Alright! It’s my turn to talk about Reno Ursal’s Enlightenment, the first book of the Bathala series and, boy, do I have a lot to talk about. At the risk of sounding cliche, I was pretty enlightened after reading this book and I can’t thank the author and Kate for giving me this opportunity.
First and foremost, let me tell you a little bit about the book. Enlightenment is the first book of The Bathala series. Set in the weird and dry desert lands of Las Vegas, United States, the book is about a young second generation Fil-Am (Filipino-American) girl Dorothy Dizon who despite seemingly having it all – straight A’s, an athletic build, a loyal and loving best friend – is actually slowly losing everything she knows about her life. Her mother is dying of cancer, her father has gone and left them years ago, and, to top it all off, Dorothy realizes that she actually knows very little about her mother’s home country and even less about her bloodline. Things get weirder when the new kid, a Filipino transfer student named Adrian, befriends her. Dorothy starts having paranormal experiences around the mysterious Adrian and the more she tries to look for answers, the more her life is at risk.
Some reviewers have likened this book with Rick Riordan’s mythology adventure series since Enlightenment brings Filipino myths and creatures in modern times but if you’re a veteran reader of young adult books, you’ll recognize that this book feels more like a YA paranormal/fantasy romance a la Melissa dela Cruz. Secret magical society, chosen ones, mystic dream sequences, inexplicable magical elements, and, most importantly, a hunky male main character that’s destined to protect the female lead – the recipe for a lot of YA paranormal romance in the past decade.
While I’m not one to enjoy a run-of-the-mill YA fantasy romance – I’ve read enough, some might even say too many, to know that that’s just not my cup of tea – I did find the use of Filipino myths and folklore a breath of fresh air in this book.
What separates Enlightenment from other YA books is its underlying feelings of disconnection from your homeland clashing with the need to assimilate in a foreign land. This is such a unique experience for many second gen Asian Americans, Fil-Ams especially, and the book masterfully blended poignant experience with fantasy that it doesn’t come across as too heavy-handed. I found it quite genuine.
TRIGGER WARNINGS: violence, descriptions of blood and other serious injuries
My Review of Enlightenment
The Philippines has always had a rich culture that’s brimming with myths and folklore that, sad to say, Filipinos often don’t really realize. Rather than looking inward and making use of the treasure trove of Filipino lore, most people look outward, reading Greek and Norse mythologies instead, failing to realize that our own pantheon is as fascinating and bizarre as the west’s. That’s why I’m always excited when a book about Filipino myths (featuring Filipino characters) makes it to the public.
Enlightenment not only delivered on that Filipino myths and lore that I’ve been craving but also made me rethink what I actually know about pre-colonial Philippines.
For the most part, this first book of the Bathala series builds up Dorothy and Adrian’s story. Most of the plot has to do with Dorothy finding out that she may not be as normal as she thought she was and Adrian infuriatingly refusing to tell Dorothy (and the readers) what and who she actually is. The typical YA romance, y’know? To this book’s credit, we do have alternate Adrian POV chapters so at least we know why he can’t just tell her everything.
As I said earlier, YA fantasy romance isn’t my thing but I still quite enjoyed this book because, while there was a lot of soul-gazing and occasional smooching between the two teenage leads, Enlightenment mostly focused on the importance of family ties among Filipinos. Dorothy was mostly defined by her love and protectiveness of her mother and her best friend who she considers a sister. Adrian, despite literally being a world away from his family, is constantly teased and pestered by his older brother. These little touches and affections are quite subtle but extremely relatable.
Now, the romance itself was pretty cute. I may not be a connoisseur of love stories but I did appreciate how steadily the story built the groundwork for Dorothy and Adrian’s relationship. There’s still a lot of teenage hormones going all over the place but it’s to be expected. I loved how the two leads actually got to know each other before openly considering to themselves that there might be more than just platonic vibes between them.
