Pieces in the Patolli Game Played by Gods, Priests, and Politicians – A Review of Harbinger of the Storm by Aliette de Bodard

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Since I really, truly got into reading genre fiction, particularly fantasy and science-fiction, a favorite personal game of mine has been: what would happen if I found myself transported into the world of the book I was reading? Would I be able to live in it permanently? Would it be a better to just go for a visit? Or is it so very unsafe that I wouldn’t last a minute before something or someone killed me in a horrific manner? And since I got into historical fiction I’ve begun including time periods in this game: vacations in eleventh-century Kyoto during the springtime, a side-trip to tenth-century Baghdad for the libraries and the poetry – but I would never set foot in twelfth-century Western Europe, not with the Black Death dropping people left, right, and center.

Recently, though, I read Servant of the Underworld, the first novel in Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood trilogy, which is set in fifteenth-century Mexico. Rooted in the rich and bloody well of Aztec history and mythology, de Bodard builds a world where magic runs rampant, the gods are fickle at best and cruel at worst, and where blood – both animal and human – literally maintains the balance of the universe. However, despite all the bloodshed, de Bodard creates a world filled with life: a world where culture thrives, and where political games are played at the highest levels of society. Through the eyes of Acatl, High Priest of the Dead and the novel’s protagonist and narrator, this magical version of Tenochtitlan at the height of the Aztec Empire’s power comes to life.

It is this world that the reader re-enters in Harbinger of the Storm, the second novel in the trilogy. It’s been a year since the events of Servant of the Underworld, and Axayacatl, the Revered Speaker (and therefore the Emperor of the Mexica Empire) is dead. This leaves Tenochtitlan leaderless and therefore vulnerable in a political sense, but there is more to it than that. While alive, the Revered Speaker represented the power of Huitzilpochtli, the Southern Hummingbird, the chief protector god of the Mexica Empire. Without a Revered Speaker, Huitzilpochtli’s power is diminished, and therefore leaves the Fifth World wide open to attack from other gods and entities that might want to bring it to an end.

As High Priest of the Dead, Acatl’s main duty is to see to Axayacatl’s funeral, preparing his body while ensuring his soul travels to Mictlan, the realm of the dead (and of his god, Mictlantecuhtli) without much incident. However, Acatl finds himself caught up in a deep court scandal when a councilman is found dead under mysterious, magical circumstances – circumstances that point to the coming of an entity that no one could ever hope to defeat, and that could spell the end of the world itself. Once again, it falls to Acatl, his friends, and even a few enemies, to figure out what is going on before it is too late.

Despite the magic and the setting, the novel is still, technically, a murder mystery, so I try to judge Harbinger of the Storm as such. In that sense, Harbinger of the Storm is pretty average as far as these kinds of things go, though I think it was better-plotted than Servant of the Underworld. I wondered why that was the case, so I took a quick peek through Servant of the Underworld, and realized that the reason why Harbinger of the Storm seems to be more thoroughly-plotted is because Servant of the Underworld was more focused on world-building. This is no surprise, since de Bodard is trying to establish the setting of her novel as quickly and as best as she can without getting in the way of the plot, but the fact remains that some room for building plot had to be sacrificed in favor of world-building.

This is no longer a problem in Harbinger of the Storm. With the world already firmly established in the first novel, de Bodard uses this newfound freedom to good use, creating a plot that twists and turns in a way that the plot of Servant of the Underworld did not. World-building is not completely abandoned, of course: Harbinger of the Storm expands the world to include places outside of Tenochtitlan (the city of Texcoco), and new strata of society (court life comes into much greater focus and plays a key role), but the plot is much more in focus than it was in the first novel.

Fortunately, though the plot is really average in comparison to other murder mysteries (albeit superior to the first book in the trilogy), the characters remain as interesting and fun to read as ever. Though Acatl has learned to accept his duties as High Priest of the Dead, he’s still a bit of a grouch about it, and still as awkward about politics as he was in the first book – actually, more so now in this novel than the first one, because the depth of his involvement in the court changes drastically in Harbinger of the Storm. He’s not the most competent of investigators at times: he doubts himself a lot, and makes mistakes, but I like him precisely because he makes those mistakes without being a bumbling idiot. I will always have room in my heart for the genius savant, but I can also appreciate an investigator who’s not as competent as he might want to be.

Acatl is a great example of that. What he lacks in sheer genius, he makes up for with sheer determination and courage, along with a deep sense of justice and compassion for those he believes are innocent and have been wronged. He sees what’s wrong, and though he’s not necessarily the right person for the job, he’s going to do it anyway because he knows taking action is the right thing to do. Sherlock Holmes could have probably just looked at the first victim, sniffed the air a little, and figured out precisely what was going on, but then, Sherlock Holmes isn’t really all that human. Acatl is completely, thoroughly human, and yet he tries to be superhuman anyway, because if he doesn’t at least try, then everything goes to pieces.

Like in the previous novel, I really like how the gods are so “human,” so to speak, in Harbinger of the Storm. There is no such thing as a completely benevolent god in de Bodard’s version of the Aztec world: one god may be amenable to cooperating with humans, but something could set that god off, and the next thing one knows, said god is on the warpath and hellbent on destroying the world. Much of the Aztec world as it’s portrayed in the Obsidian and Blood trilogy is dedicated to maintaining that balance, to ensuring that the gods are satisfied enough to keep the universe running, and it’s that balance that Acatl himself strives to maintain in the face of everything that stands in his way. Harbinger of the Storm proves this to be very true, particularly when the reader begins to figure out just what is really happening in the plot and approaches the climax.

Another interesting development in this novel is the quality of de Bodard’s writing. I mentioned in my review for Servant of the Underworld that her language had become more workmanlike and less lyrical, especially in comparison to her short stories. This remains true of the language in Harbinger of the Storm, but I did notice that her more lyrical language comes through more more often and in more obvious ways than in Servant of the Underworld. Again, I attribute this to the fact that there is no urgent need to world-build anymore in Harbinger of the Storm, so de Bodard has greater freedom to write the story as she pleases. The writing overall still hews very closely to the writing in Servant of the Underworld, but only because Acatl is still the narrator, and therefore the quality of his voice has to be maintained. Nevertheless, de Bodard’s poetry and lyrical language come through in a few spots, and they’re a delight to come across in the course of reading the novel.

Overall, Harbinger of the Storm is pretty par for the course as a murder mystery, but one that functions better than its predecessor. And with most of the world-building out of the way, de Bodard is able to build a more interesting, more layered plot – not as layered as some of the other mysteries that I’ve read, but still a pretty good read. It also helps that the world itself is pretty well-built and well-established as of Servant of the Underworld, which leaves de Bodard free to not only craft a better plot, but to build her characters up further. This is especially true in Acatl’s case: Servant of the Underworld might be considered his coming-of-age, but Harbinger of the Storm is where he finds his metier – whether he likes it or not. He’s certainly no Sherlock Holmes, but that hardly matters: de Bodard has built his character in such a manner that the reader will probably like him for the grumpy, stubborn old man that he is. That, really, is all I need to see this series through to the very end – well, that and the explosive events of the climax of Harbinger of the Storm. And if the reader feels the same way as I do, then going on to the last book of the trilogy, Master of the House of Darts, will not be a chore at all.

However, readers who didn’t like Servant of the Underworld for reasons of plot and language (particularly the names) will simply find more of the same in Harbinger of the Storm, and though it would be wise to give the novel a chance, if it still doesn’t change the reader’s mind, then it might be a good idea to skip the last book entirely unless one is determined to see the series through to the bitter end.

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