Saturday, December 1, 2012
100 Books #115 - Aliette de Bodard's MASTER OF THE HOUSE OF DARTS
The Aztec godpunk trilogy that began with Servant of the Underworld and continued in Harbinger of the Storm comes to its Obsidian-y and Bloody end in this last volume but as should be the case in any good mystery series, Master of the House of Darts stands perfectly well on its own, even though we take up the thread of the story very soon after the conclusion of Harbinger.
The middle volume was all about the struggle for succession, and ended with the more or less expected victor emerging as Revered Speaker (in a bizarre and unique way), but his rule was not yet cemented, for various reasons. To do that, Tizoc-zin must lead his warriors in battle (his "coronation war"), capture physically perfect prisoners, and sacrifice them to the gods to ensure the continuation of the world as the Mexica knew it.
As we begin the action in Master of the House of Darts (the title given to the heir apparent to the Mexica throne, usually the Revered Speaker's younger brother), that battle has been fought and won, but a paltry 40 prisoners are brought back to Tenotichtitlan -- so the new Speaker's rule is already on shaky ground.
And then one the victorious warriors and one of the would-be sacrifices die unexpectedly and mysteriously.
And others suddenly aren't looking so good either.
Enter our hero, Acatl, the Death God Gumshoe, solver of crimes, defender of innocence, and High Priest of the Dead. He is by now a most seasoned solver of supernatural crime and has the scars and scabs to prove it.* Quickly, he determines that the sacrifice, an honorable warrior of a faraway kingdom now lying dead and leaking pus, died of most unnatural causes, namely a supernatural disease, as did the warrior who claimed credit for capturing him.
Uh and also oh.
Soon the plot is thicker than clotted blood as various candidates for the caster of the malign spell that has caused what threatens to become an epidemic are brought up and eliminated. Is it the merchant from a previously conquered city who turns out to have been a member of that city's Imperial Family? Is it the High Priest of the storm-god Tlaloc (a vicious frenemy of Acatl's -- and hey, the diseases's symptoms mimic suffocation or drowning, so this hypothesis immediately volunteers itself to the seasoned Obsidian & Blood fan)? The titular heir-presumptive, who happens to be a devotee of Tlaloc's wife Jade Skirt? All of them? None of them?
Acatl goes through all of the usual detective motions, trading hypotheses, interviewing suspects, raising the souls of the victims to ask what they remember of how they died... all the while stubbornly clinging to his faith in a person who has pretty much been the Archie to Acatl's Nero Wolfe. As the story and the mystery all finally come together, the roots of the later holiday, Dia de los Muertos, become evident and the reader suddenly feels a compulsion to re-read Malcom Lowry. As one does.
One also feels a need to go back and read the trilogy from the beginning, all in one go, to catch all the stuff she obviously missed. And knowing that she needs to read on an empty stomach.
And since a lot of elements in these stories are inspired by actual events, actual history -- the emperors, the inter-city politics, and yes, the epidemic -- one wants to do some non-fiction reading as well. As one does.
Damn fine stuff, this.
*Aztec spell-casting and other acts of propitiation and divination requiring that the supplicant donate quite a lot of his own as well as other animals and people's blood to the cause.