Another sci-fi author who had his heyday in the 1980s was the late Warren C. Norwood. He didn't write too many novels but what he did produce became part of my childhood, and notably the fantastical Mayan adventure TRUE JAGUAR. The plot premise breaks down to this: One man, to save Earth from a destructive comet, must journey thru the mystical Mayan underworld and battle the ancient lords of the dead.
Norwood has several nifty series under his belt: the Windhover Tapes and the Time Police, and he also wrote the post-apocalyptic SHUDDERCHILD. But TRUE JAGUAR was the one which really struck a chord with me and the one which I go back to and re-read every couple of years. And I'm not even that big a fan of Mayan folklore or of the Popol Vuh mythology. But Norwood injects his story with sly humor and whimsy and a sense of grand adventure. The central character is Mexican-Irish Martin O'Hara - Americanized from his real name "Jesus O'Hara Martinez" - and O'Hara starts out dismissing the odd Guatemalan stranger who interrupts his holiday and discloses that O'Hara is the sole descendant of the Mayan god, the Great True Jaguar, and that only he can save the world. O'Hara isn't that familiar with his family tree, anyway, but learning that his roots go all the way back to the gods, well, you can't blame him for scoffing. Except that one cannot feud with fate and, as O'Hara learns in time, when the blood of the True Jaguar courses thru your veins, great things are expected from you.
This is a wild and terrific read, but don't get too comfy because the writer plucks you out of your comfort zone, throws you off-balanced. The genre is adventure fantasy and that's familiar enough, right? But, in applying Mayan mythology into the plot, Warren C. Norwood introduces loads of weirdness and absurdity. I remember, when I first read TRUE JAGUAR, how I couldn't seem to find firm ground because the events and the characters are just so outrageous. The first third of TRUE JAGUAR deals with our guy still out in the real world and trying to get the feds off his back (O'Hara is somehow suspected of colluding with enemy agents), and this segment feels a little bit like a chase thriller. But then we arrive at the story proper, as O'Hara gains entry to Xibalba, the name of the Mayan underworld, and the narrative begins to read like one of those grim old fairy tales before they got prettied up for children's consumption. Legend has it that, long ages ago, the hero twins of the Popol Vuh, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, tricked and bested the lords of Xibalba. Now Martin O'Hara is expected to accomplish the same feat, and it's fun reading how O'Hara, at last fully accepting of his strange heritage and having somewhat evolved into this larger-than-life avatar, sidesteps the very same perils faced by Hunahpú and Xbalanqué. But not everything is stacked against the son of True Jaguar. He's guided and aided by the present-day incarnations of Hunahpú and Xbalanqué.and also by a foul-tempered hummingbird god. And by Jambiya the Wicked who is a great side character.
Dark, treacherous elements festoon the Mayan underworld, from mean-intentioned sentient beasts to nightmarish "natural" hazards such as the Blood River and the even more disgusting Pus River. Also, time in Xibalba tends to speed along at an unnatural pace. And then O'Hara finally runs into the lords of Xibalba - who go by descriptive names like Jaundice Master, Bloody Claws, Stab Master, etc. - and these immortal tricksters instantly prove to be spiteful and playful in the same manner that bored children pluck the wings off flies. And I wouldn't even mention that these supernatural lords have their underlings armed with automatic weapons purchased from Italian arm dealers, except that this does fit the off-kilter tone already established by the writer. I like that Martin O'Hara manages to deflect each deception and solve each impossible test but that - after all these otherworldly challenges have been met - it all comes down to something as mundane as winning a simple ball game. To quote the cast's sarcastic running joke: "How foolish of me to think otherwise."