In his 2002 novel, The Dark Virgin, Oakland Ross wrote about the 16th-century conquest of Mexico. The Empire of Yearning jumps forward to the political and economic chaos of Mexico in the 1860s. Maximilian, an Austrian, is on the throne, and Benito Juárez, the liberal president, is trying to gather the strength to take over. Napoleon has provided military forces. Basically, the country is a mess.
At the centre of the novel is Diego Serrano, a one-armed poet. His best friend, Baldemar Peralta, attempts to assassinate General Leonardo Márquez in a comically bungled sequence that kicks off the book with a peculiar combination of humour and pathos. The novel blends the political and the personal, and the fictional Serrano treads a fine line between warring factions as he figures out where his true loyalties lie.
The Empire of Yearning is bursting with intrigue and violence. Maximilian and his wife, Carlota, are childless and need an heir. Juárez needs guns. Baldemar wants revenge for the murder of his uncle. The church and state each wants control, but power remains elusive. Conservatives clash with liberals. Mexicans, Europeans, and Mestizos all vie for power.
As its title suggests, the novel’s theme is yearning: characters, both fictional and historical, are driven by appetite, be it political, economic, or sexual. Ross has marshalled gripping material, but character development is limited, and the plot frequently verges on the melodramatic.
The author clearly shows the extent to which one’s circumstances of birth affect one’s life, but it’s difficult to bond with characters who race from one scheme to another, leaving general destruction in their wake. The female characters are particularly challenging in terms of believability, but then they are mostly at the mercy of men who try to dominate them. The plot chugs along, delivered in short sentences that convey information but not much flavour.