Book Review: ‘Where Rivers Go to Die’ by Dilman Dila

Whatever else you take away from this review, it should be noted that Where Rivers Go to Die is primarily a collection of horror stories. Deftly created horror, sure, but unsettling — along the lines of the more mild episodes of The Twilight Zone, at its lightest. At its most frightful, expect tales akin to The Ring or Alien.

Author Dilman Dila is a Ugandan writer and filmmaker who participated in the University of Iowa’s 2017 fall residency in the International Writing Program. Throughout the eight stories collected in Where Rivers Go to Die (Rosarium Publishing), Dila draws from Ugandan folklore and history.

Most take place in modernity, but one dips into the 19th century, cataloging colonizers who encounter “flying green men.” Others reach into the future, in one case telling of a world where machine-made narratives flood the entertainment industry.

The first three tales exist in urban-fantasy settings where spiritual and supernatural mysteries are afoot. These stories somewhat resemble The Dresden Files, though in tone and texture they are more reminiscent of early The Witcher books.

After these initial stories, the book bends more towards science fiction, starting with “The Last Storyteller.” Don’t be mistaken though, there are still supernatural elements at play, like the titular “last storyteller” finding that one of her protagonists has miraculously become a flesh and blood entity.

The strongest and longest story of the bunch, “The Flying Man of Stone,” occupies the middle of the book. Here Dila has the space to develop a setting that realizes the marriage of spirituality and science fiction he’s clearly occupied with. The narrative follows Kera, a boy fleeing with his father up a mountain after his town is attacked by soldiers — within that mountain he finds strange creatures capable of bestowing strange characteristics and powerful knowledge.

In stories before “The Flying Man of Stone,” the weakest point was often abrupt endings. In more than one instance, I found myself getting excited for a story only to turn the page and find its conclusion. While there is a somewhat sudden ending to “The Flying Man of Stone,” it felt more appropriate — there had been a build to that ending and the world had been given time to breathe before the finale.

Another note on these stories’ endings: all hold some measure of tragedy. The exception is the final story, “The Terminal Move,” which arguably still contains the collection’s most horrifying moments. (Think Attack on Titan or some of the more gruesome imagery of Princess Mononoke.)

These are primarily horror stories, but as bloody as they may become, they are just as often breathtaking. The very best of them stuck with me and kept me thinking for days after just as great science fiction stories should.

Where Rivers Go to Die is scheduled to release on June 6.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s May 2023 issues.