Short Story Club: "The Jaguar House, in Shadow"

Welcome to the first installment of this awards-based Short Story Club. This week the focus is on Aliette de Bodard’s “The Jaguar House, in Shadow“. Here’s a round-up of reactions from around the Net:

From Lois Tilton:

Alternate history. Greater Mexica has been overtaken by a reactionary theocracy, and the traditional orders of Knights have been destroyed, except for the Jaguar House, whose leader Tecipiani has chosen to collaborate with the new ruler. Other members of the Jaguars have joined the resistance. Now Onalli is infiltrating the house to try to rescue her friend Xochitl from torture.

This is more of a personal story than political. Tecipiani, Onalli and Xochitl were once friends. Each has done as she has seen best, and each has paid for her decision in her own way. It remains to be seen whose choice was best in the long run. The story is told in alternating points of view, in regressing flashbacks that suggest how the crisis developed. This results in a rather fractured narrative. The alternate world, in which other works in this series have been set, seems technologically ahead of our own timeline here. One thing that bothers me: it made clear that the various orders of knights are consummate warriors, yet we see nothing of the military force that supposedly has overwhelmed them.

From Chad Orzel:

This story is a little hard for me to evaluate, for the usual reason that I have problems with alternate histories. The action sequences are well done and the flashbacks to happier times with the three friends are competent, but it all runs aground on the fact that the setting doesn’t seem (to me) to make a lick of sense.

I mean, they have magical nanotech that allows Onalli to lower her skin temperature, but they fight with obsidian knives? Onalli’s last job was industrial espionage to steal plans for sophisticated computers from another country, but they still believe that blood sacrifices are needed to keep the Sun coming up in the morning?
So, as I said, the action plot is good, and the characters are competent. But the setting just kept knocking me out of the story. The end result was that the whole thing feels awfully slight. With greater knowledge of the backstory of this setting, I might’ve liked it better, but as things stand, it’s kind of meh.

Rreugen on The Romaniuc Files:

The story starts with a short fragment written in italics and ends the same way. In these framing passages a character takes teonanacatl, or as the non-aztecs know them, shrooms, and then reminisces. Unfortunately, the story taking place between these shroom ingesting seances is not a psychedelic trip, but a narrative consisting of memories, in a cosily arranged time-line.

The story concerns an officer who attempts to rescue a friend imprisoned by their former commander. There are no interesting science-fictional ideas, and the details about this alternate world dominated by Aztecs are only thrown in as info-dumpy asides. In the story’s defense, it does give the feeling of being part of a greater milieu. Perhaps a collection of stories or a novel set in the world this author has created would offer a better read than a novelette.

The prose is readable. However, after the first few lines of dialogue I thought to myself, oh no, oh boy, tell me this isn’t a as-you-know-bob scene, please please please please, but it was exactly that kind of dreaded info dump. As the protagonist bluntly says: “You know it.” And there is an abundance of characters who say things slowly, carefully, savagely, urgently, and they say those things with calm, steady, thoughtful, toneless, or steadier voices.

Mark Watson on Best SF

The alternate history is played down here, and sfnal elements limited to brief mention of emergent AI’s in America. The crux of the story is how three colleagues have grown apart over the years, as each takes decisions based on where they draw the line as to what is acceptable in taking forward the society which they wish to see prosper. The narrative is taken forward as the backstory is gradually revealed to us, so that the denouement of the narrative reaches a climax as the earliest days of the characters are revealed. It’s well constructed and well handled. Now if only the author would write a big canvas space opera, that would be something I’d be really interested in reading.

On Tangent:

…my absolute favorite work in this issue. De Bodard has clearly done her research—it shines through every word of this novelette. The story is set in the recurring universe of Xuya, where the Chinese discovered America before Columbus and radically changed the history of the continent, and she has a novel out, Servant of the Underworld, which is set in the same universe, and will be released in North America in September.

