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Emma Whitney: What Is It with Us and “Good Royalty”?

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 essay from Emma Whitney!

What Is It with Us and “Good Royalty”?
By Emma Whitney

Girls of Paper and FireNatasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire is a treasure to me. Not because it is a perfect book (is there any such thing as a perfect book?) but because it is the first YA fantasy work I have read in years where the monarchy is clearly the antagonist. There is no “good” monarch waiting in the wings to rescue their people, but instead a whisper of revolution and behind it the knowledge that government structured around a concept of inherent inequality can never offer true freedom.

Why is it that, in YA fantasy literature, we so often write about the “good” monarch? Not that we don’t have bad ones, too. But the answer to a bad monarch usually seems to be a good monarch rather than the dismantling of a system that creates people with such a mass of concentrated power. For every Girls of Paper and Fire, I have seen a mountain of books where the seemingly problematic monarch is “only trying to do what is best” or, if we do have an evil king, the problems will be fixed by returning the “true” queen to the throne. There are a hundred variations on this, but only one story in a hundred seems to take the time to ask if it could maybe be the power structure itself that is creating the fundamental problems.

I know my personal feelings of antipathy towards royalty are particularly strong, and I don’t at all expect that others feel the same way. But I am continually surprised by the prevalence of “good” royalty in—particularly YA—fantasy literature. In this era, where many are focused on fighting for the equality of all, why do we continue to centralize in our writing a system that raises some above others merely by factors of birth and access? Does the presence of “good” monarchy in our stories mean we are longing for a monarchy to lead us?

I don’t think so.

Certainly I think it means we are (at least sometimes) fantasizing about good leaders in general. I think this is a common fantasy. Many “realist” pieces of fiction are indulging in that fantasy. (West Wing, anyone?) But why monarchy? What is it about that crown?

First, I think that we are accustomed to seeing monarchy in fantasy. I think we’ve seen so much of it that those are often the stories that grow in our heads. It is hard to get away from tropes we think of as normal. (Just like internalized misogyny.)

Second is an issue of scope. When someone without significant power has a piece of property stolen the story might be a mystery, a revenge story, or maybe a minor adventure. The theft may encompass their whole world but doesn’t expand to affect many others beyond their immediate circle. When that same thing happens to a monarch? Suddenly it becomes important to whole kingdoms, realms, worlds. Sometimes drama feels more meaningful when it has these expansive implications. It amps up the tension a hundredfold. If our heroes fail, the nation may fall or the world may end. (By the way, this is the same effect you get with a chosen-one story.)

Third is access. People with power have access that isn’t available to people without power. It’s why there are more millionaire superheroes than superheroes with student debt. Millionaires (and billionaires) can create the access they need to build freaking spaceships. And in the same vein, royalty often has easily substantiated access to armor and weapons, magical histories and relics. They do not have to worry about the family farm when they go on an adventure; they have retainers and servants for that.

But we know that your characters don’t need to have access, don’t need to be in control of the world they’re trying to save, to create an enthralling story. We have The Fifth Season, The Diviners, Texas Gothic. Stories where, while people may have the power to control earth or to commune with spirits, they don’t have power over other people. So why in high fantasy do we so often default to royalty?

We seem to love the story of the struggle to be a “good monarch.”

We have it in television (The Dragon Prince, She-Ra) and in comics (Sailor Moon), and in books (The Goblin Emperor, The Wrath and The Dawn, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga). Kate Elliot has done it and Patricia C. Wrede has done it and literally everyone who has ever had a go at writing about King Arthur has done it. But could you really have a monarch that is truly “good”?

Personally, I believe that the answer is no. Not without completely redefining the term. Not without letting “good” include a vast amount of systemic inequality. You cannot remake a system for true parity without undoing the structure that maintains a person or persons at the top, above their subjects. Monarchs, as we define the term colloquially, are people who live in a palace, who have resources that others do not, who take on the burden of final decisions when their main claim to the position is their birth, not their study, and if from their study, so often due to access available to the rich that is absolutely inaccessible to the people they supposedly protect. Good monarchs often “do the hard thing for their people’s good.” It is, regardless of the monarch’s gender, the ultimate paternal figure who sacrifices his daughters to save them from an evil greater than death. When the monarch “has to do a thing” to keep their country safe, why do we not question the power structure?

