Mystery in Tenochtitlan – Demon of the Air by Simon Levack

Some time back, while on holiday I perused the sale books at a local shop. They were stacked high and generally held no interest for me. One light orange coloured spine caught my attention. It was a book called Demon of the Air, by Simon Levack.

I pulled it out and read the back:

INTRODUCING A NEW DETECTIVE TO RIVAL DIDIUS FALCO.

Mexico, 1517. The Aztec Empire.

The Emperor Montezuma rules by fear. Temples run with the blood of human sacrifice. In this brutal world a free man can sell himself into slavery. Escaping a troubled past, Yaotl has chosen to become a slave to the Chief Minister, Montezuma’s unscrupulous right hand man.

Strange things are happening. The sacrificial victim Yaotl was ordered to escort as leapt to his death, uttering sinister prophecies before the priests could cut out is heart. The emperor feels threatened. Mysterious strangers have appeared in the East. Visions disturb his dreams. His soothsayers cannot interpret them.

When the soothsayers vanish, Montezuma senses a connection with the bizarre suicide, and orders Yaotl to follow the trail – in defiance of his own master. What Yaotl uncovers will unlock nightmares form his own youth – and threaten the future of everything he knows.

This was something completely different. I enjoy the occasional novel with a historic setting and one like this, set in a culture I have sparse, probably inaccurate, knowledge of was intriguing to say the least. I parted with some cash and took it home from my holiday, unread, for it to take up residence on my accrescent shelf of Books Awaiting Reading. Demon of the Air languished there, partially forgotten until a recent reorganisation revealed it. The fates had thrust this novel back into my hands. Who was I to argue with such an auspice?

Demon of the Air is Simon Levack’s first published novel. Set in Mexico preceding the imminent arrival of Spanish explorers or conquistadores such as Juan de Grijalva and Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, it presents a first-person account of life in Tenochtitlan through the eyes of a slave called Yaotl.

I have the Pocket Books paperback version of Demon of the Air, which weighs in at 413 pages*. The novel is no dry history, neither is it an alternate earth fantasy. Rather it is a murder mystery in a unique fascinating setting. The first few pages are dedicated to authors notes and some maps, thereafter one is immediately thrown into the action as Yaotl and a friend ascend the Great Pyramid, on their way to a sacrifice at the temple of the war god Huitzilopochtli.

The novel is fast paced with one event leading into the next. Simon Levack interweaves the here and now with commentary on Aztec culture that enhances the narrative. Add in occasional, well timed flashbacks and one has a winning formula for an interesting story that is difficult to put down. I am not a speed reader, yet even so I mowed through Demon of the Air in short order as I felt compelled to read “just one more chapter“.

The end of the novel is bittersweet. No, do not worry, not a spoiler. Rather I had thought this to be a standalone story, whereas I discovered that, while the story does reach a conclusion, it also leaves a number of threads leading into a sequel. I was overjoyed at the prospect of more Aztec action, but also apprehensive of the wait I will have to go through to locate a copy of the sequel.

Sequels as it turns out. Some mild research reveals that the author written three more novels in the Aztec series: Shadow of the Lords, City of Spies, Tribute of Death. I look forward to reading all of these.

In conclusion, I found Demon of the Air to be a fascinating journey into Aztec culture and would recommend it to a wide range of readers as a true example of merging unlikely genres and settings into a compelling finished product. The subject matter has been extensively researched which makes it all the more believable to read.

I often find myself wearing a RPG game master hat when reading a book that engages me. I just cannot help thinking, “wow, what a cool idea” or “I am definitely using that next time we play” as I read. Sometimes I lie awake buzzing with ideas after reading an exciting story.

From a roleplaying perspective, Demon of the Air is a treasure trove of ideas. Tenochtitlan is a city like none other. Built on an island in the middle of a lake and bisected with canals, the possibilities for adventure and exploration may seem endless.

From a classic alternate earth RuneQuest III perspective, Aztecs should have been a fait accompli. There are accounts of such an Aztec supplement being considered in the Avalon Hill days. Alas talks about what could have been a radical supplement in its time never translated into anything material.

Reason enough for someone or a group of likeminded people with a passion for RuneQuest and Mesoamerican culture to publish a supplement.

For a detailed look at Avalon Hill’s RuneQuest III that does briefly touch on the Aztec theme, look no further than Michael OBrien’s detailed article on the subject at Black Gate.

* The book is technically 429 pages long but the last 16 pages are dedicated to the first chapter of the sequel: Shadow of the Lords.

