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Vandana Singh’s work, steeped in Indian tales, presented with a scientist’s awe, asks the question that I most need from my sci-fi reading.

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

Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories

Today, we need to talk about fantasy and science fiction.

And why they’re different.

And why I generally like one and not the other.

And what on earth any of this has to do with Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories.

Let’s start with a confession: As a general rule—and I do mean a very broadly applied rule with a ludicrously small number of exceptions—I don’t like science fiction. I do not like your spaceships or your far-flung planets. I do not like your artificial intelligence or your aliens. I do not like your Star Wars or your Star Trek or your Guardians of the Galaxy. I do not like any of that, Sam I am.

I often find that, when we’re talking about liking or disliking entire genres, it’s perhaps helpful to throw out the very good and very bad examples. If you put N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season in the hands of someone who doesn’t like fantasy, they might well like it anyway because it’s bloody perfect. It’s so perfect that the fantasy elements— despite being wholly necessary for the entire point—are almost secondary. In so many ways, it’s a slavery book, a climate change book, a middle-aged woman’s bildungsroman book, not a fantasy book. (Yes, you and I both know it’s actually a fantasy book.) Similarly, let’s not extrapolate anything from the fact that I really did like Kameron Hurley’s sci-fi The Stars Are Legion, despite that it was terribly damp, because it’s also terribly good. While I fully recognize that sci-fi tropes are necessary for a woman to give birth to a spaceship part, for me, The Stars Are Legion is a reproductive justice book and its (very damp) science fiction trappings are secondary.

Conversely, it’s probably not helpful to draw conclusions about genres from disliking their very bad books. Bad books are bad books, whether they have aliens or not.

But when you start to look at the middle swath of books, which are neither very good nor very bad, I am much more likely to find something that I like in the fantasy books than in the science fiction books. And Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, Vandana Singh’s collection, with its foundation of myth and its execution of science, was an interesting read for me because it almost begs the question, “Well, Amy, why is it, in fact, that you don’t like science fiction anyway?”

And here, I think, is the answer: Start, again, by removing the really great books from your calculus. And by that, I mean, more often than not, those books that use the possibilities of the genre as a necessary component of the actual story they’re telling: The Stars Are Legion’s use of forced birth of spaceship parts as a furious cry for reproductive justice, for example, or Ninefox Gambit’s shoving a resurrected, renowned, murderous strategist into the head of a crashhawk to explore the value, or not, of rule-following as a form of regime change.

Put those aside. What you’re left with is a lot of stories that, whether you love them or you don’t, maybe didn’t need that particular genre to tell its story. Because stories aren’t really about unicorns or spaceships or ghosts, are they? They’re about revolution or love or self. (And we could go down a serious rabbit hole right here about what the necessary components of a story are, but I will argue into the ground that spaceships are only very rarely one of them.) But for one reason or another or a thousand, the author chose a particular genre. So regardless of whether it’s unicorns or spaceships or ghosts (or all three, whee), you’ve begged certain questions that readers think comes with them: virginity issues, say, or the physics of warp speed, or what exactly is going bump in the night. So far, still okay!

And—I swear I’m coming to the point, hang in there—here’s why I read speculative fiction, generally: It gives authors a chance to create worlds that don’t have the same bullshit as ours. I read speculative fiction for the possibility of exploring a world that is better—more fair, more just—than ours. Or that explores issues that our world has in more thoughtful, more empathetic ways. And that’s why I get mad at both science fiction and fantasy for their thoughtless defaults to white, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical people. Speculative fiction presents the opportunity to make more people human.

But here’s the thing: When we’re talking about who gets to be human in speculative fiction, science fiction fumbles that issue way more often than fantasy. Which is not to say that fantasy isn’t rife with issues of slavery and consent and a thousand other problematic things. Your flowers might speak, Lewis Carroll, but do they get to vote? I fucking thought not.

But sheesh, in sci-fi, basically every setting and every plot begs questions of humanity. Every time there’s an alien or some artificial intelligence or a sentient plant or a jumped-up Roomba, I want to know whether that’s a human. In a world where a robot can run a planet, I want to know what the author thinks being human means. In worlds where computers can think on their own and people are technologically enhanced and aliens turn up every dang day, what does human-ness require? And some science fiction books interrogate this well (Semiosis), and some do not, and so many don’t even try, but when I read speculative fiction specifically so authors can explore worlds that are more fair or just or thoughtful than ours, and we’re not querying how we treat the independently thinking robots who are running entire planets, it makes me furious.

Which brings me, finally and in the most roundabout way possible, to Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories.

Vandana Singh is both a speculative fiction author and a theoretical particle physicist. And frankly, you can always tell when a sci-fi author is also a scientist, can’t you? It’s not even so much the facility with the science that’s apparent in the details, but the way of looking at the world around you as a place of infinite possibility. A proclivity to see the wonder of both the grand scale of the universe and every person’s tiny place in it.

Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories has all of that wonder and then some. Singh was born in India, to parents with graduate degrees in English literature, so she was raised on stories: Indian epics, the myths and legends of South Asia, Shakespeare, and more. Those tales are the foundation for her work: Even as we’re following a protagonist across the universe in pursuit of a robot, hell-bent on revenge, Singh is explicitly drawing parallels to the Ramayana. But perhaps even more than those tales, Singh’s awe of the universe seeps into the pores of every story. Her stories are about wonder and wondering: Is time truly linear? Can one person change the cosmic course of the universe? Is there a case to be made for an Anti-Occam’s Razor Theory? Her stories are an inherent exploration: of society, of the world, of the universe.

And of what it means to be human.

Through all those legends and all that wonder, in worlds of profound artificial intelligence and alien manipulation, Singh’s fundamental question is a humanist one: What does it mean to be human? It’s a question that she poses delicately, empathetically, in a profoundly exploratory way—but she’s relentless in her inquiry. Every story in the collection asks, in one way or another, what it means to be human. Is it love? Is it revenge? Is it duty? Is it self-determination? An ability to change the world? Is it, in fact, being able to wonder at the endless possibilities of the universe?

