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

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

Aru Shah and the End of Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

7 Works of Short Fiction Well Worth Savoring

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Terracotta Bride
5. The Terracotta Bride by Zen Cho

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

Kiersten White’s Elizabeth Frankenstein breaks the shackles that bind her to her abuser

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 Jo O’Brien on Kiersten White’s The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein.

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was a stone-cold badass.

Her intellect and imagination were monumental. She invented a whole genre of literature when she was a teenager by writing a story that, two hundred years later, is still a cultural touchstone. And that’s to say nothing of the adventurous life she led—she climbed glaciers, sailed Lake Geneva, and traversed Europe, partially on foot when she didn’t like her chauffeurs. She survived the grief when death claimed her parents, two of her children, her half-sister, and then her husband. She kept Percy Shelley’s calcified heart wrapped in his poetry after he died.

But yet, Percy continues to be credited for her accomplishments. His “corrections” in the margins of a found draft of Frankenstein still have some people convinced that he must have at least been a co-author (never mind that his part seems to just graze the level of line edits). Some would even go as far as to say that genesis of the book, or even the very idea, belong to him. Even now, Mary Shelley isn’t given the respect she deserves for her work.

So it feels like it’s about time for The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein. Author Kiersten White calls it a retelling, but I found myself thinking of it as a companion to the original Frankenstein: a different perspective, dissecting the events and uncovering truths that Victor Frankenstein couldn’t—or wouldn’t—divulge. The Dark Descent is narrated by Elizabeth Lavenza, the child purchased by Victor’s parents to temper his strange, violent behavior.

At the opening of the book, Victor, attending university, has fallen out of contact with his family. Elizabeth—having grown up alongside Victor as his primary caretaker and companion—follows him across Europe, determined to marry him and secure her position. She finds him indisposed in a rented warehouse, where he’s done the terrible, impossible thing that was the subject of Shelley’s original book. After seeing that he’s taken care of medically, she goes through his notes. She discovers what he’s done, and she foresees the reaction if his work is discovered. So she burns the evidence. She manipulates witnesses. She makes sure that Victor can return home without facing any consequences for his actions, just as she’s always done.

All this paints a bleak picture of a girl straining to make her way in a world where she can’t stand on her own, and The Dark Descent is, in some ways, a bleak book. Elizabeth is slow to realize her mistakes, because her conviction that she has to protect Victor is so well-trained. It feels familiar to how we are all trained to shelter those in power from the consequences of their toxic behavior. But there are moments that glimmer through, and they accumulate and accelerate. Elizabeth does learn. This is a book about a girl breaking the shackles that bind her to an abuser.

It is slow, painful work. Elizabeth doesn’t know that it needs to be done. She doesn’t know that she can unlearn her resentment of other women as rivals, or her too-quick instinct to cover Victor’s tracks. Things get worse before they get better. But Elizabeth is not the soft girl that Victor and his family believe she is. She is fierce and defiant and capable of her own terrible and impossible things. As her limits are stretched, she stretches to fill the gaps.

Just like Mary Shelley had to.

The Dark Descent is not just a companion to Frankenstein, it is an homage to Shelley herself. It’s about a girl whose tremendous abilities are credited to the men in her life. But it’s also about how, leveraging her own incredible power, she breaks free of them.

I won’t spoil the ending of The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, but I will say that, in order over the last several pages, I felt heartbreakingly satisfied, and then I gasped, and then I sobbed. (I’ll also say that it’s been a long time since I read any book that used the graphic formatting of a single page to such spectacular effect.) The novel is moody, atmospheric, and often difficult, but I felt it in my bones.

Victor Frankenstein, in his arrogance, told us one story. Elizabeth now claims her voice to tell another. And what she’s telling us is that there is no one more powerful than a girl who will fight to have something that’s hers.


Jo O’Brien is a writer, artist, cosplayer, mythical creature, and Viking who lives in northern Colorado, wrangling a host of familiar spirits. She writes about ambitious, unrepentant, sometimes vicious women in novels and for live steel horse theater. She has been a member of the Sirens community since 2011.

 

Suzanne Scott’s Fake Geek Girls and the binaries of fan culture

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, in honor of Suzanne Scott’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Hallie Tibbetts on Suzanne Scotts’s Fake Geek Girls.

