March 1, 2010

SERVANT OF THE UNDERWORLD

by Aliette de Bodard

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

One of the great things about writing reviews for Booksquawk is that I am often obliged to pick up recently published books which have not yet received the level of critical attention that might bias my own review. I approached Aliette de Bodard’s first novel, Servant of the Underworld without any expectations. I knew nothing of the author and only that the book was a historical fantasy.

Choosing the rich and alien Aztec civilisation as her setting, de Bodard weaves a substantial air of magic and wonder into her narrative. The novel works with the premise that the ancient Aztec gods are real and that their priests wield supernatural powers with which they can shape their world and do battle with the numerous threats to their society. For the most part, de Bodard is successful –she has created a complex and believable world where mortal men are subject to the cruel and often whimsical gods. The Aztec deities are placated and worshipped with sacrifice and the powerful magic of the priestly caste also relies on the spilling of blood.

The strangeness of this ancient world may at first seem overwhelming to a reader accustomed to more generic works of fantasy. Indeed, there are few writers who dare to stray outside the fantasy comfort zone of elves and dragons. Those that do are seldom as popular as those that tread the well-worn path through Middle Earth (or the hundreds of identical fantasy-lands).

Whilst Aliette de Bodard should be praised for trying something genuinely different with her setting, there are a few problems with this novel which stop it from being a really great book. The first is the abundance of bafflingly complicated names. Now, you might say that it is hypocrisy for a man called Hereward to be bitching about strange names but this is actually a major stumbling block for the narrative. The reader is bombarded with names such as Axayacatl-tzin, Huitzilpochtli and Mictlantecuhtli and though the author provides a list of characters at the end of the book and tries to remind her readers who they are, the lack of detailed characterisation in the supporting cast means that one often struggles to remember who Ceyaxochitl was or what on earth an Ahuizotl should actually look like. It is hard to have any sympathy for a character whose name you can barely pronounce and have forgotten by the time you turn the next page.

The central character is better drawn than most. Acatl-tzin starts the novel as an unwilling hero and narrator, struggling to balance his role as High Priest of the Dead with his introverted nature. When his successful brother, the Jaguar Knight Neutemoc, is accused of murder, Acatl-tzin must investigate the crime to prove his sibling’s innocence. His investigations uncover a number of uncomfortable personal truths for Acatl-tzin himself and he is forced to examine what it was that caused him to become estranged from his own family in the first place.

Whilst I would like to sing the praises of Aliette de Bodard’s magical mystery, the novel is hamstrung by its own overreaching ambitions. A great setting is swamped by an overly-complicated plot that loses the reader as opposed to engaging them. Although there are occasional glimpses of brilliance within the pages, there are not enough of them to truly grip the reader from start to finish. Servant of the Underworld is a bold, ambitious first novel. Part fantasy, part murder mystery, part historical novel – the book tries so hard to be original that the end result is unfortunately weaker than the sum of its parts. However, those looking for something truly different could do much worse than check out this novel. Whilst not perfect, Aliette de Bodard’s debut shows a great deal of potential which could be better realised in the inevitable sequels. Fingers crossed.

Hereward L.M. Proops

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