Wednesday 11 September 2013

Servant of the Underworld

(September 2013)

Historical fantasy, wherein our hero is an Aztec priest investigating a murder he believes his brother is wrongly accused of. A Mesoamerican In the Name of the Rose, if you will. It certainly gets points for originality

I have to be honest though, it didn’t get off to the most promising of starts. At the end of the very first paragraph we get this –

“As High Priest for the Dead, it was now my responsibility to ease his passage into Mictlan, the underworld.”

Unfortunately – and it is very unfortunate – this immediately put me in mind of a line I saw not-so long ago on the first page of another novel I began (but significantly did not finish) reading –

“As editor, I can’t blow this off. Please,”

Bonus points to anyone who can name that book. Though I’m reasonably confident it’s a prize that will remain unclaimed. It’s not an obscure book, by any means, but perhaps not one many will want to attest to knowing so thoroughly as to recognize from an eight word fragment.

If you’re wondering why I’m so down on the “As holder of position X, I must perform duty Y,” construction, it’s because it’s usually very clunky, obvious exposition which accepts narrative efficiency at the expense of noticeable damage to the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Nobody speaks like that, frankly. And if they did, then why are they repeating information they should already know? That second example is at least reported speech (albeit directed to someone who is fully aware of the speaker’s position and responsibilities). Servant of the Underworld is written entirely in the first-person, which begs the question: who is the narrator addressing that he feels the need to explain himself in such personally rudimentary terms? It breaks the fourth wall and makes it very clear that the narrator is addressing someone else, and at some point that’s going to have to be accounted for. It isn’t.

It’s not the only clunker, either. They do appear quite regularly throughout the early stages of the book and occasionally beyond. Despite the early warning bells though, they’re actually fairly easy to forgive. The selection of such a relatively unfamiliar world (or at least unfamiliar in a generic culture where the default setting is Dark Ages Europe) means that there’s a hell of a lot of work to do in establishing both it and the characters’ places within it. That novelty and the interest this provokes is an ample recompense for the occasional bum note but still, the sheer volume necessary means they’ll occasionally slip through. Fortunately, after about a quarter of the book we get a full-on magical fight with a beast summoned from the depths of the underworld and the plot really kicks into gear. This is unquestionably a good thing.

In many ways this feels like a YA novel. There’s that never-explained first-person narration, and despite the fact that Acatl, the protagonist, is about thirty and a High Priest he still deals with all the trappings of your more traditional coming of age story: parents who he’s desperate to earn the acceptance of; an older sibling whose success is nothing but a millstone; unwanted, unasked for responsibilities being thrust upon him by his elders and society in general. I would not have been completely surprised if halfway through had he started bellowing, “I DIDN’T ASK TO BE BORN! I HATE YOU!” at the God of Death, before storming off to his bedroom for a game of Grand Theft Auto and a wank.

For all that it seems like I’m listing faults, I actually quite liked this book. Acatl does (eventually) grow up, and while I was never wholly taken with him as the lead the supporting characters around him are fully-formed and very engaging in their own rights. Nobody appears to be pursuing an agenda simply because they’re eeeevil, or because the plot demands it. Sure, there’s a hefty fistful of loose threads still left untied at the end but this is the first volume of a trilogy so that’s to be expected. After that first monster fight the pacing is excellent there’s a real sense of the world beyond; while the Gratuitous Research Flaunting that infects so much historical fiction is kept well in check there’s still obviously a fully realized culture and geography informing the story. The relative novelty of that setting just adds to the allure.

Books Two and Three are in the shopping basket. This one looks like a goer.


  1. The series improves as it goes on. I bagged on Acatl pretty hard in my review, but the author liked it enough to quote me later. Apparently she isn't enamoured of him either.
    That said, the last two books get better and more subversive.

    1. Yeah, I had a look at you take on this after I'd written this. I think your emo kid take on it is much better than my puerile wank-gag, but there's definitely an air of annoying whinyness about him that's difficult to take in a supposedly full grown adult. One of those loose ends I mentioned was finding out just exactly why he'd been elevated to the position he holds when he's such a self-evident tosser.

      That aside though, there's enough about the the rest of it to make me want to read the sequels, even without the reassurance they get better (thought that's very welcome). I got my fingers burnt last time I bought a book and sequel together and the first turned out to be shit, so I got this separately. Should have just got the omnibus and been done with it. Ah well.

    2. I enjoyed the puerile wank gag myself.
      I forget the details surrounding Acatl's promotion, but he is not as big a dork as he thinks he is.

  2. I read this trilogy last year and really enjoyed the originality of it all. Yes Acatl is a bit whiney but I still liked him enough to enjoy his story.

    1. Thanks for the comment! And thanks also for effectively condensing the entire 600 post into just a couple of sentences. Don't know why I bother... ;)