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

Read With Amy

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.

Jade City by Fonda Lee: Sirens Book Review

Jade City Fonda Lee book review

Midway through Jade City, I realized that I felt complete trust in its author to a degree that I had never felt before. I trusted that Fonda Lee knew her world, from its geopolitics to its cuisine. I trusted that she knew her characters, how they would act and react, and where they would clash. I trusted that she knew her craft, that she knew how to spin character, setting, and conflict into the thread of the story. And that the story would be moving but never manipulating—that any triumph or heartbreak I felt for these characters would be thoroughly earned.

None of this trust was misplaced. Jade City, the first entry in the Green Bone Saga, is a masterclass in crafting an epic fantasy that resonates on personal and thematic levels.

Jade City by Fonda Lee review

On the island of Kekon, Green Bone warriors train in the use of jade. The island’s culture is entwined with this magical jade, which heightens strength and senses. Green Bone clans are integral parts of society, from their head families, to the Fists and Fingers who fight for them, to the lantern men whose businesses are pledged in their service.

In the No Peak Clan, leadership has recently passed to the patriarch’s grandson, the new Pillar Kaul Lan. Lan’s fiery brother, Hilo, is at his right hand; his sister Shae is just returning to Kekon after years abroad, determined to live her life outside the clan. But the Mountain Clan is moving to challenge No Peak, and a new drug is letting others use jade with no regard for Kekonese traditions and training. Now the Kaul siblings must figure out how to steer their clan forward in a changing world.

This time of transition yields a narrative rich in characterization, nuanced strategy, and thrilling fight choreography as the Green Bones of No Peak fight for their clan. As the conflict unfolds, the next generation of Green Bones are finishing their training, adopted Kaul cousin Anden among them. He and his classmates build jade tolerance and learn how to harness disciplines like Strength, Perception, and Lightness. Yet Anden worries about his high sensitivity to jade, which makes him powerful but potentially susceptible to overexposure.

In addition to its jade-enhanced martial arts, Jade City has all the elements I enjoy in gangster stories, from the strategizing to the family saga. Yet it is self-aware enough not to fall into the casual sexism and erasure of women that are so common in that genre. Kekon isn’t free from sexism, but Lee examines it and features women characters who claim their agency. It’s refreshing to read a gangster story that reframes the genre and addresses its problematic elements.

Gangster family sagas are rich with tension between the familial sphere and ruthless, violent business. Jade City makes excellent use of this tension. The Kaul siblings carry the baggage of lifelong family dynamics as they calculate their next move in clan business. They reckon with their relationships to Kekonese traditions even as times change and international politics loom ever larger over their small island. Jade City has all the elements I enjoy in gangster stories, from strategizing to family legacy. Yet it avoids the casual sexism and erasure of women that can occur in the genre. Kekon isn’t free from sexism, but Lee examines it and features women characters who claim their agency. The story is refreshing in its self-awareness.

Jade City blends intricate worldbuilding with emotional resonance, and each new piece of Kekonese history or folklore adds depth to the characters and setting. The ways the Kaul family grapples with tradition, continuity, and change feel real and nuanced. I felt deeply for these characters, whether my heart was breaking for them or I was raging at them. This is equally true of the sequel, Jade War, which expands the geographic and cultural scope of its storytelling. I look forward to the final volume, Jade Legacy, and I trust that Fonda Lee will steer her world and her characters exactly where they need to go.


Lily Weitzman

Lily Weitzman is a programming, outreach, and communications librarian at the Public Library of Brookline, Massachusetts. That means that on any given day, she might be found leading a poetry reading group, managing the science fiction and fantasy collections, teaching technology skills, or helping you find the title of that book you heard about on public radio. She has previously worked on a Yiddish oral history project and volunteered as an aquarium educator. Outside the library, Lily chairs the Yiddish Committee at Boston Workers Circle.

Zeroboxer by Fonda Lee: Sirens Book Review

Zeroboxer Fonda Lee book review

Zeroboxer by Fonda Lee is a book that pairs perfectly with a Friday evening after a long week and your biggest bowl of popcorn. It’s a fast-moving YA debut that cuts out the filler and leaves a lean, entertaining, action-movie-like tale. In fact, the fight scenes were so well done that I sometimes felt as though I was watching them instead of reading them.

