Archive for books

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.

Sirens-inspired school curriculum with books students actually want to read

As a high school Language Arts teacher, one of the more difficult aspects of my job is finding books for my students to read that are high interest, manageable, and have material that is teachable. Teachable, for me, means it presents opportunities for discussion about characters and their choices or how they fit or don’t fit into their world, and why or how this reflects the world we live in now—what can we learn from this book? Young adult fantasy literature can do this! The books on this list will bring profound discussion and teachable moments that teens are quite capable of engaging with.

All books have the necessary literary elements that teachers and students are beaten over the head with thanks to the Common Core and standardized testing. The average high school student does not need to be reading classics from fifty-some years ago that weren’t written for them. If we expect students to become lifelong readers, it’s vital they be given choice and be provided with opportunities to read broadly and outside of the very cis, very white, very male literary canon. So, I propose new options that are incredibly teachable and will leave your students engaged and wanting more.

Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim: The Count of Monte Cristo, but better. If your administrators are demanding you teach the classics, slip this one into the mix. You could even watch the film of The Count and have students compare the two stories. Sim’s version gives you all the literary elements you could ask for, it’s a million pages shorter, and Amaya and Cayo are teens. Spoiler alert: teens love reading about teens!

A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney: This is the version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that we don’t deserve. Not only can you compare it with the original text or any of the many movie adaptations, you can do a neat activity with the poem “Jabberwocky” and students will be making connections and engaging left and right. This book has so many teachable moments in it. Students will relate with Alice as she struggles to not only be a hero but maintain passing grades.

The Ship Beyond Time by Heidi Heilig: Time. Traveling. Pirates. This great story not only provides an avenue to discussion of not getting bogged down in the past, but deals with the history of Hawaii, which is super fascinating and not something that is widely covered in most history books. So, lots of opportunities for additional research students can do on their own to enhance learning. They can make presentations and talk about the different cultures in the books, all while discussing the moral complexities of whether or not we should be able to alter any given timeline.

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi: WOW. This book is everything you need. If you could get away with just studying one book for the entire year, this would be the one. Personally, I see books as a way to help students develop empathy and a sense of how much of the world they don’t yet know about. Pet deals with an adolescent who thinks the world is pretty perfect, but she’s about to find out that even in a perfect world, monsters still exist. Pet deals with current issues so deftly and can open the door to great moments of student insight.

Aru-Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi: This fantastic adventure features Aru having to navigate not only the perils of adolescents and middle school, but she’s also the daughter of a god and has to save the world. Like the others, this fantasy features a protagonist trying to figure out her place in a rapidly changing world. It offers discussion topics such as what is true bravery and what makes someone a friend—both excellent topics for students to discuss and write about. You also get to explore the legend of the Pandava brothers and aspects of Hinduism—things often not discussed in American classrooms, which can lead to lots of enhanced learning opportunities for students as they learn more about the rich and diverse world around them.

The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi: The best version of Jumanji ever made. After Farah is sucked into a dangerous and deadly board game, she must puzzle out the mystery to save her friends and escape. This book will not only drive great conversations about bravery and friendship, but you get to delve into Middle Eastern culture as well.

This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab. This book destroyed me in the most delicious way possible and it will leave your students desperate to read the sequel (you could even teach it!). August and Kate are at war. One is a monster who wants to be human and the other is a human who wants to be a monster. This book will lead to discussions about what it means to be human and what the worst kinds of monsters are as well as what does or doesn’t make a monster.

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland: What if the Civil War created zombies? If you want to know, read this book to find out! Dread Nation follows the story of a young Black woman trained to kill zombies. This book touches on so many social justice issues and opens the doors for the uncomfortable conversations about race and privilege that we need to be having with teens. I promise you’ll have content to teach for class after class.

The Fever King by Victoria Lee: This. Novel. Put this masterpiece in the hands of high school students and let them debate Noam’s strategy for taking down a corrupt government while its citizens are dying from a magical virus. There is so much to unpack in this novel and believe me, teenagers are ready for it.

