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Peaces is a thoughtful, hilarious adventure of a novel, but in the end, without quite all its pieces

Read with Amy

A number of years ago, I read a book called The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers). It was a wild ride of a book, full of twists and turns, questions and often fruitless interrogations, more game with the reader than traditional reading experience. I finished this book and the friend who was with me at the time asked how it was. I said, with great puzzlement, that I didn’t know what happened in the end. My friend assumed I didn’t like it. I said I didn’t know that either. Three days later, I decided it was genius.

Reading Peaces, Helen Oyeyemi’s newest novel, reminds me of reading The Rabbit Back Literature Society. An omnipresent but missing character, a series of questions answered by nothing more than more questions, a slow but not complete coalescing of patterns. But it’s been more than three days since I finished Peaces, and despite my expansive love for Oyeyemi’s work, I don’t think this one is quite genius.

Let’s begin.

Peaces Helen Oyoyemi

Otto and Xavier Shin, utterly charming thirtysomethings, have recently decided to consummate their love, not with sex (that’s been going on for some time now) or marriage (who needs that?), but with Otto taking Xavier’s last name. In celebration, Xavier’s eccentric aunt gifts them with a “non-honeymoon honeymoon,” a trip on The Lucky Day, a former tea smuggling train. The train is a curiosity, full of strange cars (a mail car, a sauna car) still in use, even though only five people and two mongooses appear to be on board. In the jumble of exploring the train and glimpsing a woman who is either saying hello or asking for help, Otto, Xavier, and pet mongoose Árpád find their cabin, but leave Otto’s suitcase behind on the station platform. The trip isn’t long enough for this to really matter, and Xavier’s seemingly close enough in size—though much is made of Otto’s days of the week boxers.

Oyeyemi’s prose is pure Oyeyemi: peerless in its craft, its trademark insight on brilliant display, with the addition of a heretofore unknown wit.

As Otto and Xavier’s trip begins—and as our trip as readers begins—things are delightful. Otto and Xavier are both singularly likeable: kind, self-aware, somewhat unreliable, hilarious. Oyeyemi’s prose is pure Oyeyemi: peerless in its craft, its trademark insight on brilliant display, with the addition of a heretofore unknown wit. When you have no idea what’s going on in this book—and that will happen several times over—Oyeyemi’s gorgeous, unexpected turn of phrase has more than enough magnetic pull to keep you on track.

As we spend more time on the train, though, things get weird. Your brain is going to want to turn this into an Agatha Christie-esque mystery, and while Oyeyemi presents a mystery, it’s neither the one you think it is, nor is there a dead body. Let’s recalibrate your brain. Oyeyemi is far too much her own force to pay such direct homage to Christie.

As Peaces rolls on, Oyeyemi reveals that the five people on the train—Otto, Xavier, Ava Kapoor (owner of the train and Xavier’s aunt’s friend), Allegra Yu (Ava’s lover), and Laura De Souza (a mysterious agent on behalf of someone with a financial interest in Ava)—all intersect, with ties both expected and inexorable. And through stories and epistles, snippets of information and paintings that reveal themselves differently to each viewer, Oyeyemi also reveals that all five people on the train know—or mysteriously, know of—a sixth character, Premysl Stojaspal, even if they don’t know Prem by name.

While Oyeyemi’s brilliant fabulism pervades Peaces, perhaps even more than it did What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours or Gingerbread, Prem is where that fabulism really comes into play, with shifting identities, cryptic encounters, a burning building, a theremin, a second mongoose, and oh, the fact that Ava Kapoor cannot seem to see Prem, even though everyone else can. This befuddles everyone else, and infuriates Prem, though Ava, without questioning the presence or realness of Prem, seems to take this largely in stride.

What does it mean when the person you most want to perceive you…simply doesn’t?

And in all the muddle of Peaces—Otto and Xavier’s seemingly shared former lover, the man who jumped from the moving train or perhaps never existed at all, the destruction of the dining car with French toast, and more—the crux of Oyeyemi’s work might be this: What does it mean when the person you most want to perceive you…simply doesn’t? When you want so badly to be seen, but you aren’t, at least not by the person who most matters? What does that failure do to your existence?

In the end, I found Oyeyemi’s central theme fascinating, her approach equally so. But while I think she ties her pieces together in the end—why these five people are on this train at this time—through her enigmatic sixth character, I didn’t find that she quite had enough pieces. Part of a jigsaw puzzle, but not the whole. With Oyeyemi, though, maybe that doesn’t matter as much. Her work is always somewhere on the continuum of thought experiment and adventure, and her prose always ushers you through, unwavering in its blazing magnificence, a gorgeous train barreling its way to a point unknown.

Before each conference, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy and other interesting books by women, nonbinary, and trans authors. You can find all of her reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!


Amy TenbrinkAmy 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 ten 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.

The truth-telling optimism of Catherynne M. Valente’s The Past is Red

The Past is Red

I approached The Past is Red with gallons of glee and a drop of trepidation. Plenty of books disappoint me, even ones written by my favorite authors. I am happy to report The Past is Red is the hopepunk tale of the apocalypse I have been waiting for. Reading it felt like seeing my name up in lights on a marquee—surreal and marvelous. It filled me with warm feelings for humanity at large because if our narrator Tetley, someone with plenty of pain in her life, can love the future, so can I.

