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Six Contemporary Twists on Non-Western Myths

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women or nonbinary authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we’re introduced to six contemporary twists on non-western myths by writer and indie bookseller Casey Blair.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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

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

Bunny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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

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

This is How You Lose the Time War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lily Weitzman is a programming, outreach, and communications librarian at the Public Library of Brookline, MA. That means that on any given day, she might be found leading a poetry reading group, managing the science fiction and fantasy collections, teaching technology skills, or helping you find the title of that book you heard about on public radio. She has previously worked on a Yiddish oral history project and volunteered as an aquarium educator. Outside the library, Lily chairs the Yiddish Committee at Boston Workers’ Circle.

 

Casey’s World Guide to Non-Western Fantasy

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women or nonbinary authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we follow writer and indie bookseller Casey Blair on a world tour of some of her favorite non-western fantasy books in this book list.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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

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

The Dark Realm

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

A YA fantasy recommendation for every Star Wars Episode, in story order

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

I fell in love with Star Wars very late to the game. The fandom always felt so unattainable—there was too much I could never learn, could never get right, could never be a part of so I never gave it a chance.

I began watching the movies for the first time this year because I wanted to understand the love so many of my friends have for the franchise. At first, it was just as I feared—I didn’t get it. There was so much unfamiliar to me in A New Hope (1977) that it was hard to wrap my head around the story. Then, one day, as I drove home after watching Return of the Jedi (1983)—Darth Vader’s death still heavy in my mind—I had the shocking realization that, holy crap, I think I actually, accidentally love this thing.

So much about what I love about Star Wars is what I love about YA fantasy—court intrigue, gray morality, coming-of-age narratives, banter, worldbuilding with stories centered around characters, and themes of hope. With that in mind, give me your favorite Skywalker Saga movie, and I’ll recommend a recent YA fantasy novel for you to read!

 

Girls of Paper and Fire
1. Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) / Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan (2018)

In Girls of Paper and Fire, the Demon King chooses eight human girls a year to be his concubines, his Paper Girls. Only a few years after demon raiders took her mother, seventeen-year-old Lei is kidnapped by demons for her supposedly lucky golden eyes. With her father under threat, Lei agrees to become the ninth Paper Girl.

Like Anakin, Lei is a slave who discovers her own inner power and fights for what she believes in. Bonus points: birth pendants with words that describe your future, magical castes based on animal characteristics, and Lei doesn’t ask her badass female love interest if she’s an angel.

Descendant of the Crane
2. Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) / Descendant of the Crane by Joan He (2019)

Princess Hesina of Yan must solve the mystery of who murdered her father. Desperate, she commits treason by asking a soothsayer, a magic-user, for help. With her life at risk, she uncovers secret after secret as she tries to rule the divided kingdom she inherited.

This novel has it all: political intrigue, evil lurking in unexpected places, and occasional flirting. Sound familiar? Attack of the Clones is basically YA fantasy as it is. Bonus points: endless mysteries and plot twists, characters who surprise you, and a morally ambiguous protagonist.

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
3. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) / Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao (2017)

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is an East Asian retelling of the “Snow White” fairytale that’s centered around the Evil Queen’s rise to power. Xifeng, a peasant girl, has been told that her destiny is greatness. Desperate to get away from her abusive mother and embrace her destiny, she struggles between choosing to do what is right and what will lead her to the future she’s always wanted.

Like Anakin, Xifeng loses a first love, questions her morality, and hurts innocent people on her path to evil. Bonus points: gorgeous prose, a villain protagonist, and immersive details that make a well-known fairytale feel new again.

Children of Blood and Bone
4. Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) / Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (2018)

Years ago magic disappeared, and the ruthless king of Orïsha killed many of the now powerless magi. Those left of the white-haired magi became second-class citizens who live in constant fear of losing their livelihoods. When teenage magi Zélie learns how to restore magic, she goes on a quest that challenges what she’s always been told: to stay out of trouble, to stay quiet, to never speak out against injustice because of what could happen to her if she does.

Like A New Hope, this story contains a determined but inexperienced protagonist, a rebel princess, and an oppressive government. Bonus points: fantastic action scenes, immersive world building, and complex relationships.

