Book Review: Servant of the Underworld, by Aliette de Bodard

It is the year One-Knife in the Aztec calendar, in the age of the Fifth World, sometime in the 1400’s. Acatl, High Priest of   Michtlantechuhtli, god of the dead, is summoned to the scene of what appears to be a murder. The bedchamber of Eleuia, a priestess of the fertility goddess Xochiquetzal, has been ransacked and is spattered in blood, presumably the missing Eleuia’s.

The facts of the case seem simple enough, but Acatl senses a miasma of magic hanging in the room and identifies it as the lingering traces of a nahual, a jaguar spirit, conjured by the attacker. There’s a chance the victim was carried off by the nahual and may still be alive.

Unfortunately, Acatl has two problems. The trail of the nahual vanishes near the wall of the compound, and a suspect in the attack is already in custody–Acatl’s brother Neutemoc was discovered in the priestess’ room, his hands covered in blood, without memory of why he was there or what happened. If Acatl is to solve this crime, clear his brother’s name, and rescue Eleuia, he’ll have to confront forces both natural and supernatural that want Eleuia and Neutemoc dead. That means seeking help from Michtlantechuhtli and the other deities of the Aztec pantheon, but the Aztec gods are capricious, and their help always comes at a price.

If Acatl’s lucky, all they’ll want is blood.

In Servant of the Underworld, award-winning author Aliette de Bodard introduces us to an exotic culture unfamiliar to most speculative fiction readers. The Aztec people have been poorly depicted in film and fiction that comingles them with the Mayans and Incas and focuses on little beyond the cult of human sacrifice. Ms. Bodard has dug deep into the archaeology and mythology of the Aztecs, emerging with a picture of a complex society where religion and politics are intertwined amid a hierarchy of aristocrats, priests, warriors, merchants, and peasant farmers.

Despite an engineering prowess that raises huge cities fed by intricate canals, and reservoirs that support vast floating islands of cultivated land, the air is thick with magic, and the people are at the mercy of their bored, jealous, unpredictable gods to ensure the proper balance of sun, water, and wind to keep the crops healthy and their world stable. The gods’ power is directly proportional to the devotion of their worshippers and must be maintained and appeased by animal and human blood sacrifices. Failure to tend the gods will lead to a devastating apocalypse that will sweep all life away in the transition to the Sixth World, an event everyone wishes to forestall as long as possible. Eleuia’s murder has thrown the divine balance off-kilter, lending even more urgency to Acatl’s investigation.

Some reviewers have likened Acatl to Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael, another clerical sleuth who shuns the limelight but is constantly thrust into it by the intrigue that swirls through the world around him. It’s an apt comparison. Acatl would like nothing better than to conduct his routine vigils for the dead, easing their passage into the next life and tending the boundaries between the human world and the underworld. Acatl was once a simple priest, a person of little reputation and less influence, viewed as a failure by his parents and sworn to a life of poverty and chastity. He was unwillingly elevated to High Priest through the mechanations of Ceyaxochitl, a powerful political official who recognized his talents for solving supernatural mysteries and hunting down the creatures that walk the twilit path between life and death. Now, he must abandon comfortable anonymity and assume the responsibility of leading his religious sect, a role that requires both assertiveness and political acumen–skills Acatl does not possess.

Besides the supernatural murder mystery, this is also the story of Acatl coming to terms with his family history and sibling rivalry with his warrior brother. One might think his status as High Priest of the Dead would be enough to satisfy the most ambitious Aztec parent, but Michtlantechuhtli is a low-prestige god. Acatl’s position is akin to pastor of a Baptist church in a town full of Methodists, and not the big First Baptist Church downtown–it’s more like he’s taken the pulpit of the Primitive Baptists on the wrong side of the tracks. Neutemoc garnered all his parents’ love and approval, and Acatl must overcome his own resentment and Neutemoc’s disdain to get the answers that will save his brother’s life.

It’s a fun story and an interesting mystery. The focus is on the whodunit, and the story is free of explicit content, with little on-stage violence. I would have liked to see even more details of Aztec culture and daily life, but the problem at hand drives the narrative into more conventional patterns of mystery fiction. Acatl is the detective, Ceyaxochitl is his meddling police patron, and scoundrels supernatural and mundane abound, tossing numerous obstacles in the path of our dogged and resourceful sleuth. With two episodes in this series yet to come, I expect there will be more spicy Aztec goodness sprinkled along the way. The long and phonetically-challenging Aztec names often forced me, like Charlie Brown reading The Brothers Karamazov, to “beep” over the most difficult ones, abbreviate others, or tag characters with nicknames to ease my progress, but that’s my problem, not the author’s.

Servant of the Underworld is the first volume of the Obsidian and Blood trilogy from Ms. de Bodard, published by Angry Robot Books, a spec-fic imprint of Random House. The second novel, Harbinger of the Storm, was published in February 2011 and will be followed by Master of the House of Darts in November 2011.

Video trailer for Servant of the Underworld

Purchase Servant of the Underworld

Aliette de Bodard’s webpage

Angry Robot Books

>>This review is based upon a paperback copy of the book I bought with my very own cash money because I have enjoyed other stories by Ms. de Bodard and thought this one would be worth reading. I was right. FTC busybodies looking for conflict of interest should inquire elsewhere.<<

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Servant of the Underworld, by Aliette de Bodard

  1. Thanks for the review, Fred. I read about this book earlier this year over at the Angry Robot website and as a fan of historical fiction, mysteries, and other cultures, this book seems a dream come true. It’s high on my “to read” list.

  2. I’ve yet to read one of Aliette’s stories I didn’t like. I “met” her a few years ago in the Liberty Hall Writers forum, when she was still shopping short stories around to e-zines, trying to get noticed. I knew she was going to hit paydirt eventually, and about two years later, she had several consecutive pro-level publications, a Campbell Award nomination, and the contract with Angry Robot. It’s been fun and encouraging to watch her writing career blossom, and she’s so doggone nice on top of all that.

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