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Madeline Miller’s Circe is a luminous, feminist retelling of self-love

Circe Madeline Miller

Her name is Circe, and she is the golden-eyed daughter of a god.

But in Madeline Miller’s lyrically written Circe, she is also the most mocked and least cherished member of her family. As the unwanted daughter of the sun god Helios, throughout millennia her story has been told in pieces scattered in other myths and legends. When Jason and Medea steal the Golden Fleece, it is Circe who provides them with aid. Pasiphaë, mother to the Minotaur who lives in a labyrinth, is her sister. When Odysseus’s men turn into pigs, she is the witch who transformed them.

Circe has been part of all of these stories, but she has never been considered important. Now her story is finally told for a new audience. But she begins powerless and almost voiceless. Her father treats her with indifference. Her mother is ashamed of Circe’s lack of beauty. Circe’s sister says, “A thousand times I saw you squashed. I squashed you myself.” Despite all of this, Circe is humble, kind, and considerate. For that, she is despised. Ultimately, she is banished to live alone and lonely on the island of Aeaea.

Shipwrecked sailors come, covetously eying her body and her belongings when she welcomes them, eager for company. In one particular scene, they ask to thank her husband for the hospitality she provides. Then, because there is no husband nor father, a sailor asks:

“‘Then perhaps there is some other host we should thank? An uncle, a brother?’

‘If you would thank a host,’ I said, ‘thank me. This house is mine alone.’

At the word, the air changed in the room.”

To fend for herself, she slowly transforms from humble girl to powerful enchantress—and it is gloriously satisfying. At one point, she says of the men she turns into pigs:

“They moan and squealed, and pressed their snouts to the earth. We are sorry, we are sorry. Sorry you were caught, I said. Sorry that you thought I was weak, but you were wrong.”

But this isn’t just the story of an icy goddess who comes into her full powers. Above all, this is a story about love—of everything people and gods are willing to do for it, and all of the blessings that life can contain if it is attained.

Circe learns to love others, she learns what it is like when they truly love her back, and most importantly of all, she learns to realize that she is worthy of love and she learns to love herself.

It is also the story of a woman who is trying to find herself, chart her own path, and decide what it is, exactly, that she wants despite other people’s ideas of her. At one point she asks, “Would I be skimmed milk or a harpy? A foolish gull or a villainous monster? Those could not still be the only choices.” Circe, a peripheral character, has been doomed to live as the cruel witch or undeserving daughter of a god across thousands of years and thousands of stories. But in Circe, Madeline Miller has created a new kind of Greek myth.

Miller trots out a pantheon of familiar characters: Ariadne, Odysseus, Jason and Medea, Daedalus, and more. But this is not the world of Greek myths from before, where it was an honor to be used by a god—and so the gods did, fruitfully and joyfully. Where women were calm helpmeets and good wives, until they became villains if they reacted with anger as their husbands impregnated other women or killed their daughters.

We see all of Circe’s stories, but this time, from a woman’s point of view—a view that has been neglected for far too long. In this beautifully written, feminist retelling, Odysseus is not the hero for cheating on his wife. Forgotten women discover their power. Past wrongs are righted. And finally, Circe has the agency to choose her own story and her own life to create the future she has always wanted. Madeline Miller has created a new kind of luminous story that I love, and will read again and again.

During the day, S.K. Tiao can most often be found dreaming up new ways to tell people what to buy. She has lived in every major metropolitan area on the West Coast although she hopes to end up back in Washington State. For fun, she loves to read more than almost anything, but also cooks her friends seven-course, themed meals. She can’t draw, but she makes quilts, wool rugs, and knitted lace shawls.

5 Queer YA Fantasy Novels I Couldn’t Put Down

5 Queer YA Fantasy Novels I Couldn’t Put Down

As a reader surviving the pandemic, I have devoured escapist reads. For me, that has always entailed diving into fantasy novels, being transported to new worlds, and finding space to breathe, imagine and dream. Here are five queer young adult fantasies that helped me escape this past year, and I hope that other Sirens will enjoy them as much as I did!