Labyrinth Lost
5. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) / Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova (2017)

Alex hates magic. The problem for her is that she’s an Encantrix, the most powerful kind of witch there is. Scared of her growing powers, she tries to cast a spell to erase her magic. Instead, she accidentally makes her family disappear. To save her family, she’ll have to travel to an in-between world and trust a stranger she can’t quite trust.

Like Luke, Alex learns about her family as she explores new worlds and navigates a love triangle. Bonus points: portal fantasy, a bisexual witch, and worldbuilding woven with Latinx-based mythology.

Carry On
6. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) / Carry On by Rainbow Rowell (2017)

For a Chosen One, you’d think magic school student Simon Snow would spend more time practicing his not-so-great spellcasting and less time obsessing over his vampire roommate nemesis Baz who he is definitely not in love with.

Carry On has so much of what’s great about Return of the Jedi: Bicker-flirting, unexpected twists, and a protagonist who reexamines what it means to be the Chosen One. Bonus points: spells based off language evolution, A+ slow-burn enemies-to-lovers romance, and trope reinventions.

Blanca & Roja
7. Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) / Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore (2018)

The del Cisne family is cursed. In every generation, two sisters are born, and one sister is doomed to be taken by the swans and become one of them. Blanca and Roja del Cisne know it will be Roja who is chosen to become a swan. After all, Blanca is sweet and gentle, and Roja is angry and stubborn. Still, they’ll do anything in their power to make sure Roja isn’t taken. But the swans have tricks up their wings.

Just as The Force Awakens reflects A New Hope, Blanca & Roja reflects the fairytale “Snow White and Rose Red” with themes involving friendship, family, and rebellion. Bonus points: lyrical prose, murderous swans, and queer characters.

In Other Lands
8. Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) / In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan (2017)

The Borderlands aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Sure, there’s elves, harpies, and mermaids. But in the Borderlands, kids from our world are trained to protect the magical one. A pacifist like Elliot isn’t exactly into the idea of kid soldiers. Or kids his age in general.

Just like The Last Jedi, In Other Lands’s main character Elliot is divisive. And like The Last Jedi, this book breaks away from traditions in genre. Similarly to Rey, Elliot’s worldview is challenged throughout his time in the Borderlands as he reexamines his place in the world and his relationships to other people. Bonus points: laugh-out-loud funny, trope reinventions; matriarchal elves; and enemies-to-lovers queer relationship with A+ awkward flirting.


When Maria Dones isn’t writing stories about angry girls armed with magic, you can find her playing tabletop games or befriending other people’s pets. She recently graduated from the University of Kansas with an MFA in Fiction, and she’s had YA short fiction published in Cicada, Gingerbread House, and Inaccurate Realities: Love.

 

April Daniels’s Dreadnought doesn’t care what boxes you try to shove it in

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

Dreadnought

Dreadnought is the angry, hurt, determined, super-powered girl book my soul desperately needed, offering fierce hope to combat a world where it’s so easy to get overwhelmed into apathy.

As a trans girl who is not out to her family, 15-year-old Danny Tozer has a plan: keep quiet, survive, and get out at 18. But when the world’s most powerful superhero transfers his powers to her before dying in her arms, everything changes. Part of Dreadnought’s powers is their body becomes their ideal self. Other Dreadnoughts got taller or broader; Danny has her dream transition. She also has all the powers any superhero fangirl could want.

But things aren’t that simple. Dreadnought’s superhero team is divided about accepting Danny, her family is trying to “fix” her, and even her best friend is acting weird. Danny realizes just because your dreams come true, doesn’t mean the world will celebrate you. On top of that, Dreadnought’s killer is still on the loose, and any supervillain able to take out the world’s greatest superhero is bound to hit a new one like a hurricane.

Dreadnought is the very best of what the realist superhero genre can offer, delving into heroism, trauma, and acceptance both within and without. The story never takes the easy way out. Often a narrative of overcoming is portrayed as one sweeping upward arc. Here, however, Danny revels in her power and self-love in one scene, only to have her father harangue her into a ball of self-hate the next. Just because you’ve claimed your self-worth doesn’t mean you always feel worthy, and it’s beautiful to have a book recognize that so clearly. A note: Transphobia shows up in many forms in the book, from violence to microaggressions, but by centering Danny, it feels like the author is reaching to trans readers to show they are not alone and their experiences are not trivial.