Exanimate – Paradox Magazine

This is an ongoing series of articles discussing contemporary magazines which have ceased to exist.

Paradox Magazine was a speculative fiction publication edited by Christopher M. Cevasco that had a thirteen issue run. Their first issue was published in March 2003 while their final issue was published in April 2009, receiving a fitting eulogy at Back Gate Magazine.

The word paradox should be well known to most readers of speculative fiction and it is thus no surprise as to the existence, past and present, of other publications bearing this word in their title. The H.G. Wells Science Fiction Society of Romania publishes an inhouse magazine called Paradox, while a one off APA zine of the same name (formerly Just SF) was published in June 1982. Neither of these or any other publications with a similar name are covered within the ambit of this article.

The magazine’s speciality was more geared towards Alternative History, Period Tales, such as Arthurian, and Time Travel. i.e. Earth based as opposed to the otherworldly slant that often comes with traditional Fantasy and Science Fiction. Like many other similar publications, Paradox Magazine featured the occasional scholastic article, review and poem. One interesting differentiator was their substantial use of historic art, both on the cover and internally – an idiosyncrasy I quite liked.

I received my copy of Paradox Magazine issue 7 some years back, amongst an order of assorted back issues I was able to purchase from Neil Clarke, who publishes the successful Clarkesworld Magazine. As an indication of just how long this magazine languished on my Books to Read shelf, consider that Paradox Magazine was still an in print going concern when I received this specific issue!

The magazine has a glossy card cover in colour, depicting A Reading from Homer by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 – 1912). There is no artwork or other detail on the back cover. It is a standard sized “A4”, saddle stitched publication containing 56 pages of quality paper. Fiction in order of appearance is:

A Tear Like a Rainbow by Meredith Simmons. A tale of the US Civil War involving aerial reconnaissance through the use of lighter than air balloons and a young protagonist with a penchant for words starting with the letter i. Illustration by Roxell Edward Karr.

The Avowing of Sir Kay by Cherith Baldry . An Arthurian tale about Sir Kay, King Arthurs foster brother, seneschal and a Pentecostal vow. Illustration by Howard Pyle (1853 – 1911). While I recalled Sir Kay from various works of fiction and the movie Excalibur, this view of him was different to what I had expected. I enjoyed this story.

A Monument More Lasting than Brass by Steven Mohan, Jr. An Alt History tale about the first return to the moon, many years after a disastrous Apollo 11 mission failure. Illustration by Jeff Ward. The author of many BattleTech novels delivers a “what if” scenario on a cold war backdrop in the time of US president Reagan.

The Tiger Fortune Princess by the late Eugie Foster. This short work is set in China and involves the Empress Meiying and a curse placed upon her daughter, the princess Wen-Xiu. Illustration by Wu Guxiang (1848 – 1903). The story reads like a folk tale, quickly putting one in the mindset of a Chinese narrator telling the tale to rapt audience.

A Taste of Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick . This story takes the form of a letter written in the first person, detailing a horrific paranormal encounter. Illustration by Arthur Davis Broughton. The author is well published, and while I have not read any of her other works, it is my belief that A Taste of Ashes may fit within the universe of some of her works.

A Hand in the Stream by Darron T. Moore. Illustration by Jim Ordolis. This is a Time Travel piece about the leader of a team of time travellers from the future must return to a critical point in the past to collect certain objects of high value moments before they are destroyed, without of course causing any timeline continuity problems. The story flips between present and the main characters memories of certain events in her past. Enjoyable and quite credible in its context.

The Gods of Green and Gray by Paul Finch. A tale set in Roman occupied Britain, some years after the Romans quelled Boudicca’s revolt, this feature story takes up the final fourteen pages of the magazine. Illustrated by Allen Koszowski. This was my favourite story, although I freely admit my bias towards the subject matter. Well written with believable characters and a good mix of historic and fantasy elements, I could not put it down.

Other works include an essay titled Beyond the Barbarian: History in the Works of Robert E. Howard, by Patrice Louinet. If my experience reading and contributing at Black Gate Magazine has taught me anything, this would have been a perennial draw card.

Poems by Angelo Sphere (Prayer of Atigone) and the prolific Darrell Schweitzer (The Greatness of Scipio Aemilianus) are set amongst the various stories and advertisements, while regular departmental columns (editorial, book and film reviews and contributors’ biographies) round off the magazine.

I enjoyed the magazine, finding all the content to be well written and pertinent to the magazines by-line – “The magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction”.  If an opportunity to purchase other issues presents itself, I will definitely take it.