Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Historical novel set in Mexico strains credibility

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THERE are historical novels and there are historical romances.

Canadian author Oakland Ross holds out the promise of the former, but delivers a story akin to the latter.

The Empire of Yearning is the second volume in a projected trilogy set in Mexico. The Toronto journalist's first novel in the series was The Dark Virgin (2001), a tale about Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes's conquest of the Aztecs.

This book skips ahead three centuries, to the 1860s, and finds Prince Maximilian of Austria as Mexico's newly crowned emperor.

He's kept on the throne by dint of an occupying French army that recently defeated the forces of elected liberal president Benito Juarez, who's now in exile in northern Mexico.

The initial storyline is pretty anemic. However, it gets more robust as the narrative progresses. And the plot, once it finally starts to unfold, clips along nicely.

The main character is Diego Serrano, a bookish, one-armed anti-monarchist, whose lifelong friend, Baldemar Peralta, is in jail and due to be executed for his failed assassination attempt on a general of the ruling imperial regime.

Peralta's beautiful sister, operatic singer Angela, has tasked Serrano with somehow freeing her brother.

Serrano's a tongue-tied goof around Angela, clumsily trying to mask his romantic desires, even as he conspires with her to free her incarcerated brother.

In circumstances that defy all odds, and strain credibility, republican Serrano eventually ends up private secretary to the emperor. He finds he quite likes Maximilian, which leaves him conflicted, personally and politically.

Equally hard to credit, Peralta and a gaggle of his confederates are freed by the emperor in an amnesty.

In gratitude, Peralta engages in guerrilla warfare against the emperor's forces, while Serrano tries to work both sides of the fence.

Along the way there's a melodramatic little subplot which sees the childless, and therefore heirless, Maximilian try to forcibly adopt Angela's fatherless son.

Yet another subplot sees Serrano journey to Washington, New York and Franklin, Ariz., where he secures guns and ammunition for the republicans, and briefly meets the exiled Benito Juarez in his border enclave.

In the end, except for Serrano and Angela, nearly everyone -- Maximilian, Baldemar, the child -- ends up dead, in ways predictable and not.

But the forces of darkness (the conservatives and the French) are vanquished or vamoose, and Juarez and his republican forces restore democracy, at least for a moment in time.

And like any good romance, we're left with a sense the hero has surmounted all obstacles, and a pastoral peace is his due reward.

The novel has decent plotting, and a great eye for Mexican landscape and cityscape. But it's lousy at both developing characters and character development.

You never fully inhabit the minds of the principal players in the story. Their motivations are mostly worn on their sleeves. Involved exploration of inner lives is totally absent.

The meanderings of mid-19th-century Mexican history are nicely on display here.

But the inventive blending of fact and fiction that's the hallmark of a good historical novel, isn't.


Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

The Empire of Yearning

By Oakland Ross

HarperCollins, 340 pages, $22

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2013 J7

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