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Joamette’s Recommended Readings

Sirens Studio Guest of Honor Joamette Gil shares a list of fantasy and other works that she loves. If you enjoy her work, we encourage you to check out these other reads, spanning graphic, short fiction, and novels. Take it away, Joamette!

 

Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements
1. Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements edited by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha
Knights-Errant
2. Knights-Errant by Jennifer Doyle
Spiritwalker Trilogy
3. Spiritwalker Triology (Cold Magic, Cold Fire, and Cold Steel) by Kate Elliott
Mooncakes
4. Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu
Brown Girl in the Ring
5. Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
Through the Woods
6. Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
The Haunting of Hill House
7. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
On a Sunbeam
8. On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden
So Pretty / So Very Rotten
9. So Pretty/Very Rotten: Comics and Essays on Lolita Fashion and Cute Culture by Jane Mai and An Nguyen
The Temple of My Familiar
10. The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker
This One Summer
11. This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
Verse
12. Verse by Sam Beck

 

Joamette Gil is the head witch at P&M Press, an independent comics micro-press specializing in speculative fiction by creators of color, LGBTQIA creators, and creators at the intersections. Best known for her Prism Award-winning publication Power & Magic: The Queer Witch Comics Anthology, she also made the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award’s 2018 Honor List and received nods from the Ignatz Awards and Lambda Literary Awards over the course of P&M Press’s three-year existence. Her newest titles are Heartwood: Non-binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy and Power & Magic: Immortal Souls. Another new title, Mañana: Latinx Comics from the 25th Century, is forthcoming in 2020. Joamette’s own comics work has been featured by IDW, Margins Publishing, EverydayFeminism.com, TheNib.com, Oni Press, Lion Forge, and Abrams ComicArts. She also contributed to the Eisner Award-winning Puerto Rico Strong anthology benefitting hurricane disaster relief on the island. When she’s not inhaling graphic novels, she’s off plotting silly play-by-post scenarios or watching horror movies with her friends and familiars in Portland, Oregon.

For more information about Joamette, please visit her website or her Twitter.

 

Heartwood: Non-Binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy edited by Joamette Gil

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, in honor of Joamette’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Andrea Horbinski on Heartwood: Non-binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy, edited by Joamette Gil.


Heartwood: Non-Binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy

Into the woods
Without regret,
The choice is made,
The task is set.
Into the woods,
But not forget-
Ting why I’m on the journey.
Into the woods
to get my wish,
I don’t care how,
The time is now.

“Into the Woods,” lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Not being a noted fan of fairy tales, and not having participated in the Kickstarter for Heartwood: Non-binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy, edited by Joamette Gil, it took me a rather embarrassingly long time to work out why the comics in this anthology by non-binary creators all centered on the woods. The woods have been a space of transformation and potential in stories for centuries, as the Sondheim lyrics that I couldn’t stop thinking of while reading this book indicate. This collection, which is delightful overall, extends that potential to the creators it includes and to the characters in its stories, many of whom are non-binary themselves.

“Sylvan fantasy” is a broad category, and the stories in Heartwood vary from contemporary settings, like the opening “The Biggest Dog You’ve Ever Seen” by Z. Akhmetova, to fully secondary world settings, like “New Leaves” by Emily Madly and Maria Li. Most treat the idea of the forest as literal, but in at least one comic, Rhiannon Rasmussen and Chan Chau’s “Dive,” the forest is either metaphorical or a forest of seaweed. (Partly because it played with the concept, that one was one of my favorites.) “Finding Alex,” by editor Joamette Gil and Corey Ranson, takes the brief for the collection very literally indeed—and the story, in which the main character asserts their non-binary identity through a strange encounter in the woods, works beautifully.

One of the standout entries in the collection, “Shuvah (Return)” by Ezra Rose and Jey Barnes, gives that same plot a very specifically Jewish twist, as the protagonist returns to the woods to find the same forest beings with whom they celebrated Sukkot as a young Orthodox child, and celebrates Tu B’Shevat with them as a non-binary adult.

