Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Quick Sips - Uncanny #33 [March stuff]

Art by Galen Dara
Three short stories and two poem round out Uncanny Magazine’s March offerings. And the pieces mix magic and seduction, visions and trauma, freedom and loss as they explore their worlds and futures. It’s difficult for me to pick out a single connective tissue that runs throughout, but I appreciate the way each story features characters struggling with the decision to act or remain silent. And in that silence, complicit. Each character ends up making the decision to act, but how they do that, and what they’re acting against, are quite different. So yeah, let’s get to the reviews!


“If Salt Lose Its Savor” by Christopher Caldwell (2512 words)

No Spoilers: Dion makes her living make salt from the sea, a skill that she supplements with a seemingly magic ability to sense where the best salt is. The bluest. The best for magic. Only using her gift takes its toll, and after so many years of working the salt, it’s giving her nightmares. Or maybe visions. What she discovers about them, and what she does about that, make up the central conflict of the piece. Or perhaps the central conflict is the simple need for money, the desire for a comfortable life in a system Dion thought was, if not fair, at least not evil. It’s a short read, tinged with frustration and anger and the need to act, to defy, even when it would be easier to go with the flow.
Keywords: Salt, Seas, Magic, Queer MC, Money, Visions
Review: I like the resilience of Dion, the sort of tired that comes from trying to squeeze a life from a setting that really doesn’t want to give it up. Even with her magical gift she doesn’t have enough to be secure. She can’t provide what she wants for her wife and their future. And it’s such a small want that’s so huge that it should be easy but of course it’s not. Not when you also value honesty and doing the right thing. Which is what Dion thinks she values. Until she finds out that she’s been a part of something that’s much more wicked than she knew. And it’s so gutting to see that moment play out, when she realizes that all of her dreams and bargains, all of her self-sacrifice weren’t just noble for what she was willing to do for her family. They were also helping to advance evil. And it’s so wrenching to see her struggle with that and also not struggle with it. She doesn’t agonize over it long. She knows what she has to do and she does it, and damn the consequences. It’s not exactly a happy story for all that, because her dreams have gone up literally in smoke. But I think that it holds a certain amount of hope all the same. A faith that sometimes people will do the right thing even when it costs them everything. Not that it’s what we should want, for people to lose everything. But it takes that kind of integrity to get things any sort of better. It takes being willing to throw away a dream in order to push back against corruption. Dion has a lot to lose. And she might now that she’s acted. But she also owed it to herself to act, to fight, because a system that works by destroying some, where that’s how it operates, not a mistake or an accident, is not a system that should be tolerated. And it’s admirable what she’s willing to do about that. A great read!

“The Sycamore and the Sybil” by Alix E. Harrow (4512 words)

No Spoilers: Sylvia is a sycamore. Or, she is now, thanks to a spell that helped her escape being raped. But as the years pass, the escape becomes a cage, and without the power to do much, she slips into a dark place when she is witness to a similar situation to the one that created her. Only this woman doesn’t transform into a tree. And it prompts Sylvia to confront her situation and a past that stretches back to other women made victims because of their power, their magic, and the desires of men. It’s a story that uses some heavy and grim content to find some joy in power, in reconnecting to a magic that isn’t quite as lost as it seems.
Keywords: Trees, Witches, Transformations, CW- Rape, CW- Pregnancy
Review: I’m a big fan of Minnie the owl. And really, I think the story does a great job of capturing the feeling of powerlessness that Sylvia has. How she can see but can’t really act. How becoming a tree, protecting herself from the dangers of the world, required her to withdraw completely from that world. Because that does often seem like the only option, and a non-option at that, because transforming into a tree isn’t exactly possible irl. But that feeling that in order to interact with the world she has to accept that this violence can happen to her at any moment and there will be no justice, no safety, that is something that resonates. That speaks to the ways that we leave no out for people, just a thin layer of victim blaming. And I do like that Sylvia is able to reconnect with the past and find a power to find back, to push back. To give this woman in the “present” a way to avoid a fate that will consume her. That has already cost her so much. It’s unfortunate that it comes too late to prevent her from being raped and getting pregnant, but it’s something. And it might be just the step towards preventative justice that is required. A shove when a violation occurs, a flaming tree transformation in order to bring the line back to where it should be, where consent is valued and respected. It’s a story that takes on some complicated and upsetting issues, and it does so with a nice magical flare. A fine read!

