Feathered Serpent tells the story of the Mexican conquest and definitely has its romantic threads, particularly those concerning Hernan Cortés and his Mexica consort and interpreter, Malinali Tenepal. It’s not a romance, however, and as history tells us, there is no Happily Ever After for this couple, or for any of the conquistadores or those they conquered. But the intriguing interpretation of the motivations and relationships of those intimately involved in the bloody birth a multiracial nation make for an fascinating read nonetheless.
Malinali Tenepal was born the daughter of a Mexica princess and a Culhuacan priest dedicated to the service of Quetzalcoatl, or Feathered Serpent. When her father prophesies that Feathered Serpent will return from exile and free his people, the Culhuacan, from the tyranny of the Mexica, he is murdered by soldiers of Emperor Motecuhzoma. Malinali’s mother remarries, and arranges to have Malinali sold into slavery so that her inheritance can go to the new husband’s offspring. Malinali is sold to the Tabascans, but she has no fear. Her father made one other prophesy before he died: he told her that when Feathered Serpent returned, she would be at his side.
According to prophesy, Feathered Serpent will return on a raft from the Cloud Lakes to the East, will free his people from the tyranny of the Mexica, and he will abolish human sacrifice. He will have pale skin, dark hair, and a beard. In short, he will look like Hernan Cortés.
Cortés arrives in Mexico from Cuba, near the home of the Tabascan people he had met the year before, in the interests of converting the heathens to the One True Faith, Christianity. He leads a large party of soldiers, farmers, clergy, and Norte, a recaptured Spaniard who had gone native after being taken by the Maya eight years earlier. But the Tabascans are less predisposed to friendly relations than they were a year ago, and the Spaniards are met with an army instead of diplomats. Despite being vastly outnumbered, the Spanish party is victorious, mainly by means of the thunderous cannons and steel breastplates, neither of which the Tabascans have seen before. As a peace offering, the Tabascans present Cortés and his party with a number of women, including a slave named Malinali. While he initially gives her to one of his men, he soon finds a way to make her his own, his mistress as well as his valued interpreter and advisor. And as for Malinali herself, well, she knows Cortés to be Quetzalcoatl the moment she lays eyes on him.
Cortés’ victory over the Tabascans sets the stage for many more daring and unlikely victories, achieved mainly via his own cunning and help from Malinali, who makes sure everyone believes him to be Feathered Serpent, whether he admits it or not. Meanwhile, we see various characters go through tangible transformations that will shape their own personal history as well as that of a new nation. Malinali struggles to reconcile her devotion to her god with her love for the man he inhabits. Cortés tries to reconcile his own separate missions: to conquer in the name of Christ, and to become rich and powerful in his own right. Norte, the Spaniard who had lived among the Mayans, ponders his future among his own kind – and just what that kind might be. Benitez, a man dedicated to justice, and one who has only contempt for Norte, starts to doubt his own beliefs – about Norte, about himself, and about Cortés. Through their eyes, we see history unfolding layer by layer, the quest achieved by a genius and brought down by a madman.
The book is strongest in its characters, complex personalities who achieve and observe the incredible events that led to the conquest of Mexico and the beginning of a new people. The plot is already set in stone, history written long before the author ever put pen to paper, but the why is what this book deals with, and does so in a compelling manner that will have the reader hooked until the inevitable end.
The author claims that this book is not a work of fiction, that the events he has recorded have not been altered, only enhanced by the motivations that he attributes to the characters. The extent to which that is true is questionable, since the casual reader can pick out a few errors without trying too hard. For example, the book claims that the name Malintzin, which Falconer translates as “Malinali’s lord” was given to Cortés by naturales who wanted to grant him respect without admitting that he was in fact Feathered Serpent. The author further claims that this name was shorted or mispronounced as Malinche. Which seems likely enough, except that it’s Malinali who’s remembered as Malinche, a name that may or may not have been derived from Malintzin. Malinztin in turn is the name by which she was known among the Mayans, an alteration of her own name, meant to attribute respectability, earned by means of her intelligence and linguistic skills. Another incongruity is that Falconer claims Malinali’s parents were well-to-do – her mother the equivalent of a noblewoman, her father a respected seer and priest – while history records them as being rulers. Small details, but enough to make you question the rest of the details that the author presents as historical fact.
How much of Feathered Serpent this book is true to history may be up for debate, but the excellent characterizations, beautiful (and sometimes stomach-turning) descriptions, and compelling writing make this book one I can recommend to lovers of historical fiction and those looking for a really good story. Because, happy ending or not, that’s exactly what this is.