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Mexican Gothic Holds the Precise, Beating Heart of Modern Women’s Horror

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 reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

Mexican Gothic

On page 186 of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, Noemí, our heroine, is mid-conversation with Virgil, the heir apparent of High Place, a crumbling family mansion in rural Mexico. She is in Virgil’s bedroom in the middle of the night, after experiencing a disturbingly vivid sexual dream featuring Virgil and his aggressive masculinity. The first words of the following exchange are Noemí’s:

“Were you in my room?”
“I thought I was in your dream.”
“It did not feel like a dream.”
“What did it feel like?”
“Like an intrusion,” she said.

As a reader, this is the sort of revelatory writing that requires that you put the book down and find something, anything—in this case, a Bath and Body Works coupon—to mark the page. Because this exchange is the precise, beating heart of modern women’s horror.


Let’s begin with a bit about Mexican Gothic. Noemí is a socialite in 1950s Mexico, mostly happy with her rounds of dresses and parties and beaux, but still, always, a girl who wants more: currently, a master’s degree in anthropology. When her family receives a nonsensical letter—troubling for all its nonsense—from her cousin, Catalina, Noemí’s father agrees to permit her to pursue that master’s degree, if only she’ll go check on Catalina and her new husband, Virgil, at High Point. Noemí takes the deal and is soon on a train, suitcases in tow.

Moreno-Garcia draws Noemí cleverly: She’s an assertive girl, but also a pretty one, and one who is accustomed to things being just so, one who thrives on appearances and flirtations and delicately upending social niceties with just the right amount of perceived danger. Because of who Noemí is, High Point reads initially as simply off-putting: dusty, moldy, faded, the home of an impoverished family unable to keep up with either cleaning or modern conveniences like electricity. Similarly, the household’s exacting rules—no talking during meals, no unsupervised time with Catalina, no second medical opinions—are designed to imply merely that Noemí has encountered a society foreign to her, one that a pretty girl cannot manipulate with smiles and teasing. But over time, through alarming conversations with her cousin, who seems only sometimes lucid, and forbidden conversations with locals, who share legends and mysteries, but rarely more, Noemí realizes that High Point is more menacing than simply unkempt, and the rules more dangerous than simply irritating.


Shirley Jackson’s seminal work of feminine horror, The Haunting of Hill House, was published in 1959, the same decade as the setting of Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic. In 60 years, though, women have gained new terrors—and new insight into familiar terrors. Jackson’s work is about mothers, domineering, demanding mothers who, even after death, haunt our lives. How almost quaint, through a 2020 lens, to focus on the issue with mothers, rather than the issues with the heteropatriarchy that so often make them that way. Moreno-Garcia’s work, while clearly an heir to Jackson’s, goes deeper and is not so willing to elide the roles that men play in women’s terrors.

Mexican Gothic is a work about intrusion, specifically a work about men’s innumerable intrusions into women’s lives. Without spoiling the mystery or the jump scares, Moreno-Garcia’s work turns on the many, many things that men take from women and the sacrifices that women are required to make to perpetuate men’s power. This isn’t a work about Noemí’s mother, who is nearly absent from the book, even in reference. It is a work about her father, in his wealthy naivete; Howard, the ailing, racist head of the High Point family; Virgil, the skillfully abusive heir apparent; and Francis, the weak-willed cousin. And it’s a work about the women who enable them—Florence, Francis’s mother and the household disciplinarian, and Catalina, Noemí’s compliant cousin—and Noemí, who does not.

At its best, Mexican Gothic uses its horrors to lay bare the quotidian horrors of women, forced to endure a lifetime of male intrusions.

At its worst, we need to talk about Moreno-Garcia’s use of rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault. Mexican Gothic is about male intrusions into women’s lives and, in many ways, very specifically about male intrusions into women’s bodily autonomy, both small (you may not take the car alone, you may not speak during dinner) and large (you may not leave High Point). In exploring those themes, Moreno-Garcia turns, often, to rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault. With a single exception (the final horror imposed on a woman, revealed at the book’s climax), in this work that is so much about bodily autonomy, Mexican Gothic assumes that rape is the ultimate intrusion that a man can force upon a woman. Regardless of whether you agree with that, Mexican Gothic uses rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault liberally—and in my view, too often. We know that Howard and Virgil are threats and, by the midway point of the book we know enough about High Point’s history to know that they are both sexual threats. Because we know that, most of these scenes read as unnecessary, no longer a horror that Howard or Virgil is imposing on Noemí, but a horror that Mexican Gothic imposes on its readers. Men intrude on women’s lives in so many ways; must the second half of Mexican Gothic rely so heavily on this one?

Setting aside its arguable overreliance on the horrors of sexual assault—if you are able to, of course—Mexican Gothic is a must-read for anyone interested in both female horror and its evolution. Moreno-Garcia takes Jackson’s themes from 60 years ago and transforms them, erasing the mother in favor of striking at the heart of the heteropatriarchy itself. In a world where we are all told to be more likeable, where our options are always limited, and yes, where we all fear assault, Moreno-Garcia’s house of horrors will be all too familiar.


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

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.

