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Sirens Newsletter—Volume 12, Issue 9: September 2020

This month:

Whether you’re a pumpkin spice latte or apple cider sort of person, or eschewing fall-themed beverages altogether, the equinox has come and gone, and change is on the wind. Whatever patterns your life may be falling into these days, Sirens hopes we can provide you with some entertainment, some intellectual stimulation, and some companionship, even across the miles.

2020 Sirens at Home

The big news this month is Sirens at Home! We may not be able to convene in Denver, but we can come together in virtual space. From October 22nd to 25th, we have a schedule of events designed to show off the best of what Sirens is: a warm, supportive community celebrating fantasy fiction and those who love it. During the weekend, we’ll be sharing essays, hosting panels full of brilliant minds, giving book recommendations, and gathering in groups both large and small, both general and specific, for discussion and merriment!

If you haven’t attended Sirens before, or if you’re trying to convince a friend or colleague to join us, this is a fabulous opportunity to get a taster of what Sirens is all about. The weekend is a veritable sampler of what you’d get at a full in-person conference – and it’s totally free. That’s right! Anyone can attend with an absolutely no-charge registration.

How should you do that? Well, all you need to do is register, and we’ll send you all the info you need to join the online events.

The Sirens staff is so excited about the online programming we’re putting together, and we hope we’ll see many friends, old and new, on our screens in October!

Sirens Chats

Sirens at Home isn’t your only chance to see your fellow Sirens! We’re also holding more Zoom chats in October and November. These video meet-ups have been very chill and sociable, a chance to blow off a little steam, connect with far-flung friends, and trade recommendations on books, binge-watching, recipes, child-and-pet-wrangling, and more.

Here are the dates and times for the next two Zoom chats. If you’re not yet on the list to receive reminders, email help at sirensconference.org, and you won’t miss a thing.

  • Saturday, October 3, at 12 p.m. PDT/3 p.m. EDT
  • Monday, November 16 at 5 p.m. PST/8 p.m. EST

We also have a text-only chat option, ideal for the camera-shy or just camera-exhausted! On Thursday, October 8, 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT, we’ll have a spooky-themed Twitter chat! Simply follow #SirensChat and answer questions with the hashtag to join in!

Books

It’s starting to be cozy-up reading season, isn’t it? Maybe you get to curl up on a porch with a blankie, breathing in the crisp autumn air and letting a pleasant chill settle over you as you leaf through the pages of a new adventure – or maybe you’re huddled inside, seeking refuge from tumultuous weather. Whatever your reading situation is, we hope we can bring you some delights and give you something to chat about with your fellow Sirens.

We’re even doing Books and Breakfast for Sirens at Home! Check out the seven 2020 releases being featured, and if you’d like to take part on Friday, October 23rd, pick one to read, make sure you’re registered for SAH, and join the discussion.

Book Recommendations and Reviews:

  • Amy Tenbrink calls Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia “a must-read for anyone interested in both female horror and its evolution.” Read the full review.
  • Tina LeCount Myers gives us a reading list featuring stubborn, willful, goal-oriented heroines.
  • September gave us a whole slate of fantastic new releases by women and non-binary authors! Check out our round-up if you need some inspiration.

Our staff members are full of excitement for some of October’s new releases. Here’s what we can’t wait to get our hands on:

Erynn’s Pick: Burning Roses by S.L. Huang

Burning Roses

Enjoy a dark adventurous escape into the fairy tale world of Rosa, aka Red Riding Hood, a recovering assassin, and Hou Yi the Archer from Chinese mythology. These once-gloried heroines are queer, middle-aged, tired, and full of angst over the past. Instead of relaxing away their retirement, they must team up against deadly sunbirds, sent by Hou Yi’s former apprentice, ravaging destruction through the countryside.

In the midst of chaos, Rosa reminisces guilt over her associations with scam artist Goldie (of three bears fame) and marriage to Mei, a foreign beauty who was imprisoned by a prince-turned-beast. Meanwhile, Hou Yi, finds opportunity to make amends to her family following her ruthless chase of immortality. Burning Roses is a quick read with a big feel, written by MIT mathematician and professional weapons expert/stuntwoman, S.L. Huang.

Cass’s Pick: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

The Once and Future Witches

There’s no such thing as witches – but maybe there could be. When the Eastwood sisters join the suffragist movement in New Salem, they begin a process of melding magic into their political efforts. Invoking ancient rites and the strength of their words, they seek to open new avenues to power for women. Their actions might change the course of history, if they can evade the dark forces lining up against them.

Having read The Ten Thousand Doors of January this past winter and absolutely eaten it up with a spoon, I’m so excited to read Harrow’s next effort. Her prose is gorgeously spell-binding, and the witchy theme should make this a perfect October read.

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).

 

Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Do It!

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

I have a penchant for willful, stubborn, go-against-the-grain heroines. Especially those with a goal or a vision. I enjoy reading these characters because they act as a reminder to me about what is possible when one stops being nice and says NO to others and YES to self. Seen as selfish or unreasonable by those around them, these heroines often struggle, not only against the outside world but also their intimate circle of family and friends. These heroines rarely have it easy: They suffer the consequences of their actions and convictions. But ultimately, they have a richer life for saying, “Don’t tell me I can’t do it!”

If you share my affinity for these kinds of heroines, you might like to read:

 

A Natural History of Dragons
1. A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

“Don’t tell me I can’t go on a scientific expedition to study dragons!”

In this Victorian-esque fantasy, main character Isabella Trent chafes under what is expected of a proper lady. While she agrees to marry, she does so for the man’s library and not his wealth. And when she grows tired of the social expectations of a wife, she convinces her husband that an expedition to find rock-wyrms (dragons) is just the ticket. Although Isabella tries to balance social norms with her own desires, it is her calling as a dragon naturalist that takes precedence. Her recounting of the expedition unfolds much like the diaries of intrepid British male explorers of the 19th nineteenth century. This is a book for readers who enjoy maps, illustrations, and crisp writing with their cup of tea.

Gods of Jade and Shadow
2. Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

“Don’t tell me I can’t have a life of my own!”

The roaring twenties in Mexico are alive with jazz and ancient gods in this book. Main character Casiopea Tun dreams of a life away from her small, dusty town in southern Mexico, where she is treated like a servant in her family. When she inadvertently frees the God of Death, she is drawn into his quest to regain his power. Acting as his ally, Casiopea risks her own death to get the life she has always dreamed of. This is a beautifully written book with tension at every turn. It is a story for readers who enjoy magical realism and a walk through the shadows of the underworld and perhaps a companion piece for those who have read Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova.

Binti
3. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

“Don’t tell me I can’t go to the best university in the galaxy!”

There is a world out there to explore, but while Binti’s people are focused on gaining knowledge, they do not leave Earth. However, main character Binti, who is mathematically gifted, has the chance to attend Oomza, a prestigious university on a distant planet. With her isolationist-family set against it, if Binti leaves, she risks hurting them. If Binti goes, she knows she will face deep prejudice. Although it is a novella, released in a series, this book has more world-building in 96 pages than most with 500 pages. A quick, engrossing read for those who enjoy Africanfuturism and the short stories of Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin. This book proves that small can be powerful.

The Guns Above
4. The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis

“Don’t tell me I can’t command a military airship!”

This steampunk novel comes with cannon-fire, dirigibles, and a snarky heroine. Meet Auxiliary Lieutenant Josette Dupre, who has good reason to have an acerbic outlook. While the Air Signal Corps of Garnia is co-ed, women are only allowed “auxiliary” roles. Josette, however, has her eye on command and nothing is going to stop her, not a dubious crew nor a dandy spy. Josette is tough, canny, and ready to trade barbs and pistol-fire—whatever it takes to win. I read and listened to this book in tandem. Both versions merit a “Huzzah.” Readers who enjoyed Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon will appreciate the military detail, this time with a woman at the helm and one who has a sense of humor.

Steeplejack
5. Steeplejack by A.J. Hartley

“Don’t tell me I can’t care for a baby and solve the theft of an artifact and the death of a young boy!”

