2013’s The Bone Flower Throne, the first book in the Bone Flower Trilogy, is set in the world of Mesoamerican myth, specifically, the story of the great Priest-King Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl. (In an afterword, the author compares him to King Arthur, which I think is off the mark for reasons I will explain later). I enjoy works set in or drawing on the Pre-Columbian cultures of the New World, but have been unable to find more than a few such works. Fortunately, the author of this book, T. L. Morgenfield, is on my Livejournal friends list, which made finding her book just that wee bit easier.
Of course, just because a work falls into a genre I find interesting and just because I know the author doesn’t mean I have to like the book. I could be the sort of monumental dick who asks for a review copy and finding it not to his taste, rewards the courtesy with a scathing review . Or I might not be. Let’s find out!
Although Topiltzin is the mythical figure with whom readers are most likely to be familiar, the protagonist of this book is his older sister Quetzalpetlatl. As the book opens, Topiltzin has not yet been born and Quetzalpetlatl is seven years old. She is soon to be married off (for dynastic reasons) to her cousin Black Otter. Quetzalpetlatl had hoped to enter the calmecac to become a celibate priestess, but the needs of her family and Culhuacan, the city of which her father is king, come first. It could be worse. At least Black Otter is a good friend.
Two events foreshadow what is to come. First, the god Quetzalcoatl gifts a small jade statute to Quetzalpetlatl’s mother, who has been barren since Quetzalpetlatl’s birth. If swallowed, it will grow into the son she has long desired. This boy, half human and half god, will be none other than the mythic hero-to-be, Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl himself. Second, the god Quetzalcoatl marks Quetzalpetlatl for his own by sending a feathered serpent to bite the young girl. Ever after, Quetzalpetlatl will know when the servants of the dread god Smoking Mirror are close. She will also be able to call upon the god himself, provided that she is willing to pay the cost.
It’s good that Quetzalpetlatl has this special sense because, as she discovers to her horror, Black Otter’s father Ihuitimal is an avid follower of Smoking Mirror, Quetzalcoatl’s bitter enemy. As uncle, so husband. Black Otter is too naïve to conceal his devotion to Smoking Mirror from his wife. The revelation goes badly for poor Black Otter. Although Quetzalpetlatl promises to keep her husband’s secret, it does not take long before she exposes Ihuitimal’s treachery. By rights, both Ihuitimal and Black Otter should be executed for belonging to the forbidden cult, but Quetzalpetlatl’s father Mixcoatl has reasons to err on the side of mercy. He settles for exiling his brother and his nephew.
Problem solved! Except for the part where it turns out that Ihuitimal spent years building up a network of supporters in Culhuacan and even in exile is more than capable of staging a successful coup. In short order, Quetzalpetlatl’s father is dead and Ihuitimal ruler of the city.
The only part of his plan that does not go as Ihuitimal wishes is the fate of Quetzalpetlatl and her pregnant mother Chimalma. They manage to escape to neighboring Xochicalco, whose King Cuitlapanton grants the pair refuge.
For Chimalma it’s only a temporary refuge; she dies giving birth to Topiltzin in a scene traumatic enough to leave her daughter with PTSD where childbirth is concerned.
Xochicalco is far too large for Ihuitimal’s forces to take directly. Ihuitimal is forced to play a long, careful game. A decade passes, time enough for Quetzalpetlatl to grow into a woman and her brother, aging unnaturally quickly, to become a man. Time enough for Xochicalco’s own dynastic troubles and internal corruption to come to a head. Time enough for Ihuitimal to infiltrate and with the aid of his Chichimec allies conquer lesser cities. Time enough for Ihuitimal to spread his network of Smoking Mirror cultists and ambitious quislings throughout Xochicalco.
(An interesting discovery: my Open Office dictionary came populated with a fair number of Mesoamerican names, although not, as it happens, Quetzalpetlatl. Hmm.)
Trivia first: the reason the Arthur:Topiltzin comparison doesn’t work for me is that Topiltzin is destined to be a great reformer who founds a great empire. Arthur was simply trying to preserve what remained of civilization in Britain after Rome retreated and the Saxons and other savages invaded. The great Priest-King Topiltzin succeeded, but Arthur and his dreams died at Camlann. I don’t know what European figure would be the best match for Topiltzin. Charlemagne, maybe. Aeneas, perhaps. Not that monumental failure, Arthur .
In Mesoamerican myth, favour from the gods has to be purchased with sacrifice; the greater the favour, the greater the sacrifice needed. Favours of the usual sort require thorns thrust through tongues or other body parts. Greater requests demand commensurately greater sacrifices.
Topiltzin is half-god and has powers lesser men cannot match, but his abilities alienate him from most of the people around him. They see him only as rival or object of worship. He has supporters, but not friends. In order to ensure that Topiltzin is a fully grown man by the time Ihuitimal is ready to make his play, Quetzalcoatl accelerates how quickly the boy is growing. The cost for that may be a dramatically reduced lifespan for the Priest-King to come.
Quetzalpetlatl has an unusually close relationship with Quetzalcoatl, an excellent attribute for someone destined to be a priestess, but she too is expected to make sacrifices commensurate with the assistance her god grants her. She’s down to six fingers and two thumbs by the end of the book … and her little fingers are hardly the greatest offering she will make defending her brother and her people
The demand for sacrifice is not just divine whim. Mesoamericans saw the whole universe as powered by sacrifice; nobody and nothing was exempt The universe will die if it is not periodically recreated by a divine sacrifice. The gods must give up one of their own. Humans also sacrifice to keep the world turning, or to beg favors from the gods. The god Quetzalcoatl is not opposed to sacrifice, which is the nature of the world; however, he feels that the person offering the sacrifice must be willing to lose blood, body parts, or life out of love for kin or city-state. The sacrifice of unwilling captives, as practiced by Smoking Mirror, is a dark practice that the ambitious Quetzalcoatl wants to end.
