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The City We Became Is Very Human. And Very New York.

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

I have a confession to make: I hate New York City. I am told that this is because when I visit, I visit for work and that means that I spend most of my time in Midtown Manhattan, land of soulless office buildings and a million Pret a Mangers and seemingly two million douchey dudes that you’d think would work downtown on Wall Street but somehow don’t and are therefore somehow worse. But Midtown is also the home to Broadway and some amazing food and that winter village in Bryant Park—and it’s not so far from the American Museum of Natural History with that dinosaur who is too big for her room, so her head sticks out one door and her tail another. So you’d think that I’d be at least neutral on the subject of New York City, but no. All the subway trains are broken and every day is trash day and if I moved there, I’d have to start a podcast called “Shut up, New York.”

Which is to say that, when I tell you that you must—without delay or hesitation, without finishing whatever you’re reading now or stopping for niceties like dinner—voraciously consume The City We Became, N.K. Jemisin’s love letter to New York City, you should be believe me. Because I tell you this despite that I really hate New York City.

Because this is Jemisin, who just won a MacArthur genius grant and who achieved an unprecedented hat trick with three consecutive Best Novel Hugos, and because The Fifth Season, the first of those Hugos, is literally perfect, I know what you want to ask right now. I know this because every person to whom I have recommended this book has asked the same question: Is The City We Became better than The Fifth Season?

It is. It absolutely is.

So let’s do this.

We are in modern New York City: The hurry and scurry, the traffic and noise, the unbelievable food and magnificent music, the utterly spectacular people. The vibrancy and diversity and community that makes New York—more than LA or Chicago or anywhere else—the most American Dream place on the planet. Millions of American Dreams, bumping against each other, intertwining, making something wholly new. A reverie of striving and hustling and creating and awe. All in the shadow of Lady Liberty, who still means hope to people around the world.

In this contemporary beginning, New York has just awoken. It—and its people—have created the momentum necessary to transform it from a city to a city, an indelible place with its own sentience that will change the course of the stars. But births are never easy and as New York awakens it inhabits the body of a homeless boy, now tasked as the avatar of New York, who must battle for her life. He does, and he wins, for now. But the fight drains him and he needs the avatars of New York’s five boroughs to take their places and do their parts, before a monstrous invasion kills the nascent city.

And with that, a young man coming to New York for grad school steps off an escalator in Penn Station, onto the ground of Manhattan for the first time, and forgets his dang name. Because, much to his confusion, he’s now Manhattan, borough of money and assholes…

The City We Became is both tone poem and set piece, both paean to the wonder of the people of New York and Jemisin masterfully—and propulsively—moving her pieces around in preparation for book two. City is equal parts character and plot. The Bronx’s aging artist, Queens’s young immigrant striver, Brooklyn’s defiant MC-turned-mother-turned-politician, all BIPOC—and Staten Island’s insular white girl. An extrapolation of the Greatest City in the World from the granularity and individuality of its people. If you’ve ever thought people are beautiful, not in that glossy magazine way, but in their wrinkles and dreams and mistakes and kindnesses, this is very much your book.

But this isn’t just a tone poem, not just a tribute to the people of New York or even New York herself: This is a book with something bold and brave to say. Because when New York awakens, when she is at her most vulnerable, aliens invade. Like a virus, they spread, from person to person, taxi cab to bus, appearing most often as white, worm-like tendrils that will make you squirm. Our newborn heroes don’t know what they are or how they work or what they even want, but Jemisin’s Lovecraftian invaders are squishily insidious.

Most creators would stop there, reveling in having written a tour de force of character building, a terrifying villain, and a compelling plot about saving the newly sentient city of New York. But Jemisin is Jemisin: She takes her Lovecraftian invaders and specifically and inexorably tangles them up with Lovecraft’s bullshit. In one memorable scene, white supremacists, infected with tendrils, attempt to kill The Bronx with artwork that depicts an explicitly Lovecraftian (read, racist) take on New York City. The Bronx knows it—and equally importantly, we know it. Jemisin won’t settle for simply celebrating New York: She’s going to destroy those who would destroy it.

In the end, here’s why, for me, The City We Became surpasses the perfection of The Fifth Season: City is unrelentingly ambitious. It’s bold and brave and brilliant. It’s a shining work that makes you want to stand up and be counted alongside New York’s fiercest defenders. But it refuses to play by anyone’s rules: Not speculative fiction traditions, not an editor’s or a publisher’s idea of what sells, not your rules or mine. It’s unconstrained in a way that I don’t think The Fifth Season, for all its perfection, was. The City We Became is messy. It’s damp and dirty and joyous and right in your face. It’s very human. And very New York.


Amy TenbrinkBy day, Amy Tenbrink dons her supergirl suit and handles strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president of a major media company. By night, she dons her supergirl cape, plans literary conferences, bakes increasingly complicated pastries, and reads 150 books a year. She is a co-founder and current co-chair of Sirens, an annual conference dedicated to examining gender and fantasy literature. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, flagrant ambition, and a well-planned revolution.

In Our Boldness to Be Ourselves

2020 so often feels so isolating, so directionless, full of dangers and impossibilities. When we have an infrequent spare moment, we all seek the most fragile of things: hope, justice, compassion—and sometimes to remember why we love the things we love.

In advance of Sirens at Home, as we contemplate gathering safely online rather than in person with the warmth of the Sirens community, we invited members of that community to write about what speculative fiction means to them. We think you’ll find their essays reassuring, a common touchstone that we all need when we’re adrift, and perhaps a welcome remembrance of something you love.

Today, we present an essay by Adriana De Persia Colón.

