Year One-Knife, Tenochtitlan the capital of the Aztecs. The end of the world is kept at bay only by the magic of human sacrifice. A Priestess disappears from an empty room drenched in blood. Acatl, High Priest, must find her, or break the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead.
Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris. She has won three Nebula Awards, an Ignyte Award, a Locus Award, a British Fantasy Award and four British Science Fiction Association Awards, and was a double Hugo finalist for 2019 (Best Series and Best Novella).
Her most recent book is Fireheart Tiger (Tor.com), a sapphic romantic fantasy inspired by pre colonial Vietnam, where a diplomat princess must decide the fate of her country, and her own. She also wrote Seven of Infinities (Subterranean Press), a space opera where a sentient spaceship and an upright scholar join forces to investigate a murder, and find themselves falling for each other. Other books include Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders and its standalone sequel Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances, (JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.), fantasy books of manners and murders set in an alternate 19th Century Vietnamese court. She lives in Paris.
Looking for something besides medieval European-based fantasy? Too many werewolves just looking for love in your reading? Tired of airships and clockworks? (Note: I’m not even bringing up the zombie references, but yes, you can have too much of the walking dead). Aliette de Bodard’s trilogy Obsidian and Blood might just be the solution to the fantasy reader looking to genre-bend. The first book, Servant of the Underworld, is a fascinating stand-alone book, so don’t let commitment issues prevent you from reading.
Acatl-tzin, the High Priest of the Dead, is interrupted in the middle of a ceremony easing the passage to the Underworld for a dead noble. Ceyaxochitl, the second in command of the Mexica Empire, requests his presence at the scene of a crime. A priestess has gone missing from her chambers, and all that is left is copious amounts of blood and the odor of jaguar-magic. Although Ceyaxochitl would normally be in charge of the investigation, she has matters of the Empire preoccupying her at the moment, and besides–the chief suspect is Acatl’s estranged brother. Acatl’s relationship with the Underworld means he is particularly well-suited by both magical ability and forensic skills to investigate deaths. Unfortunately, attempting to clear his brother will mean Acatl will need to confront their mutual animosity. As the investigation grows more complicated, he’s forced to take on an aide, the cocky Teomitl, and even interrogate the gods. It seems the missing priestess is at the center of a great power struggle where almost everyone has a stake–except Acatl, who wants to avoid it.
I can’t remember any fantasy that’s transported me more thoroughly to another Earth-time and Earth-culture. What is truly impressive, however, is that Bodard imbued the story with the feel of belief in the magics and the gods. I felt a empathetic connection. On her website Bodard states “See, I’m a writer–not a historian, not a researcher. I did my best with a mountain of sources, but I’m no expert and no Nahuatl, so it’s highly possible (and, indeed, highly probable) that the Obsidian and Blood books include some mistakes.” I don’t believe her–the world she created feels more authentic than most urban fantasies set in the here and now, and the fact that she actually shares further reference reading demonstrates more cultural respect than most. What is even more impressive is that she did it old-school science-fiction style, dropping the reader into a new world without narrative information-dumping. She admits to a few authorial cultural changes here and there, particularly shortening the incredibly multi-syllabic names, easing up on the human sacrifice and modifying the concept of dual gods, but it certainly isn’t anything but an expert would recognize. What I did note was the sense of place, the jungles and floating islands, the native foods, the elaborate dress. With her descriptions, I was reminded of ponderous stone statues at the Met, the steep stairs at Chichén Itzá, the rhythm of a Navajo chant.
Jaguar ‘cuauhxicalli’ sacrificial vessel, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
There are a few shortcomings, none of much consequence. Occasionally a descriptive phrase or two for a character is repeated. Given Bodard’s thoroughness in outlining and detail, I’m guessing the repetition was intended as a person-clue as much as the names, which are occasionally similar. I expected to be uncomfortable with certain cultural aspects given prior knowledge about Aztec human sacrifice, but I was unprepared with the frequency of the ritual animal sacrifice. Eventually, though, Bodard helped me came to understand it, at least culturally. The ending, while satisfactory, is a bit too neat in some ways, as well as falling prey to a common fantasy trope. For some readers, the cultural immersion might feel too alien in a genre accustomed to wrapping 21st century beliefs in the trappings of whatever time period it chooses to play in (I’m talking to you, neo-Victorian steampunkers). Most significantly, Bodard does so well as the recreating a Meso-American culture from 1480 that it is a little challenging to empathize with the characters. Come to think of it, the way many sci-fi and fantasy writers get around the alien culture-empathy challenge is to give the reader a more modern human to identify with. So kudos, Bodard, for not including a time-traveler and challenging the reader to identify with Acatl.
This isn’t a book that will appeal to everyone. It isn’t a quick, breezy beach read–it requires some mental stretching and attention. This is the thick, homemade dark chocolate version of hot chocolate, not the instant Carnation version with little stale marshmallows. If that sounds appealing, I highly recommend it. I’m looking forward to the next book.
Book trailer and sample chapter available through a link on my blog or Bodard's.
