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Sarah Gailey’s Book List with Four Words on Each

Sarah Gailey book recommendations

Sirens Guest of Honor Sarah Gailey shares a recommended reading list, with four descriptors for each. If you enjoy Sarah’s work, or you want a recommended reading list of exceptional works, this list is for you. Take it away, Sarah!

 

To Be Taught, If Fortunate

To Be Taught, If Fortunate
by Becky Chambers

beautiful
hopeful
honest
tender

The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian
by Han Kang

intense
harrowing
scathing
brutal

The Need

The Need
by Helen Phillips

gripping
dark
furious
surprising

Sisters of the Vast Black

Sisters of the Vast Black
by Lina Rather

unflinching
kind
confrontational
sweet

The Prince and the Dressmaker

The Prince and the Dressmaker
by Jen Wang

lovely
aching
immersive
perfect

An Unkindness of Ghosts

An Unkindness of Ghosts
by Rivers Solomon

cutthroat
direct
relentless
brilliant

The Only Harmless Great Thing

The Only Harmless Great Thing
by Brooke Bolander

furious
dazzling
ambitious
satisfying


Sarah Gailey Book Recommendations

Hugo Award winner and bestselling author Sarah Gailey is an internationally published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Their nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe, and they won a Hugo award for Best Fan Writer. Their most recent fiction credits include Vice and The Atlantic. Their debut novella, River of Teeth, was a 2018 Hugo and Nebula award finalist. Their bestselling adult novel debut, Magic for Liars, was published in 2019; their latest novella, Upright Women Wanted, was published in February 2020. Their young adult novel debut, When We Were Magic, came out in March 2020.

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

American Hippo by Sarah Gailey: Sirens Book Reviews

In honor of Sarah Gailey’s Guest of Honor week at Sirens, today not one, but two members of the Sirens Review Squad tackle American Hippo, the collection volume that includes novellas River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow, as well as two shorter works. The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers who submit reviews of speculative works by women or nonbinary authors that they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review, please email us!


River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

HALLIE TIBBETTS

Before I read River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey, I believed I knew the following facts about hippos:

  1. There is a hippo named Fiona, who lives in a zoo somewhere, that people like a lot.

  2. Hippos eat a lot and poop a lot. In fact, they are champion poopers and thus need quite a bit of personal space.

  3. Hippos can’t jump.

  4. Hippos can kill people if you bother them. If you are farming reeds and pomegranates for the pharaoh, they might kill you even if you don’t bother them, because they’re upset that you’re not sharing or something. (I learned this from a video game.)

  5. There is a game called Hungry Hungry Hippos. Perhaps you have played it.

  6. Pretending you are playing Hungry Hungry Hippos is one way to complete a chore commonly known as “vacuuming.”

The idea for River of Teeth comes from a little-known but verifiable fact: At one time, the United States needed meat and considered hippo ranching in Louisiana. Yes, raising those dangerous, enormous beasts to grace our plates. Imagine it: a hippopotamus porterhouse with all the sides. Some of the largest beef porterhouses are 40 ounces, or 1.134 kilograms for the metric folks. Now, all things won’t be equal, but if an average steer weighs about 750 pounds (340 kg), and an average male hippo weighs about 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg), your server would be bringing you a porterhouse coming in just under 11 pounds, or about 5 kilograms. So of course this incredible excess might have seemed like an excellent enterprise to carnivorous folk.

In the end, the hippo did not enter the pantheon of sounds we make during a rousing performance of “Old MacDonald.”

But River of Teeth imagines they did—and that some hippos escaped their fate to infest part of the lower Mississippi, and went feral between the boundary of an upstream dam and a downstream gate. Our story begins when a group of hoppers—think cowhand, perhaps a term for anyone who can ride a domesticated hippo—is tasked by leader Winslow Houndstooth, who’s been contracted by the federal government, to get the feral hippos past the confining gate and out into the Gulf.

And this (very diverse) group of hoppers is wild. They’ve got skills ranging from thievery to explosives to murder. There is absolutely no question about the grayness of these morally gray characters, and nearly all whom they meet, as they lie, cheat, con, and otherwise go about the business of a feral hippo drive. (There will be violence, and it will be explicit.) It’s refreshing to encounter intriguing characters who are more intense and complicated than lovable rogues with hearts of gold, but who act in ways consistent and logical.

Another delightful aspect of River of Teeth is its specific way of incorporating history. There’s a sense of the stretch pre- and post-Civil War when this could have happened, and enough details for the reader to fill in the worldbuilding without overexplaining in this novella. Of course there would be steamboats hosting gamblers in hippo-infested waters; of course your local watering hole would need an actual watering hole for hippo storage instead of a hitching post.

Finally, this fast-paced read stands alone, but leads into a related novella and short stories—and no spoilers, but if you’re the sort of reader who, like me, ever enjoyed letting Godzilla loose in SimCity and is entertained by the speculative destruction in movies like Volcano (1997) or San Andreas (2015), there is satisfying chaos in store.

With hippos.


KAREN BAILEY

Sarah Gailey’s American Hippo gathers all of their stories (two novellas and two short stories) about an alternate version of the American West where hippo ranches line rivers and feral hippos roam the Mississippi River.

These stories are quirky, violent capers with a dangerous cast of characters—and that is just talking about the hippos!

The stories are based around the real proposition made in 1910 to import hippopotamuses from Africa to the Gulf Coast of the United States and raise them as a source of meat. While in reality, the scheme never came to fruition, Gailey moved the beginnings of the scheme back to 1857 and set their stories in the late 1800s. In this alternate history, the United States government dammed up a section of the Mississippi River in Louisiana to create more land for hippo ranching. Eventually, this section of the river, known as the “Harriet,” transformed itself from orderly hippo ranches to dangerous real estate filled with feral hippos and unsavory people.

It is in this world that Gailey’s work takes place. The first novella, River of Teeth, introduces Winslow Remington Houndstooth (with hippo Ruby). He is a former hippo rancher-turned-thief, who has accepted a commission from the United States government to rid the Harriet of the feral hippos. He gathers together demolitions expert Hero Shackleby (with hippo Abigail), con artist Regina “Archie” Archambault (with hippo Rosa), and mercenary Adelia Reyes (with hippos Zahra and Stasia). On the surface, this seems like an odd combination of people to gather to rid an area of feral hippos. However, ridding the Harriet of feral hippos is not Houndstooth’s only objective; rather, he plans to use the commission to strike a blow at corrupt businessman Travers. Travers runs a series of riverboats and he rules those with absolute authority: If you are caught cheating, you will be immediately thrown to the feral hippos in the river. We also find out that Travers had Houndstooth’s hippo ranch burned down, leaving him with nothing but debt and one baby hippo.

River of Teeth is a fast-paced, fun, and gory heist story with a twist of revenge.