I’ve been watching The Dragon Prince. Besides being beautifully drawn and well written, it is generally a comfortably, and sometimes forcefully, liberal show. It explicitly prioritizes understanding and community over the slaying of any great enemy. It is one of the most diverse fantasy stories ever animated for a major platform (no shock as it comes from the people who created Avatar and The Legend of Korra). But why, in the midst of all this progressive storyline, do we still have Ezran held up as an idyllic “good king” who might save them all? Because when you really come down to it, a predominant factor in conflicts like this is the rulers. It was not the villagers of Katolis and the other human kingdoms who went to war against Xadia; it was people who wanted consolidated power.

Am I saying that every fantasy monarch is evil? I have to admit that my urge to say yes is strong, but no. It’s fantasy, after all. In a fantasy land anything is possible, including a ruler who truly is the protector and champion of their people. I still adore your classical Arthur (against all common sense), because in so many of the stories he is just trying to make a better life for everyone. I still cry when Boromir dies in Aragorn’s arms (and okay, if I’m spoiling that I don’t know what to tell you). But I believe that the vision of a “good monarch” is more fantastic than the possibility of dragons. (How is Archaeopteryx not just a small dragon?)

I do not want to discount what representation in the “classic” stories can give us. When I started reading Audrey Coulthurst’s Of Fire and Stars, having a classic princess scenario that I knew promised a queer romance warmed my cranky, bitter heart. I can imagine that is only a small part of the feeling others may get finally seeing a princess of color, a genderqueer princess, a disabled princess, all who lead the charge of their own stories. That warmth, that self-recognition, and empowerment, they are important. I do not want to ask for those stories to disappear.

All I want is to ask why we still tell these stories. Why do we want to relive the “romance” of the Tudors, when we have other history to revere in the shape of women like Dolores Huerta and Sojourner Truth, stories where no one was born to anything, but rather made their own fate?

Stories where someone took back a little piece of the power that had been hoarded by those with all the wealth, not by becoming part of their system, but by helping to fundamentally change it.

Ursula K. Le Guin famously said, “We live in capitalism; its power seems inescapable—so did the divine right of kings.” I feel this to the marrow of me. Why do we continue to write about power that has been consolidated under one person or family when we can fantasize about a world that destroys the oligarchy and offers a vision of a truer equality?

By the way? There’s more to that quote: “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.”


Emma WhitneyEmma Whitney is a math-brained aspiring accountant who would rather be thinking about dragons. She works as an administrative assistant but spends most of her time plotting to overthrow capitalism and making costumes for her niece (who is still a little too young to enjoy them). She currently lives in Portland, Oregon, with her wonderful roommate, an exponentially growing yarn stash, and a robotic dinosaur named Dot.

 

Programming Tips, Tricks, and Frequently Asked Questions

Last week, we posted about how programming works for Sirens—and we highlighted how, each year, our programming is the collective work of our attendees. Regardless of your vocation, your level of experience, or your number of years at Sirens, you have something to say. And we hope that you’ll take a crack at sharing your thoughts and expertise as part of our programming this year!

Today, we have general programming information, how to find help from real people, tips and tricks for proposing programming, and answers to frequently asked questions about our programming process. Here we go!

 

General Information

  • We are accepting proposals from March 16 to May 15. All proposals must be submitted in full, including any supplemental abstracts for panels, by May 15, and all presenters must have “checked in” by following the links in emails that we send out when a main presenter indicates there will be a co-presenter.

  • The Sirens vetting board will make decisions by June 15. All accepted presenters must be registered and paid for Sirens by July 10.

  • We will have four scholarships (a 2020 Sirens registration and round-trip shuttle ticket) available for exemplary programming proposals. We also have one Sabrina Chin “Braver Than You Think” Memorial Scholarship available for a first-time presenter. You can apply for these scholarships as part of the submissions process.

  • You can propose programming in a number of formats: papers or lectures (including as a set of pre-empaneled papers/lectures on a single topic), panels, roundtable discussions, workshops, afternoon classes, or a combination of multiple formats. (Please consult with the programming team before you submit a combination, though!)

  • You are welcome to present with co-presenters, except for roundtables, which may have only a single moderator. Please note that the person submitting the proposal will be our main contact for the proposal (and in the case of a panel, will be the moderator). Again, please make sure that your collaborators are aware that they will need to confirm their participation by May 15—and in the case of panels and pre-empaneled papers, will need to submit a 300–500-word abstract of their own (note that the vetting board will review all abstracts in determining whether to select a proposal).

  • All communication is via email. Please use an email address to which you’ll have access throughout 2020, and that you check regularly.

  • Programming is reviewed and approved by an independent vetting board. All proposals are kept confidential.

  • Additional information can be found in Sirens’s official Call for Proposals.

