Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Lit Geek
  Book Reviews by James Maxey
April 2009

Servant of the Underworld by Aliette De Bodard

Perhaps it's true that there are no new ideas in literature, but every so often you run into two old ideas smashed together to create something you've never witnessed before. This is definitely the case with Aliette De Bodard's Servant of the Underworld. Here, you have a fantasy novel in the historical setting of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs, where all the ancient gods and magic are treated as real. We are guided through this mythology by Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead, who performs his magic with copious doses of spilled blood. Onto this historical-based fantasy, De Bodard then introduces a locked room mystery: A priestess has disappeared. A suspect has been captured in her room, covered in blood, but protesting his innocence. Complicating matters further: The suspect is Acatl's own brother Neutemoc, an acclaimed Jaguar Knight.

The first half of the book unfolds like a classic mystery. While some magic is used in the investigation of what unfolded in the priestess's chambers that night, the plot is driven by what can only be described as old-fashioned detective work. Acatl goes around the city interviewing witnesses, unraveling the threads of a scandalous affair between his brother and the priestess, an affair that might possibly have produced a bastard child. Yet, for every clue Acatl gathers that his brother murdered the priestess to keep their affair a secret, he gets other clues that point to a larger conspiracy woven into the complex politics of the Aztec society. By the end of the book, the classic murder mystery structure gives way to epic magical battles along the realms dividing the living from the dead and a threat that could bring about the end of the world.

I never stopped admiring the book as I read it. The plot is skillfully constructed, and the setting fully researched and revealed through masterful pacing. Still, there were a few stumbles. The Aztec names were extremely difficult to navigate. There is a list of character names at the back of the book that would have come in handy if I'd thought to look for it. A larger problem is that Acatl for the first half of the book is much more a detective than he is a priest. There are several points in the book where he even makes reference to "the case," dialogue more appropriate to a police officer than a High Priest. The dominance of the mystery plot made the setting feel less important than it actually proves to be. For much of the book, it felt as if the plot could be removed from the Aztec setting and placed just about anywhere. It's not until late in the book that it becomes apparent that the story really could unfold only in this specific world.

If you are looking for something original to read, you definitely won't go wrong with this Aztec magical fantasy murder mystery.

The Extra by Michael Shea

There wasn't much you could point to in The Extra by Michael Shea as original. The decadent, corporations-run-amuck setting seems lifted from Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash. The idea of people dying gloriously for the entertainment of others dates back to at least the Romans. The cast feels a little familiar as well. You've got your wise-cracking tough guy fighting not for glory but to help his loved ones, a street-wise tough girl with a heart of gold for him to fall in love with, and a megalomaniac film director who is trying to kill them with giant mechanical spiders.

About those spiders: The premise of the book is pretty straightforward. In the future, a public jaded by special effects will pay big bucks to see actual people dying on screen. Of course, the movie stars themselves won't risk this danger, but there are plenty of people willing to sign on as extras and earn big bonuses if they survive epic slaughter among sets where genuine killing machines are turned loose. From film to film, the exact nature of the machines changes, and part of the anxiety for the extras is that they don't know until they reach the set exactly what it is that they'll be facing. Shea does a pretty good job of building the sense of dread as his characters spread rumors and imagine various horrible scenarios. But, alas, some of this is undercut by the cover showing a giant mechanical spider, along with a blurb about the spiders. Authors have little to no say about their covers, but it's a shame that the people who designed the cover couldn't have respected what the author was attempting to do. (And, I know, I just undercut it further by talking about it.)

Despite the fact that this book didn't break any new ground for the SF genre, I must point out that I read the whole book in a matter of hours, thoroughly engaged with the characters and plot line. Curtis, the lead narrator, is likeable and the future slang that peppers his speech is used judiciously, making his voice interesting without pushing it over the edge into indecipherable. The pacing of the book is particularly effective, mixing chapters and scenes of high intensity action with well-timed scenes where the characters pause to catch their breath and reflect upon the past and dream about the future. And, in this age of reality television where people seem eager to claw over one another to behave badly on camera in pursuit of fame and fortune, the idea of people willingly battling killer robots in the hopes of getting a little screen time feels depressingly plausible. In fact, I have no doubt somewhere in Hollywood someone is reading The Extra and thinking, "We could really do this!"

And I bet they'll shoot it in 3D.

Read more by James Maxey


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