Welcome to Tenochtitlan, home to Acatl, unenthusiastic High Priest of the Dead and now, due to circumstances beyond his control, equally unenthusiastic lead investigator in the bloody disappearance of a priestess. Unfortunately, it’s too close to home to ignore, especially once a family member is arrested for the crime. But that doesn’t mean he has to be happy about it, his quiet life has been ruined and someone’s going to pay for it. Using skills both investigative and magical, Acatl must wade into the high politics of the city as well as the deeper, much more dangerous, scheming of the gods. It quickly becomes clear the the missing woman is at the heart of a much larger conspiracy, one that threatens to end the Fifth World.
This partly imagined, partly real space is spectacularly atmospheric, so lushly described that it felt unquestionably real. The fact that the city’s ruins have been on my travel wishlist for some time allowed for a merging of what was and what is, building a mental picture that flowed like one of those recreation segments on history programmes, the bare bones of extant buildings blooming into colour and detailed reality. If the author got anything right, it is this. I could see it, hear it. The murder mystery format allowed Acatl to act as city guide, explaining the place and culture as moved around the landscape, all the time adding more information to the ongoing investigation. It provided an effective means for inserting the reader into contemporary ways of thinking, important when the society in question had a very different sense of religion and morality. However, some of this vibrancy was dulled by the excessive and somewhat repetitious nature of Acatl’s family issues and his whole ‘finding his true place in the world’ thing. It meant that pacing was uneven, with high action scenes interspersed with lots of introspection. This pensiveness is an essential part of his rather dour character, something I liked overall, but the sibling rivalry and familial disappointment that formed its foundations seemed rather drawn out considering its flimsy basis, particularly when lives were at stake. My brother gets on my nerves sometimes but I could put it aside if someone was trying to kill us. Almost definitely.
One of the most difficult aspects of the book for me was the animal sacrifice used to power ritual magic. It’s a well thought out system, but every slit throat and broken neck made me flinch. It was so intrinsically necessary to the nature of the spell making, yet it reminded me that humans have been killing animals for really shitty reasons for almost forever, from ritual to spectacle, clothing to ‘medicines’. In an age where some of these animals are on the brink of extinction, it gives me a deeply visceral reaction to read about their destruction, even if it’s not real. Just as I’m always the one calling for the horse rather than the rider to be spared in films, I spent much of the book hoping for a bit of human bloodletting to replace the animal. This in itself is problematic as my unthinking call for the blood price to be paid by human characters has a darker side. Evidence suggests that there was human sacrifice in Tenochtitlan and a lot of it, from captured prisoners to the city’s own citizens. The picture of a society in which violence was endemic has been hugely sensationalised in films and other media, leading to a characterisation of its people bordering on inhumanity. While human sacrifice did not play a significant role in the book, my modern sensibilities meant I still questioned the morality of killing animals (never mind humans) for magical juice, so it’ll be interesting to see whether it’ll factor more heavily in the future- and how i’ll feel about it. The author does much better than me in not judging- the people in her book live normal lives within the framework of their own ethical, religious, and cultural norms. The bad guys aren’t bad because of the society in which they live, they’re just power hungry arseholes- and that transcends both time and place.
Despite its flaws, the author tried to do something different here and the result is something that stands out from the standard European fantasy crowd for more than just its setting. As a refreshing mix of historical fiction and urban fantasy with an increasingly fluid boundary between truth and make believe or mortal and divine, this book offers an opportunity to step into a truly wondrous world- one to which I’ll return, and soon, in Harbinger of the Storm.
Chalchiutlicue. Say that quickly ten times, without stumbling!
I didn't read any reviews for Servant of the Underworld before I started. I think this is a good thing, because the label 'speculative fiction' tends to put me off, more often than not. Speculative fiction, that bastard child straddling the fence between literary fiction and genre fantasy, has pretensions of grandeur that tend to overwhelm the actual talent of the writer. That Aliette de Bodard knows her subject inside out is a given. The question was, could she take such an obscure, non-mainstream culture and make it come alive in a way that would interest fans of both literary fiction and fantasy?
From the very first page, Servant of the Underworld managed to grab my attention. This is remarkable for a number of reasons. Firstly, the complete lack of familiarity, in terms of mythology, culture and even nomenclature. Early and Medieval European history is well documented and very, very familiar the world over. So, on a slightly smaller scale globally, are Asian and Middle Eastern history and mythology. But to most of the world, the Aztecs remain a mysterious and largely-forgotten people. It would then be all too easy for an author to fall into lecture mode, but de Bodard skillfully avoids this trap, choosing instead to turn the culture and mores into a form of fantasy worldbuilding.
Secondly, she avoids another pitfall that tends to often trap authors of historical fiction/fantasy. The urge to introduce modern concepts, ideals or mechanisms into an era that had no place for them (Jean M. Auel, I'm not just looking at you, I'm staring, pointing and laughing my ass off!) Oh, it's so inconvenient that these Cro-Magnons are such sexist bastards, let me sell my feminist manifesto by having my MC invent fire, domestication of animals, the wheel, herbal medicine, the bow-and-arrow, and even some magic! Please. Buy a clue, do some research. De Bodard, on the other hand, is very matter of fact about the way of life of the Mexicas. Animal sacrifices? No big deal. Human sacrifices? Yeah, these things happen. No, we don't eat tacos, you fool, we eat frogs and worms and maize porridge.
Thirdly, the magic system. In keeping with her historical theme, de Bodard builds a religion-based magical system that probably echoes that of the Aztecs. The gods giveth, and the gods taketh away. No Dark Lords or hidden heroes. The system is methodical and political, with gods and their priests jockeying for what gods and priests always jockey for, power. Although the magic is integral to the story, this is not a book about magic.
