The Rich Tapestry of History

Bolivia is a landlocked South American nation. It is a land of rich history and diverse culture, but little of it is encountered in the ironically vast world of literature. Once the center of a booming tin mining trade, our knowledge of the country is pretty sketchy; it is limited to what we have lifted from encyclopedias and almanacs. The daughter of Bolivian immigrants who settled in Boca Raton, Florida, Isabel Ibanez spun a tale painting the colorful history of her parents’ nation of birth. Through her debut novel, Woven in Moonlight, Ibanez attempts to introduce Bolivia to the rest of the world with her magical and absorbing storytelling.

Woven in Moonlight charts the history of the magical kingdom of Inkasisa focalized through the first-person perspective of Ximena. At the young age of nine, Ximena was trained to be the decoy for the royal condesa of the Illustrians, Catalina. The Illustrians were once the rules of Inkasisa, exercising absolute control over all its resources. Their halcyon days were upended when the Llacsans started organizing their army. With their leader Atoc in helm and with the aid of dark magic from an ancient relic called the Estrella, the Llacsans successfully overthrew the Illustrians in an uprising. The uprising forced the Illustrians to retreat and Atoc was installed as the absolute leader of the kingdom.

With Catalina and Ximena left orphaned by the uprising, they had no one else to rely on but themselves and their loyal followers. To recover what they have lost, they worked out their own plan to topple Atoc’s regime. They were just waiting for the perfect time to strike. Over at La Ciudad Blanca, the kingdom’s capital, Atoc’s stern regime gained him both accolades and enemies alike. But as his tyrannical tendencies expanded, cracks were starting to reveal themselves across his different ranks. Insurgents, rebels, and ordinary people, once divided by ranks and ethnic background, were coming together to restore order in the declining kingdom.

“Dressed in his usual black ensemble, he reminds me of the perfect night. The kind of night that makes you want to get lost somewhere. The kind of night that invites adventure and misbehaving.”

~ Isabel Ibañez, Woven in Moonlight

As the Llacsan ranks was starting to crumble, Catalina and Ximena were presented with a perfect opportunity to deploy their plans. The opening they were waiting for came when the condesa was summoned by Atoc. Ximena was sent as Catalina’s decoy. On her way to the Castillo, she was pondering on how to overthrow the faux king and reinstall the “rightful” ruler, and, at the same time, find a way around Atoc’s demand for her hand in marriage. In marrying the condesa, Atoc was hoping to solidify his hold into power. Ximena, on the other hand, found herself floundering before Atoc’s propensity for violence; this was even though she was battle-trained.

The novel does emerge as a fantasy novel, molded in the quintessential fairy tale trope, and permeated with elements of magic and fantasy. However, it is more than just the archetype of fantasy novel. In Woven in Moonlight, Ibanez painted in broad strokes a vivid portrait of Bolivia’s colorful contemporary history and turbulent political landscape. The primary characters are allegories to key figures in the long history of Bolivia. What stands out in the narrative is the clear division between two factions, the Illustrians and the Llacsans. The former, who exhausted the natural resources of Inkasisa, represent the colonizers who have reigned for years in Bolivia until the native Bolivians, represented by the Llacsans, led their own rebellion and win over their independence.

The magic belied the dark theme that the novel grappled with. History and colonization emerged as the primary themes of the narrative. Bolivia, just like its neighboring South American nations, has a long history of colonization that is tainted by a long tale of disagreements, armed violence, and bloodshed. Motivated by the insatiable appetite for the accretion of wealth, this subjugation resulted into perpetual struggles for power and control, as was demonstrated by the story of the Illustrians and the Llacsans. What surfaces is the reality that everyone loses in the struggle to wrest power.

Whilst physical tensions and conflicts were present all throughout the narrative, it was the personal conflicts that drove the narrative. Ximena, a decoy trained for years, was driven by her loyalty to Catalina and the Illustrian cause: “It’s an honor to protect Catalina. To give up my life for hers should it come to that. And despite my duty, despite the long years of living as somebody else, I love her. As a sister, as my future queen. Sometimes, though, that kind of love just isn’t comfortable. However, as she got to know the denizens of the castillo, a moment of enlightenment was seizing her. She was caught in an impasse and she must hurdle this internal conflict to unite the kingdom.

“She was whisked away from the horror and kept safe and fed, adored child that she was. She never had to fight for a loaf of bread. Perhaps we’d done her a disservice by keeping her so sheltered? If we hadn’t, she’d have at least learned how to be strong.”

~ Isabel Ibañez, Woven in Moonlight

This internal strife provided for an absorbing backdrop to Ximena’s growth and development. She was raised in a propagandized environment, with prejudices towards Llacsans inculcated into her from a young age. This made her misjudge the Llacsans. Her prejudices started to dissolve as she interacts with those tasked to look after her; Llacsans share many similarities with the Illustrians. As this realization was dawning on her, she encountered a masked vigilante reminiscent of Zorro named El Lobo. El Lobo was against Atoc’s regime and his totalitarian rule. Together, El Lobo and Ximena provided the last rays of hope for Inkasisa.

One of the novel’s strongest facets was its glimpses into Bolivian heritage. Cultural touchstones were interspersed in the narrative and its strongest manifestation was Ximena’s special ability. Ximena is a gifted weaver and at night, she can weave threads of moonlight into her intricate woolen tapestries. I work the incandescent thread, over and under again, building a scene of the night sky. The moonlight turns to moondust as I weave, fluttering to the stone floor like falling snowflakes. In what feels like minutes, a new tapestry winks back at me. A glittering silver work of art that lights up the small room. Pools of moondust gather at my feet, as if I’ve wandered into winter”. Locked up in one of the castillo’s towers, Ximena used this ability to communicate with her comrades.

