Monday, April 13, 2009

Review of the Day: The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire



C. M. Mayo’s The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire is the historically accurate, fictionalized account of Emperor Maximilian’s short reign over Mexico in the 1860s.

Mayo’s hook is Maximilian’s “adoption” of the half-American grandson of the first Emperor of Mexico, General Agustín de Iturbide. The childless Maximilian makes the toddler his “heir apparent” to help shore up Mexican support for his French-backed regime, bribing the parents with pensions and promises of aristocratic lives in Paris – a bargain the Inturbides soon regret.

But the book is more than simply the story of the Iturbide family. It encompasses Maximilian’s entire, brief reign, from his forced relinquishment of family rights as a Hapsburg and Archduke of Austria when he accepted the Mexican crown from Louis Napoleon, to his wife Charlotte’s crack up, and his ultimate defeat at the hands of Mexican nationalists.

Mayo spent years researching the story of Maximilian and the Inturbides, focusing on obscure primary source materials stashed away in historical archives. The underlying story is fascinating. It is one thing to have a general understanding that the French were meddling around in Mexico the same time America was fighting its Civil War and the Prussians were vying with France for power in Europe. It is another thing to have all those moving parts come together in a coherent, entertaining novel that weaves the personal in with the political.

As Mayo explains in the Epilogue, she chose to write the story as fiction because:
I wanted to tell it true, which means, of course, getting the facts as straight as possible but also, and this was the most interesting to me, telling an emotional truth. Why did Alice, Angel, Pepa, Maximilian, and Charlotte do what they did? Who encouraged and supported them, and who criticized, intimidated, and frustrated them – and for what motives? The answer is not only in historical and political analysis, but in their hearts, and the hearts of others can only be experienced with the imagination, that is, through fiction.
Mayo tells the story from the perspective of several characters, from Maximilian and Charlotte down to illiterate servants and even the toddler Agustín himself. This is an effective technique for layering details and pulling the most out of every aspect of the tale. But the continuous switching around made it difficult to become completely absorbed in the story.

Despite this and a few other minor flaws – the diplomatic maneuvering got a little repetitive and the ending was rushed – The Last Prince deserves attention. It is an ambitious book for tackling such a complicated little sliver of history, and Mayo brings her historic characters to life with a compelling story for a modern audience.

OTHER REVIEWS

Savvy Verse & Wit
Medieval Bookworm

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