The exploration of Danny’s powers is similarly nuanced. Slingshot from helpless and hurt to one of the most powerful people on the planet, she faces dangerous temptations and a great mental toll, although those themes are more deeply explored in the book’s sequel, Sovereign. (As is the romance, but no spoilers about that.)

Dreadnought also delivers what I love most about sci-fi/fantasy: tremendous world-building. In the book, powers have been around a while but in 1944, Dreadnought appeared with greater powers than ever seen, becoming the first superhero. More followed, and then, as is wont to happen, supervillains. But this isn’t just backstory duct-taped to our world. It is woven into modern society. There are government-licensed superheroes with support and funding based on success-rates, and vigilantes technically breaking the law but largely ignored in the face of super villains. There are also people with abilities who look at life-endangering superhero work and decide to take a job as a well-paid flying courier instead. Sirens go off when a super-powered battle goes on so people can flee to shelters, and there’s a semi-annual superhero convention in Antarctica. There are also the little realistic details, like when Danny doesn’t use a car like a baseball bat because modern cars are designed to crumple as gently as possible. (Rip the engine out, though, and you’ve got yourself a proper weapon.) It feels like the tip of the iceberg we see on the page is tiny compared to the amount of thought and research that went into it, really focusing on the consequences of these changes to our world.

Add in some of the best fight scenes in the superhero genre, and that includes movies. I’m particular about my fight scenes: they must be tied to the plot, they must have an emotional impact or drive, and they must make enough sense that even if you pick apart every move slowly, it’s believable. Dreadnought is brilliant at this. (I did feel the sequel got a little glutted with fight scenes, but honestly it was all worth it for the final battle.)

The book is YA, but the kind that people who don’t normally like YA might love. And the kind some devoted YA readers might balk at. This goes double for the sequel, which dives out of high school and deeper into the world of professional superheroism. But much like the duology’s determined protagonist, Dreadnought doesn’t care what boxes you try to shove it in. It is exactly what it is meant to be, and that is glorious.

This is April Daniels’ debut novel and she has made me an eager fan. She is reportedly working on the third book, and I’ll be ready to pre-order.


Amy Boggs currently works in contracts and previously was a literary agent. She is a devoted fan of fantasy, science fiction, and all the wibbly-wobbly of speculative art. In her spare time, she tiptoes through fandom and rants about media on Twitter @notjustanyboggs.

 

Embracing Demons for The Fame in Skip Beat! Volume 1 by Yoshiki Nakamura

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we welcome a review from Bethany Powell on Yoshiki Nakamura’s Skip Beat! Volume 1.

Skip Beat! Volume 1

I started reading Skip Beat! about a decade ago with the same sort of sheepish self-indulgence that I picked up most shojo manga. I’m drawn to manga both for nostalgia value (I didn’t read manga as a teen, but I lived in Japan as a teen) and for the kind of unstinting wish fulfillment that fuels it. Now I’m unafraid to say the series is one of my favorite long-form stories ever. It doesn’t avoid the tropes that make manga so fluffy and readable, by any means. Superficially, it’s a delightful story of a girl fighting to succeed in show business, and everything I love about a showbiz story can be found here. Skip Beat! embraces tropes with the kind of loving attention that elevates them. The real core of the story, however, is about a girl discovering her own darkness and the power it can give her.

The first volume of Skip Beat! commences as it will go on: with a surface-level recognizable trope swiftly layered with something more complex. Kyoko Mogami greets customers and competently takes their orders at “Mozburger” with the kind of cheery compliance that promises a worthy heroine. This is, of course, only one of her multiple part-time jobs, further suggesting her hard-luck status. As she changes to get to her second food-service gig (which indicates the kind of grit this girl has) she overhears with pleasure a coworker admitting to switching idols for the emerging musician Sho. Her fangirl pride, however, is swiftly overridden by a darker energy when she finds out there was a poster giveaway for the album. She bought two copies, and got zero posters. The escalation of her desire and panic frightens her coworkers, unsettling in the prosaic world of part-time locker rooms.

Kyoko tears across Tokyo, commandeering a gangster’s bicycle through sheer spiritual intensity, and rushes to the music store in half the time it should have taken. She frightens the staff of the store as she drags herself in like a vengeful spirit, only to transform back again into the effervescent girl as soon as she touches her posters. Even so, the image of her crazed determination lingers. Is this just an exaggerated portrait of a fan? Or does Kyoko have something else going on?

