Verdict: While THE SECOND CORTEZ is competently written and sometimes even engaging, the characters and the plot are never as thrilling, complex or interesting as they should be.
The city of Veracruz, Mexico has been taken over by a vicious drug cartel. Segundo Cortez already has at least half the police on their payroll, and anyone who dares speak out against them tends to not live much longer. Nicolás Nolano, an English professor, has so far tried his best to stay out of this, but his brother Esteban is a little bolder. When Esteban turns up dead, Nicolás knows it’s time to flee. He hires the services of coyotes who take him over the border to the United States. There, he makes his way north to Montana and begins a new life, with new friends like Freedom, a freewheeling twentysomething white kid; Mitch, a troubled army vet; and Cassie, the love of his life. Still fearing the wrath of Segundo Cortez, he is reluctant to give even those closest to him his true name and backstory.
Chadwick Wall’s THE SECOND CORTEZ is ostensibly about the violence of the cartel, but first and foremost, it’s about the characters; especially Nicolás, whose growth as a person takes up much of the book. But the supporting cast is always far too much defined by their relation to the lead character. Cassie, for instance, never feels real enough, just someone for Nicolás to fall in love with. Mitch stands out as the most complex character, but even he is there just partially to give Nicolás some self-defense training. The ending, though in some ways emotionally satisfying, is implausible and contrived in the extreme, and it stands out like a sore thumb in a book that tries to take itself so seriously.
The writing is generally very good, although there are some lapses, like a character making a cringe-inducing breast joke about the Grand Teton Mountains, and the general annoying habit characters have of laughing at quips that weren’t that funny. But some of the writing is genuinely evocative and poetic, like, “Far into that horizon, between the mountains and the gulf, mere kilometers from the jungle, with its crumbling Toltec and Olmec ruins, Ivan Méndez had to be writhing inside, in agony and fury, like a wounded serpent.” Also, the book makes a noble effort to distill the essence of Spanish syntax and speech patterns into its dialogue, not unlike how Hemingway wrote his Hispanophone characters.
While THE SECOND CORTEZ is competently written and sometimes even engaging, the characters and the plot are never as thrilling, complex or interesting as they should be.
~Charles Baker for IndieReader