Speculative literature is broad and complex because people experience the world differently. In his upcoming book Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping, Matthew Salesses discusses, among many others things, the importance of audience 1. People respond to speculative literature in many ways because we come from different cultural traditions, from different realities.

It is there, in our chosen audience, in our boldness to be ourselves, where speculative literature thrives. Speculative literature is a crossroads, a push and pull of imagination, creation and possibility. It is the constant stream of “what if,” the space where we dream, where we manifest.

Speculative literature is always changing, ever transforming, just as we are ever changing, just as the world is ever transforming. And what wonder when we get to imagine, create, and deem possible the most whacky of ideas. Because why not? This world offers some great speculative material. Let’s keep making the most of it.

Some recommendations:

  • Blazewrath Games by Amparo Ortiz

  • Prospero’s Daughter by Elizabeth Nunez

  • La Borinqueña by Edgardo Miranda-Rodríguez

  • Never Look Back by Lilliam Rivera

  • Category Five by Ann Dávila Cardinal

  • Miss Meteor by Anna-Marie McLemore and Tehlor Kay Mejia


Adriana De Persia Colón

Adriana De Persia Colón is a 2019-2020 Highlights Foundation Fellow. She has an MA from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. She starts her PhD at the University of Cambridge in the fall of 2020.

 


1Thank you to Edelweiss for providing me with an eARC of this book for a review.
 

Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Do It!

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

I have a penchant for willful, stubborn, go-against-the-grain heroines. Especially those with a goal or a vision. I enjoy reading these characters because they act as a reminder to me about what is possible when one stops being nice and says NO to others and YES to self. Seen as selfish or unreasonable by those around them, these heroines often struggle, not only against the outside world but also their intimate circle of family and friends. These heroines rarely have it easy: They suffer the consequences of their actions and convictions. But ultimately, they have a richer life for saying, “Don’t tell me I can’t do it!”

If you share my affinity for these kinds of heroines, you might like to read:

 

A Natural History of Dragons
1. A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

“Don’t tell me I can’t go on a scientific expedition to study dragons!”

In this Victorian-esque fantasy, main character Isabella Trent chafes under what is expected of a proper lady. While she agrees to marry, she does so for the man’s library and not his wealth. And when she grows tired of the social expectations of a wife, she convinces her husband that an expedition to find rock-wyrms (dragons) is just the ticket. Although Isabella tries to balance social norms with her own desires, it is her calling as a dragon naturalist that takes precedence. Her recounting of the expedition unfolds much like the diaries of intrepid British male explorers of the 19th nineteenth century. This is a book for readers who enjoy maps, illustrations, and crisp writing with their cup of tea.

Gods of Jade and Shadow
2. Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

“Don’t tell me I can’t have a life of my own!”

The roaring twenties in Mexico are alive with jazz and ancient gods in this book. Main character Casiopea Tun dreams of a life away from her small, dusty town in southern Mexico, where she is treated like a servant in her family. When she inadvertently frees the God of Death, she is drawn into his quest to regain his power. Acting as his ally, Casiopea risks her own death to get the life she has always dreamed of. This is a beautifully written book with tension at every turn. It is a story for readers who enjoy magical realism and a walk through the shadows of the underworld and perhaps a companion piece for those who have read Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova.

Binti
3. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

“Don’t tell me I can’t go to the best university in the galaxy!”

There is a world out there to explore, but while Binti’s people are focused on gaining knowledge, they do not leave Earth. However, main character Binti, who is mathematically gifted, has the chance to attend Oomza, a prestigious university on a distant planet. With her isolationist-family set against it, if Binti leaves, she risks hurting them. If Binti goes, she knows she will face deep prejudice. Although it is a novella, released in a series, this book has more world-building in 96 pages than most with 500 pages. A quick, engrossing read for those who enjoy Africanfuturism and the short stories of Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin. This book proves that small can be powerful.

The Guns Above
4. The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis

“Don’t tell me I can’t command a military airship!”

This steampunk novel comes with cannon-fire, dirigibles, and a snarky heroine. Meet Auxiliary Lieutenant Josette Dupre, who has good reason to have an acerbic outlook. While the Air Signal Corps of Garnia is co-ed, women are only allowed “auxiliary” roles. Josette, however, has her eye on command and nothing is going to stop her, not a dubious crew nor a dandy spy. Josette is tough, canny, and ready to trade barbs and pistol-fire—whatever it takes to win. I read and listened to this book in tandem. Both versions merit a “Huzzah.” Readers who enjoyed Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon will appreciate the military detail, this time with a woman at the helm and one who has a sense of humor.

Steeplejack
5. Steeplejack by A.J. Hartley

“Don’t tell me I can’t care for a baby and solve the theft of an artifact and the death of a young boy!”

In this post-colonial steampunk story, the scales are stacked against main character Anglet Sutonga. She’s an immigrant, she’s a female steeplejack, and she’s the third daughter—a curse to her family. When she finds her apprentice dead on the day an artifact disappears, she is not only convinced they are linked, she is determined to find out the truth. Caught between the machinations of apartheid leaders and the care for her sister’s baby, Anglet must convince others what she knows in her heart. She can do it. Readers of Nisi Shawl’s Everfair and Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation will find a heroine who does not take no for an answer


Tina LeCount MyersTina LeCount Myers is a writer, artist, independent historian, and surfer. Born in Mexico to expat-bohemian parents, she grew up on Southern California tennis courts with a prophecy hanging over her head: Her parents hoped she’d one day be an author. Tina lives in San Francisco with her adventurer husband and two loud Siamese cats. The Song of All is the first book of her epic fantasy trilogy, The Legacy of the Heavens. You can follow Tina on Twitter @tlecountmysters and learn more about her work on her website.

