The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

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Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell

This may have been the first novel I’ve read by Franco-Vietnamese SF&F author Aliette de Bodard, but it certainly won’t be the last. She has already won a clutch of awards for her other work and I’m sure there will be more to follow. Her Chinese/Vietnamese culture ‘Xuya’ SF stories already have a strong following, and her Aztec mystery novels also sound tantalising.

For her latest fantasy series, she stays in the city where she resides – Paris. Set in the aftermath of the Great Magician’s War, The House of Shattered Wings is a modern Gothic fantasy of epic scale. Just pairing the words Gothic and fantasy with Paris instantly conjures up a vision of decaying grandeur, Les Misérables with wands – but it’s more complex and interesting than that …

Paris is the playground of The Great Houses, each ruled over by a powerful magician. The three largest are Silverspires, Hawthorn and Lazarus, and although the war may be over, this period of peace is no entente cordiale – the Houses continue to play their power games against each other in their reduced states.

This vision of Paris, post-apocalypse, is set sometime around the 1960s. There are cars, but there is no need for other technology when you have magic. It has the same out of time feel as Hogwarts in that way – although far less cozy!

The Houses owe their power to the magic of the ‘Fallen’ who are cast out of heaven. When a new Fallen drops from heaven, there is always a race to get to them – the Houses will offer them protection as an immortal and bond them to benefit from their intrinsic magic, but the houseless gangs will kill them to harvest every last cell in their body for the essence within, the most powerful drug. As the novel begins, Selene, who leads Silverspires since the disappearance of Lucifer Morningstar twenty years ago, is on the hunt for a new Fallen.

Ahead was the dark mass of the Galeries Lafayette: the dome had miraculously survived the war and everything thrown at it, but the insouciant crowds that had once filled the shops at the beginning of the twentieth century, marvelling at hats and brocade robes, sitting in droves in the tearoom and reading rooms, were all gone. It had been sixty years, and none but the insane would enter the Galeries now.

The insane, or the powerful.

She saves Isabelle, in the process capturing Philippe, a mysterious Annamite from the East working with one of the gangs. Sensing Philippe has hidden magical depths, she binds him to House Silverspires – located on the Île de la Cité, the island in the centre of the river Seine, home of Notre Dame Cathedral. He is unable to leave.

Exploring with Isabelle, Philippe finds a hidden magic mirror under the throne in the Cathedral, and unwrapping it, he unwittingly unleashes a curse left over from the Great Magicians War. Something in the shadows starts to stalk those associated with Houses Silverspires and Morningstar start to get picked off. This really gets the plot going, as House Hawthorn begins to sense a weakness and opportunity to become top House.

Philippe is a fascinating character with his own different strong kind of magic. Stranded in Paris, he comes from a faraway culture where the Jade Emperor holds Court and commands dragons. De Bodard says she loves to get Ancient Chinese and Vietnamese culture into her books wherever possible and she does this for Philippe, finding a novel way of bringing Vietnam to Paris that works credibly in this strange world.

There are many other interesting characters in this novel, notably Asmodeus, the head of House Hawthorn, who is an evil genius and master of the powerplay. but the one that stands out is Madeleine, the Silverspires alchemist. Madeleine is mortal, ageing, and an essence addict. A former inhabitant of Hawthorn, she was saved by Morningstar when Asmodeus launched a takeover bid, and provides a human touch between all the immortals. Selene has yet to grow into truly fulfilling Morningstar’s shoes as head of Silverspires, but we all hope that she’ll get there before it’s too late.

As you can see, there’s a lot to this book – the plotting is dense and complex as we simultaneously have the power struggles between the Houses, a murder mystery, and Philippe’s search for meaning in his life, just to mention the main strands. By the end I was dying to find out more about all the characters’ back stories. A prequel and some short stories set in this world are available as e-books, but The House of Shattered Wings does stand on its own without needing to read these first. Shiny reviewer Sakura also read and reviewed this book on her blog and has a Q&A post with Aliette de Bodard here if you’d like to pop over.

I loved the author’s dark vision of Paris and am glad to hear she is working on a sequel focusing on House Hawthorn.

Aliette de Bodard is a French speaker who writes in English. Her style reminds me of the French actress Eva Green (who played Vesper Lind in the film Casino Royale); it is precise, slightly clipped at times, but with a grammatical precision that comes from those non-native English speakers who often speak better (or write in Aliette’s case) than we do ourselves! She is certainly an author to watch in the world of fantasy. Highly recommended.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and will never look at Notre Dame in quite the same way again!

Aliette de Bodard, The House of Shattered Wings (Gollancz: London, 2015). 9781473212558,  416 pp., trade paperback.

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