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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.

 

Spotlight on our 2019 Vetting Board

The 2019 programming season is in full swing, and we hope you’re busy preparing your proposals! Sirens relies on the expertise of an independent vetting board to review all proposals for thoughtfulness, relevance, and inclusiveness, and to select the programming to be included in our conference schedule. Members of the vetting board represent experience and achievement in fields where we expect to receive the majority of our proposals. This year’s vetting board members are: Dr. Kinitra Brooks, Alyssa Collins, Ruqayyah Daud, Sharon K. Goetz, Joy Kim, and Yoon Ha Lee, and you can read the full biographies of our vetting board members here. We were lucky enough to chat with a few of them and get a peek into their work—and how it relates to women and nonbinary folk in fantasy literature—below.

 

What professional accomplishment are you proudest of?

KINITRA: I am proudest of being considered a Beyoncé scholar!

JOY: When I look back at my career, I find that the moments that stand out for me are less about specific accomplishments and events and more about people and relationships. I’m especially proud of the impact that I’ve had as a leader and manager in helping my team members do great work and advance in their own careers. I’ve met amazing mentors during my own professional journeys, and I have a strong commitment to continuing to pay that support forward.

 

What topics in fantasy fiction are you exploring right now?

KINITRA: The Conjure Woman in Popular Culture.

RUQAYYAH: I am looking to read more in the middle-grade category because I am not that well read in it but it has so much to offer! Some of my favorites are The School for Good and Evil series and the Nevermoor series by Jessica Townsend.

 

What’s a topic you’d love to see someone submit for programming at Sirens?

JOY: In 2018, I moved across the country from Washington to Massachusetts for an amazing new job. While I’m enjoying my new job and city, I do still miss the Pacific Northwest sometimes, and that’s left me thinking a lot about the idea of home. I’ve always enjoyed stories with a strong sense of place—It’s one of the things that often draws me to fantasy—so I’d love to see a proposal exploring the concept of place attachment and how that specifically intersects with Sirens’ overall theme of women in fantasy literature.

YOON: I’d love to hear more about women in fantasy outside the West, in whatever format (TV, comics/manga/manhua/manhwa/etc., books, etc.), as well as more about representation of nonbinary/genderqueer characters and authors.

 

Could you tell us about a really exemplary presentation you’ve attended at Sirens?

KINITRA: The Bullet Journal presentation has started a new obsession in my life. I really enjoyed the lock-picking class even though I never successfully picked any of the locks.

 

What have you been reading lately?

KINITRA: I have been reading Harrow County, the comic book series. There is a Conjure Woman character I find quite interesting.

RUQAYYAH: I’m currently reading The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black which I’ve wanted to read ever since I was introduced to Holly’s writing through The Cruel Prince. I’m so excited to dive into a vampire book again! But my favorite science fiction/fantasy book right now is Mirage by Somaiya Daud, and I’m pumped for the sequel.

YOON: I’m currently reading Sonya Taaffe’s gorgeous, sea-flavored and queer-tinted fantasy collection Forget the Sleepless Shores, whose stories variously feature sea creatures, angels, scholars, and a dybbuk. Highly recommended.

 

We welcome proposals from all Sirens attendees and potential Sirens attendees, and we hope that our programming schedule will include presenters with a wide variety of perspectives, experiences, identities, and vocations. We are accepting proposals from April 4 to May 15. For more information, please read an overview of how Sirens programming works and our tips, tricks, and frequently asked questions. For details on each programming type, please click the following links to be taken to their respective posts: papers/lectures, panels, roundtable discussions and workshops/afternoon classes.

 

Amy Tenbrink: When I thought the patriarchy was a meritocracy, I wanted to conquer and rule it

Sirens Studio takes place October 23-24, 2019, just prior to the official start of the conference, and gives attendees the opportunity to enrich their learning in the form of small-group workshop intensives. We’re thrilled to interview a few members of our tremendous faculty on their work, reading, inspirations, and workshop topic! Today, we’re chatting with Amy Tenbrink, who will lead the career development workshop “Negotiating Your Professional Life” this fall. To learn more and register, please visit our Sirens Studio page.