The Past is Red begins with Catherynne M. Valente’s novelette “The Future is Blue” and expands the story of the narrator. In Part I, Tetley Abednego is the most optimistic girl in Garbagetown. Despite living on a floating garbage heap in the ocean centuries after the oceans rose high enough to swallow all dry land on Earth, Tetley finds beauty and hope all around her. Her best friends are an elephant seal named Big Bargains, a gannet bird called Grapecrush, and her twin brother Maruchan. She finds solace in her savior St. Oscar the Grouch. When the mobile theme park Brighton Pier arrives in town with news of dry land, all of Garbagetown prepares to turn on their engine to get there—a journey that will use all of the electricity that powers the town. When Tetley discovers a terrible secret, she makes a choice that turns her into the most hated girl in Garbagetown, and she learns the brutal lesson that no good deed goes unpunished.

In Part II, Tetley is some years older, and still suffering the consequences of her choice. She’s also still the most optimistic girl in Garbagetown, albeit one who lives on a boat circling the garbage heap. Told in alternating timelines, Tetley recounts how she made the choice to flee her punishment only to end up tricked into being the wife of a self-proclaimed king for thirteen whole days. Along the way she makes the acquaintance of a mysterious talking machine she calls Mister and the girl Big Red Mars, the only person to never hate her. What unfolds is beautiful, tragic, and wondrous.

It is unusual to find a bright and bubbly narrator in Valente’s work, which is part of what makes Tetley’s voice so thrilling. Longtime fans and newcomers will find Valente at her best, relishing in elaborate sentences packed with imagery that sort of make you want to visit Garbagetown despite it being the result of decadence and apathy towards the climate crisis left behind by the Fuckwits (that’s you and me, dear reader). I want to pull the tangled string of baby dolls so they wail at me like “the death of joy” as saltwater pours from their mouths, which I like to imagine arcs in high-order Bézier curves reminiscent of a fountain. I want to visit Tetley in her house made of wax candles and compliment her on her moringa tree. Then I want to go home. Of course, the tragedy of Garbagetown is that you can’t visit. Once you’re there, you’re stuck. You’re stuck among a group of humans with a concept of happiness so narrow that they would rather be told a lie they know is a lie than process the truth because a lie is so much easier to live with.

Much of the tension in the novel comes from the inability of others to understand Tetley. Why is she so happy when everyone wants her to be miserable? Why does she love Garbagetown when everyone else wants to leave?

It’s true that optimism can sometimes be insufferable, but our girl Tetley does not engage in toxic positivity. She very much understands the sorry state of the world, but still appreciates humanity’s innate goal, that North Star guiding every one of us: survival.

In her afterword, Valente writes, “The oceans can erase our cities, but they cannot drown our existential malaise.” I agree with Valente’s point here. It is easy and even comforting to be defeatist about humanity’s existence, to want someone else to call the shots. That’s why people like Tetley are necessary to help us progress. We are going to survive whether we like it or not. Yet to move forward, to change, to make things right, we need someone to tell us the truths we do not want to hear.

As for why Tetley has so much hope, consider this. The citizens of Garbagetown may live on a hideous trash heap, but what a miracle it is that they still live, worship, and love. It is with great pleasure I assure you this view of the apocalypse does not come with roving gangs of cannibals. Grimdark can launch itself to Mars in Tetley’s world.

If you want a soundtrack to accompany this brilliant book, fire up David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). There’s a reference to the track “Ashes to Ashes” in chapter 4, and the album encapsulates the tone of the book perfectly.


Jazz SextonJazz Sexton is a stay-at-home daughter taking care of her parents and working on a novel. She received her BA in English with a Certificate in Children’s Literature from the University of Pittsburgh, and her Certificate in Publishing from NYU. You can find her poetry in inkscrawl, Liminality, and Stone Telling.

Amy’s Book Club: The Scapegracers

Read with Amy
scapegracers Hannah Abigail Clarke

I have a bit of a thing for the mean-girls trope. I find it, simultaneously, to be a ferociously defiant fuck you to the demand that teenaged girls be submissive, passive, and silent, and an endlessly frustrating manifestation of the tokenism that white women so often enforce in order to control others. Much like my quest for a Bluebeard reinvention that doesn’t simply claim the violence inherent in the patriarchy (and more on that coming in my Sirens presentation this fall), I have read an untold number of books looking for a mean girls book that celebrates teenaged girls’ power without reinforcing patriarchal structures and false narratives.

Enter: The Scapegracers, Hannah Abigail Clarke’s young adult contemporary fantasy with the tag “Party hard. Hex harder.”

And I read it. Of course I read it. For all that I love A. R. Capetta’s The Lost Coast (with its delicate prose, liminal forests and enigmatic witches) and Sara Gailey’s When We Were Magic (with its accidentally-burst-penis opening and indomitable, hope-filled denouement), there’s been a hole in my heart just waiting, waiting, waiting for teen witches aggressive in their rebellion. Teen witches who are more likely to hex someone than disappear among the redwoods—and if a penis bursts, you know damn well that they did it on purpose.

