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Books and Breakfast: Girls Made of Snow and Glass, Slice of Cherry, and Wilder Girls

As we look to welcome new and returning attendees to our postponed conference this October, we’d like to re-introduce our Books and Breakfast selections, now revived for 2021! Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through Books and Breakfast, where we select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme. On the Friday and Saturday mornings of Sirens, attendees bring their breakfasts and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary are doing in fantasy literature!

For this year’s conference, we’ll still be examining gender and villainy, and relatedly, redemption—fraught topics full of artificial constraints and defied stereotypes. We’ve chosen eight works that broaden that examination, full of questions, but few answers; dastardly villainy, and occasional redemption; and a number of female and nonbinary villains who may, despite or because of their villainy, be someone worth celebrating.

Earlier this summer, we highlighted our graphic novel selections: Monstress: Awakening and Nimona; and our adult selections: A Feast of Sorrows, Queen of the Conquered, and The Mere Wife. Today, we’re showcasing our three young adult selections: Girls Made of Snow and Glass, Slice of Cherry, and Wilder Girls. We hope these features will help you make your choice and tackle your reading before Sirens—in case you didn’t get to them last year!

 
2021 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter
Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust
Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley
Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust

Girls Made of Snow and Glass

In this take on “Snow White,” sixteen-year-old Mina, missing a heart, escapes one abusive household for another—where she can capture the love of the king for herself, even his power, provided she is ready, so young, to become a stepmother. She’s to be mother to Lynet, who has been conjured to life in her mother’s image from a snowfall. And as in “Snow White,” the two are set at odds. Mina has been loved too little, and wants the crown any way she can have it. Lynet, conversely, has no desire to be queen, and would be happy enough to spend her days with her girlfriend and to be looked on as something besides the embodiment of her mother.

The evil stepmother is a classic villain: cold, beautiful (but in a scary way), a usurper. In Bashardoust’s version, the stepmother must take that role, whether she wants to or not, and her relationship with Lynet, close in age, is complex and painful. It’s bittersweet that the two have been positioned as enemies, and the wedge between them makes the story compelling. Rarely do we see mother-daughter relationships in stories about young adults; even more rarely do we see them in fantasy books for young adults. Mina and Lynet’s intertwined stories provide a rich exploration of relationships between women—with all the twisty, messy, emotional resonance that non-romantic relationships have in real life, and don’t always get their due on the page.

Girls Made of Snow and Glass is full of icy atmosphere and fairytale references, but at its heart—no pun intended—it’s a story about love. What we do to receive love. How we choose whom to hate, and whom to mark as villain. How villains can be created by society. And it’s also about mothers and daughters, and how we make families. How we tell stories, and how the telling makes heroines and villains. And how, in the end, we can choose the stories told for us or choose to make our own.

Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves

Slice of Cherry

Kit and Fancy Cordelle are sisters, daughters of the infamous Bonesaw Killer, a serial killer who ravaged Portero, Texas, before being caught and jailed. But no matter how strange Portero is—if you’ve read Reeves’s Bleeding Violet, surely you remember how strange Portero is—no matter how much Bonesaw Killer fan mail still arrives at the house, and no matter that neither Kit nor Fancy had anything to do with their father’s murders, Kit and Fancy are ostracized. Surely the apple couldn’t have fallen too far from the tree—a convenient statement when one seeks to oppress Black girls. But never mind that: Kit and Fancy will tell you that they don’t mind. They’re the best of friends (as Fancy says, practically the same person).

And despite their previous innocence, they are perhaps not so different from their father after all—or perhaps assumptions are a powerful catalyst: Kit and Fancy both harbor a desire to harm, to carve people up and stitch them back together, to pull them apart until they crack, to kill. Unlike their famous father, though, Kit and Fancy will be the first people to tell you that they harm only those who truly deserve it, those who touch or invade or harm first. They’ll also tell you that they’re smarter than their father: They use a mysterious doorway to another world to cover their tracks. And everything would be fine, perhaps—Portero surely won’t look too hard for a few missing predators—except that, despite Fancy’s assertion, Kit and Fancy aren’t the same person at all. Kit wants to grow and change, make friends, and have a boyfriend, while Fancy wants to stay in her tiny, controlled world, happily basking in the gore that she and her sister share.

Slice of Cherry is, in every way that matters, a Black feminist revenge story. In Kit and Fancy’s vigilantism, Reeves claims violence for Black girls harmed by the world. Kit and Fancy are broken by their father’s crimes, their mother’s absence, the town’s ostracization, and seemingly everyone’s assumptions. But that brokenness creates neither victims nor, despite the carnage, villains. Kit and Fancy take their power, claim their power, every time they cut an attempted rapist, every time they stab an intruder. Don’t shy away from the danger and violence of Portero; Reeves’s story of Black girls who are cast as villains but who will not be victims is one for our world, too.

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Wilder Girls

As you begin Wilder Girls, the students and instructors at Raxter School for Girls in rural Maine have been quarantined for 18 months. That’s when the Tox began ripping through the country, causing grotesque mutations in people, fauna, and flora alike: second spines, new organs, scales, eventually death. Outbreaks are individual and unpredictable, but at this point, the girls are just holding on, relying on supplies from the outside world, and hoping for a vaccine.

Hetty, one of the students, is unexpectedly chosen for Boat Shift, one of the few jobs that can get a girl off school grounds, in this case to retrieve those all-important supplies. With this new responsibility comes new knowledge, and Hetty sees the transformations and destruction around her in a new, even more desperate light. And that desperation pervades Wilder Girls, which is built on the dawning horror that things can always, and so often do, get worse. Without giving too much away, after 18 months of increasing desolation, Hetty finds a villain—and it’s worse than she could have imagined.

The foundation of Wilder Girls is its (almost) all-female cast—and the possibilities born of crafting a book around only female characters. The mean-girls trope you often see in YA is absent—jettisoned along with boys and the omnipresent white heteropatriarchy—and instead Power creates girls that are just girls: sometimes smart, sometimes ambitious, sometimes mean. Sometimes they get along and sometimes they don’t. Some are heroes and some are villains and some are neither. This isn’t some quarantine-created feminine utopia, but rather a cast of real girls who are real people in an impossible situation. You might call it a feminist utopia. And that is magnificent.

Books and Breakfast: A Feast of Sorrows, Queen of the Conquered, and The Mere Wife

As we look to welcome new and returning attendees to our postponed conference this October, we’d like to reintroduce our Books and Breakfast selections, now revived for 2021! Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through Books and Breakfast, where we select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme. On the Friday and Saturday mornings of Sirens, attendees bring their breakfasts and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary are doing in fantasy literature!

For this year’s conference, we’ll still be examining gender and villainy, and relatedly, redemption—fraught topics full of artificial constraints and defied stereotypes. We’ve chosen eight works that broaden that examination, full of questions, but few answers; dastardly villainy, and occasional redemption; and a number of female and nonbinary villains who may, despite or because of their villainy, be someone worth celebrating.

