|Art by Galen Dara|
Given that May contains Mothers’ Day, it’s perhaps rather fitting that a lot of the most recent Uncanny Magazine features mothers in SFF. At the very least, the issue takes a keen look at parenting, loss, trauma, and what healing can look like. The stories show characters dealing with their feelings about their parents, about their mothers, their fathers, their sons. About what to risk, and how to put those relationships in context with a larger identity and world. And it’s a dazzling collection of works, at turns heartbreaking and terrifying and fun, and always gorgeously rendered. There’s quite a bit to get to, though, so I’ll get right to the reviews!
“A Salt and Sterling Tongue” by Emma Osborne (4885 words)
No Spoilers: Sera’s boy has been infected with a kind of song. The legacy of the Merling King, an enemy from the sea bent on punishing humans for their fishing and their incursions into his domain. It means war to try and put things right, but even with the war won there is no cure for what the Merling King has done, and Sera and the entire nation are in a sort of fugue state following it all. And then bard shows up with a different kind of song. It’s a tender and rending read, one at the same time visceral and numb and yearning. The hurt is palpable, but so too is the hope that for some at least, life goes on. And for those survivors there’s a sea of conflicting emotions, guilt, shame, and anger. But that maybe with a little help they can fashion a craft to steer them through and reach calmer waters on the other side, ushered by a heartening and healing song.
Keywords: Seas, Songs, Family, Loss, Queer MC, War, CW- Death of a Child
Review: This is a beautiful story that doesn’t pull its punches, opening with some rather disturbing body horror before settling into a look at trauma and war and the prospect of healing. Sera is shattered by what happens, by this terrible death of her child, not related by blood but still very much her son. She’s numb and wandering through life pulled in on herself until the bard arrives and begins to let the light in, to wake everyone up from the immediacy of their grief and give them a bit of comfort that things will get better, or at least that things will go on. The story is nicely romantic, too, building up this relationship between Sera and the bard, bringing them together by a shared isolation and a shared history. They are veterans in many ways, eager to love but careful not to do anything that would reopen the wounds that are just barely closed. I love the way they slowly build something rare and fragile but wonderful and alive, something that helps them both to heal. And Sera is in such an impossible situation, alone with her grief, one son lost and the other gone to fight, unaware of just how far she had sunk into herself until someone throws her a lifeline. The piece explores the ways that war tears people and families apart, making weapons into the very things that should be used for joy and healing. Twisting songs into death, into torture. It’s a rather quiet experience for that, like the silence after a shattering boom that resolves first into a consuming whine and ringing before it can clear and people can really hear each other again. Just a lovely, heartbreaking story that manages to pick up the pieces and stitch them back together by the end, not the same as before but new, alive, and wonderful!
“Nice Things” by Ellen Klages (7593 words)
No Spoilers: This is another quietly horrifying piece, but of a much more contemporary nature than the last story. Here, Phoebe has just lost her mother to a chronic illness and has travelled to her mother’s home to pack it up and get it all sorted. Her relationship to her mother was...strained. Because of her mother’s constant criticism and judgment. Because Phoebe was never allowed to have anything of her own. Because of a lot of reasons that the piece explores as Phoebe stays in a home that might not be as vacated as she wants. It’s a story rich in personal history, that maps the distance between mother and daughter and provides for some complex topographies.
