Master of the House of Darts is the third novel in Aliette de Bodard‘s OBSIDIAN AND BLOOD series. The first novel, Servant of the Underworld, was one of my favourite reads of 2010 and its sequel Harbinger of the Storm was, if possible, even better. In between writing these novels, de Bodard has also made an impression with her short fiction. Her novelette The Jaguar House, In Shadow, set in her Xuya alternative history, was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula award, while The Shipmaker, set later in the same timeline, won the BSFA award for Best Short Fiction. Neither the Hugo nor the Nebula went her way, but I would be very surprised if she didn’t win one of those in the future. In other words, I was really looking forward to reading Master of the House of Darts.
Acatl, High Priest of the Dead, has been deeply involved in the recent struggle for succession. With more than just the position of Revered Speaker at stake, not interfering would have meant the end of the fifth world, and so Acatl and a number of other priests performed a feat of magic that helped Tizoc to power. His hold on power is far from solid, though, especially since the coronation war is less than a success. Various parties doubt the ability of the new Revered Speaker to protect the empire and bring them glory. When a mysterious disease breaks out in the palace as well, Acatl has a new mystery on his hands. Gradually it becomes clear that the way Tizoc came to power offers enemies of the realm the opportunity to destabilize the empire. Acatl will have to deal with the unintended consequences of his actions if he is to save the empire again.
The OBSIDIAN AND BLOOD novels are often characterized as Aztec murder mysteries, but like the previous book, this one leans a lot more to political intrigue. We do start with a corpse of course, and a murder that needs to be solved, but it is the first clue in a conspiracy that runs much deeper than the fate of one (rather unpleasant) man. Master of the House of Darts presents a complete story and can be read separately, though it would be a challenging read as the power structure and pantheon of the Aztec Empire are very important to the story and will most likely be unfamiliar to the reader. It helps to have that background from previous books. They also provide insight into Acatl’s motivation.
Like the other two books, Master of the House of Darts is entirely written in the first person. We see the story though Acatl’s eyes and experience his thorough disgust of power politics, selfishness and injustice. He has lost some of his impatience with it, though. I wouldn’t say he’s become a diplomat but he has developed more of a feeling for when pushing will get him the desired result and when letting go is the least frustrating course of action. He’s also a bit more self-assured. Where in previous novels the disapproval of his parents weighed on him significantly, it has faded into the background a bit in Master of the House of Darts, although it does come up in the conversations with his disgraced brother Neutemoc.
One area where Acatl certainly does not lack confidence is his duties as High Priest of the Dead. One of the more interesting scenes is the conversation in which he berates his priests for sacrificing the life of a slave to save a high official. Acatl feels that lives cannot be ranked like that, and that one life is not more valuable than another. It is an interesting example of his sense of justice, but also stresses that a culture that practices what we see as barbaric human sacrifice does have a clear moral code. One that can be very unforgiving on people who don’t live up to the status and privileges society accords them, in fact. It is hard to wrap your mind around some of the practices Acatl accepts as a matter of course, but in this novel at least, they do fit the larger framework.
Unlike the previous two volumes, this novel relies a bit less on action and leans more heavily on unravelling the mystery, figuring out who had a motive and how certain crimes were perpetrated. The real action in the novel is saved for the explosive finale. Acatl needs a little more time to sort through the tangle of hatred, greed and lust for power that surrounds the Revered Speaker; it is most certainly his most challenging and complex investigation yet. As with the previous novel, I felt that the first-person point of view limited de Bodard a bit in exploring the intricacies of the intrigue. Events follow each other quickly and some do not make sense to the reader until Acatl figures them out, or thinks he does. Some of it relies pretty heavily on the properties of various deities in the Aztec pantheon, which makes his trains of thought challenging to follow sometimes.
I enjoyed reading Master of the House of Darts as much as the previous two novels. We see a more confident Acatl in this novel, despite the fact that he is dealing with unintended consequences of his own actions. He is not a particularly optimistic character, but his dark moods fit the dire situation the Mexica Empire is in. It was a nice touch to see that even the gods fear what might happen if the fifth world (the current one according to Aztec mythology) were to come to an end. Readers of de Bodard‘s other works will appreciate the intrigue and vividly realized Mesoamerican setting. As usual, the author leaves me hungry for more. I understand her next project will be the first full length novel in the Xuya alternative history. If possible, I look forward to that novel even more than I did Master of the House of Darts.
FanLit thanks Rob Weber from Val’s Random Comments for contributing this guest review.