In this post-colonial steampunk story, the scales are stacked against main character Anglet Sutonga. She’s an immigrant, she’s a female steeplejack, and she’s the third daughter—a curse to her family. When she finds her apprentice dead on the day an artifact disappears, she is not only convinced they are linked, she is determined to find out the truth. Caught between the machinations of apartheid leaders and the care for her sister’s baby, Anglet must convince others what she knows in her heart. She can do it. Readers of Nisi Shawl’s Everfair and Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation will find a heroine who does not take no for an answer


Tina LeCount MyersTina LeCount Myers is a writer, artist, independent historian, and surfer. Born in Mexico to expat-bohemian parents, she grew up on Southern California tennis courts with a prophecy hanging over her head: Her parents hoped she’d one day be an author. Tina lives in San Francisco with her adventurer husband and two loud Siamese cats. The Song of All is the first book of her epic fantasy trilogy, The Legacy of the Heavens. You can follow Tina on Twitter @tlecountmysters and learn more about her work on her website.

 

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 12, Issue 8: August 2020

This month:

This summer has been A Lot, hasn’t it? So many of us are dealing with so many different kinds of trauma. Isolation and health, racial justice and social reform, political and personal and professional pressures mounting and mounting and never seeming to crest.

We know it’s tough. We are so proud of our whole Sirens community, because we know how hard you work and how much you care. We hope that we can provide a forum to further all these conversations, inspire you to both thought and action, and also give you a respite when it’s time to step away, rest, and replenish yourself.

2020 Sirens at Home

While the “villains” year of Sirens may be postponed to 2021, we are busy planning for Sirens at Home, which will take place October 22-25, 2020. Even though we won’t be together, that doesn’t mean that we cannot gather and have some of those conversations that we would usually have at Sirens.

Keep an eye out for announcements in September, but we’re planning panels, discussion groups, safer spaces, Books and Breakfast, book recommendations, and even an at-home version of our Sirens Ball. So read those books and pull together those costumes because we’ll have more information for you soon.

2021 Sirens Registrations

If Sirens at Home is making you ready for 2021 when we all hope to be together again, you can register now. And if you register for 2021 by September 1, 2020, we’ll send you a Sirens at Home care package this October—including a limited edition T-shirt!

Sirens Essays

Our summer essay series concluded this month! In “Women of Feral Souls,” author Artemis Grey takes us on a rich journey from isolation to community, exploring the ways in which souls reach out to one another: “Living deeply in oneself, as I and many other feral souls do, gives you nearly impenetrable armor, but that armor creates an island: atolls of emotional vacancy crowned with wary cliffs interrupted only by deeply embedded linns wrought of warning and disinclination, against which churn and froth the waters of humanity.”

Interviews

In August, we continued introducing you to some of the amazing members of the Sirens community! This month’s interviews feature academics, publishing professionals, and a whole lot of love for fantasy fiction.

  • Scholar Adriana De Persia Colón tells us about her academic work on Boricua fiction and ethnoracial identity. “I also love that SFF can tackle complex issues such as imperialism and colonialism, for example, while having action-packed plots and adventures.”
  • Rine Karr, reader, writer, copyeditor, and tea-lover, tells us what she loves about fantasy fiction and how it relates to her background in anthropology. “There have been many times when I’ve found solace and strength in the actions of a character in a fantasy story.”
  • Editor Diana Pho takes us inside her process for preparing a book for publication: “Once I get my mind wrapped around a story, I get so involved in the building blocks of the narrative—re-tooling a line edit, constructing an editorial letter, or sorting out a reverse outline—that it is its own creative high.” She also tells us about her work as a playwright, ongoing conversations about diversity in publishing, and highlights of her con-going life.
  • Isabel Schechter, builder of speculative communities and author of essays on race and representation in science fiction and fantasy, discusses fandom spaces in-person and online, now and in the future, and shares some of her favorite con experiences from Sirens and elsewhere. “I have been able to make connections at every convention I’ve attended. I remember being on a panel about found family and I started bawling and soon so was everyone else in the room.”

Sirens Chats

When did you last get to squee about an amazing read to another human, face-to-face? It may be virtual, but we invite you to join us online to share what you’re reading, what you’re loving, what you’re doing. Here are the dates and times for the next four Zoom chats. If you’re not yet on the list to receive reminders, email help at sirensconference.org, and you won’t miss a thing.

  • Tuesday, September 1 at 5 p.m. PDT/8 p.m. EDT
  • Thursday, September 17 at 6 p.m. PDT/9 p.m. EDT
  • Saturday, October 3 at 12 p.m. PDT/3 p.m. EDT
  • Monday, November 16 at 5 p.m. PST/8 p.m. EST

We also have a text-only chat option, ideal for the camera-shy or just camera-exhausted! On Thursday, September 10, 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT, we’ll have September’s Get-To-Know-You Twitter chat! Simply follow #SirensChat and answer questions with the hashtag to join in!

2020 Reading Challenge

We hope that you are hard at work on the 2020 Reading Challenge because the deadline for completion is still October 1, 2020. (Surely you did not expect that Sirens would give you two years to read 25 books!) We’ll be rolling out our 2021 Reading Challenge during Sirens at Home later in October. So get those books read for this year—and clear your reading schedule for 2021!

Books

Reading is at the core of all we do at Sirens, and August has been another fascinating month for fantasy fiction. Here are some of the books that have been on our brains:

Book Recommendations and Reviews:

Our staff loves to share their excitement and reading recommendations with you, too! Here are a couple of August’s new releases that have brought delight:

Erynn’s Pick: Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar

Star Daughter

Normally wearing a mask of quiet mediocrity, seventeen-year-old Sheetal Mistry is learning to shine under extreme family pressure from both her paternal extended desi family’s push for perfection and the manipulative politics of her star mother’s celestial court relatives.

When high emotions incite her star fire into a chaotic flare, critically injuring her mortal father, she must seek out her estranged mother and allow herself to become a political pawn, performing as a human champion for the stars in order to save his life.

Thakrar’s coming of age story is a sparkling spin of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust in a world inspired from Hindu mythology. Beautifully descriptive and full of family, friends, traditions and feelings sometimes so supernal they can only be expressed in music, Star Daughter will illuminate her space on your bookshelf.

Cass’s Pick: Bookish and the Beast by Ashley Poston

Bookish and the Beast

I have loved the whole Once Upon a Con series, and the third installment is as delightful and charming as Geekerella and The Princess and the Fangirl were. Bookish and the Beast picks up the story of antagonist Vance Reigns, bad-boy actor used to a life of privilege and fulfilling the “hot villain” trope in the Starfield universe (the Star Trek analog which this series uses as the basis for its in-world fandom). When tabloid scandal forces him to hide out in a small rural town, he encounters Rosie Thorne, a girl feeling trapped by her life, struggling to decide both who she wants to be and how to become that person.

And, of course, they hate each other at first—except it turns out that they’ve met before, at the ExcelsiCon masquerade the year before, when they had started to fall for each other. So much of this story is about taking down those masks and barriers. Vance, as with all Beasts, has a lot of work to do! But he and Rosie both grow and learn that there might be more strength in trusting each other than in keeping protective walls around their hearts. The book also features some great rep: Both main characters are bisexual! One of the secondary characters is nonbinary, we see two gay men as parents, and queer characters from previous books make cameo appearances as well.

I adore that these books are YA romances for geeks. Reading them as an adult has both made me affectionately think of my own youthful romances and yearn for the day when we can go to conventions again, because surely I’m not too old for my own magical moment, right?

 


Forward into fall!

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).

 

Books and Breakfast: Girls Made of Snow and Glass, Slice of Cherry, and Wilder Girls

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

For our 2021 conference, as we examine gender and villainy, and relatedly, redemption—fraught topics full of artificial constraints and defied stereotypes—our Books and Breakfast program features titles meant to broaden that examination. We’ve chosen eight works, full of questions, but few answers; dastardly villainy, and occasional redemption; and a number of female and nonbinary villains who may, despite or because of their villainy, be someone worth celebrating.

Earlier this summer, we highlighted our graphic selections: Monstress: Awakening and Nimona; and our adult selections: A Feast of Sorrows, Queen of the Conquered, and The Mere Wife. Today, we’re showcasing our three young adult selections: Girls Made of Snow and Glass, Slice of Cherry, and Wilder Girls. We hope these features will help you make your choice and tackle your reading before Sirens next year.

 
2021 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter
Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust
Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley
Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust

Girls Made of Snow and Glass

In this take on “Snow White,” sixteen-year-old Mina, missing a heart, escapes one abusive household for another—where she can capture the love of the king for herself, even his power, provided she is ready, so young, to become a stepmother. She’s to be mother to Lynet, who has been conjured to life in her mother’s image from a snowfall. And as in “Snow White,” the two are set at odds. Mina has been loved too little, and wants the crown any way she can have it. Lynet, conversely, has no desire to be queen, and would be happy enough to spend her days with her girlfriend and to be looked on as something besides the embodiment of her mother.

