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Robyn Bennis: I always know how the employees have gendered me at the hardware store.

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome a personal essay from Robyn Bennis!

The Law of Large Numbers as a Substitute for Being Trans at the Hardware Store
A Treatise in Support of Calling Out Every Single Act of Petty Sexism in Your Life

By Robyn Bennis

I always know how the employees have gendered me at the hardware store.

This is one of those things, I suspect, that cisgender folk don’t even think about, but it’s a background concern to most transgender people. My every interaction with a stranger starts with the unspoken question, “Does this asshole think I’m a woman or a fruitily dressed man?” There’s also the possibility that they read me as nonbinary, but if I’m in that sort of company, I can let my guard down. Otherwise, knowing a person’s read on me can make the difference between a pleasant interaction, an awkward ordeal, or even assault.

The Guns Above

Which is why there’s a silver lining to the gendered treatment I notice at the hardware store. Sure, I have to exert a supreme effort to keep from rolling my eyes while the orange-shirted sales associate explains that gypsum is not a type of plaster (it is) and that I probably mean drywall (I don’t), which is the ideal repair material for my vintage lath and plaster walls (it isn’t—that would be barbarism). And yes, it ends up taking five minutes for the guy to say, essentially, “No, we don’t carry that,” but at least I know he reads me as female. If, on the other hand, we have a pleasant interaction during which each of us learns something about building materials and home repair, I know he’s read me as male, and I know that I should take care to not disabuse him of that notion, lest things get weird.

At this point, you may be asking, “What the hell does this have to do with my life?”

The key question I’m interested in, however, is what the hell does it NOT have to do with your life? I’m not trying to be funny. (I don’t have to try.) I’m legitimately asking you to look at the difference.

The answer is, when you’re trans at the hardware store, you know when you’re getting hit with low-key sexism. In most other situations, you never quite do. I mean, maybe that reviewer on Amazon was disappointed by your book’s “YA writing” because of subconscious sexism, or because the last young adult book they actually read was in the Hardy Boys series, or both. Maybe your boss pitched your own idea back to you because he’s so used to taking women’s ideas that he doesn’t even notice anymore, maybe he’s merely oblivious, or maybe he’s just an asshole. The point is, you don’t know, and given the perverse way burden of proof works against the victim rather than the purveyor of bigotry—even when the purveyor is safely anonymous—you can’t even bring up everyday sexism in mixed company without risk of a high roading from the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd.

By Fire Above

This, despite humanity’s ten-thousand-year legacy of subordinating and devaluing women. This, despite countless studies showing persistent bias all across the globe, even today. Seriously, do a Google Scholar search for gender bias and start counting. And while you’re counting, notice how many studies suggest that even the pettiest acts of everyday sexism can add up to fewer options, fewer opportunities, and fewer women in any number of fields.

Yet the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd acts as if this data was gathered in an entirely different universe. Sure, sexism is ubiquitous, but your specific complaints are invalid because you can’t prove them beyond a reasonable doubt. And, besides which, Creeper Larry is probably just socially awkward.

And hey, no one is denying that Creeper Larry is socially awkward, but that only forgives, like, four or five questions about your boob sweat. Six, maximum.

In defending Creeper Larry against your complaints, the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd is appealing to the fact that even a well-controlled scientific study can only tell us the aggregate effect. It can’t tell us whether any individual act is motivated by bias. Even within the study itself, any single observation can be put down to chance. And that’s true for Creeper Larry, too, even though—come on—it’s right there in his name.

So, if you can’t even call an individual act biased when it’s part of a study demonstrating bias, how is one to know? Without, you know, being trans at the hardware store.

The Devil's Guide

The answer, sadly, is you probably don’t. Cis folk lack my superpower, and as the Xanders to my Buffy, you’re just going to have to do what you can with your meager gifts. Which means you’re going to be wrong about some people. At some point, you’re going to think “sexist” when the person in question is actually just “Mr. Oblivious” or “Sir Random Variance the Third, Esquire.” And, given the fact that you’re going to be wrong some of the time, when should you call a putative sexist a sexist, if only with his name changed to protect the creepy?

The answer is related to the very same variance the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd wants to use against you: the law of large numbers. That is to say, the more often you speak up about everyday sexism, the more apt your hit-to-miss ratio is to approach its expected value. If you’re 90% likely to call an instance of everyday sexism correctly, then over time you’ll call 9 out of 10 instances correctly. Indeed, the appeal to variance from the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd leads you inexorably to the conclusion that you should ignore the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd entirely and speak the hell up. Not only that, but your horrible friends and co-workers will have a hard time rationalizing Creeper Larry’s behavior as the incidents pile up.

So talk about everyday sexism, even if you lack the certainty of a trans person at the hardware store. Science compels you.


Robyn Bennis

Robyn Bennis is a writer and biologist living in Madison, WI, where she has one cat, two careers, and an apartment full of dreams. She has done research and development involving human gene expression, neural connectomics, cancer diagnostics, rapid flu testing, gene synthesis, genome sequencing, being so preoccupied with whether she could that she never stopped to think if she should, and systems integration. She is the author of The Devil’s Guide to Managing Difficult People (2019) and the Signal Airship series (The Guns Above (2017) and By Fire Above (2018)) from Tor Books and wrote her debut novel within sight of the historic Hangar One at Moffett Airfield.

