During the winter it is easy to imagine sailing on a warm emerald sea or lolling in the surf of a tropical island paradise. Many of us cannot escape the cold of a northern winter. But it is still possible to journey to exotic temperate lands. All it takes is a decent book – the only fare you need to travel to the ends of the earth or even back in time.
Aztec (1980) by Gary Jennings is a brilliant, hypnotic adventure that works on more than one level, like all great works of art. The compelling story steams with intrigue, gore and sex and at the same time serves as a remarkable tribute to the Aztec civilization, destroyed by Cortez in the 16th century.
The work is narrated by Dark Cloud, the son of a quarry foreman and in his “sheaves of years” he will be a student, scribe, warrior, diplomat, merchant and finally the prisoner of an inane Spanish bishop occupied with beating the natives into slaves. During the course of nearly six decades Dark Cloud’s occupations and explorations take him from the Athens-style schools of the Reverend Speaker of Texcoco to dark, foreboding jungles and parched wastelands inhabited by people both ferocious and peaceful.
Dark Cloud’s fate is to “see things near and plain… and remember.” But serving as a witness, and the involuntary chronicler of his people’s past for the invading Spaniards, carries a terrible price. During the course of his adventurous life he will lose everyone dear to him, including his sister Tzitzi, first wife Zanya and young daughter Nochip.
The Secret River (2006) by Orange Prize-winning author Kate Grenville is a provocative novel of the settlement of New South Wales by exiled British criminals. It is the illuminating story of husband, father and petty thief William Thornhill and the path he followed from the utter poverty of the slums of London to prison and finally freedom. When he is sentenced to death for stealing some lumber his sentence is commuted to transportation to Australia with his pregnant wife, Sal, and a flock of children.
Thornhill leads a life of convict servitude, the fate of all those transported to the new British colony, and gradually works his way through the penal system until he transforms himself into a trader on the Hawkesbury River. He regularly sails by an appealing piece of virgin soil and when he gains his freedom he and his family move onto the land, raise another rude hut and begin to cultivate corn.
But he soon realizes the British are not the first people to settle in New South Wales and he and his family forge a tenuous coexistence with a small band of Aborigines camping nearby. The uneasy relationship is shattered by violence by other settlers on the river and Thornhill is drawn into the storm against his will.
Havana (2003) by Stephen Hunter is a gritty, bloody tale of tremendous power and satisfaction set in Cuba 1953, a world of vice, gambling, sex and drugs just 30 minutes by air from Miami. The Mafia runs the casinos and Meyer Lansky, the mob’s leader in Cuba, vies with the CIA and American business interests to control the Batista regime and keep the river of cash flowing. Into the cauldron steps Earl Swagger, the protagonist of three previous 1950s-set Earl Swagger novels.
This time the ex-Marine Medal of Honor winner and legendary gunfighter is called in by the American government to serve as a bodyguard to Congressman Harry Etheridge in his investigations of New York-gangster activity at the American naval base in Cuba. The congressman is more interested in exploring the city’s culture of vice and Swagger is reluctantly drawn into a complicated plot to kill self-centered, failed baseball star Fidel Castro, intent on wresting power from the corrupt government and returning it to the people. But Swagger thwarts backstabbing countrymen, the mob and even the Russians in this excellent addition to the series.
The Mountain of Gold (2012) is the buoyant sequel to the first novel by J.D. Davies (Gentleman Captain) that continues the valiant antics of Matthew Quinton, a young captain in King Charles II’s royal navy in 1663. This grand adventure begins when a captured Muslim pirate, who turns out to be an Irish renegade, tells Quinton a preposterous tale about a mountain of gold in Africa. King Charles, blinded by greed, does not hang the pirate but orders Quinton, his ship and the Irishman on an inauspicious expedition to Dutch-held West Africa to find the treasure.
Before setting sail, Quinton attempts to passionately dissuade his older brother from marrying a mysterious French vixen who may have murdered her previous husbands, a marriage arranged by the king. Once out to sea, the captain’s mission is anything but straightforward —his own brother-in-law warns him that his mission to Africa must not succeed— and the complicated expedition tests his crew and England’s reputation as a maritime power to the utmost.
Davies, a noted historian on the 17-century British navy, vividly captures the romance of high-seas adventure as well as the era’s politics, battles and tactics that shape his intrepid sea captain.
– Peter Critchley is a reference librarian at the Vernon branch of the Okanagan Regional Library, These novels are available at your local branch of the Okanagan Regional Library, www.orl.bc.ca.