THE BRUJO’S WAY (2013)
Sunstone Press, 310 pp. ISBN: 978-086534995
* * * *
Gerry McFarland merges academia and imagination. Before his retirement, McFarland taught courses in the American West at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, research he brings to bear in his debut novel. He’s published four academic tomes and scores of academic articles and reviews. Those familiar with scholarly writing will want to know whether he can crawl down from the ivory tower and write for the masses. The answer is yes. In fact, one of my few criticisms is that sometimes he’s guilty of a bit too much middlebrow sentiment.
This is the first of a planned trilogy on Don Carlos Buenaventura, a brujo (sorcerer). The novel opens in Mexico City in the year 1684, when our protagonist is a 19-year-old son of Spanish nobility. Actually, only Don Carlos is 19; his body hosts a sixth-generation brujo. Think Star Trek’s Trills, a joined species in which symbiants inhabit new bodies when the old one dies. Like Trills, a brujo has dual consciousness; he or she has the collective memories of past lives, yet experiences the yearnings, thoughts, musings, and sensations of the host. Unlike Trills, a brujo’s past memories, skills, and lessons are hazy, must be rediscovered, and can only accessed when consciously overcoming mortal temptations such as sexual desire, materialism, bodily comfort, status concerns, and other plebian distractions. This is a struggle for Don Carlos, who has grown up with elite privileges and is used to getting what he wants. He also has a decided weakness for, and considerable success with, pretty women.
Don Carlos’ life takes a turn when his father dies and his mother remarries. In a gendered twist on Cinderella, Don Carlos finds himself under the cruel tutelage (and possible inheritance-squandering behavior) of his stepfather. His stepfather’s tyranny encourages Don Carlos to set off on the Camino Real (Royal Road) toward Santa Fe, then a remote Spanish outpost surrounded by hostile Native tribes–not all of whom were pacified by the 1680 Pueblo Revolt that nearly eliminated Spanish rule from vast sections of today’s American Southwest. There are other dangers as well. Don Carlos is a brujo of the Sun Moiety whose motto is “Do no Harm,” but sorcerers of his ilk are outnumbered by malevolent Moon Moiety brujos that inconveniently show up. Moreover, brujos good or bad had to hide their identities because the Spanish Inquisition made its way to Mexico in 1569 and lasted into 1700. A brujo would certainly be considered a witch, and at least 50 people were executed as such.
Don Carlos learns to recover some of his magical powers, though he struggles to control his sexual lust. He meets and romances numerous women, including a married woman who introduces him to Tantric sex, and another who transforms from fencing partner to romantic interest, though she too might be married and there may something even more sinister afoot. Don Carlos thrives in New Mexico, but will he follow his heart or the brujo’s way?
McFarland’s work is enchanting in subject matter and in tone. He creates memorable characters, including active female protagonists. That’s not easy while being true to the machismo paternalistic ethos of New Spain. McFarland also takes us inside the mindset and magical battles of brujos, which is to say he gives us glimpses of belief systems unfamiliar to most readers. His literary style is inconsistent. Surprisingly for a historian whose students considered him a great storyteller, McFarland’s ear for dialogue is often stronger than his expository skills. Sometimes both he and his characters lapse into lecture mode. Love scenes are also occasionally awkward–not salacious or tawdry, but titillating and overwrought.
I see these as minor slips in a page-turner that comes at magical realism in ways that emphasize the second factor more than the first. Who can resist a book whose elements include magic, sex, violence, the peril-filled beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert, and a journey to find destiny, virtue, and honor?
1 Full disclosure: I have known Gerry McFarland for nearly 30 years–as mentor, colleague, and friend. You’ll just have to trust me when I say I seek to review things as I see them. Those who’ve read this blog regularly know that I don’t do puff pieces!