OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
Toltec Dawn – by R.J. Hore
Publisher: Fossil Cove Press, Winnipeg, Alberta, Canada, 2023
Cover Art – by D.G. Valdron based on public domain image of Ancient Mesoamerican bas relief.
Columbus never discovered America. Instead, in the 12th century, the Toltecs discovered Ireland.
I’m a sucker for alternate histories. I LOVE alternate histories. The quirkier the better.
Having studied Mesoamerican cultures in university, including a course visiting more than two dozen ancient cities in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, I remain fascinated by those old city-states. I never actually saw the Toltec capital Tula, but I saw the hybrid Mayan/Toltec ruins at Chichen Itza (the oldest buildings on the site are pure Mayan, but the more famous ruins like the Great Ballcourt and the Castillo were constructed by the Maya after they were conquered by the Toltecs) and consequently have tremendous respect for the Toltec nation.
Most of what we know about the Toltecs is the “historic” Mayan and Aztec memories and lore concerning them which was passed on to the Spanish. The Toltecs seen through Aztec and Mayan filters, so to speak. How the Toltecs felt about themselves, apart from sculpture and paintings, is unknown.
So, how to treat them in fiction? The author of this book, R.J. Hore, considered three modern interpretations:
1) – “They do not exist. The Aztecs made them up so they could claim someone important as their ancestors.”
2) – “They were new age magicians who played with crystal skulls.”
3) – “They were a militarized state that conquered most of what is now Mexico.”
Thank goodness Hore went with #3, which is the opinion of legitimate scholars. However, I have a couple of bones to pick in regard to his treatment of Toltec religion, as certain elements contradict what I was taught by Professor Marvin Cohodas at UBC back in the 1970s. But it would be pedantic of me to carp on this. Nobody cares.
Besides, I’m pretty sure Hore picked the Toltecs, as opposed to the Aztecs, precisely because little is known about them. This gave him free reign to speculate on what their culture and power might have become had they been longer lasting and more successful.
As far as the factual record goes, it’s enough to understand that the Toltecs filled a power vacuum between the collapse of the massive city of Teotihuacan (so influential that the Maya in far away Tikal briefly imitated their style of architecture) and the rise of the Aztecs. I wouldn’t say the Aztecs viewed them as direct ancestors, but as a major influence along the lines of ancestral cousins. I would draw a direct analogy with the Etruscan/Roman relationship. So much of Roman culture was derived directly from Etruscan culture (hydraulic engineering, gladiator combat, temple design, soothsaying, etc.) that Roman historians had a hard time pretending Rome had really been Roman right from the get-go. In the case of the Aztecs, they willingly adopted much of the mythology and ritual practices of the Toltecs, such as the Chac Mol reclining figures on which the fresh hearts of sacrificial victims were placed. For the Aztecs, the Toltecs were role models.
Thing is Hore refused to let mere facts get in the way of telling a good story. He has Tang dynasty Chinese merchants contacting the Toltecs and selling them the secret of gunpowder and cannons to account for their rise to world-girdling power. As he puts it:
“I cheated. I extended the life of the Tang dynasty to simplify things for me, brought the discovery of gunpowder into an earlier period, and advanced the Chinese sending out large trading fleets, just to make the story work.”
If you’re going to write alternative history, you might as well go all the way! To criticize any historical aspect of this novel would be pedantic in the extreme. The entire novel is an exercise in vivid imagination, not historical record.
So, as the novel begins, the Toltecs have ruled Ireland for over a century, have been more or less in control of England for about 60 years, have tentative influence over assorted Welsh kingdoms, and try their best to ignore Scotland while contemplating launching a cross-channel invasion of Norman France. You can readily see the possibilities for all sorts of political shenanigans.
As befits the scope of the plot, there are numerous characters; the most important of which are:
Fergus mac Ogma, an Irish seminary student in the abbey of Tezcatlipoca, the God of War. He’s more Toltec than the Toltecs and will do anything to further his ambitions.
High Lord of the Blackened Skull, Overseas High Priest of the God Tezcatlipoca and a religious fanatic who believes he knows better than the Emperor how the conquered territories should be ruled.