Where most Aztec-related works of fiction are written from the viewpoint of outsiders (us), this story comes from the viewpoint of Onalli, who is a Knight of the Jaguars, and it infuses this tale with a richness that few stories have. You and I have been raised from the cradle to believe that inflicting pain on ourselves or others is wrong, that life is precious, and that human sacrifice is at best futile, and at worst an abomination. This is not how Onalli or her fellow Jaguars feel; she has her own Worship Thorns with which to pierce herself; she offers personal pain to the gods as both penance and worship; and she knows in her bones that without human sacrifice the world would end—the sun would no longer shine.

But this is not the Mesoamerica we know, where the Aztecs never discovered the wheel, full of stone pyramids almost too steep to climb; this is a world where Aztecs have nanotechnology, Asian tourists, maglev transportation—but all served by the Houses of Jaguar, Eagle, Skull and Otter, who serve the Imperial House in turn. This novelette is full of personal sacrifice, love and betrayal—Onalli’s love for her friend Xochitl and their betrayal by friend and fellow Jaguar Tecipiani—who is acting out of higher motives. I can’t wait to read the book!

So some mixed reactions from the blogosphere… on Monday I’ll add my take on the story in the comments below. What’s your take on “The Jaguar House”?

25 thoughts on “Short Story Club: "The Jaguar House, in Shadow"

  • May 22, 2011 at 9:39 am

    I guess the source of attraction for the story is the setting and it is more interesting than a lot of the default fantasy worlds we get. The fact it is part of de Bodard’s wider body of work is both a strength (because she doesn’t tell too much) and a weakness (because she doesn’t show to much). Orzel is right to point out seeming inconsistencies but at the same time the world isn’t consistent and in a story of this length in a wider setting I think you just have to accept that.

    The story itself is completely threadbare though and fails on both levels. As an action story of Onalli rescuing Xochitl it is utterly lacking tension. Onalli pretty much walks in and walks out again, this is obviously filler for de Bodard. The bigger story – the story of a friendship between three friends torn apart by political differences – is her priority but is just as problematic. To start with the friendship is never probably established; Tecipiani always seems an outsider and a bit of a dick. Worse, the moral conflict between the protagonist (who believes in free speech, justice and opposing corruption) and the antagonist (who believes in facism and genocide) is hopelessly one-sided. de Bodard seems to believe she has injected some ambiguity but Onalli is as unopposed morally as she is physicaly (with a similarly lack in tension). This means that the final conclusion in which we are meant to emphasise with Tecipiani simply becauses she believe she did the right thing falls flat on its face.

  • May 22, 2011 at 11:30 am

    “Onalli is as unopposed morally as she is physically (with a similarly lack in tension)”

    I felt a certain amount of tension *because* she was physically unopposed; waiting for the other shoe to drop. Although that only works up until the shoe doesn’t drop, naturally. The moral side of the story definitely feels safe, though. What struck me about that, actually, is how the weighting is really embedded into the structure of the narrative. It’s not just that the actual choices and beliefs are one-sided, but that so much more time is given to fleshing out and supporting Onalli’s side.

    As for the world … I’ve read about half a dozen stories in this setting now, I think, and it has yet to excite me. I have yet to feel that it has integrity as a setting, and I don’t mean that in the sense of seeming inconsistencies, as you say the real world isn’t exactly logical, I mean it in the sense that it seems to exist to echo or recapitulate our history in different clothes, not to be itself.

  • May 22, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    I found the ending very satisfying, in the way that a blurred kaleidoscope suddenly focusing and revealing a clear image is satisfying. Ah, I said, after reading the final section in italics, we have a contrast between self-righteous Onalli and self-doubting/self-loathing Tecipiani. That’s where we were going, that’s what the symmetry of each knight carrying a damaged-but-not-yet-dead colleague was about. (Clearly, I was willing to be convinced by Tecipiani’s internal monologue in a way that Martin was not. I’m moved by the stone-visaged character who is willing to sacrifice her honor and her ability to think well of herself on the altar of simply keeping her colleagues alive through the political storm. I’ll admit that the story gives me very little help in getting there.) Until the final re-focus, the story’s clarity rates at best as “murky.”

