Review: Lady of Palenque, Flower of Bacal

Lady Of Palenque : Flower of Bacal, Mesoamerica, A.D. 749 (Royal Diaries)Lady of Palenque, Flower of Bacal
by Anna Kirwan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Lady of Palenque / 0-439-40971-3

I'm a big fan of the Royal Diary series, and I particularly enjoy reading about the princesses from cultures different from my own. "Lady of Palenque", however, is particularly disappointing, especially on the heels of the superbly-written "Lady of Ch'iao Kuo".

I should start by noting that it's always difficult to write about different cultures, particularly ones with vastly different languages than the target readership. The author must decide whether to maintain the spelling of, say, the main character's name (Shahna K'in Yaxchel Pacal) or to provide the translation (Princess Green Jay on the Wall). Personally, I prefer the translation approach, as seen in "Lady of Ch'iao Kuo" where we read about, for instance, her brother "Little Tiger". With "Lady of Palenque" however, the author has decided on a rather bizarre 70/30 approach where 70% of the time she uses the "real" spelling and 30% of the time, she switches to the translation. Sometimes she will use both which breaks up the narrative badly with sentences like, "I, Shahna K'in Yaxchel Pacal, Princess Green Jay on the Wall, will go to the baths today," or similar phrasing, which is quite an eyeful for a reader to take in.

This makes it very hard to keep track of characters and the reader is hampered by the fact that names of random people and places are thrown out almost constantly. It doesn't help that the author flat-out refuses to provide helpful clues to relationships within the writing - if you don't remember that "In'Ta" and "In'Na" are the princess' mother and father, you won't be reminded with any helpful "I'm going to see my father, In'Ta today" lines. No, it's all "I'm going to see In'Ta today" and you have to remember who she is talking about. In a novel with, at a rough estimate, twenty-five or thirty characters, that's an unnecessary burden on the reader. The naming issue is so frustrating, in fact, that I venture to guess that 9 out of 10 young adults reading this book probably won't attempt to finish it.

The story centers around the young princess' journey to her new husband's home, a great distance away. The journey is perilous, with frayed rope bridges, deadly currents, harsh enemies, constant rain and hurricanes, and dangerous animals. Several people die as part of this journey, yet the narrative is so incredibly boring as to defy belief. The dangers never feel real, and the narrator always seems detached and somewhat uninterested in the journey around her, as if she is somehow unaffected by the whole thing. Really, the tales of her distaste for her designated chaperon are recorded with more passion than that of the hurricane they barely manage to live through. It takes talent to turn this story into such a bore, and it is a sharp contrast to the other Royal Diaries which have often transformed the most boring daily life of a princess into an interesting and compelling narrative.

Sadly, there is not as much cultural insight as one could hope for in this novel, largely because the bulk of the narrative occurs on the road and we see little into the "daily life" of either the princess or her companions. There are some lovely stories and fairy tales presented here, but their presentation made me a little uneasy. The narration of the stories is clipped and choppy, and clipped, short sentences usually fail to convey the complexity and beauty of the source material and instead can unintentionally confer a pejorative simplicity onto the story.

For instance, one of the stories reads something much like: "Jaguar went into the fields. He saw that the fields were unplowed. Jaguar was filled with anger. He ate up the loud brothers." Now, I'm extremely ignorant of the fairy tales of the pertinent region and time period, so that may be a faithful rendition, but it sounds very childlike and simplistic. It seems more likely to me that the real source would have been more fluid, along the lines of, "When Jaguar went into the fields and saw that they were unplowed, he was filled with anger. His anger was so great that he turned on the boasting brothers and ate them whole," or something like that. The clipped sentences make the story sound childish, simplistic, and barbaric, and has been used historically to marginalize the culture of many people. I don't know that the author meant to do that here; it just left me a little uncomfortable.

I would not recommend buying this Royal Diary. I understand wanting to complete the collection, but this one is simply a chore to read, and I did not feel that there was enough redeeming value to make it worth the effort. Reading and learning should be fun, not painful.

~ Ana Mardoll

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