Obsidian and Blood by Aliette de Bodard – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews Angry Robot Books’ latest offering, Obsidian and Blood, the omnibus edition containing all the Aztec Mysteries novels and short stories featuring High Priest Acatl.
“This is one of the greatest stories ever told. Aliette de Bodard has brought Noir, Aztec and Fantasy together for an explosive and engaging mix worthy of being called a new trend in the genre. If you have ever wanted to experiment with your reading, then you’ll be hard-pressed to do better than read the story of Acatl, High Priest of the Dead.” ~The Founding Fields
As I mentioned in the intro to the guest post I put up yesterday, Writing Convincing Non-Western Fantasy by Aliette de Bodard, I was drawn to Obsidian and Blood because of its artwork. The pose by the character is so dynamic and telling that it just draws you in. My only concern with the omnibus was a rather critical one: would I like it, considering that this is all about Aztecs, a culture I have zero prior experience with? Outside of some random Hardy Boys novel back in the blessed days of my youth that is. Other than that, I was all ready to dig into the omnibus soon as I got an advance copy courtesy of the Angry Robot Army. All that was remaining was to find the appropriate time to read, what I presumed originally to be a time-intensive reading experience, the mammoth collection.
Note: This also happens to be the first Angry Robot omnibus I’ve read. First experiences are weird!
The time did arrive, about three weeks ago, and I picked up the omnibus having just finished Chris Wraight’s Wrath of Iron only a few hours before. It was a surprise even for me when I burned through the entire collection in about as much time it takes me to burn through a Black Library omnibus edition. Like I said, first experiences are weird, more so in the case of my first proper exposure to Aliette’s writing as I’ve only read a stand-alone short story by her before: Shipbirth, which is another Aztec-inspired story, a science-fiction one this time.
From the beginning of the first entry in the collection, the novel Servant of the Underworld, Aliette totally hooks you in. I was turning the pages as fast as I could because I couldn’t get enough of the setting and the characters. The entire collection tells of a rather bleak yet vibrant society founded upon blood sacrifice, magic, sheer arrogance and an uneasy relationship with gods who are often cruel and vindictive. What’s not to love about it? As a layman, that entire phrase describes the Mexica Empire of the Aztecs quite aptly. And each of those aspects are the primary driving forces behind all the events that in these novels.
In their own right, these are also issues that Aliette explores to one degree or another.
Blood sacrifice. This is a constant running them throughout the Acatl tales. Whether it is offering daily prayers to the gods, or performing the greatest and most powerful of spells and rituals, blood sacrifice is a highly important aspect of channeling magic in the Mexica Empire. Consequently, it just so happens that these stories also have some of the highest and most shocking body counts in any fantasy novel I’ve read. Doubly so for a mystery/detective-style novel.
This also really sets apart Obsidian and Blood from most other fantasy novels/series out there. The high body-count and the constant blood sacrifice mean that the thematic undercurrents in it are different from everything else. It is quite shocking at first but then that’s just our biases speaking. Aztec culture and religious practices are practically alien to what we are used to, even with everything that goes on in GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. All I can say is that this is a point in Aliette’s favour.
Magic. It is a constant companion to everybody of note in the novels (and short stories). Our protagonist, Acatl, is the most definitive example of this. As High Priest of the Dead, one of his sacred duties is to maintain the boundaries between the mortal world and the other-world, and also make sure that those who transgress get their just rewards. The entire omnibus deals with instances of when this thin boundary is breached, wittingly or unwittingly, and Acatl then has to solve the mystery of what happened, with or without the help of anyone else. There are also issues of inherent magic raised throughout the novels and it all makes for some rather interesting reading.
Sheer arrogance. The Mexica is the greatest empire in all the lands. And the people of Tenochtitlan are the most powerful people in the Triple Alliance. That engenders a serious case of inbred arrogance in most characters that you come across. Even among those of the other cities, Texcoco and Tlacopan, arrogance comes easily. How Acatl deals with this most overbearing and entitled trait of his own people takes the entire collection to the next level, given that he himself is quite a humble (one of his flaws actually) character himself.
Uneasy relationship with the gods. The gods of the Mexica are not benevolent beings. Or evil even, in the strict senses of those words. There is definitely no Paladine, Ishap, or Iluvatar here. The gods are all too human. Imagine the Greek gods at their worst, and then add a layer of deviousness and a bloodthirst (often quite literal) and, of course, sheer arrogance. What results is not pretty. That’s not to say the author paints all the gods in her novels with these strokes, but close enough. It all just goes to highlight how different the Aztec gods are to gods of other cultures.