A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and Dissonant Chords

Each month, Sirens co-chair Amy Tenbrink reviews new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors—and occasionally invites other members of the Sirens community to do so. You can find all of these reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We hope you’ll read along and discuss!

This month, Hallie Tibbetts reviews Suzanne Collins’s A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes!

In 2008, at a book fair, I got an advance copy of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and then stayed up all night in what I remember as the dirtiest hotel room in all of Los Angeles reading it. Once, twice, maybe three times a year I run across a book that completely transports me and, when I’m finished, leaves me with the disorientation of falling out of the story’s world and back into my own. The Hunger Games was one of those reads. I’ll spare you the details of the room, but recall for you how it felt to be completely immersed in the story of a girl whose simple desire to save her sister became an uneasy attempt to save her world. Of a girl who wanted no part of heroism, but chose a path of survival, rebellion, and protection of others over and over.

When a prequel for the series was announced, it was rumored that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes would be Mags’s story. I was on board for finding out how Katniss’s octogenarian ally in the 75th Hunger Games achieved victory in the 11th, and then went on to be a mentor who volunteered in the place of others. But it was not to be: Songbirds and Snakes is instead set during the 10th Hunger Games, and about Coriolanus Snow, the president and main villain of the original trilogy.

I lost interest completely.

As it happens, though, I was given a copy of Songbirds and Snakes this summer. I work in publishing, and am always buried under my to-read pile; it’s sometimes enough to know the gist of a juggernaut for comparison titles and cocktail parties, so I still didn’t plan to read this book. Curiosity eventually won out. Consternation kept me reading.

Coriolanus Snow, Coryo to his closest friends, equivalent to a high school senior, lives with his cousin and grandmother in a once-glamorous penthouse apartment. His parents—a general and a woman described as vapid—are dead. His cousin picks up a little tailoring and fashion design work; his grandmother has embraced the Capitol’s propaganda. Soon, an increase in taxes will force them out of their home, which is a great embarrassment to Coriolanus. He struggles, at times, with memories of the war. The cannibalism. The bombings. The way his family fell from being wealthy to just hanging on (a fact that he hides through indelible charm, but he won’t be able to keep up the charade for much longer).

From the beginning, there are hints of Coriolanus’s affluenza, and of his seeming inability to truly see any other human as his equal. At first, his detachment can be excused by his care for his remaining family and the psychological consequences of the atrocities he witnessed. Still, early on, he describes his cousin as the sort of girl who “invites abuse.” For a moment, I was breathless, seeing that so blatantly stated. Why would an author whose work I respect allow this character to promulgate something so untrue? It takes a while for Coriolanus’s character to become clear, and for it to become clear that Collins intended this callousness as a defining trait. Coriolanus believes his cousin “invites abuse” because he understands abuse. Other people are not individuals. Their lives are not precious. Here is a boy who would never, ever volunteer as tribute.

This is where my readerly consternation comes in.

We already know that Coriolanus is a villain; we have the rest of the story, and we know there is no possibility of redemption. I question, very much, whether we need more stories of how young white men become villains. You can try to say that we have to unravel the reasons, that we have to understand the downward spiral so we can prevent it. You can say that there are infinite tales in this trope alone. But I’m pretty sure I’ve heard them all.

And yet, I found myself wishing to see Coriolanus at an earlier point in his story because I wanted to see what makes him choose, of all possible paths, the ones that lead him to his eventual end. Maybe I wanted to feel how his love for his family prompts his decisions—but then again, I don’t want any more stories of women dying to give a man purpose, or even portrayed as incapable of playing some part in their own rescue. Collins avoids this to an extent; cousin Tigris is hustling to start her career, and it’s hard to fault the grandmother for clinging to the post-war regime for her survival when a broken elevator means she can hardly leave her crumbling building. It’s a long way, though, from scrambling for a leg up to becoming the leader of a country that sacrifices children for entertainment—the circus for Panem—and then I think: I don’t need any more stories that show a villain’s fraudulently reasoned choice to be evil. I can turn on the news and be inundated with that right now. But we’re not meant to have a reader-character connection, at least not at the beginning. Where The Hunger Games uses a compelling first-person narrative, The Ballad of Snakes and Songbirds follows Coriolanus in a surprisingly cold third. Collins keeps readers at a stiff arm’s length, and—perhaps too kindly—gives us insight into his mindset, but doesn’t let us get too close.

Something Suzanne Collins does very well is incorporate the dark side of media into her stories while asking readers to critique their own engagement as consumers. (I speak about the books, and not about such things as movie tie-in makeup product campaigns where one can purchase a palette of Capitol-inspired eye shadow without ever considering the absurdity of the optics.) During the 10th Hunger Games recounted in Songbirds and Snakes, the games have been flagging. Coriolanus and his graduating classmates are selected to act as the first ever mentors, and the one who mentors the winner will receive a full ride to university, something Coriolanus desperately wants to leverage for salary and security as well as to cover up his family’s depleted finances. The mentors get a taste of fame when they’re interviewed to break up the coverage of the less-technological (almost analog) competition of the time. The longer a tribute stays in the games, the longer a mentor stays on TV. Even a bad death is good publicity when you understand the power of the screen.

