Christopher Evan’s Aztec Century is one of the best alternate history books I’ve ever read.
Aztec Century is set on an Earth where the Aztecs successfully repelled their Spanish invaders and became a conquering power in their own right. The novel is set towards the end of the 20th century, just after they’ve taken over England and have world domination well within their sights. All this made semi-plausible by the existence of a South American plant is a natural solar panel, Cortez aligning himself with the Aztecs, Europe being devastated by a plague bought back by the conquistadors, as well as several other serendipitous events.
Our protagonist is the English princess Catharine, who must find a way to live within her conscience when she is captured by the Aztecs and forced to acts as though everything’s okay, attending public events with a smile and living in luxury. Catherine’s all that a princess ought to be; intelligent, refined, and slightly vindictive. She reminded me of Jane Eyre, and the Bronte references Evans scatters in the texts suggests that this is not coincidental.
Catherine has a love-hate relationship with Extepan, the seemingly moderate Aztec governor of England. Completing the love triangle is Bevan, a dubious Welsh handyman with apparent links to the underground. (Romance is in this book, but romance isn’t the point of it.) Other characters include Elizabeth’s younger siblings the immature Victoria and the headstrong Richard. I realize that I’ve just listed most of the characters in the book, so I ought to mention that Evans has created a compelling cast whose behaviour feels plausible.
Evan’s description of the Aztec world is good as well; although it’s confusing at the start, you soon get the impression that we’re basically dealing with 1993 with more funky pyramids and Aztec motifs. There were lots of nice little details, like how the Aztecs converted to Catholicism (with polygamy), but everyone else suspects that they still secretly sacrifice humans. When Catherine brings one such incident to Extepan’s attention during his attempt to invade Russia he angrily dismisses her, pointing out that similarly brutal atrocities are a regular but unhappy feature of war. A restaurant chain called MexTaco, with it’s iconic golden M, is frequently mentioned as well.
Now that I think about it, Evan’s handled introducing the reader to strange aspects of the book’s excellently. Catherine begins hiding in Wales, spends most of the book in an Aztecified London before visiting their capital. And their capital is wild. So the protagonist is removed from a setting that a reader could recognise, into ones that grow increasingly stranger.
Aztec Century deals with a range of themes and scenarios, and on that basis it would appeal to a whole bunch of people. Science fiction fans will enjoy the Aztec gliders and lazers, fantasy fans will love Evans’ constructed world, romance fans will enjoy the sexual tension between Catherine and her two suitors and historical fans will enjoy how close the protagonists are to world-changing evens. This book is better than anything I’ve read by Harry Turtledove but it isn’t quite as good as Years of Rice and Salt.