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.

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