The students are also tasked with coming up with ways to add excitement to the games. Some of the excitement invents itself: Rebels bomb the arena, creating hiding spots that allow the tributes to survive longer than the previous bare-bones venue allowed. But the government solicits the younger generation for new audience engagement schemes; their ideas spin the games toward the future high-tech nightmare. Coriolanus offhandedly suggests betting on the tributes, and this becomes a new initiative that brings in money for the government while ensuring the odds won’t be in any tribute’s favor.

The tributes, too, must work the public’s magnanimity. Lucy Gray, the underdog tribute from District 12 who Coriolanus suspects is assigned to him so that he will lose the games, is a singer, an entertainer—a master storyteller—who is so charismatic, one wonders why Coriolanus of the future doesn’t immediately suspect Katniss Everdeen of manipulation. Of course, for Coriolanus, no one else could be as clever as he. He cannot see that he is a teenager, lacking a mentor, raised in a world with little compassion, blithely throwing out ideas for the games with no regard for humanity. There are no adults in his life who ask him to analyze the results of his ideas for inherent harm, only those who encourage stripping others of their autonomy.

All of Coriolanus’s machinations would be stifling to read about if not for a secondary character that I more than once wished were the protagonist instead. Sejanus Plinth moved to the Capitol from District 2 as a child after his father became wealthy. Though Coriolanus sees the Plinths as hopelessly backward and sneers at their new money, he secretly wants their comfort for himself. Sejanus is, in Coriolanus’s mind, naïve to care about class differences and rebellions when fitting in is the path to safety and power. I’d also have enjoyed the story of a small group that included Sejanus and Coriolanus working through the difference between what they’ve been told to believe in the Capitol and the truth of their world, because realization and awakenings are central to young adult literature and also themes that follow people throughout their lives. Because, again, as we all know, Coriolanus is choosing villainy, and Sejanus is choosing something else.

And, again, it’s not that we can’t or shouldn’t read about villainy, or tragedy—and it is a tragedy when any one of us refuses responsibility to care for others—but why this?

I’m a fast reader, but it took me two months to read all of Songbirds and Snakes; I stalled out just past the halfway point in frustration (and, admittedly, due to life events, social media overload, too much bad TV, work deadlines, a surfeit of email, overdue personal projects, and other distractions). In the meantime, I zipped through a copy of Goldilocks by Laura Lam, which engages with some of the questions I’d been turning over in my mind while trying to figure out the why of this prequel, and that prompted me to finish my read and review project. Surely, there had to be more to Songbirds and Snakes.

I picked the book back up as the 10th games come to a close and Lucy Gray is named victor. Coriolanus should be fine—he’s passed himself off as a clever and kind soul. His education will be paid for. The girl he grew to love over the course of the games (oh, you expected that, didn’t you?) lives. Then, a moment when he gamed the games comes to haunt him. Not all is lost, as he becomes a Peacekeeper to avoid punishment, and asks to be assigned to District 12. It’s not the life he wanted, but perhaps he can make something of it with his love nearby. The reality of life in the districts and the monotony of the military seems at times a soporific routine and at others brings the despair of a bleak, dull, and impoverished future—and then Sejanus reappears. Sejanus, instead of being a model for Coriolanus, is an unwitting catalyst for Coriolanus’s beliefs. Coriolanus doubles down: “The Hunger Games are a reminder of what monsters we are and how we need the Capitol to keep us from chaos.” (343)

As Peacekeeper duties begin, and Coriolanus witnesses his first death at the hanging tree of song in The Hunger Games, he wonders how the rebellion, distant then and underpowered now, survived on anger instead of might. He knows that there used to be a District 13 and it is gone, so he believes that rebellions can be truly stamped out if there is a big enough show of power. The toxicity in him grows. He patrols, gun in hand. In District 12, poverty is everywhere, and he finds it reasonable to blame the poor for their plight. He sees why the Capitol should send money for property over people. It’s Sejanus who questions the Peacekeepers, and as before, Sejanus’s compassion perversely causes Coriolanus to dig in his heels, deny his own misgivings, and further embrace authoritarianism.

In spare hours, Coriolanus spends time with Lucy Gray’s (found) family, the Coveys, a tight-knit group of performers that get by, in their way, with strength and grace. Their story incorporates both old and invented Appalachian music, a real hidden gem for series readers, as we find out how some of Katniss’s songs came to be. Music nerds might know that Appalachian music has many influences, and that late nineteenth and early twentieth century historians avidly traced back snippets of song to sources overseas. Even when the memory of origins was lost, the rhythms and melodies and lyrics remained. In Songbirds and Snakes, the inclusion of songs nods to the other books in the series, set in the future, while reminding us how easily the past is wiped away.

History lost—and suppressed—is doomed to be repeated, and it’s bittersweet to see the cycle of loss and erasure in this plotline.

But back to the Coveys. Even surrounded by a working collaborative effort, Coriolanus can’t comprehend how humans might be kind to one another without force; he thinks that only authority can prevent a descent into disorder. Perhaps that’s the tragedy—the distrust, the lack of empathy, the anger at losing control over others. Perhaps you know a tragedy yourself.

