Beginning a novel about revolution in the middle of a losing battle is a choice that risks leaving a reader dispirited, but Incendiary, the first volume of the Hollow Crown Series by Zoraida Córdova, is anything but dejected. The novel takes place largely from the point of view of Renata Convida, a Robári—a memory thief—who was captured by the King of Puerto Leones as a child and made to betray her people, the Moria. The Moria are an ancient culture who are all born with one of the four strands of magic, including hers. As an adult, Renata has turned spy for the “Whispers,” a revolutionary group of Moria warriors who are trying to fight the increasing reach of the Fajardo kingdom. Though the Whispers rebellion has a strong band of fighters, their numbers are dwindling and hope is running out.
The energy and intrigue of the novel comes from Renata and her comrades who are characters willing to fight to the bitter end for their cause, even giving their lives if it means ending the genocide of their people.
Throughout the novel, Renata is torn between her loyalty to the Whispers who do not trust her, and her own guilt. As a child, she was kidnapped from her parents and forced to live in the royal palace. She was used as a weapon for the crown, stealing memories from dissidents for Justice Mendez, the king’s leader of the Hand of Justice, to ensure the destruction of the Moria. Though Renata was set free by the Whisper’s young leader, Dez, and has made attempts to redeem herself in the rebellion, her comrades in arms are reluctant to fully accept her because of her past crimes. To be a Robári signifies an inherent violence, as once Renata steals a memory, it is taken from that person forever and lives inside of her mind. If she goes too far in draining someone’s memories, she can leave a Hollow, a person who is still alive but drained of all their thoughts and memories. Dez, her leader and her lover, is the only one that trusts her, but Renata struggles even to trust herself.
Every time Renata takes a memory, it is absorbed into the Gray, a place in her mind where her own memories and the memories of others mingle and mix, making her own relationship to her past muddled and complicated. Reminiscent of the way that survivors of trauma may compartmentalize their memories in order to function and survive, the Gray keeps Renata mentally and emotionally safe, but also denies her a real understanding of her past. She often loses a sense of reality and is absorbed in traumatic flashbacks from her own memories and the memories of others when the protection of the Gray is weakened. This leaves her struggling throughout the book to access her own lived memories and find peace with herself despite the harm she has done to others.
When the Whispers receive information that that the cruel Prince Castian, son of the king, possesses a weapon that can destroy the Moria, Dez forms a mission to infiltrate the palace to find it and destroy it. But when Dez is captured, Renata must put herself in danger by infiltrating the palace and returning to the captor that raised her in order to find the weapon before the rebellion and the Moria people are sought out and destroyed forever.
Renata’s potent grief over Dez’ capture is compelling; her guilt and self-loathing increase, bending her to the single purpose of revenge against Prince Castian and finding the weapon that could destroy everyone she cares for. This single-mindedness brings her to a point of self-destruction, causing her to drive away the other Whispers. The emotional push and pull of Renata in this book felt very real for someone reconciling with extreme guilt, self-hatred, grief, anger and the knowledge that no amount of self-sacrifice will bring back what she has lost.
Justice Mendez and the kingdom of Puerto Leones are reminiscent of the Spanish empire of the 15th century and its conquest of Latin America, and Córdova incorporates Spanish words and amalgamations that feel naturally integrated into the story. The colonization of the many lands that have been incorporated into Puerto Leones for example, are called citadelas. The Arm of Justice, the king’s religious order and police force that use terror and torture for conquest, is similar in many ways to the Spanish inquisition. The kingdom of Puerto Leones does everything in its power to use the Moria as slaves under the king’s control, and to ensure the destruction of the other Moria, not only of their lives but their entire culture. They mine Alman stone, sacred gems that the Moria use to transport and care for memories that only the Moria can access. The church of Puerto Leones struck down the Lady of Shadows, the matriarchal goddess of the Moria and replaced her with the patriarchal Father of All in much the same way that ancient goddesses of the Mexica and Maya were denounced by the Spanish Catholic Church as evil. The way that Córdova depicts this conquest and colonization helps the reader understand just how high the stakes are for Renata and the Whispers who are not only fighting for their lives, but their entire culture.
In the palace, Renata’s development as a freedom fighter comes with pain, guilt and regression as she is forced to reconcile with her past. Being in the palace as a spy helps her to access her memories from childhood, but with these memories come secrets about Dez, about Prince Castian and everything she thought that she knew about the people she is seeking to destroy. The book ends on a note of suspense, and I will certainly be eager to read the next book in the Hollow Crown Series.
Incendiary is available from Little Brown Books for Young Readers.
Leticia Urieta is proud Tejana writer from Austin, TX. She works as a teaching artist in the Austin community. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and holds an MFA in Fiction writing from Texas State University. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cleaver, Chicon Street Poets, Lumina, The Offing, Kweli Journal, Medium, Electric Lit and others. Her chapbook, The Monster is out now from LibroMobile Press. She is currently at work completing her novel that tells the story of a Mexican soldadera caught up in the march to Texas during Texas’ war with Mexico.