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The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik'nal of Palenque (The Mists of Palenque) by Leonide Martin Ph.D. (2016-11-01)

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    Leonide Martin Ph.D.(Author)

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  • By Karl Janssen on September 15, 2016

    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.

  • By TammyJo Eckhart on August 6, 2017

    As a historian I'm always interested in attempts to popularize history using fiction. It can be well done -- full characters, engaging plot, clear historical background that doesn't get in the way of a story, and pushing the boundaries of what we know by filling out events with logical possibilities. It can be poorly done -- stereotypical characters, a lot of telling not showing events, long sections expounding historical information instead of the characters simply living out the events, and too little historical facts as a starting point. This book, the first in the "Mists of Palenque" series from Martin, is somewhere in between.Yohl Ik'nal was a real Mayan Queen, the events of her life are primarily hidden in the past. Martin has done her research so the information she gives us seems reasonable. However there is far more telling us what things look like, why people act as they do, and giving a lot of background information minus any action from the characters. The characters are relatively filled out. Yohl Ik'nal feels like a real girl and woman burdened and privileged at the same time by her family's status as rulers. I would rather sit with her as she read or heard about the events we are told rather than paragraphs of information dumps.Similarly I wanted to stay with Yohl Ik'nal but by the 2/3rd way through the novel we start seeing life through the experiences of her daughter who has her own book in the series so we really don't need to change viewpoints in this book. I felt like more time was spent with Yohl Ik'nal's father and the decisions he made versus showing us the first Queen as ruler. In fact we skip over years of time after she ascends the throne that I am curious about.Martin was a professor of Nursing, while I do not think you need to be a historian to write popular history, the background of her life and the tone of the book leans heavily toward modern mysticism and not historical research. Her greatest claims to authority fall onto her initiation into and being part of modern day Mayan traditions. While it is undoubtedly the case that the Mayans place a great deal of value on their religion I wanted more than that. We see into Yohl Ik'nal's father making decisions grounded in everyday life and I feel that was short changed with the time jumps for the Queen. Instead from the moment we meet her, she is roaming other dimensions and seems more in tune with the divine realm.I found my mind wandering through the long passages of information dumps, I found myself frustrated by Yohl Ik'nal's becoming less a focus for the story after becoming queen. Then I hit the last section of the book which takes a 180 degree turn and introduces a fictional female archeologist discovering the Queen's tomb. Write a separate book about that or better yet, give us the real story about the discovery of the first queen of the Mayans because she was real.


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