I won’t spoil the ending, other than to say that Coriolanus takes brave actions for himself that also betray the people he claims to care about. I sometimes say that the challenge of being a human is pretending you aren’t an animal. It’s Lucy Gray who sums up for me how one can fail this choice: “You know when you’ve stepped across the line into evil, and it’s your life’s challenge to try and stay on the right side of that line.” (493) The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is Suzanne Collins’s exploration of what happens when one doesn’t care about the right side of the line, especially when good is in danger of being usurped by evil.

It’s in the last pages that I finally find the gut punch, leaving me dazed. Coriolanus is smart. Arrogant. He believes himself exceptional. As a child, I was all of these things; you can draw some weird conclusions from praise and success stories. While I didn’t grow up to be the tyrannical leader of a country that sacrifices children, there is a frightened part of me that recognizes the desire to be in control, to be perfect, to save myself first. I didn’t grow up to be an abjectly horrible person, so what nudged me, over the years, to be more open minded, to be kinder, to lick my wounds and learn from mistakes and try to do better next time?

I don’t have to look far to see people operating with an open lack of empathy and every bad trait I could have exemplified. Every terrible, miserable, alternate-reality version of me.

If someone had known how to tap into my deepest, unspoken fears and offered me everything I wanted, would I have taken their hand?

There it is. Suzanne’s Collins knack for drawing us into the actions of others, and reminding us that the filter of entertainment is no excuse. We must constantly, consistently ask if we are complicit. And we must keep choosing to be on the right side of the line.

G – Bb – A – D.


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

Casey Blair’s “Women Who Dream Big Dreams” Recommended Reading

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who write reviews and books lists of fantasy and related works by women or nonbinary authors. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review for publication, please email us! Today, we welcome a book list by Casey Blair.


Women in SFF Who Dream Big Dreams and Don’t Let Anyone Stop Them


Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

This is about a girl who has no reason to believe anything is possible but does anyway, and she sets off on a quest to find the answer to happiness. As one does.

A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

An untried but brilliant poet-diplomat thrust into the heart of a galactic empire, with Byzantine politics written by an academic Byzantinist? Yes, you can take my money.

Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword

Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien

This heroine is going to be the very best martial arts skater (yeah, you read that right) like no one ever was. Oh wait, she already is.

The Spirit Thief

The Legend of Eli Monpress series by Rachel Aaron

Pretty much every female character in these books, be she a sorceress, a scientist, a goddess-general or the demonically possessed, is completely uncontainable. Also no one has time for romance.

The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

No spoilers on this book’s heroines, but, uh, if you haven’t read this book yet I don’t know what to tell you other than you really, really should. It’s as stunning of an achievement as everyone says.

Sorcery of Thorns

Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson

This is a heroine who just flatly does not understand giving up—and certainly not when there are magic libraries involved.

An Unkindness of Magicians

An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard

Unraveling institutional oppression with epic tournament battles. That’s it, that’s the pitch.

The Beast Player

The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi

No one is going to stop this quiet heroine from completely changing how the world understands magical creatures.

Unnatural Magic

Unnatural Magic by C.M. Waggoner

Pro tip: Don’t try to keep a genius magic scholar heroine down.

The Candle and the Flame

The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

In a city that’s a dazzling blend of cultural experiences, this story has so many amazing women across walks of life—princess or businesswoman or unstoppable djinn.

Dragonsbane

Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly

This heroine is devoted to her magic work first and foremost—even if she’s not good enough, even if no one else cares, she doesn’t sacrifice what matters to her for family or love or anything. Her children and husband (that’s right, a heroine older than the age of 30! sorcery!) cope.

Spin the Dawn

Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

Gonna be a seamstress and make clothes out of literal magic, nbd.

The Summer Prince

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

In a futuristic post-apocalyptic Brazil, this heroine weaponizes the power and clarity of art for resistance, rebellion, and change.

The Merciful Crown

The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen

This is a heroine with a chip on her shoulder a mile wide who does not know the meaning of letting anything go and will call out and hold absolutely everyone accountable—herself most of all.

The Shadows Between Us

The Shadows Between Us by Tricia Levenseller

This heroine is just straight-up an unabashed villainess, and it is SO MUCH FUN.

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

Being a young dragon when everyone is stronger is hard. Instead, consider getting transformed into an even weaker human and determining to learn all the secrets of chocolate. That will definitely go well.

Empire of Sand

Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Outcast from everywhere and everyone, this is a heroine who makes her own place and changes the world to do it.

And that’s what I want to read more of.


Casey Blair

Casey Blair writes adventurous fantasy novels for all ages, including the novella Consider the Dust and her cozy fantasy serial Tea Princess Chronicles. After graduating from Vassar College, her own adventures have included teaching English in rural Japan, attending the Viable Paradise residential science fiction and fantasy writing workshop, and working as an indie bookseller. She now lives in the Pacific Northwest and can be found dancing spontaneously, exploring forests around the world, or trapped under a cat. For more information, visit her website or her Twitter.

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?

