Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque by Leonide Martin

Historically authentic, but gratuitously mystic
There have been a lot of good novels written about ancient Greece and Rome, both in classic and contemporary literature. I often wonder why there hasn’t been more fiction written about ancient Mesoamerica—the Maya, the Aztecs, the Inca. So when I came across Leonide Martin’s 2013 novel The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque, I was intrigued enough to give it a try (especially since Amazon was giving the ebook away for free at the time). This is the first book of the Mists of Palenque series, in which Martin chronicles the lives of four rulers of that ancient Mayan city. I have an armchair archaeologist’s interest in the Maya and have been fortunate enough to make one trip to the ruins of Palenque, one of my favorite places on Earth. I thus approached the book with an eager interest in its subject.

Martin’s prose is polished and well-crafted, and she knows how to construct a satisfying plot. She also does a great job of thinking like a Maya and writing from that cultural perspective. Her copious research into Mayan history and culture is evident on every page. While her skills as a writer are readily apparent, I disagree with some of her creative choices. She lost me with the opening scene, in which the future Mayan queen Yohl Ik’nal uses astral projection to converse with what appears to be an Englishwoman of the 19th or 20th century (subsequent volumes may prove me wrong about the details). Isn’t the civilization of the ancient Maya fascinating enough? Does it need to be dressed up in supernatural mummery to make it more palatable to a general audience? Martin’s diligent attention to historical detail and anthropological accuracy make such mystical passages all the more glaring. Though it is necessary to show the importance of mysticism, mythology, and astrology in Mayan life, Martin treats the visions and gods as reality, even to the point where they drive the plot and thus direct the course of history.

Halfway through the book Martin inserts a flash forward to the present day in the form of an archaeologist’s journal. This new narrator describes her participation in a dig at Palenque in which the bones of Yohl Ik’nal are discovered. This device was very successful and illustrates how science can prove a more compelling narrative strategy than the supernatural. It would be great if Martin would expand on this brief interlude and construct an archaeological novel in which two plots, past and present, are intertwined.

While I admire Martin’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Maya, at times she lays on the cultural description so thick it overpowers and deadens the plot. If I wanted to read long lists of what the Maya ate, drank, or sat on, I’d rather get if from a nonfiction source like the Handbook to Ancient Life in the Maya World. She also concentrates too much on royal pageantry and religious ritual at the expense of daily life. Imagine a novel in which every day is Christmas. To some extent all the pomp and circumstance obscures the reader’s view of Mayan culture. One welcome scene involving a family of common farmers was very engaging but all too brief.

Not every reader will share my objections to this book. My preference for the secular over spiritual in historical novels is a criticism I’ve leveled at other ancient-world fictions, from Madeline Miller’s recent Hellenic novel The Song of Achilles to Lew Wallace’s classic biblical epic Ben-Hur. Decide for yourself whether that sort of thing is your cup of tea. Martin’s skills as a writer are admirable, enough so that her Palenque series will surely find its share of avid fans.
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