Rufin’s third (The Siege of Isfahan, 2001, etc.) is based on the French colonization of Brazil, which inspired Montaigne’s essay “On Cannibalism” and his “myth of the noble savage.”
In 1555, Just and Colombe, orphaned brother and sister, are sent on an expedition to Brazil because it’s believed that they, being children, will learn the natives’ language quickly and become translators or “go-betweens.” The two think they’re setting sail to find their father, a heroic fighter named Clamorgan. Onboard ship, Colombe becomes “Colin” and is treated as a boy, while Just starts fighting and is locked in the brig. Colombe appeals to the expedition’s leader, Admiral Villegagnon, who, it turns out, knew their father and appoints Colombe and Just his aides-de-camp. When the expedition reaches Guanabara Bay (named Rio de Janeiro by the Portuguese 50 years before), it is met by a Norman go-between who has settled among the cannibalistic Indians and is eager to provide the new settlers with alcohol and women. But Villegagnon soon sets strict rules—no more alcohol, women and men must be married—which lead to revolt. Colombe, to learn the language, is sent into Indian land, where the women recognize her sex and introduce her to their customs. She’s drawn to their sensuality and spirituality. Villegagnon invites disciples of Calvin to bring marriageable young women to colonize this area of Brazil, hoping to fend off the Portuguese. But the Huguenots, when they arrive, are even stricter than the Catholics. The two factions split, the Huguenots head back to Europe, and the stage is set for the War of Religions, which breaks out on Villegagnon’s return to France. In Brazil, Just stays on as governor of “Antarctic France,” and Colombe, who continues to build her relationships with the Indians, becomes the successor to their revered European leader, Pai-Lo.
Sprawling and slow, of interest mainly to those with a knowledge of the arcane history of French colonization.