Let me begin by saying that writing a novel is a terrific achievement. I know, having written one ~ and only one. My hat is off to anyone who can complete a novel.
That said, here is my honest opinion of The Highlander by Zoe Saadia, an adventure-romance set among the highly evolved native American tribes of pre-Columbian Mexico.
Characters: The Highlander‘s title character is Kuini, son of his mountain tribe’s warlord, here described as a boy about 10 years old ~ Tall and lean in frame, the boy looked strikingly outlandish, wearing a loincloth and a short cloak, his broad jaw-line adorned by a line of tattoos, his lower lip pierced, sporting a glittering turquoise stone, his eyes large, widely spaced and wary.
This description comes courtesy of Coyotl, also 10, heir to the throne of a lowland lakeside empire, right before the two get into a fight as prelude to an improbable but lasting friendship.
Other significant characters are Coyotl’s half-sister Iztac, and an enigmatic unnamed personality referred to only as the “Aztec Warlord.”
Zoe does a fine job with characterization. In fact, The Highlander could be described as character-driven. As shown, she uses physical description to advantage in portraying her characters, but also action and dialogue.
Here’s Coyotl’s and Kuini’s first meeting on a sunbaked hillside.
Coyotl gasped, at a loss for words. He stared at the broad, now smirking face, longing to punch it until it lost any trace of contempt. He could fight well enough, trained to use his fists as well as his weapons, yet the boy was armed with a knife, carrying it with an easy confidence of someone who knew how to use it.
The boy laughed. “Hey, don’t turn all red on me. You might faint. Here, have some water.”
The flask offered to Coyotl was dusty and made of skin. He eyed it with disbelief. “I don’t want your water!”
The boy shrugged, eyes flickering with more mischievous derisiveness.
“You know what?” cried Coyotl. “I’ll take your water, but not before I beat you so hard, you will never be able to take it back!”
The smile widened. “You will never manage as much as to make me sway! Not even with my hands tied behind my back!”
The boy took out his dagger, and Coyotl tensed, watching his opponent’s movements alertly, ready to evade the blow, or maybe to run.
“You, calmecac boys, are soft,” said the boy, placing his dagger carefully behind the rock, not in an easy reach. “They are supposed to train you to be great warriors, but all they do is pamper you and make you feel good about yourselves.” He came back to the trail and stood there, legs wide apart. “We, on the other hand, are fighting and hunting as soon as we can walk straight. So who do you think will win this?”
Now, with no dagger in sight, Coyotl felt his heartbeat calming. Watching the boy closely, he calculated his movements. Although tall, the boy was lean and not that well-muscled. He could take him, especially by surprise. Make this one fall, then go for his throat and don’t let him slip aside.
Zoe gifts her characters with bright life through physical description, dialogue and action.
Plot: During a surreptitious but eventful visit to Coyotl’s lakeside city of Texcoco to see the sights, Kuini, now on the brink of manhood, accidentally runs afoul of the authorities, falls in love with Coyotl’s half-sister Iztac and finds himself trapped in Texcoco in the entourage of an enigmatic but powerful visiting Aztec warlord. The story of love, adventure and coming-of-age takes place in the shadow of looming war between Coyotl’s city-state or “altepetl” of Texcoco and a powerful neighboring tribe.
Setting: The Highlander takes place largely in Texcoco. Zoe offers some nice glimpses of the markets, temples, palaces and gardens of this pre-contact city. Here, Kuini visits a Texcoco market, where he first meets Coyotl’s sister Iztac, who, though a princess, has managed to slip away from her keepers.
Feeling better by the moment, replete with food and a spicy drink, he strode along the main road, eyeing stalls with colorful materials and jewelry, mats with plenty of fruits and vegetables, and the low tables of the food owners. This altepetl was something he could not comprehend.
He lingered beside a pile of cloth, marveling at the rich coloring. If he dared, he would touch it to make sure it was real.
A tall, slender girl in a plain maguey blouse and skirt brushed past him, halting next to the colorful pile. She picked a brim of the deepest turquoise and eyed it dubiously.
“It’s nice,” she said. “Nice touch. Are these Mayan cloths?”
What I thought could’ve been done better: Here’s another one of those indie books where I really have to stretch to find something that could’ve been improved. So here it is.
By the nature of its subject matter, there are a lot of strange names and terms in this book — “altepetl” is one. You might be able to pick up intuitively what the terms mean — the richness of Zoe’s writing makes this an option. But I felt a glossary would’ve been helpful. Even better would have been if the glossary had phonetic pronunciations, so that readers could “taste” some of the more exotic names of people and places.
Lack of such a glossary did not limit my enjoyment of Zoe’s fine book.
I did have one slight “hmmm” moment early on, when Coyotl and Kuini first meet. Coyotl tells Kuini that he’s the son of the emperor. Kuini responds with what seems to me to be a 20th-21st century “No way!”
And Coyotl responds to that with “Way!” A little too contemporary, imho, for pre-contact civ. There was only that one instance, though.
Although we get nice glimpses of localized settings, such as the market previously noted, I would’ve liked to get some overall views, perhaps of Texcoco seen from the hills above, or what the wild mountain ranges of Kuini’s people look like.
I wouldn’t have minded some more details of the menu, either. Zoe gives glimpses of the food of the time, such as tortillas stuffed with avocado (yum), but imho, missed an opportunity to show off in more color and detail an important aspect of a culture which she obviously loves.
What I thought was good: I feel Zoe covered all the bases with The Highlander. She nailed character physical description as I’ve mentioned. Here’s Iztac, as first seen by Kuini.
As she pondered her answer, he studied her face. Shaped in a sort of rectangle, her wide, sculpted cheekbones narrowed toward her gently pointed chin. A beautifully carved, perfectly polished, wooden mask, with a generously applied layer of copper, and two large obsidians for eyes.
Also as mentioned, though vast, spreading panoramic descriptions were absent, I liked the details of setting, such as in this temple.
The temple was dim, all its shutters closed against the brightness of the outside. Kuini stood there, blinking, his eyes having difficulty adjusting to the semidarkness. He watched the curtained niches and the damp, stony tiles of the floor, his ears pricked. The heavy stench of stale blood, typical for the temples, enveloped him.
“The heavy stench of stale blood…” love it.
Zoe’s writing style is accessible. She uses vivid verbs and active voice, and goes easy on the adverbal description. Here, Kuini makes a dash for freedom:
The freedom of the open road beckoned, but some of the warriors guessed his intention, and two of them already waited on the other side, their swords out. He rolled away in time to avoid the touch of the sharp obsidian, the sword crashing the dusty ground. Springing to his feet, he leaped backwards, only to collide with another warrior. The blow in the side of his head sent him reeling, but he managed to keep his balance, leaping aside to avoid another one.
Dizzy, he tried to see where the warriors were not present, but the obsidian spikes seemed to be sparkling everywhere, reflecting the fierce midday sun.
Zoe does an equally good job with dialogue and scenes of romance.
Overall: Zoe weaves countless details of place and time and people into the colorful fabric of a strange, but reality-based story. Though there might have been a little more “big picture” description, The Highlander is still a wonderful, exotic tale of a strange, and long-vanished culture. Yet, despite the exotic, it’s filled with Faulkner’s eternal verities of love, honor, pity, pride and compassion.
Or in the words of the words of the famous song:
It’s still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die
As time goes by.
Good job Zoe!