Harbinger of the Storm
Aliette de Bodard
No owls were harmed in the writing of this review.
I should probably get the full disclosure out of the way first. While it might be presumptuous to say that the author and I are friends, we correspond semi-regularly via email and blog. We have overlapping interests and I enjoy our conversations, a fact which I won’t deny colors my opinion of her books. However, I maintain the highest standards of critical integrity, as befitting the learned nature of a blog that calls itself “Two Dudes in an Attic,” and wouldn’t just pimp out crap for a quick buck (or for a friend’s quick buck, in this case), so the reader can trust my recommendation of Harbinger of the Storm. I will at least point out that reading the author’s blog and knowing more about how she builds her stories makes it all the more interesting to see in action. On to the story.
While the book, and by extension this review, is nominally stand alone, there’s not much sense in reading the series out of order if it can possibly be avoided. Likewise, a quick glance at the Servant of the Underworld post will aid in keeping up with the funny jokes and witty asides that follow. All of the books are self-contained, but the world and characters are complex enough that it is certainly simpler to start at the beginning. Just laying out the physical, social, and magical geography of Tenochtitlan is enough to keep the author busy throughout, so the reader might as well make things easy on himself.
When we last saw our hero, he had just saved the world from what we political scientists would call a hegemonic war, or “What We’re Trying to Avoid with China.” One set of disgruntled gods attempted to overthrow the current hegemon, who just happened to be the patron god of the Aztecs, but Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead, managed to head them off at the proverbial pass. He also unloaded a fearsome amount of family-related emotional baggage along the way and hopefully stopped moping so much. All of this took place in an Aztec noir setting; Aztec because it is an imagining of what their Empire might have been if their mythology was reality, and noir for the way that the murder mystery plays itself out. I voiced concern at the end of the first novel about the dramatic possibilities of sequels, wondering if the world almost ending once would dampen the follow-ups.
Lots of questions then to answer about Harbinger, so let’s begin with Acatl. Not only has he stopped staring off at the horizon, wishing for what might have been, but he is slowly turning into an effective leader and advocate. So much so, in fact, that “Acatl Pulls His Head Out” has to be in the running for Harbinger’s subtitle. He’s not done complaining, though, mostly with the fact that he has to deal with the politics of The Empire. Acatl is the type who is much more at home sacrificing owls to the God of the Dead and acting as the royal undertaker than dealing with the scheming and maneuvering of the other High Priests. He could probably stand for a session of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, or at least a Christmas gift of How to Win Friends and Influence People, but realistically, how many coroners out there are irrepressible social butterflies? Some of the most hilarious scenes in the book involve Acatl dealing with attractive women; he is painfully awkward. But again, how many servants of the underworld are smooth operators? I decided after yet another obtuse encounter between Acatl and those who obviously consider him dim that another good subtitle might be, “Priests of the Dead Need Love Too.”
As for the story, there’s a lot less noir this time and a lot more political thriller in place. Fewer harlots, fewer dark alleys, fewer shady characters with questionable backgrounds. These have been replaced by shady characters of highborn heritage and royal corridors; a much different cross section of the Aztec Empire. Where the first book hinted at machinations, but largely kept the action anchored in the mundane, Harbinger brings the politicking of both men and gods to the forefront. This goes a long way towards diffusing possible dramatic hangovers from the first book. Since most of the characters return, they tend to wave off the previous capers as water under the bridge, and nothing to concern oneself about now. In hindsight, the reader is tempted to say, “Wait, you were trying to overthrow gods there – this isn’t just dropping and breaking a ceramic bowl.” In context though, it works. Acatl shrugs it off and we do too.
The situation is reported assiduously from Acatl’s perspective; if he thinks someone is venal and power-grubbing, that is what we see. I was reminded a bit of Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson books, where all of the bosses are so petty and clueless that it’s a wonder the Reds didn’t overrun Britain decades ago. There are hints that deeper games are afoot than Acatl sees, and that his narrow perspective is blinding him to possible alternatives. He remains central to the execution and resolution of the plot, however thinking back I wonder how a more savvy Acatl would have handled things. This is not to say that Acatl’s ham-fisted meddling fouled things up, just that someone a little more tuned into political happenings may have found a different solution. Presumably he is right though, so without his anxious investigation, bad things would truly have happened.
One aspect of the story that interested me the most was the end. This is wandering a bit into spoiler territory, but I won’t be too specific. On her blog, de Bodard has written how she dislikes the Western trope of the Action Hero, one who goes out and willfully Changes Things, acting boldly and decisively to solve problems. Acatl is periodically willful, but is often a passive character. A lot of things happen to him, he occasionally happens back. He is surrounded by men and women who are strong, involved movers and shakers, but he would prefer to stay at home with the corpses. Finally, in the defining climax, Acatl saves everyone not by some heroic action, but by accepting those around him and their collective place in society. He has the opportunity to act, to stand up for what he believes is right, but instead triumphs by not acting, by subordinating his sense of morals to the greater pragmatic good. This is subversive stuff, here in a place that Overcomes Evil and brooks no ideological dissent. (By contrast, I suspect that many an Asian reader would skip through that part without noticing anything amiss.)
So to sum up, Harbinger is well worth the read, if for no other reason than the unique setting. Add to that a well-executed political mystery, sympathetic characters, and a quietly different outlook on heroes and heroism, and we have a fantasy series that deserves some digging into.
Rating: Tigres UANL, the Monterrey-based reigning champions of Mexican football.