Aliette de Bodard's original but clunky 2010 debut novel, Servant of the Underworld, introduced readers to the insecure, anti-political priest/investigator Acatl and his alternate Aztec world—an empire where blood truly has the power to appease the gods and where the fate of humanity is not the first priority for a pantheon of quarrelsome deities. Acatl must deal with the troubles of his flawed, favored warrior brother and his own doubts about his less prestigious calling and sudden elevation to High Priest for the Dead. In the stronger though occasionally confusing follow-up, Harbinger of the Storm, a more confident Acatl is caught up in the palace intrigue he despises as he tries to convince squabbling politicians that their failure to choose a Revered Speaker, or emperor, will unleash divine catastrophe. As the corpses pile up, Acatl and his fellow High Priests overcome their personal animosity and take the drastic step of reviving the dead (and incompetent) Tizoc-tzin to ensure that there will be a Revered Speaker.
It isn't necessary to have read the two previous volumes to enjoy the final volume of the Obsidian and Blood trilogy, Master of the House of Darts, since the important points are recapped early on. Given the author's growth as writer over the past year, the earlier books may come as a disappointment. But without that background, you would miss the audacity of this book's plot, as Acatl and his royal student, Teomitl, realize that the resurrection that prevented massive destruction in Harbinger has created threats nearly as devastating as the star-demons held at bay by the Revered Speaker. Tizoc-tzin fails as a wartime leader, and his returning army brings with it a puzzling and deadly plague. As Acatl and Teomitl search for the origin of the magical, deliberately induced disease, they diverge over how to stop it. Once again obstructionist politicians, uncooperative witnesses, and gods with their own agendas plague Acatl's investigation, but this time the consequences of Acatl's previous choices and the plotting of his increasingly independent student represent greater and more personal obstacles.
De Bodard has finally found the right scale for the plot; where Servant awkwardly married personal angst with threats to the world's survival and Harbinger spread itself too thin with its many scheming side characters, the final volume features an easily imaginable yet utterly horrific threat. Knowledge of the Aztecs' historical defenselessness against smallpox heightens the sense of peril, as does the postwar political dissatisfaction that de Bodard adroitly weaves into the background. Meanwhile, the characters face choices with no easy answers—a claim made by many simplistic stories but amply fulfilled here. Tizoc-tzin is a self-evidently terrible ruler who mismanages the epidemic, but replacing him could lead to worse instability and the return of the dreaded star-demons. The resurrection Acatl undertook destabilized the fundamental relationship between the worlds of life and death, but it also prevented imminent slaughter.
Once-close characters find their relationships strained by these circumstances. Character definition has been de Bodard's strongest asset from the beginning and she has only improved since. Acatl, initially out of place amongst the elite, has become comfortable with his status, but when his subordinates take part in rituals he believes unethical, it suggests that he has paid less attention to his responsibilities than he might have. His bone-deep egalitarianism, derived from morbid daily reminders that commoners and Revered Speakers alike pass "from glory to nothingness in just a few moments" (p. 29), and his black humor make him an appealing guide to the court. But despite his keen eye for the flaws of the powerful, until now he has never reckoned with the consequences of Tenochtitlan's imperialist policies, and neither has the series. By the end Acatl pictures his country "guzzling human hearts and captives like a glutton, taking in riches from the northern deserts and the southern jungles until it choked on them" (p. 403). In this vivid image of consumption and violence, the empire that has narrowly escaped supernatural ruin throughout the series is destroying itself through greed.
Embittered merchant Yayauhqui, stricken at once by conquest and the caprices of a god, is just one of the new characters who illustrate the cost of the system our heroes serve. Allied leader Nezahual-tzin adds complexity to geopolitics, and his canny maneuvering and interest in philosophy provide a foil for the impulsive Teomitl, a potential ruler with a martial bent who believes in the expansion of the Mexica Empire. Acatl's student, however, is far from being a thoughtless warmonger. He will run any risk for his people's welfare and, in an original and revealing reference, wishes to live up to the courage of his mother, who died giving birth to him.
