Friday, April 13, 2012

100 Books #28 - Aliette de Bodard's HARBINGER OF THE STORM

I predicted in my review of the first book of Aliette de Bodard's "Obsidian and Blood" series that this second book would probably concern itself a lot more with court politics in this dark fantasy version of the Aztec/Mexica culture, circa the 13th Century. And man, was I right: Harbinger of the Storm is a Game of Aztec Thrones!

Whereas Servant of the Underworld introduced us to our trusty narrator, the High Priest of the God of Death,  Acatl, and had him playing detective to solve a murder for which his brother has been framed, Harbinger of the Storm shows us the man in his regular milieu: the highest circles of government and power and, of course, magic. That he is uncomfortable in these circles we know from Servant; Acatl is the son of a peasant, and has risen to high position via a combination of merit and subtle patronage. Amongst the likes of the Revered Speaker (the emperor) and his Council, Acatl is the odd man out, priest of an unpopular but unavoidable god, tactless, low-born, gauche -- but needed, very much needed, when the Revered Speaker dies and leaves a power vacuum both literal and figurative. Funeral rites must be performed, of course, promptly and exactly lest the power that rests in the role of Revered Speaker, the power that protects the fragile Fifth World the Mexica inhabit, fails, which means the End of the World.

All this is just prelude and back-story, though. What's really going on here is a power struggle that does indeed bear comparison with certain of the works of George R.R. Martin, and perhaps does him one better, because the gods are in it, too, in a great big bloody way.* The plot is again driven by a murder mystery, though this time around it's more like tracking a serial killer -- one who summons seriously freaky monsters called star demons to do the dirty work -- and again, there is a strong element of sibling rivalry, but where in Servant that rivalry focused on Acatl and his falsely accused brother, Harbinger switches focus to that between two younger brothers of the late Revered Speaker, one of whom is Acatl's acolyte/student and friend, and the other, who thinks Acatl is a terrible, worthless parvenu. Naturally, the hater is the one most likely to succeed as Revered Speaker, and doesn't think that anything he is doing is wrong enough to matter.

He's not alone in this, as Acatl discovers in his interviews with a cast of semi-villains, all of whom have broken or bent the rules of magic and worship that keep this strange world from being destroyed utterly by rival gods and star demons. "The problem was the line between reasonable risk and endangering the Fifth World, a line everyone seemed to place much further out in their minds than it really was."**

What really sets this fantasy world apart from the run-of-the-mill white men in armor stories, though, is the nature of its theology and the duties that imposes on the world's inhabitants. As Acatl explains several times, the Mexicas' gods are dead, corpses under shrines; they sacrificed themselves to create and ignite the sun that makes all life possible, and thus relinquished their powers and responsibilities to humanity forever. Thus Acatl and, when they're behaving themselves, the other priests and leaders of this empire, are burdened with an unbelievable responsibility, the shirking of which has way more than ritual consequences. As this story progresses, the monsters that are the stars in the Aztec sky loom ever closer, until they're even visible by daylight, giving proof that the sun and the people's pact with it are too badly weakened to hold them back much longer: "I could see the stars too, could feel the pressure above us, like a giant hand pushing through thin cotton, the cloth drawn taut, on the edge of tearing itself apart."***

The resulting novel is thus a uniquely intense read, anxious, urgent and intriguing as hell even before the penultimate act forces the reader to reinterpret almost everything that's gone before. I have the third and final book of the series, Master of the House of Darts, on deck for later this year. My expectations for it are now very high indeed!

*Again with the blood. When your gods are so obviously real and present and one of their requirements is that you slash your earlobes to make them bleed every morning just to make sure the sun rises on time, well, you're going to be one scabby, iron-smelling dude. And probably, as I said before, anemic into the bargain. Yikes!

**Harbinger of the Storm is a bit of an allegory for our own perilous times, isn't it? Certainly for me it was hard not to think of various catastrophes that loom over us modern, non-magical, humans -- most of those catastrophes likely to be our own fault...

***Aliette de Bodard has a flair for imagery and a good prose style, too, which is always welcome!

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