News

Archive for books

Book Club: Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean

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!

Empress of All Seasons

It was with equal parts excitement and trepidation that I began Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean.

I love a good warrior-girl story. Even more than that, I love a good monster-girl story. And Mari, the half-human, half-yōkai, practically invincible protagonist of Empress of All Seasons, was both. A girl born to a tribe of monster-women, raised to be an indomitable warrior, a probable champion of a deadly game that pits warrior-girl against warrior-girl in a contest to marry the prince….

And there’s my trepidation. A deadly game that pits warrior-girl against warrior-girl in a contest to marry the prince. Again? How many books have I read—and even more, how many books have I not read—that contrive a deadly game that pits warrior-girl against warrior-girl in a contest to marry the prince? Way too many, that’s how many.

But while I might be able to ignore a warrior-girl, I cannot ignore a monster-girl, a girl of fang and claw, a girl of my heart. So off I went.

Mari is an Animal Wife, heir to a monstrous legend of beautiful, shapeshifting women who marry men and then steal their riches, returning to their sisters with more money, more wisdom, more power. But in Mari’s land, the emperor despises yōkai: anyone non-human, with often non-human appearances and always non-human abilities. And so the emperor has ordered all yōkai collared, thereby reducing their strength and abilities to something humans can overcome. That those collars are cursed and burn the yōkai is of no consequence, of course, so long as they are contained. Mari, living in a remote mountain village has so far escaped the collar, but she’s about to go into the proverbial lion’s den.

Unlike most Animal Wives, Mari wasn’t born beautiful, or at least that’s what she’s told. Much is made of her plain appearance, her short stature, her round face. In fact, she seemingly wasn’t even born with the full abilities of an Animal Wife, since she can change her human form only partially. And so, assuming she can’t trap a husband with her looks or her magic, Mari’s mother raises her to be a warrior. Because once a generation, countless human girls travel to the imperial city to compete in a competition for the next emperor’s hand in marriage. As with the first emperor, who loved a woman who bested all four seasons, each new empress must conquer four magical rooms, one devoted to each season. Unlike most other battle-for-the-prince books, Mari and her competitors aren’t supposed to kill each other; just like most other battle-for-the-prince books, they do so anyway—and many other girls are killed by the elements in the rooms. This is a deadly game, based on a legend, made possible by magic. And despite her non-human abilities, because of her human appearance, Mari has been raised to win and be the most successful Animal Wife of all: The one who steals the imperial riches.

This book has a lot to unpack. It wants, badly, to explore themes on femininity, beauty, and power, through Mari’s purported plainness, her part-monstrousness, her skill with the deadly naginata. It wants, badly, to dissect that preposterously large overlap between teenaged girls and monstrousness—a monstrousness that is often placed on them in order to remove their acceptableness and their power. It wants, badly, to deconstruct what it means for a girl to be monstrous, to want things she’s not allowed, to do things she’s not permitted, to be things she’s not supposed to become.

“We’re all monsters. No man, no human, will ever love us. That is the curse of the Animal Wife, never to be loved for who we truly are.”

And in some ways, Empress of All Seasons succeeds. Not through Mari, necessarily, even though her monstrousness and her power and her struggle are the driving force of the book. No, more notably through Akira, Mari’s friend, the half-yōkai, the Son of Nightmares, who sees her and her monstrousness and her competence and her power and her beauty, and loves her, exactly as she is. With a bit of luck and care, we all have people in our lives who see our monstrousness, our beastliness, our abilities as something gloriously more than we do, and Akira is that person for Mari.

And the book succeeds through Hanako, a yuki-onna, a Snow Woman made of ice and hard edges, known as the Weapons Master of the yōkai Resistance. She’s dangerous, she’s unapologetic, she’s ambitious. She’s a girl who knows her power and revels in her power and wields her power. She’s a girl to aspire to.

Somewhere in here, there’s an unflinching, uncompromising blade of a book that brooks no denial and makes no apologies. It tackles monstrousness as a necessity in a society that puts women in boxes and cages and collars. It tackles beauty as more flexible than we’ve been led to believe. It tackles gender and power and rebellion as both an everyday intersection and a grand-scale revolution. All of that lives somewhere in this book.

But all of that is nearly suffocated by the rest of this book. By Mari’s complicated relationship with her mother, her tribe, her best friend, who appears briefly in the first act, only to conveniently disappear in the third. By this nonsensical, deadly game of the seasons, that ridiculously pits powerful girl against powerful girl for marriage to a man known as the Cold Prince, only to repeatedly mock the girls who are there because they want to be empress. By a steady thread on brutality and othering people who are different than we are, but that never really gets its hooks in the reader. By Mari’s burgeoning, almost accidental love story with that prince. And finally, by the sharp left turn in the third act that twists the book into one of poorly planned rebellion.

