Servant of the Underworld (Obsidian & Blood) (Obsidian and Blood) - Aliette de Bodard - 2010 - 432 pages
Fantasy can be a bit stale at times; nothing but ethereal elves, wizened old wizards and enough chosen ones to make up a football team (or ten). Servant of the Underworld is a very different fantasy tale. Set in the ancient Aztec lands, it has deities, spirits and strange creatures galore. And not an elf in sight. It's also different in that the plot has more in common with a murder mystery like The Killing, than traditional fantasy story arcs. Think Cadfael in South America. With a lot more blood.
Told from the perspective of Acatl, the high priest for the god of the underworld, events begin to unfold with the disappearance of a priestess in another temple. Tasked with investigating this, Acatl has to search for clues, while working out what magical beings and spells may be active and potentially threatening their people. But things take a turn for the worst when he discovers his own brother is the number one suspect, as he was found in the priestess' room, covered in blood... Acatl must put aside old family resentments and use all his powers to discover what happened - and soon finds out that the fate of their kingdom may hang in the balance.
The detail in Servant of the Underworld is astounding; this is a properly researched historical novel with a healthy dose of fantasy thrown in (i.e. what if all the god stuff was real?) The names are accurate, which at times makes remembering who's who difficult, due to the length of some Aztec names (the god of the Underworld is himself called Mictlantecuhtli - say that five times fast). There are also a lot of plot threads at work throughout the book, including Acatl's unresolved issues with his brother and deceased parents, his reticence to fully embrace his role as high priest, what happens when gods are replaced, as well as the safety of the kingdom itself. In other words there is a lot to keep track of, but Bodard manages to deliver them in bite sized pieces as the story progresses, so it never feels overwhelming.
This is the first book in a trilogy and personally I will be snapping up the next two (though this could be read on its own as it has a neat and tidy ending). The scenes are described so viscerally that you really see and feel what's going on. This of course means that anyone with a sensitive constitution should be warned that some moments in this book are gruesome, which may entice others to give it a go.
I highly recommend Servant of the Underworld; it's a wonderful example of what detailed world building can bring to a story and how meshing two different genre types can create something new and thoroughly entertaining.