Last month, we highlighted our graphic novel selections: Monstress: Awakening and Nimona. Today, we’re showcasing our three adult selections: A Feast of Sorrows, Queen of the Conquered, and The Mere Wife. Next month, we’ll finish up with our young adult selections. We hope these features will help you make your choice and tackle your reading before Sirens—in case you didn’t get to them last year!

 
2021 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter
Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust
Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley
Wilder Girls by Rory Power

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter

A Feast of Sorrows Angela Slatter

While calling Angela Slatter the heir apparent to Angela Carter and Emma Donoghue may seem a bold assertion, it’s appropriately so. Carter and Donoghue twisted fairy tales, reclaimed them, told violently feminist or joyously queer versions of them. But despite their obvious feminism, Carter’s and Donoghue’s tales often remain in conversation with their more traditional, more heteropatriarchal versions. Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” reclaims Bluebeard, conjuring a mother as savior rather than the violent, patriarchal heroism of the original. Donoghue’s Cinderella in “The Tale of the Shoe” still seeks her coupled-up happily ever after, but with the fairy godmother rather than the prince. Both of their work is an undeniable fuck-you to the heteropatriarchy, but their defiance must remain conversant with that same heteropatriarchy.

By contrast, Slatter—like her heroines—often eschews that conversation entirely. She has little interest in correcting, instructing, or even raging at the heteropatriarchy. She has little interest in explaining to the heteropatriarchy why Bluebeard cannot kill this wife or why Cinderella would obviously be so much happier with her godmother. She—like her heroines—is busy. Busy being, if you will: being frightened and fearless, being brave and bold, being frail and fantastical. Being relentlessly awesome. Being, quite often, villainous.

A Feast of Sorrows, one of World Fantasy Award- and British Fantasy Award-winning Slatter’s collections of short fiction, features twelve of her finest, darkest fairy tales. Her women and girls take paths less travelled, offer and accept poisoned apples, and embrace all sorts of transformation. You won’t find just princesses and ghosts and killers here, but a full gamut of artisans as well: bakers, quilters, crafters, spinners, and coffin-makers. Never have the feminine arts been so magical or so deadly. This collection is one to be savored one story, one revelation, and one smart, determined, independent woman at a time.



Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender

Queen of the Conquered Kacen Callender

On the island of Hans Lollik, in a fantasy Caribbean, Sigourney has risen from the ashes. Her family was murdered by colonizers years earlier for daring to ascend from slavery to nobility—but Sigourney survived and, through sheer determination and gutsy smarts, has again achieved the rank of nobility. And in this work of impressive intrigue, Sigourney’s identity is secret, her magic dangerous, and her heart focused on revenge. The childless king has declared that he will select his successor from among the nobility and ambitious, vengeful Sigourney wants that title, is willing to kill for that title, in order to help her people. But someone is murdering nobles, the king isn’t quite what he seems, and Sigourney is a ready suspect. Not only is her years-long plan on the line, her life might be as well.

Queen of the Conquered is smart. Really smart. Callender simultaneously constructs both a complicated murder mystery and a searing indictment of slavery and colonialism. Their cast of characters is complex, full of individual and treacherous magics, all certainly capable of planning and executing a series of murders. But the more impressive, important achievement is weaving this mystery into a fully realized world of colonization, slavery, and potential change. Callender’s bedrock is power disparities and they use those skillfully as a foundation for their complex world of choices and compulsion, dominance and pain, compromises and uprisings. Only rarely—in the work of N.K. Jemisin, perhaps, or Justina Ireland—have you read a fantasy work like this.

And yet, with all of that, Callender’s tour de force is Sigourney Rose, born into the nobility despite her dark skin, improbable survivor of the massacre of her family, an impossibly complex, ambitious woman playing an impossibly long game. Sigourney is a victim, but also—perhaps—a villain. Her status grants her slave ownership—slaves she could free, but does not. She punishes her slaves, and has sex with some, knowing that they cannot refuse her. She seeks power purportedly for the good of her people, but while she lives in luxury, her people continue to suffer, often at her hand. She’s playing the long game, where great risk could bring great reward, but what about the sacrifices she demands of her powerless people in the meantime? Victimhood and villainy, it seems, are not mutually exclusive.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

The Mere Wife Maria Dahvana Headley

Herot Hall, the suburban setting of Maria Dahvana Headley’s Beowulf retelling, is a Stepford-pretty utopia: Everything is picket fences and carefully arranged flowers, big houses and perfect families. And for Willa, married to Herot heir Roger, life is perfect, her carefully curated self raising her carefully curated son, Dylan, in her carefully curated house. Her schedule is a beautiful round of dinner parties and playdates, glamorous clothes and perfect meals. But Willa lives on the edge of Herot Hall, where all this careful curation is guarded from the outside by walls and surveillance cameras. These defenses make Willa feel safe, but they aren’t enough to keep out Gren.

Gren belongs to Dana, a soldier who didn’t want Gren and doesn’t really understand how she gave birth to Gren, but when she returned from war, she had Gren. Now they struggle to survive in a cave outside the reaches of Herot Hall. The lasting effects of war seem like an impossible mountain to climb in returning to society, so Dana remains—with her son—on the periphery, each day a new challenge in their solitary existence. But Gren is growing, and exploring, and doesn’t always share his mother’s damage—or her fear.

In this contemporary exploration of monstrousness and society, Dylan and Gren are the catalysts, but not the monsters. Both Willa and Dana live in careful worlds, where, like anyone, their pasts, their fears, and their hopes underlie their expectations and their choices. Both Willa and Dana try, with little success, to impress the importance of these careful worlds onto their sons. As Gren grows, his curiosity drives him into Herot Hall and he secretly befriends Dylan. With that series of encounters, both Willa’s and Dana’s carefully constructed worlds collapse: Their fears lead them to make sometimes desperate, sometimes illogical, sometimes monstrous decisions—and ultimately The Mere Wife asks readers: How monstrous are you?

Books and Breakfast: Monstress: Awakening and Nimona

As we look to welcome new and returning attendees to our postponed conference this October, we’d like to reintroduce our Books and Breakfast selections, now revived for 2021! Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through Books and Breakfast, where we select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme. On the Friday and Saturday mornings of Sirens, attendees bring their breakfasts and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary are doing in fantasy literature!

For this year’s conference, we’ll still be examining gender and villainy, and relatedly, redemption—fraught topics full of artificial constraints and defied stereotypes. We’ve chosen eight works that broaden that examination, full of questions, but few answers; dastardly villainy, and occasional redemption; and a number of female and nonbinary villains who may, despite or because of their villainy, be someone worth celebrating.

 
2021 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

We’ll be highlighting all eight of these titles, which we hope will allow you to make your choice and tackle your reading before Sirens (in case you didn’t get to it last year!). Here are our list of selections and reviews of our two graphic novel selections:

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter
Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust
Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley
Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu, illus. by Sana Takeda

Monstress: Awakening

Do you like pretty things and want to cry? If you read fantasy for worldbuilding, there is so much to admire in Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress, a lush, fantasy comics series currently on its 30th issue. The first volume of Monstress: Awakening collects the first six issues, and the world is an incredible combination of Art Deco architecture, steampunky science, magic inspired by Middle Eastern myths, and a matriarchal society—all set in an alternate-world Asia.

