Everything strange becomes familiar. The excitement of the new becomes instead a discovery of greater depth and new surprises within the bounds now recognized. And so it is with Aliette de Bodard's second novel, the second in the series which began with the delightful Servant of the Underworld.
Harbinger of the Storm opens with the death of the Revered Speaker of the Mexica Empire. The political intriguing for succession begins as he lies on his deathbed and with no clear successor in sight, it is not just the palace that will suffer. For in a world where magic is real and the Revered Speaker is the vessel of the God Huitzilpochtli, the protection of the gods themselves is thinning.
[T]he star-demons, eager to walk the streets and marketplaces of the city, to rend our flesh into bloody ribbons, to open our chests with a flick of their claws and pluck out our beating hearts. Huitzilpochtli's divine power, channeled through the Revered Speaker, had kept them away from the Fifth World, the world of mortals.
But not any more. (pp. 7-8)
Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead, once again our narrator, is keenly aware of this. Before even attending to the body of the former ruler, he strengthens the wards of his temple. Arriving at the chambers of the emperor, though, he is immediately presented with the politically expedient version of reality—"The star-demons? You worry far too much, Acatl" (p. 15). A page or two later, Acatl is called to the scene of the gruesome murder of a councilman—those who are to elect the new Revered Speaker—and he feels his fears confirmed.
This novel is a wonderful portrait of a left-brain thinker—a follower of processes, one who understands the reality of hard facts—confronting the impossible world of people, of those who place a greater emphasis on relationships and beliefs. Given the setting, the worship of bloodthirsty gods is a straightforward set of rules, rather than a system of belief. The gods themselves may be capricious, "but it was our blood that kept the sun in the sky, and our blood that kept Them satiated and powerful" (p. 27). Acatl can deal with this, he can treat with the gods. The real difficulty for this man is politics. "They thought it was an acceptable risk, so long as the end result allowed them to rise to greater power and influence" (p. 17).
Even as Acatl tells the reader this, he can't really believe it. He knows that the death of the Speaker means a weakening of the boundaries which protect the Fifth World from both gods and demons and his investigation of the councilman's death starts from this certainty. He can't perceive where the threat to his city comes from until he has eliminated all the reasonable suspects. And even then, he can hardly bear to be right.
He smiled. "You're learning."
"Not what I wished to learn."
"All knowledge is good." He smiled again.
. . . The worst was, I didn't think he was lying. He and Xahuia—and Tizoc-tzin, and Quenami, and even the She-Snake—seemed to operate by a different set of standards, as alien to me as the ways of the southern tribes. (pp. 269-70)
It is the arc of Acatl's development which provides the greatest sense of this book building on its predecessor. Here, he is stripped of his mentor and, temporarily, of his own power. These events help him to understand the need for alliances, for working with people he does not trust when the ends are absolutely necessary. Acatl's attitude towards his royal student Teomitl also changes through the book, as he recognizes quite how important Teomitl is likely to become and how much mutual influence they have. That Teomitl is courting Acatl's sister ought also to be important, but her role is largely tokenistic in a culture where few women appear to have a public role.
Harbinger of the Storm both normalizes its world and builds on its predecessor in the further development of the stories of the Aztec gods. Teomitl's command of the ahuizotls is exemplary of the normalization in this book of what was exotic from its predecessor. In Servant of the Underworld, these creatures were deadly, eerie agents of the Goddess of Lakes and Streams. Here, Teomitl—admittedly a devotee of that goddess—calls up these beasts of the lake bed when he needs support in battle, or propulsion for his boat. Although Acatl mentions his discomfort in their presence, it feels no more important than if Teomitl had owned a potentially dangerous dog.
Early on, de Bodard provides a brief review, through the story of Coyolxauhqui, She of the Silver Bells, who is kept imprisoned beneath the Great Temple to stop her from tearing the Sun from the sky. Some of this we are expected to know from the first book, but new myths are added here, deepening our knowledge of the world of the series. When Acatl follows a lead to Teotihuacan, the Birthplace of the Gods, we learn more about the foundation stories of these gods, including an explanation of their need for blood sacrifice.
In the midst of the fantastic, it is sometimes hard to recall that the prime narrative of these books is murder mystery, or determine whether Acatl is competent as a detective. In the context, there is no reason to doubt his certainty that the deaths he investigates are of a demonic nature. Once this is accepted, Acatl's task becomes one of discovering who is doing the summoning. de Bodard does an effective job of ensuring that our protagonist can't simply ask a higher god or perform a stronger spell, but she is not always as successful in working through the red herrings she sets up. Acatl believes one suspect is a sorcerer so powerful that "even with the whole of my order behind me, I would not even be able to dent his protection" (p. 96). This sorcerer looks to be a truly significant enemy, but thirty pages later he is finished by the non-magical expedient of attack by an armed squad. This seems to be a loose thread suddenly snipped away rather than the false trail one would expect in a mystery plot. Perhaps it is intended to show that Acatl has difficulties with assessing physical as well as political power, but it is a misstep in the generally sure-footed plotting.. Still, Acatl's progress is more straightforward after this point as he continues his search for the villains.
What he discovers takes him into the heart of his empire, to a coronation and an eclipse and chaos and, perhaps most shocking to him, compromise. Along the way, as Acatl learns more about people, we learn more about his universe. These stories and events deepen the series, building its mythology, working detail into the remarkable outline which the first novel sketched. At the same time, they escalate the stakes of the series. With matters of state at the center of this novel, it is hard to see how Acatl can retreat into his non-political life as a priest for the dead. Instead, he must increasingly concern himself with the living. Much of the promise of the first book has been delivered—and there is plenty more to hope for in the uneasy balance of Acatl's life and the ongoing fascination of the setting.