Servant of the Underworld
Aliette de Bodard
Full disclosure: I found out about this book when a link rolled into Two Dudes from Ms. de Bodard’s blog. I followed the trackback and discovered an author who seems like a pleasant, interesting person, writes interesting and challenging posts, who answered my comments, and who unknowingly convinced me to read her books. I went into Servant of the Underworld wanting to like it, so I could write a positive review, and this may have clouded my judgment. I have given good reviews to things written by people I never want to speak to, though, so who knows? The reader is welcome to take this review with a grain of salt, but I stand by my opinions.
De Bodard is a bit of a departure from the stereotypical SF writer. She is an American-born, French-Vietnamese engineer, who lives in Paris, speaks French as a first language, but writes her SFF in English. For whatever reason, she seems to favor Aztec or Chinese settings for her books, which seems like exactly the sort of thing Thomas Friedman would start a book about globalization with. I am puzzled only by the China bit, knowing how the Vietnamese generally feel about their giant neighbor, but don’t automatically assume that because one parent is Vietnamese, the author is a raving Vietnamese nationalist. (National and ethnic identity in the globalized world is a fascinating topic, but not something to delve into today.)
True to form, Servant of the Underworld is hardboiled Aztecs in the 15th Century. Tenochtitlan Noir, as it were. I’m not well-versed enough in Mysteries to promise that the tropes match one-to-one, but this is no locked-room, gentle intellectual exercise. Instead, there is much stalking through alleyways, corruption in high places, violence and physical confrontation, a cynical and jaded investigator, at least one doomed femme fatale, failed love, thwarted ambition and the like. Humphrey Bogart striding through Olde Mexico in a loincloth, cape and feathers is not quite the image I am trying to convey here, but the atmosphere certainly reminded me of the Los Angeles of Chandler or Elroy. Any mystery reader worth his salt will probably eviscerate my analysis, but I am unconcerned. I would simply demand an explanation of Dyson Spheres and mock his ignorance, because this is not pure mystery or historical fiction, this is Historical Fantasy!
Fantasy, because in this Aztec Empire, magic is very real. Also very gross. I will be keeping my budding zoologist daughter away from this one, since a staggering number of owls, rabbits and hummingbirds donate many pints of blood to the cause of magic. I don’t know if this has been optioned as a movie, but PETA would poop themselves during filming. Blood powers magic, which I assume is more or less what real life Aztecs believed, and human blood is the strongest. I’ve always wanted to be a wizard ala Gandalf or Belgarath, but I’ll take a pass on our hero’s life here. My life is painful enough, what with stubbed toes and soccer wounds, to spend putting thorns in my ears or slicing my hands. (Yes, I am a squeamish pansy. What of it?)
Acatl, our hero and viewpoint character, is made of sterner stuff than I am. He is the Head Priest of the god of the Underworld (thus the title), who is called into action to investigate a strange disappearance. We soon learn that Acatl has been called, not because of his reputation or job description, but because his brother was found at the scene of the crime, covered with the blood of the victim. While the book eases the reader gently into Aztec politics and mythology, the family dirty laundry is on display from Chapter One as Acatl and his brother natter on about failing marriages and disappointed parents. Acatl is tasked with solving the mystery while untangling complicated family issues, all as he is slowly drawn into a political quagmire in one world and a conflict of gods in another. Every time he pulls one thread to unravel, a larger part of the knot reveals itself. Exonerating his brother requires trips into the realms of the gods, interventions at the highest level of Aztec society, and delving into the past of his family and the victims. The resolution of all of this is satisfying, drawing as it does on divine motivations as much as human frailties.
Acatl is also a bit of an emo wanker. A well-drawn emo wanker, but an emo wanker nonetheless. He spends as much time buried in his memories and angst as he does knee deep in the mystery at hand. If Acatl was alive today, he would probably listen to Coldplay and write bad poetry about failed love instead of sacrificing parrots to the god of the Underworld. Fortunately, he and several other characters learn Important Life Lessons as the book progresses, which means that we don’t cheer for demons to devour his immortal soul. Or at least I didn’t. Most of the Lessons come at the hands of angry gods and their demonspawn, but some also come from his sister.
Servant of the Underworld is a page turner. Once the story crosses a certain line, it hurtles forward sleeplessly. The characters begin to transform under the stress of the investigation and the story itself slowly turns from historical mystery to Holy Crap The World Is Ending fantasy. Acatl has to stop moping about his parents’ lack of support long enough to prevent an angry god from destroying everything, not to mention figuring out why a magic jaguar carried off a lovely and seductive priestess and absolving his apparently guilty brother; things move along briskly and the book never fails to hold the reader’s attention.
My only real concern with the story is that this is the first of a series of three novels. The setting is rich enough to reward further exploration, but there is a limit to how many times the world can be threatened. Does this mean that the second and third books will be weaker for a comparative lack of drama? Or is the world close to destruction multiple times in a decade? I am interested how these things resolve themselves going forward, since the author has painted herself into a bit of a corner here. Other than that, this is an impressive first novel. It comes recommended by Two Dudes, especially to those looking for something different in their fantasy.
Rating: Club Deportivo Guadalajara, the most successful club in the Primera División de México.