FAYE: You’re immensely accomplished in your professional world, currently serving as Executive Vice President and Associate General Counsel–Revenue and Business Development for a major media company, and before that negotiating billion-dollar deals for one of the country’s largest television providers. (I’ve heard horror stories about your leaving for work Tuesday morning and not coming home until Friday!) How did you get here? What do you love most about your job—and what challenges have you faced?

AmyTenbrink

AMY: I’m going to give you this answer and then I’m going to explain that, yes, I know all the reasons that this answer sucks.

How did I get here? I do the work. If you want to be undeniably successful at something—including sitting on the bleeding edge of media industry strategy and negotiating mind-bogglingly large deals—you have to do the work. You can’t miss opportunities, macro opportunities like jobs or big projects or micro opportunities like chances to impress a CEO or change the course of a negotiation, because you’re not willing to do the work. And that means late nights and weekends, certainly, but it also means working when you’re exhausted or when you’ve been yelled at or when it takes three times as long to teach someone else to do it as it would have taken to just do it yourself. It means doing the work when the work is boring or you hate the person sitting across from you at a negotiating table or you’re supposed to be having dinner with a friend whom you’ve already blown off four times. You do the damned work. To the best of your ability. Every time. No excuses.

And yes, that sucks. I know every reason that that sucks because today’s corporate culture is built for (male) executives who have (female) spouses at home managing the ranch, so they have the luxury of not ever having to worry about groceries or report cards or getting the house painted. I know every reason that that sucks as a woman, not only because for so many reasons we rarely have that particular luxury, but because we’re “not tough enough for business” (a CEO of mine once said that, honest to God) and sometimes approach problems with a lure rather than a hammer and don’t look like corporate America’s very homogeneous idea of “success.” I can only imagine the many, many reasons that that sucks as a person of color or an LGBTQIA+ person or a person with a disability. I have lived that day where you learn that the meritocracy is a myth (the day you realize you’ll never make a promotion, even though you’re clearly better at this than every man who has ever sat in that same chair with a better title than yours). I have lived that day where you realize that you have to work twice as hard and show up three times as prepared and be four times as impressive as a man in order to even enter the same playing field (the day I realized that my male business counterpart with the same title who worked a paltry seven hours a day made 50% more than I). I know.

And I know what I’ve sacrificed to do this. I’ve never really cared about marriage and kids, but if you do, as a woman, I don’t know how you even begin to balance that with being a corporate executive in America, at least not without outsourcing your personal life, which also sucks. I worked, minimum, 70 hours a week for more than a decade. I currently travel about 40% of the time. I live in hotels and airports and on a laptop and with my cellphone. And this works for me because I love what I do, and I don’t care about marriage or kids, and my fish can feed themselves (good job, fish!)—but I can easily see that I’m the exception, never the rule.

But even through all of that. Even through a thousand things that weren’t fair and weren’t just and were downright ignorant or absurd or offensive, I did the work, every day, no excuses. Because in any job, in any area, you make a daily estimation of how much work you’re willing and able to do for that job. And my answer, every time, was “a damn lot.” And that’s how you become a media company executive in America in 2019.

So given all of that, you’d hope that I love what I do, right? I do. I’m relentless, I’m ambitious, I’m brilliant, and I have a hard-wired need for a daily dose of conflict. What I do puts me in the same room with other relentless, ambitious, brilliant people. What I do takes my whole brain and sometimes parts of my brain that I didn’t even know I had. What I do gives me a quotidian battlefield of negotiations and contracts and consumer strategies. If you’re going to do something 70, 80, sometimes 100 hours a week, by God, you’d better love it. Not all of it, but an awful lot of it. And I do.

 

FAYE: What advice would you give young negotiators or anyone else entering a challenging corporate field? How about for all those young female professionals who are called bossy, pushy, or aggressive?

AMY: Two things. Two impossible, non-negotiable things.

First, become comfortable being uncomfortable, and even more than that, become comfortable making other people uncomfortable. Many people, but especially women, are taught an obligation of hospitality, one that applies not only in your home, but in every interaction that you have. We are expected to make people feel comfortable. We are instructed to please, to chitchat away awkward pauses, to always find the right thing to say to make the other person happy.