 

Sirens at Home: Books and Breakfast Selections

Each year at Sirens, we offer a Books and Breakfast program where attendees bring their breakfast and join us to talk books: timely books, popular books, even controversial books. While we’ll be saving all of our villainous selections for Books and Breakfast in 2021 (when we will, indeed, convene on a theme of villains), we’ve chosen different books for this year: seven 2020 releases that we think are all pretty terrific.

On Friday, October 23, 2020, we will hold our Books and Breakfast program online as part of Sirens at Home. If you’d like to join us, please do! All you need to do is register for Sirens at Home, read one of the following selections, grab your breakfast, and join the online discussion.

 
Sirens at Home Books and Breakfast Selections

Elatsoe

Elatsoe
by Darcie Little Badger (illustrations by Rovina Cai)

Elatsoe, or just Ellie, is your average teenager trying to figure out her place in the world and what she wants from life—except that her contemporary America has ghosts, vampires, and fae, and Ellie herself can raise the ghosts of dead animals. Think really dead animals, like mammoths and trilobites, not merely Ellie’s more recently dead dog, Kirby. As Little Badger’s work opens, Ellie’s cousin dies surprisingly and violently, confirmed first by paranormal reverberation that shocks Kirby and a dreamland visitation of Ellie’s. In a bit of a backward mystery, Ellie’s determined to find the clues that will lead to what she already knows: who killed her cousin. Little Badger’s work incorporates the traditions and legends of the Lipan Apache tribe (of which she is an enrolled member) and makes them integral to both her fantastical America and Ellie’s deductive skills. You’ll love Ellie—and you’ll clamor for a book about Six Great, her fabled foremother who looms large in Little Badger’s America.

Never Look Back

Never Look Back
by Lilliam Rivera

A contemporary retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice featuring Afro-Latinx characters in the Bronx, Never Look Back hums with bachata rhythms and the pulsing possibilities of hazy summer nights. Pheus, the popular golden-voiced bachata singer among his circle of friends, is drawn to Eury, a newly arrived girl from Puerto Rico. Eury is processing the trauma of her family losing everything in Hurricane Maria, and she’s haunted by a spirit whose only desire is to have her with him, always. Mythologies intertwine in this straight-talk novel fused with magical realism, and Rivera seamlessly weaves in examinations of colonialism, toxic masculinity, class, and mental health. This is both a romance and a book about community, and the relationships that strengthen it are a highlight—particularly Eury’s relationship with her cousin Penelope, and Pheus’s with his father. You already know what happens at the pivotal climax; Eury’s agency and empowerment makes this read as catchy as the tunes within.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

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

Though a greater war bleeds beyond its pages, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water centers a small group of roving bandits who, at the story’s beginning, convene in a coffeehouse for a job and encounter a former-nun-turned-waitress. The ensemble cast will please lovers of found family, though the narrative is driven by Tet Sang, a bandit with a past of his own who feels compelled to pull Guet Imm, the waitress, into the group. Cho’s novella is a masterclass in subtlety; instead of an epic volume that features wealthy nobles or expert warriors, it spotlights everyday people who make individual choices in the name of survival. There’s magic and violence—secondary to the interpersonal relationships among the characters—and a delightful queer romance woven so intricately within the action that you never forget there’s a bigger set piece. Reading this book is like becoming one of the crew.

Remembrance

Remembrance
by Rita Woods

By debut author Rita Woods, Remembrance is an ambitious blend of historical fiction and fantasy ultimately about the safe haven created by Black women throughout—and beyond—time. The multiple points of view give the work tremendous scope (and will appeal to fans of epic fantasy in particular): Gaelle in present-day Cleveland, Margot in 1857 New Orleans, Abigail in 1791 Haiti, and the mysterious Winter. As the characters face plagues, rebellion, slavery, death and separation of loved ones—and disenfranchisement in the most extreme sense of the word—we’re introduced to Remembrance, a refuge for slaves who do not make it out of the Underground Railroad. As the narratives converge, you’ll appreciate Woods’s thorough research and delicate hand, and how each of the women comes into her magic. She relates what we know to be true: Black women have been building sanctuary for their communities throughout generations.

Snapdragon

Snapdragon
by Kat Leyh

You already know Kat Leyh’s work as a cowriter and cover artist for the inimitable Lumberjanes comic series, but you’re about to know her for Snapdragon as well. In this graphic work, Snapdragon, an angry, ostracized girl, encounters Jacks, the town witch, while looking for her lost dog. Jacks has Good Boy, sure enough, but only because she found him on the side of the road and patched him up. When Snap, desperate for friends, finds orphaned possums, she ends up back at Jacks’s house—and Jacks strikes her a deal: She’ll help Snap care for the possums if Snap helps her with her business recovering dead animals and assembling their skeletons for sale on the Internet. That’s just the beginning of a work that weaves—through all of Snap’s anger and Jacks’s isolation, Snap’s mother’s trying to balance everything and Snap’s friend’s coming out, and a surprising thread of magic—a delicately human story about finding yourself, whoever that person might be, and finding a community, however unexpected that might be. In the end, Snapdragon is a sob-fest, happy-ending story about giving folks a chance, and sometimes even two.

Star Daughter

Star Daughter
by Shveta Thakrar

Sheetal’s mom is a star. A real, live star, who lives in the heavens and left Sheetal alone with her father when Sheetal was a little girl. Now a teenager, full of big dreams and bigger feelings, Sheetal finds herself torn between her modern desi-girl American life, full of expectations and accomplishments and a forbidden boyfriend, and staring at the night sky, wishing for her mom—and wishing that she didn’t have to dye her starlight hair dark and hide that the stars call her name. Lately that call has become stronger, and Sheetal finds herself caught up in something she doesn’t understand. She accidentally harms her father and must ascend to the sky to heal him. But of course none of this happened by chance: Her star family wishes for Sheetal to compete for them in a competition that will determine control of the stars for years to come. In all of this, Sheetal is a dang delight: all too real, and by turns flattered, confused, and furious with her star family. And as she navigates the politics of the stars, her nascent relationships with her family, and her erstwhile romance with her boyfriend, she’s the sort of heroine who’s always in charge of herself, no matter what her maternal grandmother might think.