There is a fair amount of violence and not just from encounters with feral hippos. Houndstooth and company are all willing to do whatever they have to do to protect themselves. It is fascinating to see their relationships grow through the story. While Hero, Archie, and Adelia originally agree to join Houndstooth’s crew for mostly monetary reasons, their focus changes throughout the story and that change is one of the most satisfying aspects of Gailey’s work. The ending of River of Teeth wraps up enough to feel finished, but also leaves the door open for the next installment.

Taste of Marrow, the second novella of the collection, deals with the aftermath of the events in River of Teeth and has a much more somber feel. The group has been separated. Adelia and Hero are dealing with the aftermath of Hero’s injuries, the birth of Adelia’s daughter, and the bounty on Adelia’s head. Houndstooth is desperately trying to find Hero, while Archie is trying to keep Houndstooth alive and preferably clear-headed. This story shows a different view of the characters. While they were focused on money and revenge in the first story, now they are focused on reuniting with each other and eliminating the obstacles that prevent that reunion. It’s a messy, difficult journey that shows the challenges they face to continue to grow into a family. It’s hard for a bunch of people who are borderline criminals to have a relaxing retirement, but the ending does hint that this might be possible.

The two short stories included in American Hippo are much more light-hearted than either River of Teeth or Taste of Marrow, and expand on two incidents that are mentioned in the novellas. In “Worth Her Weight in Gold,” Houndstooth’s baby hippo has grown up into his mount Ruby. She is an ornery, vain hippo who would just as soon chomp on you as look at you, but she loves Houndstooth and he loves her. However, when he is on a job, Houndstooth isn’t always as careful about Ruby’s tooth care as he should be. It is a quick read, but it shows just how much Houndstooth loves Ruby and exactly what he will give up for her health and happiness. It also gives us a close-up view of Ruby’s personality, which is a delightful mix of charm and chomping.

“Nine and a Half” tells the story of a job that Houndstooth and Archie pull together when they meet U.S. Marshal Gran Carter. It also answers the ongoing question of how many times Archie has saved Houndstooth—or does it? This story ends with an excellent escape scene, which is a fun glimpse into the more ridiculous side of Archie and Houndstooth.

American Hippo offers an alternate historical world with fast-paced action and complex characters. The hippos are an excellent addition to the story, showing a variety of personalities from calm and placid to high-strung and energetic. They provide a way for their owners to show their humanity because the people are a fascinating mix of characters, none of whom could be classified as actually “good” people. However, they are charismatic and complicated, loving to friends and devoted to their hippos, and they will cheerfully steal the ring from your finger if it will help them. I love the fact that it is based in a real proposition and plays with a might have been. I love the variety of personalities and motivations, but mostly, I love the fact that the hippos get a story where they can be as sweet and brutal as they are in real life.


When she is not wrangling students (and co-workers) for a music non-profit, Karen Bailey can often be found working on completing the Sirens Reading Challenge. She also keeps busy with quilting, crocheting, and paper-crafts.

Hallie Tibbetts works in children’s publishing, editing books for all ages. She has a love of adventure, travel, interesting food, and dinosaurs (preferably all at once). She is one of the founders of Narrate Conferences, the presenting organization behind Sirens, and has served in various roles, including conference chair and programming coordinator.

Further Reading: Sarah Gailey

Have you already loved Sarah Gailey’s work? American Hippo? The Fisher of Bones? Magic for Liars and Upright Women Wanted and When We Were Magic? Are you looking for more? Have we got a treat for you! As part of Sarah’s Guest of Honor week, we’re pleased to compile some of their short fiction, essays, interviews, and other work from around the web.

Sarah’s Short Fiction:

  • Drones to Ploughshares (2020): “No one ever had to know that he noticed things he didn’t log.”

  • Away with the Wolves (2019): “I can’t feel anything, really. That’s how it always is when I wake up. I can’t feel anything, because I have not yet tried to move. When I do try to move, there will be pain. There’s no telling where it will be—my hips, my shoulders, my spine, my thighs, my hands. Some days it lives in the muscles between my ribs, making every breath feel like an argument.”

  • The Thing That Hides in Your Home (2019): “Knowing where it is won’t protect you from it, but that won’t stop you from reading, because some part of you believes that knowing is the same thing as safety.”

  • Reynard Is Coming (2019): “Reynard used to be just like you. He thought he was clever. He thought he was above the rules. He thought he didn’t have to watch his back when he was stretching his legs and straddling the centuries.”

  • An Augmented Reality (2018): “Denise was already late, even before her augmented-reality glasses decided to perform another endless system update.”

  • From the Void (2018): “The way I miss Esther is a slow-spreading bruise.”

  • Bread and Milk and Salt (2018): “The first time I met the boy, I was a duck.”

  • The Catch (2018): “They didn’t usually come right up to vessels, not without being lured in by chum over the course of an afternoon, but there she was. Lean, chap-lipped, hungry eyed. Her hair was black — no, blacker than that — and it fanned out in the water as she smiled up at him.”

  • STET (2018): “Anna, I’m concerned about subjectivity intruding into some of the analysis in this section of the text. I think the body text is fine, but I have concerns about the references. Are you alright?”

  • There Are No Hands in the River (2018): “All that I wanted: to escape the ghost-rattling chains shackled to the thing at the center of me.”

  • All the Stars Above the Sea (2018): “All the stars are closer now than they have ever been. If you were still beside me you’d reach up on tiptoes, fingers spread to touch the brightest one.”

  • An Introduction to Pain (2018): “How badly are you hurting? Please identify your pain by weight and measure it from end to end, please rank the force and flavor of this guest that’s wedged itself into your life.”

  • Anne and the Stairs (2018): “Anne told Edgar that she was barren on the day that the stairs appeared.”

  • As Simple as Vanishing (2018): “When Maurice decided that he wanted to vanish that first time, all he had to do was try.”

  • What Grew (2018): “Before I knew I was pregnant I would stand before the mirror and wonder why I was different why I was growing what was wrong with my too-small skin.”

  • Worth Her Weight in Gold (2018): “Winslow Remington Houndstooth had a problem. The problem was Ruby.”

  • The Legend of Tania and Lula (2018): Lula’s gold tooth glinted in the light of the dying sun as she stared into the barrel of Tania’s Pulsar-1500. Sand swirled in eddies around her dust-clouded boots. Her eyes watered, but she didn’t blink. The sweat that had beaded across her forehead during the hike back to the ship evaporated in the rising wind as she came to understand her situation. She would die at Tania’s hand.”

  • Go Home, Go Home, Go Home (2018): “Earth’s gravity pulled at Anton’s bones like an insult.”

  • Our Collection (2018): “She died in a sea of wind-swept fury, her arms spread wide to catch the waves, she died with her cheek to the wind.”

  • The Nightmare Stays the Same (2018): “In the nightmare, Bess is having a fistfight. In the nightmare, she is winning.”

  • Anonymous Croupier (2018): “It was a hot night. One of those nights that would feel like mid-afternoon anywhere other than Vegas, you know?”

  • Single Parent (2017): “The monster in my son’s closet is so fucking scary.”

