With thorough research and attention to detail, Frances Sherwood turns the legendary invasion of the Empire of the Sun by Hernan Cortez in 1519 into an epic of human foibles, military advantage and sheer luck, the expedition finally successful in spite of the many errors of the Spanish invaders.
Central to the story is an Aztec princess, Malintzin, sold into slavery by her mother. As a slave, the young woman is noticed by Cortez for her acuity with languages as well as her exotic beauty. Malintzin is invaluable to Cortez, as he leads his troops into the interior, the final destination Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) and the famed ruler Monteczuma.
The barbarians are horrifying to the Aztecs and Mayans, the invaders’ hygiene repugnant and their religious beliefs insensible. Still Cortez embarks upon the march to Tenochtitlan, Malintzin by his side and in his bed, the enterprise based on erroneous assumptions about race, imperialist ideals and the role of women in society. Confused and attracted to this unpredictable Spaniard, Malintzin is a survivor, her fate inextricable from his.
The Spanish have arrived fully armed, the natives unable to match their firepower and incendiary devices. Through inspired Machiavellian machinations, Cortez pits one group against another in service of his ultimate goal, testing his men at every turn, with the instincts and courage of a natural leader.
Although Cortez makes significant mistakes at the cost of many lives, his warlike acuity serves him well, an almost instinctive reaction to danger that eventually accomplishes the inevitable, given the imbalance of resources. Certainly he appreciates that Malintzin is a precious asset, her translating skills critical to the venture.
In the end, Spain is conquered, but those first fitful battles reveal the transitory nature of such an adventure. In this great culture clash, the bloodthirsty ancient gods of Tenochtitlan and the Christian God imposed by the Spanish, the cities are filled with carnage enough to appease any sacrificial requirements. Like a cancer, once Cortez’ troops infiltrate the civilized, if bloody, culture, all are infected.
It is the weight of civilization that turns the tide, the rule of Monteczuma toppled by attrition, smallpox accomplishing what could not be managed by military action, over half the Aztecs destroyed by the disease, drought and famine decimating the rest of the inhabitants of the city. The Night of Sorrows, June 30, 1520, signals a temporary defeat, but, as history proves, the Spanish are victorious.
In Night of Sorrows, Sherwood illustrates the arbitrary nature of war, the fractious nature of Cortez’ endeavors and the mistakes that mar his passage into legend, Malintzin paving the way into the heart of the Empire of the Sun, her love for this inconstant man the cement that binds his dream to reality.