 

Help from Real People

  • Programming Chats: Have questions? Looking for topic ideas or collaborators? Want some advice on selecting a presentation format? We’re holding two online chats with our programming team. They don’t make the selection decisions, but they’re full of thoughts that might be helpful! Chats will be held here at the following times:

    Sunday, March 22, 1–4 p.m. Eastern (11 a.m.–1 p.m. Pacific)
    Monday, May 4, 9–11 p.m. Eastern (6–8 p.m. Pacific)

  • Free Topics: All through February, March and April, we’ll be tweeting programming topics that are free for you to take, develop, and use in your programming proposal. You might take them as is, you might use them as inspiration, or you might find that they get your brain moving! Follow us on Twitter @sirens_con or check out #SirensBrainstorm.

  • More Questions: Email us! You can contact our programming team at (programming at sirensconference.org). They can’t guarantee your acceptance, but they’re full of helpful advice, and are glad to help you figure out the best format for your proposal, answer questions about the process, and so on.

 

Tips and Tricks

  • Everyone is welcome to propose programming! Sirens is a conference where readers and students present alongside authors and scholars, who present alongside librarians, educators, and publishing professionals. Everyone’s voice is valid, valuable, and necessary to our conversations and our community!

  • Look at past programming schedules. Our vetting board knows what topics have been presented in past years—and you should, too, so you don’t repeat them! New topics, or brand-new takes on old topics, will be considered more favorably. We make all our past programming available in our conference archive.

  • Go beyond introductory topics and analysis. Sirens is over ten years old, and we assure you, most Sirens attendees are well-versed in basic topics like “Reclaiming Fairy Tales” and “What is Diversity?” Push the sophistication of your topic and your analysis further.

  • Consider what type of presentation suits your topic best. We’ll be doing a deeper dive on each of these in the coming weeks, but here’s a preview: papers and lectures are good for experts to convey information or frame an argument; panels are suitable for rigorous debate among experts with differing expertise or opinions; roundtable discussions are great for topics where every audience member will have an opinion or contribution; and workshops and afternoon classes are perfect for hands-on explorations of practical topics.

  • Focus on one or two proposals rather than several. This will help ensure your proposals are well-prepared and well-argued—and will increase their likelihood of acceptance.

  • Choose your co-presenters wisely. We strongly encourage you to seek out co-presenters with a variety of expertise, perspectives, and identities. Differences in expertise can bring additional thoughts and approaches to your work, while different perspectives and identities can enrich discussion and debate over your topic. (Bonus tip: If your topic is for people with complementary expertise to present information, we strongly encourage you to consider a paper or lecture with co-presenters, rather than a panel; the panel format is best suited for discussion and debate among panelists with different perspectives.)

  • Leave enough time to write a thoughtful summary and abstract. Since these descriptions are what the vetting board will judge your proposal on and will determine fellow attendees’ interest in your topic, it behooves you to not wait until the last minute! This is especially true for pre-empaneled papers and panels, where co-presenters must also submit an abstract by May 15.

  • You are not required to present on this year’s theme of villains. Proposal topics must be relevant to Sirens, but do not need to address our theme for this year. Please do be sure that, at minimum, you’ve mentioned how your topic relates to fantasy!

 

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the requirements for being a presenter at Sirens?
The only requirement is that you must be a Sirens attendee, which also means you have to be 18 years old by October 22, 2020. Otherwise, everyone is welcome to propose programming—and if accepted, to present it!

How can I find co-presenters or panelists?
You can tweet @sirens_con or post on the unofficial Sirens Attendees Facebook group. You might also be able to find co-presenters or co-panelists at our programming chats.

How many proposals can I submit?
There is technically no limit, but we recommend focusing on one or two as it usually makes for better-prepared (and better-received) proposals.

Can I change my proposal later?
Before the May 15 deadline, you can submit a correction or contact us to withdraw and resubmit the proposal. Following May 15, however, we will pass your proposal on to the vetting board and you can no longer make changes.

Can I contact the vetting board about my proposal?
Please direct any questions to (programming at sirensconference.org) instead. Vetting board members only review proposals, and we ask them to keep their reviews confidential.

Can I request a specific day and time to present?
The schedule depends on our ability to track presentations by type, theme, and audio-visual needs, so we can’t accommodate schedule preferences. If you have an immovable conflict, such as your grandmother’s 100th birthday party, please write to us at (programming at sirensconference.org).

