My e-book is still ‘Publishing’ according to Amazon. I imagine later today I’ll have some good news to announce. While we wait, here’s my third selection for my 11-part series on my favourite authors of historical fiction.
#3 – Gary Jennings
Gary Jennings has been mentioned on this blog several times in the last few days. My first exposure to Jennings was at the age of ten or eleven. My father saw I was taking an interest in historical fiction, and he pulled a paperback of Aztec off the shelf and told me to read it. I refused, I’m sorry to say. At the time, I had no interest in New World civilizations. It was three or four years before I eventually read it to humour him, and I remember being stunned that my father had ever suggested I read this thing.
I should preface the following observation with the disclaimer that I love Gary Jennings’ work and I will passionately advocate any adult read it, but the author has a peccadillo that really must be mentioned front and centre: If his characters go fifty pages without having sex, he gets bored. When you consider that his books are all over a thousand pages long, that can get pretty kinky pretty quickly. Aztec starts off with an incestuous pre-teen drug trip, and throughout the course of that book I learned more about what was possible between two or more consenting or non-consenting adults and/or children than I would have believed possible. It was an eye-opening read for a thirteen-year-old, I can tell you. At the same time, Aztec is not written from the perspective of Christian morality, and there is a lot of scandalously fun back and forth between the Mexicatl narrator and the Spaniards he is speaking to on that point. It works amazingly well. The whole story does.
Aztec is the life story of a young commoner in a small town with poor eyesight who defies his parents and follows his dreams to eventually become a wealthy merchant who travels the known world. He is a flawed man who is constantly seeking to better himself, often with heartbreaking results. Every success is won upon the destruction of something he cherishes. When he can climb no higher, the Spaniards arrive and destroy everything he ever cared about. It’s a beautiful tragedy, a slow-motion trainwreck that leaves you gasping for relief. It humbles me as a writer.
Jennings spent twelve years in Mexico researching that book, learning Spanish and Nahuatl along the way. Absolutely everything there is to know about the Aztecs is in that book. I know, because I went to the library after reading it and there wasn’t anything else in all those works of non-fiction that he had not touched on in his novel. It is as clear and as perfect a rendition of the rise and fall of the Aztecs as any historical fiction can produce, and I stand in awe of what he achieved. The characters are all memorable and touching, and even as their world unravels, you want things to work out for them. Of course it doesn’t.I cannot say enough good things about Aztec. After Shogun, it’s probably my favourite work of historical fiction.
My second favourite Jennings novel is Raptor, the story of a hermaphrodite in Dark Ages Europe who falls in the with Ostragoths when they destroy what is left of the Roman Empire. Remember my mentioning kinky sex? At one point the hermaphrodite meets another hermaphrodite. That takes unusual sex acts to a whole other plane. Again, moving beyond the sex, Raptor is an amazing piece of historical fiction, and I believe it is an absolutely unique novel in its setting, time period, and context. It is the definitive take on that time and place in history. I’m particularly taken with the treatment of the supporting characters. Jennings uses his hermaphroditic narrator to distance the reader from the rest of humanity, and that produces some beautiful observations on human nature, on motivations, on what trust and friendship are really based upon.
Last, I would like to mention Journeyer. It is said that when Marco Polo was on his deathbed people asked him to denounce his crazy story about his odyssey to and from Cathay. He claimed, “I’ve only told you half of what I’ve seen.” Jennings took Marco at his word, and he wrote the other half, journeying across Asia in the process to build a plot that has to be read to be believed.
Jennings once said, “I’m a writer. I write not only for a living; I write because I’m a writer.” I believe him. Give his stuff a read. You’ll believe him too.
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