Graham Hancock’s epic novelisation of the Spanish invasion and conquest of Mexico is a masterwork in all respects: it melds historical factuality and levelled appraisals of its real personalities with an enveloping fictional narrative, bolstered by an informed nod to the supernatural, which is never to the deficit of the non-fictional event story.
The historical setting of the story is half a millennia ago, when a cavalier captain, Hernán Cortés, set off to the ‘New Lands’ of South America from recently Spanish-conquered Cuba, against the will of his Governor. Cortés is driven by fame and fortune in this life and the next. He has a close communion with his patron saint and sees the attempt to conquer newer lands as destined to succeed for it is deigned by, and in the name of, God.
The empire dominating the New Lands are known to us as the Aztecs, to themselves the Mexica: a grand and ghastly, proud and excessive empire—as all tend—which exerts its power well beyond its own borders, extracting tribute from many other much weaker peoples. The leader of the Mexica, its ‘Great Speaker’, is Moctezuma, essentially a king whose privilege it is to commune with the War God, Hummingbird, and who commands total respect and subservience from his subjects.
The point of view characters caught in between this haughty historical war are, on the side of the indigenous, Tozi, a stubborn and remarkable teenage witch, Malinal, a beautiful Mayan polyglottal sex-slave, Moctezuma, the psychotic and (seemingly) omnipotent leader of the Mexican empire aforementioned, and Shikotentka, the noble, savage and fiercely independent battle-king of the neighbouring Tlascalan people. On the side of the Spanish, Cortés, the brilliant, fearsome and complex Machiavellian operator behind each diplomatic and military masterstroke attributed to the Spanish, Pepillo, the aspirant and honest teenage page of the ghastly paedophile, Father Muñoz, who is also a point of view character in the first novel.
The Spanish are set on finding the fabled city of gold in Tenochtitlan, modern-day Mexico City. They must conquer or cajole or bargain with the indigenous to secure a path there, facilitated by Malinal’s translation and the godly aura clouding the Mexica and Maya’s view of the Spanish’ arrival, which they play along with to their advantage. The military encounters between them are as savage as are the diplomatic encounters courteous; both sides learn of the capacity of the other to be both unsparingly vicious and surprisingly civil.
Nevertheless, Hancock is unsparing in his characterising the brutality of both, which makes for perfectly feasible accounting of what is an often too simplified or valorised epoch. On the Spanish account, whole villages were burned to fiery ruin, women raped, children unspared. The Mexica found its infamy and renown in human sacrifice, which was as regular as it was rife, but otherwise was much like the archetypal empire, overzealous and overstretched, meeting a fate which was not due to their being undermanned, but outmanned and overwhelmed by better tactics and technology. This latter point is something about which Hancock writes brilliantly: the fear felt by the indigenous when first encountering cannon (“fire serpents”), men on horseback, first described as half-man-half-beast, and boats which “move without paddles.”
Hancock’s research into the lives lived, thoughts thought and beliefs believed by both the Spanish and indigenous has informed these novels. One can, despite their being opposed in total war, empathise and sympathise with both sides, since Hancock shows the stark similarities between them, despite being balanced by equally stark dissimilarities. For example, when each approach their Gods in altered states of consciousness: Cortés in lucid dreams, Moctezuma by way of magic mushroom, Father Muñoz by flagellating himself into a lurid ecstasy, etcetera. Likewise with the absolute tenacity the fearsome warriors of each side confront the other with; the pride of the victories and the shame of defeats.
What most grasps me about this book, though, is its truth: this shit went down! Hancock’s descriptions of pitched battles, of human sacrifice, of the misery left in their wake rightly leaves some to your imagination, but without letting it get away thinking that these conquests were in any way pretty, or wholly noble, or in any sense humane. You learn much from this book in history and in philosophy—and Hancock doesn’t force either down your throat. The novelist’s task is not to tell, but to show; this Hancock heeds expertly. The novel flows smoothly in a gripping narrative canvassing history, politics, action, love and the supernatural. I assure you, you shan’t be able to wrench yourself from it. I eagerly await the third and final installment.