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Gideon the Ninth

Gideon the Ninth

I was fully prepared to dislike Gideon the Ninth.

Because everyone loved Gideon the Ninth.

It’s not so much that I’m contrarian by nature—though I’m sure the patriarchy thinks I am—but that I have a list of speculative works as long as my arm that everyone loved and I really did not. Books that I quit at page 50. Books that I threw across the room at page 300. Books that I put down and forgot to ever pick up again. Books that I finished under duress. Books that I finished so that, in all seriousness, I could hate them properly. I will not name names.

But everyone loved these books.

I did not.

Everyone loved Gideon the Ninth.

I was fully prepared to not.

But will wonders never cease: I, too, loved Gideon the Ninth.


All the books I love have two things in common, regardless of genre or category or author or publication date: an unflinching defiance and a blazing ambition. These books that I love are rarely—but only rarely—perfect. Instead, these books often trip over the sheer force of their defiance or their ambition. And that is why I love them: I am far more interested in cataclysmic, rage-filled defiance and formidable, shoot-for-the-moon ambition than I am in perfection.

Which is to say that, if you’re trying to understand what I loved about Gideon the Ninth, you have to understand that I love White Is for Witching more than Gingerbread, and Who Fears Death more than Lagoon, and American Hippo more than Magic for Liars, and The Stars Are Legion even though I like neither space opera nor body horror, and Food of the Gods despite that it’s gore-strewn chaos, and Conservation of Shadows more than just about anything. My literary love is defiance and ambition, so much so that a messy book born of too much of either is far, far preferable to a perfect book born of less.

And while Gideon the Ninth is a number of things—including, yes, a story of lesbian necromancers in space—its heart is author Tamsyn Muir’s unrelenting defiance and ambition.


Somewhere in space, in some year, there are nine houses, eight beholden to the First, all adept at necromancy, all weird as fuck in a raw, all-id sort of way that reads as both endlessly fascinating and wholly authentic. People are weird, man, and consistent with basically everything ever, royalty-equivalent necromancers are weirder than most.

Gideon Nav is a foot-soldier in the Ninth House who really, really, really wants to leave the Ninth House’s planet and go far, far away and fight in a war she doesn’t really understand and maybe someday not be indentured to anyone, let alone to super-creepy Harrowhark the Ninth, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House. Gideon and Harrow loathe each other, for reasons that it takes a whole book to explain, and as the book opens, Gideon is attempting to escape and Harrow wants her to stay and do her a favor. A challenge is issued and accepted. Neither Gideon nor Harrow plays fair—Gideon is tremendous with a two-handed sword, Harrow is perhaps best in the galaxy at necromancy, neither has many qualms or morals—but Harrow offered the rules, and though she and Gideon are relatively evenly matched, she tricks Gideon into acting as her cavalier primary for some weird-ass competition that the Emperor is throwing for the other eight Houses.

Shades of The Hunger Games abound, but Gideon the Ninth turns on distrust, cleverness, and gothic-style mystery more than desperation-fed, almost accidental revolution. Eight necromancers and their cavaliers primary—presumptively, each House’s intelligence and strength—are abandoned in an unknown building full of dangerous riddles and a single rule. Each necromancer is unfailingly ambitious, though each plays the game quite differently. Each cavalier primary is seemingly unfailingly loyal, except Gideon, who would frankly rather stab Harrow in the back with her teensy-weensy cavalier sword than help her solve riddles.

The heart of Gideon the Ninth is not lesbians nor necromancers nor space, but the fully realized relationship between necromancer and cavalier primary—a bond presumed closer than love, closer than blood—that Muir creates not once, but eight unique times. The generations of tradition that underlie these relationships, and the weight afforded to any breach of those protocols, are tangible. Much is made of the fact that Gideon was not trained as the Ninth House’s cavalier primary, but rather takes over from some wholly inept dude and learns a new fighting style. Much is made of the fact that Gideon rejects more traditional secondary weapons in favor of the close-range knuckle knife. More is made of the fact that, in Gideon’s first challenge as the Ninth House’s cavalier primary, her opponent disarms her and she retaliates by punching him. He goes down, gasping for breath, and a shocked spectator notes that he won the challenge, but Gideon won the battle, specifically by not following the rules.