Party hard. Hex harder.

Sideways Pike—teenager, outcast, lesbian, witch—has suddenly hit it bigtime. Used to exchanging small magics for Cokes, she’s about to take center stage at a party—and not just any party, but a Halloween party thrown by Jing, Yates, and Daisy, the school’s queen-bee mean girls. And they are paying her forty whole dollars.

Sideways does her magic, and things go, well, sideways. The magic is too easy, the circle broken too early. A girl disappears, but no one knows that yet. Sideways, buzzing, does more magic to impress a girl. Weird writing appears on the walls. Later that night, four dead deer, and the missing girl—alive—turn up in the bottom of Jing’s empty pool. You’d think that all of this would be the end of a girl’s social life. As if being the weird girl with magic wasn’t enough.

But Clarke’s characters surprise—and refuse the patriarchy’s expectations.

Jing, Yates, and Daisy don’t destroy Sideways, like they certainly could have with barely a thought. Instead they adopt her as their new best friend, a ready fourth, an equal. And while you’ll wait the entire rest of the book for Clarke’s ravenously cruel girl gang to pull the rug out from under Sideways, for things to go horribly wrong, for the false friendship to develop fangs, for Sideways to have to somehow fucking redeem herself back into a good girl, here’s the thing: That never happens. Sideways never wanted to be popular, she didn’t sell her soul for lipstick and a boy, and Clarke couldn’t care less about some patriarchal notion of girls needing to relinquish their power in order to achieve an unnecessary redemption. And Jing, Daisy, and Yates really do like Sideways. These girls become friends—and stay friends. You can take a breath. Clark’s book doesn’t betray its feminism or its readers.

Instead, Clarke’s teenaged girl gang is a revelation: girls who fight, girls who fuck, girls who are smart, girls who are claiming their identities and their power and their ambition. Girls who—maybe not just Sideways—have magic. Glass-shard Jing, violent Daisy, gentler, fiercer Yates, and Sideways, more wild, less sure. Girls who are gorgeous and glittery and gritty all at once.

Clarke does such a magnificent job of crafting such an undeniable sort of epiphany, where powerful girls are just powerful girls and not tools of the never-ending patriarchy, of crafting a feral work full of feelings and uncertainty and too much certainty, with indelible prose that doubles as the occasional gut punch, that the plot (and the acutely uneven pacing) almost doesn’t matter. This is the first of a series so a couple things that feel like dropped threads—the witch hunters, a book that’s something more and maybe has possessed Sideways—aren’t resolved here, but saved for a future installment. But this work is about characters to the exclusion of almost anything else and you’ll love these girls so much, admire them, respect them, that you’ll be back to pick up those dropped threads anyway.


Amy TenbrinkAmy 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 ten 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.

11 Masterwork Collections of Speculative Short Fiction

Read With Amy

I’ve always been a reader—and until I went to law school, it didn’t matter how busy I was, I read anything, everything, voraciously, ravenously. I read on the school bus; I read between songs during the musicals I accompanied; I read during class; I read on planes, and in trains, and in the backseats of so many automobiles that my mother was certain when I started driving that I wouldn’t know how to get anywhere. I read constantly.

And then I attended law school. Law school, as it turns out, is a full-brain endeavor. One where you read and read and read some more, but case law, so much case law, and so many statutes and so many regulations. And to be successful, you need to stuff all those cases and all those statutes and all those regulations into your tiny brain and hope they don’t leak out your ears before your final—because in law school, that final is 100% of your grade and your grades determine who will even interview you in the first place, let alone hire you.

You might expect that I stopped reading in law school, but that’s not quite true. Even law school couldn’t dampen my reading entirely. But I needed something easier, something fluffier, not something less thoughtful, perhaps, but less challenging, something that required enough less of my brain that it didn’t interfere with all those cases and statutes and regulations.

So in law school, I read children’s literature and romance. And not really that much of either. But when I had time, it was children’s literature and romance.

And then after three years of cases and statutes and regulations, three years of children’s literature and romance, as I started in private practice, which didn’t really offer any additional time for reading, but at least no longer required that I reserve my brain entirely for memorization, I had to find my way back to reading more demanding works. I had to retrain my brain. To again start using it to think about things besides the law.

I did that through short fiction. My love of short fiction is premised on the challenge of building a world, a history, a people in such few pages. I love space in fiction, where my brain can work and think and construct. But foundationally, my love of short fiction is because it brought me back to reading after a time in my life when I mostly couldn’t. It was my way home.

And now, as we finally emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, during which my brain was, for the second time in my life, categorically otherwise occupied, and I again need to find my way back to reading with any sort of focus or skill, I find myself again turning to short fiction.

So this month I want to offer you 11 masterwork collections of speculative works that I have loved. Maybe you will love them, too.

 

All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva
1. All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva

Sachdeva’s collection is delicate, balancing at that tenuous point where faith and fantasy overlap, where our need to believe in something larger than ourselves grasps at slippery threads, underscored by the inexplainable. These stories are full of wonder and awe: a man meets a mermaid, two girls practice something like witchcraft, a woman explores a subterranean cave. Sachdeva’s craft is beautiful, ineffable, inexorable.

Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee
2. Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee

In Conservation of Shadows, Lee uses his mastery of the short-story form to insistently reclaim the muddy awfulness of war from thousands of years of a shimmering veneer of grandeur. Lee’s protagonists are clever and determined, but so very fallible, propelled by duty and sacrifice, sometimes drowning in horror. Whether with spaceships or dragons, with far-flung science fiction or ancient myths, Lee always finds a way to reclaim our humanity from not only the awful specter of war, but our insistence on draping it in glory.

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter
3. A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter

Slatter eschews the notion of reclaiming fairy tales, and with it, any conversation with the heteropatriarchal foundation of fairy tales. Instead, she—like her heroines—is too busy to discuss, criticize, or even chastise those who would impose conformance. Too busy being, if you will: being frightened and fearless, being brave and bold, being frail and fantastical. And A Feast of Sorrows, one of her collections of short fiction, features twelve of her finest, darkest, most transgressive fairy tales.

The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith
4. The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

Kupersmith tackles history in her stunning collection, history fraught with war and displacement, so much fear and a stubborn determination to reclaim a culture from the aftermath of American aggression. Kupersmith’s work is born of her mother’s fleeing Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, her grandmother’s folkloric tales, and her own time in a Vietnam still rising after a millennium of occupation. The result is The Frangipani Hotel, a collection of sometimes terrifying, sometimes welcoming, always all-too-human ghost stories about a people emerging from the shadow of war.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
5. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Machado’s breathtaking, shattering work of fuck-you feminist stories opens with a virtuoso retelling of the Velvet Ribbon fairy tale as a fabulist, modern tale of privacy and the inevitability of male intrusions and never lets up from there. Machado incisively lays bare the constant oppressions and all-too-familiar compromises of women’s shared experiences, very aware that revolution can come only after fully realizing the rapacious horror of our quotidian lives.

And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges by Amber Sparks
6. And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges by Amber Sparks

Sparks’ collection is a clarion call cloaked in the glory of a battle cry: unapologetically feminist tales about ourselves—finding ourselves, prioritizing ourselves, caring for ourselves—somehow disguised as mere transgression and reclamation, wrapped in fairy tales and fables. As you spend time with Sparks’ firework of a collection, you realize that these stories may be called “revenges”—and they are—but they are also much, much more: a light in the dark, a reconnection with yourself, a beacon calling you home.

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg (now Daniel Lavery)
7. The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg (now Daniel Lavery)

Lavery uses familiar tales—fairy tales, folklore, children’s classics—to unearth unavoidable truths. Here is someone who understands the original, cautionary nature of our stories and how stories travel societies unchanged, not to mention the everyday horrors of societal expectations, biased systems, and expected gender performance. Lavery deftly, dazzlingly detonates all that in The Merry Spinster: Here, people are people, and happiness is happiness, and societal expectations can be damned.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa
8. Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

Ogawa is a national treasure in Japan but, despite a number of translations, tragically underread in the United States. Revenge is her weird, weird, breathtakingly weird collection of short stories and a terrific introduction to her larger body of work. As you traverse Ogawa’s eldritch landscape, you’ll stay up late wondering if these works are fantasy at all—or if they’re something far stranger, an examination of the quotidian macabre.

Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker
9. Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker

Pinsker’s masterwork—and it is a masterwork—thrives on isolation, nurtures it, consumes it. She has, with great care, woven the inescapable misery of isolation into thread that binds both her craft and your reading experience, a thin line where that isolation becomes desolation, where people cling fervently to hope, and when a single moment of human connection could have changed a life. Her stories are lonely, yearning, destructive, elegiac. Her collection is loss made tangible, in ink and paper.

Two Moons by Krystal A. Smith
10. Two Moons by Krystal A. Smith

Smith has crafted an utterly joyful, utterly delightful collection full of Black mysticism, queerness, and happy endings. In the opening, gorgeous work, a woman falls in love with the moon. Later, a woman births a goddess—and receives a surprising reward. In a surprise turn, a woman has a heart-to-heart…with her heart. Each work is a further pleasure, a further enchantment, a further chance to find a little bit of bliss. You’ll never want Smith’s collection to end.

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
11. What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Magnificent, highly perceptive stories, set in Africa or the United States, featuring Black characters and communities. Arimah skillfully deconstructs our need to be connected—sometimes to other people, sometimes to a community, sometimes to an idea of place or home or culture—and sets that against our all-too-real, all-too-destructive world. The first story alone is a gasp-aloud work: shocking, profound, heartbreaking.

Before each conference, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy and other interesting books by women, nonbinary, and trans authors. You can find all of her reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!


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

S. L. Huang’s Burning Roses will change how you see the world and your place in it

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What if?, S. L. Huang seems to ask in her latest work. What if the stories were wrong? What if once upon a time were wrong? What if it were really twice upon a time? Or thrice upon a time?

Or as many fucking times upon a time as you need to get it right?

