Book Review | His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

Genre : Alternate history/Fantasy
Date Published : March 28, 2006
Publisher : Del Ray

For this week’s blog post, I’m doing a bit of a throwback ~ His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik (the first in the Temeraire series!). The past few months I’ve been reading quite a lot of Regency fantasy novels (Sorcerer Royal series by Zen Cho and the Glamourist Histories by Mary Robinette Kowal to name a few others!) as research for the Regency fantasy novel I’m currently working on. It’s been so wonderful seeing the many different approaches writers take to the genre. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I fell in love with His Majesty’s Dragon.

Growing up, my mom loved (LOVED!) the Horatio Hornblower television series, and so from the very start this book felt so nostalgic and familiar. I remember watching this show with my mom a lot as a kid, but most my memories of it involve 1) Lots of Big Boats and 2) Very Proper English Captains. The Temeraire series starts off in a similar vein – Will Laurence, our MC, is a captain in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. After a grueling naval battle, Captain Laurence’s ship takes a French vessel under their control and are lucky enough to find a dragon egg aboard the ship. Life in the Aerial Corps is generally frowned upon by polite English society, and so the crew draws lots to see who will harness the dragon when it hatches (and thus be bound to the dragon for life). All their preparation is for naught, however – when the dragon hatches, he takes an immediate liking to Laurence, who is then forced to harness and name him (Temeraire!). The rest is history!

I felt so connected with Laurence throughout the book – I even shared his apprehension towards dragons in the beginning! My truth is that before this book, I was not a dragon girl (I’m a unicorn gal through and through). I am ashamed to admit it, but before reading this book, I thought dragons were, dare I say, kind of corny. But from the moment Temeraire hatched from the egg, I was as smitten with him as Captain Laurence came to be! Every time he called Temeraire “my dear,” I had to put the book down so I could smile. It was so adorable. This series made me a Dragon Girl convert, which really is saying something.

What I loved most about this book was just how well integrated dragons were into the world. At first I thought the first half of the book was going to deal with Laurance learning about/coming to terms with the fact that dragons existed. I was pleasantly surprised that everyone in Novik’s world already knew about dragons – the big thing that Laurence had to learn was how to be a good friend/dragon companion and how to navigate his shifting position in society as a result of joining the Aerial Corps.

“I should rather have you than a heap of gold, even if it were very comfortable to sleep on.” 

I also loved the ways in which Novik involved women in the story – it was such a brilliant move to have some dragons only take female handlers, thus forcing the Aerial Corps to secretly take women on as captains (a practice that is completely unheard of in the Army and Navy!). Watching Laurence grapple with the idea of women being more than swooning maidens was truly a delight to read – I can’t wait to read the next two books in the series and see more of Captain Roland and Captain Harcourt.

I was also so impressed with Novik’s ability to write captivating battle scenes. In general, I don’t enjoy war stories, and so I was super impressed by how engaging the battles were to read. Novik was so knowledgeable about battle strategy and aerial/naval terminology – even though I sometimes had no idea what she was talking about, she wrote these scenes with such conviction that I didn’t struggle with visualizing any of the battles. I even cried while reading one of the battles (COMPLETELY UNHEARD OF!!!).

My biggest takeaway from His Majesty’s Dragon was just how fun it was to be pushed out of my reading comfort zone. Dragons, war, and men are pretty low on my reading list requirements right now, but Naomi Novik is such a genius that I found myself actually enjoying all three of these subjects! I can’t wait to read the rest of the series and see what happens next ~

Rating: 10 adorable talking dragons out of 10.

-Emory

Book Review | Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen

Genre : Science Fiction
Date Published : January 29, 2019
Publisher : MIRA Books

I first heard about this book in one of my grad school classes, my professor pulling up the Amazon page for it to show us the “front matter” – the copyright info, the publisher, the ISBN, date of publication, etc. We didn’t even talk about the plot of the book – but the cover caught my eye and I immediately googled the book for more information. When I found out it was a book about time travel and secret agents, I knew that it wouldn’t be long until I went out to buy it. And while Mike Chen’s debut novel is indeed about time travel and secret agents, it also deals heavily with themes of family and sacrifice – and all of these elements come together in an exciting and emotional story.

The book kicks off with a prologue, quickly catching you up to how the protagonist, Kin Stewart, a secret agent for the Temporal Corruption Bureau (TCB) from the year 2142 ended up in San Francisco in 1996. He got injured on the mission, but that’s not the bad part – the really bad part is that his retrieval beacon was broken, meaning his ticket back home has been destroyed. What I really appreciated about this section was how smoothly Chen teaches the reader the rules about this universe. There’s explanation about the time travel and who Kin really is, but it isn’t overdone or overly wordy – he gives you enough information to situate yourself in the story, and then pushes the plot forward.

