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Peaces is a thoughtful, hilarious adventure of a novel, but in the end, without quite all its pieces

Read with Amy

A number of years ago, I read a book called The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers). It was a wild ride of a book, full of twists and turns, questions and often fruitless interrogations, more game with the reader than traditional reading experience. I finished this book and the friend who was with me at the time asked how it was. I said, with great puzzlement, that I didn’t know what happened in the end. My friend assumed I didn’t like it. I said I didn’t know that either. Three days later, I decided it was genius.

Reading Peaces, Helen Oyeyemi’s newest novel, reminds me of reading The Rabbit Back Literature Society. An omnipresent but missing character, a series of questions answered by nothing more than more questions, a slow but not complete coalescing of patterns. But it’s been more than three days since I finished Peaces, and despite my expansive love for Oyeyemi’s work, I don’t think this one is quite genius.

Let’s begin.

Peaces Helen Oyoyemi

Otto and Xavier Shin, utterly charming thirtysomethings, have recently decided to consummate their love, not with sex (that’s been going on for some time now) or marriage (who needs that?), but with Otto taking Xavier’s last name. In celebration, Xavier’s eccentric aunt gifts them with a “non-honeymoon honeymoon,” a trip on The Lucky Day, a former tea smuggling train. The train is a curiosity, full of strange cars (a mail car, a sauna car) still in use, even though only five people and two mongooses appear to be on board. In the jumble of exploring the train and glimpsing a woman who is either saying hello or asking for help, Otto, Xavier, and pet mongoose Árpád find their cabin, but leave Otto’s suitcase behind on the station platform. The trip isn’t long enough for this to really matter, and Xavier’s seemingly close enough in size—though much is made of Otto’s days of the week boxers.

Oyeyemi’s prose is pure Oyeyemi: peerless in its craft, its trademark insight on brilliant display, with the addition of a heretofore unknown wit.

As Otto and Xavier’s trip begins—and as our trip as readers begins—things are delightful. Otto and Xavier are both singularly likeable: kind, self-aware, somewhat unreliable, hilarious. Oyeyemi’s prose is pure Oyeyemi: peerless in its craft, its trademark insight on brilliant display, with the addition of a heretofore unknown wit. When you have no idea what’s going on in this book—and that will happen several times over—Oyeyemi’s gorgeous, unexpected turn of phrase has more than enough magnetic pull to keep you on track.

As we spend more time on the train, though, things get weird. Your brain is going to want to turn this into an Agatha Christie-esque mystery, and while Oyeyemi presents a mystery, it’s neither the one you think it is, nor is there a dead body. Let’s recalibrate your brain. Oyeyemi is far too much her own force to pay such direct homage to Christie.

As Peaces rolls on, Oyeyemi reveals that the five people on the train—Otto, Xavier, Ava Kapoor (owner of the train and Xavier’s aunt’s friend), Allegra Yu (Ava’s lover), and Laura De Souza (a mysterious agent on behalf of someone with a financial interest in Ava)—all intersect, with ties both expected and inexorable. And through stories and epistles, snippets of information and paintings that reveal themselves differently to each viewer, Oyeyemi also reveals that all five people on the train know—or mysteriously, know of—a sixth character, Premysl Stojaspal, even if they don’t know Prem by name.

While Oyeyemi’s brilliant fabulism pervades Peaces, perhaps even more than it did What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours or Gingerbread, Prem is where that fabulism really comes into play, with shifting identities, cryptic encounters, a burning building, a theremin, a second mongoose, and oh, the fact that Ava Kapoor cannot seem to see Prem, even though everyone else can. This befuddles everyone else, and infuriates Prem, though Ava, without questioning the presence or realness of Prem, seems to take this largely in stride.

What does it mean when the person you most want to perceive you…simply doesn’t?

