Servant of the Underworld
by Aliette De Bodard
There were many reasons I wanted to read this book. For one, the author is half-Vietnamese and I'm increasingly interested in Asian authors working in the arts. Second, the publisher, Angry Robot, has a way with marketing. From the UK, 2010 marks their "invasion" (their word) of the US market. As they say in the back of the book "Prepare to welcome your new Robot overlords." It's always nice to have new publishers in Sci-Fi/Fantasy, seeing that the market is seemingly dominated by DAW and Baen. Angry Robot looks like a new voice. The way they make their mass markets are interesting too. This book says it should be filed under "Aztec Mysery, Locked Room, Human Sacrifices, The Dead Walk!" They even go as far as suggesting other books you might enjoy if you enjoyed this one--not just from their own line, but from other publishers as well. Additionally, their cover copy/synopsis is short and sweet. For this particular book, four sentences are supposed to tell you all.
In this case, Aliette de Bodard's debut novel, Servant of the Underworld, takes place in an alternate Aztec empire. Reminscent of Greek mythology, de Bodard's Tecnochtitlan is a world where mortals mingle with gods. The main character, Acatl, in fact, is a priest who deals with such gods and quickly becomes a detective. What happens is a locked room mystery: a priestess is attacked and kidnapped in an empty room. Blood is splashed all over the walls, the place reeks of magic, the main suspect is Acatl's brother. To add to this, of course, is a sibling rivalry between the two, and Acatl's decision to help his brother because of familial ties. What follows is not purely alternate historical fantasy, but more like a mystery novel.
De Bodard has already has a long list of accolades. She's won the Writers of the Future Contest and was featured in The Year's Best Science Fiction for a short story from which this novel was inspired. Obviously, she has a gift for shorter form. But as this novel proves, maybe the long form is simply not for her.
The first way De Bodard missteps in her novel is prose that inelegant and overall bland. She falls into cliches such as "my chest tighten," to describe characters' reactions. There are rarely any insight into what makes the characters unique and worthwhile. This includes the main character and narrator Acatl. Despite an interesting occupation (a priest of the dead), Acatl is an overall unlikeable character who continously bemoans his family history of disappointments and failures. Neither is he sympathetic. It is even harder to read the story from his point of view.
It is indeed strange to have a fantasy novel written in first person point of view, which tends to be very introverted, which is also the case for this novel. While experimentation can be good, in a fantasy one must be an effective world-builder. By using the first person De Bodard limits the audience's view to that which is filtered through her highly unlikeable narrator. The magical workings and the world in which he lives is never fully realized, despite the obvious amount of research the author did (a la the Gears, she also included a bibliography)
De Bodard lacks skills in prose styling, which in turn effects the story itself. To her credit, she does have excellent moments of humanity--the rivalry between the brothers, the dynamic relationships between the siblings, the emotions felt by the characters at desiring things which they can't have--these are the key moments of this story that is less about murder and magic, than about the fragile illusions we make and how they can easily become broken. Yet these parts are too few and far in-between to make De Bodard's debut enjoyable or readable. One can only hope that De Bodard's next novel in this trilogy is worthwhile or that her short stories deserves as much credit as is given to them. Or that Angry Robot other titles are better (I want to read this, this, and this).
Despite this, it seems De Bodard can still make a good bowl of pho.
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