Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe have built up an impressive track record as anthology editors. Their first two co-productions, Robots vs. Fairies and The Starlit Wood, won Shirley Jackson awards, and were nominees for the World Fantasy and Nebula awards, among others. Stories from the books have won individual laurels (Amal El-Mohtar’s Hugo, Nebula, and Locus award-winning “Seasons of Glass and Iron”), inspired full-length novels (Naomi Novik’s Nebula-nominated novel Spinning Silver originated with the story of the same name from The Starlit Wood), and adapted into animated shorts (John Scalzi’s Robots vs. Fairies contribution “Three Robots” was featured in the first season of the Netflix anthology series Love, Death & Robots).
Now, the editing duo is back with The Mythic Dream, featuring 18 bold and beautiful new takes on some of humanity’s most ancient stories.
Beyond just retellings, this stories aim to subvert the old tales and engage with the classic narratives by, per the editors’ mission statement, “recontextualizing them, giving them new perspectives, new worlds to inhabit.” Certainly they fulfill that purpose in spectacular fashion: this is a vivid, varied, and often visceral, collection of fiction by authors who offer unique and imaginative takes on legends and myths from around the world.
The source material ranges far and wide, from the Jewish legends of Akdamot, the river Sambatyon, and Rabbi Meir that are woven into Leah Cypess’s evocative and beautifully crafted “Across the River”; to the the Latin American monster El Coco in “¡Cuidado!¡Que Viene El Coco!”, Carlos Hernandez’s deliriously wild story of parenting, mental illness, and coconut heads; to the Greek myth of Demeter’s revenge on an offending king that inspires Carmen Maria Machado’s strange and harrowing “The Things Eric Eats Before He Eats Himself.”
Some of the stories stay more or less within the realm of the foundational myths, while at the same time burrowing deep to illuminate them from within, revealing new and strange details. In Amal El Mohtar’s gorgeous “Florilegia; or Some Lies About Flowers,” the Welsh tale of Blodeuwedd—a woman made of broom, meadowsweet and oak—is turned into a story of resistance and the transformative power of speaking and living your truth—even a truth spoken in the language of flowers.
Greek mythology proves to be fertile ground for several stories. Stephen Graham Jones picks up the story of Lycaon, who was punished by the gods for serving up the flesh of his own children to Zeus, with the gut-wrenching, bone-chilling horror/monster-origin story “He Fell Howling.” Jeffrey Ford provides an intimate and devastating consideration of the plight of Sisyphus, following him through ages of hard labor, pain, and punishment, and into the darkness beyond. Naomi Novik’s “Buried Deep” offers a subversive and profoundly moving journey into the labyrinth and the Minotaur that shifts the focus of the narrative squarely onto Ariadne. And in T. Kingfisher’s entertaining take on the tale of Hercules, “Fisher-Bird,” a clever and sharp-tongued bird helps out the demigod-hero.
Some of the authors approach their source material sideways, dislodging myths from the bedrock of the distant past, unraveling them, and knitting them together in strange ways, allowing different patterns and perspectives to emerge. In Seanan McGuire’s hauntingly lovely “Phantom of the Midway,” sweetness mingles with grief beneath a Dorothy Gale blue sky as the tale of Hades and Persephone plays out at a traveling carnival, while Sarah Gailey’s sharp “Wild To Covet,” set in the first half of the 20th century, finds a fierce and ferocious Thetis stealing the spotlight from her son Achilles.
Dragging the gods far into the future, Ann Leckie’s gutsy and gripping “The Justified” rockets the story of Hathor and the destruction of mankind far into space, creating a dizzying new version of an ancient Egyptian myth. Indrapramit Das weaves together AI and ancient gods, quite literally, in “Kali_Na,” as humanity finds out that online trolls can drive even a goddess to a bloodthirsty rage. And in “Live Stream,” Alyssa Wong fuses cyberspace, online gaming culture, and Greek mythology into an unsettling and raw take on the story of Artemis and Acteon.
This blending of myth and science fiction is used to great effect by John Chu, who puts a body-altering sci-fi spin on Idunn’s apples, and by Rebecca Roanhorse, who turns the Indigenous American legend of the Deer Hunter and the White Corn Maiden into a ballsy, haunting trip into the future of fame, and what happens when you can put your dead lover’s memories right into your bloodstream. Arkady Martine gives us a sexy and blood-spattered space opera version of the goddess Inanna’s story; while JY Yang’s haunting “Bridge of Crows” nestles stories within stories, taking flight among the stars as it retells the story of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl.
In one of the most strikingly beautiful and thematically relevant entries, Kat Howard delves into the Irish legend of the Children of Lir, crafting a lyrical, heart-piercing story about the power and importance of the tales we tell, and the ways they are changed, sometimes beyond recognition, as they are retold through the ages. “Imagine a story as something that returns,” Howard writes, and later, “Imagine a story as something that remains.”
Myths and legends are some of humanity’s oldest cultural heritage, and it’s no coincidence that these myths both return and remain—and that they reverberate through popular culture even today, as ancient monsters and heroes and adventures and quests are woven into new narratives in movies, video games, and literature. As The Mythic Dream reveals, these old tales carry undeniable cultural weight, and in reconsidering them, we can learn new things about the stories we tell in our own time.
The Mythic Dream serves as a potent reminder that myths and legends still hold power, still matter, and can still provide us insight and inspiration, even centuries and millennia after they were first told. We just need to look on them with fresh eyes.