Camilla Townsend has pulled off a remarkable magic trick in this book, reconstituting the Mexica empire with an amazing level of detail and sensitivity. It makes the Aztecs feel like a real people, with a vibrant and complex culture, instead of the cartoon figures that I pictured them as before.
Two things stand out to me: One, her account covers the Mexica (and more broadly all Nahua-speaking peoples) before, during, and after the Spanish conquest. The empire centered in Tenochtitlan was not the beginning of these people’s history nor was the conquest their end. Instead, the empire and the conquest were massive turning points, but she emphasizes that the people stretch back thousands of years before it and continue to this day.
Two, Townsend relies heavily on actual, first-person accounts written in Nahuatl by people who lived within a generation or two of the conquest — people whose grandparents were eyewitnesses to the invasion. These accounts allow the Nahua people to speak for themselves, through Townsend, and the resulting picture is vastly different than histories written from the POV of the invading Spanish, or from archeologists who look only at artifacts.
I am not a historian nor do I know much about Mexican history or the history of the Aztecs, so I can’t evaluate this book critically. Still, I can tell you that it’s a terrific history and a well-written story, and it makes the people of the Valley of Mexico come alive, in all their glory, beauty, terror, anger, despair, and resilience.
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