Fake Geek Girls

I am of two states of mind about being a fan and about the concept of being “in fandom.”

On the one hand, I have had wonderful experiences engaging with and sharing my love of particular stories—and it’s always love for stories, isn’t it—from acting out scenes from Heidi and Star Wars under the tables in kindergarten to longing for just one more episode of Ranma ½ to planning expansive, immersive Harry Potter conferences with a million moving pieces, among other fan activities. I wouldn’t be where I am today had I not, through writing fanfiction, finally learned not just about punctuation and grammar, but concepts like foreshadowing and symbolism that were opaque to me during my formal education. I wouldn’t have met the majority of my closest compatriots—people I connected with online, while being an unabashed nerd—and I wouldn’t have been so easily able to bypass the early, awkward, and for me, slow and nerve-racking stages of making new friends. If you’ve considered yourself to be “in fandom,” you’re probably nodding along with at least a few of those experiences.

On the other hand: Fandom has given me some awful experiences. It’s a time-sucking distraction from other pursuits—an intense crush with all the attendant (and unrequited!) feeeeeeelings. A fandom is a community of very real personalities, which can produce a great deal of pointless and exhausting drama, as well as shut people out for any number of reasons, not limited to just their favorite tropes or characters, but including the very essence of who they are. And, on a personal note that I rarely share, the end of my tour of fandom duty ended with a heavy dose of toxic (mostly) masculinity, harassment, and threats, and those situations and people haven’t disappeared, even though I have disappeared from them—and my worst experiences were nothing, relatively, given that doxxing and swatting are in play now.

I haven’t considered myself to be “in fandom” for a decade now. My recent media loves no longer prompt me to seek story extensions outside those of my own brain—though maybe I haven’t met my next perfectly fannable thing yet. Sometimes I miss the sense of joy and wonder at knowing I’m not the only one who’s been transported into and by a story; other times, I’m so deeply protective of my own mental journeys I can hardly admit I enjoyed a work. So when it came time for Sirens to review the academic Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry by guest of honor Suzanne Scott, I was, unsurprisingly, of two minds: I’ll do it, and I don’t want to do it at all. But, like a Lannister, I keep my promises (and yes, pay my debts). And like Angelica Schuyler, I managed this review right on time.

Fake versus real. Geek, opposed to “normal.” Girls: gendered, always lesser, always weaker. Fake Geek Girls is an apt title, because the book addresses the many binaries that are in play in fan culture—and that have been codified by fan studies as a discipline.

And the binaries are many, and often actively placed at odds by media producers. Fanboy against fangirl. Creator against consumer. “Good” fan against “bad” fan, and against “bad” fannish engagement. But, backing up a little, fan studies does acknowledge that there are people who are not white, heterosexual, cisgender men between the ages of about 18 to 34 who are fans of things, unlike many people who create solely with that demographic in mind. In fact, fan studies acknowledges feminism, or at least how feminism plays into the engagement of female fans. This feminist lens, however, has not been consistently or even mostly intersectional—that is, fan studies has nodded to feminism through a white, cisgender, and primarily heterosexual lens. There is a lot to unpack in that concept of feminism alone.

Fake Geek Girls addresses the previously mentioned dichotomies and more, again, through teasing out the binaries as well as those places where middles and others are found. And it focuses on the binary pieces that have been named as by or for women, and how activities and engagement are coded female or feminized, and who supports that coding. This comes up in concepts of acceptance of or resistance to canons; authenticity or “selling out”; and questions about who is elevated to the role of business partner (through projects as wide-ranging as becoming employed by a media franchise or selling sanctioned merchandise), and who or what activities are relegated to an unpaid gift economy—and why. These theoretical questions come with real examples in fandoms from Star Trek to The Walking Dead, so fandom practitioners may run into a few of their favorite controversies.

Why examine these binaries? Well, there is a certain because: because fan studies itself has studied these binaries, and it’s worthwhile to reflect on how academic work itself may have contributed to the binaries in turn. And why focus on women’s experiences in fan culture? This, I think, a reader can intuit before it’s stated, and here I draw from the book’s conclusion: “…women are systematically alienated or rendered less visible within geek and fan culture.” (231) And if we can, as the author notes, think about “questions of identity and power,” we can hope for ever more inclusivity and intersectional work.