There is a time and a place for that. Some of those times and places are even at work. But by definition, women’s ambition makes people uncomfortable. Women’s demands make people uncomfortable. Every time I ask for equal pay at work, everyone is tharn in their discomfort. They will assuredly try to make this about you and how if you were just more polite or more patient or more whatever, the meritocracy would work for you in the end. That is bullshit. Unless you’re willing to sacrifice your ambition, your assertiveness, and your self-respect, I recommend that you start getting comfortable with the idea that you will sometimes make any number of people (starting with your boss) very uncomfortable. Which is not to say that you have to go into every room with a figurative sword (or a literal one), but that you can, and perhaps should, let those awkward pauses linger, that you shouldn’t mask your ambition, that you should bring up pay disparities, and that you should mention that you’ve done more than enough to earn more time in the CEO’s office. Because the meritocracy is nothing more than a tool of the patriarchy meant to make you feel uncomfortable for being bossy, pushy, or aggressive.

Second, now that we’ve talked about doing the work, let’s talk about what work that actually means. Because for all that women and people with other marginalized identities have to work exponentially hard to end up in the same place as cisgendered, heterosexual, white men, we also spend a lot of time doing work that no one cares about. Or that perhaps people care about, but that we’re certainly not getting paid to do.

Planning team birthday parties. Taking meeting notes. Listening to your (usually male) colleagues complain about their bosses (or their wives). These are easy things to understand: You’re (probably) not paid to be social planner, executive assistant, or psychoanalyst. If your company wants these things done, they could, in fact, hire a social planner, executive assistant, or psychoanalyst to do them. They are not paying you to do them—so do not do them.

Somewhat harder is the notion that—especially for people who work higher, further, faster, baby—you’re probably exceeding your boss’s expectations. And there’s some value there, at least in earning a reputation as someone who exceeds expectations. But just like you aren’t getting paid to plan birthday parties, you’re also not getting paid for the difference between your boss’s expectations and your higher expectations of yourself. In a utopia, the amount of time that we spend on a task would line up perfectly with the value of that task to the company. For a frustratingly easy example, I have a professional colleague who recently negotiated a promotion, and as part of that negotiation, she asked her company to assign pieces of her salary to each of her buckets of responsibility. The company assigned—I kid you not—$0 to one particular bucket. She assures me that, even though that bucket remains in her job description, she will spend 0 minutes doing any of those tasks. Things are so rarely that clear, but to maximize your value to your company, without spending every waking moment working, spend some time figuring out how to align your boss’s valuation of each project with the time that you spend on those projects. It’s hard, but ultimately, you’ll be much happier and much more successful for it.

 

FAYE: You have several bodies of professional work: corporate attorney, media executive, non-profit chief executive officer, and Sirens chair. All of these are hard science: law, budgets, strategy, and the like. How does fantasy literature fit into what you do 100 hours a week?

AMY: It’s revolutionary. It’s aspirational. It’s necessary.

I grew up in the upper Midwest, learning all the skills necessary to be a housewife. I cook, I clean, I sew, I hostess. I do most of these things badly, and most of them with a bad attitude, much to my matriarchal family’s dismay because, for all their belief that the women of our family are invincible, our needles are our swords and our cakes are our shields and I never feel like a bigger failure than when my house is a disaster.

And I went from that to corporate America, which is still run, every day, in every way, by the patriarchy. I spent the first 15 years of my career thinking that I could rule that world as is, if only I worked hard enough. I have spent the last five years with the increasingly ugly realization that no part of that world works for me or anyone else with a marginalized identity.

I want a revolution. I want to see what the world looks like when it’s run by women and people of color and LGBTQIA+ folks and people with disabilities. I want to see worlds that either topple the patriarchy or are so far beyond patriarchal rule that they can grapple with other issues. My quotidian reality is so firmly entrenched in a power system that doesn’t work for me that I need my reading to be something revolutionary, something aspirational, something so untethered from our daily notion of reality that authors and readers alike can dream big and imagine something different, something just, something worthy.

The best opportunity of speculative fiction, in my proverbial book, is to write those worlds, those power structures, those societies. And again in my book, the best speculative fiction does.

 

FAYE: You’ve mentioned that there’s a subgenre of adult fantasy about lawyers, accountants, and negotiators. What makes this sort of fantasy successful for you? What about these books get law, negotiation, or strategy particularly right?