Beyond the Ruby Veil by Mara Fitzgerald
1. Beyond the Ruby Veil by Mara Fitzgerald

Emanuela is in the midst of many plans when the omen summoning her to death in the city’s water tower appears on her skin—like marrying her childhood best friend so that both of them can live their best gay lives outside of their society’s scrutiny. But when the watercrea, the priestess in charge of creating water from blood, captures Emanuela at her wedding, she has to fight back, mostly for herself, but if she ends up saving the other residents of her city, Emanuela considers that a bonus.

Beyond the Ruby Veil was an utter delight from cover to cover. The premise of a fantasy world where water could only be made from blood intrigued me. It’s a fast-paced, short read, and it was refreshing to read a protagonist so singularly focused on her own desires. I am eagerly awaiting the sequel in 2022!

A Curse of Roses by Diana Pinguicha
2. A Curse of Roses by Diana Pinguicha

Princess Yzabel is cursed. With one touch, anything she tries to eat turns to roses. She’s slowly starving, a constant reminder of the pain her people face. She longs to reverse her curse and turn flowers into food. And when she meets a beautiful enchantress, it seems like she may have found the answer to her prayers and the secret dreams of her heart.

A Curse of Roses is a unique historical fantasy novel based on Portuguese hagiography, on a legend that has historic roots in the author’s hometown. I was fascinated by the blend of thirteenth-century Catholicism and magic, intricately researched history, and new possibilities as Yzabel struggles to come to terms with her sexuality.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust
3. Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

Hidden from the world and confined due to her poisonous touch, Princess Soraya is desperate for freedom and to be seen as anything other than a monster. So much so that she is willing to free a demon to attain it. But her decisions lead to terrible outcomes, and Soraya starts to question if she was previously monstrous, or if her choices made her who she is.

Melissa Bashardoust has been one of my authors to watch since I read Girls Made of Snow and Glass a few years ago. Her prose is stunning, word-perfect and vivid, and there were twists in this novel I never saw coming. It was honestly everything I wanted in a queer monster fairy tale.

From Darkness by Kate Hazel Hall
4. From Darkness by Kate Hazel Hall

When Ari was a child, her best friend drowned in front of her. Years later, Ari still blames herself for being unable to save Alex. When Ari is bitten by a venomous snake, the shade who comes to escort her to the underworld is none other than her deceased friend. Will the girls be able to navigate the afterlife to save each other and return to the living?

This book is such a sweet sapphic portal fantasy! It’s set in two worlds: a rural town on the Australian coast, and an afterlife inspired by the Greek underworld. The meeting of the two worlds was so fascinating, and I adored both of the generous, witty, and self-sacrificing main characters. From Darkness is a fabulous debut novel that deserves more attention.

The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
5. The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

A historical fantasy retelling of the legend of Dracula, told from the perspective of two of his brides-to-be. Seventeen-year-old Lil and her twin sister Kizzy are captured by a sadistic boyar and stolen away from their home to serve in his castle. While working in the castle kitchens, Lil meets Mira, an ethereal girl she feels immediately drawn to. But when her sister catches the eye of the notorious Dragon prince, Lil will do whatever she must to save what remains of her family.

The best word I can think of to describe this book is ‘haunting!’ I went into it not knowing it was a Dracula retelling, or a prequel to the Bram Stoker novel. This is not a happy tale, but the writing is beautiful and compelling. It also features a strong sister bond and twisted ending that will leave you reeling!

Julia EmberJulia Ember is the author of The Seafarer duology and Ruinsong. Julia has a lifelong appreciation for history and classic literature, and holds an MLit in medieval literature from the University of St. Andrews. She currently lives in Seattle with her wife, two cats and a very fluffy pony. When she isn’t working on her prose fiction, Julia writes for video and app games.

Leave the Lights On: 6 Tales of Speculative Horror

speculative horror recommendations

My greatest literary loves touch on the darkest elements of the human experience, where we confront our own mortality and the existential dread of an unforgiving cosmos. I’m delighted to share a small selection of some of the dark, twisted, or otherwise unsettling novels I’ve enjoyed over the past couple of years.

The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling
1. The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

Beautifully-paced and dreadful in the most satisfying of ways, with an emotional punch and depth that elevates the story well beyond mere suspense. Everything about this book is claustrophobic, from the setting and theme to the limited cast of only two characters.