After reading this history of fan studies as much as examination of fandom feminism, I came away with questions. How has the shift from heavily text-based social media to more visual forms in the past view years reinforced affirmation of canons and creators? If I use a hashtag just to see what other people I don’t know are tweeting about a show, what are the inadvertent benefits and consequences? What role do or should fans play in open-ended serial franchises? When can it be useful or helpful to read the Goodreads reviews? And to what extent are my fannish actions feminist, and what do I owe feminism and other fans, if anything, in my media consumption?

Here’s an answer: I don’t know. Not everything. Not today, anyway. Heck, for all you know, I’m Jon Snow, never to know anything at all. But I have a few ideas, and I do know that I’m real, I’m a geek, I’m a girl, and that whether you align with all of those labels or not, your real geekiness should get to have a home in fandom. Fake Geek Girls is a trip through the reflection that has come so far—and still has so far to go.

Even though my fannish tendencies seem distant and inaccessible right now, I appreciate the reminder that my actions as a media consumer affect the production of media. I can request a book from the library or buy one. I can leave a review, or recommend a book to another reader. And these small actions give me immense power to support the publishing of stories I love and ideas I want to uplift. Today, that’s what I’m taking away.


Hallie Tibbetts has been involved with Narrate Conferences and its events since its inception in 2006, serving variously as education officer, communications officer, and vice president, along with chairing a number of conferences (including many years of Sirens). She works in editorial at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on books for children age zero to eighteen, but doesn’t mind if grownups like those stories too.

 

Escape into these 7 Fantasy Books for Bibliophiles

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 Sami Thomason.

I don’t know about y’all, but my favorite subgenre of fantasy is when books are made of magic themselves. A portal to the world of your favorite books? Count me in. A librarian zealously protects a mysterious library? Perfection. Anything that celebrates the joy of reading in a fantasy setting is my favorite kind of world to escape to. Here are a few of my favorite books, from middle grade to young adult to adult, about enchanted books, magical libraries, and the power of the written word.

 

Inkheart
1. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

Inkheart is the definitive book that made me love to read, which can be backed up by how much I cried when I met the author two years ago. Meggie, a bookbinder’s daughter, lives and breathes books, and when her beloved father disappears under mysterious circumstances, she discovers a dangerous book called Inkheart that the fate of her family depends on. Meggie is a fierce reader and a loyal daughter, and finds courage from the heroes of her favorite books, like the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings and the family in The Borrowers. This book is a journey into the written word that must be savored and shared with anyone who’s ever wanted to disappear into a book.

The Reader
2. The Reader trilogy by Traci Chee

I got chills when I read the first page of this series; it’s stunning, spellbinding, and absolute magic on the page. In a world where the written word is unheard of, Sefia must decipher and protect The Book, the only one in existence. The Book is more than it seems, however, and Sefia discovers stories from the past, present, and future as she struggles to understand her place in the Book’s mysterious prophecy. Not only is Chee’s worldbuilding truly phenomenal, but her gorgeous prose and riveting command of language are breathtaking.

Sorcery of Thorns
3. Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson

Coming out in June of this year, Sorcery of Thorns is for anyone with ink-stained fingers and dreams of living parchment and leather. Elisabeth lives in the Great Library of Austermeer, where sorcery can turn books into monsters. When the library becomes compromised and a dangerous volume is released, Elisabeth is banished and must team up with a ne’er do well sorcerer and his demon to clear her name and save the library. Rogerson’s visceral storytelling and charming characters will completely capture your heart.

The Invisible Library
4. The Invisible Library series by Genevieve Cogman

In Cogman’s bold and inventive series, librarian Irene works as a spy for The Library, a collection of every book ever printed throughout space and time. The concept may be a little confusing at times, but as sensible Irene and her dashing apprentice Kai duck through different times, dimensions, and universes collecting rare books, you’ll just be happy to be along for the ride.

