: The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

We’re excited to share the last in a mini-series of posts by friend of Sirens, B R Sanders, who has been reviewing books by each of this year’s Guests of Honor during their featured weeks. This week we welcome their review of N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season!

I loved this book. It was immensely hard for me to read, and I still loved it.

I read The Fifth Season hungrily, because it is a damn good book, cleverly structured and wonderfully written, always leaving you on the edge of your seat and wanting more.

The Stillness is a land that is never still. Stills are people who hate orogenes, people whose immense magic can bring order to the land. The world has a habit of ending. There are entire histories of apocalypses. This is the story of the most recent one, the most terrible one yet. And to understand how it happened, one has to understand how many injustices—small and large, premeditated and coincidental—came together to shape two very particular people in very particular ways.

It’s Jemisin’s choice to root this apocalypse in a handful of lives, and in a handful of choices, that makes the book work. She shows how those choices fracture a life, how the course of lives can and must sometimes change on a whim. How sometimes those forces are within our control, but how often they are not, and how terrifying it is that they are not. The actions that set the story in motion come as a cumulative response to this: a response to a lifetime of being corralled and cajoled and confined.

There is an immense amount of depth in this book. I am White, and I have rarely been as aware of my whiteness as I was reading this book. There is a reason that Essun and Alabaster are Black. Jemisin is articulating something here about what it is to be Black—the entire sequence while they are in Allia, while they have to navigate avenues of politeness that they are expected to perform but can’t expect to receive in kind, that is what it is to be Black in America, at least in part. She has captured here that kind of very particular containment that I am aware of but I will never experience, and she has written it into the minds of people who can literally tear the world apart with a fury-filled thought.

But they are not just their fury. Of course they aren’t; they are people, and they want and they desire, and they get tired and they break and they have hidden strengths. Jemisin knows these characters inside and out. Alabaster and Essun, especially, are deeply known and well-written. The book is both a quest and a tragedy, but the tragedy is at its heart the fact that people have limits, that they run out of will, that they can’t keep going. Or that some can, and others can’t by some weird fluke of fate.

The Fifth Season brutalized me and left me breathless. When it ended, I immediately preordered its sequel, The Obelisk Gate. I cannot wait to see what happens next.


B R Sanders is a white, genderqueer speculative fiction writer who lives and works in Denver, Colorado, with their family and two cats. Outside of writing, B has worked as a research psychologist, a labor organizer and a K–12 public education data specialist. They write about queer elves, mostly.

 

Read Along with Faye: Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios

Read Along with Faye tackles the 2017 Sirens Reading Challenge! Each month, Sirens communications staff member Faye Bi will review and discuss a book on her journey to read the requisite 25 books to complete the challenge. Titles will consist of this year’s Sirens theme of women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. We invite you to join us and read along!

I labored over this review. It felt like nothing I could write would be able to do Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios’s Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike justice. When we analyze text, we don’t just read the words on the page. We coax meanings from between the lines; we muse on the influences of a creator’s background and socio-historical context; we inevitably read texts in conversation with what came before. Comics add another layer. Not only must the reader understand and appreciate the interplay between art and words, there’s a reading style—proficiency level, so to speak—one needs to know how to read a comic, and it helps to know its position in the whole wide world of comics. In the case of Pretty Deadly, which is completely uninterested in holding the reader’s hand, I found myself pushed out of my comfort zone in a major way.

Pretty Deadly has influence from fairytales, myths, a western setting, and probably a million other things I’m not well-versed in. I have read Sandman, but not really Weird West (watching Firefly doesn’t count) so I’ve dabbled a baby bit in Death personified in comics. My reaction on those first few page turns were, “What is this?” and a little bit of “WTF?” It is kinetic, violent, and densely-packed with visual details. Words are sparse. If you don’t read a lot of comics—or even if you do—it can be demanding and intellectually challenging… but parsing out the text, bit by bit, was incredibly rich and worthwhile.

We begin with a bunny, who gets shot in the head by an unknown woman, and the butterfly who witnessed the kill, as framers of the narrative. It’s sometime in the 1890s in the American West (I think). We’re introduced to characters—an elderly blind man, Fox, and a young dark-skinned girl with differently colored eyes, Sissy—who are going from town to town telling the tale of Beauty and singing the Ballad of Deathface Ginny. Deathface Ginny, the daughter of Beauty and the personification of Death, is the reaper of vengeance, who can be called by victims of “men who have sinned.” (She has a lot of work to do!) Big Alice, a large, imposing woman in a black coat with silver hair, is sent by Death to bring Ginny back to the spiritual realm. And did I mention, Death isn’t a god, but a post—in the order of things, the mantle of Death gets passed on to the next gatherer of souls.