The sky’s the limit with books that can be introduced into the classroom. But the bottom line is that today’s students deserve to be offered reading choice and be presented with books that are written for them. Books that present a diverse and inclusive world. Books that bring hope and magic into their lives. Representation matters—and the more we embrace it in the classroom, the better our world will be.

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

Fonda Lee’s Book Recommendations

Fonda Lee Book Recommendations

Sirens Guest of Honor Fonda Lee shares a list of written works that she’s enjoyed—and that all feature women wielding power. If you enjoy her work, we encourage you to check out these other reads, spanning a variety of subgenres and categories. Take it away, Fonda!

A list of books spanning different genres and categories that I’ve enjoyed and that all feature one thing in common: women wielding power. Sometimes that power is overt; sometimes it’s hidden. Some of these women shape nations and empires; others are simply trying to survive. Some are seen as heroes, others as villains, and some as both.


Empire of Sand Fonda Lee recommendation

Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro Fonda Lee recommendation

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by KS Villoso

The Power Fonda Lee recommendation

Science Fiction
The Power by Naomi Alderman

A Memory Called Empire Fonda Lee recommendation

Science Fiction
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

The Year of the Witching Fonda Lee recommendation

Dark Fantasy (upcoming)
The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

Circe Fonda Lee recommendation

Historical Fantasy
Circe by Madeline Miller

Monstress Fonda Lee recommendation

Graphic Novel
Monstress by Marjorie Liu

The Lie Tree Fonda Lee recommendation

Young Adult Fantasy
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

What I Saw and How I Lied Fonda Lee recommendation

Young Adult Contemporary
What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell

The Memoirs of Cleopatra Fonda Lee recommendation

Historical Fiction
The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George

The Good Mothers Fonda Lee recommendation

Non-fiction Crime
The Good Mothers by Alex Perry


Fonda Lee writes science fiction and fantasy for adults and teens. She is the author of the Green Bone Saga, beginning with Jade City (Orbit), which won the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, was nominated for the Nebula Award and the Locus Award, and was named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR, Barnes & Noble, Syfy Wire, and others. The second book in the Green Bone Saga, Jade War, released in 2019 to multiple starred reviews. Fonda’s young adult science fiction novels Zeroboxer (Flux), Exo, and Cross Fire (Scholastic), have garnered accolades including being named Junior Library Guild Selection, Andre Norton Award finalist, Oregon Book Award finalist, Oregon Spirit Book Award winner, and YALSA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. In 2018, Fonda gained the distinction of winning the Aurora Award, Canada’s national science fiction and fantasy award, twice in the same year for Best Novel and Best Young Adult Novel. She co-writes the ongoing Sword Master & Shang-Chi comic book for Marvel. Fonda is a former corporate strategist who has worked for or advised a number of Fortune 500 companies. She holds black belts in karate and kung fu, loves action movies, and is an eggs Benedict enthusiast. Born and raised in Canada, she currently resides in Portland, Oregon.

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

Jade City by Fonda Lee: Sirens Book Review

Jade City Fonda Lee book review

Midway through Jade City, I realized that I felt complete trust in its author to a degree that I had never felt before. I trusted that Fonda Lee knew her world, from its geopolitics to its cuisine. I trusted that she knew her characters, how they would act and react, and where they would clash. I trusted that she knew her craft, that she knew how to spin character, setting, and conflict into the thread of the story. And that the story would be moving but never manipulating—that any triumph or heartbreak I felt for these characters would be thoroughly earned.

None of this trust was misplaced. Jade City, the first entry in the Green Bone Saga, is a masterclass in crafting an epic fantasy that resonates on personal and thematic levels.

Jade City by Fonda Lee review

On the island of Kekon, Green Bone warriors train in the use of jade. The island’s culture is entwined with this magical jade, which heightens strength and senses. Green Bone clans are integral parts of society, from their head families, to the Fists and Fingers who fight for them, to the lantern men whose businesses are pledged in their service.

In the No Peak Clan, leadership has recently passed to the patriarch’s grandson, the new Pillar Kaul Lan. Lan’s fiery brother, Hilo, is at his right hand; his sister Shae is just returning to Kekon after years abroad, determined to live her life outside the clan. But the Mountain Clan is moving to challenge No Peak, and a new drug is letting others use jade with no regard for Kekonese traditions and training. Now the Kaul siblings must figure out how to steer their clan forward in a changing world.