 

Book Club: Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean

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!

Empress of All Seasons

It was with equal parts excitement and trepidation that I began Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean.

I love a good warrior-girl story. Even more than that, I love a good monster-girl story. And Mari, the half-human, half-yōkai, practically invincible protagonist of Empress of All Seasons, was both. A girl born to a tribe of monster-women, raised to be an indomitable warrior, a probable champion of a deadly game that pits warrior-girl against warrior-girl in a contest to marry the prince….

And there’s my trepidation. A deadly game that pits warrior-girl against warrior-girl in a contest to marry the prince. Again? How many books have I read—and even more, how many books have I not read—that contrive a deadly game that pits warrior-girl against warrior-girl in a contest to marry the prince? Way too many, that’s how many.

But while I might be able to ignore a warrior-girl, I cannot ignore a monster-girl, a girl of fang and claw, a girl of my heart. So off I went.

Mari is an Animal Wife, heir to a monstrous legend of beautiful, shapeshifting women who marry men and then steal their riches, returning to their sisters with more money, more wisdom, more power. But in Mari’s land, the emperor despises yōkai: anyone non-human, with often non-human appearances and always non-human abilities. And so the emperor has ordered all yōkai collared, thereby reducing their strength and abilities to something humans can overcome. That those collars are cursed and burn the yōkai is of no consequence, of course, so long as they are contained. Mari, living in a remote mountain village has so far escaped the collar, but she’s about to go into the proverbial lion’s den.

Unlike most Animal Wives, Mari wasn’t born beautiful, or at least that’s what she’s told. Much is made of her plain appearance, her short stature, her round face. In fact, she seemingly wasn’t even born with the full abilities of an Animal Wife, since she can change her human form only partially. And so, assuming she can’t trap a husband with her looks or her magic, Mari’s mother raises her to be a warrior. Because once a generation, countless human girls travel to the imperial city to compete in a competition for the next emperor’s hand in marriage. As with the first emperor, who loved a woman who bested all four seasons, each new empress must conquer four magical rooms, one devoted to each season. Unlike most other battle-for-the-prince books, Mari and her competitors aren’t supposed to kill each other; just like most other battle-for-the-prince books, they do so anyway—and many other girls are killed by the elements in the rooms. This is a deadly game, based on a legend, made possible by magic. And despite her non-human abilities, because of her human appearance, Mari has been raised to win and be the most successful Animal Wife of all: The one who steals the imperial riches.

This book has a lot to unpack. It wants, badly, to explore themes on femininity, beauty, and power, through Mari’s purported plainness, her part-monstrousness, her skill with the deadly naginata. It wants, badly, to dissect that preposterously large overlap between teenaged girls and monstrousness—a monstrousness that is often placed on them in order to remove their acceptableness and their power. It wants, badly, to deconstruct what it means for a girl to be monstrous, to want things she’s not allowed, to do things she’s not permitted, to be things she’s not supposed to become.

“We’re all monsters. No man, no human, will ever love us. That is the curse of the Animal Wife, never to be loved for who we truly are.”

And in some ways, Empress of All Seasons succeeds. Not through Mari, necessarily, even though her monstrousness and her power and her struggle are the driving force of the book. No, more notably through Akira, Mari’s friend, the half-yōkai, the Son of Nightmares, who sees her and her monstrousness and her competence and her power and her beauty, and loves her, exactly as she is. With a bit of luck and care, we all have people in our lives who see our monstrousness, our beastliness, our abilities as something gloriously more than we do, and Akira is that person for Mari.

And the book succeeds through Hanako, a yuki-onna, a Snow Woman made of ice and hard edges, known as the Weapons Master of the yōkai Resistance. She’s dangerous, she’s unapologetic, she’s ambitious. She’s a girl who knows her power and revels in her power and wields her power. She’s a girl to aspire to.

Somewhere in here, there’s an unflinching, uncompromising blade of a book that brooks no denial and makes no apologies. It tackles monstrousness as a necessity in a society that puts women in boxes and cages and collars. It tackles beauty as more flexible than we’ve been led to believe. It tackles gender and power and rebellion as both an everyday intersection and a grand-scale revolution. All of that lives somewhere in this book.

But all of that is nearly suffocated by the rest of this book. By Mari’s complicated relationship with her mother, her tribe, her best friend, who appears briefly in the first act, only to conveniently disappear in the third. By this nonsensical, deadly game of the seasons, that ridiculously pits powerful girl against powerful girl for marriage to a man known as the Cold Prince, only to repeatedly mock the girls who are there because they want to be empress. By a steady thread on brutality and othering people who are different than we are, but that never really gets its hooks in the reader. By Mari’s burgeoning, almost accidental love story with that prince. And finally, by the sharp left turn in the third act that twists the book into one of poorly planned rebellion.

And Mari—our protagonist, though only one of three point-of-view characters—drowns in all of that. She’s pushed along by the plot, rarely making her own decisions, rarely recognizing what she wants, as opposed to what her mother, her friend, the prince, the emperor want of her. She’s poorly skilled in court games, but for a book conceived around a game set at court, that hardly seems to matter. She’s even less skilled in rebellion, but Hanako conveniently shows up to take care of that. I had a hard time getting a handle on Mari; the prince and Akira, the other point-of-view characters, were both more one-note, but along those same lines, more consistent, while Mari seemed to have little personality beyond a bit of feminism, a bit of girlish head-over-heels love, and a lot of deadly skill.

