Sunday, 22 September 2013

Servant of the Underworld

Aliette de Bodard Servant of the Underworld (2010)

Having something of an interest in Mesoamerican culture reaching beyond that which can be gleaned from Big Bird's Book of Aztecs, I've tended to avoid this sort of thing for fear of blowing a gasket. I can't help it. Rightly or wrongly, I take a proprietorial view of Mexican culture. I don't like the fact of it having been demonised as crude and lacking in any qualities beyond the sanguinary for the last few hundred years, and nor do I appreciate its ham-fisted appropriation by hack writers looking for something exotic and just a teensy bit weird with which to spice up their latest exercise in paying off a credit card.

Anyway, Servant of the Underworld was free, one of a big pile of paperbacks published by Angry Robot from which guests at a San Antonio science-fiction convention were invited to take their pick.

The appendix, an essay in which the author describes how she came to write this - her debut novel - and to which I first turned, should perhaps have rung alarm bells. Aliette de Bodard speaks of the inspiration drawn from Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, then from a series of French novels set in ancient Egypt, and at length describes the plotting and research of Servant of the Underworld. I raised a Paxmanesque eyebrow at de Bodard's renaming the ruler Itzcoatl as Ixcoatl, a revision which recasts the Obsidian Serpent as some bloke called either Face of a Serpent, Serpent Eye, or One Who Appears Like a Serpent; and then I read of her concerns regarding the setting of her novel, studying maps, struggling to work out the distance between certain places, and how the chinampa plantations of Xochimilco would have appeared. I wondered to myself why she hadn't just gone to Mexico City and had a look around, particularly as the chinampas are still there and the city even has an airport, no longer requiring one to endure a five day hike across the mountains on the back of a donkey.

Anyway, suspecting I was probably just being sniffy for the sake of it, I turned to the first page...

I'm not accustomed to reading murder mysteries, and I've no idea whether they're all like this, but the first few chapters, if not exactly bad, comprise little but plot textured with a wearying check-list of local details. The prose is functional and not much more. To be fair, I'm not sure I've ever seen the appeal of this genre given that most stories will necessarily be a variation on the theme of someone being murdered, leading to someone else deducing the identity of the killer; and I don't know why I should be excited about that. I suppose then it must be the mood and sense of place which draws the reader, except Servant of the Underworld has all the personality of a diagram littered with fiddly plot points laboriously picked out through characters for whom it is very difficult to care. There is no art here, no poetry, just narrative mechanism. The writing isn't terrible, but neither is it particularly inspiring, and it really isn't helped by interludes such as the little girl looking at our hard-boiled Mesoamerican investigator with eyes like liquid pools, as opposed to eyes like football pools, I suppose.

Has anyone ever in the entire history of everything just once looked into another's eyes and been struck by their resemblance to liquid pools, presumably liquid pools bearing no similarity to those of asymmetrical shape which form when you spill your beer in the kitchen whilst trying to fry an apricot at two in the morning? Aside from those composed of light, don't most pools tend to be liquid?

This wouldn't bother me were the detail - that which is supposed to distinguish Servant of the Underworld from any other recycled Agatha Christie - not quite so poor. Please feel free to skip the inevitable list which follows because I'm sure no-one else finds this stuff of any interest; but for the record, contrary to that which is suggested in this novel:

  • The honorific suffix of a name is indeed -tzin, but it only really works when replacing the existing, usually applicative suffix -tl, -li, or -tli. The name Acatl with an honorific suffix is therefore Acatzin, not fucking Acatl-tzin, which is like prefixing someone's name with Mister Sir.

  • The nahual or nagual is an animal spirit, usually twinned to a specific individual (regardless of whether or not they are aware of this) and can be of any species, not just a jaguar. It is entirely unlike a Dementor from Harry Potter.

  • There was no priesthood dedicated to the Death Gods. This is not a quirk of regional government or preference so much as something which, were it otherwise, would contradict much of the existing theology. I appreciate that Aliette de Bodard admits to taking a few liberties in regard to this, but that really doesn't make it better.

  • Mictlan is a region of the underworld, not the underworld in its entirety.

  • There is a character called Ohtli. Ohtli simply means Road, which seems reminiscent of those people with exotic tattoos of Chinese characters which actually read shirts cleaned $5.

  • Girls in Tenochtitlan were generally taught in the home, not in schools, as described in detail in Codex Mendoza.

  • The priesthood was almost exclusively male. There were very few priestesses, and none of high rank that we know of.

  • Marriages were arranged and not a case of the young girl going out and having a look for some eligible bachelor, as is also described in detail in Codex Mendoza.

There's probably more but I gave up at around chapter four. None of the nits picked above are exactly unforgivable, excepting possibly the thing with honorific suffixes and getting Itzcoatl's name wrong, but it all adds up with all period or theological detail seeming so sloppy and arbitrary and incidental to the almighty labyrinthine plot that the whole becomes difficult to take seriously; and everyone speaks as though they could have been cast in almost any murder mystery from any era with just the furniture shuffled around for the sake of local flavour, all pulling stern Bruce Willis faces and exclaiming what in the Fifth World is going on here?

I hate giving up on a book, and I've only done it on three occasions over the last five years, and never on the same day as I began reading the thing; but this is horrible, a cynical exercise in writing a by-the-numbers fantasy bestseller, and life is too short.

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