And Mari—our protagonist, though only one of three point-of-view characters—drowns in all of that. She’s pushed along by the plot, rarely making her own decisions, rarely recognizing what she wants, as opposed to what her mother, her friend, the prince, the emperor want of her. She’s poorly skilled in court games, but for a book conceived around a game set at court, that hardly seems to matter. She’s even less skilled in rebellion, but Hanako conveniently shows up to take care of that. I had a hard time getting a handle on Mari; the prince and Akira, the other point-of-view characters, were both more one-note, but along those same lines, more consistent, while Mari seemed to have little personality beyond a bit of feminism, a bit of girlish head-over-heels love, and a lot of deadly skill.

In the end, Empress of All Seasons wanted to be so much: an interrogation of feminism and beauty and power; a parable about destroying each other because of our differences; a love story; a deadly game; a dazzling display of magic; a necessary rebellion. And in trying to do so much—for all those monster-girls of my heart—it ended up doing so little.


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 nine 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.

 

2019 Books and Breakfast: non-white heroes in dystopian worlds

Each year, Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through our Books and Breakfast program. We select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme, and then attendees bring their breakfast and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary authors are doing in fantasy literature!

This year, as we interrogate what it means to be a hero and what actions are seen as heroic, our Books and Breakfast program features titles in four areas to broaden our definition of heroism: religion, race, gender/sexuality, and body—and please note that some titles sit on multiple axes, not just the one they’re listed under! We’ll be highlighting all of these titles the coming months; you can read more about our religion picks here, and below are our Books and Breakfast selections exploring heroism and race.

 
2019 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

Religion

The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson
The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

Race

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Gender/Sexuality

Dreadnought by April Daniels
The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera

Body

Faith Volume 1: Hollywood and Vine by Jody Houser, Francis Portela, and Marguerite Sauvage
Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge

 
RACE SELECTIONS

A glance at the fantasy shelves these days—particularly at the young adult fantasy shelves—will hardly reveal a shortage of female heroes. Ferocious warriors, skilled assassins, superlative magicians, eagle-eyed commanders, sage healers, and shrewd queens. Yet, painstakingly few of them feature non-white heroes as their protagonists—rather, you’ll find them villains in more than a few tomes—and fewer yet are written by fantasy authors of color. This year, we urge you to discover our Books and Breakfast race picks: Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation and Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God.

 

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation

If you didn’t think that the Reconstruction era, Steampunk, and the zombie apocalypse went together, then gee, let me introduce you to Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation. What if, during the battle of Gettysburg towards the end of the Civil War, the undead—called shamblers—rise and begin terrorizing towns and cities across America? What if, after slavery was abolished, Congress establishes an act that mandates Black and Native children aged 12 enter military training camps to be the first line of defense?

Jane McKeene is a biracial Negro girl attending Miss Preston’s School of Combat, in which the best graduates become “Attendants,” chaperoning wealthy white women and defending them from shamblers, all while dressed in finery. But that’s just the beginning: Ireland’s gem of a novel is so incredibly inventive and sharp, it offers one of the best examinations of systemic racism and the Black experience I’ve read in a young adult novel, or any novel. It explores colorism with Jane’s rival, Katherine Devereaux, who is so gorgeous she stuns at fifty paces, and is passing as white; codeswitching, like when Jane purposely downplays her abilities to manipulate a situation; and much more. Ultimately, it confronts head-on how American history is literally built at the expense of black and Native bodies, and the complicity of white ‘allies’ with their words and actions masked as benevolence.

Published a year after Jordan Peele’s Get Out was released, Dread Nation accomplishes something equally ambitious, with razor-sharp cultural commentary, clever and perceptive worldbuilding details (because Sherman’s March to the Sea was obviously to burn a path through a horde of shamblers), and a hero in Jane who must blaze her destiny in a society where people in power don’t see her as human. It lurches you in directions you might not expect… but are inevitably not surprised by. It offers an alternate history of the United States that illuminates truths about our present—and that is the best kind of fantasy. Required reading.

—Faye

 

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Future Home of the Living God

As Future Home of the Living God opens, Cedar Hawk Songmaker—her improbable white name courtesy of her adopted Minnesota-liberal parents—seeks her Ojibwe birth family, a quest driven by her unintended pregnancy. But more than an ordinary desire to know her genetic history propels Cedar’s sudden interest in her tribe: The world’s genetics have suddenly gone awry, evolution is moving backward, and pregnant women often give birth to something other than human babies. As the novel progresses, as Cedar meets her birth family and navigates the new conventions of the United States and is ultimately imprisoned for her pregnancy, she questions over and over again if her baby is normal or a genetic malfunction—and in this world where nothing is certain, which would be the greater wonder.

