By Bryce Milligan FOR THE EXPRESS-NEWS
With his new novel “The Smoking Mirror,” South Texas author David Bowles is helping to fill what amounts to an ethnic gap in mythology-oriented adventure literature for middle-grade readers by exploring the Aztec underworld, Mictlan.
He’s created a rollercoaster narrative that fascinates, educates and (almost inevitably) terrifies.
Bowles’ first novel has been celebrated this spring by being named a Pura Belpré Honor Book (and thereby making the Notable Children’s Books list of the Association for Library Service to Children) and being a finalist for the Texas Institute of Letters’ H-E-B prize for young adult literature.
There is a point in “The Smoking Mirror” when Johnny Garza comments to his twin sister Carol, “It seems to me that history and mythology? Same thing.”
It is the kind of thing only someone who has stood at that nexus and seen into both worlds can acknowledge so matter-of-factly.
Of course, Johnny (Juan Ángel) and Carol (Carolina) have only recently learned that they are themselves shape-shifting naguales (able to transform into animals), and that their mother was not the victim of a narco kidnapping, but is being tortured in the dead center of Mictlan by the ultimate prince of evil and dark magic, Tezcatlipoca.
The twins are 12-year-olds from Donna, and it is up to them to save their mother. Tezcatlipoca has been around since the beginning of time. Not exactly a fair contest.
Tezcatlipoca is the brother of an Aztec god more familiar to modern readers, Quetzalcoatl. The two were charged by the oldest gods to oversee the development of life on earth. As Johnny realizes, the twins are “stuck in the middle of the oldest family feud in the universe.”
By the time the twins grasp how desperate things are, they are well on their way down the Black Road that leads through the Nine Deadly Deserts of Mictlan. It is a fast-paced, if linguistically challenging, quest for characters and readers alike.
First they meet the tzapame, the Aztec version of elves, who help the twins pass through the chay abah, the great obsidian “smoking mirror” that separates the worlds of the living and the dead, where history and mythology become one.
Aided by Xolotl, the giant hound who is the tonal (animal manifestation) of Quetzalcoatl, the twins pass over the great river Chignahuapan, learn to control their own tonals.
They dive into ever worse dangers, facing down one monster after another, eventually reaching a terrifying and truly excruciating moment on an altar of human sacrifice, surrounded by a city full of demons, shades and monsters of all descriptions.
It turns out that twin naguales “may” possess an extraordinary kind of magic — which is why Tezcatlipoca has lured them to his realm by capturing their mother.
The problem is that Johnny and Carol have no idea whether they actually have this power and, if they do, how to access it.
“The Smoking Mirror” is pretty much guaranteed to give younger readers the fantods, to say the least. Also, as likely is apparent from this review, the text is filled with many terms and names in Nahuatl, along with plenty of Spanish. There is no doubt that this will prove difficult for Bowles’ intended audience, but it will be well worth the effort. The author’s website, http://davidbowles.us/ provides an extensive glossary and teaching resources.
Bryce Milligan is an award-winning young adult author, poet, and the publisher of Wings Press. Bihl Haus Arts features an exhibit of his book designs through May 21.