Chapter One begins eighteen years later, and while I don’t usually like big time jumps, for this story it makes sense. Kin, with no way back home to his own time, has made a life for himself. He’s married to a woman named Heather, and they have a fourteen-year-old daughter together – Miranda, whose relationship with Kin is at the crux of the whole story. Chen does a great job of sprinkling in details about this new life, telling readers that Kin dreams of being on the TV show Home Chef Challenge, and that his family has a tradition of first-Monday-of-the-month TV nights where they all gather together to watch various sci-fi movies or shows. It’s details like this that I loved – and I wished we’d gotten more of these lived-in moments before the next act of the story began. On the same day that the first chapter starts out on, another time traveling agent finally shows up to rescue Kin and take him back to the year 2142, where a whole other life that he can no longer remember is waiting for him.

“Pressure returned to Kin’s temples, a grip that took hold across space and time. This one was different; he knew it from the very feel. It had nothing to do with time-jump damage to the frontal cortex or memory triggers that pushed his brain too hard. No, this was the silent grind of his jaw, the increase in blood pressure, the panic-turned-anger in his heart. ‘What have you done to Miranda?’”

Chapter 30, page 179

While I wanted more time to be spent building up Kin and Miranda’s relationship, the brief glimpse we get of them at the beginning of the book is enough to cement the idea that Kin loves his daughter, and would do anything to protect her. This makes his being forced back to his own timeline all the more heartbreaking, especially since he doesn’t even get a chance to say goodbye. And when he learns that Miranda’s very existence is a timeline corruption, and that her life is in danger because of that, it comes as no surprise that Kin decides to break even more time travel rules in order to save her.

Here and Now and Then is heartfelt, fun, and suspenseful, and Chen does a masterful job at playing out the reality of the situations each character is in, making the reader feel sympathetic towards just about everyone in the story. And while the pacing did feel a little off, with some things happening too quickly, this could be connected to the main obstacle that Kin faces throughout the book whenever he attempts fix everything before anyone gets hurt – the fact that he needs more time.

I think that Mike Chen is an author we can definitely be excited about! He describes his books as “tales of family and friendship and humor that just happen to have some time travel or an apocalypse.” His next book, A Beginning At The End, is set to come out in January 2020 and tells the story of a group of four people who come together six years after a global pandemic hits the world. I can’t wait to get my hands on it, and I’m so happy to have a new author to keep up with!

My rating:

7.5 Broken Retrieval Beacons out of 10.

-Sara

Review | Jumping Monkey Hill by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Genre : Short Story
Published : October 2, 2006 / June 1, 2010
Publisher : Granta / Anchor

When Emory and I came up with the idea to recommend a short story to each other for this week’s post, I was at a loss for a while. It was like every short story I had ever read and loved flew out of my mind. Then I started thinking back to the Advanced Fiction class I took during my final year of undergrad, and Jumping Monkey Hill stuck out in my memory. There’s so much to dissect in the story – colonialism, racism, sexism, family dynamics, and lastly, it’s a short story about writing short stories, and about how some people will try to dictate what a good, believable story is while diminishing other kinds of stories and experiences and deeming them unrealistic.

While I absolutely loved my fiction class and the writing workshops we had, this was a topic that always seemed to pop up, whether it was someone commenting on my story or someone else’s. “That just doesn’t seem believable” or “Oh no, that wouldn’t happen. This is what you should write instead”. And sure, the suggestions were part of the editing process, sometimes they were even good, but sometimes you were also left with the feeling of everyone just not understanding what your story was conveying, or feeling hurt that your peers deemed something that may have happened to you as “unrealistic.” Jumping Monkey Hill weaves this critique into the protagonist’s life, connecting it to themes of identity and creating a story that contains so much power. I can’t wait to read about what Emory thought of it!

-Sara

I’m so glad Sara recommended I check out Jumping Monkey Hill by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie! It’s been awhile since I’ve read a really impactful piece of realistic short fiction, and I’m so grateful I had the pleasure of reading this story for this week’s blog post.

Jumping Monkey Hill is about a young woman named Ujunwa who is invited to participate in the African Writers’ Workshop – a weeklong writing workshop founded and facilitated by Edward Campbell, an old white man from England. The workshop starts off harmless enough – though Ujunwa finds it odd that the workshop is taking place at a fancy, mostly white seaside resort in South Africa, she still begins to form small bonds with the other workshop members. But tensions soon rise as it becomes apparent that Edward does not have any of the workshop participants’ best interests at heart. Instead, he seeks to mold them into his colonialist vision of what an “African writer” is supposed to be.

The uneven power dynamic between Edward and the writers is established the moment Edward does the workshop introductions – he introduces each writer by the country they’re from, reducing them to mere representatives of “Africa.” We soon come to find, of course, that Edward’s understanding of “Africa” is racist, sexist, and homophobic, and that he expects the stories the participants submit to fit into his colonial view of Africa. While some workshop participants write off his behavior as “harmless” because he is an old man, it soon becomes evident that Edward’s behavior is an extension of a violent and insidious racist colonial history.