AMY: One of my great loves in fantasy literature—and relatedly, one of my never-ending disappointments—is revolution books. I love a good revolution! But I know enough about legal structures and economics and strategy to be able to spot, immediately and with little patience, what these books gloss over or even get wrong. I’ve been known to yell about supply lines and crop burnings and hyperinflation at Sirens.

But sometimes, a book gets what I do really, really right—and when it does, I’m a fangirl. So rather than wax poetic for days, let’s focus on three authors whose characters do what I do in speculative spaces and do it really, really well.

Yoon Ha Lee (Conservation of Shadows, Ninefox Gambit) spends a lot of time observing people. He’s never told me this, but he doesn’t have to, because I’ve read his work. The best negotiators are, first, observers. After all, the point of a negotiation is to get someone else to do what you want them to do—and the most effective way to do that is to morph into the version of yourself that will be more convincing to them. Some days you’re a beauty; some days you’re a beast. But to figure out if you should be beauty, beast, buffoon, or bitch, you have to figure out the person sitting across from you. This is basic human interaction, but it’s almost impossible to get right, at least in a way that feels right to a negotiator. We live, after all, in the spaces between words, the eye twitches, the flushes, the reluctant smiles. But Yoon gets it right, every time, not only in his negotiation sequences, but in his strategies, his tactics, his conversations. He establishes his characters with an eye toward how his other characters will manipulate them later on. His books ring true to a negotiator because he gives a negotiator-reader the details you need to see the tactics, the strategy, and the manipulation play out. It’s one thing for an author to tell a reader a character has been manipulated; it’s another thing entirely for an author to give you a critical detail about a character’s personality in a casual conversation on page 24, only to have someone exploit that trait 200 pages later. To a negotiator and a strategist, his books are simply true in a way that few authors can manage.

K.B. Wagers (Behind the Throne) writes indomitable women. But truly, a lot of people write indomitable women. What’s rare about Katy’s women is that their women know that they’re indomitable, powerful women and they negotiate, strategize, and lead like they are. Hail’s aggression, in particular, is a thing of beauty, her violence even more so. She’s willing to use all the tactics a man in her position would use—and Katy does us all the favor of writing this like it’s no big deal. Hail bluffs, she threatens, she advances, sometimes she breaks a bone or two. And that’s glorious, the fact that Hail gets to do this and it only enhances her reputation—because I know what those tactics inevitably do to the tactics of our real-world female negotiators. But Hail’s also willing to play against type, to use patriarchal stereotypes and expectations as a weapon, an infiltration, and Katy is willing to break down what that means and how that works in a way that inevitably demonstrates the idiocy of the patriarchy. Long live Hail, a female negotiator we should all aspire to. I’m going to steal her tactics.

Fonda Lee (Jade City) writes indomitable women, too, but in a world that—at least in the first book in her Green Bone Saga series—feels a lot like my corporate America. It’s very patriarchal, it’s very toxic, it’s very violent. Lee’s world is, in so many ways, my world—and she writes these women who navigate this world with grace, with violence, and with immense power. Ayt Madashi, more than any other character in speculative fiction, is who twentysomething me wanted to grow up to be. Back when I thought the patriarchy was a meritocracy and I wanted to conquer it and then rule it. SPOILER: Reading about Mada going from fucking owning Hilo in a negotiating room to flipping tactics entirely and recruiting Shae? That’s the sort of facility and skill and power I aspired to—and frankly, that I still aspire to. Mada’s power is based on brilliance, strategy, and yes, aggression, and as a negotiator, I love her for every minute of it.

 

FAYE: This fall, you’re presenting a career development workshop intensive titled “Negotiating Your Professional Life” as part of the Sirens Studio. Would you please give us a preview of what Studio attendees can expect to discuss and learn?

AMY: We all, every day, end up negotiating lots of things, whether we realize it or not, whether we want it or not. Sometimes it’s as simple as whether we volunteer to take notes during meetings. Sometimes it’s more complicated, like negotiating for a raise. Sometimes it’s literally sitting down across the table from someone to negotiate a contract. But whether you realize it or not, and whether you want it or not, people are negotiating with you. So I’m going to share some of what I do, and the tactics and strategies that I use, to help people more actively manage those daily negotiations. Schools don’t teach this, but by God, they should.