I have more questions!
We have more answers! Write us at (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Katie Passerotti

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

 

Sirens Programming Comes From Attendee Proposals

Welcome to our annual programming series! In these posts, we’ll give you all the information you’ll need to propose programming for Sirens. We’ll have a post with tips, tricks, and frequently asked questions next week, and we’ll feature a post specific to each type of programming in the following weeks. On March 16, we’ll open our proposals system.

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

Programming, for Sirens, is the dozens of hours of papers, lectures, panels, workshops, roundtables, and afternoon classes that make up the heart of the conference. While a thousand conversations happen at Sirens every year, the true vanguards of those discussions are the brave and brilliant individuals who share their wisdom and expertise as part of our programming. See the archives to find out more about the kinds of topics and discussions that have been presented in the past.

So how does Sirens create its programming?

We don’t create the Sirens programming. You do! We don’t want Sirens to be limited by the interests, knowledge, and networking of our staff, so we invite our attendees — readers, scholars, librarians, authors, and more — to propose programming for our schedule. And each year, dozens of individuals do: they create, craft, propose, and present the lectures, papers, panels, workshops, roundtables, and afternoon classes that become the programming at Sirens.

A special note: We want our programming to represent a broad range of perspectives, experiences, and identities: readers, scholars, librarians, educators, publishing professionals, and authors, of course, but also individuals of different genders, sexualities, races, religions, and abilities. Similarly, we hope that, regardless of your vocation, your level of experience, or how many years you’ve attended Sirens, you’ll take a crack at sharing your thoughts and expertise as part of our programming. All voices matter at Sirens, including yours.

And how does Sirens choose its programming?

Each year, an independent vetting board—a diverse group of tremendous individuals who know and love Sirens—review the proposals for thoughtfulness, relevance, and inclusiveness, and then select which ones to include on that year’s programming schedule.

  • Thoughtfulness: This means the vetting board considers the research, logic, and sophistication of the arguments. Is the proposal well-conceived? Is the proposal well-argued? Is it interesting? Is it innovative?

  • Relevance: Is the topic relevant to Sirens’s overarching topic of gender and fantasy literature? The topic doesn’t need to specifically address the theme of any given year, and doesn’t have to be about gender and fantasy and literature (but if your proposal doesn’t address at least two of the three, you might want to consider how you can make your topic more relevant to the Sirens audience).

  • Inclusiveness: Sirens values diverse perspectives, experiences, and identities. Does your topic address an inclusive selection of literature? Do your co-presenters represent a variety of perspectives, experiences, and identities, whenever possible?

In crafting your presentation, please also consider the following:

  • Audience: You are likely to find your presentation audience composed of voracious, critical readers, as well as accomplished scholars, librarians, educators, authors, and publishing professionals. Further, Sirens attendees tend to be quite experienced in discussing women in fantasy literature, as well as related topics such as feminism, social sciences (and occasionally hard sciences), and writing. Please plan the sophistication and complexity of your proposal accordingly.

  • Repetition of Past Presentation Topics: The vetting board is familiar with programming presented at Sirens in the past, and duplicative topics are often considered less relevant. Please make sure that you have reviewed our archive page before deciding on your topic and that, if you intend to propose a similar topic, you highlight the innovation of your work in your proposal.

How does someone propose programming?

Sirens operates its own proposals system specifically for programming proposals. We’ll open this system on March 16 and close it May 15, which is this year’s deadline for proposals. After May 15, our vetting board goes to work.

Five things are needed for a proposal:

  • Personal information: Your name, contact information, and a third-person biography that we can use on our website and in our program book

  • A summary: 50–100 words about your topic and approach, which we’ll also publish on our website and in our program book (see last year’s summaries for examples)

  • An abstract: 300–500 words explaining your presentation and approach to the vetting board; this should be far more in depth and should demonstrate your research, analysis, and conclusion on the topic

  • Audiovisual requests: Information on your requested audiovisual equipment for your presentation, if any

  • Contact information for any co-presenters: Your co-presenters will then receive an email asking them to provide their personal information and, in the case of panels, a supplemental abstract of 300–500 words demonstrating the perspectives and expertise that they will bring to the panel

So let’s do this!

We know that the proposal process can be intimidating, especially for those new to Sirens. It takes a lot of courage to put your thoughts and analysis out there, first to a review board and then at Sirens itself. But each year, dozens of individuals screw their courage to the proverbial sticking place and, in doing so, make Sirens smarter, more thoughtful, more interesting, and just plain better.

We hope that that will include you this year!

 

The Starless Sea

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 reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

The Starless Sea

A few years ago, I burned through The Night Circus in a day.