Louise Erdrich began writing Future Home of the Living God in 2002, in the shadow of the Iraq War, a year after her youngest daughter was born. The question the book poses—Are we going backward?—is just as critical now as when Erdrich first asked. As you might expect, Future Home is a dystopia, but one full of both tiny marvels (new species abound) and Orwellian control (pregnant women are promised the best rooms if they check themselves into government facilities voluntarily). This work—seen through Cedar’s Indigenous eyes—is full of hard questions about what it means to progress (following the fall of the United States, Cedar’s tribe regains their land and autonomy), what it means if humans are an evolutionary pause (or even mistake), and in so many ways, how we approach the miracles inherent in so many things we take for granted: family, birth, love.

And it’s a book full of heroism. Perhaps not the sort of heroism you’re used to, where people with impossible powers save the planet from infinite threats. But a more quiet, perhaps more desperate, certainly more personal form of heroism, where an Indigenous mother, pregnant with an unknown child, will do everything in her power to keep that child not only safe, but with her. This is a book, ultimately, of awe: at what we—as ordinary people in a time of crisis—will do when called upon to be heroes.

—Amy

 

I broadened my horizons with these 5 books from the Sirens Reading Challenge

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

I have always read a lot. Due to many personal experiences, I once restricted myself from any book that might be a trigger, and that prevented me from being brave in my story choices. I would never have read the books on this list if not for 1) having them listed on the Sirens Reading Challenge, or 2) so much time elapsing that I wasn’t sure why I was avoiding them in the first place. Then I found Sirens, and thankfully—in my need to complete the challenge each year—I read books I would never have picked up. In this, I discovered a lot about myself, and new books that I love!

 

Sparrow Hill Road
1. Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire

A ghost story that didn’t provoke my creeped-out, overactive imagination, featuring a sassy, witty ghost with a strong moral compass and a heart (or ‘soul’) of gold. She takes it upon herself to right what should never have been wronged, and help those who don’t even know they need her.

Dread Nation
2. Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

I hate zombies but love this book! It’s so well done that I could almost forget there are zombies (almost!). It made me feel powerful; the main character is so strong—even when she is feeling her lowest, she still stands tall. It’s filled with characters who don’t give in to whatever situation they find themselves in.

Kushiel’s Dart
3. Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

I was originally wary because of its—to some—extreme sexual content, but the writing style and characters makes this and its sequels into my favorite book series of all time. It has some of the best worldbuilding and character growth I’ve ever read, and there isn’t an emotion that it doesn’t bring to light. I will never stop loving this series.

Court of Fives
4. Court of Fives by Kate Elliott

Judging a book by its cover, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if not for the challenge. What I found was a story of love, passion, strength and hope. How can you not love a girl who knows her worth and learns to celebrate it in finding and giving hope to others, while overcoming immense trials?

Behind the Throne
5. Behind the Throne by K.B. Wagers

The jacket copy misled me to believe Hail was shirking her responsibilities, which rubbed me the wrong way. I was pleasantly surprised when I found that to be false; this book is spectacular! I was absorbed in the world and so attached to the characters that they became people I would love to meet in person. Their strength, compassion, intelligence, and heart put this series easily it into my top five favorites.


Christina Spencer has been an avid reader for many years. She enjoys fantasy and romance with a dose of science fiction. Between books, she manages a family of five humans, two cats (Xena and Hercules), and two dogs (Ronon and Luna), and works as an independent hair stylist. She is going back to school to pursue a degree—probably in English.

 

New Fantasy Books: June 2019

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

Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand rewrites our understanding of female agency

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 Casey Blair on Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand.

Empire of Sand

The first of Tasha Suri’s Books of Ambha series, Empire of Sand, is a stunning fantasy debut. The setting is inspired by Mughal India, ranging from court culture to a desert nomad lifestyle, and the worldbuilding is thorough, immersive, and unique. And it has romance, dancing magic (dancing! magic! TAKE MY MONEY), politics, world-destroying stakes, and women coming into their power.

In short, in terms of sheer features, it includes basically all my favorite things, and that alone would have been enough for me to be shouting about Empire of Sand. (I will keep my exclamation points and all caps-pronouncements to a minimum henceforth, but please appreciate it requires Heroic Restraint.)

