Author: Simon Levack
Publisher: Pocket Books, 2007
Mass Market Paperback, 335 pages
Genre: Historical Mystery, #3 Aztec Mystery featuring the slave Yaotl
Source: Purchased from The Book Depository.
First Line: In my first few days in the slave-dealers' warehouse, I sought to escape my tormentors.
By the time the slave Yaotl no longer tries to escape those tormenting him, he finds himself up for sale. Expecting to be purchased by someone representing his former owner, Chief Minister, Lord Feathered-in-Black, Yaotl is stunned to see that there are two different groups bidding for him. Perhaps he's not slated for sacrifice after all.
Fortune smiles on him, and he is purchased by a former lover, Lily, who has plans of her own. They go to Tetzcoco-- the "second city" of the Aztec Empire, renowned for its poets, artists, and legendary kings. It's also a city torn apart by unrest and filled with spies because there are rival claimants to the throne. Lily's plans go awry after the discovery of a blood-soaked corpse and her arrest for murder. The clock is ticking; Lily's trial will be held in a matter of a very few days. It's up to Yaotl to find the evidence that will prove Lily's innocence-- if only he can evade the lethal traps that are all around him.
Levack's series is one that I wish more people would read. Yes, it does have marks against it in the popularity of book sales: (1) Not only is it an historical mystery, it is set in the last days of the Aztec Empire-- a culture about as far removed from our technology-driven age as possible. (2) It was a violent age, since the Aztecs did believe in human sacrifice. (3) The Aztecs had their own calendar, which is very different from our own. (4) The Aztec language, Nahuatl, dances trippingly over few of our modern tongues. That's a lot of marks against this series, isn't it? Yet, Levack makes the culture accessible for everyone. There are maps, a simple explanation of the Aztec calendar, and a short note about Nahuatl (which he uses very sparingly). They can be referred to as little or as often as needed.
But really all that's needed is for the reader's mental roadblocks to be removed. So many crime fiction fans love solving mysteries in other countries and in other time periods, and that's exactly what this is-- armchair crime solving at its best. Levack sets his scenes so clearly that I feel as though I'm walking the streets with Yaotl-- and Yaotl is a marvelously drawn character. He is a former priest, so he's familiar with all the various classes of people who inhabit the Aztec world. He's a slave, and although there are strict laws about how slaves must be treated, he still has to be devious enough to avoid getting himself in danger. That very deviousness of his leads to quite a bit of humor. Life is serious in Yaotl's world: war, a rigid class system, religious sacrifice... all the more reason for people to find reasons to laugh. In Aztec City of Spies, Levack even gets to poke some fun at his former occupation, since lawyers and a murder trial are involved.
Levack's plotting is meticulous and really showed me what dangerous times these were for the people who lived them. Rival claimants for a throne... and the endless rumors of a strange hairy-faced, pale-skinned people who sailed across the Divine Sea to land on their shores. The Spanish have landed, but the Aztec have no idea how quickly time is running out for them. All Yaotl and the people he cares for can do is to try to survive one day at a time.
If you enjoy historical mysteries that feature a fascinating culture, excellent plotting, and a marvelous sleuth, I urge you to pick up one of Simon Levack's Aztec mysteries. Seeing an occasional word in Nahuatl is no different from stumbling over Scandinavian street names-- trust me, I know this first hand. Visit Levack's website where you'll find sample chapters of his books. See for yourself!