McKay’s adventure tale set in two timelines—present day and the 16th century—explores the complex fears and hopes that arise when very different cultures confront each other.
In present-day Honduras, an assorted group (church members, others) sets out to make contact with a remote jungle tribe. Before long, their expedition runs into trouble. Lost in the jungle without any way to signal for help and battered by floods, they find their supplies being stolen by mysterious jaguar-spotted forest people, who also abandon a young boy to their care. When the group spots a different band carrying off a body, their fears about cannibalistic jungle tribes multiply. Or, as Zoe puts it, “I’m like…hu-u-uh? What do we do about them? Do we give them gifts? Oh, my god, it’s scary! It’s like…majorly crucial that we work all this out!” Architect Howard’s closed heart opens to Rachel, a young team member, but he’s thrown into guilt and despair when he accidentally injures her. Meanwhile, in the Aztec year One-Reed (1519 to readers), young villager Atl, just coming into manhood, travels with a few others from his small village to trade in a larger town, where they get their first glimpse of Europeans: a man with pink skin and orange hair, “other men in costumes like clowns,” and one (Cortés, in fact) “badly dressed for the wet heat in a stiff animal skin….He seemed to be a leader, except he wore no feathers.” Atl returns home safely, but after disaster strikes the village, a revenge mission brings him and his friend Deer of Stone into Cortés’ army as porters. Aztec tribute-takers have made many locals willing, naïve allies of the Spanish. In both timelines, getting past barriers of language, custom and culture is extremely difficult and, as Zoe would put it, majorly crucial. Issues of faith, despair (echoed in the name of the cynical Dr. DeSparr), sacrifice, repentance and love challenge several characters in important ways but never abstractly. In McKay’s novel, trust, love and sacrifice are things you do, not just feel, as when looking after the sick, crossing a shaky bridge, offering food. Both timelines use well-researched, authentic, vivid details. The author has a gift for dialogue; each character sounds unique, often amusingly so. His writing is rich, complex and beautiful, whether describing a complicated battle scene or a heartfelt conversation, and his characters are equally rich, revealing layers of complexity and closely held secrets as the book develops.
Deeply felt, humane, with every emotion and insight well-earned, this is a thick, rich, satisfying novel that deserves a wide audience.