I could tell you more, of course. About how “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra” is an explosive take on the power of stories. Or about how “A Handful of Rice” contemplates both surprise and compromise. Or the reader’s own moment of wonder halfway through “Peripeteia.”

But I don’t need to, do I?

Because you already know the most important part: Vandana Singh’s work, steeped in Indian tales, presented with a scientist’s awe, asks the question that I most need from my sci-fi reading: What makes us human?


Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and nine 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 problem of what comes after the end in epic fantasy is as old as epic fantasy itself…

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

The Afterward

E.K. Johnston’s The Afterward (Dutton, 2019) is something of an odd duck in the current YA field, starting with its intentional 90s throwback cover. Although it’s explicitly cast in the vein of epic fantasy that was so popular then, and the book is dedicated to David and Leigh Eddings, the patron saints of latter day epic fantasy, it’s also a book about what comes after the endings of most traditional epic fantasy—namely, what happens once the world has been saved and the heroes find themselves still having to make their way in that world.

The book opens a year after a band of seven brave companions saved the world from the cursed godsgem: one of them is now Queen of Cadrium, others are retired or doing other things, but Apprentice Knight Kalanthe Ironheart and thief Olsa Rhetsdaughter have fallen right back into what they were doing before the quest. Although they have clearly outgrown those roles, there doesn’t seem to be anything else for them to do: Olsa was able to clear her debt to the thief guild, but as she has no other skills she is now an independent contractor, putting her in an arguably worse position, and Kalanthe is now awkwardly treated like a knight without having the actual rank of a knight. Both of them are isolated from their former peers, and they’re not getting along with each other too well either, despite the fact that they fell in love over the course of the quest. It seems like the setup for a queer and happy ending, but Kalanthe isn’t from a wealthy family, and she must marry a wealthy spouse to clear the debts she took on training for knighthood. For her part, Olsa’s fame means she is being set up as the fall guy for every job she takes, and she’s all too aware that she’ll end up in the noose sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, there are hints that the threat of the godsgem is not entirely ended; the “after” action unfolds alongside slices of what happened “before” the quest’s conclusion.

The problem of what comes after the end in epic fantasy is as old as epic fantasy itself; Tolkien himself began, and then abandoned, a “new peril arises in Minas Tirith!” tale set early in the Fourth Age, rightly recognizing that nothing could really live up to the threat of Sauron. Johnston’s solution to focus on the domestic and make the renewed peril of the Big Bad the secondary plotline largely works, partly because the question of whether Kalanthe will be able to follow her heart or whether she will have to enter into a marriage to a man against her wishes is a vexing one for her and for the reader (and for Olsa!). I’ve seen a lot of people complain that Johnston didn’t have to set up the society of Cadrium the way she did, with queer relationships accepted but the weight of inheritance law still behind heterosexual partnerships, and that’s certainly true. But it’s also kind of the point: the law lags social mores, and as much as the king and queen would like to change things including the debt system that allows non-wealthy children to become knights at all, it takes time to enact that kind of institutional change as well as willpower. Meanwhile, people have to negotiate with existing power structures as best they can.

Student debt has been much in the news lately, and as a member of the generation whose choices in life are vastly constrained by paying off education loans, I very much appreciated the way Johnston was able to marry certain real-world late capitalism issues, including the precarity of contingent labor, with her epic fantasy setting. I also appreciated the light touch with which she handled certain tropes of that setting, such as the obligatory thieves guild and wizard city, while also questioning them—probably my favorite character aside from the protagonists is Giran, the indigenous female apprentice scholar whose own knowledge and existence challenges the established hierarchy of scholarship and power in the university city.

Johnston has acknowledged that plot isn’t her strongest element as a writer, and that certainly holds true in The Afterward and in her other five novels I’ve read. Sometimes this lack is acutely felt, as in her Star Wars novel Ahsoka, but mostly it works for me in her chosen settings, and The Afterward definitely falls into the latter category: indeed, if the plot were more action-packed it might fall into the trap of trying to make the aftermath as exciting as the quest. I also appreciate the subtle radicalism of insisting that things like marriage, inheritance, and family are just as important as defeating the Big Bad, and I very much appreciated where the book wound up. Kalanthe and Olsa have struggled both together and separately through the course of the book, in both the before and the after, and seeing them get what they ultimately deserve is satisfying partly because it’s still so rare outside of fanfiction. The Afterward is worthwhile purely for its queer love story, but everything else it’s doing makes it an even more rewarding read.


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, Convergence, and Mechademia. In her spare time, she edits video for fun and can be found tweeting as @horbinski.

 

Book Club: Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean

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

Empress of All Seasons

It was with equal parts excitement and trepidation that I began Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean.

I love a good warrior-girl story. Even more than that, I love a good monster-girl story. And Mari, the half-human, half-yōkai, practically invincible protagonist of Empress of All Seasons, was both. A girl born to a tribe of monster-women, raised to be an indomitable warrior, a probable champion of a deadly game that pits warrior-girl against warrior-girl in a contest to marry the prince….

And there’s my trepidation. A deadly game that pits warrior-girl against warrior-girl in a contest to marry the prince. Again? How many books have I read—and even more, how many books have I not read—that contrive a deadly game that pits warrior-girl against warrior-girl in a contest to marry the prince? Way too many, that’s how many.

But while I might be able to ignore a warrior-girl, I cannot ignore a monster-girl, a girl of fang and claw, a girl of my heart. So off I went.

Mari is an Animal Wife, heir to a monstrous legend of beautiful, shapeshifting women who marry men and then steal their riches, returning to their sisters with more money, more wisdom, more power. But in Mari’s land, the emperor despises yōkai: anyone non-human, with often non-human appearances and always non-human abilities. And so the emperor has ordered all yōkai collared, thereby reducing their strength and abilities to something humans can overcome. That those collars are cursed and burn the yōkai is of no consequence, of course, so long as they are contained. Mari, living in a remote mountain village has so far escaped the collar, but she’s about to go into the proverbial lion’s den.

