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Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

4.15  ·  Rating details ·  399 ratings  ·  67 reviews
In November 1519, Hernando Cortés walked along a causeway leading to the capital of the Aztec kingdom and came face to face with Moctezuma. That story—and the story of what happened afterwards—has been told many times, but always following the narrative offered by the Spaniards. After all, we have been taught, it was the Europeans who held the pens. But the Native American ...more
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published November 1st 2019 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published October 4th 2019)
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Nov 18, 2019 added it
Shelves: history
Well I've only just started reading this, but this page 2 quote:

"Libraries are generally thought to be very quiet places, whether they shelter stacks of rare, leather-bound books or rows of computers. Another way to think of a library, however, is as a world of frozen voices, captured and rendered accessible forever by one of the most powerful human developments of all time--the act of writing. From that perspective, a library suddenly becomes a very noisy place. In theory, it contains fragments
Dec 07, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to nastyako by: anne applebaum on twitter
Shelves: nonfiction
This is my first encounter with "Aztec" - they never called themselves Aztecs - culture and history, not counting Apocalypto. This book uses new sources by indigenous peoples and tells a lot of memorable stories and recently won Cundill History Prize.
If you were disappointed by Black sun like I was, I highly recommend this non-fiction book!
May 31, 2020 rated it really liked it
A very good book (with a couple of hiccups) that illuminates the culture of the Mexica and the Triple Alliance they forged with Tlacopan and Tetzcohco, using lesser known Nahuatl manuscripts to bust multiple myths.
Aug 12, 2020 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
The book claims to be a revisionist history of Aztecs, to revolutionize almost everything we thought we knew about the civilization. In some sense these big claims are justified, because the author takes her information not just from the traditional Spanish side, but also from many "local" transcripts written in Nahuatl. The author should also get her credit for trying to introduce more personal voices into the history.

However, for my personal taste I feel she overdoes it. There are just too man
Ashlee Bree
Aug 22, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, nonfiction
Forget everything you thought you knew about the Aztecs. Or the Mexica, as they were more commonly known amongst themselves. A fresh and insightful, sometimes familiar, history splashes across these pages which will open your eyes, ears, and heart to Nahua culture pre-and-post colonization. It resounds in a way that makes you realize how - for far too long - we’ve been missing more than half of the story, and it’s one we all need to hear. To learn. To know.

Townsend winds a vibrantly complex and
Sep 30, 2020 rated it really liked it
A good book if you want to know a little bit more about the Aztecs. The language is a little complex and it does take some previous knowledge to fully enjoy the premise of this book but with some effort, I was able to enjoy it. It is mostly a book that talked about the structure of the Aztec empire and how it started and how it developed to be what it was at the beginning of the Spanish conquest. The book does detail how what made the empire strong also made it weak and vulnerable to their enemi ...more
Marc Gerstein
Nov 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history-study
This book covers a lot of ground, a heck of a lot, as would be expected of a historical survey. But readers having a least some familiarity going in can help cope with voluminous information — names, groupings, places, etc. I’d benefit from that in many historical topics, but not here. My prior knowledge of the Aztecs was limited so more than usual was new to me, meaning it was a challenge to keep all the new information straight. I’ll probably need to come back and re-read this.

At least I do ha
Erica Tofu
Mar 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing
There is so much information in this book. It tickles me how the author uses themselves as a source. There is no pretending to have an understanding of a people who were so complex. Individuals who made history are given a voice like I have yet to read in other textbooks. I look forward to a reread.
Dec 05, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
My rating is on the low side because I really trudged through this book. As a few readers mentioned, having some familiarity with the history of the region the Aztecs inhabited helps a lot. I had virtually none. I appreciate that there is a lineage chart at the beginning of the book, but there were so many characters and so many interrelated families that I could not keep them sorted out.