    I would have liked a clearer account of the publicly-stated reasons for destroying the various other houses, some sense of what flavor of mad the Revered Speaker was manifesting. I’d have liked a clearer account of Tecipiani’s speech, so that I had some idea of how she was advising her knights to behave. I’d have liked one of the flashbacks to reveal clearly that Tecipiani truly understood her friends’ characteristics. And I’d have liked fewer flashbacks altogether. (Those time-marker headings just feel like bad TV to me.)

    I’m inclined to think that the tactic of remaining with Onalli’s pov through the narrative and then revealing Tecipiani’s internal state might have worked better at short story length. Granted, this isn’t an especially long novelette, but I was left too long in the murk before the final clear contrast was provided to feel that the effect was entirely worth my effort.

    But the ending stays with me persistently.

  • May 22, 2011 at 8:20 pm

    I’ve read a couple other stories in this universe, and none of them have really grabbed me. Last year I preferred de Bodard’s story in GUD, a novelette titled “As the Wheel Turns” that was an Asian secondary world fantasy.

    Here I felt like I was missing too many pieces of the puzzle. I could have used more background on the political situation. I’m with Susan in wondering: why were the other Houses eliminated by the Reverend Speaker and (aside from handing them Xochitl for interrogation), what did Tecipiani really do to ensure their survival? It felt to me like those background questions threatened to drown out the three-person drama.

    Also, there’s a risk that was never addressed that all of Onalli’s efforts could be for nothing–it would have been nice to have some indication at the end of whether or not Xochitl’s mind ever returned, or if she’d be comatose or otherwise insane for life. That kind of physical and pharmaceutical torture has (or should have) lasting effects.

  • May 23, 2011 at 10:03 am

    Niall: I felt a certain amount of tension *because* she was physically unopposed; waiting for the other shoe to drop.

    This is true; it is shaped to suggest tension so we generate it ourselves. However, with each return to the present day sections I found this stepped down a level for me as it became more and more clear de Bodard had nothing behind the curtain.

    Similarly, the fact it begins with the anonymous italicised section holds open the possibility that it is describing any one of the three main characters. Presumably some tension is meant to be generated from this supposed ambiguity but I never really felt it.

    It is interesting what you say about having read more stories in the setting (I didn’t realise she had written so many) and still not getting a sense of its integrity.

    Susan: Ah, I said, after reading the final section in italics, we have a contrast between self-righteous Onalli and self-doubting/self-loathing Tecipiani.

    My problem here is that Onalli is right and Tecipiani is just plain wrong – that isn’t a very interesting contrast. The things you identify that would improve the story for you are things I actually needed for the story to work for me. To me it reads like de Bodard deliberately leaving out the hard bits, the thorny bits of both thinking and writing that are needed to support the central relationship and revelation.

  • May 23, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    Martin, while Onalli is simply trying to rescue one friend and colleague, and that motivation seems unproblematic and uncomplicated, I’m not sure that I’d identify her position as “right.” I don’t have enough information about the situation to make an ethical judgment, and restricting the audience’s ability to judge seems to be a deliberate tactic of the story. Onalli believes she’s “right,” and that’s the pov we have for most of the narrative. Tecipiani also believes she’s “right.” Perhaps I’ve read Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty too recently, but surviving the nutbar political leader (and managing to get most of your colleagues out alive too) strikes me as a desirable outcome. If you’re looking for “right,” there’s always Xochitl, but throwing yourself against a wall until you break, even if morally pure, has certain obvious problems as a strategy. Again, I think we’re deprived of enough information to make our own determinations, because the point of the story seems to me to be contrasting the internal states of Onalli and Tecipiani.. (If the story were set up instead as a reexamination of “means vs ends,” we’d need to know what Tecipiani has actually done other than turn Xochitl over and get Onalli out of town on assignment, we’d need to focus on how many people Onalli would be willing to sacrifice to get Xochitl, and–as Karen suggested above–we’d need to know what ends are achieved. Does Xochitl recover, does the Jaguar House survive the current administration? We don’t have any of that information, and I don’t think we lack it because de Bodard just goofed. And if your position is that the ends never justify the means, I don’t think Onalli would agree with you.) Personally, I’m just grateful that I’m not in this plot myself, because I’m pretty convinced that anything I chose to do would wind up being classifiable as “wrong” or “both wrong and an utter failure.” Deeply corrupt political situations aren’t notable for yielding sterling behavior from anyone. (If I absolutely had to be a character in Hamlet, I’d pick Fortinbras–come in too late to do anything but make a sad speech and sweep up.)

