Orellana discovers the Amazon by George Millar
This is a historical novel about the first Europeans to navigate the Amazon river. It’s told from the point of view of Isásaga, a 27-year-old crossbowman who served as Orellana’s scrivener on the journey. In 1541, Gonzalo Pizarro led an expedition out of Quito in search of the “Land of Cinnamon” and the fabled country of El Dorado. After a rough start, (that’s quite an understatement – in the first couple months of the expedition 3,000 natives and 140 Spaniards had deserted or died) Pizarro sent Orellana (aka: “the One-eyed Knight”) and sixty men downstream in search of food for the stranded party. Orellana never returned. When he and his party finally found sufficient supplies they had travelled too far downstream, making a return to Pizarro impossible.
The author describes in great detail the suffering and hardship the conquistadores went through, but it’s hard to feel sorry for these guys. After all, they were just stealing land and possessions which already belonged to other people, people who were tortured, enslaved or murdered if they put up any resistance, all in the name of god and country. How can you claim to have discovered a place where, according to one estimate, 8 million people were already living?
I’ve been to the little extremeñan town of Trujillo where Orellana and the Pizarro boys were born and raised. It’s a sleepy place, about an hour’s drive from Plasencia, with a reputation for having a small town mentality. On the way, you pass through the village of Almaraz, home to an impressive 16th century bridge over the Tagus river, as well as a not-so-impressive nuclear power plant. (That’s one advantage of having lived in the 16th century – you didn’t have to share the planet with nuclear power plants.)
I try to imagine what Trujillo must have been like in the 1500s. It’s easy to understand why boys would sign up for a life of adventure in a foreign land over the everyday routine of harsh village life. And in the early 1500s coffee, tea, corn, tomatoes, and potatoes were all still unknown in Spain. Kill me now.
Anyway, if you enjoy history with a heavy dose of “imaginative accuracy” as opposed to “factual accuracy” (Millar’s terms, not mine), this one’s for you. If you enjoy horrendous descriptions of sickness, hunger, misery, senseless acts of violence, howling monkeys, enormous alligators and giant snakes, check this one out.
1212: Las Navas de Tolosa by Jesús Cano de la Iglesia
Our friend Jesús is a historian and self-taught artist. 1212: Las Navas de Tolosa is his first graphic novel. Six years in the making, it’s an insanely detailed account of the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa which took place in July 1212 between the forces of King Alfonso VIII of Castile and the Caliph al-Nasir. It was a decisive turning point in the Reconquista, the Christian reconquest of areas of the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim rule that lasted eight centuries.
The publisher, Ponent Mon, printed 1,000 copies. Jesús told me the small publisher very rarely does a 2nd printing. They quickly sold out. They printed 1,000 more copies. They, too, sold out. The book is now in its 3rd printing in less than a year, and if Jesús has to sign any more books he’s going to develop carpal tunnel syndrome.
Now go read a book. See ya next time.