September 1, 2011
Five Dances with Death: Dance One
Aztec Story Retold from Perspective of Conquered—with Surprising Supernaturalism
My knowledge of the Spanish invasion and conquest of Mexico in the sixteenth century and the wiping out of ancient native civilizations is limited to films and having long ago read Bernal Diaz’s eyewitness account “The True History of the Conquest of New Spain” in graduate school. That said, to read this exciting new novel by Austin Briggs, all you really need to know is that the Spaniards are invading and the various civilizations in Mexico are too busy warring among themselves to understand the bigger threat the white men represent. While the reader will already know who will win and lose, “Five Dances with Death” isn’t about winning and losing—it’s about a talented author bringing to life what those ancient civilizations may have been like and understanding the politics that led to their failure to work together to defeat the Spaniards, whom they call in this novel the “outlanders.”
But aside from the sad and violent historic setting, “Five Dances with Death” is also a novel that is intriguing, fast-paced, and even fun to read—it’s not in any way a difficult story to follow. Briggs has made the world of five centuries ago that should seem very foreign to us as real as possible for the reader. He has done this by changing the names from those almost impossible to spell or pronounce words like “Tenochtitlan” and “Matlalcueyetl” mountain, by translating them to mean Cactus Rock and Blue Cloak mountain. Some other reviewers of this book have expressed that they wish Briggs had just used the actual Aztec names, and while that might have made the book feel more authentic in some ways, I’m glad he did not because I would have been totally confused by long and ornately spelled words that look similar.
So, in short, this book is very easy to read. Because the characters’ names are quickly recognizable—such as Wasp (the main character), Stern Lord (Montezuma), Hernán (Hernán Cortés) and Smoking Mirror (Tezcatlipoca, Aztec God of Fate)—readers can follow the story without having to keep trying to remember who is who, and Briggs provides a list of characters and places with their Aztec words for easy reference for those who want that information. I found I never needed to refer back to the Notes section while reading, but later, I went back to look at them because the book made me want to know more about Aztec history.
The story begins with a lot of tension right from the beginning. We are immediately brought into this world and into the mind of Wasp, the story’s narrator. Wasp is one of the warrior leaders of his people, and he tells us that he and his people have been summoned to Mexica, their rival nation against whom they frequently war:
“They had invited us to their festival under the pretext of praying together for a good crop. But we knew they really wanted us to witness the sacrifice of our warriors captured in the last war season. We knew they wanted us to understand the futility of our resistance and to lose our will to fight. The enemy’s lavish display of power didn’t disturb us, however. We only came to get my daughter back.”
Wasp’s quest throughout the book is to rescue his daughter from the Mexica, but to achieve that, he is faced with several other quests and distractions, including the coming of the outlanders. The novel is filled with some graphic moments—there are some Aztec sacrifices (they would remove their victims’ hearts while they were still alive), and at one point, Wasp is almost sacrificed—but beyond that are a great deal of interesting politics and powerful relationships between the characters. One of the novel’s key moments is when a boy dies suddenly and Wasp’s tribe thinks the mark behind his ear suggests he has been bitten by a vampire, resulting in blame being cast upon Wasp’s wife since she is considered a sorceress; this moment results in an interesting chain of events that propels the novel toward its end.
The back cover of “Five Dances with Death: Dance One” describes this book as “An Aztec Supernatural Adventure Novel” and we are not disappointed by that promise. The supernatural comes in through the way Wasp and his wife, who is a sort of sorceress or priestess from another culture, experiments with various drugs so she and Wasp are able to travel out of their bodies, seek their doubles, and even enter into other people’s thoughts; Wasp actually gets into the head of Hernán (Cortez) at one point. Wasp describes the process early in the book, saying he learned this form of sorcery from his wife: “she had taken me into the deepest passages of the underworld to steal energy from the shapeless creatures who dwelled there; and little by little, month after month, their dim light collected inside me, building enough mass to become my double.” In this state, Wasp first begins to learn about the outlanders and understand their power, something he tries to make his own people and the other nations of Mexico understand before it is too late.
As in the Greek myths, in “Five Dances with Death,” the gods and the supernatural are deeply involved in human affairs. In one of his visions, Wasp is subjected to tricks from the God of Fate, Smoking Mirror, and he is warned by a bird in another such state, in reference to gods eating humans, that, “A man can choose which god will consume him. And here’s the core of it. As strong as the gods are, they can’t consume a human if he resists. Such is the law of nature. But the gods can confuse a man and trick him. Fear of death and the promise of salvation, of a lifetime next to the sun, are the common ruse.” Additional stories of the gods are included, including a fascinating creation story of man and how he came to have Free Will.
The book’s subtitle makes it clear this book is the first in a series of five. It is not a long novel, about 250 pages, and it reads quickly, so I found it difficult to put down, and I was especially intrigued by the supernatural aspects—the drug-induced visions reminded me of “Black Elk Speaks” and the visions that Native Americans in North America had about the white men destroying their lands and people. I imagine some Native Americans might take offense to this imaginative retelling, but Briggs did not write the story for the typical cheap thrills of Indiana Jones type adventure novels. He truly is a student of Aztec culture and civilization, as he states on his website: “I’ve spent over 10 years researching the history of the Aztec Empire and the Spanish Conquest with a dream of creating a historical fiction series that would fascinate readers who like a good history-based tale. I even went so far as to experience some of the magical rites of the ancient Mexica myself.” In addition, he makes it clear that he wanted to give the conquered a chance to tell the story from their perspective: “We’re often told that history is written by the winners. My stories are told from the perspective of those who lost—though they went down fighting. My fascination with the Aztec Empire during the time of the Spanish Conquest began because I’m intrigued by the idea of a society that is about to lose itself entirely. I wanted to show how difficult and painful—and sometimes strangely inspiring—that process can be.”
Briggs succeeds beautifully at capturing the how and why of that loss. As a twenty-first century reader well aware that the Spaniards have the power, despite limited numbers, to destroy the Aztecs, I watched with fascination as Wasp and his people misunderstand the situation and the threat of the outlanders. With bated breath, I watched Wasp try to warn his people only to see them think they could ally with the outlanders to conquer their enemies, the Mexicas, with the belief they could then push the outlanders into the sea. The reader foresees the disaster to come and shakes his head, but he reads on, unable to turn away to see the fatal events he knows will follow.
The book ends at an appropriate and somewhat cliff-hanger type moment, but it made me wish the book was not over. It’s the kind of book where I wish all five volumes were already published so I could read them all back-to-back. It is difficult to review adequately a series without having read all the books, but “Five Dances with Death” is off to a strong start with much promise for even meatier volumes to follow.
The only real criticism I have is that I would have liked to see a map so I could understand which nation lived where in Mexico and maybe a few of the more familiar names would have been useful to retain such as Aztec that are familiar to modern American readers.
Overall, “Five Dances with Death: Dance One” is a highly imaginative look into a lost civilization. The reader is instantly propelled into that civilization as if living there and fascinated by the way it operates. At the same time, we watch from afar, horrified at the characters’ inability to see the threat of the Spaniards as the natives fight among themselves. Fast-paced, compelling, but never falling into cheap thrills or page-turner plot twists, Briggs has written a very balanced and historical tale about the last days of ancient Mexico.
This book is available only in e-book format, but it’s a good excuse to buy a Kindle if you haven’t already. A print version is scheduled to be released soon. For more information about Austin Briggs and the “Five Dances with Death” series, visit www.AustinBriggs.com
— Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. and author of the award-winning “Narrow Lives”
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