In this debut historical novel set in the early 1500s, two Spaniards shipwrecked in the New World follow drastically different paths as they gradually become part of the Mayan culture.
The novel opens with a group of Spanish explorers adrift in a lifeboat, their ship having foundered on the reefs off the New World. Eventually, their boat finds land in Mexico’s Yucatan, where the native Mayans swiftly imprison them. Of the 13 survivors, only the young soldier Gonzalo Guerrero and the Dominican priest Jeronimo Aguilar last very long amid privation and slavery. The characters offer a stark contrast: Gonzalo, the novel’s protagonist, is headstrong and resists his imprisonment, while Jeronimo dutifully serves his new masters in the hope that his hard work might set a Christian example and thus convert some of the “heathens.” Both escape their initial captors and fall in with another group of Mayans. Gonzalo eventually proves himself a worthy warrior when the group is attacked, and he soon moves up the ranks. He eventually finds himself in a position of some importance and marries Ix Zazil, the daughter of his master, Nachan Caan. Jeronimo remains subservient and is constantly appalled by his captors’ un-Christian actions, but he too eventually progresses, becoming a servant to one of the Mayan chiefs. Robbins adeptly presents unusual (and to modern audiences, horrifying) aspects of Mayan culture. A particularly memorable passage involves Gonzalo mutilating his genitals as a sacrifice to the gods—and, more importantly, as an effort to fit in with his fellow soldiers. His storyline is clearly the more engaging of the two; too often, Jeronimo merely does what readers might expect instead of exhibiting more agency. Still, Robbins is an able plotter, and the eventual meeting between Jeronimo and Gonzalo (now tattooed and pierced and looking very much the Mayan) lends some emotional heft to the story.
A capable historical novel with an unexpected premise that’s likely to engage readers interested in its time period.