After a bit of a break, Mithila Review is back! There's four short stories, one very long novelette, and a novel excerpt as far as fiction goes, and because of time constraints I'm only going to be looking at the short stories. There's five pieces of poetry that I'm checking out, too, and there's a literal ton of nonfiction to enjoy, but I'll leave you to browse that on your own. Needless to say the issue is packed with amazing works. The fiction takes things from magic schools to deserts in Arizona and Mars. There's action aplenty with Luchador battles and desperate violence. There's also a nice amount of humor, with biting satire and laugh-out-loud characters. There's also heart, and family, and a rich tapestry of emotions. The poetry weaves together nicely, looking at nature and stories and hope, and the entire issue is another strong example of why you should be reading Mithila Review. Review time!
|Art by Archan Nair|
"The Twelve Rules of Etiquette at Miss Firebird's School for Girls" by Gwendolyn Kiste (837 words)
This is the only original story of the issue but it's also a rather delightful flash fiction that builds up sort of the antithesis of the magical academy. Looking for something along the lines of Harry Potter, where children go to find their potential and form friendships that will last a lifetime? Well, then Miss Firebird's school is definitely not for you. And I love how it takes the idea of magical schools and flips it, creates this school for children whose parents want to break them of magic. Who want them to conform. Who want them to give into the pressures all around them to be prim and proper. And so the school exists and exists in this shadowy space where magic must always be evil, must always be a tool of the devil. Now, part of what I like the story is that it does not provide quite so innocent a picture of magic as certain other magical school stories. There is a lurking violence and the taste of something sinister in the magic that the girls must practice. But there's something else, as well. Power. And power first and foremost to repel those like Miss Firebird's school. Of course the school thinks that this power is evil because of the skulls and the capes, the covens and the promise of blood. Of course, because these things undermine the entire idea of propriety, forego politeness for something more primal and stirring. And as I read the story it shows the desperation of places like Miss Firebird's when faced with the pull toward the freedom that magic represents, the magic that it has always represented. To be out from under the thumb of society. To be fierce and dangerous and to have a circle to stand with. The story explores these things effortlessly in the space of a small list, and it's a captivating and fun read. Definitely check it out!
"American Moat" by Carlos Hernandez (2661 words)
Well, there are some things a person just doesn't expect to write ever. Like this next sentence: This story is about borders and hope, hypocrisy and idiocy, and two aliens conjuring Margaret Thatcher out of a truck only to have her ruin Earth's chances for world peace. Perhaps it would be helpful to note that this story is damned funny. Perhaps it would also be helpful to note that it's on the nose as fuck, revealing a pair of "true patriots" in Arizona who have volunteered their free time to patrol the US-Mexico border in hopes of detaining (and probably shooting) people trying to immigrate to the US. The characterization of these two characters is a huge part of what makes the story both funny and dark as hell. Because, while these characters come off as nearly cartoonish in both their stupidity and their intolerance, the sad state of things now has sort of proven that neither of those things are limited to cartoons. What makes the story wrenchingly depressing even as it's funny is that these characters are not strange. They are not even really exaggerations. They are, simply put, a large-ish group of people. And that they sour world peace is on one hand the SFF element of the story and on the other hand the real-life reason that keeps global peace in the nebulous distance, never really close enough to grasp. Intolerance and blind prejudice are the elements that make wars break out, that make people turn on each other. Even in a place that was founded on the belief that people should be free. That immigration is the cornerstone of a just society. If that fails here, if America cannot live up to its own ideals, then how the fuck can we expect other people to either respect us or cooperate with us. It's a story that had me laughing basically from the start but as it moves there's also something deathly serious here as well, and it makes this story an excellent read!
