The first book in a fantasy trilogy set in the Mexica (Aztec) Empire.

Publication year: 2010
Format: print
Page count: 431, including a glossary and author’s notes
Publisher: Angry Robot

Acatl-tzin is the High Priest of the Dead and his job is to make sure that the dead get the right rites. Sometimes, he also investigates suspicious deaths. However, this time he’s called to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a priestess of a fertility goddess. The Priestess’ quarters are full of blood and it’s possible that she isn’t alive anymore. Acatl tries to trace the magic coming out of the Priestess’ room and identifies it as a jaguar spirit, who can be summoned by anyone who was born on the day of the jaguar (every 20 days). However, the trail vanishes soon, so Acatl can’t trace it to the summoner.

One man is found in her quarters drenched in blood and looking for something. Unfortunately, that man is Neutemoc, Acatl’s elder brother. The brothers has drifted apart in recent years; Neutemoc despises Acatl because Acatl isn’t a warrior, but a cowardly priest, and Acatl knows that. Acatl is also burdened by their parents memory; they didn’t approve of Acatl’s choice of become a priest instead of a warrior.

Neutemoc is a Jaguar Knight, a member of an elite order of warriors, he’s rich and married with children. Acatl doesn’t own much and is forbidding from marrying and getting kids. Reluctantly, Neutemoc confesses that he knew the disappeared priestess. She was holy prostitute for the warriors when they were both younger and Acatl suspects the Neutemoc has either committed adultery with her or was going to. This would shame Neutemoc’s whole family, so he has a motive for kidnapping her. Neutemoc forbids Acatl from looking into the matter but Acatl investigates, anyway.

The plot involves Aztec politics and gods. The Emperor isn’t in good health and when he’s health declines so does the influence of his principal god, The Sun God Huitzlipohtli.

I really enjoyed the book. The Aztec customs aren’t too alien. Perhaps the most startling difference was the way the warriors openly looked down on the priests, especially Acatl. In European settings, the priests are usually respected. The Aztecs also use blood magic; they need blood from live animals or people. Human sacrifice is talked about but isn’t shown. Acatl usually uses his own blood for minor spells, he cuts his earlobes open, but he also sacrifices small animals, like birds.

The gods are very much alive and influencing things. Acalt even meets a few of them. Many people seem to be able to use magic but the gods demand constant sacrifices and rites.

Acatl seemed a bit colorless character, compared to some other amateur detectives I’ve read about. He has an inferiority complex towards his brother and feels guilty about his choice to become a priest and leave Neutemoc to gather glory to the family. He’s also somewhat jealous to his brother about his family. Neutemoc is an arrogant warrior who doesn’t always think things through and takes lot of things for granted. Acatl also gets a young Jaguar warrior sidekick who is eager to prove himself. The position of a High Priest is very political but Acatl isn’t a political man; in fact he goes out of his way to avoid politics which can case harm to his priesthood. He didn’t want the position of a high priest but was appointed against his will. His second in command thinks that he’s politically incompetent.

I was also fascinated by the author’s notes where she tells about her research and writing about the book.