Dancing with the Tiger, by Lili Wright

In the hands of a skilled writer, a single object can launch a dozen plots and send characters spinning into danger. Lili Wright, in Dancing with the Tiger, does this with a priceless Aztec funeral mask. Dancing with the Tiger opens with a looter high on methamphetamines accidentally discovering the funeral mask of Moctezuma II, a find that has tantalized archaeologists and collectors of antiquities for years. Before too many chapters have passed, an American trying to redeem her father’s reputation, a drug lord, the looter, and a gardener-turned-hitman will chase each other across Mexico City and across Oaxaca to capture the mask.

Anna Ramsey is our primary protagonist. After breaking up with her cheating fiancé, Anna learns that her father’s collection of Mexican masks is worthless and his book on the subject has been academically shredded. She has no fall back plan, no career, no money. She launches into plan B without stopping to think: traveling to Mexico to purchase a mask her father and his expert have declared to be the lost mask of Moctezuma (referred to as Montezuma throughout the book). If the Ramseys can get the mask, it will make up for all of Ramsey père‘s mistakes. They hope.

Of course, things go immediately to hell once Anna lands in Mexico City. She is robbed almost immediately by henchmen hired by one of her father’s rivals, a feared drug lord named Reyes. The mask will change hands in rapid succession over the course of the book. Following it is as hard as trying to find the lady in a street game of three card monte. Stakes are raised to the point that Reyes’s agents, including the gardener pressed into service, leave bodies all over the place.

Dancing with the Tiger thoroughly explores the consequences of obsession. The collectors, almost to a man, are lost to their need to acquire more and more masks. It’s hard to say exactly what the masks mean to them anymore; they just have to have more of them. The collectors, having money and able to intimidate nearly anyone, try force Anna, the looter, the gardener to give up the mask. It’s a toss up who will end up with it.

While the novel meditates on obsession, we also get an up close look at Mexican art, specifically the mask carvers of Oaxaca. We see them and their customers use them in dances that are hundreds of years old, their meanings syncretically mixed with the Catholicism that came later. Even though I read the book in black pixels on white, I remember this book as being alive with color and sound. Dancing with the Tiger was an incredible experience.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 12 July 2016.

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