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Conquistador    by Buddy Levy order for
by Buddy Levy
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Bantam, 2009 (2008)
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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Buddy Levy's Conquistador is a thoroughly researched, well presented, and engrossing account of 'Hernan Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs'. My knowledge having been gleaned mainly from historical fiction like Samuel Shellabarger's Captain From Castile, I was fascinated to see Hernan Cortés through Levy's interpretation as an adventurer of course, but also a talented and inspiring military leader, a bold gambler with a genius for political manipulation.

Cortés landed in Mexico in 1519, when Tenochtitlán, City of Dreams, was 'a powerful and highly evolved civilization at its zenith. The Aztecs possessed elaborate and accurate calendars, efficient irrigation systems for their myriad year-round crops, zoos and botanical gardens unrivaled in Europe, immaculate city streets with waste-management methods, astounding arts and jewelry, state-run education, sport in the form of a life-or-death ball game, a devoted and organized military apparatus, and a vast trade and tribute network stretching the entirety of their immense empire, as far south as Guatemala.' Their emperor Montezuma had 'effective dominion over some fifteen million people.'

Reading that in the Introduction, it's hard to believe, even in retrospect, that the Aztecs were conquered. But Buddy Levy takes us step by step through the events and factors that led to Montezuma's downfall - his own and Cortés' very different characters and leadership styles, Aztec belief in Quetzalcoatl, rebels within the Aztec Empire who willingly allied with the invaders, a great deal of persistence and luck on the part of the Spaniards, the advantages that cavalry and naval skills gave them, and - as elsewhere in North America - an epidemic of smallpox against which the Native Americans had no defenses, and which struck them hard when they were already vulnerable.

Conquistador lays out the details of the Spaniards' campaigns; Cortés' relationship with the beautiful and intelligent Malinche and the advantage her language skills gave him in forming alliances; mutiny and treachery amongst the Spaniards; the Aztec rebellion after Montezuma's death; atrocities and brutality on both sides; and the very impressive construction and fifty mile portage of thirteen brigantines used to attack Tenochtitlán by water. Cortés himself almost died on several different occasions and if he had, the conquest of Mexico would probably not have succeeded, at least not then. I highly recommend Buddy Levy's Conquistador as a thoroughly absorbing read for anyone interested in Mexican history.

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