In addition to reducing workshop participants to their race, Edward also begins to hypersexualize the women of the group. This, unfortunately, is nothing new for Ujunwa. For her workshop story, she writes about her experiences with sexual harassment while searching for a job. These moments in Ujunwa’s short story mirror the sexual harassment she experiences at the hands of Edward throughout the workshop. For me, one of the most heartbreaking moments in this story is when Ujunwa realizes that all of the other participants had noticed the ways in which Edward sexualized her, but none of them had done anything to stop him.

She should not have laughed when Edward said, ‘I’d rather like you to lie down for me.’ It had not been funny. It had not been funny at all. She had hated it, hated the grin on his face and the glimpse of greenish teeth and the way he always looked at her chest rather than at her face and yet she had made herself laugh like a deranged hyena.

The workshop participants silently accept Edward’s increasingly vile microaggressions because they are afraid that speaking up will lose them money or future opportunities as writers. Ujunwa herself takes Edward’s words and actions with a silent resentment until the very end of the story, when Ujunwa finally refuses to take anymore of his bullshit. (This moment made me want to cheer and scream and lift Ujunwa up on my shoulders).

One of my major takeaways from Jumping Monkey Hill was the mental toll writing workshops take on marginalized voices when white, cis, heterosexual male experiences are centralized. When Edward doesn’t like a story (because it didn’t fit into the neat, colonial box of what he understood “Africa” to be) he says the dreaded workshop phrase: “The story itself begged the question ‘So what?'” Jumping Monkey Hill almost seems to be a direct response to this question. The answer? Because marginalized voices demand to be heard and listened to. Just because a white man or a white woman doesn’t understand a story doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold value – rather, it means white writers must work even harder to de-center whiteness as the “default” and continue to listen to and uplift marginalized voices without expecting a cookie in return.

I loved this story SO much and I can’t wait to buy Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story collection! Read Jumping Monkey Hill online here !

My Rating:

10 Excruciating Writing Workshops out of 10

-Emory

May Bookshelf

It’s MAAAAAAY! Here are all the amazing and delicious books we are reading this month.

Sara:

  1. Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell – Out on May 14th, Karen Russell’s new book of short stories looks like it will be just as brilliant as her other works! Seriously, if you’ve never read anything by Karen Russell, you need to change that asap. Her prose is vivid, funny, and never what you expect. I’ve loved everything she’s written so far, and I am beyond excited to read her new short stories!
  2. We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal – The first installment of Faizal’s Sands of Arawiya also debuts on May 14th, following the stories of two characters, Zafira and Nasir, who are both legends throughout the kingdom, though neither of them wants to be. Things promise to get complicated when Zafira and Nasir are sent on the same quest to retrieve and special artifact – with Nasir instructed to kill Zafira.
  3. Captain America, Vol. 1: Winter in America by Ta-Nehisi Coates and illustrated by Leinil Francis Yu – In celebration of Avengers: Endgame releasing a little over a week ago (don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything), I thought adding a comic to my bookshelf for this month would be fitting. Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of works like The Beautiful Struggle, Between the World and Me, and a series of Black Panther comics, takes Steve Rogers and places him in the aftermath of Hydra’s takeover of the nation. The government doesn’t seem to trust Cap anymore, and the feeling appears to be mutual. I can’t wait to start reading this new installment in Cap’s story!
  4. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett – With the new TV series airing at the end of this month, I figured I should re-read the amazing book it is based off of. Basically, an angel and a demon work together to stop the anti-christ from starting the apocalypse. If you haven’t read Good Omens already, get your hands on a copy immediately!!! It is a wild ride from start to finish, and I promise you will love every second of it.
  5. Mythic Journeys: Retold Myths and Legends edited by Paula Guran – Once again out on May 14th (I’m going to buy SO MANY books that day), this anthology collects stories from authors like Ken Liu, Neil Gaiman, and Ann Lecki that reinvent classic myths and legends and place them in a modern setting! That idea in itself is more than enough to get me interested!

Emory:

  1. The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera – I get easily overwhelmed by epic fantasies, but this one is high on my list!! Queer protagonists, warrior ladies, divine empresses, and of course, the tagline: Even gods can be slain…
  2. The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon – This book has been popping up all over my timeline lately! A very large book that I probably won’t get to until the summer, but it’s on my buying list now! Another great queer read ~ one of my friends called it a feminist takeover of the epic fantasy genre (looking at you, GoT).
  3. Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan – Already a New York Times Bestseller – and written by an OHIOAN!!!! A bloody fairytale-inspired read. Can’t wait to get my hands on this gorgeous book!
  4. Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal – This book was a birthday present from Sara (THANK YOU!). After reading Sorcerer to the Crown and The True Queen in the span of a week, I needed more Regency fantasy!
  5. The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang – My very first read for Netgalley! I’m taking The Poppy War with me this week (I’m halfway through it right now and it’s so goddamn funny and bloody and adorable and messed up and I can’t wait for the sequel!).

