Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

Book Review: The Highlander: Rise of the Aztecs #1

The Highlander by Zoe Saadia

The Highlander: Rise of the Aztecs #1 by Zoe Saadia is the first in a series of early Mesoamerican historical fiction. Saadia has published a large collection of novels about the Central America’s indigenous peoples.

Most Americans have heard of the Aztecs, but know them mostly from the bloody sacrifices and “savage nature.” There has been quite a bit of embellishment in the Aztec stories that most people know. My knowledge comes mostly from undergraduate history courses where the history begins with the Spanish contact. The indigenous people are given a passing mention: Aztecs are warriors, Mayans had primitive science, and the Incas had the gold. There is much more to these people than that, and historical fiction is a great way learn and enjoy.

Historical fiction in the case of the Aztecs and surrounding city-states requires a bit of work on the author’s part. In American Civil War historical fiction, the characters need little development. We all have a good idea who Lincoln, Lee, Jackson, Grant, and Sherman are, and the mention of their name alone creates a ready made character in our minds. For Saadia, it is a bit more difficult as there are no readily recognizable figures from this time period and culture for the reader to instantly relate to. She has to create believable characters within the historical restrictions. The characters in The Highlanders are well developed and reflect the differences between the different groups that inhabit the area surrounding Lake Texcoco. The friction between different city states is reflected in the comments of the general public as well as the main characters. For a relatively small geographic region, there are very clear cut and deep feelings between neighboring peoples.

The politics of the region is a main source of information in the story. Alliances, tributes, enemies, and diplomacy all play an important role in this story. Although this may be the driving force of the plot, events are viewed mostly through the eyes of the two main characters: Kuini and Coyotl. Kuini, is a highlander living outside the main city states surrounding Lake Texcoco. He is the next in line to be the Warrior Leader. Although considered barbarians, Kuini is quite the artist. Coyotl is the son or the ruler of Texcoco. He comes from privilege and civilization. The two meet accidentally and develop a friendship even though they homelands are enemies. To tie things together Coyotl’s sister is introduced as a major character along with an Aztec warrior/emissary. The characters weave the story together with their mutual experiences and keep the plot moving and tied together.

The Highlander does historical fiction right. There is a plot that is true to history. The characters are well developed, likeable, and important to the story and the history. This is the kind of historical fiction that is educational and fun to read. It is not like read a history of Vietnam; It is more like having a veteran tell you his experiences in Vietnam. The Highlander has that same personal feel. More than reading history, you are experiencing history. Saadia is off to a great start with this book. Highly recommended.

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Book Review: A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts

A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts by Colin Fisher

A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts by Colin Fisher is a fictional account of part of the Spanish Civil War. Fisher was born in 1961 in Kirkintilloch, Scotland and graduated with a masters degree in history from Edinburgh University in 1983. To supplement his writing Fisher teaches at a British school in Madrid. Spain has been his home for the last ten years.

In A Republic of Wolves, the Spanish Civil War did not end in April of 1939 but went on into 1940, and the trenches encroached on the city of Madrid. I wondered why the author would have the war extended into the next year, but I came to realize it created some interesting twists. First, the Communists supporting the Republican forces are neutralized by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, otherwise known as the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty, in August of 1939. The Republican communists are viewed as traitors as the Soviets allied with the Nazis who supported the Nationalist fascists. It also opened up American support to the Republican forces. In the novel, America comes through with planes, tanks, and consumer goods. Propaganda posters originally showing the USSR as the Republican partner are slowly being replaced with ones showing Uncle Sam.

The story centers around Maria, a middle aged woman who delivers food to refugees in Madrid. She isolates herself from the war as much as she can. In Republican held territory, she needs to be. Her husband was a Falangist who influenced her oldest child. He was not a good husband and mistreated Maria. He did not survive in the war and appears to have been executed in the street. Maria also maintains a low profiles as her oldest son is in the trenches of Madrid, on the Nationalist side. A chance meeting with her son changes her life. She gains the attention of Captain Gregorio and Sergeant Izaguirre and is the key in meeting with Ignaz Gunter who will only meet with Maria. Maria is also cautious around Republican officials because it appears her other son is a deserter from the Republican forces. Her low profile existence is about to change.

Captain Gregorio is an interesting character in himself. He has earned the respect of his men and soldiers in general. Gregorio does something every Marine will recognize; he puts sergeants in charge of the men and lets the experienced non-commissioned officers carry out his orders. He keeps a veteran, 50 year old, sergeant with him and has the sergeant execute orders. He takes Maria in to protect her from enemies on both sides. Gregorio is also on a mission of his own that he is determined complete.

Fisher does an excellent job of showing the chaos involved in the war. The Spanish Civil War was not a two sided war. It was made up of two opposing coalitions that were by no means cohesive. Extending the war a year shows the splintering of the sides, especially on the Republican side. There are points where people could no longer trust their own friends.

A Republic of Wolves starts slow and builds up fairly quickly into a fairly intense story. Maria is a very likeable character who is dragged into the war by events beyond her control. Gregorio makes for the perfect officer, smart, determined, and unemotional. When others rant he remains calm. Sergeant Izaguirre is the model non-commissioned officer and looks out for his people including Maria. Great characters and setting make for excellent reading, and the alternative war history allows for some interesting plot twists. A City of Ghosts is plausible alternative history with a very well written story.

