REVIEW: “Immortal Coil” by Ellen Kushner

Review of Ellen Kushner, “Immortal Coil”, Uncanny Magazine Issue 41 (2021): Read Online. Reviewed by Isabel Hinchliff.

At 44 years old, William (Will) Shakespeare begins to see his long-dead friend Christopher (Kit) Marlowe in the streets of London. Kit leads patient, unflappable Will on a merry chase full of word games before finally revealing the mechanism behind his mysterious ‘resurrection’. Of course, Marlowe (author of Doctor Faustus) lives because he made a Faustian bargain, and now Shakespeare must choose whether to make the same sacrifice in order to receive the same reward.

Among a truly dizzying collection of references to both Shakespeare and Marlowe’s works, “Immortal Coil” seeks to ask and answer one fundamental question: what does it mean to live as a writer? In other words, what is the difference between writing about the world and truly experiencing it? 

Who better to answer these questions than The Bard himself and his ill-fated rival? If you’ve ever wanted to see Shakespeare and Marlowe discuss art, legacy, travel, and death, this is the story for you. 

REVIEW: “Presque Vue” by Tochi Onyebuchi

Review of Tochi Onyebuchi, “Presque Vue”, Uncanny Magazine Issue 41 (2021): Read Online. Reviewed by Isabel Hinchliff

As she grows up, Sam has to wrestle with the revelation that hearing just one voice in her head is not, in fact, normal. She tracks when it guides her and when it falls silent. Is it nudging her thoughts in a certain direction? What does it want? Only time will tell, but why does she feel like time might be running out?

Clocking in at less than two thousand words, this bite-size story is surprisingly refreshing. It takes a much more holistic approach than many stories which feature internal voices; Sam is a well-developed protagonist with family support and access to mental health services. She struggles to understand and make peace with her unique mental landscape, but she isn’t seriously hindered by it or degraded by her peers. As each new detail of her life story was revealed, I found myself effortlessly picking out the layers of motives in Sam’s life: her motives, the motives of her friends and family, and the motives of the mysterious voice. It’s a fascinating read with a delightful reveal at the end.

REVIEW: “The Chameleon’s Gloves” by Yoon Ha Lee

Review of Yoon Ha Lee, “The Chameleon’s Gloves”, Uncanny Magazine Issue 41 (2021): Read Online. Reviewed by Isabel Hinchliff.

You can never go too wrong with a swashbuckling space adventure. Two thieves (one exile with extraordinary lockpicking abilities and one pilot) are bribed and threatened into stealing a superweapon that could blow up thirty thousand light-years worth of space. It’s a wild ride with a fascinating and ingenious narrator at the helm.

My only complaint is that the ride was, perhaps, too wild. Our narrator, Rhehan, switches allegiances between factions several times, almost at the drop of a hat. The stakes (thirty thousand light-years worth of space!!) seem very high, and yet Rhehan is fairly nonchalant about playing hot potato with such a powerful weapon. I felt that in the kaleidoscopic narrative of shifting loyalties, Rhehan’s haunted past and history with their clan (one of the factions) was lost as a theme, only to return at the end as though we should have been following it the whole time. Overall, the story caught and held me, but I wondered if the complicated plot eclipsed some of the finer nuances of characterization.

REVIEW: “From the Archives of the Museum of Eerie Skins: An Account” by C. S. E. Cooney

Review of C. S. E. Cooney,  “From the Archives of the Museum of Eerie Skins: An Account”, Uncanny Magazine Issue 41 (2021): Read Online. Reviewed by Isabel Hinchliff.

Formatted as an interview transcript, this captivating tale takes place on a university campus populated by people with magical abilities, including witches, wolfcasters, and warlocks. Our narrator, a wolfcaster, is nigh-invulnerable just as long as she keeps her pelt safe, but with a rich warlock targeting her, this doesn’t last long. Her path to revenge is darkly humorous, playing on the failures of our own present-day justice system. 

The voice of our narrator, Firi, is so robust that it seems to burst from the page, unloading fiery commentary. I reveled in her energy, her exuberance, and her dauntlessness. There was something profoundly comforting about the way her harrowing tale was told from the perspective of herself in the future, after the conflict had been resolved and she had clearly moved on to accomplish great things with her life. While the interview transcript formatting did seem a little unnecessary at times, it generally added a lot to the worldbuilding, giving me a sense that we were being told about only one small part of an entire world full of cutthroat politics. On the whole, it’s a tight piece with more than enough detail for a second read: plenty of “aha” moments! A deeply satisfying story.

