Gold fever meets hubris

A review of The Serpent and the Eagle by Edward Rickford

r/suggestmeabook: I want a docudrama showing the start of the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés.

La Conquista

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 248

Publisher: Black Acorn Literary Press

Book 1 of Tenochtitlan Trilogy

From the publisher: Tenochtitlan, 1519. Strange, pale-skinned people have arrived on the coast of the One World. They hail from a far away land called Spain and fight for the mysterious Hernando Cortés. To confront Cortés’ army would be dangerous, but inaction may be even more dangerous.

Multiple points of view are difficult to manage well. First, there’s the problem of giving each character enough story that the reader remembers each one as the viewpoints are swapped out. Then, there’s the problem of making at least some of them sympathetic, although not all readers require that.

The Spaniards did not seem that different from the Mexica. Both did unspeakable things in the name of their beliefs, both prided themselves on might militaries, and both had only recently carved out a place for themselves in the world—yet neither had let this stop them from becoming a dominant power. A vast ocean had separated these kindred people for ages but they were finally reunited…and she suspected the union would be bloody.

Edward Rickford, The Serpent and the Eagle

I’m a reader that does need to like at least one of the characters enough to look forward to seeing them each time they show up. At best, I was mildly sympathetic to two of them, both slaves of the Spaniards. But one, the Moor, is a supporting player, not one of the primary points of view, and the other, a female slave of the Pontons, doesn’t appear until almost a third of the way in. Since it’s difficult to make either the Aztecs or the Spaniards likeable, those two outsiders were the ones most likely to be sympathetic; I really wanted more of both of them.

“Maybe they can let the gods know it is most difficult to keep favor with our vassals when we insist upon more tribute.”

Motecuhzoma, Edward Rickford, The Serpent and the Eagle

With what the author is trying to do, show a rounded picture of the Conquest, multiple points of view makes sense. However, even though the book descriptions sounds as though it will be primarily from the point of view of the Aztecs, it’s very weighted to the Spaniards, making it harder to keep track of the Aztec characters.

Cortés’ face soured as if he had consumed curdled milk. “Our people will never have to fear the Moors again. The have learned their place and from now on, they will grovel before us.”

Edward Rickford, The Serpent and the Eagle

Overall, character issues plague the book, which, to me, is the essence of good historical fiction. The plot is somewhat predetermined, except where creativity is exercised within the holes in our knowledge. It’s the characterization that makes the difference–being able to imagine ourselves into that milieu and understand what made everyone behave the ways they do.

“Don’t fool yourself into thinking you were doing battle with the Sultan’s finest troops, though. Your enemy today had no cannons, no guns, no crossbows. You also had surprise on your side today. That may not be true the next time.”

Solomon, Edward Rickford, The Serpent and the Eagle

The choices of characters to do that are quite good: a New Christian (a Jewish convert to Catholicism), the highest ranking general of the Mexica Confederach and sometime advisor to Motecuhzoma, a female slave from the region, and a former captive of the Yokot’an. However, the character development is lacking; we are given one or two characteristics or life story highlights to stand in for a deeper understanding of each.

But some of the characterizations are puzzling. There is the intermittent poor grammar of some, which I suppose is to indicate less educated characters, but it doesn’t seem to have a pattern and is patchy enough to just be distracting. I’m guessing the intent was to make it not conform to a particular English dialect, but, at first, I thought the incidents were proofing errors.

The soldier looked at him askance. “You mean this your first battling outside the Old World.”

To Vitale, Edward Rickford, The Serpent and the Eagle

The opening chapter is a good introduction to some of the attitudes that will pervade the book. Aguilar, the priest and former captive, has been approached by Cortés, and it’s very clear that they feel a God-given superiority to the “Indians” and have no compunctions about plundering them.

The snake was dormant at the moment, but he knew it could not remain so. A snake did not wait; it lay in wait.

Edward Rickford, The Serpent and the Eagle

My first thought was, “Well, I almost choked on the first chapter of A Man Called Ove, but ended up loving it.” Sadly, I didn’t have the same experience here.

It’s clear that Edward Rickford thoroughly researched his subject, but, regrettably, this strikes me as a competently written docudrama, where the author doesn’t want to let the story get in the way of a good history.

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