The second book in her epic Aztec fantasy series.
Publication year: 2011
Page count: 416
Publisher: Angry Robot
Acatl-tzin is the High Priest of the Dead, but in the Aztec society where warriors and the glory of warfare is the most valued, he’s not actually in a powerful position. After all, Mitctlantecuhtli governs over people who have not died in battle or as a sacrifice. Even his two fellow high priests look down on Acatl because the Lord of the Dead doesn’t have much influence and Acatl’s parents were peasants. In addition to doing the rites for the dead, Acatl investigates murders.
When the story starts, the ruler of the Mexica empire, the Revered Speaker Axayacatl-tzin, has just died from wounds in battle. The Reverend Speaker is also the representative of his god on Earth which means that his death weakens the magical protections of the capital and in time star-demons can break through to travel to Earth and start killing people.
But the politically (and religiously) powerful people are far more interested in fighting for earthly power than appointing the next ruler before the protections fail. The just dead ruler had been a respected warrior but his chosen heir, his older brother, is a weak man who has wanted the throne his whole life and schemed to get it. Other men desire the throne, too, and poor Acatl is caught in the middle, trying to warn people about the magical consequences if the next ruler isn’t appointed quickly.
Also, the same day when the Revered Speaker dies, another man is found dead, brutally torn to pieces, right in the royal palace. Acatl is convinced that it’s the work of the star-demons which means that someone is summoning these enemies of humanity right inside the palace. The summonings weaken the buckling protections so Acatl wants to find the sorcerer as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have political clout or diplomatic skills so questioning the most powerful men in the Empire is rather difficult. However, he has a couple of trusted friend he can rely on. One of them is his student Teomitl, the younger brother of the former Revered Speaker.
This is a setting where the gods are very much alive and sometimes even walk among humans. Almost all of them are cruel and hungry for blood; they require blood sacrifices to work magic. I found the explanation for this (near the end) fascinating.
This time we meet the people at the very top of Aztec society – and they’re not nice men. Pretty much all of them scheme and backstab to their heart’s content. (In fact, I felt rather sorry for Axayacatl who seemed like a decent person and had to deal with this lot on a daily basis. Or maybe he fought in wars so often to get away from them?) Also, magical, religious, and political power is intertwined and inseparable. This is quite a dark society and the storyline is also very dark, punctuated by human and animal sacrifice. The Lord of the Dead doesn’t require human sacrifices, though, but Acatl does have to use his own blood for spells and worship.
The Aztec society in this book has just as strong a division between the worlds of men and women as the Greeks did; women don’t participate in public life. I find this curious because I didn’t see similar division between the male and female deities; all seem equally aggressive, cruel, and bloody. But the book has only three named mortal women and I strongly suspect that only one of them (if any) is going to be seen again.
De Bodard has created a fascinating culture. Interesting enough, the book doesn’t have much violence at all but blood rituals are used often. Unfortunately, the omnibus version I’m reading doesn’t have her notes but her website has some background stuff. The mystery is pretty convoluted and because of the unfamiliar setting I don’t think the reader has a chance to solve it before Acatl.
Acatl is mostly comfortable with his life and his position as a humble priest. But now he’s taken far out of his comfort zone and forced to deal with people he comes to despise and distrust. He’s determined to do what he feels is right and to protect the people near him, and also the whole Empire. Teomitl is another honorable character trying to do the right thing, but he can also be arrogant and overconfident. After all, he is a warrior and also part of the emperor’s family. Most of the other characters have their own agendas but because of their high positions they also tend to be rather arrogant.
This is a great continuation to the series. It doesn’t end in a cliffhanger but it’s clear that the solutions are only temporary. I recommend reading the first book, Servant of the Underworld, first because it introduces the characters and the setting.