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The King’s Fifth

post written by Emma Filbrun

The King's Fifth by Scott O'DellTitle: The King’s Fifth
Author: Scott O’Dell
Major Themes: American Southwest, Coronado, Exploration, Mapmaking, Mexico, Spanish Conquest
Synopsis: A young mapmaker is in prison in New Spain, on trial for defrauding the king of Spain of his rightful one-fifth of the treasure that was found by an expedition the mapmaker had been on.

The King’s Fifth is a book I struggled to read aloud. It’s probably a very realistic picture of how the Spanish explored and conquered North America, and it’s very exciting, but I hated the near-constant violence in it. At the same time, there was a good message in the story.

Estéban de Sandoval is a young cartographer, or mapmaker. He is currently in prison in the fortress of San Juan de Ulúa, in Vera Cruz in New Spain (now Mexico). He is on trial for murder and for hiding a fabulous treasure of gold that was discovered on an expedition which he was a member of. As the trial drags on, Estéban writes the story of the expedition in detail, interspersed with accounts of the trial.

Estéban was sent with a group of ships who were to resupply Coronado as he marched his army north through New Spain, searching for Cíbola and its rumored seven cities of gold. When a captain mutinied, Estéban was forced to leave the ships and found himself traveling through uncharted wilderness as his new captain searched for the fabled cities on his own. How and where did they find the treasure, how much was there, and where was it hidden? These were the questions the court was demanding answers to from Estéban as he was in prison, appearing before the judges every few days. He wrote the story in detail to help himself know how to answer.

The part of the story I did not like was the extreme violence toward the Indians. The Spanish did not consider the Indians to be human; Indian lives were expendable. The only worth the Indians had in the eyes of Captain Mendoza was to find and stockpile gold for him to take. If they got in his way, he killed them. One particularly gory scene involved a fight between Estéban and an Indian; I didn’t even finish reading that scene aloud. In another chapter, Captain Mendoza breached a dam and washed away a village.

One thing we noted as we read through the book was the effect the love of money has on people. Captain Mendoza would stop at nothing to get gold. He didn’t care about Indians, and he didn’t even seem to care about his own people. Toward the end, he even sent away his chief helper with some excuse, planning, obviously, to keep all the gold for himself. Even Estéban found himself struck with gold fever, and it changed his personality. There was poetic justice in the end, though—we appreciated what caused Captain Mendoza’s death, even though it was horrible. I asked the boys for a Bible verse to illustrate what happened, and they all knew what I was thinking about—Proverbs 26:27, “Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein: and he that rolleth a stone, it will return upon him.

It was also interesting to recognize various geological features in the American Southwest, particularly The Abyss and The Inferno. I’m not totally sure what that was, but I have a good guess. The illustrations throughout the book are the maps that Estéban is purported to have drawn.

WARNING: Read the fourth paragraph.

Age Levels:

Read Aloud—Ages 10 – 13
Reading Independently—Ages 12 – 15, 15 and Above


Links to buy The King’s Fifth:

Amazon: Paperback | Hardcover | Audible Audiobook (unabridged) | MP3 Audio CD (unabridged)

AbeBooks: View Choices on

Book Depository: Paperback | Audio CD (unabridged)


American Southwest, Coronado, Exploration, Mapmaking, Mexico, Spanish Conquest

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