And in all the muddle of Peaces—Otto and Xavier’s seemingly shared former lover, the man who jumped from the moving train or perhaps never existed at all, the destruction of the dining car with French toast, and more—the crux of Oyeyemi’s work might be this: What does it mean when the person you most want to perceive you…simply doesn’t? When you want so badly to be seen, but you aren’t, at least not by the person who most matters? What does that failure do to your existence?

In the end, I found Oyeyemi’s central theme fascinating, her approach equally so. But while I think she ties her pieces together in the end—why these five people are on this train at this time—through her enigmatic sixth character, I didn’t find that she quite had enough pieces. Part of a jigsaw puzzle, but not the whole. With Oyeyemi, though, maybe that doesn’t matter as much. Her work is always somewhere on the continuum of thought experiment and adventure, and her prose always ushers you through, unwavering in its blazing magnificence, a gorgeous train barreling its way to a point unknown.

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


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

Amy’s Book Club: The Scapegracers

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scapegracers Hannah Abigail Clarke

I have a bit of a thing for the mean-girls trope. I find it, simultaneously, to be a ferociously defiant fuck you to the demand that teenaged girls be submissive, passive, and silent, and an endlessly frustrating manifestation of the tokenism that white women so often enforce in order to control others. Much like my quest for a Bluebeard reinvention that doesn’t simply claim the violence inherent in the patriarchy (and more on that coming in my Sirens presentation this fall), I have read an untold number of books looking for a mean girls book that celebrates teenaged girls’ power without reinforcing patriarchal structures and false narratives.

Enter: The Scapegracers, Hannah Abigail Clarke’s young adult contemporary fantasy with the tag “Party hard. Hex harder.”

And I read it. Of course I read it. For all that I love A. R. Capetta’s The Lost Coast (with its delicate prose, liminal forests and enigmatic witches) and Sara Gailey’s When We Were Magic (with its accidentally-burst-penis opening and indomitable, hope-filled denouement), there’s been a hole in my heart just waiting, waiting, waiting for teen witches aggressive in their rebellion. Teen witches who are more likely to hex someone than disappear among the redwoods—and if a penis bursts, you know damn well that they did it on purpose.

Party hard. Hex harder.

Sideways Pike—teenager, outcast, lesbian, witch—has suddenly hit it bigtime. Used to exchanging small magics for Cokes, she’s about to take center stage at a party—and not just any party, but a Halloween party thrown by Jing, Yates, and Daisy, the school’s queen-bee mean girls. And they are paying her forty whole dollars.

Sideways does her magic, and things go, well, sideways. The magic is too easy, the circle broken too early. A girl disappears, but no one knows that yet. Sideways, buzzing, does more magic to impress a girl. Weird writing appears on the walls. Later that night, four dead deer, and the missing girl—alive—turn up in the bottom of Jing’s empty pool. You’d think that all of this would be the end of a girl’s social life. As if being the weird girl with magic wasn’t enough.

But Clarke’s characters surprise—and refuse the patriarchy’s expectations.

Jing, Yates, and Daisy don’t destroy Sideways, like they certainly could have with barely a thought. Instead they adopt her as their new best friend, a ready fourth, an equal. And while you’ll wait the entire rest of the book for Clarke’s ravenously cruel girl gang to pull the rug out from under Sideways, for things to go horribly wrong, for the false friendship to develop fangs, for Sideways to have to somehow fucking redeem herself back into a good girl, here’s the thing: That never happens. Sideways never wanted to be popular, she didn’t sell her soul for lipstick and a boy, and Clarke couldn’t care less about some patriarchal notion of girls needing to relinquish their power in order to achieve an unnecessary redemption. And Jing, Daisy, and Yates really do like Sideways. These girls become friends—and stay friends. You can take a breath. Clark’s book doesn’t betray its feminism or its readers.

Instead, Clarke’s teenaged girl gang is a revelation: girls who fight, girls who fuck, girls who are smart, girls who are claiming their identities and their power and their ambition. Girls who—maybe not just Sideways—have magic. Glass-shard Jing, violent Daisy, gentler, fiercer Yates, and Sideways, more wild, less sure. Girls who are gorgeous and glittery and gritty all at once.

