I finished this book like a week ago and I’ve been dreading writing this post. Even dreading to read the book, it took me one month to finish it. Looking at my notes I see my slow progression from excitement to annoyance to frustration to disappointment. I really want to like this book, it sounds like my perfect fantasy: Latinx inspired, revolution, magic, and an unapologetic heroine. But oh friends, this was a disappointment on so many fronts.
There are going to be some major spoilers of the book, please be aware of that. Also, I’m not Indigenous or Bolivian, this is NOT an #ownvoices review.
What’s the book about?
Illustrians were forced from their homes by the Llacsans, who came down the mountains with a powerful leader, Atoc. They killed the monarchy and took over. Catalina, the niece of the queen, was the only survivor of the Illustrian royalty. They leave the city and plan the day of their revenge when Catalina will take her throne…
Or that’s what Ximena has learned her entire life. As a decoy of the Condesa, her role is to protect Catalina and her people. When Atoc calls for Condesa’s hand in marriage, Ximena takes her place. So she goes to the palace and finds out that everything she thought about the world, the war, and her people, it’s not the whole true.
Let me say this first, I do think there’s value in a story like this, about a girl relearning about her prejudices and that history can be distorted (that it is very much distorted). I have enjoyed in the past books about rebelling against the system and your own world. Realizing that you have been lied your entire life is a powerful motivator. But it didn’t work here, not for me.
Let’s start with the big problem: Ximena and the way this book discusses colonization
I really don’t have the power in me, the patience in this year, to read about privileged people learning that oh, marginalized people are people and should be respected. Because that’s exactly what the story comes to, Ximena finds out that the Illustrians took over the land that once was occupied by the Llacsans, forced them to assimilate and when they refused, basically cast them outside to the mountains…
So we have here a girl that comes from a group of people that discriminated, ignored and colonized a group of people that are very much coded as Indigenous. Here come the red flags for me. Ximena spends a good amount of time talking trash about Llacsans, laughing at their colorful clothes, mocking their food and traditions, complaining about everything they believe. Being horrify but how dirty, smelly and uncivilized they are. A human sacrifice included and everything! And it was so painful and dehumanizing, it’s clear to the reader that something else is going on and Ximena is just so freaking rude.
I mean, she is not unlikable, she’s rude and prejudice and very much a bigot for a good part of the story. And I couldn’t stand her. I have enjoyed stories about antiheroes before, the big difference? they never think of themselves the heroes of the story, the know exactly what they are doing. But Ximena masquerades her hatred and ignorance with heroic dreams of freedom and revenge and blah blah blah.
So to tell me I’m supposed to sympathize with Ximena and her big “discovery” of humanity of this group, I couldn’t. I was not rooting for her or her friends.
And sure, she learns and tries to change and she does, indeed, try to do better. But it was too late for me already, redemption arcs have to be careful constructed so it didn’t work for me here. Part of the problem is, for a good part of the story, Ximena refuses to listen. She has no real intention of confronting her privilege for a good 50% of the story.
I think if Ximena wasn’t the only point of view, if we could have heard for a Llacsan, if we could have seen the story from the eyes of someone who doesn’t hate these people, someone with more compassion and respect, the book would have been way more compelling.
At the end of the day, what I find the most terrible is you can go to Latin American and you will hear these comments about Indigenous folks. These are not things that come from nothing, this disdain and mocking happens to real people, with the exact words from here. Inti and Pachamama are gods that many Andino cultures believe in, this is not a joke. That’s what I find the most horrifying, the implications of a story that sets the Indigenous community from the Andes as part of this fantasy world, their real struggles and oppression as fiction.
If you’re asking, but Cande, what Indigenous communities are the Llacsans based on? Well, there are some Quechua words here and then, but they share some history and traditions with the Aymara people. As I said, I’m not Indigenous so I won’t talk about the representation. This is a general discussion about some things I was concerned about.
I really want to love this story and world, but I couldn’t. Ximena’s arc comes from the emotional work and shoulders of all the people she initially hates, but they give her knowledge, time and support. Stories from the perspective of privileged people is something I can’t do anymore.
Some things that annoyed me but weren’t necessarily bad:
*Atoc is a terrible villain. His motivations weren’t very clear and we’re told how evil he’s, and we don’t really see that? Except for that torture chapter, we don’t see much of his evilness. He talks like a clown, I don’t know, I didn’t take seriously anything he said.
*Plot is pretty convenient for Ximena
*The pace was not great. The first part of the story was boring me to death, nothing would happen. And then in the last five chapters, everything felt too rushed.
*Ximena takes some of the dumbest decisions and then she’s surprised by the consequences. Girl, you’re in enemies lines, what do you think would happen? They would invite you for a cafe con leche?
Things I did enjoy:
*Inclusion of Bolivian food and language.
*Some very compelling side characters
*The last 50 pages of the book. And the ending, which it’s half and half because although I did think very satisfying, it was also so easy??
+An arc was sent by the publisher in exchange of an honest review
And I’m not saying don’t read this book or don’t support this author, you do you, friends. I’m not judging anyone who has enjoyed this book, or it’s excited to read it. Just please be aware of the ways it portrays Indigenous people.
I’ll just take my big disappointment somewhere else, big sigh.