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Awesome Middle-Grade Reads

speculative middle grade recommendations

These books are from my middle school reading collection. This year has shown our school to be more diverse in identity than administration expected. It’s been my pleasure, along with our school librarian, to help students find books where they can find themselves in the story.

  • Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

    What if angels looked like monsters, but the real monsters were people? Jam, a Black trans girl, has to answer that question when the adults in her life refuse to believe reality.

  • Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

    Felix Love, a trans boy, wants to be in love and to be loved in return. Through the novel, he learns he’s worthy of love, top scars and all.

  • Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

    Colbert shows marginalizations overlap – Suzette is black, Jewish and bisexual, Emil is biracial (Korean/African-American) and hard of hearing due to Ménière’s disease, Lionel is Jewish and diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Rafaela is Latina and pansexual. Family keeps secrets, but should they?

  • George by Alex Gino

    More of an elementary book, this tells the story of Melissa, who wants to play Charlotte in her school’s production of Charlotte’s Web. However, since no one knows she’s a girl, she’s not even allowed to try out, but that doesn’t stop her.

  • Flamer by Mike Curato

    This graphic novel explores what it’s like to be a middle school boy that feels strongly about life and not having a place in it. The story takes place at summer camp, where he crushes on another boy and decides that he won’t let others’ opinions stop him from living his best life.

  • On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

    A love story told through two timelines and across deep space in a graphic novel. Mia falls for Grace way back in boarding school and finds her again as an adult.


 
Rook Riley

Former combat vet Rook Riley is a writer, game enthusiast, and all-around linguistic badass trained in Krav Maga and spoon warfare. They split their time between the Dallas-Fort Worth area and the family farm where the bulk of their writing is done. They are a member of the Dallas Defensive Shooters Club and the PTA. Hobbies include binge-watching Netflix and collecting tattoos.

11 Masterwork Collections of Speculative Short Fiction

Read With Amy

I’ve always been a reader—and until I went to law school, it didn’t matter how busy I was, I read anything, everything, voraciously, ravenously. I read on the school bus; I read between songs during the musicals I accompanied; I read during class; I read on planes, and in trains, and in the backseats of so many automobiles that my mother was certain when I started driving that I wouldn’t know how to get anywhere. I read constantly.

And then I attended law school. Law school, as it turns out, is a full-brain endeavor. One where you read and read and read some more, but case law, so much case law, and so many statutes and so many regulations. And to be successful, you need to stuff all those cases and all those statutes and all those regulations into your tiny brain and hope they don’t leak out your ears before your final—because in law school, that final is 100% of your grade and your grades determine who will even interview you in the first place, let alone hire you.

You might expect that I stopped reading in law school, but that’s not quite true. Even law school couldn’t dampen my reading entirely. But I needed something easier, something fluffier, not something less thoughtful, perhaps, but less challenging, something that required enough less of my brain that it didn’t interfere with all those cases and statutes and regulations.

So in law school, I read children’s literature and romance. And not really that much of either. But when I had time, it was children’s literature and romance.

And then after three years of cases and statutes and regulations, three years of children’s literature and romance, as I started in private practice, which didn’t really offer any additional time for reading, but at least no longer required that I reserve my brain entirely for memorization, I had to find my way back to reading more demanding works. I had to retrain my brain. To again start using it to think about things besides the law.

I did that through short fiction. My love of short fiction is premised on the challenge of building a world, a history, a people in such few pages. I love space in fiction, where my brain can work and think and construct. But foundationally, my love of short fiction is because it brought me back to reading after a time in my life when I mostly couldn’t. It was my way home.

And now, as we finally emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, during which my brain was, for the second time in my life, categorically otherwise occupied, and I again need to find my way back to reading with any sort of focus or skill, I find myself again turning to short fiction.

So this month I want to offer you 11 masterwork collections of speculative works that I have loved. Maybe you will love them, too.

 

All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva
1. All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva

Sachdeva’s collection is delicate, balancing at that tenuous point where faith and fantasy overlap, where our need to believe in something larger than ourselves grasps at slippery threads, underscored by the inexplainable. These stories are full of wonder and awe: a man meets a mermaid, two girls practice something like witchcraft, a woman explores a subterranean cave. Sachdeva’s craft is beautiful, ineffable, inexorable.

Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee
2. Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee

In Conservation of Shadows, Lee uses his mastery of the short-story form to insistently reclaim the muddy awfulness of war from thousands of years of a shimmering veneer of grandeur. Lee’s protagonists are clever and determined, but so very fallible, propelled by duty and sacrifice, sometimes drowning in horror. Whether with spaceships or dragons, with far-flung science fiction or ancient myths, Lee always finds a way to reclaim our humanity from not only the awful specter of war, but our insistence on draping it in glory.

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter
3. A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter

Slatter eschews the notion of reclaiming fairy tales, and with it, any conversation with the heteropatriarchal foundation of fairy tales. Instead, she—like her heroines—is too busy to discuss, criticize, or even chastise those who would impose conformance. Too busy being, if you will: being frightened and fearless, being brave and bold, being frail and fantastical. And A Feast of Sorrows, one of her collections of short fiction, features twelve of her finest, darkest, most transgressive fairy tales.

The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith
4. The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

Kupersmith tackles history in her stunning collection, history fraught with war and displacement, so much fear and a stubborn determination to reclaim a culture from the aftermath of American aggression. Kupersmith’s work is born of her mother’s fleeing Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, her grandmother’s folkloric tales, and her own time in a Vietnam still rising after a millennium of occupation. The result is The Frangipani Hotel, a collection of sometimes terrifying, sometimes welcoming, always all-too-human ghost stories about a people emerging from the shadow of war.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
5. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Machado’s breathtaking, shattering work of fuck-you feminist stories opens with a virtuoso retelling of the Velvet Ribbon fairy tale as a fabulist, modern tale of privacy and the inevitability of male intrusions and never lets up from there. Machado incisively lays bare the constant oppressions and all-too-familiar compromises of women’s shared experiences, very aware that revolution can come only after fully realizing the rapacious horror of our quotidian lives.

And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges by Amber Sparks
6. And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges by Amber Sparks

Sparks’ collection is a clarion call cloaked in the glory of a battle cry: unapologetically feminist tales about ourselves—finding ourselves, prioritizing ourselves, caring for ourselves—somehow disguised as mere transgression and reclamation, wrapped in fairy tales and fables. As you spend time with Sparks’ firework of a collection, you realize that these stories may be called “revenges”—and they are—but they are also much, much more: a light in the dark, a reconnection with yourself, a beacon calling you home.

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg (now Daniel Lavery)
7. The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg (now Daniel Lavery)

Lavery uses familiar tales—fairy tales, folklore, children’s classics—to unearth unavoidable truths. Here is someone who understands the original, cautionary nature of our stories and how stories travel societies unchanged, not to mention the everyday horrors of societal expectations, biased systems, and expected gender performance. Lavery deftly, dazzlingly detonates all that in The Merry Spinster: Here, people are people, and happiness is happiness, and societal expectations can be damned.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa
8. Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

Ogawa is a national treasure in Japan but, despite a number of translations, tragically underread in the United States. Revenge is her weird, weird, breathtakingly weird collection of short stories and a terrific introduction to her larger body of work. As you traverse Ogawa’s eldritch landscape, you’ll stay up late wondering if these works are fantasy at all—or if they’re something far stranger, an examination of the quotidian macabre.

Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker
9. Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker

Pinsker’s masterwork—and it is a masterwork—thrives on isolation, 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, a thin line where that isolation becomes desolation, where people cling fervently to hope, and when a single moment of human connection could have changed a life. Her stories are lonely, yearning, destructive, elegiac. Her collection is loss made tangible, in ink and paper.

Two Moons by Krystal A. Smith
10. Two Moons by Krystal A. Smith

Smith has crafted an utterly joyful, utterly delightful collection full of Black mysticism, queerness, and happy endings. In the opening, gorgeous work, a woman falls in love with the moon. Later, a woman births a goddess—and receives a surprising reward. In a surprise turn, a woman has a heart-to-heart…with her heart. Each work is a further pleasure, a further enchantment, a further chance to find a little bit of bliss. You’ll never want Smith’s collection to end.

