Wayne Santos wants you to laugh a lot. In this second Satellite from Solaris he will introduce you to the sassy Tikbalang (a horse-demon) with some solid Van Damme moves and a tender heart. He will show you Duwende (dwarves replete with pointy dwarf hats) crawling out of bodies and grovelling for redemption. He will cast Margaret Atwood as both witness and love interest. And he will riff off pop culture with the ironicest eye until you will wonder when ‘Wayne Santos’, Canadian author, is going to walk into the scene, à la Grant Morrison or Stan Lee, and start talking to Atwood about what the fuck it must feel like to have a murder dwarf ferreting around inside you.
The technicolor comedy of The Difficult Loves of Maria Makiling (Oxford: Rebellion, 2021) is matched only by its high-voltage, high-octane, hoof-to-the-earth action. There is combat and there is magic and there is Teek, the horse-demon, doing the horse-demon equivalent of nitro-boosting down a highway. Teek, you see, really wants to help Maria (the eponymous Maria, not the other Marias) to break the eon-long cycle which has prevented her living and loving. Teek the Tikbalang has a very specific set of skills and he is reluctantly called back in for one last mission. So Teek and Maria Malihan, aka Maria Makiling, aka badass Diwata of Mount Makiling, set out on a witch-slaying, love-making speedrun spanning earthly continents and magical dimensions
Santos makes it all look disconcertingly easy: there is no fat on the prose; whip-sharp dialogue snaps as confidently as the slap of Maria high-fiving Teek (or as painfully as Teek roundhousing Maria); and the world (a very big world for the word count) is both authentic and fantastic. And the magic of the novella, one of the smartest tricks Santos pulls off, is the magic system that makes the Diwata Maria Makiling (but not the mortal Maria Malihan – Malihan’s magic is tied to video games) as dependent on nature as nature is dependent on her, the land ‘the greater version of herself’. This is not a banally pure, utopian construct standing in for nature, either; this nature is a convincingly complex, diachronic entity that feeds off history and encompasses both darkness and light.
It takes a keen pen to make such a subtle point in a book this funny, but Santos has the touch. In the end (but the end is not an end), The Difficult Loves of Maria Makiling reads as a hopeful entreaty for an age starved of hope. We don’t have to die, over and over again; love is not lost. In our Anthropocene hour of dread, when no one else can help, we call to the mountains.