Summer Nights with Amanda Hudson

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers who write reviews and books lists of fantasy and related works by women or nonbinary authors. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review for publication, please email! Today, we welcome a book list from Amanda Hudson on summer vibes and escapist reading.

Now that it’s summer, I’m longing for vacation and daydreaming about setting off on an adventure with friends. Given the state of the world, I can’t exactly turn on my out-of-office response, pack my bags, and leave town on a spectacular summer trip. What I can do is pour myself a cup of tea, snuggle down in my PJs, and crack open one of the dozen books sitting on my bookshelf.

If you, like me, are craving that summer vibe and an escape from the here and now, then I’ve got a book list for you. Not everyone is looking for the same summer experience, so pick the mood you’re craving below.

A Walk Through the Woods

Silver in the Woods

Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh

This queer Green Man myth retelling is beautifully written and is perfect if you’re looking to walk into the woods, risking unknown dangers for the beauty you find there. And if you fall head-over-heels in love, have no fear, the sequel Drowned Country is due out in August. At just over 100 pages, this novella is the perfect afternoon escape, although I’ll warn you that you might find yourself lingering in the world for days after you finish.

Road Trip!

The Summer of Mariposas

Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

This is a book about the bond of sisters. I don’t have sisters, so what drew me to this book was the promise of an Odysseus-like journey from Texas to Mexico with five sisters seeking to return the body of a dead man. I feel the need to admit that I was born and raised in central Texas, and so this book is on my list not only because it’s an epic road trip that makes me miss those too-hot Texas summers and the mischief of my past, but also because it takes place across lands I know well.

Wayward Son

Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell

Yes, this is a sequel to Carry On. If you liked Harry Potter, or even if you didn’t, but you like the sound of a chosen-one wizard who is bad at being the chosen one, and a snarky vampire roommate who wants to kill him, then jump on this series! That being said, if you wish you could get in your car and go on a classic American road trip, then Wayward Son is for you. Simon, Baz, and Penny are back and trouble keeps finding them as they speed across the American West with the top down (poor Baz) on their convertible.

Carefree Summer Nights

Night of Cake & Puppets

Night of Cake & Puppets by Laini Taylor

This novella is part of the Daughter of Smoke & Bone series but you don’t have to have read the series to be able to read this book. Here is where I admit that I have not read Daughter of Smoke & Bone. Sorry Amy. [Ed. note: Sirens co-chair Amy is also sorry!] I bought this book partly on recommendation of Sirens staff, and partly because the cover and book itself is delightfully bright pink and blue with artwork I loved. Then last fall I was having a rough day and I just wanted to pretend for a little while that I was completely carefree. This novella is the stand-alone story of a magically sweet first date. The book transported me to this feeling that anything was possible, and that taking a tiny risk would have a big reward. It made my heart swell with the potential of requited love. It made me smile into the palm of my hand and made my cheeks hurt with the sweetness of two kind of weird kids finding each other.

Taking to the High Seas

Seafire

Seafire by Natalie C. Parker

Caledonia is captain of an all-female pirate ship and she’s on a revenge mission. This book has friendship, romance, and tons of action. It’s a fast read that left me wanting to round up my best, most awesome friends, and captain a boat out into the open sea.

Dark Shores

Dark Shores by Danielle L. Jensen

Dark Shores introduces a new world with meddling gods and magic that blend so beautifully into the mysteries of the oceans. Teriana is blackmailed by rather Romanesque soldiers into helping them cross the “Endless Seas” so that they can conquer the East. In addition to the new world and magic system Jensen creates here, I have this book on the list because it made me feel like I was out on the open water with Teriana, and made me long to be back aboard a boat.

Traveling to Other Worlds

Furthermore

Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi

So far most of these books have been young adult or adult, but I’m including this middle grade book on the list because I read it back in 2017 and I still find myself thinking about its vibrant worlds years later. This is a book about a girl who has no color in a world where color is a currency and essentially magic. She goes on a quest with a boy who is not yet her friend to find her father who has disappeared. This book is about finding your value and it’s also about friendship. It’s a journey, and at its core, it reminds me of childhood summers spent with my friends, learning something about them and myself.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

January Scaller is a young girl left in the care of a rich white man while her father travels the world finding oddities to bring back to his boss. January finds a book that tells stories of magical doors to other worlds, and the tale of two people from different worlds who meet and fall in love. This portal fantasy took me all over the map. I thought I had it figured out at one point, and then it kept going. If you’re looking to go on a journey of emotions and wishing for a book that keeps you turning the page well after you should be asleep, dig right in to The Ten Thousand Doors of January.

Venturing to New Worlds

For some, nowhere on this planet is far enough away for the kind of voyage they’re looking for this summer. If that’s you, then let’s go to new worlds.

Dawn

Dawn by Octavia E. Butler

A friend of mine recommended this to me at a time when I didn’t think I liked science fiction. By the time I’d finished this book, I realized I was oh so wrong about the genre. The first in a trilogy, Dawn takes you far in the future to a spaceship with an alien race that at first seems completely foreign and new. I put this book on this list because Dawn stretched my imagination in ways that were not always comfortable, but I look back on it in the same way I look back on the part of vacation that at the time was ‘super intense’ but later is one of the best stories you can share. I find myself randomly thinking of this book sometimes just like I’ll randomly think of that time my car broke down on a tiny hardly-ever-used backroad in Costa Rica. Both make me smile. And both were summer adventures I won’t ever forget.