REVIEW: “River, Clap Your Hands” by Sherée Renee Thomas

Review of Sheree Renée Thomas,  “River, Clap Your Hands”, Uncanny Magazine Issue 40 (2021): Read Online. Reviewed by Isabel Hinchliff.

Ava lives a life of waterborne mystery: she was abandoned on a riverbank as a child, her neck has gills, and she pines after her lost baby, birthed in the midst of a flood. Told in a series of striking vignettes, her story is heartbreaking and yet still offers glimmers of hope, like the play of sunlight over deeply ridged scales. It is an exquisite piece of craft, and a vivid picture of a life strung between two irreconcilable worlds.

This haunting and deeply poetic story has layers; I enjoyed luxuriously re-reading it and hunting out new strands of meaning. On my first read, I found myself fascinated by piecing together the vignettes in chronological order and discovering the true nature of Ava’s physical condition. On my second, with the entire premise already in mind, I discovered many instances of nuance and poetic meaning that I had originally missed. Ava’s rain- and grief-drenched world is deeply relatable at some moments and distantly beautiful in others. It is a delicious mix of craft, imagery, and catharsis; I highly recommend it.

REVIEW: “Heart Shine” by Shveta Thakrar

Review of Shveta Thakrar, “Heart Shine”, Uncanny Magazine Issue 40 (2021): Read Online. Reviewed by Isabel Hinchliff.

Kamal is lonely, so she turns to research on the Faerie, a mystical otherworld guarded by a tiny black kitten and green-glowing fireflies. She tries to sacrifice her entire history of memories to Faerie in order to become one of its denizens, but something goes wrong, and she finds herself wandering its borders, memories frustratingly intact, hopeless. A year later she finds a boy with a glowing peridot heart, and finally she experiences recognition and learns to appreciate her own inner worth. 

This piece revels in its description, eschewing the stripped narrative style that so many short stories use to build suspense and keep a plot moving. While it seemed a little decadent at times, I generally found it refreshing; Thakrar builds a magical border realm full of hidden meaning out of Komal’s house and haunts. 

Perhaps the most stunning aspect of this piece, though, is its depiction of Komal’s invisibility: the way her parents ignore her and the way that she feels, perpetually, that her dreams and creations matter to no-one else (and therefore matter to no-one at all). It’s a devastating theme, and one that I suspect more of us can relate to than ever before, after such a long period in pandemic isolation. What Komal needs is not necessarily friends to validate her, but the ability to believe that she herself is worthy, and that her creations are worthy of attention. It’s a confidence that you can only find within yourself, and personally I found Komal’s path to finding her inner magic very heartwarming. 

REVIEW: “The Hungry Ones” by Emma Törzs

Review of Emma Törzs, “The Hungry Ones”, Uncanny Magazine Issue 40 (2021): Read Online. Reviewed by Isabel Hinchliff.

When Aey (a now-unemployed logger struggling with his self-confidence) finds his wife sleeping with another man, he resolves to kill her lover immediately. But to find the resolve to do so he breaks a religious taboo and seeks out the magic of powerful women called the Hungry Ones. Their magic works in unexpected ways and Aey must deal with the consequences, all while regretting his actions and trying to find the courage to remedy them. 

In this story, rage, love, and sex combine to create a remarkably bleak portrait of a relationship in which a man refuses to support his wife and allow her equality. While nuanced and intriguing, the story offers little hope in the way of resolution or character development. I found the seemingly irreparable power imbalance in Aey’s relationship frustrating; perhaps it is naive, but I like to think that women today have enough rights and freedoms that Aey’s unconscious bigotry would be unacceptable and unthinkable. I can’t help but think that there are more pressing and original inequalities to illustrate so incontrovertibly. 

However, beyond the prevalence of misogyny, the piece is a fascinating character study and does not shy away from details. The worldbuilding gives a visceral sense of the religious and cultural beliefs of Aey’s community, and the description of the Hungry One that Aey visits provides a counterpoint to the idea that all the women in this world are seen as lesser and powerless. I found the story’s greatest strength to be its rare focus on women’s sexual pleasure and needs; I still don’t see enough of that in speculative fiction and to look at it from a man’s perspective was certainly innovative.