With its own creation myth, religion, and history, Monstress centers around the conflict between Arcanics—a mixed race resulting from humans and the immortal, animal-shaped Ancients—and the Cumaea, a “scientific” order of witches (humans) who consume and experiment on them to fuel their magic. The wars have been gruesome and violent, with their legacy carrying trauma and deep emotional scars in our protagonist, half-Arcanic and former child slave Maika Halfwolf. Maika, who can pass for human, has very big fish to fry—hell-bent on avenging her dead mother, she is the occasional host of a terrifying and supremely powerful monster, who emerges from the stump of her severed arm.

It’s hard to put into words just how breathtakingly epic Monstress is, how dark, and how beautiful. Though interspersed with moments of levity and wisdom from adorable cats, and rife with whimsical details (unicorn horses!), the themes here are heady: Liu drew on her Chinese grandparents’ experiences during World War II to show just how broken life is for the Arcanics. Like with Maika, sometimes the monster inside all of us just wants to burn it all down—and that destructive power is readily available to her. Takeda’s artwork deserves all the superlatives and can’t be understated, with fine detailed architecture and manga-style characters. Comes with major content warnings.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Nimona

For tonally lighter fare, Noelle Stevenson’s web comic-turned-graphic novel Nimona will bring about giggles and snickers, as a teenage girl strongarms her way into being the sidekick to the “villainous” Lord Ballister Blackheart. Here be dragons! Knights who communicate via videocall! The properties of magic getting debated by goggle-wearing scientists! Ballister fits reluctantly into the role of villain ever since his arm got blown off by his archnemesis, the lushly locked Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin of the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics. Who better to give him a push than orphaned, impulsive, sarcastic Nimona, a shapeshifter who can take the form of any living being of any size or strength?

Though the novel starts with quippy dialogue and witty punchlines as Ballister and Nimona form a rapport, there is a darker, more serious undertone amongst all the charm: Nimona is, well, an extremely efficient killer. Since Ballister is truly a cinnamon roll who eventually just wants to be loved, he’s at odds with himself when he realizes Nimona’s full and true power—and the chaos she brings. And since this fun blur between science and magic of a world doesn’t exclude patriarchy, teenaged girls must be controlled, right? They’re dangerous when they’re unpredictable.

Still, feel assured under Stevenson’s confident pen. Her artwork drives the heartfelt character design, and the amazing expressions on their faces are a joy—especially the eyebrows! And overall, Nimona is a tender, funny exploration of what makes a hero a hero and a villain a villain, with a sweet romance, enough silliness to give you a bellyache, and a moody girl to root for, even on her bad days. Because who doesn’t have those days?

Sirens at Home: Books and Breakfast Selections

Each year at Sirens, we offer a Books and Breakfast program where attendees bring their breakfast and join us to talk books: timely books, popular books, even controversial books. While we’ll be saving all of our villainous selections for Books and Breakfast in 2021 (when we will, indeed, convene on a theme of villains), we’ve chosen different books for this year: seven 2020 releases that we think are all pretty terrific.

On Friday, October 23, 2020, we will hold our Books and Breakfast program online as part of Sirens at Home. If you’d like to join us, please do! All you need to do is register for Sirens at Home, read one of the following selections, grab your breakfast, and join the online discussion.

 
Sirens at Home Books and Breakfast Selections

Elatsoe

Elatsoe
by Darcie Little Badger (illustrations by Rovina Cai)

Elatsoe, or just Ellie, is your average teenager trying to figure out her place in the world and what she wants from life—except that her contemporary America has ghosts, vampires, and fae, and Ellie herself can raise the ghosts of dead animals. Think really dead animals, like mammoths and trilobites, not merely Ellie’s more recently dead dog, Kirby. As Little Badger’s work opens, Ellie’s cousin dies surprisingly and violently, confirmed first by paranormal reverberation that shocks Kirby and a dreamland visitation of Ellie’s. In a bit of a backward mystery, Ellie’s determined to find the clues that will lead to what she already knows: who killed her cousin. Little Badger’s work incorporates the traditions and legends of the Lipan Apache tribe (of which she is an enrolled member) and makes them integral to both her fantastical America and Ellie’s deductive skills. You’ll love Ellie—and you’ll clamor for a book about Six Great, her fabled foremother who looms large in Little Badger’s America.

Never Look Back

Never Look Back
by Lilliam Rivera

A contemporary retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice featuring Afro-Latinx characters in the Bronx, Never Look Back hums with bachata rhythms and the pulsing possibilities of hazy summer nights. Pheus, the popular golden-voiced bachata singer among his circle of friends, is drawn to Eury, a newly arrived girl from Puerto Rico. Eury is processing the trauma of her family losing everything in Hurricane Maria, and she’s haunted by a spirit whose only desire is to have her with him, always. Mythologies intertwine in this straight-talk novel fused with magical realism, and Rivera seamlessly weaves in examinations of colonialism, toxic masculinity, class, and mental health. This is both a romance and a book about community, and the relationships that strengthen it are a highlight—particularly Eury’s relationship with her cousin Penelope, and Pheus’s with his father. You already know what happens at the pivotal climax; Eury’s agency and empowerment makes this read as catchy as the tunes within.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water
by Zen Cho

Though a greater war bleeds beyond its pages, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water centers a small group of roving bandits who, at the story’s beginning, convene in a coffeehouse for a job and encounter a former-nun-turned-waitress. The ensemble cast will please lovers of found family, though the narrative is driven by Tet Sang, a bandit with a past of his own who feels compelled to pull Guet Imm, the waitress, into the group. Cho’s novella is a masterclass in subtlety; instead of an epic volume that features wealthy nobles or expert warriors, it spotlights everyday people who make individual choices in the name of survival. There’s magic and violence—secondary to the interpersonal relationships among the characters—and a delightful queer romance woven so intricately within the action that you never forget there’s a bigger set piece. Reading this book is like becoming one of the crew.

Remembrance

Remembrance
by Rita Woods

By debut author Rita Woods, Remembrance is an ambitious blend of historical fiction and fantasy ultimately about the safe haven created by Black women throughout—and beyond—time. The multiple points of view give the work tremendous scope (and will appeal to fans of epic fantasy in particular): Gaelle in present-day Cleveland, Margot in 1857 New Orleans, Abigail in 1791 Haiti, and the mysterious Winter. As the characters face plagues, rebellion, slavery, death and separation of loved ones—and disenfranchisement in the most extreme sense of the word—we’re introduced to Remembrance, a refuge for slaves who do not make it out of the Underground Railroad. As the narratives converge, you’ll appreciate Woods’s thorough research and delicate hand, and how each of the women comes into her magic. She relates what we know to be true: Black women have been building sanctuary for their communities throughout generations.