So we’re going to do some workshopping. Negotiation is, fundamentally, about a third preparation, a third creativity, and a third tactics. We’re going to discuss what that preparation might look like. Is it research? Is it practicing what you want to say? Is it gearing up to be uncomfortable? Then we’ll work though some exercises on creativity in negotiations. The best negotiators are able to come up with innovative solutions to impasses. If your company can’t offer you the salary you want, is more vacation time a good compromise? Is hiring a junior person an option?

Then we’re going to talk tactics. We’re going to see what awkward pauses actually feel like. We’re going to talk about personal space. We’re going to use smiles and knowledge as weapons.

Come prepared to work! But also come prepared to gain a much greater understanding of how the world around you, especially in your professional life, actually works—and how you can more successfully navigate that.

 

FAYE: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

AMY: As women, we think we’re invincible. I think we think we have to be invincible. That’s the great con of the meritocracy, right? If you’re just smart enough and you work hard enough, you’ll succeed. Which, of course, means that if you don’t succeed, you’re just not doing enough.

Which works on us because our foremothers spent sunrise to sunset demonstrating their love through work. They cleaned house and baked bread and darned socks and you knew your mom really loved you because she took care of you. Not because she was amazing and powerful and skilled and still wanted to hang out with you. Because she took care of you.

Hallie Tibbets, my best friend, is a magnificent woman. She’s been a music teacher and a non-profit professional, she co-founded Narrate Conferences with me 13 years ago and Sirens 11 years ago, and she is now an editor of books for children and teens. She is immensely brilliant and immensely accomplished and I say this both because she is, but also because God knows, I wouldn’t have listened to her if she weren’t.

But she taught me to forgive myself. She taught me that, if I were as forgiving of myself as I am of others, I would be a much happier person. She taught me that, if I hate a book, I get to bail after 50 pages, rather than finishing it out of some ridiculous idea that I’d fail the book if I didn’t. She taught me that sometimes “tomorrow,” or “next week,” or “fucking never” are all acceptable answers, not failures. She taught me that I am fucking extraordinary and that I am not letting myself down when I don’t do what I set out to do if it no longer makes sense or it’s a waste of time or it doesn’t fucking need to be done.

And because of that, because of all that work that she did, I was able to believe a Fortune 50 company’s negotiators when they called me a superhero in the middle of a negotiation and offered me a job. Or when my boss finally convinced me that I didn’t have to be certain before I spoke up. Or when I read a book about a “budget of fucks” and it was an epiphany. Or when I’m able to read 150 books a year because I don’t have to finish them if I don’t like them.

Because of her, I am much smarter, much happier, and much, much more disciplined in where I expend my time and energy.

Everyone needs someone in their life who speaks truth to your power. For me, Hallie is that person. Also, she is good at cuddles even though cuddling me is something like cuddling a grumpy cactus.


Amy Tenbrink serves as Executive Vice President and Associate General Counsel-Revenue and Business Development for Univision Communications, the leading multimedia company entertaining, informing, and empowering Hispanic America. In this role, Amy both leads the legal team with respect to all revenue-generating businesses and other initiatives for Univision (including content distribution and advertising sales) and serves as a strategic business advisor with respect to those same businesses and initiatives. Prior to this role, Amy served as the Senior Vice President Business Affairs for Univision, and led the content distribution legal team in deals ranging from traditional MVPD distribution to innovative digital arrangements. Before joining Univision, Amy was Director and Senior Corporate Counsel for DISH Network, where she first supported a wide range of business units (including consumer, commercial and advertising sales) and later, led the legal team for DISH’s content acquisition group, which negotiates billions of dollars in content deals annually. Prior to her work at DISH, Amy worked in private practice, focusing primarily on technology, intellectual property, and finance. Amy holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California and the Georgetown University Law Center.

For more information about Amy, please visit her Twitter.

 

Book Club: The Witch’s Market by Mingmei Yip

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

The Witch's Market

We all have those tropes, you know? Those tropes that, for whatever reason, we adore, we seek, we…yes, we excoriate.

One of those tropes, for me, is witches. I have sky-high expectations for books written by women about witches.

Terribly high? Assuredly.

Magnificently high? Perhaps.

Impossibly high? All signs point to yes.

Despite that I can’t seem to remember the last time that I liked a book about witches—any book about witches, regardless of author—I continue to read them.