And in that sort of exchange—which happens over and over and over again as Gideon or Harrow or both defy the rules, defy expectations, pursue their own desires, and ultimately reshape their own necromancer-cavalier primary relationship in a way that involves a leviathan sacrifice, but continues to subvert generations of history—demonstrates both Muir’s defiance and her ambition. Gideon the Ninth is not a revolution book (though the Locked Tomb series may well be), and yet it is: Because everything that Gideon or Harrow does, everything that Gideon or Harrow says, everything that Gideon or Harrow is—Harrow’s refusal to care about others, Gideon’s hilarious-yet-fully-felt insults, Gideon’s biceps, Harrow’s blood magic, Gideon’s sunglasses, Harrow’s face paint—is a defiant, ambitious revolution for the reader.

Rude, unlikeable, self-absorbed, brilliant, powerful women always are.


If you’re reading closely, you’ll be wondering right about now if Gideon the Ninth is a messy sort of book. It is. The world-building isn’t quite fully realized: I think it is in Muir’s head, but it didn’t quite make it on the page. The plot, particularly plot points surrounding the geography of the giant, gothic building they inhabit, is sometimes muddled. Going on twenty important characters, even if fully individual and fascinating, are too many people to keep track of, so you’ll breathe a sigh of relief when Muir starts killing them off. The necromancy magic is incomprehensible, though what matters for following the story is logic, not any real understanding of how the necromancers do what they do. It is, indeed, messy.

But if, like me, you’re less concerned with tidiness than you are with female characters who are defiantly unfettered by the rules that are meant to bind them, and Muir’s tremendous ambition in putting that on a page, you’ll love Gideon the Ninth, too.


Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and ten years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

New Fantasy Books: November through January

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of November 2019 through January 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!
 

Six Contemporary Twists on Non-Western Myths

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’re introduced to six contemporary twists on non-western myths by writer and indie bookseller Casey Blair.

I love when the fantastic intrudes on our everyday world, the idea that magic can be waiting around any corner. There have been countless contemporary fantasies featuring fae over the years, and I’m beyond delighted that twists on non-western myths are growing in the market! These are some of my recent favorites.

 

Aru Shah and the End of Time
1. Aru Shah and the End of Time (Pandava #1) by Roshani Chokshi

Hilarity and adventure combine with the tragically relatable realities of middle school in this action-packed story of friendship and sisterhood. Roshani Chokshi brings Vedic mythology and tales from the Mahabharata to glorious life.

Akata Witch
2. Akata Witch (Book #1) by Nnedi Okorafor

A black albino girl who is an incredible athlete but struggles outside moves from the US to Nigeria, where she discovers she has unique magical powers and joins a secret group of fellow teens also learning their way around this brilliant world of Nigerian folklore.

Wicked Fox
3. Wicked Fox (Gumiho #1) by Kat Cho

Set in modern Seoul, this book smashes YA and Kdrama tropes together magnificently. Fox spirits, ghosts, romance, misunderstandings, family drama, poignant friendships, and complicated definitions of heroism and villainy abound.

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo
4. The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee

I am a sucker for Journey to the West adaptations. On top of being a fantastic take on Chinese mythology, this book features a heroine who not only gets to punch absolutely everyone who deserves it, she’s a champion at setting boundaries and holding people accountable. And she navigates it all while figuring out how her friendships are changing and applying for college.

Love Sugar Magic
5. Love Sugar Magic Book 1: A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano

The power of family, baking, and Mexican magic and how they all overlap come alive in this delightful story of a girl who is desperately sure she is ready to be treated as an adult and then has to deal with the consequences accordingly.

Trail of Lightning
6. Trail of Lightning (Sixth World #1) by Rebecca Roanhorse

This urban fantasy adventure is not only brimming with Navajo folklore, it’s also one of the best takes on the monstrous feminine I’ve ever read. Rebecca Roanhorse delivers both awesome action and moments that stab the reader straight in the heart.


Casey Blair is an indie bookseller who writes speculative fiction novels for adults and teens, and her weekly serial fantasy novel Tea Princess Chronicles is available online for free. She is a graduate of Vassar College and of the Viable Paradise residential science fiction and fantasy writing workshop. After teaching English in rural Japan for two years, she relocated to the Seattle area. She is prone to spontaneous dancing, exploring ancient cities around the world, wandering and adventuring through forests, spoiling cats terribly, and drinking inordinate amounts of tea late into the night.

 

New Fantasy Books: October 2019

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

Mona Awad’s Bunny is the side-eyed critique of academia we desperately need

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we welcome a review from Tere Mahoney on Mona Awad’s Bunny.

