Review: Five Dances with Death by Austin Briggs

I’m on a quest to read as much Aztec-related fiction as I can find, to get a feel for what other authors have done and learn a bit–to help me in my own writing–and since much of it doesn’t get a whole lot of attention, I’d like to start reviewing these works I read on the blog. I’d like to do one a month if possible, and if you know of any books you’d like to see reviewed, drop me a line–even if its your own book (though I’ll make no promises to review it). To get started, I’m going to reprint some reviews I’ve already posted on Goodreads.

Mostly I will focused on how well authors use the source materials of the mythology and history versus stereotype, but writing style and skill will be addressed as well when necessary; after all, poor writing can kill even the most intriguing of ideas. I’m not making distinctions between traditionally-published books and self-published ones; I’ll read either kind.

So, without further ado, onto the review!

Five Dances with Death

Title: Five Dances With Death

Author: Austin Briggs

Publisher: Helvetica House (sp)

Pub Date: 2011

258 pages

My rating:  5 stars

Genre: historical fantasy

From the back cover:

In the days before the Conquistadors, Xicotencatl (Angry Wasp) is fighting to keep his family and his small Aztec nation alive.

Slavers have kidnapped his daughter. His wife has turned to powerful sorcery. His people have challenged Montezuma’s dominance and now face extinction. And the Spaniards have begun their march inland.

Now Wasp must rely on his military prowess, wit and even dark magic to regain his family and protect the independence of his nation, as he begins a desperate journey that will forever change the fate of the Aztec people.

I wasn’t expecting much going into this, with it being self-published and all, but I was very pleasantly surprised. I don’t have much trust in the quality of self-published stuff, but I’m willing to give anything about Aztec history and mythology a chance, so I downloaded a sample to see if it was something I could like. The writing style and pacing convinced me to buy. And I ended up quite enthralled with it.

Really, there’s isn’t much to not like about this book. The research shines through elegantly and is rarely delivered in clunky ways; it pretty much blends seamlessly in with the story. I wasn’t overly fond of Angry Wasp in the beginning and there are some inconsistencies with his character (like him having no concept of rape as a tool of power…yeah, not buying that. He’s a man of power who’s fought in many wars and seen horrible things. Him not agreeing with its use, yes, but not realizing it could be used that way, no.), but he grew on me after a while. At no point did I feel bored with the story and was disappointed that there was no more for me to read once I got to the end.

I would have preferred the author use the actual Nahuatl names for the cities and the historical characters, such as Moctezuma the Younger and Cuauhtemoc, but being familiar with the names, it’s just a personal preference. I would have also have preferred to get the full 5 parts in one book rather than broken up, since this really isn’t a very long novel, and if each part is a similar length, it’s still nowhere near as long as Aztec. It does break at a good point though, and I will be looking for the rest of the installments.

Finally, the author calls this a “paranormal”, but I think it’s closer to fantasy than paranormal. The magic is concrete with rules governing it, and it’s taken as matter-of-fact and accepted in the culture as portrayed. And Angry Wasp uses it a lot and gets himself in trouble with it. And the god Tezcatlipoca is an actual character in the book. It might be nitpicking, but it’s the difference between say X-Files (paranormal) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (fantasy). I don’t mind that it’s more fantasy than paranormal, since I love fantasy and am more inclined towards it than paranormal, so the fantasy elements didn’t in any way impeded my enjoyment of the book. If anything they enhanced it.

Note: the author was planning four more installments when I first read this, but in the three years since then, there’s been no movement on that front. Readers should be aware that this is not a complete story, so it might not appeal to those who are wary of incomplete series. I’m still hopeful that Briggs will continue the series at some point in time.

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