Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard
26 September, 2014
Aliette de Bodard is a writer I’ve been aware of for a number of years but whom I’ve only started reading this year and I’m furious with myself that I’ve left it this long to find such an incredible writer. I’ve read a number of her short stories set in her Xuya universe, science fiction set in an alternate universe exploring her Vietnamese roots, and also some featuring her Aztec priest who investigates suspicious deaths. And so I couldn’t wait to read her debut novel, Servant of the Underworld, featuring Acatl, Head Priest of the Temple of Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl, the God of Death and his consort, who rule over Mictlan, the Underworld. Like many, I know almost nothing about the Mexica Empire save for the tales of the Spanish conquistadors who brought down the once glorious empire with violence and disease and took away chocolate and gold. What de Bodard does here is not only entice us with ancient history but weaves together aspects of magic and religion which were so thoroughly integrated in Aztec society. And she does this with aplomb.
Set in the Aztec city state of Tenochtitlan in 1480 when the Revered Speaker Axayacatl, Emperor of the Mexica, lies dying, Acatl’s life is turned upside when his elder brother Neutemoc, a Jaguar Knight, is arrested for abducting the priestess Eleuia from her blood-soaked bedroom. Acatl has never been on easy terms with his successful brother, a warrior, husband and father and the pride of his parents, not since he chose to become a priest thus sealing his cowardice in his family’s eyes. But nevertheless, he feels compelled to help Neutemoc, not least because the status and honour of their family is in danger. Eleuia wasn’t well liked by the teachers or students in her House of Tears, where she was employed, because of her ambition and allure. What was Neutemoc, a respectable, married warrior doing in Eleuia’s room? And what magic lies at the root of her disappearance? As Acatl tries to save his brother, he must confront and finally stand up to his worst fears. In his quest, he is aided and impeded by Ceyaxochitl, Guardian of the Sacred Precinct and agent of the Duality, who has simultaneously championed and forced Acatl onto his career path as High Priest of Mictlantecuhtli, and her slave Yaotl. Acatl’s sister Mihmatini who has recently returned to live with Neutemoc and his family surprises him with her calm acumen and skill with spells and tries to keep her brothers’ bond secure. And then there is Huei, Neutemoc’s wife, heartbroken and furious.
As well as the mystery of Eleuia’s disappearance, someone or something with great magical powers is determined to see that Neutemoc is executed for a crime he may or may not have committed. For Acatl, who is unhappy in his position both at work and at home, this is a testing time. He must win the loyalty of the priests in his Temple as well as the ears of the Court. And the only person who is there to help him is Teomitl, a young warrior sent to him by the Guardian, still a student, strong-willed and wild. Acatl must swallow his complaints and start looking for the answers before something worse that the execution of his brother is set in motion as it soon becomes clear that Eleuia’s abduction is onｌy the tip of a war between gods.
Aliette de Bodard has managed to make a complicated mystery into an alluring journey into a past with wｈich most of us are probably unfamiliar. But she does it seamlessly, merging historical figures with her fictional creation, placing us firmly in a land in which magic and ritual are alive and part and parcel of daily life. There are spells, sacrifice and lots of blood. But the blood is necessary for protection and spells and we don’t question it. It’s a mark of an accomplished writer indeed when you don’t recoil in horror as the main character cuts himself frequently to obtain the blood necessary for his rituals.
One of the interesting aspects of this novel is Acatl’s inner transformation. A conflicted soul, trying his best to carry on in his chosen path, yet burdened with the disappointment of his family. He is solitary, unable to participate in court politics because of his disgust with humanity’s baser instincts, and is only redeemed through his fight with evil and in the process, discovering social bonds he had though he had lost and never possessed.
Servant of the Underworld , the first in a trilogy, brings to light Aztec society in it’s full and frightening glory. The strict hierarchical social structure of priests, warriors and slaves, the rituals and strong belief in deities with powers to end the world, the absolute power of the Revered Speaker to keep the darkness at bay and the sun in the sky. And also the beauty of Aztec culture. Imagine going to a school called the House of Tears where the children of the wealthy are educated. And the binary nature of the gods with the male and female forms with names such as the Southern Hummingbird (God of War and of the Sun), the Jade Skirt (Goddess of Lakes and Streams) and the Quetzal Flower (Goddess of Beauty and Love). In amongst the harshness of life in Mexica, there is a fragile and painful beauty.
I can only imagine the amount of research that has gone into producing such a detailed and complex tale and yet de Boddard wears her research lightly. And in doing so, she has created a wonderfully complex world pulsing with emotion and colour.
You can be sure I will follow Acatl’s adventures in the sequels, Harbinger of the Storm and Master of the House of Darts.