Servant Of The Underworld
Aliette de Bodard
Angry Robot paperback �7.99
review by Jonathan McCalmont
Death, hatred, jealousy and uncertainty are inherent in the human condition. From the dark forests of mankind's savage infancy to the gleaming
chrome of its most distant utopian futures, humans will be the victims of crime; a myriad injustices both minor and major, each one telling a
different story of alienation, tragedy, desperation or passion. To be human is to transgress and be transgressed against. In fact, crime is such
a universal component of the human experience that it can serve to bridge the gap between radically different cultures and ages, regardless of
how alien humans from another era may initially appear to us, their status as victims of crime collapses the distances between us. In the moment
where they stand above the slumped body of a loved one, they are not Aztec or Roman, Jedi or Rohirrim... they are human. Just like us.
Crime's capacity to transcend cultural boundaries means that many authors writing about alien cultures deploy the trappings of the crime novel
as a means of making their settings more accessible to a modern audience. Indeed, a modern audience might not be able to understand life in a
medieval monastery but they can understand William of Baskerville trying to solve a series of gristly murders in Umbert Eco's The Name Of The
Rose (1980). Similarly, modern genre readers might not be able to empathise with members of a viciously anti-semitic British upper-class, but
they can understand the trappings of the country house murder mystery deployed by Jo Walton in Farthing (2006). Aliette de Bodard's first
novel Servant Of The Underworld (the first book in the 'Obsidian And Blood' series) uses the detective story to transport us into a fantasy
version of the Aztec empire - a world of gods, blood, sacrifice and politics.
Mystery novels traditionally rely upon a decidedly dualistic vision of the world, a vision that stresses the tensions between the world as it
appears and the world as it genuinely is. The world of appearances is usually a pleasant place whose calm and harmony is shattered by a mysterious,
inexplicable event or death. The events are inexplicable because they are so utterly at odds with the harmonious veneer that is the world of
appearances. Detectives serve as interstitial figures. With one foot in the world of appearances and one foot in the world as it is, they use
their knowledge of the world to explain that, far from being an inexplicable intercession of chaos into an ordered existence, crime and death
are expressions of a more profound order.
For Agatha Christie, this profound order lay in the hypocrisy of the upper classes and their willingness to lie, murder and cheat in order to
get their own way. For Arthur Conan Doyle, this profound order was ultimately scientific and could be detected through keen observation and the
application of rigorous deductive reasoning. For Raymond Chandler this secret underworld was dominated by criminal conspiracies and ravening
insane passions. The world of the mystery novel is one in which normal people do not ask too many questions, they turn a blind eye to the world
as it is and stay out of the shadows. Huddling for warmth and shelter in pools of light kicked out by flickering light-bulbs, they leave the
shadows to the real movers and shakers, the people who know the world and know how to make it theirs.
Servant Of The Underworld is a book that is very much a part of this literary tradition. De Bodard's Fifth World is place in which normal
people shudder in fear as gods and monsters prowl about the shadows. The Aztec fear of the gods is so tangible that their society has become
monolithically reverential with worship and deference to the whims of the gods suffusing almost every aspect of daily life. This fear and
reverence has lead to the development of a society dominated by a series of temples. Temples built by the Aztecs with the goal of placating
their terrifying pantheon of gods using dance and sacrifice.
In de Bodard's world, priests are interstitial figures who serve a ceremonial and social purpose in the world of appearances whilst also knowing
enough about the world as it is to work magic and communicate with the gods. The most powerful priests possess not only a deep knowledge of the
underworld but also a good understanding of the world of men making them skilled politicians and leaders capable of inspiring fanatical loyalty
in their flocks and followers alike. The book's protagonist Acatl is the high-priest of the god of the dead. Given that death is a somewhat
important part of the human experience, one would expect Acatl to be a hugely powerful and capable priest but in truth he is anything but.
A local priest reluctantly elevated to high office by the head guardian - a police-like order devoted to maintaining the boundaries between the
world of men and the world of the gods - Acatl comes across not merely as na�ve but as disconnected to the point of autism. Acatl fails to understand
the nature of his position either as head of an important religious order or as chief representative of the god of the dead in the Fifth World,
so rather than standing with one foot in both worlds - understanding both whilst being a full member of neither - Acatl walks the tightrope
between them. He exists in an ivory tower utterly divorced from both the world of men and the world of gods, a safe and comfortable ivory tower
in which he can obsess over minor rituals that more capable high priests would delegate to their followers.
I wasn't made for any of the things she wanted me to do - neither for managing the politics linked to Teomitl, nor with my temple. Ichtaca would
take care of that, much better than I could ever hope to do. - page 259
However, Acatl's failure to engage with the reality of his situation is not merely limited to his professional life. Indeed, the book begins
with Acatl in a state of complete denial regarding both his position in the world and his relationship with his family.