Indeed, one of the strengths of this collection is its showcasing non-binary protagonists in a variety of ways—whether in stories revolving around their being non-binary, or stories in which they have adventures like any other fantasy protagonist.

Having both together elevates Heartwood out of the potential danger zone of being a gimmick to being a fun, relevant comics anthology with a lot of heart.

Heartwood is a beautiful book, particularly its gilt-edge pages and foil lettering on its gorgeous cover, but the black and white printing unfortunately does render some of the comics hard to distinguish at times—I suspect some if not most of the submissions were originally full color. Those comics like “Dive” which were clearly conceptualized for monochrome printing stand out for their crisp lines and clearly differentiated tones. In terms of art style, most of the comics in the collection are on the more conventional end of the gamut of comics art; the more schematic, “Hyperbole and a Half”-esque art of Polly Guo’s “Paloma” is probably the most different from the rest. But even though the anthology includes twenty-two stories, none of them feel rushed, and none of them are obviously less technically accomplished than any of the others. These creators know their stuff, and it shows.

All in all, Heartwood is a strong entry from Power & Magic Press, living up to its stated mission of showcasing the talents of non-binary comics creators and the press’s mission of providing a home for thoughtful genre content by queer creators and creators of color. If you haven’t had much experience with the current flowering of indie comics, Heartwood is a great place to start. I’ll definitely be looking forward to future anthologies from Gil and P&M Press.


Dr. Andrea Horbinski holds a PhD in modern Japanese history with a designated emphasis in new media from the University of California, Berkeley. Her book manuscript, “Manga’s Global Century,” is a history of Japanese comics from 1905–1989. She has discussed anime, manga, fandom, and Japanese history at conventions and conferences on five continents, and her articles have appeared in Transformative Works and Cultures, Internet Histories, Convergence, and Mechademia.

Princesses, Tea Dragons, & Underwater Kingdoms: Community & Healing in Katie O’Neill’s Middle Grade Graphic Novels by Maria Dones

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

At my new job as a children’s library assistant, the children’s front desk is shaped like a ship. The front has a helm, and the kids who come in love to steer and bang on the wheel. Behind the desk, there’s a shelf filled with children’s graphic novels, our fastest-growing collection.

As someone who had read only a handful of manga and superhero comics, I was pretty unfamiliar with the graphic novel genre. When I was growing up in the early 2000s, there weren’t collections like these at the libraries around me, and the term “graphic novel” wasn’t as widely used as it is now. Still, I couldn’t resist looking at the different colors and shapes of the graphic novels shelved behind me, and soon I was getting recommendation after recommendation from my coworkers. I quickly fell in love with the art form.

It upsets me when I hear parents discourage their children from reading graphic novels because they don’t consider it “real reading.” Not only does discouraging children from pursuing their reading interests run the risk of children losing an interest in reading completely, visual rhetoric is a skill all in itself. And even without the factor of skill development, stories for the sake of fun and companionship are vastly underrated.

Katie O’Neill’s graphic novels are beautiful, magical, and nuanced. The characters in these stories discover their place in the world while navigating the communities they live in and forming life-changing friendships. And the characters themselves are diverse in skin color, ability, gender identity, sexuality, and size.

I wished I’d had these stories as a kid, but they still left their mark on me as an adult. These are stories that feel like watching your favorite Miyazaki film for the first time, like making a friend who really “gets you,” like drinking a warm cup of chamomile tea picked from the leaves growing around a tea dragon’s horns.

Princess Princess Ever After (2016)

Princess Princess Ever AfterPrincess Princess Ever After was the first graphic novel by Katie O’Neill that I picked up. My coworker recommended it to me, and I couldn’t resist a story about a princess rescuing a princess. This fairy tale more than delivered.

The titular princesses are both hiding from something. Princess Amira hides from her overbearing parents and royal responsibilities by rescuing princesses. Princess Sadie hides in her tower from a world who, according to her sister, will hate her for being a fat princess. When these two princesses embark on an adventure, each obstacle leads them closer to facing their insecurities and embracing what makes them unique—all as they fall in love with each other.

