Maithili and the Minotaur: Web of Woe
by C.G Salamander and Rajiv Eipe
Publisher: Puffin (2021)
Whenever a blurb on the back of a children’s book says “irreverent” it means a spunky child will bring down an unpleasant adult – usually a deserving teacher. The back cover of Maithili and the Minotaur: promised it would be many things – the blurbs said it was “irreverent, fun and thought-provoking,” “wholesome and heart-warming”, “quirky and delightful” – all the things children’s writing should be, no? But that is not the book I read. The book I read is quirky and thought-provoking, but it is also dark and unsettling and explores themes that are extremely relevant to the tween audience it is for, and it does this in an intelligent and engaging manner.
Written by C.G. Salamander and illustrated by Rajiv Eipe, the book is set in an alternate South Indian universe that monsters and humans occupy together. The humans live in one town while the monsters live in another. Maithili lives in the forest between these two settlements. She is an outcast in both worlds – too human for the monsters and too monstrous for the humans. In the first few pages, we learn that Maithili has recently transferred to the monster school, where she has made one friend – a gentle Minotaur who is a reluctant but loyal partner in all her adventures.
The book touches on themes of friendship and belonging and the hurtful effects of rejection. Maithili and one of the main villains, Headmistress Arachne (a spider), are foils for each other. Both grew up among humans and both are rejected for what the humans deemed monstrous-ness. Yet, one found a friend and has managed to preserve that inner goodness, while the other was left alone to wallow in loneliness and bitterness. In the end, Arachne succumbs to the darkness while Maithili, supported by people around her, stays in the light.
At times, the pacing of the story left me out of breath and disoriented but I enjoyed examining each sepia-toned panel on the page. Rajiv Eipe has done a fantastic job of bringing Maithili’s world alive and setting the mood. Each panel is filled with detail informing us of the rich and bizarre monster world she had entered and that did not seem to faze her in the least. Unlike the humans, who saw Minotaur as a monster they wanted to keep in their Jallikattu circus to draw an audience, Maithili did not see the monsters as different from her. Minotaur was her friend – bull-head or boy-head, she did not care.
For children or adults who like world mythology, it can be fun to discover some familiar characters. Principal Thoth, the principal at the monster school, is an Ibis, a clear reference to the Egyptian Moon God. The class teacher Mr Poochandi or Mr Puu is the Tamil version of the bogeyman, and Headmistress Arachne’s namesake Arachne had her own tragic tale of woe in the Greek myth. Not many 10-year-olds will get these references so I wish there had been a reference section at the end of the book where children could read more about the original mythical creatures that inspired the characters in Maithili’s world. I was, however, delighted with the little bonus chapter on Nagesh, the snake, a Neville Longbottom type of character – silly and anxious but utterly adorable and with the promise of being a significant character in later books (I hope!)
Although some of the themes and characters in Maithili and the Minotaur are dark and uncomfortable, Salamander and Eipe manage to balance that heaviness with a youthful lightness through the character of Maithili and her Minotaur friend. This makes it appropriate for its targeted reading audience – ages 10 and over. It also ends with several loose threads dangling. One major question we are left with is who Maithili is, or maybe – what Maithili is because we know who she is – she is a funny and curious girl who is also a kind and loyal friend. This book is the first in a series of fantasy adventure graphic novels, and I am very curious to know what happens next.