I adored Erin Morgenstern’s nighttime world, where glass-shard ruthlessness saves a love story from being sticky sweet. I loved the in-world-game-as-antagonist construct, the wonder of the gameplay transformed into love letters, the lush language. It’s the sort of book I’ve never revisited, for fear of shattering that singular, perfect reading experience.

On December 14, 2019, I started The Starless Sea, Morgenstern’s newest. On January 7, 2020, I finished The Starless Sea. I took so long to read The Starless Sea that it had three boarding passes in it before I was through.

I could make many excuses: work, the holidays, exhaustion, not the right time or the right place—though, please, a plane is always the right place. But let’s get real: I read three books a week. If I’d loved The Starless Sea, or even liked The Starless Sea, I would have finished it in December. The middle of December.

Curioser and curioser.

The Starless Sea is Morgenstern’s paean to readers. To those who love stories. To those who take a book everywhere. It’s about the power of stories—but not stories qua stories, rather the power of stories as given to them by readers.

Every ounce of power in this book—every decision, every act, every love—is clasped in the hands of someone who loves to read books.

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a master’s student in the field of video games, with a focus on video games as storytelling devices. His mother is a fortune teller; his father is absent. He lives, as far as one can tell, a completely unremarkable, issue-free life. He studies video games, teaches his students, spends a lot of time in the library.

As far as Zachary Ezra Rawlins is concerned, his story starts with a book he stumbles across in the library, a very old book, with a chapter about him—and a painted door he encountered, but did not try to open, as a child. But the story is much, much older than that, as Zachary Ezra Rawlins is about to discover. And thus, begins a portal fantasy to end all portal fantasies—if only because it references Narnia, Wonderland, and all the rest. It’s a very self-aware sort of paean.

So Zachary Ezra Rawlins—so sorry to belabor the point of his cumbersome name, but the book does and so, by God, shall I—starts a DaVinci Code-style adventure, following keys and bees and amorphous clues to a party in New York where he meets a woman dressed as Max, King of the Wild Things, and a man in the dark who makes Zachary Ezra Rawlins’s world turn upside down. And unlike the painted door encountered in his youth, adult Zachary stumbles through a new painted door, into a vestibule with an elevator, and down down down to a foyer with a cup that says, inevitably, “Drink Me.” There are also dice. Zachary rolls the dice. You think this means something, and it probably does, but it’s never quite clear.

And so Zachary enters the Harbor, a labyrinthine, library-filled maze of stories in books and stories on ribbons and stories on shrouds and stories in candies and stories whispered in hallways and also cats. Ancient history is hinted at, clues continue to appear, and as a reader, you’re vaguely annoyed—as is Zachary Ezra Rawlins—at being pulled away from all these things to read.

Where the book lost me is exactly where the book should have snatched me up by the throat and held me captive to its wonder and delight.

Interspersed with chapters about Zachary Ezra Rawlins and his floundering quest to, ultimately, save the Harbor (this is not a spoiler because, in a world populated with supreme knowledge of both Narnia and Wonderland, what else would this book be about?) are smatterings of tales. About Time and his love of Fate. About the Moon and the Sun—and their secret meeting at an inn. About the Owl King, or several Owl Kings, sometimes it’s hard to tell. About bees. So many bees.

And as we journey along with Zachary Ezra Rawlins and Max and the man in the dark, of course this is all a single tale: Zachary meets Fate and Time and the Moon and the Owl King. And the bees. And, of course, there’s a happy ending for Zachary and his man in the dark.

But I cared about so very little of it. I wish on a thousand blown dandelions that Morgenstern had told the entire story of Fate and Time and the rest up front, or in larger pieces between her acts, and not in the tiniest of confusing snippets between every two-page chapter of Zachary Ezra Rawlins stumbling through life not dissimilarly to how I stumbled through this book: confused, overwhelmed, and vaguely annoyed. (SPOILER) And when Zachary Ezra Rawlins dies toward the end of the book, by his love’s own hand, I could only think: Thank God. But of course two pages later he’s hanging out with the bees and by the end, there is a happy ending. (END SPOILER)

Ultimately, The Starless Sea drowned under the weight of its own storytelling. Is the pirate a pirate or a metaphor? Is Max a monster or a woman? Why has the inn moved to God-knows-where in the ancient layers of the Harbor? How do you sail a boat through honey? I just…couldn’t.