Unlike most Animal Wives, Mari wasn’t born beautiful, or at least that’s what she’s told. Much is made of her plain appearance, her short stature, her round face. In fact, she seemingly wasn’t even born with the full abilities of an Animal Wife, since she can change her human form only partially. And so, assuming she can’t trap a husband with her looks or her magic, Mari’s mother raises her to be a warrior. Because once a generation, countless human girls travel to the imperial city to compete in a competition for the next emperor’s hand in marriage. As with the first emperor, who loved a woman who bested all four seasons, each new empress must conquer four magical rooms, one devoted to each season. Unlike most other battle-for-the-prince books, Mari and her competitors aren’t supposed to kill each other; just like most other battle-for-the-prince books, they do so anyway—and many other girls are killed by the elements in the rooms. This is a deadly game, based on a legend, made possible by magic. And despite her non-human abilities, because of her human appearance, Mari has been raised to win and be the most successful Animal Wife of all: The one who steals the imperial riches.

This book has a lot to unpack. It wants, badly, to explore themes on femininity, beauty, and power, through Mari’s purported plainness, her part-monstrousness, her skill with the deadly naginata. It wants, badly, to dissect that preposterously large overlap between teenaged girls and monstrousness—a monstrousness that is often placed on them in order to remove their acceptableness and their power. It wants, badly, to deconstruct what it means for a girl to be monstrous, to want things she’s not allowed, to do things she’s not permitted, to be things she’s not supposed to become.

“We’re all monsters. No man, no human, will ever love us. That is the curse of the Animal Wife, never to be loved for who we truly are.”

And in some ways, Empress of All Seasons succeeds. Not through Mari, necessarily, even though her monstrousness and her power and her struggle are the driving force of the book. No, more notably through Akira, Mari’s friend, the half-yōkai, the Son of Nightmares, who sees her and her monstrousness and her competence and her power and her beauty, and loves her, exactly as she is. With a bit of luck and care, we all have people in our lives who see our monstrousness, our beastliness, our abilities as something gloriously more than we do, and Akira is that person for Mari.

And the book succeeds through Hanako, a yuki-onna, a Snow Woman made of ice and hard edges, known as the Weapons Master of the yōkai Resistance. She’s dangerous, she’s unapologetic, she’s ambitious. She’s a girl who knows her power and revels in her power and wields her power. She’s a girl to aspire to.

Somewhere in here, there’s an unflinching, uncompromising blade of a book that brooks no denial and makes no apologies. It tackles monstrousness as a necessity in a society that puts women in boxes and cages and collars. It tackles beauty as more flexible than we’ve been led to believe. It tackles gender and power and rebellion as both an everyday intersection and a grand-scale revolution. All of that lives somewhere in this book.

But all of that is nearly suffocated by the rest of this book. By Mari’s complicated relationship with her mother, her tribe, her best friend, who appears briefly in the first act, only to conveniently disappear in the third. By this nonsensical, deadly game of the seasons, that ridiculously pits powerful girl against powerful girl for marriage to a man known as the Cold Prince, only to repeatedly mock the girls who are there because they want to be empress. By a steady thread on brutality and othering people who are different than we are, but that never really gets its hooks in the reader. By Mari’s burgeoning, almost accidental love story with that prince. And finally, by the sharp left turn in the third act that twists the book into one of poorly planned rebellion.

And Mari—our protagonist, though only one of three point-of-view characters—drowns in all of that. She’s pushed along by the plot, rarely making her own decisions, rarely recognizing what she wants, as opposed to what her mother, her friend, the prince, the emperor want of her. She’s poorly skilled in court games, but for a book conceived around a game set at court, that hardly seems to matter. She’s even less skilled in rebellion, but Hanako conveniently shows up to take care of that. I had a hard time getting a handle on Mari; the prince and Akira, the other point-of-view characters, were both more one-note, but along those same lines, more consistent, while Mari seemed to have little personality beyond a bit of feminism, a bit of girlish head-over-heels love, and a lot of deadly skill.

In the end, Empress of All Seasons wanted to be so much: an interrogation of feminism and beauty and power; a parable about destroying each other because of our differences; a love story; a deadly game; a dazzling display of magic; a necessary rebellion. And in trying to do so much—for all those monster-girls of my heart—it ended up doing so little.


Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and nine 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.

 

I broadened my horizons with these 5 books from the Sirens Reading Challenge

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women or nonbinary authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we welcome a book list from Christina Spencer.

I have always read a lot. Due to many personal experiences, I once restricted myself from any book that might be a trigger, and that prevented me from being brave in my story choices. I would never have read the books on this list if not for 1) having them listed on the Sirens Reading Challenge, or 2) so much time elapsing that I wasn’t sure why I was avoiding them in the first place. Then I found Sirens, and thankfully—in my need to complete the challenge each year—I read books I would never have picked up. In this, I discovered a lot about myself, and new books that I love!

 

Sparrow Hill Road
1. Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire

A ghost story that didn’t provoke my creeped-out, overactive imagination, featuring a sassy, witty ghost with a strong moral compass and a heart (or ‘soul’) of gold. She takes it upon herself to right what should never have been wronged, and help those who don’t even know they need her.

Dread Nation
2. Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

I hate zombies but love this book! It’s so well done that I could almost forget there are zombies (almost!). It made me feel powerful; the main character is so strong—even when she is feeling her lowest, she still stands tall. It’s filled with characters who don’t give in to whatever situation they find themselves in.

Kushiel’s Dart
3. Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

I was originally wary because of its—to some—extreme sexual content, but the writing style and characters makes this and its sequels into my favorite book series of all time. It has some of the best worldbuilding and character growth I’ve ever read, and there isn’t an emotion that it doesn’t bring to light. I will never stop loving this series.