Unconquerable Sun

Unconquerable Sun
by Kate Elliott

If “genderflipped Alexander the Great in space” doesn’t grab you, then perhaps “genetically engineered human-aliens, cutthroat galaxy-spanning politics, queernorm worldbuilding, and imaginative future tech” will. An exciting opening to a new series, Unconquerable Sun has plenty of Easter eggs for those with interest in classical studies, but provides a standalone, fully realized world—nay, an entire galaxy, with deep roots and evocative details. Our protagonist Sun is an astonishing hero: charismatic, decisive, brilliant, sharp; the cast that surrounds her is equally grand, from the wily Persephone to the handsome Alika, and all the rest of Sun’s Companions. Elliott has taken some risks in the way she handles the various point-of-view characters, changing person and tense in a way that helps the reader feel the soul-deep shifts between each character. It pays off: The book is an enthralling adventure from start to finish.

Mexican Gothic Holds the Precise, Beating Heart of Modern Women’s Horror

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

Mexican Gothic

On page 186 of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, Noemí, our heroine, is mid-conversation with Virgil, the heir apparent of High Place, a crumbling family mansion in rural Mexico. She is in Virgil’s bedroom in the middle of the night, after experiencing a disturbingly vivid sexual dream featuring Virgil and his aggressive masculinity. The first words of the following exchange are Noemí’s:

“Were you in my room?”
“I thought I was in your dream.”
“It did not feel like a dream.”
“What did it feel like?”
“Like an intrusion,” she said.

As a reader, this is the sort of revelatory writing that requires that you put the book down and find something, anything—in this case, a Bath and Body Works coupon—to mark the page. Because this exchange is the precise, beating heart of modern women’s horror.


Let’s begin with a bit about Mexican Gothic. Noemí is a socialite in 1950s Mexico, mostly happy with her rounds of dresses and parties and beaux, but still, always, a girl who wants more: currently, a master’s degree in anthropology. When her family receives a nonsensical letter—troubling for all its nonsense—from her cousin, Catalina, Noemí’s father agrees to permit her to pursue that master’s degree, if only she’ll go check on Catalina and her new husband, Virgil, at High Point. Noemí takes the deal and is soon on a train, suitcases in tow.

Moreno-Garcia draws Noemí cleverly: She’s an assertive girl, but also a pretty one, and one who is accustomed to things being just so, one who thrives on appearances and flirtations and delicately upending social niceties with just the right amount of perceived danger. Because of who Noemí is, High Point reads initially as simply off-putting: dusty, moldy, faded, the home of an impoverished family unable to keep up with either cleaning or modern conveniences like electricity. Similarly, the household’s exacting rules—no talking during meals, no unsupervised time with Catalina, no second medical opinions—are designed to imply merely that Noemí has encountered a society foreign to her, one that a pretty girl cannot manipulate with smiles and teasing. But over time, through alarming conversations with her cousin, who seems only sometimes lucid, and forbidden conversations with locals, who share legends and mysteries, but rarely more, Noemí realizes that High Point is more menacing than simply unkempt, and the rules more dangerous than simply irritating.


Shirley Jackson’s seminal work of feminine horror, The Haunting of Hill House, was published in 1959, the same decade as the setting of Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic. In 60 years, though, women have gained new terrors—and new insight into familiar terrors. Jackson’s work is about mothers, domineering, demanding mothers who, even after death, haunt our lives. How almost quaint, through a 2020 lens, to focus on the issue with mothers, rather than the issues with the heteropatriarchy that so often make them that way. Moreno-Garcia’s work, while clearly an heir to Jackson’s, goes deeper and is not so willing to elide the roles that men play in women’s terrors.

Mexican Gothic is a work about intrusion, specifically a work about men’s innumerable intrusions into women’s lives. Without spoiling the mystery or the jump scares, Moreno-Garcia’s work turns on the many, many things that men take from women and the sacrifices that women are required to make to perpetuate men’s power. This isn’t a work about Noemí’s mother, who is nearly absent from the book, even in reference. It is a work about her father, in his wealthy naivete; Howard, the ailing, racist head of the High Point family; Virgil, the skillfully abusive heir apparent; and Francis, the weak-willed cousin. And it’s a work about the women who enable them—Florence, Francis’s mother and the household disciplinarian, and Catalina, Noemí’s compliant cousin—and Noemí, who does not.

At its best, Mexican Gothic uses its horrors to lay bare the quotidian horrors of women, forced to endure a lifetime of male intrusions.

At its worst, we need to talk about Moreno-Garcia’s use of rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault. Mexican Gothic is about male intrusions into women’s lives and, in many ways, very specifically about male intrusions into women’s bodily autonomy, both small (you may not take the car alone, you may not speak during dinner) and large (you may not leave High Point). In exploring those themes, Moreno-Garcia turns, often, to rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault. With a single exception (the final horror imposed on a woman, revealed at the book’s climax), in this work that is so much about bodily autonomy, Mexican Gothic assumes that rape is the ultimate intrusion that a man can force upon a woman. Regardless of whether you agree with that, Mexican Gothic uses rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault liberally—and in my view, too often. We know that Howard and Virgil are threats and, by the midway point of the book we know enough about High Point’s history to know that they are both sexual threats. Because we know that, most of these scenes read as unnecessary, no longer a horror that Howard or Virgil is imposing on Noemí, but a horror that Mexican Gothic imposes on its readers. Men intrude on women’s lives in so many ways; must the second half of Mexican Gothic rely so heavily on this one?