In the end, Empress of All Seasons wanted to be so much: an interrogation of feminism and beauty and power; a parable about destroying each other because of our differences; a love story; a deadly game; a dazzling display of magic; a necessary rebellion. And in trying to do so much—for all those monster-girls of my heart—it ended up doing so little.


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.

 

Sara Megibow: Publishing can feel opaque and frustrating, but we’re often frustrated with process, not people

Sirens Studio takes place October 22–23, 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 literary agent Sara Megibow, who will lead the career development workshop “Heroines Can Fly” this fall. To learn more and register, please visit our Sirens Studio page.

Accompanying our interview is a selection of book covers from Sara’s clients: K. Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter, Sirens 2019 Guest of Honor Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning, Margaret Rogerson’s Sorcery of Thorns, Julie E. Czerneda’s The Gossamer Mage, and Jaleigh Johnson’s The Door to the Lost.

 

AMY TENBRINK: Once upon a time, you were a process specialist and Six Sigma corporate trainer with GE. Can you tell us a bit about what that entails? How did you find your way into that career and what did you love about it?

Sara Megibow

SARA: Of course! Thank you!

I graduated college in 1996 which was the height of the dot-com boom (especially in Boulder, CO, where I was living). You asked how I found myself there and it was as simple as looking for my first post-college job. That’s how robust the job market was at the time.

A process specialist is someone who analyzes internal company processes and measures, then defines and improves them for profit. This might be something as simple as “please improve our hiring process” or as complex as “we need to prove 10% added profit on internal ordering procedures.” I loved it! There are very clear rules on process improvement and it starts with defining parameters. Anything that’s “outside of scope” gets pushed aside so an analyst can focus on the goal. The mantra was, “stay on target…stay on target” and I found that refreshing and inspiring.

I use analytics a lot as a literary agent. Publishing is opaque, confusing and ever-changing. But, if I define a process within publishing and analyze it carefully for profit, it really all does fit together like a big puzzle. Authors might find publishing frustrating but I find that we are frustrated with process and not with people. Behind it all, publishing is filled with passionate, experienced, enthusiastic, hard-working, focused people—and that fills me with joy!

The Tiger's Daughter Trail of Lightning

 

AMY: What challenges exist for literary agents, either generally or for you personally as you switched to this field? How do you tackle professional challenges?

SARA: I can’t speak for all agents but for me, the biggest challenge is explaining publishing processes to my clients. The second biggest challenge I face is setting client expectations.

I think the way we tackle challenges is…together. I communicate regularly with my clients and keep detailed notes and spreadsheets on their work, their goals, and their progress. And because publishing can feel opaque and ever-changing, we talk and email and strategize.

Sorcery of Thorns The Gossamer Mage

 

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

SARA: I describe the publishing industry as a duck. On the surface, the duck floats serenely in the water. Underwater, though, it is paddling madly.

Beneath the surface, there are many, many moving parts when it comes to working in publishing—author, agent, editor, publisher, sales representative, book buyer, bookseller, librarian, publicist, art director, subsidiary rights agent, blogger, reader, etc. For each of us there are dreams and goals, tasks and deadlines, successes and failures.

This workshop will focus on defining our individual goals as they intersect with our job(s) in publishing. Then, we’ll take those goals and quantify how to measure them for success.

The Door to the Lost

 

AMY: 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?

SARA: My aunt is a Holocaust survivor. She’s 82 years old now and didn’t speak about the experience until recently. Recently, at age 80, she lit Hanukkah candles again for the first time since escaping the camps. She said that she finally felt safe enough again to light the candles and that watching our generation of Jews “go on” inspired her. The way that my aunt has embraced hope is a lesson for me.

 


Sara Megibow is a literary agent with kt literary out of Highlands Ranch, Colorado. She started working in publishing in 2006 and represents New York Times-bestselling authors Margaret Rogerson, Jason Hough, Jaleigh Johnson, and Roni Loren. Sara is actively acquiring and represents authors who write middle grade novels (all sub-genres), young adult novels (all sub-genres), romance novels (all sub-genres) and science fiction/fantasy for the adult market. Always LGBTQIA+ friendly!

For more information about Sara, please visit kt literary’s website or her Twitter.

 

2019 Books and Breakfast: non-white heroes in dystopian worlds

Each year, Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through our Books and Breakfast program. We select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme, and then attendees bring their breakfast and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary authors are doing in fantasy literature!

This year, as we interrogate what it means to be a hero and what actions are seen as heroic, our Books and Breakfast program features titles in four areas to broaden our definition of heroism: religion, race, gender/sexuality, and body—and please note that some titles sit on multiple axes, not just the one they’re listed under! We’ll be highlighting all of these titles the coming months; you can read more about our religion picks here, and below are our Books and Breakfast selections exploring heroism and race.

