‘The Bloodgate Guardian’ by Joely Sue Burkhart

This book is not about the anti-Jones.  Er, sorry, I mean, the ‘Un-Indiana Jones‘[sic].  I don’t usually venture anywhere near the realms of light romance novels, so I won’t comment on my thoughts about the voice, romance themes or narrative structure.  I’ll work with the things I care about: the archaeology.

The backstory is that Dr. Jaid Merrit, an archaeologist, lost her mother in early childhood at an on-site cave-in.  With a phobia of fieldwork she has spent her academic life teaching, grading papers, and doing lowly ignoble translation and research mainly to help her father with his own South-American based investigations.

My main big issue was with ‘Maya’.  There’s been some debate in archaeological, anthropological and historical communities over whether to use ‘Maya’, ‘The Maya’ or ‘Mayan’.  You can read a great study of the particulars here, and the simple rule of thumb is to use ‘Mayan’ for the plural and whenever referring to language.  The terms ‘Maya’ and ‘The Maya’ only tend to crop up in this e-book when the entire past population (plural, I’d hope) or the language and writing itself are mentioned.  It was quite distressing, especially at some points the writer seemed to at least try to research the topics she wrote about.

Another quibble I had was with the inconsistency used in identifying Mayan proper names, place names and other terminology.  Not only were half of the names not explained or given any context where they appeared, but there was a seemingly randomised flipping between using English and traditional terms (Xibalba, Blood-Gatherer, and so on).  Consistency should have been employed so that terms were not so easily confused, it seems like the author went out of her way to obfuscate some of her own world-building and research.  When there were explanations of concepts and words they were usually accompanying terms that had been translated into English.

Archaeological terms and ideas were hilariously or catastrophically misused, depending on your perspective on these things.  ‘Dig’ is used universally in the place of ‘site’, ‘excavation’, ‘fieldwork’, and ‘ruins’.  While at least the word ‘ruin’ shows up gratuitously later on, I often felt like bashing my head against a wall.  I could not, as it appears, ‘dig’ it.  Mainly from Jaid’s perspective, the narrative goes out of its way to emphasise how rational and archaeological her mind is.  Then most of her observations about the significant items skip over the fascinating parts of the archaeology and focus instead on banal daddy issues and buzzwords.  Throughout the book the actions of characters show that Burkhart had done enough research to know about the objects and concepts; ignorance cannot be an excuse here.  Dr. Jaid Merrit as a character simply does not act or think like an archaeologist.  She is, at best, a slightly dim linguist.  Finally here, much is made of an archaeologist who does not do fieldwork.  There are many of these archaeologists in the world, and some of the best universities for archaeology in fact focus on research more than fieldwork.  The premise that preferring to research using existing data is somehow shameful or weak is ludicrous.  As a matter of fact, some of the best and most influential archaeologists are entirely research based.

Money is a conundrum.  Very little money is seen in this book directly, but there’s a constant oscillation between technology that is incredibly overpriced for field-work (wifi-capable digital cameras with tripods, the military style hut-hotel compound, an archaeologist being kept overseas for years on uni budget just to keep his daughter also employed in the faculty) and work-arounds that imply very little money to be had (overhead transparencies instead of digital projectors in the university itself, digital photographs rather than scanned images of documents, the need to bring in external funding).  While the external funding could cover some of these and presumably did, there is never a time where the organisation and sourcing of technology and money and funding are explained adequately.

A lot of this stuff could have worked, but it’s often just short of an adequate explanation.  At  times it just feels insulting to archaeologists, who tend to fund themselves or work with grants.  It all hinges on support from the huge shadow of a sinister company, and there is never any resolution regarding that, no explanation of the repercussions of the final climactic scenes.

The climax of the hilarious inaccuracies and contradictions in this book came with a simple revelation to Jaid: she realised that historical documents were subject to the bias of the writers and not reliable as concrete truth.  Even when they were mythologies instead of more reliable historical documents.  In my first year classes, we addressed this very subject.  History is subjective, and archaeology is sometimes able to dispel the egos of past writers and show physical evidence that corrects or even directly contradicts historical documents.  History is human and biased and fallible, though it can be used to enhance our cultural context for skeletal remains and material culture.  It’s first-year stuff, and no graduate archaeologists have any reason to be operating under the misconceptions that Jaid does.

Oh, and the word ‘dichotomy’ appears to have been used in a confusing and possibly inaccurate way.  Though I could understand what Burkhart was trying to say, the structure of the sentence was awkward and confusing.  Since ‘dichotomy’ is a popular word in engendered archaeology, it’s just a point of interest; there are far worse offences to the English language in this book, with less exciting words.

In the end, I have a headache.  But I’ve also had a few laughs.  What’s funniest of all is that Burkhart intended Jaid Merrit to be the opposite of Indiana Jones as a character, but she has in the end sustained that popular culture secret-rune-spy, old-boy’s-club, sexy sensationalist voice.  With ‘The Maya’ and the usual quivering Harlequin standard manflesh, it’s one of those iconic misinterpretations of archaeology that pop culture loves so much, but without any of the panache or finesse that came with the spectacular Mr. Jones, and none of the humility and honesty I found in The Janus Stone.

I’ve found another review of it at The Book Smugglers that is a bit more generous and positive, should you wish for a different perspective.

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