Clarke does such a magnificent job of crafting such an undeniable sort of epiphany, where powerful girls are just powerful girls and not tools of the never-ending patriarchy, of crafting a feral work full of feelings and uncertainty and too much certainty, with indelible prose that doubles as the occasional gut punch, that the plot (and the acutely uneven pacing) almost doesn’t matter. This is the first of a series so a couple things that feel like dropped threads—the witch hunters, a book that’s something more and maybe has possessed Sideways—aren’t resolved here, but saved for a future installment. But this work is about characters to the exclusion of almost anything else and you’ll love these girls so much, admire them, respect them, that you’ll be back to pick up those dropped threads anyway.


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

11 Masterwork Collections of Speculative Short Fiction

Read With Amy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa
8. Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

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

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

Pinsker’s masterwork—and it is a masterwork—thrives on isolation, nurtures it, consumes it. She has, with great care, woven the inescapable misery of isolation into thread that binds both her craft and your reading experience, a thin line where that isolation becomes desolation, where people cling fervently to hope, and when a single moment of human connection could have changed a life. Her stories are lonely, yearning, destructive, elegiac. Her collection is loss made tangible, in ink and paper.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Read With Amy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Amy’s Book Club: On Politeness and Monstrousness

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I am a sucker for fantasy books about teenaged girls as monster hunters. I buy them all. I read them all.

I dislike them all.

I dislike every, single, last one of them.

Don’t, I beg you, hold it against the books. Monstrousness—and especially the monstrous feminine—is a topic very near and very dear to my heart. Societies around the world have for millennia been all too happy to strip women of their power—any power—by recasting it as monstrous. It doesn’t matter if their power is born of transgression against prohibitive societal expectations or, conversely, conforming all too well. Power born of speaking up and speaking out or power born of being too compliantly pretty or too enthusiastically sexy are villainized equally. And heavens if myths, legends, and speculative stories from around the globe don’t have a ready monster for every transgressive female trait. If the furies are monsters, then women’s anger is monstrous. If the harionago are monsters, then every cute girl with amazing hair is monstrous. If the succubi are monsters, then women’s rapacious pleasure must be monstrous, too.

The problem with all these books about teenaged girls as monster hunters, of course—which we are not holding against them—is that they’re a bit too invested in that Nietzsche quote. You know the one: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Easy enough, I suppose, for Nietzsche to engage in a bit of performative hand-wringing about the potential for monster-hunters to become monsters themselves. Easy enough, I suppose, when popular opinion is that, despite all evidence to the contrary, only those with vaginas are categorically monstrous.

And easy enough, I suppose, for authors to consider that quote and come down on the side of writing books where girls who fight monsters carefully choose not to become monsters themselves.

But what I want are stories about the women who fight monsters, and yes, become monsters themselves. Because what society deems monstrous in a woman is, by definition, damned near everything brave or bold or brilliant. If we fight back against the monsters that prey on us, we are deemed, by definition, monsters ourselves. We are the furies, the harionago, the succubi, the sirens. We are the witches, the banshees, the vampires, the kumiho. We are the yōkai, the crones, the she-wolves, la llorona.

We are monsters. We should never choose otherwise.

Despite my very firm convictions on this topic (as evidenced by my desire to graffiti “suck it” on the Nietzsche family crypt), not everyone agrees with me. So I keep reading these books. These books about teenaged girls as monster hunters that, for all their monsters and violence and gore, are very polite books with respect to the topic of monstrousness. And while we are not holding that against the books, perhaps you can imagine why I find these books so dissatisfying.

And perhaps you can imagine why I find these books so especially dissatisfying as they consider the monstrousness, or lack thereof, of teenaged girls. We are very quick, societally, to judge teenaged girls: how they talk, how they dress, what they like, how they spend their money, how they date, how they have sex, how they do this and that and every other damned thing in their lives. How much we must fear them, to judge them like we do.