Bunny

Many modern novels attempt to explore identity1 in ways that are heavy-handed and moralistic. While I don’t take issue with these themes, I have often been disappointed with the execution of them in novels. However with Mona Awad’s new book Bunny, I found an author whose literary chops and subtle hand allowed me to enter into the gestalt of women’s relationships with each other, and discover how imagination can play a role in finding one’s agency in a world that capitalizes on Otherness, through isolating us from each other. It is the best novel I’ve read all year.

At first I couldn’t understand how the protagonist—a poor graduate student named Samantha Heather Mackay (nod to the 1988 musical Heathers)—could fall for the shallow enticement of belonging to the mean-girl clique in her creative writing program at a fictional Ivy League university. I persevered because of the gorgeous descriptive language and biting wit, and the fact that I began to suspect that the phantasmagorical Alice-in-Wonderland-like weird and disturbing events playing out weren’t real, but actually metaphorical—imagination run amok, as it were. No spoilers, but I will say that Awad presents us with characters who will stop at nothing to gain entrance to—or maintain—their membership in the upper echelons of writerly elitism. Everybody gets blood on their hands.

The treatment of Awad’s twee female foursome (all having named themselves a homogeneous Bunny) are given little individual character development or depth. They are instead the “blob of peach-colored flesh wearing a pastel rainbow dress.” This group of antagonists (perhaps significantly a group of white women) is a symbol of a well-established competitive femininity that moves in packs and takes no prisoners. As Awad develops them throughout the novel we discover why and how this kind of femininity is systemically sustained in our society, making us our own worst enemies sometimes. Says Samantha,

I look up at the blob. It laughs softly with all its mouths.
“Bunny, this isn’t high school.”
“This isn’t even undergrad, Bunny.”
“Or an eighties movie.”
“Or even a nineties movie.”
“We’re all educated adults here.”
“…That’s the beauty of being friends with us, Bunny.”
“There don’t have to be words sometimes.”
“You could text us a whale tomorrow afternoon and we’d be like, We know. We’d know exactly what it is you were feeling.”
The blob nods its four heads vigorously. Then it rises from its many thrones.

Awad reveals for us the quagmire of academic creative writing programs that require students to “dig deep” and “process” and open themselves up to “wounds” that “bleed” in order to do the “work,” but how teachers in such programs do nothing to support students in the vulnerabilities they inevitably uncover in these reaches. Perhaps worse, academia is oblivious to the Othering dynamics it creates through coercing students to critique each other’s work and “kill your darlings” (advice to writers by William Faulkner to avoid the overuse of favoured elements).

But what if your “darlings” are actually pieces of your identity? This is where Awad shines. She shows us what it means to belong to “tribes” without sacrificing the very elements that make us us. Throughout the novel Awad gives many witty, subtle references to privilege, exceptionalism and whiteness, bringing humour and depth to her character’s choices. For example, if one replaces the word “cohort” with “tribe” in the following passage where Fosco, a self-important instructor, attempts to constrain Samantha’s identity, one gains a visceral understanding of ingroup/outgroup dynamics (otherwise known as bullying):

“I always say your cohort is your life-support system while you’re here….You need them as much as you need solitude. Too much solitude, Samantha, can just lead to the worst kind of paranoia and navel- gazing….Learning from each other, growing with each other, on the other hand”…

But I can’t even answer her for the laughter bubbling out of my own throat. Laughter is a rabbit hole and I’m falling, falling like Alice. There is no way up or out. The only way is down, down, down. The only way out is to keep falling. Succumb.

With Bunny, Awad has written a Gothic horror novel in the style of Mary Shelley, and it is rich and delectable in its descriptive use of language and setting. Like Shelley, the author uses allegory to explore how the power invested in established institutions eats the most marginalized in its midst alive. To provide a concrete example of how the novel plays with the literary versus the literal, Awad notes early on that creative writing programs discourage dependence on “the time-space continuum aka plot.” So Awad gives us the rare novel that is not completely plot driven, instead focusing on characters (or a group of characters!) and on seeing how the system itself reinforces the intersectional outsider’s wasteland that binds us. One that is infused with loneliness. But one which we can free ourselves from, when we use our imagination.

