DANIEL PETERS frames his newest novel so carefully within the facts of history that "The Incas" could be read as a serious commentary on how 6 million Incas succumbed to 200 conquistadores. Although remembered as victims of European colonization, the Incas themselves were conquerors; and most of the book focuses on the weaknesses their empire imposed on their tribal neighbors.The story stretches from 1511 to the arrival of the conquistadores in 1532. Whatever grand pax existed earlier in the empire's 100-year history is fractured by the Sapa - or supreme Incas - whose bungling aggressions corrupt honor codes and alienate the military. The Inca empire is relived through Cusi Huaman, a fierce young soldier and "Inca of the blood," and Micay, a beautiful provincial girl taken against her will into the convent-like House of Chosen Women. Through them readers tour the length of the 3,000-mile kingdom and explore hidden inner sanctums: a mountaintop mausoleum, where a long-haired priestess in a gold mask attends a golden-eyed mummy, and an underground tunnel, where the fertility goddess voices her predictions. As Cusi views the slaughter of rebel warriors in a lake of blood, and as he learns of triumphant partisans dropping crushing stones on the backs of their captured rivals, he experiences increasing disenchantment with Inca rule. He urges tribal leaders to band together against their only real enemy - the legendary Viracocha, who crouch at the edges of the Inca world waiting to destroy their lives forever. Micay, too, outgrows her teenage conditioning in the Inca way. Like Cusi, she finds the primitive sorcery practiced at rural shrines more emotionally compelling than the sun worship imposed by Inca officials. Flustered by the scheming and bickering of courtly wives, she takes to heart a wise woman's saying: Inca men waste their lives in wars of conquest and Inca women waste their's in wars of prestige. Ultimately, the story becomes a conflict between control and freedom. In reality, the Incas ruled subjugated tribes, who far outnumbered them, by an elaborate web of doctrine and protocol. Both Incas by blood and Incas by privilege flaunted their status with large golden earlobe plugs that glittered for miles around. Inca mothers arranged their daughters' marriages and defined a decorum as narrow as that of Victorian England. The novel presents a rigidly stratified society whose delicate tissue of propriety can be perforated by a mere gesture, voice tone, or implication. Enmeshed in this confining cultural web, Cusi and Micay are ingenuous individualists who say and do the "wrong" things. They question their superiors. They marry against the wishes of Cusi's mother. Inevitably, their irrepressible independence drags them toward the axe edge of death. Peters has no doubts about the real cause of the Inca conquest. In his story, the wellsprings of spiritual vitality flow from the indigenous tribes, each of which has developed a culture attuned to its immediate environment. His story not only disparages the cult of Inca superiority, it also denies the reader a larger-than-life escapism. Romance, suspense, heroes, and villians are all confined to realistic proportions. Cusi, for example, achieves hero status by an accidental fall that is mistaken for a hawklike plunge at the enemy. Peters also does not exploit suspense scenes and confrontations between good and evil characters. Instead of using these as plot unifiers to intensify the novel's thrill quotient, he downplays them. This approach slows the narrative's pace to that of a llama caravan through the Andes, and shades the story's emotional backdrop to pleasant pastels rather than dramatic primary colors. But the strength of "The Incas" is its "you are there" realism and subtle diatribe against empire.