Review | The Truth About Owls by Amal El-Mohtar

Genre : Young Adult Fiction, Fantasy Fiction
Initially Published : August 2014, Reprint: January 2015
Publisher : Twelfth Planet Press/Strange Horizons

With a busy next few weeks ahead of us, Sara and I decided to switch things up a bit for our next two blog posts! This Sunday and next Sunday, we’ll each be reviewing a short story recommended by the other. This week, I recommended that Sara read The Truth About Owls by Amal El-Mohtar, a beautiful and heartbreaking coming of age story that deals with identity, loss, magic, and, of course, owls.

I stumbled upon this story a year ago while listening to the Levar Burton Reads podcast at the gym – I immediately fell in love with the voice of this piece. In this story, El-Mohtar effortlessly weaves the magical into the mundane. I love how she makes the smallest things in life (like a little girl and an owl!) seem so very big and meaningful. I hope you enjoy, Sara!

-Emory


The first thing I want to talk about for this story is its structure, which I found so cool and so fun to read. Each small section of the story is preceded by a fact about owls – their eye color, their personalities, how they look when they fly, etc. These are then followed by plot (obviously) and bits of information about the protagonist of the story – Anisa, effectively connecting her appearance, her personality, and her identity to various species of owls. I love how the random facts about owls give you clues to what you’re going to learn about Anisa, and how going back and re-reading the story makes you tie even more similarities between them!

We meet Anisa at the Scottish Owl Centre, where she is on a school field trip and finds herself having to correct her teacher’s pronunciation of her name while also noting how the teachers don’t try to herd her together with the other children. The owl fact preceding this section is about the coloring of owl’s eyes, and how this corresponds to what time of day they hunt (black-eyed owls hunt at night). Anisa reflects on how she no longer hates that her eyes are black, even though she used to wish that her eyes were a lighter color like her father’s, which “people were always startled to see in a brown face.”

“But she can’t remember—though she often tries—whether she felt, for the first time, the awful electric prickle of the power in her chest, flooding out to her palms.”

The story continues to weave facts and plot together, revealing that Anisa grew up in Lebanon and lived there when Israel bombed the country. Her re-location to the UK resulted in a lot of othering by her new classmates, and in an anger and a sense of loss building inside of Anisa that she believes is a dangerous power that makes bad things happen when she thinks of them. This is another part of the story that I absolutely loved – seeing how this “power” manifested itself in Anisa, how it reached a breaking point, and how it slowly transformed into something else entirely by the end of the story.

Anisa’s anger and her guilt at that anger ebbs away the more time she spends at the owl centre. She meets a woman named Izzy who works there and handles one of the owls, Blodeuwedd. Izzy tells Anisa the Welsh story of Blodeuwedd, a woman made of flowers who turned into an owl, and this story is what pushes Anisa into learning more about Welsh mythology and magic – and as a result, more about herself. This combined with the friendship that starts to build with Izzy helps Anisa begin to blossom into something new.

There is so much I want to talk about with this story, so much I want to dissect, but I feel like talking about it more than I have will spoil the magic that it contains (and there is so much that is magical about this story!). El-Mohtar uses language in The Truth About Owls to create this magic, defining what words mean and what certain feelings are called and then tying them into the story and the characters in a way that is seemingly simple, but also extremely beautiful. For example, Anisa sometimes feels like a collection of random bits and things thrown together, and Izzy tells her that feeling can be described as a florilegium – a gathering of flowers. I can’t even begin to say how much I love how El-Mohtar takes Anisa’s doubts and fears and gives them a name, like a gathering of flowers, showing that having doubts and fears doesn’t have to be an ugly thing that you should hide.

The Truth About Owls is beautifully written, and I feel like I catch new details each time I go through it. The descriptions and the way Anisa’s changes and grows makes me want to re-read this story over and over (I’m already on my fourth reading of it!!!). So, thanks for recommending it, Emory! It has definitely taken its place on my list of favorite short stories! If you all are interested in reading it after hearing my review, it is available to read for free on Strange Horizons: http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/the-truth-about-owls/

My rating:

9 Random Owl Facts out of 10

-Sara

Book Review | The True Queen by Zen Cho

Genre : Historical Fantasy
Date Published : March 12, 2019
Publisher : Ace Books

I picked up Zen Cho’s first novel The Sorcerer to the Crown waaaaay back in 2016. I was living in London, finishing up my dissertation, and in desperate need of a light-hearted book to get me through the week. A Waterstones employee handed me a copy, describing it as “Harry Potter plus Jane Austen…but better….” and so of course I had to buy it! I fell completely in love with Zen Cho’s beautiful prose and exceptional world-building, and I was so excited to hear that its companion novel The True Queen was coming out this year!

