Zoe Saadia is clearly a very good writer. She has succeeded in a difficult task for a writer — I know, because it’s very similar to what I tried in my own writing.
In At Road’s End, Zoe Saadia presents a historical story set in a time, place and culture that are, as far as I know, unique in fiction: the Anasazi cliff-dwellers of what’s now the south-western USA and northern Mexico. Without needing a prologue or foreword, Saadia brings the people, their environment, culture and even some of their history to life.
And most important, she tells a story that you just can’t put down.
The story centres on Tecpatl, an elite-trained warrior from the Azcapotzalco culture, who live, according to the story, on the shore of Lake Texcoco (site of the later Aztec capital). He is escorting a trading mission across the desert to a city of cliff dwellers, called Great Houses.
Readers quickly learn that Tecpatl’s mission is punishment for a mistake he made, the full nature of which is revealed where it has maximum impact in the novel.
On the way, the group encounters a village that’s been raided and pillaged. There’s only one survivor, a woman with a command for languages. She helps guide the trading partner and its warrior-escort to Great Houses, her origin.
Saadia skilfully presents the complexities that people in this situation faced: great differences in language, culture and assumptions. One of the main drivers of the dramatic tension in the story, in fact, is the main character’s frustration in understanding the speech as well as the behaviour of the Anasazi he encounters.
A well-woven storyPresenting this complexity as an integral part of the plot requires great skill as a writer as well as a lot of research. Saadia has learned a great deal about the technology, economy, sociology and cultures of the people in her story, and all this adds to the realism. It’s actually entertaining to read about the characters’ attempts to navigate the chasms between them. Tecpatl’s most frequent refrain seems to be “I will never understand you.”
Equally believable are the relationships among all the characters. The social gap between Tecpatl, the elite warrior, and the merchants he’s escorting is even wider than the linguistic and cultural gap between Tecpatl and the Anasazi girl he rescues, Sakuna.
And the romantic relationship that develops between Tecpatl and Sakuna is equally skillfully done. There’s nothing cloying or Hollywood about this relationship, nothing coy or phoney. These are two adults who are eventually attracted to each other despite their differences. While that sounds like a cliché, in Saadia’s hands (or under her fingertips, anyway) the developing relationship rings absolutely true.
For example, we learn that Sakuna is the daughter of a prominent and wealthy man in Great Houses. He marries her off to a man in an outlying village—the one that is sacked at the beginning of the story. While the marriage is not Sakuna’s choice, and she’s clearly not in love with her husband, she accepts the marriage. But that’s couched in the realism of the character and the author. After her rescue, Sakuna becomes much more assertive. It’s completely believable. She sides with her rescuer, eventually, and the way she comes around to his side of things is also realistic.
Her father is presented just as believably. In fact, I’m sure I’ve met him. He’s self-assured and arrogant to the point of endangering himself and his whole community.
I won’t belabour the typographical and minor grammatical errors. There were only a few, and they did not detract from the enjoyment of this story at all. One more good edit would have fixed them, I’m sure. (And I’m also sure that my book could have used one more good edit, as well.)
Saadia has woven together many threads: exposing this era of pre-Columbian North America; cultural gaps; the struggle to assert oneself; redemption and so much more, and (minor grammatical and typographical mistakes notwithstanding) without a flaw.
If you want a really good read that brings a really exotic time and place to full-colour life, pick up At Road’s End.