We talk a lot about heroes. In our books, on the speculative shelves, we know those heroes as illustrious warriors: hypermasculine, cisgender men saving the countryside from marauding monsters through practiced, performative violence, discarding slain tyrants and murdered dragons in their wake. We know, now, that others can be heroes, too—though even here, we generally reserve the word “hero” for only those white, cisgender women who also slay tyrants and murder dragons.

We talk a lot, too, about monstrousness. Not so much about monstrousness of cisgender men, but the perceived and impossibly expansive monstrousness of those of marginalized genders: sirens and furies, yōkai and harionago, la llorona and banshees. About monstrousness as the living embodiment of transgression, a deliberate re-casting of our rage and grief and power and pleasure as monstrous.

And of course we talk a lot about redemption. Not for heroes, who need no redemption from the violence that society demands they perform. But redemption for cisgender male villains, whom we all know need just one more chance—always just one more chance—to find the right path. Sometimes, we even talk about redemption for those of marginalized genders, from our presumed monstrousness, where redemption is less about choice and more about subjugation: through renunciation of power, through marriage, through death.

But what we don’t talk about a lot is forgiveness. Or the notion that, as much as we may want the forgiveness of others, sometimes what we need is to forgive ourselves. To salve the damage and the pain and the trauma that we have wrought, and to recognize that for all the damage we have done to others, we have inflicted even more upon ourselves.

In Burning Roses, S. L. Huang wants to talk about heroism and monstrousness and redemption. But she also wants, very much, to talk about mistakes and pain and, yes, the seemingly impossible task of forgiving yourself.

In this fairytale remix, Huang gifts readers with two middle-aged lesbian heroes, living together somewhat grumpily, levering their creaky bones off the porch to go fight monsters, pining for their respective lost wives, drowning in the pain and trauma of their respective mistakes. Rosa, a relative stranger in this land, is a Latina Red Riding Hood, raised in an abusive household, a crack shot with a rifle, but who, in seeking vigilante justice, was so oblivious to the injustice of her actions—finally fleeing both consequences and her wife and daughter.

Hou Yi the Archer, reimagined as a Chinese trans woman, was a legit hero in her prime, adored by the people, fêted by the gods. She loved her wife, and took a child as her own son, but her choices cost her both, and now, even well past her prime, she continues to readily, perhaps eagerly, throw herself in the path of monsters. She found Rosa by the side of the road some time ago, brought her home with her, and now both seek literal monsters to battle, knowing any one could be their last, in order to better ignore their respective figurative monsters.

As Burning Roses opens, sunbirds—fire-breathers—are ravaging the countryside and Hou Yi and Rosa gather themselves for battle once more. But these sunbirds are controlled by a man from Hou Yi’s past, and Hou Yi and, despite both their protests, Rosa, set off across the countryside after him. As they travel, we learn their respective mistakes, their pain, their trauma, and their hopelessness—why each continues to throw herself in front of monsters, desperation disguised as heroism. And why heroics, in the end, are the path to neither redemption nor happiness.

Huang’s fierce, blazing deconstruction of the respective pain of Hou Yi and Rosa—and how that pain distorted their memories and perceptions, and how those distortions frustrated any attempt that either might make to forgive herself for her mistakes—also functions as a similar deconstruction for all of us. Pain is sometimes an easy distraction, all too familiar, a deserved punishment that diverts us from the real work of perceiving things as they were or are, and finding a way to forgive ourselves our mistakes. And Huang’s deconstruction does, for all that, come with happy endings for both Hou Yi and Rosa—and maybe for us, too.

Burning Roses is a novella, a mere 153 pages. You can read it in an hour—but it will sit with you for days because Huang has a lot to say about heroics and monstrousness and redemption, about pain and mistakes and forgiveness. She’ll offer you a chance at something kinder, gentler, more thoughtful. She’ll change how you see the world and your place in it.

Before each conference, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy and other interesting books by women, nonbinary, and trans authors. You can find all of her reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!


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

Kinitra Brooks’ Recommended Reading

Sirens Guest of Honor Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks shares a recommended reading list of novels, short fiction, and nonfiction. If you enjoy her work, or you want to learn more about what writers, especially black women writers, are doing in the speculative space, this list is a spectacular place to start. Take it away, Kintra!

 

Conjure Women: A Novel Afia Atakora

Conjure Women: A Novel by Afia Atakora

This book is next on my “To Be Read” list. I’m so excited because it focuses on everything my current research project is centered on: Black Southern women and the spiritual/medicinal practices highlighted in the practice of conjure. I can’t wait!

Boondock Kollage: Stories from the Hip Hop South Regina N. Bradley

Boondock Kollage: Stories from the Hip Hop South by Regina N. Bradley

Bradley clearly talks to the ancestors. It is evident in her ability to raise the dead and conjure the spirits of the Black South in her short story collection.

Speculative Sankofarration: Haunting Black Women in Contemporary Horror Fiction Kinitra Brooks, Stephanie Schoellman & Alexis McGee

“Speculative Sankofarration: Haunting Black Women in Contemporary Horror Fiction” by Kinitra Brooks, Stephanie Schoellman & Alexis McGee

I know it can be a bit gauche to recommend your own work, but this is a short scholarly article I wrote with my graduate students that further teases out my approaches to black women’s horror writing since the publication of Searching for Sycorax. It’s heavy on the theory and disciplinary language, but I did want to offer it as an option for readers.

