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.

REVIEW: “Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.” by Fran Wilde

Review of Fran Wilde, “Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.”, Uncanny Magazine Issue 40 (2021): Read Online. Reviewed by Isabel Hinchliff.

Fashion design student Sara Sebastian has grown up listening to conflicting stories about the elaborate ball gowns designed by the Unseelie Brothers; her mother and aunt both wore one of these mysterious gowns on the fateful night when they met their husbands. When the Unseelie Brothers atelier reappears in New York City shortly before the Fête Noir Charity Ball, Sara and her cousin Rie are pulled from their final graduation projects to find the shop immediately. Once inside, Sara receives the opportunity of a lifetime: a paid contract to work at Unseelie Brothers and learn their trade. But as the ball inches closer, she discovers that the dresses she helps design may have more power than she realized, and a price with dangerous ramifications that stretch into her past.

This colorful, sparkling coming-of-age story filled my mind with whirling zoomorphic dress fabric and the giddy confidence of a young, talented artist surrounded by the best in her trade. The juxtaposition of a grounded New York college student with the messy next-generation aftermath of a cinderella-esque matchmaking ball was delightfully complex and riveting. I highly recommend it to any connoisseur of the modern fairy tale. 

REVIEW: “Old Habits” by Nalo Hopkinson

Review of Nalo Hopkinson’s, “Old Habits”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 21 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

Like many classic ghost stories, “Old Habits” is a study in futility, stasis, and regret. There’s nothing the dead in Nalo Hopkinson’s story can do about their situation. Trapped in the mall where they died, they have almost no agency, and are forced to regularly relive their own deaths. There are no heroes in Nalo Hopkinson’s ghost mall; no magic bullets, no tantalising opportunities to rejoin the living. And the mall they haunt isn’t exactly Valhalla.  

The mundane, slightly sordid, nature of the afterlife Hopkinson has created, and the powerlessness of her characters, could have made this story a frustrating experience for a living, breathing reader. This story rejects well-worn fantasy plot structures that focus on active questing characters changing, or finding, their fates through sheer force of will. It also centres the experience of a group of powerless ghosts instead of, as so many ghost stories do, concentrating on the living, or giving the ghosts powers. And finally, this story pushes readers to face the banal ways in which mortality can be brutally stripped away. “Old Habits” is not a comfortable read, and that’s before the reader finds out that these ghosts can be hungry, and vicious, when provoked by their own kind.

However, out of all this difficult material, I think Hopkinson has created an affecting, quiet story about the pettiness of loss. Partly that’s because its conception of death is so rooted in the mundane, and everyday; presenting, like much apocalyptic media, enticing details of a world which, at least for these ghosts, cannot be regained. And that central concentration on the powerless is a theme carried through to great effect. The story opens with the death of a disenfranchised woman, crushed by corporate security, in a nod to many real life deaths in custody. While it’s not a story I’m in a rush to read again (facing this vision of an afterlife is a hard ask) it’s certainly a well-crafted piece that plays on my mind. “Old Habits” is a reminder that ghost stories can be just as inventive as every other part of the SFF and horror genres.

REVIEW: “The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” by Sarah Monette

Review of Sarah Monette, “The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 21 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” is a slow-burn, literary, magical murder mystery. The narrator, Mr Booth, is placed in charge of papers written by a celebrated literary figure. Among the papers, he finds a poppet, which he believes has been used to murder the author – Geoffrey Usborne Bryant. Concerned that the perpetrator of this magical crime will hurt others, the narrator sets out to discover who put the poppet in Usborne Bryant’s boxes. While engaged in this detective mission, Booth reflects on the troubled, fleeting association he had with Usborne Bryant when they were at school.

Sarah Monette’s story delicately expresses how Booth’s sleuthing allows him to come to terms with the real shape of a relationship long-past. His quest to find the poppet maker is littered with small, stabbing pains of repressed past hurts and old emotions. Booth’s conversations with Usborne Bryant’s friends, as part of his amature detective work, show that he has developed a clear understanding of how people work. However, he has never quite understood the shape of his own past with Usborne Bryant. As he slowly works his way towards the criminal, Booth untangles the small-scale, but complex, web of interactions and emotions left unaddressed since school. This story is as much a work of emotional detective work as it is a detective story.  

“The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” is also about the importance of acting morally in the face of difficult personal feelings. In keeping with the tone of the story, Monette expresses this theme without any flashy signposts that her narrator is morally compromised, and yet still manages to strongly convey that doing what is right is not always a lot of fun. From the fact that the narrator ‘fled’ when the criminal faints at the end of the story, and the way that ‘something of my emotions bled through in my voice’ at the end of the story, the reader gets the sense that while the narrator’s quest was a success it did not lead him to any kind of satisfaction (beyond a certain understanding of his past).