Part of why this romance is so swoonworthy is how different (but complementary) the princesses are. Amira is courageous, headstrong, and always ready for a battle. Sadie is kind, compassionate, and a great listener. Each challenge they face requires both of their strengths, and in seeing each other’s strengths, they learn how to love themselves and love one another.

The Tea Dragon Society (2017)

The Tea Dragon SocietyHow could I resist this gorgeous cover? But what’s inside is just as beautiful—a story about memory, healing through community, and looking towards the future.

Blacksmith apprentice Greta finds a lost tea dragon, a creature whose horns grow tea leaves that store memories. When she returns the tea dragon to the husbands who own the tea shop, they offer her the chance to learn the skill of tea dragon keeping. As Greta gets to know them and their ward—a girl with memory loss who has developed a bond with the chamomile dragon—Greta learns that friendship requires the same patience and compassion as tea dragon keeping.

This book—with all its whimsy, soft magic, and young characters discovering their place in the world—gave me the same warm fuzzy feelings watching Kiki’s Delivery Service does. All while giving me the same WHY-CAN’T-THESE-CREATURES-BE-REAL heartache as Pokemon (1997) and How to Train Your Dragon (2010).

Aquicorn Cove (2018)

Aquicorn CoveHow do you follow up tea dragons? With mysterious seahorse unicorns, of course!

To help her aunt after a hurricane, Lana visits the seaside town she used to live in before her mother died. There, Lana finds an injured baby aquicorn. As she helps the aquicorn and her hometown recover, Lana confronts her own grief and slowly learns about her aunt’s romance with the underwater sea queen who looks after the aquicorns as well as the dangers the aquicorns face because of overfishing.

Even though it’s a sweet story with a happy ending, this book made me cry more than any other Katie O’Neill book. Partly because of Lana’s resilience, partly because of the too-real coral reef metaphor.

In a world where being an environmentalist is increasingly difficult, Aquicorn Cove reminds the reader how to hope again.

The Tea Dragon Festival (2019)

The Tea Dragon FestivalThe Tea Dragon Festival is a companion to The Tea Dragon Society.

In a village where tea dragons are raised by the community, Rinn wakes Aedhan—the guardian dragon (not tea dragon) of Rinn’s alpine village. To his horror, Aedhan discovers he was enchanted to sleep for eighty years. Through Rinn and Aedhan’s friendship, they both explore their identities—Rinn in terms of their aspirations and gender fluidity and Aedan in terms of his clan and how he fits in within the village he accidentally neglected for decades.

Readers will also delight in seeing the tea shop owners from The Tea Dragon Society—including Rinn’s uncle—in their adventuring youth as bounty hunters.

I loved seeing a community sharing the care of the tea dragons, who the reader encounters in all their versatility. Tea dragons can be adorable, haughty, pompous, and grouchy—sometimes nuisances, sometimes beloved pets, and sometimes independent companions.

Bonus: Dewdrop (2020) April 7

DewdropKatie O’Neill’s first picture book Dewdrop will be released April 7, 2020. I’m kind of cheating here, because I’ve only read the preview on Amazon, but I’m already in love with this story of an axolotl who reminds her overachieving friends to practice self-care and enjoy every step of their progress as they prepare for a yearly sports fair. With nods to graphic novel layout design, adorable art, and Katie O’Neill’s characteristic themes of friendship and self-love, Dewdrop has all the makings of a heartwarming and memorable story.


Maria Dones

When Maria Dones isn’t writing stories about angry girls armed with magic, you can find her working as a children’s library assistant, rewatching Sailor Moon, or befriending other people’s pets. She recently graduated from the University of Kansas with an MFA in Fiction, and her young adult short fiction appears or will appear in Cicada, Gingerbread House, and Bourbon Penn.

Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron

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!

Kingdom of Souls

I used to think that, as people got older, they became more fearful.

When I was a small child, I feared nothing. Then I accidentally chopped a snake in half with a trowel. Then I feared snakes.