Let's Play White Chesya Burke

Let’s Play White by Chesya Burke

A great collection of short horror stories. Burke takes an interesting turn on the classic zombie story in “CUE: Change” making it hella black in its examination of what constitutes humanity. Burke also revises the evil child trope with the character Shiv in “I Make People Do Bad Things,” which takes place in 1920s Harlem.

LaShaun Rousselle Mystery Series Lynn Emery

LaShaun Rousselle Mystery Series by Lynn Emery

A quirky little series about a small-town outcast that returns to rural Louisiana to continue the conjure tradition of her ancestors while solving paranormal mysteries and battling the monsters that cause them. A great representation of contemporary Southern rural life and black women’s long history in these places.

The Crown of Shards Series Jennifer Estep

The Crown of Shards Series by Jennifer Estep

I just discovered this series as I am an avid fan of Estep’s Elemental Assassins series. But Crown of Shards is just different enough as it is placed in an alternate medieval monarchical society. If the magical assassins and gladiator fighting doesn’t manage to kill Evie Blair—palace politics just might do the job

Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert and Margarite Fernandez Olmos

Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert and Margarite Fernandez Olmos

So many times I discuss the influence of traditional African religious practices in horror. This book begins to clear up a lot of the misinformation that continues to exist about these practices, some which are actual religions while others are often supplemental practices to black folks’ Christianity. Each chapter focuses on a different religious practice and the knowledge begins to take away the fear of these Africanized practices that is historically steeped anti-black ignorance.

Mojo Workin: The Old African American Hoodoo System Katrina Hazzard-Donald

Mojo Workin: The Old African American Hoodoo System by Katrina Hazzard-Donald

A nonfiction book that begins to discuss the concept of conjure/hoodoo and the West and Central African practices that influenced them.

Skin Folk Nalo Hopkinson

Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson

A great short story collection that examines the magical and the peculiar that populates Caribbean folklore. My personal favorites are “Ganger (Ball Lightning)” in which a couple strengthens their relationship when they must battle their animated sex suit and “Greedy Choke Puppy” in which a young graduate student discovers the magical history of the women in her family.

Tell My Horse Zora Neale Hurston

Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston

A collection of Southern oral culture gathered and transcribed by Hurston as an ethnographer in the first third of the 20th century. These stories show that black folks have long enjoyed horror stories and the characters that define them.

Dread Nation Justina Ireland

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Black girl protagonist in a zombie uprising initiated by The Civil War? Yes, please. I’m currently reading the sequel, Deathless Divide.

How Long ‘til Black Future Month? N.K. Jemisin

How Long ‘til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin

The short story “Red Dirt Witch” is worth the purchase of this entire collection. I enjoy others, such as “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters” and “The City Born Great” but “Red Dirt Witch” is as close to perfect as one can get in a short story. This is Jemisin firing on all cylinders while also giving us a preview into the importance of black mother/daughter relationships she explores so thoroughly in The Broken Earth series.

Jade City Fonda Lee

Jade City by Fonda Lee

I’ve almost finished this book on Audible. It’s a gangster family drama set in an alternate history steeped in multiple Asian traditions. There is a unique complexity as her world-building is organic while her fight scenes are described like you are right there in the mix—you can smell the blood and feel the jade.

Talking to the Dead LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant

Talking to the Dead by LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant

This nonfiction ethnographic project interviews multiple women of the Gullah community and examines the traditions that define them. Manigault-Bryant examines the phenomenon I discussed in my interview, the concept of “tending to the dead,” that shows our folkloric practice of how the living dead manifest in black life.

A Blade So Black L.L. McKinney

A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney

A fun retelling of Alice in Wonderland with great world-building and a complex protagonist who has to save the world and remember to take the beef out of the freezer for dinner.

Mama Day Gloria Naylor

Mama Day by Gloria Naylor

The first of the two novels I consider the perfect example of black women’s horror writing tradition. Mama Day is a conjure woman who is at least 80 years old and rules the island of Willow Springs with her medicinal knowledge, ancestral ties, and her knack for baking perfect coconut cakes. Just don’t piss her off….

Stigmata Phyllis Alesia Perry

Stigmata by Phyllis Alesia Perry

This novel is the second of the two books I consider black woman horror writing perfection. It has everything, possession, ancestral traditions, black mother/daughter bonds, time travel…I discover new things every time I read it. Simply amazing.

White Trash Zombie Series Diana Rowland

White Trash Zombie Series by Diana Rowland

These books are simply fun. A great little romp inside of an interesting mythology. Protagonist Angel Crawford is a delight who knows who she is and works the hell out of her lane.

The Santeria Habitat Series Kenya Wright

The Santeria Habitat Series by Kenya Wright

A fun series that has were-leopards, fairies, demons…and a Prime—a sexy fantastical creature based in an alternate history Miami. Miami is now a caged city divided into different regions named after major orisha. The protagonist is a half demon solving paranormal mysteries and choosing between two sexy shifter men. I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment that will feature were-dragons.

