Harbinger of the Storm is the second in the Obsidian and Blood series of fantasy novels from Aliette de Bodard. As such, it’s the follow-up to Servant of the Underworld, a novel not particularly enjoyed by me. My main gripe with it was that, whilst it had an interesting setting, other aspects of the novel didn’t work quite so well, leaving that the only notable thing about the book. I realise that this is a personal thing and that while many other people may agree with me, plenty of others may enjoy world-building for world-buildings sake.
Harbinger of the Storm follows from the events of the previous novel by around 18 months. It’s not particularly necessary that you’re familiar with the characters and the events of Servant of the Underworld, reference is occasionally made to them; but nothing is gained from knowing what happened in the earlier novel. Once again, Acatl, a High Priest, finds himself embroiled in a huge plot involving magic, sacrifice and political intrigue.
Sadly, some of the reasons for it not being necessary for the reader to be familiar with the previous novel aren’t good. The first novel suffered from poor characterisation, as does this. It wasn’t that the characters were unlikeable (and, anyway, I’m not averse to a cast of unpleasant characters, provided that they have depth and it isn’t just lazy moustache-twirling evilness) they just didn’t seem to be there. I really didn’t care all that much what happened to them. A lot of this had to do with the poor dialogue and narration (touched on previously). The fact that everyone had to explain to everyone what was going on and Acatl, the narrator, had a somewhat dull internal monologue going on made for a cast of characters who weren’t all that engaging. This style is carried through into this second book. I realise that in a series it may be jarring for people following it to find themselves reading something in an entirely different style; part of me wishes, though, that there had been some changes.
In a way not dissimilar to the first novel, Harbinger of the Storm opens with death (well, Acatl’s position does mean he always be involved with the dead). In this case it’s the death of the Revered Speaker, Axayacatl-tzin. An important man (well, obviously, he is revered after all), there are issues with his death and he needs to be replaced in order that the Fifth world can be protected by the Southern Hummingbird so that they are safe from the star-demons.
Many people have differing opinions about who should become Revered Speaker and political murders and intrigue soon follow. Once again, Acatl is drawn into a series of events which threaten to engulf both him and his people. Once again, although they all make sense by the end, the events do get somewhat out of hand (as to be fair, they did in the previous novel). There’s nothing wrong with this, per se. The novel clearly sets out that a replacement for Axayacatl-tzin is required. Plenty of other (better) novels feature a crime early on which has wider ramifications than the death of a person. Although, of course, they might be somewhat miffed at being brutally murdered. In the case of Harbinger of the Storm this is the death of a relatively minor character (in the sense of the society: we don’t encounter the man prior to his death). Ocome (the man whose death Acatl is called on to investigate) is killed in a particularly horrific way:
“In the room itself, there was not much new to see: the magic was slowly dissipating, absorbed by the wards. I’d expected the scattered gobs of flesh would have started to rot, but they remained in the same state, as if the star-demon’s removal of the soul had put a stop to the decomposition process.
I’d made more cheerful discoveries. No matter; he would still burn on his funeral pyre as well as any corpse, provided we could scrape the flesh from the floor and from the walls. For once, I was glad to be high priest, which meant someone further down the hierarchy would do the exhausting, distasteful work.”
I did find myself looking at this in two separate ways on the one hand, it does imply a world – and a character whose position reinforces this – where death (which is a great leveller, coming as it does to all) is not feared in perhaps the way that our society fears it currently. Of course, it could also be a product of Acatl’s dry and, often, overly detached inner monologue.
One other thing did start to grate a little while reading. Blood (well, it’s the “Blood and Obsidian” series) features heavily in the novel. Animal and human sacrifice are used to summon magic. On many occasions human blood is required, but the death of a person to supply it is possibly not wise. At these times, Acatl cuts his earlobe and uses his own blood. My problem is this: at one point it seemed to be happening every ten pages. Now, granted, I do have freakishly small ears (I make up for it with quite a big, though not enormous, nose) but it occurred to me that if Acatl is having to procure blood via this method frequently that his earlobes would become a mess and he might struggle to continue to do so. Over time they would surely end up a huge mass of scar tissue? I realise that this seems both minor and petty. But from a readers point of view, the fact that I was noticing the slashing of the earlobes in the way that I was every time it happened, does tend to suggest that these bits were becoming intrusive.
In both this, and in Servant of the Underworld Aliette de Bodard gives an Afterword and sources for the novels – showing her working (it’s clear that she has worked hard on the research and is a clever person, actually were she to write a general history of this place and period, I could be tempted to read it). Though I can’t say that I enjoyed either novel all that much, they are clearly well researched; this series has made me want to find out some more about the Aztec world. The world and its intrigues described in this book don’t sound uninteresting. However, this doesn’t prevent Harbinger of the Storm being weak as a novel. A shame, really. Although, it probably should go without saying, that if you did read and enjoy the previous novel, you’ll like this one, too.