The True Queen is technically a stand-alone novel with only a few spoilers for Sorcerer to the Crown (I didn’t know this going into it, so I frantically reread Sorcerer the week before The True Queen came out – but literally no regrets!). It follows sisters Muna and Sakti, who survive a terrible storm off the coast of Janda Baik and wake on the beach to find that they have no memories. All they know is that Sakti has magic and Muna has absolutely none at all. They’re taken in by the witch Mak Gengang (ARGUABLY THE BEST CHARACTER OF ALL TIME) who tries to restore their memories to no avail. After discovering that Sakti is under a dangerous curse, Muna and Sakti are sent to England for safe-keeping. On their journey, Sakti mysteriously disappears into the world of the Unseen (aka Fairy) leaving Muna on her own in England to discover a way to save her sister. Regency hijinks ensue. (Said hijinks includes two – yes TWO – glamorous balls this time around, so put on your dancing shoes, y’all).

Much like Sorcerer to the Crown, The True Queen deftly deals with issues of race, gender, sexuality, religion, and imperialism. In order to find and save her sister Sakti, Muna is forced to navigate an inherently racist and sexist “high society” on her own – all while keeping up the illusion that she has magical powers. The magic in this novel is also particularly thrilling – I loved seeing Cho expand on the mythos of Janda Baik, and the different ways in which characters from different parts of the world viewed the same thing (the Unseen VS Fairy // Malaysian approaches to magic VS English approaches to magic) and how these worlds intertwine.

“I don’t dislike cabbage,” Muna found herself saying, “but I should not consider marrying it. Not disliking seems a poor foundation for future happiness.” 

I went into The True Queen expecting it to start where Sorcerer left off. I was a teeny tiny bit disappointed that we didn’t see more of Prunella and Zacharias, BUT once I was a few chapters in, I really became immersed in the story. I loved how democratic Cho was with her POV choices – the majority of the story takes place from Muna’s POV, but we also get to see into the minds of Prunella, Rollo, Henrietta, Clarissa, Georgiana Without Ruth, and even Henrietta’s father (which is probably the most hilarious scene in the entire novel). Seeing all of these brilliant side characters more fully fleshed out was such a pleasure, and makes me very excited for the as of yet untitled third book in the series!!

Also, SPOILERS, but my favorite part of The True Queen is the love story we get at the end between Muna and Henrietta! I wish it had been incorporated a bit sooner and that we’d gotten to see more of Muna’s affections for Henny, but I was SOOOO stoked that we got a F/F relationship in this book!!!!! Queer Regency Fantasy is truly the only thing I want in my life right now, and I was so delighted by this literal gift from Zen Cho! The last few pages made my heart sing, and I am going to be recommending this book for the rest of my life.

My rating:

8.5 Queer Dragon Sisters out of 10

-Emory

Book Review | Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Genre : Young Adult Fiction, Fantasy Fiction
Date Published : September 29, 2015
Publisher : Henry Holt and Company

Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows (the first in a duology) was lended to me by Emory when she came down to visit in February, because, as she put it many times, “You’re going to love it!” (And spoiler alert, I 100% did). Reading Six of Crows made me so grateful that Emory and I started this blog, because I honestly don’t know when I would I have read the book if we didn’t. When she initially lent it to me, I was still in my spring semester of classes, then after that I started a new job and internship, and I think if I didn’t have a deadline to stick to, I wouldn’t have been motivated to pick up a book and read it. But once I picked up Six of Crows, I didn’t want to put it down, and I sped through it in a span of four days and already want to read it again!

When I first started the book and found out that it was told through a total of six different viewpoints (with the opening and closing chapters being told through the POV of two minor characters) I did have an “oh no” moment, because getting into the minds of even more than two characters can sometimes be difficult. But Bardugo more than pulls it off, and utilizes the shifting POV to show that characters are not only keeping secrets from each other, but from the reader as well. And what is even more impressive is that I found myself equally invested in everyone’s chapters, never wanting to speed through one character’s chapter to skip to the next one (which I often find myself doing in multiple POV books).

The six main characters are made of up Kaz, an infamous thief known as Dirtyhands, Inej, a spy who is known as “The Wraith” because of her incredible stealth, Wylan, the rich kid of the group who also has impressive engineering skills, Jesper, a sharpshooter who spends a lot of time gambling or flirting with Wylan, Nina, a Heartrender in the Grisha army, and Matthias, a Grisha hunter (who, you know, of course has a crush on Nina). It’s an eclectic and diverse group, and Bardugo not only includes LGBTQ+ characters and characters with disabilities within it, but showcases them (which is something that is severely underused in the fantasy genre). I was worried going into the book that there were going to be too many characters to juggle, but Bardugo’s knowledge and love of her characters is clear throughout the entire novel, making it easy for a reader to care about the characters just as much.

