I finished Aliette’s debut (an what a debut it is!) a couple of days ago (as everyone who Follows me on Twitter can attest to), and have finally had some time to post this review – it would have been up yesterday, but problems with the internet on Monday pushed all my posts up by a day. Anyway, into the review:
Servant of the Underworld is a murder mystery, a clashing of wills between mortals and immortals, and an example of world-remembering that astonished me. For a time, I was a willing visitor behind the eyes of a man that lived and breathed in the beauty and danger of Mexica (Aztec) Empire of the 15th century, and what a ride it was!
Servant of the Underworld follows a High Priest, Acatl, and his investigation into the apparent abduction of a priestess; Acatl has been tasked with getting to the truth behind the priestess’ disappearance at an extremely critical time in the Empire – even the myriad gods of the Mexica are taking an interest, and you just know that everything hits the fan when gods take an interest in mortal affairs…
The first thing that struck me about Servant of the Underworld was how utterly smooth it was; the tale flowed on and on without any jarring, which is no mean feat considering how well Aliette managed to keep up the pacing and intrigue, as well as the constant building of the narrative as more and more about Acatl’s world was revealed. It’s really subtle, the way Aliette reels the reader in, revealing the culture and beliefs and way of life of the Aztecs without once making you feel as if you’re reading an essay about them.
Another aspect of the tale that surprised me was how it was layered; I expected the first mystery -that of the priestess that had disappeared- to be the only mystery that would be dealt with and explained, but it was just the first of many mysteries that tie- together before climaxing in a weird, otherworldly confrontation, finally revealing all. I’ll also admit that I tried to figure out who was behind all the mischief -you know, sometimes you get an idea because you try and imagine the person who seems most likely and least likely- but I was dead wrong! I don’t think anyone will make the correct guess!
The magic-system is refreshingly new and thoughtful; Aliette builds the magic that her characters use bit by bit, giving each spell it’s own ritual, words and effects, a job very nicely done since the tale takes place in the past of our own world and not in a different place entirely (ok, sure, artistic license and all that, but Aliette left me believing in the magic, thinking that it may just have been real).
If there’s one problem that I had with the book, it’s that I really struggled to believe Acatl’s gender; for the first 4 or 5 chapters, I believed that Acatl was a woman; I’m not entirely sure why – perhaps because of Jo Graham’s character from Black Ships, Gull – and I was a bit shook up when I realized my error. It didn’t affect the reading of the novel, though; it’s not like I was jolted out of it, it was more like a “Ohhh, okay, now I’m with you, now I understand.” moment. Anyway, I don’t think you’ll see a similar observation in any other review of Servant of the Underworld, so don’t expect this to color the novel in any way.
All in all, Aliette’s 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. I’m definitely looking forward to Aliette’s next two books – now that the main players have been introduced and the scene set, I can’t wait to see what Acatl gets up to next!
8 / 10
To order your copies of Servant of the Underworld, click here and here for those of you in the UK; as soon as I’ve got an expected SA-release date, I’ll let you all know.
Also, follow this link to Aliette’s official website; not only will you find some free fiction to read, but Aliette also did a 4-part exploration of the Aztecs, giving readers more background to the Empire of that time (the link will take you through to part 1). Serving as another introduction, here’s the book trailer (yes, I stole it from Angry Robot) :
Aliette also has a presence on LiveJournal, and click the links to check out her author-page at Angry Robot, as well as the Servant of the Underworld page, where you can get yourself an extract to read!