  • A Lady’s Maid (2017): “Isaac hadn’t taken the news of the engagement well. Nadia reflected on this as she pressed her cheek against the cool wall of her washtub. She was strong, and Isaac Cornette was a small man, but wrestling his dead weight into the tub hadn’t been easy.”

  • The Art of Asterculture (2017): “Star-wine is very difficult to make. It’s a complex and sometimes dangerous process. But one must have a hobby, and this is mine.”

  • Rescue (2016): “When they went to the dog park, Malachai had to wear sweatpants to blend in with the humans that congregated there. Going to the dog park required him to use very un-demonic magic: a careful layering of glamours to make him look like a small, balding human male, rather than the top-tier demon that he was.”

  • Homesick (2016): “I close my eyes, but it doesn’t really help, because it’s more the feeling than the seeing that’s the problem. I feel Moira’s dry lips scratch closed around my finger; I feel her split tongue wrap around my knuckle and slide up and down my fingernail. Then, a blessed numbness creeps up my hand, all the way to the wrist, and I don’t have to feel anything she’s doing anymore.”

  • Haunted (2016): “When he came inside, he kept his shoes on. That was my first clue. She took her shoes off, and looked around like she was standing in a cathedral. He rapped his knuckles hard on a wall, and I flinched.”

  • Stars (2016): “Maria can feel his voice, the vibration of it, but she cannot hear him over the ringing in her own ears. The ringing is loud, and she isn’t going to try to hear over it because she knows it would be impossible, like trying to see over the top of the horizon.”

  • Bargain (2016): “Malachai worked exclusively with those humans who had found themselves at the limit of how much power they could possess. They called him to bend the rules of time and space around their whims, so that they might be even more feared and loved by the other mortals.”

  • Look (2015): “Caroline raised her head a few inches to see the thing the doctor held up—a loud, purple thing, covered in white smears of vernix. She let her head drop. Her vision blurred with fatigue. The past thirty-seven hours had been pain and blood and screaming and working and waiting and then pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing. She knew the moment should be beautiful, but all she could think was ‘finished.’”

Sarah’s Articles and Essays:

  • Aging, Which Is Linear (2020): “I’ve decided, with this birthday, to let some things go.”

  • What Makes a Story Queer? (2019): “Magic for Liars is a book that is immensely concerned with identity, and whether or not identity is immutable.”

  • Magical Accessories, Definitively Ranked (2019): “A staff is a great magical accessory… for your great-grandfather to wield. A staff tells everyone who looks at you that you’re a very powerful wizard who doesn’t know how to use email and will never be on time. It’s the rotary phone of spellcasting.”

  • The Enduring Legacy of Bunnicula, a 40-Year-Old In-Joke That’s Still Hilarious (2019): “James and Deborah Howe were two struggling actors in their late twenties, married and underemployed, and they thought the idea of a vampire rabbit was funny.”

  • Imposter/Abuser: Power Dynamics in Publishing (2019): “We tell ourselves that we’re not important for a lot of reasons, many of which boil down to self-protection.”

  • Leave the Hookhand Murderer Alone (2019): “This story punishes the would-be-killer by taking away the device that functions as his prosthetic hand. This is a punishment that’s repeated often in media across genres: a disabled villain is separated from his adaptive device, and the audience is asked to view it as justice.”

  • Whiskey, Trauma, and The Doctor (2019): “[U]ntil recently, whiskey has tasted to me like burning death.”

  • Between the Coats: A Sensitivity Read Changed My Life (2018): “I thought I was writing in-genre. Fantasy stories have magic. Science fiction stories have rules that I don’t always understand because I somehow got through high school without taking a physics class. Queer stories have death.”

  • Iconic Outwear of Science Fiction & Fantasy Literature, Ranked (2018): “When I was in grade school I would have given my right arm for a way to get through my day without anyone seeing me. But does this cloak really deserve to beat out all other forms of fantasy outerwear? I say no.”

  • Fear No Evil: On Sorting Hats and Forest Gods (2018): “The hat does not require your input. The hat knows.”

  • The White Mountains (2018): “Occam’s razor: if you’re walking among gods and something is strange, think magic, not physics.”

  • Gods and Beggars (2018): “Simply put, a God disguised as a beggar isn’t testing the individual–they are testing the world that has created that individual. They are testing the health of the community.”

  • Fear of the Female Voice (2017): “For millennia, Western society has insisted that female voices—just that, our voices—are a threat. We’re afraid of wolves, and we’re afraid of bears, and we’re afraid of women.”

  • Harry Potter: A Beginner’s Guide to Evaluating Authority (2017): “Harry Potter is not a resistance manual. Harry Potter is a guidebook.”

  • The Hubris of Icarus: Women Who Fly into the Sun (2017): “There are two kinds of hubris. There are two kinds of hope. And the sky is so wide. If she could only fly.”

  • A Woman, Explaining Things (2017): “If they had the opportunity—if this new woman arrived at their front door with an extended hand, inviting them to come into the blue box with her and see a universe full of new and frightening things—I wonder what these furious people would do.”

  • River Song in Hades (2017): “She loves the adventure. She loves the journey. Like Persephone, she knows that winter and death are coming for her, but she rushes at them headlong, because she knows that the path she’ll travel to get there is one to be savored.”

  • Why Millennials Yearn for Magical School (2017): “We were told that a better world was waiting for us. We were told that a letter was on the way. We’ll just have to write the letter ourselves.”

  • On Feasting (2017): “You are a character in a fantasy novel. Congratulations: you have been invited to a feast.”

  • Finding Facts: American Identity Is Based on Alternate History (2017): “It’s the story told in my American History textbook, and it’s one of the most comprehensive works of fiction I’ve ever read.”

  • The Ecology of Alt-History, Or: The Hippos, the Hippos, the Hippos Are on Fire (2017): “The water hyacinth was a problem, and the meat shortage was a problem, and for a time—for a brief, glorious time—America saw a solution. We were going to fight an invasive species with the power of our big, important brains. We were going to get ourselves some hippos.”

  • Storytelling Through Costume: The Woman in White (2017): “In a blood-soaked world where survival is dependent upon grit and determination, the woman in white is spotless. She is radiant. She is pure.”

  • Storytelling Through Costume: The Badass Black Tank Top Walks the Line (2017): “She can wield a flamethrower the size of a Prius while biting out the word “fuck” and lighting a cigar, her boot firmly planted on the jugular of the man she just finished beating up for calling her a girl.”

  • Storytelling Through Costume: The Allure of the Red Dress (2017): “But the red dress isn’t just a costume; it’s an archetype. When we see the red dress, we already have an idea of what we can expect from the woman inside of it. She’s not bad; she’s just drawn that way.”

  • Mentally Ill Women Belong in Your Stories, Too (2016): “[R]egardless of the treatment mentally-ill women receive at the hands of literary authors, we are seen. We exist, and we participate in the world, and we hurt and heal and struggle and live. But we are not invited into space. We are not invited to attend on the Faerie Queen. We don’t attend Hogwarts or fly TIE fighters.”

  • Why We Write About Witches (2016): “When we write witches, we are writing about our expectations of women, and what we hope—and fear—they would do if they had access to power.”