Court of Fives
4. Court of Fives by Kate Elliott

Judging a book by its cover, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if not for the challenge. What I found was a story of love, passion, strength and hope. How can you not love a girl who knows her worth and learns to celebrate it in finding and giving hope to others, while overcoming immense trials?

Behind the Throne
5. Behind the Throne by K.B. Wagers

The jacket copy misled me to believe Hail was shirking her responsibilities, which rubbed me the wrong way. I was pleasantly surprised when I found that to be false; this book is spectacular! I was absorbed in the world and so attached to the characters that they became people I would love to meet in person. Their strength, compassion, intelligence, and heart put this series easily it into my top five favorites.


Christina Spencer has been an avid reader for many years. She enjoys fantasy and romance with a dose of science fiction. Between books, she manages a family of five humans, two cats (Xena and Hercules), and two dogs (Ronon and Luna), and works as an independent hair stylist. She is going back to school to pursue a degree—probably in English.

 

Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand rewrites our understanding of female agency

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

Empire of Sand

The first of Tasha Suri’s Books of Ambha series, Empire of Sand, is a stunning fantasy debut. The setting is inspired by Mughal India, ranging from court culture to a desert nomad lifestyle, and the worldbuilding is thorough, immersive, and unique. And it has romance, dancing magic (dancing! magic! TAKE MY MONEY), politics, world-destroying stakes, and women coming into their power.

In short, in terms of sheer features, it includes basically all my favorite things, and that alone would have been enough for me to be shouting about Empire of Sand. (I will keep my exclamation points and all caps-pronouncements to a minimum henceforth, but please appreciate it requires Heroic Restraint.)

But there is so much more to shout about. Because as much as I delight in epic stories of fantasy romance and dancing magic, those features are not what make this book so noteworthy and so special to me.

I love this book, first and foremost, because of how thorough and nuanced its approach is on the matter of choice.

In Empire of Sand, choices are complicated. They’re hard. Even when choices are technically available, this is a book that is very aware of the pressures that constrain truly “free” choice. This is a book that understands that even people with the best of intentions and love in their hearts can’t always do what they want for the people who matter to them. This is a book that understands that there are pressures—from society, family, and your own hopes and dreams and fears—that circumscribe the freedom of choices. This is a book that understands that choices have costs, and sometimes making the choice at all is part of it. And it understands what all this means for women in particular.

The Ambhan people have conquered the Amrithi, and Mehr—who has parents from both backgrounds—attracts the attention of the Ambhan emperor’s mystics with her Amrithi powers. She is effectively forced to give up her sacred right to choose (or not choose) a husband, in order to save a family that has put her in the impossible position of being unable to reconcile her heritage. She does find love, but even that is complicated: how can you give or withhold real consent when someone else is commanding your actions?

How Empire of Sand examines how earnest, open, wholehearted, and selfless that love is and can be, and how it can change everything and nothing, is one of my favorite parts. Stories with characters who exercise compassion even when it’s hard beyond belief are a particular favorite of mine. Suri does an especially fantastic job of handling consent within the confines of an oppressive system. Love doesn’t magically negate the effects of oppression, but it helps them survive it. The romantic arc of this story is absolutely gorgeously done, and I will say no more on that lest I ascend once more into all caps and exclamation points.

Mehr’s journey to owning her own power is inseparable from her learning to navigate disparate identities. Her parents, who are of two different worlds and cultural heritages, were ultimately unable to reconcile their own differences and can neither help Mehr do so nor help her learn the fullness of one or the other. Mehr reconciling all the parts of her background—what to let go of, what to hold, and how to handle not just the expectations of people around her but her own—is critical to becoming her fully empowered self.

Finally, in stories rooted in western frameworks, agency is portrayed as character actions that shape the plot. There is an argument that this is why, historically, so many fantasy books are about kings, chosen ones, knights, and wizards, and, let’s be honest, generally straight cisgendered men: the people with the ability to make choices that change their worlds.

But that leaves us with such a limited scope of stories. In Empire of Sand, Suri gives us something else: a story about a character—a woman—not with no ability to choose, exactly, but a woman whose agency and choices stem from a point of survival. And the kind of character Mehr is, as well as the world she lives in, broadens our understanding of romance and agency in what truly makes a hero.

So. Do you want beautifully wrought non-western fantasy settings? Do you want numinous dancing magic and romance you can cheer for with your entire being? Do you want women who grapple with fundamental, impossible choices, own their power, and change their worlds?

Then you want Empire of Sand.


Casey Blair is an indie bookseller who writes speculative fiction novels for adults and teens, and her weekly serial fantasy novel Tea Princess Chronicles is available online for free. She is a graduate of Vassar College and of the Viable Paradise residential science fiction and fantasy writing workshop. After teaching English in rural Japan for two years, she relocated to the Seattle area. She is prone to spontaneous dancing, exploring ancient cities around the world, wandering and adventuring through forests, spoiling cats terribly, and drinking inordinate amounts of tea late into the night.

 

Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time subverts patriarchy from the very beginning

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 Roshani’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Jae Young Kim on Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time.

Aru Shah and the End of Time

Roshani Chokshi’s middle grade debut, Aru Shah and the End of Time, is delightful from start to finish. I am not even mad that Chokshi ended the book on a wicked cliffhanger, because it means she has to give us a sequel! (Book two, Aru Shah and the Song of Death, came out on April 30, and it’s on the top of my to-be-read pile.)

Twelve-year-old Aru Shah thinks she’s just an ordinary middle schooler trying to fit in. One day, on a dare, she rubs a cursed lamp and discovers she is, in fact, the reincarnation of one of five Pandava brothers, semi-divine heroes of a famous Hindu epic—and she must save the world. Mild spoilers ahead, but they are on the book’s jacket copy and are revealed very early on.

