In his first work of historical fiction, planetary scientist William K. Hartmann digs into the history of the American Southwest and finds a unique and compelling mystery.

The main character in Cities of Gold is the 16th-century Spanish explorer and friar Marcos de Niza, who was accused of spreading fables about the Southwest's "seven cities of gold," inspiring conquistadors to push deep into the region and set the stage for future European encroachment. Hartmann does some astounding research to clear de Niza's name, and at the same time, he sheds light on the development of the West.

Hartmann parallels de Niza's life with that of Kevin Scott, a modern man in Tucson, who, like de Niza, is a man of strong ideals who wants to do good, but finds himself manipulated by power-hungry developers. Scott is hired by the creators of "Coronado Estates" to look for evidence that Coronado once passed near the building site. Eventually, he finds himself involved in a murder, as his life becomes entwined with that of de Niza.

Hartmann creates a parallel between developers and conquistadors, bringing home the notion that the conquistador mindset continues in the West. In this book, he imbues history with a brilliant sense of emotion. "What Americans needed to feel was the eerie sense of history radiating from the earth * precisely not what you feel in a goddamn predigested park, with its manicured plants and asphalt walkways," Hartmann writes. "What was needed was not a brass plaque or visitor center or a lookout point or a gift shop with paperback books of history in bite-size servings, but rather the absence of a park."

To understand the formation of the modern West -- the formation, in fact, of history -- read this book. It does what few books can do, giving the past a vividness, a presence, bringing it truly to life. Cities of Gold, by William K. Hartmann. 544 pages, hardcover: $25.95. Forge Books, NY.