This group of six criminals are pulled into a plot that sets up a classic heist story that I am 100% on board for. There a secrets and betrayals and plot twists, but also banter and romance and action, and none of it ever felt overwhelming or unnecessary, because Bardugo goes to great lengths to give each character depth and a backstory that explains their actions. What’s even more impressive is how amoral all of the characters are, and yet, you still care about them! And the prose is just as good as the plot – Bardugo is a master storyteller, and I was honestly blown away by this book in almost every aspect.

“Nina made herself face them. She had her reasons, but did they matter? And who were they to judge her? She straightened her spine, lifted her chin. She was a member of the Dregs, an employee of the White Rose, and occasionally a foolish girl, but before anything else she was a Grisha and a soldier.”

Chapter 30, page 244

It’s almost hard for me to pick a favorite character, but I have to say that Nina was the standout for me (with Kaz and Inej close behind). While her storyline did revolve around romance a little too much for my taste at times, Nina is still the character I wanted to follow into another adventure after finishing the book. She’s complex and she’s tough and, as the above quote shows, she can also be “a foolish girl” sometimes. She’s also one of the funnier characters in the book, with lines that had me laughing out loud. Her love of food (especially waffles!) and her terrible singing voice were additional traits that made her super relatable to me. It was so refreshing to meet a character that is made up of all of these things, because it made her feel incredibly real. I definitely wouldn’t complain if Bardugo were to do a spin-off with Nina as the main character!

Six of Crows technically takes place in the same world as Bardugo’s Grishaverse books, but in a different time frame and location, so it can be read as a standalone. There were a few worldbuilding details and language/vocabulary that I was confused by, but overall you don’t need to be familiar with Bardugo’s other works to love this one. And I did love it! When a book has a big, dysfunctional group of amazing characters going on one big adventure together – there’s nothing that hooks me faster! I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel, Crooked Kingdom (Hey, Emory, mail it to me!!! Lol).

My rating:

9 crows out of 10

-Sara

Writing Community: Sirens Conference

For my blog post this week, I’m switching things up a bit! Throughout the year, I’d like to write about finding and building community as a writer – whether that be online or in person, local or abroad. Whatever form your writing community takes, what’s important is that you create a support system that best suits you and your needs as a writer! Since I began actively seeking out fellow writers, readers, and book lovers with similar passions and writing ambitions, my life and writing have infinitely changed for the better. I can’t wait to share some of these thoughts and insights with you!

This month, I’ve got conferences on the brain! This time last year, I was beginning my first foray into conference research. I’d made the decision to refocus my time and energy on what I was most passionate about – writing. But here’s the thing – I was scared! I had low confidence in my work, was daunted by the idea of completing a novel, and overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who populate the publishing world. I felt like a conference would help me to begin to better understand how the larger writing community works and allow me to meet fellow writers with shared interests.

With this in mind, I began researching North American writing conferences. I knew that I wanted a smaller conference (AWP and Writer’s Digest just seemed so BIG and overwhelming for a first conference) where I would feel safe as a queer woman and be encouraged to talk about speculative fiction. Luckily for me, this is a pretty specific conference checklist, and after a few Google searches and Twitter chats I stumbled upon the Sirens website.

Sirens is an annual Colorado conference geared toward writers, readers, librarians, and educators of sci-fi/fantasy literature, specifically those who feel the effects of the patriarchy (nonbinary folks, tran folks, women, or wherever you land on the gender spectrum!). Founded in 2009 (10 years ago!!), Sirens sought to create a conference space where all were welcomed and encouraged to celebrate and see themselves in speculative fiction. Their commitment to doing better and being more inclusive each year is evident and refreshing, and is what drew to me them in the first place.


Like the women of fantasy literature, we dream big and bold and bright.

Sirens 2019

After months of planning, budgeting, and applying for grants, I attended my very first Sirens conference in October 2018! I decided to attend both the pre-conference Sirens Studio (Tuesday-Wednesday) and the full Sirens conference (Thursday-Sunday) to give myself a fully immersive experience. Sirens Studio was an amazing experience – two days of small-group workshops taught by stellar faculty interspersed with time to read, write, and relax (yes, there were bonfire pits and outdoor hot tubs!).

The full conference began Thursday evening with a welcome reception and the very first keynote speaker. Friday was chock full of workshops, lecture, and panels, and ended with a fabulous evening of Bedtime Stories, during which all visiting guests of honor read from their new/upcoming work (while we, of course, sipped on hot chocolate and ate gourmet s’mores!). Saturday featured similar conference scheduling, two more amazing keynote speakers, and an unforgettable masquerade ball!

