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Friday, September 27, 2019

Gods of Jade and Shadow: A Mayan Historical Fantasy For Hispanic Heritage Month

I've been wanting to get to Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia because I'd seen good reviews of this Mayan historical fantasy from advance readers. I decided to read it now because it seemed perfect for Hispanic Heritage Month. While I was reading this book, I also saw the amazing movie Coco a second time at a public library event for Hispanic Heritage Month. Both Gods of Jade and Shadow and Coco deal with the Land of the Dead in a Mexican context though their perspectives are very different.  One major area of dis-similarity is that while Coco is a Disney children's movie that adults can also enjoy, Gods of Jade and Shadow definitely isn't for children.  It's been mis-shelved  by some readers as a YA or children's novel on Goodreads.  I saw that the author also commented about this issue on the book's Goodreads page.


I think the beautiful cover rich in Mayan symbols was what first attracted me to this book.  I had no previous experience of  Silvia Moreno-Garcia's work, but this cover made her latest novel stand out for me.

I may be the only reviewer who wants to discuss the theological premise of  Gods of Jade and Shadow.  It's essentially the opposite of American Gods by Neil Gaiman in which  "everywhere around the world they're coming to America" to quote the lyrics of another Neil.   Gods from other continents are looking to take up residence in the United States in Gaiman's highly regarded urban fantasy.   In the world of Moreno-Garcia's book, Gods would never want to do that because their power comes from the land where they were born. The further they go from it, the more their power diminishes. Since we have very successful world religions, this premise doesn't seem at all likely to me.

Nevertheless, there are indigenous religions that appear to be really centered on the land of that particular people with rituals that must be performed at specific sacred sites.  The religion of my ancestors was once very much focused on the temple in Jerusalem. There is still tremendous reverence for that site in Judaism.  Yet  after the national traumas of the Babylonian Exile and the destruction of the temple by the Romans, Jews needed to find a way to practice their religion wherever they went.  Judaism can now be found world wide, but it does have roots in what is known as the Holy Land for three religions.  So I can see where Moreno-Garcia's theological premise comes from.  

I get the impression that Moreno-Garcia's books tend to be rather dark which is not my preference.  I am also aware that Meso-American mythology isn't exactly replete with sunny optimism.  So I expected Gods of Jade and Shadow to have a certain fascination for me, but didn't expect to love it as much as I did.

I wouldn't call this a sweet novel.  There's a romance without HEA which is a crime from the perspective of romance fans. Yet Casiopea Tun is such a great protagonist.   She has the true nobility of integrity.  She refuses to accept a dark future for humanity though fighting this evil comes at a high price. This is the sort of heroic fantasy that I find inspiring.  So many books are competing to be as noir as possible that it's more difficult than it once was to find protagonists that make you want to stand up and cheer. My feeling is that in our terrifying contemporary world, we need  heroes like Casiopea Tun more than ever.





Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Call Upon The Water: An English Novelist Writes About Marshes

The first time I noticed swamps as a setting was the Disney miniseries The Swamp Fox based on the life of real 18th century American revolutionary Francis Marion which I watched with fascination when I was a child.

As an adult, some of my friends were nature lovers and environmentalists who were aware of the need to preserve wetlands as a vital habitat for a variety of species.  They took me to visit local wetlands and encouraged me to support the cause of saving the swamps.

 Fast forward to 2018 when Where The Crawdads Sing by first time novelist Delia Owens became a mega-bestseller.  Nearly everyone I knew on Goodreads loved the unexpected tale of the despised and abandoned Marsh Girl, Kya.  I am a colossal avoider of widely hyped books, but I loved Kya  too.

More recently, I came across a Smithsonian article called Deep in the Swamps, Archaeologists are Finding How Fugitive Slaves Kept Their Freedom.  I  arrived at the realization that rebels, runaway slaves and marginalized people had been living in the swamps for centuries, but I thought this was a prototypical American story.

I had jumped to a conclusion too quickly.  It was an English story too.  That's what I found out through Call Upon The Water by Stella Tillyard which was offered to me in advance of publication for review by the publisher through Net Galley.  I seized upon it as an amazing example of serendipity.

In England, the marshes were called fens.  There was an 11th century English revolutionary associated with the fens known as Hereward the Wake.  He is said to have led opposition to the Norman Conquest from the fens.  Eventually,  in pursuit of more arable land ,English property owners sought assistance  in draining their fens.

