Aliette de Bodard’s new novel The House of Shattered Wings combines several elements of her past work that made it so interesting and her career worth following.
De Bodard first came to my notice with her trilogy of Aztec murder mystery fantasy novels: Servant of the Underworld (Angry Robot, 2010), Harbinger of the Storm (Angry Robot, 2011) and Master of the House of Darts (Angry Robot, 2011), now collected in an omnibus volume, Obsidian and Blood (Angry Robot, 2012). Set in a 15th-century Tenochtitlan where the Aztec religion is real (gods interact freely with mortals, and blood sacrifices are literally required to keep the sun in the sky and ensure the survival of life on earth), the novels follow the story of Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead, as he solves murders with spells and sacrifices and does his best to stave off a Mesoamerican Ragnarök that always seems just around the corner.
Critical attention for de Bodard came for her short fiction set in the Xuya universe. These include the Hugo- and Nebula-nominated novella On a Red Station, Drifting (Immersion Press, 2012), and the Nebula-winning short story “Immersion” (Clarkesworld 69, June 2012) — the former a science fictional take on Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber, where intricate and treacherous family dynamics play out against the backdrop of an interstellar empire that is equally intricate and treacherous, the latter a powerful and angry meditation on colonialism and the loss of identity.
Which brings me (finally) to The House of Shattered Wings, an urban fantasy that has nothing to do with pre-Columbian Mesoamerica or far-future interstellar empires, but all the same manages to carry over many of the same themes from de Bodard’s earlier work. The House of Shattered Wings is set in Paris, and as a (lapsed) French historian I have some familiarity with that city’s topography and history, but this is not any Paris you or I may know. It’s a post-apocalyptic city distorted by deadly magic and the presence of the Fallen. These are fallen angels: magical beings, both powerful and at risk (their potent body parts are worth a fortune on the black market), who have assembled themselves and their mortal allies into Great Houses headquartered across the city. An earlier war between the Houses has blasted Paris into ruin; an uneasy truce has been maintained since then.
It’s an implicitly Christian angelology: the most powerful of the Fallen, Morningstar, the founder and former head of the House that bears his name, is soon revealed to be Lucifer himself. But it’s not exclusively so: into this mixture comes Philippe (as we first know him), a Vietnamese man (or so we perceive him) brought from the French colonies to fight the Great War (as so many were taken from the colonies to fight in World War I), now scrabbling to survive on the streets of Paris. Captured and brought to House Morningstar after an encounter with a new Fallen, Philippe quickly finds himself at the centre of a mystery: House agents are turning up dead, Philippe is implicated, and the other Houses are blaming House Morningstar. But as it becomes clear, Philippe isn’t exactly mortal—and the Fallen aren’t the only supernatural beings at work in Paris.
So we have the murder mystery and ground-level, quotidian interaction with the divine (or at least angelic) that characterized the Acatl novels, the intrigue of On a Red Station, Drifting, and the colonialist critique of “Immersion.” All to the good. The characters, beautifully and vividly drawn, and the intrigue, intricately and deviously plotted, come at some expense of setting. We see very little of Paris itself: most of the action takes place on the Île-de-la-Cité, where House Morningstar is headquartered; the Paris of The House of Shattered Wings is difficult to perceive, a blurred bokeh background in de Bodard’s fast-lens camerawork. While reading this book I tried my best to place de Bodard’s Paris in time: there are omnibuses but no Metro, yet de Bodard uses “nuked” to describe what happened to the city. This may be impossible to resolve; this may also be deliberate. In any event, this book seems to be the first volume of a series, so I hold out hope that I may get my wish for a clearer look at her ruined Paris in a future volume.
I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.