The Serpent and The Eagle – Edward Rickford

Summary:

This is a historical fiction novel, about the Spanish military campaign that destroyed the world of the Aztecs

The novel, first in a trilogy, features the historic personalities, as well as numerous fictional ones. Hernan Cortes is there, on his ship Santa Maria de la Conception, as well as Montezuma in his glittering palace. We meet lesser figures such as Father Aguilar, rescued from Indian slavery by Cortes and now serves him as translator, and Tezoc “The Cutter Of Men”, the military general who is ill-at-ease in the royal court.

The two stories thread around each other as the novel progresses, with Cortes leading a punishing raid on a local village, and Montezuma chief celebrant at a huge blood sacrifice, described in grisly detail.

From the start, we feel the tension in both camps. Cortes is fierce in his control of his ship, sparing no-one the whip if needed. All of the Aztec nobles are watchful and guarded in the presence of the King, who comes across as thoughtful, measured, and wanting to make the right decision around how to protect his people.

As Cortes realises there are untold riches awaiting him in the Aztec capital, he makes a push inland. In this, he is helped by the enigmatic Malinche, one of twenty slave girls offered to Cortes following a battle. She rises to become an invaluable interpreter for Cortes, displacing Aguilar. Cortes continues his bloody way to Tenochtitlan, battling and allying with tribes along the way.

Main Characters:

Hernan Cortes: Unquestionably the leader, he exudes violence and danger, and does not hesitate to crush any hint of dissent in the ranks, yet is also able to charm and manipulate if needs be. Single-minded, his poor upbringing is his main driver behind his ruthless pursuit of wealth and power.

Montezuma/Moctehzoma: The famous Aztec leader, he is a strong, pragmatic character, who probably spends too much time assessing a threat than dealing with it. Revered and feared in equal measure.

Malinche: A slave girl used to fighting for survival, she uses all her talents to gain her translator role, thus escaping the harsh slave world.

Minor Characters:

Vitale: A Jewish convert (or “New Christian”), and somewhat naïve, he joined the military expedition by mistake, as he has never fought a battle. That soon changes.

Solomon: A Muslim slave, whipped and beaten for minor infractions, who realises Vitale is hiding his Jewish heritage, but forges an unlikely friendship with him.

Aguilar: A priest enslaved by the Indians, rescued by Cortes. He is completely broken, but serves as a translator. His faith in God is shaken to the very core, and nothing he sees or experiences can help him restore it.

What I Liked:

  • The multiple viewpoints, from well-developed characters.
  • Easy to read and well-paced, the prose just flows.
  • There is so much going on, from political machinations, to outright greed, to violence, abuse of power and death.
  • Extremely well-researched, dripping with realism.

What I Didn’t like:

  • Some of the dialogue was a little superfluous, but not so much as to get in the way of the story.

Overall:

An excellent read, and a highly promising start to the trilogy. This will certainly while away a couple of hours during the current situation, and will be time well spent. Thoroughly recommended.

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