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Cesar is the author of the standalone novel “The 13 Secret Cities” the book series "How to Kill a Superhero" (under the pen name Pablo Grene). He is also the creator and publisher of Solar Six Books.

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I Dove into the Beauty and Wonder of the Aztec Underworld (And Lived to Tell)

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The god(s) of death Mictantecuhtli and Mictecacuhuatl have a duality that's found throughout Aztec myhology and thought. Original photo of sourced from Wikimedia.

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

How A Sci-fi Novel Introduced Me to a Bloodthirsty Aztec God

Editor

The Aztec God Xipe Totec and his multiple names

Note from Cesar Torres

Today marks the celebration of Independence Day in Mexico, when the Mexican people liberated themselves from colonial Spanish rule in 1810. It’s an auspicious date, because it also marks the beginning of the new mini-series Caught Up In The Coil here on my site. The series amplifies the concepts of how Aztec thought and religion impacted not just the people of Mexico, but the fictional sci-fi universe I have generated with the two first volumes of my Coil series. My connections to Mexico run deep as roots inside me, and it's a perfect day today to kick things off.

This summer, I launched an apprenticeship program, and young author Michael Evans worked with me for several weeks to learn journalism and writing skills. He dove deep into my Coil book series and he explored many of its mysteries. As a result, he has written several new posts that take a fresh perspective on the novels. Michael is part of generation Z, and he’s also a self-published prodigy. He has not even entered university yet (he’s taking a gap year), but he’s already published Control Freakz, a series of paperback sci fi thrillers that have made a huge impact on readers of young adult fiction. I will be publishing a new post from Michael week by week, and I think you will be astounded at the way in which he approached the characters, stories and themes of my book series. Enjoy. —Cesar Torres, Chicago

How A Sci-fi Novel Introduced Me to a Bloodthirsty Aztec God

By Michael Evans

Before reading 9 Lords of Night by Cesar Torres I wouldn’t have known the difference between Xipe Totec, who is an Aztec deity, and almost any other Aztec god or goddess. Cesar Torres’ novel  9 Lords of Night immediately grabbed me into the story with its exciting thriller-like pace, sci-fi world building, and most of all, the mysterious murder of Marlene Grue that is suspected to be in connection with the movie 9 Lords of Night (this is a fictional movie but should really be a real thing) in which I was introduced into the Mexica or Aztec culture and religion.

Being an author of science fiction novels, and someone who naturally tends to read about nanobots, brain computer interfaces, and the perils of climate change, ancient Aztec mythology and traditions were a totally foreign land to me. If I’m honest, in many ways they still are. The more I learn about this beautiful culture, the more I understand how wonderfully complex it is, and how simple my understanding of it is. Nevertheless, although the science fiction and thriller elements of 9 Lords of Night drew me into the book (I’m always a sucker for that combination) it was the elements of Aztec mythology, specifically that of Xipe Totec, that kept me reading and wanting to explore deeper into the world of Aztec culture upon finishing. 

If the word Aztec rings a bell from a middle school or high school world history class, you are definitely thinking about the right civilization. In the case of the Aztecs, they were the great civilization of Central America with Tenochitlan, a floating island city of 200,000 people (bigger than any city in Europe at the time), as the capital of their empire. Upon the conquest of the Spanish, specifically Hernan Cortes, the Aztec empire fell, and the Spaniards killed the majority of the Aztec people. Many others died of disease. Despite this genocide, 1.5 million people speak the Aztec language of Nahuatl in Central Mexico today and through thousands of drawings, archaeological artifacts and temples, Aztec mythology, culture, and history lives on. 

Aztec religion differs in some crucial and insightful areas from the more traditional religious ideologies that most of us are exposed to in the Western Judeo-Christian tradition. Aztec mythology is composed of at least 200 gods (similar to Greek mythology) of which Xipe Totec or the “Flayed One” is the god of spring, agricultural renewal, fertility, is the patron god of goldsmiths and gemstone workers, and was said to cure many diseases, specifically eye illnesses. Xipe Totec is one of the four children of Ometeotl, the first Aztec god which created itself and is both male and female so it can reproduce on its own. The four children of Ometeotl all represent different directions with the Aztec empire at the center of the universe and Xipe Totec symbolizing the direction north. The four children also happen to be major forces present in Cesar Torres’ first novel in the Coil, 13 Secret Cities, which I happened to read before 9 Lords of Night and also highly recommend as well.

At first glance it may seem as if Xipe Totec is a peaceful god who picks flowers during the day time, but this deity, which first originated in the Olmec and Yope peoples (these peoples preceded the rise of the Aztec empire), is also disturbingly dark in his character. He wears the skin of sacrificed humans as clothing over his body, and he’s often depicted with perforated ears, red lips, and elaborate ornamentation.

The Aztec people paid tribute to Xipe Totec, so they would have a good harvest next spring. They did so by staging gladiator battles called Tlahuahuanaliztli. These battles, which took place during the Festival of Tlacaxipehualiztli or Snake Festival, which was a forty-day long festival dedicated to Xipe Totec, had one warrior with no weapons (or a sword of feathers), and the other warrior had a sword of obsidian and yeah you can picture the rest… the one without weapons is killed real fast in a duel to the death. 

After these gladiator battles, the reason they call Xipe Totec the Flayed One becomes obvious—it is his desire for human flesh and blood. That’s why after killing the people (often they were war captives or a priest who dressed up in red feathers and golden jewelry for the forty-day festival) the Aztecs skinned the bodies, disgorged the hearts, and then dyed the skin yellow. Then the dried, yellow, dead human skin would be draped over an Aztec priest and worn by them in a ritualistic ceremony called Tozoztontl, or the skin would be put on the backs of young men who were forced to go around begging until the skin rotted. 

Although, Xipe Totec was often depicted as a terrifying figure covered in dead human skin all over its body, including its hands, and a creepy, gaping mouth, Xipe Totec doesn’t just desire human flesh because he is some evil mythological god. He desires it because the flaying of the skin off one’s body is akin to the germination of the skin around maize as it matures, the principal crop of all Central American civilizations, and thus this act is meant to symbolize a plentiful harvest and the continued survival of the Aztec civilization. 

After discovering all of this about Xipe Totec, I was at first taken aback. For someone who loves to read thriller novels like me, this sacrificial ritual seemed particularly brutal, albeit fascinating to imagine. But I couldn’t help but notice how the sacrificial rituals of the ancient Aztec peoples and Xipe Totec himself have some valuable lessons to draw from. The beautifully deadly nature of Xipe Totec is very similar to the wickedly awesome forces that govern all of humanity—our very own nature. Xipe Totec is a god of contradictions, a being who at the surface longs for human blood, but upon deeper inspection his true purpose is to enrich the Aztecs by providing them with a fertile growing season and plentiful harvest. 

Xipe Totec, just like this world is often misunderstood. He is a god literally covered in the flesh of human bodies, but the true story of Xipe Totec is much more beautiful and complex than his seemingly deadly nature.

9 Lords of Night introduced me to the bloodthirsty god Xipe Totec and the fascinating nature of Aztec religion. My whole life I have always been used to hearing stories from the Old Testament or the New Testament (I grew up in a Catholic home) in which good and evil are often separated into two separate forces, like heaven and hell. However, that world view has been thrown upside down in my mind by the thrilling novel 9 Lords of Night and the presence of the skin-wearing, fertile-soil bearing god of Xipe Totec in it. Xipe Totec showed me that nothing is black and white in this world. He showed me that everything deserves a deeper look to be fully understood, and that something that may appear to just be violence and bloodshed on the outside is actually beautiful upon closer inspection.

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