Friday, April 24, 2020

Quick Sips - Mithila Review #13 [part 2]

Art by John Glover
I return to the latest issue of Mithila Review to look at two short stories, a novelette, and three poems. The poems are actually all by a single author, though they cover a lot of thematic ground, from death and space to The Little Prince to Greek mythology. And the stories vary greatly too, though all of them have a touch of magic to them. One’s a second world fantasy, though, one a post-disaster sci-fantasy, and the other a contemporary fantasy. They deal with family and with conflict, war and illness. And they feature people a bit out of their depths trying to care for other people. Trying and not always getting it right. It’s a wonderful bunch of short SFF that I’ll get right to reviewing!


“Sorcerers’ Highway” by Theodore Singer (9771 words)

No Spoilers: Berek is a young man from a tech city, as opposed to the sorcerer cities of the coast. All his life Berek has felt like he doesn’t fit in, that he doesn’t measure up when it comes to the values of the tech cities, or at least the one he grew up in, where money is king and men are supposed to be physical, good at combat and sports and full of machismo. Berek is quieter and softer, more contemplative and studious, and in his heart he knows that he’s a sorcerer, but one caught out in the wrong city. He knows he has magic inside him, but for it to express itself he needs to visit a sorcerer city, which he doesn’t get a chance to do for a while. Once he does, though, he accidentally sets into a series of events that will lead to war. The piece is well constructed, the world interesting and broadly build. The characters are relatable, and the situation is one that mirrors a lot of things in the “real world,” where even men seeking to escape the confines of toxic masculinity and finding places that might accept them get caught in the ways that men and women are policed in an attempt to consolidate power among the corrupt and brutal.
Keywords: Technology, Magic, Misogyny, War, Research, Training
Review: I like the broad stroke world building here, the technology and magic divide made a part of the society without having to really get bogged down in the how or why. For me, it’s a way of setting a groundwork not just where magic and technology are very intrinsic to the world, very integrated, but that the lines between the two are rigid, and by extension, there are many lines that are rigid. Gender and gender roles are very strictly controlled as well, at least in the vast majority of places, and it makes sense as far as the lines between magic and tech are similarly solid and policed. In that case, the world itself, the laws and realities of it, seem to reinforce that idea of binary divides, so people are primed to believe that it should be reproduced. Only, of course, things aren’t that simple, and I like that the piece explores that through a man trying to find a way out of the rigid and stifling confines of toxic masculinity. And I love that the answer isn’t so simple as leaving the tech cities and arriving in the sorcerer cities. Because the first he comes to is just as toxic, if not even moreso, even as he might be able to be valued there. But he doesn’t embrace the value system even if it might benefit him, because he can recognize the same ways that he wouldn’t fit in with himself. Maybe it would feel good for the arbitrary traits he has to valuable and privileged. But that doesn’t mean that he’d acutally like that system. Because it’s just the same but different as what he knew. And what he wants is something actually different. He wants to exist where the gender roles aren’t rigid, where people are allowed to be, valued not because they are men or women but because they are people. And he gets to explore that, but only as a kind of outcast. It’s at the same time wrenching because it shows that there is no “good” home for him. No culture that is completely free of prejudice. He does remain an outcast in many ways, but he at least is able to find some people to can appreciate him and that he can appreciate, so while societally things are slow to change, individually at least be can build a small community, a found family, where he can fully be himself, and find appreciation and love. It’s a fun story otherwise, unfolding in these big terms that aren’t exactly surprising (in some ways it’s very Good Vs Evil, though I think it’s more complicated than just that), but that are entertaining and a delight! A great read!

“The Breaking” by Vanessa Fogg (5832 words)

