Philippine mythology is full of images that ignite the imagination: gods of calamity and baldness, of cosmic time and lost things; the many-layered Skyworld, and weapons that fight their own battles; a ship that is pulled to paradise by a chain, and a giant crab that controls the tides… yet too few of these tales are known and read today. “Alternative Alamat” gathers stories, by contemporary authors of Philippine fantasy, which make innovative use of elements of Philippine mythology. None of these stories are straight re-tellings of the old tales: they build on those stories, or question underlying assumptions; use ancient names as catalysts, or play within the spaces where the myths are silent. What you will find in common in these eleven stories is a love for the myths, epics, and legends which reflect us, contain us, call to us–and it is our hope that, in reading our stories, you may catch a glimpse, and develop a hunger, for those venerable tales.
I love alternative takes on mythology (Rick Riordan fan here), so I thought “Alternative Alamat” would be a good place for me to start with my resolution to read more works written by Filipino authors.
I also love the idea of this compilation because it brings Philippine mythology closer to modern readers like no scholarly book of myths possibly could. I am not belittling the efforts of the authors who wrote the scholarly books, of course, for without them, we would know very little about our mythology. But younger readers and readers who are more exposed to foreign works wouldn’t likely pick up an academic book on Philippine myths for their leisure reading.
There are 11 engaging re-tellings in this anthology written by many familiar names in Philippine speculative fiction. Despite sometimes dealing with similar themes or mythological figures, the treatments are delightfully diverse.
“Ana’s Little Pawnshop on Makiling St.” – The pawnshop reminded me a lot of the Faerie Market in Gaiman’s “Stardust,” where the wares that are on sale are all whimsical and magical. This poignant story has its own local flavor and charm, though, and I love how Eliza Victoria intertwined the mythology with modern issues.
“Harinuo’s Love Song” – It took me a while to get used to the rhythm of this story because it reads a lot like an old folktale, and I didn’t expect that kind of treatment. But this turned out to be an enjoyable read. The prose is lyrical and lush, and the plot is well-crafted.
“Last Full Show” – I’ve never read any of the Trese comics, and yes, you can throw all manner of insults and objects at me, but maybe you can throw the four volumes of those comics my way instead? 😛 This was so much fun to read, and I love that you didn’t need prior knowledge of the original comics to appreciate it.
“The Alipin’s Tale” – I love alternate history stories too, so this is a real hit with me. It doesn’t introduce any of the more obscure myths or personalities, but the mix of history and mythology grounds it for readers, and makes the fantasy aspect more tangible.
“Keeper of My Sky” – This story succeeds in its intention to intertwine science and mythology, this time. It’s a lovely tale, but it’s so sad and melancholic. I was thankful it wasn’t raining when I read this or I would’ve sobbed in front of my computer.
“Conquering Makiling” – This particular Maria Makiling theme is quite familiar, but the story had modern sensibilities. The conservation message is well-placed.
“The Sorceress Queen” – This one reads like a great classic fairy tale and also like those local genesis stories at the same time. I had a lot of fun imagining what this would look like if it was adapted as an animated short.
“Beneath the Acacia” – In my mind, I call this the CSI: Arayat story. 😛 I like the portrayal of Maria Sinukuan here because she seems more human. This is probably because the more fantastical spotlight is trained on the protagonist, Juan, but it’s a pleasant change. There was a little hiccup in the story that jarred me a little, though–when Mang Andres describes the supernatural characters, it sounds like he was explaining it to a foreign reader rather than to the other in-universe characters who already know what a kapre is.
“Offerings to Aman Sinaya” – I liked the story, although the point of view was a little unconventional, and therefore took some getting used to. The ending felt a little too abrupt.
“Balat, Buwan, Ngalan (A Myth for the 21st Century)” – I love how this incorporates the old tales into a modern world. I had a lot of fun spotting the pop culture references and nods to the old myths. My only problem was the POV. Because the narrative had a ‘meta’ feel to it like ‘Interview With The Vampire,’ I think this would’ve been more powerful had it been written from a first person POV.
“The Door Opens” – I panicked when I saw that this story had a good number of footnotes because I have a love-hate relationship with fiction that incorporates footnotes. I feel that it’s very rarely done well enough that the author doesn’t interrupt the flow of the main story. Dean Alfar did well, though. The main narrative read like a complete story in itself, so I had no compulsion to immediately check the footnotes, which would’ve been difficult because I would’ve done a lot of scrolling back and forth. Nevertheless, I found the structure of this story really interesting, and when I finally did read the footnotes, they embellished the main narrative really well. Plus points for the great alternate history concept!
As an aside, I just realized how awkward it is to read stories set in the Philippines whose characters speak in English. It can’t be helped, of course, but I find it jarring sometimes. If a story is well written, I do get over it, as was the case for all the stories I read.
Despite the diversity in treatment, I felt that there was a lot of underlying melancholy in all of the stories; they all seem so somber. I was looking for a bit of levity in some of the ones where that kind of tone would’ve been appropriate. All the old tales were already somber enough, I thought someone would actually do a much lighter alternative take. But this personal preference doesn’t take away from the quality of the stories at all.
I also wish the stories each dealt with unique deities or themes, that only one story would’ve had Maria Makiling for a subject, for example. But maybe this also reflects how much work still needs to be done in educating everyone that there exist pantheons of deities and a deep well of other Philippine legends and myths. “Alternative Alamat” is already a great first step toward that, with the interviews and appendices included in the book providing a springboard for further study. It certainly made me more interested in Philippine mythology, and I will definitely make use of the references to learn more.
I hope more authors and publishers will be proactive and think of other creative ways to bring this aspect of our culture closer to the popular consciousness. I’m proud of efforts like “Alternative Alamat,” and hope that more Filipino readers support projects like this. I have high hopes that soon we will find our own local Rick Riordan!
One last thing: I wish they’ll publish a print copy of this book so that it will reach more readers, and because the illustrations by Mervin Malonzo deserve to be seen in print.
Disclosure: This review is based on a review copy provided by Rocket Kapre Books.