The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher
2. The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

Inspired by the classic cosmic horror tale, “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood. Set within the quirky walls of a museum of oddities, this book balances its unforgiving horrors against a thoroughly likable cast and a story full of heart and humor.

The Lost Village by Camilla Sten
3. The Lost Village by Camilla Sten

Swedish author Camilla Sten brings us an atmospheric journey with a documentary film crew, an abandoned village, and a vanished cult. Sinister dealings from the past trickle down through the generations, propelling the protagonist toward her family’s long-kept secrets.

Revenge by Yōko Ogawa
4. Revenge by Yōko Ogawa

A collection of interconnected macabre stories that evoke a sense of alienation and displaced desperation, with exceptional attention to atmospheric detail. Revenge drips with high strangeness and quiet suffering, artfully conveyed through Ogawa’s subtle voice.

A Children's Bible by Lydia Millet
5. A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet

A group of precocious teens and children confront the apocalyptic consequences of climate change and late capitalism while their parents drift on a cloud of inebriation and denial. Astute, clever, and surprisingly beautiful amidst its (very human) horrors.

The Hunger by Alma Katsu
6. The Hunger by Alma Katsu

If you’ve ever thought, “I need a supernatural Donner Party novel,” then The Hunger is for you. Katsu depicts this agonizing journey through a restrained and brutal drip-feed of uncanny threats, breathing fresh dread into an already horrifying historical event.

J KoyanagiJ Koyanagi writes horror and science fiction with an eye toward exploring consciousness, mortality, and embodiment. Her novel Ascension landed on the James Tiptree Jr. Honor List, her short fiction has appeared in multiple anthologies, and she is a staff writer on the series Ninth Step Murders and Ctrl-Alt-Destroy through Realm. In her free time, she plays D&D and thinks about how good dogs are.

10 new speculative books from Latinx authors

speculative fiction Latinx recommendation

Tomorrow marks the start of National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15) in the United States, and we’re delighted to bring you 10 new books by Latinx authors released in the last year or so, to update our 2020 list of Fifty Latinx Authors and Books and grow your TBR list even further! Some are names longtime Sirens will recognize, others we hope will become new favorites—and it goes without saying that this list is far from comprehensive.

(Note: We know the identifier “Latinx” continues to be contentious in many circles; as a conference on gender in speculative literature, Sirens uses the term to signal inclusivity to genderqueer, nonbinary, and nonconforming individuals that share markers of language, geography, and race—and will follow the lead of Latin American queer scholars. There are a number of articles addressing the history and usage of the term such as in Mother Jones, NPR, and Pew Research.)

Happy reading!

Queen of the Cicadas by V. Castro
1. Queen of the Cicadas by V. Castro

Told in dual timelines, this mythic novel features Belinda in modern-day Texas at her friend’s wedding, at the same site where farmworker Milagros was brutally murdered in the 1950s. Milagros’s death ignored by everyone in the town except by the Aztec goddess of death, Mictecacíhuatl. Belinda realizes that the urban legend La Reina de Las Chicharras (The Queen of the Cicadas), meant to scare children, is actually real… and her fate is irrevocably tied to the events of 70 years ago.

Children of Chicago by Cynthia Pelayo
2. Children of Chicago by Cynthia Pelayo

Interweaving horror and fairytale, police procedural and thriller, Pelayo features Chicago’s Humboldt Park communities in this modern-day retelling of the Pied Piper. Detective Lauren Medina is determined to get to the bottom of what’s happening to the city’s young victims, even if it means unearthing her own painful family secrets.

Mañana: Latinx Comics From the 25th Century edited by Joamette GilMañana: Latinx Comics From the 25th Century edited by Joamette Gil
3. Mañana: Latinx Comics From the 25th Century edited by Joamette Gil

From 2021 guest of honor Joamette Gil, this crowd-backed speculative comics anthology is in its final stage of fulfillment with physical copies imminent. 27 young adult stories set in 2490s Latin America span 300+ pages, envisioning radical futures from Latinx creators throughout the diaspora, including post-apocalypse, liberationist utopia, and slice-of-life magical realism. Released simultaneously in both English and Spanish.

