REVIEW: “How to Survive an Epic Journey” by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Review of Tansy Rayner Robert’s, “How to Survive an Epic Journey”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 19 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“How to Survive an Epic Journey” is a wonderful example of why I am always down for a female focused take on Greek mythology. In this story, Tansy Rayner Roberts provides a rousing, subversive tale of the Argonaut’s adventures, told by Atalanta; a female member of the crew. From the opening framing device of a tavern tale, told by a woman confidently calling for wine and honey cakes, Atalanta’s energetic, cutting voice rings out loud and true. Straightaway, it is clear that the reader can expect excellent storytelling from a woman who is not afraid to upend the precious legends of heroes.

This story is packed full of so much interesting feminist detail that it’s hard to know what to focus on. Let’s start with the fact that one of Atalanta’s main intentions is to correct the prevalent versions of the Argonaut’s tales:

Jason ruined everything for his crew: the quest, the prize, even the legend that followed. We hoped to do great deeds, and be remembered as…

Yes, all right, I’ll say it. Heroes.

Instead we ended up as supporting characters in Jason’s tragic romance with himself.

Atalanta aims to reclaim her rightful place in the tales, expose the shortcomings of some of the ‘heroes’, and dispel certain myths about another big female player; Medea

However, Roberts’ retelling also concentrates on bringing Atalanta to life; giving her a distinct personality, and making her more than a device for correcting past tales. With her love of the Argo, practical feelings for her married lover Meleager, and thirst for adventure, Atalanta is a vibrant character. And the same can be said of Medea; a quick thinking, ruthless, ‘monster’ of a woman. The friendship between the two women adds another feminist dimension to the story, although I wished a little that this relationship had been more firmly established earlier. And the fact that their stories extends past the boundaries of Jason’s and Meleager’s lives on the Argo pushes against the idea that Ancient women’s stories must be tied to men, and wink out when the men disappear.

“How to Survive an Epic Journey” is a strong example of how myths, legends, and Ancient stories can be rewritten with women in mind. Pair this with stories like “Daughter of Necessity” by Marie Brennan if you need more of the women of Ancient Greece.

REVIEW: “The Bone Plain” by Karin Tidbeck

Review of Karin Tidbeck’s, “The Bone Plain”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 19 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“The Bone Plain” is an evocative story about a young woman trying to escape a terrible incident from her past. Erika travels west until there’s no more west in front of her. By accident, she falls in with a group of pilgrims travelling ‘the trail’, and follows them on their pilgrimage because they provide company, distraction, and a sense of safety. As their journey continues Erika’s story unfolds. She is fleeing from her life with Aidan; an older man who pretended to be her friend, but actually wanted to be much more. She is running from ‘The hand reaching out from the foot of the bed. The moist lips on her foot,’ and from the uncomfortable sense that she has done something violent in order to escape.

At first glance, “The Bone Plain” seems to contain barely a hint of the science fictional or the fantastical. However, a few key differences from our own world clearly set it outside the realms of reality. Erika’s trail takes her to the cathedral of ‘Our Lady of World’s End’; an intriguing, fictional religious figure. Erika then travels on to the ‘plains’ of the title where ‘The bones lay scattered all over the plain, the smallest one the length of a bus.’ While the bones described could easily be dinosaur bones, establishing them as real (if extinct) creatures, our world doesn’t contain a huge plain of bones ‘supposedly arranged along leylines’ that pilgrims can visit. With these simple touches, the reader is placed kindly, but firmly, in a different realm; although one that still contains familiar touchstones like payphones, pastries, and knock-off trainers. At the end, a central unsettling mystery that has the potential to complicate the reader’s understanding of Erika is left hanging in the air, and this compliments the story’s general slightly odd and out of time feeling.

“The Bone Plain” illuminates the healing potential of a journey embarked on without a clear sense of purpose. It’s a story which presents an equally satisfying alternative to the driven, questing nature of many fantasy stories. The pleasure of this alternate structure creeps up on you as Karin Tidbeck deftly balances hard history and difficult questions alongside companionship and Erika’s growing sense of reconnecting with herself. A very gratifying story, and a second reading allows you to fully savour Erika’s slow development.

REVIEW: “Learning to See Dragons” by Sarah Monette

Review of Sarah Monette’s, “Learning to See Dragons”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 19 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

In Sarah Monette’s poignant story about a young girl’s grief and loneliness, much of the background is shaded in swiftly; leaving the reader clutching at tantalising details. The story revolves around one central event; the death of Annie’s grandmother. However, much of what informs Annie’s story is happening, or has already happened, off the page.