 
2019 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

Religion

The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson
The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

Race

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Gender/Sexuality

Dreadnought by April Daniels
The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera

Body

Faith Volume 1: Hollywood and Vine by Jody Houser, Francis Portela, and Marguerite Sauvage
Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge

 
RACE SELECTIONS

A glance at the fantasy shelves these days—particularly at the young adult fantasy shelves—will hardly reveal a shortage of female heroes. Ferocious warriors, skilled assassins, superlative magicians, eagle-eyed commanders, sage healers, and shrewd queens. Yet, painstakingly few of them feature non-white heroes as their protagonists—rather, you’ll find them villains in more than a few tomes—and fewer yet are written by fantasy authors of color. This year, we urge you to discover our Books and Breakfast race picks: Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation and Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God.

 

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation

If you didn’t think that the Reconstruction era, Steampunk, and the zombie apocalypse went together, then gee, let me introduce you to Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation. What if, during the battle of Gettysburg towards the end of the Civil War, the undead—called shamblers—rise and begin terrorizing towns and cities across America? What if, after slavery was abolished, Congress establishes an act that mandates Black and Native children aged 12 enter military training camps to be the first line of defense?

Jane McKeene is a biracial Negro girl attending Miss Preston’s School of Combat, in which the best graduates become “Attendants,” chaperoning wealthy white women and defending them from shamblers, all while dressed in finery. But that’s just the beginning: Ireland’s gem of a novel is so incredibly inventive and sharp, it offers one of the best examinations of systemic racism and the Black experience I’ve read in a young adult novel, or any novel. It explores colorism with Jane’s rival, Katherine Devereaux, who is so gorgeous she stuns at fifty paces, and is passing as white; codeswitching, like when Jane purposely downplays her abilities to manipulate a situation; and much more. Ultimately, it confronts head-on how American history is literally built at the expense of black and Native bodies, and the complicity of white ‘allies’ with their words and actions masked as benevolence.

Published a year after Jordan Peele’s Get Out was released, Dread Nation accomplishes something equally ambitious, with razor-sharp cultural commentary, clever and perceptive worldbuilding details (because Sherman’s March to the Sea was obviously to burn a path through a horde of shamblers), and a hero in Jane who must blaze her destiny in a society where people in power don’t see her as human. It lurches you in directions you might not expect… but are inevitably not surprised by. It offers an alternate history of the United States that illuminates truths about our present—and that is the best kind of fantasy. Required reading.

—Faye

 

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Future Home of the Living God

As Future Home of the Living God opens, Cedar Hawk Songmaker—her improbable white name courtesy of her adopted Minnesota-liberal parents—seeks her Ojibwe birth family, a quest driven by her unintended pregnancy. But more than an ordinary desire to know her genetic history propels Cedar’s sudden interest in her tribe: The world’s genetics have suddenly gone awry, evolution is moving backward, and pregnant women often give birth to something other than human babies. As the novel progresses, as Cedar meets her birth family and navigates the new conventions of the United States and is ultimately imprisoned for her pregnancy, she questions over and over again if her baby is normal or a genetic malfunction—and in this world where nothing is certain, which would be the greater wonder.

Louise Erdrich began writing Future Home of the Living God in 2002, in the shadow of the Iraq War, a year after her youngest daughter was born. The question the book poses—Are we going backward?—is just as critical now as when Erdrich first asked. As you might expect, Future Home is a dystopia, but one full of both tiny marvels (new species abound) and Orwellian control (pregnant women are promised the best rooms if they check themselves into government facilities voluntarily). This work—seen through Cedar’s Indigenous eyes—is full of hard questions about what it means to progress (following the fall of the United States, Cedar’s tribe regains their land and autonomy), what it means if humans are an evolutionary pause (or even mistake), and in so many ways, how we approach the miracles inherent in so many things we take for granted: family, birth, love.

And it’s a book full of heroism. Perhaps not the sort of heroism you’re used to, where people with impossible powers save the planet from infinite threats. But a more quiet, perhaps more desperate, certainly more personal form of heroism, where an Indigenous mother, pregnant with an unknown child, will do everything in her power to keep that child not only safe, but with her. This is a book, ultimately, of awe: at what we—as ordinary people in a time of crisis—will do when called upon to be heroes.

—Amy

 

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.

 

Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince is a stunning example of ecofeminist climate fiction

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an academic paper from Nivair H. Gabriel!

“Remake the World”: Algae, Art, and Indigenous Futurist Thought in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince
By Nivair H. Gabriel

The Summer Prince

Asserting that “literary and postcolonial studies have ignored the environmentalism that often only the poor can see,” Rob Nixon defines the concept of “slow violence”: “a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous but instead incremental, whose calamitous repercussions are postponed for years or decades or centuries.” He laments the challenge of crafting narratives that make slow violence apparent in a fast-moving world of immediacy, but notes that “writer-activists in the Southern Hemisphere are giving imaginative definition to catastrophes that often remain imperceptible to the senses, catastrophes that unfold across a time span that exceeds the instance of observation or even the life of the human observer. In a world permeated by insidious, unspectacular violence, imaginative writing can make the unapparent appear, rendering it tangible by humanizing drawn-out calamities inaccessible to the immediate senses.” Rebecca Evans discusses “cli-fi” as a literary response to this challenge, defining “cli-fi” not as a single genre but as “a literary preoccupation with climate futures that draws from a wide range of popular genres.” Cli-fi, she argues, via its use of multiple genres, “narratively conjures the future—a conjuring that inflects the representation of climate justice and the queer politics of futurity itself” (95). A stellar example of cli-fi for young adults is Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince, which blends the science fictional and the fantastic to depict an ecofeminist vision. Rooted in a specifically urban sense of place informed by slow violence, and centering a queer, polyamorous relationship, The Summer Prince represents a climate-concerned future that resists both colonialism and heteronormativity. Its ecofeminist critique of the past, informed by indigenous histories, and its open-ended vision of the future bring it into the realm of indigenous futurism.

