~~ warning for SPOILERS below ~~
In the ancient Aztec empire, a young girl is taken captive from her remote jungle tribe (I think the Olmec) and made a slave. She attempts an escape to freedom but fails, is sold to a different owner, and initially has only the lowest of tasks- emptying chamberpots. Unexpectedly someone discovers she has a natural gift for writing (in pictorial glyphs) and suddenly her life changes. She is trained to be a scribe, sent to live in a new place, and eventually attracts the attention of the highest rulers, who not only want her skill in depicted and copying sacred texts, but also strive to control and manipulate another great gift she possesses- to turn into the form of a jaguar. An ability she wasn’t aware of at first, its expression such a frightening and confusing thing. Other people in her life emerge who can teach her to handle the jaguar side of her nature, but for a long time she struggles to accept it, especially since when in the jaguar form, she forgets all notion of the finer arts, cannot appreciate or even comprehend the use of such skills. And as a human, her art has become everything to her. There is also the troubling fear that as a jaguar, she will not recognize those around her, and might harm even her friends . . .
This was one of the author’s first published books, and I have to admit much as I love her work, it’s not one of her best. I thought I was taking so long to get through it just because I was busy with other things and had little reading time this past week, but it also might be due to finding the story a bit slow and tedious. The writing felt kind of rough, not so polished. Simplistic in descriptions, you’d think it’s YA or even juvenile fiction, but there are some brief scenes that while written subtly (at the same time quite straightforward), were obviously sexual in nature. I really liked the ideas the story explored, but the whole thing felt dry and held at a distance, as it were. I would have preferred far more from the girl’s point of view, but I appreciate how the sections told from the ruler’s perspective gave the reader a fuller understanding of the issues involved. Mainly about power struggles.
It’s interesting to me, having read most of Clare Bell’s other books before finally reading this one, to see some similar themes. Ratha’s Creature is also about a young female coming of age, into her own power that others around her mistrust, and the difficulties of accepting leadership. This one also had much about the constraints leadership roles place upon one. And the conflicts between animal instincts and human nature. Also curious that both Clan Ground and this story, have a parent turning on their child with physical violence- in the former mentioned book it was (I think) from anger and despair, in this story it was from jealously- and that was a weird and disturbing part of the story, btw. Not going to say more on that here. Of course because it was about the Aztecs, there was a lot on the beliefs and human sacrifices, particularly about how some people in the novel found that distasteful and wished to worship other gods, or turn the religion back to an older iteration, and the efforts to make changes. This reminded me so much of the ancient Egyptian storyline thread in Tomorrow’s Sphinx, too.
I don’t think I’ve read many stories that feature shapeshifters (apart from the whole Animorphs series). And maybe a few with dragons. I’m trying to think of others. I wonder at how painful and brutal the transformation was depicted, in this novel. Is that normally a concept with shifter stories, or was it unique to this one. It pulled a lot on Aztec culture and spiritual beliefs, but from what little reading I did online, seems like a lot of that is supposition- we don’t really know what the Olmec statuettes represented, for example. You’ll find sites about were-jaguars, but there’s others that surmise the figurines depicted children with birth defects, and that what appear to be jaguar transformations symbolized something else?
In all, it was a very compelling story, one I can’t stop thinking about, even though I was a bit frustrated with the telling- which might be in part due to the particular e-book copy I read. Lots of punctuation typos, words out of place, and for some reason it would skip ahead ten or more pages, then not let me go back to my original reading spot. (I hope this was a glitch in just this book, and not that my e-reader is starting to have function issues). Then it got stuck on the very last page, prompting me to leave a review on that platform that’s swallowing the world, and not letting me exit the book document, or go back into the pages! That was really annoying. Nothing to do with the book itself or the author of course though.
I did find the ending a bit of a let-down. It wrapped up quite suddenly, just at the point where it seemed the main character was about to find her people and learn more about her heritage. This book needs a sequel!