THE JAGUAR PRINCESS by Clare Bell (Review)

Pre-Columban Mexico

Let me start with an extract to give you something of the feel of the book:

In the Aztec year Three Reed, in the age of the Earthquake Sun, a six-year-old girl named Mixcatl sat in a barge threading its way through the waterways of Tenochtitlan. She glowered at the passing reflections and tugged angrily at the slave yoke about her neck. Leather thongs hobbled her ankles and wrists. Her hands had been tied in front, where she could chew on the length between her wrists when the overseer wasn’t looking. She was making little progressd in freeing herself; the leather was tough.

Scowling and wincing with pain, she felt the sides of her neck above the wooden yoke, where the flesh was raw and full of splinters. A crude and clumsy thing, the collar was made of two Y-forked pieces, lashed together to form a a tight diamond-shaped opening for her neck and two handles that stuck out over her shoulders.

Mixcatl knew well what those handles were used for. She had been dragged from the jobbing lot where slaves were collected for transport to market. The collar handles made it easier for the slave traders to seize slaves and shove them into the market boat.

Reaching up awkwardly with her bound hands …

This story is different from my usual medieval reads because it is set in medieval Mexico not Europe, and from my usual fantasy fixes because the girl changes into a jaguar not a wolf. I don’t know if there were wolves in Mexico but jaguars seem to have been quite common there and very much feared. I noticed the interesting detail, too, that because jaguars are bigger than people and weigh more than them, as people the shape-changers are very heavy (dense is the right word, I think) and can’t for instance swim: they sink straight to the bottom. I would hate that. (The only shape changing I would fancy is into a mermaid!)

As a small child, Mixcatl is sold into slavery – or kidnapped and sold, it isn’t clear.

At the age of six, she arrives in Tenochtitlan, the ancient Aztec city, and there she is sold to Speaking Quail. He is a tutor at the school for young monks and priests of their appalling religion (thousands of people have their hearts torn out or their skin torn off or are burnt alive as a sacrifice every month) but he is a good man.

The story depicts Mixcatl’s development as an artist and the gradual realisation that she is also a shape-shifter. The king wants to kill her – sacrifice her – but she is protected by the ruler of a neighboring state, a kind of philosopher-king who hates the religion of Tenochtitlan.

I liked the description of the city and the way of life, something I hadn’t even imagined before. And I loved Mixcatl, the jaguar princess of the title, and her mentor, the old art teacher who – but I mustn’t tell you any more. Only that after you read this you will never think of the Aztecs and Tenochtitlan the same way again.

There is a film, Cat People, with Nastassia Kinski, and you see her change into a jaguar. That and some other scenes  from the film are very moving, (and should not be missed – nor should the David Bowie soundtrack, so I’m posting it here in case you have missed it!) but the story in this book is much better than the plot of that film.

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