This time of transition yields a narrative rich in characterization, nuanced strategy, and thrilling fight choreography as the Green Bones of No Peak fight for their clan. As the conflict unfolds, the next generation of Green Bones are finishing their training, adopted Kaul cousin Anden among them. He and his classmates build jade tolerance and learn how to harness disciplines like Strength, Perception, and Lightness. Yet Anden worries about his high sensitivity to jade, which makes him powerful but potentially susceptible to overexposure.

In addition to its jade-enhanced martial arts, Jade City has all the elements I enjoy in gangster stories, from the strategizing to the family saga. Yet it is self-aware enough not to fall into the casual sexism and erasure of women that are so common in that genre. Kekon isn’t free from sexism, but Lee examines it and features women characters who claim their agency. It’s refreshing to read a gangster story that reframes the genre and addresses its problematic elements.

Gangster family sagas are rich with tension between the familial sphere and ruthless, violent business. Jade City makes excellent use of this tension. The Kaul siblings carry the baggage of lifelong family dynamics as they calculate their next move in clan business. They reckon with their relationships to Kekonese traditions even as times change and international politics loom ever larger over their small island. Jade City has all the elements I enjoy in gangster stories, from strategizing to family legacy. Yet it avoids the casual sexism and erasure of women that can occur in the genre. Kekon isn’t free from sexism, but Lee examines it and features women characters who claim their agency. The story is refreshing in its self-awareness.

Jade City blends intricate worldbuilding with emotional resonance, and each new piece of Kekonese history or folklore adds depth to the characters and setting. The ways the Kaul family grapples with tradition, continuity, and change feel real and nuanced. I felt deeply for these characters, whether my heart was breaking for them or I was raging at them. This is equally true of the sequel, Jade War, which expands the geographic and cultural scope of its storytelling. I look forward to the final volume, Jade Legacy, and I trust that Fonda Lee will steer her world and her characters exactly where they need to go.

Lily Weitzman

Lily Weitzman is a programming, outreach, and communications librarian at the Public Library of Brookline, Massachusetts. 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.

Zeroboxer by Fonda Lee: Sirens Book Review

Zeroboxer Fonda Lee book review

Zeroboxer by Fonda Lee is a book that pairs perfectly with a Friday evening after a long week and your biggest bowl of popcorn. It’s a fast-moving YA debut that cuts out the filler and leaves a lean, entertaining, action-movie-like tale. In fact, the fight scenes were so well done that I sometimes felt as though I was watching them instead of reading them.

Carr “The Raptor” Luka is a talented 17-year-old up-and-comer in an MMA-style sport called zeroboxing. The twist? The “zero” in zeroboxing is for “zero gravity.” Carr has been training to go pro since he was seven, finally making the move from Earth to orbit on Valtego Station a year and a half ago. However, as he begins the final fight in his current contract, he isn’t sure whether management will bother to renew him, let alone ever give him a shot at a title. And then everything changes. Thrown into the limelight by a spectacular fight and a highly marketable look and story, Carr finds himself with an incredible offer from the association’s head, a fancy PR agent, and fresh set of problems that his growing fame only intensifies.

At its heart, Zeroboxer is a sports drama, but the science fiction component isn’t simply window dressing. While the futuristic setting does provide the foundation for some fantastic zero-G fight choreography—of which the book delivers in spades—that’s not the only reason for the genre mash-up. It also makes space for the author to explore the potential societal ramifications of a time in which humanity and genetic engineering have extended their reach. On Earth, gene therapy has become common and glasses little more than a vintage accessory, but on Mars, gene editing has gone further. Residents of the red planet have long utilized genetic modification to help them adapt to their environment’s colder temperatures and punishing radiation. A side effect is that it has created even more visible physical differences between Terrans and Martian colonists. While genetic modification is just one among a portfolio of political and economic differences between these populations, it has obvious implications and is a clear contributor to growing tensions between Terrans and Martians. For Carr, nothing matters more than zeroboxing. It’s not about the fame, the fans, or the money; it’s about the next fight. Nevertheless, he finds himself unwillingly pulled into the conflict as a Terran athlete in a Martian-dominated sport and as he begins a romantic relationship with his half-Martian PR agent.