The evil stepmother is a classic villain: cold, beautiful (but in a scary way), a usurper. In Bashardoust’s version, the stepmother must take that role, whether she wants to or not, and her relationship with Lynet, close in age, is complex and painful. It’s bittersweet that the two have been positioned as enemies, and the wedge between them makes the story compelling. Rarely do we see mother-daughter relationships in stories about young adults; even more rarely do we see them in fantasy books for young adults. Mina and Lynet’s intertwined stories provide a rich exploration of relationships between women—with all the twisty, messy, emotional resonance that non-romantic relationships have in real life, and don’t always get their due on the page.

Girls Made of Snow and Glass is full of icy atmosphere and fairytale references, but at its heart—no pun intended—it’s a story about love. What we do to receive love. How we choose whom to hate, and whom to mark as villain. How villains can be created by society. And it’s also about mothers and daughters, and how we make families. How we tell stories, and how the telling makes heroines and villains. And how, in the end, we can choose the stories told for us or choose to make our own.

Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves

Slice of Cherry

Kit and Fancy Cordelle are sisters, daughters of the infamous Bonesaw Killer, a serial killer who ravaged Portero, Texas, before being caught and jailed. But no matter how strange Portero is—if you’ve read Reeves’s Bleeding Violet, surely you remember how strange Portero is—no matter how much Bonesaw Killer fan mail still arrives at the house, and no matter that neither Kit nor Fancy had anything to do with their father’s murders, Kit and Fancy are ostracized. Surely the apple couldn’t have fallen too far from the tree—a convenient statement when one seeks to oppress Black girls. But never mind that: Kit and Fancy will tell you that they don’t mind. They’re the best of friends (as Fancy says, practically the same person).

And despite their previous innocence, they are perhaps not so different from their father after all—or perhaps assumptions are a powerful catalyst: Kit and Fancy both harbor a desire to harm, to carve people up and stitch them back together, to pull them apart until they crack, to kill. Unlike their famous father, though, Kit and Fancy will be the first people to tell you that they harm only those who truly deserve it, those who touch or invade or harm first. They’ll also tell you that they’re smarter than their father: They use a mysterious doorway to another world to cover their tracks. And everything would be fine, perhaps—Portero surely won’t look too hard for a few missing predators—except that, despite Fancy’s assertion, Kit and Fancy aren’t the same person at all. Kit wants to grow and change, make friends, and have a boyfriend, while Fancy wants to stay in her tiny, controlled world, happily basking in the gore that she and her sister share.

Slice of Cherry is, in every way that matters, a Black feminist revenge story. In Kit and Fancy’s vigilantism, Reeves claims violence for Black girls harmed by the world. Kit and Fancy are broken by their father’s crimes, their mother’s absence, the town’s ostracization, and seemingly everyone’s assumptions. But that brokenness creates neither victims nor, despite the carnage, villains. Kit and Fancy take their power, claim their power, every time they cut an attempted rapist, every time they stab an intruder. Don’t shy away from the danger and violence of Portero; Reeves’s story of Black girls who are cast as villains but who will not be victims is one for our world, too.

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Wilder Girls

As you begin Wilder Girls, the students and instructors at Raxter School for Girls in rural Maine have been quarantined for 18 months. That’s when the Tox began ripping through the country, causing grotesque mutations in people, fauna, and flora alike: second spines, new organs, scales, eventually death. Outbreaks are individual and unpredictable, but at this point, the girls are just holding on, relying on supplies from the outside world, and hoping for a vaccine.

Hetty, one of the students, is unexpectedly chosen for Boat Shift, one of the few jobs that can get a girl off school grounds, in this case to retrieve those all-important supplies. With this new responsibility comes new knowledge, and Hetty sees the transformations and destruction around her in a new, even more desperate light. And that desperation pervades Wilder Girls, which is built on the dawning horror that things can always, and so often do, get worse. Without giving too much away, after 18 months of increasing desolation, Hetty finds a villain—and it’s worse than she could have imagined.

The foundation of Wilder Girls is its (almost) all-female cast—and the possibilities born of crafting a book around only female characters. The mean-girls trope you often see in YA is absent—jettisoned along with boys and the omnipresent white heteropatriarchy—and instead Power creates girls that are just girls: sometimes smart, sometimes ambitious, sometimes mean. Sometimes they get along and sometimes they don’t. Some are heroes and some are villains and some are neither. This isn’t some quarantine-created feminine utopia, but rather a cast of real girls who are real people in an impossible situation. You might call it a feminist utopia. And that is magnificent.

A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and Dissonant Chords

Each month, Sirens co-chair Amy Tenbrink reviews new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors—and occasionally invites other members of the Sirens community to do so. You can find all of these reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We hope you’ll read along and discuss!

This month, Hallie Tibbetts reviews Suzanne Collins’s A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes!

In 2008, at a book fair, I got an advance copy of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and then stayed up all night in what I remember as the dirtiest hotel room in all of Los Angeles reading it. Once, twice, maybe three times a year I run across a book that completely transports me and, when I’m finished, leaves me with the disorientation of falling out of the story’s world and back into my own. The Hunger Games was one of those reads. I’ll spare you the details of the room, but recall for you how it felt to be completely immersed in the story of a girl whose simple desire to save her sister became an uneasy attempt to save her world. Of a girl who wanted no part of heroism, but chose a path of survival, rebellion, and protection of others over and over.

When a prequel for the series was announced, it was rumored that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes would be Mags’s story. I was on board for finding out how Katniss’s octogenarian ally in the 75th Hunger Games achieved victory in the 11th, and then went on to be a mentor who volunteered in the place of others. But it was not to be: Songbirds and Snakes is instead set during the 10th Hunger Games, and about Coriolanus Snow, the president and main villain of the original trilogy.

I lost interest completely.

As it happens, though, I was given a copy of Songbirds and Snakes this summer. I work in publishing, and am always buried under my to-read pile; it’s sometimes enough to know the gist of a juggernaut for comparison titles and cocktail parties, so I still didn’t plan to read this book. Curiosity eventually won out. Consternation kept me reading.

Coriolanus Snow, Coryo to his closest friends, equivalent to a high school senior, lives with his cousin and grandmother in a once-glamorous penthouse apartment. His parents—a general and a woman described as vapid—are dead. His cousin picks up a little tailoring and fashion design work; his grandmother has embraced the Capitol’s propaganda. Soon, an increase in taxes will force them out of their home, which is a great embarrassment to Coriolanus. He struggles, at times, with memories of the war. The cannibalism. The bombings. The way his family fell from being wealthy to just hanging on (a fact that he hides through indelible charm, but he won’t be able to keep up the charade for much longer).

From the beginning, there are hints of Coriolanus’s affluenza, and of his seeming inability to truly see any other human as his equal. At first, his detachment can be excused by his care for his remaining family and the psychological consequences of the atrocities he witnessed. Still, early on, he describes his cousin as the sort of girl who “invites abuse.” For a moment, I was breathless, seeing that so blatantly stated. Why would an author whose work I respect allow this character to promulgate something so untrue? It takes a while for Coriolanus’s character to become clear, and for it to become clear that Collins intended this callousness as a defining trait. Coriolanus believes his cousin “invites abuse” because he understands abuse. Other people are not individuals. Their lives are not precious. Here is a boy who would never, ever volunteer as tribute.

This is where my readerly consternation comes in.

We already know that Coriolanus is a villain; we have the rest of the story, and we know there is no possibility of redemption. I question, very much, whether we need more stories of how young white men become villains. You can try to say that we have to unravel the reasons, that we have to understand the downward spiral so we can prevent it. You can say that there are infinite tales in this trope alone. But I’m pretty sure I’ve heard them all.

