Vinaya's Reviews > Servant of the Underworld

Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard
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Feb 20, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: books-i-loved, fantasy, speculative-fiction, the-real-5-star-deal, i-ll-stalk-you-til-you-read-it
Read on February 20, 2011

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!
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04/04/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by hayden (new)

hayden I can't say it one time, fast or slow!

Megan You've convinced me! I'll give it a go :)

Vinaya Yay! I figured we all needed a change from all that YA that's turning our brains to mush! :)

Megan Too true! =)

message 5: by Traci (new) - added it

Traci Loudin Maybe your dislike for speculative fiction is because you think that it's *supposed* to straddle the line between literary fiction and genre fiction... It's not.

In general, people use the term speculative fiction as a catch-all for both science fiction and fantasy, and sometimes, horror. So, speculative fiction IS genre fiction. The reason people use the term seems to be because the line between science fiction/fantasy is often rather blurry, and the same with horror/fantasy. So if you're not sure whether something is SF or F or H, you can just say, "speculative fiction."

Some science fiction, fantasy, and horror books are more "literary" than others, certainly. So the next time you see a book labeled as speculative fiction, please understand that it's not necessarily literary... nor is it meant to be.

See the popular definition here:

message 6: by Don (new)

Don Does this book have an ending? I see it is first in a series. I don't like unresolved novels.

message 7: by Enric (new) - added it

Enric I can say it, even spell it correctly. Hint: German and Spanish are my mother tongues (I know, Nahuatl is not Spanish).

Thanks for the review, I put this one on my list and I'll buy the ebook once I finish "Perdido Street Station."

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