While fight sequences are fantastic—no doubt enhanced by the author’s experience as a black belt in both karate and kung fu—what impressed me most was how easily she drops you into the world. The prose, much like the protagonist, is skillful, quick, and efficient; it has no time to slow down for exposition. Instead, you are off and humming along from the start, following Carr though his pre-fight routines, ruminating on the downsides of zero-G bathrooms, and entering a world—of the future, and of professional fighting—with just enough of everything you need to connect and keep moving.

Chelsea Cleveland is a Seattle-based marketer and copywriter. She has particular experience in the fields of books, design, travel, and technology. Her other passions include standing on tall things, feeding animals (human and otherwise), collecting art supplies, and discussing movies. She writes short stories, largely because it’s very difficult to finish long ones.

5 Bite-Sized LGBTQ+ Fantasy Reads

LGBTQ+ Fantasy Book Recommendations

As a queer and nonbinary reader, I tend to devour fantasy that uplifts and celebrates LGBTQ+ identities. Since quarantine began, I’ve found it harder to focus on reading, but this summer I finally discovered the joys of novellas! Longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel, the novella hits the sweet spot for my quarantine-shortened attention span. I’m excited to share some of my favorite queer fantasy novellas I’ve been reading the past few months:

  1. The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho – Zen Cho is my go-to for cozy, feel-good fantasy. In her latest novella – which she’s dubbed as “tropical wuxia” – a nun joins a group of bandits on a quest to protect a sacred relic. If you’re a sucker for stories about found family, this scrappy gang of bandits is sure to find a special place in your heart.
  2. Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey – I’m a firm believer that we all need more queer, dystopian Westerns in our lives. This pulpy, escapist novella features a band of rogue librarians sticking it to fascism – and finding their place in the world along the way.
  3. The Deep by Rivers Solomon – The history behind this novella is just as rich as the story itself. Inspired by the clipping. song of the same name (which, in turn, was inspired by Detroit electronic duo Drexciya), Solomon tells the story of the pregnant African women thrown from slave ships and the lives their children lead in the deep waters of the ocean. This is a heart-wrenching story about the dual pain and necessity of preserving cultural history, and the long journey towards love and healing.
  4. The Black Tides of Heaven/The Red Threads of Fortune by Neon Yang – Like the magical twins at the heart of this series, the Tensorate novellas come in twos (and can be read in any order!). There’s so much to love about this series, but the rich and imaginative worldbuilding is what strikes me every time I read it. From the elemental magic of slackcraft to the deft handling of gender identity, this is a world you’ll want to revisit again and again.
  5. The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg – This lyrical novella tells the tale of two trans elders on their intertwined journeys towards self-discovery. Come for the beautiful descriptions of magical carpet-weaving and song, and stay for the profoundly moving character arcs. This equally heart-breaking and joyous story will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.

Emory NoakesEmory Noakes (she/they) is a library worker, writer, and wannabe-gardener living in Columbus, Ohio. She completed her MA in Shakespeare studies at King’s College London and Shakespeare’s Globe in 2016, where she researched trans and nonbinary adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. In her free time she runs a local writing group, binge-watches anime, and plays way too much Animal Crossing. She has poetry at Strange Horizons and various publications, and tweets at @emorynoakes.

Sarah Gailey’s Book List with Four Words on Each

Sarah Gailey book recommendations

Sirens Guest of Honor Sarah Gailey shares a recommended reading list, with four descriptors for each. If you enjoy Sarah’s work, or you want a recommended reading list of exceptional works, this list is for you. Take it away, Sarah!


