Rating: 4 stars
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Judgement came not with a flood, but with a fire. Solis’ golden wrath set the world on fire, burning the sinner and the saint in equal measure, leaving the world a desert. For Xochitl, the cuentista of Epalme, her service to Solis is both a joy and a duty, and she has never failed Them. She holds Solis in her heart and keeps Solis in the hearts of her people, or did, until Julio came.
Julio came to the village of Epalme with his men and his weapons, defying any who stood against him. Blood was shed and lives were taken, and the people of Epalme decided discretion was better than valor, and quietly obeyed. Even when Julio commandeered their only well, the people kept their heads down and their voices silent. They survived Solis’ wrath; they follow Solis’ path in the sky. They are obedient and faithful and certain that Solis will protect them. And, in their own way, Solis does.
Tired of ruling over sheep when he would rather be challenged by wolves, Julio leaves, but not before killing one last man, using a monster — a Sabuesos — to rip him to pieces. In so doing, Julio reveals his secret. He, too, is a cuentista, but rather than being a willing vessel of Solis, rather than taking the stories of sin and guilt and failure from people and releasing them into the desert where they can do no harm, Julio takes. He rips the stories out of people and leaves them broken. Rather than serving Solis, he has turned against Them.
But Julio was not born a cuentista, as Xochitl was. Somehow, he was given the power. Which means there is someone, somewhere, who can take the power from Xochitl and free her from the burden Solis has placed on her. Someone, somewhere, has answers to questions Xochitl never knew she could dare to ask. And so, following a scattered trail of poems across the desert, following Solis’ path in the sky, Xochitl leaves Epalme. Not for her people, not for her family, not for Solis. For herself.
This story, told in both English and Spanish, is heavy on style and light on character, and it’s … a choice. In a sense, it’s the framing of the story itself, which is written as a story being told to Solis by Xochitl as she gives to her God all of her doubts and fears, and her own guilt and shame and anger at Solis for not answering her prayers, for not saving her people, for not giving her guidance or answers. It’s told with a focus on clarity more than emotion as Xochitl tries to show Solis what Solis didn’t do, to show Solis the people that died for Them, as she asks … do you even see us? Do you see me?
Xochitl always knew that those people in her village who surrendered their stories forgot them, the weight of the burden lifted from their shoulders and passed on her to her — as she, in turn, releases them into the desert — but only now, having begun to keep her people’s stories, does she realize that without their stories to learn from, her people continue to make the same mistakes again and again. To keep drinking, feeling no guilt or shame because the knowledge that spurs the guilt and the shame are all given to her, purged from the drinker; to cheat on a spouse, over and over, forgetting each time the pain they caused and the sin that they have committed. And Xochitl, too, forgets. Forgets the stories, forgets the roiling feelings inside of her at the things her people do, the burdens they give her, feeling the absolution as if the admission without the effort of correction or change or improvement is enough.
As she leaves Epalme, Xochitl meets people who don’t have cuentista, or meets people pretending to be cuentista for money, and Xochitl sees a different way of life. Some of it better, some of it worse, and all of it lived beneath the golden eye of Solis. Why doesn’t Solis punish the false cuentista? Why do they allow the murder and the rape and the death of children, all done in their name? And through all of this, Solis is silent. There are other voices, though. The voices of men and women, parents and children, the Guardians who shadow the mortals of the world. Xochitl’s own voice, and even Emilia who has taken this journey at her side. But never Solis. Never the one voice Xochitl needs to hear.
If it weren’t for Emilia, who somehow knows the path they must follow, who knows the people who will help them, Xochitl would be lost. Emilia, Julio’s daughter, pushes them, desperate to return to her own home, to her own Guardian — both taken from her by Julio and his madness. Rather than being a friend, Emilia becomes almost more the other half of Xochitl as they walk in each other’s footsteps, relying on each other’s strengths.
Because this is told from Xochitl’s first-person point of view as a story or prayer to Solis, there is a heavy emphasis on style. Xochitl’s voice is muted and monotone, broken occasionally by her rage and her sorrow, both of which she quickly reins in as she continues her story. There is no character growth because we’re not seeing Xochitl as a character. She is the narrator of the story, and she is telling the story for a purpose, to elicit a reaction from Solis. It makes it rather one-note and for that reason I found it a bit tiring to read.
And nothing really happens. Xochitl is a witness to the actions taken by other people. She is a leaf caught in the wind while other characters make choices. The story happens to Xochitl rather than Xochitl having any part in it, and the passivity combined with the sorrow and confusion caused some moments that might have been meant to be emotional come across as whiny and childish. Along with the emphasis on style, which is inconsistent in parts, I just didn’t care for the way the author delivered the story.