The first book in the Tenochtitlan Trilogy, The Serpent and the Eagle by Edward Rickford has set the bar quite high for other historical fiction books. The book is based on the Spanish-Mexica war. This first book of this trilogy focuses on the greed, ambition, and circumstances that occurred leading to the war. Although Governor Velazquez appointed Hernandes Cortés to lead a trade expedition to Mexica, Captain Cortés had bigger plans for himself.
He had built an army for this purpose. The army was small but it was a powerful one. The soldiers in his army were blissfully unaware of their captain’s real plans. For them, this expedition involved trading for as much gold as possible. In this voyage, they captured many slaves and put them to work on the ship. With every step toward Mexica, their priest and translator, Father Aguilar, was losing his wits and hope. Having been a slave of Indians in the past, he knew the torment that awaited them if they failed.
On the other side, the Great Speaker of Triple Alliance (Texcoco, Tlacopan, and Tenochtitlan), Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, sensed the danged that the Pale People’s arrival on his lands posed. Therefore, he started relying on his best advisers to come up with a strategy to tackle their imminent arrival without causing violence. This task would have been easier if his best advisers were not busy conspiring against one another. Even when the pale people (Captain Cortés and his people) finally reached on their land and began requesting to meet the Great Speaker at Tenochtitlan, his advisers could not come up with an efficient strategy.
The Serpent and the Eagle by Edward Rickford proceeds slowly but effectively towards each event that may have led to the invasion of the Spaniards on Mexica lands. Even though there are many discussions of strategies, the text never became dull. The bravery and wisdom of the ambitious Captain Cortés forced even the most doubtful men on his crew to respect him. The author did not have to tell its readers to respect the wisdom of Cortés; his clever conversations managed to convey the message.
Same goes for the Great Speaker, Motecuhzoma. He ruled his people with an iron fist. His kingdom followed the practice of human sacrifice, and he believed this practice would win him favors of the God of war. Many instances demonstrate how great a judge of character he was. He understood whose advise was precious, and he sought their advise regardless of the crime(s) that they committed.
Having absolutely no knowledge of Spanish-Mexica war, everything in the book was new to me. There were many names that I could not pronounce and myriad of terms that were incomprehensible to me. Even with those drawbacks, I never lost interest in The Serpent and the Eagle. Captain Cortés and his men were calling everybody, who was not a part of their crew and land, Indians. This confused and intrigued me. Being an Indian myself, it was even more important for me to understand who were they referring to as Indians.
Gradually but effectively, the author shed his light on the concept. The best part of this explanation was that it was not given as a side note, but was skillfully inserted into a conversation. Similarly, the symbolism of the eagle and the serpent was tormenting me from the title of the book; however, the characters clarified that, as well. This technique of letting the characters explain everything in a smooth conversation is extremely potent.
While we are addressing the art of writing conversations, I must point out that the characters talked about many thought-provoking philosophies and topics. Because faith and religion have been a point of conflict since the very beginning of time, there are several discussions on different faiths. Conversations of Solomon, a slave of Moorish beliefs, with a soldier of Cortés’ army, Vitale, have been vastly about faith and slavery. These were not pointless dialogues; in fact, these were quite insightful discussions about the condition of slaves.
Malintze, later named as Doña Marina by Cortés, is another very sharp-witted character. She is one of my favorites as well. Being sold as a slave to Captain Cortés, she could not imagine a happy future, but she was not the one to suffer silently. She managed to not only break the chains of slavery but also rise to an important position in a very small time. Since then she put her wisdom and knowledge of Mexica to her good use. Her tête-à-tête with Aguilera about men and women is one of my most cherished conversations.
The author has done a commendable job of recounting the encounters of the pale people with Indians. The might of the pale people and their attack on the Poton Army is described in detail from the eyes of Caamal (a Potonic soldier) and Vitale (a soldier of the pale people). These side characters, including a number of others, have covered many aspects of the war. Side characters are as important as the leading ones to understand what might have happened in the backdrop of the war.
The author has used his creative freedom and put it to an excellent use. I would recommend The Serpent and the Eagle by Edward Rickford to the readers, who enjoy reading historical fiction.