Stringing all of these different aspects of the narrative are the characters themselves. The most prominent is of course, Acatl. Given the use of first person perspective, we really get to know his fears, his ambitions (such as they are), his hopes, his dreams, his disappointments and so on. It really makes you connect with him on a personal level. Generally, that’s what the first person perspective does well, but here, it went beyond that for me. Not something I can really explain in words but I kept getting the feeling that I was right there along with him and his companions, seeing events unfold as they happened. When he is in the presence of the various gods, you really feel his trepidation and fear and mistrust. When he stands up to the arrogance of his peers, such as the other High Priests Acamapichtli and Quenami, you really feel his frustrations. Combined with that his Acatl himself: a man raised to a station he had little ambition for and prefers to stay out of the limelight as much as possible.
Goes without saying that events and the people around him refuse to leave him out of the limelight.
In its entirety, Obsidian and Blood is very much Acatl growing up to accept that as High Priest of the Dead, the seniormost servant of Lord Death (Mictlantecuhtli) and Lady Death (Mictecacihuatl) in the Fifth World (the story world), he has to make himself visible and be more than just a figurehead. He has to accept that his responsibilities towards his rank and station go beyond just being a servant of the Underworld. As such, I really liked his character. He is a man who is without artifice and just wants to live a simple life.
Acatl isn’t the only major character however. We have also Teomitl, the youngest brother of the Revered Speaker (the ruler of the Mexica Empire) Axayacatl and Master of the House of Darts Tizoc. Then there’s Neutemoc, Acatl’s elder brother, and Mihmatini, Acatl’s young sister. Each of these three characters brings something different to the narrative. Teomitl brings a desire to succeed through sheer bravura, knowledge of the politics at the heart of the Empire and sheer stubbornness, alongwith the arrogance inherent in someone of his rank and birth. Neutemoc brings an honest warrior’s world-view, his insecurities about his family and loyalty of the Empire. Mihmatini brings a woman’s intuition, a sharp tongue to shame her brothers, and one of the most level-headed and considered viewpoints in the entire collection.
Together, these four attempt to hold the Mexica Empire through all the trials and tribulations that beset it, whether it is the gods plotting against the Fifth World, or bloody struggles for ultimate power over the Mexica, or dealing with the fallout of bad decisions made with the best of intentions. And reading of how they go about it was downright thrilling and compelling.
Each of the three novels, Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm and Master of the House of Darts have near-perfect pacing. The narrative flows along quite well, with very little in the way of hiccups and unwelcome speedbumps. Like I said before, these are noir fantasy novels set in the Aztec Empire when its power was at its zenith. Acatl and his friends are as much detectives as anything else, seeking to unravel the mysteries that continue to plunge the empire into outright chaos. And I liked that. Throughout, there is the sense of urgency, of a near-apocalypse just waiting to happen. It all adds a great tension to the narrative and definitely kept me interested.
And it all doesn’t stop there. The world-building is also excellent in that Aliette takes a long-lost, dead culture and brings it to life with her writing. While the novels aren’t history books and I’m sure that some artistic license has undoubtedly been availed of in the interest of telling a great story, it really did feel like I was exploring the Aztec culture and society. There are a heck of a lot of names to keep track of here, many of them quite unpronounceable, but they add to the whole tone and mood of the novels. Aliette’s prose is quite descriptive, and there is a great attention to detail that, in my experience, is rare.
The best example I can give is that of food. Yes, food. Back when I was participating in the National Novel Writing Month last year, I came across a thread in one of the forums: “Have your characters eaten yet?”. That thread, and the discussion therein has stuck with me ever since. Reading Obsidian and Blood took me back to that discussion because Aliette’s characters really pay attention to their meals. Its a really small thing all told, but taken along with everything else, it makes for a complete package.
Another example would be whenever Acatl and his companions visit the gods in their own realms. This is when Aliette’s imagination really kicks into overdrive. The narrative slows down here to really give you the feel that you are experiencing a supernatural realm that you are not really meant to be experiencing, from the perspectives of the characters of course. These were some of the most vivid scenes in the novels.
Chris F. Holm’s Dead Harvest, which I read earlier in the year, was an almost-noir SF novel featuring demons and angels as the protagonist Sam Thornton races against time to solve a murder mystery. The Obsidian and Blood novels offer a great counterpoint to that as they are similar yet very different. Just goes to show how much variety Angry Robot is putting out there. They really are doing a terrific job of bringing some really excellent speculative fiction to the masses.
Overall, I have to say that Obsidian and Blood is a fantastic collection. Some of the most well-written prose that I’ve read this year, with a very active and vivid imagination, as well as all the signs that betray the level of research that has gone into the writing of these novels. I have mentioned before in various reviews that I’m on the look-out for novels that are out of the mainstream SFF, which take the narratives they are telling, and their subject matter in new and interesting directions. The omnibus hits all those checkmarks and then some, for precisely the reason that it is so good.
If you are tired of all the medieval Europe fantasy settings and are looking for something different, or you just want to experiment for the fun of it, then this is the collection you should be reading. Obsidian and Blood is a visceral and thrilling ride through the Aztec culture and the way that Aliette writes, you can almost imagine yourself being transported back in time.