  • Do Better: Sexual Violence in SFF (2016): “I want to be furious that SFF writers seem to have an easier time imagining faster-than-light travel than they do imagining a world in which sexual assault isn’t a constant threat.”

  • In Defense of Villainesses (2016): “We love her and we hate her in equal measure. We feel that way because she revels in being all the things that we are told we aren’t allowed to be.”

  • Dissociation Is Scary. Dissociation Is Safety. (2016): “And when I’m in the little dark room of memory, surrounded by words that remind me who can hurt whom, the only thing to do is to grope around in the blackness, trying to find a doorknob.”

  • The Harry Potter Series Is Actually One Long Story About PTSD: “When you read Harry Potter through the lens of trauma psychology, what you start to realize is that these books explore the aftermath of trauma in a surprisingly deep and compelling way.”

Sarah’s Interviews:

  • Q&A: Sarah Gailey, Author of ‘The Echo Wife’ (2021): “Our personalities and identities are shaped by so many factors — I wanted to examine the paths we choose and the paths we avoid, the way we define ourselves and the way we allow others to define us.”

  • Q&A: Sarah Gailey, Author of When We Were Magic (2020): “I’m proud to have written something that, as I was writing it, reminded me that things can be good even when they’re messy and hard.”

  • Talks at Google (2019): On bringing fantasy and noir together in Magic for Liars, “I was really able to answer them with each other. They fit together like puzzle pieces.”

  • Spotlight On: Sarah Gailey (2019): “Some characters grow best in haunted houses, and others grow best in spaceships, and still others will only be able to put down roots in the house next door to mine.”

  • Interview with an Author: Sarah Gailey (2019): “I would definitely be into theoretical magic. It’s dangerous and ambitious and will kill you if you do it wrong, which is totally my jam. Also, it’s hard to explain at cocktail parties, which seems to be a central theme in all of my interests.”

  • Author Interview: Sarah Gailey (2017): “Fortunately, like any good writer, I happen to have a close relationship with an explosives expert.”

  • Sarah Gailey Talks Heists, Hope, Feral Hippos, and Defiantly Joyful Characters (2017): “River of Teeth imagines that Broussard’s dream came true, and that hippos came to America…and immediately did what hippos do—which is to say, whatever the hell they want because you try telling a hippo it has to stay behind a fence.”

  • Sarah Gailey on Sexual Violence in SFF (2017): “Everybody’s argument is, ‘Oh, we need to reflect real life.’ But really when you look at genre fiction, that’s not what we’re about. We’re not writing in order to reflect real life; we’re writing to paint new worlds and new social norms.”

  • Hugo Award Winner Sarah Gailey on Self-Care, Self-Imposed Deadlines, and Where Ideas Come From: “If I can get outside with a good book and some fresh fruit and maybe a glass of wine, I’m the happiest I can be.”

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Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey: Sirens Book Review

Magic for Liars Sarah Gailey

Back in the days of Harry Potter fandom, I often found myself on the side of Muggles, hating the way the books found casual cruelty towards them so funny, so deserving. I remember once talking with someone who was surprised to discover that I identified with the Muggles in the story when it never occurred to them that they wouldn’t be a wizard. I recall saying something like, “If you point a stick at a door and say something in fake-Latin, will the door open? No? Then you are a Muggle.”

At the time I thought I was just being logical, but it was more than that. I automatically assume that if I lived in a world where there were wizards or mutants or benders, I wouldn’t be one of them. And I’d be jealous. So I always identify with the also-ran, the ordinary person, the not-Chosen One, the B-student. And I identify with them as such. I don’t, as some prefer, like to imagine stories where it turns out everyone’s wrong or they’re misunderstood or simply have bad teachers. No, I find the plight of the non-gifted too compelling.

When I started reading Sarah Gailey’s Magic for Liars, I knew only that it was about a non-magical detective investigating a murder at the magical school where her estranged sister teaches. But I had no idea it would be so completely the story of the girl left behind. One that dealt with all the hopeless pain that brings, and the hard-won maturity and wisdom it could offer. Maturity and wisdom that could be denied those Chosen Ones with all the gifts.

Magic for Liars Review

A twist of DNA gave Ivy Gamble’s sister Tabitha all the magic and the psychological damage of that random gene mutation is intense. Some authors might have used Ivy’s jealousy and bitterness to turn her into a villain who attacks her sister, proving how she didn’t deserve magic anyway. (Looking at you, J.K. Rowling!) But Gailey’s heroine hurts nobody more than herself. She doesn’t notice when her lack of magic gives her a clearer view of the case than the mages around her—and Gailey never makes that blind spot so obvious as to feel condescending.

Ivy’s life experience also gives her a unique understanding of the teenagers she’s interviewing, one that I personally haven’t come across very much in YA. She understands how much they want to be the hero of the story—any story. She uses this understanding to manipulate them, yes, but not without respect. So many YA books are about teenagers thrust into adventure that gives their lives a clear purpose and tells them who they are. Gailey’s teenagers, though magical, are just stumbling around searching for that meaning. Ivy sometimes resents them for “wasting” their magic on silly things like pranks, but of course doesn’t know what she would have done with magic had she had any. Non-magical gifts can be wasted too.

The relationship between the two sisters, or the lack thereof, is at the center of the story, and Gailey doesn’t take the easy way out here either. Reading it, I felt my own emotions rising and falling along with Ivy’s, desperately wanting her to recapture the close bond with a sister she had in her childhood, fearing for her because of how much she wanted it, hoping she would get what she was looking for one minute, cynically pitying her for thinking she’d get it the next. I wanted to yell at Ivy that of course lying to anyone about her own magical status would come back to bite her, but when it did, I wanted to tell off any mage who held it against her.

There’s a moment in the book where Ivy describes herself and a magical character talking as if “speaking two different but peripheral languages.” Ivy and her sister are likewise living two different but peripheral life stories that may only occasionally and coincidentally connect. They’ve both been shaped by the exact same circumstances—their magical ability, the death of their mother, their father’s grief—and reacted to them in opposite ways that mirror their abilities—one forever defining herself as powerless, the other defining herself solely through her power. On paper they might have seemed destined to easily reunite and help each other. But life, even in a world where prophesies exist and bad memories can be extracted and thrown out like medical waste, is just not that fair.


Meg BelvisoMeg Belviso holds a BA in English from Smith College and an MFA from Columbia University. As a writer and editor, she chronicles angel encounters as staff editor of Angels on Earth magazine and has written for various fiction and nonfiction properties, including several biographies in Penguin’s Who Was…? series.

Sarah Gailey: Exclusive Sirens Interview

We’re pleased to bring you an interview with Sarah Gailey, one of this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor. We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Denver this October. Today, Sirens co-chair Amy Tenbrink speaks with Sarah Gailey.