And not just read them. Read them voraciously. I read them voraciously. If a book includes “witch” in the title, and it’s not written by some cisgendered, heterosexual dude, I’ve probably bought it. Maybe read it.

Likely been disappointed by it.

Unfair? Certainly.

In my dreadfully thin defense, I have bees in my proverbial bonnet. I expect my fantasy revolutions to address economic instability and I want my monster girls to be largely unrepentant and I need my witch books to come with a decidedly feminist bent. The word “witch” has been weaponized against women for a thousand years; I want that ostracization and persecution to be handled—and handled well, feminist-ly well. I want questions of power and answers of power and epiphanies of power. I probably want revenge, but that one might be just me.

For all the imaginable reasons, I have a hard time with a fantasy world with “witches” where this thousand years of shitty history isn’t addressed. And if that world isn’t so much a fantasy world, but our world, our contemporary world with its history of witch hunts and drownings and burnings and so on, but with real witches, well.

Well.

I picked up The Witch’s Market by Mingmei Yip because I am constantly in search of that book, that holy grail of a book, that will give my brain and my heart a proper witchly reclamation, redemption, and retribution. Spoiler alert: The Witch’s Market didn’t do it for me.

The Witch’s Market gets the broad strokes right. Eileen Chen, Chinese-American professor of folk religion, is chasing tenure. To date, her scholarship has focused on Asian traditions, primarily the Chinese incantations practiced by Eileen’s matriarchal line. Eileen isn’t sure that her grandmother really was a witch—but she isn’t sure that she wasn’t, either. And among her university crowd, Eileen deliberately cultivates the idea that maybe she is a witch, too.

Somewhat inexplicably, Eileen’s male department chair and mentor suggests that she needs to round out her scholarship with some white-people witchery in order to complete her research and achieve tenure. Why? No idea. But he offers her time off to do it, which conveniently coincides with a dream Eileen has indicating that she should go to the Canary Islands to seek some witches. Why the Canary Islands? I guess they’re full of witches? So Eileen leaves her pragmatic lawyer sister and her on-again, off-again, rich, that-guy boyfriend, and heads to the Canary Islands.

Within days of arriving on the islands, Eileen has seen a ghost, heard a disturbing rumor about the earth swallowing a man and a dog, danced naked in the moonlight with some witches, agreed to stay with a rich guy and his housekeeper in his castle, and met a seriously extroverted former cabaret singer. If that sounds like a lot, well, I haven’t even gotten to the dead daughter, the missing son, the seemingly endless list of men who fall for Eileen, or the rich guy’s jealous dead wife. It’s a lot. A lot.

Which could have all been fine! In terms of plot and scope, this book reminds me a lot of Dreaming in Cuban or The Island of Eternal Love. Grand, sweeping family mysteries, rife with ghosts and coincidences and mistaken assumptions, spanning decades or generations. Assuredly, the great lot of plot is not where The Witch’s Market lost me.

Where it lost me was its internalized misogyny, its relentless tokenism, its aggressive heteronormativism. While men fall all over themselves to chase Eileen—she receives not one, but three marriage proposals in the last third of this book—Eileen herself finds every other woman in this book lacking. And Eileen’s judgmentalness isn’t merely unnecessary, but hypocritical. She judges other witches for using their power, even as she hones her own. She judges an aging woman for sleeping with a young man, even as she sleeps with a man more than a decade her junior. She judges a housekeeper for drinking several glasses of wine and then sits down to pour herself some sherry. Unsurprisingly, the woman who got Eileen drunk and danced naked with her in the moonlight turns out to be evil. The frustrating list of this one woman denigrating all other women goes on and on. And on.

In a similar vein, The Witch’s Market is unyielding in its presentation of traditional heteronormative stereotypes as valid. Eileen turns down all three marriage proposals, but nonetheless seriously considers each one—despite that all three of these men assuredly suck—because each is considered a catch. Every major player in this book insists that Eileen seriously consider one or more of her suitors: He’s a good man. He’s a nice man. He’s a rich man. He’s a handsome man. He’ll take care of you. You wouldn’t have to work anymore. You would have all the time in the world to write your book. In fact, Eileen’s sister—her lawyer sister—berates her for turning down not one, but two rich men. I checked the copyright date on this book four times, but each time it somehow still said ©2015.

