CITY OF SILVER is two stories. The first begins with the death of Inez de la Morada who has fled to the local convent, pleading for sanctuary. She refuses to tell the Abbess from what she is fleeing but she insists that the convent is the only place she will be safe. Inez is the daughter of the richest and most powerful man in Potosi, Alcalde de la Morada, the leader of the community. Why is Inez, the cherished daughter, hiding from the father who treated her as the son he never had? Inez insists that she wants to join the religious order to atone for the sins of the world. Abbess Maria Santa Hilda isn’t convinced of Inez’s motives but they quickly become irrelevant when Inez is found dead in her locked cell. There are no marks on her body and nothing unusual in the room. There is a partially empty glass of water and a flagellum similar to that used by all the nuns to mortify the flesh but nothing that explains the sudden death of a healthy young woman.
It is Holy Week, so Inez must be buried quickly and without the pomp that would normally surround the death of a member of the city’s most prominent family. Inez’s father agrees to have her buried in the church with the deceased nuns of the order. Soon, rumors spread that Inez committed suicide, leaving the Abbess open to the dangers of the Inquisition for having broken church law by allowing a suicide to be buried in consecrated ground. The king’s representative for the Inquisition gloats at the possibility of bringing down the Abbess who has allowed women to learn to read and write and to believe that they have a right to a greater role in life than Spanish society grants them.
Inez’s father has problems of his own. The silver mines of Potosi have been sending coins to the king’s coffers in Spain, coins that have been adulterated with alloy. The face value is not the real value and this is a threat to the Spanish economy and its dominance in the Americas. The king’s investigator is coming to demand answers but it is of far more concern that papers that would label Morada a traitor are missing from the secret compartment in his desk.
Greed, corruption, jealousy, fear, arrogance, and hate motivate the actions of most of the male figures in the story. And while the women are not above these same sins, CITY OF SILVER is a story of strong women. “…Maria Santa Hilda knew well Fray DaTriesta’s distaste for the company of women….he never looked her in the face. He cleaved to the conviction of many priests – that women were the source of all evil. It was true, she thought petulantly, if you considered that women were the source of all men.” DaTriesta’s hate of the abbess leads to her arrest and trial by the Inquisitor but it doesn’t stop Sor Monica, the herbalist at the convent, from risking her life and freedom to prove how Inez died so that the Abbess can be freed from the machinations of the church hierarchy .
The story is set in 1650 in a society that does not accord women any right to control their lives. Everyone, male and female, no matter what their station, are in perpetual danger from the Inquisition where truth is ignored and power is used for its own sake. The circumstances are not relevant to women in the 21st century, but some of each of the women in the story can be found in the women we know in our own lives.
The writing is colorful, the descriptions vivid. I came to the book knowing nothing about Peru in the 17th century and I learned a great deal but the history is simply the background to a story about greed and the manipulation of power, a powerful story about how power corrupts and how quickly men can be corrupted when great wealth is there for the taking. The story could be lifted from the 17th century and, by changing the details of time and place, could be a story set anytime, anywhere. But it wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable.