Servant of the Underworld, Aliette de Bodard, Angry Robot Books, January 2010
reviewed by Elizabeth Bear
In Servant of the Underworld, Aliette de Bodard has created a rather good debut novel, replete with magic, blood, and complex worldbuilding. There was a great deal to enjoy in this book, not all of it the immediately obvious. Her protagonist, Acatl, is the somewhat befuddled and critically inexperienced and apolitical high priest of the Dead, who as part of his duties is charged with investigating homicides in the Mexica Empire. As would seem essential for a murder plot, the book does indeed commence with a disappearance (and apparent death), and Acatl’s attempts to solve the mystery lead us through Imperial politics as well as tragedies that strike closer to home–because the chief suspect in the murder is Acatl’s estranged warrior brother, and eventually Acatl’s own life will be placed on the line.
De Bodard has taken on a complicated task–bringing to life a historical culture and giving its belief structures the weight of reality, complete with logical consequences. Well, of course if you have necromancy and practical, accessible afterworlds, it’s going to affect murder investigations. She handles issues of class and caste with equal attention, and she doesn’t flinch from portraying the blood sacrifice upon which the existence of the world which she has chosen to write about rests. It’s quite literal in this case; without human hearts and blood, the world would end.
Her characters are engaging, and (based on my limited knowledge) her worldbuilding and research seem absolutely impeccable. It’s hard to write a first-rate play-fair murder plot when you have gods and supernatural entities wandering around dropping hints, but de Bodard also manages a creditable job with that. The mystery itself is never really totally captivating–it doesn’t mystify and reveal, the way the very best of the genre manages–but it does serve as an engaging engine to drive the main thrust of the story, which is Acatl’s personal growth (and, of course, our brief tour of the architecture and customs of Tenochtitlan).
The book does have its share of first-novel flaws. Structurally, it feels slightly scattered and somewhat padded. The writing is occasionally hesitant, and the protagonist and the book apologize for themselves more than I would like. But these qualifications are minor. They do not stop this from being a strong debut, and a fascinating look at a culture and setting rarely used in modern fantasy.