Mithila Review continues to put out regular and giant issues of SFF short fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, and it’s been a boon, let me tell you. And okay, the pieces by and large in this first half of the issue might not exactly be light and happy. Indeed, most of the pieces are pretty solidly horror. But there’s a lot to be said about reading horror in horrifying times. And these do challenge and provoke, unsettle and just creepy the fuck out of. Though there is a bright spot or two mixed into that for good measure. To the reviews!
“Your Dinner” by Derek Anderson (2482 words)
No Spoilers: This very visceral story unfolds around two viewpoints. The first (which brackets the story at the opening and ending) is a woman celebrating becoming UltraRich at an exclusive restaurant, Fresh. One where it’s people on the menu. The meat of the story, though (sorry), is told from the perspective of the person to be, well, to be consumed. A man who has been raised for this moment. And who thinks there’s a chance that he’s going to be rescued. The piece is difficult to say the least, so I’m definitely going to say if the CW is an issue, stay clear. What’s also here is a sharp take that doesn’t let the reader squirm away from the realities of the setting, one where people are literally devoured. One that really doesn’t seem far fetched, all things considered.
Keywords: Cooking, Climate Change, CW- Cannibalism, Hope, CW- Slavery, CW- Torture
Review: Okay then. So this is an incredibly difficult story to read, in part because it’s brand of horror is visceral and bloody and graphic. The narrator of middle section is getting eaten alive, and while it’s not as painful as it could be for him, it certainly was for me, for a host of reasons. Perhaps the largest of which was that the piece just takes apart this idea of hope. Hope of deliverance keeping people from taking action that will lead to their improvement or freedom. The narrator here could resist, and in resisting probably only get himself killed a different way but it would be a hit for the business. And if enough of them did it then there might be change. But they are convinced to hide their pain, to go along with it, to act as if they are willing participants in their own destruction. The point is rather disturbingly but powerfully made. Hope is something that’s often used to get people to remain passive. To keep them invested in a system that they think might miraculous reverse course despite knowing how difficult it would be to do so. Especially when what they are told to do is...nothing. Just to continue on, continue suffering, continue being devoured, all on the hope that the secret resistance will rise, that something will be done to save them. It speaks to a lot of ways that people are kept in corrupt systems, told that their time will come, believing something that is an outright lie, that they can see for what it is only too late, only when they’ve already been chewed and digested. it’s a difficult but ultimately for me rather apt story about how people become complacent, how they can be tricked into going along with something that is actively harming them, all in the name of false hope. And though I think it gets dangerously close to calling all hope toxic, I think in the end what it’’s pointing at is the need for action, the need to resist, to fight, and not just accept at face value the assurances that if they keep doing nothing they’ll get something from it. A fine read!
“Iterations” by Christian Monson (7413 words)
No Spoilers: Coen is a guide on an alien planet where people mostly hunt animals that are more target practice than elusive prey. But that’s not to say there aren’t dangers. Krigs are strange creatures with the ability to inject neurotoxins from a distance and alter their bodies in strange and terrifying ways. Coen mostly stays away from them. But when he convinces his ex to come to the planet to see live these creatures, on which she did her thesis, things kind of escalate and, well, some unexplainable happens. The piece is strange, moving through time and space as Coen is brought face to face with the decisions that led him to this moment. And it’s a yearning piece, full of regret and longing and the knowledge that even when you can go back in time, life rarely has a redo button.
Keywords: Aliens, Time Travel, College, Relationships, Military
Review: The story does a good job of setting Coen up as someone not just sort of driftless, but also rather shallow and, at his worst, manipulative and kinda predatory. His introduction is as a sleazy vacation tourist who tries to leverage his position to have sex with the women who he’s guiding, often under the noses of their husbands. As the piece moves forward, that view is complicated some, but it’s definitely the man he’s become at this point at his life, shaped by the choices he made at each moment. Choices he might come to regret, but that he never really tries to fix until he’s kicked outside of time, jumping around his life to the moments that brought him away from the woman who loved him and a life that might have let him avoid the strange quasi-death he’s found. In that the piece is sort of like a science fictional A Christmas Carol with Coen given a tour of his past and present (he doesn’t really seem to have a future) and shown how he might have changed his ways. How he might have had something happier, more fulfilling, if only he hadn’t shied away from stability, from the love he was being given. His own desire for importance, his desire to be The Man in the situation, active and in control, means that when his partner began to outshine him he seemed to pull back, to sabotage the relationship. To push her to change despite the fact she knew what she wanted and he didn’t. It’s petulant, and it’s the force that keeps him locked into his bad decisions, his killer essentially rubbing salt in the wound by reminding himself of how he might have avoided this, might have lived, but for his own arrogance and trespass. It’s not quite a tragedy to me, for all that it’s not a happy read. But more it seems to be a kind of teaching Coen why he’s come to this moment, to this end, and allowing him to accept it in the end, rather than fighting it. A great read!
