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A Life in Notable Books: Immersive Worlds with Charismatic, Relatable Characters

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

In my childhood, I was not much of a reader. It seems so sacrilegious to admit here, to the Sirens community I so love, that I would sit in my grade six classroom reading time and turn more than one page at a time, impatient to make progress like my classmates did through their books but wholly uninterested in the material at hand. A lot of books in the school library felt drab to me, and I would much rather find vivid and colorful illustrations and imagine my own narrative around them than read black ink on white pages.

But my journey into becoming a reader rooted itself in fantasy. When I found fantasy, I found power in words others had written.

Let me take you on a trip through my life with the following stories and how I came back to reading over and over again.

 

Magic Knight Rayearth
1. Magic Knight Rayearth by CLAMP (6 volumes)

I first fell in love with stories blended with illustration. I was an anime junkie recording every episode of Sailor Moon that aired onto blank VHS tapes, and one of the first manga series I fell in love with was Magic Knight Rayearth.

Three young women from three different schools on a class trip to Tokyo Tower are overcome by a bright light and transported to the magical world of Cephiro (or Cefiro, as early manga translations were notorious for inconsistent translations). They have been summoned to save the Pillar, Princess Emeraude, from her abductor, High Priest Zagato, before the world held together by the Pillar’s prayers falls apart. It was the original hopepunk manga full of magical girls, mecha (giant warrior machines), and awakenings for both the young women and the world they had been tasked to save.

And I loved how CLAMP was an all-women collective of creatives.

Dealing with Dragons
2. Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

I found Dealing with Dragons at the very end of the fiction section of my junior high library. The room had an odd configuration so it was on a side back wall, away from most of the other books. But when I saw Cimorene on the cover, staring up at a dragon, her body taut with attitude and vigor, I knew I wanted to read her story. My reading skills were awful, so I didn’t learn how to actually say Cimorene’s name for an embarrassing number of years (I hybridized her name with Cinnamon and Rini from the English translation of Sailor Moon when I read it in my head), but I soldiered on to find a comedic series about a fierce princess, a dragon with a hankering for cherries jubilee, and a subversion of a patriarchal structure for dragon royalty.

The Assassins of Tamurin
3. The Assassins of Tamurin by S. D. Tower

In two years, after a reporter found me through my Livejournal to interview me about this internet craze called Neopets (It’s nostalgia hour, ya’ll), I was asked to write young adult reviews for my local newspaper. I was terrified—after all, my city just hit over one million residents—but I said yes. Since no one was reviewing fantasy or science fiction, the book editor sent those my way as well. And the very first ARC I received was The Assassins of Tamurin (I still have this ARC).

A girl no one wanted or valued starts a quest to simply survive, and becomes embroiled in a complex political controversy so much bigger than she could imagine, set in an empire modeled on Imperial China. With a spy-assassin sisterhood, magical contracts, and hidden heirs, the book had everything a teen could want in a romantic action adventure, despite being marketed to adults. It was also the first book I’d ever read written by a married couple.

When Demons Walk
4. When Demons Walk by Patricia Briggs

After I started reviewing, I wanted to be around books even more, so I got a job at the local library as a page. And in the small (at that time) young adult section, I found this gem totally mislabeled as YA. I snuck it to the checkout desk, hiding the scantily clad protagonist on the cover from my coworkers. (*brrrrring brrrrring* Yes, hello? Teenage Kate? You’re gay.)

Sham is a sorceress and thief, hired to save the very people from whom she steals, from a threat much stronger than them all. The Reeve, Kerim, uses a wheelchair for much of the book, commanding respect from the nobles he governs through more than military prowess. This book hit all sorts of buttons for me, some problematic but nevertheless guilty pleasures, and helped me see a future for myself in writing and crafting stories.

A Fistful of Sky
5. A Fistful of Sky by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

In my final days as a page, I found this book labelled as part of the sci-fi section at the library, and I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did.

The LaZelle family is a magical family, each member suffering a severe illness in their youth that either leaves them with magical powers or dead. All except Gypsum, a magicless character with a mundane life compared to her brothers and sisters. But it is within that mundanity that she emerged as one of the most relatable characters I have ever encountered in a book. Altria, a queer character, gives a manifestation to the slippery process of finding a love, queer or not, and peace that comes with that love, a theme not often found in literature.

Snow White with the Red Hair
6. Snow White with the Red Hair by Sorata Akiduki

Throughout my life, I continued to read manga and watch anime. And I always thought it didn’t count as real reading. As some readers have internalized resentment toward genre, I had managed to internalize a dismissal of manga and anime as a form of narrative one could appropriately indulge in as a writer. That is, until Year 9 at Sirens when I attended V. E. Schwab’s Sirens Studio workshop “Writer as Reader.” She made it very clear that she didn’t always look to books for relief from creative fatigue.