But I kept reading all the way to the end, lured on by love of The Night Circus and my certainty that surely, surely a woman who loves reading so much as to write a book about the power of readers would have an earth-shattering, starlight-beautiful denouement. But there…wasn’t. The point was the journey, not the mystery or the resolution. The point was the description-laden prose. The pirate-as-metaphors. The exquisite world in the dark by the honeyed, starless sea. The stories on ribbons and shrouds and candies.

In hindsight, what I really wanted was the story of Fate and Time, in this lush world of wonder. In a novella.


By day, Amy Tenbrink dons her supergirl suit and practices transactional and intellectual property law as an executive vice president for a media company. By night, she dons her supergirl cape and plans Sirens and reads over a hundred books a year. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

Unsex Me Here: Gender, Power, and Villainy

In Act I, Scene v of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth learns three things in quick succession: that a trio of witches has prophesied her husband’s rise to Thane of Cawdor and later king; that her husband has, as prophesied, already been made Thane of Cawdor; and that the king will visit her house that night. Seeing an opportunity to bring the rest of the prophecy to pass, she—one of literature’s most infamous villains—gives her first great, bloody, fanged speech.

And in that speech, she laments her gender.

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect, and it. Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief.
– Act I, Scene v of Macbeth

Gender and villainy—and relatedly, redemption—is a fraught topic, one full of artificial constraints and defied stereotypes.

In the wake of Lady Macbeth’s yearning to be free of her gender so that she might take the action—killing the king—necessary to feed her ambition, Macbeth progresses, and we come to a tired realization: One of literature’s greatest villains isn’t so villainous at all. She shames her husband into killing the king, but never wields the knife. Her bloody hands are born of framing the guards, not murder. She’s not, frankly, guilty of much more than a bit of nagging and bloodying up some already dead men.

In the absence of her hand in regicide or other dastardly deeds, we can conclude only that Lady Macbeth’s villainy, as it were, is her female ambition, a shocking defiance of societal stereotypes. Women are meant to be silent, not assertive; passive, not dominant; happy as a wife, not yearning to be queen. Lady Macbeth’s villainy is nothing more—or less—than the intersection of her gender and her thus-forbidden aspirations.

For that defiance, Lady Macbeth is punished. And as with so many female villains, her punishment comes in the forcible relinquishment of any power she may have: in Lady Macbeth’s case, her descent into madness, her frantic scrubbing of her outsized guilt from her hands. By the time we reach Act V, her husband, too, is well and truly mad, but his power grows alongside his madness. Note, too, the difference in their deaths: her presumed suicide off-stage contrasts with Macduff’s parading her husband’s severed head around for all to see. His ending is suitable for a great villain; hers is an afterthought, a mere footnote highlighting her apparent irrelevance now that she’s properly lamented her unwomanly ambition. Ah, Shakespeare…


To deconstruct female and nonbinary villainy you must, in many ways, start with male heroism—and the inexorable notion that male heroism is fundamentally based on performative hypermasculinity: physical prowess, superpowers, and future tech that enable physical dominance. In 2019, Sirens examined heroism and what it means for women and nonbinary folks to be heroes in a world where the very definition of “hero” is “illustrious warrior.” The societal construct of heroism was designed for cisgender men, and all too often, the notion of heroism as applied to anyone else is absurdly limiting, frequently available only to white cisgender women with swords—and even then generally requiring passive, sacrificial, or even charitable underpinnings.

Given this gendered dichotomy in heroism, you would be right to expect a similar dichotomy in villainy. As the tests for male heroism tend to be forgiving, rewarding hypermasculinity rather than treating aggression and violence as disqualifying, the tests for male villainy are certainly not as simple as “Have you killed anyone?” or “Do you want to be king?” Male heroes, indeed, have killed someone and they of course want to be king. Instead, the test of male villainy seems to be one of either intent or unfairness/mass harm. Do you intend to be villainous? Or are you just misunderstood? Do you perpetuate harm? The right sort of harm? Certainly, perpetuating the white heteropatriarchy is not the right sort of harm. You begin to see how difficult it is to qualify as male villain….

By contrast, it’s all too easy to for everyone else qualify as a villain. Given that everyone else’s heroism is so limited, and often requires a sacrifice, creating female and nonbinary villainy is often as simple as removing that sacrifice. The test is then not of intent or perpetuating unfairness or mass harm, but rather of defiance or power. Lady Macbeth’s villainy was never truly about nagging or planting knives on the guards—or if you want to get technical, co-conspiracy—but about both her refusal to operate within the boundaries prescribed for women and her active seeking of power.