 

AMY TENBRINK: The home page of your website says, big and bold and just after your name, “Writer. Reader. Enthusiast.” I first encountered your work with your novella, River of Teeth, which I adore for the unrelentingly fuck-you subversion among all the gleefully ahistorical hippos, but almost immediately thereafter, I ran across your essays, which I adore for their unflinching and hilarious insight. Would you tell us about these three parts of you—writer, reader, and enthusiast—and why you think each deserves a place of proclamation on the home page of your website?

Sarah Gailey Interview

SARAH GAILEY: I think that those three words summarize pretty much all of what I do and who I am! I read compulsively, because stories are the fuel my brain feeds on. They’re nourishing and I’m lucky enough to be reading during a golden era of storytelling. Reading isn’t just a thing I do; being a reader is a part of my identity.

I write for a living, which is an enormous blessing. I am so fortunate to be able to support myself by doing the thing I love most. Of course, that means that I write way too much—when you do what you love, you never stop working a day in your life. I’m still learning how to set boundaries for myself, to take time away from work and nurture myself in ways that have nothing to do with being an author.

Which is why it’s crucial that I’m also an enthusiast. I love to be excited by the world around me, to learn new things, and share the thrill of discovery with others. I find cynicism and incuriosity to be a form of cowardice — people let themselves be governed by a fear of looking foolish, or a fear of having to apologize for things they believed in the past, or a fear of the pain that comes with growth. I’m not interested in letting that kind of fear shape my life, so instead I run fast as I can in the opposite direction, with great enthusiasm.

 

AMY: In Upright Women Wanted, you use the phrase “gallows courage,” a phrase that’s not out of place in a work that opens with a hanging. But Upright Women Wanted is dedicated “[t]o everyone who thought they’d never live this long,” which is a reference to your 2018 essay “Between the Coats: A Sensitivity Read Changed My Life” about your claiming queerness as part of your identity and how, for a number of reasons relating to your queerness, you didn’t think you’d live this long. You’ve also said that your short story, “Bread and Milk and Salt”, about cycles of abuse, is your most personal short story. I think your work—your honesty, your rawness, your admitted errors and apologies and desire to grow—takes gallows courage. Would you share some of your thoughts about putting so much of your heart on a page?

SARAH: For a big part of my life, the circumstances I was in required me to keep too many secrets. That secrecy is a hallmark of abusive environments and relationships. You internalize this idea that it’s wrong to tell anyone what’s happening inside your home, what’s happening to your body, what’s happening inside your heart. Saying “I’m hurting” or “I’m scared” or “I’m sad” feels dangerous and forbidden.

When I started trying to build a life for myself that didn’t include space for abusive dynamics, one of the things I found to be most healing was transparency. I learned how to invite people into my space, physically and emotionally, in ways that are safe for everyone involved. It was really scary, and I did a terrible job for a while—it’s a very steep learning curve that I’m still climbing—but at this point, secrecy isn’t a part of who I am or who I want to be.

I draw a very firm distinction between “secrecy” and “privacy,” which is crucial when you write about yourself and your life in the ways I do. There are a lot of things about me that I don’t share with the world. But the things I do share, I share because I think there can be healing in that sharing, for me and for readers. This last birthday, I finally stopped being private about my age; I publicly discussed the dynamics that made me hide it for so long, because I know that there are readers of mine who have struggled with the same issues. If I can safely reveal parts of myself and, in so doing, help a reader to feel more seen and safer in the world, then I think my work can have real meaning.

Sarah Gailey Quote

AMY: In 2019, after Magic for Liars, your noir magical boarding school novel, was released, you wrote an essay, “What Makes a Story Queer?,” in which you say, “Were I to end Magic for Liars on an optimistic note, I would allow Ivy’s story to continue mirroring mine: Ivy Gamble would find a community of people who were, in fact, just like her…. Through the love and support of that community, Ivy would come to understand herself. She would develop a sense of security. She would develop a sense of self. She would develop a sense of pride.” In When We Were Magic, your new young-adult novel, you give Alexis, struggling with her identity and her friends and her failures and fears and hopes, just that optimistic ending. In many ways, when I read the three works you’ve published in the last year—Magic for Liars to Upright Women Wanted to When We Were Magic—I can follow a single thread from struggle to defiance to joy. Would you please talk about what you hope readers take away from your books?

SARAH: That’s an incredibly astute observation! I put a lot of myself onto the page, intentionally and unintentionally, and I love that the journey I’ve taken in my own life — from struggle to defiance to joy — is visible on the page.

In every book I write, I want readers to take away something different. In Magic for Liars, I wanted readers to take away an understanding of how everyone is involved in their own story and their own struggle, and those narratives aren’t always visible to the people who are living inside of them. Ivy Gamble is lying to herself, and she’s lying to herself about why she’s doing it, and she’s lying to the reader about how honest she’s capable of being. She’s not doing that on purpose, to be sneaky or malicious—she’s doing the best she can, and she’s still failing, because sometimes that’s what we do.

In Upright Women Wanted, I wanted readers to take away the idea that tragedy isn’t inevitable, and it doesn’t have to be the end of a story. For so many people, especially queer people, hardship feels defining, and tragedy feels final. But Esther’s story begins with tragedy, and from there, she finds triumph and joy alongside her grief. I wanted readers to feel in their bones that they can have both.

When We Were Magic is the story of what life can be when you lean into that joy. It’s a story of supportive community, emotionally healthy and loving friendships, good boundaries and tenderness even in the midst of conflict and trauma. I wrote it for the teen I once was, who needed to hear that it’s okay to let your friends love you even when you’re a mess, and that’s the message I hope readers—especially young readers—take away from those pages.

 

AMY: In your work, both fiction and nonfiction, you dive deep on gender issues, particularly those affecting people who aren’t cisgender men. As a few examples, you did a boatload of research into abortion and abortion ethics in order to write Magic for Liars; your short story “STET” delves deeply into a mother’s grief and the societal silencing thereof; your nonfiction is rife with intersectional feminist issues, such as “Fear of the Female Voice” and “A Woman, Explaining Things.” How do you do your research? What do you read? Who do you talk to?

SARAH: I’m so fortunate to be part of a community with a ton of brilliant people in it! Often, when I need help learning about an issue—like, for instance, abortion and abortion ethics—I start with general reference material from reputable sources. I check out Wikipedia and look at the citations on articles, and there’s often great information available from trustworthy organizations like Planned Parenthood. Once I feel like I have a good grasp on baseline information, I reach out to closed sections of my community, like private slack channels or broad group chats. That’s how I add color and texture to the reference material. I get most of my information from one-on-one conversations. I find that the best way to learn is to talk to people who are passionate about their area of expertise, both because then you get the really good, reliable intel, and because there are nuances to information that reference material can rarely supply.

 

AMY: In 2021, the Sirens theme is villains, so let’s talk about gender, sexuality, and villainy. Society, of course, frequently demands that we cast women and queer folk as villains, often simply for defying the limitations imposed by the heteropatriarchy. And often, given that your characters, across genders and sexualities, walk a fine line between antihero and villain—from the River of Teeth gang to Alexis’s killing a boy in When We Were Magic—I imagine you have something to say on this particular topic. Talk to me about villains!