But there is so much more to shout about. Because as much as I delight in epic stories of fantasy romance and dancing magic, those features are not what make this book so noteworthy and so special to me.

I love this book, first and foremost, because of how thorough and nuanced its approach is on the matter of choice.

In Empire of Sand, choices are complicated. They’re hard. Even when choices are technically available, this is a book that is very aware of the pressures that constrain truly “free” choice. This is a book that understands that even people with the best of intentions and love in their hearts can’t always do what they want for the people who matter to them. This is a book that understands that there are pressures—from society, family, and your own hopes and dreams and fears—that circumscribe the freedom of choices. This is a book that understands that choices have costs, and sometimes making the choice at all is part of it. And it understands what all this means for women in particular.

The Ambhan people have conquered the Amrithi, and Mehr—who has parents from both backgrounds—attracts the attention of the Ambhan emperor’s mystics with her Amrithi powers. She is effectively forced to give up her sacred right to choose (or not choose) a husband, in order to save a family that has put her in the impossible position of being unable to reconcile her heritage. She does find love, but even that is complicated: how can you give or withhold real consent when someone else is commanding your actions?

How Empire of Sand examines how earnest, open, wholehearted, and selfless that love is and can be, and how it can change everything and nothing, is one of my favorite parts. Stories with characters who exercise compassion even when it’s hard beyond belief are a particular favorite of mine. Suri does an especially fantastic job of handling consent within the confines of an oppressive system. Love doesn’t magically negate the effects of oppression, but it helps them survive it. The romantic arc of this story is absolutely gorgeously done, and I will say no more on that lest I ascend once more into all caps and exclamation points.

Mehr’s journey to owning her own power is inseparable from her learning to navigate disparate identities. Her parents, who are of two different worlds and cultural heritages, were ultimately unable to reconcile their own differences and can neither help Mehr do so nor help her learn the fullness of one or the other. Mehr reconciling all the parts of her background—what to let go of, what to hold, and how to handle not just the expectations of people around her but her own—is critical to becoming her fully empowered self.

Finally, in stories rooted in western frameworks, agency is portrayed as character actions that shape the plot. There is an argument that this is why, historically, so many fantasy books are about kings, chosen ones, knights, and wizards, and, let’s be honest, generally straight cisgendered men: the people with the ability to make choices that change their worlds.

But that leaves us with such a limited scope of stories. In Empire of Sand, Suri gives us something else: a story about a character—a woman—not with no ability to choose, exactly, but a woman whose agency and choices stem from a point of survival. And the kind of character Mehr is, as well as the world she lives in, broadens our understanding of romance and agency in what truly makes a hero.

So. Do you want beautifully wrought non-western fantasy settings? Do you want numinous dancing magic and romance you can cheer for with your entire being? Do you want women who grapple with fundamental, impossible choices, own their power, and change their worlds?

Then you want Empire of Sand.


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.

 

Your 2019 Books and Breakfast selections featuring inclusive heroism

Each year, Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through our Books and Breakfast program. We select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme, and then attendees bring their breakfast and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary authors are doing in fantasy literature!

In an earlier post, we explain in depth why our 2019 conference theme is heroes, and how we’re not only re-examining what kind of individual is welcomed as, or even permitted to be, heroic, but also how heroic actions differ from the hegemonic norm. We demand heroes of all genders, all sexualities, all races, all sizes, all abilities. And to further that aspiration, we’ve selected eight 2019 Books and Breakfast titles that we hope will expand your definition of who might be a hero or what acts you consider heroic. Toward that end, we’re highlighting four areas in this year’s selections: religion, race, gender/sexuality, and body—and please note that some titles sit on multiple axes, not just the one they’re listed under!

So you might get a head start on reading, here is the full list of 2019 Books and Breakfast selections. We’ll also be featuring more of these books in more detail throughout the coming months, starting with our religion titles below.

 
2019 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

Religion

The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson
The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

Race

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Gender/Sexuality

Dreadnought by April Daniels
The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera

Body

Faith Volume 1: Hollywood and Vine by Jody Houser, Francis Portela, and Marguerite Sauvage
Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge

 
RELIGION SELECTIONS

The origin of modern fantasy literature is often traced back to Christian writers of the late 19th century, with heroes who are male and cisgender, living or transported to a feudal setting with roots in medieval western Europe. So many heroes are either explicitly or implicitly Christian—and so often, those of other faiths are explicitly or implicitly villainous. In 2019, we want to examine heroes from other faiths, and for our Books and Breakfast religion picks, the two titles are G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King and Rena Rossner’s The Sisters of the Winter Wood.