So when my favorite anime started to serialize English manga translations in 2019, I knew I had to have it. In the fairytale adjacent series, Shirayuki is an herbalist in Tanbarun who attracts the attention of the monarch because of her apple red hair. When he demands she become his concubine, Shirayuki nopes the hell out of there and flees to the neighboring kingdom of Clarines where she meets Zen, the second prince of Clarines. Over the course of the story, Shirayuki proves her resourcefulness and strength of character while Prince Zen grows into a true leader with integrity, driven by his heart. And there is love. And a lovable thief. And witty attendants. Because I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Shirayuki moves through life with ambition to become the best she can and faces compromises and conflicts with intelligence and grace. She’s someone who taught me that even when life gets rough, you can keep moving forward.


Kate LarkingDuring the day, Kate Larking works for an independent publisher. In her off hours, between binge-watching anime and leveling-up game characters, she writes speculative fiction for both YA and adult markets. Her queer space opera comic, Crash and Burn, was a multi-year finalist for the Aurora Awards for best English Graphic Novel. She resides in Calgary, AB, with her wife, daughter, and cats.

 

Magic in Our Fingertips: Charmed Voices in Modern Fairy Tales

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

When I sat down to create this list, I thought about all the great books people miss because the texts are outside the kind of material they normally reach for. Thus, one of my goals was to incorporate books from a diverse range of genres that would appeal to anyone with a tinge of magic in their blood. In this list, I’ve included poetry that people may love if they’re always up for folklore, critical nonfiction that would grab the attention of someone who usually reads fantasy novels, a novella a reader might never pick up unless they knew it had a few monsters inside. If you’re into fairy tales, fanfiction, and lyrical language, you’ll find something to love in all these books.

 

boysgirls
1. boysgirls by Katie Farris (Genre: poems)

When the human body is broken down to its barest parts, when you trip over a femur or a jawbone, you recognize it as human. Underlying this book is the nibbling longing that makes us think about identity and our desire to “escape unscathed.”

Brute
2. Brute by Emily Skaja (Genre: poems)

Skaja’s Brute is a collection of battery, of bruising, of brutality, of body. The intersection of gender and violence rests at the core of these poems, forcing the reader to pause and consider with the speaker how one comprehends trauma.

Cendrillon: A Caribbean Cinderella
3. Cendrillon: A Caribbean Cinderella by Robert D. San Souci (Genre: illustrated picture book)

Told from the godmother’s point of view, Cendrillon is rich in dialect and magic. This Cinderella retelling is a joy for all ages, especially those who seek a focus on marginalized voices in reinvented fairy tales.

The City of Brass
4. The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty (Genre: novel)

When Nahri discovers the faux magic she practices has real effects, she’s whisked away to Daevabad, the fabled djinn city filled with political turmoil. Brimming with secrets and envy, this novel is a testament to unique reinventions of familiar stories.

Divining Bones
5. Divining Bones by Charlie Bondhus (Genre: poems)

Bondhus creates a conversation with the reader, asking that they consider Baba Yaga as not only a crone but also a guide to understanding gender. Here, magic and witchcraft are tools of resistance for marginalized bodies.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon
6. The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (Genre: novel)

The Girl Who Drank the Moon is surprising, well-crafted, and all the things you want from a fairy tale-esque forest narrative. The most impressive and transformative part of this novel is Barnhill’s focus on the love within a nontraditional family structure.

The Ballad of Black Tom
7. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle (Genre: novella)

A way better version of Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook, LaValle’s novella highlights America’s institutional racism in the 1920s (and now), embodying the notion that people create their own monsters.

Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale
8. Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner (Genre: critical non-fiction)

Most useful in this book is Warner’s synthesis of other scholars who look to achieve the same goal: to show how fairy tale scholarship supports feminist exploration of texts often mislabeled for a young audience and expose the heteropatriarchal values in traditional fairy tales.

Skin Folk
9. Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson (Genre: short stories)

From fantasy to horror to SF, Hopkinson’s collection is vivid and evocative, retelling fairy tales with the purpose of speaking directly to women’s bodies at all stages of life. While you may recognize some of the characters, the stories are entirely new and chilling.

Spinning Silver
10. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik (Genre: novel)

A retelling of “Rumpelstiltskin”, fanfiction and fairy tale themes intertwine deliciously in this novel. The writing is atmospheric and haunting, the very best of lyrical language that also includes a strange but enchanting love story.


Hannah WarrenHannah V Warren is a PhD student at the University of Georgia where she studies poetry and speculative narratives. Her chapbook [re]construction of the necromancer won Sundress Publications’ 2019 chapbook contest, and her works have haunted or will soon appear in Mid-American Review, Moon City Review, and Redivider.

