I like novelists, as a general rule. I admire the profession and respect the amount of dedicated work a novel requires. I’m reticent to talk undue smack about them. I’d rather be a big cheery fanboy and say that every book I’ve read I’ve loved, woot, squee, happy, happy, joy, joy. Of course, that enthusiasm is impossible to maintain indefinitely. Now and then, I’m bound to read something that simply doesn’t work for me. In The Courts of the Sun, (Dutton, March, 2009) by Brian D’Amato, is in that category.
Here’s the quick tour of the plot. You know that Maya end of the world thingie? The calendar running out of days on December 21, 2012? This book is the first part of a trilogy about using an ancient game to figure out what that date is really about. The narrator, a descendant of the Maya and expert in the “sacrifice game” has his consciousness sent back in time to figure out the whole end of days situation. His mind is supposed to be in the body of a king, but ends up instead in a hipball player. Sounds pretty cool, right? It could have been.
Before I get into what went wrong, I’ll tell you what went right. First, he’s obviously done his homework. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s read up on the Maya culture, religion, customs, amusements, language and so forth. If there is one total certainty in the book, that’s it. D’Amato knows plenty about the Maya. And good on him; no one should write about something like that without copious research. Oh, and the Maya have cool names such as “2 Jeweled Skull” and “9 Fanged Hummingbird.”
The second thing the book has going for it is humor. D’Amato has some great lines throughout. For example, “Autobiography is the world’s second most loathsome literary genre, just above haikus in English.” “The sky was the color of a TV set turned to the Playboy Channel.”
Where the book fails for me is in the pacing. You remember the little kid from the Animaniacs? He would come running out of his house and say, “One time, ok, see, one time, Randy Beaman had a really cold ice cream cone and when he licked it his tongue froze off. ‘Kay, bye.”
That’s pretty much how In the Courts of the Sun felt.
In a perhaps unintentionally ironic statement, the narrator (Joaquin Carlos Xul Mixoc DeLanda, also known as Jed) begins chapter one (which follows a time travel snippet for a prologue) by saying, “Maybe I’m throwing too much out at once. Maybe we need to answer some basic questions.”
After this follows a long and unnecessarily detailed reckoning of how and where Jed was born, and where it fits on the Maya calendar. Then he gets a fever, learns an oracle-like game, becomes a sort of apprentice shaman, talks about the CIA, then his village gets into trouble with guerrillas and he goes to live with Mormons and becomes fond of marshmallows and becomes the only hemophiliac on the chess team and learns target shooting and becomes part of a mathematical study of the oracle-like game and decides not to become a professional chess player and moves to Reno and becomes a millionaire, all before investigating the possible end of the world.
Seriously, about 80% of the narrator’s backstory is superfluous and has no more depth than a Myspace profile. And that this all comes at you like a whirlwind ADHD infodump on speed certainly doesn’t help. I found myself holding the book at arms length, wanting to shout, “Calm down, please! I’m trying to read, here.”
This is the pace of the entire novel. Exposition comes spat out at the reader in a bewildering spray. This means that, when all is said and done, the author’s sense of humor becomes grating and the extensive research does not flesh out the setting or deepen the characters’ relationships as it should have. Instead the rapid-fire verbosity just made me kinda itchy and tired.