 

The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson

The Bird King

Much has been said about G. Willow Wilson’s sumptuous new novel. Set in 1491 in Muslim Granada during the last sultanate’s reign, The Bird King begins with the imminent arrival of the Spanish Inquisition and its attendant persecution. But first, readers are introduced to Fatima, the sultan’s favorite concubine, and Hassan, the royal mapmaker with a secret magic—for he can shape reality out of the maps he draws, even places he’s only dreamed of. Hassan’s gift is highly prized, especially for moving the sultan’s armies in wartime, but used for not much else except for amusing a bored Fatima who has never set foot outside the palace.

When the Inquisition arrives, Fatima knows Hassan’s gift will be seen as sorcery. And when it’s inevitably discovered, the two friends go on an epic journey, over land and sea, mythos and heart, fleeing torture and death, to find the island of the Bird King. To find refuge in a place that, for all they know, might be completely imaginary. After all, they only know it from stories—and the stories that they’ve told each other for years in comfort—stories that help Fatima escape from her bondage and Hassan from his supposed deviancy of loving other men.

Stories, we know, are everything. The Bird King knows this too. What Wilson layers on is truly spectacular: the poisoned effects of colonialism, the interpretation of reading and sacred texts, religious freedom and exclusion, magic entwined with folklore, an exploration of refuge and community, and a thoroughly kickass, strong-willed, hypocrisy-exposing, angry, Muslim hero in Fatima. To give you a taste, when the sultan asks her what more she could want, with her fancy clothes, limitless entertainment, fancy food, and his favor, she replies, “To be sultan.”

—Faye

 

The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

The Sisters of the Winter Wood

The original draft of The Sisters of the Winter Wood was simply a fantasy retelling of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.” But as author Rena Rossner recounts, “[W]hen I finished my first draft, I realized that my book didn’t have a soul…I had originally set it in an imaginary town called Blest, in France, but I realized that I needed to find a new setting, something that felt more real—authentic to who I was.” In re-drafting, Rossner found the soul of her book in Dubossary, a shtetl on the border of Moldova and Ukraine, where Rossner’s grandfather’s family lived—and where, on the eve of a pogrom, Jewish residents resisted and forestalled tragedy.

Against this background, including the averted pogrom, Rossner’s tale becomes explicitly Jewish: Sisters Liba and Laya are the daughters of a learned Jew, himself the son of a rabbi, and an aristocrat who loved him so much that she forsook her intended betrothed and converted to Judaism. This is a book built on details, and readers will first note the details of the family’s everyday Jewish life: the prayers, the food, the courting rules. But Russian influence lives in Rossner’s work as well, again in the details: Liba and her father can both shape-shift to bears, apparent through Liba’s ravenous hunger and inconvenient claws; Laya and her mother shift to swans, all discarded feathers and a yearning to fly.

If you’ve ever read Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” you know what comes next: lushly ripe fruit, irresistible kisses, and ultimately danger of the sort that girls know all too well. The book is told through alternating viewpoints: Laya’s daring free verse, filled with her curiosity and bold desire for adventure, and Liba’s more staid prose, as she frets, worries, and ultimately makes the choices that will save her sister. This is a retold fairy tale in all its glory: myth and legend trap the unwary, choices and danger abound, and one girl, with so much strength derived from her faith, saves the day.

—Amy

 

Five Books that Roshani Chokshi Loves

For our 2019 theme of heroes, Sirens Studio Guest of Honor Roshani Choskhi shares the book list she curated for the heroes theme. If you enjoy her work, we encourage you to check out these other reads, spanning middle grade, young adult, and adult. Take it away, Roshani!

 

The Serpent's Secret
1. The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani DasGupta
The City in the Middle of the Night
2. The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders
The City of Brass
3. The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
Snow White Learns Witchcraft
4. Snow White Learns Witchcraft by Theodora Goss
The Serpent's Secret
5. Water Trilogy by Kara Dalkey

Roshani Chokshi is the New York Times bestselling author of the Star-Touched series and Aru Shah and The End of Time, Book #1 in the Pandava series. She grew up in Georgia, where she acquired a Southern accent but does not use it unless under duress. She has a luck dragon that looks suspiciously like a Great Pyrenees dog. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Uncanny Magazine, Shimmer, and Book Smugglers. She is a 2016 finalist for the Andre Norton Award, and a 2016 Locus finalist for Best First Novel. Her short story, The Star Maiden, was longlisted for the British Fantasy Science Award.

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

 

Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time subverts patriarchy from the very beginning

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, in honor of Roshani’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Jae Young Kim on Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time.

