So my review for the first book in this series begins, “It took me forever to read Servant of the Underworld, and I don’t know why. It’s great.”
That was two years ago.
I’ve had Harbinger of the Storm all that time, thanks to my wonderful subscription to Angry Robot Books … I’ve just been very, very, very negligent in actually reading these books! And I don’t know why, because they are great! Aliette de Bodard is such a smart writer. It’s totally my bad.
Unlike in the real world where I am a garbage person, only one year has gone by in Tenochtitlan. Revered Speaker Axayacatl has just died. This is a problem, because the Revered Speaker’s power is what keeps star-demons and other bad things that go bump in the night at bay. With him dead, the council must invest a new Revered Speaker as soon as possible. Except someone summons a star-demon and uses it to kill a council member! And the top suspects are the people most likely to succeed as Revered Speaker! Acatl, High Priest of the Dead and Resident Detective Busybody (that part is not his official title) decides to investigate, while also trying to keep the wards barely protecting the Fifth World from completely disappearing.
So, yeah. Investigating a murder and trying to save the world. No big.
I remember literally nothing from the first book save what I wrote in my review, so I’m not going to compare Harbinger of the Storm to it. Fortunately, this book feels very much like a standalone adventure. While you can get a lot from reading the first book, skipping it is not a problem here. De Bodard dribbles enough exposition in to let you into this world—though, to be honest, you probably won’t fully understand it. Just as with her science fiction, de Bodard is excellent at dropping the reader into an alien society and not burdening them with a pretense of knowledge. She has recreated the Mexica for us, but she is not pretending to explain them to us. There is a lot we have to infer, or just accept that we don’t get.
The magic in this series is so interesting. De Bodard takes a very literal interpretation of the Aztec religion. As such, magic and tradition (which are really one and the same) suffuse this entire book. Acatl slashes his earlobes every morning to make offerings to Mictlan. To everything there is a ritual, a time. Each character in this book has a purpose, a role, a way of fitting into the order of being in this universe. As I mentioned above, these roles and relationships are sometimes inscrutable to the reader, at least at first—to Acatl, it’s obvious that such-and-such falls into the purview of the She-Snake, or that Teomitl can or cannot do something because of his status in the Imperial Family. Reading this novel is like reading an Agatha Christie book if you’ve never been exposed to British society in any way—and I like that.
Magic also plays a central role to the mystery in Harbinger of the Storm. I can’t recall the last time I read an honest-to-goodness magical mystery—excepting, of course, urban fantasy, because that is kind of urban fantasy’s thing. I like that you can’t separate these plot elements here: the motives behind the murders are entirely predicated upon the Aztec belief system and the fact that it is not only desirable but necessary for Tenochtitlan to have the patronage and favour of a powerful god lest the world be destroyed.
Now, Acatl is not a great detective. He isn’t a great politician, either. It’s entertaining, in fact, how dense he can be about some things—but he redeems himself; he realizes his mistakes and is always trying to rectify them. This humility endears him to me, even as he blunders around and makes a fool of himself. And there is also a heroism to him; he is willing to sacrifice himself or take great risks if he thinks it means there is even a chance of saving his world. This is particularly significant juxtaposed with the various antagonists; even though some of them are not responsible for the murders per se, de Bodard is careful to underscore how each and every one of them has their own plots, their own schemes, their own agendas. The seriousness of the politics at the heart of this novel is palpable; people who enjoy contemporary political/suspense thrillers could do well to check out historical versions like these.
I want to touch on the historicity of Harbinger of the Storm, but first an aside about the characters. There’s a curious dearth of major female characters here! Of the three named women who have any real role in the plot, two (Ceyaxochitl and Xahuia) are sidelined fairly early on. The third, Acatl’s sister Mihmatini, gets a much juicier role in this book than she had in the first, but she too is put on a bus two thirds of the way through the book! I’m not sure what to make of this, given de Bodard’s prominent women of the Xuya stories (I don’t buy the setting/time period as an excuse). My only guess is that, as in the case of Mihmatini, de Bodard tried to place women in important positions of power but had trouble configuring the plot in such a way that they had much involvement in the story. Still, it’s a facet of this book that I found particularly unsatisfying.
In contrast, the amount of work that has gone into reifying the Aztecs here is quite satisfactory! Harbinger of the Storm comes with not one but two (somewhat repetitive) notes in the end matter explaining how de Bodard went about her research and some of the liberties that she took with her source material. I always find this part of historical fiction fascinating. Authors usually list a couple of books they found useful, but how many give you a full bibliography at the end? The amount and depth of de Bodard’s research is breathtaking, and it clearly pays off in her worldbuilding. In this particular case, I liked hearing a little about how she borrowed some of these characters (like Teomitl) from history and the extent to which she had to dramatize things.
Historical fiction has always been a genre that I enjoy but do not prioritize. And when I do read historical fiction, the stories are often set in Britain (because I find British history fascinating) or similarly Eurocentric or white-dominated spaces. Harbinger of the Storm is a refreshing departure from such fare. Rigorous in its research and magnificent in its magic and mystery, it is a fun read that will keep you on your toes as you wonder what gods and men might possibly throw at Acatl next.