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

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It’s late-20th century in an alternate version of Earth, and Paris lies in ruins. The Fallen, angels cast out of Heaven for reasons they themselves have no memories of and condemned to live out the rest of their long-lived lives on Earth, rule the city through their own set of imposed hierarchies. Several Grand Houses exist within the city limits, each comprised of Fallen and human dependents who, in return for their sworn loyalty, are bound to their Houses and granted both magical and mundane protection. Decades ago, the Houses fought each other in a war with spells that destroyed Paris, forever fouled the river Seine, and reduced the might and power of the Houses to a mere fraction of their former glory. Yet the Houses remain the most dependable, promising source of safety and security for those under their protection, leaving the rest of Paris to scrape a livelihood as best they can out of the ashes.

Silverspires is the most prestigious of the Houses, founded by Lucifer Morningstar himself, the first of the Fallen to arrive on Earth. Morningstar disappeared without a trace twenty years ago, leaving in charge of the House his student Selene, though her doubts constantly remind her that she doesn’t have a fraction of Morningstar’s talent and can’t defend the House the way he can. The story opens with Selene taking into her charge a naive newly-come Fallen named Isabelle and imprisoning the Annamite man found with her who possesses mysterious powers, surprising in their strength. Philippe is a former Immortal who was captured in Vietnam and forced to fight in the Great War on behalf of the Fallen. With no love for them or the Houses, but magically bound to Isabelle from drinking her blood when Selene first found them, the two of them unwittingly set into motion a dark and powerful curse whose desire is revenge and whose goal is the annihilation of Silverspires. This curse threatens to destroy a House that guarantees the safety and protection of all its members, and no one depends on that protection as much as the Madeleine, formerly sworn to Hawthorn House and currently serving as Silverspire’s Alchemist (essentially a magical mortician who captures and preserves the magic found in a Fallen’s breath, skin, hair, nails, and organs). Madeleine is consumed by a powerful, debilitating addiction to angel essence, made from the bones of angels that gives humans a heightened ability to use magic, and she lives in fear of being cast out of Silverspires and stripped of protection against those from her her former House who would harm her.

This is the second of Aliette de Bodard’s books I’ve read. I’ve previously enjoyed several of her short stories set in her Xuya Universe, and earlier this summer I read her first book Servant of the Underworld, a fantasy detective mystery set in the Aztec Empire, and I knew going into this book that Aliette de Bodard is an accomplished writer. So I really mean it when I say that, on a technical level, The House of Shattered Wings is a beautifully written book. I cannot stress enough just how gorgeous and evocative and pin-point precise the language and metaphors are, and how generous Aliette de Bodard is in describing the worlds she creates. If you are someone who enjoys reading lovely writing for lovely writing’s sake, this book is for you. (I am not that kind of person, and so had some problems, which I’ll talk about in a bit.) Both of her books that I’ve read demonstrate her skill in capturing the visual spectacles of unfamiliar or fantastical landscapes, and bringing them fully to life.

Additionally, like Servant of the Underworld, this newest book plays with fast and loose with genre trappings and expectations. The House of Shattered Wings  is without a doubt an urban fantasy novel, rooted as it is in the geography and architecture of Paris, it isn’t a “modern-day” urban fantasy containing modern settings, scenery, and characters. There is no snappy dialogue, the action and pacing is nowhere near as breakneck as it is in most urban fantasies, the plot doesn’t draw from police procedurals or detective stories, and the writing is miles more elegant and polished. (Dare I say it’s more literary?) While there is a mystery to unravel, The House of the Shattered Wings largely concerns itself with the grand and old-fashioned aristocracy, complete with venerable histories, long-standing traditions and beliefs, arrogant bearings despite the Houses’ diminished statuses, ruthless vendettas, and centuries of knife-edge politicking that all too frequently ends in bloodshed. The story is infused with a greater sense of far-reaching stakes and destiny akin to that of an epic fantasy series, along with the physical setting and feeling of ruin typically found in post-apocalyptic novels.

Other world-building bits I was keen on—I loved how the Fallen’s magic manifested itself as reliquary items, with the hair, bones, breath, and organs of the Fallen acting as magical power sources, along with any physical item into which a Fallen can infuse with their power. I also loved the incorporation of Vietnamese legendary creatures and magics, through both Phillippe’s memories back home as an Immortal and the entire Dragon Kingdom living underneath the polluted Seine. I repeat, in this book there is an entire Vietnamese Dragon Kingdom that is inhabiting the Seine and struggling to remain alive from the magical pollution left over from the Great War. I loved the scenes under the Seine—they are definitely my favorites in the entire book.

Now on to some problems: the major downside was that too many sections felt repetitive, with each of the characters repeating the same thoughts in their heads or feeling the same emotions over and over and over. Selene spends the book worrying about the safety of the house in Morningstar’s absence and fighting off despair at being able to protect it from the curse. Madeleine constantly fears discovery by Selene and her previous House and bemoans the futility of holding out for miracles to happen in the midst of so much tragedy. Phillipe’s main contribution is repeating how none of the Houses deserve to be saved from their tragedies and that the Fallen are all alike and damned to the core. All three characters continually remark how naive Isabelle appears and sounds (which doesn’t make sense because wouldn’t at least Selene and Madeleine be familiar with what newly-come Fallen are like? Or is their arrival a rare occurrence, and Isabelle is even more naive than usual? It’s extremely unclear.)

It’s not that the characters are poorly thought-up or rendered—with the exception of Isabelle, all of their respective motivations and goals make sense given their positions and abilities. And there’s plenty of really cool thematic elements to dig into concerning loyalty, forgiveness, faith, and atonement. For a book about angels who are analogous to European aristocracy, this book manages the feat of making forgiveness a huge theme without making it directly about Christianity. But because the characters felt flat and largely unchanging, the story itself felt too ethereal.There are all these hints at substance that never fully manifest into something that I could really dig into as a reader.

I also regretted the absence of certain details. For the amount of space given to describing Paris and the Houses’ state of ruination and the Fallen’s arrogant, aristocratic natures, there’s comparatively very little time spent on the history of the Fallen in Paris. There’s one noteworthy bit in which Philippe describes the Fallen as having conquered his homeland and killed off the native magical and supernatural entities, which implies the Fallen mimicked historical European colonialism and imperialism. I would have loved more inclusion of similar alt-history details, but I also recognize that’s not the story being told here. I was also surprised that Phillippe’s backstory is almost entirely left out. Early on I made the assumption that Philippe’s identity as a former Immortal would be an important plot element since he was cast out of an Empire from which he drew his identity, but it ended up seemingly not important at all. (Maybe Philippe’s past will play a larger role in the sequel?)

Overall while I really appreciated The House of Shattered Wings’ evocative writing and world-building, as well as mixing of multiple genre elements, I was put off by the lack of character development and overly repetitive internal thoughts. It’s a great book for readers who love to lose themselves in beautiful writing and are less bothered by comparatively weaker characterization.

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