Mixtli: ...And I concluded with the words I had heard in various languages everywhere:
"The Azteca were here, but they brought nothing with them, and they left nothing where they went."
Aztec is a 1980 historical fiction novel written by Gary Jennings. It is the highly lengthy life story of a noble Aztec (more properly Mexica) man named Mixtli, or "Dark Cloud." After the Spanish Conquest, Mixtli is asked by the Bishop of New Spain to tell his life story to a group of friars who are recording his story for the King of Spain. The novel is notable for being one of the first ever depictions in media of the Aztecs as heroes, rather than villains, though certainly there are plenty of both among the Mexica pre-Conquest. It is also notable for not shying away from graphic depictions of both sex and violence (and sometimes both at once), as might be expected from a society like that of the Mexica.It was followed by two sequels by the original author, Aztec Autumn (widely considered to be as good as the original up until its abrupt and lackluster ending) and Aztec Blood. The series was then continued after the author's death, though the later works are not as well-known or as good. Aztec Autumn follows the adventures of Mixtli's son Tenamaxtli as he attempts to get his revenge on the Spaniards.The original novel provides examples of:
Abusive Parents: More on the maternal side, but both are extremely demanding on their children, even by Mexica standards.
Mixtli and Tzitzi's mother punishes Tzitzi for masturbating by rubbing chili powder into her vagina. Mixtli speculates on whether this may have caused her to become so nymphomaniacal in later life.
Achilles in His Tent: An interesting inversion: whenever Mixtli suffers a Heroic BSOD, he tends to leave and go wandering, rather than stay at home.
Aerith and Bob: An in-universe example: Almost everyone in the various Mexican nations is named for some concrete object or action, such as Dark Cloud, Blood Glutton, etc. So when Mixtli first learns that one character from another nation has a name that means simply "Always," he is understandably taken by surprise.
Anonymous Benefactor: The person who gives Mixtli the trade goods needed to start his dream of becoming a traveling merchant. He at first assumes it's Nezahualpili.
Anyone Can Die: If you like a character at all, be sure that they will die in an unusually cruel way.
Archer Archetype: Arrow Knights are noted to be given the rank of Knight in the Mexica army not for the number of kills and captures they have made, but by how well they can use the bow and arrow.
Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: The Mexica hate the Spaniards because the latter have slaughtered countless civilians, forced an alien religion upon the Mexica people, disrespected the Mexica traditions and culture, and don't bathe.
Badass Grandpa: For someone who considers himself "a bag of wind and bones," Blood Glutton certainly qualifies. There's a memorable scene early in the story where he realizes a band of "travelers" are actually bandits and singlehandedly sneaks up on and decapitates the ones waiting to ambush Mixtli and party, all without alerting any of the other bandits until it's just the bait-ones left alive. He then presents the surviving bandits with the heads of their comrades and demands they eat them. They're so terrified, they listen.
Blood Glutton: I said EAT!
Been There, Shaped History: Mixtli himself, although subverted in that most of the pre-Conquest events he ends up being part of are not common knowledge to the majority of readers, but were very significant to the Mexica and other nations of the area.
Also Chimali, to Mixtli's personal life. That guy shows up EVERYWHERE.
Big Bad: Lord Joy for the "childhood arc," Chimali during the "traveler arc," and Cortez (duh) for the "conquest arc."
Big Damn Heroes: Intentionally invoked by Blood Glutton during a bandit attack. Also, averted by Narvarez and his troops, who at first seemed like this to the Mexica but, thanks to the Foregone Conclusion, couldn't be. Also averted during Mixtli's "war" experience. He catches the Mixteca's biggest war hero by hiding behind a bush and cutting off the Mixteca's feet—a rather ignoble ending to a military career.
Bilingual Bonus: Plenty of random Nahuatl and Spanish is thrown around, although the Nahuatl is at least fairly easy to infer through context.
Black and Gray Morality: On the one hand, we have the Mexica people, who have levied massive tributes from the surrounding villages, performed human sacrifices almost daily, and have made Mixtli's life a living hell on more than one occasion. On the other, we have Cortez and his troops, who have committed multiple acts of unprovoked slaughter, abused the hell out of Montecuzoma's hospitality, and show zero tolerance for any of the Mexica religious rites.