And yet, I found myself wishing to see Coriolanus at an earlier point in his story because I wanted to see what makes him choose, of all possible paths, the ones that lead him to his eventual end. Maybe I wanted to feel how his love for his family prompts his decisions—but then again, I don’t want any more stories of women dying to give a man purpose, or even portrayed as incapable of playing some part in their own rescue. Collins avoids this to an extent; cousin Tigris is hustling to start her career, and it’s hard to fault the grandmother for clinging to the post-war regime for her survival when a broken elevator means she can hardly leave her crumbling building. It’s a long way, though, from scrambling for a leg up to becoming the leader of a country that sacrifices children for entertainment—the circus for Panem—and then I think: I don’t need any more stories that show a villain’s fraudulently reasoned choice to be evil. I can turn on the news and be inundated with that right now. But we’re not meant to have a reader-character connection, at least not at the beginning. Where The Hunger Games uses a compelling first-person narrative, The Ballad of Snakes and Songbirds follows Coriolanus in a surprisingly cold third. Collins keeps readers at a stiff arm’s length, and—perhaps too kindly—gives us insight into his mindset, but doesn’t let us get too close.

Something Suzanne Collins does very well is incorporate the dark side of media into her stories while asking readers to critique their own engagement as consumers. (I speak about the books, and not about such things as movie tie-in makeup product campaigns where one can purchase a palette of Capitol-inspired eye shadow without ever considering the absurdity of the optics.) During the 10th Hunger Games recounted in Songbirds and Snakes, the games have been flagging. Coriolanus and his graduating classmates are selected to act as the first ever mentors, and the one who mentors the winner will receive a full ride to university, something Coriolanus desperately wants to leverage for salary and security as well as to cover up his family’s depleted finances. The mentors get a taste of fame when they’re interviewed to break up the coverage of the less-technological (almost analog) competition of the time. The longer a tribute stays in the games, the longer a mentor stays on TV. Even a bad death is good publicity when you understand the power of the screen.

The students are also tasked with coming up with ways to add excitement to the games. Some of the excitement invents itself: Rebels bomb the arena, creating hiding spots that allow the tributes to survive longer than the previous bare-bones venue allowed. But the government solicits the younger generation for new audience engagement schemes; their ideas spin the games toward the future high-tech nightmare. Coriolanus offhandedly suggests betting on the tributes, and this becomes a new initiative that brings in money for the government while ensuring the odds won’t be in any tribute’s favor.

The tributes, too, must work the public’s magnanimity. Lucy Gray, the underdog tribute from District 12 who Coriolanus suspects is assigned to him so that he will lose the games, is a singer, an entertainer—a master storyteller—who is so charismatic, one wonders why Coriolanus of the future doesn’t immediately suspect Katniss Everdeen of manipulation. Of course, for Coriolanus, no one else could be as clever as he. He cannot see that he is a teenager, lacking a mentor, raised in a world with little compassion, blithely throwing out ideas for the games with no regard for humanity. There are no adults in his life who ask him to analyze the results of his ideas for inherent harm, only those who encourage stripping others of their autonomy.

All of Coriolanus’s machinations would be stifling to read about if not for a secondary character that I more than once wished were the protagonist instead. Sejanus Plinth moved to the Capitol from District 2 as a child after his father became wealthy. Though Coriolanus sees the Plinths as hopelessly backward and sneers at their new money, he secretly wants their comfort for himself. Sejanus is, in Coriolanus’s mind, naïve to care about class differences and rebellions when fitting in is the path to safety and power. I’d also have enjoyed the story of a small group that included Sejanus and Coriolanus working through the difference between what they’ve been told to believe in the Capitol and the truth of their world, because realization and awakenings are central to young adult literature and also themes that follow people throughout their lives. Because, again, as we all know, Coriolanus is choosing villainy, and Sejanus is choosing something else.

And, again, it’s not that we can’t or shouldn’t read about villainy, or tragedy—and it is a tragedy when any one of us refuses responsibility to care for others—but why this?

I’m a fast reader, but it took me two months to read all of Songbirds and Snakes; I stalled out just past the halfway point in frustration (and, admittedly, due to life events, social media overload, too much bad TV, work deadlines, a surfeit of email, overdue personal projects, and other distractions). In the meantime, I zipped through a copy of Goldilocks by Laura Lam, which engages with some of the questions I’d been turning over in my mind while trying to figure out the why of this prequel, and that prompted me to finish my read and review project. Surely, there had to be more to Songbirds and Snakes.

I picked the book back up as the 10th games come to a close and Lucy Gray is named victor. Coriolanus should be fine—he’s passed himself off as a clever and kind soul. His education will be paid for. The girl he grew to love over the course of the games (oh, you expected that, didn’t you?) lives. Then, a moment when he gamed the games comes to haunt him. Not all is lost, as he becomes a Peacekeeper to avoid punishment, and asks to be assigned to District 12. It’s not the life he wanted, but perhaps he can make something of it with his love nearby. The reality of life in the districts and the monotony of the military seems at times a soporific routine and at others brings the despair of a bleak, dull, and impoverished future—and then Sejanus reappears. Sejanus, instead of being a model for Coriolanus, is an unwitting catalyst for Coriolanus’s beliefs. Coriolanus doubles down: “The Hunger Games are a reminder of what monsters we are and how we need the Capitol to keep us from chaos.” (343)

As Peacekeeper duties begin, and Coriolanus witnesses his first death at the hanging tree of song in The Hunger Games, he wonders how the rebellion, distant then and underpowered now, survived on anger instead of might. He knows that there used to be a District 13 and it is gone, so he believes that rebellions can be truly stamped out if there is a big enough show of power. The toxicity in him grows. He patrols, gun in hand. In District 12, poverty is everywhere, and he finds it reasonable to blame the poor for their plight. He sees why the Capitol should send money for property over people. It’s Sejanus who questions the Peacekeepers, and as before, Sejanus’s compassion perversely causes Coriolanus to dig in his heels, deny his own misgivings, and further embrace authoritarianism.

In spare hours, Coriolanus spends time with Lucy Gray’s (found) family, the Coveys, a tight-knit group of performers that get by, in their way, with strength and grace. Their story incorporates both old and invented Appalachian music, a real hidden gem for series readers, as we find out how some of Katniss’s songs came to be. Music nerds might know that Appalachian music has many influences, and that late nineteenth and early twentieth century historians avidly traced back snippets of song to sources overseas. Even when the memory of origins was lost, the rhythms and melodies and lyrics remained. In Songbirds and Snakes, the inclusion of songs nods to the other books in the series, set in the future, while reminding us how easily the past is wiped away.

History lost—and suppressed—is doomed to be repeated, and it’s bittersweet to see the cycle of loss and erasure in this plotline.

But back to the Coveys. Even surrounded by a working collaborative effort, Coriolanus can’t comprehend how humans might be kind to one another without force; he thinks that only authority can prevent a descent into disorder. Perhaps that’s the tragedy—the distrust, the lack of empathy, the anger at losing control over others. Perhaps you know a tragedy yourself.

I won’t spoil the ending, other than to say that Coriolanus takes brave actions for himself that also betray the people he claims to care about. I sometimes say that the challenge of being a human is pretending you aren’t an animal. It’s Lucy Gray who sums up for me how one can fail this choice: “You know when you’ve stepped across the line into evil, and it’s your life’s challenge to try and stay on the right side of that line.” (493) The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is Suzanne Collins’s exploration of what happens when one doesn’t care about the right side of the line, especially when good is in danger of being usurped by evil.

It’s in the last pages that I finally find the gut punch, leaving me dazed. Coriolanus is smart. Arrogant. He believes himself exceptional. As a child, I was all of these things; you can draw some weird conclusions from praise and success stories. While I didn’t grow up to be the tyrannical leader of a country that sacrifices children, there is a frightened part of me that recognizes the desire to be in control, to be perfect, to save myself first. I didn’t grow up to be an abjectly horrible person, so what nudged me, over the years, to be more open minded, to be kinder, to lick my wounds and learn from mistakes and try to do better next time?

I don’t have to look far to see people operating with an open lack of empathy and every bad trait I could have exemplified. Every terrible, miserable, alternate-reality version of me.

If someone had known how to tap into my deepest, unspoken fears and offered me everything I wanted, would I have taken their hand?

There it is. Suzanne’s Collins knack for drawing us into the actions of others, and reminding us that the filter of entertainment is no excuse. We must constantly, consistently ask if we are complicit. And we must keep choosing to be on the right side of the line.

G – Bb – A – D.


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. On occasion, she tweets: @hallietibbetts

Sirens Essay: Women of Feral Souls

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.

Sirens also offers an online 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 Artemis Grey!

Women of Feral Souls
by Artemis Grey

There’s something a little different about the feral ones, and it always comes out eventually. Our strangeness might be worn like armor, an overt dare to all around us, or it might be sheltered deep within, a coveted sanctum, only truly understood by those who hold it. Some of us embrace the variance from our first understanding of it, while others war against it, ferociously struggle to destroy it, despite its perdurability. But however it exists, there’s something a little different about the feral ones, and it always comes out eventually.

