Buddy Levy’s River of Darkness is brimming with mystery, adventure, murder, hidden treasure and naked women. That’s a lot to tackle in a work of nonfiction. But Levy succeeds, thanks to a confluence of detailed research and lively writing.

River of Darkness is the story of Spanish conquistador Francisco Orellana, the first foreigner to navigate the Amazon River in South America. It’s a remarkable tale, considering that Orellana and his men traversed the 4,200-mile length of the Amazon in 1542, and did so with crude wooden ships, scant supplies and no knowledge of the route, or what lay ahead.

Orellana was a relative of the famed Pizarro family, a band of five conquistador brothers who made their living conquering native empires in South America and bringing the spoils back to Spain. (Francisco Pizarro was the eldest, most notable for crushing the Incan Empire.) It was a younger brother, Gonzalo Pizarro, who journeyed to South America in 1540 with his nephew, Francisco Orellana, on a quest to find El Dorado, a legendary land where the king was said to bathe in gold dust. At one point on the expedition, the pair took separate routes; Gonzalo Pizarro’s exploration ended in starvation and failure, while Francisco Orellana continued an arduous trip down the Amazon from the Andes Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean.

History has deemed the journey a success, but it came with extreme hardship. The Spaniards encountered deadly snakes and savage natives, and frequently found themselves in a desperate search for food. Sometimes they foraged on plants and insects. Other times, they happened upon friendly natives who provided sustenance. If gifts weren’t forthcoming, or if the natives refused to convert to Christianity, the conquistadors pulled out their swords and firearms and executed their hosts. In one noteworthy chapter, Levy describes Orellana and his soldiers battling a band of tall, naked warrior women who came to be known as the infamous Amazons.

River of Darkness is a worthwhile read because of such swashbuckling adventure, and Levy is a gifted writer who makes it all the more enjoyable; his narrative flows as smoothly and rapidly as the Amazon River. The book is also a treasure hunt of history, offering readers an appreciation of the accomplishments of the early discoverers, while also chronicling some of the appalling aspects of imperialism.

 

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