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Fantasy Book Review: Flowers of the Moon, by Alexander Palacio
Elrond Hubbard reviews the sequel to The Turquoise Serpent
Foreword by Aristo: This is the sequel to the first book review I published on the Substack, The Turquoise Serpent, written by Alexander Palacio, who goes by @conan_esq on Twitter. His first book was phenomenal and he’s already hard at work on book 3 of his Ashes of the Urn series, an aesthetically mesoamerican take on Conan the Barbarian. I wanted the review of the second book to be from a different readers perspective, and Elrond Hubbard(@ElronHubb), who reviewed Shagduk for me, was almost finished reading Flowers of the Moon at the time, so it worked out perfectly. Enjoy!
The Ashes of the Urn series by Alexander Palacio is building up into a powerhouse of pulp fiction. I gave the first book, The Turquoise Serpent, a five-star rating and purchased the sequel before I was finished reading. Aristophanes and others have done a thorough job celebrating the strengths of The Turquoise Serpent (TS).
This second entry, Flowers of the Moon (FotM), is an engrossing and entertaining read in its own right, although with some differences in tone and structure. Fans of the first book’s swashbuckling Mesoamerican adventure won’t be disappointed. If the first book was five stars, the second is a solid four and a half. FotM stands on its own as a complete story while also following logically from the events of TS.
Exiled warlord Cayucali and apprentice wizard Tezca have made good on their escape from the cursed city of Kalak Mool. As befitting a pulp hero, they have Kalak Mool’s princess in tow. But Princess Xhoc is traveling with them of her own free will.
During their travels in the wild, Tezca experiences a dreamlike vision in which he is visited by a woman who claims to be the herald of a god not yet known in these lands. When Tezca awakens, he is left with a gift of flowers from the mysterious woman.
The three cross paths with a band of warriors led by Netzacoyotl, the prince of the nearby coastal village of Yizpatan. After winning Netza’s trust by helping protect innocents from a bandit raid, Cayucali and friends strike a deal with the prince. Netza’s village is facing a three-pronged crisis:
A horrific plague that prematurely ages its victims
Attacks on vulnerable villagers by a shadowy terror beast
Political strife at the hands of Lady Six Sky, the leader of a rival faction within Yizpatan’s nobility
Xhoc is put into service healing the sick, while Cayucali and Tezca take on the task of hunting the monster. In the process, the three of them discover a conspiracy that could not only spell the end of Yizpatan, but could metastasize into a dark alliance with the much-too-close city of Kalak Mool.
My only gripe with this book is an unfair one: it’s not The Turquoise Serpent. This story differs in tone because of its different setting and focus.
TS alternated between the points of view of Cayucali, competing in a gladiatorial tournament in which the winner gets to be a sacrifice, and Tezca, who is being corrupted by an evil old shaman. The overall tone of that book was decidedly tense and dangerous as the reader spent a lot of time with grim Cayucali, who went from facing execution to facing sacrifice. The protagonists were in hostile territory, and death and dark magic permeated every scene situated in Kalak Mool.
Yizpatan is the polar opposite of Kalak Mool—not only is it not as threatening, but it is beset by danger rather than being the danger itself. Yizpatan can be saved rather than just escaped. The vibrancy of this lush coastal cliff town lightens the tone of FotM. The heroes are there to do the leadership a favor and gain a powerful ally. Hope, friendship, and even comfort can be found here.
The majority of the POV in this book is spent with the younger Tezca and Xhoc, who both maintain a much more optimistic outlook than Cayucali did in TS.
One could summarize the differences in tone by saying that the titular, malevolent Turquoise Serpent was the first book’s god, while the second book belongs to Tezca’s unnamed divine benefactor.
I reached out to Palacio to inquire about the tone of this book versus the first, and he had this to say on the matter:
“Frankly, I’m still sort of exploring the territory. I’m not sure where I really want the series to live, tonally. Probably everything I ever write will be somewhat experimental for me personally in some aspect. I think I’d like to get a mixture of the two in a single book sort of woven together in the next one, if possible.”