I wasn't a coward. I'd made my choice, entered the priesthood of Mictlantecuhtli, but I hadn't been running away from the battlefield. I hadn't
been running away from life. - page 126
In a neat structural move, de Bodard links Acatl's need to understand the realities and responsibilities of his professional position with a
need to understand the realities and responsibilities of his relationship with his family. Indeed, the novel sees Acatl drawn into an investigation
into the magical disappearance of a priestess in which his brother is initially the prime suspect. In order to understand why his brother was
found in a priestess' room covered in blood, Acatl has to descend from his ivory tower and confront the feeling that he disappointed his parents
by choosing to become a priest instead of a warrior. In order to get his brother to confide in him, Acatl has to confront his own anger towards
his brother and his resentment at his parents' refusal to support his choices in life. This process of confrontation gradually drags Acatl out
of his comfort zone and into both the world of men and the world of gods: worlds of politics, passion, deceit, hatred, magic and murder.
Servant Of The Underworld is a novel that is positively fizzing with potential. De Bodard's neat dovetailing of tropes from the mystery
and urban fantasy subgenres displays a keen understanding of the thematic topography of both styles of writing while her willingness to connect
a whodunit plot to the 'learn the world, learn yourself' concerns of the traditional bildungsroman shows an entirely laudable desire to move
beyond mere genre storytelling and into more challenging literary territory. However, while I cannot fault the book's ambitions, I can take
issue with the way these ambitions were transferred to the page. Indeed, Servant Of The Underworld suffers - and ultimately fails - on
account of being quite poorly written.
Servant Of The Underworld is a book that is crippled by a single tactical mistake. It's a mistake that ripples out through every aspect
of the novel from prose, to plot, to character, and tone. It is a mistake relating to the importance of interiority and how that interiority is
articulated and exploited. The novel uses first-person narration. A style of narration which, whether it takes the form of a stream-of-consciousness
or a dramatic monologue, is all about a character's subjective experience: the smells, the sights, the sounds, the feelings - in short, the emotional
and phenomenological texture of the world. However, despite being written in the first-person, Servant Of The Underworld devotes hardly
any space at all to the ways in which its narrator actually experiences the world. Indeed, aside from the opening chapter, the novel contains
hardly any descriptive passages at all:
Grey light suffused the shrine, the pillars and the walls fading away to reveal a much larger place, a cavern where everything found its end.
The adobe floor glimmered as if underwater. And shadows trailed, darkening the painted frescoes on the walls - singing a wordless lament, a
song that twisted in my guts like a knife-stab. The underworld. - pages 6-7
The elegance of the opening passage (note the jarring effect of the register shift from the poetically graceful language of trailing shadows and
underwater glimmering to the brutal vulgarity of knife-stabs in the guts, thereby reflecting the way in which terrifying magical forces their way
into comfortable normality) suggests that de Bodard can do evocative descriptive prose when she turns her mind to it but her reluctance to do so
here combined with a genuinely terrible ear for dialogue and an insistence upon using dialogue as a mode of exposition result in a novel that is
a dry and frequently dull read.
Instead of being rooted in Acatl's experience of the world, Servant Of The Underworld relies upon dialogue as its chief vector for exposition.
However, because people talking about something in front of them tend not to refer explicitly to the details of what they can both see, Servant
Of The Underworld manages to impale itself simultaneously upon both horns of a dilemma: either de Bodard produces realistic dialogue - in which
case her world seems empty and poorly fleshed out - or de Bodard has her characters describe what they see - in which case her dialogue seems
lead-footed and unnatural. Servant Of The Underworld falls foul of both of these difficulties at different times and the situation is not
improved by the fact that most of the book's descriptive passages are underwritten while the book's dialogue is routinely flat, lifeless and entirely
lacking in anything approaching nuance or wit:
"I'll be careful," Teomitl said "I know how to fight"
"And you're that eager to get into trouble?"
"To prove myself." The hunger in his gaze was palpable: an obsession that was eating him from inside. - page 132
Servant Of The Underworld should be a profoundly atmospheric book filled with looming shadows, glinting knives, the smell of dried blood
and the fear that at any moment a god might reach out and destroy you on a whim, but instead it is a book filled with names, places and objects.
The fruits of too much research and too little writing:
She poured me a glass of frothy chocolate with milk and maize gruel - good chocolate too, very tasty. - page 38
Servant Of The Underworld's failure to focus upon the internal world of its narrator also has an effect upon the book's characterisation.
