The Hummingbird and the serpent by ES Ramirez starred book review
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STARRED Book Review: The Hummingbird and the Serpent

THE HUMMINGBIRD AND THE SERPENT by E.S. Ramirez is a dangerous and ill-fated sojourn to Moctezuma’s golden empire. Check out what Kathy L. Brown has to say in her book review of this indie historical novel.

The Hummingbird and the Serpent

by E.S. Ramirez

Genre: Historical Fiction / Action & Adventure

Print Length: 396 pages

Reviewed by Kathy L. Brown

A dangerous and ill-fated sojourn to Moctezuma’s golden empire

The Hummingbird and the Serpent isa tense and immersive tale told through the mind and heart of a female military captain, Maria Estrada. She, as well as the entire expeditionary force, face a fate worse than death as cultures collide in sixteenth-century Mexica. 

While many readers may remember something of Cortés’s expeditions to conquer the gold-rich civilizations of the New World, The Hummingbird and the Serpent shares fascinating details and overlooked historical figures such as Captain Maria Estrada. The novelis a wonderful example of historical fiction—engaging characters, brisk action, compelling drama, and historical facts that are totally integrated into the narrative.

Maria is a retired soldier, running a tavern in Havana with her younger brother. Having escaped years of brutal treatment and slavery while a captive of an indigenous tribe, she is in survival mode, doing her best to block out her trauma. But Cortés offers her not only the opportunity for riches, but also for an emotional reset—to face her fears and conquer them. She agrees to a command at the rank of captain on his 1519 excursion to the capital city of the Mexica civilization, Tenochtitlan.

Enroute, they encounter indigenous tribes—enemies of the Mexica and ready to lend a hand. They also acquire another strong woman, Malintzin, enslaved by the Mayans and given to Cortés as tribute. Cortés names her Marina, and she serves a vital role as interpreter as well as mistress to Cortés. “She understood Mayan and Nahauatl. Our guests’ next reaction appeared to be something between anger and stupefaction. Not only had Marina spoken without being told or asked. She had also spoken directly to them, not through Cortés. To make matters more interesting, they seemed to recognize that she was the only person in the room who could understand them. And this made her the most important person in the room…Marina had just promoted herself into the link between Cortés and the rest of the continent.” 

While initially welcomed into the city as representatives of the god Quetzalcoatl by the Mexica and befriended by emperor Moctezuma, Cortés and company are loaded with property, gold, and great respect. However, a degree of skepticism about the identity and nature of these Spanish strangers is always present. And the Spanish have increasing reservations about their safety in what amounts to a gilded cage. The story skillfully weaves the misunderstandings and culture clashes among these civilizations. Eventually, and at the worst possible moment, their fundamental differences in values can no longer co-exist. Violence erupts with devastating consequences for all.  

Told in first person from Maria Estrada’s point of view, the storytelling voice is successful, and the narrative style assured. It is both graceful and twinkles with a dark sense of humor. It is easy to see why Cortés sought out Maria; she has great skills in reading people and their motives, assessing dire situations, and forming bold plans. “We had made it. The first Spaniards to set foot into the Mexican capital. Not a single shot had been fired. But this was only the beginning. For now, we enjoyed the privilege of deities. It would only be a matter of time until religious stupefaction turned into distrust, followed by the realization that we were humans made of vulnerable flesh…” Yet a hidden darkness dogs her as she tries to avoid remembering the brutal experiences of her past. And the repression only allows the triggers to overtake her at inopportune moments. 

All the characters are well-rounded, convincing, and lively. The party members are motivated by gold, yet exhibit pride in their military units and devotion to each other. The Tlaxcalans are allies, but also have their own agenda with the Mexica. Lady Marina, former slave and sudden life partner to General Cortés, quickly adds Spanish to her language repertoire and works diligently for the goals she finds important. 

Like all good historical fiction, the reader learns much about the past: not merely events of political import, but also glimpses into daily life of both Spanish colonists and the indigenous peoples of Central America. 

Told from the Spanish point of view, the Mexica human-sacrifice ritual culture is a key bit of setting, driving the plot in many ways. Although the book does not totally overlook European colonial atrocities, it doesn’t dwell on them. The diseases brought to Central and South America by Europeans are mentioned: in the Spanish view, smallpox is a punishing plague from God on the indigenous people. 

Readers interested in an exciting, character-driven story will enjoy The Hummingbird and The Serpent, as will history buffs. While an entertaining adventure, it contains serious themes with modern parallels, and it would be an excellent book-club selection. 

Thank you for reading Kathy L. Brown’s book review of The Hummingbird and the Serpent by E.S. Ramirez! If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.

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