The Sword by Zoe Saadia is the sixth book in The Rise of the Aztecs series. It had been a while since I read the last one (The Fall of the Empire) but the second I opened my kindle it was like meeting up with a beloved old friend.
All of Saadia’s novels can be enjoyed as standalones but there is nothing that can compare to the sheer joy of following this cast of characters from the beginning. We first met Kuini and Coyotl as children but in The Sword they are accomplished, successful men in their thirties. Along the way Saadia has added more characters for us to love such as Dehe, Iztac-Ayotl, Tlacaelel and more recently Tlalli.
This particular novel belongs to Tlalli and Kuini’s young son, Ocelotl. The novel is set in the city of Texcoco where Coyotl has finally claimed his rightful place as Emperor. Due to the recent battles and regional turmoil, lots of the characters are feeling like strangers in a strange land, particularly Tlalli, visiting the city with her lover, Tlacaelel, who as Mexica’s chief adviser is a dignitary at Coyotl’s ceremony.
When we first met Tlalli in The Fall of the Empire, she was a brave and resourceful market girl but, since being taken as Tlacaelel’s favourite concubine, she has come some way to realising her full potential. She has taught herself to read and write so much so that Tlacaelel is planning to use her as a scribe. However, Tlalli has lost none of her spirited independence and, whilst exploring the city at night she stumbles across information that essentially prevents Coyotl and Tlacaelel’s plans from being thwarted.
The plot centres on the eponymous sword which belongs to Kuini, the Chief Warlord. The sword has belonged to the Warlord since he was a young man and has taken on a symbolic meaning for a lot of people who associate it with the Warlord’s success. In fact, many people are convinced that the sword has magical powers. When the sword is stolen it threatens to destabilise everything Coyotl, Kuini and Tlacaelel have worked for and it becomes a race against time to find it and those responsible for the theft.
The situation is made even more threatening because the Warlord’s young son, Ocelotl is also missing, caught up in the theft of the sword. In Ocelotl we see the mirror image of the boy Kuini who we first met in The Highlander. Ocelotl doesn’t fit in in Texcoco where he is constantly compared to his more conventionally accomplished twin. He is considered too wild and ill-disciplined but during the course of the novel proves himself to be his father’s son. The Warlord’s concern for and relationship with his son also serves to remind the reader of his human side despite his ruthlessness as a warrior.
My favourite character in the previous novels has been Dehe and she doesn’t disappoint. Tlalli is almost like a younger version of the now settled and respectable wife of the Warlord. We see Dehe mostly through Tlalli’s eyes and it’s gratifying that she has grown into a kind and wise woman. This is particularly in evidence in her treatment of the Warlord’s other wife and Coyotl’s sister, Iztac-Ayotl. Iztac makes a terrible mistake that Dehe helps her to cover up and, although I partly wanted Iztac to be exposed, it made me love Dehe even more for not doing so.
As with the other novels of the series, one of the themes of the story is the lasting effects of colonialism. Even though most of the battles are over and Tlacaelel is building a strong Mexica Empire, resentments are bubbling under the surface as the people feel the loss of their independence and cultural identity. Tlacaelel is a strategic politician and he has almost realised his vision of a cohesive empire under the rule of his own emperor, Itzcoatl and Coyotl. However, he naively believes that eradicating the Tepanecs from history and elevating one God to unite the people is the answer. He is surprised when Tlalli recounts events from her own Tepanec perspective and, although he advises Coyotl to get rid of dissenters, he fails to see that resentment will still remain waiting for the right moment to surface. It’s particularly interesting when we compare this time of 1431 to the present day and realise that most of the world’s problems stem from resentments and anger over land, religion and culture. It seems that we are still dealing with the consequences of colonialism.
One of the many things that make Saadia’s novels such a delight to read is the attention she pays to history which lends the stories enormous credibility. Her writing skills bring this period alive from the way she describes the busy market places to the intrigue that takes place around the palaces. Superstition plays a strong part in this story especially where the sword is concerned. Saadia manages to convey the power it represents in such a way that I got so caught up in her words I came to believe it was magical myself.
Saadia also imbues her story with heart-stopping tension especially surrounding Ocelotl. As he tries to escape from the hired killers who have stolen his father’s sword I genuinely feared for his safety. Likewise when his father embarks upon a spectacular sword fight with the leader of the thieves, my heart was in my mouth.
There are so many things to recommend about this book that I really don’t know where to start but one of the great things about Saadia is the way she allows females to shine in a very male dominated world. Her novels are always filled to brim with excitement but at the same time thoughtful and steeped in history. I can’t remember a series I have enjoyed more and am really looking forward to downloading the next instalment.