No Spoilers: Jenny and Jamie are siblings in a world that has experienced a Breaking, a time when “Angels” wrecked the world, tearing it apart until scientists found a way to repel them, to create a Barrier that might keep humanity safe. But the cost was very high, and now Jenny and Jamie only have each other and jobs in a city close to the Barrier. And Jamie has started to hear the Angels again, through the Barrier, and it opens up a whole new cycle, a sort of replay of the events that led up to the Breaking. For me, the story speaks to harm done, to disaster and the unwillingness to truly address it so long as things can be comfortable enough, stable enough, to fool yourself into believing things will get better in a world that is so obviously declining.
Keywords: Post-Disaster, Angels, Family, Loss, Belief, Barriers
Review: This is a rather heavy story that deals with two people who could see what was essentially the end of the world coming. Who could see the Angels before the Breaking. Who tried to tell their parents and were told that they were lying. That they didn’t see what they saw. And for me the piece looks so movingly at the ways that the younger generations are better able to see disasters coming because they aren’t so invested in them, because they haven’t bought in so hard to them. So they can see the cracks, can see the problems. For them it’s almost simple, because a lot of the time it is simple. The piece doesn’t tie this allegorically to any specific thing but to pick one it’s fairly easy for children to understand that climate change is a problem, because they can understand and grieve things like the loss of wildlife, the loss of life. Even as they lack the ability to do anything to change things, they can see it and act as an early warning sign. One that the parents, that the older generations, ignore. And then further ignore after the Breaking, after the death, the moment the Barrier is up. Then there’s a fix. A solution. It’s not perfect but those who had power and are still alive still get to benefit. And instead of changing anything, the same decisions are made, and the old world is recreated, even when it might have led to the problems in the first place. And I love how the story shows this recreation, with Jenny moving from being one who could see the Angels to one who was invested in the new world. Who couldn’t hear the new warning, the truth that the problem wasn’t fixed, that it wasn’t really reckoned with, just avoided. Run from. And it’s an aching read in many ways because she does it in part to try and give her brother a better life, because she wants to believe that is possible. And it’s not that it’s not. But it can’t be in the system as it is. And it can’t be with avoiding the huge issues that are going to wreck the world unless faced. It’s a timely and kind of devastating read, leaving the final moments in a kind of numb trauma, a disbelief, a stubborn hurt that is slowly grows into a fresh revelation. And it’s an amazing read!

“Young Witch, Old Witch” by H. Pueyo (4061 words)

No Spoilers: Ale is eighteen and the youngest in a long line of witches. She’s going to college and will be staying with her grandma, a woman she remembers as harsh but who has transformed some through her illness, has become more eager, more joyous, but also less herself. Prone to forgetting and frustration and tantrums. Willing to teach magic but also requiring more and more from Ale. It’s a striking portrayal of caregiving, of a woman trying to hold onto her grandmother, and finding less and less there to hold to. It’s beautiful and it’s raw and it shows the complex web of emotions that go with dealing with illness, and loss.
Keywords: Witches, Family, CW- Dementia, Caretaking, Magic
Review: This is not an easy read, the prose deft at bringing the reader along for the ride that Ale is on, the draining and rather relentless way her grandmother declines and deteriorates, the way that care becomes more an dmore of her day until it’s all she does, a full time job plus some, and it’s aching in that portrayal because Ale still very much loves her grandmother and in some ways loves this one she meets when she first arrives more than the one she knew before the illness. Because this one is kinder and more willing to share, less reserved and cruel. This one teaches all kinds of magic, and shares family history, and acts as a friend sometimes instead of a constantly-disapproving authority figure. This one can be a fun. But tucked into that is the knowledge that she going, that she’s losing herself, that this version of her is in some ways a stranger. But not. And it’s all sorts of complicated, made moreso by the things that Ale gives up in order to be a caregiver, so that her grandmother doesn’t have to suffer alone, so that she can have someone around who is somewhat familiar. And the end is beautiful and intense, powerful in how it brings both of these characters to a place where they can maybe have peace. Where they can move on. Where Ale can step away from being the caregiver and can start living again, while her grandmother faces what she can of what’s happening to her and gives up some of her independence. And it shows that for some things, even with magic, there is no perfect solution. No short cut. No fix. Somet things just have to be lived with and lived through. And sometimes there is no replacement for a human touch, a human effort. It’s a wrenching and emotional read, gorgeously rendered and so very much worth spending some time with. Go check it out!


