Jason Golomb's Reviews > The King's Fifth

The King's Fifth by Scott O'Dell
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's review
Sep 30, 2010

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bookshelves: exploration, mexico
Read in September, 2010

In my continuing quest to read all that is historical fiction based during the Spanish conquest of the Americas, I finally jumped into Scott O'Dell's "The King's Fifth." I recently finished O'Dell's "Seven Serpents" trilogy which follows the young Julian Escobar as he travels from Spain to the New World in a quest to save the savage souls of the New World's natives. While his early journey established his innocence, his travels across the Yucatan, central Mexico and eventually Peru expose his personal fall from grace.

O'Dell's hero in "King's Fifth" is different from Escobar, but mostly in name and location. In this short novel, we find Esteban de Sandoval imprisoned in the Spanish fortress of San Juan de Ulua on the far east coast of Mexico. Having found a significant treasure, Esteban is charged with refusing the Spanish King his fifth of the treasure - the standard percentage that all explorers are due their king. The key drama is not Esteban's innocence or guilt of the crime...he fully admits to withholding the King's fifth. The core mystery is determining where the treasure is exactly and why, as Esteban contends, it will never be found.

O'Dell's narrative bounces between Esteban's flashbacks of his adventure in the new world, and his trial which spans the course of several weeks. A young mapmaker on board a ship in the Sea of Cortes, Esteban becomes associated with mutineers and finds himself in western Mexico with the explorer Coronado who's in search of the fabled Cibola. His brush with the non-fictional Coronado is quite brief, but is reminiscent of Julian Escobar's travels with both Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro.

I didn't find the story as compelling nor deep as "The Serpent Trilogy" although it's well written, and the pacing and tone are extremely similar.

The real story is about lost innocence and the driving forces behind Spanish exploration. Esteban simply wants to make maps...to find something new that's never been mapped, and forever associate himself with such a discovery. Paralleling Escobar's fall from grace, the lure of gold becomes too much for Esteban and, he too, succumbs to the disease del oro. While the story ends in redemption (although not complete), the conclusion is rather abrupt and unfulfilling.

If you seek an introduction into the world of the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, I'd start with "The Serpent Trilogy." "The King's Fifth" is good, but not nearly as well rounded, deep and satisfying.

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