Master of the House of Darts
Aliette de Bodard
Master of the House of Darts starts just as the first two books in the series do: with the death of an owl. There is also a murder to solve and a kingdom to save, but those are both so cliché, compared to an owl. It might as well be a dark and stormy night. Anyway, full disclosure at the beginning: I received a free copy of this book for timing a blog comment just right. I’m always inclined to look favorably on free stuff, but I doubt that my opinion of this book would change had I paid for it. I enjoyed the first two books and enjoyed the third just as much. As before, Darts builds on the prior tales in both the narrative and the themes underpinning the story; de Bodard brings the story to a more or less happy end while digging further into the mind of her main character and the society he moves in.
In fact, the viewpoint character, Acatl, is very much at the heart of the story, moreso perhaps that the plot. He slowly grows into his position as the High Priest of the Dead throughout the trilogy, while the author moves along a parallel path, her narrative growing into its teller and inhabiting his mind with increasing comfort and self-assurance. Acatl is both the hero and the author’s avatar as she explores her ideas of what a hero can and should be. Perceptive readers will find Acatl to be a very different kind of hero than we are accustomed to reading about, but the action and the mystery proceed so smoothly that some may never notice the gleeful contrariness that lurks below the surface. (It is clear to me on reflection, but I have also participated in several conversations with the author and her blog readers about this very thing.)
Acatl is not, and this is apparent from much earlier in the trilogy, a typical action hero. He is not even a typical mystery solver, at least not in the Western idiom. The first book is based on noir tropes, but Acatl is quite different from Sam Spade or some other archetypal detective. (If we’re talking Eastern traditions, I’m less qualified to judge.) There is an interesting interview here on Clarkesworld, where de Bodard talks more about Acatl and writing from his perspective. Acatl is a reflection of a common character type though, but not one we usually see in a starring role. He is, instead, the straight man, the pessimistic worry-wart whose main purpose is to emphasize the hero’s wit, courage, and daring. Think Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in Inception – no humor, no imagination, just straight-faced competence and a seemingly endless capacity to absorb jokes from the others. This is Acatl. He is an undertaker and coroner, a priest and an administrator. He is not funny, free-wheeling, an iconoclast, or a loose cannon. He helps dead spirits find oblivion in the Underworld; he does not sweep women off their feet or topple a status quo run by entrenched fuddy-duddies. That he remains appealing and sympathetic rather than orthodox and sepulchral is a tribute to the author’s skill.
The truly subversive stuff is down one layer from the archetypes. Like the previous book, de Bodard is emphatic that Acatl will not triumph following a typical Western action movie pathway. In keeping with his stuffy persona, our intrepid High Priest of the Dead overcomes evil conservatively, in a way that fortifies existing power structures and institutions. So what, the reader may ask, he vanquishes bad guys, right? Yes, he does. But he doesn’t win by overturning anything, taking bold and individual initiative, or by showing those fossilized old people that the world has changed and, by golly, it’s time for the youth and their newfangled ideas to take center stage. Instead, Acatl spends the entire book trying to protect the status quo. At one point, a god calls him out as the one who will maintain balance in the Fifth World (our reality). How many Hollywood plots involve the good guy bolstering the existing regime and trying prevent drastic change? All the moreso when the current ruler, who Acatl helped install in the previous volume, is obviously a fool who could easily destroy the city.
None of this is any kind of secret; I’m not revealing some kind of Kabbalahic knowledge here. But between the flesh eating demons, virulent plagues, vengeful ghosts, and empires on the brink, it’s easy to lose the finer points of the character study in the rush of the story. One has to sit back with a fried newt and maize flatbread and take a deep breath to really notice these things. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to hear that people were missing this completely in the mayhem. The plot hurtles forward on multiple parallel tracks, finally coming together at the end in a somewhat hurried resolution. Hurried for both the characters and readers, as the author is juggling a lot of balls in the three hundred plus pages of story. Taking a bit more time (and page count) to make sure all of the connections are clear and to give each successive bit of the resolution a bit more space to breathe might have been a good thing, a rare admission from a ruthless prose utilitarian like me. There were a few loose ends and a few more questions when I put Darts down, though I am willing to concede that my own sloppy reading habits may be partially at fault. Still, as the decisive actions cascaded through the final pages, it occurred to me that in the rush, each piece of the final solution wasn’t getting the time it may have deserved.
That is a fairly minor quibble, however. The breadth of the Aztec Empire grows with each book in the series, as de Bodard has increasing narrative space in which to add detail. The machinations of various characters, both men and gods, have time to percolate across the books, despite each volume being nominally stand alone, which gives a certain richness to mess Acatl finds himself in. The author’s touch for characters and human relationships is as strong as ever, a constant surprise from someone who is essentially writing part-time. (I can barely crank out blog posts while I hold down a job. I can’t even imagine writing novels like this.) The entirety of the Obsidian and Blood trilogy gets high marks from Two Dudes, for creativity, execution, and gentle subversion. Not just recommended, but, to paraphrase Demi Moore in A Few Good Men, strenuously recommended.
Rating: US-Mexico at Aztec Stadium in Mexico City: a venue pulsating with passion and hostility, and plenty of political subtext for those who look for that sort of thing.