Setting aside its arguable overreliance on the horrors of sexual assault—if you are able to, of course—Mexican Gothic is a must-read for anyone interested in both female horror and its evolution. Moreno-Garcia takes Jackson’s themes from 60 years ago and transforms them, erasing the mother in favor of striking at the heart of the heteropatriarchy itself. In a world where we are all told to be more likeable, where our options are always limited, and yes, where we all fear assault, Moreno-Garcia’s house of horrors will be all too familiar.


Amy TenbrinkBy day, Amy Tenbrink dons her supergirl suit and handles strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president of a major media company. By night, she dons her supergirl cape, plans literary conferences, bakes increasingly complicated pastries, and reads 150 books a year. She is a co-founder and current co-chair of Sirens, an annual conference dedicated to examining gender and fantasy literature. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, flagrant ambition, and a well-planned revolution.

New Fantasy Books: September 2020

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of September 2020 fantasy book releases by and about women and nonbinary folk. Let us know what you’re looking forward to, or any titles that we’ve missed, in the comments!
 

Books and Breakfast: Girls Made of Snow and Glass, Slice of Cherry, and Wilder Girls

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 breakfasts and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary are doing in fantasy literature!

For our 2021 conference, as we examine gender and villainy, and relatedly, redemption—fraught topics full of artificial constraints and defied stereotypes—our Books and Breakfast program features titles meant to broaden that examination. We’ve chosen eight works, full of questions, but few answers; dastardly villainy, and occasional redemption; and a number of female and nonbinary villains who may, despite or because of their villainy, be someone worth celebrating.

Earlier this summer, we highlighted our graphic selections: Monstress: Awakening and Nimona; and our adult selections: A Feast of Sorrows, Queen of the Conquered, and The Mere Wife. Today, we’re showcasing our three young adult selections: Girls Made of Snow and Glass, Slice of Cherry, and Wilder Girls. We hope these features will help you make your choice and tackle your reading before Sirens next year.

 
2021 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

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

Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust

Girls Made of Snow and Glass

In this take on “Snow White,” sixteen-year-old Mina, missing a heart, escapes one abusive household for another—where she can capture the love of the king for herself, even his power, provided she is ready, so young, to become a stepmother. She’s to be mother to Lynet, who has been conjured to life in her mother’s image from a snowfall. And as in “Snow White,” the two are set at odds. Mina has been loved too little, and wants the crown any way she can have it. Lynet, conversely, has no desire to be queen, and would be happy enough to spend her days with her girlfriend and to be looked on as something besides the embodiment of her mother.

The evil stepmother is a classic villain: cold, beautiful (but in a scary way), a usurper. In Bashardoust’s version, the stepmother must take that role, whether she wants to or not, and her relationship with Lynet, close in age, is complex and painful. It’s bittersweet that the two have been positioned as enemies, and the wedge between them makes the story compelling. Rarely do we see mother-daughter relationships in stories about young adults; even more rarely do we see them in fantasy books for young adults. Mina and Lynet’s intertwined stories provide a rich exploration of relationships between women—with all the twisty, messy, emotional resonance that non-romantic relationships have in real life, and don’t always get their due on the page.

Girls Made of Snow and Glass is full of icy atmosphere and fairytale references, but at its heart—no pun intended—it’s a story about love. What we do to receive love. How we choose whom to hate, and whom to mark as villain. How villains can be created by society. And it’s also about mothers and daughters, and how we make families. How we tell stories, and how the telling makes heroines and villains. And how, in the end, we can choose the stories told for us or choose to make our own.

Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves

Slice of Cherry

Kit and Fancy Cordelle are sisters, daughters of the infamous Bonesaw Killer, a serial killer who ravaged Portero, Texas, before being caught and jailed. But no matter how strange Portero is—if you’ve read Reeves’s Bleeding Violet, surely you remember how strange Portero is—no matter how much Bonesaw Killer fan mail still arrives at the house, and no matter that neither Kit nor Fancy had anything to do with their father’s murders, Kit and Fancy are ostracized. Surely the apple couldn’t have fallen too far from the tree—a convenient statement when one seeks to oppress Black girls. But never mind that: Kit and Fancy will tell you that they don’t mind. They’re the best of friends (as Fancy says, practically the same person).

And despite their previous innocence, they are perhaps not so different from their father after all—or perhaps assumptions are a powerful catalyst: Kit and Fancy both harbor a desire to harm, to carve people up and stitch them back together, to pull them apart until they crack, to kill. Unlike their famous father, though, Kit and Fancy will be the first people to tell you that they harm only those who truly deserve it, those who touch or invade or harm first. They’ll also tell you that they’re smarter than their father: They use a mysterious doorway to another world to cover their tracks. And everything would be fine, perhaps—Portero surely won’t look too hard for a few missing predators—except that, despite Fancy’s assertion, Kit and Fancy aren’t the same person at all. Kit wants to grow and change, make friends, and have a boyfriend, while Fancy wants to stay in her tiny, controlled world, happily basking in the gore that she and her sister share.

Slice of Cherry is, in every way that matters, a Black feminist revenge story. In Kit and Fancy’s vigilantism, Reeves claims violence for Black girls harmed by the world. Kit and Fancy are broken by their father’s crimes, their mother’s absence, the town’s ostracization, and seemingly everyone’s assumptions. But that brokenness creates neither victims nor, despite the carnage, villains. Kit and Fancy take their power, claim their power, every time they cut an attempted rapist, every time they stab an intruder. Don’t shy away from the danger and violence of Portero; Reeves’s story of Black girls who are cast as villains but who will not be victims is one for our world, too.