In the end Awad gets the last laugh, because she takes every last crumb of creative writing instruction and packaged literary device, and through great storytelling recycles them all to create a novel that exposes the academy’s (the system’s) shallow underbelly. In this way she doesn’t just use Samantha to take down the blob with her indisputably superior imagination, she fashions a literary jujitsu of the power structures among the intelligentsia and its “soft-serve” foundations by producing this well-received and important book. This is what ultimately makes Bunny such a tremendous and satisfying read: success is the ultimate revenge.

1identity: who a person is, or the qualities of a person or group that make them different from others; what the reputation, characteristics, etc. of a person or organization is that makes them viewed by the public in a particular way; usually referred to in terms of race, gender, class and/or sexual orientation.


Tere Mahoney is a communitarian and a former policy analyst living in Vancouver, Canada, having worked in both grassroots and policy development capacities with marginalized social groups. She now coaches, facilitates, and mediates, currently working as a conflict resolution specialist—because conflict often gets in the way of diverse and collaborative possibilities in communities. Tere also happens to have an undergraduate degree in English Literature, and is a long-time reader and lover of fiction.

 

To me, Heartland looks less like a murderous love story and more like a parable for our time

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

Heartland

In pursuit of perfection, I have spent endless hours of my life crafting plans: detailed plans, back-up plans, emergency plans, plans about plans. I have fretted and worried and micromanaged and micromanaged my micromanagement. I put plan-making on my to-do list. On my half-dozen to-do lists.

I’m certain that any therapist worth their salt could unpack about three dozen things from that: my need for control, my fearlessness, my impatience with people who worry, my contempt for people surprised by likely failures, my tactical skills in negotiations, my utter misery when people do not do what I thought they would or should.

In pursuit of perfection, I spent three decades of my life crafting and micromanaging plans — and the fourth decade of my life realizing that, while this superhuman planning has given me many gifts, it has also made me perfectly miserable. Not too long ago, a professional colleague I will identify only as Raging Bull Pete told me that, often, you can plan and manage and micromanage and stress and worry and control — and the outcome will be exactly the same as if you had done exactly none of those things. And when a man whose team calls him Raging Bull Pete says that maybe the raging bull approach to life is often fruitless, you listen. It is the single best piece of professional advice I have ever been given. I’m not sure it was intended as such.

So the fourth decade of my life has been about needing less control and therefore, engaging in less planning. Some things matter, a lot of things don’t. Some things I need to be done my way, some things I just need to be done and sometimes I just can’t watch the sausage being made. Plan A can stay, but with a lot fewer details and a lot more flexibility. Plan B for likely failure points can stay. Plan C had to go. Plan C was making me miserable.

Heartland by Ana Simo is about a plan: a detailed, micromanaged, overwrought sort of plan. It’s the sort of plan that 25-year-old me would have greatly respected and 43-year-old me side-eyes with great contempt. It’s a plan born of a need to decide something, a need to control something, a need for something to go perfectly, even if that something is, frankly, nonsensical.

Heartland is set in an alternate, failing United States. Our nameless Latina narrator begins the book in New York, where she is a writer who suddenly loses her ability to literally type words. First conjunctions, then adverbs, finally ending with nouns. In this United States, without the fundamental skill on which she relies, our narrator needs something firmly within her grasp. When she chances upon Mercy McCabe, who stole Bebe from the narrator some years prior, and learns that McCabe and Bebe are no longer together, the narrator concocts an elaborate plot: to lure McCabe to Elmira, the narrator’s hometown in the Midwest; convince McCabe to confess her guilt; and then execute her. You can perhaps imagine how much Bebe truly factors into this plan, which is to say really not at all.

What follows is a hyper-micromanaged, hyper-detailed, months-long plan that is much less about McCabe than it is about the narrator’s need to control something. The narrator convinces McCabe to rent a judge’s house in Elmira, the same house that the narrator’s mother used to clean. The narrator poses as a butler almost, hiring a local Latina to cook and clean, but to speak only to the narrator, never McCabe. As the narrator begins to gaslight McCabe, the reader begins to wonder — as 43-year-old me wonders about 25-year-old me’s endless plans — what is the fucking point?

But the point, of course, is that sometimes you need to control something, anything, just one thing. But also that if you hold something too tightly, it brittlely falls apart. If you micromanage something too much, you’ve created a thousand unnecessary failure points. If your murderous plan requires getting your victim to first confess her crime (what crime?!), you may never get to murder her at all.