Small Spaces
5. Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

A middle grade horror-style novel about power of words from the author of The Winternight trilogy. When bookish Ollie steals an old book, she gets wrapped up in a centuries old curse with moving scarecrows, creepy mist, and “the man with the smiling face.” To save her town, she has to team up with two classmates, the real horror for this introverted and somewhat cranky girl. I know it sounds impossible, but this novel is as heartwarming as it is terrifying, and Ollie becomes a fantastic heroine in the face of crisis.

Inkmistress
6. Inkmistress by Audrey Coulthurst

Inkmistress is a kickass fantasy with a bisexual heroine, dragons, and a revolution against a corrupt government; a.k.a. pretty much everything you would want in an epic fantasy novel. Hiding out above a small village, demigoddess Asra knows how to change the future by writing in her own blood—and is pretty unwilling to do so. When tragedy strikes and her quiet life is upended, Asra will have to accept her power to stop the one she loves the most from destroying the world she holds dear. Emotional, compelling, and totally heart-wrenching in the best way.

The Wrath and the Dawn
7. The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh

One of my favorite hate-to-love romances ever, driven by the power of storytelling. A retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, Ahdieh focuses on the power of oral storytelling but doesn’t take away the luster of the tales Shahrzad weaves to her unlikely husband. If you want to be spellbound by beautiful words, this is the book for you.

Please join me in diving headfirst into your new favorite book world! These books offer so much to explore just beyond the joy of reading. We read for pleasure, to escape, out of necessity, or to understand something new, but the important thing is that we read—and we celebrate reading.


Sami Thomason has been a bookseller at Square Books, Jr. in Oxford, Mississippi for three years. Before that, she got a bachelor’s degree in English Literature at Millsaps College and worked briefly at Walt Disney World (she’s seen some stuff). Her lifelong love of books was encouraged by the staff at Jr. as a child, and she now runs the book club she used to attend. You can find her on twitter at @SamiSaysRead and instagram as @sami.says.read.

 

Nahoko Uehashi’s The Beast Player is a meditation on what it means to be free

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

The Beast Player

After reading Nahoko Uehashi’s Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, I was thrilled to learn another of her books has been translated by Cathy Hirano and has now just come out this spring in YA. I dove into The Beast Player and immediately fell in love.

As a bookseller, I’m often asked by teens and parents for YA book recommendations that don’t center romance and physical violence, both of which have become a common feature in the category. And while I love overthrow-the-oppressors-and-also-find-true-love stories, this book is doing something different, and it’s doing it beautifully.

In The Beast Player, Elin is a quiet, thoughtful girl who idolizes her mother, an accomplished beast doctor to the Toda, battle serpents used by the nation’s military. When the Toda mysteriously die, her mother is sentenced to death; while Elin escapes and finds refuge with an avuncular beekeeper, her journey is just beginning. As her own beast doctoring skills develop, she’s unwillingly thrust into a world of politics.

The Beast Player is a coming-of-age story, but it is also a meditation on, in particular, what it means to be free.

Elin is a girl who watches the world around her, collects information, and considers it deeply on her own. A girl who asks questions and doesn’t accept other people’s judgments on right or wrong. A girl who will never, can never, fit in anywhere—but also a girl who is more concerned with finding a place where she can be her full self.

Elin’s parents are of two different heritages, and neither family wants to claim her as theirs, only to control her. And Elin? She wants nothing more than to be able to care for the majestic, magical creatures in her world, regardless of what it means in the political sphere. But the consequences of Elin caring for magical creatures aren’t simple. There are people who want to use them, and use her to control them: and if they can control her, and her them, has she cared for them truly? Or has she created a different kind of chain around their necks?

Women who go their own way, dragon battles, found family, political upheaval, and friendship with magical creatures? Yes, I mean, obviously sign me up. But these are not what make the book great.

In any sort of meditation on freedom and choice, engaging with cultural context and power dynamics is critical. As in Moribito, Uehashi’s attention to anthropological detail is incredibly thorough, and so is her understanding and depiction of how power disparities manifest. The questions are complex, and Uehashi convincingly makes what might seem simple or low stakes in another story incredibly nuanced and fraught.

The Beast Player is also unflinching in its consideration of the role of humans in coexisting with the natural world, the corruptive power of secrets, and the overlap of art and science. But what really strikes me and makes me want to push this book into everyone’s hands is how she handles the commitment to love over fear—because choosing to love can be hard. Through Elin, Uehashi treats this commitment not as a one-time act, but a practice, and that even if we make mistakes along the way, it matters that we try. That we don’t settle for easier answers.