When questioned by her teacher about whether there is trouble at home, Annie thinks ‘The trouble was that she didn’t have a home anymore, just a house where she lived with her parents. Her home had never been there, and now it was nowhere.’ And, while it’s difficult to build a definitive picture of Annie’s home life, it’s obvious from little details in the text that Annie doesn’t feel much affinity with her parents. Her grandmother has been the more significant, and positive, force in her life.

The fantasy element of this story is quiet, but at the same time extremely surreal. “Learning to See Dragons” is one of those stories where magic seems to appear just because it’s needed; although the appearance of magic doesn’t guarantee a typical happy ending. After finishing the story, I was remind of Ali Shaw’s The Girl With Glass Feet and Lucy Wood’s collection Diving Belles. As with those stories, I was left feeling a little sad about Annie and her eventual transformation. And I felt sorry for her mother who seems to be feeling plenty of her own grief but can’t connect with her daughter at this important time. There’s an element of horror to the ending, but it’s hard not to also feel a sense of relief for Annie who has chosen and summoned her own fate. The reader is left questioning and reevaluating their response long after they’ve read the story’s last line.

REVIEW: “Pipecleaner Sculptures and Other Necessary Work” by Tina Connolly

Review of Tina Connolly’s, “Pipecleaner Sculptures and Other Necessary Work”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 19 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“Pipecleaner Sculptures and Other Necessary Work” takes place aboard a generation ship where every resource must be carefully hoarded, and recycled, in order to ensure survival. In the midst of this scarcity, one robot caretaker has fought for the importance of art. Her name is Ninah, and you’re going to be heartbroken by the end of her simple, economically told story.

Ninah has gathered together pipecleaners, beads, and other scant resources so that the children she looks after can make sculptures and other artwork. While some on board the ship see these art projects as a trivial luxury she considers it a necessity: ‘Everyone needed work. Humans, children—androids.’ This line reflects the fact that ‘work’ can be defined as the need for a personal purpose as well as a type of production. Ninah has made sure that the children are stimulated and given the chance to be more than just a ship grown generation of colonists or soldiers. And in doing so, she has turned a mandatory care taking assignment into her own purpose.

Although the reader spends a very short time with Ninah, the story quickly builds a vivid sense of her history and her character. So, it is gutting to learn that when the ship lands in three months, Ninah, like the art projects the children make, will be re-purposed. It is even more heart-wrenching because caring, vibrant Ninah will become a military bot, and ‘she would not care. They would still call her Ninah, and she would still love her work.’ Ninah’s fate is an example of what happens when an identity is overridden by the practicalities of the state.

Tina Connolly’s story does soften this devastating blow slightly. In the end, a desire for a legacy, a sense of permanence, however small, wins out. And, while the ending is undeniably tragic, as there is no reprieve for Ninah, there is at least a bittersweet sense of triumph and defiance. Ninah will resonate with anyone caught in the grip of a society that values people for what, and how much, they produce rather than who they are. Or, y’know readers who just love crying about robots. They’ll like this story too. Definitely recommended to everyone who loved “Fandom for Robots“, for example.

REVIEW: “The First Witch of Damansara” by Zen Cho

Review of Zen Cho’s, “The First Witch of Damansara”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 19 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

When Vivian’s grandmother dies, Vivian’s family ask her to return to Malaysia for the funeral. Her grandmother was a witch of some renown, while Vivian ‘in contrast, had a mind like a hi-tech blender.’ On returning to her family home, she finds troubled spirits in the shape of her grandmother’s wandering ghost, and her magical sister, Wei Yi, who is trying to work out how to honour her grandmother properly so she doesn’t become a kuang shi, or vampire.

I didn’t notice until I’d finished “The First Witch of Damansara” that Zen Cho presents an entirely female family story. There’s a fiance ‘beautiful, supportive, and cast in an appropriately self-effacing role—just off-screen,’ and Vivian’s dead Yeh Yeh plays a role in the story, but otherwise men are entirely absent from this family tale. The important conflicts, and relationships, all play out between women.

A significant part of Vivian’s story revolves around how she fits into her magical, Malaysian family’s life now when she has been apart from them for so long. In order to find her place she has to interact with her sister, mother, and even her grandmother’s spirit in ways that are often infuriating, but nevertheless help her to find a significant role in their lives again. I’m always excited to see family stories that allow women to develop strong, and complex, bonds with each other. And “The First Witch of Damansara” certainly brings the importance of female relationships to the fore.

