Master Of The House Of Darts
by Aliette De BodardThere's something perverse about making your main character High Priest for the Dead. With one foot in the realm of the dead and an uncanny familiarity with what lies beyond, Acatl has less reason to fear death than most. He also has a marked indifference to some of the things that normally motivate people. He's wary of politics. Signs of status are necessary evils that he tolerates but does not seek to gain. And he has no interest whatsoever in women.
Given this, it's hard to understand why he cares so much about Earthly affairs. He should be more detached. However when a warrior collapses and dies at the victory ceremony for the new Revered Speaker, Tizoc-tzin, Acatl once again assumes the role of the Mexica empire's paranormal investigator and prepares to put his life on the line to defend his people. The warrior's death is only the start, of course. An unnatural plague sweeps in, and they don't know how it's spreading. At the same time there's a weakening of the boundaries between worlds, and the dead are able to harass the living. Acatl is looking out for a sorcerer who wishes ill on the Mexica empire, but the list of suspects is long. Their country has conquered many others, so the people they've subdued are none too happy. At the same time Tizoc-tzin is letting his paranoia get the better of him and arresting anyone who looks the wrong way at him. Acatl and the High Priest of the Storm Lord are in disgrace, which makes it hard for them to go about their investigations without arousing suspicion. And Teomitl, Master of the House of Darts and heir apparent as well as Acatl's former pupil, seems to be planning something. But would Teomitl really be as bold as to plot against his brother?
Like the previous books, the third in the Obsidian and Blood series abounds with suspects and red herrings. It's a twisty and colourful tale filled with strange gods who demand sacrifices and pain for the least favour. I liked the way Acatl is beginning to question the way things are, and the first stirrings of doubt are awakening in him. He's always had misgivings about his own suitability as High Priest, but in this novel his eyes are opened to some of the deeper wrongs done in the name of the empire, and in the name of people's unswerving loyalty to the gods. It will be interesting to see where this thread leads in later books.
History tells us that the Mexica empire didn't last very long, so there's a tension between the strange, enclosed world of Aztec gods, magic and ritual, and the readers' knowledge that this very different European world is waiting to disrupt their civilisation in the future.
This is the third book to feature characters scheming for political gain, Acatl protecting the magical boundaries, escalating murders, difficult gods and blood-soaked devotions. It's still shocking when sacrifices take place and Acatl and the other priests act as those these deaths are nothing out of the ordinary. However we've been here before. I would have liked to have seen more movement along the lines of the big change that takes place in the relationship between Teomitl and Acatl. This is a minor issue, however: there is character development, even if it isn't as extensive as I would have liked, and the way the mysteries unfold is far from stale. As always it's a terrific puzzle to work out who is responsible for this round of atrocities. Aliette De Bodard portrays a rich, exotic world full of characters we grow to care about. I particularly like Acatl because he's perpetually unsure of himself, in spite of the evidence that people like and respect him, but his angst is never bad enough to degenerate into outright paranoia.
Characters offer their gods blood and sacrificial victims like they're giving out cocoa and biscuits. But although this is sometimes gory it's far from enough to make them seem unsympathetic. After all, nobody's perfect.
16th January 2012
Review © Ros Jackson