BOOK REVIEW Servant Of The Underworld

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By Aliette de Bodard. An Aztec priest discovers that blood is thicker – and safer – than water

Author: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Angry Robot • 431 pages • £7.99
ISBN: 978-0-00-734654-7 • OUT NOW!

This is a strange, hybrid book. Part murder mystery, part well-researched historical novel and part fantasy, it’s successful on almost every level.

Set in the Aztec capital, it sees the High Priest Of The Dead, Acatl, get drawn into the search for a missing priestess as the ruler of the empire lies dying. The fantasy element blends neatly with the other parts at this point, with Acatl using his own blood in rituals – for example, opening the way to Mictlan, the domain of the Lord and Lady of Death, to see if the priestess was murdered. Adding urgency to things is the fact that Acatl’s brother is accused of being responsible.

Like most historical mystery stories, it does feel a little like a modern detective prowling around in fancy dress, but if you can cope with Cadfael, Marcus Didius Falco and the like, you’ll probably be prepared to overlook that.

The fantastic aspects of the story (the use of magic, the reality of the gods, creatures summoned from Mictlan) are handled in a very matter of fact way to begin with, and it works very well. However, things do degenerate into a battle to save the world at the end. It’s a shame; the battle is your bog-standard fantasy scrap, and with more books to follow, you already know that this is, at best, the penultimate battle, the equivalent of an end-of-level boss in a videogame. As boss fights go, it’s no worse than average, but your average fantasy battle is pretty tedious anyway, and given that the rest of the novel is so good it’s a let-down. A more subtle ending relying on detection rather than hacking to victory would have been more in keeping. Miriam McDonald

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