What follows is a very, very, convoluted tale in which Death falls in love and wants to prevent the next Death from coming to power, ending death (his and everyone else’s) for all time. And at the forefront are multiple, fascinating, complex female characters who look very different and get a lot of shit done—Sissy, Big Alice, Sarah, Ginny herself and even Beauty. There’s betrayal, stabbings and vengeance—but also sacrifice and redemption. It’s like the animated sequence from Kill Bill with a splash of Sandman, but its own thing.  And it’s paced incredibly unevenly, with unexplained occurrences aplenty and characters that don’t show up again. But somehow, the denouement pulled it all together in a spectacular manner that made flip to the front page again. Ultimately, it’s an origin story for Deathface Ginny, as well as for the new Death.

It would also be remiss not to mention Rios’s artwork again, which is stunning, fluid and frenetic all at once, colored by Jordie Bellaire in a mostly desert-colored palette with beiges and pinks. Though it made me work for it, Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike is incredible, myth-making, myth-breaking stuff. My brain broke, too, from everything to take in, but I had a fine time putting it back together on re-reads.


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: The Mermaid’s Daughter by Ann Claycomb

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 Jae Young Kim on Ann Claycomb’s The Mermaid’s Daughter.

Ann Claycomb’s debut novel, The Mermaid’s Daughter, is a modern-day retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” mixed in with a healthy dose of opera and composition. Kathleen, an opera student at a conservatory, learns that the stabbing pain in her feet and the phantom sensation of her tongue being cut out are not signs of mental illness, but the consequences of a long and dark curse made generations ago. Kathleen is left with two choices—kill herself or kill her lover, Harry.

I love fairy tales. They’re old stories, some coming from oral traditions going as far back as a thousand years, changing over time with every retelling. Each omission, addition and embellishment reflects the teller’s perspective. So when we read a fairy tale retelling, we know, more or less, what the plot will be. It’s the little tweaks in the retelling that make the read worthwhile.

“The Little Mermaid” is one of my favorite fairy tales. Although I was a kid when the Disney animated version came out, I had read Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale before watching the movie, which could not be more different from each other. Disney’s version is a musical with cartoon animal sidekicks, an evil witch that turns into a giant monster, and a happy ending complete with a wedding between the mermaid and prince. Andersen’s tale is dark and bloody, with cut tongues and phantom knives stabbing the mermaid’s feet—and no happy ending. I love both of them, but I was disappointed with Disney’s: it felt too clean and safe, and was totally at odds with the Andersen’s original.

Claycomb does not go the cartoon route with The Mermaid’s Daughter. She does not shy away from the stabbing pains, the cutting of the tongue, and the gruesome trade made by the mermaid. Told in three acts through four viewpoints (Kathleen, Harry, Robin (Kathleen’s father), and the sea witches), the novel is bleak in tone and possibly even darker than Andersen’s fairy tale. Claycomb uses the first act to establish Kathleen’s life, beginning with Kathleen and Harry’s relationship, a great queer take on the usual heterosexual pairings in traditional fairy tales. She also focuses attention on the father-daughter relationship between Robin and Kathleen, and it’s clear that they love each other deeply. Since the novel has a modern-day setting, some time does have to be spent working through disbelief in magic and mermaids. I admit to being impatient that Kathleen didn’t realize the truth of her heritage earlier, but I did have the advantage of knowing she was a mermaid. The sea witches do provide a touch of fantasy as well as the stories of Kathleen’s ancestors, but it may feel dry for those wanting a book that jumps straight into the fantastical elements.

Kathleen also has the beautiful voice of Andersen’s mermaid, making music and opera an integral part of this mermaid’s story. I am a fan of opera and have sung in choirs all my life, so reading about the various singers and the roles and songs they perform was loads of fun. Robin is a famous composer and I loved reading about his composition process, even though I don’t know a thing about songwriting.

The build-up to the reveal of Kathleen’s mermaid secret is long but necessary. Love and music are central to this retelling of “The Little Mermaid.” Once Kathleen learns of her mermaid curse, third act flies by as Robin and Harry help Kathleen resolve it. I won’t spoil the ending but I think it’s clever and fitting for a fairy tale retelling. The book also includes a bonus short story connecting Hans Christian Andersen to Kathleen’s ancestor. It provides some context for final act and is a welcome addition.

I recommend Claycomb’s The Mermaid’s Daughter and look forward to reading her next book.

 


 
Jae Young Kim is a born-and-bred New Yorker and a lifelong fan of fairy tales, fantasy and science fiction. She is a non-profit attorney by day and writes when she can, not always by night. The only thing that keeps her up until dawn is a good book.

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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