I could continue, but I presume that I lost most of you at “internalized misogyny,” so I don’t have to go into how Eileen others basically everyone (locals, witches, women who have sex, the neuroatypical character), how all the similes are also misogynist tripe (something mundane “fell open easily, like a prostitute’s legs”), how Eileen’s inner monologues are logically inconsistent (she can’t seem to keep track of a conversation), or how every man in this book sucks (I can neither confirm nor deny if all the women suck because Eileen hates them all).

That said, I had very similar issues with a couple other books, so if you liked A Discovery of Witches or The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, you might want to ignore me and give this one a shot!


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

 

May Sirens Meet-Ups: Denver and New York City!

As the northern and mountainous parts of the country thaw finally into spring, we’re excited to announce a few in-person meet-ups per our annual tradition. While these casual get-togethers are no replacement for our conference in October, they are a great way to connect with members of the Sirens community in the meantime. The meet-ups below are hosted by Sirens staff or ambassadors, so if you live near these cities or happen to be in town, we hope you’ll join us.

We welcome everyone, whether you’ve attended Sirens previously and want to catch up, or have never attended and are curious. As always, please feel free to bring questions, friends, and a note-taking device as you’ll undoubtedly leave with a long list of book recommendations!

 

DENVER: May the Fourth Dessert Party
Date: Saturday, May 4, 2019
Time: 1:00–4:00 p.m. Mountain Time
Location: Private home in Castle Rock, CO*
Presented by: Amy Tenbrink and K.B. Wagers
Come for the Death Star ice cream sandwiches, stay for the BB-8 hand pies.

RSVP via email or on Facebook

*Address will be sent after attendees have RSVP’ed.

 

NEW YORK CITY: B-Y-O-Blanket and Picnic
Date: Friday, May 10, 2019
Time: 6:00–8:00 p.m. Eastern Time
Location: The Lawn at Bryant Park*
Presented by: Faye Bi, Jennifer Shimada, and Hallie Tibbetts
There will be cookies, lemonade, a plethora of nearby food options—and (weather permitting) celebrating the opening of the lawn in Bryant Park!

RSVP via email or on Facebook

*Rain location will be the nearby Kinokuniya Bookstore, in the upstairs café. Please note that with the exception of food brought to be shared, participants are responsible for their own food and beverages.

 

And if you aren’t near Denver or New York City, don’t despair . . . more meet-ups are in the works for June! Stay tuned for more information.

Hope to see you soon!

 

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.

 

New Fantasy Books: April 2019

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of April 2019 fantasy book releases by and about women and nonbinary folk. Let us know what you’re looking forward to, or any titles that we’ve missed, in the comments!
 

What does heroism mean to you?

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 11, Issue 3: March 2019 (Programming Edition)

This month:

 

What does heroism mean to you? We asked each of our 2019 Guests of Honor this question as part of our annual interview series.

Mishell Baker

“A hero is someone who is told, ‘You can’t, it’s hopeless, better people than you have failed, turn back now,’ and who decides they’re going to ignore all that and do what’s right anyway. Not because they’re confident they can succeed, but because they simply can’t live with themselves if they don’t at least try.” – Mishell Baker

Kicking off our guest spotlight series, Mishell Baker spoke with us earlier this month on why her heroes have given up on giving up. Borderline is the first book in her The Arcadia Project series, which features indomitable Millie saving us all from otherworldly powers. Check out our review squad’s in-depth look here and Mishell’s list of books with lonely, neurodivergent heroes. We’ve also rounded up more works and interviews by Mishell that you can read here.

 

Ausma Zehanat Khan

“The people I find heroic are often the most marginalized or vulnerable in their societies, with the organs of the state working to harm them further, and they still have the courage to stand up for themselves and others, despite the severe price that will be paid.” – Ausma Zehanat Khan

Just this week, we interviewed Ausma Zehanat Khan, award-winning author of the Khorasan Archives and the Rachel Getty and Esa Khattak mysteries. You can also find some more of Ausma’s work on the web here, read a review of The Bloodprint from one of our Sirens Review Squad members, and check out Ausma’s list of immersive, mythical fantasy books.

 

Dive into Programming Possibilities

It’s March and the quest for brilliant Sirens programming is in full swing! All of Sirens’s programming—the dozens of hours of papers, lectures, panels, roundtable discussions, workshops, and afternoon classes presented at Sirens each year—is crafted, proposed, and pre-sented by Sirens attendees. And that means you!

