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

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

Dreadnought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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

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

Skip Beat! Volume 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

Comics: Not Just for Superheroes

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

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

 

Delicious in Dungeon
1. Delicious in Dungeon by Ryoko Kui

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

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

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

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

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

On a Sunbeam
3. On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

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

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

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

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

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

O Human Star
5. O Human Star by Blue Delliquanti

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

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


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

 

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

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

The Afterward

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

I broadened my horizons with these 5 books from the Sirens Reading Challenge

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 Christina Spencer.

I have always read a lot. Due to many personal experiences, I once restricted myself from any book that might be a trigger, and that prevented me from being brave in my story choices. I would never have read the books on this list if not for 1) having them listed on the Sirens Reading Challenge, or 2) so much time elapsing that I wasn’t sure why I was avoiding them in the first place. Then I found Sirens, and thankfully—in my need to complete the challenge each year—I read books I would never have picked up. In this, I discovered a lot about myself, and new books that I love!

 

Sparrow Hill Road
1. Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire

A ghost story that didn’t provoke my creeped-out, overactive imagination, featuring a sassy, witty ghost with a strong moral compass and a heart (or ‘soul’) of gold. She takes it upon herself to right what should never have been wronged, and help those who don’t even know they need her.

Dread Nation
2. Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

I hate zombies but love this book! It’s so well done that I could almost forget there are zombies (almost!). It made me feel powerful; the main character is so strong—even when she is feeling her lowest, she still stands tall. It’s filled with characters who don’t give in to whatever situation they find themselves in.

Kushiel’s Dart
3. Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

I was originally wary because of its—to some—extreme sexual content, but the writing style and characters makes this and its sequels into my favorite book series of all time. It has some of the best worldbuilding and character growth I’ve ever read, and there isn’t an emotion that it doesn’t bring to light. I will never stop loving this series.

Court of Fives
4. Court of Fives by Kate Elliott

Judging a book by its cover, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if not for the challenge. What I found was a story of love, passion, strength and hope. How can you not love a girl who knows her worth and learns to celebrate it in finding and giving hope to others, while overcoming immense trials?

Behind the Throne
5. Behind the Throne by K.B. Wagers

The jacket copy misled me to believe Hail was shirking her responsibilities, which rubbed me the wrong way. I was pleasantly surprised when I found that to be false; this book is spectacular! I was absorbed in the world and so attached to the characters that they became people I would love to meet in person. Their strength, compassion, intelligence, and heart put this series easily it into my top five favorites.


Christina Spencer has been an avid reader for many years. She enjoys fantasy and romance with a dose of science fiction. Between books, she manages a family of five humans, two cats (Xena and Hercules), and two dogs (Ronon and Luna), and works as an independent hair stylist. She is going back to school to pursue a degree—probably in English.

 

Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand rewrites our understanding of female agency

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 Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand.

Empire of Sand

The first of Tasha Suri’s Books of Ambha series, Empire of Sand, is a stunning fantasy debut. The setting is inspired by Mughal India, ranging from court culture to a desert nomad lifestyle, and the worldbuilding is thorough, immersive, and unique. And it has romance, dancing magic (dancing! magic! TAKE MY MONEY), politics, world-destroying stakes, and women coming into their power.

In short, in terms of sheer features, it includes basically all my favorite things, and that alone would have been enough for me to be shouting about Empire of Sand. (I will keep my exclamation points and all caps-pronouncements to a minimum henceforth, but please appreciate it requires Heroic Restraint.)

But there is so much more to shout about. Because as much as I delight in epic stories of fantasy romance and dancing magic, those features are not what make this book so noteworthy and so special to me.

I love this book, first and foremost, because of how thorough and nuanced its approach is on the matter of choice.

In Empire of Sand, choices are complicated. They’re hard. Even when choices are technically available, this is a book that is very aware of the pressures that constrain truly “free” choice. This is a book that understands that even people with the best of intentions and love in their hearts can’t always do what they want for the people who matter to them. This is a book that understands that there are pressures—from society, family, and your own hopes and dreams and fears—that circumscribe the freedom of choices. This is a book that understands that choices have costs, and sometimes making the choice at all is part of it. And it understands what all this means for women in particular.

The Ambhan people have conquered the Amrithi, and Mehr—who has parents from both backgrounds—attracts the attention of the Ambhan emperor’s mystics with her Amrithi powers. She is effectively forced to give up her sacred right to choose (or not choose) a husband, in order to save a family that has put her in the impossible position of being unable to reconcile her heritage. She does find love, but even that is complicated: how can you give or withhold real consent when someone else is commanding your actions?

How Empire of Sand examines how earnest, open, wholehearted, and selfless that love is and can be, and how it can change everything and nothing, is one of my favorite parts. Stories with characters who exercise compassion even when it’s hard beyond belief are a particular favorite of mine. Suri does an especially fantastic job of handling consent within the confines of an oppressive system. Love doesn’t magically negate the effects of oppression, but it helps them survive it. The romantic arc of this story is absolutely gorgeously done, and I will say no more on that lest I ascend once more into all caps and exclamation points.

Mehr’s journey to owning her own power is inseparable from her learning to navigate disparate identities. Her parents, who are of two different worlds and cultural heritages, were ultimately unable to reconcile their own differences and can neither help Mehr do so nor help her learn the fullness of one or the other. Mehr reconciling all the parts of her background—what to let go of, what to hold, and how to handle not just the expectations of people around her but her own—is critical to becoming her fully empowered self.

Finally, in stories rooted in western frameworks, agency is portrayed as character actions that shape the plot. There is an argument that this is why, historically, so many fantasy books are about kings, chosen ones, knights, and wizards, and, let’s be honest, generally straight cisgendered men: the people with the ability to make choices that change their worlds.

But that leaves us with such a limited scope of stories. In Empire of Sand, Suri gives us something else: a story about a character—a woman—not with no ability to choose, exactly, but a woman whose agency and choices stem from a point of survival. And the kind of character Mehr is, as well as the world she lives in, broadens our understanding of romance and agency in what truly makes a hero.

So. Do you want beautifully wrought non-western fantasy settings? Do you want numinous dancing magic and romance you can cheer for with your entire being? Do you want women who grapple with fundamental, impossible choices, own their power, and change their worlds?

Then you want Empire of Sand.


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.

 

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.

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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