We circle things metaphorically and sometimes physically. Ideas, causes, theories, relationships. Even things we love with absolute adoration from the moment we’re first exposed to them. Often, we circle those things even more warily than the things we inherently dislike, because it’s not easy to be trapped by something you don’t care about, not the way it is to be captured and bound by something you love. When you give of yourself in such ways, you also give away a margin of power over yourself. For most people, this is an unconscious act, the bindings associated with it unnoticeable and negligible. But for the feral souls, each and every thread of attachment is a brand across our awareness, some of them wonderful and amazing, others damaging and prohibitive. The delineation between those two extremes are what we endeavor to gauge when we assess the world around us.

When I was asked if I would be interested in writing an essay for Sirens, I leapt at the chance. And then proceeded to begin circling the task, unsure of what to do next. An essay is a very different creature than a novel, a short story, or even an article. It requires the writer to document their own impressions, opinions, experiences, to convey their own ideas and emotional responses to the subject addressed. Many seem to find essays liberating, a way of making their inner voices heard in an outward fashion. It’s an opportunity for them to expound upon something they’ve experienced and to convey that experience outside of themselves.

But I have no inner voice, no inner dialogue, no spoken words inside my mind at all. I inhabit a rich, endless, and ever-changing world of images and diegeses. However, all of it exists in utter silence. I do not hear music, or spoken words, I possess no internal dialogue of my thoughts. Viable plans play out in my mind’s eye, moving scenes I’m able to observe from any angle, and follow through to either fruition or ruin, scenarios that I can alter and replay, or rebuild entirely. But I don’t discuss options with myself, I don’t internally talk through possibilities, and even when I read something written, I do not hear those words inside my head. It’s as if, between the moment of visual perception by my eyes, and the reception of recognition by my brain, the written text dissolves into imagery and emotion. I feel words, I witness them, but I don’t hear how they sound or flow.

These peculiarities make considering what to write an essay about, how to discuss it, and the actual writing of it, rather difficult. I’d been thrilled to be offered the chance to write an essay for Sirens, but successfully creating one that did justice to the conference and the community— the people who created it, and have long upheld it, championed it, and attended it—was, and remains, something I’m not sure I could manage, or indeed have managed.

Living deeply in oneself, as I and many other feral souls do, gives you nearly impenetrable armor, but that armor creates an island: atolls of emotional vacancy crowned with wary cliffs interrupted only by deeply embedded linns wrought of warning and disinclination, against which churn and froth the waters of humanity.

We remain connected to everything, yet apart from it, and to engage with the world beyond ourselves is to descend that allegorical, yet not entirely figurative, terrain so that we might slip into the waves and currents from which we’ve been so long secluded. Just as one can be pummeled, and injured, or even killed by the unforgiving swells of the ocean—sometimes against the very rocks and reefs they’ve only just left the safety of—so too might the introverted and feral suffer for their efforts in venturing into humanity. Thus we remain circumspect when it comes to attempting such journeys and the wilder of us might never entirely descend from our protected skerries to mingle with the human seas around them.

I had never ventured more than halfway down the slopes of my own wild isle before I chose to cliff dive into the ocean current of the Sirens conference. So forbidding and treacherously steep are the borders of my solitude and introversion that there were no paths, even narrow ones, that I could climb down. There was only the impulse to swim, and the determination to reach that tantalizing current of others who felt safe, somehow. I submerged into Sirens not knowing what would happen, but the outcome was both unexpected and wondrous. I surfaced again surrounded by entities who were like me, and yet completely different from me, who embraced me, yet never tried to restrain me, never tried to follow me when, overwhelmed by their presence, I swam back to the safety of my isle.

Again, and again, I left the shelter of stony coves to swim in this current of souls belonging to writers and readers, artists and introverts, then retreated to consider them from afar, unsure, even as I felt drawn to rejoin them. They gently held whatever pieces of me I awkwardly and hesitantly offered to them, but they never clutched them, never snatched at them, and never clung to them when I stole them away again as my feral wildness drove me back to a safer distance from which I could watch in solitude.

As literal ocean currents do, the swirling eddies of Sirens soon shifted away from my metaphorical island, splintering into multiple tendrils of current, each a person with their own primary course, weaving through the rest of the human oceans. Its departure left me exhausted, my tolerance for sharing myself with others entirely spent, and I withdrew into myself satiated and inspired, and wilder than ever, even more powerful in my feral aspects. I had never been lonely, and I still was not, but I was empowered by engaging with like energies and spirits on a physical plane in a way I had only rarely experienced with humans before.

Solitude and isolation are constructs, not realities.

The energies of our souls and minds are connected to the energies of all other natural entities everywhere, every time and on every plane. We are never alone, and never truly disconnected, despite that some—increasingly more, it seems in these times—suffer from a keen and devastating loneliness, and subsequently in many cases, depression and melancholy born of those senses. Through no fault of their own, these souls are not able to perceive the connections their own energy shares with all the other energies. That they cannot feel this bond is an inexplicable unfairness, and the emotional turmoil it causes them is as real and tangible as the connection they’ve been precluded from experiencing.

Then there are those devoid of any perception of kinship in the innate bonds they share with all the natural things around them. Rather than embracing the world around them as an extension of themselves, they seek only to profit from it. They sense nothing beyond their own needs, their own wants, and their own energy. For them, all the energies of existence flow around their own, and serve only to feed and buoy theirs. With a wanton disregard, they draw in the energies of those around them like a black hole devouring light, turning it to their own ends, exploiting it, and leaving behind the offal of other lives, from the smallest, unnoticed lifeforms, to human brethren. All abuses can be, in their own minds, justified by their needs and wants.

Such entities are consumed by meeting the expectations and predesigned aspirations of avarice-driven socioeconomic structures; they are garroted by the associated perimeters of that socioeconomic plane, their beings restricted until any residual empathy they might have felt for the energies beyond their own has been destroyed. This unbearable constraint is what the feral ones rail against, what we scorn, even as we often repeatedly try to breach it in our hope to free those trapped within. We prowl the precipice of this domestication, simultaneously loathing any connection to it, while using the same to maintain our own freedoms, and help others escape, temporarily or permanently, through our existence and our creations, be that writing, or artwork, or songs, or other skill.

The feral ones will never successfully be rendered docile, never be tidily packed away into pleasantly spaced boxes of preformed notions. Even those of us who successfully lock away their divergency behind a permanent aspect of mediocre platitude in daily existence will always carry the buried seed of wildness. They need only to give it room and it will flourish once more. And for many, the facade of uniformity with societal expectation isn’t a denial of their wilder nature, but merely a segregation of their facets, a way of simplifying themselves so as to more easily interact with average society. Like donning business attire, they’re able to slip into a domestic mindset and presentation, and embrace that part of themselves, then toss it off in favor of their feral selves once the workday is done. For others of us, there is little or no truly domestic segment to utilize, and we struggle to adopt one long enough to engage with the mainstream for any reason, work or otherwise.

Yet all of the feral ones share this innate feature, and even when we interact with the larger, obliviously conventional majority, we remain agrestal. And our souls reach out to each other, sometimes without our minds immediately understanding why, ever searching for like kind despite that we perversely enjoy our solitude. As lightning unerringly seeks opposing charges, so too, are we drawn to one another. Our wildness might manifest itself in a hundred thousand different ways, in forms that do not induce relationship, love, or even friendship, yet still it recognizes its own. We still understand we are alike, in that primeval way, and thus more kin than not. We all possess our own islands, as it were, our own preserves, where we are safe at least in some ways, from the bombardment of mainstream society with its rigid, invariable angles and lines.

And when women of feral souls come together, we create our own currents wending through the ocean of domesticated humanity.

We might be forced to submerge, on occasion, but beneath the blandly docile waves, we grow only stronger, a riptide gathering its own as it goes; a danger to those unlike us, and a respite for those who are. This fearsome wildness has seen us hunted, persecuted, and even massacred throughout history, in attempts to domesticate the very oceans of humanity the world over, yet we flourish again and again. Our tides and currents might be interrupted, but they can never end entirely. Members may only leave their isles for a short time, but their joining with others provides strength that continues on, long after they’ve retreated again— and that strength and protection, in turn, offers a buoyancy and shelter to the younger of our ilk as they explore our currents for, perhaps, the first time. The residuals of our own souls might well be the incentive that calls them to leap from their own metaphorical cliffs of solitude, to mingle and learn, and find a home and hope beyond their own spaces.