To Be Taught, If Fortunate

To Be Taught, If Fortunate
by Becky Chambers


The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian
by Han Kang


The Need

The Need
by Helen Phillips


Sisters of the Vast Black

Sisters of the Vast Black
by Lina Rather


The Prince and the Dressmaker

The Prince and the Dressmaker
by Jen Wang


An Unkindness of Ghosts

An Unkindness of Ghosts
by Rivers Solomon


The Only Harmless Great Thing

The Only Harmless Great Thing
by Brooke Bolander


Sarah Gailey Book Recommendations

Hugo Award winner and bestselling author Sarah Gailey is an internationally published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Their nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe, and they won a Hugo award for Best Fan Writer. Their most recent fiction credits include Vice and The Atlantic. Their debut novella, River of Teeth, was a 2018 Hugo and Nebula award finalist. Their bestselling adult novel debut, Magic for Liars, was published in 2019; their latest novella, Upright Women Wanted, was published in February 2020. Their young adult novel debut, When We Were Magic, came out in March 2020.

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

American Hippo by Sarah Gailey: Sirens Book Reviews

In honor of Sarah Gailey’s Guest of Honor week at Sirens, today not one, but two members of the Sirens Review Squad tackle American Hippo, the collection volume that includes novellas River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow, as well as two shorter works. The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers who submit reviews of speculative works by women or nonbinary authors that they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review, please email us!

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey


Before I read River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey, I believed I knew the following facts about hippos:

  1. There is a hippo named Fiona, who lives in a zoo somewhere, that people like a lot.

  2. Hippos eat a lot and poop a lot. In fact, they are champion poopers and thus need quite a bit of personal space.

  3. Hippos can’t jump.

  4. Hippos can kill people if you bother them. If you are farming reeds and pomegranates for the pharaoh, they might kill you even if you don’t bother them, because they’re upset that you’re not sharing or something. (I learned this from a video game.)

  5. There is a game called Hungry Hungry Hippos. Perhaps you have played it.

  6. Pretending you are playing Hungry Hungry Hippos is one way to complete a chore commonly known as “vacuuming.”

The idea for River of Teeth comes from a little-known but verifiable fact: At one time, the United States needed meat and considered hippo ranching in Louisiana. Yes, raising those dangerous, enormous beasts to grace our plates. Imagine it: a hippopotamus porterhouse with all the sides. Some of the largest beef porterhouses are 40 ounces, or 1.134 kilograms for the metric folks. Now, all things won’t be equal, but if an average steer weighs about 750 pounds (340 kg), and an average male hippo weighs about 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg), your server would be bringing you a porterhouse coming in just under 11 pounds, or about 5 kilograms. So of course this incredible excess might have seemed like an excellent enterprise to carnivorous folk.

In the end, the hippo did not enter the pantheon of sounds we make during a rousing performance of “Old MacDonald.”

But River of Teeth imagines they did—and that some hippos escaped their fate to infest part of the lower Mississippi, and went feral between the boundary of an upstream dam and a downstream gate. Our story begins when a group of hoppers—think cowhand, perhaps a term for anyone who can ride a domesticated hippo—is tasked by leader Winslow Houndstooth, who’s been contracted by the federal government, to get the feral hippos past the confining gate and out into the Gulf.

And this (very diverse) group of hoppers is wild. They’ve got skills ranging from thievery to explosives to murder. There is absolutely no question about the grayness of these morally gray characters, and nearly all whom they meet, as they lie, cheat, con, and otherwise go about the business of a feral hippo drive. (There will be violence, and it will be explicit.) It’s refreshing to encounter intriguing characters who are more intense and complicated than lovable rogues with hearts of gold, but who act in ways consistent and logical.

Another delightful aspect of River of Teeth is its specific way of incorporating history. There’s a sense of the stretch pre- and post-Civil War when this could have happened, and enough details for the reader to fill in the worldbuilding without overexplaining in this novella. Of course there would be steamboats hosting gamblers in hippo-infested waters; of course your local watering hole would need an actual watering hole for hippo storage instead of a hitching post.

Finally, this fast-paced read stands alone, but leads into a related novella and short stories—and no spoilers, but if you’re the sort of reader who, like me, ever enjoyed letting Godzilla loose in SimCity and is entertained by the speculative destruction in movies like Volcano (1997) or San Andreas (2015), there is satisfying chaos in store.