Aru Shah and the End of Time

Roshani Chokshi’s middle grade debut, Aru Shah and the End of Time, is delightful from start to finish. I am not even mad that Chokshi ended the book on a wicked cliffhanger, because it means she has to give us a sequel! (Book two, Aru Shah and the Song of Death, came out on April 30, and it’s on the top of my to-be-read pile.)

Twelve-year-old Aru Shah thinks she’s just an ordinary middle schooler trying to fit in. One day, on a dare, she rubs a cursed lamp and discovers she is, in fact, the reincarnation of one of five Pandava brothers, semi-divine heroes of a famous Hindu epic—and she must save the world. Mild spoilers ahead, but they are on the book’s jacket copy and are revealed very early on.

Chokshi dives deeply into the rich world of Hindu mythology, introducing gods, demons, beasts, and magic that is exciting, weird and fun. I love all mythology and fairy tales, so for me, this was an easy sell. It’s also not a surprise that a book curated by Rick Riordan on his Rick Riordan Presents imprint tells a story with mythology bursting from every page. But Chokshi adds her own stamp on a very old story. I am very glad that she chose to have the brothers be sisters. How can someone be reincarnated hundreds of times and always be male? Patriarchy, of course, but to have Chokshi subvert that from the very beginning was deeply gratifying.

And it’s not only important that Aru is a girl, she’s an Indian-American girl. As a Korean-American girl, I would have loved to see girls of color accepted without question as heroes— nay, heroines—of the story. I had read books with white girls as protagonists, but that meant ignoring an important part of myself, being Korean. Aru is not only a girl but an Indian girl, and her identity deeply informs how she interacts with the world around her.

The diasporic aspects of this re-telling were compelling for me but may be a mixed sell for others. Reimagining demons as hair stylists and night bazaars as Costco is just fun, and as one character in the book notes, “families moving to new countries and imaginations evolving” means adapting and changing. But Aru still maintains traditions like not eating beef, as a Hindu, or pranama, touching the feet of elders, or immediately calling all Indian women auntie upon meeting them. Since I am also of the Korean diaspora, I appreciate the references to American pop culture, and the unique take on mythology and culture from that lens, while still maintaining traditions of our families. Chokshi tells us the stories she’s loved and heard many times, but provides context for the readers. The one minor gripe I have is that some of the references feel a bit dated, like Johnny Cash and Die Hard, and may resonate more with adults than children. I say this only because I understood all of the American pop culture references, and I am definitely not twelve years old.

My favorite part of Aru Shah and the End of Time, though, is Aru and her found family. She meets a fellow Pandava sister, Mini, very early on and the development of their relationship is amazing. I love romance storylines, and out of most of my reading, I don’t often see a family and friend relationship celebrated as much as Chokshi’s Aru and Mini. It’s clear that Aru and Mini becoming sisters is just as important as their quest to save the world.

If you love friendship stories, sibling stories, reimagined Hindu mythology, and just plain fun, Aru and Mini’s adventures will crack you up and warm your heart. So run, don’t walk to the bookstore and be glad you get to jump right into the sequel when you’re done!


Jae Young Kim is a born-and-bred New Yorker and a lifelong fan of fairy tales, fantasy and science fiction. She is a non-profit attorney by day and writes when she can, not always by night. The only thing that keeps her up until dawn these days is a good book.

 

Book Club: Furyborn by Claire Legrand

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!

Furyborn

The word “competent” means having the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully. (I looked it up!) But that’s not how we use it, is it? When we say someone is competent, we mean they’re fine, I suppose. They’re good enough. They’ll do. As if having the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully is not, in fact, success.

I think, societally, we underestimate competence. We underestimate how much work and skill it requires. We underestimate its value. We underestimate its importance. And I think much of this underestimating comes from the fact that competence is so often quiet.

Instead, we value any number of flashier things: talent, danger, a metaphorical or even literal high-wire act. As if, simply by instilling challenges or drama or a 30-foot drop into the process, the outcome will be more satisfactory. More successful.

I’ve been considering this recently for any number of reasons, not the least of which is watching the United States’ 2020 presidential campaign season roll out appallingly early. And while so much of so many things is gendered, even putting that aside, we—societally—would rather an Icarus than an Ariadne. Better to fly too high and perish than to quietly get shit done. Better to shout platitudes from a metaphorical mountaintop than to offer a workable, detailed plan.

And that goes for our media as well. I watch a ton of reality television, much of it competition reality shows. But I recently realized the profound difference between watching Top Chef or MasterChef and watching Ina Garten or Martha Stewart cook. The former is designed for fireworks: appliances that don’t work, forced partnerships, ingredients that no one should ever have to combine. In many ways, the show is the player’s antagonist, just as much as the other contestants. These shows are competitive, challenging, exciting—but they’re also very much designed for our “go big or go home” society, to elicit spectacular success and spectacular failure.