By the end of this chapter, the latent powers suggested in this sequence are released by a betrayal that cuts so deep, she swears off love forever. Much more importantly, she vows to have vengeance with an unholy energy that propels the rest of the story, complete with little demonic manifestations. And I love this.

Kyoko isn’t asked by this narrative to overcome her hatred, or to put her scary dark power away. She isn’t here to learn to love again. She has begun a journey toward something much scarier: realizing her own power in that darkness. To eventually find love for herself, darkness and all. Even that is only once she chooses it, and is many volumes down the road. For now, Kyoko has freed her demons to fuel her, as she chases something for herself for the first time ever. Sure, the current impetus is to humiliate someone who has wronged her, but we all have to start somewhere. Why can’t a girl’s journey to self-actualization be kicked off by swearing to achieve some as-yet-undetermined celebrity?

I love any story where the protagonist has to face up to the uglier emotions of being human, and move on from there. This is one of the core facets of Skip Beat! that I keep reading for. I also am constantly delighted by the way no character is left as a two-dimensional trope. For example, Kyoko’s first rival is a young woman who is arrogant and unlikeable, trying to push Kyoko down on her way to the top. After they both fail an audition, they develop an unlikely alliance and later become true friends. Kyoko is someone who can learn from her enemies as well as friends, and many of her friends are former enemies.

Nor does this story forget the girl Kyoko used to be. This might be another reason this story has my heart—despite her grudge-demon activated powers, Kyoko is also still the girl who had a masterful customer service facade. (One that later gets a lot more significance from her background.) That cheerful tenacity and tendency to be polite are still valued, even as she cultivates the powers of her hatred, too. It’s way more relatable that she still has both sides, even though she has dedicated her life to achieving fame to prove her nemesis wrong.

Skip Beat! continues to unfold a story where emotions have power, none of them are shameful, and integrating them offers the ability both to go on after heartbreak and to improve as a performer. If a girl and her demons are both determined enough, even the toughest showbiz challenge can’t keep them down.


Bethany Powell stumbled into speculative verse on the isolated plains of Oklahoma and has been in a fateful relationship with it ever since. Poems from this union have recently appeared in Asimov’s, Liminality, and the solarpunk anthology Sunvault. More are forthcoming, and all can be found at bethanypowell.com Bethany is also a certified health coach who specializes in writers—helping them finesse their lifestyles and habits to support creativity long-term. Learn more at unlockcoaching.com

 

Comics: Not Just for Superheroes

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

These are recent or currently running comics I’ve really enjoyed, all by creators who both write and illustrate the works. There’s a wide range of styles, both visual and narrative, which gives a small sampling of some of the amazing variety in sequential art. If you want to expand your horizons beyond spandex and punching, here are some books that offer excellent options.

 

Delicious in Dungeon
1. Delicious in Dungeon by Ryoko Kui

This fantasy series follows a team of adventurers as they descend into a magical dungeon full of traps and monsters. It sounds like a very standard setup, except that along the way, they find that the best means to survive is to cook and eat the creatures they encounter. For some—like Laios, the excitable human fighter—this is a dream come true, as each beast provides a new culinary delight. But for others—like Marcille, the skeptical elven magician—this is super gross and very, very weird. No matter their views on food, though, the adventurers must hurry to rescue one of their own before it’s too late. And as they go deeper into the dungeon, unusual provisions might be the least of their worries.

The effortless humor and incredible art (not to mention the surprisingly realistic recipes) set this apart from many other D&D-inspired works. Although the series does play with fantasy tropes, it’s much more than an RPG parody. As the plot continues, Kui deftly raises the stakes, but the comedy never takes a back seat to the thrills. The well-rounded characters and engaging story made me laugh, gasp, and eagerly look forward to the next volume. (As of this writing, six volumes have been released in English.) It also made me really hungry, so plan to read these books with plenty of snacks on hand.

The Chancellor and the Citadel
2. The Chancellor and the Citadel by Maria Capelle Frantz

This is a short but lovely read, set in a ruined world after a nameless catastrophe, where the Chancellor is the mysterious guardian of civilization’s last stronghold. Though she tries her best to protect everyone, things go awry, and her friend Olive might have to help despite not having the Chancellor’s power. But it’s no easy task when the precarious safety of the Citadel is threatened from outside… and within.

