OBSIDIAN & BLOOD
"An amazingly fresh and engaging new voice in fantasy: the shadows of the Aztec underworld drip from these pages."
"Political intrigue and rivalry among a complex pantheon of divinities drive this well-paced murder mystery set at the height of the Aztec Empire in the late 15th century. De Bodard incorporates historical fact with great ease and manages the rare feat of explaining complex culture and political system without lecturing or boring the reader."
"A gripping mystery steeped in blood and ancient Aztec magic. I was enthralled."
"From page one I was drawn into Acatl's world… a remarkable historically based fantasy, using the myths and legends of the Aztec people as a background to a twisting murder mystery."
Speculative Book Review
"Amid the mud and maize of the Mexica empire, Aliette de Bodard has composed a riveting story of murder, magic and sibling rivalry."
"I haven't enjoyed a proper detective story this much in ages, and the rich setting, monsters and magic just added an extra layer of delight."
Servant of the Underworld
is a highly original debut novel. Thanks to a solid mystery plot and Aliette de Bodard's extensive research into pre-Conquest Meso-America, this novel should strike a chord with more than just fantasy readers."
"The book starts out a slow, steady pace and builds momentum from there. It's not some huge action scene that hooks you. It's the atmosphere. The blood spilled to gain favor from the gods. The cultural details Bodard infuses in each moment."
"It was [the novel's] use of the mythic that I found most interesting: the magical system based upon glyphs and blood seemed very real and provided a rich, numinous texture to the novel."
Red Rook Review
Servant of the Underworld
is an incredibly strong and promising debut, showing her talents at full effect – she can create amazing, believable worlds; her characters are solid and relatable, and she knows how to do interesting magic, great action and creepiness in spades."
"Part murder mystery, part well-researched historical novel and part fantasy… The fantasy element blends neatly with the other parts. 4****."
ALIETTE DE BODARD
Obsidian & Blood
THE COLLECTED ACATL NOVELS
THE SHORT STORIES
Recently, when we moved out of our old apartment into a new, better one, I found a pile of old index cards at the bottom of one of the drawers. When I spread them out on the living room table, I saw, with a surprise, that they were the same cards where I'd jotted down the beginnings of what would become
Servant of the Under
. It was all there on the cards: my frustration at figuring out an unfamiliar world, my anger at a plot that wouldn't slot into place, and my bewilderment at my main character, Acatl, whose preoccupations I couldn't understand – seemingly endless nights of spreading out the cards on the table and rearranging them, shuffling them in the hope that everything would coalesce into something I could trust myself to write.
If I look back at those beginnings, five years ago, it seems hard to believe that this little pile of index cards would grow into a book, let alone into a trilogy that spanned three years, dozens of characters, and an entire world beyond the capital city that I'd envisioned as the primary setting of the book.
But it did grow; and so did I, maturing into a better writer as I wrote the novels. Acatl grew as a person, acquired friends and students and allies, and the Tenochtitlan that was a bare word on a piece of paper became a city vibrant with life: with the smells of cooked maize, and the deep sounds of drums welcoming the dawn on the Sacred Precinct; with the vivid colours of feathers and embroidered cotton skirts, and the sound of banquet poems filling the night with beautiful, melancholy words; with the dance of reed boats in the canals, and the cold, chilling passage of the Wind of Knives as He enforced the underworld's justice...
It is a wonderful and thrilling place, and one that I enjoy returning to, again and again. This volume gathers all the stories of this fantastical Tenochtitlan: the three novels that complete the Obsidian and Blood trilogy, and (thanks to the wonders of digital formats) the Acatl short stories that were published in various venues.
I hope you enjoy this journey into Acatl's world.
Aliette de Bodard
ISERVANT OF THE UNDERWORLD
In the silence of the shrine, I bowed to the corpse on the altar: a minor member of the Imperial Family, who had died in a boating accident on Lake Texcoco. My priests had bandaged the gaping wound on his forehead and smoothed the wrinkled skin as best as they could; they had dressed him with scraps of manycoloured cotton and threaded a jade bead through his lips – preparing him for the long journey ahead. As High Priest for the Dead, it was now my responsibility to ease his passage into Mictlan, the underworld.
I slashed my earlobes and drew thorns through the wounds, collecting the dripping blood in a bowl, and started a litany for the Dead:
"The river flows northward
The mountains crush, the mountains bind…"
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.
"Obsidian shards are driven into your hands, into your feet,
Obsidian to tear, to rend
You must endure th–"
The copper bells sewn on the entrance-curtain tinkled as someone drew it aside, and hurried footsteps echoed under the roof of the shrine. "Acatl-
!" Ichtaca called.
