Book Review: Harbinger of the Storm, by Aliette de Bodard

Harbinger of the Storm, by Aliette de Bodard
Blood stained the room, stains of various sizes, all the way down to small drops marring the frescoes. It had not been quick, or easy.

Ordinarily I would have knelt, closed the body’s eyes and said the death rites; this time, it seemed like the body was scattered over the whole room. So I just stood there, and said the prayers I always did.

We live on Earth, in the Fifth World

Not forever, but a little while

As jade breaks, as gold is crushed

We wither away, like feathers we crumble

Not forever on Earth, but a little while…

Acatl is Tenochtitlan’s High Priest of the Dead…coroner, funeral director, keeper of the unseen boundaries between the the world of spirits and the world of men, and reluctant detective, when the need arises. He’s a humble, soft-spoken man who’s grown considerably into his duties since last we met him, but now he’s confronted by a new and terrifying challenge.

The Revered Speaker, ruler of Tenochtitlan, is dead, and court intrigue swirls around the naming of his successor. Acatl would prefer to be left out of the political maneuvering, but when one council member is murdered—and more horrifying deaths follow—he has no choice. The murderer has violated the ancient barriers and employed a forbidden magic that threatens to wipe Tenochtitlan and its inhabitants from the face of the earth and usher in the next epoch of history, ready or not.

But how can the priest of a second-rate deity stand against a horde of demons hungry for an apocalypse of blood and fire?

In Harbinger of the Storm, the second volume of Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood trilogy, we move deeper into the inner workings of her circa-1400s Aztec society, as seen through the eyes of her unlikely hero, Acatl. This is a world where magical power is tangible, a thread woven through every activity of life, no matter how simple, and the strongest magic derives its power from blood sacrifice. The Aztec society exists in a symbiotic relationship with gods and goddesses who depend on humanity’s devotion while manipulating it to serve their own imponderable agendas. Both men and gods are in turn subject to a fate beyond their control but enigmatic in its vision of the future. War and violence are expected, existence is haunted by fear and uncertainty, and comfort is found only in the daily routines and rituals, constantly seeking the gods’ capricious favor.

Acatl is a man of unique spiritual sensitivity, comfortable in his own skin and in the small universe of his priestly duties, who finds himself pulled out of his comfort zone with distressingly accelerating regularity. He becomes entangled in a confusing royal succession disputed by factions whose motivations and loyalties simultaneously define the complex web of alliance that holds Tenochtitlan together and threaten to tear it asunder. He’s the only man at court without political ambition or instinct, and he must somehow keep these forces in balance, solve the perplexing murders, and, just maybe, survive. It’s a classic fish-out-of-water scenario, where an outmatched individual must find the strength and ingenuity to defeat an overwhelming adversary. Acatl is humble, principled, and determined to protect the people who look to him for leadership. It is those traits, not physical power, genius, charisma, or even magical talent, that see him through. He possesses great courage, but he reminds us that courage and fearlessness aren’t necessarily the same thing. He’s an appealing protagonist, very much in the spirit of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael or G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown.

Like the first volume, this story is free of explicit content, with little on-stage violence, but there’s also no flinching from the truth that Aztec religious rites often involved human sacrifice, and there’s blood just about everywhere in the temple precincts, dried or dripping. Acatl’s rites for Michtlantechuhtli, the Lord of Death, however, don’t involve human sacrifice, since his clients are already dead and there’s not much point in it. While wearily accepting that it’s the way of things in his culture, it’s clear Acatl would be quite happy if the gods who demand human sacrifice gave up their thirst for blood altogether.

This is a fine story, well-researched, enjoyable as both a mystery and a window into a vanished culture unfamiliar to most of us. Give it a read, but start with the first book, Servant of the Underworld, which introduces Acatl and his community, since the second volume moves at a fair clip and doesn’t dwell much on backstory, though it stands well on its own. As you might expect, it ends on a note that makes it clear the resolution is only temporary, and more danger and mystery awaits Acatl and his allies in the final volume, Master of the House of Darts, which I’ll be reading and reviewing soon.

More posts about Aliette de Bodard and her stories.

Aliette de Bodard’s author website

Link to purchase Harbinger of the Storm

Link to purchase Servant of the Underworld

Link to purchase Master of the House of Darts

Link to purchase the Obsidian and Blood trilogy in a single volume

>>This review is based upon an electronic 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.<<

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