You Dreamed of Empires by Álvaro Enrigue

A wildly imaginative tale of the clash between the Spanish, as represented by Cortes and the American natives, led by Moctezuma. Bloody and violent, this depiction of a tragic historic encounter is enlightening, if grim.

You Dreamed of Empires by Álvaro Enrigue
Hardcover | $28
Shop Indies!

This fever dream of a novel is an intriguing story of the interaction between the Aztecs, led by the enigmatic and volatile Moctezuma and the arrogant, ambitious, duplicitous and ruthless conquistador, Hernando Cortes. I found it, quite frankly, a difficult but worthy book and can recommend that the expense of time and effort is worth the reward. It is serious but highly creative supposition of the events and personalities that ultimately brought about the fall of a civilization.


The Spanish, in their quest for world dominion and fabulous riches have sent explorers out to all parts of the globe in their quest. Cortes was only one of many, and not the first, to encounter the peoples of the Caribbean and South America. The aim was always dominion and wealth. In this tale, the mercurial and drug-addled Moctezuma welcomes the malodorous and vulgar invaders into his palace, not sure at all whether to embrace or execute them, but the lure of obtaining what he considers the real prize, horses, drives his wildly swinging motivations. These magnificent animals are unknown to his people and present an opportunity to become the dominant military force in his world. He coddles the metal-clad warriors and fetes them handsomely while he watches how they work with and care for the real treasure, the equine wonders.


Moctezuma’s imperial arrogance vies with that of Cortes, who vastly overestimates his own worth as he undervalues that of the Aztec king. Both engage in vile behavior as a matter of course and fail to understand the true motives of the other. Alliances are made and broken, court intrigue simmers, always with the imminent threat of betrayal and horrible death, and a dynamic unlike any the actors have experienced before plays out in a bloody game. Blood is the theme of the customs, the spirituality and the actuality of daily life for the native people of the region, a way of life shocking to the Spaniards, who in fact are accustomed to dispensing death at the point of sword with a second thought. No one in this scenario is happy, and no one triumphs, truly at the finish.


It is a remarkable work and well worth the time to read, and although it is fiction and must be read as such, I have no doubt that there is a bounty of truth here, in the way that fact may be depicted more accurately by fiction than by any other means.