"La Gorda and the City of Silver" by Sabrina Vourvoulias (3475 words)
This story took me a bit by surprise, a piece that is equal parts fun and deeply resonant. It captures a lot of the show of the Luchadores, the spectacle and the theater of it from the eyes of a young woman who wants to join into that world. Who is told that she cannot. But just because the lights of the stage and ring have been denied her doesn't mean that she gives up her dream. It means that she takes it into the night, to become a sort of superhero, protecting women and girls from the men who would hurt them, who would force them to live in a world where there is no fighting back. And I love the way the story builds around that, builds up La Gorda as a folk hero, always misgendered into a man but still always fierce and still always fighting for women. If the story had ended there it would still have been fun and powerful, but it doesn't. Because every hero needs a villain. The stakes must be raised. And so a new force begins targeting women even as La Gorda protects them. There is a sort of stalemate. A sort of truce. Until things go too far and La Gorda leaves the safety of her neighborhood to catch a spider its lair. What follows is an amazing series of scenes, of fights, of dramas. The art of the videos that chronicled the various Luchadores and Luchadoras becomes real life, becomes real. That struggle stands in for the struggle everywhere, the women fighting for representation and safety there fighting for them everywhere. It's a lively and celebratory story that captures the drive to be seen and to be safe. To not be counted as lesser just because of gender. An outstanding story!
"Winds That Stir Vermilion Sands" by David Bowles (4301 words)
I first came across this story when it appeared at Strange Horizons, but opted not to review it then because of time. Today I make up for that! This is a greatly imagined and beautifully set story of a boy growing up on Mars, part of a Jewish diaspora that occurred in a future where Israel was completely destroyed. The story of Rodrigo is one of longing and loneliness, always left behind by his father, always waiting to know what has happened. Until his father finds something that changes things, a piece of alien technology that Rodrigo hopes to unlock, to get them out of the poverty and corruption of the world they live in. The story looks at the generational frictions and hopes going on, Rodrigo's father wanting to sell the device to live easier but Rodrigo knowing that without changing the system, without fixing the underlying problem, there's really no way to escape. The story has a great pacing to it, slow but with moments of intense action. I love Rodrigo, the bitterness and also the resolve of him. His father is religious in the way that he hopes that if he works hard enough he will be rewarded but Rodrigo is so much more disillusioned than that, knowing that there is no amount of work that will change things if the work isn't in the right direction. It's not a happy story, really, and captures a gripping tragedy and wonderful character arch for Rodrigo. What the story is is complex and satisfying, leaving enough room to imagine what Rodrigo might become while showing his resolve to do something, to change something, with the power that he has, the power that he's not about to let go of. A fantastic read!
"The Saint Of Small Things, Weeping" by Margaret Wack
This is a lovely poem about the overlooked and forgotten, the small creatures who die on a daily basis but are not counted because they are assumed to be infinite. Are assumed because of their size to be legion even when, individually, they might be as endangered as elephants or tigers. And the poem explores this fact, this tendency that we as humans have to not pay attention when things are small. Indeed, to be overly aggressive to things that are small because we are threatened by them and can't see ourselves in them. In rats and mice and ants and insects. In the creatures that we have exterminators for, that we kill not exactly for profit but for providence, to keep them out of the homes we built in their habitat. But, because they are small, they find ways through the armor that we wear, find ways to remind us of them and for that we hate them. And what is left to them is to be mourned by a saint as small as they are, as overlooked. I love the visual of the saint of small things, something fragile and suffering, something quiet but also something that remembers. Remembers not the sins of what has happened but that when everything else is gone he will still remain, will still be there even when all the other saints have turned to dust. Because for all the small things are killed and suffer because we overlook them, it is the only safety from us. Anything bigger is too visible, and ends up getting in our way. For sport or for food, but all the same. So that the only way through is to quietly suffer but survive, hoping for the day when everything else, even humanity, is gone and the small things truly can inherit the Earth. A great poem!