SARAH: I have always loved villains. I don’t think this is rare—villains are often the more complicated characters in children’s media, the characters whose motivations feel grounded in emotions that children can relate to. Heroes in children’s media often exhibit more grown-up behavior than villains do—they don’t tend to throw tantrums or get petty and pouty—and so they can feel a little out-of-reach. Villains are also visually fascinating in a way heroes often aren’t (picture Jafar vs. Aladdin in Disney’s Aladdin—only one of them has facial features you can grab onto). And of course, as a tiny queer baby, I saw the queer-coding in those villains and identified with it in ways I didn’t really understand.

As an adult, I find villains fascinating for a different reason. I think the best villains, the most fascinating ones, are the ones who are truly trying to Do Right. Few people act in ways that they believe to be evil or selfish, but doing bad things is a part of the human condition that we’ve never been able to escape. In my writing, I want to explore the things we do to hurt each other, and why they feel so necessary and inescapable.

The one exception to this is in Upright Women Wanted, where the villain is a fascist police-state. I think we’ve had more than enough media that aims to humanize those particular types of villains, and so in writing that book, I let them be a little more one-dimensional than I usually would. The villain in Upright Women Wanted is a villain because he wants to hurt you and the people you love, and sometimes, that’s enough.

 

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?

SARAH: My friend Elisabeth. I met her during the year I lived in Portland, and our friendship has been completely transformational for me. Elisabeth has taught me how to take up space, how to expect support and love from my friends, and how to demand that my emotions be acknowledged and attended to. For so much of my life, I accepted the idea that my feelings had to be reasonable, logical, and explainable in order to deserve care. I will never forget the day that Elisabeth told me “it’s okay to be emotional sometimes—it’s an expression of what you’re feeling, and the people who love you should make space for that.” All of my relationships have flourished so much with that perspective. I started asking for space for my own feelings—and refusing to have my feelings shut down by men saying “you’re just being dramatic” or “you need to calm down.” The result has been that my friends, family, and loved ones have started asking for space for their needs and feelings, and we all have so many more opportunities to see, acknowledge, and care for each other. It’s been stunning, and I owe it all to Elisabeth.

 


Hugo Award winner and bestselling author Sarah Gailey is an internationally published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Their nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe, and they won a Hugo award for Best Fan Writer. Their most recent fiction credits include Vice and The Atlantic. Their debut novella, River of Teeth, was a 2018 Hugo and Nebula award finalist. Their bestselling adult novel debut, Magic for Liars, was published in 2019; their latest novella, Upright Women Wanted, was published in February 2020. Their young adult novel debut, When We Were Magic, came out in March 2020.

For more information about Sarah, please visit their website or their Twitter.

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 13, Issue 1: March 2021

This month:

We’re a year into a global pandemic, and you’re a year into caring for yourself, your family, and your community in ways few of us imagined would ever be necessary. You have a favorite mask—you know, the one that fits really well and the color brings out your eyes? You’ve moved past merely judging people’s Zoom backgrounds and now have a detailed 10-point scale for rating them. You’ve learned new and exciting skills in the realms of baking, sewing, gardening, and perhaps more esoteric talents like soap-carving or experimental entomology.

You’ve been resilient. Like the heroes of the stories we love so much, who stand up and keep pursuing their goals even when the world knocks them down with everything it’s got, you’ve endured. That same spirit of resilience drives Sirens, too—and after a winter’s worth of recuperation, we’re ready to harness springtime’s energy with some fabulous new programming!

Welcome Back

Early this month, we announced our intentions for the year: if possible, to hold Sirens in person in Denver, October 21-24. We’re going to be nimble as we plan for that conference, responding to safety protocols, which may change frequently over the coming months, and responding to both rising vaccination rates and new outbreaks of the disease. We don’t know yet what state the pandemic will be in come October, but we promise that we will be considering options to keep all of our attendees safe.

With that in mind, over the next few months, we’ll be gearing up and getting you ready for the conference. Our theme is, as it would have been in 2020, villains, and we recommend diving back into that topic with the essay “Unsex Me Here: Gender, Power, and Villainy.”

2021 Sirens Programming Submissions

We’ll be opening submissions for conference programming again soon! While much of our accepted programming from 2020 will be rolling over to the new year, we want to ensure a full and robust slate of presentations. If you did not have programming accepted for 2020, we encourage you to submit a proposal this spring—and if you’re not sure what that might entail, our annual programming series can explain it all, from what kinds of programming we seek to how to prepare your submission.

Sirens programming always seeks to include a wide variety of viewpoints, lived experiences, and points of view, so we very much hope that you will consider putting together a roundtable, presentation, panel, workshop, or afternoon class! Submissions will open in mid-April and close on May 15th.

Rin Chupeco’s Guest of Honor Week

Rin Chupeco Author

As we roll toward October, we also want to reintroduce you to the amazing Guests of Honor who will be joining us in 2021! This month, we showcased Rin Chupeco, author of fabulous books such as Wicked As You Wish (reviewed for us by Jo O’Brien) and The Bone Witch (reviewed by Faye Bi).

For more on Rin, you can check out their Sirens Interview and our list of their short fiction and other interviews. If your to-read pile of books isn’t stacked quite high enough yet, Rin has also given us a list of their favorite SFF books, and we’ve assembled a set of “Book Friends”—that is, books we think would pair well with Rin’s works.

Inaugural Sirens Community Day

With Sirens at Home last October, we all learned what an online Sirens conference might look like—and we liked it so much that we thought we’d offer periodic community days of online programming, collaboration, and discussion. Each will be free to attend, and we hope you will, whether you’ve had the chance to attend Sirens in person over the years or not, and you can sign up here. Please note that, as with Sirens at Home, for safety and security reasons, we will be sending video conference links out to registrants closer to the event.

Our first community day will be on April 25, featuring 2018 Guest of Honor Kameron Hurley, as well as a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, person of color) meet-up, a book discussion of Kameron’s The Stars Are Legion, and a roundtable discussion of hope in speculative fiction. We hope you’ll join us!

Speculative Fiction Book Club

We have so many amazing books on the 2021 Reading Challenge, and we want you to have the opportunity to discuss some of them before Sirens 2021. That’s why we’re launching Sirens Book Club. On the last Sunday of each month, now through August, we’ll discuss one of the 50 speculative works by female, nonbinary, and trans authors that are featured in this year’s challenge.

In March, we discussed Tehlor Kay Mejia’s We Set the Dark on Fire; on April 25, we’ll chat about The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley. If you’d like to join us, please email us at (help AT sirensconference.org) to be added to our list; for safety and security reasons, we’ll be emailing the Zoom link out to interested folks closer to the discussion date.

Speculative Fiction Book Recommendations

As always, the heart of the Sirens community lives in the stories we share, analyze, deconstruct, re-imagine, and celebrate. Whether isolation has prompted you to devour several books a week or pandemic-brain has slowed your pace, we hope we can guide you to some new reads that will delight your senses, challenge your mind, and give you another world to exist in, for a little while.

