In the 1980s, the Sendoro Luminoso (Shining Path) and the Peruvian government were engaged in a battle for power which brutalized large portions of the Peruvian population. In the midst of the rebellion, choices were limited: neither side cared what happened to the ordinary people when the battle raged. In the mountainous areas of Peru, largely populated by the indigenous Indian tribes, the Maoist “El Sendoro” often seemed like a viable alternative to a fascist government.
Author Max Tomlinson’s excellent historical thriller, Sendoro, takes this backdrop and builds an exciting and believable story around characters who have been irretrievably scarred by a childhood lived in the time of revolution. Although politics support the background, they don’t get in the way. The story is one of deeply personal impact and a reality in which the only choices available are often morally repugnant.
Sendero follows Nina Flores, a Qechua Indian leading a traditional life with strong family and village ties. She is only twelve years old in 1987 when members of the military rape her mother and murder her father. Two months later her beloved older brother, Miguel, joins the senderistas to seek his revenge. Senderistas die in battle or in a suicide attack. Senderistas don’t return. Nina understands that she will never see him again.
In 2009, Nina is living in Cuzco as a member of the Policia de Turisma (Tourist Police), an organization which discourages its officers from interfering with the illegal activities of the tourists who bring their much needed foreign dollars into the Peruvian economy. When she hears that Augustin Malqui, the village pastor who was imprisoned as a terrorist for writing a letter condemning her father’s murder, has been arrested in the city for drunk and disorderly, she is determined to step in and help him.
Pastor Malqui has been changed by the bottle since Nina knew him, and it is impossible to save him from himself and a government which suspects him of terrorist connections. Just before he disappears again into the hands of the military, Malqui reveals to Nina that the brother she thought long dead is still alive.
Nina expresses her concern about the old priest to her lover, Francisco Guislan, a high-ranking anti-terrorist official. Francisco reassures her that the government no longer “disappears” people and cautions her about making further waves in looking for Pastor Malqui. She wants to believe Francisco, but Nina is a woman who is loyal to her past above all other things. Determined to save Malqui while reuniting with her brother, she ultimately uncovers a large number of secrets that have been kept from her by those who love her.
What follows is Nina’s suspense-filled and violent journey into Peru’s underworld, secret military operations, and the mountain paths where the senderistas and the drug lords reign. The road Nina travels is mined with deceit, corruption, and the belief of political men that to do good for the people, you often first must do evil.
Mr. Tomlinson is a master of descriptive language. He draws the scene around his characters beautifully whether it is set in the grittier parts of Cuzco or the rain forests of the Andes. His characters, too, are finely drawn, and you get a sense of even the smaller characters quickly.
If you are looking for heroes in Sendero, you will be disappointed. There are no heroes or heroines in Nina’s world. Death is quick and there is no time to mourn. Nina and Miguel are the children who are born of war: they have a different morality.
I highly recommended Sendoro for readers who enjoy suspense novels, particularly suspenseful historical fiction with a dose of food for thought. Fans of Martin Cruz Smith and Tony Hillerman should also appreciate Max Tomlinson’s books. Sendero is well worth the $2.99 investment.
As a bonus, the second Nina Flores novel, Who Sings to the Dead, was released early in 2013 and it looks extremely promising. It’s my pick for a Kindle Lending Library read next month courtesy of Amazon Prime (a program I highly recommend for streaming video and Kindle reads, not to mention the free shipping — I did the free trial and got hooked), so I am looking forward to writing a review of the second one very soon.