Before anything else, I need to say this story is phenomenal. I’ve spoken with a lot of authors of collections and editors of anthologies, and one thing that comes up a lot is the choosing of the first story and the last story, and let me tell you, “Coalrose” ends Skin Deep Magic: Short Fiction to sheer freaking perfection. It also shouldn’t have gone anywhere else in the collection because when I finished it I had to put down my copy and just breathe.
We begin with a description of a woman, Zoë Coalrose, in a poster. From this opening, Gidney spins the mythos of Coalrose without a single wasted word: Zoë’s appearance, her pose, the glimpse of a tongue, or a tear, or the tattoo visible by her breast, it all conjures something more. Then the vignettes appear, starting back in 1930 with the woman who would become Zoë, and the unlocking of her sort of power or gift to see and know and affect people. Then we shift again and again, moving forward in time through different decades to witness intersections of other people with Zoë. A man who is the starting point of Zoë’s career. A tattoo artist. A woman lost and damaged. A man in mourning.
By the time we reach 1962, the story has built, vignette by vignette, into a whole about a woman with real power—a power she’s willing to admit from the start might be evil—and how that power has affected so many people. That she’s an artist—and entertainer, a singer—felt like an extra wink for the reader, and as the story turns to the unknown narrator discussing the collection of moments around Zoë Coalrose with their own thoughts on what she might have been, Skin Deep Magic closes: on that brilliant sense of power in sharing moments of artistry.