Binti

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

I’ll be honest, I’m recommending the whole trilogy really. They’re novellas, so you might as well get them all. Binti is the first of her people to be offered a spot at the best university in the galaxy. Going away to this university is a big deal for so many reasons, and Binti struggles to hold on to her customs and stay connected with her family while tackling higher education. At its heart, this is a classic story of venturing away from home for the first time and finding out who you are in the process. The trilogy is on this list because it’s a rich tapestry of African culture blended with science fiction that takes the reader on a trip that feels familiar but new.


 

Amanda Hudson

Amanda Hudson drinks far too much black tea and is frequently caught carrying at least one book in her purse. In past lives, she practiced law in Texas and was a lore master for a video game developer in Sweden. When not reading or writing fantasy, Amanda is usually lifting weights, practicing yoga, or trying to con her friends into playing just one more board game with her.

Hearing the Siren Call in Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water

Each month, Sirens co-chair Amy Tenbrink reviews new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors—and occasionally invites other members of the Sirens community to do so. You can find all of these reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We hope you’ll read along and discuss!

This month, Faye Bi reviews Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water!

To my fellow Sirens,

It’s not a surprise to any of you that I claim the act of reading as revolutionary.

We know that reading is more than literacy and comprehension. We know that it’s about stories. Who tells them, who gets paid to tell them, and who can make a living off telling them. Whose books get more promotional budget online and off, whose books get placed front and center at bookstores and libraries, whose books get taught in schools instead of being outside reading, and whose books get revered as “great literature.” This discussion is not new to us. But you might be wondering, what can I do? I can’t singlehandedly force all these institutions and corporations to reckon with their racist, sexist, colonialist pasts.

But there is a lot we can do. So much we can do. While I am furious and dismayed on a daily basis, I control one realm entirely: Me. What I choose to read. What I choose to review. What I choose to recommend. What books I choose to buy and where I choose to buy them. And I know—like I hope you all do—that reading critically is an act of resistance.

And so, I am reviewing Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water for you, Sirens community. And I am reviewing it here, for Sirens, where I am not limited by wordcount or editing or pearl-clutching, and I can tell you exactly what I think.

A Song Below Water

A Song Below Water is set in Portland, featuring two Black teenage girls: Tavia, who is a siren, a group of magical people maligned for its association with Black women; and Effie, who plays Euphemia the Mer in the local Ren Faire and has a mysterious skin condition that is somehow linked to her childhood trauma. Effie currently lives with Tavia and her parents, and so the two are sisters, supporting and looking out for each other as they navigate family, school, life, secrets, and literal Black girl magic to save themselves.

To begin, Tavia’s siren identity is an elegant metaphor for being one of the most vulnerable in society. The book opens with a girl murdered by her boyfriend, and because of that girl’s suspected siren identity, her boyfriend will likely be acquitted. Because sirens are only Black women (but not all Black women are sirens), they are perceived as dangerous—and if you recall your lore, a siren’s voice can lure people into doing things against their will. That means sirens have incredible power, but because people fear Black women, sirens’ voices are literally stifled and silenced. There’s that girl on the reality show, for instance, who voluntarily uses a siren collar—designed to silence her voice and her power—to make others “feel safe” around her, and another Black girl, Naema, who wears one as a joke.

But can you imagine using a siren voice as a Black teenaged girl, when, say, the police pull you over?

Effie has her own grief to grapple with. She’s human as far as she knows despite her shedding skin, but she grew up without a father, and her only connection to her mother is that they both played mermaids at the local Ren Faire. Not only must she deal with the large gargoyle keeping watch over her and her grandparents’ continuing to keep family secrets from her, she’s known in the community as “Park Girl”—due to being the sole survivor of a mysterious attack when she was nine where all the other children were turned to stone. Now these “statues” are practically an attraction in a weird Portland tourist campaign, which underscores in a twisted way the variety of methods Black bodies are used for entertainment and how others trivialize her pain.

Morrow’s social critique is devastating, for all the reasons I detail above, but also because she lays out the emotional harm done by “well-meaning” allies, who are white, other races, and other magical identities.

An interesting foil for people of color or other marginalized groups is elokos—dwarf-like creatures who ring charismatic bells to lure human prey and then eat them. In Morrow’s world, elokos are a more socially accepted class of magical being, to the point that they hold political power, especially in Portland, which has attracted a significant eloko population because of that power. Tavia dates Priam, an eloko boy, before the start of the book, and in the best face-palming passage, she recounts the moment they broke up: when Priam bit her neck while kissing, and Tavia launched into an in-depth explanation on why that didn’t bother her despite eloko mythology. But on a more serious note, there are examples of Tavia and Effie at a police brutality protest with other honor students (of course, chaperoned by white parents!) that made me shiver and weep, and I could write an entire essay about Naema, another Black girl and also an eloko, who illustrates the trap of the model minority myth. Naema is especially fascinating as she is one of few outright villains on the page.