Break the Haughty: If ever things seem to be going a little too well for Mixtli, you can bet all the gold in Tenochtitlan that some horrible catastrophe will befall him within the next few pages.
Brother-Sister Incest: A large part of Mixtli's "childhood arc" is about the sexual relationship that Tzitzi instigates with her brother. It does not end up well for her.
Bury Your Gays: Averted. While the Mexica themselves hold homosexuals in contempt (considering them "unmanly," the fact that Chimali and Tlatli are gay ends up having significant impacts on the plot.
Also important in the sequel.
Butt Monkey: Mixtli's slave Cozcatl, as well as (pre-Conquest at least) Malintzin.
Cannot Spit It Out: Beu Ribe's refusal to admit her feelings for Mixtli leads to a series of horrible misunderstandings between them for most of the second half of the book.
Chekhov's Gun: Mixtli's burning crystal/monocle thing. It becomes one of his son Tenamaxtli's most prized possessions in the sequel.
Chekhov's Skill: Mixtli's ability to read and write the Mexica word pictures, his ease with mastering unfamiliar languages, and his artistic ability will all impact his life, for better or worse, once the Spaniards show up. This also applies to Malintzin (Chekov's Gunman), who learns Spanish early on.
Chick Magnet: Mixtli, to almost ridiculous levels. Seems to run in the family as well, if the sequels are any indication... This is common to all Jennings' main characters, making them Marty Stu, to a point.
Cruel and Unusual Death: It's the Aztecs, what do you expect? But a special mention goes to Mixtli himself, for his unique method of taking revenge on the priests who used his daughter as a human sacrifice.
Curb-Stomp Battle: Both sides get one: La Noche Triste for the Aztecs, and the Siege of Tenochtitlan for the Conquistadors.
Darker and Edgier: Unusual for a book that starts out Dark And Edgy to begin with, but by the time Cortez shows up, the book has become positively Pitch-Black And Razor-Sharp.
Dark Secret: The cacao-bean man and his revelation of what really happened to Tzitzi.
Deadpan Snarker: Mixtli, often, especially to the Spanish priests transcribing his story. Also, the old soldier Blood Glutton gets his share of snarkiness as well:
Blood Glutton: (when Mixtli embraces him) Unhand me! Are they enlisting cuilontin now? To kiss the enemy to death!?
Depraved Bisexual: Jadestone Doll, a noblewoman. She is Mixtli's first exposure to lesbian sex and takes multiple lovers of both sexes... murdering them and having their flesh boiled off before their skeletons are used as the foundation for statues when she grows bored with them.
Duel to the Death: Mixtli vs. Chimali. Also, Armed Scorpion, who was given the option of fighting on the Battle Stone instead of being sacrificed. It's almost an embarrassment when he calmly defeats four warriors—despite Mixtli earlier cutting off his feet.
Dull Surprise: Mixtli sees most of the sacrifice rituals this way. Then again, he was raised in the culture, so it's probably Justified.
Also the description of Chimali's statue of Coatlicue (mother of Huitzilopochtli): she has clawed feet, a skirt made of snakes, wears a necklace of human hearts and hands, and rather than a head, two serpents' heads meet to make her face.
Everything's Better with Rainbows: During one of his trading ventures, Mixtli meets a crystalsmith who shows him a prism. Mixtli is mesmerized. Rainbows, which Mixtli calls "the mist of the water jewels" appear behind Tzitzi after Mixtli eats a Magic Mushroom she stole from the temple.
Foil: To Mixtli, arguably Chimali and the other Mixtli.
Foregone Conclusion: And done quite powerfully, too. From the moment Mixtli first hears about the great "winged houses" on the eastern sea, you just know all of the places and characters and cultures you've come to know and love are doomed within a few years.
Not to mention, Mixtli is being interviewed by Conquistador-era Spanish Christian Priests. Mixtli being sentenced as a heretic is subtly on the horizon from the start of the book, despite that the King of Spain appears to think otherwise.
