Thursday, August 13, 2020

Quick Sips - Uncanny #35 [August stuff]

Art by Kirbi Fagan
It’s a fairly big month from Uncanny Magazine in terms of words, with two short stories and one novelette that’s almost a novella. Plus two poems! The works trace ideas of various courts--pre-Revolutionary France, the courts of angels, and the courts of seasons and their rulers. Amidst these structures, characters deal with the rules, the personalities, and the dangers of those spaces. There’s a sense of wealth, of power...and of loss, as the characters also must face those courts crumbling or breaking in some ways. And it’s a wonderful bunch of works that I’ll get right to reviewing!


“The Nine Scents of Sorrow” by Jordan Taylor (5672 words)

No Spoilers: Sorrow is a perfumer, a crafter of custom scents designed to capture something about the client. Something from their childhood, perhaps. A memory almost forgotten. Sorrow has something of a strange childhood, born fully formed as a child out of an act of despair from their father shortly after he lost his wife. They become his apprentice, learning the ways of perfume, eventually taking over his business and moving to Paris, where they build their reputation, eventually coming to the court of the queen, to Versailles itself. And there they get involved in much more than perfumes, though perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they push the boundaries of perfume outside of scent, outside of memories, and into a magical kind of future. It’s strange but beautiful.
Keywords: Scents, France, Revolution, Non-binary MC(/Intersex MC?), Family
Review: I love the feel of this story, the way that it blends scents and memories, Sorrow a person working for the craft itself, to push themself as a craftsperson. They are a master perfumer, and they are pushed by their desire to create, to match scents and people. For most, it means being drawn by that sorrow that exists in their hearts. The longing. The loss. Something that resonates in them, that makes them reach out. The piece captures a moment of revolution from a strange angle, from that of an outsider inside this world of nobles. At a tipping point. Having chased their dreams and made mostly good on them only to find it all on the verge of collapse. And it’s strange, haunting, Sorrow a sort of shade that passes through the court, feeling their secret, teasing them out. All the while caught in their own secrets, their own actions. The way that they’ve created a child from scent and memory and yearning. The way that they are transfixed because of it, unable to just break away even when it becomes increasingly dangerous. And for me the story is about how they move through the world, seeking to capture something real, something beautiful and fleeting. Something of the past that will not be again, something about the future that might be, but isn’t. It’s a balance of hope and trauma, of finding something lovely even in the throny wilds of memory, and trying to find in scent a vision of the future as we’d want it to be. Something magical, capable of creating life itself. All in this historical backdrop, this moment of time defined by enormous imbalance and corruption but also large advances in art and culture. And it makes for a fantastic read!

“The Inaccessibility of Heaven” by Aliette de Bodard (16631 words)

No Spoilers: It’s another stop in a world of fallen angels, witches, and a whole lot of lingering pain and plots. In this, Sam is a witch working at a shelter for newly Fallen, beings cast out of the holy City and feeling that fall rather keenly. Powerful and vulnerable all at the same time, they are a particular interest to Sam. And okay, maybe one of the Fallen is of more interest, but her relationship with Cal is complicated, strained by the differences in age and Cal’s nature, her belief that humans have no place in the business of angels, even fallen ones. Except that there’s someone killing Fallen, and Sam is brought into things, decides that she’s going to investigate over Cal’s objections. And what she discovers is...big, and not at all what she expected. It’s a wonderfully built, fun read that’s part mystery, part urban fantasy, and entirely kickass.
Keywords: Angels, Fallen Angels, Furies, Magic, Witches, Queer MC
Review: I really like the way the story pairs the mystery of what’s going on with this very personal conflict that’s keeping all these characters apart. Not that they aren’t close, but that there’s this central chasm between them. The City. The Fall. Where the Fallen think that humans can never understand the loss they’ve suffered, can never really feel that sense of sorrow and grief. Which is really arrogant, and part of what makes it so difficult for humans and Fallen to really bond. More than their different ages, the Fallen’s relative immortality. More than the way that the Fallen fear being dissected and used for drugs for humans, their very bones magical materials. And the story shows through a variety of different relationships how people try to bridge that gap, and how large that one thing looms. How it trips them up. For one, it’s a gateway to darkness, a reason to transgress, to sacrifice her very soul to try and give her love one last glimpse of that City. For others, including Sam, it’s a wound that in some ways becomes no less intense than the Fallen’s grief for their lost home. Something that eats at them, that gnaws at their insecurities and their hopes. It’s a weight, something that sits heavily on everyone who brushes it. Crushing trust, crushing compassion, crushing everything but the sorrow and pain. At least, if everyone lets it. Most of the relationships here do end in tragedy. The lovers both consumed by the desires. The human who gives his own life without perhaps fully confessing his feelings, his truths, to save the life of the Fallen he cares for. And finally Sam, who is left with those examples, and has to decide what to do. And Cal, who also is left with those examples, and where it leaves the Fallen in those relationships. Who also has to decide what to do. To hold to the solitary pain of her exile, or to maybe start to open up, to trust, to set down the belief that her feelings as a Fallen are superior to those a human might experience. And it’s a wrenching, yearning read, noirish and gritty at times, heartbreaking at times, but not without hope. It takes place in a Fallen world, one in many ways pointed toward somewhere else. But it doesn’t thrown away the journey in getting there. If anything, it makes that journey the truly important part. And it makes for a wonderful read!