Conversely, have you ever sat down and watched Martha Stewart bake? Not with a guest, where she’s quite happy to show you her competitive side. (Her dirt cake is better than yours.) But just watched Martha, in a kitchen, by herself, doing what she does incredibly well?

It’s profoundly comforting, even relaxing. Sitting on your couch, watching a hyper-competent woman do what she does best. Nothing is going to go wrong. The oven will work, the ingredients will be there, the cake will not be burned, the decorating will be glorious. This experience—this experience of having a predictably successful outcome—is what we devalue, what we elide, what we gloss over and play down and underestimate. The pleasure of watching someone do something that they’re great at, no muss, no fuss, no fireworks, no disasters, just a dang beautiful cake.

I tell you this so that you will understand what high praise it is when I tell you that Furyborn is gloriously, magnificently competent.

Claire Legrand’s Furyborn is the first in the high-fantasy Empirium Trilogy. In the world of Avitas, legends tell of seven saints, each of whom mastered an element of empirium, which seems to be little magical particles that float around like golden dust motes. Even in the today of the immediate story, certain people have an affinity for one of those elements: sun, shadows, fire, and so on.

But prophecy tells of two women who will be able to master all seven elements, one queen of sun and one queen of blood. One seemingly good, one seemingly bad. One will save the world, one will destroy it. And so on. You all read a lot of fantasy: You know how this prophecy thing goes.

And after the usual sort of prologue that assures you that things will get very bad before the end, the book opens with Rielle, a lady of Celdaria, who is a pretty typical fantasy teen: She wants to skip her lessons, ride illegally in a horse race, and fuck the prince. Good for you, Rielle. But you find out pretty early on both that Rielle can wield all seven elements and that that fact is an unpleasant surprise to the (mostly male) leadership of Celdaria. She seems to be a queen of prophecy, but which one?

Rielle’s story is one of a headstrong girl, stifled all her life, told to keep her power secret and safe, told to stand aside as the boy she loves weds another. It’s the story of a grief-stricken girl who accidentally killed her mother years ago, which also cost her a relationship with her father. It’s the story of an immensely powerful girl who is still told that she is less: dangerous, uncontrollable, unpredictable—but that she can redeem herself by agreeing to use her power only to serve the king.

Rielle’s story is our story. And as so many of our stories do, Rielle’s story goes horribly wrong. Too many hot boys, too many overhearing men, too many people trying to control her rather than train her, trying to force her to do the right thing rather than supporting and trusting her.

But Rielle’s story is not the only story. Across the sea, 1,000 years later, we have Eliana, the Dread of Orline, seemingly crafted for all the Lila Bard fans of the world.

Eliana’s father is dead, her mother is disabled, her little brother is adorable, and she’s the sole breadwinner for her family. Which she does by catching and killing rebels for the Emperor. She’s not always happy about it, especially when best friend-and-lover Harken prods her about it, but it puts food on the table. Oh, and her body can magically heal itself. She is, for the record, both a woman of color and bisexual, though her on-page sex is only with men.

Eliana’s story blows wide open when, on the same night, her mother mysteriously disappears and she encounters the Wolf, a deadly rebellion operative. She strikes a bargain with him, which she regrets at least half a dozen times, and ends up making her way through the Red Crown revolution, picking up pieces of the puzzle along the way.

If Rielle’s story of power stifled is the one we live every day, Eliana’s story of power wielded is one we dream every night. While Rielle and Eliana are similarly angry and similarly mouthy, that reads as obstinance and disobedience in Rielle’s story, but as danger and sass in Eliana’s.

Legrand tells her story in alternating point-of-view chapters, which many of you know is a bit of a bee in my bonnet. Here, it’s frustratingly worse, because those alternating point-of-view chapters are set 1,000 years apart, and Legrand must compensate not only for the usual loss of momentum by shifting characters, but the additional challenge of shifting entire plotlines. Which she does by making each chapter, more or less, a cliffhanger, which makes for compulsive, if somewhat aggravatingly so, readability.

But, people, this book is competent. The world is good, the characters are good, the plot is good, the magic is good, the writing is good. And even better, the third rails that have been blowing up my enjoyment of an awful lot of young-adult high fantasy lately aren’t here. The worldbuilding makes sense: There are no absurdist canons, like a world that can have this but not that, a king but not a queen, a fall but not a spring. The characters aren’t hateful: Though both Rielle and Eliana are surrounded by too many men telling them what to do, most of the time they fight back, assert themselves, do what they want to do. While both Rielle and Eliana have unexplained powers, the magical rules stick and we don’t learn late in the game about that one last power that will help them save the world. (At least not yet. There’s no world-saving in book one.)