Strangely, this story reminded me of a favourite Philip Larkin poem – “Dockery and Son“. There’s the similar subject matter of someone thinking back on their school days. And there’s something about the pace of the story, content to dwell on scraps from the past on its way to its destination, which evokes a similar tone to the poem; as does the simple poignancy of the story’s final line. “The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” was weird, and quiet, and slow, and I loved it, readers.

REVIEW: “I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise” by Sarah Pinsker

Review of Sarah Pinsker’s, “I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 21 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

Sarah Pinsker’s “I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise” uses subtle, repeating images, colours, or references to emphasise the connection between the lives and work of different American artists, writers, and musicians. For the reader to be able to engage with the story, they needs to be familiar with the cultural references Pinsker includes. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about the American 1920s art scene, or the works which were mentioned, to grasp the full significance of most of the references. I didn’t understand this story, and couldn’t really connect with it. And, because I wasn’t sure what had happened in real life, and how each section related to the whole, I had trouble working out what made this story science fiction, fantasy or speculative fiction.

What I can say, is that Pinsker’s writing style is very elegant and it’s easy to get swept up in the rhythm of her prose. The device of using references to connect each section is intriguing. And the selection of scenes that the story presents are detailed and interesting. I’d encourage anyone who knows about the 1920s American art scene to give it a try, because I’m sure that someone who can spot all the references, and understand how story fits together as a whole, will find a lot to delve into. This story wasn’t for me, but it’s bound to be a better fit for other readers.

REVIEW: “And Yet” by A. T. Greenblatt

Review of A. T. Greenblatt’s, “And Yet”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 21 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“And Yet” is an original, creeptastic take on the haunted house story. The protagonist returns to the haunted house of their childhood determined to investigate parallel universes. Aware that the house really is haunted, and that it hates visitors, this is, as the narrative admits, ‘a terrible idea’. This story is full of dread, and anticipation, right from the first section.  

Told in the second person, and focused on an unnamed protagonist, the narrative feels reminiscent of the ‘choose your own adventure’ genre. The main character moves through the house choosing doors, and unlocking scenarios. Each room shows a new nightmare vision of the past, or a possible past which they have thankfully never had to experience. The narrative refers to the protagonist as ‘you’ which means the reader can easily insert themselves into the story, and this makes the horror of the story feel all the more immediate and effective.

At the same time, “And Yet” relates an intensely personal, specific story about the main character’s loss, personal growth, and disability. The house draws on their pain, and fear, as it attempts to push them into leaving, and the protagonist’s journey through the house allows A. T. Greenblatt to slowly construct a picture of her protagonist’s life for the reader. It’s a young life that was dogged by abusive, difficult family members, bullies, and tragedy. However, the story shows that the main character has largely escaped that past, and built a new life, with hard work, the support of new roommates, and a personal trainer. Still, one formative incident has irrevocably shaped their present, and their current scientific work.

“And Yet” is a real gut-punch of a story on multiple levels, partly due to the smartly built structure of the piece. The horror of being forced to repeat traumatic incidents will resonate with just about every reader, as will the idea of parallel universes which contain a poor imitation of a much happier life. The main character’s past is so tough it hits hard. And all of this is carefully layered into a claustrophobic, slowly ratcheting piece of horror through the device of the inescapable house. The story culminates with a a poignant heart-breaker of an ending which will wreck you in the best way. Run, don’t walk, to this house of horrors.

REVIEW: “Conservation Laws” by Vandana Singh

Review of Vandana Singh’s, “Conservation Laws”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 20 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

On a trip to the Lunar Geological Institute, Vikram, a young student currently living on the moon, meets Gyanendra Sahai; an explorer from an ill-fated mission to Mars. Delighted to discover that they are from the same state in India, Bihari, Vikram invites Gyanendra to move into Sinha Auntie’s boardinghouse where Vikram, and a small group of lively, intense students, reside. During one Saturday afternoon discussion, Gyanendra is finally drawn into relating what happened to him during his trip to Mars. His tale is remarkable.

Sometimes a story comes along that you just can’t make head or tail of, and unfortunately I couldn’t really connect with “Conservation Laws”. My confusion started when the students at the boardinghouse began a discussion about mirror universes, conservation laws, and ‘Universal Field equations’, none of which I have the scientific knowledge to grapple with. I quickly became lost. Then I had trouble imagining the shape of the fantastical science fiction objects, settings, and journey in Gyanendra’s story; again probably because I don’t have a reading background in technical SFF, or stories which deal with alien technology,. And finally, while the ending clearly had some significant connection to the mirror universes mentioned during the student’s discussion, I couldn’t work out what the significance was. I was left with a sense of foreboding as Gyanendra is ‘sorrowful’, but didn’t understand the full meaning of the ending; mostly because I hadn’t followed the initial discussion.

So, my difficulties with this story largely came down to a lack of personal context which kept me from putting all of the pieces of Vandana Singh’s story together. Not all stories are for everyone. However, I’d suggest maybe dipping your toe into this story just to see if it’s for you instead.