The Young Jaguar by Zoe Saadia is the first book in a pre-Aztec trilogy, and introduces us to Atolli, a teenager in the Tepenic Empire of Central America, whose father is Tecpatl, the Chief Warlord. Prior to the rise of the Aztec Empire, this Empire was strong and growing. Tecpatl’s position is very high within the social structure and he is very content, having returned from a series of successful wars, and he loves his family. His wife, Sakuna, followed Tecpatl home when he warred in her native land of the Anasazis, and theirs is a deep and respectful love that has withstood the criticism of the Tepenic elite. Atolli is a hot-headed daredevil, who climbs the walls of the palace with the skill and cunning of a jaguar, just for fun.
The story begins when Atolli, his best friend Mecatl and some other adventurous boys from the warrior school that Atolli attends, roam the palace walls at night, drinking octli, a potent drink reserved for the warriors of the tribe. This is a serious transgression, but an adventure they have taken before. This time, they are discovered and chased and Atolli and Mecatl fall over the wall into one of the palace gardens. There they meet Chictli, the beautiful daughter of the second son of the Emperor, and Atolli is smitten.
His position as Tecpatl’s son saves him from serious punishment, but he has to vow to support Chictli’s father in the future as one of his warriors. At the same time, the Emperor dies, making Tecpatl vow to support his first son as the new Emperor, thus putting him at odds not only with his son, but much of the Tepenic elite. Tecpatl is thus forced to choose between his duty to the new Emperor and his family, which ultimately puts them all in danger. Sakuna uses her skill with herbs and healing to deal with the crisis.
I become completely immersed in Zoe Saadia’s historical novels. The characters come alive; because of her detailed research on everything involved in tribal life – customs, food, clothing , jewelry – the reader feels like they are there, amidst the action. Family dynamics, especially in this book, are very recognizable, even though the tribal dynamics are complex. Zoe makes it clear that people haven’t changed much over the centuries: they are greedy, power-hungry, loving, driven, devious, envious, bored and frustrated. These emotions fuel this story.
I highly recommend this book to any lover of historical fiction but more widely to any reader who likes a barn burner of a story with great characters and lots of action. What’s even better is that you can follow Atolli on his journey to adulthood through the next book in the series, The Jaguar Warrior.
Zoe Saadia is the author of two trilogies and one series (11 full-length
novels), all covering the turbulent history of Mesoamerica when the Aztecs were busy coming to power. All are based on more than a decade of research of pre-contact cultures. She is convinced this history of the Americas has been completely overlooked, and she brings it to life through her writing.
She has also written The Peacemaker Series of four books, stories surrounding the creation of the famous Iroquois Confederacy, one of the oldest democracies on earth. I reviewed Two Rivers, one of these books, in a previous post.
When I can fit them into my copious free time, I intend to read all of these!
You can find Zoe Saadia at