Here's one for my antipodean girlcrush author Karen Healey, who wrote the excellent Guardian of the Dead (reviewed on Pink Me a couple months ago). Karen is always complaining that I find YA books and talk 'em up too well, and she is running out of book money. This is not criticism that I am too broken up about - push the sheep out of your way and go to the library!
So, for Karen, a book that I do not especially recommend:
Itacate is a teenage Aztec girl in the splendid city of Tenochtitlan, the daughter of a goldsmith, raised by him and by a nurse since the death of her mother. When we meet her, she is miserably navigating the inflexible rules, ironclad beliefs, and harsh punishments of Aztec society, at odds with the future decreed her by the circumstances of her birth and gender. She's terrible at weaving and making tortillas and wants to be a craftsman like her father.
Then the conquistadors show up, and everything is tossed into a cocked hat. As far as plot disruptors go, the arrival of conquistadors is right up there. Itacate's father, whose skills are waning, is called upon to provide more and more gold to appease the vicious and brutal Europeans, and Itacate must masquerade as a boy so that she may fill in for him. This is a dreadful transgression in Aztec terms, but gives the author the chance to place Itacate into situations she would not ordinarily witness.
There is a lot to like in this book. Ms. Landman skilfully works a luxury of detail into the story. All five senses are engaged by descriptions of the crowded marketplace, the floating fields, the smelly conquistadors and meticulously-groomed Aztec nobles, the gold and turquoise treasures - even the fighting and the food are depicted in vivid language. It is difficult, however, to shake one's distaste for Itacate's love life.
It goes like this: before the arrival of the conquistadors, who will eventually destroy her city, killing everyone she knows, Itacate has a vision of a blonde and blue-eyed youth. And what do you know, she meets this curly-haired young man on the very day that the bad guys march into town. His name is Francisco, and before he became a soldier in service to the Spanish crown, he was a goldsmith like herself. Itacate and Francisco get to know each other while creating a big gold Virgin Mary. He confesses that he despises his countrymen for their greed and brutality. He alone of all the soldiers eschews raping the locals, and he even bathes. He's a good Nazi.
One of the nice things about this book is that the Aztecs are depicted as living in close proximity to their spiritual beliefs, yet are not depicted as ignorant superstitious yokels, even as Itacate begins to examine her faith. In this context, Itacate's vision seems to lend the Spanish conquest a predestined quality. I suppose it is a difficult trick when writing historical fiction to present known events with any element of novelty or surprise. But the mystical quality of a vision is I think a bad choice - there is an implied authority that seems to excuse the Spanish just a little.
In addition, Itacate's response to Francisco's physical appearance feels blatantly Eurocentric: he is described as having "gleaming gold hair" and eyes "blue as the sky". Compared to every human being she has ever seen or could imagine, I would think that this would translate to "monster". The Chinese thought white men were walking corpses - that seems like a much more believable response. And while I accept that it is not outside the realm of human experience for a member of an occupying force and a terrified native of an occupied city to fall in love, in this case I found it both trite and insulting to a character I came to like.