And that’s how Heartland plays out: McCabe, as you might imagine, doesn’t always behave how the narrator expects her to — and every time she does not, it wrenches the narrator’s carefully crafted plan, often in small, worrying ways, sometimes in leviathan ones. A third of the way through the book, McCabe takes to her room in the judge’s house, seemingly having arranged with the housekeeper for meals that were not those meticulously planned by the narrator, only to emerge many days later so much thinner as to be a different person, both physically and in temperament. Two thirds of the way through the book, McCabe disappears entirely. How do you kill someone when she is no longer there?

Heartland’s flap copy calls the narrator’s plan “a homicidal masterplan so detailed as to be akin to love.” Maybe. But to me, Heartland looks less like a murderous love story and more like a parable for our time: When things around you are failing, and you have so little control, the natural instinct is to want to decide something, to control it, to plan it, to have something firmly and predictably within your grasp, and to have all that meticulous planning and execution result in something right. But that’s not how life works and it’s certainly not how other people work and sometimes, your homicidal masterplan fails not because it didn’t take every detail into account, but rather because it did.

One note: Heartland is satire. I am deeply conflicted about satire as a device because I frequently find that the intended message gets lost in the device. Simo, a queer Latina, uses a number of satirical mechanisms in Heartland, including racist and homophobic slurs and stereotypes. This may not be your cup of tea.


Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and ten years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

This is How You Lose the Time War is for anyone who has ever been bewitched by the magic of letters

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we welcome a review from Lily Weitzman on Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This is How You Lose the Time War.

This is How You Lose the Time War

My last semester of college, I took an elective called Great Letters. All about the art and history of correspondence, it sparked a love of letter writing. For several years after college, I corresponded via snail mail with any friend who would put pen to paper. This year, in an effort to regrow friendships after an isolated winter, I decided to start again. On a warm spring day, I took some stationery to a nearby park, picked a bench, and wrote a letter to one of my oldest friends.

It feels only right that I returned to letter writing shortly before reading This Is How You Lose the Time War. This is a book for anyone who has ever been bewitched by the magic of letters.

This Is How You Lose the Time War is an epistolary spy-versus-spy romance co-written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Red works for Agency and Blue for Garden, agents on opposing sides of a war spanning space and time. Red and Blue begin leaving letters for each other, at first taunting but soon growing profound as the two women fall in love.

That, of course, is just the set-up, even if it is an intriguing one. That is just what the book is about, not how it feels at its core. And This Is How You Lose the Time War feels profound, beautiful, and magical.

This is a book that is unapologetic in its beauty, its intelligence, and its openness. Its language is lyrical and poetic, though never in a way that makes it too dense or difficult to read. And El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s voices work well together, as she pens Blue’s sections and he Red’s. The epistolary form gives both authors and characters the freedom to explore big questions and revel in glorious language. And the ways Red and Blue find to write each other are wonderful, from words grown into tree rings to a bee dancing out a message.

And while it is soaring and romantic, This Is How You Lose the Time War is also gloriously fun and funny. It revels in wordplay, from a pun on wax seals to the new ways Red and Blue address each letter. With all of space and time at its disposal, the book is not shy about referencing song lyrics or recommended books. These references made me feel more seen as a reader as they worked their own form of time travel: A line from a folk song brought me back to the college dorm where I first learned it, and a reference to an earworm had me groaning in recognition. (Said earworm may get stuck in your head; it’s worth it.)

While this story is labeled science fiction for the time travel and Red’s techno-society Agency, there is just as much a feel of fantasy, especially in the ways Red and Blue find to correspond.

And the time travel, which is usually a hard sell for me, works. So often, time travel is employed in ways that make the logical part of my brain hurt. Not so here. The narrative travels lightly over the workings of time travel so it can better dwell in its possibility. The work of these two agents recognizes the grand scope and infinite complexity of a conflict across space and time. To win a time war, it is just as important to send a doctor to visit her relatives as it is to point an army toward victory. With so many threads of time at play, there are endless narrative possibilities—and as enemy agents fall in love, their ability to recognize new possibilities is all the more important.

The imagery—timelines as threads, Red traveling upthread, Blue braiding strands—is a delight. All the more so for embracing the language of traditionally feminine arts. Similarly, it is a joy to read these two women proclaiming confidence in their skill.

It turns out that letter writing and time travel go together perfectly. As Red points out, letters are their own form of time travel. Each one captures a moment in time, preserving it to be read in the future. And, as I learned in that college class, letters are a format that lends itself to honesty and openness. Strong bonds can form between correspondents. Red and Blue write each other truths. They explore what it means to hunger, to seek, to be seen. That, perhaps more than anything, is the great joy of This Is How You Lose the Time War: two women speaking to each other, sincerely and unreservedly, across all of space and time.