But besides pain and critique, there’s joy. Black joy. Tavia and Effie’s sister bond is strong and wonderful to read, and they are each other’s refuge when everyone else around them has failed them. Repeatedly. Not just allies, but also their families, other Black girls, and Black men. There’s a lovely scene at the climax of the book, where the two of them are in a mystical forest setting with lives on the line and literal chaos happening around them, and what do they do? Have a heart-to-heart about their emotional wellbeing.

Morrow brilliantly uses this mythos of sirens, gargoyles, elokos, sprites, mermaids, and magic to examine what it’s like to be a Black girl in America.

And with it, she seamlessly and ambitiously unpacks intersectionality, racism, sexism, police brutality, protesting, affirmative action, gentrification, education, beauty standards, and more. She calls out people who admire and consume Black culture but don’t see the pain of Black creators, and those who call themselves “woke” but are horrified and immobilized when their eyes are opened. I found the density of revelations to be necessarily challenging—and that effort allowed me to appreciate the skill involved in the telling. You know already that this book isn’t newly relevant in the summer of 2020, and that the protests, the pain, the violence, and the disenfranchisement of Black bodies and Black livelihood has been going on for a long, long time.

Tavia and Effie work together to save themselves because they have to. No one will do it for them. If you see parallels to Morrow’s sirens in your real life, I see your pain. I see it and am horrified, but I will do everything in my power so your voice can be heard, because you live these horrors daily. If you, like me, are not a Black girl, A Song Below Water is a call to action. There’s so much to do. Wherever you are on your journey to antiracism, this book is a part of it.

Let’s get to work.


Faye BiFaye Bi is the director of publicity at Bloomsbury Children’s Books, and spends the rest of her time reading, cycling, pondering her next meal, and being part of the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is equally happy in walkable cities and sprawling natural vistas. You can follow her on Twitter @faye_bi.

Lani Goto’s “Space Is the Place” Recommended Reading

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who write reviews and books lists of fantasy and related works by women or nonbinary authors. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review for publication, please email us! Today, we welcome a book list by Lani Goto.

Space Is the Place

From a galaxy far, far away to the final frontier, space as a setting allows for just about anything to happen. Stories can range from hard sci-fi to basically fantasy, and cover any of the blurry areas in-between. But one commonality that space stories often share is the invitation to consider big questions about humanity.

These books—some of my favorite space stories I read last year—span the spectrum. Some are more philosophical, some are more action-y, but each one has a unique and thrilling take on what happens when people look to the stars.

 

Six Wakes

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

A crew of clones awakes onboard a generation ship to incomplete memories and the dead bodies of their previous selves. With the ship’s computer sabotaged, they are trapped together, uncertain of who was the murderer, but knowing it must be one of them.

The story moves from one character to another as they confront the current crisis and consider their lives before. Lafferty keeps the action at a brisk pace, continually ratcheting up the tension while the crew struggles to solve the mystery before it’s too late. Each clone has a complicated past, and their histories unfold and entangle in increasingly dire ways. There are few easy conclusions when it comes to the ethics of cloning and questions of identity, and they’ll have to decide what they can trust.

Ancestral Night

Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear

Haimey Dz works on a space salvage tug with her small crew: pilot, shipmind AI, and two cats. When they take on a new job, they don’t expect much, but suddenly find themselves involved with a mysterious alien ship and a lot of very interested and very aggressive other parties. Haimey winds up facing various enemies and allies alone, and must consider her personal priorities and where she belongs.

One of the most disorienting and enjoyable aspects of this book is how casually Bear makes extraordinary things mundane; for the characters, things like body modifications for zero-G and neural interfaces are entirely normal. This matter-of-factness leads to a frank exploration of a society that spans planets and species, what that means for how personhood is understood, and how people choose to belong—or don’t.

A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare comes from a distant space station to the heart of the galactic Teixcalaanli empire, where she must uncover what happened to her predecessor and devise a way to save her people from encroaching annexation. She carries a hidden technology that could be the key to her station’s survival, but it also holds a tremendous challenge for her deepest self.

Martine delves into concepts of culture through incredible worldbuilding, creating a vast and intricate realm that feels vibrantly real. Mahit, a lifelong student of Teixcalaan society, pulls us into both the seductions and horrors of assimilation. It’s a piercing examination of colonization, and the way identity is endlessly created and recreated, despite—or sometimes even because of—our best efforts to preserve what we believe is true.

Sisters of the Vast Black

Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather

A small group of nuns tend to their living ship as they journey into the distant reaches of space, ministering to far-flung colonies. But they all have different reasons for choosing this unusual life—and when the Church back on Earth sends a priest to check on them, the nuns must face their personal secrets and make some difficult choices.

This novella packs a lot into relatively few pages: the legacy of war, threats of deadly plague, forbidden romance, and of course the pregnancy of the giant space slug that is the ship. Yet for all the wild elements, Rather crafts a story with tenderness towards the complexities of faith and human connection, allowing for quiet joy and moments of the sublime.

