Friday, December 30, 2011

100 Books 81 - Aliette de Bodard's SERVANT OF THE UNDERWORLD

Love fantasy but getting a little tired of the European shouty white guys in shiny armor schtick? Love crime fiction but think it could use a bit more imagination? Love godpunk but wondering how many more times you can sit through iterations of Greek and Celtic mythology?

Here's your new favorite writer.

Aliette de Bodard first came to my attention when I got hit up (on vacation in Toronto, no less!) to narrate a story of hers for Dark Fiction magazine's audio edition, "As the Wheel Turns" -- a moving, deeply involving tale set in a pseudo-Chinese, sorta Buddhist cosmos (you can listen here). I enjoyed the hell out of reading it even though it was under time pressure and essentially a cold read, the story unfolding as I blathered into the mic at the awesome VALIS in downtown Toronto (and yes, it is a Philip K. Dick reference; those guys are really that awesome).

For Servant of the Underworld and its sequels, the endlessly erudite and inventive de Bodard takes us to different days of yore: the Aztec empire. And oh yeah, she goes there. I would not recommend these books for the squeamish: every time a spell needs casting (and this is godpunk, so spells need casting a lot), someone has to open a vein. Or two*. And probably sacrifice an animal. Blood, blood, blood. Even I got queasy, and I'm hard to gross out.

For those who can stomach all the bloodiness, though, Servant of the Underworld offers an amazing treat, a combination of police procedural (the protagonist is a priest of the God of Death and thus has the intellectual and magical mojo to figure out whodunnit, how and why) and big time world-saving fantasy (said priest protagonist winds up having to marshal barely-sufficient forces [and sacrificial parrots and owls] to save the world, Aztec-style), all flavored with a glimpse into a culture few of us know about.

And it's truly a different culture, not just bog standard fantasy tropes and gods under different names. The god of war, for instance, is a hummingbird -- not an obvious choice unless you've watched a bunch of Rufous hummingbirds battling it out over a feeder. Death is presented, very often, utterly undisguised but still occurring as a seductive option with a near-irresistible allure. And did I mention the bloodletting? Magic in this world freaking hurts!

All of this is bound up in an engrossing and moving tale of repressed sibling rivalry, the Hero's Journey, and a dash of soap opera. I expect the soap opera elements to come more to the fore in the sequels, Harbinger of the Storm and Master of the House of Darts, both of which appear to concern themselves a bit more with Aztec imperial court politics than this one did.

Bring it on, Aliette!

*Really, as I read this book, I kept thinking, "well jeeze, no wonder the Conquistadors kicked the Aztecs' asses, the poor bastards must have been near-anemic all the time!" No, not very charitable, but dude, LOTS of ritual bloodletting. Like every day. At least in this poetic-licensed version of daily Aztec life. Dude.

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