Townsend states that she was trying to balance a scholarly perspective with the needs of non-scholarly reader
Gitai Ben-ammi
Nov 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Most histories of the Aztecs have been based on European sources because historians were too lazy to learn Nahuatl. This one is based on Nahuatl histories written by indigenous historians. I cannot recommend it highly enough. So many misconceptions, so many self serving narratives from colonizers, so many falsehoods are rectified. It was the first history of the Aztecs that made me think brightly of my ancestral connections to them and made me understand the continuing power of the Aztec imagery ...more
Jason Honeycutt
May 10, 2020 rated it it was ok
Plods along mired in the extravagance of minutia, and a multitude of clear biases. That said, there are some moments that are of genuine interest (historical and otherwise) and a few well written lines
Jacques Coulardeau
Jul 21, 2020 rated it really liked it

The Aztecs are a mystery in Mesoamerica, in fact in Mexico. Their own name is the Mexica and they are only one people in Mexico which was occupied before the Spaniards arrived sometime after Christopher Columbus by a mosaic of various Indian ethnic groups that are specified as for their ethnic names but that are not specified as for their origins and languages. They are just there, then, coming from no one really knows where without a real specified past. The only
Jan 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
This was a fascinating look at indigeneous culture and society in Central Mexico, and its remarkable relative resilience in the face of Spanish conquest.

The people we know as Aztecs -- who called themselves the Mexica -- had arrived relatively recently in Central Mexico themselves, perhaps from Utah. They effectively played regional politics, which Townsend describes as being cemented by polygamous marital alliances among the nobility of the various city-states. (The commoners practiced monogamy
Jan 05, 2021 added it
Another one of those books that I intended to read little bits of and ended up inhaling the whole thing. And now have a long list of other titles, should I ever want to go down the Aztec rabbit hole.

Of course, there were no Aztecs. That is the first thing I learned, and smacked my forehead because I should have known--the ethnic group that rose to power in the Valley of Mexico called themselves the Mexica. People of the wider region who shared a language, Nahuatl, called themselves Nahuas. Peopl
An illuminating reexamination

I don’t do star ratings on Goodreads, and if I finish a book I give it five stars on Amazon.

A very enjoyable new (old) piece of history, and a powerful addition to the project of re-centering indigenous people in their own past and future. The Mexica and their neighbors and the complex dynamics among them really don’t fit into enlightenment conceptions of power, and so much of their shade and color and meaning has been left unexplored by Western historians. This bo
Apr 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
Really love how they went back to sources written by the Mexica and used that as the basis of history. As all nations, the Aztecs was a complex culture that was not monolith. Loved the part where the Europeans interacted with the Aztec empire and how accidental their victory seemed (other than smallpox)
Mark Lawry
Apr 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
From page 2 of the introduction:

"Libraries are generally thought to be very quiet places, whether they shelter stacks of rare, leather-bound books or rows of computers. Another way to think of a library, however, is as a world of frozen voices, captured and rendered accessible forever by one of the most powerful human developments of all time-the act of writing. From that perspective, a library suddenly becomes a very noisy place."

By the end of this page I had come to believe Townsend would be
May 31, 2020 rated it really liked it
it's interesting (and good) to hear a people's story from their words and not those of conquerors. I particularly liked the format, which was to make each chapter a story of one person, from ancient history (legend/tale of Shield Flower) to after the conquest. In the audio book, the narrator would spell each name after it was first introduced, which was a nice acknowledgement that most readers would have no idea how to go from written to spoken and vice versa. I'm glad I listened to this book so ...more
John Parle
Jan 06, 2021 rated it liked it
This book succeeds in conveying a sense of the complex politics, deep tradition, and sophisticated society of pre-conquest Mexico, and in underlining that these were not simply erased with the arrival of the Spaniards. Indigenous accounts are brought to the fore, and the experiences of women are also given special attention.
The author is also at pains to get across that at the end of the day the Aztecs were people, rather than the exotic aliens of our imagination. She does this by visiting the
Jan 06, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Fifth Sun tells the history of the Aztecs from their point of view, not from the point of view of the Spanish who conquered them. Pre-contact, the Aztecs had a system of recording the years, with glyphs that would act as mnemonic devices for the storytellers. When the Spanish came priests took some promising, young Aztecs and taught them Spanish, and to write. Many of these young Mexicas--on the side--wrote histories of their people in their native language Nahuatl with Spanish characters, recor ...more
Dec 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
A well-written, accessible, and engaging history of the people we know as the Aztecs. Rather than using the conquest of 1519 as a narrative beginning or endpoint, Townsend frames it as a pivot in the Aztecs' history, showing what came before and after, and the many ways the Aztecs handled the upheaval. In this, Townsend gives careful attention to various individuals in each chapter, such as Malintzin (Malinche), reconstructing their experiences from the extant sources. This effort to imagine wha ...more
Jan 04, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs. Camilla Townsend.
Before the Spaniards came to present-day Mexico in the 1500’s before the slaughter of the indigenous, and the subjugation of those who remained, there was a grand world-class city created by a group of migrants from the north called the Mexica. In a central lake surrounded by swampy land they built Tenochtitlan, known today as Mexico City. They inter-married with the faring people in the area and created a culture that today we refer to as
Aug 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is a fantastic and lucid telling of the political complexities and diplomatic relationships and practices of the greater México city basin from 100 years before the conquest through several generations after. She consults actual sources of the native peoples which have been ignored, belittled, or overlooked by scholars for hundreds of years, and she weaves a tale that reads like fiction.