    The narrative strategy that de Bodard employs here strikes me as, at best, high risk/low yield. I fully understand that it doesn’t work for you. It barely worked for me.

    I think it’s fascinating that, to one degree or another, we all want “Jaguar House” to be a different kind of story than it is: one where we’re better oriented to person, place, time, and moral compass points, one where we retain more readerly agency. I’m not sure that doesn’t simply mean that the story succeeds in what it set out to do.

  • May 23, 2011 at 10:25 pm

    I found the ending somewhat confusing. Tecipiani has given up everything in order to keep Jaguar House from being destroyed by the Revered Speaker as the other Houses have; then she stages a scene, brightly illuminated in the middle of a courtyard, wherein as Commander of the House she lets two agitators go? And she expects the Revered Speaker to allow Jaguar House to survive after that?

    It is a little more complex than this, I suspect–Tecipiani seems to have planned the encounter thinking she would kill or be killed, but then encounters the boy Onalli has left wounded, and is moved in some way by this. But it’s awkward: Tecipiani carrying the boy suggests her efforts to save the House, but letting Onalli go could very well doom the House. Does Tecipiani not realize this? Does de Bodard not? As a result I found the ending unsatisfying at a basic level of story: it doesn’t seem to address, or even understand, the situation it has created.

    I’m with Susan in finding the basic character setup interesting and in feeling some empathy for Tecipiani’s situation, but the above is the story writ large for me–I didn’t get an especially nuanced sense of the characters or their thoughts on the issues at hand, just a somewhat mechanical mirroring by which the two rather extreme viewpoints are presented. Again with Susan, I’m not sure I’d say that either Tecipiani or Onalli are “right.” This seems more a situation that calls for a third alternative, but not only have the characters not come up with one, nobody seems to have even considered the possibility.

  • May 24, 2011 at 12:27 am

    Susan: … the symmetry of each knight carrying a damaged-but-not-yet-dead colleague

    That, for me, was the most memorable image in the story. Unfortunately, as soon as the characters start talking the power of the scene evaporates.

    Susan: I’m not sure that I’d identify her (Onalli’s) position as “right.” I don’t have enough information about the situation to make an ethical judgment, and restricting the audience’s ability to judge seems to be a deliberate tactic of the story. … We’re deprived of enough information to make our own determinations, because the point of the story seems to me to be contrasting the internal states of Onalli and Tecipiani.

    Yes, and this goes directly to a significant problem with the story. There’s that missing context that other comments have noted. If we don’t know enough about what the characters have done and why they’ve done it, doesn’t it frustrate our interest in how they feel about it?

  • May 24, 2011 at 12:56 am

    “Jaguar House” was another short story where I got to the end and felt like the story closed down its options instead of opening them up. I got to the end and had that slight feeling of “that’s it?” It didn’t quite seem to pay off either the setting, the emotional conflict, or the moral one. I feel like this setting has the richness and potential to really open up interesting new questions and vistas, but this story didn’t quite do that for me.