Then, during my first semester of college, the woman next door accidentally set her dorm room and mine on fire while we were both in them. Then I feared snakes and fire.

Then I got out of law school and discovered that the perfectionism demanded of women is not the golden ticket to wealth and success. Then I feared snakes, fire, and failure.

But I think, as humans, we tend to focus on what we fear, not things we no longer fear. Surely, there were a thousand things I feared as a child, as a teen, as a twentysomething: gross bugs, roller coasters, my parents’ divorce, public speaking, college, job searching, being fired, intruders, negotiating, whatever. But unlike snakes, fire, and failure, none of those fears have persisted. Every day, the vast unknown that gives rise to so many fears becomes just a little bit less. Every day, I rely just a little bit more on my own resourcefulness. Every day, I’m seemingly a little bit less likely to add a fourth fear to that unholy triumvirate.

So now I think that, as people get older, they become less fearful.

And correspondingly, I think that kids are afraid of damn near everything.

Which brings me to Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron. If you were to read the flap copy of this book, you would expect a rather formulaic hero’s journey of a young adult book, albeit with a spectacular fantasy Africa setting. The flap copy rather unimaginatively focuses on the fact that Arrah, daughter of powerful witchdoctors, somehow has no magic. But to save the children of the kingdom, she needs to acquire some magic, and soon. And to do that, she needs to do the unthinkable: trade some of her lifespan for spells.

This is all very boring. Again, except for that magnificent fantasy Africa setting, you have all read that book before. I would call it Harry Potter-esque, but we all know that this trope goes back much further than that. So let’s ignore that supremely unhelpful flap copy.

Kingdom of Souls is about fear.

The first act does, indeed, focus on Arrah’s lack of magic: her disappointment in not having it, but more importantly, her perceived failure and her resulting otherness. Her fear of being different, of being less, of not living up to expectations. Her fear of disappointing her powerful parents and tribal chief grandmother. Her fear of what her friend-maybe-boyfriend, son of the Vizier, will think. Like teens the world over, Arrah has found her people: the only other two people her age who should have magic and don’t. But also like teens the world over, being part of a group of three outcasts isn’t so much better than being a sole outcast. Even if you’re the daughter of the Ka-Priestess making eyes at the Vizier’s son.

What galvanizes Arrah is what galvanizes so many heroines: harm to someone else. Children of the kingdom are disappearing and Arrah is determined to save them. To do that, she finds a way to acquire magic by sacrificing some of her lifespan—and with that she stumbles into the proverbial hornet’s nest. Arrah’s mother has been stealing the children in order to raise a powerful demon, so that that demon can impregnate her and she can give birth to a half-demon baby, who will in turn have the power to raise the Demon King, who was imprisoned by the orishas generations ago.

Whew. Frankly, if I lived in Arrah’s world, I would have four fears: snakes, fire, failure, and half-demon baby sisters.

The second act of Kingdom of Souls explores Arrah’s paralysis in the face of her multiplying fears. Her mother has magically chained both Arrah and her father; her family has been exiled to a land of demon energy; and Efiyah, her baby sister, is about to destroy the world. It’s a lot.

In the third act, though, Arrah masters her fears. She doesn’t eradicate them: They stay with her, a constant companion, as her sister wreaks havoc. But Arrah knows what she must do, despite her fears, and she just gets on with doing it.

So if you’re into a book where the heroine is afraid of the approximately 8,000 things that she should absolutely be afraid of, and she acknowledges those fears and saves the world anyway, have I got a book for you.

Unfortunately, aside from that angle—and again, Barron’s superb fantasy Africa setting—this is the sort of heroine’s journey book you’ve read a thousand times before. An unassuming, magic-less girl, of whom no one expects great things, is tasked with saving the world. There are adventures, there are gods, there’s some kissing, and the world gets saved. At least sort of; there’s a setup for a sequel.

