Guest Review: Mayon by Mickie B. Ashling

2nd Edition

The Philippines, 1946

After being discharged from the Marines, John Buchanan is offered a position as overseer for plantation owner Ignacio Saenz. The offer is unexpected, considering he knows nothing about coconut farming, but the presence of Mount Mayon, an active volcano within sight of the property, tips the scales in Ignacio’s favor. Finally John has a chance to put his lifelong passion for vulcanology into practice.

Gregorio Delgado, the current overseer, takes exception to this turn of events. He views John as an interloper and Ignacio’s offer as a thinly disguised excuse to marry off one of his six daughters. What neither of them expects is the powerful physical attraction that simmers between them. Could John be a kindred spirit, or is he just using Gregorio for his knowledge of farming to ingratiate himself with his potential father-in-law? 

As John and Gregorio begin a tour of the haciendas, John discovers he has far more in common with his new acquaintance than he thought possible. Torn between honor and desire, John struggles to define who he is and what Gregorio could mean to him. Like the unpredictable volcano, equal parts beauty and danger, Gregorio becomes an obsession that could erupt at any minute and destroy them both. 

1st Edition published by Dreamspinner Press, 2012.

The love story is sweet. And the setting is interesting and different from everything else I’ve read. But there were several things that didn’t allow me to enjoy this fully.

Let’s begin with the obvious: how many books have I read that are set in Philippines? Zero. So, yes, this is the first one. No, I'm not an expert in this area, but I know a thing or two.

Philippines has always bedazzled me. It’s the only hispanic country in Asia, which by itself is a rarity. When you look at the old photos you see hospitals, universities, churches, cathedrals, markets, streets and the like that are clearly not Chinese or Japanese or like any other country in the area. They have their own culture, their own fashion, their own cuisine. I had a Filipino English teacher and she said the lechón was a typical dish. Imagine my face when I knew they eat the food of Segovia.

(Metro station in Madrid)
The majority of the population are Catholic which by itself is shocking when we are speaking about Asia. My Filipino teacher herself was educated by nuns. She doesn’t speak Spanish but her grandpa was a Spaniard who married a Filipina. So I can kind of imagine that love story here.

I only know her but amongst my English-speaking teachers, she had the best accent, maybe only beaten by the Canadian one. Yes, I know I should not overgeneralize because I have only properly met one Filipina in my life but so far I can tell her accent is the easiest to understand in comparison to the Australian, American and English ones. By a long shot.

Here is what Spanish people know about Philippines, and that’s being generous. A while ago, an expedition paid by the Kingdom of Castile pushed Magallanes to achieve the first circumnavitagion of the Earth. He died in the Philippines, so Elcano finished the task and reached the Iberian Peninsula (1522). Some decades later Legazpi came and founded Manila and Cebu. Then some centuries until the Spanish-American War and the Crisis of 1898.

That’s all.

Nothing about the Manila Galleon or the battles against the Japanese or the Dutch or the like.

So I try to know more and read everything I can find out there. Considering I read almost exclusively M/M, it wasn’t easy. But not impossible.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t wholly satisfied with the Spanish impression here. The problem I have with this book is not that there are inconsistent historical facts. I think the author did a hell of a job here. But I believe she’s “ignoring” the American presence in Philippines and outlining the Spanish details in a way I can’t consider entirely true and it's more negative than not. I don’t want to be skeptical, but when the Americans’ actions are so cool and the Spanish ones are so bad, it does not inspire trust. It’s like a bad guy versus a good guy and this dichotomy is not subtle.

I don’t want to give you a lecture but I don’t feel comfortable overlooking everything that rubbed me the wrong way. I’m giving you an out here.

Here there are some examples.
“He’d studied all the countries Spain had colonized for centuries, and the Phillippines had invariably come up in their discussion.”
When Rome conquered Spain, Spain didn’t exist yet. It was a land full of Iberos and other tribes when the Celts invaded it. Then the Greek, Phoenician and Carthaginian came and established colonies in the coast. Then the Roman became powerful and coveted the land for her metals and people. The conquest lasted 2 centuries (219BD-19AD, take that, Asterix and Obelix!) and they called that land “Hispania” (Spain+Portugal), and she became a province in the Roman Empire. This is what formed the “idea” of a nation when Hispania stopped being part of the Empire. Hispania stopped being part of Rome because in order to defend the Empire from the barbarians, they had to ask for help and give a part of it to the Centro European people. Meaning: Hispania was sold and invaded by the Sueves, Vandals and Alans. But then the Goths expelled them and ruled over it and it became a nation: Hispania. It didn’t last long as soon the Islam came.