Gladiator Games: The elderly Nezahualpili challenges young and athletic Montecuzoma to a ball game between the two of them, with the stakes being leadership of the Triple Alliance shortly before the arrival of the Spaniards.
Gods Need Prayer Badly: The Mexica priests believe this, and panic when Cortez destroys Tlaloc's shrine. Unfortunately for the Mexica, Cortez isn't speared by lightning for doing so.
Hufflepuff House: Tlacopan, the third member of the Triple Alliance. Tenochtitlan and Texcoco both play important roles in the plot and are home to Mixtli at various times, but Tlacopan is just kinda there. Lampshaded near the end of the book, when Tlacopan's role as the third member of The Triple Alliance is explicitly spelled out for the readers...even though 700+ pages have already passed. It's just THAT unimportant.
Truth in Television: Historians of Aztec history have noted that Tlacopan was indeed somewhat of a puppet state, keeping balance between the two more powerful cities.
Europeans Are The Real Monsters: The Spainards, both during the conquest arc and during the pre-chapter excerpts, are portrayed as far nastier than the Mexica are, for all their supposed superiority.
I Found You Like This: After Mixtli is attacked by bandits during one of his Heroic BSOD wanderings, he wakes up in the care of Zyanya and Beu Ribe. He is, understandably, completely confused.
Insistent Terminology: Mexica, not Aztec. Mixtli is also constantly stopping to remind the friars recording his story how ridiculous and utterly nonsensical the Spaniards' new names for places really are. (Example: Texcala is turned into Tlaxcala, which means tortilla. And another pretty name gets changed to Cow Horn.)
Kick the Dog: Happens repeatedly to Mixtli, especially regarding his ultimate fate. See Break The Haughty above. Also, arguably done to the Mexica as a whole by the Spaniards.
Living Labyrinth: How the Revered Speaker of Texcoco executes his enemies during the second arc.
Loads and Loads of Characters: For starters, we have: Mixtli, Tzitzitlini, Chimali, Tlatli, Head Nodder, Blood Glutton, Cacao-bean man, Cozcatl, Jadestone Doll, Nezahualpili, Ahuitzotl, Red Heron, Lord Joy, Huexotl, Black Flower, Xococ, Something Delicate, Armed Scorpion...and that's only the first two arcs.
Love Makes You Evil: Chimali and Tlatli are gay lovers, but Tlatli gets involved in Jadestone Doll's murderous way of covering up her affairs. When her infidelity/blasphemy/serial murders come out, Tlatli is executed for knowingly being involved. Chimali promptly vows revenge on Mixtli for not intervening to save Tlatli, and sets out to make his life hell however he can. Disguised as a travelling priest, he midwifes the birth of Mixtli's first child (on Beu Ribe and Zyanya's mother) and deliberately drags things out so that mother and child both die. He ambushes and castrates Mixtli's servant boy Coxcatl because he is Mixtli's friend and Chimali assumes Coxcatl is Mixtli's sexual partner. Then, even after Mixtli has blinded and muted Chimali for this, he gets caught in a flood and the kind-hearted Zyanya tries to save him, resulting in her being crushed to death and leaving Mixtli a widower with an orphaned daughter.
Lucky Seven: The book can be divided up into seven clear "arcs:" Mixtli's childhood, his work for Jadestone Doll, the trading journeys south, his married life with Zyanya, his post-marriage life in Tenochtitlan, the arrival of the Spaniards, and his old age post-Conquest.
Mayincatec: Averted. The Incas (correctly) don't appear at all and are mentioned by the Spaniards only once, the Mexica are a distinct culture that is the focus of the novel, and Mixtli visits the clearly different Maya people on at least two occasions.
Meaningful Name: Names are very important to the Mexica, so often Mixtli will pause his story to reflect on how well a newly introduced character's name ended up fitting their actions. Some examples: Blood Glutton is a hardened warrior; Beu Ribe means Waiting Moon (she dies a virgin and reflects on her name at one point); Tzitzitlini's name means The Sound of Small Bells Ringing. Mixtli's own name (Dark Cloud) is meaningful in that he brings "stormy" consequences and luck to most people he loves. A subversion also happens with the slaves, who are given very lofty names that belie their station (such as Gift of the Gods and Cozcatl, whose name means Jeweled Collar).
