Aliette de Bodard is a writer of both short and long fiction, whose love of mythology and history resonates through the many stories she has written. Winner of the Writers of the Future contest and finalist for the Campbell Award, her Obsidian of Blood trilogy is currently being published by Angry Robot. We caught up with her to find out more…
Your first book, Servant of the Underworld, was published by Angry Robot in January; what is it about and what ideas were behind it? How did you get involved with Angry Robot?
I wrote Servant of the Underworld because I wanted a good fantasy mystery. There are a lot of urban fantasy procedurals on the shelves currently, but I was disappointed by a row of them I read, which had only the trappings of mysteries. The investigation had obvious suspects or an obvious motive, and the plot never quite twisted enough for my taste (I love mysteries, and a good twist even more so). So I decided to write my own magical murder mystery. Because I’m a contrarian, a history geek and a general lover of all historical detectives (particularly Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falco and Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee), I decided to set the novel among the Aztecs in the 15th Century, basing it on a short story, ‘Obsidian Shards’, which had won the Writers of the Future contest.
The novel is thus set in 1480 in Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Empire. A fragile balance of blood sacrifices maintains the sun in the sky and the earth fertile. My narrator is Acatl, High Priest for the Dead: his order investigates magical offences that might break this balance; however, Acatl himself is uncomfortable with his high position, wishing only to go back to his small temple and simpler tasks. But when his estranged brother Neutemoc is found in a room reeking of magic, his hands covered in blood, Acatl might have to use all his influence to get at the truth…
Lest you think it’s all mystery and murder, it also has ghostly jaguars, bloodthirsty gods, and fingernail-eating monsters. It’s the first book in the Obsidian and Blood trilogy, all of which will be released by Angry Robot.
I got involved with Angry Robot purely by chance: when I went to my first World Fantasy in Calgary in 2008, my return flight via Heathrow was cancelled, leaving me stuck in a small, out-of-the-way hotel on the outskirts of town. Since there wasn’t much to do, people converged towards the (equally small) hotel lobby, and that’s where I met John Berlyne (with whom I’d chatted the previous night), and Marc Gascoigne (whom I didn’t know at all). We fell to talking, whereupon – after telling me he was an editor – Marc said something to the effect of ‘we’re all stuck here, with nothing much better to do. Why don’t you pitch to me?’ Which I did (after the first moment of blind-hot panic had passed), and they both looked still interested by the time I’d finished stammering through. I knew I was going to send them the manuscript at that point, so on the journey home I rewrote the entire beginning section of Servant (which I knew lagged a bit but had been too lazy to tackle), and submitted it as soon as I arrived. I was the first surprised when the whole thing turned out into a sale.
You’ve written many short stories with Aztec influences, what is it about that culture that inspires you?
It’s partly because, while I was a great mythology and history geek as a child, I never got too much into Mesoamerican cultures – thus researching them now as an author gives me the thrill of the new (it’s sad to say, but I’ve badly overdosed on Egyptian, Greek and Roman mythology to the point of not being able to enjoy them as I used to).
The other thing that’s always bugged me about Mesoamerica, and the Aztecs in particular, is how badly they have been treated by history. Not only were they exterminated by the Spanish, but they have a bad image even today. If you have a bloodthirsty religious culture somewhere in a book, chances are, it’s going to be modelled on the Aztecs. But, quite aside from the misunderstanding over the whole blood sacrifice thing (the participants were willing, and it wasn’t seen as cruel but rather as a necessity), the Aztec culture had elements that were more advanced than the culture of the West at that time period: a justice system that held the noblemen (with more freedom) to more responsibility than the commoners, a balanced if not quite equal treatment of men and women, and a social system that made it possible for commoners to be promoted to noblemen via feats of war.
You’ve also written stories influenced by other ancient cultures such as Ancient India and China, what appeals to you about them and which other cultures would you like to write about?
I spent six months in India as part of a humanitarian internship – before leaving, we were required to familiarise ourselves with the culture, and that was how I discovered Indian literature and mythology, at least the little that’s available in France in a language I can understand. I was fascinated by the feel of the ancient epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and when I started writing short stories, I tried to recapture some of that feel. I didn’t trust myself enough to write them in India, though, so I made up a pseudo-Hindu world, Lansara, in which I moved avatars and peasants, warriors and queens and demons.
In the end, though, I realised that Lansara was a mistake: people with no knowledge of history just assumed that it was Ancient India, even though a lot of things didn’t jibe. That’s the trouble I get for writing in unfamiliar settings, I guess. When I started out on Ancient China, I thought I was going to get it right this time – and stopped pretending to be writing in secondary worlds.
With Ancient China, the preoccupation was a little different: my mother is Vietnamese, and Vietnam has been fairly heavily influenced by Chinese culture. So a lot of things about China were familiar when I started looking into it – Confucian doctrine, for starters, as well as some of the beliefs, and it was familiar enough to keep me looking for more. I find it a fascinating country: the history spans millennia of fairly different time periods with pretty large variations, and the mindset is something I can relate to, at least partially. Plus, it’s also a welcome change from endless European-derived fantasies.
In general, what I find interesting about using a culture that is so distant from us is that mixture of the familiar and the alien: those people are human, therefore their thought processes must be like ours today, and yet their ideals and the mould in which they lived is something we have trouble imagining. I often say that you don’t have to go off Earth to find alien societies; I think it’s a healthy exercise to take some time, now and again, to realise that not everyone has the same ideals or the same beliefs, and that those deserve some respect, or at least a modicum of understanding without demonising. As a reader, I always enjoy stories that immerse me in something different; and as a writer, I try to provide that same experience to my own readers.
As to other cultures in my fiction… I don’t know. I feel getting this kind of stuff right can take years, and I don’t think I’m there yet, either with the Aztecs or the Chinese. Another culture I’d be interested in would be the Inca (my favourite alt-history candidate to form an overseas empire, given their high degree of organisation and territorial drive).
How have your travels influenced your stories? Are there any places you would like visit, either current day or historic?
I’m a huge history buff, so anything with ruins and a bit of a decent guidebook can keep me busy for a while. I don’t consciously use travels for research, but I do find a lot of stuff I can use, whether it’s the layout of houses, or odd little customs, or a great art piece that begs its own story. It takes time, though. I visited Andalucia in 2001, and it took me three years to actually write a novel related to the Alcazar in Sevilla (said novel was a journeyman effort, totally unpublishable, but that’s another matter).
Places I would like to visit: too many to mention… I’ll stick to Mexico (where I firmly hope to go someday), and to Japan (I have a number of friends in Japan and have always been fascinated by the idea of going there, as it’s one of the only First World countries that’s not of Western descent). As far as history goes, a lot of the places I’d like to go would have been fairly unpleasant for a lone woman, so I’ll stick to Ancient Egypt.
The complete interview will appear in Dark Horizons #57, to be sent out to members early in September. The issue will also feature interviews with Mark Charan Newton and Allen Ashley.
For more information about Aliette de Bodard and links to an excellent selection of her short fiction, hop on over to http://aliettedebodard.com
If you would like to win a copy of Servant of the Underworld, all you have to do is answer the following question:
Where is Servant of the Underworld set?
Send your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org by November 30 and the high priests will select one lucky winner.