With hippos.


Sarah Gailey’s American Hippo gathers all of their stories (two novellas and two short stories) about an alternate version of the American West where hippo ranches line rivers and feral hippos roam the Mississippi River.

These stories are quirky, violent capers with a dangerous cast of characters—and that is just talking about the hippos!

The stories are based around the real proposition made in 1910 to import hippopotamuses from Africa to the Gulf Coast of the United States and raise them as a source of meat. While in reality, the scheme never came to fruition, Gailey moved the beginnings of the scheme back to 1857 and set their stories in the late 1800s. In this alternate history, the United States government dammed up a section of the Mississippi River in Louisiana to create more land for hippo ranching. Eventually, this section of the river, known as the “Harriet,” transformed itself from orderly hippo ranches to dangerous real estate filled with feral hippos and unsavory people.

It is in this world that Gailey’s work takes place. The first novella, River of Teeth, introduces Winslow Remington Houndstooth (with hippo Ruby). He is a former hippo rancher-turned-thief, who has accepted a commission from the United States government to rid the Harriet of the feral hippos. He gathers together demolitions expert Hero Shackleby (with hippo Abigail), con artist Regina “Archie” Archambault (with hippo Rosa), and mercenary Adelia Reyes (with hippos Zahra and Stasia). On the surface, this seems like an odd combination of people to gather to rid an area of feral hippos. However, ridding the Harriet of feral hippos is not Houndstooth’s only objective; rather, he plans to use the commission to strike a blow at corrupt businessman Travers. Travers runs a series of riverboats and he rules those with absolute authority: If you are caught cheating, you will be immediately thrown to the feral hippos in the river. We also find out that Travers had Houndstooth’s hippo ranch burned down, leaving him with nothing but debt and one baby hippo.

River of Teeth is a fast-paced, fun, and gory heist story with a twist of revenge.

There is a fair amount of violence and not just from encounters with feral hippos. Houndstooth and company are all willing to do whatever they have to do to protect themselves. It is fascinating to see their relationships grow through the story. While Hero, Archie, and Adelia originally agree to join Houndstooth’s crew for mostly monetary reasons, their focus changes throughout the story and that change is one of the most satisfying aspects of Gailey’s work. The ending of River of Teeth wraps up enough to feel finished, but also leaves the door open for the next installment.

Taste of Marrow, the second novella of the collection, deals with the aftermath of the events in River of Teeth and has a much more somber feel. The group has been separated. Adelia and Hero are dealing with the aftermath of Hero’s injuries, the birth of Adelia’s daughter, and the bounty on Adelia’s head. Houndstooth is desperately trying to find Hero, while Archie is trying to keep Houndstooth alive and preferably clear-headed. This story shows a different view of the characters. While they were focused on money and revenge in the first story, now they are focused on reuniting with each other and eliminating the obstacles that prevent that reunion. It’s a messy, difficult journey that shows the challenges they face to continue to grow into a family. It’s hard for a bunch of people who are borderline criminals to have a relaxing retirement, but the ending does hint that this might be possible.

The two short stories included in American Hippo are much more light-hearted than either River of Teeth or Taste of Marrow, and expand on two incidents that are mentioned in the novellas. In “Worth Her Weight in Gold,” Houndstooth’s baby hippo has grown up into his mount Ruby. She is an ornery, vain hippo who would just as soon chomp on you as look at you, but she loves Houndstooth and he loves her. However, when he is on a job, Houndstooth isn’t always as careful about Ruby’s tooth care as he should be. It is a quick read, but it shows just how much Houndstooth loves Ruby and exactly what he will give up for her health and happiness. It also gives us a close-up view of Ruby’s personality, which is a delightful mix of charm and chomping.

“Nine and a Half” tells the story of a job that Houndstooth and Archie pull together when they meet U.S. Marshal Gran Carter. It also answers the ongoing question of how many times Archie has saved Houndstooth—or does it? This story ends with an excellent escape scene, which is a fun glimpse into the more ridiculous side of Archie and Houndstooth.