Frantz’s richly textured art creates an immersive realm of light and dark, bringing nuance to her story of fear, trust, and community. There’s a kind of coziness and charming strangeness in the setting, which draws you in even as Frantz leaves much to the imagination: What are the tiny ghost-like creatures that swarm curiously around? If the residents of the Citadel aren’t human, what are they? What exactly happened to the world? But these elements add to the interest, and encourage you to spend time enjoying the details of her evocative drawings.

On a Sunbeam
3. On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

In this queer coming-of-age story, two timelines unfold the experiences of uncertain teen Mia, one when she meets her friend Grace at an interstellar boarding school, and the other, five years later, where she joins a space-faring crew for her first job. Both threads follow Mia’s developing relationships with Grace and her crewmates, and eventually the two come together as Mia reaches a new point in her life.

On a Sunbeam was originally serialized as a webcomic, but reads as a seamless whole in its collected book form. Walden’s gentle storytelling is beautifully complemented by her atmospheric and meditative art. She presents a surreal setting—vast halls floating in glittering space, fish-shaped ships swimming through the darkness, a total but unremarked-on absence of men—with simple matter-of-factness. And like how the extraordinary is juxtaposed with the mundane, Walden matches dreamlike visuals with vivid, relatable emotions. As Walden explores familiar themes of loss, belonging, and growing up, she provides a quietly fantastical space to give shape to the way a young girl finds herself.

When I Arrived at the Castle
4. When I Arrived at the Castle by Emily Carroll

It begins with a dark and stormy night, but nothing else about this book is cliche. A catlike woman comes to the lair of a dangerous Countess, and the ensuing encounter rapidly descends into a seductive nightmare of guilt, fear, and rage. (Content warning for some gore/body horror—while not excessive, this comic might not be for the more squeamish.)

Carroll’s latest book is a prime example of her gorgeous, fairy tale-inflected horror. Her lush art spills across the pages, mostly in black and white, except for interjections of visceral red. As Carroll blends the erotic and the macabre, the imagery veers from decadent elegance to grotesque monstrousness. It’s the perfect medium for this sensual, unnerving story where ambiguous relationships and fractured histories make for a disorienting yet relentlessly eerie mood. There are no clear roles, the sense of urgency wanes into lassitude then flares back to dire intensity, and in the end, we’re left unsure of the outcome. Yet while there’s no tidy conclusion, there is still a certain grim satisfaction in knowing that something has changed, and the story could continue, but in a different way.

O Human Star
5. O Human Star by Blue Delliquanti

Al was an inventor who died before he could see his pioneering work in robotics come to fruition. But sixteen years after his death, he wakes up in a synthetic body exactly like his old one, and finds that humans and robots live in society together. As Al tries to figure out what has happened to him, he reunites with his former partner Brendan, now a respected inventor in his own right. Meeting Brendan also introduces Al to Sulla, a robot girl who closely resembles Al. As they work to uncover the mystery behind Al’s new life, they learn more about themselves and their relationships with each other.

This long-running webcomic is approaching its conclusion online, so now is a good time to get caught up; there are two books which collect chapters 1 through 5. (As of this writing, chapter 7 is underway, and the forthcoming 8th chapter will be the last.) Delliquanti has carefully crafted a suspenseful, intriguing story with two timelines—the past, where Al is still alive, and the present, where he is resurrected as a robot—building and reflecting on each other as they gradually converge. The clean, expressive art makes it easy to follow the sometimes complex plot, and conveys the emotional depth necessary for a work that examines identity in a profound and personal way. Delliquanti’s story delves into issues of sexuality and gender, not shying away from heartaches and struggles, but also warmly celebrating the joys of self-discovery. Along with the solid writing, the thoughtful character development and worldbuilding make this one of my favorite ongoing comics.


Lani Goto grew up on a steady diet of fantasy books, but now it’s more like a mix of some fantasy, lots of science fiction, and a bit of horror. In addition to reading, they enjoy cooking, hanging out with animals, and yelling at movies. They have a degree in art, and another in comics, though they currently work with engineering teams at the Wikimedia Foundation.