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Wilder Girls

As you begin Wilder Girls, the students and instructors at Raxter School for Girls in rural Maine have been quarantined for 18 months. That’s when the Tox began ripping through the country, causing grotesque mutations in people, fauna, and flora alike: second spines, new organs, scales, eventually death. Outbreaks are individual and unpredictable, but at this point, the girls are just holding on, relying on supplies from the outside world, and hoping for a vaccine.

Hetty, one of the students, is unexpectedly chosen for Boat Shift, one of the few jobs that can get a girl off school grounds, in this case to retrieve those all-important supplies. With this new responsibility comes new knowledge, and Hetty sees the transformations and destruction around her in a new, even more desperate light. And that desperation pervades Wilder Girls, which is built on the dawning horror that things can always, and so often do, get worse. Without giving too much away, after 18 months of increasing desolation, Hetty finds a villain—and it’s worse than she could have imagined.

The foundation of Wilder Girls is its (almost) all-female cast—and the possibilities born of crafting a book around only female characters. The mean-girls trope you often see in YA is absent—jettisoned along with boys and the omnipresent white heteropatriarchy—and instead Power creates girls that are just girls: sometimes smart, sometimes ambitious, sometimes mean. Sometimes they get along and sometimes they don’t. Some are heroes and some are villains and some are neither. This isn’t some quarantine-created feminine utopia, but rather a cast of real girls who are real people in an impossible situation. You might call it a feminist utopia. And that is magnificent.

A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and Dissonant Chords

Each month, Sirens co-chair Amy Tenbrink reviews new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors—and occasionally invites other members of the Sirens community to do so. You can find all of these reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We hope you’ll read along and discuss!

This month, Hallie Tibbetts reviews Suzanne Collins’s A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes!

In 2008, at a book fair, I got an advance copy of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and then stayed up all night in what I remember as the dirtiest hotel room in all of Los Angeles reading it. Once, twice, maybe three times a year I run across a book that completely transports me and, when I’m finished, leaves me with the disorientation of falling out of the story’s world and back into my own. The Hunger Games was one of those reads. I’ll spare you the details of the room, but recall for you how it felt to be completely immersed in the story of a girl whose simple desire to save her sister became an uneasy attempt to save her world. Of a girl who wanted no part of heroism, but chose a path of survival, rebellion, and protection of others over and over.

When a prequel for the series was announced, it was rumored that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes would be Mags’s story. I was on board for finding out how Katniss’s octogenarian ally in the 75th Hunger Games achieved victory in the 11th, and then went on to be a mentor who volunteered in the place of others. But it was not to be: Songbirds and Snakes is instead set during the 10th Hunger Games, and about Coriolanus Snow, the president and main villain of the original trilogy.

I lost interest completely.

As it happens, though, I was given a copy of Songbirds and Snakes this summer. I work in publishing, and am always buried under my to-read pile; it’s sometimes enough to know the gist of a juggernaut for comparison titles and cocktail parties, so I still didn’t plan to read this book. Curiosity eventually won out. Consternation kept me reading.

Coriolanus Snow, Coryo to his closest friends, equivalent to a high school senior, lives with his cousin and grandmother in a once-glamorous penthouse apartment. His parents—a general and a woman described as vapid—are dead. His cousin picks up a little tailoring and fashion design work; his grandmother has embraced the Capitol’s propaganda. Soon, an increase in taxes will force them out of their home, which is a great embarrassment to Coriolanus. He struggles, at times, with memories of the war. The cannibalism. The bombings. The way his family fell from being wealthy to just hanging on (a fact that he hides through indelible charm, but he won’t be able to keep up the charade for much longer).

From the beginning, there are hints of Coriolanus’s affluenza, and of his seeming inability to truly see any other human as his equal. At first, his detachment can be excused by his care for his remaining family and the psychological consequences of the atrocities he witnessed. Still, early on, he describes his cousin as the sort of girl who “invites abuse.” For a moment, I was breathless, seeing that so blatantly stated. Why would an author whose work I respect allow this character to promulgate something so untrue? It takes a while for Coriolanus’s character to become clear, and for it to become clear that Collins intended this callousness as a defining trait. Coriolanus believes his cousin “invites abuse” because he understands abuse. Other people are not individuals. Their lives are not precious. Here is a boy who would never, ever volunteer as tribute.

This is where my readerly consternation comes in.

We already know that Coriolanus is a villain; we have the rest of the story, and we know there is no possibility of redemption. I question, very much, whether we need more stories of how young white men become villains. You can try to say that we have to unravel the reasons, that we have to understand the downward spiral so we can prevent it. You can say that there are infinite tales in this trope alone. But I’m pretty sure I’ve heard them all.

And yet, I found myself wishing to see Coriolanus at an earlier point in his story because I wanted to see what makes him choose, of all possible paths, the ones that lead him to his eventual end. Maybe I wanted to feel how his love for his family prompts his decisions—but then again, I don’t want any more stories of women dying to give a man purpose, or even portrayed as incapable of playing some part in their own rescue. Collins avoids this to an extent; cousin Tigris is hustling to start her career, and it’s hard to fault the grandmother for clinging to the post-war regime for her survival when a broken elevator means she can hardly leave her crumbling building. It’s a long way, though, from scrambling for a leg up to becoming the leader of a country that sacrifices children for entertainment—the circus for Panem—and then I think: I don’t need any more stories that show a villain’s fraudulently reasoned choice to be evil. I can turn on the news and be inundated with that right now. But we’re not meant to have a reader-character connection, at least not at the beginning. Where The Hunger Games uses a compelling first-person narrative, The Ballad of Snakes and Songbirds follows Coriolanus in a surprisingly cold third. Collins keeps readers at a stiff arm’s length, and—perhaps too kindly—gives us insight into his mindset, but doesn’t let us get too close.