As we swim in a political morass of bigotry, reading about people who are trying their absolute best to come together to care for others is so critically important. I finished this quiet book and felt seen, validated, and empowered. It is the kind of story that gives you a kernel of strength to hold onto and carry with you through the hard days, and those are the stories I value most.

It’s not a perfect book: it ends abruptly, and some transitions and emotional beats feel jarring. However, I suspect this may have to do with its translation from Japanese, and the passages that read like narrative blips to me might feel more natural in the context of their original language. The translator did an amazing job, and ultimately, I’m just excited that it’s available for an English-reading audience!

The Beast Player’s greatest strength is its heart: it builds slowly, and as all the pieces come inevitably together, it unfurls into a powerful story that has made itself a quiet, cozy, intensely devoted place in my heart forever.


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.

 

Oppression and empowerment in Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Bloodprint

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, in honor of Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Alyssa Collins on Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Bloodprint.

The Bloodprint

Lately, I’ve been thinking about heroism. Given the general nature of literature since, well, forever, and the sheer amount of superhero movies on rotation, it’s generally unsurprising to be confronted with the concept. Still, I remain suspicious of heroes because of who they tend to be: white, male, Western, and overrepresented. Additionally, heroism is often bolstered by ideas of noble conquest, war, imperialism, nationalism, and other “-isms” I don’t enjoy. After years of reading and writing and teaching literature, this formula never fails to be grating, nay exasperating, even when I become fond of said male hero. Recently, however I was saved from this struggle when I picked up Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Bloodprint.

The Bloodprint is a hero’s journey. The novel follows Arian, a Companion of Hira, who is on a quest to find a sacred and magical relic known as the Bloodprint. The Bloodprint is a part of the Claim, a fragmented, magical text whose interpretation or misinterpretation fuels both the violent misogynistic empire of the Talisman and the magic of the Companions. Along her journey she faces peril and possible romance, and must unravel the motivations of the First Companion and the politics of Hira.

By novel’s end, The Bloodprint ended up not being quite my cup of tea. The in medias res beginning is confusing, with worldbuilding details abruptly revealed instead of organically, and with an omniscient narrator disguised as third-person limited, mostly through Arian’s eyes. Stylistically, dark eyes flash, glances are thrown about the room, and plot twists and character reveals aren’t surprising for a seasoned fantasy reader. Still Arian, to her credit, is as principled as the most storied of holy men, answering to a higher cause and mission (called an Audacy) instead of her own worldly pleasures.

Yet, there are several things I really appreciate about Khan’s novel. For instance, The Bloodprint’s explicit politics and representation of oppression. The Bloodprint opens as Arian and her awesome archer-accomplice Sinnia liberate a group of enslaved women and dispose of their male slavers. Within a short action scene, the various geographies of the world are established, those of travel and movement and of society and oppressions. The misogynistic empire of the Talisman expands across an area based on what we know as Central Asia, and women under this regime are limited in movement, dress, and way of life. Khan makes the violent realities of this world explicit and Arian a noble hero fighting against them. I was excited to see a topography that I don’t often encounter, in addition to a hero who is a brave, smart woman explicitly fighting for her people against the misogyny and hate of terrible imperial power.

Also, the magic! Magic in The Bloodprint is encoded and empowered by language. Thus, interpretation is an incredibly powerful tool. As a reader, and professor of English, this resonated with me on several levels. First, the problem of misinterpretation of a religious text is one that afflicts the cultural, social, and political realities of the contemporary Middle East and Central and South Asia. Additionally, problems of interpretation and truth are concepts that readers in the early 21st century are becoming increasingly familiar with. How we read, understand, and use written language has never been more important. The Bloodprint is able to imagine through both a specific historical place and moment and expand outward in a recognizable way.