While Topiltzin is a grand figure of myth, seen from his sister’s perspective he comes across as a rather pompous young man, impressed with his own prowess and blind to much that is going on around him. He spends most of the book offstage. He may be the hero of myth but it is his sister who is the protagonist of this novel, the person whose adventures and travails we follow. I was a bit worried that she’d be reduced to a supporting character for her half-brother, but that does not happen.
I have often complained that Fantasy is too damn fond of monarchy and aristocracies. How Morgenfield feels on this subject would be a matter of conjecture (or, I guess, a matter of just asking her), but in this specific case she is constrained by her sources and her setting. Unlike authors writing secondary world fantasies, Morgenfield is drawing on the myth and history of an actual region with real people living in it. She clearly respects the beliefs and hierarchies of the period and region enough not to remold them into some more modern shape. That said, the ease with which cities are infiltrated and the aristocrats and merchants subverted doesn’t present the social system in a sympathetic light. The more extreme culture of sacrifice and social hierarchy introduced by Smoking Mirror’s devotees is even more disturbing. Topiltzin is a great reformer, but it’s easy to be a reformer in a context that is egregiously flawed by its own standards.
Readers should be aware that while Quetzalpetlatl doesn’t care for human sacrifice (a view her god shares), this doesn’t mean that she’s a 21st century woman air-dropped into 10th century Mexico. Her values are those of a woman of her class and time. She has no issues with blood sacrifice. She does not resent being married off to her cousin (though she regrets being forced into domesticity). Had her father decided to marry her to her half-brother, she would have been okay with that as well.
Maybe okay isn’t quite the right work. Enthusiastic might come closer. Quetzalpetlatl and Topiltzin are pretty fond of each other (at least to the extent that Quetzalpetlatl’s duties to her god allow).
My interest in works of this sort is closely coupled to a comprehensive ignorance of the cultures involved, aside from a few works on the Maya. At this juncture, I would like to assure the readers I have not confused the Maya with the Toltec, the Aztec or other groups in the general region.
I have to admit that I paused from time to time to wonder just how true to the source material Morgenfield was being. The author was kind enough to provide a list of further reading  that convinced me one of us had done their research. Happily for this book, it was the author.
A cautionary note:
Subject matter trigger warnings: graphic violence, rape, incest (sibling), and self-harm. Readers should be aware that this is not a young adult novel; it is intended for mature audiences.
1: What I would probably do, if I didn’t care for the book at all, is to not review the book at all. I am very selective about which books I request, in an attempt to avoid having to pan a book an author was kind enough to send me.
Publishers are corporations and corporations, whatever the delusions of the American Supreme Court are not people, so I’ll happily jump up and down on a book that I got from a publisher. I live to poison wells by the light of burning bridges!
Some authors may be thinking “Hey, I sent him my book and he didn’t review it! Does that mean he hated it?” Occasionally yes, but it is more likely that I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet—or even that I had nothing useful to say about the book, so I stayed quiet. My silence is, I am afraid, uninformative.
2: You may think I am being unfair here and if so, I have one phrase for you: Bran’s head.
3: The great thing about ebooks is it makes reproducing bibliographies trivial:
Richard Blanton, Stephen A. Kowalewski, Gary Feinman, and Jill Appel, Ancient Mesoamerica: A Comparison of Change in Three Regions. Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Burr Cartwright Brundage, The Phoenix of the Western World: Quetzalcoatl and the Sky Religion. University of Oklahoma Press, 1981.
David Carrasco, Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire: Myths and Prophecies in the Aztec Tradition. University Press of Colorado, 2001.
Sophie Coe, America’s First Cuisines, University of Texas Press, 1994.
Nigel Davies, The Toltecs Until the Fall of Tula, University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.
Richard A. Diehl, Tula: The Toltec Capital of Ancient Mexico. Thames and Hudson, 1983.
William Gates, An Aztec Herbal: The Classic Codex of 1552. Dover Publications, Inc, 2000.
Rich Holmer, The Aztec Book of Destiny. BookSurge, LLC, 2005.
Miguel León-Portilla, Aztec Thought and Culture. University of Oklahoma Press, 1963.
Roberta H. Markman and Peter T Markman, The Flayed God: The Mythology of Mesoamerica. Harper San Francisco, 1992.
Mary Miller and Karl Taube, An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. Thames and Hudson, 1993.
H. B. Nicholson, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl: The Once and Future Lord of the Toltecs. University Press of Colorado, 2001.
Guilhem Olivier, Mockeries and Metamorphoses of an Aztec God: Tezcatlipoca, “Lord of the Smoking Mirror”. University Press of Colorado, 2003.
John M. D. Pohl, Aztec, Mixtec and Zapotec Armies. Osprey Publishing, 1991.
John Pohl, PhD and Adam Hook, Aztec Warrior, A.D. 1325-1521. Osprey Military, 2001.
Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, The Florentine Codex: The General History of the Things of New Spain, translated by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. The School of American Research and The University of Utah, 1975.
Jacques Soustelle, Daily Life of the Aztecs. Dover Publications, Inc., 2002.
I did notice that there does not seem to be anything from later than 2005. That may be a clue to when the earliest versions of the book under review were written.