Big Bangs and Fireworks are Welcome, But Closure is Better – A Review of Master of the House of Darts by Aliette de Bodard

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When one is reading a series, it’s inevitable that one begins to develop expectations, or attempts to make predictions, regarding what will happen next. One grows attached to certain characters, and based on events that have already happened, one may attempt to guess what will happen to those characters, as well as how the rest of the plot will impact them, and how they themselves will impact the plot. Will they die, and will that death be a vitally important one, or will it be some nondescript event that happens offscreen, so to speak? Will they survive and go on to greater glory? Or will some plot twist cause them to fail, or take a course far different from the one the character was originally on? Will they lose something or someone important to them? How will they deal with the loss? Will it destroy them, or strengthen them?

Nowhere are these questions more important than in the last book of a series. The last book is supposed to tie up loose ends, answer any remaining questions (though not all, necessarily – sometimes a few unanswered questions are welcome), and generally provide a sense of closure, one that suits the events that led up to it. I find an undeserved ending very irritating: a happy ending when a tragic one would have been more suitable, or a sad ending when a happy ending could have worked just as well.

But there is nothing more irritating than an inconclusive ending. Such endings make me want to turn the book over and shake it out in the hopes that more pages turn up – and while I’ve used this to refer to good cliffhangers, that feeling is unwelcome in a book that’s supposed to wrap up a series. In some books, that irritation can turn into outright frustration, but in others it remains at a low-level disappointment, a particular flavor of sadness wherein I think a book could have been absolutely pitch-perfect had it not been for that ending.

And that is how I felt after finishing Master of the House of Darts, the final book in Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood trilogy. Set in the ancient Aztec empire before the coming of the conquistadors, the trilogy is narrated by Acatl, High Priest for the Dead, and therefore a servant of Mictlantecuhtli, and his wife Mictecacihuatl, Lord and Lady Death, who rule the realm of Mictlan, the Aztec underworld. Acatl would like nothing more than to lead the regular, relatively quiet life of a priest, but he is unable to do so as he constantly finds himself caught up in the troubles of others – from clearing his brother’s name in the first book, Servant of the Underworld, to saving the world from total annihilation in Harbinger of the Storm.

Master of the House of Darts picks up mere months after where Harbinger of the Storm left off. Something’s not quite right with the world, and Acatl knows it – he is, after all, the reason why everything feels wrong in the first place. He helped Quenami, High Priest of Huitzilpochtli, and Acamapichtli, High Priest of Tlaloc (and erstwhile enemy, in the events of the first novel Servant of the Underworld) bring Tizoc-tzin, the current Revered Speaker, back from the dead in a desperate bid to prevent star demons from ravaging the Fifth World. Though they’ve managed to accomplish their task, they’ve had to leave a part of the Fifth World open to the influence of the other worlds, in order to keep Tizoc-tzin alive. And no one is more acutely aware of this wrongness than Acatl, who, as High Priest of the Dead, knows that Tizoc-tzin ought to have gone down to Mictlan.

But that sense of wrongness quickly becomes the least important thing he has to deal with. When Tizoc-tzin returns from his (unsuccessful) coronation war, one of the soldiers suddenly drops dead during an important ceremony. When Acatl investigates, he finds out that there is magic involved – magic that spreads from person to person like a disease, and begins dropping people like flies. Once more forced to work with Acamapichtli (whose patron god, Tlaloc, also deals with epidemics), Acatl must once again try to figure out what is going on, and stop it, before it is too late. And as if that were not enough, he has to deal with his former student, Teomitl, now the Master of the House of Darts and therefore Tizoc-tzin’s heir, chafing at the bit to become what he was meant to be: the leader of Tenochtitlan, and of the entire Mexica Empire.

As with the previous novels, Master of the House of Darts is technically a murder mystery, and it’s not that bad as an example of the genre. As with Harbinger of the Storm, I suspect the reason why it’s better as a mystery is because much of the world-building no longer gets in the way like it did in the first book. In Master of the House of Darts, this is even more so because de Bodard no longer has to introduce as many characters: many of the important figures in this novel are familiar to the reader from the first two books, which means that there’s little need to develop them from scratch.

This isn’t to say, of course, that they don’t grow as characters, and in this regard de Bodard has done well – at least, with some of the characters. Acatl is pretty much the same as he was in Harbinger of the Storm, though in this novel it appears as if so many important things have escaped him, and he’s not so much solving mysteries as he is running from one end of the city to the other, trying to keep up with other people as he tries to find answers. While this lends a rather fun, breathless quality to the plot (particularly since Acatl is the narrator of series), I did find it rather disappointing, because the reason I like Acatl in the first place is that he’s an ordinary man trying to do his job, but he keeps finding himself in these situations wherein he’s got nothing but his wits and priestly knowledge to get him and everybody around him out of trouble. In Master of the House of Darts, it feels more like other people are doing the work for him, and the only thing he can do is follow them around, desperately trying to piece everything together as fast as he can to finally see the bigger picture.

I also have a problem with the multiple subplots that crop up throughout the course of the novel. I’m usually not put off by having lots of subplots in a novel, as long as I can keep a handle on them, and most of them are resolved at the end of the novel. De Bodard has no problem keeping the subplots in order and making them coherent to the reader, but as for resolving them – well, that’s where I take issue with this book. Two major subplots crop up that are not resolved: the question of whether or not Acatl’s priesthood managed to close the gap between the worlds just enough to keep ghosts out, but keep Tizoc-tzin alive; and the question of Teomitl’s attempt at rebellion.

Of the two, de Bodard attempts to close out the second at the end of the novel, but the attempt feels feeble and not at all satisfying. As for the first, I did not find any evidence that it was resolved at any point in the novel, and I think that would have been the most exciting thing to happen in the entire book. The results would weigh into Teomitl’s subplot, as well, considering the stakes involved. Since this is the final novel in a series, I was hoping for a totally conclusive ending – not necessarily with fireworks and swelling music, but something that at least brings some kind of closure to the whole work. Master of the House of Darts does not end that way at all: Teomitl’s rebellion is put in abeyance despite the heavy implications that he would fight his brother for the position of Revered Speaker, an action that, based on the previous novel, would probably have won him the approval of Huitzilpochtli and made the Revered Speaker his brother could never be. This could have been a chance for further character development, not only for Teomitl, but also for Acatl and Mihmatini, who is Teomitl’s wife and the new Guardian of the Duality.

I find it disappointing that instead of a truly strong, conclusive ending – which I had expected – the ending for Master of the House of Darts instead comes off a bit limp. It promises more, but “more: never actually comes, and may never come, as there has been no indication from de Bodard that she plans to write more of these novels.

Overall, Master of the House of Darts is a disappointing ending to what has otherwise been a really fun series. There is a great deal of promise, at the start: the events arise directly from the consequences of events in Harbinger of the Storm, and the mystery appears to be well-crafted enough in the manner of the second novel. However, readers may find that they quickly grow weary of Acatl not really solving anything so much as racing after other people, struggling to keep up with them while trying to put together the pieces they leave behind to solve the puzzle of the mystery that he’s presented with. They may also find that, once they get to the end of the novel, they get the urge to ask: “Where’s the rest?” because of some rather large plot lines that are not resolved satisfactorily, or not resolved at all. It is this failure to resolve those two plot lines that I find is the most disappointing aspect of this novel, and which other readers may find disappointing as well.


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