Snapdragon

Snapdragon
by Kat Leyh

You already know Kat Leyh’s work as a cowriter and cover artist for the inimitable Lumberjanes comic series, but you’re about to know her for Snapdragon as well. In this graphic work, Snapdragon, an angry, ostracized girl, encounters Jacks, the town witch, while looking for her lost dog. Jacks has Good Boy, sure enough, but only because she found him on the side of the road and patched him up. When Snap, desperate for friends, finds orphaned possums, she ends up back at Jacks’s house—and Jacks strikes her a deal: She’ll help Snap care for the possums if Snap helps her with her business recovering dead animals and assembling their skeletons for sale on the Internet. That’s just the beginning of a work that weaves—through all of Snap’s anger and Jacks’s isolation, Snap’s mother’s trying to balance everything and Snap’s friend’s coming out, and a surprising thread of magic—a delicately human story about finding yourself, whoever that person might be, and finding a community, however unexpected that might be. In the end, Snapdragon is a sob-fest, happy-ending story about giving folks a chance, and sometimes even two.

Star Daughter

Star Daughter
by Shveta Thakrar

Sheetal’s mom is a star. A real, live star, who lives in the heavens and left Sheetal alone with her father when Sheetal was a little girl. Now a teenager, full of big dreams and bigger feelings, Sheetal finds herself torn between her modern desi-girl American life, full of expectations and accomplishments and a forbidden boyfriend, and staring at the night sky, wishing for her mom—and wishing that she didn’t have to dye her starlight hair dark and hide that the stars call her name. Lately that call has become stronger, and Sheetal finds herself caught up in something she doesn’t understand. She accidentally harms her father and must ascend to the sky to heal him. But of course none of this happened by chance: Her star family wishes for Sheetal to compete for them in a competition that will determine control of the stars for years to come. In all of this, Sheetal is a dang delight: all too real, and by turns flattered, confused, and furious with her star family. And as she navigates the politics of the stars, her nascent relationships with her family, and her erstwhile romance with her boyfriend, she’s the sort of heroine who’s always in charge of herself, no matter what her maternal grandmother might think.

Unconquerable Sun

Unconquerable Sun
by Kate Elliott

If “genderflipped Alexander the Great in space” doesn’t grab you, then perhaps “genetically engineered human-aliens, cutthroat galaxy-spanning politics, queernorm worldbuilding, and imaginative future tech” will. An exciting opening to a new series, Unconquerable Sun has plenty of Easter eggs for those with interest in classical studies, but provides a standalone, fully realized world—nay, an entire galaxy, with deep roots and evocative details. Our protagonist Sun is an astonishing hero: charismatic, decisive, brilliant, sharp; the cast that surrounds her is equally grand, from the wily Persephone to the handsome Alika, and all the rest of Sun’s Companions. Elliott has taken some risks in the way she handles the various point-of-view characters, changing person and tense in a way that helps the reader feel the soul-deep shifts between each character. It pays off: The book is an enthralling adventure from start to finish.

Books and Breakfast: Girls Made of Snow and Glass, Slice of Cherry, and Wilder Girls

Each year, Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through our Books and Breakfast program. We select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme, and then attendees bring their breakfasts and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary are doing in fantasy literature!

For our 2021 conference, as we examine gender and villainy, and relatedly, redemption—fraught topics full of artificial constraints and defied stereotypes—our Books and Breakfast program features titles meant to broaden that examination. We’ve chosen eight works, full of questions, but few answers; dastardly villainy, and occasional redemption; and a number of female and nonbinary villains who may, despite or because of their villainy, be someone worth celebrating.

Earlier this summer, we highlighted our graphic selections: Monstress: Awakening and Nimona; and our adult selections: A Feast of Sorrows, Queen of the Conquered, and The Mere Wife. Today, we’re showcasing our three young adult selections: Girls Made of Snow and Glass, Slice of Cherry, and Wilder Girls. We hope these features will help you make your choice and tackle your reading before Sirens next year.

 
2021 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter
Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust
Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley
Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust

Girls Made of Snow and Glass

In this take on “Snow White,” sixteen-year-old Mina, missing a heart, escapes one abusive household for another—where she can capture the love of the king for herself, even his power, provided she is ready, so young, to become a stepmother. She’s to be mother to Lynet, who has been conjured to life in her mother’s image from a snowfall. And as in “Snow White,” the two are set at odds. Mina has been loved too little, and wants the crown any way she can have it. Lynet, conversely, has no desire to be queen, and would be happy enough to spend her days with her girlfriend and to be looked on as something besides the embodiment of her mother.

The evil stepmother is a classic villain: cold, beautiful (but in a scary way), a usurper. In Bashardoust’s version, the stepmother must take that role, whether she wants to or not, and her relationship with Lynet, close in age, is complex and painful. It’s bittersweet that the two have been positioned as enemies, and the wedge between them makes the story compelling. Rarely do we see mother-daughter relationships in stories about young adults; even more rarely do we see them in fantasy books for young adults. Mina and Lynet’s intertwined stories provide a rich exploration of relationships between women—with all the twisty, messy, emotional resonance that non-romantic relationships have in real life, and don’t always get their due on the page.

Girls Made of Snow and Glass is full of icy atmosphere and fairytale references, but at its heart—no pun intended—it’s a story about love. What we do to receive love. How we choose whom to hate, and whom to mark as villain. How villains can be created by society. And it’s also about mothers and daughters, and how we make families. How we tell stories, and how the telling makes heroines and villains. And how, in the end, we can choose the stories told for us or choose to make our own.

Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves

Slice of Cherry

Kit and Fancy Cordelle are sisters, daughters of the infamous Bonesaw Killer, a serial killer who ravaged Portero, Texas, before being caught and jailed. But no matter how strange Portero is—if you’ve read Reeves’s Bleeding Violet, surely you remember how strange Portero is—no matter how much Bonesaw Killer fan mail still arrives at the house, and no matter that neither Kit nor Fancy had anything to do with their father’s murders, Kit and Fancy are ostracized. Surely the apple couldn’t have fallen too far from the tree—a convenient statement when one seeks to oppress Black girls. But never mind that: Kit and Fancy will tell you that they don’t mind. They’re the best of friends (as Fancy says, practically the same person).

And despite their previous innocence, they are perhaps not so different from their father after all—or perhaps assumptions are a powerful catalyst: Kit and Fancy both harbor a desire to harm, to carve people up and stitch them back together, to pull them apart until they crack, to kill. Unlike their famous father, though, Kit and Fancy will be the first people to tell you that they harm only those who truly deserve it, those who touch or invade or harm first. They’ll also tell you that they’re smarter than their father: They use a mysterious doorway to another world to cover their tracks. And everything would be fine, perhaps—Portero surely won’t look too hard for a few missing predators—except that, despite Fancy’s assertion, Kit and Fancy aren’t the same person at all. Kit wants to grow and change, make friends, and have a boyfriend, while Fancy wants to stay in her tiny, controlled world, happily basking in the gore that she and her sister share.

