By Sahana C.
It’s hard to find a good place to start with this book, so I’ll start at the end, in the year 3012. Society is different, and so are the people as the result of hundreds of years of war and compromise and cultural evolution. As a species, we are a genderless and raceless band of nomads, with a blatant disdain for those who settle down in nuclear family units.
So yeah, there’s a lot going on. The above phrasing makes it seems starkly unnatural, but somehow, Monica Byrne’s weaving together of three different stories across time makes the future version of us feel tangible. Despite all of the modifications and the general foreignness of the shape of this future society, the basics of humanity remain the same. We are emotional and community oriented, no matter when we are in history. We follow patterns that remain, no matter how far we try to stray outside the bounds of history.
The ripple effects from past to present to future were incredible. Seeing names and places that were mentioned briefly in the past become more important in the future was almost an exciting reward for paying close attention through the timelines. And this book does reward close attention. It is obvious that Byrne put immense time and research into all aspects of the novel, going from the Maya, to modern Belize, to what made sense for the future based on the results of the events she described in the first two timelines. Most importantly, the story of the Hero Twins, some of the most important figures in the Maya mythos, is described and adapted in such a faithful light that Byrne has room to play with the elements of the mythology.
The story of the Hero Twins is one that Byrne explains in the novel, but, like the rest of Maya mythology, it is complex and bears repeating. The Hero Twins were the central characters of one of the oldest preserved Maya works, the Maya equivalent of the Epic of Gilgamesh, with just as much adventure. They were often portrayed as complementary forces, the sky and the earth, the sun and the moon, the masculine and feminine, life and death. All in all, the Hero Twins were born to represent the two sides of a single entity. The shortest way to explain their greatest triumph is that they defeated the lords of Xibalba, the Maya equivalent of the realm of the dead, in a ball game, essentially representing that together, they had conquered death and diminished the power of all Xibalba.
In the first of the three timelines in the novel, the year 1012, we are introduced to Ixul and Ajul through the point of view of their little sister, Ket. They are royalty and are said to be the reincarnation of the Hero Twins, with all the strength, power, and greatness that entails. The second timeline in 2012 follows Leah, a nineteen-year-old half Maya girl from Minnesota who goes to Belize to reconnect with her heritage. While she is there, she explores sacred caves and meets Javier and Xander, another set of twins, who work as tour guides. Business is booming, because in 2012, at the end of one Maya calendar, the Western world had decided the world was going to end. And then, in 3012, we follow Niloux, someone who is speaking out about the way society has evolved. She is embroiled in debate about the very nature and purpose of humanity, a thousand years after the change in the Maya cycle.
Each of these timelines finds the characters on the precipice of a great and life altering change. The story is a blend of mythology, history, and sci-fi, and speaks, ultimately, to the way we use history to justify the present, and the way that our understanding of the past informs our future, no matter what we do.
The Tor.com review called the novel, “one of the most effective examples of worldbuilding you’re likely to see on a page this year,” and I have to agree. Despite being longer than 600 pages, it’s somehow still a fast read. It’s a hefty book that tries to cover a lot, and sometimes just doesn’t have the space to explore all of the various threads it brings up, but when Byrne is allowed to go into detail on a subject, she does not miss.
The Actual Star is available in print.
Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. She enjoys adding books to her “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for her already.