The novel “Servant Of The Underworld” by Aliette de Bodard was published for the first time in 2010. It’s the first in the “Obsidian And Blood” series.
Acatl is the High Priest of the Dead in Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztec empire. Ceyaxochitl, one of the most powerful women of the empire, summons him to tell him that a priestess disappeared and the clues suggest that she was killed. There are traces of the use of a type of magic connected to the underworld of which Acatl is an expert so he’s charged with the investigation.
The prime suspect is Neutemoc, Acatl’s brother, a warrior who rised within the ranks of the Aztec’s army by proving his worth in battle. This makes the investigation even more delicate and complicated. The young warrior Teomitl is assigned to help him, but even he couldn’t help him that much when he has to deal directly with some deity who are not necessarily friendly.
In 2007, Aliette de Bodard published the novelette “Obsidian Shards“, a fantasy thriller with Acatl as protagonist in which Ceyaxochitl also appears. Reading a couple of novels that mixed mystery and fantasy with exotic settings persuaded the author to write a novel of that type. Meanwhile, in 2009, she published the short fiction sequels to the first story “Beneath the Mask” and “Safe, Child, Safe“.
In “Servant Of The Underworld”, Acatl is the High Priest of the Dead but that was never his ambition. It was Ceyaxochitl who had him elevated to that title because she thought he’d be useful to her and when she needs his services she doesn’t hesitate to summon him. That happens after a priestess disappeared and was probably killed to charge him with the investigation.
Very quickly, Aliette de Bodard immerses the reader in the Aztec setting and especially in its religion. Human sacrifices were common at the time and the author doesn’t pretend they didn’t exist, even if she doesn’t focus specifically on them. Blood was a key element in the Aztec rites but in “Servant Of The Underworld” we soon discover that this was not being done because of superstition but because the magical element and the gods were real.
In the novel, traces of magic tied to the underworld are found in the scene of the priestess disappearance. Acatl is an expert in that kind of magic and in the past has already participated in investigations of crimes related to magic so he’s charged by Ceyaxochitl to discover what happened to the victim and to find the perpetrator.
For Acatl the investigation quickly becomes more complicated because the main suspect is her brother Neutemoc, with whom he has a relationship full of contrasts. In many cases a story contains family problems to add dramatic elements but honestly in most cases I find them annoying. Often I find them gratuitous because they are trivial and seem to be added to give the impression of having a certain character development.
In “Servant Of The Underworld” the conflicts within Acatl’s family seem addressed in a better way than usual. Aliette de Bodard gives meaning to these problems in the fact that Neutemoc rose in the ranks of the Aztec army thanks to the bravery he showed in war. For this reason, he’s the favorite son while Acatl was considered the one who chose the safe and peaceful life of the priesthood.
Indeed, Acatl wants a quiet life. His behavior is different from that of normal High Priests, who generally delegate their assistants ordinary rites and participate in the life of the imperial court of Tenochtitlan while Acatl does the exact opposite.
Acatl is estranged from his brother but in some ways he’s estranged from the rest of the world and this is a problem for his investigation, especially when he must deal with important people and doesn’t really know how to behave. Things are even more complicated because in a world full of magic in which various deities work the investigation may lead to the discovery of very human motivations and weaknesses.
Aliette de Bodard studied the history of the Aztecs to write “Servant Of The Underworld” and its sequels but they are not meant to be historical fiction. The setting is still a fundamental basis to build this mix of mystery and fantasy in which these two genres are closely intertwined in the plot.
“Servant Of The Underworld” isn’t a novel in which you can find brand new elements because in the end those contained in it aren’t particularly surprising. Aliette de Bodard is very good in putting together such diverse elements in a story homogeneous and well developed.
The story is well told with a good pace, with continuous details inserted here and there to immerse the reader in the magical world of the Aztecs. It’s told in the first person from Acatl’s point of view, despite that other characters are well developed.
It’s for these reasons that I think “Servant Of The Underworld” is a very good novel. Although it’s the first in a series the story it has a conclusion so you can buy this book and figure out if it matches your tastes. If you like fantasy I recommend it.