Matthew Hughes’ 2019 What the Wind Brings is a standalone historical fantasy novel.
Dispatched by his master Don Alvaro to escort living cargo — slaves and farm animals — to Lima, Alonso Illescas instead finds himself marooned near the Rio Esmeraldas, in what is now northern Ecuador, in company with all the now-free slaves.
Although Alonso is, like them, a dark-skinned servant to white masters, the Africans’ leader, Anton, would just as soon see Alonso dead; he’s a proxy for his despised master. Alonso’s greatest skill is being useful to those more powerful than he. It’s enough to buy his life, at least for the moment.
Anton wastes little time carving out a niche for his band. The first native village they find makes the mistake of attacking the castaways, who have guns. After obliterating the Nigua warriors, Anton installs himself as ruler of their small community.
Anton could have used his advantage over the Nigua to establish a reign of terror (much as the Spanish did the last time they ventured into this part of the world). Instead, he does his best to integrate his people with the Nigua with whom they must live. Despite profound misgivings concerning local religious practices, Anton chooses to coexist with the locals and cooperate with their shaman. In all these things he is assisted by Alonso, who is too useful to kill.
Being willing to compromise when he has no choice does not mean Anton is in any sense a kindly leader. Open rebellion brings brutal death. Force also turns outward. Anton engages in wars with the Nigua’s neighbours, reasoning that if he can defeat external enemies, he’ll unify his new community.
If something happens to Anton, Alonso, his deputy, is the logical choice to succeed him. That makes him a potential threat to Anton. Anton doesn’t believe in letting threats persist unchecked…
The fantasy elements in this are open to interpretation. No fireballs or dragons or nine-tailed foxes; just visions. It’s not clear how real the visions are. But I’m going to assume that this is fantasy because that’s how it’s being pitched by the publisher.
Happy endings are largely a matter of selecting the proper moment to stop telling the story. Bear in mind this is set centuries ago, so by now all the characters would be dead. By the end of this novel, some of them are still alive.
Not only that but, despite repeated Spanish efforts to conquer the region, it remains functionally independent. In large part this is because the Spanish colonials attempting to rule the region expect the locals to meet them in open battle, which the locals are too smart to do. Guerilla warfare works just fine. I believe this region of Ecuador did in fact manage to remain functionally independent for quite some time, even though they were nominally under Spanish rule.
The book’s focus is on Alonso, who is a sycophant, albeit a competent one forced into the role by circumstance, and his ally the shaman. Both Alonso and the shaman know that they exist in Anton’s good graces only as long as they are useful. If the tyrant starts to see them as threats, they won’t last long. They have to placate Anton AND deal with the Spanish threat; this makes for a suspenseful, engaging story.
Hughes’ writing is solid as usual. His is a rather Canadian take on historical fiction. Although there are battles, the real conflict is a social one, and while the book builds towards final confrontations between Spanish and the village, not to mention Anton and anyone who looks like they might be a threat to his rule, readers waiting final epic battles should look elsewhere.