A series I had my eye on for quite some time, ‘Obsidian and Blood’ intimidated me at first. It looked to be right up my alley, but I wondered if I would get lost in a world based around the ancient America’s, of which I have very little knowledge. I feared getting lost in the names, lost in the mythos, and feared the book would turn into a giant research project if I wanted to follow the story. My fears were unjustified; the book is a well-crafted, well contained story. I have mentioned it before, the books are surprisingly accessible, and at no point did I lose myself in the names.
What is the series about? In short it is the story of Acatl, High Priest of the Dead in pre-colonization Tenochtitlan. His duties are usually about ushering the dead to his master Mictlantecuhtli, the god of death. But due to his position, he often spends time investigating deaths that affect the boundaries that keep the world safe. The stories are told in first person from Acatl’s point of view, and his travels take him all around the capital. Although these are obviously historical fantasy, in many ways they read like urban fantasy detective novels. Our protagonist interviews witnesses, fights little political battles with his superiors, and races against time to bring justice and/or save the world.
The world building is superb. Gods in this world are real and active participants, several times Acatl is forced to talk to one or more of them. Blood sacrifice is a way of life. There is no modern spin put on the realities of this world, sacrifice is necessary and there are no qualms. It would soon seem out of place if Acatl didn’t use worship thorns to get blood from his ear. The state of the supernatural is revealed as needed, without annoying info dumps, so that a reader will quickly understand recurring details such as the fifth world is under the protection of the Southern Hummingbird, and what is needed to keep it so.
The author’s writing is a no frills style that may not appeal to everyone, but may be part of the accessibility of the book. I hate to call the books easy to read, because that seems to denote simplicity and lack of intelligence, which simply is not the case. But it is true that de Bodard is not trying to be a wordsmith here, the economy of words keeps the pacing brisk and entertaining. Perhaps it was the easy read style that allowed me to keep track of the characters so well. I never had to go back to find who a character was, or which god they attended, or even what that god represented.
The characters in the book were both good and bad. Acatl really grows through the series, from a brooding man who is almost ashamed of his position to a very competent High Priest. His student Teomitl on the other hand was a single note player for most the series. His devotion to Acatl doesn’t really fit with his pride and stubborn nature. The Reverand Speaker was almost cartoonish incompetent. But to counteract that several of the High Priests Acatl is forced to play politics with are fiendishly clever and fun to read. Only a few female characters, but with a couple of strengths. Ceyaxochitl was a master of politics, and a strong ally to Acatl. Mihmatini quickly fit into her role as a Guardian. A couple others seemed to exist only to give cryptic messages. All forgivable in a very obviously patriarchal society, the interactions stayed realistic.
I only had a few issues with the books. The main one came toward the end of the third book when we once again followed Acatl on a long runaround between witnesses. I know it is a staple of the mystery genre, but after three books it grew tiring. Just once I wanted a witness to reveal all the information, especially when they had nothing to hide. There were also a couple of convenient “cryptic warnings.” I also felt the second book got carried away with the magic. Hard to describe, but it felt like a TV medical drama at times, with “ok this spell didn’t work, so let’s try this one.” Lastly, if a reader picks up the series in omnibus form, skip to the short stories at the end and read them first. Several of Acatl’s relations are explained that would have been nice in the first book especially.
Obviously, the strengths of the series far out did the problems for me, and I enjoyed the series a lot. I would recommend to many fantasy lovers. The historical setting and interactions with gods give the series an epic feeling, but the detective style will appeal to many lovers of urban fantasy.
Books in the series
All three books also found in the omnibus “Obsidian and Blood.’