Book Review: The Visionary Mayan Queen by Leonide Martin

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

This is a historical fiction novel about Yohl Ik’nal, a Maya queen who ascended to the throne of Palenque in 583CE. The book is the first in a trilogy detailing the early years of Yohl Ik’nal and her reign.

I didn’t finish the book. I had my doubts when it began with Yohl Ik’nal meditating in the jungle, then abruptly mind traveling to speak with a young (Scottish? Scandinavian?) girl who also visited the “realm of faeries.” While I’m not opposed to fantasy, I generally expect historical fictions to trend more towards history than outright fiction.

I also found the dialogue to be stilted and lacking in subtlety. Characters simply state their feelings to one another, or allow the omniscient narrator to tell us exactly what so-and-so was thinking. While Maya culture is formal and regimented, I feel there are better ways to demonstrate this than through awkward dialogue. Along these lines, Martin also gives the reader explanations and translations for various aspects of Maya life, often in parentheses within the paragraph. While this isn’t entirely a bid idea, this approach is more appropriate for an academic work; within a fictional setting the effect is jarring and tend to take the reader out of the story.

Leonide Martin is a scholar of Maya history, and there is no debating her knowledge. However, her strengths do not seem to lie in the fictional realm. A less fictional, more historical/anthropological work might be better suited to showcase her attention to detail and intimate knowledge of  the subject matter. Something along the lines of The Woman Who Would Be King, by Kara Cooney, which stays mostly within the verifiable history but adds in conjecture by the author would have worked well here.

In all, I feel like the fictional aspects of this book are not as engaging as they could be, and the historical aspects are not well integrated with the fictional portions of the book. Yohl Ik’nal is a fascinating figure, and one certainly deserving of wider attention. Maya history enthusiasts may still want to investigate this book, but this may not be the best for the more casual reader.

A copy of this book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review. The Visionary Mayan Queen is currently available for purchase.

 

Book Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

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The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston

I’ve been a fan of Douglas Preston’s fictional work for years, so there was no way I was going to pass up a chance to read one of his non-fiction titles, especially with how closely this fits within my own wheelhouse (my education is in anthropology, and Husband studied Maya archaeology).

Welcome to the jungles of the Mosquitia region on Honduras; an area so remote, large swathes of land have been untouched by humans for hundreds of years. The jungle is thick and forbidding, and venomous snakes, hungry jaguars, and deadly diseases have dissuaded most from exploring the region. But rumors persist. Rumors of a great white city (La Ciudad Blanca), filled with untold riches, brought low in ages past by hubris and curses. These tales of “the El Dorado of Central America” have inspired explorers (ahem, looters) since the time of Hernán Cortés to try to find the fabled city. Repeated failures, plus a good deal of hucksterism, relegated the city to the realm of fiction and myth.

Enter LiDAR, which uses pulsed laser beams to detect objects, and a filmmaker with an obsession.  LiDAR shows its capabilities when it is used to uncover a lost city in the Cambodian jungle, and filmmaker Steve Elkins elists it as the perfect way to prove or disprove the myth of the white city. When scans of the vast jungle reveal structures hidden in a remote and nigh-inaccessible valley, Douglas Preston accompanies a team of scientists, archaeologists, anthropologists, photographers, etc., are choppered in to study the Lost City.

It sounds like the tag line to a thriller or an adventure story (and certainly could be the plot of one of Preston’s fictional books), but this really happened. Preston tells the story like an adventure novel, needing little embellishment to emphasize the danger and the excitement of journeying into an area uninhabited for centuries. In addition to the story of the lost city, Preston also provides the reader with a brief look at Honduras’ turbulent (frequently due to meddling by the United States) history.

In the book, Preston himself laments the difficulty in walking the line between writing for those without an anthropology background and making sure your work is culturally sensitive and avoids colonial overtones. Overall, Preston does well walking this line, despite the sensationalism of the book’s title. He discusses frankly the controversy surrounding the venture and does a wonderful job presenting an archaeological discovery in an interesting and accessible way. The book is also replete with information relevant to us in the present day. The Maya civilization (the word Mayan is used only for the language) vanished as an entity prior to the Spanish invasion. Instead, the culture was brought low by a combination of environmental degradation and societal inequality (sound familiar?).

In all, this book is a definite recommendation for any lover of history, anthropology, or Central American culture. But I think even the casual reader will find a lot to like in this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The Lost City of the Monkey God will be available for purchase on January 3rd, 2017.