All of this is, of course, by heteropatriarchal design: the overwhelmingly demanding test for female and nonbinary heroism, the seemingly accidentally but meticulously planned casting of all other women and nonbinary folks as villains, the notion that even women who are too effective at reinforcing gender roles are villainous.

Defiance. Ambition. Power. The three things most dangerous to the heteropatriarchy are conveniently the three things that will inevitably cast a female or nonbinary character as a villain.


Villainy, of course, prompts the question of redemption. Because we live in a world of good versus evil, and because we see ourselves as good, we always want to give evil a choice and a chance: redeem yourself or be vanquished.

But redeem yourself from what?

Presumably from that which made them villains in the first place. So male villains must be redeemed from their malicious intent and perpetuation of mass harm, while female and nonbinary villains must be redeemed from… their defiance, ambition, and power.

When you consider villain stories, redemption is a cisgender male story. In fact, women are raised to believe that they should aspire to be the sort of good woman who convinces an evil man to give up his villainous ways and settle down and, one supposes, just stop with the torture and killings. He gets to choose, this male villain, and as long as he chooses correctly, he is free to go on his merry way, terrible no more.

Female and nonbinary villains do not get to choose. Rather, as with so many things, they are forced: forced to relinquish their power, forced into death or madness, forced to be subjugated by magic or marriage or children. They must be fragile, destructible, shattered. They must be relieved of their defiance, their ambition, and their power. They must be forced back into the constraints of the heteropatriarchy.

Is it any wonder that so many of our villain stories are feminist revenge fantasies?


In 2019, Sirens examined heroes—and found societal constructs of female and nonbinary heroism unrelentingly limiting. We demanded heroism far greater than what we were permitted.

In 2020, Sirens will examine villains—and we will also demand villainy far greater than what we are permitted.

We very much hope you will join us this October.

New Fantasy Books: February 2020

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of February 2020 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!
 

Sixteen Sirens Scholarships Funded for 2020

Sirens has a mission: to provide a welcoming space for our attendees to discuss gender and fantasy literature. As part of that mission, we specifically craft Sirens to include and amplify the many brilliant voices of our attendees. Our greatest hope is that these voices will represent a broad range of perspectives, experiences, and identities: readers, scholars, librarians, educators, publishing professionals, and authors, of course, but also individuals of different genders, sexualities, races, religions, and abilities.

This year, because of the generosity of the Sirens community, we raised the funds necessary to provide sixteen scholarships—a record number! To everyone who donated, thank you. Thank you for your financial commitment to our community and for helping make Sirens possible for certain individuals who are both critical to our conversations and who sometimes find it difficult to attend without additional support.

Each scholarship includes both a Sirens registration and a round-trip Sirens Shuttle ticket. The sixteen scholarships will be allocated as follows: four to people of color, four for exemplary programming proposals, four to those with financial hardships, and four to librarians, educators, and publishing professionals (which may be anyone from an editor to an agent to a publicist to a cover designer to a bookseller).

Sabrina Chin, January 17, 1981–October 25, 2019
Sabrina Chin, January 17, 1981–October 25, 2019

This year, we are also offering the 2020 Sabrina Chin “Braver Than You Think” Memorial Scholarships. Sabrina Chin co-chaired Sirens for a number of years before her passing in 2019, and her family has funded these scholarships to help us continue her work with Sirens. All first-time Sirens attendees and first-time presenters who receive one of our 2020 Sirens scholarships are eligible for these scholarships as well. Each of these scholarships will provide $500 for the recipient to use for expenses directly related to attending or presenting at Sirens, from travel to Sirens presentation research materials.

If you need assistance, we hope you’ll consider applying for a scholarship. We designed this program specifically to help additional voices join our conference and our community—and your voice makes Sirens more thoughtful, more vibrant, and just plain better. To apply, please visit our scholarships page.

 

Sirens Newsletter – Volume 12, Issue 1 (January 2020)

This month:

Happy New Year!

Welcome to 2020! With January comes a new year of Sirens—and we’re already busy, busy, busy! If you’re just now surfacing from post-holiday mania (and look, if the decorations are still up, we’re not judging), we hope this newsletter will help get you back into the swing of thinking about Sirens.

 

Scholarship Fundraising

January 31—today—is the last day to donate to our fundraising campaign for 2020 Sirens scholarships! Whether you can kick in a $5 boost or fund a full scholarship of $325, we hope you’ll get out those proverbial checkbooks. (It’s not too soon to call checkbooks proverbial, right?) Our scholarships help people of color, those submitting exemplary programming proposals, those with financial hardships, and educators, librarians, and publishing professionals not only attend Sirens, but share their work and their thoughts. This in turn helps Sirens remain a place for the vibrant conversations and warm community that attendees so cherish!