Book Recommendations and Reviews:

  • Reading has certainly helped many of us get through this pandemic, and Amy Tenbrink tells us that Katherine May’s Wintering was exactly the book she could rely on. Wintering is a book about the fallow periods in life and their importance: “Rather than dismissing her challenges as ‘somehow silly, a failure of nerve, a lack of willpower,’ May speaks eloquently about the idea of leaning into hard times as a crucible, something that may burn as you pass through, but will release a different you in the end.”
  • Paired with our Sirens Book Club for this month, Meg Belviso reviewed We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia, highlighting the book’s well-drawn world and incisive political exploration: “The young people in this world are ready to fight and love (did I mention there’s queer romance? There’s a queer romance!) and build a better future for themselves. The beauty and joy of Medio is never completely obscured by the greed and cruelty of its ruling class.”
  • Have you seen 2021’s release roundups? So far we’ve spotlighted new books released in November 2020-January 2021, February 2021, and March 2021.

The Sirens staff is delighted to be back on the horse, ready for another year of discussing and celebrating the remarkable work of women, nonbinary, and transgender people in fantasy literature and other speculative spaces!

This newsletter is brought to you by:

 


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

 

Save the Date! Sirens Community Day on April 25

As 2020 rolls onto 2021, with longer daylight hours and a stifling winter thawing into spring, we’re thrilled to be announcing more opportunities for our Sirens community—as well as anyone interested in gender and fantasy literature—to gather virtually. While not a replacement for our annual in-person conference this October 21–24, 2021, we hope you’ll join us for the first of our online Sirens community days on Sunday, April 25!

Our first Sirens community day will include four virtual events on Zoom, and will be free to everyone, whether you’ve attended Sirens before or not. We ask that everyone interested in participating in our community day register below. We will provide Zoom links to our online gatherings to only those who have registered.

Community Day Registration

You must be at least 18 years old to register and you will be required to acknowledge the Sirens Terms of Service, Anti-Harassment Policy, and Accessibility Policy as part of your registration.

Community Day Schedule

Sirens Community Day

Sunday, April 25, 2021

11:00 a.m. Mountain (1:00 p.m. Eastern)
BIPOC Meet-Up

As a continuation of our efforts to support and uplift diverse voices at Sirens, we are devoting the first hour of our community day for our Sirens members who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, person of color) to connect and converse. This casual meet-up will be moderated by a Sirens staff member—share your recent fantasy read or whatever is on your mind! Please note that these spaces are reserved for BIPOC; others are not invited to these spaces.

12:00 p.m. Mountain (2:00 p.m. Eastern)
Sirens Book Club: The Stars Are Legion

The Stars Are Legion

The Sirens Book Club meets monthly to discuss a book from our 2021 Reading Challenge, which includes 50 works by women, trans, and nonbinary authors that imagine a more inclusive, more empathetic, more just world.

This month, we’re reading Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion, which imagines, in a world of monstrous, living spaceships and endless war, two characters: one with amnesia, the other a known liar. The former has been dumped in the belly of the ship, for reasons mysterious and unknown, and must make her way on a very squishy journey back to the outer levels. The latter is playing a game of queens and pawns. Hurley uses this challenging setup, a good amount of body horror, and an all-female cast to explore—brilliantly, powerfully—reproductive justice.

1:00 p.m. Mountain (3:00 p.m. Eastern)
Kameron Hurley: Narrating Our Way to a Brighter Future

Award-winning author, essayist, and 2018 Sirens Guest of Honor Kameron Hurley will redux her keynote presentation, “Narrating Our Way to a Brighter Future.” Whether you missed it the first time or just need a reminder of what it means to hope in a time of rage, Kameron’s words will be good to hold close as we continue to navigate an uncertain, unjust world.

Kameron Hurley

Kameron Hurley is the author of The Light Brigade , The Stars are Legion and the essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy and The Worldbreaker Saga. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Locus Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. She was also a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Nebula Award, and the Gemmell Morningstar Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed and numerous anthologies. Hurley has also written for The Atlantic, Writers Digest, Entertainment Weekly, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, Bitch Magazine, and Locus Magazine. You can find her online at her website or her Twitter.

2:00 p.m. Mountain (4:00 p.m. Eastern)
Roundtable: Hope in Speculative Fiction

Following Kameron’s presentation, we’ll split into small groups for a true Sirens programming mainstay: the roundtable. With a Sirens staff moderator and the help of Zoom breakout rooms, we’ll offer everyone an opportunity to discuss, share, and explore the theme of hope in speculative fiction.

2021 Programming: Workshops and Afternoon Classes

At Sirens, programming means the dozens of hours of papers, lectures, panels, roundtable discussions, workshops, and afternoon classes that make up the heart of Sirens. In our 2021 programming series, we’re doing a deeper dive on each presentation format; this information will both help potential presenters select the proper format for their concept and provide details on proposal requirements. We also suggest that potential presenters read how Sirens programming works and our tips, tricks, and frequently asked questions. Previously, we took a deep dive into papers and lectures, panels, and roundtables. You can submit a proposal any time from mid-April to May 15.

Workshops are an opportunity to teach practical skills, often through hands-on instruction. Workshops sometimes feature writing topics, such as building magical worlds or forming an effective critique group, but we welcome presenters tackling different topics for different audiences: how to plan a book club, where to find resources for library collection development, or how to create a feminist course curriculum based on fantasy reading.

Afternoon classes are also an opportunity to teach skills through hands-on instruction, though these skills tend to be of interest to fantasy readers—but may not be connected directly to literature or other media. Topics may be as eclectic as battle weaponry, self-defense, historical dress or dance, and costume construction.

Audience size for both workshops and afternoon classes will be 25–40 people, depending on available room size.

The boundary between a workshop and an afternoon class can be thin, so please email us at (programming at sirensconference.org) for guidance.

Co-taught workshops or afternoon classes are welcome. Collaborators who have similar or complementary expertise may wish to present together, either to maximize the opportunity for hands-on instruction or to present different skills related to the topic (such as clothing construction and embroidery).

Materials, if needed, must be provided by the presenters. If your workshop or afternoon class is accepted, you are welcome to request a small donation from audience members to defray costs. Please write to (programming at sirensconference.org) for assistance in framing the wording for your summary.

Workshops are always 50 minutes long. If you have a topic that’s shorter than 50 minutes, you might consider finding a collaborator to present on some other element of the topic. Presenters should strongly consider hands-on elements and time for audience questions.

Afternoon classes can range from 50 to 90 minutes. Often these topics require additional time for instruction or practice (or, to provide one past example, taking turns stabbing a bale of hay with battle weaponry). We also often schedule afternoon classes in larger spaces, particularly if they’re demonstration-based or require room to move (such as martial arts or dancing).

