Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The House of Shattered Wings - Aliette De Bodard

Aliette De Bodard’s debut novel, House of Shattered Wings, is an urban fantasy, set in the Paris of the 1920’s. But not the 1920’s we know – the war here was just as great, but one fought between rival houses of fallen angels, whose wrath has shattered the city, and – it is implied – the world. Now, after staggering away from seemingly unending conflict, the survivors, settled in rival factions, have to deal with a darker issue – and each other.

As alluded to above, De Bodard’s Paris is not a particularly pleasant place. It’s a shattered remnant of itself. The Seine is a swamp, seething with war magic, detritus, and vicious living weapons. The grand monuments of the city are broken, and mostly uninhabitable – a few remnants being used as housing, with variable success. It’s mentioned that the city was very different before a magical war essentially smashed  it into barely functional rubble – and De Bodard precisely captures this in an atmosphere of decline. The residents of the city seem broken and tired, and even those in the confines of the Houses seem exhausted in their safety.

The Houses, incidentally, are the remains of the net of social cohesion that tied De Bodard’s Paris together. They’re inhabited by Fallen. These are literal fallen angels, whose arrival on earth allows them access to frightening levels of seemingly magical power – whilst also removing their memory of how and why they fell to earth. Here, however, they set up their bastions, come together in factions, plot, scheme, and occasionally murder each other.  There are other, non-Judeo-Christian mythos types mentioned through the text, and one, that of Vietnam, plays a central role – but the story of the Fallen is perhaps the strongest – their arrogance, certainty, charisma and raw power hammering at the reader through the page.
De Bodard’s city may not live, but it certainly dies well, seeping into the reader like the turgid waters of the Seine. It’s not a place that feels living, but remains vividly the end of something greater than itself.  It’s not a world anyone wants to live in, but it does seem real, if horribly unpleasant.

At the same time, there are sparks of humanity and divinity amongst the Fallen, their followers, and their enemies. Our central view of the narrative comes from Phillipe, a Vietnamese individual, conscripted into the war by the Fallen, and  at least initially running with a desperate gang in the dark heart of Paris, and Isabelle, a new Fallen. Both are surprisingly sympathetic. Phillipe, seemingly older and more self-contained, is a study in doubt and certainty, a man defined by his experiences and his hatreds, and also by loss. His thoughts seem to almost drown in melancholy, but he has a stark humanity, in a world filled with lethal supernatural predators, which is refreshing to read. By contrast, Isabelle is a font of naiveté, taking on faith the pronouncements of others about duty, honour and sacrifice, whilst their own thoughts reveal those to be merely realpolitik at work. Watching her descent into the cool selfishness of the other Fallen is agonising, for Phillipe and for the reader, and her desire to be better than those she is surrounded by, to become herself, is both terrifying and delightful.

There are side characters of course – for example the heads of several of the Houses are a delight to read; their venal, potentially fatal bickering is intriguing and horrifying in equal measure. Then there’s  the alchemist of one of the Houses – old, tired, and looking to take several secrets to the grave with her. De Bodard’s cast is large, but those with time on the page feel…if not human, then fully realised. The Fallen are cold, remote, dangerous creatures, predators in a world that they’ve destroyed. The people around them are drawn like moths to the metaphorical flame – used up, burned out, but unable to resist, in a world where safety and total obliteration are separated by a razor’s edge of goodwill.

From a plot standpoint…well, as ever, I shall avoid spoilers. Still, this one is a slow burn. Phillipe and Isabelle are drawn into the orbit of the House Silver Spires, which begins to suffer from a dark curse. The investigation into this, how to resolve it, and how it came about is the narrative spine of the text. It’s relentless, compelling, and intriguing – it’s also quite a slow burner, but it does reward sticking with it.

Is it worth reading? It’s a fresh take on urban fantasy, in a wonderfully drawn setting. The characters are a little remote for my taste, but that’s part of the atmosphere. The plot takes a while to get running, but grips on and doesn’t let go once it picks up a head of steam – so yes, I’d say this one is worth the read.

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