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
11. What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Magnificent, highly perceptive stories, set in Africa or the United States, featuring Black characters and communities. Arimah skillfully deconstructs our need to be connected—sometimes to other people, sometimes to a community, sometimes to an idea of place or home or culture—and sets that against our all-too-real, all-too-destructive world. The first story alone is a gasp-aloud work: shocking, profound, heartbreaking.

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

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

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

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

 
2021 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

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

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter

A Feast of Sorrows Angela Slatter

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

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

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



Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender

Queen of the Conquered Kacen Callender

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

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

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

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

The Mere Wife Maria Dahvana Headley

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

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

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

New Fantasy Books: July 2021

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of July 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!
 

Hope, community, joy in tough times: Lily’s favorite pandemic reads

speculative fiction pandemic book recommendations

This is, quite simply, a selection of books that have brought me joy over the last year or so, a time when I particularly appreciated daring, hopeful speculative fiction. These books all have the sense of wonder that I love in the fantasy genre, whether that wonder comes from whisking you off to a new world or from making it feel like magic is just in your peripheral vision, waiting for you to recognize it. In addition to a strong sense of place, these stories feature characters that embrace their identities and forge connections and community. I hope that they continue to bring joy to new readers.

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

    After a run-in at a coffeehouse, Guet Imm, a devotee of the Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, decides to join a company of bandits—regardless of what the bandits think of this idea. The world of this wuxia story, inspired by Emergency Malaya, is clearly vast and complex. Cho, however, cleverly zooms in on this group of characters. There is a charm and lightness to her prose that she uses to weave between banter and explorations of identity. The result is a character-driven story that reveals new layers to its protagonists through their developing relationships.

  • No Man’s Land by A.J. Fitzwater

    In World War II-era New Zealand, Dorothea “Tea” Gray arrives at a remote farm to work for the Land Service, where young women take on the jobs of men who have gone off to fight. As she gets to know fellow farm workers Izzy and Grant—who both worked with Tea’s brother before he shipped off to war—Tea starts to realize that the uncanny experiences she’s had on the farm speak to a magic within her. Tea’s magic, developing relationship with Izzy, and concern for her brother weave together into a moving conclusion that centers queer and indigenous identity.

  • Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger, illustrations by Rovina Cai

    It is such a joy to pick up a book and be swept away by a unique voice, which was precisely my experience reading Elatsoe. In a slightly more uncanny version of our world, Ellie, an asexual, Lipan Apache teen, investigates the murder of her cousin. As her investigation unearths the secrets of a seemingly perfect town, she must discover the truth and protect her family. I love the portrayals of community in this book: Ellie’s family and the way they retell their stories; her comedic, nerdy banter with her best friend; and her bond with her pet, the ghost of her childhood dog. Rovina Cai’s chapter illustrations tell a beautiful story that runs parallel to the text.

  • Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

    I finally picked up not one, but three of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s books in 2020. I enjoyed them all, but Gods of Jade and Shadow was my favorite, with a Jazz Age setting that reflects its explorations of tradition and change. In it, Casiopea Tun inadvertently pricks her finger on a shard of bone and frees the imprisoned Hun-Kamé, a Mayan god of the underworld. Bound together, they depart Casiopea’s home in the Yucatán and travel through Mexico as Hun-Kamé seeks to regain his former power. This book reads like an original fairytale and left me with a sense of beautiful melancholy.

  • The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk

    Beatrice Clayborn’s family is counting on her making an advantageous match this Bargaining Season, but that would mean abandoning her secret study of magic. Then she meets the Lavan siblings, catching the eye of handsome Ianthe. A lesser story might let Beatrice simply accept marrying for love, but Polk’s narrative takes a more nuanced route as Beatrice seeks a way to embrace her magical identity. This delightful fantasy romance blends Regency-style courtship (the costumes! the dances!) with magic and the fight for women’s rights. Polk is another author I kept returning to this past year, and I recommend their Kingston Cycle just as highly.

