Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The House of Binding Thorns - Aliette De Bodard

The House of Binding Thorns is the sequel to Aliette De Bodard’s extremely well regarded debut, The House of Shattered Wings. The central conceit is that angels have fallen from heaven – short on memories, but filled with supernatural power.

Like its predecessor, the book is set in a Paris of the last century, of top hats, tailcoats, salons and oppression. But here, if there is a ruling class, it is those surviving fallen angels. They’re radiant, often charming creatures. Most seem to have a streak of cruelty running through them – and where that isn’t immediately the case, their power comes at a price. This is a broken world, as well. Factions of the Fallen waged war on each other for years before the current situation. As a result, Paris is devastated, broken into enclaves, islands of stability protected by Fallen magic. Between these Houses are magical landmines, absolute poverty, a poisoned river and other, darker threats. If the Fallen have blown apart the city, they are now the only safety from the results. That safety is, though, rather tenuous. There’s enclaves of another culture entirely lurking beneath the waters of the Seine.

 We had a brief glimpse of their environment in the previous book, but are immersed in it more fully here. It’s clearly a distinct culture, with a ritual and cadence unfamiliar to those above; it’s a vivid and thoughtfully crafted society, with its own customs and mores – but it has the same creeping corruption and decay as is occurring in the enclaves of the Fallen. The interaction between these two societies is fraught with opportunities for betrayal and misunderstanding, at least as much as for mutual benefit; watching characters from both societies try and cross the liminal barrier, the gaps in understanding, is intriguing.

The focus though, is on the House of Hawthorne, run by the razor edged, charming and utterly ruthless Asmodeus. I’ve got a lot of time for Asmodeus. He oozes a sort of chilly charisma, mixed with a willingness to embrace calculated brutality. There’s something about him that speaks of razorblades and blood spatter on dark nights. At the same time, he’s a ruler, with a laser-fine intelligence, and an eye for loyalty. All of these facets bob near the surface, and there’s a feeling that something far darker lurks beneath.  Asmodeus is a captivating character, effortlessly seizing control of any scene he’s in, and trying to work out what he was up to, why he was doing it, and what on earth he was going to do next was a great reason to keep turning pages.

Madeleine is a returning character from the previous story. She’s fragile, struggling to shake a dependence on a drug which (briefly) provides the user with the powers of the Fallen – and slowly rots out their lungs. She’s self-aware enough to understand her position, and there’s a patina of low-grade fear that pervades her interactions. She’s tied to Hawthorne and Asmodeus, a House filld with horrible memories, and a Head who may not despise her, but of whom she has a well deserved terror. Still, Madeleine is also smart, resourceful, and prone to doing the right thing – in contrast to Asmodeus and his realpolitik, she struggles to do what she things of as both ethical and best. That she may fail is due to the hard edges of the world the author has brought us – the despair of the character seamlessly blending into the society around her. Still, Madeleine shows that if the world is in a state of slow decline, there are still those willing to stand up and be counted, when they feel that they must.

They’re not the only cast of course, and I’m doing the rest of the characters a disservice by not approaching them in detail. But if the faces are different, the depth is the same. There’s one of the people of the Seine, slowly infiltrating and acclimatising to House life, and the housebound Fallen who has created a fortress from a cheap apartment, and wants to live to see her wife give birth to their child. There’s vicious killers, and supernatural monstrosities. This is humanity at its worst and best, and it’s mirrored back to the reader in the faces of the supernatural creatures striding the broken streets of Paris. These aren’t saints or monsters, but complicated people, making decisions for their own reasons, worming their terrible way off the page and into your heart.

The plot spins itself out gradually, luring the reader into the world with old feuds and magical mysteries. There’s a tension wrapped through the pages, as investigation gradually opens up possibilities – usually unpleasant ones. Quite what’s being done, and by whom, and indeed why – all begins extremely unclear. As investigators pick up leads, clash with each other, and follow their own agenda, the story clarifies – or would, but there’s red herrings and quirky actions aplenty. There’s shades here of Chandler and Hammett, as the protagonists dig into the dirty laundry of the past, with guile and magic masking their humanity (or otherwise) and their frailty. It’s a story which rewards close reading, and one which compelled me to keep turning pages; the climax was rewarding and impressive – and left me breathlessly hoping for more. 

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