“So You Want to Be a Honeypot” by Kelly Robson (4686 words)

No Spoilers: Claudia (once Vasilisa) wanted to be a sniper but ended up being a spy instead, trained in seduction and pleasure with a small class of agents who find that, let loose into the world of international espionage, things are kinda...well, not what they expected. The piece follows Claudia as she undergoes her training, her transformation, her becoming, and as she works under orders from the Soviet government. But all the while something tugs at her, pulls at her attention, and the connections she made during her training are slow to fade. The piece is fast and fun, mostly--circling around sex and intimacy and trust in a profession where there’s supposed to be only loyalty and obedience.
Keywords: Spies, Sex, Seduction, Queer MC, Found Family
Review: I love the energy of this story, the way that Claudia runs through life, the way that all of her group run. They are skilled, trained to give pleasure and suppress their emotions, but the work they’re given is downright boring. So much waiting, so much repressing. Where in many ways I feel they were expecting an adventure, the romanticized version of spycraft and warfare. They were brought up on stories of the war, of the heroes, and despite finding that reality doesn’t exactly offer the same opportunities, they’re still looking for something big and splashy. They’ve been trained to value being desired, and yet their own handlers treat them with an aloofness and disregard they can’t stand. And then their handlers decide they need to be tested. Need to be broken. So that they understand where their loyalties are. And in the end they do find where, and it’s not to their government, but to each other. And I love the found family element of the story, that amidst this rather messed up situation these people, these lovers, have also become family. And when one of them is threatened, they all have to join together. It’s just such a fun piece, and Claudia brings it to life. The sex and sexual training here isn’t framed as assault, or trauma, which is pretty fucking refreshing, actually. Instead, these are willing participants (who read rather aromantic) who want to do this work in part because it fits with who they are, with how they’re comfortable and happy. It’s mostly joyous, raucous, and imagines a way for them out from under the manipulation of a government who never really understood them and so mishandled them. It imagines freedom for a troupe of seductive spies with no masters, and that’s pretty delightful to me. A wonderful read!


“Other Worlds to Save” by Beth Cato

This is a warm and peaceful poem that speaks to me of pressure, and expectation, and distance, and a sort of nostalgia that isn’t toxic, that isn’t rooted in trying to make the universe fit a pattern it’s grown past, but rather is about a personal connection to a past state, a feeling, reached through a connection to artifacts that make the memories fresh, that allow for a sort of communion across space and time to a place that was peaceful, restful, and relatively free. The piece follows a character as she slips free from the role of diplomat and ambassador to an alien world. And for me it really captures that sense of escaping from the present stress and retreating to a time that felt safer, where it felt like there was more freedom and maybe hope. It’s strange to say at least for me because I view nostalgia with a kind of suspicion, but I do think there’s something to be said about how we allow younger people to have time, how we protect them from having full responsibilities. At least for many people, there was a time when things felt more seen to, that there was time that didn’t need to be spent constantly stressed, constantly working. Our adult lives are crowded with responsibilities, with things we might not hate, but that do tax us in ways that add up. Even working a job that is fulfilling can be a lot when you are doing it all the time, and more and more people have to stay on all the time, connected all the time, on call all the time. There’s something to this poem that is about....prioritizing down time. Making it important to take a break and try to relax. To, if possible, get caught up in something where the stakes are lower, the tasks are easier to complete. Something simple, where there is a clear map, a clear objective, a clear reward. I like how the title captures that, how it sets up this act as saving worlds. Yes, fictional ones, but there’s still a value placed there, an importance. Because it is vital to do things that allow you to unwind, to de-stress. And that even living a dream doesn’t mean you can’t slip back and find comfort in a time when all those dreams still seemed maybe out of reach. I just really like this one, and definitely recommend people go check it out immediately! A fantastic read!

“Hungry Ghost” by Millie Ho

This is a rather heartbreaking poem that speaks to me of loss and hope, of hauntings and love. It features a narrator whose girlfriend is, as the title says, a hungry ghost. Who became that way following an accident, or an event at least, that ended in her death. The cause of that death is unknown, though I feel the piece implies that it came about because she wanted to be famous, because she put herself online. She might have been killed by a stalker, or a random person, or might have been killed while riding her bike in the rain. What’s more certain to me is the deep loss and longing it instills both in the narrator and the ghost of their girlfriend. How neither of them really wants to move on, to let go of the dreams that they had and built together. And I love the piece for its strangeness, for the sensual touches, for the way the two people connect and mourn for themselves and each other. The piece mostly looks at the time between death and passing on, between becoming a hungry ghost and the narrator performing the ritual that will let their girlfriend rise up and away. And while the focus could have been on the death, on the details and specifics of it, I like that the focus is rather on the ways that both people try not to change. And it’s so gutting to listen to the girlfriend face her own death, face what’s happened to her. Because that hunger to stay, to remain, is so understandable. The tragedy that her death represents so raw. And the poem is beautiful in revealing the details of the relationship and its final acts. The power and the care and the pain that is captured in that stunning, haunting, transcending moment of a lantern floating off into the distance. It’s quiet but that doesn’t soften the impact. It’s still a stunning read!


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