During the winter it is easy to imagine sailing on a warm emerald sea or lolling in the surf of a tropical island paradise. Many of us cannot escape the cold of a northern winter. But it is still possible to journey to exotic temperate lands. All it takes is a decent book—the only fare you need to travel to the ends of the earth or even back in time.
Aztec (1980) by Gary Jennings is a brilliant, hypnotic adventure that works on more than one level, like all great works of art. The compelling story steams with intrigue, gore and sex and at the same time serves as a remarkable tribute to the Aztec civilization, destroyed by Cortez in the 16th century.
The work is narrated by Dark Cloud, the son of a quarry foreman and in his “sheaves of years” he will be a student, scribe, warrior, diplomat, merchant and finally the prisoner of an inane Spanish bishop occupied with beating the natives into slaves. During the course of nearly six decades Dark Cloud’s occupations and explorations take him from the Athens-style schools of the Reverend Speaker of Texcoco to dark, foreboding jungles and parched wastelands inhabited by people both ferocious and peaceful.
Dark Cloud’s fate is to “see things near and plain… and remember”. But serving as a witness, and the involuntary chronicler of his people’s past for the invading Spaniards, carries a terrible price. During the course of his adventurous life he will lose everyone dear to him, including his sister Tzitzi, first wife Zanya and young daughter Nochip.
Review by Peter Critchley of the Vernon Branch