I picked the theme of Magical Mysteries partly due to a love of Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell’s visions of law enforcement in magical London: while I didn’t find any alternate Londons in my reading of fantastical mysteries by women, I did uncover a range of diverse and fascinating settings. I’m kicking off with one of the most colourful: Servant of the Underworld is a historical murder mystery set in the Aztec empire.
It seemed an ordinary place, a room like any other in the city: an entrance curtain set with bells, gently tinkling in the evening breeze, walls adorned with frescoes of gods — and, in the centre, a simple reed sleeping mat framed by two wooden chests. Copal incense burnt in a clay brazier, bathing the room in a soft, fragrant light that stung my eyes. And everything, from the chests to the mat, reeked of magic: a pungent, acrid smell that clung to the walls and to the beaten-earth floor like a miasma.
That wasn’t natural. Even in the calmecac, there were strictures on the use of the living blood, restrictions on the casting of spells. Furthermore this looked like the private room of a priestess, not a teaching room for adolescent girls.
Acatl is High Priest for the Dead, a man more comfortable slitting his earlobes to perform blood magic than he is talking to others — especially his brother Neutemoc, a warrior who has always viewed Acatl’s chosen path as one of abject failure. Priests wield some uncanny powers, but it’s the warriors who are the celebrities, earning wealth and status for their families. But when Neutemoc is arrested in mysterious circumstances, Acatl takes up the mantle of investigation without hesitation.
A priestess is missing, her room soaked in blood, and the trail of a nahual leads from the scene. Neutemoc was found with blood on his hands. He’s also one of comparatively few people able to summon a nahual jaguar-spirit, and his story is almost nonsensical. Even Acatl is forced to admit it doesn’t look good, but honour compels him forward.
Set in Tenochtitlan, capital city of the Mexica Empire, Servant of the Underworld doesn’t shy away from the bleak and gruesome realities of Aztec life. Acatl bleeds for his power, but he’s not the only one: birds and animals are sacrificed in cold blood, and even human sacrifice is widespread. Within the context of the novel this is completely normalized behaviour, and as such, unremarkable. Similarly, the gods are indisputably real, and they’re terrifying. The magic, mythology, and ritual is firmly grounded in the history books, and then brought to life in vivid and unflinching detail. The overall effect is dismal: the Aztec world balances on a knife edge, separated from the world of malevolent spirits by a thin veil that could rend apart at any time.
The magical elements infuse every aspect of the story, from Acatl’s investigative techniques to the possible motives for murder. I found myself wondering, about a quarter of the way through the book, how exactly there was going to be enough plot to fill the rest of the pages. The story unfolds, after all, in a world where criminals can be identified by magic — and the Wind of Knives, a vengeful spirit incapable of negotiation or compassion, will come without fail for those who break certain sacred laws. I needn’t have worried. As the tale progresses, it soon becomes clear that there’s more than justice for one woman hanging in the balance, and Acatl must do much more than simply clearing his brother’s name.
And this is where things really start to get interesting. Acatl never wanted to become High Priest, a fact that becomes steadily more obvious as circumstances force him to use the powers and responsibilities of his role as he’s never done before. He hates politics with a passion, and fear leads him to avoid the very people he should be leading; anyone who has ever experienced imposter syndrome will recognise a lot of the symptoms. Although his life is threatened by magical creatures wielding vicious blades, it’s his internal struggles that ultimately provide the most challenging obstacles. As such, despite his ability to call on the gods of the underworld, Acatl’s story is a universal tale of personal growth.
Servant of the Underworld is the first of three mystery novels in Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood trilogy.