Mariely Lares is a Mexican-American debut autor who has swept us away with her novel Sun of Blood and Ruin. A historical fantasy set in a post-conquest Mexico, full of strong characters, mythology and a good dose of swordfighting and complex relationships, this is one of 2023’s books to watch out for. We had the chance to catch up with her in advance of publication on everything from research and writing to mythology and cultural background for Sun of Blood and Ruin.
[ML] The morally upstanding Lady Leonora doubles as the masked vigilante Pantera in 16th century Spain-occupied Mexico.
[GDM] This is a story that’s clearly drawing on the Zorro narrative. What’s your relationship with the tale like, and what inspired you to craft your own story around it?
[ML] In the 90’s, there weren’t any heroes or role models on TV, movies, or books I could relate to on a cultural level. My choice was a mouse—Speedy Gonzalez with his exaggerated Mexican accent.
I was nine when I watched Antonio Banderas as Zorro. He made such an impression on me; first of all, he spoke Spanish, like I did. He took down bad guys, and this was not a cartoon but a real person. When you’re that young, you want to be an astronaut, a firefighter, a pilot, because of that feeling of invincibility. What kid doesn’t want to be able to fly and have super strength? Throw on a mask and it’s so easy to imagine yourself as that character. That’s the appeal. I just thought, what if Zorro had superpowers? Who could stop him? This book is a love letter to my 9-year-old self.
[GDM] To me, retellings are more than just a reframing of a familiar tale. They are an opportunity to reclaim a narrative for a society, both through the original story, as well as through the setting of the retelling. Sun of Blood and Ruin managed to really hone in on that, balancing the competing sides of Leonora. Can you share a bit more about your thinking behind this particular setting for the story?
[ML] I grew up in a border town. When I first started thinking about this story, I wanted to learn more about my Mexican heritage and create a female hero navigating two different worlds. I also wanted to explore what it means to be bicultural, to feel like you don’t fully belong to one culture, and how that influences your identity.
Zorro felt very modern to me in terms of the setting because Mexico gained independence from Spain in the 19th century. Unless you’re a historian, we don’t know what happened from 1500-1800. I wanted to go way back and set the story thirty years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico. This way, we could get an understanding of the early changes that took place, and we could also see the resistance and conflict of the time, especially from a few historical figures. Another thing is that Zorro was born in the New World and was of pure Spanish descent, but we never see him think about who he is or if he considers himself a true Spaniard. I wanted to explore a mixed, more nuanced character in Leonora.
[GDM] The stakes are high in this story, and quite early on, Leonora makes it clear that while others perceive her as heroic, she sees herself as deeply selfish – saving powerful people because the alternative would be worse, not because it’s the right thing to do or because she agrees with what they stand for. Grimdark Magazine’s lifeblood are morally dubious characters, so we loved seeing her be a complex character who is aware of her own flaws. How much of this was intentional and planned, and how much just evolved as you were writing and editing?
[ML] It was completely on purpose. I mean, TV shows like The Boys prove that deeply imperfect heroes are far more interesting. Even the greatest heroes in the superhero genre aren’t flawless. We see Batman has his own demons. Iron Man has to contend with his actions of the past. Even Peter Parker is haunted by the death of his uncle.
Leonora is a character whose core belief is based on confronting the duality inside her to find balance. She is Spanish and Indigenous. Even her different-colored eyes allude to this dichotomy. Because she is a warrior, she has to wage battle against herself. She doesn’t see the world in terms of good and evil but chaos and order, and the Nahuas viewed the earth as slippery, therefore they walked carefully so as not to fall. This is connected to the concept of “nepantla”, living life in the middle or a centered way. Too much chaos is destructive. Too much order is suffocating. I don’t think Leonora has proven just how flawed she can be. More on that in book two, perhaps!
[GDM] Allow me a self-indulgent question – over the course of Leonora and Tezca’s travels, they encounter what I can only describe as a dark take on a ‘mermaid’ – a creature half sea-snake, half human. I’m really curious to hear more on whether this is something you came across in your research or made up for the purposes of the story?
[ML] I love a curious reader! Mexico has its legends of water-dwelling females. One of the best-known Indigenous myths that predates the Aztecs is the Tlanchala. The Tlanchala was worshiped as a water goddess who could be called upon at any body of freshwater. She could use her tail as a pair of legs, a fish tail for swimming, or a snake tail to entice men into the water. Fishermen and hunters would leave gifts for the Tlanchala in exchange for a smooth voyage or a fair catch. She could be vengeful and malicious, like all Nahua gods, but the post-conquest Tlanchana was turned into a European-looking mermaid and was seen more as a demonic creature. There is a sculpture of the Tlanchana in Metepec, Mexico.