Chokshi dives deeply into the rich world of Hindu mythology, introducing gods, demons, beasts, and magic that is exciting, weird and fun. I love all mythology and fairy tales, so for me, this was an easy sell. It’s also not a surprise that a book curated by Rick Riordan on his Rick Riordan Presents imprint tells a story with mythology bursting from every page. But Chokshi adds her own stamp on a very old story. I am very glad that she chose to have the brothers be sisters. How can someone be reincarnated hundreds of times and always be male? Patriarchy, of course, but to have Chokshi subvert that from the very beginning was deeply gratifying.

And it’s not only important that Aru is a girl, she’s an Indian-American girl. As a Korean-American girl, I would have loved to see girls of color accepted without question as heroes— nay, heroines—of the story. I had read books with white girls as protagonists, but that meant ignoring an important part of myself, being Korean. Aru is not only a girl but an Indian girl, and her identity deeply informs how she interacts with the world around her.

The diasporic aspects of this re-telling were compelling for me but may be a mixed sell for others. Reimagining demons as hair stylists and night bazaars as Costco is just fun, and as one character in the book notes, “families moving to new countries and imaginations evolving” means adapting and changing. But Aru still maintains traditions like not eating beef, as a Hindu, or pranama, touching the feet of elders, or immediately calling all Indian women auntie upon meeting them. Since I am also of the Korean diaspora, I appreciate the references to American pop culture, and the unique take on mythology and culture from that lens, while still maintaining traditions of our families. Chokshi tells us the stories she’s loved and heard many times, but provides context for the readers. The one minor gripe I have is that some of the references feel a bit dated, like Johnny Cash and Die Hard, and may resonate more with adults than children. I say this only because I understood all of the American pop culture references, and I am definitely not twelve years old.

My favorite part of Aru Shah and the End of Time, though, is Aru and her found family. She meets a fellow Pandava sister, Mini, very early on and the development of their relationship is amazing. I love romance storylines, and out of most of my reading, I don’t often see a family and friend relationship celebrated as much as Chokshi’s Aru and Mini. It’s clear that Aru and Mini becoming sisters is just as important as their quest to save the world.

If you love friendship stories, sibling stories, reimagined Hindu mythology, and just plain fun, Aru and Mini’s adventures will crack you up and warm your heart. So run, don’t walk to the bookstore and be glad you get to jump right into the sequel when you’re done!


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

 

Book Club: Furyborn by Claire Legrand

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

Furyborn

The word “competent” means having the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully. (I looked it up!) But that’s not how we use it, is it? When we say someone is competent, we mean they’re fine, I suppose. They’re good enough. They’ll do. As if having the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully is not, in fact, success.

I think, societally, we underestimate competence. We underestimate how much work and skill it requires. We underestimate its value. We underestimate its importance. And I think much of this underestimating comes from the fact that competence is so often quiet.

Instead, we value any number of flashier things: talent, danger, a metaphorical or even literal high-wire act. As if, simply by instilling challenges or drama or a 30-foot drop into the process, the outcome will be more satisfactory. More successful.

I’ve been considering this recently for any number of reasons, not the least of which is watching the United States’ 2020 presidential campaign season roll out appallingly early. And while so much of so many things is gendered, even putting that aside, we—societally—would rather an Icarus than an Ariadne. Better to fly too high and perish than to quietly get shit done. Better to shout platitudes from a metaphorical mountaintop than to offer a workable, detailed plan.

And that goes for our media as well. I watch a ton of reality television, much of it competition reality shows. But I recently realized the profound difference between watching Top Chef or MasterChef and watching Ina Garten or Martha Stewart cook. The former is designed for fireworks: appliances that don’t work, forced partnerships, ingredients that no one should ever have to combine. In many ways, the show is the player’s antagonist, just as much as the other contestants. These shows are competitive, challenging, exciting—but they’re also very much designed for our “go big or go home” society, to elicit spectacular success and spectacular failure.

Conversely, have you ever sat down and watched Martha Stewart bake? Not with a guest, where she’s quite happy to show you her competitive side. (Her dirt cake is better than yours.) But just watched Martha, in a kitchen, by herself, doing what she does incredibly well?

It’s profoundly comforting, even relaxing. Sitting on your couch, watching a hyper-competent woman do what she does best. Nothing is going to go wrong. The oven will work, the ingredients will be there, the cake will not be burned, the decorating will be glorious. This experience—this experience of having a predictably successful outcome—is what we devalue, what we elide, what we gloss over and play down and underestimate. The pleasure of watching someone do something that they’re great at, no muss, no fuss, no fireworks, no disasters, just a dang beautiful cake.

I tell you this so that you will understand what high praise it is when I tell you that Furyborn is gloriously, magnificently competent.

Claire Legrand’s Furyborn is the first in the high-fantasy Empirium Trilogy. In the world of Avitas, legends tell of seven saints, each of whom mastered an element of empirium, which seems to be little magical particles that float around like golden dust motes. Even in the today of the immediate story, certain people have an affinity for one of those elements: sun, shadows, fire, and so on.

But prophecy tells of two women who will be able to master all seven elements, one queen of sun and one queen of blood. One seemingly good, one seemingly bad. One will save the world, one will destroy it. And so on. You all read a lot of fantasy: You know how this prophecy thing goes.

And after the usual sort of prologue that assures you that things will get very bad before the end, the book opens with Rielle, a lady of Celdaria, who is a pretty typical fantasy teen: She wants to skip her lessons, ride illegally in a horse race, and fuck the prince. Good for you, Rielle. But you find out pretty early on both that Rielle can wield all seven elements and that that fact is an unpleasant surprise to the (mostly male) leadership of Celdaria. She seems to be a queen of prophecy, but which one?

Rielle’s story is one of a headstrong girl, stifled all her life, told to keep her power secret and safe, told to stand aside as the boy she loves weds another. It’s the story of a grief-stricken girl who accidentally killed her mother years ago, which also cost her a relationship with her father. It’s the story of an immensely powerful girl who is still told that she is less: dangerous, uncontrollable, unpredictable—but that she can redeem herself by agreeing to use her power only to serve the king.

