As a little girl I sometimes wondered what it would be like if the monsters and gods I read about in books actually walked amongst us – or maybe they did, and were just hiding themselves. When I discovered the urban fantasy genre of novels when I was a teenager with Harry Potter (which isn’t strictly urban fantasy, but comes pretty close), I started trying to read as much as I could in the genre, discovering some winning series that I try to keep up with today, and others which I’ve given up on entirely or never even so much as tried to read.
In recent years, however, I’ve noticed a new variant on the urban fantasy novel. In this new variant, the action takes place not in a contemporary city, but in the past: Imperial Rome, for instance, or eleventh-century Japan. While there are mystery novels that are set in such historical locales, like Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series, those novels have tended to focus primarily on solving cases without the interference of supernatural entities. Increasingly, however, writers are starting to throw in elements of the supernatural that begin to give these novels, which I would otherwise classify as historical thrillers, into something more akin to Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant novels, or Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, except set in the past. The most recent example that I’ve read is Aliette de Bodard’s Servant of the Underworld, the first book in the Obsidian and Blood Trilogy.
Set in fifteenth-century Tenochtitlan, during the height of the Aztec civilization, Servant of the Underworld is narrated by Acatl, High Priest of Mictlantecuhtli, god of the underworld. For the most part, Acatl does what needs to be done in service to his patron: offers the usual sacrifices, oversees the other priests, performs the rituals for the dead – and every so often, when something that’s not quite right slips out of Mictlan and into the Fifth World, he goes and hunts it down and sends it right back where it came from. But one night, he is interrupted in the middle of a ritual by a messenger from Ceyaxochitl, Guardian of the Sacred Precinct. Eleuia, a priestess of Xochiquetzal staying in the calmecac in preparation for becoming Consort of Xochipilli, has disappeared, and magic of a very foul, very dark sort is believed to be involved. What begins as a simple investigation into a disappearance leads Acatl down a path involving not just magic and politics, but the very gods themselves.
Now, as the above clearly shows, de Bodard draws (and draws very, very deep) from the rich well of Aztec mythology and history. Right from the get-go, the reader is dropped into the world of the novel with very little to go on except whatever previous knowledge he or she might have gained prior to reading the book, and then just uses context clues to guide the reader towards understanding what a word means or what the purpose of an object might be. Some reviewers have complained about this, but I personally enjoy it when a writer has the courage to simply pop the reader into an unfamiliar world and give them just enough to help them find their way on their own. I understand it’s not an easy way to get acquainted with a new world, whether historical, fantastical, or science-fictional, but I personally find it very fun, and a mark of the writer’s confidence in her or his readers that they will be smart enough to figure things out just fine. There is, of course, an extreme to this, when the writer provides too little information to go on, but I think de Bodard walks the balance just fine.
Many of the aforementioned reviewers also disliked (which is putting it mildly, in some cases) the fact that the names are difficult to pronounce. I feel those reviewers are wrong to criticize de Bodard for using appropriate Classical Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) terms and names simply because they have a hard time pronouncing the words, when it’s obvious she is using them to add verisimilitude and a deeper sense of atmosphere to her novel. And it’s not as if figuring out the proper pronunciation is that difficult to accomplish: a Google search will bring up enough pronunciation guides for Classical Nahuatl to suit any preference and depth of interest. But if one isn’t inclined (or is too lazy) to figure out Classical Nahuatl phonology, like I tried to, it’s better to think of the names as shapes instead of words, each one a glyph identifying a specific character or concept. Not only does it make reading the book go by more smoothly, but it shares some interesting parallels to the way the ancient Aztecs wrote their language, as they didn’t use a phonetic alphabet, but an ideographic one.
Now, while it’s true that world-building is vitally important in a novel, a well-drawn world is really rather hollow when there’s no good characters to populate it. Fortunately, de Bodard does quite well with the characters in Servant of the Underworld. Acatl is a pretty interesting sort, which helps his cause as the narrator of the story because I can’t stand an uninteresting narrator, especially if the novel is in first-person perspective. He’s smart, but he makes mistakes, and is emotionally damaged in his own way, which are aspects I appreciate in any protagonists I encounter in the novels I read. The secondary characters are also equally intriguing, each driven by his or her own motives, though not all of them (thankfully) are transparent. I appreciate that, too, since sometimes secondary characters wind up becoming nothing more than MacGuffins or window-dressing.
As for the antagonist, and the plot itself – well, those aren’t without their problems. While I liked the big reveal at the climax, I found the journey leading to that big reveal a bit anticlimactic. I enjoy a good mystery, don’t get me wrong, and I’m willing to work as hard as the writer wants me to to figure out what’s going on, but this was one of those times when I’d pretty much seen the end without having to work for it, and that’s a rather bad thing to have happen to a reader of mysteries. Part of the fun of a mystery is the game of solving it alongside (or just slightly ahead) of the protagonist/s, after all, but once the reader figures out where the plot’s going the game loses a lot of its shine, and it’s almost not worthy reading the novel except to just see it through. While the plot of Servant of the Underworld wasn’t as bad as all that (there were a lot of times when I felt Acatl was in genuine danger, and that always ups the ante nicely), it did feel that after a certain point, too much had been given away and the game was up.
Like the plot, the antagonist was interesting, but after a certain point stopped being interesting, mostly because I didn’t really get to know said antagonist. I like understanding an antagonist’s motives, knowing what’s driving him or her, and while that was made clear enough for the antagonist of Servant of the Underworld, I wish those motives had been more gray, rather than as clear-cut as they turned out to be. Or perhaps that’s the point, given who the antagonist is. Either way, I would have appreciated an antagonist whose motives were more uncertain.
I also noticed something odd about de Bodard’s writing. I first encountered her work via her short stories featured on the sci-fi/fantasy fiction podcasts I listen to, such as Clarkesworld Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and others. In her short stories, her writing is elegant and dreamlike, her language poetic and exquisite in ways few others can match. But in Servant of the Underworld, that beautiful, poetic, elegant quality is almost entirely gone, save in brief hints here and there, and in the snatches of poetry used throughout the novel as ritual chants. Given my previous experience with her writing, I was expecting Servant of the Underworld to have language along the lines of N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but that wasn’t the case.
This isn’t a bad thing, though. After all, Acatl’s the one narrating this novel, and it’s obvious he doesn’t have that sort of inclination towards poetry that would result in something like Jemisin’s language, or even de Bodard’s language in her short stories. It just wasn’t what I was expecting, is all, and I’m sure readers who’ve had experience with de Bodard’s shorter work and then jump into Servant of the Underworld will find themselves a bit jarred by the change in language and tone. It’s not something to hold against her, however; she’s just writing true to the character she’s chosen to narrate the novel.
Overall, Servant of the Underworld is an interesting read, not least because of the choice of setting. The world feels pretty solidly built, and even though there’s a lot there that isn’t historically accurate, de Bodard weaves them all together seamlessly enough that anyone who isn’t too much of a stickler for historical accuracy will not even notice where the edges are and sink into the world quite readily. It also helps that Acatl, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, is engaging and quite likable as a character (though maybe not as a person, for some readers). There are some issues in terms of choice of antagonist and in terms of the plot that could put the reader off, and those issues could be deal-breakers for other readers. However, if the reader is willing to let those issues slide, then there’s the chance that the next book will be a better read. I’m certainly hoping that’s the case.