Thursday 2 September 2010

Jaguar Warrior

Jaguar Warrior by Sandy Fussell (Walker Books)
PB RRP $14.99
ISBN 978-1-921529-29-0
Reviewed by Anke Seib

In Tenochtitlan, where clumsiness is paid for in blood, a young slave boy should not anger his captor. Yet, huddled in his box prior to being sacrificed to the Serpent-Sun god to end the dry season, Atl still plans to escape. When the pale lords raise their swords against the city, Atl’s master insists he return to his birthplace, Pur├ępecha, to seek help for Tenochtitlan. Thus, Atl has his chance. But why carry a message to save the people who were going to kill him? On one hand there is no reason, on the other there are many.

The Spanish invasion of Mexica forms the backdrop for this story, Mexica being the civilisation we now term the Aztecs. Ichtaca, Atl’s master and temple priest, believes the boy’s successful mission is Tenochtitlan’s only chance of survival. The Captain of the Temple Guard, however, is furious at the boy’s release. He sets off to kill Atl and appease the Serpent-Sun god, believing that while the boy runs free, Mexica will fail. All Atl really wants is freedom. So begins a dramatic, action-packed story about choice, loyalty and integrity.

Before crossing his first hurdle, Atl unwillingly takes a companion, Lali, who is also running from someone. They fight like brother and sister but rely on each other for survival. When they rescue a slave from a jaguar attack and witness the cruelty of his master they do not hesitate to snatch his freedom too, including him in their journey. Each character is tied to the other, increasing their risk of capture, yet even they hide some truths from each other. A fourth member, Dog, joins the group and the race to alert Pur├ępecha.

The book’s cover immediately draws one into an ancient past with its sense of mystery and foreboding. Totems carved in stone, fire burning behind hollow eyes and gold lacing the carvings is sure to appeal to boys, as will the story. I’d recommend it to readers aged ten to fourteen and am sure girls will also drink it up. Particularly appealing to me was the skilful use of alternating viewpoints, Atl’s told in first person to draw readers in, the Captain of the Temple Guard told in third, helping heighten the terrifying threat he poses.

Action is fast paced and snippets of history add an extra dimension. I loved being immersed in a culture of ancient people, their myths, legends, beliefs and rituals. I also admired how the protagonist and his companions were as real as any young figures in fiction set in our world: thoughtful, intelligent, resourceful and witty. Walker’s website provides excellent teaching notes and the book’s many facets will be enjoyed in class as well as by all who value a great read. It is further testament to Fussell’s growing list of awards.

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