American Hippo offers an alternate historical world with fast-paced action and complex characters. The hippos are an excellent addition to the story, showing a variety of personalities from calm and placid to high-strung and energetic. They provide a way for their owners to show their humanity because the people are a fascinating mix of characters, none of whom could be classified as actually “good” people. However, they are charismatic and complicated, loving to friends and devoted to their hippos, and they will cheerfully steal the ring from your finger if it will help them. I love the fact that it is based in a real proposition and plays with a might have been. I love the variety of personalities and motivations, but mostly, I love the fact that the hippos get a story where they can be as sweet and brutal as they are in real life.

When she is not wrangling students (and co-workers) for a music non-profit, Karen Bailey can often be found working on completing the Sirens Reading Challenge. She also keeps busy with quilting, crocheting, and paper-crafts.

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

Rin Chupeco’s Favorite SFF Books

Sirens Guest of Honor Rin Chupeco shares a list of favorite science fiction and fantasy works. If you’ve enjoyed Rin’s work, we encourage you to check out these other reads. Take it away, Rin!


Gideon the Ninth Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

I cannot stop screaming about this series. Lesbian swordfighting necromancers arguing in space as they explore a haunted house space station is the wildest description I never thought I would want. Muir’s prose is gorgeous, and I have never wanted to paint my face like a skull till I read this book.

The Bear and the Nightingale Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

How breathtaking is this book? A young Russian woman named Vasya who is worth her weight in magic, holding her own against a powerful zealot and the god of winter himself—this is a gorgeous, gorgeous delight.

Uprooted Naomi Novak

Science Fiction
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
I don’t know how to even begin to describe this book. It hits all my favorite tropes, from surly cranky broody magician to powerful magical girls who finally understand their own worth.

Magic for Liars Sarah Gailey

Science Fiction
Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey
It’s a murder mystery at a magical school by a hard-knock private detective who is both seasoned and salty at the same time. I love a lot of Gailey’s works, and they are just fantastic at this.

An Unkindness of Magicians Kat Howard

An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard This is urban fantasy at its best, and this was an amazing read. I am a sucker for magical fighting tournaments and seedy moneyed politics.


Rin wrote obscure manuals for complicated computer programs, talked people out of their money at event shows, and did many other terrible things. They now write about ghosts and fantastic worlds but are still sometimes mistaken for a revenant. They are the author of The Girl from the Well and its sequel, The Suffering; The Bone Witch trilogy; The Never Tilting World duology; and the A Hundred Names for Magic series, starting with the first book, Wicked As You Wish. They were born and raised in the Philippines and, or so the legend goes, still haunt that place to this very day. For more information about Rin, please visit their website or their Twitter

The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

Bone Witch Rin Chupeco

I’m going to confess: I picked up Rin Chupeco’s The Bone Witch with some trepidation. I had tried reading this YA fantasy before and stopped a few times before filing it away and ultimately restarting. The worldbuilding—freshly un-Eurocentric and inspired by the mythologies of the Middle East and Asia—was, at first, confusing. The novel’s structure demands time and patience, as it flips between short italicized chapters in the present, and longer, more narrative chapters set in the past before the storylines converge. And I’ll tell you upfront: Reading The Bone Witch is, at minimum, a two-book commitment—since the storylines don’t converge in the first book, nor the sequel. You’ll have to wait for the grand finale for that.

But damn, it’s so worth it.

Understanding The Bone Witch

And so, I do you a service because you all need to read these books. In the land of Eight Kingdoms, there are two rules of magic that, if you know them up front, will make the series easier to delve into. First is that magic is gendered in a fascinating and strange way. A chosen few have magic and can control the elements like fire, water, earth, etc. If you’re a girl when this talent is discovered, you are trained as an asha in the capital, where you learn how to wield your magic alongside learning etiquette, dancing, and entertaining heads of state in a diplomatic capacity. If you’re a boy, you’re conscripted into the Deathseeker army. There’s a lot to unpack here, especially through Likh, a trans girl who wishes to become an asha—and who is also one of my faves in this book.