  • The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall

    The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea is a queer, anti-imperialist pirate story with sweeping adventure and lyrical romance. Flora has been sailing aboard the Dove as the pirate Florian. Evelyn’s imperial family has sent her away to marry an unknown man. When their paths cross, Florian and Evelyn not only fall in love, but also begin to reframe their views of themselves and their world. On their journeys, they encounter mermaids, magic, and lost memories. I adored so much about this book, from its queering of the “girl disguised as a boy” trope as an exploration of gender identity to its personification of the sea itself.


 

Lily Weitzman is a programming, outreach, and communications librarian in Boston, Massachusetts. On any given day, she might be found leading a poetry reading group, managing the science fiction and fantasy collections, teaching technology skills, or helping you find the title of that book you heard about on public radio. She has previously worked on a Yiddish oral history project and volunteered as an aquarium educator. Outside the library, Lily chairs the Yiddish Committee at Boston Workers Circle.

#SirensPride: 30 Queer AF speculative books to celebrate Pride Month

pride lgbtq speculative fiction recommendations

As a conference and community exploring gender in fantasy literature, with one of our primary goals to uplift works by women, nonbinary, and transgender people, we celebrate Pride all year long here at Sirens! We hope you know us as a destination for discovering glorious, wondrous, splendiferous books by LGBTQIAP+ authors, so we’re pleased to recommend 30 speculative works released in recent years.

It was nearly impossible to narrow this list down to 30, so please consider these works nothing more than a starting point in your glorious, wondrous, splendiferous trip through queer speculative fiction. Some listed here are new books by established favorites, others are dazzling debuts. Along the way, you’ll meet queer witches, nonbinary werewolves, angry bisexual dragons, trans necromancers, inclusive families, and queernormative worlds—as well as terrifying future worlds, reinterpretations of myth and folklore, complex political sci-fi, and bold, shimmering writing. (And if you’d rather get these recs on Twitter, we’ve been—and will continue!—tweeting a book out each day in the month of June at the hashtag #SirensPride.)

1. The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo
The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo Nghi Vo
Vo tackles Gatsby, folks, and it’s decadent, dangerous, utterly exquisite: a shining veneer of golf and champagne, a darker undercurrent of magic and mystery, all swirling around a queer, Vietnamese immigrant and socialite.

2. Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas Aiden Thomas
In Thomas’s celebration of identity and romance, trans boy Yadriel is determined to prove himself a brujo—and accidentally summons the wrong ghost. Now he’s stuck with a very cute, very uncooperative, and very dead bad boy.

3. Snapdragon by Kat Leyh
Snapdragon by Kat Leyh Kat Leyh
A delicately human graphic novel about finding yourself, whoever that person might be, and finding a community, however unexpected that might be—replete with skeletons, the town witch, and a sob-fest, happy ending about second chances.

4. The Unbroken by C.L. Clark
The Unbroken by C.L. Clark C.L. Clark
People, Clark’s alternate North Africa-set work is a sapphic epic, a brutal military fantasy, a searing deconstruction of colonialism—and an un-put-down-able tale chock-full of spies, lies, assassinations, rebellion, humanity, and love.

5. When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey
When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey Sarah Gailey
When We Were Magic opens with an accidentally burst penis, but what’s truly explosive about Gailey’s first foray into YA is the unrelenting hope. Six queer witches, despite the chaos around them, looking to the future with such anticipation.

6. A Pale Light in the Black by K.B. Wagers
A Pale Light in the Black by K.B. Wagers K.B. Wagers
Max’s Near-Earth Orbital Guard team, gearing up for the Boarding Games, is instead left shaken by a routine mission gone wrong, a mysterious enemy, and a dangerous secret. Rollicking, queer, propulsively readable hopepunk.

7. Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker, illustrated by Wendy Xu
Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker, illustrated by Wendy Xu Suzanne Walker Wendy Xu
This adorable graphic novel features two Chinese American teens, one a queer witch and the other a nonbinary werewolf, in a “spooky” New England town. Themes of family dynamics, young love, and finding yourself abound.

8. Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace
Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace Nicole Kornher-Stace
Firebreak is terrifying: a too-easy, too-near-future, siren-call book where corporations control what’s left of America. Aro/ace Mal is a low-level gamer scrabbling to get by in a war-torn city—and it all goes to hell from there.

9. Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon
Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon Rivers Solomon
Solomon’s consistently scorching dissection of the trauma inflicted upon Black bodies is on full, furious display in faer transformative new work. In fleeing a cult, intersex, pregnant Vern runs right into a Gothic nightmare.

10. Heartwood: Non-Binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy edited by Joamette Gil
Heartwood: Non-Binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy edited by Joamette Gil Joamette Gil
Gil curates a collection of nonbinary creators’ graphic works about finding yourself and your power in that most mystical of places: the wood. Buy the gorgeous gilt-edged hardcover if you can!

11. Burning Roses by S.L. Huang
Burning Roses by S.L. Huang S.L. Huang
In this fairytale remix, Huang gifts readers with two middle-aged lesbian heroes, called to service once more, but reckoning with their own monstrousness and the opportunity for forgiveness. A blazing, fierce, thought-provoking work.

12. In the Ravenous Dark by A.M. Strickland
In the Ravenous Dark by A.M. Strickland A.M. Strickland
Blood magic, undead spirits, and Greek influence abound in Strickland’s twisty YA fantasy. As pansexual Rovan seeks to escape her fate, she finds herself falling for both a captivating princess and a hunky undead guardian.

13. The Low, Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado, illustrated by DaNi, with Tamra Bonvillain
The Low, Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado, illustrated by DaNi, with Tamra Bonvillain Carmen Maria Machado, DaNi, Tamra Bonvillain
Machado’s trademark fuck-you feminism infuses this super-creepy, queer as hell exploration of secrets, misogyny, and small-town horror. The uncanny art alone will keep you up all night!

14. The Girl and The Goddess by Nikita Gill
The Girl and The Goddess by Nikita Gill Nikita Gill
Gill’s blazingly personal bildungsroman in verse draws upon Hindu mythology to help her queer heroine—struggling with everything from the heteropatriarchy to the wake of the Partition—gloriously, inexorably find herself.

15. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir Tamsyn Muir
Gideon hates every fucking second of her time as cavalier primary to Harrowhark, master necromancer, as they navigate an impossible puzzle in a house of death in space. Muir’s work is ferociously ambitious, defiant—and hilarious.

16. This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone Amal El-Mohtar Max Gladstone
Spy vs. spy, enemies to lovers, and nature vs. technology…and how they come together in a queer story about forging a connection beyond the boundaries of time. Wordplay fans, this one’s for you!

17. We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia
We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia Tehlor Kay Mejia
If you’ve ever wished that two girls fighting over a boy would just run away with each other instead, this YA fantasy’s for you! And the power dynamics, shifting alliances, and Latinx-inspired worldbuilding enthrall.

18. Tarnished are The Stars by Rosiee Thor
Tarnished are The Stars by Rosiee Thor Rosiee Thor
A rebel with a clockwork heart, the Commissioner’s son, and an assassin collide—and become friends—in this dangerous, secret-filled, steampunk YA that celebrates queerness (including aro/ace rep!), adventure, and rebellion.

19. Bestiary by K-Ming Chang
Bestiary by K-Ming Chang K-Ming Chang
Chang’s wildly inventive, fabulist debut opens with a girl who grows a tiger tail and proceeds to exquisitely decant a multi-generational story about immigration and belonging, roots and hauntings, queer stories and transformations.

20. Victories Greater than Death by Charlie Jane Anders
Victories Greater than Death by Charlie Jane Anders Charlie Jane Anders
Tina is literally a second chance: a secret clone of a renowned hero, disguised as an Earth human. But in Anders’ rollicking hopepunk, she’ll need her BFF, an amazing crew, and a cute girl to save the worlds.