Woven in Moonlight was also Ibañez’s homage to her native country. It gave glimpses of Bolivian culture. With the air diffused with the smell of food, the story has the tendency to make the readers crave for food. Ibañez introduced to the world a plethora of food such as achachairu, an egg-shaped fruit; silpancho, a popular Bolivian dish ; sopa de mani, a soup made from peanuts; and the ubiquitous huacatay, a cream of black mint. The book is equipped with a glossary of these food. However, what weighed down on the narrative was its unnatural incorporation of Spanish terms and phrases which popped out in every other passage. In an effort to render it an air of authenticity, Ibañez needlessly used Spanish terms for things that could still be described in English without compromising the novel’s thought.

Ibañez’s writing was easy and accessible. It worked well in conjuring evocative imagery. Ibañez did such a commendable job that it took a while before the cracks on the narrative begun to surface. Inkasisa was a magical world but the novel suffered from a lacking and weak world-building. Ibañez never fully established the existence of Inkasisa. The readers were left to accept everything as is without any firm context. The presence of Inkasisa, the conflict between the Illustrians and Llacsans, the motivations of Atoc, and the reverberations of magic were forcefully fed into the readers. On top of this, the novel suffered from stilted and often contrived dialogues and interactions between the characters. The progress made in the earlier parts of the novel was unraveled unsurprising undercurrents of romance. The promising narrative inevitably was sucked into the whirlpool of predictability.

“We all want the same things: opportunities and means for everyone to earn their bread; freedom of self-expression without consequences; for all children, not just”

~ Isabel Ibañez, Woven in Moonlight

However, it was the delineation between Illustrians and Llacsans that was the novel’s biggest undoing. The former was portrayed as naturally good whilst the latter was depicted as wicked. The allegories were heavy-handed and served only to magnify the fissure that has existed between the two spheres of Bolivian society – the mestizos/mestizas and the natives. This divide existed from the time it was occupied by the Spaniards to the time Bolivia has gained its autonomy and was a primary driver in the tumultuous history of the nation. The stereotype between the two factions was repeatedly underlined all throughout the narrative. The Llacsans, and, in turn, natives were further vilified by the novel’s subtle assertion that they were the culprits in Bolivia’s portrayal as a cocaine exporter.

Woven in Moonlight is a searing and promising debut from an emerging voice. It exhibited what Ibañez is capable of . In immersing in the colorful history and tumultuous politics of her country, Ibañez wove clashing cultures and strong women in a tapestry that puts the proverbial microscope on the consequences of war and colonization. It was also about finding the courage and the voice to stand up against the wicked whilst at the same time, maintaining an open mind grounded on the reality that not everything is as we perceive them to be. Through Ximena’s experience, Ibañez reminded everyone that it is always fine to change one’s stand in light of new information. The novel great promise, however, suffered from its various blunders. It all weighed down on what could have been a powerful and evocative narrative.

Ratings

42%

Characters (30%) – 13%
Plot (30%) – 10%
Writing (25%) – 12%
Overall Impact (15%) – 7%

I first came across Isabel Ibañez’s Woven in Moonlight in late 2019. I took interest first in the book’s title and its cover; the colorful cover immediately captures one’s attention. Despite it being not in my literary alley (it mixes elements of young adult fiction and fantasy), I added it to my 2020 Books I Look Forward To List. It took quite sometime before my copy of the book arrived but once it did, there was no holding me back from immersing into this interesting story and its eye-catching cover. One of the reasons why I wanted to read the book was because I rarely encountered books set in or is about Bolivia. I was, at first, riveted by the novel. The story hit the ground running from the onset. I was riveted and was drawn by Ximena. There were elements that watered it down, such as the incorporation of Spanish terms, and the archetype of masked heroes. There was also a lopsided representation between the Spaniards/mestizos and the natives which impaired the overall impact of the story. Whilst taking inspiration from her country’s history was commendable, Ibañez failed to provide clarity on the issues hounding it nor did she provide resolutions.

Book Specs

Author: Isabel Ibañez
Publisher: Page Street Publishing
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 365
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction

Synopsis

A lush tapestry of magic, romance, and revolucion drawing inspiration from Bolivian politics and history.

Ximena is the decoy condesa, a stand-in for the last remaining Illustrian royal. Her people lost everything when the usurper, Atoc, used an ancient relic to summon ghosts and drive the Illustrians from La Ciudad. Now Ximena’s motivated by her insatiable thirst for revenge, and her rare ability to spin thread from moonlight.

When Atoc demands the real condesa’s hand in marriage, it’s Ximena’s duty to go in her stead. She relishes the chance, as Illustrian spies have reported that Atoc’s no longer carrying his deadly relic. If Ximena can find it, she can return the true aristocrata to their rightful place.

She hunts for the relic, using her weaving ability to hide messages in tapestries for the resistance. But when a masked vigilante, a warm-hearted princesa, and a thoughtful healer challenge Ximena, her mission becomes more complicated. There could be a way to overthrow the usurper without starting another war, but only if Ximena turns her back on revenge – and her condesa.

About the Author

Isabel Ibañez was born in Boca Raton, Florida to Bolivian immigrant-parents. She received a degree in creative writing and has been a Pitch mentor for three years. Before shifting to a literary career, Ibañez was an award winning designer and illustrator. Her interests include going to the movies, reading books, hosting family and friends around the dinner table, and playing a human mother to a golden doodle named Piper. She currently resides in Winter Park, Florida with her husband.