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Friday, December 25, 2009

"Servant of the Underworld" by Aliette de Bodard (Reviewed By Liviu Suciu)

Official Aliettte de Bodard Website
Read Obsidian Shards an award winning story set in the milieu of the novel
Order "Servant of the Underworld" HERE

INTRODUCTION:I have heard of Aliette de Bodard in connection with her short fiction published in various places - most recently I greatly enjoyed her story "City of the Gods" in the debut issue of online zine Alternative Coordinates (FBC Rv #1, FBC Rv #2, FBC Rv #3 tbp soon). My short take on the City of Gods story ran like this:

"this is a fantasy offering with a traveler in search for atonement; great atmosphere and world building in only few pages; I would enjoy a novel based on it. The other highlight of the zine for me."

So when I heard of "Servant of the Underworld" I was immediately interested even though it's set on our Earth (an alt-version with Gods and magic) - the world building, style and atmosphere of the story above could naturally translate here in the Aztec world the blurb implies - and the novel shot to the top of my reading list. On finishing it I am happy to say that it satisfied my already very high expectations and I will give you the reasons why as well as more detail about it below.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "Servant of the Underworld" stands at about 400 pages and is narrated by Acatl, a semi-disillusioned "priest of the dead" and servant of the "duality" - which essentially means an investigator that deals in the magic of the underworld, so acts as coroner at deaths, as priest at cremations and investigates occurrences of dark magic.

The novel fits most comfortably under the heading of "dark fantasy" with the tropes of contemporary urban fantasy - magic, sorcerers, powerful supernatural beings - called Gods here - lots of blood and violence, mostly urban setting - but is set in the Aztec Empire at its peak in the late 15th century.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: From the first pages of the novel we are plunged in its strange world, when Acatl is summoned by his immediate superior/mentor, Ceyaxochitl, a high-powered priestess of the duality to investigate a mysterious disappearance and presumed murder of an up-and-coming priestess of great but slightly fading beauty and even greater ambition. While "jaguar" magic seems to be involved and not Acatl's field of expertise in "underworld" magic, Ceyaxochitl and her immediate staff are very busy with palace intrigues since the Emperor is dying, while Acatl finds out that his estranged and seemingly very successful warrior/knight brother Neutemoc is the prime suspect so he has a cleasr incentive to solve the "case".

From here the investigation follows the usual pattern with twists, false trails and unexpected links but the main attraction of the novel is in "discovering" its world more than the whys and who of the crime. A brutal caste world with blood, slavery, human sacrifices, specific roles for women, the Aztec Empire is also a world of social mobility and opportunity at least for the lucky ones who attract attention from the powerful or the Gods.

There are four major ingredients in this book: the world-building, the mystery, the magic and the style/narrator. The world-building is exquisite and we *believe* we are transported to the 15th century Tenotichtlan and together with the superb voice they formed the main reason I enjoyed this book so much; the mystery is ok, nothing special but it powers the story-line and through it we peel layer after layer and get to understand the setting; the magic involving gods meddling in the world is something familiar both in sff and in more mainstream stuff (from The Omen and Bible-apocalyptic stories on) and while I am not that big a fan of such, it did not really distract from my enjoyment of the novel. Servant of the Underworld is a standalone as the narrative goes with a definite theme and ending but part of a series which goes on my
high priority "current series following" list.

Highly recommended; Ms. de Bodard is a writer to watc


Anonymous said...

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