I finished this book a few weeks ago, and already I’ve forgotten so much about it. I really need to write these book synopsis blog posts more promptly; the whole point is to fix the book better in my mind and capture some of the value that it gave.
The Actual Star is a beautiful speculative-fiction book from 2021 by Monica Byrne. The story is split across 3 different time frames: a contemporary one set in Belize in 2012, a historical one in the same are but during the Maya decline around 1012, and a future one set around the Earth in the year 3012. The plot rotates through the time periods.
In 1012, the last teenage members of a dynasty in a forgotten corner of the lands of the Maya try to rally their people. Two twins and their little sister, their legitimacy comes from their knowledge of, and connection with, a nearby cave that connects to the underworld, Xibalba. They suffer a coup, and are captured as prisoners of the next dynasty of farmers and foreigners. They end up on the wrong side of a human sacrifice that happens in the very cave that
In 2012, a half-Maya girl, Leah from Minnesota, goes to Belize to find her roots. She becomes obsessed with the very same cave, and with two twin tour guides, Xander and Javier. She sneaks into the cave during a torrential downpour, and has to survive in the dark, flooded space, trying to find Xibalba on her own.
And in 3012, a post-apocalyptic world-wide society is torn by disagreement in their deepest-held beliefs. One of the culture’s philosophers, Niloux, challenges the idea that Xibalba is literally real and that Saint Leah entered it in 2012. Tanaaj, a performer of sacred stories of the holy trio of Lea, Xander and Javier, leads a reactionary movement to silence Niloux and prevent her ideas from upsetting their tenuous lifestyle. They and their followers converge on the cave, to prove or disprove the central thesis of their culture.
There’s so much to like about this book. It touches on some deep taboos, like human sacrifice and self-harm, with excellent care. The way the story is assembled means that facts about earlier timelines are revealed in later timelines, which is a great way to give foreshadowing. Physical objects — a golden ear plug, a four-pointed jade knife — appear in different timelines, tying them together.
The stories converge on the cave, Actun Tunichil Muknal, in an impressive way. By the time Lea (2012) has visited the cave twice, we know the underground layout of the site step by step — how far to the step-up rock, how high up is the Crystal Maiden. This familiar territory becomes the stage for the three converging timelines, and when the characters merge across millennia, it seems nothing but natural.
Mostly, though, I love the consideration of what the imaginary world, represented by Xibalba, means to us as humans. The people in 3012 believe that multiple humans have crossed over to Xibalba, disappearing through cuts in the fabric of reality. In a world decimated by climate change and war, the remaining people hold onto this story as their only purpose; the focus of their stringent religious precepts and wandering lifestyle.
This future society is really fascinating and well-built. The remaining humans are all intersex — a decision made when human numbers were dwindling — but use she/her pronouns. There is a complex, ritualised society, but also breakaway sects and heresies that are interrogated closely. The dozens of characters are lightly drawn — there’s only 1/3 of a novel to capture them in — but interesting and believable.
It’s left open, at the end, what Xibalba actually is and means. The story becomes more and more disjointed and hallucinatory. Is that what the imaginary world is? If it’s not real, does it still exist? And is that existence meaningful or purposeful?
All in all, I liked it a lot. I think I’ll revisit some of the themes through the novel’s lens in future thought, which might be the best outcome.