Servant of the Underworld by Writers of the Future winner Aliette de Bodard is an interesting and, especially for a debut, well-executed cross-genre novel that successfully combines several disparate elements into an original story.
If ever a novel could be called cross-genre, Servant of the Underworld is it: the story is set in the 15th century Aztec empire (1. historical fiction) but magic and gods are real (2. fantasy). When a priestess is murdered, Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead, gets involved in finding the murderer (3. mystery), especially when it turns out that his brother is one of the prime suspects. Add to this some blood rituals and some other dark scenes that verge into horror territory (4!) and you’ve got a novel that bookstores could shelve in a few different places. When reading it, I frequently thought of Liz Williams‘ DETECTIVE-INSPECTOR CHEN stories, which combine fantasy, SF and mystery with touches of both humor and horror, and are also set in a non-Western culture — so it didn’t come as a surprise that de Bodard listed those novels as an influence.
Maybe the most impressive thing about this novel is the fact that Aliette de Bodard manages to combine these different elements into a smooth cohesive story. Right from the opening scene, in which one of High Priest Acatl’s blood rituals is interrupted when he finds out about the murder that sets off the plot, the exotic setting feels natural and the inclusion of magic becomes almost normal. As the story progresses, with Acatl interviewing various people to find the murderer and exonerate his brother, Aliette de Bodard gradually paints a vivid picture of life in the Aztec city of Tenochtlitan, filled with interesting anthropological tidbits, while at the same time keeping the “whodunnit” plot going and building up the religion/magic angle. (And speaking of religion: the few scenes where human characters interact with the gods were, for me, the best parts of the novel. Aliette de Bodard does an excellent job describing the reaction of puny humans to the awe-inspiring gods.)
Servant of the Underworld‘s main weakness is its main character, Acatl, who is simply very hard to connect to. While the author attempts to make him more human by emphasizing his complex family life, it’s still hard to empathize with the dispassionate Aztec High Priest of the Dead — and ironically, the priests who work for him seem to feel the same way for most of the book. The exotic setting of the novel is fascinating, the mystery plot is initially very intriguing, the magic is at times impressive, but once the novelty wears off, the main character isn’t engaging enough to carry the novel… and because the story is told from Acatl’s first person perspective, this one flaw is constantly in the spotlight.
Still, Servant of the Underworld is a highly original debut novel. Thanks to a solid mystery plot and Aliette de Bodard‘s extensive research into pre-Conquest Meso-America, this novel should strike a chord with more than just fantasy readers.
This is a nice murder mystery/fantasy mashup, with a main character who seems like a good bet for future novels in the OBSIDIAN AND BLOOD series.