Sunday 26 July 2015

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard is a novel in a new universe that stands alone well. I have, however, been informed that there is a sequel coming, as yet unnamed.

In the late Twentieth Century, the streets of Paris are lined with haunted ruins. The Great Magicians’ War left a trail of devastation in its wake. 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.

The characters are what really stood out for me in this book. They all have complex motivations that do not necessarily have much to do with each other's. The rich setting comes in a close second. For a start, it's refreshing to have  a fantasy book with an urban setting — albeit a ruined urban setting — set in Paris rather than in the US. And then there's the detailed way Bodard has destroyed Paris, and the world, before the opening of the story. The city is in ruins, but they are ruins that people have built lives around. But aside from mentioning that it's also a world in which not everything is as it seems, I don't think I can really do the worldbuilding justice. You'll just have to read the book yourself to see.

On to the characters! There's Philippe, a Vietnamese (or Annamite, as the alternate history of the book has it) ex-Immortal who ended up in Paris thanks to the sweeping force of colonialism. Although on the surface he may seem to have something in common with the Fallen, in that he's on Earth after being kicked out of the Jade Emperor's court, he hates the Fallen for what they've done to the world and their House system for what they've done to him personally. Despite this, the story opens with him getting caught up with House Silverspires, setting the main plot of the book into motion.

Then there's Isobelle, a new Fallen with an unshakable link to Philippe, his efforts to get away from all the Fallen notwithstanding, who is taken into House Silverspires. She unquestionably changes the most throughout the book, partly because new Fallen start off naive and clueless (so there's nowhere to go but up) and partly thanks to the events of the book. She ends up getting close to Madeline, Silverspires' House Alchemist who has secrets and a traumatic past.

As far as these things go, I'd say Philippe and Madeline were my favourite characters. I also found Morningstar, who is not really physically present in the story, to be a very powerful echo of a character, resonating throughout the story. The repercussions of his actions are far reaching and Bodard did a commendable job of making him come to life as not much more than a memory. Selene, the currently leader of House Silverspires, constantly lives in his shadow and measures herself against him while trying to keep the house together. I sympathised with Selene, although she wasn't exactly my favourite person.

The House of Shattered Wings is a gorgeously written fantasy novel set in a world of post-apocalyptic/war decay. I don't usually like angel books, but this one definitely worked for me. I suspect the combination of Christian mythology with Annam mythology probably helped in that area. I have to admit I wasn't sure if it was going to be a stand alone or part of a series while I was reading. The end was quite self-contained but there are a few more minor loose ends that I'm looking forward to seeing explored in a sequel. But there are definitely to cliffhangers and the main plot is resolved.
I highly recommend The House of Shattered Wings to all fantasy fans. Anyone looking for a different kind of urban fantasy should definitely give it a try.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: August 2015, Penguin (US, cover above) and Gollancz (UK)
Series: Apparently there will be a sequel, but this volume stands alone well.
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

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