By Contributor Michael Evans
Some stories fascinate us, some stories haunt us, and some stories inspire us. Cesar Torres’ debut novel 13 Secret Cities is a novel that did all three for me, all while introducing me to a new kind of fantasy world that both conjures images of wonder and terror in my mind. 13 Secret Cities by Cesar Torres is the first novel in the Coil Series and literally opens up with a bang. In a riot at Millenium Park in Chicago the Occupation Liberation Front, a fringe, activist group fighting corruption in Chicago, clashes with the government causing over three hundred people to die. Clara Montes, the novel’s main character survives the riots, but the events trigger a deadly journey in which she must descend into the dark underworld of Mictlán to attempt and find her tonal.
In Aztec culture, a tonal or tonalli is the belief that at birth a person acquires a deep spiritual connection with a specific animal that lasts throughout their lifetime. Aztecs believed if the animal would get ill or bruised in a fight the person would experience symptoms akin to that of the animal not unsimilar to the connection between animals or daemons and humans in His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman. Every Aztec had a tonal, or at least they are supposed to. However, in 13 Secret Cities, when Clara goes through her second rite of passage at age 13 (the first is birth) no tonal appears. Thus her journey to Mictlán is tense and suspenseful (makes it very exciting to read, but definitely not fun at all to be Clara) because she must descend into the darkness of the world of the dead to find her tonal.
Mictlán at first, especially with its ominous character from the outside, seemed to me like a literal hell that the Aztec gods ruled over. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. In my first post here, I know I explored the stunning nature of Xipe Totec, and how he has both an insatiable desire for human flesh and an ability to bring agricultural renewal to Aztec peoples. This duality underlies the thrilling murder mystery present in 9 Lords of Night, the second book in the Coil.
Similarly to the Aztec god Xipe Totec, Mictlán itself has some purposes that seem to be very contradictory in nature (at least to me, as a person who was raised in a Judeo-Christian culture). Although Mictlán is the underworld, and by that I mean it is believed to literally be under this world, it is not the home of people who have lived in treacherous, despicable ways. When all human beings they were believed to have traveled to Mictlán, except those who die in particularly violent ways such as people who die in floods and mothers who die in childbirth. But for the rest of the Aztecs, all were believed to go to Mictlán upon death (their tonal sticks with them through this journey) where they descend through the nine layers of Mictlán all in hopes of meeting the two gods who rule over Mictlán (and which Cesar Torres calls “lords” in the novel). Mictlantecuhtli the Lord of Mictlán and his wife Mictecacíhuatl as such were often worshipped by Aztecs in the month of Tititl, or January in the Gregorian calendar, in elaborate rituals involving incense and sacrifices in temples (such as these in Oaxaca).
To find Mictlán, the dead typically have to roam around for four years with a xoloitzcuintli dog as companion (this Aztec myth is based off real dogs and they are hairless and you can get one!). In 13 Secret Cities, Clara gets to meet the god, Xolotl, who also embodies the psychopomp canines. He is described as a weredog. Clara's main companion in the story, however, is a massive snake made of thousands of smaller snakes called Blue Hummingbird. But the guides are just the first taste, of the insanely weird, yet beautiful world of Mictlán.
Once inside the dark yet endless expanse of Mictlán, I felt like I was there. The second Clara and me (in my head I was with her, but in the actual story I will be nowhere to be found) stepped into the world of Mictlán I felt my heart drop. With pyramids of flowers, a spiraling pit of darkness down to the two Lords that causes the Grand Canyon to pale in magnitude, mountains with hands that fight each other, and a river of particles of all the dead souls in Mictlán, my mind could not be more fascinated with the amazing world that Torres conjured up.
If I could visit Mictlán I would be the first to sign up in real life as long as Blue Hummingbird as my guide (I need something to scare away all the beasts). Just reading it gave me an exhilarating feeling, and was chilling in exactly the kind of way I love. The feeling of being scared and unsure of what’s going to happen next is something I actively seek, and something that 13 Secret Cities masterfully fulfilled.
After reading the novel, though, and after the initial wonderment of Mictlán faded I couldn’t help but think about the impact that the world of Mictlán had on me. Yes, it was a thrilling ride while it lasted, but its dark character (it is literally full of blackness and devoid of light) starkly contrasted with most fantasy novels I have read.
Unlike the worlds of Harry Potter and Narnia (my most beloved fantasy stories) the world of Mictlán is something distinctly more sinister in character. But it’s not all darkness, unlike Game of Thrones or Shadow and Bone, it also has a light side. There is a fantastic beauty to Mictlán that made me not only fall in love with dark fantasy novels, but also revel in stories that shed light on the brighter aspects of mystical worlds too. This same mystique to Mictlán is what made me wish that I could return to it in the second book of the Coil, 9 Lords of Night, but even though no return was eminent in the novel, I was not disappointed by the new, thrilling aspects of Aztec mythology displayed in the novel. Nevertheless, something tells me that 13 Secret Cities, although it is likely the first place to dive into an adventure in a place so wondrous as Mictlán, won’t be the last coming from Torres.The pyramid of flowers is just one way that 13 Secret Citiesblew my mind with awesomeness, I’m sure it will amaze you in many more ways too.
About contributor Michael Evans
Michael Evans is the author of the Control Freakz Series, a Young Adult Post-Apocalyptic Thriller series set in a near-future United States and the Main Coordinator of YEW Clubs for the Young Eager Writers Association. He is currently taking a gap year from his studies in Charleston, South Carolina, but is originally from Long Island, New York. Some of his hobbies include hiking, running, urban exploring, going to the beach, watching and taking artsy pictures of sunsets (it’s honestly a very enlightening activity to partake in), and walking his ginormous, fluffy golden doodle underneath the stars. He is also fascinated with the environment and neuroscience, and his true passion is learning about how the wonders of the human mind and the environment we live in will change with time. He is currently working on the novel Deadwave, the first book in the Conspiracy Chronicles. To find out more about him or his work you are welcome to visit here: www.mevansinked.com