Keywords: Parents, Death, CW- Terminal Illness, CW- Abuse, Cooking, Organizing
Review: Okay, so this might not seem like a super exciting read. It moves slowly and carefully, mirroring the way that Phoebe moves through her mother’s home that is now hers. She’s browsing, not searching, and the story takes on that quality to it, of a person walking through a place where she’s something of a stranger but also very connected to it, where there are these land mines waiting to be stepped on that trigger bouts of memory and nostalgia that she’s not entirely ready for. That don’t bring her the closure or the healing that she wants, that don’t really move her toward forgiving her mother anything, but do perhaps help her process what she’s feeling and bring her to the point where she can know what to do with herself, where she can move forward even if that doesn’t mean forgiveness. And there’s just this darkness to the piece as well, that comes out of the trauma that Phoebe’s lived with, that she’s not quasi-free of the source of. However, the story explores how, even with her mother dead, she’s not necessarily free of that legacy. There’s still a presence in the home, still this feeling that won’t go away. And the horror of that is handled very well, is subtle but also like Nope!, that is something you should be running from at full speed. It’s mundane enough that she can brush it off, but also off enough that you know this is not going to end well. And it’s a gutting moment when the story reveals its hand and calls. It’s unsettling and creepy and the end is a brutal twist of the knife, one that leaves its mark and doesn’t apologize. It’s a muted but increasingly terrifying piece, and makes for a great read!
“Probabilitea” by John Chu (7090 words)
No Spoilers: Katie is a Manifestation of Chaos and Order. Or, well, she’s a manifestation in training, prepared her entire life by her exacting father so that she doesn’t accidentally effect probability around her and able, through careful concentration and intricate math, to consciously alter the flow of events. Always with the directive to not disrupt people’s lives. Except what happens when, now a college student nearly ready to fully enter the adult world, she has to make the decision to let something she knows is wrong happen...or to influence things to try and make them right, even if it means nudging people’s lives a bit to do so. It’s a interesting idea and wonderful bit of world building for a piece that weaves around the central relationship of father and daughter, and all the expectation, hope, and vulnerability that comes with it.
Keywords: Probability, Manipulation, Family, Queer Characters, Math, Fascists
Review: I really like the way the story builds up this system of manifestations, people who can manipulate very fundamental forces of reality. And the great control they have to have because of the power they wield. And what very real consequences it can have on their relationships. How it’s so hard to believe in chance or luck or coincidence when there are people who can willfully manipulate all of those things in order to try and reach an outcome they desire. But they’re judging the lives of other people, which is something not to be entered into lightly. I also deeply appreciate the “yes you punch the Nazi” mentality that the story reaches, the place where in the end what Katie and her friend have to do in order to try and avoid tragedy is hope that one person will act, that one person will be decent when they don’t strictly need to be. It’s such a powerful thing that, even with these people who can manipulate life and death, what’s need to really change things is a person choosing to do the right thing. Especially when that thing is punching a Nazi. And I really like how the story works with the relationship between Katie and her father, showing him to be stern and rather A Lot at times, but also very much trying to mentor her in ways that she won’t make some of the mistakes that he has. Where she will understand how not to interfere too much, and always to be honest with those she cares about. And it sets up a situation where Katie has to make some really hard decisions. It’s messy, like life, and it’s rather amazing to see play out. How so much can come down to math and plans and subtle nudges but so much is still down to how people live their lives, the ways they help people and the ways they sometimes fail to. But it’s a wonderful story, vivid and fun, and I definitely hope this isn’t the last I read about Katie. A fantastic story!
