“I was a priest of Mictlantecuhtli. Death was my lot, Mictlan the dominion of my god.”

Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire, 1480. A priestess disappears from a room left in complete disarray, and Acatl, High Priest of the Dead, is called to the crime scene. His brother, a respected member of the Jaguar Knights, has been caught in flagrante delicto in the room, covered in blood. In order to save his brother from certain execution, Acatl investigates the disappearance to find the victim before it is too late and ultimately to save the empire from collapsing.       

Read the last Book Smugglers' review of 'Technomancer.'

Aliette de Bodard’s Servant of the Underworld is an interesting mix of familiar tropes transported into a vividly original fantasy setting. In other words, it’s a whodunit investigated by an out-of-his-depth narrator with daddy issues who also happens to communicate with Aztec Gods via blood sacrifice.

There are many reasons to recommend Servant of the Underworld. The Aztec setting is well developed, and the author barely uses info dumping to show that the historical research has been done. Tenochtitlan and its people are richly incorporated into the story without glaringly discordant tones. I also enjoyed the way that the fantastic and the supernatural were woven into the story, through magical blood sacrifices that are effectively work, either in order to appease the gods or awaken them, etc. That said, I thought it was an intriguing world-building choice to not have Acatl’s order use human sacrifices.

Another engaging aspect of the book is the political/social commentary throughout the narrative, as the story is set at a time when a new (upstart) god has become the main Aztec deity, while the gods of old are pushed aside. This in turn impacts the different strata of peasants, who tend to worship the Old Gods, and the warriors, who worship the New Upstart God.

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A particular point of interest is the representation of female roles in this society, at times even questioned by Acatl’s sister. That said, although Courtesans are an intrinsically important part of this society—even instrumental in the progression of the plot—the vast majority of the characters’ tendencies to slut-shame these women is perplexing.

Unfortunately, there’s a downside—Acatl’s character arc is utterly boring. From his father looking down on him for his life choice of becoming a priest rather than a warrior, to his complicated relationship with his brother, to his reluctance in accepting his role as High Priest, there is not a thing about Acatl’s arc that we haven’t seen before. In addition, his first-person narrative bogged down the story with his tendency toward repetitiveness and a clumsy need to describe himself to…himself.

At this point, you might be asking yourself, but why can’t a pre-Colombian Aztec Priest have daddy issues? To wit, I say, sure he can, but isn’t that the most boring psychological issue that has ever existed in the history of fictional issues? Your mileage may vary, of course, but the level of appreciation for the novel will depend on how much you appreciate the types of character tropes used.

Servant of the Underworld proved to be a mildly disappointing read despite its competent mystery-solving qualities and vivid setting.         
In Booksmugglerish: 6 out of 10 – Good, recommended with reservations.  

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can find also find them at Twitter.