Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Harbinger of the Storm

by Aliette de Bodard


For Acatl, High Priest for the Dead, divine interference in human affairs is one of the risks of his job. The Revered Speaker of the Mexica Empire has died, and the game is on to secure his successor on the throne. But it won't be a smooth transition when the gods are mixed up in everything these people do.

Acatl's aim is to preserve the order and keep the Fifth World (our world) safe. But the boundaries between the worlds have become weak after the old Speaker's death, and they are getting weaker. Then a member of the council dies, leaving a gory mess and a murder mystery for Acatl and his priests to solve. But since this is the Mexica Empire it's no ordinary slaying: star demons and sorcery seem to be involved. There's a vengeful goddess imprisoned beneath the Grand Temple, and she's eager to escape her confines and wreak destruction. She'll edge closer to being able to do exactly that until the magic that holds her in place is reinforced. Acatl has to figure out who would want her to escape her prison so he stop them.

Most of the council members and other High Priests are busy scheming to get their choice of Revered Speaker voted in, so Acatl sets to work questioning them. They seem more concerned about jostling for the succession than protecting the boundaries, but Acatl realises things are falling apart. The mystery deepens when more council members are targeted, and he is accused of doing plotting of his own.

Aliette de Bodard is very good at playing with our suspicions of who the guilty parties are, and then pulling the rug out from underneath. She sets up a complex web of loyalties, possible motivations, gods, magic, and clashing personalities. Acatl's world abounds with intrigue and a host of shady characters who may or may not be guilty of the crimes he's investigating, but who are usually up to something.

One of the odd things about Acatl's society is the concern they have over murder when human sacrifices are an accepted part of everyday life. It's a double standard that takes some cultural adjustment to understand. It's a place where the gods are as real to everyone as the soil under their feet, so death and sacrifice have a different meaning. Acatl doesn't sacrifice people, but he's forever cutting himself and butchering small animals to appease the gods or work his magic. It's all very authentic, from the frogs and newts they eat to the feather headdresses that form part of their ceremonial costumes. It's exotic and strange, and it's a small leap from that to blood spells and the otherworlds of cruel gods.

Acatl hates politics, but he finds he can't avoid it if he's to survive and do his job. He's not interested in playing power games. If it weren't for the flaws in his character he would probably seem altogether too virtuous. But his doubts about himself and those around him are what make him compelling, and that's what brings to life his alien world of monstrous gods, strict social rules and violent rituals.

Harbinger of the Storm weaves a substantial mystery in with an intriguing period of history and an intricate mythology, topped off with a set of compelling characters. It's the sort of book that will leave you much more knowledgeable without you ever suspecting you're learning things, because it's so much fun. It's also fabulously bloodthirsty.

22nd March 2011

Book Details

Year: 2011

Categories: Books

    Male Protagonist  

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5 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson
Read more about Aliette de Bodard