fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Pat Murphy The Falling WomanThe Falling Woman by Pat Murphy

Archaeologist Elizabeth Butler has a secret: she can see the shades of people from the past, going about their daily activities. This talent has led to plenty of “lucky hunches” in her career but also to questions about her sanity. Normally she just sees the past scenes playing out in front of her but cannot affect them in any way. But while excavating the Maya city of Dzibilchaltún, she encounters a shade who can speak to her: Zuhuy-kak, a priestess of the Maya moon goddess. The Maya believed that time is cyclic, and Zuhuy-kak sees in Liz a chance to bring certain events in her own life full circle.

At the same time, Liz’s daughter Diane has come to Dzibilchaltún to see her mother, from whom she has been estranged for many years. The two women try warily to build a relationship even as strange occurrences mount up and Liz begins to fear for Diane’s safety. “You will find here only what you bring,” Liz tells us at the beginning of The Falling Woman, and Liz and Diane have brought a complex tangle of love, hatred, fear, and guilt.

Both women keep their emotional distance from the reader, though, for most of the book. This is consistent with the characters’ personalities and histories, and this reserve is skillfully evoked in Pat Murphy’s prose. Sentences are often clipped, and until late in the novel there’s little internal monologue about emotions. Instead the narration focuses on gestures, dialogue, and the external sights that the women see — at least until emotion breaks through the metaphorical dam at the intense climax.

The Falling Woman is an insightful novel about mother/daughter relationships and about culturally relative definitions of sanity. Another issue, that of conquest or colonialism, is not explicitly discussed yet is ever-present. The conquest of the Maya by the Toltecs loomed large in Zuhuy-kak’s life, and in the present day, it’s hard to miss that the Maya still live in the area and that Maya laborers are doing most of the unsung physical work at Dzibilchaltún.

The ending is satisfactory, if slightly open-ended, and through my own lenses I can’t help but see it as perfectly fitting. The ending Murphy wrote, to me, is the resolution of the mistake Zuhuy-kak really made as opposed to the mistake she thinks she made.

As I write this, it’s 2011 and there’s a great deal of buzz about the Maya, due to the persistent legend that the Maya calendar predicts the end of the world in 2012. In fact, when I walked into my workplace cafeteria to read some of The Falling Woman during lunch, a television was playing a History Channel special about the Maya. (I couldn’t hear a word of it, but it provided some stunning visuals to go with my reading!) In the spirit of everything coming around again, perhaps now is a good time to rediscover this thought-provoking book.

The Falling Woman — (1986) Winner of the 1988 Nebula Award. Publisher: Elizabeth Waters, an archeologist who abandoned her husband and daughter years ago to pursue her career, can see the shadows of the past. It’s a gift she keeps secret from her colleagues and students, one that often leads her to incredible archeological discoveries and the realization that she might be going mad. Then on a dig in the Yucatan, the shadow of a Mayan priestess speaks to her. Suddenly Elizabeth’s daughter Diane arrives, hoping to reconnect with her mother. As mother, daughter and priestess fall into the mysterious world of Mayan magic, it is clear one will be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice.


  • Kelly Lasiter

    KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.