Why is this so important? Philippines was called after King Phillip II. But before that? Using the same argument as with the Roman Empire: Spain ruled over lands that weren’t countries yet. Mexico didn’t exist and Phillippines didn’t exist. The same way USA began its existence after the Independence. The term “colony” is very popular in the English language: “the 13 American Colonies”. Spain never referred to the territories as the “colonies”, she was compounded by “viceroyalties” or “kingdoms”: Viceroyalty of New Spain, of Río de la Plata, of Perú, of New Granada… even Navarre and Naples and Portugal had viceroys. It means they had autonomy. Considering we are speaking about centuries ago. We can’t criticise past actions with the mentality we have nowadays. Civilization progresses at its own speed. Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba were captaincies general included in New Spain.

“The prevalent use of the Castilian language among the guest he’d met so far only confirmed the info he’d received when first landing on Philippine soil. The Spaniards still thought they were in charge. John figured that fantasy would have been obliterated by then, since they’d had given up the Philippines in 1898, but it seemed to be deeply rooted in Philippine culture.”

I’m going to avoid reading between lines: Spaniards are assholes.

Spain didn’t “give up” just like that. There was a war. The Spanish-American War. The old tired lion was no menace for a young eagle who would eventually become the first world power. The Conquest of the Wild West was done and the horizon was not finite yet. I won’t tell it here because this is not the place nor the time. I just want to say 1898 is a year most consider insignificant, but for Spain it was the “Disaster of ‘98” and it’s no coincidence we still use the popular saying “More was lost in Cuba”. It was indeed a turning point in Spain. There was an economic and social crisis and a literary movement called the “Generation of 98”. It was the year Spain become a third class power for good, the official year the Spanish Empire ended.

I wish Isaac Peral had been paid attention. A submarine or two would have come in handy then.

But what happened, happened.

Anyway, History is written by the victors and the Spanish Black Legend is still very alive.
“The Spaniards don’t consider me a part of their world, even though my father was pure Castilian”.
False, he was Basque, not Castilian. I honestly don’t understand this statement, it would be more logical to say he was Spanish, because Greg truly doesn’t know who his father was.

“And furthermore,” Greg blustered, “there are universities in Manila older than your famous Harvard. Did you know that?”


“The University of Santo Tomás was founded in 1611. I believe Harvard wasn’t a thought until 1636.”
Why, universities? By the Spaniards? How do you dare! Spaniards were fanatical people who were obsessed about enslaving and killing and getting all the gold they could! How can you say they had universities when Science and Arts were crushed under the Inquisition’s heel? And in Philippines, no less. Universities! You offend me! *snorts*

*ironic mode off*

There are lots of Spanish words included in the book. My Filipina teacher said they had lots of Spanish words in the Tagalog. Then we have the chavacano, which sounds like a very sweet Spanish and the written version is strange and familiar at the same time. But nowadays less than 3% of the population speaks chavacano (which is not small considering there are more than 100 million people in Philippines). Why is that?

Well, for starters, although the Spanish was the official language, it was never widespread throughtout the Filipino population. It was of course spoken by the upper classes, mostly those who lived in the big cities, but also by the intellectuals and cultured people, those who had the means to pay for an education (this group didn’t necessarily include only those of European ancestry). It was by far less common in other classes and areas, which shouldn’t come as a surprise because there are more than 150 languages in the archipelago.

It’s also interesting to point out that many writers in Philippines wrote their works in Spanish, based on my research. The funny fact is that this “Golden Age” of Filipine literature was written in Spanish while and after she drifted apart from Spain, and even to talk about the independence and the nationalism. The first Philippino anthem was written in Spanish. Ironic, isn’t it?