Indeed, a skilled writer can tell us everything that we need to know about a character through that character's reactions to the world. However,
because the book does not dwell on Acatl's subjective experience of the world (despite locking us into his head through the use of first person
narration), the only time we gain any real insight into Acatl as a person is when he is actively thinking about himself. This means that, rather
than flowing organically from the bulk of the text, our impressions of Acatl are formed solely through a series of very heavy-handed attempts at
self-definition in which Acatl announces (to nobody in particular) what kind of a person he is:
I was a priest of Mictlantecuhtli. I would neither have children, nor know the glory of warriors. But this - the vigils and the conch-shells,
and the setting sun that would rise again, and Teomitl, waiting for me on the steps with unbounded impatience - This was my place, and my
legacy. - page 407
This kind of pompous and lead-footed characterisation not only robs the character of nuance, it also makes the book feel distinctly repetitive
as the need to service Acatl's character arc results in a seemingly never-ending succession of jarringly neurotic interludes.
Part of Acatl's problem is that his lack of interiority makes him feel more like a YA character than the type of character you might expect to
find in a piece of 'adult' writing. His na�vet� and lack of self-knowledge combined with his constant need to define himself relative to both
his family and his position in society are better suited to a teenager than a grown man at the height of his profession. Indeed, there are a
number of scenes in which Acatl is forced to make a difficult choice only for him to look inside himself and realise that there is simply nothing
there to base his decision on:
I didn't know. I didn't know what I ought to feel. - page 55
If I dug deep enough, the real reason didn't have anything to do with the investigation: it was just that I couldn't face the thought of Huei's
death. It wasn't just. There could be no exceptions. But I could not let Him pass. I could not let Him kill Huei. It went beyond reason.
- page 170
Of course, it is quite possible that a person could live to be 30 years of age and still have no idea how they feel about themselves, their
family or their position in society but in order for such an epic level of emotional disconnection to be at all believable, it needs to be
explained. There needs to be some kind of psychological or social context to account for it. For example, it could be that, like the titular
character in the TV series Dexter, Acatl is a psychopath who simply does not 'feel' anything. Alternately, it could be that, as with the
character of Stephane in Claude Sautet's film A Heart In Winter (1992), Acatl is emotionally disconnected as a matter of choice.
Sadly, despite some mumbled allusions to disappointed parents and 'fleeing from life', Servant Of The Underworld never provides us with
a clear idea as to Acatl's emotional starting point. This means that instead of coming across as traumatised or intriguingly 'broken', Acatl
comes across as someone who lives in a state of complete ignorance: ignorance of himself, ignorance of his job, ignorance of his family, and
ignorance of his position in society. While such ignorance is not only excusable but positively compelling in an adventurous teenager, it is
simply unbelievable in a full-grown adult.
The book's failure to gain any real traction with Acatl as a character may also go some way to explaining why it is that the arrival of the
novel's third act sees Servant Of The Underworld suddenly veering away from courtly politics, sibling rivalry and self-actualisation
and towards the decidedly more generic territory offered by long-winded fight scenes, wanderings around magical dreamlands and the need to
save the world. Such drastic changes in pitch are not in and of themselves problematic but there is a need for them to be deserved and, in
this case, they are not.
Servant Of The Underworld initially presents itself as quite a psychological novel. Indeed, despite its wildly misfiring characterisation,
it is undeniably a work that is profoundly engaged with the emotional development of its central character and the evolution of his personal
relationships. In fact, the tone of the novel is struck very early on by the decision to link Acatl's investigation to his relationship with his
brother. Much of the novel continues in this vein with Acatl's problems invariably being presented as human problems that can be solved using human
means. Unfortunately, having laid out all of these human problems, Servant Of The Underworld never gets round to actually solving them:
Acatl remains alienated from his brother, he never really understands why his brother's wife does what she does and he retains the same terror
of politics at the end of the novel as he had at the beginning (although with a fresh understanding for the utility of winning people to your
side and convincing them to help you). Because of the resolutely psychological register adopted by the first two acts of the novel and because
the 'end of the world' subplot is only vaguely connected to the relationship problems dominating the book's early chapters, the ending to
Servant of the Underworld rings false.
It rings false because it feels tacked on. It rings false because it feels like a gratuitous lurch into populism. It rings false because massive
punch-ups seldom solve anything. It rings false because it constitutes a betrayal of the terms of engagement laid down earlier in the novel. It
rings false because it feels utterly underserved.
Servant of the Underworld is a fascinating example of how a single tactical mistake can ruin an entire book. By failing to maintain a
focus upon the narrator's internal world, de Bodard not only fails to make the most of her original and potentially brilliant setting, she also
winds up losing her grip on her characters, her tone, her subject matter and her plot. Servant Of The Underworld promises much but delivers
little other than bitter disappointment.