Palace intrigue reigns in the ancient Mayan city of Palenque in Wiseman’s debut historical novel.
In the ninth century, the Mayan world is going to pot. In order to salvage a land beset with divisions, the wise old king of the city-state of Palenque enters into a marriage of convenience with a beautiful young princess from the rival city of Tikal. However, a restless and hungry peasantry threatens to rebel and the old king’s devious high priest schemes to seize power, aided by the king’s First Wife. Wiseman (Everybody Eats Tortillas, 2006) serves up a fluid story of how the ancient Mayans may have lived, with a glossary to help readers with the liberally used Mayan words and names. Although the novel sometimes explains more than necessary and telegraphs plot points too often, it presents a believable, well-drawn cast of characters and ably weaves details of daily royal Mayan life into the narrative. The story might have benefited from focus more on the peasantry’s lot, as it only hints at their mean conditions. As a result, readers may find the book’s ending a bit contrived. The book also awkwardly shifts narrators as the story progresses; it begins with a prologue from the point of view of the king’s Second Wife, then shifts to a third-person omniscient narrator and ends with the point of view of a royal scribe. Overall, however, the novel is a largely credible, cautionary tale of royal arrogance and upper-class scheming that reminds readers that the thin veneer of civilization is “as fragile as a fine potting vase.”
A readable, detailed rendering of ancient Mayan life and how the glory of Palenque may have ended.