Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard
Reviewed by Duncan Lawie
23 July 2010
The first story I read by Aliette de Bodard was "The Lost Xuyan Bride," in Interzone 213 (November/December 2007). As it happened, her story was not the only one in the issue to introduce an alternate history in which China prevailed, and the Aztec Empire retained its mastery of Central America into what we would call the twentieth or twenty-first centuries; Chris Roberson's "Metal Dragon Year" set out a similar timeline. Both writers have subsequently produced novels. However, while Roberson's books took his Chinese and Aztecs forward to Mars, de Bodard's debut has moved in the other direction. Indeed, rather than being alternate history, Servant of the Underworld is set at the heart of the Aztec Empire, before the time of Columbus. There is no hint of the doom that Cortez will bring upon the Mexica.
Servant of the Underworld takes its historical setting and the mythology of the Aztecs seriously, to deliver a historical fantasy. Even if the magic is of an unfamiliar sort, its reality is asserted from the first page:
I slashed my earlobes and drew thorns through the wounds, collecting the dripping blood in a bowl . . . Grey light suffused the shrine, the pillars and walls fading away to reveal a much larger place, a cavern where everything found its end. (p. 5)
If there is any doubting the reality of the "larger place"—perhaps it is pretense or a ritual belief that the narrator has entered the underworld?—there can be no further quibbling when he performs blood magic again within a few pages. The narrator, Acatl, is the High Priest for the Dead, able both to call on Mictlanteuchtli, god of the Underworld, and to use the magics of his patron as he wishes.
Acatl soon makes clear he was comfortable as a minor priest, away from the great city of Tenochtitlan. However, he has been promoted to High Priest seemingly at the will of Ceyaxochitl, the "Guardian of the Sacred Precinct and keeper of the invisible boundaries, [who] answered only to Revered Speaker Ayaxacatl, the ruler of the Mexica Empire" (p. 7). Over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that Acatl is a powerful magician and is capable of clear thought, but also that Ceyaxochitl has thrust him out of his depth. Acatl attempts to avoid the politics of the Empire, a poor move for a high priest of any temple, and has spent years hiding from responsibilities to his family and acceptance of his own past. Indeed, his opinions of himself and of those around him are foregrounded to the point of repetition in the first part of the book. His parent's disappointment with his choice of career—a warrior is always most respected—has largely overwhelmed his sense of self-value. This is brought into focus when Acatl is called from the silence of his shrine to investigate the disappearance of a priestess from her rooms in another temple and his brother, a respected Jaguar Knight, is implicated.
De Bodard explains the world of her first person protagonist quite thoroughly without loading Acatl with "tour guide" attributes. This works, at least in part, because when Acatl begins the novel, he has little self awareness. Even as he moans on about how unfair everything is, he describes himself and the world around him with the voice of someone not fully present in his life. The characteristics of the gods, of magical creatures, priests and soldiers are developed through the course of the novel, with descriptions often rich in sensory detail. Our first introduction to the ahuizotl tells us both its habits and its inner nature:
For too long, it had bided its time at night, quieting its hunger with fish, with newts, with algae: the sustenance of the poor, of the abandoned. But now it smelled blood: a living heart, so tantalisingly close. Soon it would feast until satiation . . .
[. . .]
A hundred memories came welling up from my childhood. The water beasts were Chalchiutlicue's creatures; they lived in the depths of Lake Texcoco, and would drag a man to the bottom, feasting on his eyes and fingernails (pp. 176-7)
Not long after, Acatl finds a body with no eyes or fingernails and we know instantly what happened to the woman. Once Acatl finally sees an ahuizotl clearly enough to describe it, his emotional response is enough to make the weird even more disconcerting:
Its wrinkled face was vaguely human: not that of an old man, but that of a child that had stayed too long in the water . . . Its tail was long and sinuous, ending in a small clawed hand that kept clenching on empty air, a motion that was oddly sickening. (p. 328)
This is the mythology and magic our protagonist relies on as much as air but it does not feel like research on display, even as it avoids focussing on what we think we know of the Aztecs. The only time Acatl refers to their significant blood letting is when disaster brings an eerie silence to the Sacred Precinct, "[t]here should have been priests, and the dull thud of sacrifices" bodies, hitting the bottom of the pyramid's steps" (p. 350). However, locating the action in this culture, long passed and rarely celebrated in genre fiction, is a fresh approach. It isn't possible to make an inward assertion that, say, Xochiquetzal, goddess of Beauty and Love, is an analogue of Norse Freya, or Greek Diana, as is so often possible in fantasy—take such deities as Ceinwen of the Bow in Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry (1984-6), for example. De Bodard's gods are their own entities.
Acatl follows both logic and intuition, chasing down the plot at the heart of the book, but a key tool in his investigation is magic and his ability to treat with the gods. Given that the forms of magic, the gods and the politics of the empire were almost wholly unfamiliar to me, there was very little chance I was going to get ahead of the plot. Looking backwards, though, it is clear how carefully put together the story is, and how dependent it is on both using and explaining the peculiarities of the society it is set in. The causes found, Acatl must join battle, both physical and magical. The action which follows is both involving and well written. The responses of soldiers, of priests, gods, and magical creatures all flows from their characters and natures as already developed. Moreover, it has a rhythm, with climaxes and longueurs even within the fighting.
By the end of the book, Acatl is forced to understand himself as well as the world around him: to come to terms with his own choices, to accept the powers invested in him, and to accept responsibility for other lives. He has forged a new relationship with his (human) patrons, his family and his own priesthood. This ensures that Servant of the Underworld is rounded and complete in itself, although the title page suggests this is the first volume of "Obsidian and Blood." If Aliette de Bodard can continue as well as she has started, Acatl deserves to become as well known as that other priestly investigator, Cadfael.