I admit I was a bit disappointed that the book ended before they arrived in the Philippines. I’m sure the second book will be set exclusively in the country but, from what I hear, the expected publication date of the next in the series is sometime in 2021 so *eyes emoji*
Also, and I promise to not spoil anything here but… that telenovela ending though… damn…
Right off the bat, I liked Dorothy Dizon. I mean, anyone who loves dinuguan as much as she does is a class A character in my book. But in all seriousness, Dorothy felt very much like a person to me. She’s smart and athletic but also well-rounded over all. I was afraid that she’d come off as a Mary Sue (valedictorian and a varsity basketball player?) but her accomplishments actually mean something in her life rather than just throwaway quirks unlike some cookie-cutter main characters from other books that I can recall. Graduating top of her class doesn’t just mean that Dorothy is praised by other characters for being so brainy and playing basketball isn’t just an opportunity to show off how not-like-other-girls she is. Those things show that she’s a fiercely determined young lady who’s very sporty and self-reliant.
Adrian I think was intentionally mysterious because even though he has first-person POV chapters, there’s still a lot about him that we don’t know so his character isn’t as easy to decipher.
The supporting characters were also written quite solidly. I especially loved Dorothy’s interactions with her mother. Their first scene together was them cooking and if there’s one thing that bonds Filipinos together, it’s food. I found it especially sweet… and heartbreaking considering the mother’s illness.
One last thing I want to touch upon is the refreshing lack of girl-on-girl hate in this book. I was worried that Dorothy was going to have to have a stand off with a Regina George character at some point in the story – fighting over new kid Adrian, most likely – but thankfully nothing of the sort happened.
The writing on this book was stark but serviceable. There isn’t that many flourishes as you’d normally expect in a YA paranormal romance which I personally didn’t mind.
This book was a breeze to read though I do have to comment that the pacing got a bit wonky at certain times. Some scenes went on longer than I thought they needed to be and others rushed by, barely giving us two lines before ending the action. The ending especially felt odd to me because it had so much going on that it was difficult to process. I read somewhere on Goodreads that this book was originally twice as long as the published output and I can’t help but wonder if the author trimmed a bit too much.
Despite all that, I quite enjoyed this book. It’s an intriguing tale about family, friendship, and the importance of going back to your roots. I can tell has a lot of heart put into it. More than that, it’s got a lot of potential as a story since the world it introduced to us is so extensive and unique. I am genuinely curious what’s going to happen to Dorothy.
My rating: ★★★★
Recommended to: readers who enjoy coming-of-age stories with a magical/paranormal twist; YA romance readers who are especially fond of warrior and princess relationships
About the Author
Reno Ursal is a Filipino American author who received an English B.A. from The University of Michigan and resides in Northern California. He is the epitome of a familiar U.S. immigrant story when his parents moved to the States from the Philippines (by way of Guyana) in 1974 in search of a better life. He grew up in a small Northern Michigan town as his parents established themselves in their new life. His summer trips to Cebu kept him connected to his Filipino family. The hikes up the mountain from his ancestral home in Catmon had his imagination swirling with ideas, especially with the legends of duwendes and other creatures of Filipino folklore.
Reno was an active reader growing up and started writing during his participation in the Huron Shores Writing Institute in high school. When he took an Asian Pacific American Literature course taught by Dr. Stephen Sumida at University of Michigan, the idea of writing a Filipino American story stuck at the back of his mind. Life moved fast after college. He met a girl named Lynette in California. They married in 2000 and became proud parents of three 2nd generation Filipino American children. He had a full-time job and less time to write but found time burning the midnight oil. His first novel “The Three Promises” was written when his kids were babies. This novel is currently an unpublished novel, but spawned the hunger to write another novel entitled “The Last Remaining.” Many drafts later, the title changed to “Enlightenment.”
If you loved this book and want to talk about it some more or if you want to discuss the incredible world of Philippine myths, join us this March 30th, 9PM PHT, for the Twitter chat!