Palmares Três, the sparkling, futuristic matriarchy where The Summer Prince takes place, is a city of escapees from a plague- and war-ravaged Northern Hemisphere. The foundational belief of Palmares Três echoes Vandana Shiva, who contends that environmental destruction is the fault of capitalism, and cannot be alleviated—let alone reversed—by any solutions conceived within the limitations of modern, Western, patriarchal, capitalist thought. She writes that “all past achievements of patriarchy have been based on alienation from life, and have led to the impoverishment of women, children, and the environment” (88). Hence the matriarchal society of Palmares Três, in a speculated future four hundred years after Shiva’s present: women rule 90% of the time, and when men rule it is only as “summer kings,” figureheads who face inevitable martyrdom to Palmares Três when their term ends. “Kings are men,” June’s mother tells her, “and they can’t be trusted to give up power once they have it” (197). The mandated murder of male rulers exists to remind citizens that patriarchy caused the environmental devastation that turned places like Rio de Janeiro into ruins that humans can only visit in a contamination suit (47). The Queen who founded Palmares Três “put [her king] on a pedestal and … cut him down. A man, like the ones who ruined the world.” To “remake the world,” the story goes, the Queen took “from the world [she knew]”: “Candomblé, which always respected a woman’s power. Catholicism, which always understood the transformation of sacrifice. And Palmares, that legendary self-made city the slaves carved themselves in the jungle, proof that a better world can be built from a bad one” (Johnson 19). The cyclic ritual of king-killing ensures that colonialist patriarchy is perpetually named and condemned for the world’s destruction. Queen Odete, devising a new civilization “in a country that had once been Brazil,” might well have been reading Shiva’s ecofeminist call to action: “Putting women and children first needs above all, a reversal of the logic which has treated women as subordinate because they create life, and men as superior because they destroy it” (88). Aunties, women of advanced age, rule Palmares Três, and they insist that the city remain in isolation from the rest of the colonialist, patriarchal, destroyed world. Johnson’s speculated future makes visible the consequences of the slow violence Nixon observes, and points out “the way that climate change is disproportionately caused and disproportionately experienced along lines of privilege” (Evans 95).

The centrality of Palmares Três and its founding ideology in the text encourage an environmentalist and feminist reading. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas points out that “texts that present urban geographies provide an opportunity for young readers and the stakeholders in their lives to consider the present and future states of our cities wherein the privileged and the challenged meet” (20). Urban geographies “provide orientations and grounding in specific places,” she notes, and “are as diverse and interconnected as that of any natural biome” (14). In the glowing pyramid tiers of Palmares Três, bolstered by its slums of “concrete and algae” (Johnson 112), the story of June—a privileged artist from upper-class Tier Eight—and her love for Enki—a poor dancer from the verde at the bottom of the city—quickly becomes the story of “the politics of the visible and the invisible” (Nixon). June notices her privileged experience of the city when she ventures to the stadium in the lower tier to see the presentation of summer king contenders: “Growing up on Tier Eight, I’m used to seeing the glowing pyramid lattice of Palmares Três from a loftier position” (9). In this particular urban landscape, Enki’s neighborhood carries clear markers that indicate both low class and strong connection to the environment; “we call it the catinga, the stink,” June reveals, “but they call it the verde. Green” (13). The city’s automated voice technology sounds different in June’s top tier than it does in Enki’s bottom one, a difference that surprises the privileged and selectively ignorant June when he tells her (104). Enki’s controversial kingship, his deliberate sacrifice of his own life for the power that fame brings, is his project to illuminate the “hypocrisy of Palmares Três” (64). He insists on dressing in a way that identifies him with the oppressed lower classes in old-Brazil’s history, and reminding the Aunties every chance he gets of the people in the verde who enable their comfortable top-tier lives while struggling to survive storms and floods (34). The old pipelines in the verde recall the environmental destruction of another age whose detritus still stifles the poor (232). June and Enki’s art collaborations draw attention to the struggles of the verde, and to accomplish them they must travel intimately through the city. Regarding Palmares Três’s power grid, June muses, “Energy at no cost, some would say, but Enki and I know better. The cost is the verde, the catinga, the several hundred thousand souls who live at this literal bottom tier of society” (90). June thrills to Enki’s every callout of the Aunties, creating art that underscores his message of environmental justice. June and Enki’s are “intersecting trajectories that blend urban landscapes of privilege and challenge” (Thomas 18). They show that even in a futuristic world founded on apparently ecofeminist principles, Nixon’s “environmentalism of the poor” is still necessary.

