A hike on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu leads a group of Ivy League women into the crux of deceit and debauchery in Velástegui’s novel.
Taki and Koyam, street vendors in the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, Peru, overhear several ladies talking about a tour group. The two elderly locals are worried when they mention their prospective guide, Rodrigo, who’s notorious for his reputed involvement in child trafficking and hasn’t shown his face in Cusco in two years. Taki, who has psychiclike visions, and Koyam trail the group as the women trek to meet up with Rodrigo, while revenge-seeking Violette, who once accused the corrupt man of sacrificing her baby, also shadows the hikers. The novel (Traces of Bliss, 2012, etc.) brims with historical facts, including recurrent allusions to Hiram Bingham, the explorer who claimed to have discovered Machu Picchu in 1911. Some of these passages, like specifics on mallquis (mummified remains used in worship), slow the novel’s tempo a bit. Still, they serve a narrative purpose and occur less frequently in the more intense second half, when Rodrigo’s plan comes to light. The five women of the group, all with hopes of overcoming the perils of online dating, are each given memorable personalities, including the dense but resilient Tiffany, who drives home points with “duh-uh.” The evolutions of the individual women provide some of the book’s pluses—their mutual dislike of one another is indisputable, but they gradually come to friendly terms during their ordeal. Rodrigo is an intimidating bad guy, complete with minions who do his bidding and a god complex; he quite literally believes he’s Illapa, the god of thunder. The novel does have comic relief, mostly in the form of Sandra, whose accented English is phonetically rendered. She insists that others pronounce her name “Zahndrah,” and she spends much of her time not spending money and even demanding a refund when she hasn’t paid anything at all. There’s also a considerable narrative bite—some characters end up battered and bloody, and others may not make it out alive.
Fortified by vibrant characters and a tenacious plot; it packs a mean punch when readers least expect it.