 

The problem of what comes after the end in epic fantasy is as old as epic fantasy itself…

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

The Afterward

E.K. Johnston’s The Afterward (Dutton, 2019) is something of an odd duck in the current YA field, starting with its intentional 90s throwback cover. Although it’s explicitly cast in the vein of epic fantasy that was so popular then, and the book is dedicated to David and Leigh Eddings, the patron saints of latter day epic fantasy, it’s also a book about what comes after the endings of most traditional epic fantasy—namely, what happens once the world has been saved and the heroes find themselves still having to make their way in that world.

The book opens a year after a band of seven brave companions saved the world from the cursed godsgem: one of them is now Queen of Cadrium, others are retired or doing other things, but Apprentice Knight Kalanthe Ironheart and thief Olsa Rhetsdaughter have fallen right back into what they were doing before the quest. Although they have clearly outgrown those roles, there doesn’t seem to be anything else for them to do: Olsa was able to clear her debt to the thief guild, but as she has no other skills she is now an independent contractor, putting her in an arguably worse position, and Kalanthe is now awkwardly treated like a knight without having the actual rank of a knight. Both of them are isolated from their former peers, and they’re not getting along with each other too well either, despite the fact that they fell in love over the course of the quest. It seems like the setup for a queer and happy ending, but Kalanthe isn’t from a wealthy family, and she must marry a wealthy spouse to clear the debts she took on training for knighthood. For her part, Olsa’s fame means she is being set up as the fall guy for every job she takes, and she’s all too aware that she’ll end up in the noose sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, there are hints that the threat of the godsgem is not entirely ended; the “after” action unfolds alongside slices of what happened “before” the quest’s conclusion.

The problem of what comes after the end in epic fantasy is as old as epic fantasy itself; Tolkien himself began, and then abandoned, a “new peril arises in Minas Tirith!” tale set early in the Fourth Age, rightly recognizing that nothing could really live up to the threat of Sauron. Johnston’s solution to focus on the domestic and make the renewed peril of the Big Bad the secondary plotline largely works, partly because the question of whether Kalanthe will be able to follow her heart or whether she will have to enter into a marriage to a man against her wishes is a vexing one for her and for the reader (and for Olsa!). I’ve seen a lot of people complain that Johnston didn’t have to set up the society of Cadrium the way she did, with queer relationships accepted but the weight of inheritance law still behind heterosexual partnerships, and that’s certainly true. But it’s also kind of the point: the law lags social mores, and as much as the king and queen would like to change things including the debt system that allows non-wealthy children to become knights at all, it takes time to enact that kind of institutional change as well as willpower. Meanwhile, people have to negotiate with existing power structures as best they can.

Student debt has been much in the news lately, and as a member of the generation whose choices in life are vastly constrained by paying off education loans, I very much appreciated the way Johnston was able to marry certain real-world late capitalism issues, including the precarity of contingent labor, with her epic fantasy setting. I also appreciated the light touch with which she handled certain tropes of that setting, such as the obligatory thieves guild and wizard city, while also questioning them—probably my favorite character aside from the protagonists is Giran, the indigenous female apprentice scholar whose own knowledge and existence challenges the established hierarchy of scholarship and power in the university city.

Johnston has acknowledged that plot isn’t her strongest element as a writer, and that certainly holds true in The Afterward and in her other five novels I’ve read. Sometimes this lack is acutely felt, as in her Star Wars novel Ahsoka, but mostly it works for me in her chosen settings, and The Afterward definitely falls into the latter category: indeed, if the plot were more action-packed it might fall into the trap of trying to make the aftermath as exciting as the quest. I also appreciate the subtle radicalism of insisting that things like marriage, inheritance, and family are just as important as defeating the Big Bad, and I very much appreciated where the book wound up. Kalanthe and Olsa have struggled both together and separately through the course of the book, in both the before and the after, and seeing them get what they ultimately deserve is satisfying partly because it’s still so rare outside of fanfiction. The Afterward is worthwhile purely for its queer love story, but everything else it’s doing makes it an even more rewarding read.


Dr. Andrea Horbinski holds a PhD in modern Japanese history with a designated emphasis in new media from the University of California, Berkeley. Her book manuscript, “Manga’s Global Century,” is a history of Japanese comics from 1905–1989. She has discussed anime, manga, fandom, and Japanese history at conventions and conferences on five continents, and her articles have appeared in Transformative Works and Cultures, Convergence, and Mechademia. In her spare time, she edits video for fun and can be found tweeting as @horbinski.

 

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