Currents of War is the fourth book in The Rise of the Aztecs’ series and probably the most gritty read so far. All of the wonderful qualities of the other novels are still there but Zoe Saadia has injected an underlying tension into her writing that makes Currents of War a thrilling and thought provoking story.
Seven years have passed since the end of the previous tale (The Emperor’s Second Wife) and, although all of our favourite characters are still there, much has changed. Kuini and Dehe have settled into family life with their three young children and a fourth on the way, while Coyotl is readying himself to take back his beloved Texcoco. Iztac is married to the young Emperor and wielding quite a lot of influence, much to the annoyance of Izcoalt, who is now chief advisor. His previous role as warlord has been filled by Tlacealel.
There are two sides to this novel, the continuing development of the characters and their relationships with each other and the politics of the region. Obviously both these aspects are interconnected and their links affect the outcome of events greatly. More than with the other stories, Saadia creates a real sense of danger in this book, racking up the tension to a level that is at times almost unbearable. War is looming all around Tenochtitlan as the Tepanecs are poised to invade. At the same time, war is also raging within as political manoeuvrings and chicanery threaten the lives of several characters.
Saadia demonstrates clearly in her novels how colonisation works and the detrimental effect it has on the people who are stripped of their independence. The Tepanecs are ruthlessly building an empire at the expense of all the surrounding nations. The invaded areas are forced to pay tributes to their occupiers and consequently live in poverty and fear. Saadia also explores how power leads to corruption, showing the life of a leader to be cheap as those around him plot and scheme and coups are put in place.
Saadia’s knowledge and passion for the historical context of her novels is awe-inspiring and promotes a ring of authority and truth. However, for me the heart and soul of her novels are the characters and Currents of War does not disappoint. Kuini has grown up into the kind of man I hoped he would be, independent, wild but loving and loyal. His relationship with his children is very moving and Saadia makes it clear from the reactions of the other characters, that this is unusual for the time. Kuini is not a distant father; he loves his family with all he has.
Kuini’s openness and warmth is in direct contrast to the more strategically minded Tlacaelel and to some extent Coyotl. Although they care greatly for Kuini and in fact Tlecaelel does all he can to help his friend when he gets into difficulties, it is doubtful that they have the same capacity for passion. Deep down this is something that Tlecaelel acknowledges and maybe regrets. There are times that he almost covets what Kuini has whilst recognising that, as a noble man with big plans, he doesn’t have the luxury of letting his heart rule his head.
As with The Emperor’s Second wife, it is the female characters that enthralled me the most. Iztac has grown into an intelligent, perceptive woman but has been hardened by her experiences in the royal palace. She was brought there as a young girl and had to grow up quickly, as she was married off to one Emperor and then became the wife of his son. Saadia introduces the new character of Cuicalt, the third wife of the delightful old Aztec warlord. Cuicalt’s experience mirrors that of Iztac in that she was married off at fifteen to a forty year old man. Now in her forties, perhaps through necessity, she too is a shrewd, perceptive woman and one who you would want on your side.
My favourite character remains Dehe and her storyline in this novel is heartbreaking. She has settled into the role of Kuini’s wife and the mother of his children but is perpetually haunted by the knowledge that she is not his true love. She is fiercely loyal to Kuini and, ever since the first day she met him, would lay down her life for him. Both Tlacaelel and Coyotl are bewitched by her warm, devoted nature but it seems that Kuini might not appreciate what he has in this amazing woman.
Through Kuini and Dehe’s relationship, Saadia questions the very nature of love. Iztac was Kuini’s first love and she remains his ‘princess’ as they still enjoy illicit encounters. There is no doubt that they are soul mates who should be together had fate not intervened. However, in Dehe, Kuini has the steady, sure love of a woman who is devoted to him and his children and it’s clear that he loves Dehe in a quieter but no less genuine way. In Kuini’s case it would seem that it is possible to love two women differently but equally.
The ending of this novel is quite superb even though, by the time I got there I felt as if I had been through an emotional wringer. Anyone who believes in the power of sisterhood and the support that women can enjoy through their relationships with each other will no doubt be weeping with joy by the last page.
I loved this novel and The Rise of the Aztecs’ series is just going from strength to strength. If you haven’t discovered Zoe Saadia’s historical gems then you really are missing out on a treat.