Having only one other experience in reading Historical Fiction I stepped, with great trepidation, into reading this novel. I was surprisingly pleased! Firstly because I am very interested in the Aztec history and, secondly, how their individual cultures and beliefs have left us both history and mystery, folk and lore, and the supernatural or paranormal history and legend that is known amongst Indians from all lands. Briggs allows the reader all of this and more.
Thankfully, for the benefit of the readers, Briggs understands that the spoken word that dominated large parts of Mesoamerica (the Nahuatl language) would deem most difficult to read. Instead, he eloquently and wisely chose beautiful [English-based] names for persons, places and things to which readers can better relate. For those interested, the provides a brief guide at the beginning of the novel to show what wonderful meanings the Aztec vocabulary has.
In this novel, "Wasp" (a leader, a husband and a father) tells the story of his place and time in one of the many ethnic groups of central Mexico shortly before the Spanish Conquistadors take over completely. I found it pleasurable reading for the author to have Wasp tell us his story in the first person narrative. This way, the reader is privy to all of Wasp's innermost feelings, his actions and reactions, his explanation [in descriptive detail] of his surroundings and all of the activities during this tumultuous time. All told in a colorful way.
The year is 1519. The main character (Wasp) is one lovable angry warrior. He is also known as "Angry Wasp" for good reason. He loses a very young daughter into the slave market trade with no easy way to get her back. He is leader of a small nation having just as many opponents as allies. Who is friend or foe at every turn makes for uneasy living although, over time, that really hasn't changed much for humans.
Wasp must protect his lands and his people learning that he must become a more 'Angry Wasp' as he very highly ~feels~ and knows that the "outlanders" (conquistadors) are coming to threaten everything the old Mexico ever knew. Wasp must pick and choose his battles carefully. There is the battle of finding his daughter. There is the battle to keep everything his culture and tradition held dear. Wasp must choose what takes precedence as time marches on.
Games (in every sense of the word) are played to win and lose loved ones as well as making a final decision on WHO may be sacrificed at any given time. The sacrifices are not for the weak of heart but those were the times of such practices. Briggs does not leave Montezuma out of this novel but calls him, instead, "Stern Lord." Stern Lord takes part in these games to see who is to be sacrificed and how so.
Wasp's wife of nature (Broken Plume) is a powerful influence upon him -- not only as his wife but as a woman of nature; a sorceress. Such people of of nature or the forest are called Otomíes and not looked highly upon from other "cultured" Aztec peoples. Not surprisingly, Wasp had a second wife (Rainbow) who is a Toltec. I was pleased to see at least one character of the "Toltec" culture brought into this novel as I am somewhat familiar with the legendary Toltecs. The Aztecs saw the Toltecs as their own predecessors whom they glorified in order to be able to legitimize their own structures of power by claiming royal descent from Toltec lineages. In Wasp's own words, his Toltec wife (Rainbow) "was the pride of my family and my bid to equality with all the rulers of the One World. Having a real Toltec wife was as important to enter the select clique of nobility as having land for the peasants to cultivate." A personal and political advantage for Wasp. Rainbow also gave him a son. Needless to say, Rainbow is not fond of Broken Plume but is a man to do? It worked in history and it works for Wasp.
Finding Dew (his daughter with Broken Plume that was lost in the slave trade ever since she could walk) was a personal matter for Wasp and finding her was one mission among others in this novel. He works with others to try to find his daughter (who became a nameless youngster among hundreds sold in the slave trade) while trying to dodge the enemies bent on destroying taking over their lands and, therefore, culture. This is where a novel of this type could use a little (or a lot) of paranormal activity to get what they need. Wasp has learned that smoking a potent mixture of mushrooms and bark can solve a lot of problems -- gaining paranormal means -- but always at a price.
Aztec cultures are steeped in rich and complex mythological and religious traditions. They also see the world in many dimensions. The author takes advantage of this and also what puts FIVE DANCES WITH DEATH into the category of fantasy or supernatural or paranormal as well as a stroke of Historical fiction.
In this tale, some Aztecs (including Wasp) are able to separate their mind, soul and spirit from their body and create a "double" of themselves. For history purposes, this is very common among any Indian or Aztec tribes. In doing so, they can go and visit others with the same paranormal gifts (those who can create doubles of themselves) and get a sense of what is happening in other lands as well as with other people. Wasp finds that he can have a little fun with those people [especially his enemies] by visiting and entering their minds and therefore playing with their heads.
Wasp knows that he needs to stay grounded in the real world (instead of enjoying the stalking others by instant travel via smoking and being able to make a double of himself in the spirit world) to both protect his lands and find his daughter but he also needs such an occasional relief from the common stressors of a leader in the real world. Wasp chooses to smoke a bit too much which leads to him leaving his body too often. His wife of nature (Broken Plume) showed him many things from the natural world by being a sorceress but she strongly and adamantly advises Wasp NOT to enter into the fantasy or paranormal world by smoking too much. Her wisdom is profound but Wasp does not listen since euphoric activities and instant travel are too much of an attraction - or addiction. Being allowed instant travel out of his body certainly has its advantages but just as many downfalls. This is simply because one easily loses control of themselves as well as drains themselves of their necessary energy needed as a leader of clans and lands. Yet if Wasp did not have some relief from reality and something else to occupy his mind he may end up destroying himself.
A man named "Hernan" becomes Wasp's first victim to play mind games with. In historical fact Hernán Cortés was the Spanish explorer who is famous mainly for his march across Mexico and his conquering of the Aztec Empire in Mexico. The perfect victim for Wasp to have control over. Having the ability to leave his physical body and become a spirit entity certainly has its perks. Wasp's initial out of body visits to enter Hernán's head and thought briefly reminded me of how the ghost of Marley (in 'Scrooge') visits, taunts and scares Scrooge. Wasps further visits into Hernan's mind did have its advantages -- in war time especually. Although, as we know from history, Wasp had no real control over Cortés since Cortés and his army wiped out two thirds of the Aztec population. But this is where the FANTASY of this novel comes into play for the reader.
From there, the novel takes us through the old Mexico with the Aztecs (specifically Wasp and Broken Plume) battling wits and strength with others who have sorcerers of their own (the Mayans and other peoples of the area). The reader is taken firsthand through ceremonies and festivals. Places where games are played not only for fun but for the winners to sacrifice the lives and souls of those they have put in cages in a nearby room. The killings are for the gods and nothing more. The sacrifices are quite descriptive but the norm for the culture at that time. One such game in the novel became more fun to read because in legend or lore one can't physically kill an individual of nature (or sorceress like Plume). Her heart may be physically torn out but her spiritual being remains and is seeing those killing her. Undoubtedly a plus for not only Plume but for Wasp himself.
Beginning in 1990 [why then I have no idea] I began to feel a certain "link" to not only Native American Indians but other cultures... including the Aztecs. Even without having much knowledge whatsoever of either one. I also do not have the desire to read dry history so FIVE CHANCES WITH DEATH offered me the unique opportunity to live during the time of the Spanish Conquistadors and their conquest of the Aztec empire. In all honesty however, I think I would've enjoyed the novel more if Wasp wasn't fooling around with his paranormal abilities as much as he did but the author chose to have that amount of supernatural fantasy and I can't blame him as it is what he found pleasure in writing.
Without a doubt, Author Austin Briggs, has done his research on the Spanish conquistadors & The Aztec Empire. Historical fiction can be good or bad but with the Briggs' travels to different places in our world to gather FIRSTHAND information certainly puts this historical fiction novel right up there with the best.
(reviewed 9 days after purchase)