Such is the nature of what I found when I dove into the currents of the Sirens conference when it first passed my indrawn bastion so many years ago. And so will I always merrily fling myself into the rushing flow of my feral-souled Siren Sisters, whenever they pass me by in their endless trek though the oceans of life. And when they move ever onward, again beyond my realm, a part of me will go with them, never lost, never separated, regardless of time and space, until we’re rejoined once more.


Artemis Grey

Artemis Grey was raised on fairy tales and the folklore of Appalachia, taught from an early age to embrace the unknown, and unexplained, rather than fearing it. She never stopped hopping into faerie rings and exploring possible portals to other places, and can often be found roaming the woods and wild. With a passion for capturing that elusive moment when it’s possible to choose between leaving the wonderment of childhood behind and carrying it with you throughout life, Artemis primarily writes books for young adults, with occasional jaunts into the more esoteric. Her debut YA, Catskin was published in 2016, and she is currently working on Pohickery Girl, which is set in the West Virginia mounts of her beloved Appalachias. She seeks to make her readers look at the world they’ve always seen, and see the world they’ve always envisioned.

Artemis’s author photo was taken by the late Sabrina Chin, co-chair of Sirens, 2013-2019, whom Artemis loved very much. Although unconventional in format, it remains Artemis’s favorite photo of herself, as it captures her in an utterly natural state, in one of her favorite places (by a warm stone hearth) and surrounded by her Sirens Sisters. In honor of Sabrina, Artemis uses this photo as her author photo whenever possible.

Casey Blair’s “Women Who Dream Big Dreams” Recommended Reading

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who write reviews and books lists of fantasy and related works by women or nonbinary authors. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review for publication, please email us! Today, we welcome a book list by Casey Blair.


Women in SFF Who Dream Big Dreams and Don’t Let Anyone Stop Them


Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

This is about a girl who has no reason to believe anything is possible but does anyway, and she sets off on a quest to find the answer to happiness. As one does.

A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

An untried but brilliant poet-diplomat thrust into the heart of a galactic empire, with Byzantine politics written by an academic Byzantinist? Yes, you can take my money.

Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword

Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien

This heroine is going to be the very best martial arts skater (yeah, you read that right) like no one ever was. Oh wait, she already is.

The Spirit Thief

The Legend of Eli Monpress series by Rachel Aaron

Pretty much every female character in these books, be she a sorceress, a scientist, a goddess-general or the demonically possessed, is completely uncontainable. Also no one has time for romance.

The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

No spoilers on this book’s heroines, but, uh, if you haven’t read this book yet I don’t know what to tell you other than you really, really should. It’s as stunning of an achievement as everyone says.

Sorcery of Thorns

Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson

This is a heroine who just flatly does not understand giving up—and certainly not when there are magic libraries involved.

An Unkindness of Magicians

An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard

Unraveling institutional oppression with epic tournament battles. That’s it, that’s the pitch.

The Beast Player

The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi

No one is going to stop this quiet heroine from completely changing how the world understands magical creatures.

Unnatural Magic

Unnatural Magic by C.M. Waggoner

Pro tip: Don’t try to keep a genius magic scholar heroine down.

The Candle and the Flame

The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

In a city that’s a dazzling blend of cultural experiences, this story has so many amazing women across walks of life—princess or businesswoman or unstoppable djinn.

Dragonsbane

Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly

This heroine is devoted to her magic work first and foremost—even if she’s not good enough, even if no one else cares, she doesn’t sacrifice what matters to her for family or love or anything. Her children and husband (that’s right, a heroine older than the age of 30! sorcery!) cope.

Spin the Dawn

Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

Gonna be a seamstress and make clothes out of literal magic, nbd.

The Summer Prince

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

In a futuristic post-apocalyptic Brazil, this heroine weaponizes the power and clarity of art for resistance, rebellion, and change.

The Merciful Crown

The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen

This is a heroine with a chip on her shoulder a mile wide who does not know the meaning of letting anything go and will call out and hold absolutely everyone accountable—herself most of all.

The Shadows Between Us

The Shadows Between Us by Tricia Levenseller

This heroine is just straight-up an unabashed villainess, and it is SO MUCH FUN.

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

Being a young dragon when everyone is stronger is hard. Instead, consider getting transformed into an even weaker human and determining to learn all the secrets of chocolate. That will definitely go well.

Empire of Sand

Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Outcast from everywhere and everyone, this is a heroine who makes her own place and changes the world to do it.

And that’s what I want to read more of.


Casey Blair

Casey Blair writes adventurous fantasy novels for all ages, including the novella Consider the Dust and her cozy fantasy serial Tea Princess Chronicles. After graduating from Vassar College, her own adventures have included teaching English in rural Japan, attending the Viable Paradise residential science fiction and fantasy writing workshop, and working as an indie bookseller. She now lives in the Pacific Northwest and can be found dancing spontaneously, exploring forests around the world, or trapped under a cat. For more information, visit her website or her Twitter.

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 12, Issue 7 (July 2020)

This month:

Wasn’t cabin fever supposed to be a winter malady? With pandemic protections and unpleasant weather combining forces to keep people from venturing outdoors, we know many in our Sirens community may be weary of pinging against familiar walls. We hope that we can give your mind a respite and a bit of escape through this month’s interviews, essays, and book recommendations!

2020 Postponement

We hope you’ve seen our email or website announcement about the postponement of Sirens to October 2021. While we will miss the Sirens community so very much, given the continued presence of COVID-19, we prioritized the health and well-being of our attendees, presenters, guests, staff, and everyone whom their lives touch.

If you had already registered for Sirens and/or been accepted for programming, please check your email for information about how to proceed.

We hope that everyone will stay safe and well, wear your masks, and be ready to reconvene next year!

 

Sirens Chats

Fortunately, modern technology does afford us ways to keep in touch, even when we can’t congregate in Denver as planned. Our next Sirens Zoom chat will be on Tuesday, August 4, 8 p.m. EDT. We’d love to see your face! These chats have been a wonderful way to keep in touch, take a few minutes to relax, and discuss what we’re loving in fantasy fiction right now. If you haven’t joined us before and you’d like to, please email help at sirensconference.org, and we’ll add you to the list to receive reminders and the Zoom link.

We also have a text-only chat option! On Thursday, August 6, 9 p.m. EDT, we’ll have August’s Twitter chat on the topic of weather and climate in speculative fiction. Simply follow #SirensChat and answer questions with the hashtag to join in!

 

Sirens Essays

We released three more genius essays interrogating some weighty issues this month. The summer round of Sirens Essays will wrap up in August, so be on the lookout for the final installment.

  • Bestselling author V. S. Holmes unpacks the harmful implications that attend the assignation of disability and disfigurement to villainous characters in “Moral Disability: How Villainy Looks When You’re the Monster”. Holmes asks readers and creators alike to consider the message sent when a character becomes evil because of illness or injury and the further implications of redemption arcs and magical or technological “cures” for their conditions.

  • In “A Room of Her Own: The Post-Modern Haunted Houses of Nova Ren Suma,” editor and freelance writer Meg Belviso explores “the haunted house as a transitional space” in modern speculative fiction. She focuses on Nova Ren Suma’s YA novels The Walls Around Us and A Room Away from the Wolves, which center the two-pronged liminality of teenaged heroines experiencing hauntings while living in temporary housing.

  • S. M. Mack, scholar and author of short fiction, examines the necessity of sitting with painful realities in “On Bearing Witness in Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, connecting a book that re-centers the Iliad on Briseis, enslaved and abused by Achilles and Agamemnon, to present-day injustices and crises.

Interviews

In July, we continued featuring the amazing people who will be running workshops during Sirens Studio. We’re delighted that they’ll all be joining us in 2021! We hope these interviews will serve as good introductions and help you look forward to meeting them in safer times.

  • Author, former anthropologist and folklorist, and former Sirens Guest of Honor Marie Brennan discusses crafting character voices, fuzzy boundaries between academic and non-academic writing, and her Sirens workshop, “Faith in Fantasy: Building Believable Religions.”
  • In her interview, Ren Iwamoto, a scholar focusing on twentieth-century East Asian literature, Japanese colonialism, and post-colonial discourse, expresses her view that “speculative fiction should destabilize” and prepares us for her Studio workshop, “Seasoned with Soy Sauce: Asianization in Western Speculative Media and What It Means to Be ‘Asian-Inspired’.”

