Author: Edward Rickford
Title: The Serpent and the Eagle
*I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review*
The Serpent and the Eagle is Edward Rickford’s debut, a first book in a planned trilogy about the Spanish conquest of the Mexica (Aztec) empire. The topic of Hernán Cortés’ bloody and ambitious subjugation of the biggest New World empire of the time is a very interesting one, and I was eager to read the fictionalized account of his endeavors, especially balanced, as was the case here, by the Mexica perspective.
If I were to describe The Serpent and the Eagle in one word, it would be “earnest”. It is indeed a very earnest book, a work of undeniable effort and knowledge, and a clear passion for the topic.
Hernán Cortés is only one of many protagonists coming to life on the pages; the character of Malintzin, the native translator and a controversial historical figure of significance to modern day Mexicans also plays an important role, as well many of the Mexica nobility, Motecuhzoma II and his closest advisors included. The narrative is a rich tapestry of many voices and perspectives, from slaves to conquistadors to kings, and what it lacks in writing skill it makes up for in the adherence to historical facts. I was impressed by the historical accuracy of the novel and particularly enjoyed the peeks into the everyday life of Mexica, knowing that the author did everything he could to preserve the historical details. I also deeply appreciated the double perspective, seeing the situation both from the Spanish and the Mexica (as well as many other tribes’) point of view gave me a better understanding of the events of the Conquista, the cultural differences between the Old and New World, and the complex political situation of the Mexica empire. The description of the technological and resource gap was ethnographic, aptly showcasing the variety of human reactions to the perceived differences, which made for an intriguing read and introduced much needed perspective of everyday life. It reminded me slightly of the Annales school of history and Jacques le Goff’s wonderful insights on the Medieval Europe. I especially appreciated the way Rickford handled the topic of gold, the source of the infamous “malady of the heart” of the Spaniards, and how the differences in the appreciation of the material between the Mexica and the Spanish helped to fuel the inevitable conflict.
The effort Rickford put into avoiding the dreaded info dump is commendable; there’s plenty of historical facts, both European and New World, which needed to be included in the novel as a background: from the religious wars of the Old World, the fate of Spanish Moors and New Christians, to the politicking of the courts and the unbalanced, shifting situation of the colonies. Rickford managed to overcome this difficulty by giving voice to additional fictitious characters, such as Solomon, the Moor slave, or Vitale, a converted Jew turned conquistador. Despite the fact that both serve mostly as narrative vehicles the author strives to flesh them out, giving them believable backstories and recognizable voices, and a role to play in the greater scheme of things.
The author gives his characters a room to breathe; the novel is rather slow-paced, with battles sparingly thrown into the narrative of mastering the wilderness, both the inner and the outer. It’s notable that despite the attentiveness to historical detail Rickford does away with the mythical side of the whole affair, keeping closely to the facts and not even mentioning the prophecies of the returning Quetzalcoatl (except in Note to readers at the end of the book, where he offers an explanation). I understand the drive to keep the novel historical; but I would love to read about the prophecies of the return of the gods from an anthropological perspective, as a powerful political tool of the priesthood and a way for people to explain through magic and belief the incomprehensible reality. For the New World tribes Cortés’ conquest must have been an end of the world, spawning multiple conspiracy theories, Apocalypse narratives and Y2Ks. Horses! Guns! Canons! Pale, smelly and hairy monsters coming from the sea! It seems like a sure recipe for a bestselling horror story 😀 Well, maybe in the next installment 😉
As it is, The Serpent and the Eagle makes for a very informative read. It is also quite enjoyable; a mix of a good history book, a NatGeo program and a literary work, it thoroughly succeeds in broadening the reader’s horizons and painlessly infusing them with knowledge, but ultimately doesn’t make for a riveting read. The main reason is that everyone knows how that particular story ended; no surprises in store for you, Cortés beats the Potonchan, forms alliences with other tribes and burns the ships when the urge to go home becomes unbearable for some of the conquistadors. As it is the first installment in the trilogy, we don’t learn much beyond that point – the meeting between Cortés and Motecuhzoma II is most probably scheduled to happen in the next book.
The second reason is that while Rickford has mastered the history of the conflict, the details of everyday life for all protagonists, as well as the overarching story, at moments he visibly struggles with his unwieldy narrative, deeming all events equally important and, consequently, burying the most significant ones within the detailed chronicle of the conquest. I totally understand this approach; for a historian, there’s probably not a detail unworthy of attention; and even some writers succeed in weaving a compelling, illuminating narrative of tiniest facets of human life. And yet, it is the domain of very few to achieve this level of literary mastery, and most books burdened with overabundance of trivia simply go down like Cortés’ ships. The Serpent and the Eagle would have been a good deal more immersive and gripping with a professional editor’s help and some careful cutting. As the authors writes in Note to readers at the end of the book, the novel was published independently through Amazon, allowing for a greater creative freedom, but at the same time limiting the book’s exposure to editors.
Lastly, a few words about Malintzin, or Doña Marina, as the Spaniards called her. I found her character (and Aguilar’s, whose presence was sadly limited) the most intriguing one. The modern controversies surrounding her (the ultimate traitor vs the mother of a new nation) make it difficult to see past the legend and into the real person she must have been, and yet Rickford brings her to life with commendable respect for the historical facts and with a careful consideration of her life situation and choices. Admittedly, she seems a bit too modern in her thinking, forming a convenient stand-in for the reader, allowing for the painless immersion in the world created by the author, and yet her story is compelling and her motivations thoroughly believable. In comparison, the sociopath Cortés seems bland, a bit too politically correct, and too masterfully manipulative to be believed – and the fact that only the Moorish slave can see through his veneer of competence and nobility seems difficult to take at face value. However, as it is only the first book in the trilogy, I do hope for some character development in the future!
All in all, The Serpent and the Eagle is an interesting and highly educating, if slightly flawed, read. If you’re a fan of historical fiction and would like to learn more about the Conquista, this book is definitely for you.