Reviewed by Cris Rhodes
DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Carol and Johnny Garza are 12-year-old twins whose lives in a small Texas town are forever changed by their mother’s unexplained disappearance. Shipped off to relatives in Mexico by their grieving father, the twins learn that their mother is a nagual, a shapeshifter, and that they have inherited her powers. In order to rescue her, they will have to descend into the Aztec underworld and face the dangers that await them.
MY TWO CENTS: David Bowles’s Pura Belpré honor book, The Smoking Mirror, is a fast-paced, masterful journey through Aztec mythology and pre-Columbian Mexican history. Bowles, who was inspired to create a fantasy novel in the tradition of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson that featured a Latinx protagonist, weaves a captivating story of epic proportions, all framed by familial love. (For more from Bowles, see his guest post.) Moreover, though this is a diverse book with two Latinx protagonists, their Mexican heritage is important insofar as it provides the ethos for the setting of the text, but this is not a story about race or ethnicity and it is all the better for that. Bowles instead focuses on the supernatural elements of his source material and the hero journeys of his twin protagonists. The book is a quick read, full of page-turning action, which will intrigue even the most reluctant reader. Additionally, because it has both a male and female protagonist in twins Johnny and Carol, it should appeal to boys and girls. The Smoking Mirror, like many middle-grade books, has shorter chapters that maintain the pace of the narrative and keep readers constantly engaged without seeming overwhelming.
While Johnny and Carol’s journey through Mictlan is riveting, I was most captivated by Bowles’s exploration of their relationship, particularly of their twin connection. As a twin myself, I am always uncertain if an author will be able to capture the unique bond we feel, and Bowles does so in spades. This is not the tired good-twin/bad-twin nonsense that pervades literature and media. Bowles is sure to individualize both Johnny and Carol, and they are depicted as complex characters with strengths and flaws that set them apart from each other; in fact, their differences improve their relationship as the text unfolds. Johnny and Carol begin the story having grown apart following their mother’s mysterious disappearance. But when their father sends them to stay with their family in Monterrey, México, they must rely on each other in a new environment. When they both discover that they are naguales, or shapeshifters with special magic, their bond is cemented and they begin their journey to Mictlan to rescue their mother from Texcatlipoca, the god of destruction. Likewise, as naguales, Johnny and Carol share an intimate psychic connection, which they use to communicate telepathically. Their internal connection comes in handy as they journey through Mictlan, where they must constantly save each other. In these moments, they realize that their differences do not separate them, rather that they are complementary, and by the end of the text, Johnny even tells Carol, “‘you are my balance’” (198).
The backdrop for Johnny and Carol’s quest to save their mother is a richly populated mythological world full of terrifying creatures and powerful deities. By his own admission, Bowles mixes Aztec and Mayan mythologies to create his Mictlan. The result is an expansive, multilayered underworld that rivals Dante’s Inferno. Bowles, a scholar and professor at the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley, has also done translation work from multiple languages, including Nahuatl, the language spoken by many Mesoamerican indigenous peoples. It is obvious, then, that Bowles knows his source material. However, my only complaint with this text is the difficulty involved in keeping track of all of the Aztec- and Mayan-inspired beings that Johnny and Carol encounter, due to the similarity and/or complexity of their names. Because I’ve studied pre-Columbian, Central American literature (though certainly not as extensively as Bowles), I consider myself to be familiar with Aztec mythology/history; yet, I was confused in multiple places throughout the text. Bowles does include a thorough glossary and pronunciation guide, which I frequently needed to consult, but for a book that is so fast-paced, this disrupted the reading process. For the uninitiated reader, this could be a barrier to feeling fully immersed in the text.
Ultimately, I was riveted by Johnny and Carol’s impassioned search for their mother. Even when I was confused by the terminology, this book continued to be un-put-down-able. Bowles makes his characters feel real, and I became deeply invested in their story. From the snappy dialogue, infused with Spanish words and phrases, to the intricate world-building, Bowles keeps his reader’s attention from beginning to end. Now I’m itching to get my hands on A Kingdom Beneath the Waves, which was published in 2016, as well as the other three books in the series, forthcoming in 2017, 2019, and 2021.
TEACHING TIPS: Bowles’s website has a fairly extensive teaching guide for The Smoking Mirror, including information on his Aztec and Mayan source material. This information would be particularly relevant to a social studies or literature unit on mythology, as it broadens the scope of ancient mythologies beyond Greco-Roman perspectives. This book would also suit language arts lessons that explore the hero’s journey or other themes and images in canonical texts like The Odyssey. Students could compare the trajectory of the journey in both texts or examine the character types—hero, mentor, guardian, etc. This question becomes further complicated by Bowles’s twin protagonists: could both Johnny and Carol be the “hero” of the text? Why or why not? Or, for a more creative lesson, students familiar with mythology might be encouraged to create their own mythological world, drawing on preexisting myths and legends, just as Bowles does. Regardless, The Smoking Mirror is a valuable addition to any classroom or school library.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A product of an ethnically diverse family with Latino roots, David Bowles has lived most of his life in the Río Grande Valley of south Texas. A recipient of awards from the American Library Association, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the Texas Associated Press, he has written several books, most notably the Pura Belpré Honoree The Smoking Mirror. His work has also been published in venues such as BorderSenses, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Stupefying Stories, Asymptote, Translation Review, Huizache, Metamorphoses and Rattle.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is a doctoral student at Texas A&M University – Commerce. She received a M.A. in English with an emphasis in borderlands literature and culture from Texas A&M – Corpus Christi, and a B.A. in English with a minor in children’s literature from Longwood University in her home state of Virginia. Cris recently completed a Master’s thesis project on the construction of identity in Chicana young adult literature.