Today is the official publication day of the Angry Robot Omnibus edition of the Obsidian & Blood series of Aztec mystery adventures starring Acatl, Aztec High-Priest of the Dead, by Aliette de Bodard. To mark the occasion, we asked Aliette to share her thoughts on the series now that it was complete and this is what she told us…
Six years ago, I wrote my first Acatl short story. At the time, it wasn’t particularly or recognisably Aztec: all I knew of the culture was the few things I’d gleaned from one or two research books, and from my Spanish courses. I certainly didn’t imagine, as I was writing “the end”, that I was going to launch into a whole novel, much less a trilogy!
Now that the last book, Master of the House of Darts, is finished, and the entire Obsidian & Blood series has been collected into an omnibus, I can look back with a sense of achievement: I have finished novels and series, I am a real writer (ha, I wish! My inner panicky self so totally continues to believe I’m faking it and that it’s only a matter of time before I get found out).
More seriously, though, there is definitely achievement in not only writing three books, but managing not to write the same book over and over again–to keep a series going in the same universe while having different plots and an overall progression for the characters that gets carried from book to book. But, because everything has a darker lining, this achievement is also accompanied by regrets. Over at Codex, a writer’s forum I frequent, James Maxey says that all novels are haunted by what they could have been – by the choices that shaped them, the decisions that the writer made, either consciously or unconsciously, and which end up having such a huge impact on the shape and heft of the finished novel(s).
Accordingly, here are the things I’m most proud and or two things I mildly regret, with regard to Obsidian & Blood.
Things I Could Maybe Have Handled Better
First-Person as a Limit to the Storyline
I made the choice of first person because it seemed easier to handle as a novice writer, and because it made sense, writing as I did within a Chandler-esque tradition of a private eye haunting the mean streets (er, OK, mean canals) of a city. Were I to rewrite the books now, I’m not entirely sure I would keep that choice. The first drawback is evident: first person is inherently limiting, and I pretty much had to make sure to stay with my narrator Acatl for the entirety of the series, whereas there were plenty of other awesome characters whom I would have wished to follow.
By book three, this has started to become very limiting, in particular in the handling of gender roles: in a gender-segregated society, my male narrator pretty much stuck with other males, which means that female characters, by and large, were elided from the narration. I did my best by giving large roles to priestesses, but I still feel that women could have had a more prominent role if the series had been in alternating third-person point of view.
First-Person as a Limit to Character Exploration
The other problem I had with first person was its intense focus on one character – it’s hard to make said character come across as anything but selfish and self-centred, because he’s talking all the time and only knows about his own emotions and feelings.
As a corollary, it’s also hard to make him have emotional crises without coming across as hysterical – which is a bit problematic in a series which relies on a bunch of emotional crises… 🙂
I was much less aware of the issues and pitfalls of cultural appropriation at the time I wrote those (though my understanding notably expanded as I was writing the series, and it shows!) I did my best with existing material; and I tried to do justice to a vibrant culture without demonising it, but the fact remains that I’m not writing in a culture that is my own or close to my own. I’m not saying that it makes the series worthless or bad (on the contrary, I very much hope it’s a valuable depiction); but I’m acutely aware that, as an outsider writing about that culture, in both time and space, I might be to some extent perpetuating an exoticism problem! I did try my best, but I most probably stumbled in places.
Je Ne Regrette Rien…
This is the flipside of the cultural appropriation thing I was talking about earlier. I’ve already said that one of the motivations for tackling those books was presenting the Mexica in a more favourable light than the Barbarians demonised by the Spanish, or the bloodthirsty incarnation of evil used as a shorthand for villains in too many genre books to mention. And I think that, at least from those (admittedly low) standards, that I’ve succeeded.
The books bring to life the Mexica as a vibrant culture, advanced in many respects from medicine to astronomy (just like the historical culture). And they do so without sweeping human sacrifice under the carpet: sacrifice is seen as a glorious feat, an act of abnegation that averts the end of the world and elevates the sacrifice victim to the same level as the gods – and not as a scary, inhuman and demonised practise.
Religion and magic in the books
I was trying not to replicate what I’d seen in a lot of genre novels, where religion is a lip-service that not only doesn’t really seem to affect the societal structure (whereas it should, profoundly), but is also not followed by a large majority of the people. I’m not saying everyone subscribed to, say, the teachings of the Catholic Church back in the Middle Ages (there were, of course, practitioners of other religions as well as atheists), but it’s highly unlikely that most of the population would have been against Catholicism, and that 90% of the clergy would have seen it only as a stepping stone to power.
In my novels, Acatl is a profoundly devout man (at the expense of his own social advancement), who trusts not only in the existence but also in the powers of the gods, and religion permeates every aspect of daily life. Which isn’t to say, of course, that the clergy wouldn’t be out looking for their own interests: High Priest of Tlaloc Acamapicthli is the perfect example of a man who cares very much for his own advancement (though he also acknowledges the power of the gods).
Melding the Mystery and the Fantasy
Another motivation for writing the books in the format of an investigation with magic was merging two of my favourite genres. I love fantasy, from Patricia McKillip to Ursula Le Guin and everything in between; but I also gobble up mysteries from writers like Elizabeth George, Tran-Nhut (and forebear Robert Van Gulik) or Arthur Conan Doyle. The one thing that I found really hard to do, when I introduced magic into a mystery storyline, was to strike the right balance: for me, magic should be a little wild and a little dangerous, and not like the magic of a videogame where the rules are set once and for all. At the same time, if magic has no rules, it becomes hard to keep any kind of mystery: after all, if you really can summon the dead from the underworld, why do you even bother having an investigation into a murder? Summon the victim, ask what happened, et voilà, you’re done!
Needless to say, that would have made a really brief series, so I sought to convey a sense of cosmology – an overarching logic that would be followed by magic and by the gods without being a framework so rigid it killed every possibility. By and large, I think that worked pretty well: the magic in the story feels real to me, alien and large and unpredictable, but I never found myself scrambling for reasons to hide information from my main characters. The universe provided everything I needed on its own 🙂
Nezahual-tzin and Teomitl
And, last but not least, something far smaller-scale, a.k.a. my favourite duo of characters. Teomitl is Acatl’s brash and impulsive student of magic, whereas Nezahual-tzin, who the ruler of a beleaguered city, is more measured, more used to hiding his true feelings. And, of course, his fondness for courtesans adds an extra layer of fun, since Teomitl is a bit prissy. Whenever those two are involved in the narration, sparks fly – and the scenes involving those two together were easily my favourite to write.
There you go, my favourite and most instructive things about the series, in a universe that has been following me around for six years, three books and three short stories. Hope you enjoyed the retrospective, and don’t forget to pick up the omnibus!
Obsidian & Blood is out now and available from all good booksellers – online, offline, chain and indie alike – in both print and ebook formats. Speaking of the latter, you can pick up a DRM-Free ePub edition from our very own Robot Trading Company webstore.