The Fall of the Empire is the 5th book in The Rise of the Aztecs’ series and, as with the previous four; Zoe Saadia captivates the reader from the very onset and leaves us craving more. Despite the fact that this book is part of a series, Saadia allows enough back story so that it could easily be enjoyed as a standalone read.
One of the things I like best about Saadia’s novels is that, even though they reflect a very male dominated, patriarchal world, she really makes her female characters count. The Fall of the Empire is no different and introduces us to Tlalli, a market girl with a deep burning secret. It is Tlalli who drives the story on, lending the warriors her geographical knowledge and, in the end performing so bravely that she is the one who dictates the fate of the deposed Tepanec Emperor.
Although Saadia’s novels are sequential in the telling of the ancient America’s history, each one seems to have its own individual focus. The Fall of the Empire presents us with the reality of war. There are two big battles in the novel, as both Azcapotzalco and Coyoacan fall to the Aztecs and their allies, and Saadia captures the atmosphere of chaos perfectly. We are invited to experience the sights, sounds and smells of war in such a way that we are left with no doubt of the ugly reality.
Prior to this novel, Saadia has mainly depicted the life of noble people and warriors; however with The Fall of the Empire, she introduces us to a different stratum of society through the characters of Etl and Tlalli, who are both commoners. In doing this, Saadia is able to illustrate how the perception and experience of war can differ, depending on a person’s position. For warriors such as Tlacaelel and Kuini, war is glorious and thrilling. In fact, when Saadia describes the fights between warriors, her writing becomes almost cinematic in style. However, it is the ordinary citizens who bear the brunt of war. They become expendable and dehumanised as their towns are destroyed and countless people are slaughtered whilst the rest are forced to become refugees. It is a testament to Saadia’s writing skills that she is able to effectively highlight this dichotomy of both the historical battles and indeed war in general.
In The Fall of the Empire, Tlacaelel steps into the limelight as Itzcoatl, Coyotl and Kuini rely on his strategic and diplomatic skills to get things done. It becomes clear that growing up in a treacherous environment, where his survival depended upon him not being seen as a threat, his tactical skills have been honed to perfection. Of all the warriors, he is the one with the clearest vision. He is pragmatic when he offers Tlalli the stark choice of being reborn in the new world or going down with the old world.
The notion of a new world order is the central theme of the novel. As Tepanec rule is swept aside, all remnants of their culture is destroyed most notably by burning their temples. Saadia uses the two new characters of Etl and Tlalli to illustrate how historically the people most able to survive are the ones who are willing to adapt. Tlalli is just sixteen with no real ties to the old world so it is probably easier for her to let go of all she has known and move forward into a new life.
I loved the character of Tlalli, who acts not only as the heart of the story but enables Tlacaelel to engage with his feelings rather than being ruled completely by intellect. The two may be a surprising match but they each provide the other with what they need. As the novel ends the reader is left in little doubt that the two of them will enjoy an enduring relationship which will serve them both well.
The Rise of the Aztecs is a series that just seems to get better and better and makes for compelling reading. Saadia’s gift for storytelling and her incredible passion and knowledge of this historical period, combine to ensure that readers are simply able to immerse themselves into the sheer joy of reading these books. Although The Fall of the Empire would work perfectly well as a standalone, I really can’t recommend this series highly enough and I’m so pleased that I started at the beginning.