The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore
4. The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore

Sirens attendees from 2018 might recall guest of honor Anna-Marie McLemore’s seminal keynote. The Mirror Season centers on Graciela who develops a tentative friendship with a boy she barely knows, after discovering they were sexually assaulted at the same party. With a magical bakery, an otherworldly secret forest, and mirrored glass with complex magic, McLemore pens a testament to survival and a love letter to their queer Latinx communities.

Lotería by Karla Arenas Valenti, illus. by Dana Sanmar
5. Lotería by Karla Arenas Valenti, illus. by Dana Sanmar

With chapters structured through the ancient game between best friends Life and Death, a girl’s fate hangs in the balance. A middle grade magical realist adventure that interweaves themes free will, choice, and destiny, Clara embarks on a portal fantasy to find her missing cousin. Rich with symbolism and imagery in the cards dealt, this book asks readers of all ages all the big, philosophical questions.

Sanctuary by Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher
6. Sanctuary by Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher

A YA envisioning of a horrific future United States where a wall has been built between US and Mexico. It’s 2032, and everyone is chipped and tracked—but Vali is undocumented, and when her mother’s chip malfunctions, their family’s carefully set life in Vermont is uprooted. Vali and her younger brother must make their way to California, a sanctuary state, on foot, in a journey that’s visceral, heartbreaking, and all-too-possible.

The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova
7. The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova

2017 Guest of Honor Zoraida Córdova makes her adult debut with this sweeping, multi-perspective family story. The Montoyas know not to question inexplicable things, but when they flock to their ancestral home to attend the funeral of their matriarch, Orquídea Divina, they’re left with more questions along with their inheritance gifts. Seven years later, four descendants travel back to Ecuador to uncover Orquídea’s buried secrets before a hidden figure destroys their family tree.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
8. In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

From the acclaimed author of the Sirens-favorite short fiction collection Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado uses literary tropes and genres (such as the haunted house, the romance novel, and choose your own adventure) in her stunning, inventive memoir. In it, she tackles difficult personal subject matter—her experience in an abusive queer relationship— with wit and incisive commentary.

We Light Up the Sky by Lilliam Rivera
9. We Light Up the Sky by Lilliam Rivera

Rivera reclaims the first-contact, alien invasion story for her communities by featuring three Latinx teens in near-future Los Angeles. In this new YA, Pedro, Luna, and Rafa are peripherals at the same high school when The Visitor lands—a Visitor that looks suspiciously like Luna’s cousin Tasha, who died two years ago from COVID-19. The three teens must work together to save the city, and themselves, when they’re not sure who the true enemy is: the Visitor, or their fellow humans?

Fire with Fire by Destiny Soria
10. Fire with Fire by Destiny Soria

This YA urban fantasy romp features dragon-slayer siblings in contemporary rural Tennessee—what’s not to love? Dani and Eden are a pair of Mexican American sisters, both trying to find their way in the world. When Dani bonds with a rare dragon, the sisters find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict and playing with magic more dangerous than they know. To what lengths will they go to save each other?

Peaces is a thoughtful, hilarious adventure of a novel, but in the end, without quite all its pieces

Read with Amy

A number of years ago, I read a book called The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers). It was a wild ride of a book, full of twists and turns, questions and often fruitless interrogations, more game with the reader than traditional reading experience. I finished this book and the friend who was with me at the time asked how it was. I said, with great puzzlement, that I didn’t know what happened in the end. My friend assumed I didn’t like it. I said I didn’t know that either. Three days later, I decided it was genius.

Reading Peaces, Helen Oyeyemi’s newest novel, reminds me of reading The Rabbit Back Literature Society. An omnipresent but missing character, a series of questions answered by nothing more than more questions, a slow but not complete coalescing of patterns. But it’s been more than three days since I finished Peaces, and despite my expansive love for Oyeyemi’s work, I don’t think this one is quite genius.

Let’s begin.

Peaces Helen Oyoyemi

Otto and Xavier Shin, utterly charming thirtysomethings, have recently decided to consummate their love, not with sex (that’s been going on for some time now) or marriage (who needs that?), but with Otto taking Xavier’s last name. In celebration, Xavier’s eccentric aunt gifts them with a “non-honeymoon honeymoon,” a trip on The Lucky Day, a former tea smuggling train. The train is a curiosity, full of strange cars (a mail car, a sauna car) still in use, even though only five people and two mongooses appear to be on board. In the jumble of exploring the train and glimpsing a woman who is either saying hello or asking for help, Otto, Xavier, and pet mongoose Árpád find their cabin, but leave Otto’s suitcase behind on the station platform. The trip isn’t long enough for this to really matter, and Xavier’s seemingly close enough in size—though much is made of Otto’s days of the week boxers.