At heart, Servant of the Underworld is a whodunnit. Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead, is called in to investigate the disappearance of a high ranking priestess, only to find that his brother is implicated in her suspected murder. Acatl is put in charge of the investigation, and is suddenly caught in the middle of a hidden war of which he knows nothing. As I said, this is a whodunnit. An elaborate, magic-infused, theology-steeped whodunnit. But this is not the only layer of the story. There is a subtle battle that Acatl is waging against his fate, as High Priest of the Dead. In fact, it is so subtle that you're halfway through the book before you realise that Acatl is more than just a narrator, that the story is, in fact, in some measure, about him and his acceptance of his destiny. It is also a beautifully understated retelling of the prejudices that divided Aztec society, the chasm between priest and warrior. And, of course, this is a story about human and celestial greed for power. It's not just a question, you see, of whodunnit, but also of whydunnit.
Beautifully layered and simply told, this is a book that manages to do justice to the term speculative fiction. Which is not to say that it's perfect. The number one thing I hated about this book is the title. Anyone could be forgiven for thinking this is one of those endless urban fantasy series that are glutting the market these days. Seriously, Ms. de Bodard, can I suggest some alternative names? Also, the last few chapters of the book were a tiny, little bit of a disappointment. The whole 'struggle to save my world' thing? So passé, darling! It reverts to the fantasy tropes that have been refreshingly absent in most of this book. Strike two against this book. Actually that would make this a four-star read, except that de Bodard gets mega-bonus jackpot points for setting this in the mesoamerican civilisation. And really, nobody who can reconstruct a forgotten society with this level of perfection deserves less than five stars. If you're looking for a quick, light read, this is not the book for you. But if you're looking for meticulously-researched, well-written historical fantasy, give Aliette de Bodard a shot. You won't regret it, I think!
This was so different, really fascinating. Set in the pre-Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire, we meet Alcatel, high priest of the dead. He is forced to investigate the death of a priestess in which his brother is implicated and becomes involved in a much bigger problem as a result. Really the story revolves around a battle between the old gods and the new, the survival of the fifth world at stake. It seemed slightly strange initially to have a murder mystery and investigator in such a tale, but it worked well, not least because it provided an excellent way of world building without information dumping. And the Aztec empire and its customs and beliefs really were fascinating. And actually, now I think about it, the marriage of crime solving and historical fiction is a favoured combination of mine: seeing it in the Aztec context just seems strange! Two annoyances: the names were difficult and it did keep bumping me out of the story- and secondly, Acatl spent a lot of time ruminating on his insecurities and his past. By the end of the book, he is just coming to his own, and the story is well set up for the sequel. Recommended for fantasy lovers who need something a bit different
I really enjoyed this book for the most part. It’s clearly a first novel, but a really well done one. The setting is fascinating. I won’t go into it, because you can read the blurb. The names are hard to parse and too long to even say in my mind every time I see them, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment at all. I wish I’d known there was an index in the back. I liked how the actual plot was how the MC came into his own during the course of the book. The murder mystery was interesting too.
My expectations had been brought very low about this book, but they needn't have been. I thought this was a really great urban fantasy that maybe just went on a bit too long.
CONTENT WARNING: (just a list of topics)
Things to love:
-The mythology. It was really cool to learn more about the different Aztec gods.
-The historical setting. Not only do we immerse ourselves in Aztec lore, this story takes place in Tenochtitlan at the height of its power. I really thought this seemed well researched and loving.
-The mystery. Like most modern UF, this centers on a mystery that our main character must solve. I thought this was really ambitious, with a multi-layered mystery that involved lots of different parties and a much larger issue than we initially expected.
Things that were weaker:
-The characters. We're told a lot about them, but I never got close to them. I never really figured out what made them tick...or maybe I didn't believe what we were told. The MC in particular I actively came to find whiny and weak by the end of the story.
-Writing. The author is of course quite well versed in her trade at this point and made great use of writing technique to affect tension. However, she chose a very cold, reporter-like writing voice and left a few sections a bit more bloated than they ought to have been--a few too many repetitions, a few too little chance for us to rest and puzzle through some of the mystery ourselves that it always felt like we were receiving a lesson rather than ferreting out a bad guy.
-The ending. This is where the round-down happens for me. There are pretty much three different endings and the third ending does not feel earned and really lowered my respect for several of the characters I'd found interesting.
Still, I thought this was a really fun, very different world for UF and if I was looking for a relatively light read (minus the fact that many owls were ex-sanguinated :( ) I would consider trying another in this series. 3.5 Rounded down because of that ending.
Aztec detective fantasy noir. As you do. This is a dark and horrific world of blood sacrifice and cruelly capricious gods, vividly drawn. Our hero is the high priest of Lord Death, and must investigate the disappearance of a priestess for which his estranged brother has been framed. Gnarly mystery expands into world-threatening fantasy action. Highly readable, if not as assured as the author's more recent work, and a genuinely fascinating and very well drawn setting.
Unless you usually gauge mood by poking people in the eye then no, it wasn't. Also when I tweeted it I had several people assume I was reading crappy erotica. That is not a good sign.
"Oh," giggled another poorly-developed female character, "politics! I'm so glad I'm a woman and don't have to think about that."