No demographic needs to claim their monstrousness more than teenaged girls.

And instead, what authors of young-adult fantasy works continue to feed them is a steady diet of Nietzschean prescription: carefully constructed stories where they are prey, always prey, but never monsters, and in fact must take great care to never become monsters. These are instructional manuals about killing only the most overt of monsters, the ones who would rip your throat out, but never those that would deny your full humanity. These are instructional manuals about using only the tools that society has approved for you, never all the tools at your disposal. These are instructional manuals about #NotAllMen. But never, not once are these instructional manuals about how to become fearsome and powerful and self-determining and fucking monstrous.

There is, of course, a book—or a hundred books—underlying this review. But since we are not holding all these very polite narratives against the books themselves, it hardly seems fair to pick on the one that I happen to have read most recently or the one that makes me the most furious or the one that I remember the best. If you want that sort of story, that sort of polite service to an avoidance of monstrousness, those books are horrifyingly easy to find.

But if you want something with more teeth, more fang and claw, less politeness and more power, then I’ll let you know when I find it.

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


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

Katherine May’s Wintering is the book I needed during this pandemic

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times

Just over a year ago, I was in a borrowed office in Miami running financial models with a colleague when I learned that my company, due to COVID-19, had grounded us from all nonessential travel. I wondered how long it would last, since I was supposed to be in New York in a couple weeks and I didn’t want to miss that trip: I had tickets to SIX, a Broadway musical about Henry VIII’s wives reimagined as, more or less, the Spice Girls.

The next day, sitting in that same office with that same colleague, I learned that the company had grounded us from all travel. I do not live in Miami. I had to explain to my company’s travel department that I needed an exception: I needed to go home.

Exactly a year ago, I sat terrified in a crowded gate at the Fort Lauderdale Airport. None of us wore masks. I was perhaps the only person on that plane with antibacterial wipes. The plane was packed. When I landed in Denver, I got in my car and stopped at the grocery store on the way home: for soup, Gatorade, and medicine. Certain that the onset of COVID-19 symptoms was imminent, I was prepared to become very, very sick. Alone.

I did not get sick, but over the last year, my well-being, like everyone’s, has vacillated. Some days are fine. Some days are desperately terrible. I could write a book about companies’ behavior in a public health crisis as a microcosm of late-stage capitalism. I have never worked harder in my life: alone in my house for twelve months. And while my own personal desolation is isolation, I know that for others it’s impossibility: the impossibility of caring for elderly relatives or trying to manage virtual school for kids; the impossibility of trying to work in a studio apartment; the impossibility of trying to weather serious illness.

I vacillate wildly between tears and rage. I, whose constant rage muffles all other feelings, vacillate wildly between tears and rage.

On a plane to Miami, just over a year ago, I made myself read, despite my burnout—which is so profound that it’s practically a lifestyle—a book called Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski. This is the last book I read before the onset of the pandemic, and I needed it. Without blaming people for their burnout, as we are wont to do, it talks about the physiology of stress and how, even if your stressors are immutable, you can tell your body that it’s safe, that it can stop its fight-or-flight response. (Hint: The answer to everything is, always, exercise or human touch. Sorry.)

But while Burnout was the book that I needed a year ago—and the book I recommended to just about everyone last year—it wasn’t the book that I needed during the pandemic.

That book was Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May.

Before you stop reading, Wintering is not, in any way, a book about self-care. I find the idea of self-care, in its current incarnation, as yet another source of guilt for the already stressed and anxious people who are somehow supposed to find time to indulge an industry, not so different from the beauty industry, built on the idea that accomplished women can somehow have it all, despite the absolute mountain of demands on their time and energy. If bubble baths work for you, that’s terrific. But I hope that you don’t feel guilty for not finding time for a glass of wine and face mask when the kids are screaming and the house is a disaster and work keeps calling you over Microsoft Teams.