21. Wicked As You Wish by Rin Chupeco
Wicked As You Wish by Rin Chupeco Rin Chupeco
Many clever fairytale retellings wrapped up into one all-too-real queer contemporary tale of magic, adventure, a lost kingdom, a dick firebird, ICE agents with magic, and a group of excellent, messy, hilarious warrior-teens.

22. Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim
Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim Tara Sim
In this queernormative, genderbent Count of Monte Cristo, Amaya, finishing her time on a debtor’s ship, is offered the opportunity for revenge. Plots, backstabbing, corruption, rich worldbuilding, and bravura characters abound!

23. Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee
Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee Yoon Ha Lee
Gyen Jebi paints, including magical sigils on automaton soldiers—until they learn of the government’s corruption and then they steal a dragon automaton… A magnificent story of the power of art, told with Lee’s peerless craft.

24. The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg
The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg R.B. Lemberg
Lemberg’s work impresses with its intricate worldbuilding, meticulously crafted language, and genuinely complex characters. Themes of healing, faith, family, and friendship echo throughout the thoroughly queer universe.

25. The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke
The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke Hannah Abigail Clarke
After doing magic at a party, misfit Sideways stumbles into, impossibly, friendship with her school’s queen bees. Queer witches, slippery magic, rage, revenge, and feminist transgression abound in Clark’s gritty, glittery debut.

26. We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker
We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker Sarah Pinsker
A single family—two moms, two kids—serves as a human touchstone in Pinsker’s nuanced SF exploration of technology and consequences. Pinsker shines at writing empathy, compassion, grace against the world—and she dazzles here.

27. The Deep & Dark Blue by Niki Smith
The Deep & Dark Blue by Niki Smith
After a political coup, twins go into hiding with women who spin the threads of reality—and one twin discovers her identity as a trans girl. Smith’s magical, affirming graphic novel cleverly unravels and weaves stories anew.

28. Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore
Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore Anna-Marie McLemore
McLemore’s gorgeous, lyrical craft continues to weave wonders—and in Dark and Deepest Red, they use red dancing shoes of fairy tales and a modern-day magical framework to tell a tale of history, identity, terror, and ultimately love.

29. This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron
This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron Kalynn Bayron
Bayron somehow stuffs deadly plants, a magical girl, a dilapidated house, family secrets, dangerous mysteries, nefarious strangers, awesome moms, and an enigmatic hot girl into a deliciously dark, compulsively readable YA.

30. Shatter the Sky by Rebecca Kim Wells
Shatter the Sky by Rebecca Kim Wells Rebecca Kim Wells
All we need to say, really, is angry bisexual dragon. But Wells’s smart, bold YA fantasy also critiques colonialism and entrenched power structures, and features a heroine who learns she’s more powerful than she ever imagined.

S. L. Huang’s Burning Roses will change how you see the world and your place in it

Read With Amy

What if?, S. L. Huang seems to ask in her latest work. What if the stories were wrong? What if once upon a time were wrong? What if it were really twice upon a time? Or thrice upon a time?

Or as many fucking times upon a time as you need to get it right?

We talk a lot about heroes. In our books, on the speculative shelves, we know those heroes as illustrious warriors: hypermasculine, cisgender men saving the countryside from marauding monsters through practiced, performative violence, discarding slain tyrants and murdered dragons in their wake. We know, now, that others can be heroes, too—though even here, we generally reserve the word “hero” for only those white, cisgender women who also slay tyrants and murder dragons.

We talk a lot, too, about monstrousness. Not so much about monstrousness of cisgender men, but the perceived and impossibly expansive monstrousness of those of marginalized genders: sirens and furies, yōkai and harionago, la llorona and banshees. About monstrousness as the living embodiment of transgression, a deliberate re-casting of our rage and grief and power and pleasure as monstrous.

And of course we talk a lot about redemption. Not for heroes, who need no redemption from the violence that society demands they perform. But redemption for cisgender male villains, whom we all know need just one more chance—always just one more chance—to find the right path. Sometimes, we even talk about redemption for those of marginalized genders, from our presumed monstrousness, where redemption is less about choice and more about subjugation: through renunciation of power, through marriage, through death.

