The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard
21 September, 2015
Fallen blood is power.
Aliette de Bodard is one of the new breed of writers ushering in a welcome change in the SFF literary community with her stories set in the Xuya universe, a brilliant coalescence of Western SF traditions and her mixed Vietnamese background, so compelling and beautifully written. She is also the author of the Obsidian and Blood trilogy, murder mysteries set in the Aztec Empire beginning with Servant of the Underworld, a series I love tremendously for its ability to immerse you in an utterly foreign culture with a completely different set of rules and a religion in which magic plays an important part. If you haven’t read her fiction already, I urge you to try.
In her new book, The House of Shattered Wings, she tries something different. Set in a post-apocalyptic Paris forsaken by God, there exists a fragile equilibrium controlled by the Houses, structured communities of fallen angels and humans, of which the three strongest are Silverspires, Hawthorn and Lazarus. The novel is set sometime in the 20th century, many years after the Great Houses War which destroyed most of Paris leaving it an empy hull with pockets of surviving communities, the safest being the Houses protected by the Fallen, of whom Lucifer Morningstar is the most powerful. But it’s been 20 years since Morningstar’s disappearance and his successor, Selene, is still struggling to overcome her doubts in taking charge of Silverspires, once the grandest of the Houses.
Every so often, a newborn Fallen is thrust out of Heaven and lands in a part of Paris and there is a race to retrieve him or her. If a House gets her, she will become a strong ally, if a Houseless gets to her, she will be harvested for her magic, every inch of her skin, bone and flesh used to ingest, produce and barter, a sick but lucrative trade. When Selene saves Isabelle, a newly Fallen, she also captures Philippe, a mysterious Annamite with hidden powers, a member of a Houseless gang. When he unwittingly unleashes a malevolent spell, Silverspires is drawn into complex game of survival. For something or someone is determined to destroy Morningstar’s legacy, leaving behind a trail of corpses. As Selene, together with Isabelle, Philippe and Madeleine, the House alchemist with a secret of her own, struggles to contain the darkness, can they stop the darkness which threatens the very safety of Paris itself?
One of the first things that you encounter as you read this tale is Bodard’s striking vision of Paris.
The Grands Magasins have been reduced to piles of debris, Notre-Dame is a burned-outshell, and the Seine has turned black with ashes, rubble, and the remnants of the spells that tore the city apart.
I just loved the way she described a Paris that is at once reminiscent of its medieval heritage yet is set in an alternate 20th century with glimmers of history which seem familiar but isn’t.
As well as being a mystery, The House of Shattered Wings delves deep into the matter of faith. What happens when the thing you believe in the most rejects you. Bodard tackles this head on not only with Christian but also Vietnamese mythology. The character of Philippe, an Annamite exiled from his own land with its own religio-mythology in the Court of the Jade Emperor and its parallel history of colonialism, is fascinating in itself as we see him coming to terms with his loss and anger. I loved when his story of ancient Vietnam meets that of Selene’s Paris and Bodard does a wonderful job in tying the two parallel strands together in a credible way. You would think there might be a jarring of the two disparate worlds yet they complement and work together seamlessly. Philippe’s tenuous friendship with Isabelle, his sparring with Selene and his dealing with the Houseless, who initially took him in, and Asmodeus, the head of House Hawthorn, Silverspires’ nemesis, paints him as a complex figure, probably the most human with his mixture of compassion and street smartness. I found Madeleine, a human originally at Hawthorn saved by Morningstar when Asmodeus staged a coup to take over his House, fascinating in her despair and misguided memories, unable to get over her trauma and hiding her growing addiction, while trying to function in her job. But the two most intriguing characters are Asmodeus because he’s evil but with a secret agenda and there is always the spectre of Morningstar, more glorious, more powerful and more cruel than all the Fallen who haunt this book. In comparison, Selene is probably the weakest, always unsure and so hesitant for a leader of a House, but with the unwavering support of her lover, Emmanuelle.
Bodard’s plotting may have gotten the upper hand over her characterisation in this novel, it’s intricate and polished, her story substantial but wearing the research lightly, and I certainly wouldn’t have complained if it was longer, especially with her sublime prose. So I’m really looking forward to learning more about her varied characters in the sequel, many of whom seem to have incredibly intriguing back stories. And although the ending may have left me slightly wanting, I can’t deny that in The House of Shattered Wings, Bodard has created a richly textured world, intricate and beautifully written.
Do also check out Bodard’s In Morningstar’s Shadow, which includes 3 short stories that complement and is set before the events in The House of Shattered Wings, and Of Books, And Earth, and Courtship, about Selene and Emmanuelle. Lovely vignettes exposing more of Bodard’s talent. You can also read more of her stories on her website.