This kind of conceptual framing is where Khan really uses the tropes and traditions of high fantasy—imagining Christian narratives in new times and places—for new purposes. Readers who are familiar with the high fantasy of the 1980s and 1990s, especially fans of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, will find comfort, yet be challenged by recast players and places in order to experience a different imagined story of the Middle East and Central and South Asia: her provoking allegory as opposed to contemporary Western narratives that are often based in dismissal, Islamophobia, and imperialism. At the end of the day, Arian is a woman fighting for, not against, her people, and to succeed is to free them all.

Despite my own stylistic qualms (and the sudden cliffhanger of an ending!), The Bloodprint is an important book that continues to speak to the concept of heroism—who can be a hero, and who they should fight for—and asks readers to consider (or reconsider) their historical and cultural blind spots.


Alyssa Collins is an assistant professor of English and African American Studies at the University of South Carolina. Her work explores the intersections of race and technology as depict-ed in 20th century and contemporary African American literature, digital culture, and new media. When she’s not working, she writes about race, superheroes, television, and embodiment around the internet.

 

Mishell Baker’s Borderline is like Real World: Fey Los Angeles

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, in honor of Mishell Baker’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Nivair H. Gabriel on Mishell Baker’s Borderline.

Borderline

There aren’t nearly enough grumpy, disabled heroines in fantasy literature. As a woman who’s lived with mental illness for the better part of thirty-one years, I’ve frequently felt bereft when roleplaying my favorite protagonists in my head. They don’t need to pack their daily medication when they go on quests. In their critical face-offs with villains, anxiety never triggers their most unhelpful stress response. Their bum knees (I have those too) never collapse in the heat of battle. I can follow their adventures from a distance, but implicit in the trends of these stories is the assumption that I could not have adventures of my own.

Not so with this book. Reading Borderline, for me, was relatable escapism at its finest from moment one. Protagonist Millicent Roper begins the story in a psychiatric center, where she’s sequestered herself after a suicide attempt that left her with two prosthetic legs and scars both literal and figurative. (It did no good for her pre-existing Borderline Personality Disorder, either.) An enigmatic, unflappable recruiter named Caryl shows up to offer Millie a ticket back into the film industry and a place to stay—and then Caryl disappears, in the blink of an eye. When Millie’s therapist warns her away from Caryl with more urgency than she’s ever shown before, she seals the deal. That’s how Millie finds herself at an eclectic mansion with the Arcadia Project, a ragtag crew of former mental patients that would make an incredible season of Real World: Fey Los Angeles.

Yes, Millie’s Hollywood is full of fey: not just fairies, but vampires, goblins, muses, and even the odd changeling, all surveilled by the Project. Her first assignment with too-gorgeous partner Teo is supposed to be a simple errand, but it turns into a missing persons case that soon points to a massive fey conspiracy. It turns out fairies and celebrities are mostly one and the same, and Millie’s the perfect person to deal with them; after her promising early career and sudden estrangement, she’s equal parts savvy about and enthralled with the fey and famous.

Mental illness is also an ideal qualification for a human working in the world of magic. Having lived through the particular hells of a chronic mood disorder, traumatic brain damage, and psychiatry, Millie has more than enough honed survival skills to handle supernatural danger. She’s always keeping track of her “Reason Mind” and “Emotion Mind” and practicing “distress tolerance”—familiar concepts to anyone else who’s been in dialectical behavior therapy. The constant thought-churning of a person who has to fight their own brain to survive is not unlike the hypervigilance required of a magical private detective.

Millie’s disabilities, though, don’t give her superpowers; she’s not a shallow trope. The iron in her prosthetics does neutralize fey magic, but that’s inconvenient or irrelevant as often as it’s convenient. Her journey is not about soothing an ableist world. In fact, she frequently points out its flaws: “As wrong as it is, people in wheelchairs don’t get treated normally by strangers. People see the chair first and wrestle with their discomfort, then their guilt over their discomfort.” She’s also careful to note that she’s not immune to socially instituted prejudice herself when she meets a new roommate who is a little person, and then when she meets that roommate’s boyfriend, who is Black: “I felt intimidated, then guilty about being intimidated, torn between the white liberal fantasy of color-blindness and the stereotypes I’d been fed my whole sheltered life.” Baker’s clear commitment to nuanced, three-dimensional characters and careful evasion of harmful tropes show that she’s not just trying to write inclusive literature—she’s trying and doing a damn decent job.

