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Level up with Anthea Sharp’s The Dark Realm, a gamelit novel in the world of fairies

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 Darla Upchurch on Anthea Sharp’s The Dark Realm.

The Dark Realm

This summer, I am utterly addicted to LitRPG and Gamelit books. Each one draws you into a new and imaginative game world while usually managing to maintain an intriguing non-game-world, or “real-world,” story at the same time. Anthea Sharp’s first in her Feyland YA series, The Dark Realm, blends all of the fun gamelit elements with a game world of fairies.

In the beginning of The Dark Realm, the protagonist Jennet loses her mortal essence to the Dark Queen of Feyland in a prototype of the sim game her father is developing. When he relocates them to a new town for his job, Jennet is desperate to find a fellow gamer to help her reach the Dark Queen in-game for a rematch to reclaim her soul. Of course, the best gamer at her new high school is Tam, a guy from the wrong side of the tracks.

Throughout the real-world story, the little rich girl in a blue-collar town motif is used to good effect. The juxtaposition between Jennet’s life of privilege and Tam’s life of struggle is explored as the two try to navigate and understand each other’s worlds. The game serves to bring them to a common ground where they can work together in ways that they can’t in their real lives. In-game, he is given some preferential treatment (with strings attached) by the Queen, while Jennet has been stripped of even the basic right to level alone, essentially swapping their real-world socio-economic power dynamic, which gives each an insight into how the other lives in real life. Although neither character ruminates on it in this book, their in-game experiences affect their interactions in and out of game with more empathy. This introduces their potential in later books to change how they confront the roles their society thrusts upon them.

The real-world story is also populated with interesting side characters. Tam’s daily struggles include interacting with his special needs little brother and drug-addicted mother. And Tam’s best friend Marny delivers some fabulous lines: “I don’t want to look like somebody’s idea of the perfect woman. I want to look like me.” If only we could all have that kind of confidence in high school, or adulthood! I hope to see more of her in the rest of the series.

The game world in The Dark Realm is based on a ballad collected in the 1800s and is rich with fairies, magic, and an evil queen intent on crossing over to the real world. This part of the book is intriguing, and I found myself only wanting more of it. I wanted the levels of the game to be longer, and I wanted more of them. But overall, the stakes rise in-game as they heighten in the real world, which crescendos the pace of the entire book till I found myself flipping pages past my bedtime to see what happened.

The game world story does lack big stat blocks, detailed character creation, and skill and stat advancement, so if that’s your thing, this might not be the book for you. But if you’re in it for the story, this one is delightfully fun all the way through. The author strikes a good balance intertwining the plot of the real world with that of the game world, and my only complaint really is that I wanted more of it all!


Darla Upchurch has been in love with magic and fantasy in literature since she stumbled upon Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy at the library as a kid. Today she remains an avid reader and works as a copy editor. She dabbles in writing horror, romance, and fantasy under various pen names, and when she’s not drinking coffee and typing furiously with a cat in her lap, she also enjoys Jazzercise, jogging, and catching up on Forged in Fire episodes.

Iron Cast’s heart is the friendship between two girls who are inseparable, who are better together than they are apart

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!

Iron Cast

In 2012, I read Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and it shredded my heart. If you haven’t read it, you must, and then we will have shredded hearts together.

It’s a story of two girls, best friends, during World War II. One, a pilot, drops the other, a radio operator, into German-occupied France. Things end terribly.

I still, seven years later, burst into inconsolable tears at the thought of “Kiss me, Hardy! Kiss me, quick!”

Code Name Verity—despite my permanently shredded heart—is one of my favorite books in this history of the universe. It’s my heart book, the one that’s not for my head and not for my soul and not for my fearlessness or my ambition, but for the part of me that loves my best friend more than anyone else. Because Code Name Verity is nothing more and certainly nothing less than a story about the profound strength and depth and sacrifice of female friendship, which is a wondrous declaration in our world that doesn’t much consider or value or even like the idea that women might be friends.