 

Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim

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 review from Katie Passerotti on Tara Sim’s Scavenge the Stars.

Scavenge the Stars
  • Secret identities.
  • Opulent parties.
  • Tangled secrets.
  • Queernormative.
  • Betrayal.
  • Revenge.

If any of those criteria fit your reading checklist, you don’t want to miss out on Tara Sim’s Scavenge the Stars. This genderbent Count of Monte Cristo retelling is an absolute delight. Meet Amaya and Cayo, two protagonists that couldn’t have led more different lives. Amaya has spent the past seven years working off her parents’ debt on the Brackish and is only weeks away from earning her freedom. Cayo is the son of a wealthy merchant of Moray and spends his time gambling away his father’s wealth in the Vice Sector. But when Amaya rescues a drowning man, her fortunes change, and she’s given the opportunity to take down the man who destroyed her family and forced her into indebted-labor—Kamon Mercado, a dirty businessman and Cayo’s father. As a dangerous plague rips through the city, Amaya and Cayo have to decide where their hearts truly lie and if they are willing to accept the hefty price of revenge.

The Count of Monte CristoThis book was one of my most anticipated reads coming into 2020 and it did not disappoint. Thirty-some pages into the book, I had already decided it was one of my all-time favorites and was scheduling a re-read. The Count of Monte Cristo is my favorite “classic.” I adore the intricate revenge that Edmond Dantès develops along with his single mindedness in seeing it through to the end, no matter the cost.

Sim does the classic Dumas story justice and manages to make it even better because now it’s genderbent and queer.

Both Amaya and Cayo are complex characters that will win you to their side despite the less than perfect decisions they continue to make. I adored Amaya. She takes no prisoners and is willing to see her revenge carried out no matter what, but she’s always worried about those around her and she wants a happy ending. Cayo has all the hallmarks of your typical millionaire playboy, but he’s so much more complex beneath the surface. And when they’re on the page together, these two make a fantastic duo—even if they’re totally scamming each other throughout.

The supporting cast is just as fabulous and diverse, and the main side characters are as fully realized as Amaya and Cayo. My personal favorites are Deadshot (I am such a sucker for a sharpshooter and she is positively DIVINE) and Romara (the deliciously dark daughter of the Slum King who will shank you as soon as smile at you). Sim’s worldbuilding shines in how inclusive it is to people of all skin tones, genders, and sexualities. And perhaps the best part of this is how it’s simply the norm for the world.

None of these topics are causes for animosity or hatred in the world or between characters, making it a safe space for marginalized identities to come and enjoy a swashbuckling story of revenge with just a hint of romance.

On the technical side of things, I can’t write this review without praising Sim’s writing. It’s magnificent. The Count of Monte Cristo is a BEAST of a book and if you’ve read it, give yourself a huge pat on the back. Scavenge the Stars is the pocket edition—it’s taken all the best parts and homed in on them. The pages flew by. I would sit down to read a chapter or two and suddenly I was a hundred pages further and my dog was wondering why I wasn’t getting his dinner ready. Sim trusts her readers to make the connections and unravel the mystery right along with Amaya and Cayo. Her word choice was excellent, and from the first line of “The first thing Silverfish had learned on board the Brackish was how to hold a knife,” (What a fabulous first line!) to the final line of the story, prepare to be swept away. Both Amaya and Cayo have agency, constantly making difficult choices that in the moment seem like the right thing to do but end up causing way more problems than they fix. I love when characters create their own problems, and Amaya and Cayo excel on that front.

Scavenge the Stars is book one in a planned duology and if you’re anything like me, you are going to be demanding book two when you get to the last page. I can’t wait to read the next book—I have theories and questions and I need answers! Scavenge the Stars has gained a place of honor in my heart and on my shelf and I can’t recommend it enough. Happy reading!

 


Katie Passerotti

Katie Passerotti is a writer, teacher, and fangirl. She is obsessed with villains and will probably assist one in taking over the world. When she’s not making diabolical plans, she and her wolfhound are off exploring forests and parks or she’s reading stories about fierce, fantastical girls. Follow her on Twitter @KatjaBookDragon

 

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

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 review from Erynn Moss on Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us.

The Walls Around Us

The details were hazy but I remembered this book as one of the best I had read back in 2015. For that reason, and because it falls within the villain theme, I chose to reread it for review. As a suspenseful story, I was worried a second reading wouldn’t hold up, but it cut me deeper this time and I think I can pinpoint why.

Trying to describe this book without overdoing it is hard for me. I used to recommend it by stealing from a blurb I read somewhere calling it “Black Swan meets Orange Is the New Black.” Not entirely the gist, but it does paint a good starting picture.

