Thursday, December 09, 2010

Aztec Murder, Gamer Gold

If you’re the type of reader who is going to enjoy Aliette De Bodard's Servant of the Underworld, the cover to the American edition is likely to grab your attention. The clearly Aztec inspired circle isn't the sort of thing you expect to find on the cover of a book in the fantasy section of your local bookstore. Even if you do see it, you're likely to assume that this is a modern day story in which ancient Aztec relics serve as the MacGuffin, and, if you're lucky, there may be a handful of flashback scenes actually dealing with life in pre-Colombian Mexico.

Luckily, this is not the case with Servant of the Underworld. Instead, this is a murder mystery that takes place in the century before the arrival of Cortez, so there's nary a gringo to be found. In addition, the religion, myths, and superstitions of the Aztecs are, in fact, correct; the book is full of spells, gods, and monsters from Aztec myth. If you're a fan of a literary style jokingly referred to as “anthropology porn,” in which part of the fun is the description and exploration of strange and alien cultures, Servant of the Underworld is a delight. If you're a fan of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel novels, or pretty much anything written by Martha Wells, and have even a modicum of interest in Mesoamerican cultures, you should definitely give Servant of the Underworld a look.

If you're a fan of mysteries, you'll likely find the mystery at the center of this novel to be a touch weak. From the start, it's fairly clear that the original kidnapping is perpetrated primarily as a cover-up for more nefarious doings. Still, there's fun to be had in following the threads of the various political and personal plots that tangle together in the story. The characters are very human, and in the tradition of noir crime fiction, nearly everyone is tormented by their past in some way or another. Ms. De Bodard's skill at weaving the personal and the political allows her to couch large chunks of exposition within very personal drama. While it can get a little thick sometimes, the empathy she builds for the characters keeps you turning the pages.

This empathy does come at some cost to historical accuracy. As Ms. De Bodard comments in the afterword, she "twisted" the rituals of the main characters priesthood "slightly by not having them offer human sacrifices; in reality, like most cults, they would've relied heavily on those." Still, you're never allowed to forget that the characters did not grow up in a modern suburb. No Dr. Quinn Anachronism Woman here! ;)

For gamers, this book is a trove of coolness. There's lots of thematic sorcery, from calendar-based summoning magic, to charms sung to quiet monsters, to blood magic opening portals to the underworld. Even better for those of us who typically use polytheistic religions in our gaming, this book shows feuding cults within the same pantheon, and how such things can happen within an otherwise unified culture. There's none of the monotheistic "false gods and demons" nonsense that we see too often. Nobody doubts the existence of any god in the local pantheon, and for good reason: a handful of them make personal appearances in the story. And yet, the gods have their agendas and, when those come into conflict, their mortal servants are called upon to act on their behalf.

Beyond that, you have this really cool culture in which the aristocracy is held to higher personal standards than the lower classes and death as a human sacrifice is seen as an enviable end. Servant of the Underworld is out in paperback right now from Angry Robot and promises to be the first book in a trilogy. I am very much looking forward to reading the other two.


Anonymous said...

Aw, thanks so much for the review--glad you liked it.
And I would totally like to see a tabletop RPG set in that universe. That would be so fun.

trollsmyth said...

My pleasure. It was a fun read. And agreed. I've never seen the Obsidian Wind anthropomorphized as you did, but I was happy to steal that idea for last week's game. :D

Anonymous said...

Awesome :) Glad to have made it into a game session.

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