This month, we also began featuring members of our Sirens community! In the coming months, you’ll hear from a variety of attendees representing the wide spectrum of professions and backgrounds which makes Sirens so vibrant.

  • Nicole Brinkley, manager of Oblong Books & Music, tells us what she loves about hand-selling books, how she fits a book to a reader, and her hopes for the future of speculative fiction.
  • Teacher Traci-Anne Canada tells us about building a classroom library and helping students find books they enjoy and that will speak to them.
  • Voracious reader Danielle Cicchetti shares the books she’s been loving recently, her secrets to finishing 150+ books a year, and how Sirens has contributed to her reading habit.

 

 

Books

Whether you’re reading in the bright sunshine or huddling beneath the sweet shelter of the air conditioner, we hope we can introduce you to your new best book friend! This month’s book recommendations feature a dazzling array of new releases and old favorites, guaranteed to invite you into other worlds and to prompt you to think critically about the one we live in.

Book Recommendations and Reviews:

  • Faye Bi recommends Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water as a crucial component of a reader’s journey to anti-racism. “[Morrow] seamlessly and ambitiously unpacks intersectionality, racism, sexism, police brutality, protesting, affirmative action, gentrification, education, beauty standards, and more.”
  • Casey Blair provides a list of books featuring “Women in SFF Who Dream Big Dreams and Don’t Let Anyone Stop Them”.
  • Chelsea Cleveland reviews The Power by Naomi Alderman: “While this isn’t the first title I’ve come across where supernatural abilities were attributed to one gender, I have never seen it done with such gut-punching impact or specificity.”
  • Whether high summer has you yearning for the adventure of a road trip, the solitude of camping in the woods, or the sweet scent of the ocean breeze, Amanda Hudson’s Summer Nights rec list has something sure to delight.
  • If those recommendations aren’t enough to get you through the dog days of summer, be sure to look at our compilation of July 2020 new releases!

And here are a few staff picks for this month:

Erynn’s Pick: Wonderland by Zoje Stage

Wonderland

At the age of 41, Orla Bennet is reluctantly retiring from the dance stages of New York City and relocating with her family to a farmhouse in the Adirondack mountains. Quiet and privacy are the charms of their new expansive home with the closest neighbor a mile away. The space is intended to afford her partner, Shaw, inspiration for his new-found calling as an artist, their anxious preteen daughter her own bedroom, and their exuberant son freedom for his curiosity.

But, of course, strange things start to happen once they settle in. An enigmatic presence calls to the family through the trees and earth, seeping into their minds, and securing their isolation. Part suspense, part horror, Stage’s story is one of maternal strength told with exquisite prose.

Cass’s Pick: Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott

Unconquerable Sun

If “genderflipped Alexander the Great in space” doesn’t grab you, then perhaps “genetically engineered human-aliens, cutthroat galaxy-spanning politics, queernorm worldbuilding, and imaginative future tech” will. Unconquerable Sun is an ambitious and exciting opening to a new series, inspired by but not directly imitative of its historical sources. There are plenty of Easter eggs for the classical studies geeks, but nothing in the book relies on that knowledge. Elliott builds a whole new galaxy with deep roots and evocative details.

Sun is an astonishing hero: charismatic, decisive, brilliant, sharp. The cast that surrounds her is equally grand, from the wily Persephone to the handsome Alika and all the rest of Sun’s Companions. The writing is as bold as Sun herself. Elliott has taken some risks in the way she handles the various point-of-view characters, changing person and tense in a way that helps the reader feel, deeply, the soul-deep shifts between each character, rather than merely placing the camera behind another person’s head. It pays off: the book is an enthralling adventure from start to finish.

 


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Books and Breakfast: A Feast of Sorrows, Queen of the Conquered, and The Mere Wife

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

For our 2021 conference, as we examine gender and villainy, and relatedly, redemption—fraught topics full of artificial constraints and defied stereotypes—our Books and Breakfast program features titles meant to broaden that examination. We’ve chosen eight works, full of questions, but few answers; dastardly villainy, and occasional redemption; and a number of female and nonbinary villains who may, despite or because of their villainy, be someone worth celebrating.

Earlier this summer, we highlighted our graphic selections: Monstress: Awakening and Nimona. Today, we’re showcasing our three adult selections: A Feast of Sorrows, Queen of the Conquered, and The Mere Wife. Next month, we’ll finish up with our young adult selections. We hope these features will help you make your choice and tackle your reading before Sirens next year.

 
2021 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter
Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust
Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley
Wilder Girls by Rory Power

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter

A Feast of Sorrows

While calling Angela Slatter the heir apparent to Angela Carter and Emma Donoghue may seem a bold assertion, it’s appropriately so. Carter and Donoghue twisted fairy tales, reclaimed them, told violently feminist or joyously queer versions of them. But despite their obvious feminism, Carter’s and Donoghue’s tales often remain in conversation with their more traditional, more heteropatriarchal versions. Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” reclaims Bluebeard, conjuring a mother as savior rather than the violent, patriarchal heroism of the original. Donoghue’s Cinderella in “The Tale of the Shoe” still seeks her coupled-up happily ever after, but with the fairy godmother rather than the prince. Both of their work is an undeniable fuck-you to the heteropatriarchy, but their defiance must remain conversant with that same heteropatriarchy.

By contrast, Slatter—like her heroines—often eschews that conversation entirely. She has little interest in correcting, instructing, or even raging at the heteropatriarchy. She has little interest in explaining to the heteropatriarchy why Bluebeard cannot kill this wife or why Cinderella would obviously be so much happier with her godmother. She—like her heroines—is busy. Busy being, if you will: being frightened and fearless, being brave and bold, being frail and fantastical. Being relentlessly awesome. Being, quite often, villainous.

A Feast of Sorrows, one of World Fantasy Award- and British Fantasy Award-winning Slatter’s collections of short fiction, features twelve of her finest, darkest fairy tales. Her women and girls take paths less travelled, offer and accept poisoned apples, and embrace all sorts of transformation. You won’t find just princesses and ghosts and killers here, but a full gamut of artisans as well: bakers, quilters, crafters, spinners, and coffin-makers. Never have the feminine arts been so magical or so deadly. This collection is one to be savored one story, one revelation, and one smart, determined, independent woman at a time.


Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender

Queen of the Conquered

On the island of Hans Lollik, in a fantasy Caribbean, Sigourney has risen from the ashes. Her family was murdered by colonizers years earlier for daring to ascend from slavery to nobility—but Sigourney survived and, through sheer determination and gutsy smarts, has again achieved the rank of nobility. And in this work of impressive intrigue, Sigourney’s identity is secret, her magic dangerous, and her heart focused on revenge. The childless king has declared that he will select his successor from among the nobility and ambitious, vengeful Sigourney wants that title, is willing to kill for that title, in order to help her people. But someone is murdering nobles, the king isn’t quite what he seems, and Sigourney is a ready suspect. Not only is her years-long plan on the line, her life might be as well.

Queen of the Conquered is smart. Really smart. Callender simultaneously constructs both a complicated murder mystery and a searing indictment of slavery and colonialism. Their cast of characters is complex, full of individual and treacherous magics, all certainly capable of planning and executing a series of murders. But the more impressive, important achievement is weaving this mystery into a fully realized world of colonization, slavery, and potential change. Callender’s bedrock is power disparities and they use those skillfully as a foundation for their complex world of choices and compulsion, dominance and pain, compromises and uprisings. Only rarely—in the work of N.K. Jemisin, perhaps, or Justina Ireland—have you read a fantasy work like this.

And yet, with all of that, Callender’s tour de force is Sigourney Rose, born into the nobility despite her dark skin, improbable survivor of the massacre of her family, an impossibly complex, ambitious woman playing an impossibly long game. Sigourney is a victim, but also—perhaps—a villain. Her status grants her slave ownership—slaves she could free, but does not. She punishes her slaves, and has sex with some, knowing that they cannot refuse her. She seeks power purportedly for the good of her people, but while she lives in luxury, her people continue to suffer, often at her hand. She’s playing the long game, where great risk could bring great reward, but what about the sacrifices she demands of her powerless people in the meantime? Victimhood and villainy, it seems, are not mutually exclusive.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

The Mere Wife

Herot Hall, the suburban setting of Maria Dahvana Headley’s Beowulf retelling, is a Stepford-pretty utopia: Everything is picket fences and carefully arranged flowers, big houses and perfect families. And for Willa, married to Herot heir Roger, life is perfect, her carefully curated self raising her carefully curated son, Dylan, in her carefully curated house. Her schedule is a beautiful round of dinner parties and playdates, glamorous clothes and perfect meals. But Willa lives on the edge of Herot Hall, where all this careful curation is guarded from the outside by walls and surveillance cameras. These defenses make Willa feel safe, but they aren’t enough to keep out Gren.

