Summary via the publisher:
“The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire is a sweeping historical novel of Mexico during the short, tragic, at times surreal, reign of Emperor Maximilian and his court. Even as the American Civil War raged north of the border, a clique of Mexican conservative exiles and clergy convinced Louis Napoleon to invade Mexico and install the Archduke of Austria, Maximilian von Habsburg, as Emperor. A year later, the childless Maximilian took custody of the two year old, half-American, Prince Agustín de Iturbide y Green, making the toddler the Heir Presumptive. Maximilian’s reluctance to return the child to his distraught parents, even as his empire began to fall, and the Empress Carlota descended into madness, ignited an international scandal. This lush, grand read is based on the true story and illuminates both the cultural roots of Mexico and the political development of the Americas.”
This work of historical fiction really sounds just like something I would love. In some ways, I definitely did. The prose is luminous and the story is compelling. As a reader, I wanted to know what happened next and whether or not Alicia and Angelo got their son back. I enjoyed feeling like I was learning something; this is a period I know very little about and I always enjoy learning more. I appreciated in huge amounts the author’s note with bibliography in the back of the book, particularly the bit about how she became interested, and I know I will now go off to read about Agustín and his family.
I loved the descriptions of scenery, too. Before I quote, I’d like to clarify that my copy is an ARC, and this text may not be the final version. Anyway, take a completely random example:
On the other side of the glass, the horizon, jagged with mountains, is paling, and the snowcaps of the volcanos tinged a fiery lavender, the exact shade, it occurs to Maximilian, of the inner lip of a Phalaenopsis orchid. For the past month, it has rained almost every afternoon, and sometimes all through the night, but this afternoon, the clouds, titanic puzzle pieces, have sailed apart to reveal a stretch of translucent ocean blue. To the east, a cloud bank soft as charcoal smudges the sierra; closer in, an island cloud shoots out swords of gold. The bids are coming in to their roosts around the lake in the park below. An eagle skims the tops of the ahuehuetes. In the distance, church bells begin to gong and chime.
A southern twilight: can there be anything in this world more sublime?
– p. 164
Beautiful, isn’t it? The whole book is like that. Mayo has a way with words.
All that said, I had one definite problem with the book. I found my mind wandering, usually when the story was focused on Maximilian or one of the other European leaders. I had a very hard time relating to any of the characters, in fact. The emperor and his wife were extremely unsympathetic, particularly Maximilian. I could not understand or agree with any of his decisions. This is in no way the fault of the author or even of the book, since I don’t think I’d have liked the real life guy any better than his fictional representation. As an example, he complains about a contract his cousin bullied him into signing only to bully Alicia into signing a contract in the same way, then he is shocked when she protests. The history is interesting, the people are a little infuriating. Of course, this is probably an entirely accurate picture of a 19th century monarch, convinced of the superiority of his own bloodline over every other person on the planet, but it absolutely annoyed me. I believe the way he was written didn’t help much, though, using “one” instead of “I” and putting everything in the third person. It gives a very accurate picture of his spoiled and superior behavior but makes it more or less impossible for the reader to feel any affection towards him. Then again, who would feel sympathy towards a man who basically stole a child from his mother?
I did like the characters who weren’t self-serving and self-righteous, but there weren’t many of them. Lupa, Alicia at times, and Dona Juliana all endeared me to them, but their parts in the story are small and scarce.
My honest opinion is that this is a very good book. The writing is lovely, the setting is amazing, and the story is intriguing. The characters, however well-developed, were impossible for me to feel anything for, though, and that was a bit of a disappointment. I would recommend it if you can get past their arrogance.