Q&A: Aliette de Bodard

24 September, 2015

House of Shattered Wings

In the late twentieth century, the streets of Paris are lined with haunted ruins, the remnants of a Great War beween arcane powers. The Grands Magasins have been reduced to piles of debris, Notre-Dame is a burned-out shell, and the Seine has turned black with ashes, rubble, and the remnants of the spells that tore the city apart. But those who 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; it 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 naïve 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 fall, so may the city itself.

Aliette de Bodard’s new novel, The House of Shattered Wings, set in a 20th century post-apocalyptic Paris filled with fallen angels and mortals vying for power while something dark and dangerous is slowly picking them off, is a wonderful blend of fantastical elements from both Western and Eastern mythologies. I’ve been a huge fan of her work for a number of years and love her stories set in the Xuya universe and her Obsidian and Blood trilogy set during the Aztec Empire of which Servant of the Underworld is the first volume.

Upon reading her latest novel, I sent her a number of questions which she was kind enough to answer. Enjoy!

1. In The House of Shattered Wings, which character did you most connect with and who did you most enjoy writing about?

That’s a bit like asking me to pick a favourite child! I really like all the characters in the book (even though they might not like me, as I put them through a bit of a ride!). I particularly connect with Madeleine, the House alchemist, who is a bit of a geek and inept at social situations (the scene where she attempts to play high-level politics and fails was something that was very familiar to me!). The character I enjoyed writing about the most is actually head of House Hawthorn and part-time antagonist Asmodeus – I certainly wouldn’t like to have a drink with him or trust him with much of anything, but as a writer he’s great to put in scenes because of all the snarky comebacks. Also, the fact all three main characters distrust him, fear him and/or hate his guts make him a great plot mover and generator of conflict.

2. What were your inspirations for the novel?

I had a lot of inspirations for the novel: part of it is my love letter to 19th Century novels (Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, Hugo’s Les Misérables, Zola), part of it draws from manga and anime (I took some lessons in period drama and creepy monsters from Full Metal Alchemist, and also took some inspiration from Black Butler‘s alternate and phantasmagoric Victorian England), and part of it is classic fantasy of people doing small and epic things against overwhelming odds (David Gemmell’s King Beyond the Gate and the other Drenai novels, and books by Elizabeth Bear, Kari Sperring, Tim Powers, China Miéville and many others!). And finally part of it is fairytales and myths from Vietnam my grandmother used to tell me when I was a child.

3. Could you tell us something about your writing rituals? Do you create as you go along or plot meticulously?

I am a methodical plotter and I tend to do very badly without an outline (translate by ‘flailing around and moaning a lot’!). I generally do a chapter by chapter, scene by scene outline which I use as a basis for launching into the book. It tends to be a bit vaguer as we get close to the end (one book in the Obsidian and Blood series memorably had ‘somehow, they win the day’ to cover the last three chapters of epic battles!), and I also tend to heavily rework out as I go. For instance, The House of Shattered Wings originally had Madeleine returning of her own will to House Hawthorn, and this bit ended up not making sense at all, so I changed the timeline of the last three chapters. The ending (I won’t go into it because spoilers!) was also one of those totally unplanned things that ended up looking as though it’d been there all along – it was kind of a relief and kind of scary, actually – felt like my muse and unconscious had been working double time while I was desperately trying to get the last chapters working!

I write when I can, which means when the infant isn’t taking up all the space in my life: I do a lot of first drafting on the metro while commuting, and a lot of revisions in the evenings or on weekends. I am a slow first drafter, but I revise pretty fast fortunately (and don’t quite need as much brain space and immersion), so that helps!

4. I love that you incorporate other cultures in your work, especially your Xuya Universe and the Mexica Empire in your Obsidian and Blood trilogy, and I want to read more. What sparks your interest and how do you go about your research?

I’ve incorporated other cultures in my work because I feel the need to bring fantasy beyond Western, pseudo-European cultures, and draw inspiration from further afield. Part of it comes from growing up away from the mainstream and with a different culture – I feel like, in many ways, I’m always writing for ten-year-old me, who was so desperate for anything Asian that she devoured anything with dark-haired, short women in them.

I also think a lot of it (particularly the Chinese in the Xuya universe) was my way of circling Vietnamese culture and never quite bringing myself to write about it because I was scared I wouldn’t do it justice! (And I was already imagining my entire maternal family coming down like a ton of bricks on me). It took a conversation with my good friend Rochita Loenen-Ruiz to realise that if I didn’t do it, who else would?

I do research with a variety of sources: primary sources, academic texts, fiction–and people (for Obsidian and Blood I didn’t do that last and it was a mistake).

5. And what are some of your favourite books and authors?

Ha, too many to be listed! I really love Terry Pratchett: I own all the Discworld books and come back to them from time to time, like old friends. Recently I’ve enjoyed Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem, a combination of hard SF and Chinese history that is mindblowing (and I’m looking forward to The Dark Forest), Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts, an epic fantasy set in an analogue of the Silk Road, J Damask’s Jan Xu books, wonderful family-focused urban fantasy set in Singapore, and Sergey and Marina Dyachenko’s The Scar, a dark and intense fantasy about a man’s search for redemption in the aftermath of a magical war.