The way June uses old-Brazil’s history in her and Enki’s art positions her as an indigenous futurist heroine. As Lynette James writes, “Indigenous futurist heroines cannot be casually ignorant of the circumstances that led to the collapse of major governmental, social, or environmental systems and created the worlds they inhabit. They live in communities in which this information is everyday knowledge” (159). Palmares Três is designed as such a community; grounded in Afro-Brazilian history, it also extrapolates into a future decimated by climate change, in which our Brazilian contemporaries are distant ancestors. June’s narration pulls together ecofeminism and indigenous futurism when she recounts, “It’s as though I can feel the strength of all our ancestors bearing us up. They are the heavy trunk and thick boughs of a tree on which I am only the tiniest budding leaf” (23). June’s revolutionary art grows naturally from her community, which is deeply informed by the history of her people. James describes indigenous futurist heroines who “cannot be whole persons without the relationships that tie them to communities” (171), just as June’s self and her art are defined by her relationship with Palmares Três.

As Evans writes that “representations of climate futures matter in terms of climate justice,” she contends also that “representations of climate futures matter in terms of resisting heteronormative systems” (95). The Summer Prince resists heteronormativity not only in June’s mother and stepmother’s relationship, but also in the love triangle between June, Gil, and Enki, which is queer both in terms of sexuality and in terms of resisting definition and closure. Throughout the novel, Enki insists that he is in love with both Gil and June, and Gil and June, in turn, love him back without attempting to claim him. Gil and June, too, share love, then grief when Enki dies. Enki instructs June not only to preside over a more just society as the new Queen, but also to take care of Gil (286). Unlike many love triangles in young adult fiction, The Summer Prince’s is open-ended, portraying a way that many truths that would appear contradictory by heteronormative standards can all exist at the same time in this queer futurity: Enki loves Gil, June loves Enki, Enki loves June, Gil loves June. Meanwhile, June reckons with the truth that her mother loved her late father and loves her stepmother; neither relationship takes priority, or has more validity, over the other. Complexity, rather than closure, is a primary value in the story; even the culminating symbol of June’s resistance art is “ambiguity” (224). The text’s prioritization of visible queerness, in tandem with its ecocritical resonance, casts resistance to heteronormativity as an essential part of a movement for environmental justice.

June’s movement for environmental justice, spurred by the loss of Enki and her father, reveals the flaws of any society that is built on power, privilege, and oppression. While Palmares Três resisted the specific Western colonialist norms that Shiva condemned, it still reified an unequal power structure: it created the classes of privileged and oppressed. Neither Enki nor June seem to know the ultimate solution to this quandary, but the search for an ultimate solution is itself a quest flawed by the idea of normative certainty. James notes that “too often YA dystopian franchises assume that a final battle decides all questions of the protagonist’s life in clear terms of irrevocable success, where all threat has been quelled forever. But … remaining negotiatiors and defenders is not a failure; failure would mean there was no community left to save. . . . In all healthy, living communities, there is more work to do” (172–3). The ending of Johnson’s text seems open on purpose: to encourage its young readers to imagine the future for themselves. James sees her indigenous futurist heroines as inspirations to “help us see the best possibilities, to imagine the what-ifs, to build the skills of dreaming the future in a grounded, rooted, and located world” (174). As Johnson’s heroine in Palmares Três, who becomes Queen because of the personified hopes of the younger generation, June’s mission is exactly that.

Nixon cites the unique challenge of addressing environmental justice in narrative, proclaiming, “To confront slow violence is to take up, in all its temporal complexity, the politics of the visible and the invisible.” In this way environmentalism, feminism, and postcolonialism are all inextricably linked. Evans’s ecofeminist reading of cli-fi underscores the temporal complexity of these particular politics: “Expanding our understanding of cli-fi’s generic wheelhouse … helps us see how the genre does more than extrapolate into the future—indeed, how it helps connect present and future, rather than posit a radical break between them” (104). In The Summer Prince, Johnson uses urban geography to explore all of these ideas, presenting a boldly extrapolated far future in which the injustices of its present-day ancestors are always visible. Its ecofeminist vision tells its readers, “When the world is destroyed, someone must remake the world. I think you’d call that art” (19). And art, as June would define it, is sacrifice—the disregard for self and the ecofeminist call to collective action. Such a call to action is foundational in the indigenous futurism that James discusses, which is “more than a name; it is an orientation, one meaningful not only to Indigenous peoples but to anyone hopeful or terrified about the future” (174). Drawing from existing discourses of environmentalism, feminism, queer theory, and postcolonialism, Johnson’s art of the imagination makes cli-fi for young adults that grapples with the temporal complexity of environmental justice and provides not answers, but open-ended questions that serve as foundations for indigenous futurist thought.

 

Works Cited

Evans, Rebecca. “Fantastic Futures? Cli-fi, Climate Justice, and Queer Futurity.” Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, vol. 4, no. 2–3, 2017, pp. 94–110. Web.

James, Lynette. “Children of Change, Not Doom: Indigenous Futurist Heroines in YA.” Extrapolation, vol. 57, nos. 1–2, 2016, pp. 151–176. Web.

Johnson, Alaya Dawn. The Summer Prince. Scholastic, 2013.

Nixon, Rob. “Slow Violence: Literary and Postcolonial Studies Have Ignored the Environmentalism That Only the Poor Can See.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. 57, no. 40, 2011. Web.

Shiva, Vandana. “The Impoverishment of the Environment: Women and Children Last.” Ecofeminism. Ed. Maria Mies & Vandana Shiva. Zed Books, 1993, pp. 70–90.