Something Suzanne Collins does very well is incorporate the dark side of media into her stories while asking readers to critique their own engagement as consumers. (I speak about the books, and not about such things as movie tie-in makeup product campaigns where one can purchase a palette of Capitol-inspired eye shadow without ever considering the absurdity of the optics.) During the 10th Hunger Games recounted in Songbirds and Snakes, the games have been flagging. Coriolanus and his graduating classmates are selected to act as the first ever mentors, and the one who mentors the winner will receive a full ride to university, something Coriolanus desperately wants to leverage for salary and security as well as to cover up his family’s depleted finances. The mentors get a taste of fame when they’re interviewed to break up the coverage of the less-technological (almost analog) competition of the time. The longer a tribute stays in the games, the longer a mentor stays on TV. Even a bad death is good publicity when you understand the power of the screen.

The students are also tasked with coming up with ways to add excitement to the games. Some of the excitement invents itself: Rebels bomb the arena, creating hiding spots that allow the tributes to survive longer than the previous bare-bones venue allowed. But the government solicits the younger generation for new audience engagement schemes; their ideas spin the games toward the future high-tech nightmare. Coriolanus offhandedly suggests betting on the tributes, and this becomes a new initiative that brings in money for the government while ensuring the odds won’t be in any tribute’s favor.

The tributes, too, must work the public’s magnanimity. Lucy Gray, the underdog tribute from District 12 who Coriolanus suspects is assigned to him so that he will lose the games, is a singer, an entertainer—a master storyteller—who is so charismatic, one wonders why Coriolanus of the future doesn’t immediately suspect Katniss Everdeen of manipulation. Of course, for Coriolanus, no one else could be as clever as he. He cannot see that he is a teenager, lacking a mentor, raised in a world with little compassion, blithely throwing out ideas for the games with no regard for humanity. There are no adults in his life who ask him to analyze the results of his ideas for inherent harm, only those who encourage stripping others of their autonomy.

All of Coriolanus’s machinations would be stifling to read about if not for a secondary character that I more than once wished were the protagonist instead. Sejanus Plinth moved to the Capitol from District 2 as a child after his father became wealthy. Though Coriolanus sees the Plinths as hopelessly backward and sneers at their new money, he secretly wants their comfort for himself. Sejanus is, in Coriolanus’s mind, naïve to care about class differences and rebellions when fitting in is the path to safety and power. I’d also have enjoyed the story of a small group that included Sejanus and Coriolanus working through the difference between what they’ve been told to believe in the Capitol and the truth of their world, because realization and awakenings are central to young adult literature and also themes that follow people throughout their lives. Because, again, as we all know, Coriolanus is choosing villainy, and Sejanus is choosing something else.

And, again, it’s not that we can’t or shouldn’t read about villainy, or tragedy—and it is a tragedy when any one of us refuses responsibility to care for others—but why this?

I’m a fast reader, but it took me two months to read all of Songbirds and Snakes; I stalled out just past the halfway point in frustration (and, admittedly, due to life events, social media overload, too much bad TV, work deadlines, a surfeit of email, overdue personal projects, and other distractions). In the meantime, I zipped through a copy of Goldilocks by Laura Lam, which engages with some of the questions I’d been turning over in my mind while trying to figure out the why of this prequel, and that prompted me to finish my read and review project. Surely, there had to be more to Songbirds and Snakes.

I picked the book back up as the 10th games come to a close and Lucy Gray is named victor. Coriolanus should be fine—he’s passed himself off as a clever and kind soul. His education will be paid for. The girl he grew to love over the course of the games (oh, you expected that, didn’t you?) lives. Then, a moment when he gamed the games comes to haunt him. Not all is lost, as he becomes a Peacekeeper to avoid punishment, and asks to be assigned to District 12. It’s not the life he wanted, but perhaps he can make something of it with his love nearby. The reality of life in the districts and the monotony of the military seems at times a soporific routine and at others brings the despair of a bleak, dull, and impoverished future—and then Sejanus reappears. Sejanus, instead of being a model for Coriolanus, is an unwitting catalyst for Coriolanus’s beliefs. Coriolanus doubles down: “The Hunger Games are a reminder of what monsters we are and how we need the Capitol to keep us from chaos.” (343)

As Peacekeeper duties begin, and Coriolanus witnesses his first death at the hanging tree of song in The Hunger Games, he wonders how the rebellion, distant then and underpowered now, survived on anger instead of might. He knows that there used to be a District 13 and it is gone, so he believes that rebellions can be truly stamped out if there is a big enough show of power. The toxicity in him grows. He patrols, gun in hand. In District 12, poverty is everywhere, and he finds it reasonable to blame the poor for their plight. He sees why the Capitol should send money for property over people. It’s Sejanus who questions the Peacekeepers, and as before, Sejanus’s compassion perversely causes Coriolanus to dig in his heels, deny his own misgivings, and further embrace authoritarianism.

In spare hours, Coriolanus spends time with Lucy Gray’s (found) family, the Coveys, a tight-knit group of performers that get by, in their way, with strength and grace. Their story incorporates both old and invented Appalachian music, a real hidden gem for series readers, as we find out how some of Katniss’s songs came to be. Music nerds might know that Appalachian music has many influences, and that late nineteenth and early twentieth century historians avidly traced back snippets of song to sources overseas. Even when the memory of origins was lost, the rhythms and melodies and lyrics remained. In Songbirds and Snakes, the inclusion of songs nods to the other books in the series, set in the future, while reminding us how easily the past is wiped away.

