Essay – The Big Idea – The Bone Flower Throne
This essay originally appeared on John Scalzi’s The Big Idea.
I’m an Aztec geek; whether it’s history or mythology, I devour it all. It’s a love affair that began in college and has taken over my fiction writing life. It gives me immense joy to immerse myself into that world, digging up the forgotten treasures and intrigues, and finding voices and figures my high school history and English classes never bothered to mention.
Like Quetzalpetlatl, the most famous woman no one knows anything about: the woman the gods used to ruin Mesoamerica’s greatest hero.
If first learned of her at Clarion West in 2002, while researching for my week three story. I stumbled upon a university website dedicated to academic information about the god Quetzalcoatl, and there I read my first telling of the life of the legendary Toltec priest-king Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl: after growing up in exile, Topiltzin avenges his father’s murder at the hands of his uncle and establishes the kingdom of Tollan, where he defies the gods and outlaws human sacrifice. To discredit him, the dark sorcerer god Tezcatlipoca gets him so drunk he sleeps with his own sister, and Topiltzin leaves Tollan in disgrace.
I immediately knew this was a story I wanted to explore, but it felt too complex to tackle at the time. As the years passed, I learned that was just one version of Topiltzin’s life–in fact most tribes in Mesoamerica had their own version, each as different as the next–but that particular telling always lingered at the back of my mind. Topiltzin’s sister in particular intrigued me: she had a name–Quetzalpetlatl–but she only appeared in that version of the legend, and disappointingly, she had no history beyond that one mention of Tezcatlipoca using her against Topiltzin. Who was she, and what had her life been like before that fateful end? Why did Tezcatlipoca choose her, and what became of her after all that? None of that was answered.
Those questions led to a four-year journey through many failed drafts and false starts that eventually became The Bone Flower Throne (and the two books to follow). It started as a novelette, and though I received the best personal rejections from both pro and semi-pro editors I’ve ever gotten, it just wasn’t right for anyone. One editor suggested the story was better suited to novel length, so I spent two NaNoWriMos expanding it out into a first draft.
Yet even then, I continued running into the same issues as the original legend: Topiltzin is a bigger-than-life figure, revered as much as the god he’s named after, and Quetzalpetlatl had no motivations that didn’t forward his agendas. Two years and 200k words later, the story was still his, and she was just as manipulated as ever. I had to start all over, and rethink everything.
One of the troubles with Aztec mythology is that it’s a jumble of indigenous thought and Christian gloss, thanks to the Spanish priests who first recorded them in writing; they often added their own spin to the tales, to demonize the native culture and justify the atrocities committed during the Conquest. Taking that into consideration, I zeroed in on what seemed the most “Christianized” aspect of the original narrative: that committing incest with Quetzalpetlatl was the source of Topiltzin’s downfall. It’s a bit of a curiosity, for Aztec royal genealogy shows marriage between close blood relatives being fairly common, at least among the nobility: Cuitlahuac, the second to last emperor, married his niece after her father Motecuhzoma the Younger died at the hands of his own citizens, and after Cuitlahuac perished of small pox, his predecessor Cuauhtemoc married that same girl, his nine-year old first cousin. And none of that was considered peculiar to those involved.
But I couldn’t just cut the incest all together; without it, Quetzalpetlatl doesn’t even appear in the original myth–it’s the only reason she exists. So I needed to turn that aspect on its head.
Initially I was very hesitant to explore a consensual incestuous relationship between Topiltzin and Quetzalpetlatl, for it would surely drive away some readers–and it made me uncomfortable the first time the thought occurred to me. But once I let go of those reservations, the bits and pieces that hadn’t worked before started clicking into place. And when I asked myself about the underlying “why”, all sorts of doors opened, allowing me to fold and transform the mythology in new and unexpected ways. Quetzalpetlatl could now be an active combatant in the conflict between Topiltzin and Tezcatlipoca, rather than just a tool the bad guy uses against the good guy, and I could open the ending up to a whole different set of conflicts that didn’t rely on her being a victim. Instead she would define her own role in Topiltzin’s legacy, and her story would reach far beyond the end of the original legend.
Was it a good choice? When reviewers admit they wanted Quetzalpetlatl and Topiltzin to end up together in spite of their own strongly negative feelings about such relationships, I have to think it pays to put aside our own cultural expectations and explore new routes with an open mind, even when they might make us uncomfortable.