by Christopher Evans
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Usually when a novel examines a world in which England has been invaded, it focuses on a Nazi victory in World War II. Christopher Evans's Aztec Century, which is set in 1993, is set in a world where the Nazis (apparently) have never existed. Instead, England (and much of the rest of the world) has been conquered by the mighty Mexican Empire, ruled by the Aztecs. In this world, Hernan Cortes betrayed Spain because he fell in love with an Aztec woman. Although some history from that point on is the same (limited colonization of North America by the Europeans, the English monarchy until the mid-ninteenth century) much has changed as well and the world of Aztec Century only resembles our own in superficial ways.
The novel is told from the point of view of Catherine, one of England's royal princesses. When the novel opens, she is living in exile in Wales, but on the evening she attempts to escape to Russia, she and her sister are captured by the Aztecs and returned to London. Upon their arrival, Catherine learns that her father, King Stephen, has recently died of natural causes and plans are being made for her mentally handicapped brother to be crowned King of England. Catherine views the Aztecs as villainous conquerors and sees her brother as a pawn and anyone else who works with the Aztecs as traitors and collaborators.
By using Catherine as a narrator, Evans is able to show a negative attitide towards the Aztecs as well as some of the way the Aztecs operate. However, it also has its limitations. Although pro-English and anti-Aztec, Catherine is completely shielded from the common English citizen and has limited access to the Aztec bureaucracy. Furthermore, Catherine was living in seclusion for the three years prior to her capture, which means that her impression of the Aztecs is three years out of synch with the rest of England's. Although Evans shows some anti-Aztec sentiment in the form of bombings and attacks, the reader is also given the impression that the vast majority of English citizens accept Aztec rule. Furthermore, even though Catherine is sheltered by the Aztecs, little is shown of the Aztec culture and what Catherine does explain is suspect because she never loses her fundemental distrust of the Aztecs.
It would have been nice for Evans to include more scenes which showed the common Aztec or the common Englishman under Aztec rule to provide a counter-point to Catherine's enmity, which almost comes across as paranoia at times. In fact, despite Catherine's adventures from England to Russia to Mexico, Evans provides very little sense of location and general mood can only be inferred on the basis of how much the reader trusts or distrusts Catherine's narrative.
Despite being in the constant presence of her self-declared enemies, Catherine manages to strike up numerous relationships, from Bevan, the Welshman who is captured with her at the beginning of the novel, to Extepan, the Aztec governor of England. Although she initially distrusts Bevan as the traitor who turned her over to the Aztecs, she eventually forms a shaky alliance with him as a link to her former life. However, Catherine does not let many people become close to her, even when they want to, and she rebuffs the Aztecs who make overtures of friendship, even as she attempts to use them to achieve some of her goals, one of which remains her desire not to be seen as an Aztec collaborator.
While Aztec Century is one of the better written alternate histories, as far as not trying to force too many in-jokes on the reader, it could be a stronger book by showing the reader a little more of the differing attitudes and cultures which exist in this world. Fortunately, despite having a narrator who is something less than likable, the majority of Evans's characters have redeeming values which the reader is aware of even if Catherine willfully overlooks them.