Rielle’s story is our story. And as so many of our stories do, Rielle’s story goes horribly wrong. Too many hot boys, too many overhearing men, too many people trying to control her rather than train her, trying to force her to do the right thing rather than supporting and trusting her.

But Rielle’s story is not the only story. Across the sea, 1,000 years later, we have Eliana, the Dread of Orline, seemingly crafted for all the Lila Bard fans of the world.

Eliana’s father is dead, her mother is disabled, her little brother is adorable, and she’s the sole breadwinner for her family. Which she does by catching and killing rebels for the Emperor. She’s not always happy about it, especially when best friend-and-lover Harken prods her about it, but it puts food on the table. Oh, and her body can magically heal itself. She is, for the record, both a woman of color and bisexual, though her on-page sex is only with men.

Eliana’s story blows wide open when, on the same night, her mother mysteriously disappears and she encounters the Wolf, a deadly rebellion operative. She strikes a bargain with him, which she regrets at least half a dozen times, and ends up making her way through the Red Crown revolution, picking up pieces of the puzzle along the way.

If Rielle’s story of power stifled is the one we live every day, Eliana’s story of power wielded is one we dream every night. While Rielle and Eliana are similarly angry and similarly mouthy, that reads as obstinance and disobedience in Rielle’s story, but as danger and sass in Eliana’s.

Legrand tells her story in alternating point-of-view chapters, which many of you know is a bit of a bee in my bonnet. Here, it’s frustratingly worse, because those alternating point-of-view chapters are set 1,000 years apart, and Legrand must compensate not only for the usual loss of momentum by shifting characters, but the additional challenge of shifting entire plotlines. Which she does by making each chapter, more or less, a cliffhanger, which makes for compulsive, if somewhat aggravatingly so, readability.

But, people, this book is competent. The world is good, the characters are good, the plot is good, the magic is good, the writing is good. And even better, the third rails that have been blowing up my enjoyment of an awful lot of young-adult high fantasy lately aren’t here. The worldbuilding makes sense: There are no absurdist canons, like a world that can have this but not that, a king but not a queen, a fall but not a spring. The characters aren’t hateful: Though both Rielle and Eliana are surrounded by too many men telling them what to do, most of the time they fight back, assert themselves, do what they want to do. While both Rielle and Eliana have unexplained powers, the magical rules stick and we don’t learn late in the game about that one last power that will help them save the world. (At least not yet. There’s no world-saving in book one.)

And what a lovely reading experience it was. About 100 pages in, when I realized that nothing was going to go horribly wrong in the reading process, that I could just relax and read the book…I just relaxed and read the book. What a delight. What a joy. What competence.


Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and nine 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.

 

Kiersten White’s Elizabeth Frankenstein breaks the shackles that bind her to her abuser

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we welcome a review from Jo O’Brien on Kiersten White’s The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein.

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was a stone-cold badass.

Her intellect and imagination were monumental. She invented a whole genre of literature when she was a teenager by writing a story that, two hundred years later, is still a cultural touchstone. And that’s to say nothing of the adventurous life she led—she climbed glaciers, sailed Lake Geneva, and traversed Europe, partially on foot when she didn’t like her chauffeurs. She survived the grief when death claimed her parents, two of her children, her half-sister, and then her husband. She kept Percy Shelley’s calcified heart wrapped in his poetry after he died.

But yet, Percy continues to be credited for her accomplishments. His “corrections” in the margins of a found draft of Frankenstein still have some people convinced that he must have at least been a co-author (never mind that his part seems to just graze the level of line edits). Some would even go as far as to say that genesis of the book, or even the very idea, belong to him. Even now, Mary Shelley isn’t given the respect she deserves for her work.

So it feels like it’s about time for The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein. Author Kiersten White calls it a retelling, but I found myself thinking of it as a companion to the original Frankenstein: a different perspective, dissecting the events and uncovering truths that Victor Frankenstein couldn’t—or wouldn’t—divulge. The Dark Descent is narrated by Elizabeth Lavenza, the child purchased by Victor’s parents to temper his strange, violent behavior.

At the opening of the book, Victor, attending university, has fallen out of contact with his family. Elizabeth—having grown up alongside Victor as his primary caretaker and companion—follows him across Europe, determined to marry him and secure her position. She finds him indisposed in a rented warehouse, where he’s done the terrible, impossible thing that was the subject of Shelley’s original book. After seeing that he’s taken care of medically, she goes through his notes. She discovers what he’s done, and she foresees the reaction if his work is discovered. So she burns the evidence. She manipulates witnesses. She makes sure that Victor can return home without facing any consequences for his actions, just as she’s always done.

All this paints a bleak picture of a girl straining to make her way in a world where she can’t stand on her own, and The Dark Descent is, in some ways, a bleak book. Elizabeth is slow to realize her mistakes, because her conviction that she has to protect Victor is so well-trained. It feels familiar to how we are all trained to shelter those in power from the consequences of their toxic behavior. But there are moments that glimmer through, and they accumulate and accelerate. Elizabeth does learn. This is a book about a girl breaking the shackles that bind her to an abuser.

It is slow, painful work. Elizabeth doesn’t know that it needs to be done. She doesn’t know that she can unlearn her resentment of other women as rivals, or her too-quick instinct to cover Victor’s tracks. Things get worse before they get better. But Elizabeth is not the soft girl that Victor and his family believe she is. She is fierce and defiant and capable of her own terrible and impossible things. As her limits are stretched, she stretches to fill the gaps.

Just like Mary Shelley had to.

The Dark Descent is not just a companion to Frankenstein, it is an homage to Shelley herself. It’s about a girl whose tremendous abilities are credited to the men in her life. But it’s also about how, leveraging her own incredible power, she breaks free of them.

I won’t spoil the ending of The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, but I will say that, in order over the last several pages, I felt heartbreakingly satisfied, and then I gasped, and then I sobbed. (I’ll also say that it’s been a long time since I read any book that used the graphic formatting of a single page to such spectacular effect.) The novel is moody, atmospheric, and often difficult, but I felt it in my bones.

