Short Story Club: “The Jaguar House, in Shadow,” by Aliette de Bodard

As mentioned a little while ago, Locus is running a Short Story Club to discuss the award-nominated stories that are available online. First up is Aliette de Bodard’s “The Jaguar House, in Shadow”. Like her novels and other notable short fiction, this has a Central American theme, though it’s alternate-history SF rather than fantasy.

This is a sort of caper story, set in a high-tech Mexica empire, where the elite order of Jaguar Knights are the only survivors of a bloody purge instigated by the new emperor, which has wiped out all the other orders. Xochitl, a young-ish female knight started a dissident movement within the order, which has been suppressed brutally by the head of the order, Tecipiani, as a show of loyalty to the new regime. Onalli, an elite operative of the order and friend of both Xochitl and Tecipiani decides to break into the Jaguar House to free Xochitl from imprisonment and torture.

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?

And if an unfallen Mexica Empire really existed into modern-ish times, does it make any sense that there would be a country to the north of it called the United States, with a place called Williamsburg (or at least a company called Williamsburg Tech)?

These are problems that might be addressed in a longer work, or built up over the course of many stories in the same setting (and de Bodard has written other stories in the same setting), but without the benefit of greater context, I find these kinds of questions really distracting, to the detriment of the story.

There’s also a sort of quasi-stasis to the whole setting that bothers me. Lots of the details that seems superficially cool– sacred ball courts, feathered cloaks, animal-skull helmets– also seem to have been transported from the fifteenth century into the magic nanotech future without passing through the intervening centuries. And while the cool Aztec elements are, presumably, one of the main attractions of the setting, this also feels wrong. There are some nods toward cultural evolution– the people who still engage in human sacrifices are dismissed as fringe lunatics– but it doesn’t feel like nearly enough for the time that must have passed to get from the 1500’s to a society capable of magic nanotechnology.

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.