Shadowhawk reviews the fourth novel in the bestselling Pantheon series, this time dealing with a frightening alternate history in which the Aztecs spread out from Mexico and conquer the entire world.
“Lovegrove mixes in his trademark tongue-in-cheek narrative style with a fairly serious tone to deliver a novel that is a good head and shoulders above Age of Zeus.” ~The Founding Fields
The Pantheon novels have long been on my radar, mostly for the reason that I love all the covers, which reflect the contents of the novel very well. I was meant to be reading Age of Odin earlier in the year, for some writing research related stuff, but never got around to it. Age of Zeus, which is the only other Pantheon novel I’ve read, was quite a disappointing read for me, in terms of the big reveal about the gods, and how the heroes go about tackling these supernatural entities. I can best describe that book as perhaps fleeting. It never does settle down to just properly explore the character relationships and the nature of the gods and heroes. Which is why, when I was readingAge of Aztec, I found myself having a much experience since the author appeared to have gotten rid of most of those shortcomings and had delivered a much more satisfying experience.
As with Age of Zeus, in which the Greek Gods returned from some kind of other-worldly contemplative existence to once more take a direct hand in human affairs and dominate the species, the world in the alternate reality/history of Age of Aztec is now dominated by an aggressive and expansionist Aztec Empire. The Aztecs now rule the world, and they crush all rebellion with a heavy hand, no matter its scale. Standing against them in the British Isles is the Conquistador, a mysterious hero who has been working at destabilising the Aztec infrastructure there by killing off priests and Jaguar Warriors alike. He strikes time and time again, vanishing without a trace once his work is done. The authorities are whipped into a frenzy of activity when a priest is found murdered after a continental flight, with no trace of the Conquistador anywhere nearby, and suspicions are voiced that it might be the work of a Conquistador copy-cat.
The first third of the book deals with a renewed hunt for the Conquistador, led by newly promoted Chief Inspector Malinalli Vaughan (Mal for short) of the Scotland Yard. The masked vigilante has so far proven himself to be quite elusive, but Mal has her own ways of finding out who he really is, based on some circumspect methods that are considered illegal. It is an interesting dichotomy of Mal’s character. She’s seen two of her superiors suffer public humiliation and execution, and she is keen to avoid the same fate. It makes her desperate. Driven by her own guilt at having turned in her own brother to the authorities years ago, that desperation is even more intense, since she feels a constant need to justify herself within the Jaguar Warrior hierarchy. Mal is put in the shoes of a character who would typically be male: an old and experienced cop with a penchant for abusive drinking and forgettable one-night stands because of some kind of a dark personal past the character is trying to forget but cannot. Not that Mal and this theoretical male cop are interchangeable, far from it. The narrative and the plot both fit her to a T rather than her being shoehorned in with a different gender. Even given her indiscretions, she is confident, often sure of herself, and she doesn’t let her gender get in the way of things. Unlike Sam Akehurst from Age of Zeus, Mal isn’t a victim of circumstance and she is much more proactive than reactive, which made me like her much more. Her crisis of faith, when it happens, is also much more believable since there are ample hints along the way that something like it may happen. With Sam, it was all too abrupt and never struck me as convincing.
Stuart Reston, multi-millionaire businessman who is one of the elites of the Aztec hierarchy in Britain and secretly the Conquistador, is as much of a likeable character as Mal is, if not more so. As the object of Mal’s investigation almost as soon as she is put in charge, he displays a lot of the flair that I expect of him. What Lovegrove really gets right with him though isn’t that Stuart is this all-confident take-down-the-government type like V from V for Vendetta or like an anti-government Batman, not that either of them are caricatures or anything, its just that Stuart operates on quite a different philosophy. V did what he did out of personal revenge and a need to right the wrongs done by Chancellor Sutler and those under him. Batman does what he does to prevent other orphans suffering from the same fate that he did and because he truly believes he can make a moral difference. With Stuart, its all personal start to finish, the religious suicide of his wife and their son. Under the Aztec religious code, people who offer themselves to the Gods are blessed in their eyes, especially children, a practice that Stuart finds abhorrent in the extreme, especially since his wife took it upon herself to do the same for herself and their kid, without ever consulting Stuart. It is a guilt that Stuart has tried to assuage by striking out against the people in power, to force them to abandon the British Isles.
That informs the first third of the book as the hunt for the Conquistador comes to a dramatic finish, but victory for Mal is snatched away at the very last minute. The focus then shifts to a more global scope of resistance against the Aztec Empire, and Stuart goes all the way to the Anahuac region of Mexico, the homeland of the Aztec people, to continue his resistance there under the auspices of the Mayan rebel group Xibalba. And Mal Vaughan inevitably follows suit, determined to catch her frustratingly elusive quarry. The hunt, as it takes place for the rest of the book, is incredibly compelling. Both Mal and Stuart are taken out of their element and have to live and operate in the Aztec heartland, without much in the way of backup. The Xibalba Mayan nationalists are frighteningly naive in their thinking, although overambitious, and Stuart has to contend with that while faced with his own doubts as to what he is doing now that he no longer has his Conquistador identity to rely on. For Mal, it is a question of running her query down and returning as a hero of her own even though she longer can rely on the rest of the Yard anymore. For Stuart its all about redefining his identity. For Mal, its all about her pride and shattered honour.
The journey that both characters take in the Aztec heartland becomes a commentary on the state of the Aztec Empire, its expansionist policy, its utter subjugation of all foreign cultures, and its hypocrisy with respect to the impoverished/less well-off elements of its own population. When compared to Age of Zeus, Age of Aztec has more going for it because it imparts a very rich cultural aspect to the story and it shows the characters truly changing because of those influences. More so when the location shifts to Anahuac and Tenochtitlan, the novel kicks into high gear and you truly feel that you are reading a heavily-influenced Aztec science fantasy, rather that one which pays mere lip service to the idea. That really is where Age of Aztec is a superior novel to Age of Zeus.
There are a fair few twists to the story, quite similar to what happens in Age of Zeus but there are still some key differences between the two, chiefly the portrayal of the Aztec Gods. The reveal about them is much better handled than it was with the Greek Gods, and I kind of like the approach used, but frankly, I’m not too enamoured with it. I was expecting something much more substantial. The strong fantasy-mythology component I’ve been expecting from the Pantheon novels hasn’t quite yet materialised and I’m not sure how much I like what has.
With the novel being divided into three distinct parts (Mal Vaughan versus the Conquistador, Conquistador and Xibalba, the Aztec Gods), the narrative pace is often quite brutal, and when its not, there is enough engaging cultural commentary and character development to keep the reader hooked. From an overall standpoint, I found Age of Aztec to be quite a good read. It blends several different genres together (science fiction, urban thrillers, God-SF, etc) and its a mix that works. I certainly recommend the novel.