Thomas, Ebony Elizabeth. “Landscapes of City and Self: Place and Identity in Urban Young Adult Literature.” The ALAN Review, vol. 38, no. 2, 2011, pp. 13–22. Web.


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

 

New Fantasy Books: June 2019

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of June 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!
 

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.

 

Why inclusive heroism is not just suggested, but essential

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 11, Issue 5: May 2019

This month:

 

What does heroism mean to Roshani Chokshi?

“To me, heroism is the act of celebrating the individual. There’s not a one-size-fits-all when it comes to the Chosen One.” – Roshani Chokshi

Continuing our series of getting to know this year’s guests of honor, this month we’re getting to know our first ever Sirens Studio guest, Roshani Chokshi, known for the Star-Touched series, the Pandava series, and The Gilded Wolves.

In our interview, Roshani extolls most eloquently the way a hero’s weakness is possibly more important than her strength. And while storytelling may have created important bridges in her own identity, it took some overcoming to insert herself into her own narratives. Jae Young Kim, from the Sirens review squad, praises Roshani’s tales in her review of Aru Shah and the End of Time, and our community rallies to share their favorite sarcastic animal sidekick in fantasy in our #SirensIcebreaker.

If you finish Roshani’s books and need to get cozy in some more of her work, visit this list we put together here, or check out some of her book recommendations here. We also advise poking around on her enticing website, roshanichokshi.com, or be floored by the most glamorous of fantasy author Instagrams!

 

Sirens Studio Faculty Spotlight

If you haven’t yet signed up for the Sirens Studio, well, why not? Faculty this year include:

  • For reading workshops: teacher and author Nia Davenport, Soho Press Associate Publisher and brand-new debut author Juliet Grames, Dr. Jen Michaels, and Sirens Guest of Honor Rebecca Roanhorse

  • For writing workshops: Sirens Guest of Honor Mishell Baker and author and illustrator Nilah Magruder

  • For career development workshops: agent Sara Megibow and media industry executive vice president (and Sirens co-founder) Amy Tenbrink

Buy your tickets here!

This month, we interviewed fabulous faculty member, Nilah Magruder, who will lead the writing development workshop “The Visual Narrative: Developing Illustrated Projects and How to Write Like an Artist” this fall. Nilah discusses finding inspiration sources for her artistic styles, teaching writers to bridge narrative and visual story, and who she still needs to send copies of her books to. [Note from Erynn: Nilah’s How to Find a Fox is the only book on the Sirens reading list my toddler has finished. He recommends.]

 

2019 Books and Breakfast Selections

Each year, Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through our Books and Breakfast program. We select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme, and then attendees bring their breakfast and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary authors are doing in fantasy literature!

For 2019, we’ve selected eight 2019 Books and Breakfast titles that we hope will expand your definition of who might be a hero or what acts you consider heroic. Toward that end, we’re highlighting four areas in this year’s selections: religion, race, gender/sexuality, and body—and please note that some titles sit on multiple axes, not just the one they’re listed under!

2019 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

Religion

The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson
The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

Race

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Gender/Sexuality

Dreadnought by April Daniels
The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera

Body

Faith Volume 1: Hollywood and Vine by Jody Houser, Francis Portela, and Marguerite Sauvage
Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge

Click here for more on our Books and Breakfast program and this year’s selections, including a detailed spotlight on The Bird King and The Sisters of the Winter Wood!

 

Programming proposal submissions are officially closed…

…and the vetting board is hard at work reading all the amazing submissions. Fist bumps of gratitude to everyone who sent in proposals! Decisions will be made and relayed to you by email by June 12th. If you have any questions in the meantime, send them to (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

Sirens Community Round-up

For her book club this month, Amy Tenbrink reviewed Claire Legrand’s Furyborn, with exceptional praise on the satisfaction from a “competent” book, on the blog and Goodreads.

From our Sirens Review Squad, Lily Weitzman put together this list of seven short stories to refresh readers in need of variety, and Jo O’Brien’s review of Kiersten White’s The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, a companion to Mary Shelley’s classic, envisions the struggle to break free from toxicity and reclaim personal power.

Scroll through the official Sirens Twitter feed to admire all the geeky treats from the May the Fourth Sirens Meet-up in Denver! Other Sirens satellite parties joined up in New York and Seattle this month. For those who will be in Boston on June 6th or D.C. on June 22nd, click here to get the scoop on those meet-ups.

 

Start your summer with these 66 new books this month

By clicking on our collage of May’s new fantasy books!

Erynn’s Pick:

The Devil's Guide to Managing Difficult People

“I met the devil at a Motel 6, poolside.”

Cheeky author and Sirens attendee Robyn Bennis has delightfully captured the misanthropic esprit de 2019 with The Devil’s Guide to Managing Difficult People. Jordan is stuck in a bleakly entertaining deal with the devil that is highly relatable. If it’s at all like her previous novel The Guns Above, I expect great characters and battles on top of the humor.

 

Faye’s Pick:

The Dark Fantastic

Dr. Suzanne Scott mentioned it in her book round-up last month, and I’ll definitely be checking out Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s The Dark Fantastic, a detailed analysis of the diversity—and lack thereof—in children’s books, television, and film. Thomas’s scholarly work traces the narratives of four black female characters in four popular fandoms: Bonnie Bennett from the CW’s The Vampire Diaries, Rue from The Hunger Games, Gwen from the BBC’s Merlin, and Angelina Johnson from the Harry Potter series.

