The novel “Master of the House of Darts” by Aliette de Bodard was published for the first time in 2011. It’s the third in the “Obsidian And Blood” series and follows “Harbinger of the Storm“.
Emperor Tizoc’s coronation war turned out to be a failure with the capture of just a few prisoners to be sacrificed during the great ceremonies to be held to celebrate that event. As if that wasn’t enough, one of the prisoners died suddenly and the cause seems to be of magic origin.
The High Priest of the Dead Acatl already carried out a number of investigations into crimes connected to magic and the intervention of a deity but the situation is really delicate. Tizoc became emperor in unique circumstances and if he can’t secure the favor of the gods the prospects for the future are of grave instability.
“Master of the House of Darts” continues the fantasy series set in the Aztec empire with the High Priest of the Dead Acatl as its protagonist. In this fictional universe, religion with its blood rites hasn’t an origin in superstition but because the magic element and the gods were real.
At the end of “Harbinger of the Storm” the Aztec empire reached a new balance but not exactly stable. Emperor Tizoc’s coronation was supposed to bring stability with a series of sacrifices to obtain the favor of the gods but the war is a failure, with few prisoners.
The death of one of the prisoners adds further problems, especially because its cause is in a magical intervention that starts spreading like an epidemic. There’s a risk that even the imperial court is struck with prospects that quickly become catastrophic for the future of the empire.
Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead already protagonist of the previous novels, must once again work as a detective to discover the cause of that magical epidemic and find a solution. The suspicion that behind that attack there’s a deity who intends to twist the balance of power adds difficulties and dangers.
Acatl’s adventures began as a mix between detective story and fantasy in the exotic setting of the Aztec empire but already in the “Harbinger of the Storm” elements of political intrigue were important. In “Master of the House of Darts” this characteristic is even more stressed because around the Imperial Court there are various struggles for power.
It’s not been long since the end of the second novel and the evolution in some characters is due mainly to new positions of power. Mihmatini, Acatl’s sister, and above all Teomitl, a former student of Acatl, ascended to important positions and in “Master of the House of Darts” their presence is really important. They’re the characters that most show how Aliette de Bodard paid attention to their development in the course of the three novels.
The plot of “Master of the House of Darts” quickly becomes intense because the protagonists are also threatened by the mysterious magic epidemic. The empire is in danger and Acatl struggles more than ever to handle himself in his contacts with deities and political intrigues. Over time, he got used to court activities but in times of crisis it’s more difficult than ever to distinguish allies from enemies.
In my opinion, as in the previous novels, Aliette de Bodard shows her shills in handling the limits in magic and even in the gods’ powers as they’re not omnipotent. This allows to create a story in which even supernatural elements have a certain logic and allow moves and countermoves. This is a key element in a novel based on the mystery of the magical epidemic.
“Master of the House of Darts” contains less action than the previous novel because it’s more focused on a supernatural mystery and political intrigue. Again it’s told in the first-person from Acatl’s point of view, so the events and characters’ roles in the story become clear to the reader when the protagonist discovers the information needed to explain them.
If there’s a flaw in this novel is that Acatl seems to be too often struggling to obtain the information he needs from the people he questions because even those with innocent motivations appear to not cooperate with him. Certain conversations are perhaps a bit repetitive and slow down the pace. It’s a little flaw in a novel that generally has the same merits as the previous ones.
“Master of the House of Darts” is totally the continuation of “Harbinger of the Storm”, in the sense that the events of the third novel are the direct consequence of the ones in the second novel. The consequence is that you need to read both novels to understand what is a bigger story but I recommend reading the whole Obsidian and Blood trilogy because it’s a very good quality fantasy saga with well-structured stories and well-developed characters.