In 1524, Pedro de Alvarado entered Guatemala looking for riches; by 1529, he’d subdued the region, largely through wanton atrocities. This novel covers the period from Alvarado’s arrival through his death in 1541. The first narrator is Belehé, who tells the story of being a prince of the local Kaqchikel tribe and a longtime captive of the rival K’iché people. After he’s released, he rejoins his tribe, which is now allied with Alvarado against the K’iché. But the Spaniard’s excesses eventually lead the Kaqchikel to revolt and flee into the highlands. Belehé tells of the years just before and after Alvarado’s arrival, using the symbol-laden imagery of a culture with mysterious gods, and describes the destruction of his homeland in lyrical language (“And when they came, I was frightened, oh, my sons!...They came to warn us of the arrival of the gods”). The second narrator is Beatriz, Alvarado’s wife, whose tale is set during her husband’s governorship of Guatemala. As Spanish nobility, she looks down upon the natives while still recognizing their humanity. Her initial love for Alvarado turns to disgust as she sees what sort of man he is in the New World. The last narrator is Brother Domingo, whose superior, Father Bartolomé, is on a holy mission to convert the local natives. Domingo, torn between the duties of his faith and his own earthly needs, relates the last years of Alvarado’s life as the conquistador goes farther afield in search of glory and gold. Vlach, a practicing psychologist, has clearly done his research for this debut novel; the historical detail is impressive and the settings are vivid and realistic. However, the story doesn’t effectively build toward any sort of climax, which is unfortunate, given the rich material. There are also a few minor slip-ups: Meters are used as measures of distance about 150 years too early, the passage of time is hard to gauge, and the Spanish political situation could have been clearer.
An often enthralling look into a little-known period of history, but one that lacks the dramatic structure for maximum impact.