Honorable Mentions:

The Black God's Drums P. Djèlí Clark

The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

The Ballad of Black Tom Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Salsa Nocturna: A Bone Street Rumba Collection Daniel José Older

Salsa Nocturna: A Bone Street Rumba Collection by Daniel José Older


 

Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks

Kinitra D. Brooks is the Audrey and John Leslie Endowed Chair in Literary Studies in the Department of English at Michigan State University. She specializes in the study of black women, genre fiction, and popular culture. Her current research focuses on portrayals of the Conjure Woman in popular culture. Dr. Brooks has three books in print: Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror, a critical treatment of black women in science fiction, fantasy, and horror; Sycorax’s Daughters, an edited volume of short horror fiction written by black women; and The Lemonade Reader, a collection of essays on Beyoncé’s 2016 audiovisual project, Lemonade. She is also the co-editor of the New Suns book series at Ohio State University Press. Dr. Brooks spent the 2018–2019 academic year as the Advancing Equity Through Research Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

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

Writing Fluidly: Black Women and Horror in Searching for Sycorax

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 Kinitra’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Alyssa Collins on Searching for Sycorax by Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks.


Searching for Sycorax

Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror is a literary monograph by Dr. Kinitra Brooks. In it, Brooks presents black women characters as both stereotypical fodder and literary backbone of the horror genre. Making an argument both about what horror is and what it can do, Brooks excavates intersections of black women’s representation in the genre and presents new ways of reading and understanding black women’s role in horror writ large.

Picking up the book, I was very curious about the title, especially the invocation of Sycorax in a work about horror and haunting. Haunting in relation to blackness and fiction is not necessarily a novel concept. There are many black ghosts that haunt the canon of American literature and African American literature (reference chattel slavery and years of racial terror and violence). So I really wanted to know: why call on Sycorax? For Brooks, calling on Sycorax is about interrogating the influence, absence, and power of black women in horror. Invoking Sycorax is about looking to the obscured, erased, and othered women who both influence and haunt while being maligned. Searching for Sycorax, then, is a quest to highlight how black women are represented in contemporary horror and to reveal how black women authors are actively changing it. Each of the five chapters presents an argument that progresses from excavating characters like Michonne from The Walking Dead and outlining connections between horror as a genre to conversations and literary canons of black feminism; to looking at the ways black women authors write through an intersectional framework and detailing what a black women’s horror aesthetic might look like.

This is fully an academic monograph so be prepared for a lot of close readings, canon generation, and a nimble use of a varied theoretical toolbox that includes black feminist theory, genre theory, and contemporary literary theory. I’m not a huge horror buff, but I found Brooks’ arguments about horror both inviting and innovative. Brooks is able to both critique the genre, revealing a good deal about the failures in representing black women by the horror genre, and argue for the efficacy of having black women authors use horror elements in their work.

For me, Brook’s most important intervention is not her practice of unveiling mischaracterized black women in the genre, or her interest in revitalizing the horror genre, but her articulation of what she calls “fluid fiction.”

Fluid fiction is “a racially gendered framework that revises genre fiction in that it purposefully obfuscates the boundaries of science fiction/fantasy/horror writing just as black women confound the boundaries of race, gender, and class.” (p.71) Brooks argues that just as black women are the founders and proponents for intersectional approaches to politics, they also undermine genre distinctions because telling stories that engage black women honestly necessitates such mixing. As a scholar of black speculative fiction, I really enjoyed Brooks’ framework because there is often an incredible amount of handwringing when it comes to black authors and how their work “fits” into canons or genres. I’ve seen many arguments about fluidity or intersection but few that ground dismantling narratives of genre fixity with intersectional analysis so clearly. The possibilities of reading (and re-reading) texts by black women using Brooks’ framework are powerful and endless.

While reading an academic book is definitely different from perusing a novel, if you are a fan of contemporary horror, a student of contemporary literature, or simply have a bit of time on your hands, you might give this book a try.


Alyssa Collins is an assistant professor of English and African American Studies at the University of South Carolina. Her work explores the intersections of race and technology as depicted in 20th century and contemporary African American literature, digital culture, and new media. When she’s not working, she writes about race, superheroes, television, and embodiment around the internet.

Joamette’s Recommended Readings

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Heartwood: Non-Binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy edited by Joamette Gil

Heartwood: Non-Binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy

Into the woods
Without regret,
The choice is made,
The task is set.
Into the woods,
But not forget-
Ting why I’m on the journey.
Into the woods
to get my wish,
I don’t care how,
The time is now.

“Into the Woods,” lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Not being a noted fan of fairy tales, and not having participated in the Kickstarter for Heartwood: Non-binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy, edited by Joamette Gil, it took me a rather embarrassingly long time to work out why the comics in this anthology by non-binary creators all centered on the woods. The woods have been a space of transformation and potential in stories for centuries, as the Sondheim lyrics that I couldn’t stop thinking of while reading this book indicate. This collection, which is delightful overall, extends that potential to the creators it includes and to the characters in its stories, many of whom are non-binary themselves.

