Mexico is a product of a complex and colorful history, full of eccentric personalities and a series of wide-ranging political and military leaders. C. M. Mayo uses one of those unexpected moments in the history of that astonishingly versatile country as the basis for her new novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, recreating the land and the time with an exceptionally accurate pen.
Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, Mexico’s political situation was turbulent. After declaring itself an independent monarchy under the aegis of Spain’s King Ferdinand – a plan soundly rejected by Ferdinand himself – a popular military leader named Augustín de Iturbide, known to the people of Mexico as The Liberator, was named Emperor in 1822. Within a year, Iturbide was forced by Santa Anna’s supporters to abdicate despite his popularity with the majority of the population.
Over the next forty years, Mexico experienced more than fifty leaders (including Santa Anna) and an astounding 140 military coups. In 1861, the country was invaded by French forces under the direction of Napoleon III. Vulnerable in its instability, Mexico was an easy mark for the massive well-trained forces of the French army. Wise enough to recognize the need for a central figure of government, Napoleon chose Maximilian of the Austrian Habsburgs to reign as Mexico’s emperor. Despite the seeming irrationality of this piecemeal government, Maximilian and his wife, Charlotte, daughter of King Leopold of Belgium, as the new Emperor and Empress of Mexico were ardent protectors of their adopted country.
Mayo’s novel grows from this union of unlikely protagonists and revolves around Maximilian’s unusual plan for continuity. Despite his youth and his seemingly successful marriage, Maximilian and Charlotte had no children of their own. Every monarchy needs an heir, of course; Maximilian’s solution was to adopt a son: young Augustín de Iturbide y Greene, the grandchild of The Liberator. On the surface, it would seem that the troubled land finally had the stability it had lacked for so long, yet within just a few years, Mexican would again find itself in turmoil.
C. M. Mayo cleverly and faithfully imagines the details behind the facts of this entangled saga. Her characters, based on years of research, are depicted as they might well have been. The author’s fictionalization of Maximilian and Charlotte is thoroughly believable, drawing readers into the minds and hearts of the Emperor and Empress as they struggle to build a country and a legacy. Young Augustín’s parents, Angel and Alicia, torn between love for their child and a desire to secure that child’s future, are the opposing force to Maximilian and equally compelling in their determination to do whatever is best for their child and their country.
Every character, from these key players to the temporary nursemaid and the bodyguard who appears in only a handful of scenes, is fully drawn. Mayo gives depth and respect to each one, whether historical or fully fictional, to create a tale of fierce loyalty and cruel betrayal among people who are, as a whole, thoroughly human and therefore infinitely fallible.
While military and political strategy propels the events, Mayo never allows that to overshadow the more important story of the human tragedies that result. She takes her time and allows the lives of her characters to unfold with suspenseful forays into the possible frame of mind of Maximilian and his strong-willed Empress, the Iturbide family, and the young heir presumptive who is at the center of the tale.
The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire is a beautiful example of historical fiction done properly. Mayo has drawn from the scanty facts and filled in only what is necessary to lead the reader along a logical path of what-might-have-been. Not a quick read by any means, this is nevertheless a book to be savored for its artfully crafted prose and extraordinary characters.