Victor Frankenstein, in his arrogance, told us one story. Elizabeth now claims her voice to tell another. And what she’s telling us is that there is no one more powerful than a girl who will fight to have something that’s hers.


Jo O’Brien is a writer, artist, cosplayer, mythical creature, and Viking who lives in northern Colorado, wrangling a host of familiar spirits. She writes about ambitious, unrepentant, sometimes vicious women in novels and for live steel horse theater. She has been a member of the Sirens community since 2011.

 

Suzanne Scott’s Fake Geek Girls and the binaries of fan culture

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 Suzanne Scott’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Hallie Tibbetts on Suzanne Scotts’s Fake Geek Girls.

Fake Geek Girls

I am of two states of mind about being a fan and about the concept of being “in fandom.”

On the one hand, I have had wonderful experiences engaging with and sharing my love of particular stories—and it’s always love for stories, isn’t it—from acting out scenes from Heidi and Star Wars under the tables in kindergarten to longing for just one more episode of Ranma ½ to planning expansive, immersive Harry Potter conferences with a million moving pieces, among other fan activities. I wouldn’t be where I am today had I not, through writing fanfiction, finally learned not just about punctuation and grammar, but concepts like foreshadowing and symbolism that were opaque to me during my formal education. I wouldn’t have met the majority of my closest compatriots—people I connected with online, while being an unabashed nerd—and I wouldn’t have been so easily able to bypass the early, awkward, and for me, slow and nerve-racking stages of making new friends. If you’ve considered yourself to be “in fandom,” you’re probably nodding along with at least a few of those experiences.

On the other hand: Fandom has given me some awful experiences. It’s a time-sucking distraction from other pursuits—an intense crush with all the attendant (and unrequited!) feeeeeeelings. A fandom is a community of very real personalities, which can produce a great deal of pointless and exhausting drama, as well as shut people out for any number of reasons, not limited to just their favorite tropes or characters, but including the very essence of who they are. And, on a personal note that I rarely share, the end of my tour of fandom duty ended with a heavy dose of toxic (mostly) masculinity, harassment, and threats, and those situations and people haven’t disappeared, even though I have disappeared from them—and my worst experiences were nothing, relatively, given that doxxing and swatting are in play now.

I haven’t considered myself to be “in fandom” for a decade now. My recent media loves no longer prompt me to seek story extensions outside those of my own brain—though maybe I haven’t met my next perfectly fannable thing yet. Sometimes I miss the sense of joy and wonder at knowing I’m not the only one who’s been transported into and by a story; other times, I’m so deeply protective of my own mental journeys I can hardly admit I enjoyed a work. So when it came time for Sirens to review the academic Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry by guest of honor Suzanne Scott, I was, unsurprisingly, of two minds: I’ll do it, and I don’t want to do it at all. But, like a Lannister, I keep my promises (and yes, pay my debts). And like Angelica Schuyler, I managed this review right on time.

Fake versus real. Geek, opposed to “normal.” Girls: gendered, always lesser, always weaker. Fake Geek Girls is an apt title, because the book addresses the many binaries that are in play in fan culture—and that have been codified by fan studies as a discipline.

And the binaries are many, and often actively placed at odds by media producers. Fanboy against fangirl. Creator against consumer. “Good” fan against “bad” fan, and against “bad” fannish engagement. But, backing up a little, fan studies does acknowledge that there are people who are not white, heterosexual, cisgender men between the ages of about 18 to 34 who are fans of things, unlike many people who create solely with that demographic in mind. In fact, fan studies acknowledges feminism, or at least how feminism plays into the engagement of female fans. This feminist lens, however, has not been consistently or even mostly intersectional—that is, fan studies has nodded to feminism through a white, cisgender, and primarily heterosexual lens. There is a lot to unpack in that concept of feminism alone.

Fake Geek Girls addresses the previously mentioned dichotomies and more, again, through teasing out the binaries as well as those places where middles and others are found. And it focuses on the binary pieces that have been named as by or for women, and how activities and engagement are coded female or feminized, and who supports that coding. This comes up in concepts of acceptance of or resistance to canons; authenticity or “selling out”; and questions about who is elevated to the role of business partner (through projects as wide-ranging as becoming employed by a media franchise or selling sanctioned merchandise), and who or what activities are relegated to an unpaid gift economy—and why. These theoretical questions come with real examples in fandoms from Star Trek to The Walking Dead, so fandom practitioners may run into a few of their favorite controversies.

Why examine these binaries? Well, there is a certain because: because fan studies itself has studied these binaries, and it’s worthwhile to reflect on how academic work itself may have contributed to the binaries in turn. And why focus on women’s experiences in fan culture? This, I think, a reader can intuit before it’s stated, and here I draw from the book’s conclusion: “…women are systematically alienated or rendered less visible within geek and fan culture.” (231) And if we can, as the author notes, think about “questions of identity and power,” we can hope for ever more inclusivity and intersectional work.

After reading this history of fan studies as much as examination of fandom feminism, I came away with questions. How has the shift from heavily text-based social media to more visual forms in the past view years reinforced affirmation of canons and creators? If I use a hashtag just to see what other people I don’t know are tweeting about a show, what are the inadvertent benefits and consequences? What role do or should fans play in open-ended serial franchises? When can it be useful or helpful to read the Goodreads reviews? And to what extent are my fannish actions feminist, and what do I owe feminism and other fans, if anything, in my media consumption?

Here’s an answer: I don’t know. Not everything. Not today, anyway. Heck, for all you know, I’m Jon Snow, never to know anything at all. But I have a few ideas, and I do know that I’m real, I’m a geek, I’m a girl, and that whether you align with all of those labels or not, your real geekiness should get to have a home in fandom. Fake Geek Girls is a trip through the reflection that has come so far—and still has so far to go.