    Niall: As for the world … I’ve read about half a dozen stories in this setting now, I think, and it has yet to excite me. I have yet to feel that it has integrity as a setting

    Have you caught any of Chris Robeson’s alt-future China/Aztec-dominated stories? I read a couple of his short stories set in China, and I had better luck with those. (I think it is also the setting for at least one novel, The Dragon’s Nine Sons?) Though he and de Bodard share a world-building conceit, and both have stories that seem to focus on individuals in oppressive societies, something about Robeson’s stories worked better for me. I don’t remember the title of the one I’m thinking of, but it had to do with a dissident astronomer or similar. Perhaps that worked better for me because of its more traditional sf concern, or there may have been something about the balance of character and world-building that made reading it smoother.

  • May 24, 2011 at 6:18 pm

    At some point, when they get far enough past our own timeline, these things become more SF than AH. That said, I think the Roberson series is more alt-historical than the Bodard. There is more linkage and continuity. The last couple of pieces in the Bodard series, about women giving birth to shipminds, are so very disconnected they might as well simply be called SF.

    I prefer her use of this material as historical fantasy.

  • May 24, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    Matt: “Tecipiani has given up everything in order to keep Jaguar House from being destroyed by the Revered Speaker as the other Houses have; then she stages a scene, brightly illuminated in the middle of a courtyard, wherein as Commander of the House she lets two agitators go? And she expects the Revered Speaker to allow Jaguar House to survive after that?”

    That is an excellent point. This is not really the sort of world where people just politely turn a blind eye, is it?

    Karen, I’m currently reading Servant of the Underworld, which I believe is de Bodard’s first novel in this setting. So far it seems to be a reasonably straightforward murder mystery in the alt historical setting, and the setting is working reasonably well for me. (I assume this is one of the pieces Lois refers to as historical fantasy?) I’ve read one of Robeson’s stories in the alt-future series you mention, but I don’t remember it clearly enough to discuss without rereading.

  • May 24, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    Susan – while I haven’t read the novel, my understanding is that it continues the thread from several short stories featuring an investigator of supernaturally-linked crimes. I’ve enjoyed them.

  • May 25, 2011 at 11:04 am

    The plothole Matt and Susan suggest didn’t bother me. As I read it, the Revered Speaker is apocalyptically insane from over-indulging on brain pie. He doesn’t strike me as a detail man. I understand why the other Houses were destroyed – the Revered Speaker is mental – but, like Lois, I’m much less clear how he managed it.

  • May 25, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    Martin, one of the interesting things these story discussions always illustrate is how people read differently. It’s precisely because the Speaker is mental–and as part of that, paranoid, given the destruction of the other Houses–that the situation I mentioned bothered me so much. The Commander of a House allowing two dissidents, her known associates, to escape, in front of a hundred impressionable young novices, with the Speaker’s own interrogator in the complex to report on this? There’s no way the Speaker would let such a hotbed of insurrection stand.

    On the other hand, as to how he destroyed the other Houses: I assumed that as ruler of the nation he had an army at his disposal.

  • May 25, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    Matt – that is precisely the problem I have with the story. What is the army if not the orders of Knights? And if there is another armed force [and there is a reference to “imperial guards,”], how can it compare to the Knights, who are established as consummate warriors? With what force did it defeat them?

    Greater Mexica is supposedly a large and militant empire, advanced technologically beyond ourselves, which would imply a large army – but we see nothing of it. If the Knights are not the army, what are they? A useless relict of ancient times, like the Swiss Guards, merely ceremonial and easily disposed of?

  • May 25, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    Lois, I haven’t read the other stories in this setting so may well be wrong, but based on Onalli’s missions–solo undertakings–I take the Knights to be intelligence operatives, assassins…kind of ninja-equivalents. Not directly part of the standing army but available and answerable to the government as a matter of cultural authority and tradition. They’d be formidable as individual operatives in close combat, but if you dropped a bomb on their base they’d still burn.

  • May 25, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    As a follow-up, Lois, skimming the story quickly I note this line: “It’s the House’s job, after all: watching science in the other countries of the Fifth World, and making sure that none of them ever equals Greater Mexica’s lead in electronics–using whatever it takes, theft, bribery, assassination.” So that’s what Jaguar House does.

