Angry Robot provides cheeky but helpful classifications on the jackets of their books; on this one, they says: "File Under: Fantasy / Aztec Mystery /Angry Robot provides cheeky but helpful classifications on the jackets of their books; on this one, they says: "File Under: Fantasy / Aztec Mystery / Locked Room / Human Sacrifice / The Dead Walk!" Now how on earth could I resist that? As it turns out, I am very happy I didn't resist it, because within I found a very strong debut, one equal parts detective, historical, and epic fantasy novel.
The detective component was extremely satisfying. As is traditional, Acatl has a sort of semi-formal standing with the authorities, undertaking the investigation for personal reasons but with official backing (though not always with official resources). He is also personally invested; though not truly a locked room mystery, the only apparent possible suspect at the opening of the novel is his own brother, so much of his initial investigation does revolve around proving that someone -- anyone -- else could have committed the crime.
And while in broad strokes the plot works like any other mystery plot, with Acatl roaming the city interviewing witnesses and suspects, in its details it derives a great deal of novelty from the setting. This is the Aztec Empire at its height, not London or New York or Los Angeles, and de Bodard keeps that fact front and center. Acatl has different laws to obey, and different resources to draw on, than most other detectives; not least of those is the need to keep clear of the ire of the gods, and the efficacy of blood magic. Additionally, on a pure-craft level, I was very impressed with how subtly she kept cluing me in to who was who, and who represented whom, in a very different sort of hierarchy than the ones I am more familiar with; she also used names that were fairly easy to distinguish and track despite their likely unpronounceability for her audience.
But if I have one quibble with this novel, it is the two major liberties de Bodard took with her otherwise historical setting. First, she made up one branch of the temple hierarchy up out of whole cloth; I find that practice personally problematic, and in this novel at least (there are currently two sequels) it didn't seem to add anything. It actually confused me quite a bit, because the character who represented that branch didn't fit with my understanding of Aztec society as established in the rest of the novel. The second issue was that, in order to make Acatl more sympathetic, she removed the human sacrifice he almost certainly would have practiced from his temple's purview; again, I find that decision problematic and I think the book might have been richer if she had engaged with the issue rather than skirting it.
She had the opportunity to address the issue from a sympathetic angle; after all, blood magic does work in this world. The gods want sacrifices, and they become more and more entangled in the attack Acatl is investigating. By the climax Acatl's entire world is at stake, in good epic fantasy fashion, and the resolution feels earned.
Ultimately, though, while I enjoyed the mystery and historical fiction and epic fantasy elements, what makes this book special, what makes it stand out from other similar books, is the development of Acatl's character. He is a very different person by the end of the book than he is at the beginning, and the climax is so completely rooted in that journey that the book could not exist were he a different person. That, to me, is incredibly impressive, and makes de Bodard's career something I am excited to watch grow....more
This is the third book published in Bear's New Amsterdam series; it is the second in chronological order; and while it's helpful to have the backgrounThis is the third book published in Bear's New Amsterdam series; it is the second in chronological order; and while it's helpful to have the background from the previous books, it isn't strictly necessary. Like Dorothy Sayers' Peter Wimsey novels, the characters grow over the course of the series, but each book has a stand-alone mystery that is the focus of its primary plot. Also like the Wimsey novels, the mysteries are completely fair and not terribly twisty, but they aren't the reason I can picture myself reading and rereading and rereading them over again.
No, the reason I can read both Sayers' detective series and Bear's detective series over and over again is twofold: first, they both feature complex main characters (plural, not just the lead detective) that I ache for; second, they both give me tantalizing glimpses of very complex worlds. In Bear's case, it's a paranormal steampunk world, where forensic sorcerors are turn-of-the-20th century CSIs and vampires are marginal members of most societies (but outlawed entirely in the American colonies). It's also a world where blissfully happy endings may exist. . . but they happen to other people.
On her livejournal, Bear said something, somewhere (my google-fu is weak today) about not being interested in the explosions (in other words, the what) but instead being mostly interested, as a writer, in the moment of choice (in other words, the why). It was an apt summation of this novella, and of all the others in this series. There is a mystery -- two, actually, in two separate timelines that come together at the end -- but the book (and this reader) is not primarily concerned with solving it, because there's really only only one possible suspect, and means & motive are crystal-clear. What this book is concerned with is the seemingly central (yet sadly underexplored) question of existence as a vampire (or any other immortal): how do you choose to keep living, when everything and everyone you love is constantly leaving you behind?
Appropriately, this novella shows two very different coping mechanisms, and implies that there are as many more as there are immortals.
Many of Bear's stories are about aging; it's one of the things I respond to in her writing. I was more affected by the way she handled it in the last New Amsterdam novella, Seven for a Secret; but that may just be because I care far more for Abby Irene than for Jack Priest, rather than being any indication of the relative quality of the works. Still, I can't quite recommend this one quite as unreservedly; I think the original collection of New Amsterdam stories (titled, obviously, New Amsterdam) is the best entry point to this world, and this novella is a further exploration aimed more at long-time fans....more
This is a well-written, evocative book, full of period detail and fully-fleshed, complex characters. It is a historical mystery that succeeds in beingThis is a well-written, evocative book, full of period detail and fully-fleshed, complex characters. It is a historical mystery that succeeds in being both accessible to the modern reader and still hard to untangle. It has moments of humor, pathos, and heart-pounding suspense. It also stares unflinchingly into some very dark places, without letting that darkness overwhelm its story. It is a wonderful book, but not one to be read lightly, particularly if you prefer your reading to be full of sweetness and light. Benjamin January's world is full of everyday defeats and stolen bits of happiness -- and the fact that his world is our world makes every defeat that much more painful. But for the stout of heart this is a luminous piece of genre writing....more
There were some interesting and evocative passages about Africa, but I found the writing style too aggressively simplistic (reminiscent of Dick and JaThere were some interesting and evocative passages about Africa, but I found the writing style too aggressively simplistic (reminiscent of Dick and Jane books, to be honest) and the mysteries so inconsequential that I don't remember them 20 minutes after finishing the novel. If I don't think of these as mysteries I might at some point pick up another, but probably not....more
Brilliantly evocative, the poetry of change-bell ringing winding throughout the novel in unexpected and delightful ways. The final solution was properBrilliantly evocative, the poetry of change-bell ringing winding throughout the novel in unexpected and delightful ways. The final solution was properly horrifying and unsuspected until quite late in the novel. My one little quibble is that the character of Deacon is so unreservedly black. . . I prefer even my villains to have a bit more grey in them. But beyond that, truly a mystery classic....more