My first Sirens conference was truly life changing. I’m a bit shy and reserved before I get to know people, so I was glad that I decided to start with the smaller Sirens Studio. The few extra days gave me a bit more time to ease into the conference and to meet a few people before the (delightful) chaos began on Friday. A lot of people already knew each other (some people have been attending Sirens every year since 2009, which is AMAZING!) and I was a little bit intimidated at first! However, Sirens does a wonderful job at planning group outings for lunch and dinner, and I quickly learned that connecting with people over food is SO my thing!

One of my biggest struggles as a writer (besides, ya know, writing) is being confident enough to discuss my work and ideas with friends and strangers, and Sirens really forced me out of my comfort zone in this regard, which I am so thankful for. Seeing how passionate everyone was about their own work and other’s really pushed me to reevaluate the fears/anxieties I have about sharing my own writing. This was my biggest take away from the conference – a new confidence in myself and my work. I’m so grateful for all of the amazing people I met last year at Sirens!

I could sing praises about Sirens forever (I can’t wait to go back this year!!) but before I finish this post I just want to touch base on the most daunting thing about conferences: $$$$. I don’t know about you, but as a person with two part-time jobs who makes less than $20,000 a year, the thought of dropping $1500 on conference fees, plane tickets, and housing was horrifying! Financially, conferences are not always accessible. I was fortunate enough to receive a grant from my local arts counsel that funded my entire trip, but it’s not always that easy!

If your city or state doesn’t offer grants for artists, there are also scholarship options through Sirens (some of which are still open!). Sirens is currently accepting program proposals through May 15 – three exemplary programming proposals will be awarded free registration and shuttle tickets! Additionally, Con or Bust is a fabulous financial resource for people of color seeking to attend SFF conventions.

What are you experiences with writing conferences (the good, the bad, the ugly?!). Let me know in the comments!

-Emory

April Bookshelf

WOW! We survived the treacherous Ides of March and are one month closer to sweet, sweet summertime. Welcome to the glorious month of April – here are the books we can’t stop thinking about!

Emory:

  1. Once & Future by Cori McCarthy and Amy Rose Capetta – This book has been popping up all over my feed this past month. A galactic fantasy retelling of the Arthurian legends chock-full of LGBTQ+ characters ~ literally all I need right now!
  2. Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse – The second installment in Roanhorse’s acclaimed Sixth World series – a post-apocalyptic urban fantasy that explores themes of climate change and environmental collapse through the lens of Navajo history and religion. Roanhorse will be a keynote speaker at Sirens this year, and I can’t wait to get my hands on her next book!
  3. Jade City by Fonda Lee – In a writing workshop at Sirens, we did some close-reading of a fight scene from Fonda Lee’s kick-ass novel ~ I’ve never read anything so visceral and masterfully written! In this fantasy, warriors utilize jade to heighten and focus their magic, giving them a fighting edge against their rivals. Reading this now so I can get ready for the second book in the series, Jade War, coming out this summer!
  4. Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova – The first installment in the Brooklyn Bruja series! I first learned about Cordova’s amazing work while at Sirens (do you see a theme here??). A bisexual bruja from Brooklyn accidentally banishes her family to another realm ~ can’t wait to devour this book and it’s sequel – Bruja Born – which came out this past summer!
  5. How Long ‘til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemison – I’ve been wanting to delve into NK Jemison’s work for quite some time now, but haven’t yet found the time for all 468 pages of The Fifth Season (which I hear from so many people is SO GOOD!!!). So excited to start with this amazing collection of spec fic short stories!

Sara:

  1. Descendant of the Crane by Joan He – The Young Adult debut novel for Joan He, Descendant of the Crane details the life of Princess Hesina of Yen, who, more than anything, just wants a normal life. This becomes impossible for her to attain once her father is found dead and Hesina must take on the role of Queen. Comes out April 9th, and I can’t wait!
  2. The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson – Author of Alif the Unseen and a writer for the Ms. Marvel comics, G. Willow Wilson presents a new novel chock-full of interesting characters, including one who can create maps of places he’s never been before, and who can even bend the shape of reality (and he’s not even the main character!). I already went out and bought a copy because the description just sounded so cool!
  3. The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark – Taking place in an alternate version of Cairo, this book follows Senior Agent Hamed al-Nasr and his new partner, Agent Onsi, as they are called on to inspect a dangerous, possessed tram car. That’s right – a possessed tram car. And apparently the demon possessing it has an interesting origin story.
  4. Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen – I heard about this book during one of my classes for grad school, and I knew immediately it was a book I had to read. Set in the 1990s, Kin Stewart appears to be your standard suburban dad, but that appearance quickly falls away when readers learn he’s really a time traveling secret agent from the year 2142 that got stranded. Too bad his rescue team shows up eighteen years late. Time travel + secret agents = a must read.
  5. Broken Stars translated by Ken Liu – This is a collection of translated contemporary Chinese Science Fiction, with stories that range from your classic science fiction, science fantasy, cyberpunk, and space operas, while also including stories with ties to Chinese culture, like alternate Chinese history and chuanyue time travel. I’m excited to break into a new genre of sci fi with this collection!