Slice of Cherry is, in every way that matters, a Black feminist revenge story. In Kit and Fancy’s vigilantism, Reeves claims violence for Black girls harmed by the world. Kit and Fancy are broken by their father’s crimes, their mother’s absence, the town’s ostracization, and seemingly everyone’s assumptions. But that brokenness creates neither victims nor, despite the carnage, villains. Kit and Fancy take their power, claim their power, every time they cut an attempted rapist, every time they stab an intruder. Don’t shy away from the danger and violence of Portero; Reeves’s story of Black girls who are cast as villains but who will not be victims is one for our world, too.

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Wilder Girls

As you begin Wilder Girls, the students and instructors at Raxter School for Girls in rural Maine have been quarantined for 18 months. That’s when the Tox began ripping through the country, causing grotesque mutations in people, fauna, and flora alike: second spines, new organs, scales, eventually death. Outbreaks are individual and unpredictable, but at this point, the girls are just holding on, relying on supplies from the outside world, and hoping for a vaccine.

Hetty, one of the students, is unexpectedly chosen for Boat Shift, one of the few jobs that can get a girl off school grounds, in this case to retrieve those all-important supplies. With this new responsibility comes new knowledge, and Hetty sees the transformations and destruction around her in a new, even more desperate light. And that desperation pervades Wilder Girls, which is built on the dawning horror that things can always, and so often do, get worse. Without giving too much away, after 18 months of increasing desolation, Hetty finds a villain—and it’s worse than she could have imagined.

The foundation of Wilder Girls is its (almost) all-female cast—and the possibilities born of crafting a book around only female characters. The mean-girls trope you often see in YA is absent—jettisoned along with boys and the omnipresent white heteropatriarchy—and instead Power creates girls that are just girls: sometimes smart, sometimes ambitious, sometimes mean. Sometimes they get along and sometimes they don’t. Some are heroes and some are villains and some are neither. This isn’t some quarantine-created feminine utopia, but rather a cast of real girls who are real people in an impossible situation. You might call it a feminist utopia. And that is magnificent.

Books and Breakfast: A Feast of Sorrows, Queen of the Conquered, and The Mere Wife

Each year, Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through our Books and Breakfast program. We select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme, and then attendees bring their breakfasts and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary are doing in fantasy literature!

For our 2021 conference, as we examine gender and villainy, and relatedly, redemption—fraught topics full of artificial constraints and defied stereotypes—our Books and Breakfast program features titles meant to broaden that examination. We’ve chosen eight works, full of questions, but few answers; dastardly villainy, and occasional redemption; and a number of female and nonbinary villains who may, despite or because of their villainy, be someone worth celebrating.

Earlier this summer, we highlighted our graphic selections: Monstress: Awakening and Nimona. Today, we’re showcasing our three adult selections: A Feast of Sorrows, Queen of the Conquered, and The Mere Wife. Next month, we’ll finish up with our young adult selections. We hope these features will help you make your choice and tackle your reading before Sirens next year.

 
2021 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter
Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust
Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley
Wilder Girls by Rory Power

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter

A Feast of Sorrows

While calling Angela Slatter the heir apparent to Angela Carter and Emma Donoghue may seem a bold assertion, it’s appropriately so. Carter and Donoghue twisted fairy tales, reclaimed them, told violently feminist or joyously queer versions of them. But despite their obvious feminism, Carter’s and Donoghue’s tales often remain in conversation with their more traditional, more heteropatriarchal versions. Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” reclaims Bluebeard, conjuring a mother as savior rather than the violent, patriarchal heroism of the original. Donoghue’s Cinderella in “The Tale of the Shoe” still seeks her coupled-up happily ever after, but with the fairy godmother rather than the prince. Both of their work is an undeniable fuck-you to the heteropatriarchy, but their defiance must remain conversant with that same heteropatriarchy.

By contrast, Slatter—like her heroines—often eschews that conversation entirely. She has little interest in correcting, instructing, or even raging at the heteropatriarchy. She has little interest in explaining to the heteropatriarchy why Bluebeard cannot kill this wife or why Cinderella would obviously be so much happier with her godmother. She—like her heroines—is busy. Busy being, if you will: being frightened and fearless, being brave and bold, being frail and fantastical. Being relentlessly awesome. Being, quite often, villainous.

A Feast of Sorrows, one of World Fantasy Award- and British Fantasy Award-winning Slatter’s collections of short fiction, features twelve of her finest, darkest fairy tales. Her women and girls take paths less travelled, offer and accept poisoned apples, and embrace all sorts of transformation. You won’t find just princesses and ghosts and killers here, but a full gamut of artisans as well: bakers, quilters, crafters, spinners, and coffin-makers. Never have the feminine arts been so magical or so deadly. This collection is one to be savored one story, one revelation, and one smart, determined, independent woman at a time.


Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender

Queen of the Conquered

On the island of Hans Lollik, in a fantasy Caribbean, Sigourney has risen from the ashes. Her family was murdered by colonizers years earlier for daring to ascend from slavery to nobility—but Sigourney survived and, through sheer determination and gutsy smarts, has again achieved the rank of nobility. And in this work of impressive intrigue, Sigourney’s identity is secret, her magic dangerous, and her heart focused on revenge. The childless king has declared that he will select his successor from among the nobility and ambitious, vengeful Sigourney wants that title, is willing to kill for that title, in order to help her people. But someone is murdering nobles, the king isn’t quite what he seems, and Sigourney is a ready suspect. Not only is her years-long plan on the line, her life might be as well.

Queen of the Conquered is smart. Really smart. Callender simultaneously constructs both a complicated murder mystery and a searing indictment of slavery and colonialism. Their cast of characters is complex, full of individual and treacherous magics, all certainly capable of planning and executing a series of murders. But the more impressive, important achievement is weaving this mystery into a fully realized world of colonization, slavery, and potential change. Callender’s bedrock is power disparities and they use those skillfully as a foundation for their complex world of choices and compulsion, dominance and pain, compromises and uprisings. Only rarely—in the work of N.K. Jemisin, perhaps, or Justina Ireland—have you read a fantasy work like this.

And yet, with all of that, Callender’s tour de force is Sigourney Rose, born into the nobility despite her dark skin, improbable survivor of the massacre of her family, an impossibly complex, ambitious woman playing an impossibly long game. Sigourney is a victim, but also—perhaps—a villain. Her status grants her slave ownership—slaves she could free, but does not. She punishes her slaves, and has sex with some, knowing that they cannot refuse her. She seeks power purportedly for the good of her people, but while she lives in luxury, her people continue to suffer, often at her hand. She’s playing the long game, where great risk could bring great reward, but what about the sacrifices she demands of her powerless people in the meantime? Victimhood and villainy, it seems, are not mutually exclusive.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

The Mere Wife

Herot Hall, the suburban setting of Maria Dahvana Headley’s Beowulf retelling, is a Stepford-pretty utopia: Everything is picket fences and carefully arranged flowers, big houses and perfect families. And for Willa, married to Herot heir Roger, life is perfect, her carefully curated self raising her carefully curated son, Dylan, in her carefully curated house. Her schedule is a beautiful round of dinner parties and playdates, glamorous clothes and perfect meals. But Willa lives on the edge of Herot Hall, where all this careful curation is guarded from the outside by walls and surveillance cameras. These defenses make Willa feel safe, but they aren’t enough to keep out Gren.