Actually, there was no specific strike three. I just realised that I didn't care any more. I was 44% of the way through, the main character had just had an encounter with a powerful divinity, everything was going horribly wrong... and I was completely cold.
I found the main character entirely unsympathetic. He does not converse, he bickers. He is hung up on his Parents' Disapproval Of His Life Choices which is fine, everyone needs a backstory, but after the fifth flashback it began to get a bit tiresome. His only flaw (apart from being really annoying) is being Too Noble, as he refuses all help to Stop Any More People Getting Hurt. People still get hurt. He gets hurt, but he Nobly Struggles On Through The Pain. Ugh.
I just didn't like him. And the focus is so heavily on him and what he thinks and what he understands of the situation around him that I just couldn't bear it any more. In this case, the first-person narrative was stifling; I wanted to get more of a feel for the landscape and culture in which the story is set, instead of being trapped inside the brain of a single man. I wanted to know more about the other characters, to know why I should care about them, why the mystery needed to be solved. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.
So, sorry. Did not finish. Interesting premise, but executed in a way that completely lost me.
“Everyone has to grow up and take responsibilities,” she said, in an unusually quiet voice, “Even small, humble priests.”
Acatl, a relatively young priest, is used to hiding in plain sight, content to do his temple duties and live a quiet life somewhere in the provinces of the Aztec Empire. He has his reasons, mostly personal insecurities and feelings of regret for disappointing his family who planned a military career for him. But a former teacher of his with high connections to the imperial court refuses to let Acatl waste his obvious intelligence, his magical abilities and his resourcesfullnes in a small village in the middle of nowhere. She summons him to the capital of the empire, Tenochtitlan, to take over the responsibilities of High Priest for the Dead.
Soon after, his sponsor sends Acatl to the scene of a gruesome murder in a monastery/school for girls. One of the teachers, a woman renowned both for her beauty and for her ambitions to rise to a position in the Imperial household [the archetipal femme-fatale of noir], is killed in a spectacularly bloody manner inside the compound. The main suspect, discovered covered in blood and disoriented at the scene is Acatl’s own brother Neutemoc – a famous Jaguar Knight, member of one of the two elite military corps of the Aztec empire and the embodiment of everything Acatl was supposed to become, a constant reminder of the failure in the eyes of his family. Yet there is also a magic element to the crime scene – traces of a ghost-predator summoned by actors unknown. Can Acatl put aside his personal feelings and save his brother from a swift execution for murder? The case becomes more twisted and the stakes rise to the highest possible levels in Tenochtitlan as both political and religious connections are uncovered by our reluctant detective.
This novel made quite a splash at the time I joined Goodreads more than ten years ago. I put it on my wishlist and promptly managed to forget about it, probably also from a reluctance to compare it to my gold standard in mezo american historical fiction [ “Aztec” by Gary Jennings]. Yet the author’s name refuses to fade away into oblivion, and the literary prizes for her work keep coming. What was I to do? I had to decide for myself if this exotic and dangerous culture can come to life in what is practically a debut novel from an author more celebrated for her short-fiction.
The final verdict is a mixed bag. For more than half of the story, the comparison was all skewed towards the Gary Jennings vision and my reaction to various developments was defined by annoyance. Mostly this is caused by the plot structure and by the dialogue. The novel is a police procedural with a thin coating of period detail thrown and heavy use of political subplots. The structure is revealed mostly in the strained, cringe worthy early conversations between Acatl and his witnesses or sponsors, filled with modern criminal terminology and with foreign concepts. I’m pretty sure the Aztecs didn’t play chess back in the fifteen century, yet I read stuff like this:
“He doesn’t like to be losing pawns.”
This is in reference to political infighting between various factions as the murder investigation coincides with a terminal illness for the current holder of the throne.
On the other side of the balance stands the true strength of the world-building, something that is revealed in the second half of the novel as Acatl discovers that the Aztec Pantheon is directly involved in the proceedings and that the sky-high stakes of the game pit the ancient gods against a younger crop of upstarts, more ruthless and more ambitious than the non-interventionist elders. Mortal humans are truly ‘pawns’ in their hands and Acatl is living in interesting times, if I am also allowed to mix cultural references.
But truly, the blood-based magic and the complexities of the Aztec mythology, every bit as wild and as fickle as their more familiar Greek counterparts, is what made me decide to stick with the story despite my initial misgivings. The long, unfamiliar names of the Gods and their attributes, their relationships and their complex interaction with worshippers can be overwhelming, especially in the initial chapters where such details amount to a massive info-dump. But with Acatl as an anchor and with his personal insecurities and doubts as a human interest hook in an otherwise bland investigation, the pace of the story picks up and heads towards some spectacular showdowns in the final pages.
A lot of the problems I had with the story can be chalked down to growing pains for an author who is still trying to get comfortable with her characters and her setting. After all my effort to make sense of the mythology with the few clear pointers offered in the first book of the series, I am tempted to continue, hoping the next episode has something more to offer than murder and politics in a historical setting. As usual for me, I decided to be optimistic and reward the effort of a talented storyteller with an extra star for going in a direction most of her peers steered clear off.
Servant of the Underworld by Writers of the Future winner Aliette de Bodard is an interesting and, especially for a debut, well-executed cross-genre novel that successfully combines several disparate elements into an original story.