So it is no small thing when I say that Iron Cast by Destiny Soria has patched up the tiniest bit of that gaping hole that Elizabeth Wein left in my chest seven years ago.

It is Boston, 1919, on the verge of Prohibition, and two best friends work in a night club doing illegal magic. Ada Navarra, the biracial daughter of immigrants, is a songsmith, able to conjure feelings with music. Corinne Wells, white daughter of a rich Boston family, can create illusions by reciting poetry. Both are hemopaths, people whose abilities are possible through their unusual blood. But that blood also makes them vulnerable to iron in always painful, sometimes life-threatening ways.

And in Boston, in 1919, hemopaths aren’t welcome. While a number of hemopaths use their skill seemingly innocuously, such as playing happiness or conjuring a pastoral vision for paying patrons, others use their skill to commit crimes, manipulating unsuspecting marks into scams and robberies. Ada and Corinne do both, though they’ll pertly tell you that they take advantage of only those who deserve it, thank you very much.

The city has recently passed a law prohibiting hemopaths from using their skills, and clubs like the Cast Iron, where Ada and Corinne work, put on secret, illegal hemopathy shows for patrons. Police carry iron hemopath detectors and hemopaths are frequently rounded up and placed at the Haversham Asylum for Afflictions of the Blood “for their safety”—but in fact for extensive, deadly experiments attempting to find either a cure or a protection for non-hemopaths. In fact, Iron Cast opens with Ada in the asylum, waiting for Corinne to break her out.

The plot of Iron Cast is, loosely, what you might expect from a magical Prohibition-era, speakeasy-style novel. There are some guns and some drinking and some dancing and some kissing. Because this is a fantasy work, there are also some magic and some revelations about some magic.

But Iron Cast sets the table with more than suits and hem lengths, jazz and champagne. In a thousand ways, some tiny and some monumental and some both tiny and monumental, Iron Cast is about what it means to be something other than what society privileges: to be a different color, to love someone of your own gender, to be able to do magic because of your iron-hating blood. It’s about courage and equality and doing something instead of standing idly by. And if Iron Cast sometimes feels a bit too pat, such as when Corinne learns that her mother is a closet Marxist who knows all about Corinne’s hemopathy, well, it feels too pat in that way where the universe bends ever-so-slowly toward justice.

And Iron Cast’s heart, which is not shredded at all, is the friendship between Ada and Corinne. Two girls who are inseparable, who are better together—at magic, at ambition, at boys—than they are apart. Two girls who encourage each other every day to be smarter, quicker, more ambitious, more relentless. You’ll love them both and you’ll love them both better because you get to see each of them through the other’s eyes: Corinne’s bravery, Ada’s intelligence, Corinne’s mouthiness, Ada’s kindness toward her mother.

And when Ada does something for Corinne late in the book, it will remind you so very much of Maddie and Queenie from Code Name Verity, and your heart will break—but this time everything comes out okay in the end and that happy ending patched up a tiny bit of my forever-broken heart. And if I skipped ahead to make sure that Iron Cast had a happy ending, well, a girl can only take so many heart-shredding best friend stories.


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 ten years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

A YA fantasy recommendation for every Star Wars Episode, in story order

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 Maria Dones.

I fell in love with Star Wars very late to the game. The fandom always felt so unattainable—there was too much I could never learn, could never get right, could never be a part of so I never gave it a chance.

I began watching the movies for the first time this year because I wanted to understand the love so many of my friends have for the franchise. At first, it was just as I feared—I didn’t get it. There was so much unfamiliar to me in A New Hope (1977) that it was hard to wrap my head around the story. Then, one day, as I drove home after watching Return of the Jedi (1983)—Darth Vader’s death still heavy in my mind—I had the shocking realization that, holy crap, I think I actually, accidentally love this thing.

