Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard (Obsidian and Blood #1)

7/10 Spectacularly atmospheric... So lushly described that it felt unquestionably real.

Welcome to Tenochtitlan, home to Acatl, unenthusiastic High Priest of the Dead and now, due to circumstances beyond his control, equally unenthusiastic lead investigator in the bloody disappearance of a priestess. Unfortunately, it’s too close to home to ignore, especially once a family member is arrested for the crime. But that doesn’t mean he has to be happy about it, his quiet life has been ruined and someone’s going to pay for it. Using skills both investigative and magical, Acatl must wade into the high politics of the city as well as the deeper, much more dangerous, scheming of the gods. It quickly becomes clear the missing woman is at the heart of a much larger conspiracy, one that threatens to end the Fifth World.

This partly imagined, partly real space is spectacularly atmospheric, so lushly described that it felt unquestionably real. The fact that the city’s ruins have been on my travel wishlist for some time allowed for a merging of what was and what is, building a mental picture that flowed like one of those recreation segments on history programmes, the bare bones of extant buildings blooming into colour and detailed reality. If the author got anything right, it is this. I could see it, hear it. The murder mystery format allowed Acatl to act as the city guide, explaining the place and culture as moved around the landscape, all the time adding more information to the ongoing investigation. It provided an effective means for inserting the reader into contemporary ways of thinking, important when the society in question had a very different sense of religion and morality. However, some of this vibrancy was dulled by the excessive and somewhat repetitious nature of Acatl’s family issues and his whole ‘finding his true place in the world’ thing. It meant that pacing was uneven, with high action scenes interspersed with lots of introspection. This pensiveness is an essential part of his rather dour character, something I liked overall, but the sibling rivalry and familial disappointment that formed its foundations seemed rather drawn out considering its flimsy basis, particularly when lives were at stake. My brother gets on my nerves sometimes but I could put it aside if someone was trying to kill us. Almost definitely. 

One of the most difficult aspects of the book for me was the animal sacrifice used to power ritual magic. It’s a well thought out system, but every slit throat and broken neck made me flinch. It was so intrinsically necessary to the nature of the spell making, yet it reminded me that humans have been killing animals for really shitty reasons for almost forever, from ritual to spectacle, clothing to ‘medicines’. In an age where some of these animals are on the brink of extinction, it gives me a deeply visceral reaction to read about their destruction, even if it’s not real. Just as I’m always the one calling for the horse rather than the rider to be spared in films, I spent much of the book hoping for a bit of human bloodletting to replace the animal. This in itself is problematic as my unthinking call for the blood price to be paid by human characters has a darker side. Evidence suggests that there was human sacrifice in Tenochtitlan and a lot of it, from captured prisoners to the city’s own citizens. The picture of a society in which violence was endemic has been hugely sensationalised in films and other media, leading to a characterisation of its people bordering on inhumanity. While human sacrifice did not play a significant role in the book, my modern sensibilities meant I still questioned the morality of killing animals for magical juice, so it’ll be interesting to see whether it’ll factor more heavily in the future- and how i’ll feel about it. The author does much better than me in not judging- the people in her book live normal lives within the framework of their own ethical, religious, and cultural norms. The bad guys aren’t bad because of the society in which they live, they’re just power hungry arseholes- and that transcends both time and place.

Despite its flaws, the author tried to do something different here and the result is something that stands out from the standard European fantasy crowd for more than just its setting. As a refreshing mix of historical fiction and urban fantasy with an increasingly fluid boundary between truth and make believe or mortal and divine, this book offers an opportunity to step into a truly wondrous world- one to which I’ll return, and soon, in Harbinger of the Storm.

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