And what a lovely reading experience it was. About 100 pages in, when I realized that nothing was going to go horribly wrong in the reading process, that I could just relax and read the book…I just relaxed and read the book. What a delight. What a joy. What competence.


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 nine 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.

 

7 Works of Short Fiction Well Worth Savoring

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

Over the last few years, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to shorter fiction. I still love novels of course, but shorter stories feel refreshing, with a wealth of innovative, progressive work currently being published. The more I read, the more I admire stories that establish their setting and characters—and evoke a distinctive voice—concisely enough to fit in a slim volume. Here are some novellas, novelettes, and collections of micro-fiction that I recommend.

 

The Black Tides of Heaven
1. The Black Tides of Heaven by J.Y. Yang

This first volume in the consistently excellent Tensorate series follows the growth of Akeha and their twin, Mokoya, as they develop their magical abilities and reckon with their life as the child of an oppressive ruler. Yang lays out a vivid magic system, vibrant characters, and a lived-in world where gender is not assigned but settled upon. They especially excel at evoking their characters’ complex relationships and a sense of melancholy.

The Refrigerator Monologues
2. The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente

Killed off or degraded to further the stories of male superheroes, the fridged women of Deadtown are angry. Now, from the afterlife, they tell their own stories. Based closely off the ordeals of well-known comic-book women, these stories crackle with the wit of Valente’s wordplay and the expression of pent-up anger. An in-depth knowledge of the original comics isn’t necessary, though a general familiarity with superhero tropes is helpful.

Monster Portraits
3. Monster Portraits, images by Del Samatar, text by Sofia Samatar

Two siblings set out on an expedition, an exploration of the concept of monstrousness, in a work that blends the real and the fantastical in a way I have never quite experienced before. Profiles of the Green Lady or the Kryl glide into reflections on biracial identity. This illustrated book is many things, and trying to pin it down would only diminish it. As I write about it, I am drawn back to see what insight reveals itself on a second reading.

The Honey Month
4. The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar

What would you do if given a selection of honey samples, one for each day of the month? For El-Mohtar, the answer was to write a poem or piece of micro-fiction inspired by each variety, playing with different subjects and forms. Together, the pieces create an ethereal, sometimes eerie atmosphere: I imagine the denizens of faerie reciting them to each other. I enjoyed reading one entry per day over the course of a month—an echo of how The Honey Month was created.

The Terracotta Bride
5. The Terracotta Bride by Zen Cho

When Siew Tsin’s wealthy husband brings home a new bride made of terracotta, Siew Tsin’s existence in the Chinese afterlife is bound to change. The Terracotta Bride blends folklore and the fantastical with the quotidian, depicting an afterlife full of both bureaucracy and intrigue. In this novelette, Cho employs her direct prose to bring out both humor and a bittersweet mood.

The Tea Master and the Detective
6. The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

A sentient transport ship, traumatized from a recent war, is struggling to make rent by blending teas for people traveling into deep spaces. Enter the abrasive Long Chau, consulting detective and potential client. Yes, this story takes inspiration from Sherlock Holmes, but it also inhabits its own rich world. An excellent blend of homage to that source and original storytelling, this novella was my introduction to de Bodard and makes me want to read more of her work.

The Only Harmless Great Thing
7. The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

This story of memory and resistance spans perspectives and time periods, from a worker with radiation poisoning and her elephant coworker, to the researcher considering how to warn future generations about radiation, to elephant storytellers. Each perspective is unique and piercing, though the most brilliant voice is that of the elephants and their matriarchal, story-centered culture. This novelette is both devastating and illuminating.


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 Worker’s Circle.

 

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 sirensconference.org).

RSS Feed Button

 

Archives

2019
June, May, April, March, February, January

2018
December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2017
December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2016
December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March

2015
November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2014
December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, March, February, January

2013
December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2012
December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2011
December, November, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2010
December, November, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2009
December, November, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

 

Tags

annual programming series, attendee perspective, auction, book club, book list, book reviews, books, bookstore, boot camp, chat, community, compendium, deadlines, essay series, further reading, giveaway, guests, hotel, inclusivity, interview, meet-up, menus, narrate conferences, newsletter, 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 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
Meet Our Guests of Honor
About the Conference
Attend
Sirens Twitter
Present Programming
Sirens Facebook

Connect with the Sirens community

Sign up for the Sirens newsletter

Subscribe to our mailing list