Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood trilogy has been on my radar ever since I read her short story “The Jaguar House, in Shadow” in last year’s Hugo nominations packet. I also will admit to some fan-girl squee’ing when I found out she was French but writing in English. When I was sixteen I had a dream of doing the reverse, writing and publishing fantasy in French, though I quickly gave up on the idea when I realized just how below par my French writing skills were–and how hard it was to get modern French literature in America to learn from.
Anyway, what I actually want to talk about is historical fantasy and how much I’ve learned from Aliette’s example.
To do that, I’ll start by saying the trilogy follows the point of view of Acatl, High Priest for the Dead, who is called on to solve a series of murders and disasters (this IS a trilogy) all of which turn quite political. The books are set in a fantasy 15th Century Aztec nation. Thus, many of the key figures are historical, as well as the mythos of the world, the places, and the culture. (I should point out that Acatl first appeared in her winning story “Obsidian Shards” in Writer’s of the Future XXIII.) I also quite enjoyed how the first book starts off with small (and large) scale family problems, as Acatl’s brother is the one framed for the missing priestess, and so Acatl must confront all the issues between them to prove his brother’s innocence. None of the characters are perfect. In fact, throughout the trilogy, those who work together to save their Fifth World are all imperfect and bring their own set of foibles to the table. By the end, though, I confess to tearing up and wanting more–to complete more of the journey with the whole cast. (Forget the word “trilogy”, give me another book!)
The magic system of rituals and spells is also, well, amazing. My favorite god would have to be Lord Death, of course, and my favorite “creatures” would have to be the jaguar spirits, the Wind of Knives, and the star-demons.
So, Aliette combines a lot of amazing ideas with a lot of solid research. If you ever want to write historical fantasy, you should give this trilogy a try. You will learn a lot from her example. There are weaknesses of course, but all of us have them, and we learn best by examining both others’ strengths and weaknesses, then comparing them to our own.
For example, my current WIP is non-Western historical fantasy, as well. I also use a series of historical figures, but instead of keeping everything strictly historical, I’m adapting history to the story I want to tell, rather than what she did which was adapting her story to history. The benefit of her doing this is that when I finished the trilogy, there was a historical appendix to read about what happened to a few of the characters post-trilogy. The difficulty, I’ve discovered, is letting history and research and ideas trump the execution of the minutia such as smooth character arcs, motivations, and dialogue. I’ve seen this in my own writing at least. There can only be so many foci. (Focuses? lol)
To combat this, I’m trying to do all my research upfront, and then just let the pressure go and focus on the characters themselves and the story they have to tell once I know the world well enough. I think the technique will work. At least, it’s working a lot better than the way I started out, which was to do research as I wrote. I quickly got bogged down trying to get everything “right”, and I couldn’t focus on the characters and who they were when I cared more about the world and accurate details.
I also want to point out something else that Aliette did well with her trilogy. She handled all of the cultural differences between our culture and the Mexica culture REALLY well. I mean, human sacrifices were treated as completely normal–and vital to their world’s continuation. It would have been easy to trump this up and point touristy fingers at how strange and exotic this is. But she successfully painted their culture not as something to look at with wide eyes but something practical to live in, where the characters are used to their world because that’s just how they live. And it was interesting to note how in the last book Acatl’s perceptions of right and wrong change or come into question–for very good reasons. He’s confronted by moral consequences of his actions in the second book. Still, he was an insider to his world, not an outsider looking in, and I really appreciated that.
Interested? Pick up
Book One – Servant of the Underworld.
Book Two – Harbinger of the Storm.
Book Three – Master of the House of Darts.
OR Omnibus edition – only $11.
(A word of warning, though: Angry Robot did a shoddy job formatting the e-book versions. If this bothers you as much as it bothered me, buy the paperback versions. I had a much pleasanter read on the paperback I received for Book Three.)