the contextual life

thoughts without borders

Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard

with 6 comments

“I’d attended enough sacrifices and examinations to know the amount of blood in the human body, and I suspect that the stain represented more than half of that. What in the Fifth World had happened here?”

Winston Churchill once said “history is written by the victors,” which means that those defeated find their stories erased or revised, often negatively. It was while she sat in Spanish class, learning about the 16th century colonizer Hernan Cortes and his army of conquistadors, that Aliette de Bodard came up with the idea for her Obsidian and Blood trilogy, a story set in the time and place of the Aztec Empire. Sensitive to Churchill’s proclamation and therefore skeptical of the pure savagery ascribed to the Aztec people, Aliette set out to research the ancient civilization. What came of it, as someone who had grown up reading mystery, mythology, and folklore, was a unique blend of dark fantasy and historical fiction.

The first book in the series, Servant of the Underworld, introduces reader to Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead in charge of the Sacred Precinct, a position that can be thought of as a mix between priest and coroner. The story opens with him performing a ritual for a minor member of the Imperial Family, cutting his own earlobes to produce the sacrificial blood, a reoccurring event in the book—squeamish beware. However he’s interrupted by Yaotl, the personal messenger of Ceyaxochitl, the Guardian of the Sacred Precinct, Acatl’s boss, with what can only be bad news.

In addition to preforming rituals for the dead, Acatl investigates magical offenses that breach the mortal world, threatening the balance between the Fifth World, the underworld Mictlan, and the heavens. The priestess Eleuia has been abducted from the boarding school by a supernatural animal and in an unfortunate twist of events, Acatl’s warrior brother, Neutemoc, having been found in her room covered in blood and overturning furniture, is now the prime suspect.

Although estranged from him for four years, Acatl believes in his brother’s innocence. In what turns out to be one of the most difficult and dangerous cases he’s ever encountered, Acatl sets out to clear Neutemoc’s name—and save him from the death sentence a conviction demands.

Throughout the investigation Acatl’s will is tested and as he’s forced to step out from behind the safe walls of the priesthood. The sudden reconnection with his brother and the world of death he must trod to through for answers, brings to the fore past regrets and the strained relationship he had with his late parents, in particular his father.

The natural infusion of familial dysfunction, personal struggle, and ultimately, reconciliation is both a compelling storyline and a bridge to the modern reader. Guided by instinct and a strong moral compass, Acatl forges a well-worn path to truth and personal growth. Aliette’s mastery of atmospherics and flowing prose envelopes readers in the darkness of this ancient, sacred world where earth, jade, and sacrificial animals materialize before your eyes and penetrate your bones. Servant of the Underworld is an immersion into a little-known culture worthy of a fictionalized revitalization.

Buy Servant of the Underworld at IndieBound
Aliette’s page at Angry Robot
Aliette’s website where you can read her blog
Interview with Aliette at Speculate! (audio)
Interview with Aliette at SFsignal (online)



Written by Gabrielle

September 13, 2011 at 5:33 am

6 Responses

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  1. Sounds interesting..

    Jeyna Grace

    September 13, 2011 at 8:11 am

    • it was great. the third book comes out in November. I’m crashing in the first two so I’m ready.


      September 13, 2011 at 8:42 am

  2. i’m really glad you liked it! i can’t wait for the third one, either.


    September 13, 2011 at 9:33 am

    • i’m glad it’s not too far away. the beauty of coming to a series late.


      September 13, 2011 at 2:05 pm

  3. I’ve been eyeing this one up for awhile, and it just went to the top of the pile!


    September 13, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    • where it belongs!


      September 13, 2011 at 2:04 pm

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