Instead, Wintering is about, well, wintering, which May describes as “a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress or cast into the role of an outsider.” The catalyst for May’s collection of creative nonfiction is a series of events in her life—things that could happen to anyone—that coalesced into something larger: her husband’s appendicitis that resulted in a ruptured appendix, her own stomach issues that left her unable to work, her son’s anxiety that prevented him from attending school. We can’t control life, and May’s changed, in unexpected ways, which left her feeling unmoored and unsettled.

Rather than dismissing her challenges as “somehow silly, a failure of nerve, a lack of willpower,” May speaks eloquently about the idea of leaning into hard times as a crucible, something that may burn as you pass through, but will release a different you in the end. The idea of wintering is, of course, nothing more—nor less—than finding not so much the time, but the focus to feel your feelings, to understand what your psyche and your soul are traversing, to allow yourself the space to feel sad, or desperate, or confused, or furious. It’s a gentle, lovely admonishment that life will happen, whether we will it or no, and that trying to resist it, to control it, may make us feel safer for a while, but will not help us burn brighter in the end. As May says, “We may never choose to winter, but we can choose how.”

Comparing our own times of trouble—of isolation or grief or rage—to winter is, I found, ultimately beneficial. Winter, after all, is a cyclical period, a necessary period, something during which people hunker down, but that in the end gives way to a world reborn. So, too, are our hard times, our fallow periods, cyclical, though they may not seem so when the world is darkest.

Wintering is a beautiful book, born of sadness and despair and pain, but also a determination to meet one’s personal hardships with acceptance and self-knowledge and the understanding that these deeply heartrending periods, these times when life is hardest, are also opportunities for self-reflection and growth.

I found, as I read Wintering during not only a year when virtually everyone experienced a personal winter, but during the literal darkest time of the year, that May’s thoughtful work confirmed what I’ve found during my life. My growth—my becoming smarter or kinder or more determined or more certain—has always occurred during difficult periods: of uncertainty, of grief, of fear. May’s work was a powerfully validating collection for me, and as we attempt to collectively survive a pandemic that affects us all in the most personal of ways, I hope it might be for you, too.

Before each conference, 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!

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

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.

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.

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

Hearing the Siren Call in Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water

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, Faye Bi reviews Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water!

To my fellow Sirens,

It’s not a surprise to any of you that I claim the act of reading as revolutionary.

We know that reading is more than literacy and comprehension. We know that it’s about stories. Who tells them, who gets paid to tell them, and who can make a living off telling them. Whose books get more promotional budget online and off, whose books get placed front and center at bookstores and libraries, whose books get taught in schools instead of being outside reading, and whose books get revered as “great literature.” This discussion is not new to us. But you might be wondering, what can I do? I can’t singlehandedly force all these institutions and corporations to reckon with their racist, sexist, colonialist pasts.

But there is a lot we can do. So much we can do. While I am furious and dismayed on a daily basis, I control one realm entirely: Me. What I choose to read. What I choose to review. What I choose to recommend. What books I choose to buy and where I choose to buy them. And I know—like I hope you all do—that reading critically is an act of resistance.

And so, I am reviewing Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water for you, Sirens community. And I am reviewing it here, for Sirens, where I am not limited by wordcount or editing or pearl-clutching, and I can tell you exactly what I think.

A Song Below Water

A Song Below Water is set in Portland, featuring two Black teenage girls: Tavia, who is a siren, a group of magical people maligned for its association with Black women; and Effie, who plays Euphemia the Mer in the local Ren Faire and has a mysterious skin condition that is somehow linked to her childhood trauma. Effie currently lives with Tavia and her parents, and so the two are sisters, supporting and looking out for each other as they navigate family, school, life, secrets, and literal Black girl magic to save themselves.