And in the end, the biggest issue I had with Kingdom of Souls wasn’t the rather formulaic reluctant heroine’s journey—even though the reluctant heroine is a particular frustration of mine—but that, while I think Barron wrote the right number of words, I think about half of them were the wrong words. Barron writes a lot of distractions, while giving the reader scant detail about what is actually happening, especially in magic sequences. For example, by the time a minor character in the first act was revealed to be an orisha in the third, I could not remember that character ever showing up in the first place. Barron’s writing should be perhaps not more focused, but certainly more pointed in showing what’s truly important among the thousands of fascinating details.


By 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.

New Fantasy Books: March 2020

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of March 2020 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!
 

Magic in Our Fingertips: Charmed Voices in Modern Fairy Tales

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

When I sat down to create this list, I thought about all the great books people miss because the texts are outside the kind of material they normally reach for. Thus, one of my goals was to incorporate books from a diverse range of genres that would appeal to anyone with a tinge of magic in their blood. In this list, I’ve included poetry that people may love if they’re always up for folklore, critical nonfiction that would grab the attention of someone who usually reads fantasy novels, a novella a reader might never pick up unless they knew it had a few monsters inside. If you’re into fairy tales, fanfiction, and lyrical language, you’ll find something to love in all these books.

 

boysgirls
1. boysgirls by Katie Farris (Genre: poems)

When the human body is broken down to its barest parts, when you trip over a femur or a jawbone, you recognize it as human. Underlying this book is the nibbling longing that makes us think about identity and our desire to “escape unscathed.”

Brute
2. Brute by Emily Skaja (Genre: poems)

Skaja’s Brute is a collection of battery, of bruising, of brutality, of body. The intersection of gender and violence rests at the core of these poems, forcing the reader to pause and consider with the speaker how one comprehends trauma.

Cendrillon: A Caribbean Cinderella
3. Cendrillon: A Caribbean Cinderella by Robert D. San Souci (Genre: illustrated picture book)

Told from the godmother’s point of view, Cendrillon is rich in dialect and magic. This Cinderella retelling is a joy for all ages, especially those who seek a focus on marginalized voices in reinvented fairy tales.

The City of Brass
4. The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty (Genre: novel)

When Nahri discovers the faux magic she practices has real effects, she’s whisked away to Daevabad, the fabled djinn city filled with political turmoil. Brimming with secrets and envy, this novel is a testament to unique reinventions of familiar stories.

Divining Bones
5. Divining Bones by Charlie Bondhus (Genre: poems)

Bondhus creates a conversation with the reader, asking that they consider Baba Yaga as not only a crone but also a guide to understanding gender. Here, magic and witchcraft are tools of resistance for marginalized bodies.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon
6. The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (Genre: novel)

The Girl Who Drank the Moon is surprising, well-crafted, and all the things you want from a fairy tale-esque forest narrative. The most impressive and transformative part of this novel is Barnhill’s focus on the love within a nontraditional family structure.

The Ballad of Black Tom
7. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle (Genre: novella)

A way better version of Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook, LaValle’s novella highlights America’s institutional racism in the 1920s (and now), embodying the notion that people create their own monsters.

Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale
8. Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner (Genre: critical non-fiction)

Most useful in this book is Warner’s synthesis of other scholars who look to achieve the same goal: to show how fairy tale scholarship supports feminist exploration of texts often mislabeled for a young audience and expose the heteropatriarchal values in traditional fairy tales.

Skin Folk
9. Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson (Genre: short stories)

From fantasy to horror to SF, Hopkinson’s collection is vivid and evocative, retelling fairy tales with the purpose of speaking directly to women’s bodies at all stages of life. While you may recognize some of the characters, the stories are entirely new and chilling.

Spinning Silver
10. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik (Genre: novel)

A retelling of “Rumpelstiltskin”, fanfiction and fairy tale themes intertwine deliciously in this novel. The writing is atmospheric and haunting, the very best of lyrical language that also includes a strange but enchanting love story.


Hannah WarrenHannah V Warren is a PhD student at the University of Georgia where she studies poetry and speculative narratives. Her chapbook [re]construction of the necromancer won Sundress Publications’ 2019 chapbook contest, and her works have haunted or will soon appear in Mid-American Review, Moon City Review, and Redivider.