Aside from this difference in tone, the tight prose that Palacio does so well is on full display here. A highlight of the story comes when Cayucali and Tezca accompany Prince Netza on a royal rite of passage—the hunt for a sun shark, a boat-destroying behemoth with way more fins than necessary.
When the hunt goes awry, Palacio does a fantastic job of conveying several things happening at once: the movements of the shark, Netza’s pursuit, Cayucali’s struggle to keep his boat on course, and the chaos of the rest of the hunting party. But Palacio handles all this while keeping a fast pace and never letting the narrative get bogged down. It’s the most gripping scene in the book.
A great overall strength of this book is how it follows from the previous one and is clearly set in the same world. The evil god Xicuoatl, the Turquoise Serpent, does not play a large role in this story, but it casts a long and dark shadow. The heroes, and the reader, are never allowed to forget that Kalak Mool is not far away and is still a threat. This setting, already a strong foundation of the first book, feels deeper and more fleshed out, with the locales in concrete relation to one another. Yizpatan is here. Kalak Mool is right there. Batun is that way.
As a side note on the environment, Aristophanes’s review mentioned a noticeable lack of metal in the first book. There is definitely more metal here. Coins jangle and silver rings flash. (It’s also more metal in the sense that more gigantic beasts get hacked to death.)
The tight focus on plot and setting comes at a slight cost to character development. Tezca and Xhoc grow into their own as strong characters, but our main man Cayucali unfortunately ends up taking a bit of a backseat unless a problem needs to be solved with muscle. And that is not many of the problems this plot presents. Tezca’s magic ends up saving the day more often than not.
One story element I had been hoping for, going into this second book, was at least some exploration of Cayucali’s past and deepening of his character. I understood that this is not typical of the pulp style, but this character is appealing and leaves the reader wanting to know more. There are a handful of tantalizing hints as to what his life was like before his initial exile, but no more than that.
In Palacio’s own words:
“I don’t necessarily want it to ever be an introspective digging up of Cayucali’s past. People want that exploration, but I’m not sure they really do if that makes sense. I’m not opposed, but I won’t do it unless I can make the story do it without changing the fundamental nature of the story.”
Strong point there. Sometimes the mystery is better than the answer.
The most prominent thematic element in Flowers of the Moon is the titular flower bunch carried by Tezca. The setup and payoff of this item sends a clear message about faith even when the way forward is not clear. Cayucali’s character arc reflects this, as he keeps learning to give magic its due and sometimes place his trust in things he can’t see or touch.
The blade of the Prince’s spear sliced the tie of Tezca’s cloak, which fell around his feet. A flash of carmine caught the Prince’s eye and he moved a fold of the cloak with the toe of his sandal, then backed away in shock, keeping this tip of his spear leveled at Tezca. A look of confusion and distrust wrinkled his forehead and twisted his mouth.
“What does this mean?” he stammered, uncertainty replacing the princely composure in his voice for the first time.
“What?” Tezca asked, keeping his eyes on the spearpoint. “What is there?” He looked toward Cayucali. “What is there?”
Cayucali reached into Tezca’s cloak and withdrew the sheaf of flowers, still tied with the twist of string. Tezca took the sheaf from Cayucali.
“The flowers from my dream,” Tezca said.
“The flowers from my dream,” said Prince Netzacoyotl.
As the book went on, I began to sense that Tezca’s unnamed god was intended to be either the Christian God outright or a narrative analogue, akin to The Silmarillion’s Eru Ilúvatar. I asked Palacio for a tidbit about this god.
“Yes, more or less like Eru, but probably with far less relevance to the story ultimately.”
Aside from this aspect of the tale, metaphor and parable are dispensed with here. This is a story told straight, without pretense.
If you enjoyed Turquoise Serpent and haven’t yet purchased Flowers of the Moon for some reason, I don’t know what to tell you. Get on it. There’s no other Mesoamerican sword-and-sorcery series quite like this one, and I am looking forward to the third entry.
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