Lily Weitzman is a programming, outreach, and communications librarian at the Public Library of Brookline, MA. That means that 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.

 

New Fantasy Books: September 2019

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

Casey’s World Guide to Non-Western Fantasy

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 follow writer and indie bookseller Casey Blair on a world tour of some of her favorite non-western fantasy books in this book list.

People often think of the fantasy genre as all knights and castles in analogs of medieval western Europe, but there is so much more to fantasy than that, inspired by cultures and histories around the world. So let’s take a tour of some fantasy in different settings centering different people!

 

Moribito: Guradian of the Spirit
1. Moribito: Guradian of the Spirit (Moribito #1) by Nahoko Uehashi

From the author of the newly published The Beast Player comes the story of a warrior woman in a fantastical Japan who becomes the bodyguard of a prince possessed by a legendary spirit as they embark on a journey with the power to destroy the kingdom. Moribito does incredible work with power dynamics, anthropology, and complicating and flipping gender roles as well as the value judgments associated with them.

Jade City
2. Jade City (The Green Bone Saga #1) by Fonda Lee

This book was pitched to me as The Godfather meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and after reading it I still find this description incredibly apt. This world reminiscent of gangster Hong Kong movies delivers all the profound family drama you can ask for and the best magical action scenes around.

Empire of Sand
3. Empire of Sand (The Books of Ambha #1) by Tasha Suri

In a setting inspired by Mughal India, Empire of Sand is a gorgeous story of a woman navigating her cultural heritages of the ruling court and the desert nomads and finding her power as a woman within oppressive systems through magical, ceremonial dance. I love Tasha Suri’s take on survival as agency.

The Dreamblood Duology
4. The Dreamblood Duology by N.K. Jemisin

This is fantasy Egypt with dream assassins, which would have been enough for me on its own, but it’s also by the legendary N.K. Jemisin, bringing all her knowledge and challenge of dominant and accepted power structures to bear. You can read this duology as two separate books, but let me just advise you that while The Killing Moon is a satisfying book in its own right even as it lays the groundwork, The Shadowed Sun takes things to a whole other level you should not miss. Read them both.

Coronets and Steel
5. Coronets and Steel (Dobrenica #1) by Sherwood Smith

This novel was my introduction to Ruritanian romance, a genre of stories featuring adventure, romance, and intrigue among the ruling class of a fictional Eastern European country. A fearless girl from modern LA with a penchant for fencing duels and ballet finds all the magic and mystery she dreamed of—and a lot more complication besides–in a world outside of time.

The Gilded Wolves
6. The Gilded Wolves (Book 1) by Roshani Chokshi

Although set in an alternate historical Paris, The Gilded Wolves makes this list because of who it centers: the core protagonists include an Indian dancer, a Filipino historian, and a Jewish engineer. In this magical heist story, Roshani Chokshi does a fantastic job with the nuances of colonialism and broad understanding of global history and diversity, including myriad macro- and micro-aggressions across intersections.

The Black God’s Drums
7. The Black God’s Drums by P. DjèlÍ Clark

Centering women thieves, airship captains, prostitutes, and nuns, this steampunk adventure in an alternate New Orleans highlights awesome and dangerous Orisha magic as well as the legacy of black slavery in the Americas. In this novella P. Djèlí Clark delivers a fantastic meditation on what it means to be free along with all the explosions.

The Summer Prince
8. The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

And last but in no way least, in a futuristic Brazil recovered from an apocalypse, Alaya Dawn Johnson brings us a story fundamentally about the power of art, and it blew me away. The Summer Prince is a stunning challenge and examination of technology, accepted traditions, rebellion, identity, and love.


Casey Blair is an indie bookseller who writes speculative fiction novels for adults and teens, and her weekly serial fantasy novel Tea Princess Chronicles is available online for free. She is a graduate of Vassar College and of the Viable Paradise residential science fiction and fantasy writing workshop. After teaching English in rural Japan for two years, she relocated to the Seattle area. She is prone to spontaneous dancing, exploring ancient cities around the world, wandering and adventuring through forests, spoiling cats terribly, and drinking inordinate amounts of tea late into the night.

 

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

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we welcome a review from Darla Upchurch on Anthea Sharp’s The Dark Realm.

The Dark Realm

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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