If you’d like to donate, please check out our scholarships page. We’ll announce next week how many scholarships we have available for 2020—and start taking applications as well!

 

Sirens Studio Workshops

Are you coming to the Studio this year? Are you thinking about coming to the Studio this year? Can we help you turn thoughts into action? Because in 2020 we have eight brilliant faculty members lined up to lead eight fantastic workshops—and this month, we shared what those workshops will be.

Whether you want to yeet the patriarchy or dissect Asianization, talk superheroes or villains, write about magical realism or religion, or pick up something valuable for your career-planning, we’ve got it. And you know you want in on this, so what are you waiting for? Check out this year’s Studio topics and buy that ticket today!

 

Sirens Essays

Sirens Essay Series

We had so much fun with—and learned so much from—our first Sirens essay series last summer that we invited six more people to discuss, analyze, dissect, and deconstruct something about fantasy literature. And we published our next two essays this month! So if you missed them, check this out:

In Lost Girls and Open Doors: Susan Pevensie and the Complex Legacy of the Portal Fantasy, Gillian Chisom explores what we always knew—that C.S. Lewis’s dismissive “nylons and lipstick and invitations” is only the beginning of the complications of Susan—and then dives deep into grief, faith, and portal fantasy.

If you’re into monstrousness—and you are all into monstrousness—Ren Iwamoto’s A Mirror Distorted: A Brief Meditation on When Real-Life Events Inspire Speculative Fiction is your jam. Ren tackles monsters born of real-life inspiration—and how they morph when viewed through different lenses.

 

So Many Books

Let’s start 2020 right! We have book recommendations, book reviews, and a look at some staff picks for January’s new releases.

Book Recommendations and Reviews:

And due to our late 2019 hiatus, our January round-up of new releases by women and nonbinary authors covered three whole months! Here, some of our staff share their picks:

Woven in Moonlight

Erynn’s Pick: Woven in Moonlight, by Isabel Ibañez
For a generation, her people have been decimated and displaced from their lush country of jungles and mountains. Those that remain lay their grief and fury at Ximena’s feet, looking to her to lead them to restoration. But they don’t understand. Ximena is not the real Condesa – she’s a decoy set to protect the last true Illustrian royal. When the usurper, Atoc, demands the Condesa’s hand in marriage, it’s the revenge opportunity Ximena has been waiting for.

This debut novel is set in a world inspired by the author’s Bolivian heritage and uses rich descriptions food and fabric to fill the reader’s cultural apperception. What draws me to the story is the promise of power not just in obvious might and magics but, as the title suggests, textile arts! As Ximenia discovers the truths of her world are vastly more complex than she was raised to understand, this domestic craft magic has the subtly required to take on nuanced dilemmas.

The Iron Will of Genie Lo

Faye’s Pick: The Iron Will of Genie Lo, by F. C. Yee
If you spoke to me last year, you know I loved F.C. Yee’s The Epic Crush of Genie Lo, a modern-day interpretation of the Chinese novel Journey to the West set in California, in which a girl gets reincarnated as the Monkey King’s… battle stick… and is super cranky about it. In this second and final book, Genie is now officially a Heaven-appointed guardian—so she no longer slays demons but also has to care for them, and they’re multiplying. I hear there’s also a quest for the crown and a venture in-between worlds, but what I’m most excited about Genie coming into her powers—and coming into her own as a leader—just in time for graduation.

Come Tumbling Down

Cass’s Pick: Come Tumbling Down, by Seanan McGuire
I ran through the audio versions of all of McGuire’s Wayward Children series in rapid succession last year, so I’m excited to get my hands (or ears) on the next installment. Her multiverse is a fascinating exploration of what happens to kids when Narnia or Neverland spits them back out for some transgression or other. Eleanor West, once lost and found herself, rescues these teenagers from reality, giving them a safe space either to re-adjust to life here on our earth–or to find a way back to the world of their preference. Through her protagonists (many of whom are queer and/or neuroatypical), McGuire has taken all the tangled problems of puberty, coming-of-age, and self-determination and spun them into poignant tales of the search for belonging. Come Tumbling Down looks like it’ll be revisiting one of the horror-themed worlds from a previous book (think of a playground for Doctor Frankenstein and Dracula, set on moody moors), and it may give some insight into Eleanor, the woman who set up the sanctuary-school for all those Wayward Children in the first place.

 


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

 

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

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

The Walls Around Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Erynn Moss

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

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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