Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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As if the sandwich-board prophets needed another excuse: December 12, 2012 marks the end of time, or at least the end of the calendar cycle, according to Maya astronomy ("Apocalypse Soon?" page 30). One of the most imaginative products of the end-times is the book In the Courts of the Sun (Dutton, $29.95). Author and artist Brian D'Amato spent the last 15 years writing the 679-page tome, what he calls "the most historically accurate fictional treatment of the Maya to date."

The depiction relies heavily on the scholarship of Prudence Rice, an anthropologist at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. "I've been really impressed with his concern for verisimilitude," Rice says. "Brian struck me as very concerned with making his discussion of the Maya true to the way archaeologists think." She argues that the Maya kings ruled their people through a detailed knowledge of astronomy and by making the masses believe that royalty controlled the timing of seasons and agricultural cycles. Her theory fits neatly with what is essentially a time traveler's tale.

The novel's protagonist is Jed DeLanda--no relation to Archbishop Diego DeLanda, who infamously burned almost all of the Maya books in 1562. He is a Maya descendant with a touch of Asperger's Syndrome, hemophilia, and the cynicism and fragility of a teenager. From a secret facility in Belize, a clutch of scientists and tycoons zap his mind back in time to inhabit the brain of a Maya ruler in A.D. 664, to discover the Maya's science of reading the future. The goal is to figure out how to disrupt a mysterious catastrophe forecasted for the end of the Maya calendar. Only there's a mix-up, and DeLanda mistakenly arrives in the mind of a Maya ballplayer who's about to commit ritual suicide by throwing himself down the steps of a pyramid. DeLanda must wrestle for control of the ballplayer's mind before escaping the ritual and then saving the world (of course). Lucky for D'Amato, there are enough gaps in our understanding of the Maya to allow plenty of room to play. As a result, his vision of the ancient culture is influenced by a surprising hodgepodge of sources. The way clans spar religiously for resources borrows from the theories of French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. The warriors' sexualized relationship with their squires, dubbed "fellators," is based on tribal practices in Papua New Guinea.

D'Amato stays most faithful to the archaeology with Maya calendar dates, glyphs, and art. And when DeLanda ends up in the central Mexican city of Teotihuacán, one of the largest population centers of the period, D'Amato aligns his plot with archaeological evidence of fires in the city.

Meanwhile, the pages are chock-a-block with goofy lines. When DeLanda describes his love interest, he says, "It felt like we'd been through more together than Lewis and Clark, Bonnie and Clyde, Kirk and Spock, and Siegfried and Roy, put together." Some might find it silly; I found it fun.

Ultimately, the novel, the first in a trilogy, is science fiction. Its pleasure comes from ephemera and tangents such as Maya greeting etiquette and explorations into the physics of time travel. With a uniquely vivid imagination, D'Amato brings us an apocalyptic future and undiscovered Maya past.