If ever a novel could be called cross-genre, Servant of the Underworld is it: the story is set in the 15th century Aztec empire (1. historical fiction) but magic and gods are real (2. fantasy). When a priestess is murdered, Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead, gets involved in finding the murderer (3. mystery), especially when it turns out that his brother is one of the prime suspects. Add to this some blood rituals and some other dark scenes that verge into horror territory (4!) and you've got a novel that bookstores could shelve in a few different places. When reading it, I frequently thought of Liz Williams' DETECTIVE-INSPECTOR CHEN stories, which combine fantasy, SF and mystery with touches of both humor and horror, and are also set in a non-Western culture — so it didn't come as a surprise that de Bodard listed those novels as an influence.
Maybe the most impressive thing about this novel is the fact that Aliette de Bodard manages to combine these different elements into a smooth cohesive story. Right from the opening scene, in which one of High Priest Acatl's blood rituals is interrupted when he finds out about the murder that sets off the plot, the exotic setting feels natural and the inclusion of magic becomes almost normal. As the story progresses, with Acatl interviewing various people to find the murderer and exonerate his brother, Aliette de Bodard gradually paints a vivid picture of life in the Aztec city of Tenochtlitan, filled with interesting anthropological tidbits, while at the same time keeping the "whodunnit" plot going and building up the religion/magic angle. (And speaking of religion: the few scenes where human characters interact with the gods were, for me, the best parts of the novel. Aliette de Bodard does an excellent job describing the reaction of puny humans to the awe-inspiring gods.)
Servant of the Underworld's main weakness is its main character, Acatl, who is simply very hard to connect to. While the author attempts to make him more human by emphasizing his complex family life, it's still hard to empathize with the dispassionate Aztec High Priest of the Dead — and ironically, the priests who work for him seem to feel the same way for most of the book. The exotic setting of the novel is fascinating, the mystery plot is initially very intriguing, the magic is at times impressive, but once the novelty wears off, the main character isn't engaging enough to carry the novel... and because the story is told from Acatl's first person perspective, this one flaw is constantly in the spotlight.
Still, Servant of the Underworld is a highly original debut novel. Thanks to a solid mystery plot and Aliette de Bodard's extensive research into pre-Conquest Meso-America, this novel should strike a chord with more than just fantasy readers.
I think I admire the idea of this story more than I enjoyed reading it. The setting and imagination put into this Aztec murder mystery is pretty great, but I had a hard time feeling any connection with the characters or their motives and emotional lives. I also felt that it lacked the layers I've found in de Bodard's Xuya universe novellas. Perhaps it simply didn't have enough meat on it to justify a whole novel. In any case I continue to be impressed with de Bodard's genre defying stories and her unusual setups and am counting myself as a fan of her writing.
Aztec murder mystery sounds like a great idea but, damn, this was disappointing. Even more so because it started really promising with interesting world building that immediately drew me in. Then it fell flat on its butt and did a lot of telling and no showing. The plot and the characters were so boring, I almost didn't finish it. The writing wasn't great either. The constant swearing in the form of *whatever deity* strike me/blind me/curse him might have been the most annoying thing I've ever seen in a book. It was on every other page! And it definitely failed in its purpose to showcase the cultural distinctiveness. Ugh, and there is much wasted potential. I would have loved to read an engaging story about a pantheon I know little about, a culture that is obscure and mysterious with opposing warrior and priest casts, a magical system based on blood sacrifices, different levels of underworlds and realms of gods - but this author managed to blend all of this into such an unbelievable snooze fest, it was honestly infuriating. I really need a good book now.
This was interesting mostly because of the Aztec culture setting. The names of the gods and the overall mythology were shiny and new to me which always adds a star but the overall mystery and character development was somewhat mediocre.
* It's set in a world that is heavily inspired by Aztec culture, which was a nice new setting to explore. * It's on the grim side, with plenty of sacrifices to all sorts of god's. * It's a murder mystery, as our main protagonist is supposed to find out who kidnapped and most likely murdered a priestess. Lovely twisted tale with different suspects that I enjoyed. * It has family struggles at the heart of the story, as one of teh main suspects is his own brother, who he doesn't have a good relationship with. * The tone and voice is quick and snarky, and reminded me a bit of characters like Harry Dresden, only in a very different setting.
All of these somehow worked really well together and I was eagerly breezing through the story! It was unique and fast paced and had me engaged with the characters and story.
At a few moments I would have wished for a little more depth, that's why I go with 4*. Still a really good book and I am I'll happily pick up more!
Servant of the Underworld has been called Aztec noir - a traditional noir detective story set in the world of Aztec mythology. I have some mixed feelings about that combination.
The plot is a traditional noir detective story. I am not personally very familiar with noir tropes, but the other members of my book club said they are all present and accounted for. Acatl is the detective. The jaguar knights are cops, with a corrupt police chief to boot. It is interesting to see this familiar type of story in a very different context.
The Aztec setting is by far the best part of this book. I have never read a book with this setting before, so it stands out. De Bodard establishes Aztec society well - laying out the various social classes and mores enough to contextualize the mystery. More importantly, this was my first introduction to Aztec mythology. It was fascinating to learn about the various gods and goddesses whose names I could not replicate to save my life. Research after reading leads me to believe that the book accurately represents Aztec beliefs.