Gren belongs to Dana, a soldier who didn’t want Gren and doesn’t really understand how she gave birth to Gren, but when she returned from war, she had Gren. Now they struggle to survive in a cave outside the reaches of Herot Hall. The lasting effects of war seem like an impossible mountain to climb in returning to society, so Dana remains—with her son—on the periphery, each day a new challenge in their solitary existence. But Gren is growing, and exploring, and doesn’t always share his mother’s damage—or her fear.

In this contemporary exploration of monstrousness and society, Dylan and Gren are the catalysts, but not the monsters. Both Willa and Dana live in careful worlds, where, like anyone, their pasts, their fears, and their hopes underlie their expectations and their choices. Both Willa and Dana try, with little success, to impress the importance of these careful worlds onto their sons. As Gren grows, his curiosity drives him into Herot Hall and he secretly befriends Dylan. With that series of encounters, both Willa’s and Dana’s carefully constructed worlds collapse: Their fears lead them to make sometimes desperate, sometimes illogical, sometimes monstrous decisions—and ultimately The Mere Wife asks readers: How monstrous are you?

Books and Breakfast: Monstress: Awakening and Nimona

Each year, Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through our Books and Breakfast program. We select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme, and then attendees bring their breakfasts and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary are doing in fantasy literature!

This year, as we examine gender and villainy, and relatedly, redemption—fraught topics full of artificial constraints and defied stereotypes—our Books and Breakfast program features titles meant to broaden that examination. We’ve chosen eight works, full of questions, but few answers; dastardly villainy, and occasional redemption; and a number of female and nonbinary villains who may, despite or because of their villainy, be someone worth celebrating.

This summer, we’ll be highlighting all eight of these titles, which we hope will allow you to make your choice and tackle your reading before Sirens. Below are our list of selections and our first two summaries; we’ll have the other six in the months to come.

 
2020 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter
Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust
Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley
Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu, illus. by Sana Takeda

Monstress: Awakening

Do you like pretty things and want to cry? If you read fantasy for worldbuilding, there is so much to admire in Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress, a lush, fantasy comics series currently on its 30th issue. The first volume of Monstress: Awakening collects the first six issues, and the world is an incredible combination of Art Deco architecture, steampunky science, magic inspired by Middle Eastern myths, and a matriarchal society—all set in an alternate-world Asia.

With its own creation myth, religion, and history, Monstress centers around the conflict between Arcanics—a mixed race resulting from humans and the immortal, animal-shaped Ancients—and the Cumaea, a “scientific” order of witches (humans) who consume and experiment on them to fuel their magic. The wars have been gruesome and violent, with their legacy carrying trauma and deep emotional scars in our protagonist, half-Arcanic and former child slave Maika Halfwolf. Maika, who can pass for human, has very big fish to fry—hell-bent on avenging her dead mother, she is the occasional host of a terrifying and supremely powerful monster, who emerges from the stump of her severed arm.

It’s hard to put into words just how breathtakingly epic Monstress is, how dark, and how beautiful. Though interspersed with moments of levity and wisdom from adorable cats, and rife with whimsical details (unicorn horses!), the themes here are heady: Liu drew on her Chinese grandparents’ experiences during World War II to show just how broken life is for the Arcanics. Like with Maika, sometimes the monster inside all of us just wants to burn it all down—and that destructive power is readily available to her. Takeda’s artwork deserves all the superlatives and can’t be understated, with fine detailed architecture and manga-style characters. Comes with major content warnings.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Nimona

For tonally lighter fare, Noelle Stevenson’s web comic-turned-graphic novel Nimona will bring about giggles and snickers, as a teenage girl strongarms her way into being the sidekick to the “villainous” Lord Ballister Blackheart. Here be dragons! Knights who communicate via videocall! The properties of magic getting debated by goggle-wearing scientists! Ballister fits reluctantly into the role of villain ever since his arm got blown off by his archnemesis, the lushly locked Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin of the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics. Who better to give him a push than orphaned, impulsive, sarcastic Nimona, a shapeshifter who can take the form of any living being of any size or strength?

Though the novel starts with quippy dialogue and witty punchlines as Ballister and Nimona form a rapport, there is a darker, more serious undertone amongst all the charm: Nimona is, well, an extremely efficient killer. Since Ballister is truly a cinnamon roll who eventually just wants to be loved, he’s at odds with himself when he realizes Nimona’s full and true power—and the chaos she brings. And since this fun blur between science and magic of a world doesn’t exclude patriarchy, teenaged girls must be controlled, right? They’re dangerous when they’re unpredictable.

Still, feel assured under Stevenson’s confident pen. Her artwork drives the heartfelt character design, and the amazing expressions on their faces are a joy—especially the eyebrows! And overall, Nimona is a tender, funny exploration of what makes a hero a hero and a villain a villain, with a sweet romance, enough silliness to give you a bellyache, and a moody girl to root for, even on her bad days. Because who doesn’t have those days?

2019 Books and Breakfast: superheroes come in all sorts of bodies

Each year, Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through our Books and Breakfast program. We select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme, and then attendees bring their breakfast and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary authors are doing in fantasy literature!

This year, as we interrogate what it means to be a hero and what actions are seen as heroic, our Books and Breakfast program features titles in four areas to broaden our definition of heroism: religion, race, gender/sexuality, and body—and please note that some titles sit on multiple axes, not just the one they’re listed under! We’ll be highlighting all of these titles this summer: You can read more about our religion picks here, our race picks here, and our gender and sexuality picks here; below are our Books and Breakfast selections exploring heroism and differing bodies, because it’s not all about ripped abs and bulging biceps.

 
2019 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

Religion

The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson
The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

Race

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Gender/Sexuality

Dreadnought by April Daniels
The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera

Body

Faith Volume 1: Hollywood and Vine by Jody Houser, Francis Portela, and Marguerite Sauvage
Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge

 
BODY SELECTIONS

If you ask a random sampling of people on the street what they think a superhero looks like, you’ll probably get a lot of expected answers: protein-shake muscles wrapped in a package of lycra and latex, bulging at the seams. Even our superheroines often suffer the same fate, though they notably get much less lycra and latex to work with. We’re so bound to the notion that superheroism looks like Superman or Batman or even America’s ass that sometimes we need to stop and ask ourselves, quite literally: What if it didn’t? Our Books and Breakfast body picks propose alternate heroes: in Faith: Hollywood and Vine by Jody Houser, Francis Portela, and Marguerite Sauvage, an overweight superheroine saves the world as we know it; in Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge, an anxiety-ridden girl with a neurodivergent sister who becomes the hero her people needs.