Carr “The Raptor” Luka is a talented 17-year-old up-and-comer in an MMA-style sport called zeroboxing. The twist? The “zero” in zeroboxing is for “zero gravity.” Carr has been training to go pro since he was seven, finally making the move from Earth to orbit on Valtego Station a year and a half ago. However, as he begins the final fight in his current contract, he isn’t sure whether management will bother to renew him, let alone ever give him a shot at a title. And then everything changes. Thrown into the limelight by a spectacular fight and a highly marketable look and story, Carr finds himself with an incredible offer from the association’s head, a fancy PR agent, and fresh set of problems that his growing fame only intensifies.

At its heart, Zeroboxer is a sports drama, but the science fiction component isn’t simply window dressing. While the futuristic setting does provide the foundation for some fantastic zero-G fight choreography—of which the book delivers in spades—that’s not the only reason for the genre mash-up. It also makes space for the author to explore the potential societal ramifications of a time in which humanity and genetic engineering have extended their reach. On Earth, gene therapy has become common and glasses little more than a vintage accessory, but on Mars, gene editing has gone further. Residents of the red planet have long utilized genetic modification to help them adapt to their environment’s colder temperatures and punishing radiation. A side effect is that it has created even more visible physical differences between Terrans and Martian colonists. While genetic modification is just one among a portfolio of political and economic differences between these populations, it has obvious implications and is a clear contributor to growing tensions between Terrans and Martians. For Carr, nothing matters more than zeroboxing. It’s not about the fame, the fans, or the money; it’s about the next fight. Nevertheless, he finds himself unwillingly pulled into the conflict as a Terran athlete in a Martian-dominated sport and as he begins a romantic relationship with his half-Martian PR agent.

While fight sequences are fantastic—no doubt enhanced by the author’s experience as a black belt in both karate and kung fu—what impressed me most was how easily she drops you into the world. The prose, much like the protagonist, is skillful, quick, and efficient; it has no time to slow down for exposition. Instead, you are off and humming along from the start, following Carr though his pre-fight routines, ruminating on the downsides of zero-G bathrooms, and entering a world—of the future, and of professional fighting—with just enough of everything you need to connect and keep moving.


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

Sarah Gailey’s Book List with Four Words on Each

Sarah Gailey book recommendations

Sirens Guest of Honor Sarah Gailey shares a recommended reading list, with four descriptors for each. If you enjoy Sarah’s work, or you want a recommended reading list of exceptional works, this list is for you. Take it away, Sarah!

 

To Be Taught, If Fortunate

To Be Taught, If Fortunate
by Becky Chambers

beautiful
hopeful
honest
tender

The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian
by Han Kang

intense
harrowing
scathing
brutal

The Need

The Need
by Helen Phillips

gripping
dark
furious
surprising

Sisters of the Vast Black

Sisters of the Vast Black
by Lina Rather

unflinching
kind
confrontational
sweet

The Prince and the Dressmaker

The Prince and the Dressmaker
by Jen Wang

lovely
aching
immersive
perfect

An Unkindness of Ghosts

An Unkindness of Ghosts
by Rivers Solomon

cutthroat
direct
relentless
brilliant

The Only Harmless Great Thing

The Only Harmless Great Thing
by Brooke Bolander

furious
dazzling
ambitious
satisfying


Sarah Gailey Book Recommendations

Hugo Award winner and bestselling author Sarah Gailey is an internationally published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Their nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe, and they won a Hugo award for Best Fan Writer. Their most recent fiction credits include Vice and The Atlantic. Their debut novella, River of Teeth, was a 2018 Hugo and Nebula award finalist. Their bestselling adult novel debut, Magic for Liars, was published in 2019; their latest novella, Upright Women Wanted, was published in February 2020. Their young adult novel debut, When We Were Magic, came out in March 2020.

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

American Hippo by Sarah Gailey: Sirens Book Reviews

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


River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

HALLIE TIBBETTS

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

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

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

  3. Hippos can’t jump.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With hippos.


KAREN BAILEY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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