Obsidian & Bloody Brilliant

The next installation in Female Writers’ Month is here, and you get a review of not one novel, not two novels, but three novels! In one review! Aren’t I generous?

OK, so the books are a trilogy, so maybe that’s being a little liberal with the definition of generous, but shut up.

Obsidian and Blood is a fantasy novel, but one that takes a departure from the normal through its setting; Aliette De Bodard sets her novels in a fantasy world that is essentially a hybrid of both Aztec history and mythology. Historical locations are used, and in this world the same gods that the Aztecs worshipped historically are worshipped here. The key difference is that, in terms of theology, the people in the Obsidian & Blood world were bang on the money, and they share their world with bloodthirsty gods, demons, evil spirits, marginally-less-evil spirits and magic. De Bodard absolutely excels at worldbuilding, and does it in the two best ways; by packing the setting with rich layers of detail, and using character actions and interactions to tell the audience about the world rather than dumping exposition on the readers’ collective heads. As a result, Obsidian & Blood often feels like an well-researched historical novel with elements of fantasy thrown in, and it really works.

The novels are certainly helped by the fact that De Bodard populates it with well-rounded and three dimensional characters; Acatl, the novel’s narrator, is a complex character with his own motivations, and he’s surrounded by a cast of equally memorable and notable characters, with my personal favourite being his sort-of apprentice Teomitl.

Each book is a self-contained story that takes place within a broad narrative arc, and by and large this approach works quite well. While events are mentioned from the novel before, and the storyline of the third book uses the conclusion of the second as a springboard, I get the feeling that you could pick up book two or three and follow them without too much difficulty. All of the novels start with a mysterious death, and follow Acatl trying to unravel the causes of it and uncover the perpetrators, hampered by the efforts of the killers and by political intrigue and Machiavellian machinations. All of this, combined with the first-person narration and the rather grim, gloomy setting, means the books get a rather Noire feel to them. Aztec Fantasy Noire, that’s what I’m saying the genre of these books is, from now on.

One of my favourite things in the novel, and one that I feel deserves a special mention, is the magic used in the books. In the Obsidian and Blood world, spells work by drawing on the power of the gods, and as a result these spells are cast through chanting hymns and giving offerings, often through spilt blood or animal sacrifice (these books are not vegetarian-friendly, not by any means). There are dozens of these chants throughout the novels, and they are an absolute joy to read; I can’t say whether they were lifted from Aztec religious practise, but if De Bodard made them up then she displayed a real talent for making them feel like genuine prayers.

The primary issue with the books for me, however, was probably Acatl himself, specifically Acatl in books two and three. He is by no means a bad character, as I said earlier, and he is three-dimensional, flawed and engaging, even if he does occasionally feel like that only sane man in the novels. However, by the time the first book is complete, Acatl’s character arc is largely complete; he faces down and defeats his personal demons by the end of book one, and from then on in terms of character development he just kind of coasts. This probably wouldn’t be so much of an issue for me, but as all of the books are written in first-person from Acatl’s perspective, and when he’s surrounded by characters in later books who are having arcs of their own, he feels even more stuck and static. It’s hardly ruinous, but it’s a fly in the trilogy’s otherwise excellent ointment.

That said, the Obsidian and Blood trilogy is still excellent, and is a strong contender for the best book I’ve read so far in Female Writers’ Month. I would gladly recommend it to somebody who wants a good mystery novel or a fantasy novel that’s a bit different from the rest.

1 Comment

Filed under Review, Writing

One response to “Obsidian & Bloody Brilliant

  1. AJ

    Glad you liked this one! It was definitely a standout trilogy and the books are among the best I’ve read to date. The best thing about the books was the setting, which Aliette has said is an Aztec Empire before the arrival of the Spanish in the Americas. Also, she definitely doesn’t shy away from the more violent tendencies of the Aztec people and that’s one of the things that makes these novels more authentic. It would have been easy to wishwash it all away and “sanitize” it, but I’m glad she didn’t go that route. (Aztec) noir fantasy or dark fantasy or even horror fantasy, take your pick, these books are plain excellent.

    If you’re interested in reading more about how Aliette went about writing these novels and giving them an authentic, appropriate feel, she’s done two guests posts for me:

    On the significance of names in her fiction — http://sonsofcorax.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/nanp-on-the-appropriateness-of-names-and-naming-customs/

    On Writing Convincing Non-Western Fantasy — http://thefoundingfields.com/2012/06/non-western-fantasy-aliette-de-bodard/

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