Proposal requirements include a presenter biography (50–100 words), a presentation summary (50–100 words), and a detailed abstract (300–500 words). We will publish the biography and the summary on our website and in our program book to help attendees navigate our programming and decide which presentations they’d like to attend. If more than one person will be leading the class or workshop, each presenter must provide a biography, though no supplemental abstract is required for additional presenters. The abstract is for the vetting board. It should explain your topic and approach and be far more in depth than your summary. Presenters of workshops and afternoon classes may present a traditional abstract or, if they prefer, a detailed lesson plan.

Room set-up will depend heavily on the content and design of your presentation, as well as the available room. Set-up often includes tables and chairs with space for audience members to write or craft, though if your topic is physical, we will help clear the room so you have space to work. Projection equipment and a small dry erase board or easel may be available as well (though we will ask you to specify how you will use projection equipment so that we can prioritize it for presentations that particularly need it, and make sure to clear it away if it might be damaged). If the room size warrants, we will provide a microphone (and if we do, we require that you use it, as it makes your presentation more accessible to the audience).

 

Looking for programming help or inspiration?

  • Free Topics: Over the next several weeks, 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).

 

Examples of summaries of past workshops and afternoon classes from Sirens:

  • Siren with a Sword: Fencing 101 by Manda Lewis and Marie Brennan: Have you always wanted to join your favorite character on the training grounds where she first picks up a blade? Have you wished yourself in her place as she readies for the attack? This class will provide you the opportunity to do just that! Join us as we explore the history, terminology, and rules of the sport of fencing. Then you’ll take up a foil and practice what you’ve learned with your fellow attendees. You will see that fencing is not simply about overpowering your opponent, it’s about planning and strategy. We recommend wearing comfortable or athletic clothing.

  • Ballads and Marching Songs by Ellen Kushner and Ysabeau Wilce: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!” said Duke Ellington. As authors, we are very aware of how sound and rhythm inform good writing, and so we heartily agree! We also draw on music, particularly traditional music of the fireside and the parade ground, to inspire and support our work. And so: Ellen will sing some of the traditional ballads that inspired her novel Thomas the Rhymer, and Ysabeau will counter with some of the military ditties that form the backdrop to the campfires, parade grounds, and blind tigers of her Califa series. We’ll then turn around and show participants how to create a fresh ballad or marching song that fits the needs of an original fantasy novel.

  • Tools and Techniques for the Reluctant Rewriter by B R Sanders: Masterpieces are rarely written perfectly the first time around. Revision, rewriting, and editing are key steps in the writing process, but they aren’t always fun, and they aren’t always easy to master. For many of us, learning to write first drafts is more straightforward and easier than picking up the skills necessary to polish those first drafts. In this workshop, we’ll explore a variety of techniques writers can use to structure their revision and rewriting process to get the most out of it. Writers at all stages of their career and of all levels of expertise are welcome.

  • Chainmail 101 and the Steampunk Maker Ethos by Fred Loucks-Schultz and Rebecca Loucks-Schultz: From Bilbo’s mithril shirt to Red Sonja’s infamous bikini, and from steampunk retro-futurism to post-apocalyptic Hollywood movies, chain mail has long been a staple of fantasy literature. Learn about the Maker side of Steampunk, the cross-cultural history of mail both as armor and decoration, the tools and techniques for making modern mail accessories, and then build your own key fob or bracelet in this hands-on workshop.

For more examples of past programming, visit our archive.

 

We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia: Sirens Book Review

We Set the Dark on Fire Tehlor Mejia

Confession: Sometimes I suspect I’m not a natural fantasy reader. That doesn’t mean I can’t love fantasy, of course, but where some people are automatically excited to be dropped into a new world they don’t know anything about yet, I’ve been known to read a book and think, “So…why isn’t this just set in regular California instead of California where some people do magic?”

I never thought that reading We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia.

The world here—and this is the main thing I wish for in a fantasy book—felt immediately logical and real, even before I’d begun to explore it. The story—and the island nation of Medio—begins with a myth about two brother gods fighting over a woman. But the story isn’t about gods behaving badly. The myth, for Medionites, is there to provide justification for how their society operates. Sons of privilege take two wives. One wife, the Primera, is chosen for her logical, analytical nature. She’s the wife he takes to a state dinner. The Segunda is chosen for her passion and beauty. She’s the mother of his children.

Such an arrangement might have come across as bizarre or worse, hopelessly contrived to put our heroine, Daniela Vargas, into the terrible position she finds herself in when she’s chosen by Medio’s most eligible, wealthy bachelor, a man many believe will one day be president. Instead, it felt completely organic. Not just the marital situation, but the elite finishing school that prepares girls for one wifely role or the other. And the parts of the island said to have been cursed by the vanquished god, a place where Medio’s poorest are exploited and hidden from the wealthier inhabitants by a wall. Inequality, in myth and practice, is part of Medio’s soul, so the elite would have us believe.

Then there’s the Segunda, the other wife Dani’s going to live with. Imagine your worst enemy in school. The girl you trust least in the whole world. Now imagine sharing your husband with her…while you’re being blackmailed into spying on him for a group of rebels. None of this is a spoiler. The minute you’re introduced to Dani’s situation you know where she’s quickly headed. You just don’t know how she’s going to handle it once it happens.

Dani’s situation is dire, but never bleak. I’ve heard Mejia’s world referred to as a dystopia, but the book felt too hopeful for that label to me. The young people in this world are ready to fight and love (did I mention there’s queer romance? There’s a queer romance!) and build a better future for themselves. The beauty and joy of Medio is never completely obscured by the greed and cruelty of its ruling class.

The stakes of the story are very clear, both for Dani and for the people of Medio. The danger is real, and it’s not at all clear that Dani is up to the task. She may have graduated finishing school with a degree in strategy, manipulation and repressed emotions, but she’s really none of those things at heart. Sometimes she does risky things for emotional reasons, but rather than being impatient with her, I just found myself rooting for her to get out of this alive.

I was rooting for the rebellion as well. The world of Medio is painfully relevant to our world, while still standing on its own as a fantasy creation. Latin American culture, class conflict and feminism are woven into the DNA of the book and Dani herself. Her parents sacrificed everything to lift her out of poverty and give her a better life, but can she in good conscience enjoy the good life herself knowing others just like her are still oppressed? Even if she wasn’t being blackmailed? Either way she chooses, she’d be letting someone down, so she can only choose based on who she, Dani, is…once she figures that out.


Meg BelvisoMeg Belviso holds a BA in English from Smith College and an MFA from Columbia University. As a writer and editor, she chronicles angel encounters as staff editor of Angels on Earth magazine and has written for various fiction and nonfiction properties, including several biographies in Penguin’s Who Was…? series.

Programming Tips, Tricks, and Frequently Asked Questions

Earlier this week, we shared 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!

 

Conference General Information

  • We will open for proposals mid-April and accept submissions through 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 three scholarships (a 2021 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 2021, 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.

 

Conference Programming Help from Real People

  • Free Topics: Over the next several weeks, 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.

 

Conference Programming 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!

 

Conference Programming 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 21, 2021. 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. If you already had programming accepted for presentation at Sirens 2020, we ask that you not submit additional proposals during the 2021 submission period.

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).

 

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