“The Call to Neigh” by Daniel McKay (4817 words)
No Spoilers: Mahmoud is in something of a slump, an academic archaeologist in Cairo who ended up on the “wrong side” of the political scene during the Arab Spring and now has found his career stymied by corruption and his marriage threatened by his own depression and lack of engagement. His wife is hoping that therapy will help to bring him back to his old self. But it’s the return of a find that he had been sure would help to further his career that sparks something in him. Just...not in the way he expected. And it pushes him in directions that are nothing like the old Mahmoud, that speak of something wholly new and rooted in something ancient, something that he’s not about to let anyone take away from him.
Keywords: Horses, Artifacts, Revolutions, Marriage, Therapy, Possession
Review: In some ways this story follows a rather classic trope of a cursed object. Mahmoud touches it and begins to act completely different. It’s like he’s not the one steering his body. And while some of the horror of the story comes from that, from this sudden Change, it’s also in many ways Mahmoud regaining his confidence, starting to push back against the ways that the promise of the Arab Spring became for him a hope twisting into a new hell. What was supposed to bring freedom and renewal brought only a new revolution of the same cycle, trapping Mahmoud in an even worse state than before. And then getting back this box of artifacts, something that is supposed to make him feel better, grateful even, like maybe he has a path back to his old position...just ends up being salt in the wound because it’s been picked over, picked clean, leaving so little left. But it has one artifact of interest and power, one that acts as the focus for his rebellious thoughts. Unless they’re not his thoughts at all... And I think it’s kinda adorable that he maybe gets possessed by this ancient Egyptian horse god, and that his wife is just there kind of taking notes and doing a lot of shrugging. The humor there next to the horror is wonderfully done and I love the way that she doesn’t really notice that too much is up. And the ending is strange, full of implications, of further revolutions to come, a sort of promise that radical change hasn’t ended just because things got muddled following the Spring. If it didn’t work, then maybe it just needs another push, another go. Which leaves a lot on that last moment, the silence before the noise. And it’s a story very much spending some time with!
“Mother’s Blood” by Elijah Petty (6279 words)
No Spoilers: Stella is a former scullery maid turned wife to a former Duke, a great step up in terms of social standing and comfort, but one also rather dependent on her birthing an heir. After months of trying, it’s not happened, and Stella is growing desperate. Maybe desperate enough to travel outside of the city and seek out a woman known as a witch for a solution for her problem. But as happens with witches sometimes, what they offer isn’t exactly free. And the price might not be about money, but rather focus on action, on consequence, on a kind of justice that isn't justice at all because of how everyone is doom, locking people into a cycle of abuse and pain, violation and punishment. It's a grim read, and an effective one.
Keywords: Witches, Rats, Familiars, Rituals, CW- Pregnancy/Childbirth, Bargains
Review: This story shows a nice descent into horror, starting with this need that Stella has for a child and letting that pave her road to hell. She’s committed to getting a child, and while I’m uncomfortable with how the story frames her reasons as “selfish” I do think that they are very real reasons why someone might be desperate for a child. Because in the grand scheme it seems like such a small bargain, one that most women are expected to make anyway, and here it means the different between so much. Not just the type of bedding but probably a much longer life and the ability to provide better for those children and, especially if this is a one-time thing, freedom from having to do it all again and again. And Stella’s interactions with the witch are wrenching, and it’s there really, not her reasons for wanting a child, that I see a bit more how she’s selfish. Not for her reasons for wanting a child but for the way she treats the witch, which plays into the old tradition of “don’t treat strangers like garbage unless you want bad things to happen to you” being a very real thing, especially when magic is involved (Merlin does this a few times and it’s always to make someone learn a hard lesson). And Stella making the witch kill her rats is a wrenching thing, pulled off with appropriate weight and terror. Again, I’m super comfortable with tying in the reasons she has for having a child into this equation because for me it’s much more about how she demands these things of this old woman who has already lost so much. A woman Stella should empathize with because of their shared poverty (or former poverty). But Stella isn’t concerned with the woman’s suffering, and it comes back for her in a chilling way. It’s a horror story that works for me as a kind of fairy tale, a morality play, while at the same time leaving me a bit conflicted about how Stella is treated and how her selfishness is framed in the bargains she makes. Still, an interesting read that I encourage people to make up their own minds about!