“Sylvan fantasy” is a broad category, and the stories in Heartwood vary from contemporary settings, like the opening “The Biggest Dog You’ve Ever Seen” by Z. Akhmetova, to fully secondary world settings, like “New Leaves” by Emily Madly and Maria Li. Most treat the idea of the forest as literal, but in at least one comic, Rhiannon Rasmussen and Chan Chau’s “Dive,” the forest is either metaphorical or a forest of seaweed. (Partly because it played with the concept, that one was one of my favorites.) “Finding Alex,” by editor Joamette Gil and Corey Ranson, takes the brief for the collection very literally indeed—and the story, in which the main character asserts their non-binary identity through a strange encounter in the woods, works beautifully.

One of the standout entries in the collection, “Shuvah (Return)” by Ezra Rose and Jey Barnes, gives that same plot a very specifically Jewish twist, as the protagonist returns to the woods to find the same forest beings with whom they celebrated Sukkot as a young Orthodox child, and celebrates Tu B’Shevat with them as a non-binary adult.

Indeed, one of the strengths of this collection is its showcasing non-binary protagonists in a variety of ways—whether in stories revolving around their being non-binary, or stories in which they have adventures like any other fantasy protagonist.

Having both together elevates Heartwood out of the potential danger zone of being a gimmick to being a fun, relevant comics anthology with a lot of heart.

Heartwood is a beautiful book, particularly its gilt-edge pages and foil lettering on its gorgeous cover, but the black and white printing unfortunately does render some of the comics hard to distinguish at times—I suspect some if not most of the submissions were originally full color. Those comics like “Dive” which were clearly conceptualized for monochrome printing stand out for their crisp lines and clearly differentiated tones. In terms of art style, most of the comics in the collection are on the more conventional end of the gamut of comics art; the more schematic, “Hyperbole and a Half”-esque art of Polly Guo’s “Paloma” is probably the most different from the rest. But even though the anthology includes twenty-two stories, none of them feel rushed, and none of them are obviously less technically accomplished than any of the others. These creators know their stuff, and it shows.

All in all, Heartwood is a strong entry from Power & Magic Press, living up to its stated mission of showcasing the talents of non-binary comics creators and the press’s mission of providing a home for thoughtful genre content by queer creators and creators of color. If you haven’t had much experience with the current flowering of indie comics, Heartwood is a great place to start. I’ll definitely be looking forward to future anthologies from Gil and P&M Press.


Dr. Andrea Horbinski holds a PhD in modern Japanese history with a designated emphasis in new media from the University of California, Berkeley. Her book manuscript, “Manga’s Global Century,” is a history of Japanese comics from 1905–1989. She has discussed anime, manga, fandom, and Japanese history at conventions and conferences on five continents, and her articles have appeared in Transformative Works and Cultures, Internet Histories, Convergence, and Mechademia.

Power & Magic is a queer witch comics anthology full of variety and heart

Power & Magic: The Queer Witch Comics Anthology review

Power & Magic: The Queer Witch Comics Anthology is edited by Joamette Gil, and showcases seventeen creators of color in fifteen unique stories. Each one interprets “witch” differently, but all feature people of color and queerness in a beautiful way. As with any collection of works, there is a wide range of styles and tones; while I felt some stories were stronger than others, overall it is a lovely book. On a side note, I appreciate that the table of contents includes content warnings for particular stories. It’s a thoughtful detail that I wish more publishers would use.

The anthology opens with Jemma Salume’s elegant four-pager which, despite its brevity, is a gorgeous and intriguing gem that brilliantly sets the stage for the rest of the stories. For me, standouts include Nivedita Sekar’s modern take on fairy tales; drawn in delicate pencil, it is a quiet meditation on heartbreak, dating, and growth. Another highlight is Ann Xu’s exploration of generational magic, where the loss of one’s own language will be familiar to many children of diaspora. Her expressive brushstrokes flow through the pages, leading to a poignant triumph. I also loved Aatmaja Pandya’s piece; her deceptively simple art carries her mostly wordless story, a tender look at old age and death. Finally, the last story, by Naomi Franquiz, starts from a painful place, but the evocative art and lyrical writing come together for a hopeful journey of healing through community.

Gil’s own story is a short but compelling examination of tradition. She subverts the usual dichotomy of light equals good and dark equals bad, an especially effective choice given the Black characters in her piece. Gil’s dreamy art compliments her tale of self-discovery and love, and while it might not be the flashiest story in the book, it feels like the core of what Power & Magic is all about.

On a technical note, the book is in grayscale, and a couple of the comics don’t have quite enough visual contrast, making them somewhat hard to read. (Possibly the digital version of the book might have fared better than the print edition in this regard.) The text also varies from fonts to hand lettering, and some readers might struggle when the text is smaller or less clear.

Gil has put together a solid collection with lots of variety and plenty of heart. If you enjoy other queer and/or POC focused anthologies of fantastical comics, like the Beyond or Elements series, Power & Magic casts a similar spell.


Lani Goto grew up on a steady diet of fantasy books, but now it’s more like a mix of some fantasy, lots of sci-fi, and a bit of horror. In addition to reading, they enjoy cooking, hanging out with animals, and yelling at movies. They have a degree in art, and another in comics, though they currently work with engineering teams at the Wikimedia Foundation.

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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