I first picked up The Highlander about a year ago and stopped after the first chapter. I am a big fan of Zoe Saadia but the book just didn’t click with me. I put it down and came back to it only a few weeks ago. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t stop reading the book once I picked it up again and finished it in one sitting.
In retrospect, the reason I didn’t like the first chapter is totally on me. I enjoyed Saadia’s Pre-Aztec series immensely and I assumed those characters would be the principal protagonists in the Rise of the Aztec series. Consequently, I was a bit confused when the first chapter introduced a bevy of characters who had never shown up in the Pre-Aztec trilogy.
This is a silly reason to dislike a book opening, the Pre-Aztec series and Rise of the Aztec series are distinct book series so there was no real reason for me to significant narrative overlap, and I am glad I put aside my initial dismay to give the book another go. I have a strong interest in Mesoamerican history, I write about it and I read about it, so I am naturally drawn to Saadia’s work. However, what I like most about her novels is just how accessible they are.
It helps, of course, if readers are familiar with historical figures like Tezozomoc and Nezahualcoyotl, but it is by no means mandatory. If anything, I think readers who are not familiar with these historical figures may enjoy Saadia’s work a little bit more since they will have less ability to predict the twists and turns of the plot. Whether or not readers are familiar with the individuals in the book, I think most readers will find their motivations understandable. This is the goal with every fiction author of course, but I think it’s worth noting that it’s more difficult with some stories than other stories. After all, it’s not like many modern-day readers can relate a world in which the Abrahamic religions do not exist and electricity does not exist but this was the reality for people living in pre-Columbian Mexico. Nonetheless, Saadia does a very good job at getting us to care about the characters in her story and I think many readers will find themselves rooting for Kuini despite his penchant for trouble.
To be fair, there are other characters for readers to latch on, Coyotl and the Chief Warlord are both important characters in the book, but the romantic sup-plot of Kuini’s storyline makes his character arc especially compelling. Romance always plays a role in Saadia’s books–at least, each one I have read–but the Kuini/Iztacayotl sub-plot is strikingly tender because of the way it ends. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t get into the details but I think readers will be quick to pick up the second book in the series.
Having said that, people who don’t care much for romantic storylines will still find much to enjoy in The Highlander. The plot is fairly easy to follow and Saadia’s research is above reproach. Whether it’s knowledge of inciting incidents or cultural norms, readers can learn quite a bit by reading the Highlander. I recommend the book to anyone interested in Mesoamerican history or historical romance.