 

Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim

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

Scavenge the Stars
  • Secret identities.
  • Opulent parties.
  • Tangled secrets.
  • Queernormative.
  • Betrayal.
  • Revenge.

If any of those criteria fit your reading checklist, you don’t want to miss out on Tara Sim’s Scavenge the Stars. This genderbent Count of Monte Cristo retelling is an absolute delight. Meet Amaya and Cayo, two protagonists that couldn’t have led more different lives. Amaya has spent the past seven years working off her parents’ debt on the Brackish and is only weeks away from earning her freedom. Cayo is the son of a wealthy merchant of Moray and spends his time gambling away his father’s wealth in the Vice Sector. But when Amaya rescues a drowning man, her fortunes change, and she’s given the opportunity to take down the man who destroyed her family and forced her into indebted-labor—Kamon Mercado, a dirty businessman and Cayo’s father. As a dangerous plague rips through the city, Amaya and Cayo have to decide where their hearts truly lie and if they are willing to accept the hefty price of revenge.

The Count of Monte CristoThis book was one of my most anticipated reads coming into 2020 and it did not disappoint. Thirty-some pages into the book, I had already decided it was one of my all-time favorites and was scheduling a re-read. The Count of Monte Cristo is my favorite “classic.” I adore the intricate revenge that Edmond Dantès develops along with his single mindedness in seeing it through to the end, no matter the cost.

Sim does the classic Dumas story justice and manages to make it even better because now it’s genderbent and queer.

Both Amaya and Cayo are complex characters that will win you to their side despite the less than perfect decisions they continue to make. I adored Amaya. She takes no prisoners and is willing to see her revenge carried out no matter what, but she’s always worried about those around her and she wants a happy ending. Cayo has all the hallmarks of your typical millionaire playboy, but he’s so much more complex beneath the surface. And when they’re on the page together, these two make a fantastic duo—even if they’re totally scamming each other throughout.

The supporting cast is just as fabulous and diverse, and the main side characters are as fully realized as Amaya and Cayo. My personal favorites are Deadshot (I am such a sucker for a sharpshooter and she is positively DIVINE) and Romara (the deliciously dark daughter of the Slum King who will shank you as soon as smile at you). Sim’s worldbuilding shines in how inclusive it is to people of all skin tones, genders, and sexualities. And perhaps the best part of this is how it’s simply the norm for the world.

None of these topics are causes for animosity or hatred in the world or between characters, making it a safe space for marginalized identities to come and enjoy a swashbuckling story of revenge with just a hint of romance.

On the technical side of things, I can’t write this review without praising Sim’s writing. It’s magnificent. The Count of Monte Cristo is a BEAST of a book and if you’ve read it, give yourself a huge pat on the back. Scavenge the Stars is the pocket edition—it’s taken all the best parts and homed in on them. The pages flew by. I would sit down to read a chapter or two and suddenly I was a hundred pages further and my dog was wondering why I wasn’t getting his dinner ready. Sim trusts her readers to make the connections and unravel the mystery right along with Amaya and Cayo. Her word choice was excellent, and from the first line of “The first thing Silverfish had learned on board the Brackish was how to hold a knife,” (What a fabulous first line!) to the final line of the story, prepare to be swept away. Both Amaya and Cayo have agency, constantly making difficult choices that in the moment seem like the right thing to do but end up causing way more problems than they fix. I love when characters create their own problems, and Amaya and Cayo excel on that front.

Scavenge the Stars is book one in a planned duology and if you’re anything like me, you are going to be demanding book two when you get to the last page. I can’t wait to read the next book—I have theories and questions and I need answers! Scavenge the Stars has gained a place of honor in my heart and on my shelf and I can’t recommend it enough. Happy reading!

 


Katie Passerotti

Katie Passerotti is a writer, teacher, and fangirl. She is obsessed with villains and will probably assist one in taking over the world. When she’s not making diabolical plans, she and her wolfhound are off exploring forests and parks or she’s reading stories about fierce, fantastical girls. Follow her on Twitter @KatjaBookDragon

 

The Starless Sea

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!