So much about what I love about Star Wars is what I love about YA fantasy—court intrigue, gray morality, coming-of-age narratives, banter, worldbuilding with stories centered around characters, and themes of hope. With that in mind, give me your favorite Skywalker Saga movie, and I’ll recommend a recent YA fantasy novel for you to read!

 

Girls of Paper and Fire
1. Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) / Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan (2018)

In Girls of Paper and Fire, the Demon King chooses eight human girls a year to be his concubines, his Paper Girls. Only a few years after demon raiders took her mother, seventeen-year-old Lei is kidnapped by demons for her supposedly lucky golden eyes. With her father under threat, Lei agrees to become the ninth Paper Girl.

Like Anakin, Lei is a slave who discovers her own inner power and fights for what she believes in. Bonus points: birth pendants with words that describe your future, magical castes based on animal characteristics, and Lei doesn’t ask her badass female love interest if she’s an angel.

Descendant of the Crane
2. Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) / Descendant of the Crane by Joan He (2019)

Princess Hesina of Yan must solve the mystery of who murdered her father. Desperate, she commits treason by asking a soothsayer, a magic-user, for help. With her life at risk, she uncovers secret after secret as she tries to rule the divided kingdom she inherited.

This novel has it all: political intrigue, evil lurking in unexpected places, and occasional flirting. Sound familiar? Attack of the Clones is basically YA fantasy as it is. Bonus points: endless mysteries and plot twists, characters who surprise you, and a morally ambiguous protagonist.

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
3. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) / Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao (2017)

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is an East Asian retelling of the “Snow White” fairytale that’s centered around the Evil Queen’s rise to power. Xifeng, a peasant girl, has been told that her destiny is greatness. Desperate to get away from her abusive mother and embrace her destiny, she struggles between choosing to do what is right and what will lead her to the future she’s always wanted.

Like Anakin, Xifeng loses a first love, questions her morality, and hurts innocent people on her path to evil. Bonus points: gorgeous prose, a villain protagonist, and immersive details that make a well-known fairytale feel new again.

Children of Blood and Bone
4. Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) / Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (2018)

Years ago magic disappeared, and the ruthless king of Orïsha killed many of the now powerless magi. Those left of the white-haired magi became second-class citizens who live in constant fear of losing their livelihoods. When teenage magi Zélie learns how to restore magic, she goes on a quest that challenges what she’s always been told: to stay out of trouble, to stay quiet, to never speak out against injustice because of what could happen to her if she does.

Like A New Hope, this story contains a determined but inexperienced protagonist, a rebel princess, and an oppressive government. Bonus points: fantastic action scenes, immersive world building, and complex relationships.

Labyrinth Lost
5. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) / Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova (2017)

Alex hates magic. The problem for her is that she’s an Encantrix, the most powerful kind of witch there is. Scared of her growing powers, she tries to cast a spell to erase her magic. Instead, she accidentally makes her family disappear. To save her family, she’ll have to travel to an in-between world and trust a stranger she can’t quite trust.

Like Luke, Alex learns about her family as she explores new worlds and navigates a love triangle. Bonus points: portal fantasy, a bisexual witch, and worldbuilding woven with Latinx-based mythology.

Carry On
6. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) / Carry On by Rainbow Rowell (2017)

For a Chosen One, you’d think magic school student Simon Snow would spend more time practicing his not-so-great spellcasting and less time obsessing over his vampire roommate nemesis Baz who he is definitely not in love with.

Carry On has so much of what’s great about Return of the Jedi: Bicker-flirting, unexpected twists, and a protagonist who reexamines what it means to be the Chosen One. Bonus points: spells based off language evolution, A+ slow-burn enemies-to-lovers romance, and trope reinventions.

Blanca & Roja
7. Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) / Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore (2018)

The del Cisne family is cursed. In every generation, two sisters are born, and one sister is doomed to be taken by the swans and become one of them. Blanca and Roja del Cisne know it will be Roja who is chosen to become a swan. After all, Blanca is sweet and gentle, and Roja is angry and stubborn. Still, they’ll do anything in their power to make sure Roja isn’t taken. But the swans have tricks up their wings.