 

Faith Volume 1: Hollywood and Vine by Jody Houser, Francis Portela, and Marguerite Sauvage

Faith Volume 1: Hollywood and Vine

Faith, as a character, got her start in Harbinger, the Valiant comic about a group of outcast teenagers with superpowers. As author Jody Houser explains, “[S]he’s the one person in that group who was super-excited about having superpowers, because she’s a big fan of comics and sci-fi and fantasy… [s]o, she had a very strong sense of who she wanted to be as a superhero.” In Hollywood and Vine, Faith is an adult who has moved on from the group of outcasts and is living on her own, donning a wig and glasses for her secret identity as Summer, a journalist.

You don’t need to have read Harbinger to be able to follow Faith: Hollywood and Vine, authored by Houser and illustrated by Francis Portela and Marguerite Sauvage. Faith’s backstory, including that she was orphaned and raised by her grandmother, is quickly summarized at the start before diving into her perfectly average, perhaps even boring secret identity. As with many new series, the first issue of Faith is mostly setting the stage and grounding us in Faith’s daily life. The second issue introduces a potential villain while fleshing out a bit more of Faith’s personal history. The third issue shows Faith in action fighting the baddie, but also gaining more allies when her cover is partially blown, and the fourth is the big battle with the villain.

What’s really new and fresh about this graphic novel is that the main character is both plus-sized and comfortable with her body. For example, while her ex wanted to be in the spotlight doing reality television, Faith chose the path of a secret identity in the hopes of quietly doing good. She isn’t pining for lost love, but rather disappointed in the life he’s established since she left him—which is great because then when we meet his stereotypically thin and airheaded new girlfriend, Faith isn’t focused on weight and looks, but rather what it means to be a superhero. Throughout the graphic novel, Faith’s weight isn’t negatively cast or even something she has to “deal with.” Instead, Faith’s struggles are centered around trying to fight crime while establishing a new independent life.

—Amanda

 

Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge

Gullstruck Island

In the ordinary way of things, Hathin of the Hollow Beasts tribe of the Lace would never be the protagonist of her own story. Hathin is the younger sister of Arilou, the only Lost born to the Lace on Gullstruck Island. That status makes Arilou a profitable rarity and Hathin an indispensable figure in her tribe, young as she is, for she was born for the purpose of caring for Arilou. But the Hollow Beasts are not actually sure that Arilou is a Lost: There is precious little evidence that she is consciously sending her senses outward independent of her body like a true Lost, rather than just someone whose intellectual disability makes her seem like a Lost. Not everyone on Gullstruck is content with the supremacy of the Lost Council over the governors of the colonial bureaucracy, and when all of the Lost but Arilou turn up dead one unremarkable night, Hathin, Arilou, and all of the indigenous Lace tribes find themselves caught in a deadly conspiracy. Hathin must keep Arilou alive when all the rest of their tribe have been slaughtered: She joins the Reckoning, the semi-legendary Lace group of revengers, and finds herself contending with volcanoes, towners, other Lace, and the Nuisance Control Officer Michard Prox, who may himself be a pawn of more central, unseen forces at work on the island. The uneasy status quo that prevailed since the Cavalcaste colonists’ arrival two hundred years before is shattered, and Hathin and Prox become the fulcrum of irrevocable change.

In the ordinary way of things, Gullstruck Island would be Arilou’s story and Hathin would be lost to history, unnoticed and voiceless. Instead, Hathin finds herself holding the entire island’s future in her small hands. If Arilou’s challenge is that she is too often not present enough in her own life, Hathin’s is that she is too present: Called a worrywart, she is prone to bouts of near-debilitating anxiety in her role as Arilou’s voice and keeper, anxiety that only increases when both sisters are forced far outside their comfort zones. Hathin even worries that she isn’t bloodthirsty enough to be a proper revenger, compared to her fellow members of the Reckoning. And yet, she couches all her worries in terms of their impact on Arilou, not realizing that she, rather than her Lost sister, is the protagonist of her own story.

Gullstruck Island is the story of a girl shaking off her self-imposed habit of self-denigration in the shadow of her gifted sister, of a society wracked by racial distrust teetering on the brink of genocide: The Lace are termed an “infestation” in their own ancestral land, rounded up into concentration camps, their families separated—concepts that seemed remote when the book was published in 2009 but which are all too relevant in 2019. It is a story about colonialism, about grappling with the poisonous legacies of the past and the need for systemic change, about a malicious dentist whose soul is bound up with a bird, about a family of volcanoes whose torrid passions for one another have ruinous effects on the island’s human inhabitants. And it is a story about a small, anxious girl who learns to consider herself apart from her sister, who does not set out to be a hero but who, by right of revenge and by virtue of being ignored but observant all her life, winds up being the quiet, unassuming, effective hero that her island needs.

—Andrea

 

2019 Books and Breakfast: queer people saving the world

Each year, Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through our Books and Breakfast program. We select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme, and then attendees bring their breakfast and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary authors are doing in fantasy literature!

This year, as we interrogate what it means to be a hero and what actions are seen as heroic, our Books and Breakfast program features titles in four areas to broaden our definition of heroism: religion, race, gender/sexuality, and body—and please note that some titles sit on multiple axes, not just the one they’re listed under! We’ll be highlighting all of these titles this summer: You can read more about our religion picks here and our race picks here; below are our Books and Breakfast selections exploring heroism, gender, and sexuality; and look for our body selections in a few weeks.

 
2019 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

Religion

The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson
The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

Race

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Gender/Sexuality

Dreadnought by April Daniels
The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera

Body

Faith Volume 1: Hollywood and Vine by Jody Houser, Francis Portela, and Marguerite Sauvage
Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge

 
GENDER AND SEXUALITY SELECTIONS

So much of our societal notion of heroism is wrapped up with the assumption that the male hero gets the girl. After all, how many stories have you read where the hero puts on his armor, picks up his sword, and clanks off to the remote forest to slay the dragon and rescue the damsel? A quite literal getting the girl, if you will, but let’s not forget that he usually marries her, too, because this pervasive form of heroism is so often about both reward and possession. But what if the hero isn’t cisgender? Or heterosexual? What does heroism look like then? Our Books and Breakfast gender/sexuality picks—April Daniels’s Dreadnought and K Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter—ask that very question.

 

Dreadnought by April Daniels

Dreadnought

Dreadnought by April Daniels begins with Danny painting her toenails. That’s a pretty ordinary activity for a girl, but at the beginning of the book, only Danny knows that she’s a girl. Then, a superhero passes his powers to her, and inexplicably, in the space of a moment, her body goes through the transition she’s been dreaming of. So begins a story that is about what you present or hide from the world, how you want to be seen and perceived—and very importantly, a story about heroism and what you choose as opposed to what you don’t.

Danny lives in a near-future world that has been in upheaval due to various factions of superheroes warring against one another. Because she inherited the “good guy” Dreadnought’s powers, she’s invited to—even expected to—join the side of righteousness and help save the day; Danny’s not so sure about that. Classic comic hero(ine) struggles, yes—but what happens when you’re not sure you want to join the grownups in their infighting? What if you don’t want to save the world so much as save yourself from a living at home situation that’s not safe or supportive? And, in larger metaphors, who gets a say in your (secret) identity? Must you reveal it to everyone? Must you be an activist, a hero, if you will? And who should get to decide what you disclose, even what you will fight for, and when?