The Starless Sea

A few years ago, I burned through The Night Circus in a day.

I adored Erin Morgenstern’s nighttime world, where glass-shard ruthlessness saves a love story from being sticky sweet. I loved the in-world-game-as-antagonist construct, the wonder of the gameplay transformed into love letters, the lush language. It’s the sort of book I’ve never revisited, for fear of shattering that singular, perfect reading experience.

On December 14, 2019, I started The Starless Sea, Morgenstern’s newest. On January 7, 2020, I finished The Starless Sea. I took so long to read The Starless Sea that it had three boarding passes in it before I was through.

I could make many excuses: work, the holidays, exhaustion, not the right time or the right place—though, please, a plane is always the right place. But let’s get real: I read three books a week. If I’d loved The Starless Sea, or even liked The Starless Sea, I would have finished it in December. The middle of December.

Curioser and curioser.

The Starless Sea is Morgenstern’s paean to readers. To those who love stories. To those who take a book everywhere. It’s about the power of stories—but not stories qua stories, rather the power of stories as given to them by readers.

Every ounce of power in this book—every decision, every act, every love—is clasped in the hands of someone who loves to read books.

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a master’s student in the field of video games, with a focus on video games as storytelling devices. His mother is a fortune teller; his father is absent. He lives, as far as one can tell, a completely unremarkable, issue-free life. He studies video games, teaches his students, spends a lot of time in the library.

As far as Zachary Ezra Rawlins is concerned, his story starts with a book he stumbles across in the library, a very old book, with a chapter about him—and a painted door he encountered, but did not try to open, as a child. But the story is much, much older than that, as Zachary Ezra Rawlins is about to discover. And thus, begins a portal fantasy to end all portal fantasies—if only because it references Narnia, Wonderland, and all the rest. It’s a very self-aware sort of paean.

So Zachary Ezra Rawlins—so sorry to belabor the point of his cumbersome name, but the book does and so, by God, shall I—starts a DaVinci Code-style adventure, following keys and bees and amorphous clues to a party in New York where he meets a woman dressed as Max, King of the Wild Things, and a man in the dark who makes Zachary Ezra Rawlins’s world turn upside down. And unlike the painted door encountered in his youth, adult Zachary stumbles through a new painted door, into a vestibule with an elevator, and down down down to a foyer with a cup that says, inevitably, “Drink Me.” There are also dice. Zachary rolls the dice. You think this means something, and it probably does, but it’s never quite clear.

And so Zachary enters the Harbor, a labyrinthine, library-filled maze of stories in books and stories on ribbons and stories on shrouds and stories in candies and stories whispered in hallways and also cats. Ancient history is hinted at, clues continue to appear, and as a reader, you’re vaguely annoyed—as is Zachary Ezra Rawlins—at being pulled away from all these things to read.

Where the book lost me is exactly where the book should have snatched me up by the throat and held me captive to its wonder and delight.

Interspersed with chapters about Zachary Ezra Rawlins and his floundering quest to, ultimately, save the Harbor (this is not a spoiler because, in a world populated with supreme knowledge of both Narnia and Wonderland, what else would this book be about?) are smatterings of tales. About Time and his love of Fate. About the Moon and the Sun—and their secret meeting at an inn. About the Owl King, or several Owl Kings, sometimes it’s hard to tell. About bees. So many bees.

And as we journey along with Zachary Ezra Rawlins and Max and the man in the dark, of course this is all a single tale: Zachary meets Fate and Time and the Moon and the Owl King. And the bees. And, of course, there’s a happy ending for Zachary and his man in the dark.