Cosmoknights

Cosmoknights by Hannah Templer

Lesbian gladiators fight the patriarchy—literally!—In this neo-medieval space fantasy comic. Young mechanic Pan resents her backwater homeworld, and things get worse when her best friend Tara’s princess status takes her off-world to become a prize in an interstellar arena. Pan is lost…until she encounters two women who play to win a different kind of victory, and she sees a chance to rescue her BFF.

Templer’s colorful art and lively cast make for a vivid, action-packed adventure. As the story sweeps from glittering palaces to ominous back alleys, Pan eagerly jumps into the dangers of her new life, and begins to learn more about herself and the system she lives in. This high-energy, high-drama comic is like a good pop song that makes you want to grab your friends to dance and riot.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Four astronauts embark on a journey of exploration, observing and documenting unknown planets. As they travel further and further from home, encountering wonders and trials, contact with Earth begins to fray and their mission takes on a new kind of significance.

Chambers focuses on the relationships between the characters, each of them different but bound together in purpose and, remarkably, love. It’s an unusual direction for a subgenre that’s often based in the conflict arising from stuffing people in a tin can and flinging them into the dark. But this lens of genuine warmth and kindness makes the story hit harder as Chambers looks to space and asks what responsibility we have to science and to each other.


Lani Goto

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

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?

Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea Is a Work for Our Time

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!

Sooner Or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea

Sometimes the right book finds you at the right time.

I purchased Sarah Pinsker’s Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea in April 2019. This will surprise none of you who are familiar with my particular reading predilections: Sooner or Later is a collection of speculative short stories, critically acclaimed, compared to the work of Kelly Link, repeatedly described as “weird.” If I were to read only three things the rest of my life they would be: fantasy/literary crossovers, young-adult high fantasy, and speculative short story collections described as “weird.”

However.

My to-be-read pile being what it is, and the Sirens bookstore stocking process being what it is, I put Sooner or Later on a shelf and there it sat for over a year. This is not an unusual occurrence, regardless that it is a sometimes regrettable occurrence.

I unearthed—not an egregious exaggeration—Sooner or Later in March 2020, as we were compiling Sirens’s ginormous list of spectacular speculative queer works. Pinsker is queer and Sooner or Later was, by reputation, full of queer representation. Surprising precisely no one, I claimed Sooner or Later as one of the spectacular speculative queer works that I’d read and recommend. (Surely you are not surprised that at Sirens we quite happily presume spectacularness in works by women and nonbinary authors?)

Let’s pause there.

I certainly do not need to tell you that, in the interim, a few cases of COVID-19 have ballooned into a worldwide pandemic or that yet another Black man murdered by the police has sparked worldwide protests. The world feels more dangerous, perhaps, than it did a few months ago, and more fragile. A world where you must choose between maintaining your quarantine and begging for justice. Like many of you, I am not immune from anxiety, despair, rage, or surprise sobbing. There is a certain isolation, a certain desolation, that comes with this dangerous, fragile new world.

And into this desolation comes Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea.

Pinsker’s masterwork—and it is a masterwork—thrives on desolation, nurtures it, consumes it.

She has, with great care, woven the inescapable misery of isolation into thread that binds both her craft and your reading experience. Her stories are lonely, yearning, destructive, elegiac. Her collection is loss made tangible, in ink and paper.

Sooner or Later opens with “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide.” A man has just lost an arm in a farming accident and, before he wakes, his parents authorize the hospital to attach a cutting-edge prosthetic: a metal claw of an appendage with a corresponding chip in the brain. The man wakes and soon discovers that his new arm believes itself to be 97 kilometers of road in eastern Colorado, a fiercely bleak stretch of the United States that looks at distant mountains. The man can see this stretch of highway through the wonder of his arm—and it intersects with his own feelings of love and loss. When his chip malfunctions and the hospital replaces it, his arm no longer yearns for eastern Colorado—and the man feels the surprising ache of that loss as well.

“A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide” is Pinsker at her best: impossible worlds that nevertheless clearly and incisively reflect our own humanity. I have driven 97 kilometers of barren two-lane highway in eastern Colorado. It is a road that looks like a road trip: sky-high speeds, desert winds, a visible goal in the distant mountains. I, too, feel the ache of that man’s arm, even while my brain marvels at the craft necessary to build this desolation into a computer chip, a metal arm, a man comprised of parts.

Pinsker’s stories unwind from there: a post-apocalyptic survivalist waiting, waiting, waiting for her wife to find her; an elderly woman suddenly recalling the single moment that changed her husband from a dreamer to someone lost; a touring band in a vast Midwest where people fear congregating with strangers. Each captures incarnations of that same two-lane highway desolation: a wistfulness, a single-minded determination even in the face of disaster, a sudden wondering of what might have been. If only…

Pinsker’s collection isn’t easy, especially in a moment when we’re all feeling desolate, emotional, raw. You might want to save this for a sunnier day, a happier time, when your heart isn’t quite so breakable. But if you’re ready to, as I tell my niece we eventually must, feel your feelings, Pinsker’s collection is a work for our time.


Amy TenbrinkBy day, Amy Tenbrink dons her supergirl suit and practices transactional and intellectual property law as an executive vice president for a media company. By night, she dons her supergirl cape and plans Sirens and reads over a hundred books a year. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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