“uncas” by Kate Shannon
In some ways this is a difficult poem for me because I’m not sure what the title refers to. Lacking that context, the piece itself speaks of a landscape and a voice. The piece opens with a woman putting herself down on paper, perhaps literally, but probably more likely metaphorically, writing herself and her story, giving the piece a sort of metatext where the poem itself might be that putting down, and so in that sense the poem is a person, their embodiment in words. At the same time, there is also the sense that the narrator is separate from the woman, from the You that the narrator is speaking to. Though perhaps they are the same and the You reflects the narrator. Whatever the case, the piece moves through a wet atmosphere, water and trees, not exactly a swamp but something like it. There’s beauty there, on an island where the girl dances, spins, while the narrator seems to will protection for them. But the narrator seems to know their limitations, that the girl might wander too far away, my go where the narrator cannot follow, and so the poem is a sort of wish or prayer. A hope that this girl will be kept safe, an acknowledgment of her joy and her grace and all the things she could be. And a recognition of the shadow that shifts across both of them, that the world isn’t safe, that there are forces everywhere that might seek to shape her, to change her. Some benevolent perhaps but others probably not so much. And the poem is lovely, the scene it captures a sort of wonder while the shadows gather around the edges. It’s strange, and I feel like I must be missing something, but that is the nature of poetry, and I still think it’s a wonderful read!
"cinderella” by Archita Mittra
This piece takes on the old fairy tale the title implies but tells a much less romantic story. One that clearly lacks a happily ever after, because the main character, Cinderella, never get a choice in the matter. Abused in one place and desperate for a release from that, but finding herself trading one prison for another when she is taken by the prince, married, made into little more than object. A trophy. A toy. And I like how the piece centers her desire to dance, what that says about her and her desire to be free. It’s not to be seen exactly that she does it, but to feel the dance, all for that love and that drive. And it’s a magic as surely as any fairy godmother, but the world is a hungry place for hope and beauty, those things commodities that are horded by the wealthy and powerful. Without the means to be able to be independent, she’s subject to the whims of those who see her, those who at turns hate her and love her but never really see her. The story is a tragedy, one where there is no force that really listens to her, that cares about what she wants. The nature here is full of touches of beauty but there is no magic in it and no escape through it. The piece looks at what happens to joy when it’s filtered through oppression, through subjugation, through loss and a lack of agency and power. For all that, it’s perhaps a more realistic fairy tale, one that doesn’t offer much in the way of guidance or hope but one that also rejects romanticizing what is definitely not romantic. What is coercion and rape. So that all that’s left is maybe the glimmer of hope that it all might burn down. It’s a haunting read, but worth checking out!
“Different Boxes” by Rachel Rodman
This is an absolutely adorable poem that I’m not sure how much I can actually write about because it’s a box joke but it is a wonderful box joke. Like, the whole premise is solid, where the piece opens with Pandora on a date with someone, starting to tell her story about her past. About the box that housed the Sorrows of the World. And it packs this loved weight to it, this power that goes with this woman opening up about all that. It’s a serious and poignant moment that the poem really nails, builds with this pain and trauma that don’t fade, that reopen old wounds every time they’re thought about. So her revealing this is this harm she’s doing to herself for the sake of disclosure. And...and I just love that it turns out she’s been paired with Schrödinger because they both have boxes, like they were paired by the universe’s worst dating AI. And the sort of ashamed helplessness of Schrödinger is just so...adorable. Like he can recognize this giant thing that Pandora has done for him, for them, and he just doesn’t have any similar trauma. And in some ways it’s sort of like he thought they’d be more similar, their box stories. Like hey, it’s something that connects them, when his is so much...easier. And really this feels a lot like dating at times, where sometimes there is that uneven level of trauma, of history. So that opening up isn’t exactly even. And it’s just a really fun poem, very short but does manage to crack one hell of a joke and be just a delight to read. Such a great way to close out the first half of the issue!