But I cared about so very little of it. I wish on a thousand blown dandelions that Morgenstern had told the entire story of Fate and Time and the rest up front, or in larger pieces between her acts, and not in the tiniest of confusing snippets between every two-page chapter of Zachary Ezra Rawlins stumbling through life not dissimilarly to how I stumbled through this book: confused, overwhelmed, and vaguely annoyed. (SPOILER) And when Zachary Ezra Rawlins dies toward the end of the book, by his love’s own hand, I could only think: Thank God. But of course two pages later he’s hanging out with the bees and by the end, there is a happy ending. (END SPOILER)

Ultimately, The Starless Sea drowned under the weight of its own storytelling. Is the pirate a pirate or a metaphor? Is Max a monster or a woman? Why has the inn moved to God-knows-where in the ancient layers of the Harbor? How do you sail a boat through honey? I just…couldn’t.

But I kept reading all the way to the end, lured on by love of The Night Circus and my certainty that surely, surely a woman who loves reading so much as to write a book about the power of readers would have an earth-shattering, starlight-beautiful denouement. But there…wasn’t. The point was the journey, not the mystery or the resolution. The point was the description-laden prose. The pirate-as-metaphors. The exquisite world in the dark by the honeyed, starless sea. The stories on ribbons and shrouds and candies.

In hindsight, what I really wanted was the story of Fate and Time, in this lush world of wonder. In a novella.


By 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.

New Fantasy Books: February 2020

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of February 2020 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!
 

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

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

The Walls Around Us

The details were hazy but I remembered this book as one of the best I had read back in 2015. For that reason, and because it falls within the villain theme, I chose to reread it for review. As a suspenseful story, I was worried a second reading wouldn’t hold up, but it cut me deeper this time and I think I can pinpoint why.

Trying to describe this book without overdoing it is hard for me. I used to recommend it by stealing from a blurb I read somewhere calling it “Black Swan meets Orange Is the New Black.” Not entirely the gist, but it does paint a good starting picture.

The story is told from the split points of view of Violet and Amber. Violet, an eighteen-year-old rising star ballerina about to enter Juilliard, recounts long elapsed memories of herself and her best friend, Orianna or Ori for short. Violet dances all around the details of their relationship, and the horrific event three years prior that obsesses her, before she comes to the point.

Amber is a resident of Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center, convicted of a violent crime at thirteen, who starts her story with a strange day when the locks came open. Amber has been at Aurora Hills longer than any of the other girls and the years have eroded her. Her point of view is mostly passive, translating into words what is happening on the stage within the prison. Her situational awareness is shaky to the point of being difficult to follow in the beginning, but her perception of others, especially her fellow inmates, is sharp. Through Violet and Amber, Orianna’s full story is revealed.

I liked Suma’s writing style in general. There are nuances and allusions. The narrators’ voices each ring authentic and give away more than the characters intend. The supernatural elements seep in at a slow drip. A dramatic story emerges between the ballerinas that takes most of the reader’s focus. But while Violet and Ori are dancing out their white swan and black swan routine, Amber, whose life is remarkably gray, sneaks in and, in my opinion, upstages them.

She often speaks in first person plural. She wants you to look at all the inmates as a collection, a family, and Amber herself as an unimportant but very included member. She internalizes the neglect and hatred from everyone on the outside world who saw in her thirteen-year-old self a problem so big it had to be boxed up and forgotten. Every once in a while, though, Amber lets slip little heartbreaking pieces of joy and self-esteem that reveal the person she could have been. She also lets slip her anger.

Going back to the Orange Is the New Black comparison. It is a prison story, with people desperately attempting to cope with the rules of their new society on the inside. There’s plenty of racial and economic privilege at play. But the people in the story are children, and it is that unfortunately realistic element that hits me harder the second time around.

The Walls Around Us would be an intriguing story even if the characters were adults. Yet when so much fiction out there revolves around seventeen-year-old protagonists who save the world despite being surrounded by horrible adults, it is painful and necessary to hear stories about kids who are failed by adults and instead of ending up champions, end up broken.

 


Erynn Moss

Erynn Moss is an enthusiastic reader who likes refreshing her soul by spending time with the brilliant people she finds at Sirens. She’s into comics, sewing, knitting, costumes, and camping. She currently lives in Louisville with her BFF spouse and their toddler trainee-Siren.

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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