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.
…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”?