Title: Servant of the Underworld (Obsidian and Blood Book One)
Publisher: Jabberwocky Literary Agency
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Price: $15.99 (paperback) / 0.99 (ebook)
Acatl is the High Priest of the Dead. A devotee and servant of Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of the Underworld, it is Acatl’s sacred duty to oversee death rites and ensure that souls travel peacefully into the oblivion of Mictlan. But when a priestess named Eleuia disappears, Acatl is called in to investigate. A creature of the underworld was used in the kidnapping. But, even more importantly, Acatl’s long-estranged brother Neutemoc is a suspect. In trying to prove his brother’s innocence, however, Acatl uncovers a dangerous and wide-ranging conspiracy — one which could topple the Mexica Empire and bring about the end of the Fifth World ….
It is always a treat for me when I find a fantasy novel that is not based in a pseudo-European, faux-Christian society. Even more so when that fantasy is an entertaining mixture of horror, paranormal mystery, political intrigue, and family drama. And even better when the heroes of the story belong to a society which is habitually vilified in world history, with stand-ins used as the “savages” and villains in so many other stories.
The Aztecs, after all, engaged in human sacrifice.
In de Bodard’s Servant of the Underworld, however, their reasons for doing so not only make complete sense, but are based on real-world cosmology and mythology. The Fifth World, the most recent creation, hangs in precarious balance. The only way to maintain that balance and ensure the continuation of creation is through sacrifice: living blood. Sometimes this sacrifice is a cut across the arm or earlobe; other times it is a life; maybe a war captive, maybe a volunteer who spent months or years preparing, maybe a beloved child.
Just to be clear: no human sacrifice is ever shown in the pages of Servant of the Underworld. But there is plenty of blood-letting (usually by Acatl), there are some intense battle sequences, a few corpses are examined, and there is one notable scene in which the Blessed Drowned are shown floating in a lake. While I would not describe the book as gory, the very fact that the entire society is based around human sacrifice — and that this is presented as an ethical necessity — may be off-putting to some readers.
Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed Servant of the Underworld. I loved learning more about Aztec cosmology and mythology (subjects which were never touched on in school). The pantheon is complex, the relationships between the various priesthoods is complicated, and the court and legal system is (surprisingly) just. The blood-based magic employed by Acatl and his fellow dedicants is fascinating, as is the nahual (a protective spirit whose form is based on birth date).
The characters are equally interesting. First is Acatl himself: a quiet and humble man who was plucked from a small rural temple to serve as High Priest in the capital of Tenochtitlan itself. He is also a man filled with regrets and self-doubt, one who resents his own rise in status and power. He just wanted to be left alone to serve his community and their dead. Instead, he finds himself getting pulled into murder investigations, political rivalries, magical battles with underworld monsters, and the dramatic and tragic collapse of his brother’s marriage.
There is also Ceyaxochitl, an incredibly power priestess who serves as Guardian of the Sacred Precinct at the heart of Tenochtitlan; Ixtli, the head of the Warriors of the Duality, who serve as a sort of police force in the city; Mihmatini, Acatl’s younger sister, who has grown into a powerful magician in her own right; brash Teomitl, who is more than he seems; and, of course, the Gods and Goddesses Themselves, moving humans around the board of creation like pawns.
If I have one complaint about Servant of the Underworld, it is the bizarre typographical error which appears through the first third or so of the text: the opening quotation marks around dialogue are backwards. They are actually closing marks. It was very distracting, and I had to train myself not to pay attention until the error just stopped appearing.
That being said, I quite enjoyed Servant of the Underworld, and I look forward to reading the following books in the series (as well as others recommended by de Bodard in her author’s note). Recommended to fans of de Bodard’s other books, as well as fans of Hellboy, Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark, and The Girl With Ghost Eyes by M.H. Boroson.
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her works can be found there.]