The story is told from the split points of view of Violet and Amber. Violet, an eighteen-year-old rising star ballerina about to enter Juilliard, recounts long elapsed memories of herself and her best friend, Orianna or Ori for short. Violet dances all around the details of their relationship, and the horrific event three years prior that obsesses her, before she comes to the point.

Amber is a resident of Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center, convicted of a violent crime at thirteen, who starts her story with a strange day when the locks came open. Amber has been at Aurora Hills longer than any of the other girls and the years have eroded her. Her point of view is mostly passive, translating into words what is happening on the stage within the prison. Her situational awareness is shaky to the point of being difficult to follow in the beginning, but her perception of others, especially her fellow inmates, is sharp. Through Violet and Amber, Orianna’s full story is revealed.

I liked Suma’s writing style in general. There are nuances and allusions. The narrators’ voices each ring authentic and give away more than the characters intend. The supernatural elements seep in at a slow drip. A dramatic story emerges between the ballerinas that takes most of the reader’s focus. But while Violet and Ori are dancing out their white swan and black swan routine, Amber, whose life is remarkably gray, sneaks in and, in my opinion, upstages them.

She often speaks in first person plural. She wants you to look at all the inmates as a collection, a family, and Amber herself as an unimportant but very included member. She internalizes the neglect and hatred from everyone on the outside world who saw in her thirteen-year-old self a problem so big it had to be boxed up and forgotten. Every once in a while, though, Amber lets slip little heartbreaking pieces of joy and self-esteem that reveal the person she could have been. She also lets slip her anger.

Going back to the Orange Is the New Black comparison. It is a prison story, with people desperately attempting to cope with the rules of their new society on the inside. There’s plenty of racial and economic privilege at play. But the people in the story are children, and it is that unfortunately realistic element that hits me harder the second time around.

The Walls Around Us would be an intriguing story even if the characters were adults. Yet when so much fiction out there revolves around seventeen-year-old protagonists who save the world despite being surrounded by horrible adults, it is painful and necessary to hear stories about kids who are failed by adults and instead of ending up champions, end up broken.

 


Erynn Moss

Erynn Moss is an enthusiastic reader who likes refreshing her soul by spending time with the brilliant people she finds at Sirens. She’s into comics, sewing, knitting, costumes, and camping. She currently lives in Louisville with her BFF spouse and their toddler trainee-Siren.

 

Casey’s Fantasy Romance List

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 five fantasy romance books by writer Casey Blair.

Are you interested in books combining fantasy settings with prominent romance arcs? Then have I got a list for you!

Wherever your preferences fall on the spectrum of fantasy romance to romantic fantasy, these are some of my recent favorites that bring brilliantly imaginative worlds and breathtaking romance together.

 

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

In a setting inspired by Mughal India, this book excels at actually everything, whether it’s dancing magic or navigating different cultural heritages. There are no easy choices in this book, and Tasha Suri does absolutely stunning work with consent under oppression.

Radiance
2. Radiance (Wraith Kings #1) by Grace Draven

Grace Draven is my go-to for fantasy romance. She’s particularly good with the nuances of cultural exchange in this book, and whether it’s in the midst of battles or feasts or private jokes, the protagonists take pains to be respectful and gentle with each other despite their obvious external differences.

Witchmark
3. Witchmark (The Kingston Cycle #1) by C.L. Polk

This is an m/m gaslamp fantasy murder mystery between a mage doctor in hiding and the most gorgeous fae he’s ever seen. Their romance is the sweetest, but they find time to also fundamentally challenge the entire oppressive system their world operates under, as one does.

Troubled Waters
4. Troubled Waters (Elemental Blessings #1) by Sharon Shinn

This book starts out slow and immersive and just builds and builds. The entire series is brimming with political intrigue, and I adore this heroine who will literally move oceans to save people, heedless of propriety. As a bonus, this series is perfect for readers looking for romance without explicit sex on the page!

Polaris Rising
5. Polaris Rising (Consortium Rebellion #1) by Jessie Mihalik

This is the rogue space princess adventure romance we all need in our lives. The heroine is incredibly self-aware and competent, she does not compromise for alpha male bullshit, and it’s the best.


Casey Blair writes fantasy novels for adults and teens, and her weekly serial fantasy novel Tea Princess Chronicles is available online for free. After graduating from Vassar College, her adventures have included teaching English in rural Japan, attending the Viable Paradise residential science fiction and fantasy writing workshop, and working as an indie bookseller. She now lives in the Pacific Northwest and is prone to spontaneous dancing, exploring forests around the world, and spoiling cats terribly.

 

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.

 

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