Just as The Force Awakens reflects A New Hope, Blanca & Roja reflects the fairytale “Snow White and Rose Red” with themes involving friendship, family, and rebellion. Bonus points: lyrical prose, murderous swans, and queer characters.

In Other Lands
8. Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) / In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan (2017)

The Borderlands aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Sure, there’s elves, harpies, and mermaids. But in the Borderlands, kids from our world are trained to protect the magical one. A pacifist like Elliot isn’t exactly into the idea of kid soldiers. Or kids his age in general.

Just like The Last Jedi, In Other Lands’s main character Elliot is divisive. And like The Last Jedi, this book breaks away from traditions in genre. Similarly to Rey, Elliot’s worldview is challenged throughout his time in the Borderlands as he reexamines his place in the world and his relationships to other people. Bonus points: laugh-out-loud funny, trope reinventions; matriarchal elves; and enemies-to-lovers queer relationship with A+ awkward flirting.


When Maria Dones isn’t writing stories about angry girls armed with magic, you can find her playing tabletop games or befriending other people’s pets. She recently graduated from the University of Kansas with an MFA in Fiction, and she’s had YA short fiction published in Cicada, Gingerbread House, and Inaccurate Realities: Love.

 

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

 

April Daniels’s Dreadnought doesn’t care what boxes you try to shove it in

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 Amy Boggs on April Daniels’s Dreadnought.

Dreadnought

Dreadnought is the angry, hurt, determined, super-powered girl book my soul desperately needed, offering fierce hope to combat a world where it’s so easy to get overwhelmed into apathy.

As a trans girl who is not out to her family, 15-year-old Danny Tozer has a plan: keep quiet, survive, and get out at 18. But when the world’s most powerful superhero transfers his powers to her before dying in her arms, everything changes. Part of Dreadnought’s powers is their body becomes their ideal self. Other Dreadnoughts got taller or broader; Danny has her dream transition. She also has all the powers any superhero fangirl could want.

But things aren’t that simple. Dreadnought’s superhero team is divided about accepting Danny, her family is trying to “fix” her, and even her best friend is acting weird. Danny realizes just because your dreams come true, doesn’t mean the world will celebrate you. On top of that, Dreadnought’s killer is still on the loose, and any supervillain able to take out the world’s greatest superhero is bound to hit a new one like a hurricane.

Dreadnought is the very best of what the realist superhero genre can offer, delving into heroism, trauma, and acceptance both within and without. The story never takes the easy way out. Often a narrative of overcoming is portrayed as one sweeping upward arc. Here, however, Danny revels in her power and self-love in one scene, only to have her father harangue her into a ball of self-hate the next. Just because you’ve claimed your self-worth doesn’t mean you always feel worthy, and it’s beautiful to have a book recognize that so clearly. A note: Transphobia shows up in many forms in the book, from violence to microaggressions, but by centering Danny, it feels like the author is reaching to trans readers to show they are not alone and their experiences are not trivial.

The exploration of Danny’s powers is similarly nuanced. Slingshot from helpless and hurt to one of the most powerful people on the planet, she faces dangerous temptations and a great mental toll, although those themes are more deeply explored in the book’s sequel, Sovereign. (As is the romance, but no spoilers about that.)

Dreadnought also delivers what I love most about sci-fi/fantasy: tremendous world-building. In the book, powers have been around a while but in 1944, Dreadnought appeared with greater powers than ever seen, becoming the first superhero. More followed, and then, as is wont to happen, supervillains. But this isn’t just backstory duct-taped to our world. It is woven into modern society. There are government-licensed superheroes with support and funding based on success-rates, and vigilantes technically breaking the law but largely ignored in the face of super villains. There are also people with abilities who look at life-endangering superhero work and decide to take a job as a well-paid flying courier instead. Sirens go off when a super-powered battle goes on so people can flee to shelters, and there’s a semi-annual superhero convention in Antarctica. There are also the little realistic details, like when Danny doesn’t use a car like a baseball bat because modern cars are designed to crumple as gently as possible. (Rip the engine out, though, and you’ve got yourself a proper weapon.) It feels like the tip of the iceberg we see on the page is tiny compared to the amount of thought and research that went into it, really focusing on the consequences of these changes to our world.