The only reason I give it 4 stars is because I feel that in times of historical murkiness, where perhaps
Jan 23, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, nonfiction
A meticulous, compelling history of the Nahua peoples (Aztec, Townsend explains, is a misnomer), told through primary texts in Nahuatl and the people themselves wherever possible.

Townsend is sure to dispel myths and stereotypes. To take a common example, they did not view Hernan Cortés himself as a god, for example. Neither their archival sources nor Cortés' own letters tell anything of the sort. Sacrifices were not done out of mindless bloodlust but often as a political tool to destroy neighbo
Mar 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed the intro and first chapter in which Townsend gives a brief but sweeping history from the beginning of agriculture onwards. I was pleased to see in print Townsend’s belief that the Mexica (Aztec) immigrated from as far away as Utah, something I’ve always thought (a partial answer to the question: where did the Anasazi go?).

From chapter 2 on, Townsend draws largely from Nahua texts, a welcome change from the European view of events, and adds needed context to why the conquest hap
Mar 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
A refreshing look at the Aztecs/Mexica and the arc of their empire. Dr. Townsend goes through the arduous process of researching this book by combing through Nahua texts, providing a different look into the lives of the Mexica from what is typically provided by the Spanish.

Only about a quarter of this book was dedicated to the actual arrival of the Spanish, with half of this book written about pre-conquest times. Providing a great outline of the purest forms of Mexica culture.

There were some rea
Jul 07, 2020 rated it really liked it
"Startlingly -- at least to newcomers -- the market also served as a repository for the urine collected in clay pots in households across the city. Whether people were paid for what they brought or fined for what they didn't bring is not clear. In either case, the practice served two purposes. The collection of waste in one place rendered most of the city very clean. Ammonia was also needed for tanning hides and making salt crystals, and there was no better source than urine form the islands ten ...more
Mar 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
The Aztec story told from their perspective. Its rather enlightening yet it still doesn't shy away from the negatives of the culture, it just puts it into context. If you are at all interested in the history of North America or the Age of Exploration and you probably do if you found this review than you should take a look. It covers the entire history of the civilization from its nomadic roots through the Spanish conquest and after to the assimilation process. Its always a good thing to try to b ...more
Ben Leeming
Jan 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is an important new contribution to the history of indigenous Mesoamerica. The author bases much of her writing on primary sources written in Nahuatl, the language of the indigenous people of Central Mexico at the time of Contact. It is a book, therefore, that pushes the field in the direction of allowing indigenous people to tell their own version of events. To top it all off, the book is written in such an engaging manner that people of all backgrounds and interests will surely be pulled ...more
Just finished this enlightening history of the Mexica (did you know that the Aztecs never called themselves Aztecs?)

All based on texts written by the indigenous people in the 1500-1600s, we get to hear what the Mexica and other Nahua groups have to say about their own history. (After the conquest, people quickly adapted the Roman alphabet to their own language Nahuatl. The idea of writing their own history wasn't new - they already had books filled with standardized pictographic symbols!)
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Camilla Townsend (Ph.D., Rutgers University) is professor of history at Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ). Her special interest is in the relations between indigenous peoples and Europeans throughout the Americas.

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