“The Ruby of the Summer King” by Mari Ness (4745 words)

No Spoilers: In the court of seasons, where the months and the yearly rotation have been personified, the Summer King has heard about the beauty of the Winter Queen, and he desires her. Nothing will dissuade him--not the difficulty of having anything to do with her, and not basically the entirety of his court tell him it’s a terrible idea. There’s a mix of royal entitlement and boredom that lead into this decision, this obsession, and it...well, it was never going to end well. But it’s not just a story about violating boundaries. It’s also a rather lovely story about longing and about nature. About how somethings are just separated, different, without hope of ever coexisting peacefully, no matter how beautiful it would be. It’s charming and fun and wrenching all at once, and it builds an interesting and iconographic world of personifications, almost little gods, and their various personalities.
Keywords: Seasons, Months, Colors, Gems, Courtship, Queer MC
Review: I like the way the story gives personality to the months, to the seasons, drawing this whole set of courts where they interact, dally, and have their dramatic flings. And in the center of that, the infatuation of the Summer King with the Winter Queen is something a bit different. Because they never interact, never see each other. And for the Summer King, so used to plenty, so used to abundance, can’t really stand it. Winning the Winter Queen becomes something he needs to do, without really thinking about what he’d do in winter. Without really thinking or listening at all. Just pursuing, because he’s hot, because he wants, and that requires Action! And well of course it doesn’t go super well. Because for all his desire he doesn’t both to consider what he’s doing, is assured that his boldness is all that he needs because it’s always been the only thing he’s needed. But the rules of winter are different from summer, and his boldness is impudence there, and it’s punished. And yet through it all I do like that the characters aren’t quite static. Yes, they’re iconic, archetypal characters. They have large personalities defined by what their time of the year is like. But there’s a certain feeling I get that they find some of that lacking. That the court is supposed to be immortal but what they’re looking for a little is a break from the cycle, a way of maybe stepping outside those very rigid roles. And they don’t quite manage it. The rules are too strict, the consequences too dire. But that doesn’t mean the characters can’t change. They are marked by what happens here. It’s Big. Mythic, almost. A story about beings who maybe yearn to break free from the constraints put on them while also being fundamentally bound to embody them. They don’t know how else to be, and so they remain stuck in that cycle. Of seasons, of years. And it’s a lovely, strange, magical read that’s just delightful while being tinged in a certain grimness. A great read!


“The Trouble Over” by Sonya Taaffe

This is a short poem filled with references. Building something of a puzzle for those who might not have the context that the poem is speaking around. A lot of the imagery, a lot of the details, seem to mesh with the life of Isaac Rosenberg, poet and painter. Indeed, the title comes from something he remarked about joining the war that he would eventually die in. The piece captures a sort of history inside the details of his life, his family, showing the ways that war pushed and pulled him, even before he was born. There is a sense of loss to the poem for me, a sort of mourning, a recognition that here is someone whose death shows the true cost of war. The lives lost. The greatness cut far too short. Stylistically, the brevity of the poem might work into that idea of shortness, of something caught off. It might also be an homage to Rosenberg, though I’m not very familiar with his works so I’m not sure if he wrote predominantly short works. But it does get to this way that here is something defined by brevity. And what’s there is lovely, is strong. But there’s also the implication that there could have been more, that shadow that anchors the final lines one that falls over time, that is defined by absence. The shadow is what might have been, is the loss, is the small body of work that remains, reminding everyone not only of the brilliance that was, but the brilliance that was lost on something as tragic and pointless as war. It’s a wonderful piece, lingering without losing any of its sharp edge. Definitely a piece to spend some time with!

“fair exchange” by Ewen Ma

This piece speaks to me of injustice, of frustration and pain, of wanting to make a bargain, a sort of deal. Despite the name, though, it’s not one made freely. The narrator of the piece is a prisoner. In the literal sense, it seems, from the reference to executioner. But also it seems metaphorically as well. Like the narrator removing their eye, presenting it to their captor, their oppressor. The eye, for their oppressor to consume. Their eye, in exchange for a tooth. An exchange that is supposed to be fair, but of course really isn’t. It’s just called fair, because it’s the only way that the oppressors are willing to exchange at all. Because there is a power imbalance, this really can’t be fair. The narrator ois put in a position where they have to trade their body, their pain, their vision to someone who can’t exactly appreciate it fully, but still hungers for it. For me it speaks to a way that marginalized people are often required or pressured to sell their experiences, their perspectives, their voices and their vision, in ways that are ultimately comforting to the general population. The narrator speaking is not necessarily to someone actively killing them. Instead, it might be to those who want their story, who want to use them to assuage their guilt, even if they want to feel guilty through the narrator. It’s such a strange thing, but it’s like feeling bad for the narrator makes it easier to also do nothing to help them. The accusation of executioner might not mean a person holding an axe or a gun. It might be the mass of people doing nothing. And the way the narrator leans into it might be seeking a exchange that those people don’t understand. Hoping to slip in with that eye a vision that they weren’t expecting. That would cut them deeper than it comforts them. That will poison them, that will act to discomfort them, to provoke them. To make fair this exchange that was never really voluntary or right. Or, I mean, I might be way off there. But for me it reads as a defiant dare, not exactly a taunt but a challenge. And it’s definitely worth checking out!


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