Synopses & Reviews
Now in paperback, from the internationally bestselling author of When We Were Gods comes a sweeping historical novel about the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the extraordinary woman who brought Montezuma to his knees. The controversial life of the Aztec woman Malinali is one of the enduring legends of Mexico. She is at once reviled as a traitor responsible for the destruction of the native people, and honored as a heroine and symbolic mother of a mixed-race nation. Yet her extraordinary story has never before been fully told by a novelist, until now. A high-born Aztec, Malinali's father was killed by Montezuma's men and she was sold into slavery as a child. But despite a life of hardship, Malinali was always mindful of the fate prophesied for her at birth. In the year One Reed, the god Quetzalcoatl--the Feathered Serpent--would return. And in that cataclysm, Malinali has been told, her destiny--and her desire for revenge--would be fulfilled. In Feathered Serpent, Colin Falconer brings the Aztec empire to life in blazing color. He examines in riveting detail the life of Malinali, who transcended her role as Cortes's translator and consort to become a fiery agent of history against all odds.
The triumphant, controversial life of the Aztec woman Malinali is one of the great and enduring legends of Mexico. A high-born Mexica heiress, she was sold into slavery as a child, and it was as a slave of the Maya that she met the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. To her, and many of the Mexica, Cortés, with his ?owing beard and pale skin, was Feathered Serpent, the god whose return to earth foretold the end of Montezumas fabled empire. The daughter of a prophet, Malinali knew her fate lay with Feathered Serpent and his invaders. To this day she is reviled as a traitor by Mexicos native people, but is also honored as a heroine and symbolic mother of a mixed-race nation. This is her story—and the story of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, which for better or worse changed the Americas forever. In Feathered Serpent, Colin Falconer brings the Aztec empire to life in blazing color and gives voice to the incomparable Malinali, who transcended her role as Cortéss translator and consort to become a fiery agent of history against all odds.
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Colin Falconer is the author of When We Were Gods
and three other historical novels, which have been published in many languages throughout the world. A former journalist and native of London, he now lives with his family in western Australia.
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
The controversial life of the Aztec princess Malinali is one of the great legends of Mexico. Sold into slavery to the Spanish adventurer Cortés, she was at the conquistadors right hand as he toppled Tenochtitlana, the capital of Aztec civilization, destroying spectacular temples and palaces and permanently unraveling a magnificent center of cultural achievement. Both reviled as a traitor responsible for the destruction of native people and honored as a heroine and symbolic mother of a mixed-race nation, Malinali enjoys a dubious place of honor in Mexican folklore. Yet her extraordinary story has never been told until now.
In Feathered Serpent, internationally bestselling author Colin Falconer paints an explosive, unforgettable portrait of the Aztec nation in all its glittering intricacy, the Spanish conquest in all its ruthless bravado—and the darkest, and goriest rituals of each empire. At the center of this blaze of color, Falconer places Hernán Cortés and Ce Malinali Tenepal, two proud, determined, and power-hungry people who see in each other the key to a bold new future.
1. When we first meet Norte, hes considered by his companions “a plague carrier, incubus of a contagion worse than any black-blistered pestilence known. . .” What is this contagion? In what ways do the Spaniards attitudes toward him change in the course of the novel? Does Norte himself evolve, and if so, is it for better or worse? Why does he bother to carefully explain Indian battle tactics to the Spaniards who have treated him so poorly?
2. Malinalis father described Feathered Serpent like this: “He was very wise and so gentle he would not kill any living creature or even pick a flower from the ground. He taught his people the art of healing and how to watch the stars move around the sky.” Yet Malinali is most enthralled with Cortés whenever he is enraged or on the brink of violent warfare. How is it that she believes this vicious warrior is her gentle god?
3. Benítez and Norte constantly clash over the notion of barbarism. Benítez finds cannibalism and human sacrifice utterly intolerable, while Norte argues that warfare in the name of the Christian god is equally barbaric—and perhaps more so, since it seems inextricably linked to the quest for gold. Do you think Falconer is promoting a political opinion here? If so, is it one that can be translated into a modern setting?
4. When Malinali asks herself, “And if a god may find his way inside a man, could the divine not also find a warm place inside the heart of a living woman?” is she musing about the Virgin Mary, to whom Cortés has just dedicated a shrine, or is she referring to herself? Do you think Malinali is motivated by a desire for personal glory or does she truly see herself as Cortéss servant?
5. Cortés is a master of manipulation who gets people to do his will by removing all other options. Where can you find examples of this tactic?
6. Who is Smoking Mirror? Why is Motecuhzoma convinced that Cortés is Smoking Mirror? Why is Malinali convinced that Aguilar is Smoking Mirror? If we define Smoking Mirror as any powerful force of confusion and obscurity, could you argue that Malinalis father is perhaps the real Smoking Mirror in the novel?
7. Of Cortés, Malinali, Benítez, and Norte, whom do you consider the most tragic? The most misguided? The most victimized? The most righteous? With whom do you identify the most?
8. Why does Malinali call Rain Flower “the nagging doubt, the thorn pressed into the sandal, the mosquito whining in the darkness, disallowing all rest?”
9. Motecuhzoma forecasts that Cortés will betray Malinali. Why does she listen to him, when she considers him both a pathetic fool and her enemy? What do Motecuhzoma and Malinali have in common?
10. Benítez is a smart man, a peace-lover, and the classic good guy trying to act tough in a war situation he finds terrifying. He recognizes Cortéss weaknesses and his corrupt nature, yet he cant help celebrating Cortéss the mighty conqueror: “Today this cheat, this schemer, this thief, has made me more than I am, and I will always be grateful.” How do you explain this dichotomy? When does Benítez prove to Norte that he (Benítez) is a just man?
11. Throughout the novel, Malinali skews the translations between the Spaniards and the natives, both to make culturally incomprehensible ideas palatable to each side, and to further her own agenda. Discuss the use of skewed translation as a primary theme of Feathered Serpent, particularly in the areas of religion and history.
12. When Malinali single-handedly instigates the massacre of the Cholulans, she feels for the first time the “burden of the dead” as a “crushing weight” on her chest. Its only after this that she admits to herself, “Without his protection, I am a heart roasting in a brazier; without the means to realize my fathers promise, I have nothing to live for.” What frightens her more: her ability to cause mayhem, or the possibility that shell end up tending a hearth like a common woman? How has she survived this long without realizing the human cost inherent in her plan?
13. What do you make of the provocative quotes at the beginning of sections three and four: “The pope must have been drunk” and “If theres Spaniards in heaven, I dont want to go there”?
14. Of sleeping with Cortés, Malinali says, “I entwine with my god, my destiny won.” It seems significant that she uses the word “won” rather than “fulfilled”; throughout the book, she struggles to forcibly shape her destiny or to “win” it through hard work. How does this attitude toward destiny differ from the typical one?