Oyeyemi’s prose is pure Oyeyemi: peerless in its craft, its trademark insight on brilliant display, with the addition of a heretofore unknown wit.

As Otto and Xavier’s trip begins—and as our trip as readers begins—things are delightful. Otto and Xavier are both singularly likeable: kind, self-aware, somewhat unreliable, hilarious. Oyeyemi’s prose is pure Oyeyemi: peerless in its craft, its trademark insight on brilliant display, with the addition of a heretofore unknown wit. When you have no idea what’s going on in this book—and that will happen several times over—Oyeyemi’s gorgeous, unexpected turn of phrase has more than enough magnetic pull to keep you on track.

As we spend more time on the train, though, things get weird. Your brain is going to want to turn this into an Agatha Christie-esque mystery, and while Oyeyemi presents a mystery, it’s neither the one you think it is, nor is there a dead body. Let’s recalibrate your brain. Oyeyemi is far too much her own force to pay such direct homage to Christie.

As Peaces rolls on, Oyeyemi reveals that the five people on the train—Otto, Xavier, Ava Kapoor (owner of the train and Xavier’s aunt’s friend), Allegra Yu (Ava’s lover), and Laura De Souza (a mysterious agent on behalf of someone with a financial interest in Ava)—all intersect, with ties both expected and inexorable. And through stories and epistles, snippets of information and paintings that reveal themselves differently to each viewer, Oyeyemi also reveals that all five people on the train know—or mysteriously, know of—a sixth character, Premysl Stojaspal, even if they don’t know Prem by name.

While Oyeyemi’s brilliant fabulism pervades Peaces, perhaps even more than it did What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours or Gingerbread, Prem is where that fabulism really comes into play, with shifting identities, cryptic encounters, a burning building, a theremin, a second mongoose, and oh, the fact that Ava Kapoor cannot seem to see Prem, even though everyone else can. This befuddles everyone else, and infuriates Prem, though Ava, without questioning the presence or realness of Prem, seems to take this largely in stride.

What does it mean when the person you most want to perceive you…simply doesn’t?

And in all the muddle of Peaces—Otto and Xavier’s seemingly shared former lover, the man who jumped from the moving train or perhaps never existed at all, the destruction of the dining car with French toast, and more—the crux of Oyeyemi’s work might be this: What does it mean when the person you most want to perceive you…simply doesn’t? When you want so badly to be seen, but you aren’t, at least not by the person who most matters? What does that failure do to your existence?

In the end, I found Oyeyemi’s central theme fascinating, her approach equally so. But while I think she ties her pieces together in the end—why these five people are on this train at this time—through her enigmatic sixth character, I didn’t find that she quite had enough pieces. Part of a jigsaw puzzle, but not the whole. With Oyeyemi, though, maybe that doesn’t matter as much. Her work is always somewhere on the continuum of thought experiment and adventure, and her prose always ushers you through, unwavering in its blazing magnificence, a gorgeous train barreling its way to a point unknown.

Before each conference, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy and other interesting books by women, nonbinary, and trans authors. You can find all of her reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

Amy TenbrinkAmy 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.

10 books celebrating queer monsters and magic

As an author of a couple of books about queer menopausal werewolves who are transformed by magic, it’s not surprising that I have a soft spot for queer monsters and magic as a reader too. What follows is a mix of book recommendations in which there are queer magic users and monsters, as well as queer monsters who are magic users, plus one additional book that I think is worth checking out. (I should also note that instead of relying solely on my memory and bookcases alone, I crowdsourced to see what suggestions other people might have and included a couple of stories that looked interesting.) I weighted more heavily toward the queer monsters, but all of these have some element of magic to them as well. What are some of your faves that I didn’t include? I don’t read much young adult fiction, for example, and I thought I would bow to Sirens attendee expertise in that arena.