That said, I had a few issues with the story. The first being the character of Acatl himself. He is a very reluctant hero, to the point that he actively neglects his basic responsibilities. He avoids conflict even when it harms his interests. Somehow, de Bodard manages to make a man who fights supernatural beasts single-handedly into a wimp. That is certainly a feat, but not a particularly praiseworthy one. (I have been told this follows a particular noir detective stereotype; that may be true, and I guess I just do not enjoy that stereotype.)
The writing is also off. It is hard to identify what is wrong. De Bodard wrote in English, but it is her second language. That probably accounts for the unnatural language. (Since reading Servant of the Underworld, I have read On A Red Station, Drifting and I had no problem with the writing in that novella.)
The writing is repetitive at times. It has wonderfully vivid descriptions of magic that it repeats ad nauseum. It became truly distracting. The conflicts between Acatl and Neutemoc are similarly repetitive. As are Acatl’s complaints about politics and his responsibilities. If you removed all of the repetitive writing, Servant of the Underworld would be a tight novella.
The ending lost me as well. It is wonderfully climactic, and bewilderingly chaotic. It rivals Lord of the Rings for multiple endings. My least favorite part was the metaphysical battle out of nowhere.
Overall, I would call this an average book. I finished it, and I was not unhappy about reading it. I am just not interested in reading more.
I really wasn't sure about reading this. I read some of Aliette de Bodard's shorter fiction and wasn't very interested, and there's so much potential for creepy awful judginess -- or equally as bad, preachiness -- when it comes to a novel based on something like the Aztec/Mayan/Incan/Toltec world. Especially when the writer brings an essentially modern form of story to meld with it (in this case, detective/mystery). There's the danger of making your POV character too much the modern man, or wallowing in the gore to an extent that's uncomfortable for most readers. There's a bit of all that but the last point here, I think. I don't know how much research Aliette de Bodard did or how accurate it might be, so I can't comment, but it didn't really bring me to a world more alien to me than Norse myth or your average medieval fantasy. The spirit of it, the concerns, felt very familiar. The blood and spices and chocolate were backdrop.
Still. It's written compellingly, and it is a brightly drawn world, with characters and concerns that draw the reader in, and a plot that can be followed despite unfamiliar names and ways of interacting that might challenge expectations (women, for example, are not exactly meek and mild, which in fantasy they too often are because fire spells make sense but a lack of sexism doesn't). I enjoyed reading it, I want to read the rest, and I will happily try other stuff by Aliette de Bodard in the future.
One thing that is amusing me right now is the thought of a thesis on protagonists and their brothers in mystery fiction. This, Ian Rankin, Dorothy Sayers, Tony Hays... So often really disparate world views that come to appreciate one another, or with some conflict or distance that plays a part in the plot...
I finished Servant of the Underworld the highly awaited novel debut of A. De Bodard and it's taking place in an Aztec state at some point in history - the afterword or more detailed knowledge of Aztec history indicates the date - there is magic of many kinds, intrigue, priests, warriors, "femme fatales" and a mystery of sorts through which we explore this wonderful universe.
A first person narration by a semi-disillusioned "priest of the dead" and servant of the "duality" - which essentially means an investigator that deals in the magic of the underworld, so acts as coroner at deaths, as priest at cremations and investigates occurrences of dark magic
There are four major ingredients in this book: the world-building, the mystery, the magic and the style/narrator. The world-building is exquisite and we *believe* we are transported to the 15th century Tenotichtlan and together with the superb voice they formed the main reason I enjoyed this book so much; the mystery is ok, nothing special but it powers the story-line and through it we peel layer after layer and get to understand the setting; the magic involving gods meddling in the world is something familiar both in sff and in more mainstream stuff (from The Omen and Bible-apocalyptic stories on) and while I am not that big a fan of such, it did not really distract from my enjoyment of the novel. Standalone as the narrative goes (definite theme, ending...) but part of a series which goes on my "currently following list" high priority
Highly recommended and the announced sequel became a must and Ms. de Bodard a writer to watch
Servant of the Underworld is a good fantasy and a fun start to a new series. It fails to receive full marks from me as I loathed the character names and places. They were ridiculous to me and it doesn't even matter to me if they were fitting to the time period fiction.
There are some exceptional aspects to this novel. Aliette de Bodard has created a fictional world that feels more like a non-fiction history piece. I loved the world building, the exotic setting, and the blood magic. The characters are likable.
I started and stopped this book several times as I was frustrated by the names. After deciding to push through this annoyance, I came to enjoy the pacing and the action. This is not a heavy action novel, but it does not get bogged down in dialogue either. The mystery being solved is the key.
The blood magic and the many different Gods make this book shine.
A good read that sets me up to want book number two.
This book gets Mexica culture and language SO wrong that it was impossible to continue reading. The author's understanding of basic stuff like NAMES was so bad that I had to stop before I screamed.
For example the protagonist's name (Acatl) ends in -tl (a very common "absolutive suffix" for nouns).
When another character uses the reverential form of their name (which should end in -tzin), the author just TACKS IT ON AFTER THE -TL.
No. You DROP the -tl first, then add -tzin. NOT "Acatltzin," but "Acatzin." Sheesh.
Author continues screwing up the -tzin ending, btw.
Emperor Axayacatl, for example, whose reverential name is Axayacatzin, is referred to as "Revered Speaker Axayacatltzin."
