Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard
I found Aliette de Bodard’s Servant of the Underworld almost completely by accident. I’d heard about her upcoming novella, The Tea Master and the Detective, which sounded weird and like I'd like it, so I checked out some of her other books.
I chose Servant sort of randomly, knowing it was the first book of a series and nothing else. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.
The setting is the best part about this book. The mystery kept me guessing, but best of all was everything felt grounded, but also new. I mean, Aztec noir fantasy is not a label you’re going to find on a bookshelf somewhere. Overall, I found it engaging and refreshing.
Acatl-tzin, the Head Priest of the Dead, is called upon to investigate an abduction and possible murder of Eulea, an up-and-coming priestess. The number one suspect in the case? Neutemoc, his own brother, a wealthy and influential Jaguar Knight.
The brothers haven’t spoken in four years, having had a falling out, and Acatl is shocked by how much things changed since then; it appears Neutemoc’s relationship with his wife, Huei, is on the rocks, and even their sister, Mihmatini has grown up a lot since they last saw each other.
And behind him, my sister Mihmatini, grown from a gangly girl into a beautiful woman, blossoming in the calmecac like a marigold flower.
de Bodard, Aliette. Servant of the Underworld (Obsidian and Blood Book 1) (p. 66). JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
The reader follows Acatl through the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan as he uncovers clues, interviews witnesses and suspects, and oh yeah, deals with gods and terrifying monsters. Acatl’s job, when he’s not tracking missing priestesses, is finding and killing beasts summoned from the world of shadows and death, and maintaining the balance of the Fifth World.
At its core, I would say this is a story about points of view and growing up, not so much into adulthood, though that is an aspect, but maturing emotionally and letting old wounds heal by gaining a new perspective.
This novel is a mix of a bunch of fun genres: it’s a mystery, it’s a fantasy, it’s historical fiction.
I found that it’s set at the height of the Aztec empire refreshing. This is not a popular setting for fantasy, so I was introduced to a unique magical system and got a new view of what is an interesting ancient culture.
I tore my gaze away from the Great Temple. Unfortunately, I did so too late to avoid crashing into a group of priests flanking a sacrificial victim: a man with a chalk-whitened face, lips painted in grey. “Sorry.” The victim looked at me with a touch of annoyance, angry at being impeded on his way to a glorious death. The priests just nodded, as one craftsman to another. I resumed my crawl towards the exit.
de Bodard, Aliette. Servant of the Underworld (Obsidian and Blood Book 1) (pp. 56-57). JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Bodard goes in depth with Aztec mythology, introducing us to its gods and horrors face to face. She also does great world-building, since our detective, Acatl, High Priest of the Dead, finds himself caught up in the politics of the day when the High Priest of Taloc, the god of rain, drags his brother’s case before the emperor.
A priest of Tlaloc. Even if Huitzilpochtli was now the only guardian god of the Mexica Empire, the priests of the Storm Lord still wielded considerable political power.
de Bodard, Aliette. Servant of the Underworld (Obsidian and Blood Book 1) (p. 58). JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
I constantly wanted to know more about the Acatl’s world and society and every step of the way through the story it keeps unfolding. It got me excited about Aztec culture and mythology. This may have to do with the fact I’m living in Mexico but, I can’t think of any other book I’ve picked up with a similar setting.
What’s cool is how much the setting plays a part in how the mystery unfolds. The aspects of how the gods work and the cultural norm of human sacrifice and blood magic add some interesting dimensions to how the story unfolds.
Another thing I enjoyed about this book is that the mystery takes center stage. This is a noir mystery story so it’s dark, brutal, and the lines between good and evil are blurred constantly.
But I was trying not to think of the old, old cenote south of Tenochtitlan, the fissure opening in the rock to reveal the stillness of an underground lake; and how the air above that lake would be growing darker and darker, as the Wind of Knives coalesced into existence at the only gateway He could pass through without being summoned.
de Bodard, Aliette. Servant of the Underworld (Obsidian and Blood Book 1) (p. 120). JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Magic plays a huge part in the story, and the gods take a hand in the plot in a big way, but none of that upstages the character development or the mystery. It’s a solid piece of work that way, well constructed, where all the pieces work together rather than dominate each other.
The fun part for me was that the narrative kept me guessing. I had no idea how many twists and turns there would be (many) and it was a lot of fun not knowing what would come next. Intrigue and action run throughout the entire story, but the last few chapters are just so packed with drama and suspense… it’s awesome.
The main character, Acatl, is a hot mess, which is great. Despite his being High Priest of the Dead, he barely has his life together. He’s constantly haunted by his youth and is terrified of taking on any kind of responsibility beyond hunting monsters. This creates tension between him and pretty much everyone else he comes across. He and his brother, Neutemoc stopped speaking when their mother died, and Acatl can’t get over how their parents favored Neutemoc for being a warrior, and their worship of war over even their own farming. Even Acatl’s second in command in his temple, Ichtaca, ends up having a beef with him because he refuses to fully take responsibility for his position. He doesn’t feel he can be a leader, and just wants to go back to his smaller life, but can’t.
“Understand this,” I said, annoyed now. “I didn’t ask to be posted here. I wanted to stay in Coyoacan.” Doing what I had always done: caring for the small, the forgotten; those who could not attain the glorious ends of warriors, but who would still be mourned.
de Bodard, Aliette. Servant of the Underworld (Obsidian and Blood Book 1) (p. 202). JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Delving further into his brother’s life, he begins to realize that perhaps things aren’t really what he thought they were. Neutemoc’s home life is a mess, with his wife unhappy and his children practically ignored. Acatl suspects Neutemoc of having an affair with the missing priestess, a transgression that would cost him not only his marriage, but also his position and even his life. A major part of the narrative is Acatl coming to a better understanding of his brother, and of his own position within the temple of Mictlantecuhtli. Of course, this all can’t come without sacrifice and heartbreak along the way. His personal growth throughout the novel is pretty impressive and you find yourself understanding him as he learns to understand himself. All in all, it’ll definitely draw you in.
The one issue I had with this book is the prose. In some cases, things get a little repetitive, with phrases reappearing in a couple of chapters. The writing is a little utilitarian, which I guess is pretty appropriate for noir, but it occasionally feels rushed. Sometimes the energy would lag around the middle, but pushing through was definitely worth it.
That aside, if you’re bad at remembering names, you’re going to run into some trouble with this book. The cast is not huge, but for some people, the names and some words that come up regularly may seem a little strange. However, there is a handy list of characters at the back of the book for those who do get lost.
Overall, I found none of these things were reason enough to put the book down.
I found Servant of the Underworld to be a brutal, bloody, enjoyable novel. Noir fantasy is becoming more popular these days, but the historical aspect of this novel makes it really unique. I recommend it to those who like darker mystery, and don’t mind a bit of violence and death.
What's it Like?
Take a classic, gritty noir mystery like Chinatown and set it in the Aztec Empire, with actual gods and monsters lurking around the edges.
Bechdel Test: Pass