I’m a sucker for Mesoamerican stuff, and I like the idea of mashing that intriguing material into speculative tales. It makes for a cool aesthetic at the very least. So, this was one of the more highly anticipated reads for me this year, but I’m not sure the story fulfilled its promise.
The plot is fairly simple, though its telling is more complicated. The Mexica Empire of an alternate reality Earth has become corrupted due to a despotic, demagogic figure called the Revered Speaker. The titular Jaguar House consists of elite Mexica special forces. One of these Jaguar Knights, a woman named Onalli, attempts a rescue mission for her friend Xochitl. That missions serves as a framing story for Onalli remembering her history with Xochitl and the corruption of the Jaguar House that jumps backward in time, first months, then years.
I don't see, in the end, what the backwards chronology brings to the story. I didn’t really learn enough about the characters or the world to be stunned by any of the revelations that come from slowly unveiling the backstory. I’m not sure that much is done with the setting either. Considering that the setting was my favorite part of the story, this was problematic. I learned more about it in the one sentence introduction from Asimov’s than from the rest of the story, though there was some strong material on the cultural relevance of sacrifice.
In other words, I had the same problem that I had with Paul Cornell’s story last year – this is part of a series of stories that I’m unfamiliar with, and I’m not convinced it works on its own. Maybe that suggests that I might enjoy a novel or short story collection set in this world, but I think Hugo-winning stories should stand as independent pieces.