Great Lord Black Jaguar Claw, the new Toltec Governor of England dwelling in the Palace of Westminster in London. He is a military novice, in that he believes a percentage of the army garrisoning his province will be sufficient to conquer all of Europe. Only if the Normans and other European powers have generals more inept than he.
Huemac, much-harried Toltec civilian administrator of London. Owes his job to the fact he is a cousin of Topiltzin the Tenth, Great Khan of the Toltecs.
Mixcoatl, the Toltec Commander of the Garrison at St. Albans. He is a decent man, possibly the least ambitious member of the elite and probably the only objective-minded military leader in the Empire.
Bright Macaw, wife of Mixcoatl, and far more sophisticated in the ways of internal Toltec politics and a much better judge of character.
Pacal, an ethnic Mayan who is an indispensable righthand aide and friend of Mixcoatl.
Rowena, a young Saxon peasant girl who despises the Toltecs.
Rhodri Frych, Welsh, Ambassador for his cousin the King of Gwynedd. He’s glad the Toltecs kicked the Normans out of England but doesn’t buy their propaganda that they did it to liberate the Saxons.
Raymond De Bois, Norman knight, emissary to the King of Scotland and the most self-centred, stuck-up, least diplomatic ambassador imaginable.
And there are at least a dozen others who come and go but nevertheless have important roles. The sheer number of characters adds greatly to the reader’s understanding that the Toltec occupation is by no means a simple, black and white phenomenon. There are numerous shades of opinion on the matter, even among the Toltecs, and no unanimity to be had, even when desperately needed.
I would draw another analogy, this one with England after the first century of Roman rule. The country is largely pacified, with numerous locals eagerly adopting Roman ways, yet nationalist feeling lies dormant everywhere and the network of garrisons and occasional demonstrations of military might cannot be stood down. The Romans had to remain vigilant.
In this book the Toltecs are in charge, yet it is not safe for individual Toltecs to travel the highways at night. Toltec religion is the official religion, yet the authorities do not feel secure enough to ban the Christian religion of the Saxons. Most of the time life is calm, if only because people, be they Saxon or Toltec, just want to let matters of contention alone and live in peace. Trouble is simmering frustrations over religious tolerance or the lack of it are a powder keg waiting to be lit. Plus, when you get right down to it, everybody resents the presence of foreigners or outsiders, however you define them. The underlying state of social tension is palpable. Everybody, literally everybody, worries about the future. This keeps the reader turning pages, because expectations are high everything is going to explode at any moment.
Yes, violence, war, and threat of social collapse begin when the Toltecs make a mistake. But, as we all know, wars are won by those who make the least number of mistakes. Naturally, everybody makes mistakes in this conflict, in part due to the fog of war, in part due to personal agendas perverting decision-making. The result is a wonderfully confusing mess wherein everyone makes elaborate plans and then scrambles desperately to cope with plans gone awry. Just like the real world, in fact. This keeps the level of suspense and anticipation quite high, and makes the reader read on and on.
This is not a literary work. There’s no highfaluting language to slow things down. The writing is clear and precise, as vivid as watching a movie designed by William Cameron Menzies (for them as remembers certain classic films). The reader is so drawn to the characters and events portrayed the experience is positively exhilarating. Great fun indeed.
Another thing I like about this book is the manner in which the characters are introduced to each other and interact from then on. There is nothing slapdash or arbitrary about the process. Everybody each character gets involved with are entirely the result of them selfishly (albeit sometimes with the highest motives) pursuing their own goals and attempting to manipulate those they meet accordingly. This is smoothly done. There’s an air of inevitability in the tumbling tumult of events, betrayals and unexpected moments of compassion and loyalty. I’m glad to say the character interaction doesn’t come across as soap opera, but like history in the making.
Despite the fact much of the history and context is purely imaginary, there’s a strong aura of authenticity to the context and feel of this “historical” novel. It rings true, even though it isn’t. When it comes to alternate histories, that’s a sign of superb competence. Exactly the sort of alternate history you want to read.
This novel is what the British call “a ripping good yarn.” I love it. Highly recommended.