It took me forever to read Servant of the Underworld, and I don’t know why. It’s great. Aliette de Bodard has created a mystery set in the Mexica (Aztec) Empire in 1480. As a long-lived emperor under whom the Mexica have prospered lies on his deathbed, Acatl, a priest of the dead, finds himself investigating a murder or abduction where his estranged brother is the prime suspect. And rather than making this a straight-up historical mystery, like the fantastic Falco series by Lindsey Davis, de Bodard includes some magic in her mystery. Indeed, given its primary setting of Tenochtitlan, this is actually an historical urban fantasy mystery.
All this genre blending might sound like a recipe for disaster, but in de Bodard’s capable hands it makes for a great story. This is a fairly long and involved book, with a lot of machinations behind the main mystery. Just when I thought Acatl had found out “whodunit” and we were nearing the conclusion, I realized we weren’t even past the halfway point! The murder mystery, while integral, is in fact the tip of an iceberg that proves to be more of a test of Acatl’s mettle than anyone could have suspected. Still, I warn mystery lovers that the mystery portion of the book is its weakest aspect. The presence of gods on the playing field means that ordinary human motive becomes muddled, which makes it harder to play along at home, if you know what I mean. While de Bodard still serves up a complicated and compelling mystery, it’s not quite at the level of Christie, whom she name-checks in her afterword as an inspiration.
I admit it took a while for me to warm to Acatl. He makes no secret that he didn’t want to be the High Priest of Mictlan, that he dislikes politics. Fair enough. But he’s really bad at it, and he’s also pretty bad at investigating, and there was just very little for me to like about this guy. Gradually, though, I came around to him. The fact that he’s bad at being a detective is part of his charm; his repeated failures to obtain information from the gods or, indeed, make anyone actually like him, are far cry from the more Mary Sue–like detectives up in our urban fantasy books these days. (I love you, Harry Dresden, you are my fav, but yes, sometimes you are a Mary Sue.) Indeed, it isn’t hyperbole to suggest that Acatl only starts to turn things around when he finally embraces this idea that he has to lead—whether he likes it or not—and has to ask for help—whether he thinks he deserves to or not. And even then, it’s touch and go.
As far as the historical setting goes: look, I’m as ignorant as de Bodard was about the Aztecs when she started out on this journey. She explains what drew her to the culture when she began writing, and the research she did along the way to help the story feel more authentic. I believe her, but she could totally be lying and making it all up, and I wouldn’t know the difference. All I knew about the Aztecs going into this came from a brief time spent with Moctezuma II when I was saving the space-time continuum in Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?, and scattered memories of a PC game I think was Aztec/The Sacred Amulet.
One striking part of de Bodard’s use of Mexica myth and magic? Song. The blood I was expecting (and in fact, de Bodard tones down the whole “human sacrifice” element), but I wasn’t expecting the lyrical incantations that Acatl sings as he works his spells. It creates a strong sense that this magic is all a great ritual for the Aztec; it isn’t something external to them but an integral part of their culture. Like the detectives of urban fantasy series set closer to the modern day, Acatl straddles that divide between natural and supernatural; he talks to mortals and gods alike. It’s both surreal and amazing.
In the end, Acatl has to do more than find out who abducted Princess Eleuia, and the story transforms into more of a “save the Empire/save the world” sort of deal. Which is fine. It gets pretty intense, the stakes get much higher, of course, and the supporting cast becomes more important. Although I thought the climax dragged out longer than I wanted, watching Acatl’s development across the entire book more than makes up for it.
I’m looking forward to seeing more of de Bodard’s portrayal of the Mexica in the sequel. She has certainly set Acatl up to be an influential player, no matter how much he despises politics, so I only imagine that this is but the beginning for our modest Mictlan priest. If you like fantasy and mystery or historical fiction, do yourself a favour and check out Servant of the Underworld.