Even though my fannish tendencies seem distant and inaccessible right now, I appreciate the reminder that my actions as a media consumer affect the production of media. I can request a book from the library or buy one. I can leave a review, or recommend a book to another reader. And these small actions give me immense power to support the publishing of stories I love and ideas I want to uplift. Today, that’s what I’m taking away.


Hallie Tibbetts has been involved with Narrate Conferences and its events since its inception in 2006, serving variously as education officer, communications officer, and vice president, along with chairing a number of conferences (including many years of Sirens). She works in editorial at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on books for children age zero to eighteen, but doesn’t mind if grownups like those stories too.

 

Book Club: The Witch’s Market by Mingmei Yip

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

The Witch's Market

We all have those tropes, you know? Those tropes that, for whatever reason, we adore, we seek, we…yes, we excoriate.

One of those tropes, for me, is witches. I have sky-high expectations for books written by women about witches.

Terribly high? Assuredly.

Magnificently high? Perhaps.

Impossibly high? All signs point to yes.

Despite that I can’t seem to remember the last time that I liked a book about witches—any book about witches, regardless of author—I continue to read them.

And not just read them. Read them voraciously. I read them voraciously. If a book includes “witch” in the title, and it’s not written by some cisgendered, heterosexual dude, I’ve probably bought it. Maybe read it.

Likely been disappointed by it.

Unfair? Certainly.

In my dreadfully thin defense, I have bees in my proverbial bonnet. I expect my fantasy revolutions to address economic instability and I want my monster girls to be largely unrepentant and I need my witch books to come with a decidedly feminist bent. The word “witch” has been weaponized against women for a thousand years; I want that ostracization and persecution to be handled—and handled well, feminist-ly well. I want questions of power and answers of power and epiphanies of power. I probably want revenge, but that one might be just me.

For all the imaginable reasons, I have a hard time with a fantasy world with “witches” where this thousand years of shitty history isn’t addressed. And if that world isn’t so much a fantasy world, but our world, our contemporary world with its history of witch hunts and drownings and burnings and so on, but with real witches, well.

Well.

I picked up The Witch’s Market by Mingmei Yip because I am constantly in search of that book, that holy grail of a book, that will give my brain and my heart a proper witchly reclamation, redemption, and retribution. Spoiler alert: The Witch’s Market didn’t do it for me.

The Witch’s Market gets the broad strokes right. Eileen Chen, Chinese-American professor of folk religion, is chasing tenure. To date, her scholarship has focused on Asian traditions, primarily the Chinese incantations practiced by Eileen’s matriarchal line. Eileen isn’t sure that her grandmother really was a witch—but she isn’t sure that she wasn’t, either. And among her university crowd, Eileen deliberately cultivates the idea that maybe she is a witch, too.

Somewhat inexplicably, Eileen’s male department chair and mentor suggests that she needs to round out her scholarship with some white-people witchery in order to complete her research and achieve tenure. Why? No idea. But he offers her time off to do it, which conveniently coincides with a dream Eileen has indicating that she should go to the Canary Islands to seek some witches. Why the Canary Islands? I guess they’re full of witches? So Eileen leaves her pragmatic lawyer sister and her on-again, off-again, rich, that-guy boyfriend, and heads to the Canary Islands.

Within days of arriving on the islands, Eileen has seen a ghost, heard a disturbing rumor about the earth swallowing a man and a dog, danced naked in the moonlight with some witches, agreed to stay with a rich guy and his housekeeper in his castle, and met a seriously extroverted former cabaret singer. If that sounds like a lot, well, I haven’t even gotten to the dead daughter, the missing son, the seemingly endless list of men who fall for Eileen, or the rich guy’s jealous dead wife. It’s a lot. A lot.

Which could have all been fine! In terms of plot and scope, this book reminds me a lot of Dreaming in Cuban or The Island of Eternal Love. Grand, sweeping family mysteries, rife with ghosts and coincidences and mistaken assumptions, spanning decades or generations. Assuredly, the great lot of plot is not where The Witch’s Market lost me.

Where it lost me was its internalized misogyny, its relentless tokenism, its aggressive heteronormativism. While men fall all over themselves to chase Eileen—she receives not one, but three marriage proposals in the last third of this book—Eileen herself finds every other woman in this book lacking. And Eileen’s judgmentalness isn’t merely unnecessary, but hypocritical. She judges other witches for using their power, even as she hones her own. She judges an aging woman for sleeping with a young man, even as she sleeps with a man more than a decade her junior. She judges a housekeeper for drinking several glasses of wine and then sits down to pour herself some sherry. Unsurprisingly, the woman who got Eileen drunk and danced naked with her in the moonlight turns out to be evil. The frustrating list of this one woman denigrating all other women goes on and on. And on.

In a similar vein, The Witch’s Market is unyielding in its presentation of traditional heteronormative stereotypes as valid. Eileen turns down all three marriage proposals, but nonetheless seriously considers each one—despite that all three of these men assuredly suck—because each is considered a catch. Every major player in this book insists that Eileen seriously consider one or more of her suitors: He’s a good man. He’s a nice man. He’s a rich man. He’s a handsome man. He’ll take care of you. You wouldn’t have to work anymore. You would have all the time in the world to write your book. In fact, Eileen’s sister—her lawyer sister—berates her for turning down not one, but two rich men. I checked the copyright date on this book four times, but each time it somehow still said ©2015.

I could continue, but I presume that I lost most of you at “internalized misogyny,” so I don’t have to go into how Eileen others basically everyone (locals, witches, women who have sex, the neuroatypical character), how all the similes are also misogynist tripe (something mundane “fell open easily, like a prostitute’s legs”), how Eileen’s inner monologues are logically inconsistent (she can’t seem to keep track of a conversation), or how every man in this book sucks (I can neither confirm nor deny if all the women suck because Eileen hates them all).

That said, I had very similar issues with a couple other books, so if you liked A Discovery of Witches or The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, you might want to ignore me and give this one a shot!


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

 

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