 

This newsletter is brought to you 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).

 

Your 2019 Books and Breakfast selections featuring inclusive heroism

Each year, Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through our Books and Breakfast program. We select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme, and then attendees bring their breakfast and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary authors are doing in fantasy literature!

In an earlier post, we explain in depth why our 2019 conference theme is heroes, and how we’re not only re-examining what kind of individual is welcomed as, or even permitted to be, heroic, but also how heroic actions differ from the hegemonic norm. We demand heroes of all genders, all sexualities, all races, all sizes, all abilities. And to further that aspiration, we’ve selected eight 2019 Books and Breakfast titles that we hope will expand your definition of who might be a hero or what acts you consider heroic. Toward that end, we’re highlighting four areas in this year’s selections: religion, race, gender/sexuality, and body—and please note that some titles sit on multiple axes, not just the one they’re listed under!

So you might get a head start on reading, here is the full list of 2019 Books and Breakfast selections. We’ll also be featuring more of these books in more detail throughout the coming months, starting with our religion titles below.

 
2019 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

Religion

The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson
The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

Race

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Gender/Sexuality

Dreadnought by April Daniels
The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera

Body

Faith Volume 1: Hollywood and Vine by Jody Houser, Francis Portela, and Marguerite Sauvage
Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge

 
RELIGION SELECTIONS

The origin of modern fantasy literature is often traced back to Christian writers of the late 19th century, with heroes who are male and cisgender, living or transported to a feudal setting with roots in medieval western Europe. So many heroes are either explicitly or implicitly Christian—and so often, those of other faiths are explicitly or implicitly villainous. In 2019, we want to examine heroes from other faiths, and for our Books and Breakfast religion picks, the two titles are G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King and Rena Rossner’s The Sisters of the Winter Wood.

 

The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson

The Bird King

Much has been said about G. Willow Wilson’s sumptuous new novel. Set in 1491 in Muslim Granada during the last sultanate’s reign, The Bird King begins with the imminent arrival of the Spanish Inquisition and its attendant persecution. But first, readers are introduced to Fatima, the sultan’s favorite concubine, and Hassan, the royal mapmaker with a secret magic—for he can shape reality out of the maps he draws, even places he’s only dreamed of. Hassan’s gift is highly prized, especially for moving the sultan’s armies in wartime, but used for not much else except for amusing a bored Fatima who has never set foot outside the palace.

When the Inquisition arrives, Fatima knows Hassan’s gift will be seen as sorcery. And when it’s inevitably discovered, the two friends go on an epic journey, over land and sea, mythos and heart, fleeing torture and death, to find the island of the Bird King. To find refuge in a place that, for all they know, might be completely imaginary. After all, they only know it from stories—and the stories that they’ve told each other for years in comfort—stories that help Fatima escape from her bondage and Hassan from his supposed deviancy of loving other men.

Stories, we know, are everything. The Bird King knows this too. What Wilson layers on is truly spectacular: the poisoned effects of colonialism, the interpretation of reading and sacred texts, religious freedom and exclusion, magic entwined with folklore, an exploration of refuge and community, and a thoroughly kickass, strong-willed, hypocrisy-exposing, angry, Muslim hero in Fatima. To give you a taste, when the sultan asks her what more she could want, with her fancy clothes, limitless entertainment, fancy food, and his favor, she replies, “To be sultan.”

—Faye

 

The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

The Sisters of the Winter Wood

The original draft of The Sisters of the Winter Wood was simply a fantasy retelling of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.” But as author Rena Rossner recounts, “[W]hen I finished my first draft, I realized that my book didn’t have a soul…I had originally set it in an imaginary town called Blest, in France, but I realized that I needed to find a new setting, something that felt more real—authentic to who I was.” In re-drafting, Rossner found the soul of her book in Dubossary, a shtetl on the border of Moldova and Ukraine, where Rossner’s grandfather’s family lived—and where, on the eve of a pogrom, Jewish residents resisted and forestalled tragedy.

Against this background, including the averted pogrom, Rossner’s tale becomes explicitly Jewish: Sisters Liba and Laya are the daughters of a learned Jew, himself the son of a rabbi, and an aristocrat who loved him so much that she forsook her intended betrothed and converted to Judaism. This is a book built on details, and readers will first note the details of the family’s everyday Jewish life: the prayers, the food, the courting rules. But Russian influence lives in Rossner’s work as well, again in the details: Liba and her father can both shape-shift to bears, apparent through Liba’s ravenous hunger and inconvenient claws; Laya and her mother shift to swans, all discarded feathers and a yearning to fly.

If you’ve ever read Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” you know what comes next: lushly ripe fruit, irresistible kisses, and ultimately danger of the sort that girls know all too well. The book is told through alternating viewpoints: Laya’s daring free verse, filled with her curiosity and bold desire for adventure, and Liba’s more staid prose, as she frets, worries, and ultimately makes the choices that will save her sister. This is a retold fairy tale in all its glory: myth and legend trap the unwary, choices and danger abound, and one girl, with so much strength derived from her faith, saves the day.

—Amy

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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