Review: Obsidian and Blood

What’s better than buying and reading one book in a series? Buying and reading one book that contains all the books in a series for the price of a single book. I’ve been in the mood for some genre-busting lately, but I think that few books (at least, few genre books, literature seems built around this idea that it’s not in any particular genre) can pull it off in a way so that it feels like care and attention has been given to all aspects of the book. Too often, I’ve found that books that combine genres tend to sacrifice one to give more attention to the other (paranormal romance is a notable offender, sacrificing the paranormal part to go straight to the romance) and books that combine genres but don’t seem to fit into any one genre run the risk of, I think, trying to do too many things at once. A quick note before I launch into the usual dramatic plot summary and such. I could (as I usually do with anthologies) comment on each novel in turn, but truth be told, I think I have more to say about the complete series than the individual parts, and talking about the books in general will avoid spoiling the events of the individual novels.

Obsidian and Blood contains all three novels starring Acatl, High Priest of the Dead in pre-Conquest Tenochtitlan: Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts. Acatl isn’t your typical detective, in fact, most of the time he only gives dead bodies a cursory examination and then sends them on their way with the proper rites, but somehow he keeps ending up investigating cases involving murder and magical mayhem. The first book begins with a classic locked room mystery, with Acatl searching for a missing priestess that quickly becomes more personal. He is assisted throughout the series by Teomitl, who is Acatl’s opposite in many ways: more impulsive and brash while Acatl is more level-headed. Other important characters include Mihmatini, Acatl’s sister, Ceyaxochitl, Guardian of the Sacred Precinct, who basically serves as a sort of Chief of Police, and Neutemoc, Acatl’s older brother who is a member of the prestigious Jaguar Knights. I like Acatl as a character, I appreciate characters with a good head on their shoulders, and Acatl increasingly plays the role of the voice of reason throughout the series. Other characters grew on me, like Acamapichtli, High Priest of Tlaloc, who is practically a walking pile of snarky lines (especially in the third book). I didn’t feel like they were especially complex characters, somewhat one dimensional, reliable, shall we say, but I would say the focus isn’t so much on the characters themselves as the world they inhabit.

The world is very interesting. I haven’t read a whole lot of fiction set in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and I only know a smattering of details about Aztec culture. The Obsidian and Blood series adds an element of the fantastic, with deities living in the mortal world, priests performing magical rituals, and human sacrifice that literally sustains the Fifth World. Human sacrifice is not treated as horrifying, as it usually is by the majority of media portrayals featuring the Aztecs, but as a normal part of the world, with the sacrifices themselves seeing it as a great honor. The book is also refreshingly near devoid of romance subplots, as Acatl is a celibate priest who is not permitted to have children, although Teomitl does have a bit of one. The high point of the series for me was, funnily enough, the second book. The first book did the usual job of first books: setting things up and reaching a satisfying conclusion by the end of the book, but I wasn’t really as engaged by the mystery as I was in the second book, and I felt the third book fell flat in many areas, to the point where it took me way more time to read it than the previous books. I did have two major issues with the omnibus.

The first is that I feel as if fans of fantasy will get more out of this book than mystery readers. At times it just seemed like Acatl solved the mysteries in the series by running around and talking to people until something out of the ordinary happened like he was in the average JRPG. Don’t get me wrong, the mysteries are all eventually solved and there’s usually a twist or two to keep you on your toes, but those of you expecting a bit more detective work will probably be disappointed. The other issue I had was with the writing itself. English is the author’s second language, and the books are not unreadable by any means (in fact, I’ve read way worse from native English speakers), but at times I found the dialogue didn’t make a whole lot of sense or some word choices were kind of awkward. it definitely didn’t deter me in the same way that The School for Good and Evil did, but it could get very distracting and the book could have used some more careful editing. I also found the writing very non-descriptive, more focused on the characters than describing their surroundings, which in itself is not a bad thing, it’s just very to the point kind of prose.

Diversity wise there’s really not much to say as this is set in pre-Columbian Aztec society where everyone is brown and white people haven’t yet arrived to really screw over the Fifth World. There are no queer characters to speak of but considering the little I know about Aztec society doesn’t exactly paint it as a queer-friendly society I’d almost prefer the erasure.

In terms of potentially triggery things, as I said before, human as well as animal sacrifice is a completely normal thing in Mexica culture, and animals in particular are sacrificed a lot throughout the series. There’s also a fair amount of violence and descriptions of dead bodies and what has been done to them. Overall, I liked Obsidian and Blood even though I thought it fell a little flat at the end, and I would say that all things considered it is an interesting mix of a few different genres and the premise for her new novel, involving “a devastated Belle Epoque Paris split between quasi-feudal Houses, addictive magic, dragons–and entirely too many dead bodies!” sounds like it’s definitely worth a look if you like this.

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