Aliette de Bodard has been in the upper ranks of speculative-fiction writers for a while, having claimed the Nebula Award a couple of times. However, her most recent novel – The House of Shattered Wings – was the first introduction to this author’s work for me.
De Bodard’s novel is set in Paris, in a world that’s ruled by fallen angels; thanks to their residual magic these Fallen have come to constitute an aristocracy. They run almost all of the numerous Houses around which the city’s feudal society revolves. It was these Houses which brought about the recent war that’s left Paris in ruins, left areas strewn ‘with spells… primed and ready to explode in your face, with the ghosts and the hauntings and the odor of death that still hung like fog over the wrecks of counters and the faded posters for garments and perfumes from another, more innocent age.’ The book concerns a mysterious curse causing deaths within House Silverspires. In addition to House head Selene, it focuses on the junkie alchemist Madeleine, the naive newly-Fallen Isabelle, and most of all an immortal loner who comes not from Christian mythology but from Eastern mythology.
One of the novel’s strengths is its sense of history. The best fantasy worlds tend to be those which are conceived of temporally as well as spatially. Details of the past are woven into this work’s present, adding to the depth of the story considerably. Customs and traditions; the war’s still-felt impact; the characters who dominate the book despite being long-gone, notably the original founder of House Silverspires – the first of the Fallen, Morningstar (Lucifer). The past’s weight presses upon those alive, finding its outlet in the murderous curse affecting Silverspires. The explicit parallel that’s drawn with Aeschylus’s ancient tragedy The Oresteia, which shows the generations of cyclical strife within the House of Atreus, is an apt one.
The House of Shattered Wings is vast in scope, many members of its extensive cast having their own subplots and backstories. Yet de Bodard balances the different perspectives, and the different storylines, most professionally. Though her work proceeds at a stately pace, it holds the attention consistently, can border on the unputdownable. This is a book composed with skill and care; while responses to it are of course a matter of taste, there’s the incontrovertible impression that it achieves what it sets out to achieve.
This novel is one of power, and of history, and of the power of history. It’s an atmospheric tale, due more to its abundance of contextual detail than to an abundance of sensual detail (for in fact its descriptions tend to be done with broad brushstrokes thanks to its scale). Assuming that its concept sounds like something you’re into – a setting of loss and ruined splendour and decadence, in which unfolds a slow multi-layered mystery story – be assured that this concept is executed with competence. De Bodard’s prose style’s not overly remarkable, but it gets the job done; and her command of plotting really is commendable, demonstrating why she’s become acclaimed among the speculative-fiction authors of today.