The Spaniard's Innocent Maiden
A conquistador/indigenous Totonec romance novel? I had to give that a try.
The Spaniard’s Innocent Maiden sees Benicio Villafuerte sets sail for the West Indies in the hopes of becoming wealthy enough to support his beloved Luisa. Once there, he joins Cortes on his first expedition to Mexico. Tula, in search of fish to help her family pay off their tribute to the ruling Aztecs, saves Benicio’s life during a fight on the beach. A dying native priest gives Benicio a priceless ring and a treasure map – which he and Tula both want.
Eventually, Tula’s Totonec tribe decides to ally themselves with Cortes in the hopes that he won’t be worse than the Aztecs, and Tula is among the Totonec women gifted to the Spanish to seal the alliance. Benicio gives up the ring to claim Tula. When Cortes’s army marches on Tenochtitlan, they both go: Benicio to replace his treasure and win his Spanish love, and Tula to save her sister, who’s been taken as human sacrifice.
Some people may not be able to read this pairing knowing the brutality that is coming for the indigenous Mexicans at the hands of the Spanish, and I respect that. The way the author manages it is to set this story so early in the process that there is no historical baggage affecting the relationship – Benicio is among the first Spaniards in Mexico, and no conquest has yet happened. She also makes Benicio an unusually open-minded conquistador (he is saddened by the destruction of local idols and throws away his own cross so Tula will realize that he understands her grief). I won’t give away the ending, but it’s clear whose side the author and the characters are on.
In terms of setting, the author delivers. She clearly did her research on the Cortes expedition, as the events, diplomacy, timetable, weather, and encounters with tribes along the way are depicted with fidelity to the historical record. For instance, documents of Cortes’s time with the Totonecs, Tula’s tribe, include the gift of eight women to the conquistadors to seal the alliance – so Tula and Benicio’s story is woven into authentic history. La Malinche, a native woman gifted to Cortes by another tribe and talented enough with languages to become his translator, also makes a few supporting appearances with appealing complexity.
I liked Tula more than Benicio and found her to be a more compelling, historical character. ‘But the Aztecs sacrificed my sister’s husband and kids and I can’t face that’ is just about the most heartbreaking reason for marriage-phobia I’ve ever read. It helps make Tula’s quest to save her family from further sacrifices much more sympathetic than Benicio’s need for treasure. I didn’t mind that his love, Luisa, wanted wealth. I think it’s fair for a Spanish woman in the early 1500s to feel obligated to marry to help her troubled family estate, and on balance she’s portrayed as responsible, as well as a bit superficial. Still, I minded that Benicio never thinks critically about that until nearly the end of the book. He could have decided that he still needed treasure for Luisa’s sake without having a sudden ‘Whoa, wait, she didn’t love me poor?’ moment after three years or so.
Neither Tula nor Benicio speaks each other’s language, yet the author manages to create a believable bond between them. Some authors can’t even do that with endless speeches. In addition to the destruction-of-idols scene mentioned earlier, there’s another scene where Tula gets chilled crossing frigid volcanoes and Benicio helps her warm up is a great example of this, as well as a scene that demonstrates Gilbert’s research: I don’t think anybody fudging a Mexico setting would think up a scene about getting naked together to combat frostbite!
However, I didn’t love the writing which, at a technical, sentence level, can feel clunky. Plot-wise, a couple of scenes are eye-rollers, like Benicio and Tula making out in an Aztec temple and Benicio flinging himself into water to talk to Tula when it would probably have been more effective for him to, you know, wait for her to surface. I didn’t realize until I began to write this review how very good the research is, because I usually expect a book with average writing to make use of average, wallpaper settings.
On the whole, I’m glad Harlequin is letting Greta Gilbert take on some unusual settings (her previous book that I reviewed was set in ancient Egypt). I recommend this book to adventurous readers looking to try something new.