Thank you so much to Aliette for providing such fabulous answers. I will certainly be checking out her incredibly diverse list of books and will be waiting with bated breath for the sequel to The House of Shattered Wings.

Servant of the Underworld

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House of Shattered Wings

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.

Servant of the Underworld

Aliette de Bodard is a writer I’ve been aware of for a number of years but whom I’ve only started reading this year and I’m furious with myself that I’ve left it this long to find such an incredible writer. I’ve read a number of her short stories set in her Xuya universe, science fiction set in an alternate universe exploring her Vietnamese roots, and also some featuring her Aztec priest who investigates suspicious deaths. And so I couldn’t wait to read her debut novel, Servant of the Underworld, featuring Acatl, Head Priest of the Temple of Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl, the God of Death and his consort, who rule over Mictlan, the Underworld. Like many, I know almost nothing about the Mexica Empire save for the tales of the Spanish conquistadors who brought down the once glorious empire with violence and disease and took away chocolate and gold. What de Bodard does here is not only entice us with ancient history but weaves together aspects of magic and religion which were so thoroughly integrated in Aztec society. And she does this with aplomb.

Set in the Aztec city state of Tenochtitlan in 1480 when the Revered Speaker Axayacatl, Emperor of the Mexica, lies dying, Acatl’s life is turned upside when his elder brother Neutemoc, a Jaguar Knight, is arrested for abducting the priestess Eleuia from her blood-soaked bedroom. Acatl has never been on easy terms with his successful brother, a warrior, husband and father and the pride of his parents, not since he chose to become a priest thus sealing his cowardice in his family’s eyes. But nevertheless, he feels compelled to help Neutemoc, not least because the status and honour of their family is in danger. Eleuia wasn’t well liked by the teachers or students in her House of Tears, where she was employed, because of her ambition and allure. What was Neutemoc, a respectable, married warrior doing in Eleuia’s room? And what magic lies at the root of her disappearance? As Acatl tries to save his brother, he must confront and finally stand up to his worst fears. In his quest, he is aided and impeded by Ceyaxochitl, Guardian of the Sacred Precinct and agent of the Duality, who has simultaneously championed and forced Acatl onto his career path as High Priest of Mictlantecuhtli, and her slave Yaotl. Acatl’s sister Mihmatini who has recently returned to live with Neutemoc and his family surprises him with her calm acumen and skill with spells and tries to keep her brothers’ bond secure. And then there is Huei, Neutemoc’s wife, heartbroken and furious.

As well as the mystery of Eleuia’s disappearance, someone or something with great magical powers is determined to see that Neutemoc is executed for a crime he may or may not have committed. For Acatl, who is unhappy in his position both at work and at home, this is a testing time. He must win the loyalty of the priests in his Temple as well as the ears of the Court. And the only person who is there to help him is Teomitl, a young warrior sent to him by the Guardian, still a student, strong-willed and wild. Acatl must swallow his complaints and start looking for the answers before something worse that the execution of his brother is set in motion as it soon becomes clear that Eleuia’s abduction is only the tip of a war between gods.

Aliette de Bodard has managed to make a complicated mystery into an alluring journey into a past with which most of us are probably unfamiliar. But she does it seamlessly, merging historical figures with her fictional creation, placing us firmly in a land in which magic and ritual are alive and part and parcel of daily life. There are spells, sacrifice and lots of blood. But the blood is necessary for protection and spells and we don’t question it. It’s a mark of an accomplished writer indeed when you don’t recoil in horror as the main character cuts himself frequently to obtain the blood necessary for his rituals.

One of the interesting aspects of this novel is Acatl’s inner transformation. A conflicted soul, trying his best to carry on in his chosen path, yet burdened with the disappointment of his family. He is solitary, unable to participate in court politics because of his disgust with humanity’s baser instincts, and is only redeemed through his fight with evil and in the process, discovering social bonds he had though he had lost and never possessed.

Servant of the Underworld , the first in a trilogy, brings to light Aztec society in it’s full and frightening glory. The strict hierarchical social structure of priests, warriors and slaves, the rituals and strong belief in deities with powers to end the world, the absolute power of the Revered Speaker to keep the darkness at bay and the sun in the sky. And also the beauty of Aztec culture. Imagine going to a school called the House of Tears where the children of the wealthy are educated. And the binary nature of the gods with the male and female forms with names such as the Southern Hummingbird (God of War and of the Sun), the Jade Skirt (Goddess of Lakes and Streams) and the Quetzal Flower (Goddess of Beauty and Love). In amongst the harshness of life in Mexica, there is a fragile and painful beauty.

I can only imagine the amount of research that has gone into producing such a detailed and complex tale and yet de Boddard wears her research lightly. And in doing so, she has created a wonderfully complex world pulsing with emotion and colour.

You can be sure I will follow Acatl’s adventures in the sequels, Harbinger of the Storm and Master of the House of Darts.

I read this as part of Diversiverse, R.I.P. IX and #ReadWomen2014.

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