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Literature / Obsidian & Blood

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Obsidian & Blood is a book trilogy by Aliette de Bodard. It concerns the adventures of Acatl, High Priest of the Dead, as he tries to solve a series of murder mysteries in Tenochitlian, the capital of the Aztec Triple Alliance. Notable for being fantasy novels not set in some version of medieval Europe, but instead in the Aztec Triple Alliance at its height of power.

The books in the trilogy are:

  • Servant of the Underworld: Acatl's brother is found in the empty room of a missing priestess, covered in blood. Traces of powerful magic fill the place, and Acatl is called on to find the missing woman. Things get complicated as Acatl finds himself embroiled in court politics.
  • Harbinger of the Storm: The Emperor is dead, demons have overrun the empire, and to top it all off, a councilman has been murdered—one of the councilmen tasked with choosing the new Emperor. Once again, Acatl is charged with mystery solving, only this time he has to do it while trying not to be eaten by demons.
  • Master of the House of Darts: The coronation of the new emperor has failed, and there's barely enough sacrifices to hold off the apocalypse. One of those sacrifices dies of a magical illness, and Acatl has to find out why.

There are also three short stories set in the same universe and starring Acatl. All are avaliable online for free. They are:

These books provide examples of:

  • Aztec Mythology: The main character is the High Priest of Mictlantecuhtli.
  • Beleaguered Assistant: Ichtaca, the temple's fire priest, to Acatl. Ichtaca basically runs the temple and even attends to Acatl's duties at court, and wishes that Acatl really would put more effort into being the High Priest instead of just acting like any other priest of the Dead.
  • Better the Devil You Know: Sure, Tizoc-tzin is obnoxious, incompetent and paranoid, but the alternative would be having star-demons wreak havoc in the Fifth World.
  • Blood Magic: TONS. All the magic and spells in the series require some form of sacrifice to complete. It's one reason Human Sacrifice is 100% tolerated—unlike in real life, it actually keeps the Empire running, and holds back the end of the world. Not everything requires human sacrifice, however: minor spells can be done with one's own blood, and most of the magic Acatl does uses various animal sacrifices instead. It's only the really big magic (like, y'know, keeping back the apocalypse) that requires the sacrifice of hearts.
  • Celibate Hero: Priests like Acatl are disallowed from marrying or having children. An exception is made however, for the Guardian of the Empire, since she represents the male-and-female creator gods of the Duality.
  • Cool Old Lady: Ceyaxochitl, Acatl's initial Trickster Mentor.
  • The Coroner: Acatl's job begins with examining corpses for cause of death. He wishes it ended there.
  • Damaged Soul: Tizoc-tzin, after his resurrection.
  • Entitled Bastard: Tizoc-tzin, up to eleven.
    • Quenami, too, who is Tizoc's understudy in this.
  • The Exotic Detective: Acatl is the second type.
  • Experienced Protagonist: Acatl begins the first book as the High Priest for the Dead and he knows his job.
  • Forgiven, but Not Forgotten: Tizoc lets Acatl know that's the case. Accordingly, Acatl makes sure to stay outside of the former's field of vision.
  • Genre-Busting: It's an urban murder mystery Aztec fantasy! Whee!
  • Glass Weapon: Obsidian (volcanic glass) weapons are frequently used, which is Truth in Television for the time period and place.
  • High Priest: Acatl is the High Priest of Mictlantechuhtli, the God of the Dead. It's a bit of a different position than the equivalents in Western culture, however: the priests of the Dead is a much less prestigious clergy, than, say, the priests of Huitzilopochtli or Tlaloc. Indeed, Acatl was held in contempt by the rest of his family for choosing to take up the "lowly" mantle of the priesthood instead of the much more honorable and glorious position of a warrior, like his brother.
  • Human Sacrifice: It's pre-Conquest Tenochitlian. What were you expecting? Interestingly, it's portrayed in much the same way that the Aztecs themselves would have viewed it, which is to say a normal part of daily life and a high honor for those who volunteered for it.
  • I Can Still Fight!: Acatl constantly gets horribly injured and refuses to acknowledge it because he thinks he's the only one who can save the day. Frequently lampshaded by all his friends and relatives.
  • Jerkass Gods: More or less all of them except for, possibly, Mictlantechuhtli, Quetzalcoatl, and the Duality. This is a fairly accurate representation of Mexica theology.
