Servant of the Underworld

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.

5 thoughts on “Servant of the Underworld

  1. I have also read Servant of the Underworld and really enjoyed it. I wasn’t expecting an in depth study of Aztec society, however, more of a fantasy/horror whodunnit, set in pre-columbian Mexico. And Aliette de Bodard delivered 100% in my view. I will certainly read more of the Obsidian and Bone series.

  2. The Aztecs settled the same valley as Teotihuacan. It’s their settlement that became Mexico City. Teotihuacan was a ruin hundred of years before the Aztecs came into the valley. The Aztecs admired the ruins and artifact they found and did a lot to copy the old styles. In fact the Aztecs thought of the inhabitants of Teotihuacan as gods

    6th largest city in the world at 600 A.D. It was a huge industrial urban complex. The population consisting of many heterogeneous, and multiethnic tribes from all over Central, South and North America.

    Their deities are fierce and their devotion absolute. It can be alarming to those of us immersed in the Greek and Roman myths. Most Western European mythologies have a similarity in story and elegance in philosophy. Pre-Columbian America is a whole other thing.

    One of my favorites is the Goddess represented on the Techinantitla Fresco. She is represented as a diagram, not like a Venus of Willendorf or a Madonna. She has no face or eyes. She is a great red lipped maw lined with teeth. Her two clawed hands scoop sacrifices into her mouth as all of life’s gifts sprouts from her head. She is both creation and destruction.

    Sorry, I’m prattling on. I would like to read Servant of the Underworld. It sounds like a good story. If it’s a good story I’m very forgiving on the facts. That whole time in history has new discoveries every few months. Really fascinating stuff.

    Miss you Cheryl.

  3. While it’s not an in-depth study of any particular society, if you’re interested in the more advanced native American societies in general, check out 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. It’s highly informative, highly readable, and highly entertaining in places (my favorite bit has to be the city which, as far as anyone can tell, was actually constructed as ruins for nefarious purposes) without losing sight of the enormous human tragedy precipitated by smallpox.

    For those of you who’ve read Guns, Germs, and Steel, this is the perfect complement to it. (And if you haven’t read Guns, Germs, and Steel, it’s a terrific book too.)

    1. I second the recommendation of 1491. Absolutely fascinating stuff. And I love it because the author says, he kept bugging the archaeologists that someone should assemble all the current knowledge and write an accessible book about it. None of them had time, or were interested. So he did it himself. Yay, him!!! *Note to self: it’s about time to read this one again.*

      I can’t wait to read your book, Aliette. Is it available in the US now?

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