    And then after that, we again come down to differences in reading styles, what bugs us and what we let go. For me, once it’s established that Greater Mexica is a dominant military power ruled by an autocratic religious figure, I don’t really need to be told or shown how how that ruler managed to dispose of Houses that may contain 400 adults: I take it as fully implied that they have sufficient resources to do so.

  • May 25, 2011 at 7:36 pm

    Martin: “He doesn’t strike me as a detail man.”
    And that would likely count as a positive character trait in a nutbar dictator! 🙂

    This is why I’d like to know what kind of crazy we’ve got in the Revered Speaker. Caligula-like mental might just accept “Well, you know, Oh Wondrous One, Jaguar Knights are trained to steal things that are heavily guarded, and I had my hands full. Oh look, here come the pizza and street drugs.” If, that is, he hadn’t had you killed before you opened your mouth. Stalinesque paranoid leader and you’d probably be toast.

    Given that Greater Mexica seems to be scientifically advanced enough to have nanotechnology and a sophisticated grasp of bio-chemistry, there could well be ways of offing the other Houses other than blowing them up or slicing them open one-by-one. Speaking of which, in a religious hegemony where human sacrifice is practiced and the gods need blood, it’s possible that they were drugged first and then sent up the steps to the ritual knife one at a time. I’m satisfied with Matt’s “sufficient resources.”

    While we each want different things explained, we all seem deeply interested in getting more detail in the backstory.

    (Going back to looking at the symmetrical, iconic stand-off image in the middle of the plot hole, now.)

  • May 25, 2011 at 8:42 pm

    Karen, I’ve been thinking about your comment that “Jaguar House” seems to close down its options rather than opening them up. Do you have a story in mind that opens its options as it moves toward the end?

  • May 25, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    Susan – the short and almost glib answer is “anything by Ted Chiang,” which is why I love his stories so much. I think the examplar of this has to be “Exhalation,” where in the end the constructed universe of the story opens up and we see our real universe a little differently than we did before. But this can happen with emotional arcs, historical fiction, character portraits, etc.–not just philosophical science/conceptual sf. Another recent story that I noticed did this well was the slipstream/horror/sf/relationship story “Tidal Forces” by Caitlin R. Kiernan in Eclipse 4.

  • May 25, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    Thank you, Karen. “Tidal Forces” provides a nice contrast.

  • May 28, 2011 at 1:09 am

    To be honest, if I read this outside the context of the short story club, I would have thought this an average story whose plot might have stuck in my mind a bit. But I wouldn’t have thought it an award worthy story.

    So, I don’t want to seem harsh on what I thought was an average story.

    As others have noted, the science is inconsistent. A combat force in a world more technologically advanced than ours using obsidian knives? I don’t buy a theocratic Aztec Empire developing the society necessary to advance science. And Chinese influence is a doubtful answer given that, for complicated and kind of mysterious reasons, China turned their back on developing their technology and certainly didn’t develop a credible alternative to western scientific theories.

    I don’t recall Aztec society being noted for incorporating women into its military.

    I agree with those who say the plot kind of lost its tension as it drifted into anticlimax. Still, I liked Tecipiani’s motives and actions. The idea of sacrificing some of the House to save the House reminded me of the sort of conflict you get in some samurai movies, particularly those in the Meiji Era. Revered Speaker, though, reminded me of a Iran’s recent Ayatollah’s.

    I think Chris Roberson does better with the initial conceit of an Aztec-Chinese dominated world though I still regard that as an exotic, unplausible alternate history.

  • May 29, 2011 at 12:09 am

    Belatedly: Karen, I think the story you’re thinking of is “The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small“; I thought it was OK, probably marginally preferred it to “The Jaguar House”, but I’m not sure I’d say either is much to write home about. And I don’t think I’ve read enough of either continuity to usefully compare them, unfortunately.

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