By Gary Oswald
Historical Romances, like all stories set in the past, have a variable level of historical accuracy. Some authors clearly have done detailed research into the time period they have set their romances. Others just want hunky Vikings, Lords and Knights and have no interest in the outside world. The latter viewpoint is fair enough, you wouldn’t really expect a contemporary romance to be focused on the geopolitical state of the world so why should historical romances? Jane Austen, who wrote during the Napoleonic War, famously never once mentioned it in her books.
In Romance fiction fan spaces, the term ‘Alternate History’ is often used for the stories less interested in historical accuracy. Does everyone in your 1800s gentry believe in feminism and the equality of races? Do your Viking Rus raiders wash and groom diligently? Are there Black Nobility and Kings in your European inter-war setting? It’s alternate history. That’s not the focus of the story, don’t worry about it.
This is somewhat confusing to those of us who read both Romance Fiction and Speculative Fiction where the term ‘Alternate History’ means something else. Alternate History as used on this site, is not the abandonment of Historical accuracy in favour of a vague theme park look at the past. Historical accuracy is often the point.
Historical Romances set in an explicit Alternate Timeline, where different decisions meant the world is different, are rare. So I was delighted to find this one. Which is a proper historical romance set in a world where the Spanish Conquest of the Aztec Empire failed. The heroine is La Malinche, the slave who acted as a translator for Cortes and was a key reason for his success, and the hero is Cuauhtémoc, who was in OTL the last of the Aztec Emperors. The author takes advantage of her alternate history setting to create a romance between two people who could never have been romantically linked in OTL.
So I will review it both as a Romance and as an AH Book as someone whose read a great deal of both.
As a Romance it’s charming if unoriginal. The Hero and Heroine pine after each other but convince themselves nothing can happen due to their outside circumstances, there’s misunderstandings, they get together half way through the book, break up near the end and then reconcile on the last page. I enjoyed it but I tend to enjoy that type of thing, I wouldn’t say it was a stand out among the romances I’ve read. It does a good job of making the two protagonists obviously compatible and having them work together which is important but I felt the falling in love stage was rushed.
It is also a Romance between a slave and an Emperor, the power balance is something that both people are aware of but what that means is kind of skimmed over by the Author. We're meant to accept quite quickly that Cuauhtémoc is just nice and really cares about consent and wouldn’t abuse his power and the heroine does stop being a slave half way through the book. Your mileage may vary how much that works for you. Personally, I tend to prefer romances when the power balance is much more equal, though I’m aware that’s often difficult to get in a historical romance.
As a historical book, it’s not bad. The details of the Aztec Empire are pretty good, there’s obviously been proper research into the geopolitical situation. This isn’t ‘Alternate History’ as romance fans would recognise it. And Aztec customs and norms affect the plot and the relationship, they don't have the same problems a medieval European couple would. My main complaint would be how un-Aztec Cuauhtémoc feels. He’s presented as a reformer who is trying to reduce sacrifices and promote women and won’t abuse his slaves. And I get that you probably need him to be those things to be a romantic hero but he seems more like a modern man than an Aztec noble.
But for the readers on this site, the part they’re more interested in will be the Alternate timeline. How does this story use it's Alternate History setting? To an extent it’s difficult for that not to feel like an afterthought. Obviously if you want to write a happy ending in the Aztec empire, the Spanish are the Elephant in the room. By setting this in an alternate universe you get to ignore that and there's no need to think about how we got there.
The story is set years after the Spanish have been defeated so the details are skimmed over which is good because the hints we get imply that the Aztecs had launched a naval counter attack on Cuba and Hispaniola afterwards which would be a difficult sell if the story focused on it. But, that’s not the point of the story. The plot is la Malinche helping the Aztecs make peace with their enemies and reform into a stronger empire that can withstand another attack. And that’s a nice optimistic plot, executed well. I’m unconvinced that the Aztec after gaining horses and guns would be inclined to be less imperialistic rather than more but again that’s because the author needs Cuauhtémoc to be a good man and so rarely has him do anything the reader might find too uncomfortable.
The point of diversion is supernatural, the Aztec Gods send a vision of the future to Cuauhtémoc who then gets to change it. This is at least somewhat the justification for his pacifistic tack though again I’m not convinced that would be the reaction but it serves the plot purposes of removing Cortés and bringing the heroine to the attention of the hero because he sees her in his vision.
But the details of the book are largely irrelevant in themselves. This is a good if not especially memorable historical romance. As in itself it's very readable but not something I feel a great desire to talk about. As proof of concept for a new genre though, I find it very exciting. It makes a convincing argument for the way Alternate Universe settings can allow authors to tell historical romance stories that they could not in a straight historical setting without distracting from those romances.
I hope both that we see more stories like this from Ms. Morganfield and that more Romance writers choose to follow in her footsteps.