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The Dark Star of Itza: The Story of a Pagan…
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The Dark Star of Itza: The Story of a Pagan Princess

by Alida Sims Malkus

Other authors: Lowell Houser (Illustrator)

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Published in 1930, and chosen as a Newbery Honor book in 1931 - other titles to be so distinguished include Floating Island, Mountains Are Free and Spice and the Devil's Cave (among others) - Alida Sims Malkus' The Dark Star of Itza: The Story of a Pagan Princess is an epic tale of inter-city warfare in thirteenth-century Meso-America, and reads almost like a Mayan Iliad. It is the story of Chichen Itza, the great white city of the Itza people, ruled by Chac Zib Chac the king, and guided in religious matters by Hol Chan the high priest. It is Hol Chan's daughter Nicté, however - the 'pagan princess' alluded to in the sub-title - who is the true protagonist of this story, observing, both through prophecy and through her own experience, the fall of her beloved city, and the exile of the tattered remnants of her people.

Despite dire warnings given by both the high priest and his daughter, Chac Zib Chac sets out for the great Feast of Kukulcan, to be held in the neighboring city of Mayapan, ruled by its own stern king, Hunac Ceel, who is the leader of the Mayan League. Here, bewitched by the beauty of Hunac Ceel's intended bride, Chac Zib Chac betrays his host and overlord, and makes off with the the princess Kantol, precipitating an inter-city Mayan civil war, one that will draw in Toltec forces from the far northern region known as Mexico, and bring about a portentous splintering of the great Mayan civilization. Caught up in these events is Nicté, the white flower of the Itza, whose gift of foresight cannot save her people and her city from ruin. Nicté, who is torn between the man she loves: Itzam Pesh, the Nocom, or commander, of her city, and the king's right hand; and the man who loves her: Pantemit, the Toltec stranger, come to Chicen Itza to learn about Mayan architecture, who is unjustly enslaved, before escaping, and returning as conqueror.

I was more than a little surprised, given my experience with vintage children's fiction, and the depiction of non-European peoples in that fiction, to discover just how respectful and authentic Malkus' narrative felt to me. Never once did I get the sense that she was condescending to her characters, or judging them through the prism of (then) contemporary mores. Each character comes vividly to life in her story, and I loved them all. They felt, somehow, like characters caught up in a great dance, each playing his or her part in an sweeping epic well beyond their control. Kantol, the merry beauty, reminds me of Helen of Troy (naturally), but is never condemned as Helen was; while Chac Zib Chac, for all his folly, never seems weak, as Paris did, and accepts his fate with stoicism. It might have been expected that Pantemit, with his foreign Toltec cunning - so different from the more peaceful, more "civilized" Maya - would play the role of the villain. After all, he ends up conquering the city. But somehow this never seems to happen, and his humanity - despite being the eventual conqueror of Chichen Itza, and enacting human sacrifice! - is not obscured. Itzam Pesh is perhaps a bit too much of a paragon, but even he has his moments of weakness, as when he fears that his king may claim Nicté.

And Nicté herself? Oddly, she is the most indistinct of all the characters to me, perhaps because the readers is so encouraged to be Nicté - to stand in her shoes - that it is difficult to "get outside" of her characters, so to speak. She is the center of this tragic tale, which brings vividly to life a lost city and vanished time. That Malkus did her research is immediately apparent, and although some of the details of her story may not add up - I understand that research has now shown that Chichen Itza may have fallen long before Mayapan rose - the sense of it just feels right. I bitterly, bitterly regret not encountering this book as a girl! Not only would I have discovered an exciting tale, full of adventure and suspense, and characters that truly live, but I think I would have been seized (as I so often have been, through reading fiction), with a desire to know more of the history behind the story. Still, it's not too late... anyone know a good general history of the ancient Maya? ( )
  AbigailAdams26 | Apr 12, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Alida Sims Malkusprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Houser, LowellIllustratorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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The story of a Mayan princess who lived at the time the ancient city of Chichen Itza fell under Toltec rule.
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