More than anything else, what I yearn for in writing is voice, and Borderline has that in spades. Baker has not only crafted a protagonist with the richly developed, complex layers of an award-winning tiramisu; she’s also woven Millie’s singular personality into every line of her narration. At one point, Millie notes, “It had been a long time since I had been awakened by a sunrise, and I’m one of those rare people who adores it. I love a day I haven’t screwed up yet.” Her cynical rejoinders make me snicker, but her sarcasm carries a self-aware vulnerability that both surprises me and secures my loyalty.

Somehow I haven’t yet mentioned the nimble pace of this novel. It’s the kind of swift delicious that’s my reader brain’s favorite and my writer brain’s worst nightmare—it takes who-knows-how long to create, but you could devour it in an afternoon. Or in an evening, say, when you suddenly realize you have twenty-four hours left to write a review of a book you read a very full two years ago. If you’re anything like me you’ll tell yourself to skim, but end up just plain reading . . . and being so very glad that this time, you’ve got a copy of the sequel on the shelf right next to you.


Nivair H. Gabriel has written all her life, and feminist fantasy is her heart-home. At sixteen, she thought it would be fun to go to MIT and get a BS in aerospace engineering, so she did. She has also contributed writing to Marvels & Tales, io9.com, Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, Pittsburgh Magazine, and the Sirens benefit anthologies Queens & Courtesans and Witches & Warriors. She holds a dual-degree MA/MFA in Children’s Literature and Writing for Children from Simmons College, and works as an Assistant Editor at Barefoot Books.

 

Sirens Review Squad: The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, in honor of Violet Kupersmith’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Alyssa Collins on Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel.

The Frangipani Hotel

In “Boat Story,” the first story of Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel, a granddaughter asks her grandma for a story she can use to complete a school history project. Over an overripe papaya, grandmother and granddaughter have the following exchange:

“What kind of story did you want me to tell you, con?”

 

“I’m after the big one.”

 

“Oh dear.”

 

“Leaving Vietnam. The boat journey. That’s what I want to write about.”

For me, this exchange frames the entire collection. Eventually Grandma does tell a story, just not the right one. By the end of the telling (and I won’t spoil it for you) Grandma has introduced her first rule of Vietnam and consequently the first rule of The Frangipani Hotel: “it always gives you what you ask for, but never exactly what you want.” This slight of hand is the magic of the work. In nine vignettes, Kupersmith builds a world that expands outward from her mother’s homeland of Vietnam across the Pacific to the urban United States, and back again. Yet, just like Grandma, Kupersmith resists giving readers stories they expect. For the majority of US readers (of which I am a part), any working knowledge of Vietnam and Vietnamese culture is wrapped up in a history of colonialism and conflict. To tell that story, the story we ask for would be to limit a place and its people. Telling the expected story locks Vietnam into a historical moment and a geographic place, but for Kupersmith’s characters, Vietnam is always simultaneously central and peripheral, past and present, whole and fragmented, a place to escape from and to return to. It is always with you and impossible to know if one is truly free of it. And it’s within the movement between these binaries of place and time that ghosts, magic, and horror blossom.

I really loved this collection! The beauty of it is that the stories are literary popcorn. While reading, I wanted to dip in for just one more mouthwatering story. And there a moments that are literally mouthwatering. (Everyone eats in these stories, making it my kind of book!) Kupersmith uses dishes, like bánh mì, bún bò, and egg rolls, to anchor the unfolding of stories. Thus, the telling and consumption of stories (and by extension of history, culture, and ancestral knowledge) is inexplicably intertwined with the preparation and consumption of food. The moreish quality doesn’t end with the descriptions of delicious food and its consumption; it’s also built into the shape of the tales with stories building to or past climaxes in unexpected ways. Violence and monsters lurk in the wings of the stories just as often as they feature on the page. The storytellers in Kupersmith’s stories stop and start, or divert their stories in surprising directions, and often it’s the anticipation of action that fills out the dénouement. This structure drew me in over and over even as the stories themselves would end.