History lost—and suppressed—is doomed to be repeated, and it’s bittersweet to see the cycle of loss and erasure in this plotline.

But back to the Coveys. Even surrounded by a working collaborative effort, Coriolanus can’t comprehend how humans might be kind to one another without force; he thinks that only authority can prevent a descent into disorder. Perhaps that’s the tragedy—the distrust, the lack of empathy, the anger at losing control over others. Perhaps you know a tragedy yourself.

I won’t spoil the ending, other than to say that Coriolanus takes brave actions for himself that also betray the people he claims to care about. I sometimes say that the challenge of being a human is pretending you aren’t an animal. It’s Lucy Gray who sums up for me how one can fail this choice: “You know when you’ve stepped across the line into evil, and it’s your life’s challenge to try and stay on the right side of that line.” (493) The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is Suzanne Collins’s exploration of what happens when one doesn’t care about the right side of the line, especially when good is in danger of being usurped by evil.

It’s in the last pages that I finally find the gut punch, leaving me dazed. Coriolanus is smart. Arrogant. He believes himself exceptional. As a child, I was all of these things; you can draw some weird conclusions from praise and success stories. While I didn’t grow up to be the tyrannical leader of a country that sacrifices children, there is a frightened part of me that recognizes the desire to be in control, to be perfect, to save myself first. I didn’t grow up to be an abjectly horrible person, so what nudged me, over the years, to be more open minded, to be kinder, to lick my wounds and learn from mistakes and try to do better next time?

I don’t have to look far to see people operating with an open lack of empathy and every bad trait I could have exemplified. Every terrible, miserable, alternate-reality version of me.

If someone had known how to tap into my deepest, unspoken fears and offered me everything I wanted, would I have taken their hand?

There it is. Suzanne’s Collins knack for drawing us into the actions of others, and reminding us that the filter of entertainment is no excuse. We must constantly, consistently ask if we are complicit. And we must keep choosing to be on the right side of the line.

G – Bb – A – D.


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. On occasion, she tweets: @hallietibbetts

New Fantasy Books: August 2020

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of August 2020 fantasy book releases by and about women and nonbinary folk. Let us know what you’re looking forward to, or any titles that we’ve missed, in the comments!
 

Casey Blair’s “Women Who Dream Big Dreams” Recommended Reading

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who write reviews and books lists of fantasy and related works by women or nonbinary authors. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review for publication, please email us! Today, we welcome a book list by Casey Blair.


Women in SFF Who Dream Big Dreams and Don’t Let Anyone Stop Them


Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

This is about a girl who has no reason to believe anything is possible but does anyway, and she sets off on a quest to find the answer to happiness. As one does.

A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

An untried but brilliant poet-diplomat thrust into the heart of a galactic empire, with Byzantine politics written by an academic Byzantinist? Yes, you can take my money.

Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword

Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien

This heroine is going to be the very best martial arts skater (yeah, you read that right) like no one ever was. Oh wait, she already is.

The Spirit Thief

The Legend of Eli Monpress series by Rachel Aaron

Pretty much every female character in these books, be she a sorceress, a scientist, a goddess-general or the demonically possessed, is completely uncontainable. Also no one has time for romance.

The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

No spoilers on this book’s heroines, but, uh, if you haven’t read this book yet I don’t know what to tell you other than you really, really should. It’s as stunning of an achievement as everyone says.

Sorcery of Thorns

Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson

This is a heroine who just flatly does not understand giving up—and certainly not when there are magic libraries involved.

An Unkindness of Magicians

An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard

Unraveling institutional oppression with epic tournament battles. That’s it, that’s the pitch.

The Beast Player

The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi

No one is going to stop this quiet heroine from completely changing how the world understands magical creatures.

Unnatural Magic

Unnatural Magic by C.M. Waggoner

Pro tip: Don’t try to keep a genius magic scholar heroine down.

The Candle and the Flame

The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

In a city that’s a dazzling blend of cultural experiences, this story has so many amazing women across walks of life—princess or businesswoman or unstoppable djinn.

Dragonsbane

Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly

This heroine is devoted to her magic work first and foremost—even if she’s not good enough, even if no one else cares, she doesn’t sacrifice what matters to her for family or love or anything. Her children and husband (that’s right, a heroine older than the age of 30! sorcery!) cope.

Spin the Dawn

Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

Gonna be a seamstress and make clothes out of literal magic, nbd.

The Summer Prince

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

In a futuristic post-apocalyptic Brazil, this heroine weaponizes the power and clarity of art for resistance, rebellion, and change.

The Merciful Crown

The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen

This is a heroine with a chip on her shoulder a mile wide who does not know the meaning of letting anything go and will call out and hold absolutely everyone accountable—herself most of all.

The Shadows Between Us

The Shadows Between Us by Tricia Levenseller

This heroine is just straight-up an unabashed villainess, and it is SO MUCH FUN.

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

Being a young dragon when everyone is stronger is hard. Instead, consider getting transformed into an even weaker human and determining to learn all the secrets of chocolate. That will definitely go well.

Empire of Sand

Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Outcast from everywhere and everyone, this is a heroine who makes her own place and changes the world to do it.

And that’s what I want to read more of.


Casey Blair

Casey Blair writes adventurous fantasy novels for all ages, including the novella Consider the Dust and her cozy fantasy serial Tea Princess Chronicles. After graduating from Vassar College, her own adventures have included teaching English in rural Japan, attending the Viable Paradise residential science fiction and fantasy writing workshop, and working as an indie bookseller. She now lives in the Pacific Northwest and can be found dancing spontaneously, exploring forests around the world, or trapped under a cat. For more information, visit her website or her Twitter.

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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