I recently read de Bodard's story The Lost Xuyan Bride in The Apex Book of World SF and found it one of the highlights of the collection (if you are interested, it can be read on the author's website). One of the things I liked about it was the use of two non-Western cultures in this alternative history/detective story. Normally I am a bit more cautious but based on that story I decided to give her début novel Servant of the Underworld, the first novel in the Obsidian and Blood series a go. I was pleasantly surprised by this novel. It turned out to be a fast-paced and exciting, historical fantasy/mystery.
Servant of the Underworld is set in Tenochtitlan in 1480. At that time the centre of the Aztec empire and close to reaching it's largest territorial expansion. In the vibrant capital politicians, priests and warriors vie for influence at the court of the Revered Speaker and sacrifices in blood are part of everyday life to appease the gods. Even human sacrifices are deemed necessary at times to make sure the fifth world does not end. Our main character Acatl is a small player in the political minefield of Tenochtitlan. As high-priest of the dead, he worships Mictlantecuhtli, a relatively unimportant deity.
Acatl prefers to stay out of politics, immersing himself in guiding the recently deceased to his god's domain with the proper rituals and sacrifices as well as comforting those left behind. His appointment as high-priest could not have come to a person who wanted it less. When he is called away from his temple to investigate what appears to be a murder he soon finds out that there is no escaping politics. Arriving at the scene of the crime the case looks straightforward. His brother Neutemoc is found covered in blood. Enough blood that the victim cannot have survived even though no body is present. Acatl is forced to undertake the investigation and come to his brother's defence. What appears to be straightforward soon leads him to the highest circles of Aztec society and beyond.
De Bodard sets her story in a culture that has, shall we say, a reputation for being bloodthirsty. It would have been pretty easy for the author to exploit that for shock value. Something that whoever wrote the cover text was quite aware of. The author does not need to emphasize that element of the story to make it a good book. She does not spare us the Aztec's rather frightening pantheon, nor a ritually sacrificed animal or two but all as everyday part of life. The main character and narrator (the book is written in the first person) is so used to these practices that he doesn't seem to deem them worthy of elaborate description and that, I think, makes the character of Acatl a whole lot more convincing that he would otherwise have been.
To further flesh out this character the author adds a quite complicated relationship with his brother. The man who fulfilled his parents' wishes for their children and gained honour on the field of battle. His parents' rejection of his modest ambitions of being a priest still stings. Perfect he may seem, Neutemoc is human enough. Accused of murder, a pawn in the power struggles his warrior society is involved in, a marriage that is about to collapse, his parents should have seen him now. As one of the gods Acatl encounters puts is, he is full of regrets and bitterness. He's also a well rounded character.
Although de Bodard admits to taking a few liberties with history in the author's note, she certainly could have fooled me. It is not a period I am very well acquainted with but I thought the historical setting was well realized. If this book is ever made into an audio book I do pity the person doing the reading. Aztec names are often long and seemingly impossible to pronounce. To prevent them from blurring into random syllables instead of characters I did have to check to character list thoughtfully provided by the author early on in the tale. She also added a list of the most important Aztec terms and concepts to help us along. I would not mind seeing that expanded a bit in book two. It makes for interesting reading.
An interesting and unusual setting, a well rounded main character (did you ever meet a priest of the dead being the good guy in a fantasy novel?) and a brisk pace. This novel has a lot going for it. What makes this début even more impressive is the fact that the author has written it in her second language. Since it is my second language as well I am probably not the one to tell you if this in noticeable in the novel. De Bodard doesn't go for elaborate sentences or complicated vocabulary (save the Aztec terms) but then, you don't have to be a second language speaker to avoid that. She certainly manages a whole lot better than I do in this review. I'd say Servants of the Underworld is one of the better débuts I have read recently. Definitely worth checking out. I am certainly going to keep an eye out for the second book.
If you want to make Acatl's acquaintance without committing to a novel you can try this story on the author's website. It clearly served as a starting point for the novel.
Title: Servant of the Underworld
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Angry Robot
Format: Mass Market Paperback
First published: 2010