REVIEW: “How the Girls Came Home” by Eugenia Triantafyllou

Review of Eugenia Triantafyllou, “How the Girls Came Home”, Uncanny Magazine Issue 40 (2021): Read Online. Reviewed by Isabel Hinchliff.

Amalia has a unique power: every day her feet change to that of a different animal, giving her an otter’s swimming abilities one day, and a cat’s climbing claws the next. Her father sees this as an undesirable curse, and has enlisted the help of the Artisan to make her a pair of magical shoes that will lock her feet into a human form. However, women have been mysteriously disappearing from Amalia’s village, and she seems to be the only one who cares enough to find out what has been happening to them. As she investigates rivers and eavesdrops on conversations from tree branches, she discovers that the orchestrator of these disappearances is more dangerous than she realized, and that he might be coming for her next. 

Amalia has a thorough appreciation for each new form of her feet and a deep empathy for the women around her, despite the opposing viewpoints of both her father and the rest of her community. However, her affection for her father leaves her unable to tell him that she considers her feet to be a fundamental part of who she is, leading her to risk her very identity every time she tries on a new pair of the Artisan’s shoes. So many parent-child relationships in fiction are purely antagonistic or supportive; I found this more complicated dynamic extraordinarily relatable and yet heartbreaking in its own way. This story has its light moments, but it is ultimately haunting, dealing with nuanced themes of identity loss, remembrance, and objectification. Don’t be fooled by the whimsical fairy tale elements: not all slippers are markers of princesses, and not all shapeshifters are capricious and unreliable.

REVIEW: “Thirteen of the Secrets in My Purse” by Rachel Swirsky

Review of Rachel Swirsky, “Thirteen of the Secrets in My Purse”, Uncanny Magazine Issue 41 (2021): Read Online. Reviewed by Isabel Hinchliff.

In “Thirteen of the Secrets in My Purse,” an ingenuous and lipstick-obsessed narrator details the whimsical contents of their purse in list format, guiding the reader through their recent interactions with these items. As the story continues, a web of connections grows between each seemingly discrete item, and, improbably and almost unbelievably, the narrator’s strange assumptions about the contents of their purse seem to be confirmed by members of the outside world. It’s a short and easily-digestible story, and it has some humorous twists and turns; it definitely made me smile!

Personally, when I pick up an issue of Uncanny, this is exactly the type of story I expect to find, layered between pages of the unexpected. It slowly adds speculative twists to ubiquitous, mundane aspects of daily existence until the reader ends up in a highly improbable world that, nevertheless, appears perfectly reasonable. An homage to the enigmatic nature of the random collection of items in our purses, it’s delightful, it’s surprising, and it wraps itself up neatly in a nice little bow. While not particularly flashy or action-packed, this story is simply good fun and great imaginative exercise.

REVIEW: “Proof by Induction” by José Pablo Iriarte

Review of José Pablo Iriarte, “Proof by Induction”, Uncanny Magazine Issue 41 (2021): Read Online. Reviewed by Isabel Hinchliff.

When Paulie’s father dies, all that remains is his coda: a simulated version of himself at the time of his death, usually used to check up on practicalities like his will or life insurance. But Paulie has unfinished business with his father, so he takes the coda home against the advice of hospital employees. Writing with a dry-erase marker on the walls of his father’s simulated hospital room, Paulie attempts to solve two unsolvable problems: a famous mathematical hypothesis that could secure his tenure, and his complicated feelings about his distant relationship with his father. 

Like all the best science fiction, the focus of “Proof by Induction” isn’t on the new technology itself, (the coda machine,) but on its effects. In this case, these effects are explored on a micro-scale—one family, one discipline, and one esoteric proof waiting to be solved. The magic of this story is in the little, mundane moments: the charged conversations between Paulie and his wife, and the way Paulie interacts with both his father and his daughter. It’s not uncommon to see stories about stoic mathematicians trying to navigate relationships, but the generational component here makes it uniquely fascinating. It allows the story to be both defiant and hopeful, giving Paulie space to acknowledge his past and pursue his future. For someone who loves details, reading between the lines, and probing the soft, emotional edges of a tale, it’s a very satisfying read.