Ugh. You can find "Axayacatzin" throughout the Internet.
Another major character's name was just a VERB (Eleuia, more properly "Elehuia" in Nahuatl). Now that itself isn't impossible. Moctezuma ("Moteuczoma") and Cuauhtemoc, for example, are both verbs.
But author took a transitive verb and just used it as the name, without prefixing it with tla- or te- (indefinite objects). In Nahuatl, you can't take a transitive verb like "cut" ("tequi") and use it alone (like "s/he cuts"). "Tequi" by itself is ungrammatical.
"S/he cuts" is either "tlatequi" (s/he cuts stuff) or "tetequi" (s/he cuts people). You could also say "quitequi" (s/he cuts it). But there MUST be an object prefix when using a transitive verb. No getting around it. It's a super basic feature of the freaking language.
So, the character in question could have been "Tlalehuia" (she desires things) or "Telehuia" (she desires people), but not "Elehuia."
Author also invents the name "Neutemoc." That name is impossible in Nahuatl. There was no "u" sound (or "eu" diphthong) in the 1400s in Nahuatl.
I'm assuming author saw words beginning with "neuc" and misunderstood.
"uc" represents "kw"
"Neuctli," for example (meaning "honey") is pronounced NEKW tli, not *NEUK tli.
Author could have named character "Neuctemoc" (s/he descended like honey), but instead violated the rules of Nahuatl phonology to create an impossible name.
So ... note to people writing about Nahuas (in the past, present, or alternate reality).
GET SOMEONE WHO KNOWS NAHUATL TO DO AN EXPERT READ.
This supernatural murder mystery set in the Aztec empire starts at a dead run and doesn't ever really let up. However, despite being saturated in magic and gods, this story feels contemporary and grounded in reality thanks to its very human characters.
There was really a lot to like here. First, the pacing is outstanding. The novel starts strong and keeps the momentum going through sharp characters and tight battle scenes. Bodard manages to keep a wonderful balance between answers and questions throughout the novel, and even keeps us second guessing some of our "known" perceptions by playing on the motivations of gods.
Second, by avoiding an abundance of overly specific minutiae and keeping to broad strokes, Bodard brings an unfamiliar historical world (for most north-western readers) to life without slowing down the story.
Third, the ending comes together very well -tying up almost all of the personal and public aspects of the novel. Bodard did an excellent job of having this first books sit well as both a stand alone and the opening of a series.
Last, I really enjoyed how the main character Acatl felt like a classic detective while at the same time surpassing that stereotype by being called out on his selfish actions and being challenged to do better - to be more human - by other characters. I also deeply appreciated how the character who had the affair and who used classic excuses such as "you don't understand - she was so beautiful," or "my wife loved me too much, I couldn't bear it," was called out on the ridiculous shallowness of these statements at every turn.
The only downside to the novel that I have to acknowledge is the slight repetitiveness to Acatl's thoughts. While writing in first person/stream of conciseness does give the inner thoughts a bit of leeway before becoming a negative point of the book, this book does pass that after about half way through, on occasion to the point where the reader can't help but think "yes, I know that already."
Overall, though, the pros of this book greatly outweigh the cons and I am looking forward to reading the next installment in the series.
Two stars for the worldbuilding, which kept me reading despite feelings for the main character that wavered between apathy and antipathy. de Bodard's descriptions of the social and political arrangements of the Aztec Empire are really interesting. I wish the magic had been equally interesting, but alas it seems rather D&Dish, all shields and mage sight and magic bolts (albeit fueled by blood). I would have preferred something more numinous.
Part of my frustration was that I went into this expecting a mystery novel, and it really, really isn't; it's epic fantasy, with the mystery just another McGuffin. The fun of a mystery novel, to me, is the feeling that if I were just a little brighter and more focused I could piece together the clues myself, the sense that I'm solving the crime alongside the detective. But that requires the narrative actually give me clues, and de Bodard isn't interested in that. As an example, The protagonists also had a lot of "ah ha!" moments based on his understanding of how magic worked, which I had to take on faith, because the magic system was never otherwise explained.
Putting this again since a troll (with a private profile no less) commented on my original and I don’t want their dumb comments there. DeBodard may write better these days but her shoddy “appropriation” here is still shoddy. I still remember her from her live journal days and how she really is, and honestly it wouldn’t bother me this much if she wasn’t full of herself while getting the Aztec/Mexica culture here wrong. Not to mention, this books is still terrible written.
Also, I can't help but side-eye the people claiming that the names are "hard to pronounce" since I learned them in sixth grade, but hey, that's white people for you, making fun of our language but using it when it suits them to "spice" their mediocre books. I know the author is not white, I'm talking about some of the reviewers here, so this isn't really the author's fault, but it does make me think people only see the actual culture as something "exotic" (people are even calling it "nonwestern" which makes me laugh) instead of the real-life breathing people that were colonized by the Spaniards and lost their culture to them.
Read something actually written by Mexican people. Read an actual textbook and don’t take the stuff in this book seriously (couldn’t even get Aztec education right!). Thanks.
The Aztec-influenced magical world that de Bodard creates is compelling, colorful and wonderfully layered. I can’t, however, say the same about her characters. Throughout the novel, I kept getting the feeling that the story was just unfolding in front of the characters rather than the characters having any influence over the events. They just seemed to be in wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe there’s a lesson about the power of fate and gods in there somewhere, but because I didn’t care much for the characters, I wasn’t drawn into the story at all and found myself skimming the last quarter of the book just to find out what happened.
