The Smoke Hunter: The Truth Behind The Fiction

Half the fun of writing a book set in this world and not one populated by dragons and White Walkers is that it grants you the power to weave truth into your fantasy.

While The Smoke Hunter is a work of fiction, elements of the story that might seem downright far-fetched are based on real pieces of history, mythology and science. For the curious, here’s a breakdown of some of the real-life awesomeness I drew on to craft the story.

The City of Seven Caves really turns up in both Mayan and Aztec myth.

Though its location and its nature in The Smoke hunter are my own invention, both Aztec and Mayan myths do speak of a city or place of “seven caves” that served as the point of origin for their people.

The Mayan epic of the Popol Vuh—the same document Adam mentions in the book—talks about a mountain where the leaders of the Maya went to acquire the wisdom of the gods where “Tulan Zuyua, Seven Caves, Seven Canyons is the name of the Citadel”.

In Aztec folklore, legend speaks of a place called Chicomoztoc—roughly translated as “the place of the seven caves”—where the original seven Aztec tribes originally lived. The city was a sort of paradise from which the Aztecs eventually fled when the rulers of the place turned to tyranny.

The notion that the creation myths of those societies refer to a real place was one that I couldn’t entirely resist, and The Smoke Hunter shamelessly plays with the idea that certain elements of Mesoamerican culture—the significance of caves and mirrors, the association between blood and divination—might have been derived from the people who populated this legendary place.

There were ‘Smoking Mirrors’.

As far as I’m aware, there’s no giant supernaturally powerful mirror hiding under some yet-to-be-discovered ancient city, but my Smoking Mirror was inspired by the real significance mirrors held in Mesoamerican culture. As Adam describes in the book, the name of the Aztec deity Tezcatlipoca does mean “Smoking Mirror”, and as a god he was associated with war, violence, and divination (among other things).

Mirrors have been found at Mayan, Aztec, and Olmec sites throughout the region, made of a variety of materials including iron ore and obsidian. Queen Elizabeth I’s court astronomer, John Dee, possessed a lovely specimen that is now among the collections at the British Museum.

Female civil servants in 19th century lost their jobs if they got married.

Ellie tells Adam that she couldn’t get engaged without losing her job at the Public Record Office. That was true. Women were allowed into the civil service in 1875—a move prompted partly by the belief that “women are less disposed to get together to extort higher wages.”

However, it was believed that “the responsibilities of married life are normally in-compatible with the devotion of a woman’s whole-time and unimpaired energy to the Public Services.” Therefore women were asked to leave their positions once they got married, unless they were granted a special waiver. That ban wasn’t abolished until 1946.

The fate of San Pedro Siris was truly tragic.

Amilcar Kuyoc is a fictional character, but his history is based on real events.

In the mid 19th century, there was a great deal of tension between the indigenous Maya and British loggers. The Maya believed the loggers owed them rents for the lands they were exploiting. The loggers either disagreed outright or simply avoided paying up. The British army took the side you might expect.

At San Pedro Siris, tensions over the course of months gradually rose into an outright skirmish. When another local village suffered an attack to its church, it was blamed on the residents of San Pedro Siris and the Brits retaliated by burning the entire town. The incident was one of several sparks that eventually flared into an outright rebellion lead by Marcus Canul.

The Maya did worship in caves.

Caves have long been sacred sites for the Maya. Archaeological evidence throughout British Honduras, Guatemala and the Yucatan show how settings like those described in THE SMOKE HUNTER were used for ritual purposes by the Mayans, places where they offered sacrifices, including human adults and children.

The skeleton I describe in Chapter 8 is based on the Crystal Maiden of Actun Tunichil Muknal cave. The body of a young girl apparently ritually sacrificed over a thousand years ago, the bones have completely calcified, giving them a furred, sparkling look.

Adam’s claim that the cave is still being used by contemporary Maya is also not entirely far-fetched. Anthropologists have noted that the Maya continue to use caves as ritual sites, though the form of that worship has largely shifted to involve Christian symbolism.

You couldn’t major in archaeology at Cambridge in the 19th century.

Adam complains of having to take odd courses and engage in outside study in order to pursue his interest in archaeology, even though he was attending one of the most reputable universities in the world. In 1898, archaeology was still a very new science, and the stodgier elements of academia weren’t quite sure what to make of it.
Cambridge University didn’t add a tripos – an undergraduate course of study – in archaeology and anthropology until the early 1920s, three decades after Adam had (not quite) graduated.

There are giant carnivorous bats in Central America.

The Camazotz – the Mayan bat-god of death – might have been inspired by a real-life scary wonder of the natural world: Vapryum spectrum, the false vampire bat of Central and South America. These freaky critters can grow to a wingspan of over three feet and feed off the blood of large animals while they’re sleeping.

They haven’t been known to go after humans. But who’s to say what a little selective breeding on the part of some ingenious pre-Colombian people might have accomplished?

There’s a model of Xibalba built under an ancient Mayan city.

The replica of Xibalba under Tulan Zuyua in The Smoke Hunter is my own invention, but after final copy of the book was set, I came across the story of a real-life complex of underground temples in the Yucatan researchers suspect might have been an attempt to recreate the Mayan underworld.