The King’s Fifth by Scott O’Dell

The King’s Fifth, by Scott O’Dell, was published in 1966 by Houghton Mifflin.

Rating: 4/5

Despite the fact that I barely remember the first half of The King’s Fifth—due to distraction plus lack of memorability—I thought the latter half was quite good, which is why I gave it such a high rating. O’Dell has crafted a relatively even-handed story of the conquistador era, and how gold and greed led to trickery, violence, and even murder.
Esteban de Sandoval, a mapmaker, follows Captain Mendoza and his cohorts in the latter’s search for Cίbola and gold. Along the way, he is caught between the greed of the Spaniards and the peace of Zia, their Indian guide, and Father Francisco, a monk.

O’Dell shows very well the lengths men will go to for gold, as well as the terrible things that happen as a result. Coronado invades the city of Hawikuh, Mendoza steals from and kills several Indians, and the party starts to splinter from within because of greed. Even Esteban is not immune to it, as he starts acting more callous and selfish the more gold is available.

I didn’t remember much of the set-up of The King’s Fifth, beyond the trial sections, which were more interesting, but the last half of the book I thought was pretty good. It’s a good look at the way gold shaped the exploration of Mexico/the current Southern US, as well as how it shaped the treatment of the natives (and of people in general). The hint of romance between Esteban and Zia is, perhaps, a bit too sentimental and predictable, but that is a core part of what led him to resist greed at the end, so I suppose I can see why it was there (otherwise, there is only one other cause for Esteban to hide the gold, which I don’t think would have been enough to make it believable).

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

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