Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Bone Flower Throne - TL Morganfield

The Bone Flower Throne is TL Morganfield's first published novel. According to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database there is an edition published by Panverse (wich at the moment appears to be inactive) released in 2013. The edition I own was published by Feathered Serpent Books which, given the name, I strongly suspect is a self-publishing vehicle owned by the author. I tend to avoid self-published books, but even if this counts as one, I was attracted to it anyway. First of all because of the subject, but I must admit Aliette de Bodard's endorsement and the fact that Morganfield participated in the Clarion West writers workshop also played a part in it. And indeed, the novel doesn't suffer from poor editing, bad cover art or bad formatting that plague so many non-traditionally published works these days. That being said, I do think the novel is not all it could have been.

Tenth century Mexico Valley is a place of continuous warfare. The Toltec city states are in a struggle with outside enemies as well as warring with each other. To keep the peace in is city the her father marries the seven-year-old princess Quetzalpetlatl to her cousin. It is the start of a chain of events that will see her driven from her home, losing her parents in the process. With the help of the god Quetzalcoatl she escapes the city with her mother and seeks sanctuary in the temple of Quetzalcoatl  in a neighboring city. There her mother dies giving birth to her baby brother. Quetzalpetlatl and her brother Topiltzin grow up becoming pawns in a game of the gods that pits the compassion on Quetzalcoatl  against the dark power of Smoking Mirror, who's influence is on the rise among the Toltec cities.

The Bone Flower Throne is the first volume in a trilogy and it is a book that is bases on an impressive amount of research. The Toltec civilization lasted from the end of the fifth century till the early 12th century and covered much of what is today Mexico as well as other parts of Mesoamerica. The archaeological remains for this civilization is extensive but written records (the Toltecs are presumed to have developed a writing system) is scarce. Most of what is known of them has come from Aztec sources. The Aztec civilization saw the Toltecs as their spiritual and cultural ancestors and many of their stories and legends were popular among the Aztecs. They did have the tendency to mix historical accounts with legend, making our understanding of the history of the Toltecs hazy at best.

One of the stories that survived is the legend of Topiltzin Cē Ācatl Quetzalcōatl, who may or may not have been an historical figure as well. The story is known in many variations and forms the basis for the trilogy. One of the variations apparently also includes the princess Quetzalpetlatl and Morganfield has chosen her as the point of view character. The mixture of history and legend that infuses the story gives Morganfield a lot of space to work with. She is not constrained by a detailed timeline and uses that to her advantage. Quetzalpetlatl adds a female perspective to what is a very male-oriented legend. The novel mixes the historical and supernatural to create a story that will appeal to readers of fantasy as well as those interested in Mesoamerican mythology.

Quetzalpetlatl grows up to be a priestess of Quetzalcoatl and as his champion she comes into direct contact with him. His aid comes at a price though. Like the later Aztec culture, sacrifice, including human sacrifice, is a part of worship. Quetzalpetlatl soon finds out that the price for the help of a god is always keenly felt. The treatment of human sacrifice is something that is always difficult in works dealing with cultures that practiced them. It's something that clashes so violently with the cultural and religious sensibilities of just about any modern culture that no amount of cultural relativism will overcome the reader's distaste. What is interesting about this legend, is that Topiltzin ended human sacrifice during his reign, which must have been a very bold thing to do in a culture that believed sacrifices were necessary to appease the gods and waged almost permanent wars to find enough captives to sacrifice. In the novel, Quetzalcoatl himself is presented as the instigator of this drastic change in customs, claiming a willing sacrifice is much more powerful than the blood of a slain captive.

Morganfield's mix of history and legend does get her in trouble at times. Quetzalcoatl and his rival Smoking Mirror have a very heavy hand in events, forcing the characters in directions that they would ordinarily not have considered. Quetzalpetlatl is an intelligent woman but throughout the novel, she does things that are simply not in line with her character. This is particularly apparent in her sexual desires, which express themselves in a way that will have many readers roll their eyes. It may have been me not paying close enough attention (or not being familiar enough with the source material) but the realization that Quetzalpetlatl's free will is very limited came pretty late in the novel for me. I found the way the gods sometimes simply take over a bit jarring at times.

That being said, the novel does delivers a story arc with a good climax. It is a story full of love, loss and sacrifice, not short on action, and rich with historical detail. I felt that here and there the author was pulling the characters' strings a bit too obviously but that doesn't take away from the fact that The Bone Flower Throne is a fascinating mix of history and legend, exploring a culture that most readers won't come across too often. It's a book that deserves a larger audience than it is likely to get. The second volume, The Bone Flower Queen, has been added to the to read list.

Title: The Bone Flower Throne
Author: TL Morganfield
Publisher: Feathered Serpent Books
Pages: 360
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-9909207-0-0
First published: 2013

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