This brief moment is one of many that unobtrusively reveal the author's research—death in childbirth for a woman was the theological equivalent of death in battle for a man. De Bodard has altered the position of women amongst the clergy, a small change compared to the addition of magic, but she fails to exploit the opportunities this provides. Mihmatini, Acatl's sister and a powerful priestess in her own right, is one of the least complex characters. Whereas Acatl, the son of peasants, struggles with his social elevation and has made mistakes dealing with his clergy, Mihmatini can seemingly do no wrong. The only other cardboard cutout is Tizoc-tzin, who had an intriguing cameo in Servant, but turns out to be an unreasonable coward with no redeeming qualities. His paranoia about priests produces an overly convenient obstacle for Acatl and proves shortsighted in a world where the gods are clearly real and dangerous.
Also off-putting is the artificial ratcheting up of suspense at the cost of clean prose. Frequent ellipses and "somehows" are less mysterious than irritating, and altogether too many scenes are broken up by a messenger rushing in with yet more dire news. What should be ominous becomes portentous. These techniques do not create a tense atmosphere; rather, they choke it.
The prose improves in passages describing the watery metropolis of Tenochtitlan, clearly delineating food sources, transportation, and social classes, and leaving no doubt that this is a functioning capital city rather than a mere backdrop to Acatl's adventures. The realms of Mictlan, the god of Death whom Acatl serves, and the Land of the Blessed Drowned, a paradise where Mictlan's priest finds his magic useless and his life in the hands of rival gods, are more surreal yet equally vivid.
As in previous books, de Bodard fleshes out the gods and goddesses of the Aztec pantheon in memorable if broad strokes. She also uses them to illuminate her characters' values; Acatl, concerned with fairness, appreciates the Lord of Death's dependability and lack of ceremony and is deeply devoted to him, while distrusting other deities. A more worldly member of the clergy has reached a different modus vivendi with his patron, the storm god Tlaloc. Tlaloc brushes off the priest's insincere protestation that he "live[s] for Your favor," accepting the more honest declaration, "I respect Your power, and Your will" (pp. 236-7). This world's divinities may seek to hide their hand in events, but they do not tolerate obfuscation from their worshipers, and it is usually in these supernatural realms that the protagonists strip away their self-deceptions and confront personal as well as supernatural demons in harrowing climactic battles.
Surprisingly for a novel focused on death and sacrifice and concerned with possibly insoluble problems of leadership, the climax of Master of the House of Darts is the slightest of the trilogy. Hints of significant costs are not followed through and losses are less brutal than in previous books. While the ultimate solution to the mystery of the plague satisfies, the lessons Acatl learns about change and the meaning of death (and life) are simpler than his efforts to untangle his complex relationship with his family in Servant or to see the worth in his irritating, politicized colleagues in Harbinger.
The series's ultimate payoff does not come from an action-packed but superficial climax. The quiet coda in which the main characters reevaluate their fractured ties to one another has more emotional impact. Some once-close relationships may never recover, while others are transformed. A reflective, bittersweet final scene emphasizes Acatl's role as a mentor and friend. The embittered, out of his depth young man we met in Servant has found a fitting role in both society and the lives of his loved ones.
De Bodard's maturation as a writer, if less dramatic, is clear over the course of the Obsidian and Blood trilogy. Despite stylistic infelicities and a few plot points with underexplored potential, Master of the House of Darts is an accomplished novel, featuring sharply-observed characters negotiating a world where magic does not negate unpleasant consequences, but rather amplifies ethical dilemmas. The flaws of the earlier books and a weak climax in this one prevent Obsidian and Blood from ranking amongst my favorite fantasy series, but the trilogy goes out on a high note.
Maya Chhabra is a student at Georgetown University. Her reviews have been published by Ideomancer, where she is an Associate Editor, and by Strange Horizons. She is a graduate of the Alpha SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers.
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