Book Review | Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

Genre : Fairy Tale, Fantasy, Magical Realism
Date Published : March 5, 2019
Publisher : Riverhead Books

I was first introduced to Helen Oyeyemi during my junior year of undergrad in a course titled “The Novel and its Secrets.” We read a short story from her collection, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, and I knew after that singular story that this was an author I needed more of. So I bought her entire collection of short stories, along with two of her novels, White is For Witching and Boy, Snow, Bird and devoured them all within a couple of months. If someone were to ask what I look for in a story, I would shove all of Oyeyemi’s books into their hands.

If you talk to me long enough about books or publishing in general, I will eventually get to the topic I tackled in my thesis – that the Horror/Gothic genre has the capacity to do more than simply scare you; it can also heal you. (Not that it always needs to do that – sometimes it’s good to have an old fashioned scare every now and then). This is something that Oyeyemi not only exemplifies in her work, but something that she excels at. In White is for Witching, Oyeyemi starts off with the classic haunted house set-up, but then gives the house its own narrative chapters which helps to tie its appetite to entrap its occupants to one of the characters, Miranda, who has an eating disorder called pica. In Boy, Snow, Bird, she takes the fairy tale of Snow White and adapts it into a story about the lasting effects of parental abuse. Oyeyemi has a strong grasp on the what the Gothic has the potential to do, and she manages to pour something new into the genre with each book she writes.

Keeping with Oyeyemi’s trademark, Gingerbread takes a recognizable element of a fairy tale and twists it into something even more unsettling, while breathing new life into it at the same time. In the original Hansel and Gretel tale, the parents leave their two children out in the woods because they don’t have the resources to feed them. In Oyeyemi’s take on the tale, she writes a story that, beneath the various descriptions and manifestations of gingerbread (which are more than unnerving at times), looks at how a family could be put into that kind of situation in the first place.

The book details the lives of three generations of women – Margot, Harriet, and Perdita Lee, a family whose gingerbread recipe is passed down between them, although it quickly becomes clear that it is not a simple recipe. At times it seems more like a curse, especially when, early on in the book, Perdita re-creates the recipe with a mysterious ingredient that sends her into a coma. And this is where the book morphs into something readers won’t see coming, especially if they’ve never read Oyeyemi’s work before.

Upon waking, Perdita swears to her mother that what occurred was not a suicide attempt, but rather an attempt to reach Druhástrana – Harriet’s home country, which, you know, may or may not exist. Begged by her daughter and the dolls at her bedside (oh yeah, the dolls talk, ’cause why not?) Harriet launches into a story she has never told Perdita – how she escaped Druhástrana and made it to England. It is a story made up of a mysterious girl in a well, changelings, gingerbread shivs, and a corrupt gingerbread factory owner that pay workers with fake money.

“Harriet ate a piece of gingerbread and tingled all over. It was a square meal and a good night’s sleep and a long, blood-spattered howl at the moon rolled into one.”

– Chapter 6, page 73

Actually trying to detail Oyeyemi’s plot feels like an impossible task. She has a talent with her storytelling and her prose that not only gets you to suspend your disbelief, but manages to get you to disregard it completely and allow Oyeyemi to lead you down the rabbit hole of a strange and bewildering adventure that, when you really think about it, doesn’t always make sense. But that’s what is so extraordinary and breathtaking about this book – the fact that it reads almost like a fever dream at times, and yet you find yourself nodding along and flipping to the next page with your breath held in suspense anyway.

It can be easy to fall into the cliches of Gothic Fantasy (although, give me a classic haunted house story and I am always 100% on board), but Oyeyemi manages to avoid this by twisting the typical themes and tropes into another shape, and by adding an element to her story that a lot of people don’t normally associate with the Gothic – light-heartedness. While the book is strange and dark at times, it’s impossible to not have affection for the characters. Readers learn that Harriet has adopted a habit of leaving five star reviews on books she hasn’t read simply because she likes the author photo, and she started doing this after learning her students do the same thing, but with one-star reviews instead. “Opposing random negativity with random positivity,” is how Harriet classifies the act in her mind. And then there’s one of the underlying messages of the story – that a person holds the power to create their own family. “Not some sham family, politely avoiding having to care about one another,” Oyeyemi writes, “but people who would share a surname and the task of weaving a collective meaning into that name. People would support and protect and staunchly cherish one another.”

This book proves that Oyeyemi is an author we can continue to expect greatness from. She’s creating a recipe of her own when it comes the Fantasy genre – and I for one will be along for the ride, purchasing whatever book Oyeyemi writes next. While Gingerbread might not be the best starting point for new readers (I would recommend starting with her short stories to get a feel for her storytelling that’s a little easier to navigate), it is more than worth any resulting confusion from all of the delicious reality bending.

My rating:

9 Gingerbread Recipes out of 10

-Sara