Join the ongoing Twitter discussion to get ideas, hone your thoughts, and find collaborators. Looking for ideas? Check out #SirensBrainstorm. Already have some insight on what you’d like to propose but could use a map to light the way? Have no fear, our annual programming series is here! Every-thing you could want to know about presenting at Sirens is included in this six-part series, links below.

Programming submissions are officially open April 4 to May 15. In addition, we’ll be hosting two programming chats on our Chat page, which will be live at the scheduled times:

  • Saturday, April 13, 1–3 p.m. Eastern (10 a.m.–noon Pacific)
  • Monday, May 13, 9–11 p.m. Eastern (6–8 p.m. Pacific)

 

What Else is Happening

  • Last call for Financial Hardship and Professional Scholarship applications—they are due March 31st! For all the details, visit our Scholarships page.

  • Take a look at people’s picks for favorite grumpy heroines or duos in fantasy in the #SirensIcebreaker.

  • Amy read Fen, the “feral” short story collection by Daisy Johnson, for her book club this month. “Fen is for when you’re ashamed, when you’re furious, when you’re desperate to regain just a piece of yourself from the daily exhaustion of being a woman in a world founded on men’s demands.” Read her full review on the blog or Goodreads.

 

Need more books for your TBR shelf?

Obviously, we are Sirens, so click here for an excellent collage of new titles for March.

Erynn’s Pick:

Courting Darkness

The reviews for Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift give me happy chills. We are promised humane wit and colorful storytelling while following a grand tale of three Zambian families over the course of a century, from their start at a once-colonial settlement near Victoria Falls called The Old Drift. Check out the author’s description here.

 

Faye’s Pick:

The Bird King

G. Willow Wilson’s name on the cover of a book always piques my interest. The Bird King, Wilson’s first novel since 2012’s Alif the Unseen, is set in 1491 in the reign of the last sultanate on the Iberian Peninsula. Epic adventure, magical maps, an ode to the power of stories, and Wilson’s gorgeous writing and weaving of faith, history, and fantasy—what else could a reader ask for?

 

This newsletter was put together by:

Erynn Moss + Faye Bi


Questions? Concerns? Please email general queries to (help at sirensconference.org) and questions about programming to (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

Ausma’s Fantastic Worlds

For our 2019 theme of heroes, Guest of Honor Ausma Zehanat Khan shares the book list she curated for the heroes theme. If you enjoy her work, we encourage you to check out these other reads. Take it away, Ausma!

 

The Throne of the Crescent Moon
1. The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Clever, inventive, and thoroughly original, this trailblazing Middle Eastern-inspired fantasy resonates with Ahmed’s characteristic wit. An anti-hero to remember.

The City of Brass
2. The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

A gorgeously detailed world infused with the author’s passion for Islamic history, and for 18th century Cairo. A vibrant love triangle unlike any other brings this story to life.

The Poppy War
3. The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

An unforgettable and epic evocation of 20th century China, war as you’ve never seen it, rich in mythology and heart-wrenching to the end.

The Night Circus
4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus is a place of beguiling enchantments and mysteries, with prose that demands you linger until you’ve deciphered the many layers of its beauty.

Station Eleven
5. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

A group of traveling actors find love, hope and humanity in art as they traverse the pitfalls of the end of civilization. Reading this book is like falling into a dream.

Empire of Sand
6. Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

An opulent fantasy inspired by the Mughal empire, with fascinating insights into the devotional and magical powers of dance. An intimate story of longing and belonging.

The Bird King
7. The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson

A fable of Andalusia deeply imbued with nostalgia, with notes of both darkness and light, told in the stunning prose of a master storyteller.


Ausma Zehanat Khan holds a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law with a specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. She is a former adjunct law professor and was Editor-in-Chief of Muslim Girl magazine, the first magazine targeted to young Muslim women, and is the award-winning author of both the Khorasan Archives (The Bloodprint, The Black Khan) and the Rachel Getty and Essa Khattak series (beginning with The Unquiet Dead). Originally from Canada, Khan now lives in Colorado with her husband.

For more information about Ausma, please visit her website or her Twitter.

 

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.

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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