Add in some of the best fight scenes in the superhero genre, and that includes movies. I’m particular about my fight scenes: they must be tied to the plot, they must have an emotional impact or drive, and they must make enough sense that even if you pick apart every move slowly, it’s believable. Dreadnought is brilliant at this. (I did feel the sequel got a little glutted with fight scenes, but honestly it was all worth it for the final battle.)

The book is YA, but the kind that people who don’t normally like YA might love. And the kind some devoted YA readers might balk at. This goes double for the sequel, which dives out of high school and deeper into the world of professional superheroism. But much like the duology’s determined protagonist, Dreadnought doesn’t care what boxes you try to shove it in. It is exactly what it is meant to be, and that is glorious.

This is April Daniels’ debut novel and she has made me an eager fan. She is reportedly working on the third book, and I’ll be ready to pre-order.


Amy Boggs currently works in contracts and previously was a literary agent. She is a devoted fan of fantasy, science fiction, and all the wibbly-wobbly of speculative art. In her spare time, she tiptoes through fandom and rants about media on Twitter @notjustanyboggs.

 

New Fantasy Books: August 2019

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of July 2019 fantasy book releases by and about women and nonbinary folk. Let us know what you’re looking forward to, or any titles that we’ve missed, in the comments!
 

Embracing Demons for The Fame in Skip Beat! Volume 1 by Yoshiki Nakamura

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 Bethany Powell on Yoshiki Nakamura’s Skip Beat! Volume 1.

Skip Beat! Volume 1

I started reading Skip Beat! about a decade ago with the same sort of sheepish self-indulgence that I picked up most shojo manga. I’m drawn to manga both for nostalgia value (I didn’t read manga as a teen, but I lived in Japan as a teen) and for the kind of unstinting wish fulfillment that fuels it. Now I’m unafraid to say the series is one of my favorite long-form stories ever. It doesn’t avoid the tropes that make manga so fluffy and readable, by any means. Superficially, it’s a delightful story of a girl fighting to succeed in show business, and everything I love about a showbiz story can be found here. Skip Beat! embraces tropes with the kind of loving attention that elevates them. The real core of the story, however, is about a girl discovering her own darkness and the power it can give her.

The first volume of Skip Beat! commences as it will go on: with a surface-level recognizable trope swiftly layered with something more complex. Kyoko Mogami greets customers and competently takes their orders at “Mozburger” with the kind of cheery compliance that promises a worthy heroine. This is, of course, only one of her multiple part-time jobs, further suggesting her hard-luck status. As she changes to get to her second food-service gig (which indicates the kind of grit this girl has) she overhears with pleasure a coworker admitting to switching idols for the emerging musician Sho. Her fangirl pride, however, is swiftly overridden by a darker energy when she finds out there was a poster giveaway for the album. She bought two copies, and got zero posters. The escalation of her desire and panic frightens her coworkers, unsettling in the prosaic world of part-time locker rooms.

Kyoko tears across Tokyo, commandeering a gangster’s bicycle through sheer spiritual intensity, and rushes to the music store in half the time it should have taken. She frightens the staff of the store as she drags herself in like a vengeful spirit, only to transform back again into the effervescent girl as soon as she touches her posters. Even so, the image of her crazed determination lingers. Is this just an exaggerated portrait of a fan? Or does Kyoko have something else going on?

By the end of this chapter, the latent powers suggested in this sequence are released by a betrayal that cuts so deep, she swears off love forever. Much more importantly, she vows to have vengeance with an unholy energy that propels the rest of the story, complete with little demonic manifestations. And I love this.

