Somewhere in the world there are doubtless descendants of the Aztecs who will be furious about the cultural appropriation in Aliette de Bodard’s debut novel. Most of us, however, will be intrigued by a setting that isn’t familiar to us. De Bodard has clearly done a lot of research into Aztec history. Whether the book is genuinely Aztec or not is another matter. What it felt most like to me was Cadfael with added blood magic and Aztec gods.
Acatl, the Servant of the title, is the high priest of the death god in Tenochtitlan (the place we now call Mexico City). Being concerned with the dead, he is often asked to investigate potential murders. Like Mike Carey’s hero, Felix Castor, he is sometimes able to interrogate the shades of the departed. In this particular case he’s trying to find out what happened to Eleuia, a priestess whose body vanished from her room leaving only large quantities of blood. It soon turns out that, as a priestess of the goddess of lust, Eleuia had quite a collection of admirers. One of them is doubtless responsible for her disappearance and possible death. Unfortunately the man caught with bloody hands in the otherwise empty room is a senior member of the Jaguar Knights: Actal’s brother, Neutemoc.
From there the plot quickly gets more complicated. Saying any more would be spoilery, but I will note that various mythological creatures and a handful of actual gods make an appearance as things progress. I’d list them, but the few names you have are quite tongue-twistery enough, and de Bodard does not provide a pronunciation guide (for all I know we may not even know how these words sounded).
As a murder mystery / fantasy adventure it works fairly well. The story may have gone a little too far over the top to leave room for an endless series of High Priest Acatl Mysteries. That’s the trouble with invoking too many gods too quickly. Then again, Liz Williams has managed to avoid this problem with Inspector Chen and De Bodard’s book is labeled Volume 1 of the Obsidian and Bone series, so we’ll get to see how well she does. I’d certainly read the next one. But this book isn’t the in depth study of Aztec society that I was hoping for.