Still, after the Philippine-American War, the Spanish language was forbidden in Philippines. Only English was allowed. The “Kill everyone over the age of ten” claimed many Spanish-speaking victims. Some of the works mentioned before were forbidden in Philippines and had to be published elsewhere. Lots of them were not even published but have been rotting in the oblivion ever since. Literally speaking, because in a country on which Mother Nature loves to download all her force, you can’t make light of it. Luckily, last time I checked, the Instituto Cervantes in Manila was beginning an operation to bring these works to the light.

But if language is not enough, we also have to take into consideration WWII and the destruction of the cultural heritage and historical monuments of Manila, the place were the Spanish influence was stronger. Intramuros was demolished as a whole after the pattern bombing to kick the Japanese out, corpses included. Unfortunately, this masacre is even more unknown than that one in Leningard/Saint Petersburg or Warsaw, but no less bloody and sad.

“Hordes of mosquitoes had also feasted on his tender flesh like cannibals. It was no wonder the Marines drummed in the importance of taking the tiny yellow pills to ward off malaria. The Atabrine tasted vile, but it actually kept the disease away, as did the mosquito nets when they ha a chance to use them.”
This is a pity. This was a time when anti-malarial drugs were truly effective. In the 50s-60s there was an aggressive campaign run by the WHO whose objetive was to erase the disease once and for all, the same way it was done with the smallpox and the same way it’s being done with the polio. They were close to achieving it. But there were resistant strains who survived and the disease went out of hand again. The same with tuberculosis, one of the most widespread infectious diseases; it’s a real challenge figuring out how to control them.

References to nativity scenes, San Miguel beer, merienda, siesta… It could perfectly be Spain. Which makes me happy and nostalgic at the same time, with all those similarities.

“Greg was lucky his family had close ties to the Saenzes, and as such, he reaped some of the rewards of their wealth.”
That “the Saenzes” sounds super weird. I know that in English it’s normal to use the plural that way, but in Spanish we would say “los Sáenz”, the article determining the plurality of the noun. I don’t know if in the Philippines it’s said like the Spanish version or the American one, though.

Sometimes it felt encyclopedic rather than a novel, with so many foods and customs and discussions now and then. I was interested in these details because it’s what makes this book different from the rest. But sometimes it dragged on.

Despite all of this, it was more or less bearable, because the love story is beautiful and lovely. With the added charm of it being forbidden in an exotic environment. So, as a whole, it was pleasant, if not truly poignant and captivating. I never had a rush to read the book but wasn’t repelled by it, either.

But then the shit hit the fan. And I was utterly upset.

There is a scene close to the end that seems taken from a soap opera. It’s like the Crowded Cabin scene from the Marx’ Brothers movie but with a drama queen-ish hint. Seriously. SPOILER:  Victoria is at home. Greg comes very distressed. Then Don Ignacio comes, tries to hit Greg. Then John appears and avoids it. Then Don Luis comes and OMG, what’s going on here? It was a bit too much for my taste.

Then I put two and two together and realised something: the Spaniards were the bad guys. When you want to portray someone as nasty and despicable, you draw them as complete idiots or as ugly jerks.

So I made my calculations:

Don Ignacio: an asshole.
Don Luis: an asshole.
Doña Carmen: a fat bitch.
Petunia: a fat bitch.

The only Spaniard who deserved to be saved from being burnt alive was Daisy, who, by the way, was an airhead. And Lily, who was rather simple.

But the American? He’s perfect.

Americans win, Spaniards suck. Please, repeat. Americans win, Spaniards suck. Did you learn it yet or should I repeat it again?

Then the definite ending. SPOILER:  Victoria is pregnant. It’s like... are you for real? Are you fooling me with this forced resolution of things? This too much, I can’t digest all this surreality. Perfect ending for John and Greg, it solves everything… Right?

I’m out.

So yes, I was a little annoyed by this and ended the book frustrated and a little ofended, if you may.

It could have been marvelous, but it wasn’t. I guess I took it too personally, maybe I made a huge issue out of it. So please, don’t discard this book completely yet. But I can’t help my feelings on this.

An ARC was provided in exchange for an honest review.

Find out more on Goodreads & Dreamspinner Press.

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