Friday, May 12, 2017

War God: Nights of the Witch by Graham Hancock

Makes fantasy out of history
I enjoy reading historical novels, and I have always been fascinated by the pre-Columbian civilizations of America, so I’m always on the lookout for any work of fiction dealing with the Aztecs, the Maya, or the Inca. When Graham Hancock’s 2013 novel War God: Nights of the Witch showed up as a Kindle Daily Deal, I gladly bought it and looked forward to reading it. The book was marketed as a historical epic of the Spanish Conquest, but that turned out to be somewhat misleading, and the more I got into it the more it turned out to be a major disappointment.

The story gets off to a bad start when, in the first few pages, a young witch named Tozi practices the art of magic. This magic is not an authentic form of shamanism or healing arts that might have actually been ritualistically practiced by the Native Americans, but rather real honest-to-gods wizardry like something out of The Lord of the Rings. Right away we are removed from the genre of the historical novel and transported into the realm of fantasy. Later, when the characters pray to their gods, it’s not just an internal dialogue inside the characters’ minds. The gods are real, and they directly influence the course of history. It’s not just the Mexicans who are communing with the spirit world; even the Spaniards receive visitations from St. Peter himself. Aren’t the ancient civilizations of America and their first clash with invaders from the Old World fascinating enough? Is it really necessary to dress up the story with a bunch of mystical mumbo jumbo?

Hancock’s descriptions of battle scenes are exciting and vividly rendered. He is clearly a competent writer capable of telling a story, but the creative choices he makes are rather annoying. The short choppy chapters, each ending in a cliffhanger, brought to mind the Choose Your Own Adventure books of my youth, and the level of character development is about the same. Also irritating is Hancock’s infantile fascination with bodily fluids. Obviously there will be blood in a book like this, but every time you turn a page it seems like someone’s vomiting or soiling themselves. Did Moctezuma really have irritable bowel syndrome, or did Hancock just make that up so he could work a mention of feces into every other chapter?

Probably the most bothersome aspect of the book is Hancock’s myopic depiction of the Mexica (commonly known as the Aztecs). All he shows us of their culture is torture, human sacrifice, and cannibalism. There was much more to their civilization than just murder, but Hancock doesn’t mention their philosophy, arts, sciences, mathematics, or literature. It almost seems as if the message he’s trying to get across here is that the Native Americans deserved to be conquered because they were merely brutal savages. By focusing solely on the murderous aspects of Mesoamerican culture, the conquistadors come across as liberators rather than conquerors. Though the Spaniards are depicted as violent and avaricious criminals, the reader can’t help but feel that they are intended to be the “good guys” in this story, come to save the Mexica from themselves.

Had the book been briefer, these offenses might not have been so irksome, but this novel is a long haul. The conquistadors don’t leave Cuba until halfway through the book, they don’t reach the Mexican mainland until about the three-quarters mark, and they never make it to Tenochtitlan. Surprise! It’s a trilogy! (At the time I bought the book, it was not advertised as such). I won’t be returning for book two.
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