Kyoko isn’t asked by this narrative to overcome her hatred, or to put her scary dark power away. She isn’t here to learn to love again. She has begun a journey toward something much scarier: realizing her own power in that darkness. To eventually find love for herself, darkness and all. Even that is only once she chooses it, and is many volumes down the road. For now, Kyoko has freed her demons to fuel her, as she chases something for herself for the first time ever. Sure, the current impetus is to humiliate someone who has wronged her, but we all have to start somewhere. Why can’t a girl’s journey to self-actualization be kicked off by swearing to achieve some as-yet-undetermined celebrity?

I love any story where the protagonist has to face up to the uglier emotions of being human, and move on from there. This is one of the core facets of Skip Beat! that I keep reading for. I also am constantly delighted by the way no character is left as a two-dimensional trope. For example, Kyoko’s first rival is a young woman who is arrogant and unlikeable, trying to push Kyoko down on her way to the top. After they both fail an audition, they develop an unlikely alliance and later become true friends. Kyoko is someone who can learn from her enemies as well as friends, and many of her friends are former enemies.

Nor does this story forget the girl Kyoko used to be. This might be another reason this story has my heart—despite her grudge-demon activated powers, Kyoko is also still the girl who had a masterful customer service facade. (One that later gets a lot more significance from her background.) That cheerful tenacity and tendency to be polite are still valued, even as she cultivates the powers of her hatred, too. It’s way more relatable that she still has both sides, even though she has dedicated her life to achieving fame to prove her nemesis wrong.

Skip Beat! continues to unfold a story where emotions have power, none of them are shameful, and integrating them offers the ability both to go on after heartbreak and to improve as a performer. If a girl and her demons are both determined enough, even the toughest showbiz challenge can’t keep them down.


Bethany Powell stumbled into speculative verse on the isolated plains of Oklahoma and has been in a fateful relationship with it ever since. Poems from this union have recently appeared in Asimov’s, Liminality, and the solarpunk anthology Sunvault. More are forthcoming, and all can be found at bethanypowell.com Bethany is also a certified health coach who specializes in writers—helping them finesse their lifestyles and habits to support creativity long-term. Learn more at unlockcoaching.com

 

Comics: Not Just for Superheroes

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 Lani Goto.

These are recent or currently running comics I’ve really enjoyed, all by creators who both write and illustrate the works. There’s a wide range of styles, both visual and narrative, which gives a small sampling of some of the amazing variety in sequential art. If you want to expand your horizons beyond spandex and punching, here are some books that offer excellent options.

 

Delicious in Dungeon
1. Delicious in Dungeon by Ryoko Kui

This fantasy series follows a team of adventurers as they descend into a magical dungeon full of traps and monsters. It sounds like a very standard setup, except that along the way, they find that the best means to survive is to cook and eat the creatures they encounter. For some—like Laios, the excitable human fighter—this is a dream come true, as each beast provides a new culinary delight. But for others—like Marcille, the skeptical elven magician—this is super gross and very, very weird. No matter their views on food, though, the adventurers must hurry to rescue one of their own before it’s too late. And as they go deeper into the dungeon, unusual provisions might be the least of their worries.

The effortless humor and incredible art (not to mention the surprisingly realistic recipes) set this apart from many other D&D-inspired works. Although the series does play with fantasy tropes, it’s much more than an RPG parody. As the plot continues, Kui deftly raises the stakes, but the comedy never takes a back seat to the thrills. The well-rounded characters and engaging story made me laugh, gasp, and eagerly look forward to the next volume. (As of this writing, six volumes have been released in English.) It also made me really hungry, so plan to read these books with plenty of snacks on hand.

The Chancellor and the Citadel
2. The Chancellor and the Citadel by Maria Capelle Frantz

This is a short but lovely read, set in a ruined world after a nameless catastrophe, where the Chancellor is the mysterious guardian of civilization’s last stronghold. Though she tries her best to protect everyone, things go awry, and her friend Olive might have to help despite not having the Chancellor’s power. But it’s no easy task when the precarious safety of the Citadel is threatened from outside… and within.

