Sunday, 30 October 2011

Review | Master of the House of Darts - "Aztec fantasy mysteries? Count me in!"

Steampunk. Urban Fantasy. Alternate History. They're all steps out of the generic European Fantasyland, and I love them for it.

But never - to my knowledge - have we seen an Aztec urban fantasy mystery: and one taking as its protagonist a priest of death (generally reserved for those antagonistic cults in most fantasy, complete with ominous latic chanting). I've gone on about fantasy taking its inspiration from outside Europe, and this is proof that when it happens, it's amazing. These aren't the 'token human sacrifice people' Aztecs. These are the Aztecs as they knew themselves, complete with a culture far wider than you've seen. In fact, Aliette de Bodard wrote an introduction as a prelude to the first book, which you can find here.

Master of the House of Darts (not set in the local pub) is the third novel in the Obsidian and Blood series, following the excellent Servant of the Underworld and Harbringer of the Storm. Acatl, High Priest of Death, is struggling with the aftermath of the resurrection of their leader - the Revered Speaker. Tizoc-tzin is paranoid, rash, and worse, unsuccessful in his coronation war. Sacrifices are few, and to make matters worse, Eptli, an honoured warrior, dies.

An ill omen, but physically much more harmful: the death was the result of a magical perstilence. With Eptli's enemies numerous, the means of death uncertain, Acatl needs to investigate. This is a mix of UF and crime - and even the gods are suspect. Worse, the Revered Speaker's rule in insecure, and Acatl must face the consequences of his previous actions. Teomitl, his pupil, cannot wait forever to displace an incompetent ruler. And his patience is drawing short...

Aside from the innovative setting (Have I mentioned I love it? I believe I have), Acatl is a fantastically non-traditional protagonist. High Priest of Death, he turns around the stereotypes to investigate a murder, and in the process questions his own actions and beliefs. He's a more - not passive, but thinking - protagonist than, say, Harry Dresden. This is relatively low action, with a few notable exceptions, but it's nevertheless engaging.

Pure mystery, however, this is not. As you might expect, many of the causes are supernatural. Though well-explained, fans of the more human-centric mystery will likely be disappointed. If you're willing to embrace the world's heady mix of theological and mundane, however, you're in for a treat.

In terms of characters beside Acatl, there's no dominant personality, though I was particularly fond of the secondary Acamapichtli: another priest with whom Acatl has what's called an 'uneasy understanding'. There's no overwhelming presence, but he and several others are particularly strong - and occasionally amusing - additions. Teomitl, Acatl's pupil, and current Master of the House of Darts (title drop, anyone?) is also a frequent companion. Although the change he goes through is fairly radical, it is believable and well-developed. Though I can't spoil it by telling you what it is... Frustrating, aren't I?

This is an eclectic urban fantasy written with verve and style, and one very likely to end with you attempting to pay the local shopkeeper in cacao beans. Yes - I might be exaggerating, but it's almost that engaging. Though slower paced than the Dresden Files (what isn't?), if you're looking to read outside the typical, this is an excellent choice.

...But read its predecessors first.


This novel will be released on November 3rd, so be ready...
Have you read this novel, or its prequels - or plan to? Comment and tell me below!


  1. It's steampunk? I did not know that. Aztecian fantasy mystery.. yeah that drew me in well enough! I bought Servant of the Underworld for my kindle in the summer sale for like £1.50 or something equally silly? Couldn't resist, it sounds like a great read. Just hope I have time to read it soon.
    Once Upon A Time

  2. I think this is the first time I've ever come across a novel based on Mesoamerican culture! SOLD. ha. Seriously, this series sounds great, I'll have to keep my eyes open for the first book.

  3. @Hannah: Nope, I was just using steampunk as an example of something outside the normal medieval 'fantasyland'! :P Heh, nice choice - I'm sure you'll enjoy it (and that Kindle price is great - I've just got one myself, and I've mostly stuck to ARCs and lovely Project Gutenberg... Heh) I'll look out for your review sometime!

    @Colleen: I felt a similar way: non-Western inspiration is always a selling point, but Aztec murder mystery? Done! Yep, I highly recommend it - very fun.

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