Ines of My Soul by Isabel Allende
As famous as Isabel Allende is, this is actually the first of her novels that I've read. I don't know how it compares to her other work since this is based on a historical character but I liked this one. Ines was the mistress of Pedro de Valdivia, one of the conquerors of Chile. While reading it, there were moments that seemed racist since the Spanish, the heroes, were basically enslaving many of the Incans, and treating them as second class citizens in addition to battling local tribes to take over their territory and land. Ines, the narrator, occasionally questions some actions and motivations, but Allende doesn't try to sugarcoat everything, and instead lets Ines be a product of her times in her attitude towards the conquest of the Americas. Ines was the only Spanish woman to travel with the original group of invaders into Chile, which makes her very unique for her times. Since then, she has been somewhat ignored by history (big surprise there), but Allende tells her story based on a few sources and historians that mention her. I enjoyed it quite a bit, especially since, at least in the States, we tend to learn about the Incas and the Aztecs, or the very first conquistadors but not how the other countries of Central and South America came into being.
Part of the reason I've shyed away from Allende actually has nothing to do with the author herself. I've read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I just wasn't impressed by the guy. I realize they are from different countries, but I remember reading somewhere that magic realism is often used by South American authors among others. I also wasn't a big fan of Gunther Grass's novel The Tin Drum, and the characters in Like Water for Chocolate annoyed me (I don't think the plot bugged me as much as the main character). But anyway, after those three examples, I just wasn't that into the idea of magic realism, and I was afraid Allende might make use of it. On the other hand, I liked Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (but not The Ground Beneath Her Feet) and I'm a Toni Morrison fan, so it's really more about the way the authors incorporate magic realism into their stories rather than me wanting everything to be realistic.