 It occurred to me while reading this book that claiming ownership of the fens and draining them is a continuation of the centuries long trend to diminish the commons.  The commons were lands that weren't privately owned.   Anyone could access them. The poor could survive by gathering edible plants, hunting and fishing in the commons.  Without the commons, the poor were completely dependent on the benevolence of landowners and employers.  The people who inhabited the fens could no longer make  an independent livelihood from the fens once they were drained.  The fens would become farmland, and their crops would be harvested for the benefit of the landowners.

  Draining wetlands had been central to the history of  the Netherlands.  For the Dutch, this was an essential nation building process.  I found a podcast and article about this swamp draining history from Amsterdam Radio. It's no wonder that when England sought to drain the fens in the 17th century, they called upon Dutch experts.

Call Upon The Water  primarily deals with the experiences of one of these Dutch swamp draining experts. Fictional character Jan Brunt arrived in England  in 1649 to assist in draining the Great Level. He meets Eliza, a local fenwoman.  He is impressed by her intelligence and her interest in his work. He feels compassion for Eliza and comes to love her.   Yet he really hasn't got a clue about what motivates her.  The trouble is that the reader doesn't really understand her either.

This is because of the author's choice to limit Eliza's perspective as a narrator to  the final chapters.  If this were a mystery like Where The Crawdads Sing, I would applaud Tillyard for enhancing suspense by causing us to continually wonder about Eliza.   I feel that Call Upon The Water is literary fiction, and that the lengthy absence of Eliza's perspective lessens the power of the novel. It also occurred to me that some readers might think that the author is telling us that Jan Brunt's perspective is the most important one. He does seem to be the most fully realized character.   He grows over the course of the narrative.  His orientation toward his work  and his feelings about wetlands change over his lifetime.  I wanted to have the same insight into Eliza's thought processes to perceive her entire character arc.  I wanted to know more about who she really was. Instead Eliza tells us that she had  no story until her viewpoint narrative began.  I found this frustrating and disappointing.

The Eliza we see in her viewpoint narrative is very pragmatic.  She knows what she wants and how to accomplish it.  She seems to have very little ambivalence, if any, about her choices.  She lacks vulnerability.  I find her understandable and worthy of respect, but not always sympathetic.   Brunt did have regrets about his choices.   So for me he is much more sympathetic.  

Aside from my problem with Eliza's characterization, I thought Call Upon The Water was an insightful historical novel that caused me to reflect on a variety of issues.  I also never thought I could end up admiring a character like Jan Brunt when I identify so strongly with outsiders like Delia Owens' character Kya.  That's an achievement as far as I'm concerned.  So bravo to Stella Tillyard.


Monday, September 16, 2019

The Second Biggest Nothing: Dr. Siri's History Hides A Lethal Threat

Ever since I discovered The Coroner's Lunch through the F2F mystery group that I attend, I have been a fan of the always entertaining Dr. Siri series by Colin Cotterill.  The only Dr. Siri book that I've reviewed on this blog is The Rat Catcher's Olympics.  You can read it here.  Edelweiss is enabling my Dr. Siri addiction by once again providing me with a copy of the most recent book, The Second Biggest Nothing, which I am happy to review.  


My original impression of the title is that it might be religious though Cotterill has never gone heavy on theology in the past. It would also be out of character for Dr. Siri whose spirituality is based on his experiences rather than theology.  It turned out that this title is a snarky political comment which is very consistent with the tone of the series.

The primary setting of the Dr. Siri mysteries is 20th century Laos, but there are occasional wanderings elsewhere.  The Second Biggest Nothing contains flashbacks to past events in Siri's life in France and Vietnam.  Just as Mme. Daeng's diary about her history in The Woman Who Wouldn't Die increased my appreciation of Siri's wife, the flashbacks in this book increased my already great appreciation for Siri.

Since I enjoy doing research on the books I read, I authenticated the central event of the French flashback taking place in 1932.  It did indeed happen.  Of course there's no mention of the fictional Dr. Siri having been a witness to it.

I thought that the 1956 Saigon and 1972 Hanoi flashbacks gave me additional insight into the Vietnam War from Siri's perspective as a medical officer.

There was a sub-plot involving spirits in The Second Biggest Nothing in which spirits were causing deaths among young Lao men.  Siri mentions that something similar was happening among the Hmong, and named the Hmong spirit who was regarded as responsible for these deaths.  I found an article dealing with this problem called  Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome  which discussed it as a cross-cultural phenomenon though it seemed particularly notable among the Hmong.  Dr. Siri resolved that sub-plot with a sensible solution.

The murderer of the main plotline did turn out to be connected to one of the flashbacks, but his identity was completely unexpected.  There were also characters who played a surprising role in the resolution.  I thought this was one of the better Dr. Siri novels.