The summer of 2023 is going to be a busy time for me: a couple of my long-term novel projects have come to fruition and will be publishing at the beginning and end of the season. Ironically, the works themselves—both novels of historical fiction—are set about a hundred years apart, bookending the establishment and overthrow of what is known in Nahuatl as “in Excan Tlahtoloyan,” the Triple Alliance of Anahuac, most commonly referred to in English as the Aztec Empire.
The first of the two books is Secret of the Moon Conch, which drops from Bloomsbury on June 6, co-written by my friend Guadalupe García McCall.
My “half” of this blend of historical fiction and supernatural romance is the story of Calizto, a Mexico teen from a minor neighborhood in the Zoquiyapan borough of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire. It’s the summer of 1521, and the city is under siege by Cortés and his Tlaxcalteca allies, who have returned now that the smallpox has deminated the Mexica population (leaving Calizto an orphan). Calizto and the rest of his telpochcalli (school for commoner adolescents) has been tasked with helping to dig earthworks into the main causeway onto the Isle of Mexico. But things are looking bleak, and Calizto has a secret: a young African man whom the Spanish had enslaved and whom they left behind for head when they fled the city a year before.
Desperate to find answers, Calizto discovers the sacred trumpet his mother—a priestess of the moon goddess—once used in ceremonies. Against all the norms of his people, Calizto sounds the moon conch, begging the gods for help.
In that moment, he is connected to a girl 500 years in the future: Sitlali, an Indigenous Nahua teen from the town of Zongolica in Veracruz who found the conch on the beach before setting out for the US, where her last living relative—her father—lives in San Antonio.
As Calizto helps Sitali survive her trial and tribulations, she does the same for him, using her access to information about the past to give the young man an advantage. He is pulled into many of the major battles and events that history has recorded about that siege, meeting major figures like Cuauhtemoc, Tecuichpoch, Cortés, and Malinalli / la Malinche. When the young couple realize that despite their knowledge of the past, they can’t actually alter that destiny, Calizto escapes, leaving the Isle of Mexico to its fate as he goes off to confront his own.
On September 26, I will be taking you a century further back in time with The Prince & the Coyote, featuring incredible art by Amanda Mijangos, released by Levine Querido.
This novel tells the harrowing story of one of the Americas’ most brilliant statesman, architects, poets, and musicians: Nezahualcoyotl, whose name means roughly “fasting coyote.”
Nezahualcoyotl was born Prince Acolmiztli to the king of Tetzcoco (who also served as overlord of the entirety of Acolhuacan, a federation of city-states on the east bank of Moon Lake, now Lake Texcoco) and a Mexica princess from Tenochtitlan. When Emperor Tezozomoc (who ruled Tepanecapan, an empire on the west bank of Moon Lake) demanded that the king of Tetzcoco marry one of his daughters and elevate her to preferred status, Acolmiztli’s father refused. A war broke out, and the Mexica (who, though they were the people of Acolmiztli’s mother, were more importantly a vassal state of Tepanecapan), fought against Acolhuacan for a decade and a half.
When Prince Acolmiztli is fifteen, his father has besieged capital of Tepanecapan. As his uncle Chimalpopoca becomes the new king of Tenochtitlan, a truce is called. For a moment, it looks as if there will at last be peace in Anahuac (the lands around Moon Lake, both Acolhuacan and Tepanecapan). But the Emperor has other ideas. After years of carefully eroding support for the king of Tetzcoco, he triggers a multipronged assualt on that city-state which ends in the death of Acolmiztli’s father.
Now on the run, just a step ahead of the imperial forces, the prince makes his way into the eastern mountains and fakes his own death. Then he lives for years on his own, learning survival from a coyote, acquiring skills and allies, facing peril after peril, biding his time until he can make his way to his mother’s people in Tenochtitlan and convince them to help him retake his father’s kingdom.
He gives himself a new name: Nezahualcoyotl.
And when he finally sets his plan in motion, it not only pulls down Tepanecapan, setting him on his father’s throne—it forges a new empire from the ashes of the old, one whose might and breadth will never be forgotten.
The Aztec Empire.
Both of these books are enriched by my decades of scholarly research into pre-Invasion Mesoamerica, especially the culture of Anahuac and its language, Nahuatl. We get to see just how people of all four Nahua genders—woman, man, xochihuah, patlacheh—lived and died, loved and despised, hoped and despaired. I hope that in the fascinating specifics of their existence, readers will find universal truths that illuminate our times as well. And I hope a new generation of people becomes fascinated with Mesoamerica, spawning a renaissance of writing about those amazing years in Mexico’s past, when the gods themselves seemed to walk among nobles and commoners alike.