When so many writers are still playing with Europe as the field for their fantasy, Aliette de Bodard heads straight for the Aztec empire. Her fiction is exciting because it is both familiar and strange.
And here’s another thing to make you crazy. She’s writing in a second language. Aliette grew up speaking French, because, well, she lives in France. I think that is part of what lends her use of language such vitality, that she is approaching it from the point of view of someone who loves it for its own sake, rather than someone who grew up with it.
Did I mention that she was nominated for the Campbell award last year? So let’s listen to her Favorite Bit of Obsidian and Blood.
ALIETTE DE BODARD:
My Favourite Bit of Obsidian and Blood is the monsters.
Obsidian and Blood is an omnibus which collects my entire Aztec noir series of the same name. Set at the height of the Mexica Empire, the books follow the adventures of Acatl, a priest of the Death God who investigates magical crimes. In the world of Obsidian and Blood, Aztec mythology is real: the shedding of blood through penance and sacrifice is the only thing that keeps the sun in the sky, and the earth fertile–not to mention a host of not-entirely-friendly gods appeased.
The books are part epic fantasy, part mysteries: the crimes Acatl investigates have magical ramifications that can have a host of unpleasant consequences, from the anger of gods to the end of the Aztec Empire. Magic plays a large part: spells are cast through the use of hymns and living blood, and sorcerers, priests and other magic users are major players in Aztec politics.
I did a lot of research into Aztec mythology for writing the trilogy. Aside from getting the daily life details right, one of the things I was concerned with was finding what kind of magical threats Acatl could be dealing with. Fortunately, creepy monsters abound in Aztec mythology, and I had no difficulty finding horrible adversaries to make Acatl’s life a misery (yes, I’m a sadist. Only when it comes to my own characters, I swear!). In the first book, Servant of the Underworld, I introduced ahuizotls, who look like cute little otters–that is, except for the clawed hand on their tail, which they use to drag victims to the bottom of lakes, and feast on their eyeballs and fingernails…
But it’s the second book, Harbinger of the Storm, that features my absolute favourites: tzitzimime, or star-demons. The Aztecs believed that the stars were monsters; and that the end of the world would be heralded by their falling to earth and tearing everyone apart. A star-demon isn’t pretty to look at, since they have a skull for a face, a necklace of human hands and hearts–and eyes (or stars, or the faces of other star-demons) at every joint. But the bit that I absolutely love isn’t the horrible aspect. Rather, it’s the symbolism, which goes completely against what people expect of stars. One of the creepiest scenes in Harbinger of the Storm has Acatl racing against the clock to stop an impending star-demon attack: as he runs, he sees the stars fall one by one towards earth. It would be a pretty, romantic scene in most cultures; but here it morphs into something creepy and horrible which totally goes against the grain of the expected.
Darkness descended across the Sacred Precinct as surely as if a cloth had been thrown over the Fifth Sun; for a moment – a bare, agonising moment of stillness – everything hung in silence, and I allowed myself to believe, for a fleeting heartbeat, that Teomitl was right, that Acamapichtli was right and that we would survive this as we had survived everything since the beginning of the Empire.
And then the stars fell.
One by one they streaked towards the Fifth World, leaving a trail of fire in their wake, growing larger and larger, pinpoints of light becoming the eyes of monsters, becoming the joints on skeletal limbs, becoming small specks scattered across the dark-blue skirts of star-demons as they plummeted towards the Great Temple.
I heard screams, but I was already running, elbowing my way through the press of bewildered warriors. I turned briefly to see if Nezahual-tzin was following, but could see nothing but a heaving sea of headdresses and garlands.
Most of the crowd ahead of me was going in the opposite direction, away from the star-demons; and soon it was impossible for me to move at all, pressing against the current. As they flowed around me, I reached out for one of my obsidian knives. I brought it up in a practised gesture, and, rubbing my own warm blood against my forehead, whispered a small invocation to Lord Death. The cold of the underworld spread from the sign, and the press around me grew a little less dense. I pushed and pulled. I had to get there, had to warn Acamapichtli before it was too late, had to…
Faces frozen in grimaces of fear, my elbows connecting with someone’s chest, sending them tumbling to the ground, someone pushing back at me, me, stumbling, catching myself just in time, screams and moans, and the sour, sickly smell of fear mingling with that of blood.
I also have other monsters, of course. Beasts of shadows that tear out human hearts, ghosts that gather to bring supernatural plagues, a deity made up entirely of obsidian shards… But the star-demons are my favourites–they just give a whole new meaning to the sentence “look to the stars”!
Aliette de Bodard is a Computer Engineer who lives in a Parisian flat with more computers than warm bodies, and two Lovecraftian plants in the process of covering every piece of furniture in the living room with greenish tentacles. Her speculative fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and the Year’s Best Science Fiction, and has garnered her a British Science Fiction Association Award, as well as nominations for the Hugo, Nebula and John Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her Aztec noir trilogy, Obsidian and Blood, is published by Angry Robot. Visit http://aliettedebodard.com for more information.