bookspluslife

December 10, 2013

Book: Aztec by Gary Jennings

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 5:05 pm

imageIt was a pleasant surprise to read this book. The story simply flows, is interesting, and there are enough twists and also a lot of humour to keep you glued to this book till the end. You get to invest in the characters and feel their progress and adventures all the way along and root for them, which is nice. It also has moments of pathos. If a book carries you along, surely it is a well written book.

 

It is not an intellectually challenging book, just a story, whose purpose is to entertain rather than inform, and I think it does it well. The setting is Aztec and I think that some of the surprising facts that happen to our protagonist is historically accurate – in the sense that Aztec life involved such events – and to that extent, you do get to understand the Aztec lifestyle and background along with the story. But the prime aim is to give a darn good yarn that will keep you turning the pages.

 

The story has a kind of a parallel preface that is very amusing. The story comes about because Don Carlos, the King of Spain, the Supreme Ruler, the Emperor of all Spanish domains, asks the bishop in his dominion for the history of the place via the story of a famous slave. The place? Mexico.  The bishop, Juan De Zamarraga, has a man who can comply and commands him to tell his story as the King commands.

 

And this humble, poor man starts his life story. It goes in installments with a preface written by the bishop to kind of give his opinion of the extract. The story from the slave is so vile and derogatory to Spain that the Bishop grovels each time, asking the King for permission to stop hearing and writing further installments. Each time the permission is denied.

 

The narrator (slave) is called Seven Flower: he was born and like all babies, dumped into cold water the moment he was born. His sister was Nine Reed. The umbilical cords were buried, as per common custom,  in battlefield and hearth respectively for the boy and the girl. The boy sees his first human sacrifice when he is four. Mother is harsh and the girl is punished for playing with herself.

 

Red Heron is a benevolent ruler but his son is a brat.

 

Tlatli and Chamali are friends of the narrator who longs to leave the backwaters of Xaltocan to the splendors of the capital Tenochtitlan. Seven Flower was nicknamed Mixtli in short. The real name, given only when he is seven (Seven Flower was kind of a placeholder!)  is too long to mention here.  Stands for Severn Flower Dark Cloud. But since he lost his eyesight at a young age, he is commonly referred to as a Mole (Mixtli in the local language)

 

Mixtli tries to train as a soldier like all the boys are expected to. But he cannot due to eyesight problems. We learn that there was no concept of conquest in those days in Mexico, though there were wars. The losing side simply acknowledged the supremacy of the winner and paid a tithe.

 

. His sister goes wayward, first having incest with her brother, seducing him first. He loves her dearly. She even plans to elope with him to unknown parts of the country where they can claim to be man and wife.

Mixtli, having failed as a ruler, tries to read and write, learning it by himself. Reading was such a rare skill that only a handful of people were able to, in those times. In one of his wanderings in the dusk (against the wishes of his father not to wander during dangerous twilight times), he meets a stranger, who finds that he is trying to read all by himself, and then departs. The stranger was an old man, full of dust, bent out of shape and mysterious.

 

Next thing he knows, he gets summons from the ruler of a neighbouring country. He goes and learns that the ruler is a benevolent  man, and offers to educate Mixtli with his own son’s tutor, along with the prince. But his wife is a 16 year old princess who is evil. She learns Mixtli can draw well (He seems to have been some sort of a Forrest Gump without the stupidity and excels in many things). She commands Mixtli to draw the young men he meets, and then has someone bring them to her for illicit sex. He complies, being blackmailed by the princess into submission.

 

I do not want to give away the whole story but the above is just a fraction of it, and should give you a sense of the story and the complexities. We are not surprised when we learn that the old traveler was the neighbouring King himself but there are amazing surprises in the story. For instance, how his sister gets unmasked as having had premarital sex and what happens to her is a big surprise and a bit sad. What really happens to her comes up much later, and it is even more of a bombshell. These are the kind of twists that keep one reading and pausing to wonder at the next twist.

 

The enmity of Chamali and Mixtli, and the legitimate reasons for them are very interesting. (Chamali could not help at a critical juncture to save Mixtli’s sister’s life and Mixtli thought that he would not – not could not. He was gay and so refused to marry Nine Reed to save her. Mixtli could not forgive this and traps them, with the evil queen, and gets them all killed except Chamali). Chamali goes berserk with grief (his lover and friend, who was also a mutual friend to Mixtli, gets killed) and vows lifetime vengeance on Mixtli.

 

Mixli barely leaves with his life after the misadventure with the Queen. Being exiled, he joins the army for a pardon and captures, purely by fluke, the greatest warrior of the enemy. He is pardoned and becomes a trader.

 

Filled with incest, sex with castrated boys, all kinds of cruel dismemberment, it is told with verve, humour (the pained pleas of the bishop to their king to not ask for more from this savage who has no respect for Christian customs) and is vastly interesting.

 

The human sacrifice in thousands is really told very well. Forget about the context, the story is very long and is really gripping, take my word for it.

 

There is cruelty, there is a smart maneuvering, there is twists galore and a lot more interesting characters including the identical sisters, one of whom Mixtli marries and the other, after his wife’s death, tries to show in a million different ways that she always loved him and he is blind and indifferently cruel to her, misreading her every cue and unfeelingly exploiting her ruthlessly. You tend to hate your hero at that time. When he at last realizes the sacrifices she has made, it is a bit too late for remedies and atonements. Really heartrending.

 

Also it tells of how the Spanish were able to capture this warrior race through sheer accident and treachery and how they could have easily been repelled but for the weakness and vacillation of the king who inherited the empire.

 

 

Very touching, surely a great read, and you would be entertained, guaranteed

 

It deserves a 8/10

 

 

– Krishna

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