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Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard

Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard
Book Name: Servant of the Underworld
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher(s): Angry Robot
Formatt: Paperback / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Historical Fantasy
Release Date: October 26, 2010

Servant of the Underworld is set in Mexico’s 15th century Aztec empire where life revolves around Gods, and sacrificial offerings are part of everyday existence. As High Priest for the Dead, Acatl must journey into the Gods’ worlds in order to solve a murder mystery that threatens to destroy his own family and the very world around him.

“Blood dripped, slowly, steadily, onto the blade – each drop, pulsing on the rhythm of my heartbeat, sending a small shock through the hilt when it connected with the obsidian. I brought the tip of the knife in contact with my own hand, and carefully drew the shape of a human skull. As I did so, I sang a litany to my patron Mictlantecuhtli, God of the Dead.”

When Priestess Eleuia goes missing under supernatural circumstances, Acatl is charged with the task of solving the mystery of her disappearance. Sensing traces of magic in her blood-soaked room, it appears that a nahual spirit was summoned to kill her. The search begins by hunting the jaguar beast and potential suspects born on a Jaguar day. However, Acatl soon learns that his estranged brother, Neutemoc, is the prime suspect after being found in the Priestess’s room covered in her blood. Believing his brother to be innocent, Acatl must find the Priestess before his brother is executed for her murder.

As he delves deeper, Acatl discovers that Neutemoc’s marriage has been shattered by his love affair with the Priestess Eleuia. However he is not the only lover she had, and it is soon revealed that she gave birth to a stillborn baby many years ago. Just what this means though, Acatl doesn’t know. When it becomes clear though that someone is determined to kill his brother, he must put aside his feelings of jealousy and enlist the help of his younger sister Mihmatini to fight the spirits clawing at their walls.

To aid the investigation Ceyaxochitl sends an eager young boy, Teomitl to run tasks. Surrounded in protective spells, there is more to the warrior in training than meets the eye, but he is keen to prove himself by helping Acatl. Although reluctant to take him on, Acatl soon realises that the boy is more important to the unfolding events than first thought.

Throughout Servant of the Underworld, Acatl learns that there are higher powers at work, both religious and political. Although he has withdrawn away from them in the past, he must start to take responsibility for his temple as well as his family. In his struggle to do so, he will find himself faced with tough choices and at the mercy of the gods.

Whilst the plot is complex due to the number of gods and different lands that Acatl must journey to, it is well paced, with Acatl and Teomitl running from place to place and danger to danger. With plenty of mystery, gripping plot turns and natural worldbuilding, the story keeps you enthralled right through to the end.

Although necessary to the plot, the number of characters in the book is huge especially when considering all the different gods. And in keeping with the period, traditional Aztec names such as Ceyaxochitl and Xochiquetzalare used, making it difficult to keep track of exactly who is who. I often found myself confused over which god was which, and combined with the complex plotline I had to mentally recap which character or god had done what. The redeeming feature is the cast list at the end, which can be used as a reference point along the way.

Acatl’s character is well developed and even though he is self-effacing, he is a likable character. We learn that his relationship with his late parents was fraught with difficulties, seeing him as cowardly for going into priesthood and not becoming a warrior like his brother. Resentful and unappreciative of his rise to the position of High Priest, Acatl neglected many of his roles. Since his previous apprentice died trying to perform summoning magic, Acatl has since been reluctant to train anyone else. However, life-threatening events and the exuberant Teomitl force him to look again at his role as High Priest and face his own feelings of inadequacy and jealousy.

With so many other characters featuring in the story, some are only touched on lightly. However each has his or her own distinct personality, and it is difficult not to like the intriguing and energetic Teomitl or budding young priestess Mihmatini. With the groundwork laid in this book, there is now more scope for character development in the rest of the series.

In Aztec time, animal and human sacrifice regularly took place. In Servant of the Underworld, there are a number of animal sacrifices that add a realistic element and reinforce the Aztec culture. Although there is some reference to human sacrifice as well as bloodletting, such as Acatl cutting his ear to use his own blood for magic, de Bodard purposefully avoided explicit human sacrifice. I’m extremely thankful for this as details of the animal sacrifices was bloody enough; the addition of human slaughter would have completely detracted my attention from the plot.

Servant of the Underworld is not only de Bodard’s debut novel, but was also impressively written in English, her second language. Steeped in Aztec mythology and culture, it’s refreshing to read a story that is set in a time so rarely used as a fictional setting. With its complex plot, interesting cast of characters, and magical mystery, Servant of the Underworld makes a great first installment to the Obsidian and Blood series.


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