(Editor’s Note: Given that until only recently, many mainstream publishers shied away from publishing books with LGBTQ+ protagonists, each entry includes the original publisher in English as well as the publication year. Title links lead to book pages if available, or are otherwise linked to purchase pages.)

The Adventure of the Incognita Countess by Cynthia Ward
1. The Adventure of the Incognita Countess by Cynthia Ward (Aqueduct, 2017-2021)

This is the first of a four-book series set in Europe during World War II and features Lucy Harker (Dracula) and Carmilla (Sheridan Le Fanu’s famous lesbian vampire) as vampire lovers and spies—fighting zombies, Nazis, and sundry foes mortal and otherwise. There’s a ton of mashed up, pulpy adventure to be found in these volumes. There are also lots of guest star appearances that include many of the luminaries and creatives of the time. Ward also does a nice job of touching on the status and experiences of LGBTQ folks during the time period while keeping things fast-paced and engaging.

Silver Kiss by Naomi Clark
2. Silver Kiss by Naomi Clark (Queered Fiction, 2010)

Silver Kiss is the first book in Clark’s sexy f/f werewolf detective series, Urban Wolf. The series tackles mystery and homophobia amongst supernatural creatures and has one of the most glorious drag queen werewolves I’ve ever encountered on the page. They are marketed as erotic romance/urban fantasy, with several books and published stories in the series.

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez
3. The Gilda Stories by by Jewelle Gomez (Firebrand, 1991)

The celebrated, classic African American lesbian vampire book has been in print for over twenty years, and has also been adapted for the stage. Gilda’s story moves through time from the 1850s to the
fairly recent past, tackling timely and timeless issues along the way.

Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
4. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger (Levine Querido, 2020)

A young ace Lipan Apache woman, her family, and her ghost dog travel through a landscape of monsters and magic—in order to solve a murder in a North America that’s not quite the one we know.

The Devourers by Indra Das
5. The Devourers by Indra Das (Del Rey, 2016)

One of the novels that’s on everyone’s recommended list of queer literary horror with bisexual characters. A scholar and a werewolf meet in modern India, beginning a twisted journey through history, shapeshifting, sexuality, love, and more.

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
6. Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant (Orbit, 2017)

I’ve been fascinated by McGuire’s monstrous mermaids since I read her story “Each to Each” in the anthology Women Destroy Science Fiction. Please note that this is Seanan McGuire writing as Mira Grant, and that this is the first book of a two-book arc. A lesbian couple, as part of a team, solves an aquatic mystery involving murder, mermaids, and more.

Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson
7. Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson (Quirk, 2019)

An excellent collection of biographical sketches featuring women—including some queer women—who created and wrote about monsters of varying kinds. If you ever wanted to know more about our forebearers in the genre, this nonfiction book is a great introduction.

Temporary Agency by Rachel Pollack
8. Temporary Agency by Rachel Pollack (St. Martin’s Press, 1994)

Technically the second book in the series, but stands alone pretty well. Two queer women confront a demon who runs a temp agency in an office building, and face angels, financial shenanigans, and more! Pollack is one of the best writers of queer fiction, as well as being one of the first out transwomen in the field. This and the first book Unquenchable Fire are both quirky and brilliant. Though no longer in print, it can still be found used and as an ebook.

Werecockroach by Polenth Blake
9. Werecockroach by Polenth Blake (independently published, 2018)

A novella about gay werecockroaches, aliens, and more! This was one of my crowdsourced recommendations, but it’s been on my radar for a while. Reviews say that it’s a wry commentary on Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

Create My Own Perfection by E. H. Timms
10. Create My Own Perfection by E. H. Timms (independently published, 2021)

Another one of my crowdsourced titles that looked interesting! This novel features an aroace protagonist who chooses to become a Medusa to deal with trauma from her past.

