Monday, 24 August 2015

Book Review | The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

In the late twentieth century, the streets of Paris are lined with haunted ruins, the aftermath of a Great War between arcane powers. The Grand Magasins have been reduced to piles of debris, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine has turned black with ashes and rubble and the remnants of the spells that tore the city apart. But those that survived still retain their irrepressible appetite for novelty and distraction, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over France’s once grand capital.

Once the most powerful and formidable, House Silverspires now lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.

Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen angel; an alchemist with a self-destructive addiction; and a resentful young man wielding spells of unknown origin. They may be Silverspires’ salvation—or the architects of its last, irreversible fall. And if Silverspires falls, so may the city itself.


Hands up if you've heard of Aliette de Bodard.

Good. That's a whole lot of hands. Hands down, however, if you've never actually read her.

As I suspected; hardly half as many. But don't feel bad, folks. Despite having written a trilogy of full-on, fifteenth-century Aztec fantasy, de Bodard is most known for her short stories—especially 'Immersion', which swept the speculative awards scene in 2013—and as big a fan of such fiction as I am, the form seems to to be going nowhere slowly, at least in terms of its readership.

Not so the genre novel. The House of Shattered Wings, then, is just the thing: a suspenseful supernatural narrative focusing on fallen angels as they fight for power in a post-apocalyptic Paris that boasts brilliant worldbuilding, powerful prose and a cast of terrifically conflicted characters. It's the year's best urban fantasy by far, and if it doesn't embiggen de Bodard's base, I don't know what will.

In the aftermath of the Great War, all of Europe is in ruins:
The Great War had spilled outward from Paris, engulfing every region and every department—and reaching across borders through the alliances struck between Houses, a network of mutual support that had turned into tinder for a continent-wide conflagration—English Houses against French Houses; and then, as governments collapsed and the circle of conflicts tightened, each House for itself. Outside Paris, ruins dotted the landscape—the minor, provincial Houses in other cities shattered, their Fallen and human dependants dead in their hundreds, and the manors of countryside fastnesses in the midst of the wastelands. The travellers from Madrid or London arrived with delegations as large and as armed as a battalion, after a gruelling journey that had taken them months to complete. And the boats for Annam and the colonies were few, the exclusive province of the favoured of Houses: an impossibility for such as him.
Him we'll come back to; we've got plenty to unpack in advance of that.

In the first, The House of Shattered Wings' world is one of myths made real, where the Fallen—that is to say angels, cast out from heaven and left to fend for themselves—have formed a House-based hierarchy so as to safeguard their survival. As to why they're in such dire danger, well... because they're magic, naturally, and people have found ways of harnessing that magic; of capturing it in trinkets like mirrors and music boxes to use when real need arises.

"Mortals went mad over Fallen, one way or another; hungering for essence, for breath, or even for a simple touch." Inevitably, this has led to addicts like Madeleine, the alchemist of House Silverspires, and one of The House of Shattered Wings' several perspectives. Another, Selene, is the haughty head of said House, which was among the most powerful in Paris under the auspices of its previous master, Morningstar. But Morningstar is long gone, and Selene clearly isn't his equal. As such, Silverspires is struggling, and its former dominance means it's open season for all the other Houses—largely Lazarus, led by the Lady Claire, and Hawthorn, under the ex-angel Asmodeus.

But perhaps Silverspires will rise again from the ashes of Paris. Certainly, some among the House see the appearance of Isabelle, a naive new Fallen with enough raw power to rival Morningstar's, as a sign of their salvation. For others, for instance Philippe—a gang member not nearly as mortal as he makes out—she's an opportunity to profit. The currency in this cut-throat economy is angel essence, after all, so he's already harvested a few of Isabelle's fingers when he's caught and captured by Selene.

These two points of view are the heart and soul of The House of Shattered Wings, for an unlikely bond forms between Philippe and his victim. Not a romance, no—this is resolutely not that novel—simply a very special friendship. Alas, it cannot last, for Isabelle "was Fallen, with all the privileges this afforded her; and Silverspires was her home. It could never be his, even if it had been as welcoming as his own mother's hearth. He was... Annamite. Other."
He needed—freedom? The same sense of weightlessness he'd enjoyed in Annam, in the court of the Jade Emperor; when he moved among bejeweled ladies and haughty lords, drinking pale tea in celadon cups as fragile as eggshells—a feeling that was now lost forever.
In large part because of that—because of his deep longing for all that he has lost, and the systematic way Selene enslaves him—we come to forgive Philippe his behaviour at the beginning of the book, just as, in her innocence, dear Isabelle does.

In short order, the aforementioned Annamite becomes the The House of Shattered Wings' most compelling character. His attempts to escape Notre Dame, which Gothic cornerstone the House calls home, are tense and suspenseful; the ambiguity of his involvement in the plot against Silverspires creates a conflict of interests guaranteed to keep readers on their toes till the tale is told; and his sojourn in the Seine is the story's most memorable moment, not least because it offers a window into Philippe's world.

He's nothing so easy as a hero—nor are any of the other central perspectives—but he's not a bad guy, either: he's merely a decent human being who's done wrong and been done wrong. Philippe, in that regard, is emblematic of the more subversive elements of de Bodard's book. It takes a whole hoard of over-familiar fantasy tropes and turns them, evidently effortlessly, on their collective head.

Complicated as they are, its characters are clearly defined and deftly developed; its plot, Byzantine as it becomes, never feels false, or forced; its messed-up magic system is as insidious as it is rigorous; meanwhile its world, whilst confined to a cathedral, is wonderfully well-rendered. De Bodard doesn't talk down to her readers, or repeat herself needlessly; refreshingly, she has faith enough in us to put the pieces of the puzzle together ourselves. There's an intelligence—and, yes, an elegance—to The House of Shattered Wings that is as rare and precious as angel essence.

It's a wonder, in a word, and I for one want more.


The House of Shattered Wings
by Aliette de Bodard

UK Publication: August 2015, Gollancz
US Publication: August 2015, Roc

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