Friday, 15 January 2021

A Discovering Diamonds review of The Bend Of The River by Edward Rickford

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Fictional saga / military

One of the benefits of reading good historical fiction is that it transports you through time as effectively as a Tardis. Mr Rickford is evidently extremely knowledgeable about the events he describes, but he adds depth to the narrative by painting the landscape, the architecture, the food and the culture of the people whose destruction he depicts. The Bend of the River is a eulogy over the Mexica, the ruthless and powerful Native American people we usually call the Aztecs.

It is 1520 or so and the ambitious and greedy Hernán Cortés is marching towards Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Mexica empire. Along the way, he uses a combination of intimidation and bribery to make allies out of other native people, entering Tenochtitlán at the head of an army numbering more than 6,000 men. The Spanish are few—no more than a couple of hundred or so—but they have two fearsome weapons: horses and firearms. Still: it would be an easy matter for the Mexica to vanquish them, but for some reason the Mexica emperor, Moctecuhzoma, chooses instead to treat Cortés as a guest—at least initially. By the time he realises his mistake, it is too late—for the Mexica people, for their empire and for Moctecuhzoma himself.

Why Moctecuhzoma  chose not to annihilate Cortés and his men is one of those historical mysteries that have fostered much speculation. Mr Rickford gives a feasible explanation for Moctecuhzoma’s actions, presenting the Mexica emperor as a reflective and intelligent man. The author does not shy away from the bloodier aspects of the Mexica culture, but if we’re going to be honest, the Spanish aren’t much better, so driven by their hunger for gold they happily wade through bodies to get it. 

Mr Rickford delivers a gripping read, populated by a vibrant cast of characters. Standing head and shoulders above the supporting cast are Hernán Cortés, an intriguing mix of greed, curiosity, determination and faith, and the ultimately fallible Moctecuhzoma. 

For those who enjoy fast-paced action firmly grounded in historical facts, this is an excellent read, with the one caveat that it is best to read the first book in the series first, (The Serpent And The Eagle) as The Bend of The River starts off rather abruptly, taking off from where the previous book ended.

Still: as something of an aficionado of Latin American history, I can but doff my cap to Mr Rickford and thank him for bringing all this turmoil into such vivid life! 

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Anna Belfrage
 e-version reviewed

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Wednesday, 13 January 2021

A Discovering Diamonds Review of A Painter in Penang by Clare Flynn

Family Saga

It is 1948 and the world is recovering from WWII. In some places, the consequences of the war are irreversible. The colonial world is crumbling, and for those who have spent their entire lives living abroad as representatives of the British Empire, the transformation will not be easy. Jasmine Barrington is sixteen and after years away from the place she considers home, she is finally allowed to return to Penang, an island off the Malay peninsula. 

Jasmine returns to a changed world. Yes, the British still rule what will one day be the independent nation of  Malaysia, but there is substantial unrest. The old world order is no longer valid, and while the rubber plantations remain owned by white planters, the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians want their share of the future. Communist insurgents spread violence and fear, and tensions rise when white planters are murdered by the rebels.

In the midst of all this turbulence, Jasmine is leaving childhood behind. The girl is becoming a woman, and like all teenagers, she is at times self-centred and naïve. She is afflicted by emotions she doesn’t want to have, is frustrated by the fact that men—especially one young man—dance attendance, is just as frustrated when said young man ignores her. And then, of course, there’s her friendship with the Malay driver, which in one scintillating moment becomes so much more—or so Jasmine feels. All of this is beautifully depicted by Ms Flynn and elegantly woven into the volatile political situation.

Over a period of several months, Jasmine will experience everything from first love to betrayal. She emerges somewhat wiser, somewhat bruised. But that, after all, is what growing up entails. 

Ms Flynn delivers an excellent period piece where the geographic, historical and political setting are constantly present without ever becoming over-bearing. At times, the pace lags a little, and at times, Jasmine’s behaviour is enervating—but what teenager isn’t like this? All in all, A Painter in Penang is an enjoyable and very educational read, shedding light on an era that lies so close to our time but is already sinking into the mists of history. 

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Anna Belfrage
 e-version reviewed

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