Catherine Lundoff

Catherine Lundoff is an award-winning queer writer, editor and publisher from Minneapolis where she lives with her wife and the cats who own them. She is the author of over 100 published short stories that have appeared in venues ranging from Fireside Magazine to Sherlock Holmes and the Occult Detectives. Her books include Silver Moon, Blood Moon, Out of This World: Queer Speculative Fiction Stories and Unfinished Business: Tales of the Dark Fantastic and as editor, Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space). In addition, she is the publisher at Queen of Swords Press, a small press specializing in fiction from out of this world. Websites: Catherine Lundoff and Queen of Swords Press

The truth-telling optimism of Catherynne M. Valente’s The Past is Red

The Past is Red

I approached The Past is Red with gallons of glee and a drop of trepidation. Plenty of books disappoint me, even ones written by my favorite authors. I am happy to report The Past is Red is the hopepunk tale of the apocalypse I have been waiting for. Reading it felt like seeing my name up in lights on a marquee—surreal and marvelous. It filled me with warm feelings for humanity at large because if our narrator Tetley, someone with plenty of pain in her life, can love the future, so can I.

The Past is Red begins with Catherynne M. Valente’s novelette “The Future is Blue” and expands the story of the narrator. In Part I, Tetley Abednego is the most optimistic girl in Garbagetown. Despite living on a floating garbage heap in the ocean centuries after the oceans rose high enough to swallow all dry land on Earth, Tetley finds beauty and hope all around her. Her best friends are an elephant seal named Big Bargains, a gannet bird called Grapecrush, and her twin brother Maruchan. She finds solace in her savior St. Oscar the Grouch. When the mobile theme park Brighton Pier arrives in town with news of dry land, all of Garbagetown prepares to turn on their engine to get there—a journey that will use all of the electricity that powers the town. When Tetley discovers a terrible secret, she makes a choice that turns her into the most hated girl in Garbagetown, and she learns the brutal lesson that no good deed goes unpunished.

In Part II, Tetley is some years older, and still suffering the consequences of her choice. She’s also still the most optimistic girl in Garbagetown, albeit one who lives on a boat circling the garbage heap. Told in alternating timelines, Tetley recounts how she made the choice to flee her punishment only to end up tricked into being the wife of a self-proclaimed king for thirteen whole days. Along the way she makes the acquaintance of a mysterious talking machine she calls Mister and the girl Big Red Mars, the only person to never hate her. What unfolds is beautiful, tragic, and wondrous.

It is unusual to find a bright and bubbly narrator in Valente’s work, which is part of what makes Tetley’s voice so thrilling. Longtime fans and newcomers will find Valente at her best, relishing in elaborate sentences packed with imagery that sort of make you want to visit Garbagetown despite it being the result of decadence and apathy towards the climate crisis left behind by the Fuckwits (that’s you and me, dear reader). I want to pull the tangled string of baby dolls so they wail at me like “the death of joy” as saltwater pours from their mouths, which I like to imagine arcs in high-order Bézier curves reminiscent of a fountain. I want to visit Tetley in her house made of wax candles and compliment her on her moringa tree. Then I want to go home. Of course, the tragedy of Garbagetown is that you can’t visit. Once you’re there, you’re stuck. You’re stuck among a group of humans with a concept of happiness so narrow that they would rather be told a lie they know is a lie than process the truth because a lie is so much easier to live with.

Much of the tension in the novel comes from the inability of others to understand Tetley. Why is she so happy when everyone wants her to be miserable? Why does she love Garbagetown when everyone else wants to leave?

It’s true that optimism can sometimes be insufferable, but our girl Tetley does not engage in toxic positivity. She very much understands the sorry state of the world, but still appreciates humanity’s innate goal, that North Star guiding every one of us: survival.

In her afterword, Valente writes, “The oceans can erase our cities, but they cannot drown our existential malaise.” I agree with Valente’s point here. It is easy and even comforting to be defeatist about humanity’s existence, to want someone else to call the shots. That’s why people like Tetley are necessary to help us progress. We are going to survive whether we like it or not. Yet to move forward, to change, to make things right, we need someone to tell us the truths we do not want to hear.

As for why Tetley has so much hope, consider this. The citizens of Garbagetown may live on a hideous trash heap, but what a miracle it is that they still live, worship, and love. It is with great pleasure I assure you this view of the apocalypse does not come with roving gangs of cannibals. Grimdark can launch itself to Mars in Tetley’s world.

If you want a soundtrack to accompany this brilliant book, fire up David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). There’s a reference to the track “Ashes to Ashes” in chapter 4, and the album encapsulates the tone of the book perfectly.