Dreadnought can be read on the surface as an adventure story, but there are many themes to consider: Our relationships to our bodies. The perception and treatment of women in society, and the difference between being an outsider and an insider to an identity. The struggle to be seen exactly as you are. The price of heroics. Those who love a reluctant heroine will find one in Danny and Dreadnought, wrapped up in a pacey, high-concept, capes-and-villains package that nevertheless has plenty of depth.

—Hallie

 

The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera

The Tiger's Daughter

Perhaps I don’t need to say anything about K Arsenault Rivera’s Mongol-inspired epic fantasy, The Tiger’s Daughter, other than that it’s about two formidable girls, born of formidable mothers, learning to be heroes while also falling in love with each other? Duty-bound Shefali, who never misses with a bow and can see spirits, is the daughter of Burquila Alshara, the relentless leader of the nomadic Qorin. Arrogant O-Shizuka, preternaturally skilled with both sword and calligraphy brush, who can make flowers bloom, is both the daughter of O-Shizuru, the empire’s best swordsperson, and the niece of the emperor, next in line to take the throne. They are both destined to be legends, even gods.

The Tiger’s Daughter queries much about heroism: Rivera deliberately contrasts the heroism of the girls’ mothers—in the past and therefore somewhat neater and even glossier for its lack of detail—with the chaotic, terrifying routes that Shefali and O-Shizuka take toward their own heroism. You can readily see the elements of their lives that will create their immortality—the tiger in the garden, the demon by the fire—but heroism is a muddy, messy, raw sort of thing in practice. It’s something that, even if you believe in destiny, you must choose over and over again. And despite the personal cost, Shefali and O-Shizuka do choose it over and over again.

And in all of that, the girls’ great love for each other is front and center, not a side plot or a few chaste kisses, but an equally muddy, messy, raw sort of thing. Their love is not a distraction from their heroism or a consolation prize for their sacrifice, but a beautiful, wild, glorious thing that makes it possible for them to relentlessly choose heroism, that bronzes their legacy, that makes them worthy of their seeming godhood. Their love makes each of them more—more brave, more brilliant, and yes, more heroic—than either could have been individually. And in Rivera’s work, that is what heroism looks like: tumultuous, profound, and in love.

—Amy

 

2019 Books and Breakfast: non-white heroes in dystopian worlds

Each year, Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through our Books and Breakfast program. We select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme, and then attendees bring their breakfast and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary authors are doing in fantasy literature!

This year, as we interrogate what it means to be a hero and what actions are seen as heroic, our Books and Breakfast program features titles in four areas to broaden our definition of heroism: religion, race, gender/sexuality, and body—and please note that some titles sit on multiple axes, not just the one they’re listed under! We’ll be highlighting all of these titles the coming months; you can read more about our religion picks here, and below are our Books and Breakfast selections exploring heroism and race.

 
2019 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

Religion

The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson
The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

Race

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Gender/Sexuality

Dreadnought by April Daniels
The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera

Body

Faith Volume 1: Hollywood and Vine by Jody Houser, Francis Portela, and Marguerite Sauvage
Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge

 
RACE SELECTIONS

A glance at the fantasy shelves these days—particularly at the young adult fantasy shelves—will hardly reveal a shortage of female heroes. Ferocious warriors, skilled assassins, superlative magicians, eagle-eyed commanders, sage healers, and shrewd queens. Yet, painstakingly few of them feature non-white heroes as their protagonists—rather, you’ll find them villains in more than a few tomes—and fewer yet are written by fantasy authors of color. This year, we urge you to discover our Books and Breakfast race picks: Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation and Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God.

 

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation

If you didn’t think that the Reconstruction era, Steampunk, and the zombie apocalypse went together, then gee, let me introduce you to Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation. What if, during the battle of Gettysburg towards the end of the Civil War, the undead—called shamblers—rise and begin terrorizing towns and cities across America? What if, after slavery was abolished, Congress establishes an act that mandates Black and Native children aged 12 enter military training camps to be the first line of defense?

Jane McKeene is a biracial Negro girl attending Miss Preston’s School of Combat, in which the best graduates become “Attendants,” chaperoning wealthy white women and defending them from shamblers, all while dressed in finery. But that’s just the beginning: Ireland’s gem of a novel is so incredibly inventive and sharp, it offers one of the best examinations of systemic racism and the Black experience I’ve read in a young adult novel, or any novel. It explores colorism with Jane’s rival, Katherine Devereaux, who is so gorgeous she stuns at fifty paces, and is passing as white; codeswitching, like when Jane purposely downplays her abilities to manipulate a situation; and much more. Ultimately, it confronts head-on how American history is literally built at the expense of black and Native bodies, and the complicity of white ‘allies’ with their words and actions masked as benevolence.

Published a year after Jordan Peele’s Get Out was released, Dread Nation accomplishes something equally ambitious, with razor-sharp cultural commentary, clever and perceptive worldbuilding details (because Sherman’s March to the Sea was obviously to burn a path through a horde of shamblers), and a hero in Jane who must blaze her destiny in a society where people in power don’t see her as human. It lurches you in directions you might not expect… but are inevitably not surprised by. It offers an alternate history of the United States that illuminates truths about our present—and that is the best kind of fantasy. Required reading.

—Faye

 

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Future Home of the Living God

As Future Home of the Living God opens, Cedar Hawk Songmaker—her improbable white name courtesy of her adopted Minnesota-liberal parents—seeks her Ojibwe birth family, a quest driven by her unintended pregnancy. But more than an ordinary desire to know her genetic history propels Cedar’s sudden interest in her tribe: The world’s genetics have suddenly gone awry, evolution is moving backward, and pregnant women often give birth to something other than human babies. As the novel progresses, as Cedar meets her birth family and navigates the new conventions of the United States and is ultimately imprisoned for her pregnancy, she questions over and over again if her baby is normal or a genetic malfunction—and in this world where nothing is certain, which would be the greater wonder.

Louise Erdrich began writing Future Home of the Living God in 2002, in the shadow of the Iraq War, a year after her youngest daughter was born. The question the book poses—Are we going backward?—is just as critical now as when Erdrich first asked. As you might expect, Future Home is a dystopia, but one full of both tiny marvels (new species abound) and Orwellian control (pregnant women are promised the best rooms if they check themselves into government facilities voluntarily). This work—seen through Cedar’s Indigenous eyes—is full of hard questions about what it means to progress (following the fall of the United States, Cedar’s tribe regains their land and autonomy), what it means if humans are an evolutionary pause (or even mistake), and in so many ways, how we approach the miracles inherent in so many things we take for granted: family, birth, love.

And it’s a book full of heroism. Perhaps not the sort of heroism you’re used to, where people with impossible powers save the planet from infinite threats. But a more quiet, perhaps more desperate, certainly more personal form of heroism, where an Indigenous mother, pregnant with an unknown child, will do everything in her power to keep that child not only safe, but with her. This is a book, ultimately, of awe: at what we—as ordinary people in a time of crisis—will do when called upon to be heroes.

—Amy

 

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