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Book Reviews

The Dark Virgin: A Novel of Mexico

by Oakland Ross

The Dark Virgin is the first of a new trilogy of historical novels by author and former Latin American correspondent Oakland Ross. Called The Night of Songs, the trilogy will span 500 years of Mexican history, beginning with the arrival of Hernan Cortés in 1519.

The Dark Virgin attempts to do for Mexico what Pauline Gedge’s works did for ancient Egypt, and the history of Mexico is certainly ripe for that kind of treatment. The arrival of the conquistadores, the massacres and deadly epidemics that resulted, and the collapse of the mighty Aztec empire are all elements that epic adventures are made of.

The story is built around a travelling merchant named Pitoque, who also happens to be a spy for the emperor Moctezuma. He is sent to investigate the coastal reports of strange white-skinned beings who look like men but are much bigger and hairier and travel on the sea in floating mountains. Their arrival coincides with an ancient prophecy that the god Quetzalcoatl will one day return to Mexico, an explanation the emperor comes to accept. Eventually the Spaniards are welcomed into the royal city – and inexorably, disaster follows them.

The trick to writing good historical fiction is transforming all of the exhaustive research into a story that seems to imitate real life. The Dark Virgin, however, doesn’t quite achieve the necessary suspension of disbelief. For example, Ross describes the sophisticated Aztec culture and the barbarism of their religous practices in great detail, but the reader never gets a sense of how these two extreme behaviours could coexist in the minds of a highly civilized people. The book’s impact is further marred by an epilogue that lists the major historical figures and charts “what they did afterwards,” a technique that works for non-fiction, but one that feels out of place here.