The Highlander is the story of two boys whose friendship defies tribal feuds and wars. Initially, I wasn’t sure whether the novel was aimed at a teenage or adult audience but it quickly became apparent that it doesn’t really matter. The Highlander is a thrilling, thought provoking read for all ages.
The two boys, Kuini, a Highlander and Coyotl, who is from the lowlands are both something of free spirits and meet by chance as children. Their friendship endures through secret meetings and notes and the main action of the story takes place when they are fifteen and political tensions within the region are at a crisis point. Zoe Saadia uses her novel to communicate the valuable message, particularly for young people, that our similarities as human beings are far more important than any cultural differences.
Kuini and Coyotl couldn’t have had more different upbringings. Kuini has been raised to be a warrior in the more remote, harsh conditions of the Highlands where his father is a Warlord while Coyotl has enjoyed a pampered childhood as the first son of the Emperor in the more urbane Great Capital. However, both boys possess an openness and curiosity about life beyond their own experiences. It is this natural curiosity that lends excitement to the plot and places the boys, particularly Kuini, in a perilous situation.
Saadia’s passion and knowledge of history is evident on every page and this lends a great deal of credence to the novel. There are lots of names and places that are difficult to remember but, as I lost myself in the sheer pleasure of the story, the names that mattered stuck and the rest simply melted away without standing in the way of my enjoyment.
I particularly liked the way Saadia uses the character of Iztac, who is Coyotl’s half-sister, to show how women were used as pawns, offered by up by their fathers as a means of appeasing other men. Watching Iztac’s fate unfold and her spirit and intelligence squandered, is heartbreaking. We also see how wives are displaced at the whim of their husbands as Iztac’s own mother has never recovered from the indignity of being replaced as the Emperor’s chief wife.
All in all, The Highlander is a thoroughly engaging read about friendship but there are very serious undertones that make it a relevant choice for readers of all ages. The Highlander is book one in The Rise of the Aztecs’ series and it sets a very high bar indeed.