Monumental Battle: La Noche Triste and The Siege Of Mexico Tenochtitlan, both taking place in the biggest city in the world at that time.
Monumental Damage: The Spaniards smashing the great Templo Mayor during the final siege of the city, which was Truth in Television. Visitors to Mexico City today can see the foundations.
Moral Myopia: Displayed by both the Christian monks who are recording Mixtli's story and Mixtli himself. In the former, there are plentiful examples, such as the priests being disgusted by many acts that Mixtli references but not even batting an eye at the atrocities committed against the Mexica by the Spainards, or their dismissal of the plagues that they have brought to the vulnerable Americas as simply "God's work". Mixtli's most prominent act is the fact that, while he waives off anything "wrong" with a Human Sacrifice he mentions early in the books, he goes berserk and kills the priests responsible when his own daughter is taken as a sacrifice, though this may be justified since the priests never asked permission before performing the sacrifice in question.
Narrative Profanity Filter: About 99% of the time Nahuatl words are used in the book, you can bet they're describing some sort of obscene sexual term. Averted later on, when Mixtli mentions that the first words he hears of Spanish was an extremely vulgar sentence...given to us in plain English!
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Kindhearted Zyanya tries to save a blind, mute beggar during the flooding of Tenchtitlan, only to be swept away and crushed to death trying. Making things worse, the beggar, who dies himself, is Mixtli's old enemy Chimali, who had earlier killed Zyanya's mother and her newborn half-brother on purpose, and so manages to get the last laugh by killing Mixtli's beloved wife, even if he dies in the process.
Not Me This Time: A humorous example: Mixtli has by this point become so well-known for his sexual exploits that when the Bishop returns to hear the next part of his tale, Mixtli remarks:
Mixtli: Dare I suppose that Your Excellency joins us today expecting to hear how I ravished the entire female population of Zaachila? No? If, as you say, it would not surprise you to hear it, then let me really surprise Your Excellency. I did not once touch a woman there.
Reinventing The Telephone: Mixtli, with the help of a crystalsmith in one of the southern lands, invents the magnifying glass and, later, the monocle. In the sequel, Mixtli's son Tenamaxtzin reinvents grenades, among other things.
Royals Who Actually Do Something: Every single Mexicatl from the nobility must be this, even commoners who provide outstanding services to the empire can earn a noble rank, typically through prowess in war. Mixtli eventually becomes one.
Shown Their Work: And how! Practically everything except Mixtli himself has some basis in Mexica history. (Yes, even Jadestone Doll's..."dalliances.") Not to mention every bit of Nahuatl, Mexica culture, warfare, government...heck, it would probably be easier to list everything that isn't.
Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Blood Glutton continually remarks during their journey in the third arc that Mixtli is giving away so much of their trade goods for free that they won't have anything left to sell.
Aztec Autumn provides examples of:
Distracted by the Sexy: Tenamaxtli spends quite a long time at the Islands of the Women, and only returns to the One World to continue his fight against the Mexica when a woman's death reminds him of his original quest.
Enemy Mine: Tenamaxtli uses this to his advantage in order to get all of the previously warring Yaki tribes to fight together against the Spaniards.
Expy: Tenamaxtli might as well be a carbon copy of Mixtli from the original, though there's a good reason for that. His cousin Ameyatl plays a similar role to Tzitzi, Cricket might as well be an expy of Zyanya, and Yeyac is one of Chimali, among many others.
Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Even moreso than the original. Tenamaxtli getting the monocle and burning crystal: arranged by the gods or mere coincidence? Tiptoe's "pregnancy:" was it really some kind of monster or just a normal child? Was Gn'da Ke really an ancient, nigh-immortal woman or just a Yaki who shared the name and intentions? (Her bizarre death doesn't help this one at all). And Yeyac's sudden recovery, even with the ordinary explanation, still seems too convenient...
Red Herring: For all the setup and characterization Uno and Dos are given, they appear in the book for all of about five seconds despite all of the potential they showed. Which is too bad, because they are very interesting and entertaining characters.