[GDM] Can you tell our readers a little bit more about tonalli, the magic inherent in life force? I found it fascinating how it is so connected to being aware of yourself and who you are.
[ML] This is a loaded question that has a simple answer. Tonalli is the vital energy, or life force, found in everything, much like prana, chi, qi, ki, etc. But your questions are very thoughtful! So, I’ll answer in more detail.
Growing up, I was fascinated by how ki works in Dragon Ball, and how Goku was able to level up through training and acquiring a large amount of ki. In Sun of Blood and Ruin, we see that Leonora’s tonalli is linked to her animal double and her socerery. Without it, she has no magic, she becomes sick, and she can die.
Living a life of integrity is associated with one’s vitality. When the Sword of Integrity glows green, it’s easy to see this. In real life, it’s a lot more complicated, of course. Having integrity doesn’t just mean doing the right thing. It also means being well integrated.
Leonora realizes her tonalli is poisoned because she’s living a double life and these two opposing aspects of herself aren’t working together in wholeness. She says one thing but means another. She does one thing but wants something else entirely. She’s not living authentically. Tonalli doesn’t flow properly as a result, and this creates a whole host of issues. Leonora eventually comes to this understanding. She is who she was and who she is now as well as who she will be. What you don’t know won’t hurt you? False. If Leonora is not aware of herself, she doesn’t know how out of balance she is, so how can she be in balance? And if she doesn’t know this, how can she be aware of her power, which is inherently who she is? We already know tonalli loss leads to death. Leonora can manipulate tonalli in book one, but she has a ways to go in terms of tonalli control and its possibilities.
[GDM] You wrote some great fights in Sun of Blood and Ruin. How did you approach writing those scenes, and do you have any advice for budding writers trying their hand at them?
[ML] Thank you! If I can see the scene in my head like a movie, it’s easier to pen that to paper. I try to picture a great battle like the Battle of the Bastards or Avenger’s Endgame. How do they make me feel? They hype me up. If I’m reading a battle sequence and all the narrative is doing is describing every punch and parry, that’s too boring to me. I need to be dropped into the scene like Pegman in Street View on Google Maps to be emotionally invested. I need to know that Jon Snow can fail. In Avenger’s Endgame, there’s a congregation of heroes and one bad guy. But he’s Thanos! We understand the stakes. I need to care about what’s happening. Much as I love some good action, I won’t just write a sequence for superfluous sake. There has to be a reason for the fight. It has to set up a plot point or deliver some emotional punch. If nothing else, it needs to be fun.
[GDM] What were some of the obstacles you faced when researching for Sun of Blood and Ruin? I imagine there were a lot of foreign accounts, but little indigenous material?
[ML] Oh, yes. Multiple contradicting and inconsistent accounts, way too many Nahua creation myths, and conflicting sources. Even the word “Aztec” is a predicament; technically, we are referring to either the Mexica tribe who suffered at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors, or the collective group who speak Nahuatl, the Nahua people or Nahuas. In the early stages of drafting, it was difficult looking at history through an Indigenous lens, rather than a Eurocentric one, because narratives from the latter are what’s more widely available.
[GDM] What is your writing process like? Do you have a set schedule you work to, or write when the inspiration strikes? Do you plan meticulously or let the story drive?
[ML]: When I started writing the book in 2017, I was (obviously) younger, had more time, less responsibilities. I wrote consistently but at leisure, and the story mostly took shape on its own following my research. I’m not a plotter at all. Most of the time, I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen. Somehow, it works out. That’s what makes it exciting for me. These days, I have to at least be able to tell my publisher the gist of a sequel because that’s what’s expected of me. I don’t have a schedule per se, but I do need to be more intentional about writing because I have two full time jobs and I’m a very slow writer. I can be very obsessive about finishing a book though.
[GDM] Sun of Blood and Ruin is your debut – and I’m really excited for everyone to read it and fall for it. What are some of your hopes and dreams for the book in the next year or so as it makes its way in the world?
[ML] I hope readers find enjoyment and escapism, in true Zorro fashion. I hope Mexican, Latin American, and Indigenous readers feel seen and celebrated. Mostly, I hope that all readers find value. I would love to sell Spanish rights to Mexico and other Latin American territories (yes, yes, Spain too), so my mom can read. Of course, to reach more readers, but mainly my mom. I adore this world and would welcome returning to it in any way shape or form past the duology.
[GDM] To finish up, what books or other media have been inspiring you recently?
[ML] I have to give a shout-out to Blue Beetle just because I watched it recently and became an instant favorite. It’s such a good film. The fact that the hero is Mexican American is just icing on the cake.