My rating: 3/5
The debut novel by French-Vietnamese writer Aliette de Bodard is an enjoyable cross genre tale, intertwining a murder mystery with fantasy, historical fiction and Aztec mythology. Yes, it will twist your brain just to look at some of the Aztec names (De Bodard actually opted for the shorter ones), but it’s well worth it for the chance to explore Servant of the Underworld’s Mexica Empire, with its mythology, capricious gods, and hideous monsters.
Eleuia, a seductive and ambitious priestess, disappears from her room but leaves rather a lot of blood splashed across the walls and floor. Acatl is called to lead the investigation because it’s clear that magic was involved and as High Priest for the Dead his spell-casting abilities and sixth sense for magic make him ideal for the task. However, Acatl also has a personal connection to the case – his estranged brother Neutemoc was found rummaging around in Eleuia’s room, making him a prime suspect for what is assumed to be murder, given that the room is drenched with almost a body’s worth of blood.
However, it’s been four years since Neutemoc and Acatl said a word to each other, and their family history is a painful one for Acatl: “My parents had all but worshipped [Neutemoc], back when they had both been alive. He could do no wrong. He had always been the precious, beloved child – whereas I, of course, was less than nothing, a humble priest who had never had the courage to seek wealth and honour on the battlefield”. Neutemoc is a Jaguar Knight, an elite warrior. Warriors are revered by Aztec society, not only for their fighting prowess but because they capture prisoners for the blood sacrifices that keep the world going. Priests on the other hand are plentiful, poor and celibate, and Acatl’s parents repeatedly voiced their disappointment in his choice of career, and his inability to support them in particular. With all these issues constantly poking at him, Acatl can seem feeble at times, but is determined to prove his courage even though he often been deemed a coward. Despite the strained relationship with his brother he is still fiercely loyal to Neutemoc and determined to clear his name, as well as protect the Jaguar Knight’s family, who will be left destitute if he is disgraced. Acatl is aided by Teomitl, a mysteriously powerful young warrior, and later by his younger sister Mihmatini, who shows great talent with magic.
The novel’s fantasy world is steeped in magic and blood, making spells and blood sacrifices commonplace. In addition to that, the Aztec gods and mythical worlds are very much a reality. In his investigation, Acatl questions humans and gods and travels in both the Fifth World (our world) and the mythical worlds of Mictlan (Land of the Dead) and Tlalocan (Land of the Blessed Drowned). The boundaries between worlds are regularly traversed but “those who blurred the boundaries between the underworld and the Fifth World” without the authority to do so could also be fatally punished by the gods. Like many pagan deities, the Aztec “Gods [are] capricious, caring little about the balance of the world” while simultaneously demanding faith and worship. Consequently, some gods meddle in human affairs if it suits them while others refuse to get involved in such petty things.
Aztec magic is fuelled by blood, hence the sacrifices for which their civilisation is famed. Priests and priestesses regularly offer their own blood for rituals. Acatl is so used to slitting his earlobes to offer the blood that he no longer notices the pain. He doesn’t just use his blood to open the way to Mictlan during funeral rites, but also as part of his basic morning routine. Various animals are kept for sacrifices as well, but luckily the killing is so commonplace that De Bodard spares the reader descriptions of their struggles. De Bodard actually mentions in the Authors Notes that she used animal sacrifices instead of the human ones that would have been used for most cults. This certainly softens the impression of the Aztecs somewhat, but at the risk of sounding bloodthirsty I’ll admit that I would have preferred human sacrifices. While most people know next to nothing about Aztec culture, many will at least be familiar with their tendency to spill human blood like water. I don’t think that including it in the novel would have made it hard for readers to empathise with Acatl and his society, but it made have made the story a little edgier. Or maybe I’m just a psychopath…
On the downside, the murder mystery aspect of the plot is not especially gripping. New clues and revelations fail to evoke those delicious little pulse-racing, eyes-wide, gasp(!) moments that you get when reading a really tense crime thriller, and the action sequences are average. Some may also find Acatl’s investigations to be a little bit slow, but I didn’t have any problems with the novel’s pace as the mythology always held my interest. As the investigator and narrator though, Acatl could be frustrating. He occasionally withholds bits of information from other characters when it seems pointless if not unwise to do so. He also has a tendency to think one thing and say another, usually as a result of being sheepish or in an attempt to be diplomatic. While this might be in character, it would be so much more satisfying if Acatl were frank, especially when talking to his idiot brother Neutemoc who, frankly, got on my nerves whenever his name appeared on the page. Neutemoc’s misfortunes are clearly all his own fault, but he blames Acatl for them, even though the poor priest is risking his life to clear his brother’s name. That the brothers haven’t spoken for years and now seem incapable of conversing without bickering doesn’t stop me from wanting to give the daft warrior a kick in the teeth.
But don’t let that faze you. The mystery plot is suffused with mythology anyway, and that’s the novel’s real drawcard. Acatl’s investigation finds its way from a crime of passion to god politics and hideous otherworldly monsters. Ultimately, it falls short of being really great, but it’s an entertaining read, and fantasy fans will relish the chance to explore a fresh world. It doesn’t end here though: Servant of the Underworld is the first in a series entitled Obsidian and Blood, and the sequel, Harbinger of the Storm will be released by Angry Robot Publishers in January 2011. A third book is planned. I’m hoping the series will delve further into the mythological worlds like Mictlan and Tlalocan, and that my two favourite characters, the warrior Teomitl and Acatl’s sister Mihmatini, will have big roles. I’ll be reviewing Harbinger of the Storm closer to the release date, so watch this space!