But what we don’t talk about a lot is forgiveness. Or the notion that, as much as we may want the forgiveness of others, sometimes what we need is to forgive ourselves. To salve the damage and the pain and the trauma that we have wrought, and to recognize that for all the damage we have done to others, we have inflicted even more upon ourselves.

In Burning Roses, S. L. Huang wants to talk about heroism and monstrousness and redemption. But she also wants, very much, to talk about mistakes and pain and, yes, the seemingly impossible task of forgiving yourself.

In this fairytale remix, Huang gifts readers with two middle-aged lesbian heroes, living together somewhat grumpily, levering their creaky bones off the porch to go fight monsters, pining for their respective lost wives, drowning in the pain and trauma of their respective mistakes. Rosa, a relative stranger in this land, is a Latina Red Riding Hood, raised in an abusive household, a crack shot with a rifle, but who, in seeking vigilante justice, was so oblivious to the injustice of her actions—finally fleeing both consequences and her wife and daughter.

Hou Yi the Archer, reimagined as a Chinese trans woman, was a legit hero in her prime, adored by the people, fêted by the gods. She loved her wife, and took a child as her own son, but her choices cost her both, and now, even well past her prime, she continues to readily, perhaps eagerly, throw herself in the path of monsters. She found Rosa by the side of the road some time ago, brought her home with her, and now both seek literal monsters to battle, knowing any one could be their last, in order to better ignore their respective figurative monsters.

As Burning Roses opens, sunbirds—fire-breathers—are ravaging the countryside and Hou Yi and Rosa gather themselves for battle once more. But these sunbirds are controlled by a man from Hou Yi’s past, and Hou Yi and, despite both their protests, Rosa, set off across the countryside after him. As they travel, we learn their respective mistakes, their pain, their trauma, and their hopelessness—why each continues to throw herself in front of monsters, desperation disguised as heroism. And why heroics, in the end, are the path to neither redemption nor happiness.

Huang’s fierce, blazing deconstruction of the respective pain of Hou Yi and Rosa—and how that pain distorted their memories and perceptions, and how those distortions frustrated any attempt that either might make to forgive herself for her mistakes—also functions as a similar deconstruction for all of us. Pain is sometimes an easy distraction, all too familiar, a deserved punishment that diverts us from the real work of perceiving things as they were or are, and finding a way to forgive ourselves our mistakes. And Huang’s deconstruction does, for all that, come with happy endings for both Hou Yi and Rosa—and maybe for us, too.

Burning Roses is a novella, a mere 153 pages. You can read it in an hour—but it will sit with you for days because Huang has a lot to say about heroics and monstrousness and redemption, about pain and mistakes and forgiveness. She’ll offer you a chance at something kinder, gentler, more thoughtful. She’ll change how you see the world and your place in it.

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!


By 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: Monstress: Awakening and Nimona

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

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

 
2021 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

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

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

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

Monstress: Awakening

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

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

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

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Nimona

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

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

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

New Fantasy Books: June 2021

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of June 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!
 

2021 Book Club: Our June pick is The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls

Seven Necessary Sins Women Girls Mona Eltahawy

The Sirens Book Club meets monthly to discuss a book from our 2021 Reading Challenge, which includes 50 works by women, trans, and nonbinary authors that imagine a more inclusive, more empathetic, more just world.

In June, we’re reading Mona Eltahawy’s unrelentingly furious, deliberately profane The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls. Eltahawy presents her version of the seven sins: those seven things that women and girls need to, as she exhorts, “fuck the patriarchy.” Through a combination of searing academic work and lived experience as an activist around the world, Eltahawy argues for a singularly blazing approach to feminist thought, one that demands that the patriarchy fear the power of transgressive feminists to defy, disrupt, and destroy it. This brilliant, uncompromising work will teach readers how to be exactly those feminists.

This month’s book club will be on Sunday, June 27 at 12:00 p.m. Mountain time (2:00 p.m. Eastern) over Zoom. If you’d like to join us, please email us at (help AT sirensconference.org) to be added to our list; for safety and security reasons, we’ll be emailing the link out to interested folks closer to the discussion date.

We hope to see you there!

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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