The House of Shattered Wings
by Aliette de Bodard
2015 • 402 pages • Gollancz
Urban fantasy is a hard sell for me. It’s not that I dislike the genre as a whole, but more that I was never exposed to sufficient amounts of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a kiddo to develop a taste for it. (Instead, I was exposed to super sufficient amounts of Warcraft and The Legend of Zelda. This means that I bleed unicorns and also means that when it comes to the new Warcraft movie, I am a reverse Alien vs. Predator: no matter if it’s bad or good, I still win.)
So The House of Shattered Wings never even made it on my radar until Tor.com republished author Aliette de Bodard’s “On Colonialism, Evil Empires, and Oppressive Systems” back in September. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it; it is necessary and searing. It made me so excited for The House of Shattered Wings, despite my disinclination for urban fantasy, that I got nervous. (Although it’s not like that’s difficult.) Even after I started reading the thing, I’ve been Johnnie come lately to enough series that I was briefly terrified that I’d rented the second in the series. (This may seem unwarranted, but Memory’s review of An Apprentice to Elves excited me so much I accidentally rented The Tempering of Men instead of the book in question.)
Perhaps urbane fantasy is the best generic moniker to toss The House of Shattered Wings’ way—this is, after all, a novel set in the ruins of Belle Époque Paris, devastated not by World War I but by the war in heaven, brought forward several millennia. Abandoned by God but full of supernatural powers, fallen angels (known as the Fallen) have become the elite of what remains of Parisian society, helming most of the great Houses that control the city’s resources, including its magic. When a powerful Fallen, well, falls, House Silverspires arrives to collect her—only to find street rough Philippe sawing off her fingers for her magic. Philippe, a Vietnamese man who was forcibly conscripted into war by the colonial French and then abandoned in Paris, has little love for the Houses and the Fallen, but his connection to Isabelle, the new Fallen, goes deeper than he’d like. When it awakens something decidedly not good in House Silverspires, however, Philippe must join forces with the House to stop it—before it kills anyone else…
At We Love This Book, de Bodard talks about how Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas influenced her writing both in general and specifically for The House of Shattered Wings. I can’t speak to the former, but I can definitely see Dumas’ influence at work here—the luxurious sprawl of both setting and story, the wry wit, the political and social machinations. But Dumas was never very good at sticking the landing in his serialized fiction, and neither, in this novel, does de Bodard. I don’t mean this in the sense of something too open-ended or, perish the thought, not even resolved. (The specter of structural instability scares me away from a lot of open-ended series, to be bluntly honest.) But rather that the chess pieces are so lovingly set and the atmosphere so good that when we do get to The House of Shattered Wings’ well-executed conclusion, it feels a little… underwhelming.
Of course, I might be tender about it because [REDACTED] happens, and I did not want [REDACTED] to happen, because de Bodard is very, very good at making you care about her characters and then putting them in impossible situations. I adored Isabelle, whose innocence may or may not be hiding something wilier underneath, and I loved that a large part of the novel was given over to Madeleine, House Silverspires’ mortal alchemist whose belief in her inherent badness keeps getting shown up by the lengths she goes to for people.
But it’s Philippe that’s the best drawn, and with good reason. The House of Shattered Wings is both casually diverse—House Silverspires’ Fallen power couple is composed of Sabine and Emmanuelle, who looks Senegalese—and purposefully diverse. Philippe was exiled from Annam (Vietnam) for reasons unknown, and his now literal exile (the world and Annam are in such ruins that travel is impossible) still tears at him. The House system brings the bureaucracy of colonization too close to the surface for him. Even as he grows close to Isabelle and House Silverspires, he is always aware of their complicity in the system that killed his deities. Philippe’s voice is searing and complicated and by far the best part of a very good novel.
I rented this book from the public library.