A very challenging read with lots of characters, plots and politics, but also something completely different for epic fantasy. Hurley turns her back oA very challenging read with lots of characters, plots and politics, but also something completely different for epic fantasy. Hurley turns her back on all the dusty old conventions of the genre and invents wild new ways of being epic. Full review to follow....more
Miriam Black can see when people are going to die. One touch, skin on skin, is all it takes to give her a vision of exactly when and how it’s going toMiriam Black can see when people are going to die. One touch, skin on skin, is all it takes to give her a vision of exactly when and how it’s going to happen. Several years of living with this curse have made her a caustic, jaded human being, and she’s only in her twenties. She has no job, but gets by looking for people who are going to die soon, stalking them, and taking their money when they kick the bucket. It’s enough for her to survive on, and she never gets close to anyone.
Then she hitches a ride with a truck driver named Louis. Unlike most of the people she encounters in her seedy lifestyle, he’s a nice, gentle guy. She likes him, she’s attracted to him. But then she shakes his hand and sees that he will be horribly murdered in a month’s time, a moment after seeing her and speaking her name.
The first thing I need to tell you is that the official Angry Robot blurb for this book is misleading. This is what it says:
When the desperate survivoThe first thing I need to tell you is that the official Angry Robot blurb for this book is misleading. This is what it says:
When the desperate survivors of the Titanic were rescued from the icy waters of the North Atlantic by the passenger steamship Carpathia, they thought their problems were over.
But something was sleeping in the darkest recesses of the rescue ship. Something old. Something hungry.
The lucky ones wished they’d gone down with the ship.
Based on that blurb, I assumed the plot went something like this: Titanic sinks. Survivors are rescued by the Carpathia. Unknown monsters start preying on the passengers of the Carpathia. Survivors must find out what the monsters are and kill them or be eaten. Reader gets to enjoy a combination of mystery and horror.
The tale is classic detective noir – the beautiful blonde damsel is in distress and needs the help of the smart, hardass detective with personal issueThe tale is classic detective noir – the beautiful blonde damsel is in distress and needs the help of the smart, hardass detective with personal issues and a repertoire of bad and very bad jokes. But the damsel is a vampire/human halfbreed, the detective is a zombie, and it’s all set in Nekropolis, a city in “a distant dark dimension” where all the evil creatures came to live when they got tired of being hunted and hated by the inhospitable humans of Earth.
Nekropolis is worth exploring and its populated by a panoply of inventive creatures, but sadly Waggoner seems so fascinated by the world he's created that the plot is little more than an unimaginative means of taking a tour through it. The result is a great setting and a boring story.
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, Obsidi7/10
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.
The debut novel by French-Vietnamese writer Aliette de Bodard is an enjoyable cross genre tale, intertwining a murder mystery with fantasy, historicalThe 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 four 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 still an entertaining read, and fantasy fans will relish the chance to explore a fresh world. The journey 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 in January 2011 by Angry Robot Publishers. I’m hoping it 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.