I was very happy to see that one of my very favourite books of last year, 'A Song for a New Day' by Sarah Pinsker, won the Nebula. I'm also very happy to have finally read this novel, which was one of the other five nominees, as I found it an absolute delight. Moreno-Garcia is a welcome addition to an ever-growing list of writers bringing different cultural backgrounds to works of fantasy and science fiction.
This is a fantasy novel, but it's also a period piece and I was surprised to not find those telling words, "A Novel", emblazoned on the front cover. It's a great book for a genre reader but it could easily cross that ever-tenuous boundary to become a book read by mainstream readers too. They wouldn't need to have a background in fantasy either, because the novel works with its own internal logic that we learn along with its protagonist. Only if we have the cultural background of someone living on the Yucatan Peninsula would we jump ahead with assumptions.
Historically, Mexico is moving away from the influence of Spain and towards that of the United States, while serving as a holiday destination for those who want to celebrate the Jazz Age without the obstacle of Prohibition. It's the late 1920s and Casiopea Tun is a put upon eighteen year old, serving at her grandfather's whim. She's bright and headstrong, but the least important member of a family that treasures the first born son, Martín, even if he's a pale shadow of her in every way. He's her cousin.
The world changes for her when she defies her grandfather's instructions and opens the chest in his bedroom while he's at a hot spring for his health. In it are bones which, when she accidentally pricks a thumb on one, reassemble and gain flesh. They're not human bones; they're the bones of Hun-Kamé, one of a pair of Mayan death gods. His younger twin, Vucub-Kamé, currently rules in Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, because Casiopea's grandfather played his part in a plot to seize the throne. The family riches exist because of this; it's been fifty years.
Here's where the internal rules come in. Vucub-Kamé knew full well that this moment would come eventually, so he planned carefully to have the upper hand when it did. He took parts from Hun-Kamé's bodyan eye, an ear, a finger and a necklaceand scattered them around Mexico. Hun-Kamé won't have his powers back in full until he retrieves them. What's more, he must leave a shard of bone inside Casiopea's finger so that, in the meantime, he can draw from her power. And, of course, that means that she must accompany him.
It actually means a lot more than that and as wonderful as Moreno-Garcia's ability to place this story firmly in time and space and Mayan mythology is, the book's real success is in the way that she merges the real and mythical worlds through the avatars of Casiopea and Hun-Kamé. That's because both of them change. The longer the bone shard stays in Casiopea's finger, the more power she gains and the more mortal Hun-Kamé becomes.
That's a fantastic dynamic to begin with, but think about how that affects a headstrong young lady who's never been allowed to do much of anything as she experiences the world for the first time and blossoms as she does so. Think also about how becoming increasingly human affects Hun-Kamé, who knows what he must do to first regain his powers and then his throne. As a god, he has no need for human emotions, so Casiopea is merely a tool to use while taking back his rightful place. As a god becoming a man, every action of every day starts to feel different. Something as simple as laughter is new to him.
Moreno-Garcia writes very well. From the very beginning, this is obviously a work of literature, with simple but effective prose constructed with a very deliberate care. It can be sparse because it values clarity, but it's never shy of emotion. A line as unimportant in the grand scheme of things as "His gaze was on a faraway point she could not reach" might help to highlight how deceptively simple this prose is but how deeply it achieves.
That clarity also helps this book to play out like a fairy tale, even though it really isn't one. I realised that early in the second half, because I had a crystal clear assumption of where we were going and that got less clear as each page turned until it wavered so much that I reevaluated and realised I wasn't watching a Disney movie. There are other paths that it could take and the factors determining which just aren't ones in my cultural background.
I might have learned plenty by reading Ernest Hogan and Max Gladstone and a few others and I've always been a fan of mythology, but that doesn't mean my mind works the way it would if I were either Mayan and/or a death god. Quite a few of the most delightful touches that flavour this novel are things like the death god ability to send out an owl to capture laughter of his enemy in a shell to transport back to him. I love that.
I'm mostly reviewing this as a work of fantasy because that's why I'm here, but it works very well as a period piece too. The quest at the heart of the book isn't just Hun-Kamé and Casiopea against Vucub-Kamé, of course. He has his pawns too and, with her grandfather old and frail, it falls to Martín to do his bidding, and he's a product of his protected status as the first born son of a well to do family.
Initially, it's abidingly obvious that Casiopea is smarter, more willing and a whole better adjusted to this wild new world than Martín. I doubt that any reader will find themselves on his side, even a few pages in. However, he's not really a bad guy. He's just less sympathetic, for a lot of reasons, and his journey through this novel has a story arc too, if not as wild a one as Casiopea's. How they interact late in the book is powerful indeed.
I loved this book. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but often the books I need to read to figure out what to expect become my favourites. This is one more for that list, because it's a delight. It's clearly a standalone story too, so I don't expect a sequel, prequel or whatever else. The story's told and it's told well. And I will treasure it. ~~ Hal C F Astell