Jazz SextonJazz Sexton is a stay-at-home daughter taking care of her parents and working on a novel. She received her BA in English with a Certificate in Children’s Literature from the University of Pittsburgh, and her Certificate in Publishing from NYU. You can find her poetry in inkscrawl, Liminality, and Stone Telling.

Amy’s Book Club: The Scapegracers

Read with Amy
scapegracers Hannah Abigail Clarke

I have a bit of a thing for the mean-girls trope. I find it, simultaneously, to be a ferociously defiant fuck you to the demand that teenaged girls be submissive, passive, and silent, and an endlessly frustrating manifestation of the tokenism that white women so often enforce in order to control others. Much like my quest for a Bluebeard reinvention that doesn’t simply claim the violence inherent in the patriarchy (and more on that coming in my Sirens presentation this fall), I have read an untold number of books looking for a mean girls book that celebrates teenaged girls’ power without reinforcing patriarchal structures and false narratives.

Enter: The Scapegracers, Hannah Abigail Clarke’s young adult contemporary fantasy with the tag “Party hard. Hex harder.”

And I read it. Of course I read it. For all that I love A. R. Capetta’s The Lost Coast (with its delicate prose, liminal forests and enigmatic witches) and Sara Gailey’s When We Were Magic (with its accidentally-burst-penis opening and indomitable, hope-filled denouement), there’s been a hole in my heart just waiting, waiting, waiting for teen witches aggressive in their rebellion. Teen witches who are more likely to hex someone than disappear among the redwoods—and if a penis bursts, you know damn well that they did it on purpose.

Party hard. Hex harder.

Sideways Pike—teenager, outcast, lesbian, witch—has suddenly hit it bigtime. Used to exchanging small magics for Cokes, she’s about to take center stage at a party—and not just any party, but a Halloween party thrown by Jing, Yates, and Daisy, the school’s queen-bee mean girls. And they are paying her forty whole dollars.

Sideways does her magic, and things go, well, sideways. The magic is too easy, the circle broken too early. A girl disappears, but no one knows that yet. Sideways, buzzing, does more magic to impress a girl. Weird writing appears on the walls. Later that night, four dead deer, and the missing girl—alive—turn up in the bottom of Jing’s empty pool. You’d think that all of this would be the end of a girl’s social life. As if being the weird girl with magic wasn’t enough.

But Clarke’s characters surprise—and refuse the patriarchy’s expectations.

Jing, Yates, and Daisy don’t destroy Sideways, like they certainly could have with barely a thought. Instead they adopt her as their new best friend, a ready fourth, an equal. And while you’ll wait the entire rest of the book for Clarke’s ravenously cruel girl gang to pull the rug out from under Sideways, for things to go horribly wrong, for the false friendship to develop fangs, for Sideways to have to somehow fucking redeem herself back into a good girl, here’s the thing: That never happens. Sideways never wanted to be popular, she didn’t sell her soul for lipstick and a boy, and Clarke couldn’t care less about some patriarchal notion of girls needing to relinquish their power in order to achieve an unnecessary redemption. And Jing, Daisy, and Yates really do like Sideways. These girls become friends—and stay friends. You can take a breath. Clark’s book doesn’t betray its feminism or its readers.

Instead, Clarke’s teenaged girl gang is a revelation: girls who fight, girls who fuck, girls who are smart, girls who are claiming their identities and their power and their ambition. Girls who—maybe not just Sideways—have magic. Glass-shard Jing, violent Daisy, gentler, fiercer Yates, and Sideways, more wild, less sure. Girls who are gorgeous and glittery and gritty all at once.

Clarke does such a magnificent job of crafting such an undeniable sort of epiphany, where powerful girls are just powerful girls and not tools of the never-ending patriarchy, of crafting a feral work full of feelings and uncertainty and too much certainty, with indelible prose that doubles as the occasional gut punch, that the plot (and the acutely uneven pacing) almost doesn’t matter. This is the first of a series so a couple things that feel like dropped threads—the witch hunters, a book that’s something more and maybe has possessed Sideways—aren’t resolved here, but saved for a future installment. But this work is about characters to the exclusion of almost anything else and you’ll love these girls so much, admire them, respect them, that you’ll be back to pick up those dropped threads anyway.

Amy TenbrinkAmy 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.

New Fantasy Books: August 2021

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of August 2021 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!

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

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

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

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


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.

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.


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