It took me forever to read Servant of the Underworld, and I don’t know why. It’s great. Aliette de Bodard has created a mystery set in the Mexica (Aztec) Empire in 1480. As a long-lived emperor under whom the Mexica have prospered lies on his deathbed, Acatl, a priest of the dead, finds himself investigating a murder or abduction where his estranged brother is the prime suspect. And rather than making this a straight-up historical mystery, like the fantastic Falco series by Lindsey Davis, de Bodard includes some magic in her mystery. Indeed, given its primary setting of Tenochtitlan, this is actually an historical urban fantasy mystery.
All this genre blending might sound like a recipe for disaster, but in de Bodard’s capable hands it makes for a great story. This is a fairly long and involved book, with a lot of machinations behind the main mystery. Just when I thought Acatl had found out “whodunit” and we were nearing the conclusion, I realized we weren’t even past the halfway point! The murder mystery, while integral, is in fact the tip of an iceberg that proves to be more of a test of Acatl’s mettle than anyone could have suspected. Still, I warn mystery lovers that the mystery portion of the book is its weakest aspect. The presence of gods on the playing field means that ordinary human motive becomes muddled, which makes it harder to play along at home, if you know what I mean. While de Bodard still serves up a complicated and compelling mystery, it’s not quite at the level of Christie, whom she name-checks in her afterword as an inspiration.
I admit it took a while for me to warm to Acatl. He makes no secret that he didn’t want to be the High Priest of Mictlan, that he dislikes politics. Fair enough. But he’s really bad at it, and he’s also pretty bad at investigating, and there was just very little for me to like about this guy. Gradually, though, I came around to him. The fact that he’s bad at being a detective is part of his charm; his repeated failures to obtain information from the gods or, indeed, make anyone actually like him, are far cry from the more Mary Sue–like detectives up in our urban fantasy books these days. (I love you, Harry Dresden, you are my fav, but yes, sometimes you are a Mary Sue.) Indeed, it isn’t hyperbole to suggest that Acatl only starts to turn things around when he finally embraces this idea that he has to lead—whether he likes it or not—and has to ask for help—whether he thinks he deserves to or not. And even then, it’s touch and go.
As far as the historical setting goes: look, I’m as ignorant as de Bodard was about the Aztecs when she started out on this journey. She explains what drew her to the culture when she began writing, and the research she did along the way to help the story feel more authentic. I believe her, but she could totally be lying and making it all up, and I wouldn’t know the difference. All I knew about the Aztecs going into this came from a brief time spent with Moctezuma II when I was saving the space-time continuum in Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?, and scattered memories of a PC game I think was Aztec/The Sacred Amulet.
One striking part of de Bodard’s use of Mexica myth and magic? Song. The blood I was expecting (and in fact, de Bodard tones down the whole “human sacrifice” element), but I wasn’t expecting the lyrical incantations that Acatl sings as he works his spells. It creates a strong sense that this magic is all a great ritual for the Aztec; it isn’t something external to them but an integral part of their culture. Like the detectives of urban fantasy series set closer to the modern day, Acatl straddles that divide between natural and supernatural; he talks to mortals and gods alike. It’s both surreal and amazing.
In the end, Acatl has to do more than find out who abducted Princess Eleuia, and the story transforms into more of a “save the Empire/save the world” sort of deal. Which is fine. It gets pretty intense, the stakes get much higher, of course, and the supporting cast becomes more important. Although I thought the climax dragged out longer than I wanted, watching Acatl’s development across the entire book more than makes up for it.
I’m looking forward to seeing more of de Bodard’s portrayal of the Mexica in the sequel. She has certainly set Acatl up to be an influential player, no matter how much he despises politics, so I only imagine that this is but the beginning for our modest Mictlan priest. If you like fantasy and mystery or historical fiction, do yourself a favour and check out Servant of the Underworld.
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.
Acatl, high priest of the God of Death for the Mexica Empire (the civilization we know as the Azteks) is tasked with investigating the mysterious disappearance of a priestess, a case with a personal element for the priest as his warrior brother is the prime suspect. What starts as a mystery becomes something very different as Acatl uncovers secrets that threaten the entire empire and, maybe, the world.
There's a very big fantasy element to this story, one I wasn't expecting. Basically, the gods and goddesses of the Mexica are real, as is magic. There's magic everywhere. Acatl uses it basically all the time in the course of his very day life. Despite this, the setting feels pretty authentic. Not that I know much about the Azteks, but it feels like Aliette de Bodard worked really hard to get the details right, before injecting magic into the story.
It's told in the first-person but maybe could have used a bit more third person exposition. There's zero handholding done, which I kinda admire, but this is a very alien civilization, with a full pantheon, long history, weird names, rituals and traditions that are just thrown at the reader. It's a lot to take in. And while I got used to the magic, I would have preferred to get to know the world a little more before that element was introduced.
Despite that, it's a neat mystery in a very well fleshed out world, with interesting characters and a surprising amount of action. Tenochtitlan is a fascinating city, and it's kinda cool (and a little disturbing) to inhabit the mind of someone to whom things such as human sacrifice are a normal part of every day life.