The Emperor’s Second Wife is the third book in The Rise of the Aztecs series and this is a series that goes from strength to strength. Zoe Saadia has created a world of intrigue, excitement and compelling alliances and invites her readers to immerse themselves in her wonderful stories.
All of Saadia’s stories are steeped in the history and culture of the ancient Americas and, as the stories have developed, I have found myself easily identifying regions and tribes that were, in the beginning, just names that washed over me. This in itself is a tribute to Saadia’s historical knowledge and passionate story telling.
In The Emperor’s Second Wife, the setting for the story moves from The Highlands to Tenochtitlan when Kuini, Coyotl and Dehe arrive there in order to forge alliances against the Tepanecs. The trio are reunited with Kuini’s uncle, the impressive former Aztec Warlord. Most importantly though, we also get to reconnect with Coyotl’s sister, Iztac, who we last saw in The Highlander being married off to the Tenochtitlan Emperor.
This story, more than the others, is one of politics and intrigue as characters jockey to find positions of power after the Emperor is murdered by his Tapanec first wife. Iztac was his second wife but it is the first who assumes power, ruling in the name of her young son. The political situation is volatile and treachery lurks, it seems, around every corner.
Much as I loved the first two stories, the beauty of this one is that it is the turn of the female characters to shine. The series, true to its historical context, reflects a world that is male dominated. Regardless of their status, women are simply “merchandise”. Slave girls can be taken and abused by men as and when they wish and high status princesses, such as Iztac, don’t fare much better. Already married off as a political pawn at just fifteen, as a widow, Iztac is once again in the market for being used to assure favours from leaders in other lands.
None the less, Iztac, Dehe and even the villainous Empress become forces to be reckoned with throughout the story. Iztac and Dehe are inevitably on a collision course due to the fact that they both love Kuini but they are more alike than probably either one of them would care to admit. They are both strong, determined and fiercely loyal. As the men wait for opportunities to depose the Empress, it is the women who move the plot forward and rid Tenochtitlan of the tyrant. Predictably, it is the men who benefit from the power vacuum although the reader is left with the sense that Iztac will always be a guiding force from behind the scenes.
In The Highlander, Kuini and Iztac were young lovers, parted by circumstances beyond their control. The prospect of their reunion then is a thrilling one for the reader. It would seem though that this is a couple who are destined to be star crossed lovers. Iztac’s role is to play a part in the new Tenochtitlan regime while Kuini is a warrior, happiest in battle.
My favourite character in Crossing Worlds was Dehe and my heart went out to her as she had to watch Kuini and Iztac reconnect. However, she is a formidable girl in her own right and connects with a renowned Mayan healer called Kaay, who passes on her skills to Dehe. The relationship between Dehe and Kaay is, for me, one of the high points of the novel. Both prickly, independent characters they none the less grow to care deeply for each other with Kaay taking on the guise of a grumpy mother figure.
While the women are the main impetus within the story, Kuini and Coyotl are forging alliances and we are introduced to Tlacaelel, the illegitimate son of the deceased Emperor and the perfect foil for Kuini. The end of the story is somewhat sombre but we are left with the promise of what is to come. I can’t wait to get started on the next story and I’m guessing Tlacaelal will play a prominent role along with the characters we have already grown to know and love.