“The Cinder Girl Burns Brightly” by Theodora Goss
This poem reimagines the story of Cinderella, except instead of a fairy godmother, this Cinder Girl has a mother made of fire who lives int he fireplace and who whispers to the Cinder Girl, making her life easier and getting her ready for something. The poem follows the general shape of the fairy tale, the fire acting as the magic that allows the Cinder Girl to finish her chores. It also purifies her through fire, washing away the dirt and grime and making her read. For me it’s a rather dark read, not just because of the ending (which I’ll get to and is delightfully done) but because the fire is using the Cinder girl as a tool. She doesn’t know what she wants, doesn’t really understand what has happened and why it’s wrong. And the fire takes that and forges her into a weapon to be used against someone who has wronged her. The fire also protects the Cinder Girl, but it doesn’t really ask about her happiness or her desires. It presses her into the position where she’s in the right place at the right time to gain entry where it needs to in order to exact that revenge. There’s a question I suppose of why it needs the Cinder Girl at all, but for me it speaks to the kind of connection they have, where the fire has power but does not have unlimited freedom. She is connected to the Cinder Girl as mother and daughter and so must act through this living person in order to get what she wants. To be honest it feels like a haunting, like the fire has unfinished business, but even if the fire is merely the magical mother of the Cinder Girl, the result is that the fire helps the Cinder Girl when no one else would, and it means that the Cinder Girl feels that connect, believes the fire when it tells her to do something even when it’s not exactly what she wants. And in the end it means that the Cinder Girl is a party to something terrible, something violent and huge, though there isn’t quite the tone of sorrow or tragedy to it. Rather it’s the sense for me of justice slipping free at last, and a freedom for the fire at least now that it’s enemy has been consumed. And I just love the way it alters the fairy tale and makes its own thing out of broken edges and corners bent into sharp angles. A great read!
“The following parameters” by Nicasio Andres Reed
This piece speaks to me of shape, of time, and of exploration. The piece is framed as a sort of afterword for a geologic map of Mars, giving that text some context perhaps but here orphaned of that and alone, a flowing list or explanation or guide itself. The feeling I get from it is strange, reaching, a mix of scientific distance and a sort of intimate peeling back of time and layers to try and understand not just this planet that the map details, but our own place and location in relation to it. For me, at least, there is a recognition of both author and reader here, that through the fractured imagery, the story that geology tells, we come across something unexpected, something designed rather than naturally occurring. There’s mention of another spacecraft, and there seems to be some conflict around seeing an author in the survey of the planet, proof perhaps of past life, past civilization. Proof perhaps of a people who lived and were wiped away. Of collision and extinction, of annihilation. But also maybe a link. A link where we can also find ourselves. The piece ends with an inclusion, a key. A sort of “You are here,” which makes sense to accompany a map. But are we finding ourselves on Mars? In its history and its trajectory? In the lines of its packed soil and rock and dust and remains? I’m fascinated by this inclusion, by this final, bold declaration that brings the reader into what has before been largely descriptive and slightly mysterious. It’s a beautiful piece, evocative and strange and even though I’m not sure the literal meaning of it, there’s this haunting sense I get from it, like this is a bit of found text without reference or context, an artifact that I am forced to puzzle over, only to find myself there, reflected back. A wonderful read!
“Flashover” by S. Qiouyi Lu
This poem seems to me to look at the pressures to be...utterly self reliant, I guess I’d say. The pressure that gets put on people to not need nor seek help. The narrator here speaks of the sun and their anger at needing the light and warmth of the sun. The piece focuses a lot on plant imagery and metaphor, building the narrator into a being who needs the run to live and thrive but is being pushed not to use the sun to help themself. Whether that pressure is coming from those who don’t have light themselves or whether it’s coming from people who don’t need light to thrive I’m not sure, but whatever the case the piece builds this situation where the narrator is expected to give up what they need in order to fit in better, in order to be the shape that people want. For me it speaks to the pressure that gets put on people to be thin and to be chipper, to be this person who is self made and resilient and undaunted by everything. And there comes a tipping point in the piece where the narrator stops seeking to embrace the models that the rest of the world has made for them. Where they grow wild and to their own needs and drop their anger and guilt and shame and decide instead that they might be like a sun to other people, to give them what they need in an environment where maybe they are convinced that they shouldn’t. It’s a piece that seems to be pushing back against stigma and positioning the narrator as someone who can transform and transcend. For me it’s focus is not exactly on healing but on practicing a form of self care. One that’s not afraid to take what time and resources it needs to, in the hope that afterward they will be in a place then to help other people. Which is a rather lovely thought, for all that it seems a bit violently accomplished in the poem (by bringing everything down). But it does seem like a piece that reaches for some sort of comfort, some sort of safety, in a place where those are very difficult to come by. A fine read!