It’s been one and a half years since the events of Servant of the Underworld, the first in Aliette de Bodard’s mythological mystery series, Obsidian and Blood. Book two, Harbinger of the Storm opens with the death of The Revered Speaker, ruler of the Mexica Empire, and with his passing the Fifth World is left vulnerable to destruction. The Revered Speaker acts as the agent of the War and Sun god Huitzlipochtli, and without him Huitzlipochtli has no means of giving the human world his protection. If a new Speaker is not chosen soon, star demons will descend from the heavens “to walk the streets and marketplaces of the city, to rend our flesh into bloody ribbons, to open up our chests with a flick of their claws and pluck out our beating hearts”. And that gory possibility seems increasingly likely as various contenders vie for political power, looking only as far as their own interests and ignoring the carnage that might follow their actions.
In fact, the star demons may already have started the slaughter – as with the first book, this novel begins with a grisly crime, but this time the body was left behind, if you can still call it that: “There was no body left, not as such, just an elongated, glistening mass of bloody flesh with bits and pieces of organs spread all over the stone floor”.
As before, it’s Acatl’s duty to investigate the crime, and from there he leads us into an increasingly dark and bloody tangle of mythology and political intrigue that is not merely a worthy successor to Servant of the Underworld, but a tighter, pacier and altogether more exciting read. Harbinger of the Storm finds Acatl to be much the same person he was in the first novel – torn between his principles on the one hand, and on the other the infuriating formalities that everyone lives by, but for which Acatl has little patience.
Acatl’s young warrior student Teomitl on the other hand is now brimming with the power of Chalchiuhtlicue – the Goddess of Lakes and Streams who became his patron towards the end of book one. This makes him even cooler. He radiates the magical force of his goddess whenever his temper flares and he can summon ahuizotls (lake monsters) to aid him in a fight.
And there are plenty of fights. Political battles give rise to physical battles with gods and mythical monsters, and the novel’s rich Aztec mythology is deeply intertwined with its human relationships and ambitions. Deceptive, power-lusting High Priests and councilmen drive the narrative, wielding dark magic and making secret alliances with capricious gods. They play apocalyptic political games even though star demons are on the verge of breaking the boundaries between worlds and threatening to bring the Fifth World to an end. In my review of the first novel I said I wanted more blood. Well, De Bodard has drawn her inky black dagger and drenched these pages in it.
Rather less sharp than her abilities with myth and storytelling though, is the editing of the novel. Myriad minor errors and inconsistencies are a tad distracting, and the motivations for characters’ behaviour and attitudes is not always clear.
I’m also disappointed in the way the narrative treats Acatl’s sister, Mihmatini, who Teomitl has been courting for the past year. A talented priestess in her own right, we see surprisingly little of her while the men run around trying to either save the world or destroy it. Mihmatini gets pulled in when she’s needed and then rapidly dismissed. The worst example of this is when she is left alone in Teomitl’s rooms while he and Acatl continue their investigations around the palace. I’m not even sure why she was there in the first place, but when they come looking for her a good while later, she’s still in the room, staring angrily at the walls as if she’d shut down in the interim, when neither her brother or her boyfriend needed her. Later, when there’s an opportunity for her to flex her powers and play a greater role, Acatl and Teomitl are given all the attention and she disappears from the book completely. Consequently her character is underdeveloped, and she appears largely as a flaring temper fussing over Acatl’s health. While Mihmatini’s capabilities are acknowledged, we never get to see her in action. Nor would it be clear that she and Teomitl were courting if the text didn’t say so; I don’t recall any display of real affection between them.
Luckily, this didn’t bother me too much, especially since I was enjoying the mystery, action and mythology. Harbinger goes further in exploring the nature and origins of the gods, and we get to witness them in the kind of menacing splendour that makes you use expletives of nervous admiration when monsters emerge roaring and ravenous in movie scenes, or a game boss looms large before trying to end you. In contrast, we also see the gods as oddly human, not only in their power struggles, but as actual mortals who sacrificed themselves to create the Fifth World. Shifting balances between strength and vulnerability are found throughout the novel, from the social inequalities between priests and warriors, to the use of magic to protect or kill, to the gods who, despite their power, can have no influence on the mortal plane without the sacrifices of living blood that humans offer to them.
It’s a complex but intriguing story, and I for one am thoroughly satisfied with this sequel. According to De Bodard’s blog the final book in the Obsidian and Blood trilogy will be titled The Master of the House of Darts, and its due for release in November 2011. If De Bodard continues to build on what she’s done so far, it’s going to be epic.