And second, there’s a thing called a heartsglass that people wear around their neck, which is tied to one’s identity in complex ways. If your heartsglass turns silver, it means you have a capacity for magic; you can also give it away to a loved one in an act of romance or safety, but at the risk of that other person having control over you; if you are especially magically talented, you can read other people’s heartsglasses since they will change color depending on their true emotions (and you can tell if they’re lying to you).

What The Bone Witch is About

Then there’s Tea. We’re introduced to the world of The Bone Witch through Tea’s eyes, and she is only twelve at the beginning, when she inadvertently raises her brother, Fox, from the dead. It’s discovered that Tea is not only an asha, but a dark asha, with magic that allows her to raise and control the dead. And so, Tea is one of two bone witches in the realm, a profession that, despite its importance, is much maligned. Ever since The False Prince used death magic to raise the daeva, monsters that terrorize people every so often, bone witches have done the dirty work to keep them at bay and are tainted with that reputation by association.

The Bone Witch is a painstaking book of set-up. With uneven pacing, we get all the above, plus Tea’s origin story where she’s whisked away to the palace to train as an asha by the only other bone witch, Lady Mykaela. Despite her aptitude, she faces setbacks, including some pranks by fellow ashas-in-training, a training master who hates her, and mounds of backbreaking chores. She reaps chaos by not knowing how to control her power and accidentally raises dead kings and monsters. She catches the eye of the prince and his cranky cousin-slash-bodyguard, and is thrust into the royal court’s political machinations.

The biggest and most satisfying arc in this book is Tea’s relationship with her brother, Fox, where they learn these nice things called healthy boundaries and how to be a family despite the supernatural link between them.

But please, have patience. This is no worse than The Name of the Wind, which many of you have enthusiastically or like me, begrudgingly, read. You can see the schematic of something bigger before you—a cast of characters you will cheer on and love, a thoughtful musing on women rebelling against the roles their society has trapped them into, a descent into villainy (or anti-heroism? Let’s do some more unpacking) when justice is denied with each betrayal, and a girl who learns how to command her power despite the trauma inflicted on her by her peers and foes.

And I’ll just say, I’ll just say. There’s barely a hint of a romance in The Bone Witch. But then you read The Heart Forger and it does things to you and what the heck, Chupeco? How dare you? Must you make me agonize over this slow burn relationship and then smash my heartsglass into a million pieces in The Shadowglass? The seeds of the romance planted in the first book turn out to not only be SUPER SWOONWORTHY but like, really screws you up especially during this quarantine life when your emotions are dialed up to eleven, okay? And that’s just the main couple, there are other relationships that are lovely and meaningful, fantastically queer, and too adorable for words—sometimes all at once.

Just do yourself a favor, and acquire The Heart Forger and The Shadowglass so you have the whole trilogy before you start. You’ll thank me later.

Faye Bi

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

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.


RSS Feed

The news archive for Sirens is linked below as an RSS feed. If you need instructions or would like more information, please click here. If you have questions about our RSS feed, please email us at (web at

RSS Feed Button



annual programming series, attendees, auction, bookclub, book club, book friends, book list, book lists, book reviews, books, bookstore, boot camp, chat, community, Community Day, compendium, deadlines, essay series, further reading, giveaway, guests of honor, hotel, inclusivity, interviews, meet-up, Meet the Staff, menus, narrate conferences, New Releases, newsletter, newsletters, perspective, professionals, programming, read along, recap, registration, review squad, schedule, schedules, scholarships, sirens, Sirens 2009, Sirens 2010, Sirens 2011, Sirens 2012, Sirens 2013, Sirens 2014, Sirens 2015, Sirens 2016, Sirens 2017, Sirens 2018, Sirens 2019, Sirens 2020, Sirens 2021, Sirens At Home, Sirens Shuttle, Sirens Studio, Sirens Supper, site visit, skamania, special edition, sponsorship, support, testimonials, themes, things we're excited about, travel, volunteering, website, where are they now



May, April, March, February, January

October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March

November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, March, February, January

December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

December, November, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

December, November, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

December, November, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January
Meet Our Guests of Honor
About the Conference
Sirens Twitter
Present Programming
Sirens Facebook

Connect with the Sirens community

Sign up for the Sirens newsletter

Subscribe to our mailing list