I am participating in a linkup and giveaway put together by Naz at Read Diverse Books in honor of Latinx Heritage Month. The linkup is open through October 15, so if you want to participate you still have time to read a qualifying book and post your review!
I’m always looking to broaden the diversity of the books I read, and I picked The City Of Palaces by Michael Nava for the linkup from a recommendation of Naz’s from this post on his blog.
The City Of Palaces
by Michael Nava
Set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution and spanning several decades from the end of the 1800s to the beginning of the 1900s, The City Of Palaces is the story of Miguel Sarmiento (a young doctor) and Alicia Gavilán (a member of one of the aristocratic families of Mexico City). Though they are both past the normal marriageable age, the losses they have each experienced in different ways in their youth have kept them from marrying. Ultimately, they will find each other and build a love that will deepen throughout the novel, as the world around them and they themselves change through the events of the Mexican Revolution.
But The City Of Palaces is so much more than a beautiful love story. It’s a historical drama in which a multitude of complex issues come into play for the main characters to grapple with. Politics plays a large role in the novel as Miguel himself becomes more and more involved in political and revolutionary activities. The existing tyrannical dictator of Mexico Don Porfirio Diaz is pitted against an idealistic reformer Francisco Madero. The novel delves into what the true nature of democracy is, and whether it is actually possible in a country that has been wracked with corruption since it’s inception.
Another topic that is central to the novel is that of racial discrimination, both against the native Yaqui tribes that have been displaced in the Mexican territory, and also against Mexican citizens themselves who have mixed Spanish and local ancestry. The novel’s world, in which value is judged by the relative shade of one’s skin, feels uncomfortably akin to the racial tensions that still exist in modern times. The reader sees the Yaquis not only be mistreated, but sadly essentially exterminated through the genocidal policies of Diaz’s government.
Universal issues of morality, right and wrong, forgiveness and faith are interwoven through the entirety of the novel. The quote below is from Miguel’s atheist perspective when he reflects on his and Alicia’s different interpretations of the meaning of life and atonement.
“In her world of faith there was sin, forgiveness, and redemption overseen by a great, white-bearded monarch in the sky. In his world the sky was empty, the dead were without the power to forgive, and the living were lacerated by guilt for their offenses. He did not believe in atonement. But, he did believe, as his father had told him, that life needed purpose, not to store up treasures in heaven, but simply to justify the air he breathed. He would find his purpose.”
Both Alicia and Miguel are healers, one moved by her desperately strong faith and the other by his rational need for a way to atone his guilt and a purpose to his life. Their personal struggles with faith play a large role in their lives, whether it is Miguel who is sacrificing himself for Mexico’s future or both of them grappling with the sexual orientation of Miguel’s gay cousin Luis, as they try to determine what their moral standpoint is on the issue.
What I loved about the novel was how effortlessly it combined these extremely complex and numerous issues into a narrative that felt transporting at the same time that it retained its depth. I learned a lot about the history of Mexico, while reflecting on my own viewpoints of some of the issues that Miguel and Alicia had to face, and still remaining enthralled by the love story between these two martyrs. I’ll be looking out for the sequel to The City Of Palaces as part of Michael Nava’s The Children Of Eve series for more beautiful and meaningful stories.
About The Author (adapted from the author’s website)
Michael Nava, a third-generation Californian of Mexican descent, and the grandson of immigrants, was born in Sacramento. He began writing when he was 12 years old, around the same time he recognized that he was gay. In his autobiographical essay Gardenland, a memoir of his childhood in the working-class Mexican neighborhood of the same name, he says he turned to writing because he was filled with words he was otherwise unable to express. His first novel,The Little Death, introduced readers to Henry Rios, a gay, Latino criminal defense lawyer based in Los Angeles. Six further Rios novels followed — Goldenboy, Howtown, The Hidden Law, The Death of Friends, The Burning Plain, and Rag and Bone.
After his crime novel series, Nava conceived a series of novels on the Mexican Revolution called The Children of Eve. The first novel in that series is The City of Palaces. Nava is currently at work on the second book – as yet untitled – in The Children of Eve series. In addition to his novels, Nava has had a distinguished career as an appellate lawyer working primarily in the California court system including the California Supreme Court. As a lawyer, he has been a tireless advocate for greater diversity in the legal profession.
About Latinx Heritage Month
Latinx Heritage Month is held yearly from September 15th to October 1th to celebrate the history and culture of U.S. citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Latinx Heritate Month is also referred to as National Hispanic Heritage Month. The start date of September 15th is meaningful as it is the anniversary of independence for several Latin American countries, while other Latin American countries have their independence days within the Latinx Heritage Month period. In addition, Dia de la Raza (Columbus Day) is October 12th, within the 30 day period as well.