Gren belongs to Dana, a soldier who didn’t want Gren and doesn’t really understand how she gave birth to Gren, but when she returned from war, she had Gren. Now they struggle to survive in a cave outside the reaches of Herot Hall. The lasting effects of war seem like an impossible mountain to climb in returning to society, so Dana remains—with her son—on the periphery, each day a new challenge in their solitary existence. But Gren is growing, and exploring, and doesn’t always share his mother’s damage—or her fear.

In this contemporary exploration of monstrousness and society, Dylan and Gren are the catalysts, but not the monsters. Both Willa and Dana live in careful worlds, where, like anyone, their pasts, their fears, and their hopes underlie their expectations and their choices. Both Willa and Dana try, with little success, to impress the importance of these careful worlds onto their sons. As Gren grows, his curiosity drives him into Herot Hall and he secretly befriends Dylan. With that series of encounters, both Willa’s and Dana’s carefully constructed worlds collapse: Their fears lead them to make sometimes desperate, sometimes illogical, sometimes monstrous decisions—and ultimately The Mere Wife asks readers: How monstrous are you?

Sirens Essay: On Bearing Witness in Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls

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.

Sirens also offers an online 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 S.M. Mack!

On Bearing Witness in Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls
by S.M. Mack

Content warning: references to and discussion of rape in general terms, mention of dissociation

I don’t like reading rape scenes. They are almost always gratuitous, and almost always unnecessary to the plot. (“Almost always” here means 99.98 percent of the time.) Explicit rape scenes, no matter how well intended the author might be, are voyeuristic. Give everyone—the character and the reader both—a break, will you? We don’t need to see it happen. If an assault is unavoidable within the confines of a story, it’s the aftermath of the assault that is important for a character’s arc—how they respond to it and how it shapes their decisions going forward. Also, the aftermath is traumatic enough for both the character that has been assaulted and for the reader.

The Silence of the Girls

By the time I was mature enough to realize I could curate my reading preferences, that I could set boundaries and decline to read stories with rape or other exploitative events and themes, I was in my mid-twenties. It was such a relief to quit consuming these stories, to teach myself that rape scenes were misused in the vast majority of the fiction they appeared in, and to seek out stories with better avenues for narrative tension and character growth. In the years since then, I’ve tripped over exactly two books that fall under the begrudging “I’ll allow it” category: The Devourers by Indra Das and The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. (In both novels, it should be noted, the persons being raped are ciswomen and the rapists are cismen.) In The Devourers, the explicit rape is, thankfully, only a one-time event. However, I’m going to focus (in very general, non-explicit terms) on the abuse suffered by the narrator and the women around her in The Silence of the Girls. The rapes themselves were not explicit, but we stay with our narrator throughout the scenes. We’re shown the before (“He didn’t speak—perhaps he thought I wouldn’t be able to understand him—just jerked his thumb at the other room.” [page 23]) and the after (“What can I say? He wasn’t cruel.” [page 24]), and that is more than enough to tell the story.

At this point, I’d like to reiterate my earlier statements: It is a chilly day in hell that rape scenes are necessary.

But what happens when an author builds a world in which rape is a daily event for their characters? When the narrator is kept as a slave to warm her owner’s bed? What if the cast of a novel becomes the spoils of war?

We could, collectively or individually, refuse to tell or read those stories. I wouldn’t judge anyone if they took that course—no one should traumatize or re-traumatize themselves if they can avoid doing so. But in The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker gives voice to a woman who has been silently borne along within the confines of Homer’s The Iliad for literally thousands of years.

The novel’s premise was enough to get me to pick it up, but the promise the book makes—that we will hear the words of a silent woman given a voice—became a burden and a responsibility I couldn’t put down.

The novel follows Briseis, a Trojan noblewoman given to Achilles after he sacked her town. It opens as she and the rest of the women from her town hide in the citadel as the Greeks overrun their home, then the citadel itself. Briseis watches as Achilles kills her three brothers and husband, then as the rest of the Greeks kill all of the male children hiding with their mothers and sisters in the citadel. Achilles picks Briseis out of a lineup as his prize for killing sixty men that day:

“‘Cheers, lads,’ he said. ‘She’ll do.’
“And everyone, every single man in that vast arena, laughed.” (page 19)

Clearly, The Silence of the Girls is heavy on multiple fronts, but Briseis is the primary narrator. Hers is the only first-person point of view, and The Silence of the Girls is her story. Looking away, despite the assaults that were clearly on the horizon from the first page, felt like an unworthy and overly privileged decision.

The Iliad’s inciting incident centers around two Greek men squabbling over two captive Trojan women. Agamemnon, who was in charge of all the Greek forces, was forced to return his “bed-girl” to her father, so he took Achilles’ own prize woman, Briseis, as his own. Achilles then threw a hissy fit and refused to fight anymore.

Neither Briseis nor Agamemnon’s bed-girl, however, speaks in The Iliad. They are objects, not characters.

The girl freed from Agamemnon was named Chryseis, which means only “daughter of Chryses.” But in The Silence of the Girls, Chryseis is more than just the daughter of a priest. She is fifteen, with a “formidable reserve,” and she nearly shatters under the weight of her hope that Agamemnon will send her home to her father. (page 42) Chryseis is a person, as is every other woman she and Briseis spend their days with. And it is worth noting that, while the majority of Briseis’ narration is exposition, the few times that dialogue runs the length of a page or beyond are when the women gather and speak. It’s ordinary conversation—what the men are like in bed, how to make their new lives bearable, who serves which meals—but it’s theirs.

Outside of speaking to the women around her, Briseis speaks almost exclusively to the reader. She exchanges only a handful of sentences with Achilles over the entire course of the novel, but constantly argues with herself:

Would you really have married the man who’d killed your brothers?
“Well, first of all, I wouldn’t have been given a choice. But yes, probably. Yes. I was a slave, and a slave will do anything, anything at all, to stop being a thing and become a person again.” (page 82-83)

This is how she survives the nightly rapes, by disassociating herself from her personhood. She’s not explicit in her descriptions, but we frequently return to the narrative immediately afterward. The only time that we return specifically to Achilles’ or Agamemnon’s bedrooms (Agamemnon’s because Achilles did indeed let Agamemnon take her) is when something changes. For example, Briseis walks into the ocean one evening, then is summoned before she has time to clean the salt from her skin, and she and we are both treated to an uncomfortable display of passion by Achilles. That is the beginning of her and our shared understanding of his many, many mommy issues. (His mother is a sea goddess.)

Briseis is more interested in the rest of the world around her than in the men who own her. Even when Agamemnon takes her in anger, all she tells us is, “So what did he do that was so terrible? Nothing much, I suppose, nothing I hadn’t been expecting.” She watches those men—not like a hawk, but like a mouse in fear of its life—but she doesn’t speak to them. She speaks to us.

It felt like the height of cruelty to put down The Silence of the Girls even for an afternoon’s rest because I, as the reader, controlled when and how loudly she spoke more than Achilles ever could.

It seems like such a small thing in the middle of the real world’s myriad crises, to bend my own proscription on books with rape in them. But I can’t go to the racial justice protests. I can’t help the individual people who are suffering and dying from the coronavirus pandemic, and I can’t do anything more than stay home and wear a mask when I absolutely must go out. And I can’t save Briseis from Achilles, or Chryseis from Agamemnon, or Hecamede from Nestor, or Ritsa from Machaon, or Andromache from Pyrrhus.

But I can watch and not look away.


S.M. MackS.M. Mack is a 2012 Clarion graduate with an MFA from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. Her short story, “The Carrying Beam,” was the 2017 first place winner of the Katherine Patterson Prize for Young Adult Writing and was published in the VCFA’s Journal for the Arts, Hunger Mountain. Other stories have been published in Fireside Fiction and Vine Leaves Literary Journal’s “Best of 2015” anthology, among others. For more information visit her website or her Twitter.

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