Startled, I stopped chanting – and instinctively reached up, to quench the flow of blood from my earlobes before the atmosphere of Mictlan could overwhelm the shrine. With the disappearance of the living blood, the spell was broken, and the world sprang into sudden, painful focus.
I turned, then, not hiding my anger. A broken spell would have left a link to Mictlan – a miasma that would only grow thicker as time passed, darkening the shrine, the pyramid it sat upon, and the entire temple complex until the place became unusable. "I hope you have a good reason–"
Ichtaca, the Fire Priest of the temple and my second-in-command, stood on the threshold – his fingers clenched on the conch-shell around his neck. "I apologise for interrupting you, Acatl-tzin, but he was most insistent."
The curtain twisted aside, and someone walked into the shrine: Yaotl. My heart sank. Yaotl never came for good news.
"I apologise," Yaotl said, with a curt nod of his head towards the altar, though clearly he meant none of it. Yaotl answered only to his mistress, Ceyaxochitl; and she in turn, as Guardian of the Sacred Precinct and keeper of the invisible boundaries, answered only to Revered Speaker Ayaxacatl, the ruler of the Mexica Empire. "But we need you."
Again? Even though I was High Priest for the Dead, it seemed that Ceyaxochitl still considered me little better than a slave, to be summoned whenever she wanted. "What is it this time?"
Yaotl's scarred face twisted in what might have been a smile. "It's bad."
"Hmm," I said. I should have known better than to ask him about the nature of the emergency. Yaotl enjoyed keeping me in ignorance, probably as a way to compensate for his station as a slave. I snatched up my grey cotton cloak from the stone floor and wrapped it around my shoulders. "I'm coming. Ichtaca, can you take over for me?"
Yaotl waited for me outside the shrine, on the platform of the pyramid temple, his embroidered cloak fluttering in the breeze. We descended the stairs of the pyramid side by side, in silence. Beneath us, moonlight shone on the temple complex, a series of squat adobe buildings stretching around a courtyard. Even at this hour, priests for the Dead were awake, saying vigils, conducting examinations of the recently dead, and propitiating the rulers of the underworld: Mictlantecuhtli and his wife, Mictecacihuatl, Lord and Lady Death.
Further on was the vast expanse of the Sacred Precinct: the mass of temples, shrines and penitential palaces that formed the religious heart of the Mexica Empire. And, still further, the houses and fields and canals of the island-city of Tenochtitlan, thousands of small lights burning away under the stars and moon.
We walked from the bottom of the steps to the gates of my temple, and then onto the plaza of the Sacred Precinct. At this hour of the night, it was blessedly free of the crowds that congregated in the day, of all the souls eager to earn the favours of the gods. Only a few offering priests were still abroad, singing hymns; and a few, younger novice priests, completing their nightly run around the Precinct's Serpent Wall. The air was warm and heavy, a presage of the rains and of the maize harvest to come.
To my surprise, Yaotl did not lead me to the Imperial Palace. I'd expected this mysterious summons to be about noblemen. The last time Ceyaxochitl had asked for me in the middle of the night, it had been for a party of drunk administrators who had managed to summon a beast of the shadows from Mictlan. We'd spent a night tracking down the monster before killing it with obsidian knives.
Yaotl walked purposefully on the empty plaza, past the main temple complexes and the houses of elite warriors. I had thought that we were going to the temple of Toci, Grandmother Earth, but Yaotl bypassed it completely, and led me to a building in its shadow: something neither as tall nor as grand as the pyramid shrines, a subdued, sprawling affair of rooms opening on linked courtyards, adorned with frescoes of gods and goddesses.
: the House of Tears, a school where the children of the wealthy, as well as those vowed to the priesthood, would receive their education. I had never been there; the clergy of Mictlantecuhtli was exclusively male, and I had trouble enough with our own students. I couldn't imagine, though, what kind of magical offences untrained girls would commit.
"Are you sure?" I asked Yaotl but, characteristically, he walked into the building without answering me.
I suppressed a sigh and followed him, bowing slightly to the priestess in feather regalia who kept vigil at the entrance.
Inside, all was quiet, but it was the heavy calm before the rains. As I crossed courtyard after courtyard, I met the disapproving glances of senior offering priestesses, and the curious gazes of young girls who stood on the threshold of their ground-floor dormitories.
Yaotl led me to a courtyard near the centre of the building. Two rooms with pillared entrances opened on this. He went towards the leftmost one and, pulling aside the curtain, motioned me into a wide room.
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.