Frantz’s richly textured art creates an immersive realm of light and dark, bringing nuance to her story of fear, trust, and community. There’s a kind of coziness and charming strangeness in the setting, which draws you in even as Frantz leaves much to the imagination: What are the tiny ghost-like creatures that swarm curiously around? If the residents of the Citadel aren’t human, what are they? What exactly happened to the world? But these elements add to the interest, and encourage you to spend time enjoying the details of her evocative drawings.

On a Sunbeam
3. On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

In this queer coming-of-age story, two timelines unfold the experiences of uncertain teen Mia, one when she meets her friend Grace at an interstellar boarding school, and the other, five years later, where she joins a space-faring crew for her first job. Both threads follow Mia’s developing relationships with Grace and her crewmates, and eventually the two come together as Mia reaches a new point in her life.

On a Sunbeam was originally serialized as a webcomic, but reads as a seamless whole in its collected book form. Walden’s gentle storytelling is beautifully complemented by her atmospheric and meditative art. She presents a surreal setting—vast halls floating in glittering space, fish-shaped ships swimming through the darkness, a total but unremarked-on absence of men—with simple matter-of-factness. And like how the extraordinary is juxtaposed with the mundane, Walden matches dreamlike visuals with vivid, relatable emotions. As Walden explores familiar themes of loss, belonging, and growing up, she provides a quietly fantastical space to give shape to the way a young girl finds herself.

When I Arrived at the Castle
4. When I Arrived at the Castle by Emily Carroll

It begins with a dark and stormy night, but nothing else about this book is cliche. A catlike woman comes to the lair of a dangerous Countess, and the ensuing encounter rapidly descends into a seductive nightmare of guilt, fear, and rage. (Content warning for some gore/body horror—while not excessive, this comic might not be for the more squeamish.)

Carroll’s latest book is a prime example of her gorgeous, fairy tale-inflected horror. Her lush art spills across the pages, mostly in black and white, except for interjections of visceral red. As Carroll blends the erotic and the macabre, the imagery veers from decadent elegance to grotesque monstrousness. It’s the perfect medium for this sensual, unnerving story where ambiguous relationships and fractured histories make for a disorienting yet relentlessly eerie mood. There are no clear roles, the sense of urgency wanes into lassitude then flares back to dire intensity, and in the end, we’re left unsure of the outcome. Yet while there’s no tidy conclusion, there is still a certain grim satisfaction in knowing that something has changed, and the story could continue, but in a different way.

O Human Star
5. O Human Star by Blue Delliquanti

Al was an inventor who died before he could see his pioneering work in robotics come to fruition. But sixteen years after his death, he wakes up in a synthetic body exactly like his old one, and finds that humans and robots live in society together. As Al tries to figure out what has happened to him, he reunites with his former partner Brendan, now a respected inventor in his own right. Meeting Brendan also introduces Al to Sulla, a robot girl who closely resembles Al. As they work to uncover the mystery behind Al’s new life, they learn more about themselves and their relationships with each other.

This long-running webcomic is approaching its conclusion online, so now is a good time to get caught up; there are two books which collect chapters 1 through 5. (As of this writing, chapter 7 is underway, and the forthcoming 8th chapter will be the last.) Delliquanti has carefully crafted a suspenseful, intriguing story with two timelines—the past, where Al is still alive, and the present, where he is resurrected as a robot—building and reflecting on each other as they gradually converge. The clean, expressive art makes it easy to follow the sometimes complex plot, and conveys the emotional depth necessary for a work that examines identity in a profound and personal way. Delliquanti’s story delves into issues of sexuality and gender, not shying away from heartaches and struggles, but also warmly celebrating the joys of self-discovery. Along with the solid writing, the thoughtful character development and worldbuilding make this one of my favorite ongoing comics.


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

 

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.

 

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

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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