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Book Review: Amgalant One: The Old Ideal

What is a Mongol?…
As free as the geese in the air as in unison…
…The flights of the geese promise us we don’t give up independence to unite.

Amgalant One: The Old Ideal

Amgalant One: The Old Ideal by Bryn Hammond is part one of a trilogy of Mongol history. Hammond does not give much of a biography except to say she lives a dull life to concentrate on her fiction. She lives in Australia this is the first of her two published books in the trilogy.

This is not a book to take lightly or to expect a quick weekend read from it. Don’t let the size of the book scare you off either. Years ago I was handed a copy of Gary Jennings’ Aztec to read by another Marine. My first thought was “You have to be kidding, this book is huge.” I was told I would like it. It wasn’t a fast read, but it definitely held my interest and there was definitely a learning curve with the book. I went on to read all of Jenning’s books at the time. In fact most of the cultural details I know of the Mongols came from Jennings’ Marco Polo novelThe JourneyerAmgalant will take your full attention. The character names are unfamiliar as is the setting. It will put most readers in a place they rarely can go. For me it was like reading a history crossed with the Rig-Veda-Sanhita. It is almost magical.

Hammond bases her work of the the relatively short Secret History of the Mongols. The Secret History>
Although nearly everyone know the name Genghis Khan, few can give many details about the man or his people. Hammond goes into detail about the Mongols and their neighbors. Although a work of fiction, many details, the setting, and events are all historical. Early on the reader will get introduced to the ways of the mongols. A society where stealing a horse was more serious of a crime than murder. They are a people with a strict set of rules for themselves. They face the Turks, Chinese, Tartars, barbarians, and internal conflict. Nothing will be easy.

The reading also is not easy. It takes some time and effort on the readers part because t he story is complex and the writing is detailed. It is intended to capture the author’s passion for her subject. Hammond has plenty of passion and it shows in her work. Amgalant was difficult to start, but the payoff for sticking with it is immense. Amgalant far exceeds any of the historical fiction I have read in detail and effort. his is a book that is meant to be read slowly and carefully so the the reader can absorb the wealth of information contained in the pages. Amgalant belongs on the shelf with the best of the epic historical fictions.

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Book Review: Where They Bury You

Where They Bury You is a novel by Steven W. Kohlhagen, whose background is economics, not history. He currently serves on the Board of Directors for Freddie Mac and is an Advisory Board member for the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. From 1973 to 1983 he served as professor of International Economics and Finance at U.C. Berkeley. He’s held senior management positions with several major financial institutions in both the private and public sectors. As an author, Kohlhagen has written several books on economics and now a historical fiction novel

I didn’t read the author’s biography before starting the book or I might have wondered how Kohlhagen came to write historical fiction. His only connection to the West seems to be living in the San Juan Mountains. Reading the book, however, you would assume his PhD would have been in history and not economics. Kohlhagen captures the history, color, and flavor of the Old West and weaves a compelling story around historical events. Although there are a few stories running simultaneously, they are seamlessly woven together. The individual stories more than hold their own and could be be considered complete by themselves. Even with my background in history, I didn’t feel the need to fact check or nit-pick historical events. Unlike many historical fiction novels, I was caught up in the story and not the historical details. This presented a unique and enjoyable experience.

Before the book begins, each character is introduced and listed in their order of appearance, and further separated into historical and fictional players. There is a simple but adequate map covering all the important locations and events, and the preface sets the background for the historical mystery. Major Cummings was found dead with what would with about $1 million in today’s money. Kit Carson believed Cummings was killed by a “hidden Indian” but does history support that explanation? And what was an Army major doing carrying around that much money in battle?

The novel takes place in the New Mexico Territory beginning in 1861. Kohlhagen includes readily recognizable characters in the story, including Geronimo, Kit Carson and Cochise. Cochise is introduced as a peaceful Indian in the territory until a freshly-minted West Point lieutenant changes all that and begins over ten years of violence between the Indians and settlers. Thrown into the Indian troubles is the start of the Civil War and the friction between Union and Confederate settlers. Complicating matters are General Sibley’s and Colonel Baylor’s Texas Volunteer forces that move into the New Mexico territory to claim it for the Confederacy.

Finally, intermixed into both historical events is the main story. This provides the bulk of the fiction in the novel and serves to solve the mystery surrounding Major Cummings. The cast of charters here is mix of fictional and historical characters and a scam they run against the army, the territory, and the Catholic Church in New Mexico.

Where They Bury You is a very readable and enjoyable Western novel. The character development is very well done and the fictional characters play an integral part of the story, written as though they belong in the actual history. Personal lives and histories of the fictional characters add to the realism of the story. The characters have human wants and needs, from wanting retirement, to buying a ranch, to their own “private interests.” The writing is clear and easily draws the reader into the story. I will admit Westerns and Civil War books are hardly my favorite books to read; I count only three on my shelf, but Kohlhagen avoids all the traps and clichés of typical Westerns and keeps true to his story. All in all, Where They Bury You is a very impressive novel for fans of Westerns and even for those who are not fans of Westerns. It has a universal appeal. Definitely a quality read. 4.5 stars.

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