To begin, Tavia’s siren identity is an elegant metaphor for being one of the most vulnerable in society. The book opens with a girl murdered by her boyfriend, and because of that girl’s suspected siren identity, her boyfriend will likely be acquitted. Because sirens are only Black women (but not all Black women are sirens), they are perceived as dangerous—and if you recall your lore, a siren’s voice can lure people into doing things against their will. That means sirens have incredible power, but because people fear Black women, sirens’ voices are literally stifled and silenced. There’s that girl on the reality show, for instance, who voluntarily uses a siren collar—designed to silence her voice and her power—to make others “feel safe” around her, and another Black girl, Naema, who wears one as a joke.

But can you imagine using a siren voice as a Black teenaged girl, when, say, the police pull you over?

Effie has her own grief to grapple with. She’s human as far as she knows despite her shedding skin, but she grew up without a father, and her only connection to her mother is that they both played mermaids at the local Ren Faire. Not only must she deal with the large gargoyle keeping watch over her and her grandparents’ continuing to keep family secrets from her, she’s known in the community as “Park Girl”—due to being the sole survivor of a mysterious attack when she was nine where all the other children were turned to stone. Now these “statues” are practically an attraction in a weird Portland tourist campaign, which underscores in a twisted way the variety of methods Black bodies are used for entertainment and how others trivialize her pain.

Morrow’s social critique is devastating, for all the reasons I detail above, but also because she lays out the emotional harm done by “well-meaning” allies, who are white, other races, and other magical identities.

An interesting foil for people of color or other marginalized groups is elokos—dwarf-like creatures who ring charismatic bells to lure human prey and then eat them. In Morrow’s world, elokos are a more socially accepted class of magical being, to the point that they hold political power, especially in Portland, which has attracted a significant eloko population because of that power. Tavia dates Priam, an eloko boy, before the start of the book, and in the best face-palming passage, she recounts the moment they broke up: when Priam bit her neck while kissing, and Tavia launched into an in-depth explanation on why that didn’t bother her despite eloko mythology. But on a more serious note, there are examples of Tavia and Effie at a police brutality protest with other honor students (of course, chaperoned by white parents!) that made me shiver and weep, and I could write an entire essay about Naema, another Black girl and also an eloko, who illustrates the trap of the model minority myth. Naema is especially fascinating as she is one of few outright villains on the page.

But besides pain and critique, there’s joy. Black joy. Tavia and Effie’s sister bond is strong and wonderful to read, and they are each other’s refuge when everyone else around them has failed them. Repeatedly. Not just allies, but also their families, other Black girls, and Black men. There’s a lovely scene at the climax of the book, where the two of them are in a mystical forest setting with lives on the line and literal chaos happening around them, and what do they do? Have a heart-to-heart about their emotional wellbeing.

Morrow brilliantly uses this mythos of sirens, gargoyles, elokos, sprites, mermaids, and magic to examine what it’s like to be a Black girl in America.

And with it, she seamlessly and ambitiously unpacks intersectionality, racism, sexism, police brutality, protesting, affirmative action, gentrification, education, beauty standards, and more. She calls out people who admire and consume Black culture but don’t see the pain of Black creators, and those who call themselves “woke” but are horrified and immobilized when their eyes are opened. I found the density of revelations to be necessarily challenging—and that effort allowed me to appreciate the skill involved in the telling. You know already that this book isn’t newly relevant in the summer of 2020, and that the protests, the pain, the violence, and the disenfranchisement of Black bodies and Black livelihood has been going on for a long, long time.

Tavia and Effie work together to save themselves because they have to. No one will do it for them. If you see parallels to Morrow’s sirens in your real life, I see your pain. I see it and am horrified, but I will do everything in my power so your voice can be heard, because you live these horrors daily. If you, like me, are not a Black girl, A Song Below Water is a call to action. There’s so much to do. Wherever you are on your journey to antiracism, this book is a part of it.

Let’s get to work.


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

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