BOOK REVIEW: Beneath the Ziggurat
– By Zombie Rob
Within a small non-Aztec principality of 16th century Mexico, our narrator Mateo Alvarez watches as a band of vile and godless Spaniards enter his village. They immediately make their way to the church, seeking out Father Rodrigo with a list of demands, the veil of violence thinly cast over each requirement. They want food & water, a guide & interpreter and brief shelter before they continue on their journey. The Spaniards purport to be part of the liberating force of conquistadors who vanquished the Aztecs in the country, loosening that bloody and oppressive grip from the indigenous populations – so the Spaniards swagger in with a dangerous sense of entitlement. However Father Rodrigo spots almost immediately that this particular shower are in fact gold plundering deserters and therefore their motivations are dubious in the extreme, as will be their morals and principles in the dealings with the townsfolk and villagers they encounter.
They intend to push on to the deserted city of Cacaxtla, which a mysterious stranger has assured them is paved with the gold they so voraciously desire. As Mateo’s village is the first they’ve happened across with educated and civilised inhabitants, its perfect to satisfy their needs and they’ll take with them whatever they want or, as the Spanish leader of this pack of dogs Alonso De Segovia states “the streets will be muddy with Indian blood by morning”. Mateo is discovered eavesdropping on this conversation, is quickly battered and Segovia decides he will fulfil the opening for guide & interpreter they need for their quest. The following morning, with supplies replenished and Father Rodrigo & Mateo brought along against their will, this raggle-taggle band strike out for Cacaxtla. The Spaniards thoughts whirl with promise of untold riches while not sparing a thought as to why this abundantly rich city is deserted – and there’s a REALLY good reason for this…..
I’d normally avoid such a story as I’d assume the context & setting would be beyond me. A historical piece, set in 16th century Mexico simply wouldn’t appeal as a rule – but I’d be a fool to assume this. Its a rip-snorting story of greed & avarice, violence & stupidity, power and concession, all set against such a richly textured back-drop that you can smell the jungle as our gang pass through it. The language the author uses is antiquated to help with the tone but it does not, for a second, exclude the reader. The menace in Segovia’s voice drips from the page, the fear is apparent in Mateo from every nuanced inflection, the hatred Father Rodrigo feels conflicting with his Christian love for mankind can be felt from his first conversation with Segovia. I was included throughout the narrative, and when they finally reach the city they seek, Mateo becomes far more that a narrator – more than a character in the third person to take us by the hand through this tale. He becomes a witness to what will unfold.
This is the perfect short story/novella. The usual restrictions of the short story actually aid the narrative arc because the pacing is beautifully considered. The characterisation is immediate and the author’s players are instantly recognisable and complete. This is skillful writing of a strong and compelling story, and like me, you won’t look up until you’re finished; exhaling and slowly shaking your head in shock.
Get your grubby paws on Dave Dubrow’s Beneath the Ziggurat HERE!