Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Servant of the Underworld

by Aliette de Bodard


One of the enticing things about fantasy is the way it exposes readers to peculiar new ideas and sensations. So with a detailed historical fantasy from an under-explored era you get a double whammy of the obscure and exotic. Servant of the Underworld is set in the Mexica empire of the late 15th century, a place and time historians know relatively little about. The Empire was known for its human sacrifices, however.

The main character is Acatl, the High Priest of Mictlantecuhtli, god of death and the underworld. Acatl seems to spend much of his time butchering small animals and cutting himself so he can get the blood he needs to perform various magical spells. When a priestess disappears he is the one given the task of investigating what happened to her. He acts as a kind of supernatural detective, looking for clues in the real world and the realm of magic and gods. The woman's trail peters out early, but Acatl is anxious to find her and solve the mystery because she's apparently lost a lot of blood and may not survive long.

The case gets personal when Acatl's own brother Neutemoc is implicated, and his enemies intend to condemn the Jaguar Knight unless Acatl can find the true perpetrator. But the harder the High Priest looks the more mysteries and obstacles come in his way, and the more he discovers that there is much more at stake than it first appeared. What begins as a missing person case soon proves to be a lot more convoluted. Meanwhile the old emperor lies on his deathbed, and factions are vying for position as political and religious change is in the air.

The magic in Servant of the Underworld is in your face. Gods and people cross the boundaries between worlds throughout the story, so it has a kind of dreamy quality By contrast Acatl and his family are under almost constant attack by both magical and physical means, so there's always a hard edge to the supernatural elements.

Acatl's relationship with his estranged family is a central part of the story. His parents disdained him because he chose to become a priest rather than being a more prestigious warrior, so he bears a burden of guilt and shame for disappointing them. Now they are dead he thinks the rift can never be healed. He feels sure his brother hasn't abducted or killed the priestess, but they have drifted apart over the years and Acatl hardly knows him any more. Can he trust his brother? And what exactly has he been up to?

The plot encompasses jealous gods, politics, and lots and lots of suspects, so it's a deep, solid mystery. Although the story is full of people with barely-pronounceable names, diverse religious sects and a social system that's alien to us, the historical detail sits in the background rather than overwhelming the tableau with dry facts. In fact dry is the last thing this story is: it runs hot with blood, passion, and hand-to-hand battles for family and the survival of the world. It's easy to warm to Acatl with his feather headdress and obsidian knives because he's chronically modest and self-sacrificing. He probably shows the most bravery of all the characters, but he still manages to think of himself as a coward who is somehow inferior to the richer, more physical warriors. He isn't a natural leader and he finds politics intimidating, and this very self-effacing nature makes him more charming.

I found this novel fascinating. Although part of that is no doubt down to the bizarre civilisation of the Mexica Empire, it also had a lot to do with the characters. From haughty gods to transgressing warriors to scheming priests, everyone has complex motivations and loyalties. For a fairly short book it packs a lot in, and underneath the lush exoticism of quetzal feathers and bloodthirsty gods it's a really satisfying yarn backed up with a meaty, character-driven mystery.

15th February 2011

Book Details

Year: 2010

Categories: Books

    Male Protagonist  
  Not For The Squeamish  

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