When a young man experiences a love that he knows to be life-defining and it turns sour, all there is left for him to do is to carry on living - and, of course, to sour the love of his own child a generation later. Love, like life, often operates in cycles, and it is one such cycle that Miguel Antonio Ortiz has chosen to represent in his debut novel, King of Swords. Ortiz knows that bitterness is something that is learned, and he knows that the mistakes of the parent too often devolve into causing mistakes for the child.
King of Swords has two major set pieces. The first is the Spanish-American War of 1898, the second during the first World War. Ortiz introduces Eduardo Rincon by telling the reader that, 'by any measurement he was a successful man with all the accoutrements of happiness: wealth, family, respect and influence'. He is not, however, particularly happy. In the 1890s, Eduardo expands his tobacco holdings until he is one of the wealthier men on the island of Puerto Rico, and as the Spanish-American War breaks out, he is engaged in dealings to purchase more land for coffee. What Eduardo is missing is love. When he finds it in the form of Carmen Gutierez, a beautiful woman who tends his fields and whom he catches bathing underneath a natural waterfall modified to serve as a sort of communal shower, his life changes. But she is poor and he is not, and she has no power and he is powerful, and she is common and his stock rises by the season. In nineteenth-century Puerto Rico their love is acceptable but, from the point of view of Eduardo's future, foolish. Though he loves Carmen, and though she falls pregnant with his child, in time their affair dies away. He keeps their little girl, and Carmen disappears in the confusion of the war.
Thus Ortiz introduces the pieces of this chess game. Their opening moves promise much, delivering in greater and lesser parts over the remainder of the novel. Following the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico is ceded from Spain to become a colony of the United States - not quite a full member of the nation, but close. These upheavals, while mostly welcomed by the characters in King of Swords, result in turmoil for a number of the minor participants. Eduardo Rincon expands his holdings and increases his social status, which results in an advantageous marriage to Antonia, the daughter of a prominent 'townie'. Carmen, absent though not forgotten, remains a haunting presence throughout these pages. Ortiz has elected to explore the time between the Spanish-American war and World War I from the point of view of a detached narrator, which both hurts and helps the narration. We lose touch with Eduardo, which results in an unfortunate relaxation of sympathy toward both his plight and the plight of Carmen. At the same time, Ortiz is able to take a more general view of Puerto Rico's progression from a fledgling colony of the U.S. into a more developed wing of the powerful nation.
The middle third of the novel sags greatly. Ortiz's decision to show us the development of his characters and environment at a remove allows him to display his intellectual curiosity, but emotionally this section falls flat. What we have been made to care about is the difficulty of Eduardo's love for Carmen in the face of his secondary goal of becoming a respectable man, and Carmen's struggles with the perception that all unmarried pregnant women faced in the nineteenth century. These themes are no longer present, and the novel begins to fall slowly apart.
Much is redeemed with the final third. In this section, twenty odd years after the Spanish-America War, Eduardo is as successful as he could have imagined, but bitterness and regret color his heart. His daughter by Carmen, Juanita, has fallen in love with Pedro, and the two characters form a nice parallel and juxtaposition with Eduardo and Carmen from two decades earlier. Now it is the female who has the advantages and the male who has none – and now it is the bitter Eduardo who threatens to put an end to the love these two young people share. The novel has moved closer to its characters and has a defined area in which to explore, and Ortiz recovers his delicate emotional touch and casual, almost folksy, touch. He handles very well the generational gap between his major characters, and equally well is the manner in which the second seeds of bitterness are sown. By staying true to the themes initially presented in the novel, Ortiz's climax is strong.
The technical proficiency of Ortiz's writing throughout the work is worthy of praise. While he occasionally uses too many passive sentences, the vast majority of his writing is lyrical without relying on cliché, expressive without bogging down the reader with too much description or explanation. Unfortunately, a number of the characters seem superfluous, from Augusto and Tito to the old women who populate the fringes of the novel, which has the unwanted side effect of making characters run together. But the protagonists loom large, and when Ortiz directs his pen to their emotions, their thoughts, their wants and desires, and most of all their mistakes, King of Swords becomes a muscular novel that, like many first novels, has rough edges. One hopes that these will be smoothed for his next work, which I shall eagerly await.