  • Jerk With A Heart Of Jerk: Acamapichtli, High Priest of Tlaloc, never does anything that does not further his needs or agenda or just generally makes him look good. He does, however, truly care for the members of his clergy.
    • Acamapichtli also doubles as a Deadpan Snarker whenever he and Acatl exchange more than two words.
  • Locked Room Mystery: The plot of Servant of the Underworld. A high-ranking priestess vanishes entirely from a room covered in blood, with no evidence as to where she had gone.
  • Love Goddess: In Servant of the Underworld, the missing priestess is a former priestess of Xochiquetzal, the goddess of lust and childbirth. Said priestess was angling to become the consort of Xochipilli, a much higher-ranking position. Acatl actually goes to meet Xochiquetzal at one point to ask her for help in his investigation. Turns out she was exiled to the world of the Fifth Sun (Earth) for sleeping with all the gods. She's shown to be aging rapidly due to being on Earth, but still well capable of exerting her powers, and extremely dangerous.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: Acatl has a few things to say on the matter, especially in the first book when everyone seems to be obsessed with Priestess Eleuia.
  • Mayincatec: Averted. de Bodard has done her research, and it shows; the people in the book are (correctly) called the Mexica, not Aztecs, the gods are all unique, and while human sacrifice DOES happen, it's shown in the way the Aztecs would have considered it — a normal, if gruesome, part of daily life.
  • Nay-Theist: Yayauhqui. Acatl, despite all his experience of the gods' capriciousness and cruelty, is nevertheless appalled and horrified by this.
  • Necromancer: Pretty literally. Acatl is the High Priest of the Dead. This gives him certain powers related to the Underworld, and to speaking to the dead.
  • Oblivious to Love: The short story Behind the Mask introduces Acatl's childhood friend Huchimitl who clearly used to be in love with him, but Acatl, oblivious to all the hints, had nothing better to do than go off to calmecac (priest school). It took Acatl a while to understand why Huchimitl was so forceful about her future husband's heroic deeds and dismissive of Acatl's choice of becoming a priest upon his return.
  • Occult Detective: High priest of the dead who uses blood magic to solve supernatural crimes.
  • Ominous Owl: Mictlantecuhtli's preferred sacrifices.
  • Only Sane Man: Acatl realizes how precarious the safety of the Fifth World is and treats anything that might threaten it with the gravity it deserves, as opposed to Quenami, who's focused on gaining political power, and Acamapichtli, who blithely assumes that the Fifth World can endure anything that happens.
  • Panthera Awesome: In addition to the usual Aztec preoccupation with how damn cool jaguars on, anyone born on a Jaguar day can potentially summon a Jaguar spirit. This is a major plot point in the first book. Also, Acatl's brother is a Jaguar Warrior.
  • Pre-Columbian Civilizations: The setting is pre-Conquest Tenochitlian, and is rendered in lavish detail.
  • Raging Stiffie: Xochiquetzal induces these.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Mictlantecuhtli isn't exactly friendly, but he's far more reasonable and less abusive to his human followers than the average Aztec god. Justified because, as both he and Acatl point out, he gets virtually everyone in the end.
  • Religion of Evil: Completely averted. While the gods are shown to be capricious and dangerous, and life itself is much the same, it's more a case of Blue-and-Orange Morality than it is of a religion of evil.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Ceyaxochitl, who is murdered in the second novel.
  • Shown Their Work: See above with Mayincatec. It is obvious that a lot of research was involved, but it never is obtrusive or derails the story, it just adds flavour to the setting and creates a sense of the characters living in the surroundings and culture natural to them.
    • It even goes so far that as soon as one learns the real name of one important character it's possible to predict the outcome of the third novel IF one knowns the chronology of the real Revered Speakers of Tenochtitlan. The definite clue is given offhandedly and at the right point in the story, but it's possible to infer it way earlier.
  • The Soulless: Yayauhqui, who was stripped of his soul by Texcatlipoca for an unstated offence.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Acatl's dad seriously disapproved of the fact that his son went off to become a priest of the dead instead of a respectable knight, like his older brother; this eats at Acatl constantly. Unfortunately, his dad is also dead, so no matter how hard Acatl works for the Empire, he'll never get that approval.