The story whizzes by because it’s so well-paced. The conversations between the characters read with the naturalness found when people have known each other for a long time but still don’t always understand each other. And there’s a character here to capture the imagination of every reader: practical, fish out of water Vivian; tricksy, smart Nai Nai; argumentative, determined Wei Yi. I was already a big fan of Cho’s novel Sorcerer to the Crown, but after reading “The First Witch of Damansara” I’m eager to try out more of her short fiction too.

REVIEW: “Making Us Monsters” by Sam J. Miller and Lara Elena Donnelly

Review of Sam J. Miller and Lara Elena Donnelly’s, “Making Us Monsters”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 19 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

Do you enjoy weeping? Well then, I highly recommend you read “Making Us Monsters”. Sam J. Miller and Lara Elena Donnelly have written a correspondence across the ages between wartime poets, and lovers, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. If you’re not crying yet there’s a good chance you will be by the end of the story.

The science fiction element in this story is quite subtle. In 1932, Sassoon suddenly begins to receive letters from beyond the grave. Front line missives from Wilfred Owen are delivered by post or appear mysteriously among other correspondence, in pockets, or among the pages of books. These letters, delivered by an unknown hand after all these years, is all the sci-fi the story includes, but such a small otherworldly touch yields a deep, examination of two men, their relationship, and war.

Sassoon documents these finds in his diary, and is soon speaking directly to ‘Will’ in his entries. It is clear that Owen thinks Siegfried has forgotten him, as he receives no reply in 1918. Siegfried fears what each letter will bring but also longs for each new word from his former lover.

The idea of letters supernaturally appearing from beyond the grave alludes to the growing interest in spiritualism that followed WWI, as people sought solace, understanding, and connection in the face of such large scale tragedy. And there is so much to dig into in this story. The distanced correspondence sharply dissects Sassoon, a man often torn between hatred of the destruction war brings, and a belief that war somehow uplifts and unites men to make the feeling beyond soldiers finer than anything else. And the writing style does a fabulous job of emulating the way the poets wrote about war – often full of tragedy, emotion, and lush, dark imagery that seduces the reader into seeing war through the prism of gothic romance before it rams home the utter, brutal hell of battle.

Sassoon’s relationship with Owen – as mentor, lover, and stirring influence – is laid bare, and is heartbreaking. Was I wrong to hope that the science fictional aspect of this story might lead to a happier conclusion? A letter that allows Sassoon to find some peace? An entirely out of this world reunion with Will? Sadly, it was not to be. Instead I was left sad, although in other ways quite satisfied, by “Making Us Monsters”. The horrors of war, especially the way the men in charge aim to create soldiers who suit their bloody purposes, are brought to the fore. And I found this story a fascinating take on the First World War, and on these two men in particular. If you enjoyed Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy about the war poets make this your next read.

REVIEW: “Elemental Love” by Rachel Swirsky

Review of Rachel Swirsky’s, “Elemental Love”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 19 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“Elemental Love” is a story about the poetry, and romance, of science. If you feel a sense of wonder when you hear that ‘we are all made of stars,‘ this is the story for you.

An unnamed narrator details the remarkable nature of the elements contained inside their lover’s body. Under their watch, each component is revealed as a marvel with links to the wider world, remarkable properties, and a deep soulful poetry at the heart of their function:

One percent: Phosphorus.

Named the light-bearer for the morning star, for Venus glowing on its nightly rounds. It dwells in the membranes of your cells; it nurtures them; it mends them. Love’s namesake keeps you whole.

It is an unbearably romantic declaration. What a shame biology lessons were never like this in my day.

The narrator unfurls this list of elements in response to their lover’s query: ‘You asked: Why I would love you.’ And this is where the more traditional science fiction element of the story kicks in. It is revealed that the narrator is something other than human, and considers their own body less full of wonder. ‘There are no miracles in me,’ they announce towards the end of the story.

However, it is clear from the reported speech of their lover that not everyone agrees. The narrator’s miracles are the kind of engineered marvel that many a sci-fi fan can appreciate. The story ties up with a little bitter-sweetness, as the narrator casts doubt on the value of their own astonishing nature. Yet the reader is able to see that this romance is more equal than the narrator perceives, and leaves this story with the satisfying image of two beings tangled together in awe. Biology meets engineering, and both prove as fascinating as the other.

As in her Hugo nominated story of love and loss, “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love“, Swirsky shows a deft touch for rhythm and feeling in “Elemental Love”. The flow of this story, the placement of line breaks, and the restraint of what Swirsky chooses to include about each element, all build to help this story move at a perfect pace; slow, rippling, and subtle. Let yourself be seduced by Swirsky’s way with words – you’ll never look at your own body the same way again.