Master of the House of Darts
(Obsidian and Blood, volume 3)
By Aliette de Bodard
2011’s Master of the House of Darts is the third and to date final volume in Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood series. In the previous volume, Harbinger of the Storm, High Priest of the Dead Acatl and his allies resorted to some rather extreme measures to keep the Fifth World functioning (for the moment). This volume explores the consequences of that bold gambit.
The Empire now has a Revered Speaker and all should be well with the world. Should. In fact, Revered Speaker Tizoc-tzin’s first holy war gained a merely marginal victory and produced only a handful of prisoners for sacrifice. The gods may have spared the world, for now, but they certainly do not seem to be happy.
When a warrior collapses and dies during a holy rite, it falls to Acatl to investigate.
In the grand tradition of mysteries, the dead man turns out to be what is known in the trade as “an asshole victim.” There is no shortage of suspects, even if Acatl ignores the possibility that the dead man was not specifically targeted, but merely the first victim of a wider plot.
The warrior’s prisoner is also ill, which is an alarming development for several reasons. 1) Sacrifices are supposed to be healthy; a sickly sacrifice does the Fifth World little good. 2) This may not be a murder or two, but the first signs of a vast and terrible plague to come.
Or perhaps, the plague itself, as terrible as it is, could be leading up to something even worse. Something made possible by the compromise Acatl made in the second volume …
I fear that at some point some fool will point out to de Bodard that her skills are clearly applicable to mysteries AND that the mystery genre accounts for a quarter of all fiction sold. Mere spec-fic is accounts for perhaps a twentieth of all fiction sold1. Also, thanks to such luminaries as Christie and Sayers, mystery is only moderately hostile to women writers. All it could take is one paragraph in one review by some clueless person, and she might abandon spec-fic for mystery. A consummation devoutly to be dreaded.
It belatedly occurs to me that living in a world like the Fifth World, a world that is delicate and forever on the verge of collapsing into sparking shards, a world where it seems almost every scheme either involves someone deliberately trying to undermine the natural order or succeeding at doing that accidentally, is functionally like living in a perpetual ticking time bomb scenario. In such a world, it is all too easy to justify doing terrible things because the consequences of not doing those terrible things could be worse than the terrible things. Which, just to be clear here, are really terrible.
This is a book where the consequences of decisions that made sense at the time come back to haunt the characters. It’s nice to see that this sometimes happens, that the bold decisions don’t always produce the hoped-for results. What next? Why, even bolder, scarier decisions. If you’ve accidentally sawed halfway through one of the columns holding up reality, try finishing the job to see if that helps!
I am not optimistic about how much longer the Fifth World can survive, which reminds me: don’t look up the sequence of historical Revered Speakers, as it is something of a spoiler.…
Acatl is getting better at playing divine gumshoe, although he still racks up an impressive body-count along the way. Inspector Barnaby and Jim Taggart, no body-count pikers themselves, would be awed by Acatl’s achievements.
I was pleased to see that Acatl’s sister Mihmatini is still a significant character, one with her own perspective on the issues plaguing the empire. Brother-in-law (and Tizoc-tzin’s brother and heir) Teomitl… Well, a fourth book in the series may go in interesting directions.