Aliette de Bodard’s 2010 debut novel Servant of the Underworld, the first in her Obsidian and Blood series, manages to successfully fuse three genres together: it’s part fantasy, part mystery, and part historical fiction. The story follows the labyrinthine plot twists and red herrings that are the conventions of the mystery genre, though the crimes are committed and solved mostly via magic; and along the way, the reader meets enough gods and mythical creatures to satisfy even the most die-hard high fantasy fan. All this, set in the Aztec Empire.
The reluctant protagonist Acatl is an underdog from the start; he chose to be a priest in an era when war-making is considered the honorable path, causing conflict within his family of origin and setting himself up as doomed rival to his charismatic warrior brother. Compounding the tensions in his story, Acatl has been elevated to the position of high priest, when his desire was to maintain a simple life helping peasants in the outskirts of the empire, to stay close to his humble roots.
Instead, he’s charged with the keep of a temple in the capital of Mexica where he’s expected to keep up with political intrigue, and has been appointed lead investigator in a murder of which his idealized soldier brother has been accused — a murder which first has few clues and looks deceptively simple, but which the reader learns is far more complex than it appears, and involves the fate of not just his family but that of gods, and perhaps even the entire mortal world.
I didn’t expect that in a novel with so much going on that the main character would be so dynamic, nor that he would begin to undergo a transformative character arc. While plenty likable and certainly relatable, Acatl is deeply flawed, wearing resentments and insecurities like armor. This first book in the trilogy sets up the internal conflicts that the protagonist must overcome in order to achieve his purpose.
Servant of the Underworld, which should be a favorite for fans of N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood series, is solid in its worldbuilding and bold in its genre-bending.