“Pilot Narratives”, “Soul Lanterns”, & “Odysseus Grins at Fate and the Gods” by Adele Gardner

The first piece, “Pilot Narratives,” follows a narrator musing on the work of Saint-ExupĂ©ry, the author of the The Little Prince (which I think I have in four different languages in my home). It ruminates on flight, on the power of the author’s words in capturing what it was to fly when the act, even in times of peace, was full of danger. And his times were not always of peace. The poem loops back again and again, sifting through the stories the man would tell about flying and the way it made the narrator react, the wonder that it evoked alongside the terror. The way that it all condensed into that work that was geared at children--not the stark realities he also discussed but the freedom that the little prince has when he can fly around without a plane at all. And it settles then on the loss of the author, his death and its mystery and then its solution. But still mystery enough that maybe it wasn’t an end at all. After all, the story he wrote survives, perhaps one of the most popular stories ever told, and that kind of thing is like a kind of flight itself, giving the author wings to fly long after his plane had crashed and broken up. And like the little prince that flight has to be made at least in part magically. It’s a lovely and yearning piece, one that seems to me to express a maturing understanding of a story at least on its surface aimed at children. The narrator seems to come back to this figure that they’ve admired, that they followed, that they mourned, and lingers on a hope and a comfort that comes with knowing that whatever happened to him, the words of those pilot narratives are still there, still inspiring others to fly. A lovely read!

The second of the poems, “Soul Lanterns,” is much shorter, just nine lines long, and once again lingers on flight, though I feel in a much different way. Here the piece begins by evoking a spaceship and tying it in feel and in function to a lantern that carries the soul of a dead person to the afterlife. And for me the piece really captures that feeling of space as a desolation, as an absence. Like the lantern the ship takes people through the dark, through the unknown, and I love the way that the poem links those things. The emptiness and mystery of space and what might be found through it and the emptiness and mystery of death and might be found through it. And that I think is a big part of my reading here and a big part of the parallel that speaks to me, that space itself is not the goal. Just as the lanterns used to guide the spirits of the dead to the spirit world have a destination they are moving to, so too does the ship. Where isn’t exactly certain and I think a lot of my reading hinges on the last line. Because it says home, but not really where that is. It could be Earth, yes, the space ship bearing people on a return trip from some unknown destination. But given the parallels it seems more that it might be a new home. One that the ship is guiding them toward, through the vast dark, through the crush of cold and despair. Which I’m not sure would be there if the ship was merely returning to Earth. For me the piece speaks to a kind of ritualized way of looking at sending a ship of people out looking for a new home. Knowing that thye probably can’t go back, that there might not be a back to return to. And so there is a feeling of ending and transition, the ship a lantern that will take humanity itself to a new place, a world not of spirits but that will allow them to live and continue. It’s a very short piece, again, but also wonderful, starting longer and drawing down to a point, the lantern passing out of sight, moving from one world and arriving at the next. A great read!

The final poem is “Odysseus Grins at Fate and the Gods,” which is both the poem with the longest title of the three, and the longest poem overall. And here the narrator of the poem is none other than Odysseus, standing it seems at the cusp or an offer from the gods to join their ranks, to become divine. And in that moment he considers, and he renders his verdict with his signature wit and with the knowledge of what he’s gone through, knowing that fate is not absolute, and that for all the power of the gods, sometimes it pales before the ability of humans to fuck up all on their own. Which I just love as an answer to the question that’s being posed to him, the opportunity that the gods are extending to him. And I love that the title captures what the words of the poem, being completely dialogue, can’t--the grin. Because of course he could come up with this answer (the poem is, if nothing else, a lovely bit of Odysseus fanfic, truly), this way of simultaneously honoring the gods and thumbing his nose at them. Because they’ve not made his life easy. They’ve confounded him and punished him, but him through trials that have left people dead around him. But at the same time, it’s been him who has gotten through it, who angered them in the first place. And that’s the power of humanity, that for all the gods seem bound by these laws, by these fates who claim to control all things, Odysseus sees mortality as being something that allows him to control his own fate as much as possible. To live and die by his own decisions. Which does kind of seem what’s happening here, that this is the end of Odysseus, and on his death the gods, for his exploits and service and persona, are opening this space for him, and he turns it down. Not out of stubbornness, but as a way to show them that humans aren’t so inferior after all. It’s not the gods, really, that saved him (and I love that the poem goes this direction) so much as it was Penelope, who loved him and stayed true, and was more clever than the punishment the gods cooked up for him. It’s just a really fun poem, and a great image, Odysseus going out with a grin on his face, clever and defiant to the end. A delightful read!


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