Areview of “Si Betchay at ang Sacred Circle: Ang Lihim ng Nakasimangot na Maskara” by Rogelio Braga, art by Rayji de Guia; year of release: 2017. Published by Balangiga Press, 250 pages, ₱350.00.
A maze of secrets and tragedies
The first installment of the Sacred Circle Series, “Ang Lihim ng Nakasimangot na Maskara” is a story that blends mystery, history, the supernatural, and action. The Sacred Circle, led by their mentor Ma’am Soraida, go to Silay City in Negros Occidental to help a woman named Elena Weil. Weil claims to be visited by a ghost during the eve of the annual Masskara Festival. In the course of their investigation on the secrets within the halls and hidden passages of the Weil mansion they uncover the stories behind Silay’s well‑heeled residents and the dark history that continues to haunt an opulent and idyllic city.
Braga’s ability to flawlessly integrate political and cultural history with story‑telling grounds the supernatural aspects of the novel and brings the reader into a deeper and more immediate horror—our ability to inflict pain and suffering upon the vulnerable. In Betchay’s encounter with a museum docent, the origins of the Masskara Festival is given context through the fall of the sugar industry in Negros and the famine that came after the island’s economic collapse. Here, the docent asks ominous questions: Nalugi, nagsara, nagutom. Nasaan ang perang inutang? Sino ang magbabayad?
Immersing into the spirit of the novel
Offering a diverse and well‑written cast of characters is a strong point in the novel. This proves to be a breath of fresh country air especially in a literary market replete with works detached from locality, exploiting local culture and folklore for absurd and often vain ends. It is also a point of interest how Braga has written about young adults from various backgrounds without sliding into tokenism. Jason, who is a clairvoyant and medium, is gay—he also undertakes in one of the most dangerous missions in the group as he crosses into the spirit world to speak to the dead.
Hamida, one of the two Muslim characters in the novel is written naturally and without the stereotype apparent still found in films and works that claim to be “woke.” Braga achieves this by instead addressing the apprehension of the people Hamida encounters within the novel and in emphasizing the acceptance and camaraderie in the Sacred Circle. Their personalities contribute to the narrative and are directed in a way that also propels the plot forward. The novel presents resourceful, discerning and informed individuals who know their place, their way, and, though they can be funny, they are not goofing around. Questioning the events in the Weil mansion, Betchay tells Hamida, “Alam mo naman, Hamida, na sa bayan nating ito, ang lahat ng labis na kayamanan ay palaging may kasaysayan ng kasamaan.”
Immersing into the setting’s geography not only as sites and scenes but as a space the reader has to navigate as the story moves along makes for a memorable reading experience. Rayji de Guia’s monochromatic, high‑contrast illustrations captures the personalities of each character and place in the novel, complements the narrative and highlights important turns in the story. “Ang Lihim ng Nakasimangot na Maskara” is full of turns and subtle revelations leaving lingering questions yet leading to a satisfying end—at least until the next installment.