"The Gifts" by Sandi Leibowitz
This is a poem that evokes a mythic feel but also something deeper than that, reaching into human relationships and especially family bonds between sisters. Indeed, in many ways this is about a pair of sisters finding their own way in the world and still being close, still finding in themselves joy in each other's joys while remaining distinct and separate. The poem draws into a sort of creation story, though not one I can easily place so for me the poem's direct link, if one exists, is more vague. I know that the sisters are given gifts, and this feels to me like the way everyone is given gifts, talents that make them stand out and inclinations that help to direct those talents. They seem to have been given the mandate to out and create the world. To weave it out of thread and art. To create something beautiful and intricate. And they do, separating once they are old enough and going their own ways. And to me this speaks to the idea of growing up, of growing in different directions. Some siblings spend a lot of time together, but this poem speaks to me of moving apart. I actually have a twin sister that I hardly ever see and even rarely talk to because we are different and because we are very far apart, but there's something to said about respecting that. I don't want to change my sister, and it seems that the sisters here don't want that either. They want to be themselves and to be free from any comparison. They never speak or see each other after they begin their work but they still know the other is out there. Doing fine. Living. And it is enough. And I like that, like how it allows them both space to grow and to be themselves without making them hate or resent each other. It's another excellent poem!
"Life by the river" by Jamie Samdahl
This is a strangely natural poem, and by that I guess I mean that it feels to capture some magic of the natural world. The magic of a river and of the dreams the river inspires. The poem is filled with images of nature, the taste and feel of it, the hope of it. The poem features two characters, the narrator and, presumably, their partner or romantic interest. They seem to cohabitate so I'm going to say partner. And that character seems less entranced by the natural world, less aware of it and more distrustful of it for that reason. Assumes or seems to assume that there is something unseemly about being out in it. For the narrator's part there seems to be something of a chronic condition at work, something that keeps them in pain and tired, escaping to the forest, to the river, in order to feel whole and right. I love how the poem is structured, how it uses gaps between words to contain a number of things. Pauses, yes, but also things left unsaid. It also gives the poem a more meandering feel, like a river or like nature, not neat or planned but allowed to sprawl a little outside the lines. And there's something nearly unsettling about the effect, this feel of something just below the surface that seems to be what the narrator's partner recoils from and what the narrator needs in order to live. It's a neat piece, and definitely worth spending some time with!
"The Study" by Mari Ness
This is a rather creepy little poem to me that speaks of science and death, of guilt and blame and violence. This is also a poem that I don't know if I can place, though the general setting and situation puts me in the mind of the novel Frankenstein where, if I remember correctly, the monster kills Frankenstein's wife. At least, this fits with my take on the clues of the poem, the books that were not burned, the hands on flesh, the edge of life and death. In any case, though, the poem focuses on a sort of confrontation. On a woman facing down something that she feels she could have stopped, should have stopped, but did not. Still, though, there is a feel here that her blaming herself is part of some larger issue, is her taking the blame for something that, really, was not her fault. That the voices she hears blaming herself, echoing through her mind, are the internalized injustices of a time when women were not allowed to aspire to much, or where they were strictly discouraged. They were supposed to let the men lead, and yet here is the outcome of that. And there's something else that I feel in the final lines here, some admonishment about the relentless pursuit of knowledge and domination. She has no need of the knowledge of life and death because she respects it, because she knows it for what it is and doesn't want to violate it. Something that her husband…didn't seem to care about. And yet she's the one to die, the old injustice written over again and again. Unless I'm misreading the piece. Even so, it is a nicely creepy and moody poem that you should check out!
"The Process" by Sonya Taaffe
This is a rather strange poem about Kafka and about letter and about writing. As I read it, at least, it's something of a joke, like many of Kafka's works, but also something serious, surreal, and unsettling. The poem seems to me to suggest that Kafka has lost himself in the Kafka-esque, in the strange, in the weird. That his life has become something of a painting or a poem or a story itself, and that he's not quite sure where he is. Under the logic of it, though, he has also stepped into something universal, something of art. The poem writes about all rooms being waiting rooms, which is a line that I love, and overall seems to be working into the idea of writing under everything that's going on. At least that's how I interpret the title, which speaks to me of how people create, how they get ready and how they work through issues. Here I imagine that the narrator places Kafka inside his own narrative structures as a way to explain how Kafka worked, to explain how the weirdness flowed from weirdness. And also, perhaps, to make a more personal note on writing, without really having much to do with Kafka at all. That the narrator's process involves free association and thinking, putting words onto the page and seeing what kinds of strange structures they will take. That for the narrator writing is like getting lost in someone else's words and having to find the way out again. It's a fascinating poem and a great way to close things out for the issue!