The particular wonder of this collection, for me, is that unlike a light and salty snack these stories are laden with questions about being, history, and pain. They grapple with what it means to carry intergenerational trauma, to deal with the remnants of foreign invasion and colonialism, to immigrate and assimilate. But the stories are never heavy; they move quickly, aching with equal bouts laughter and horror. We easily move from the urban hunting grounds of a parched river spirit with a hankering for white men (“Reception”), to the rural bamboo backyard of cursed twins (“The Red Veil”), to the clever nursing home machinations of a mother trying to convince her busy daughter to visit (“Descending Dragon”). And that’s to say nothing of the folkloric elements. The monsters in Kupersmith’s folktales are often just as bewildered, as unstuck in time and place, and as angry as their human counterparts. They are difficult to summarize, but leave quite an impression. The one image that has stayed with me is of a woman surrounded by black flies. She has white markings on her fingers and is carving bread for the perfect bánh mì. Covered in flies, she continues to cook, hanging between worlds, neither fully living nor fully dead.


Alyssa Collins is a Ph.D. candidate in the English department of the University of Virginia and a 2016-17 Praxis fellow in the digital humanities. Her work explores the intersections of race and technology as depicted in 20th century and contemporary African American literature, digital culture, and new media. When she’s not writing her dissertation she writes about race, superheroes, television, and embodiment around the internet.

 

Sirens Review Squad: Mirage by Somaiya Daud

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

Mirage

I love stories about bold girls who forge their own paths and throw off conventions. I love stories full of action, with space battles and magic duels and sword fights. I love stories about talented, skilled women, shining at what they do best.

Somaiya Daud’s debut novel Mirage isn’t one of them.

There is so much to love in Mirage. (The lone exception, ironically, being the romance, which for me was the least interesting part.) I love its rich setting, a fantasy Morocco-inspired culture in a world with intergalactic travel. I love how deeply that culture suffuses every part of the story: the prose woven through with poetry, the complicated female friendships and family relationships, the structural use of mimicry to examine appropriation, the allusions to female historical figures as symbols of inspiration—not just the warrior queen, but also the prophetess whose power endures in words—and the incisive critique of the long-reaching effects of colonialism across multiple axes.

But here’s what’s truly remarkable about what Daud has accomplished with Mirage and why I will be yelling at everyone (I do mean literally everyone) to read this book forever:

This is a story that poses the question, who are you when your oppressors can erase your face, your family, your history, your language, your culture? What can you do that matters?

And Mirage’s emphatic answer is that you do not have to be a uniquely talented bold girl who bucks tradition in order to deserve to be at the center of stories.

Early on, our protagonist Amani tells her captor that aside from speaking both the language of the oppressors and the language of the oppressed, she has no other skills. As far as her captors are concerned, this is absolutely true, though they don’t understand why that should give them pause. They don’t understand why they should fear a girl who can bridge understanding between people from different worlds. A girl who can make her culture and her people real and seen and valued to those who participate in its erasure, and who can understand her oppressors well enough to change their course. Her greatest asset is not her hidden knowledge of poetry, or the incredible attention to detail she’s forced to develop to imitate the princess, or the sharp-tongued court cleverness she learns to deploy on her own behalf.

It’s her capacity for empathy.

For Amani, finding joy in objectively terrible circumstances is worthwhile in its own right, not something to be ashamed of; happiness is rebellion, too. Although Daud is careful not to excuse those responsible for victimizing others, Amani doesn’t limit that desire for happiness to just herself or her people. And while she is a dreamer, she’s not exempt from the realities of living under conquest, which makes her bravery in trying to make her dreams reality all the more powerful.

Amani chooses to embrace tradition when the world shaped by her oppressors belittles her into discarding it. She clings fast to caring about other people rather than closing herself off. She doesn’t take the expected path, be it revolution or assimilation. She considers what she can, in fact, do, given her many but unique constraints, and she resolves to do what she can.

I will tell anyone and everyone to read Somaiya Daud’s quiet, powerful story for its beautifully wrought characters, its resonant worldbuilding and prose, its centering of the representation of women (including mothers and old women, be still my beating heart—they can exist in fantasy worlds and matter) and people of color, and its profound rendering of colonization and its complexities. Any of those would be enough to make Mirage one of the best books I’ve read.

But more than that, what makes Amani special is her compassion coupled with action. Mirage is a story in which that alone is not only special enough—it’s more important than anything.


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.

 

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