I have just finished binge-reading Aliette de Bodard’s genre-defying neo-Gothic, urban fantasy, post-apocalyptic, alternative history, poly-theological novel THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS, a most engrossing read. I read the 415 pages in less than three days, alternating between reading the text and listening to the audiobook. The audiobook is well-made, but towards the end I found it too slow, and devoured the text excitedly, only to find that the closure, while quite satisfying, is partial and that a sequel is to be hoped for.
The book begins with a very strong sequence, the description of an unknown angel’s “falling”, having her wings ripped off during the fall, manifesting finally in our world, in the scream of what is both a new birth and an overwhelming loss. The “Fallen” are at risk in our world: they are eagerly sought out as potential allies in the complicated intrigues and strategies of power politics or their body parts are harvested by teams of unscrupulous scavengers for the magic they contain, that can be bottled and stored up to be used when needed.
The setting is Paris in ruins, half-destroyed by a magical war between rival “Houses”, that devastated the city. Morningstar, the first of the Fallen, disappeared mysteriously 20 years ago, and the House he founded, Silverspires, is slowly declining. Selene, his only surviving apprentice, becomes the new head of House Silverspires, reluctantly and by default, as all the preceding, and perhaps better qualified, favored apprentices are dead. Under Selene’s rule House Silverspires is declining, falling, in power and influence, and is teetering on the verge of dismantlement. Morningstar was the first and most powerful of the Fallen, and noone can live up to his heritage.
(The themes of decline and fall, and as we shall see of exile and foreignness, pervade the novel).
Yet, this broadly “Christian” cosmology, however fine the world-building here, is not all-embracing, but only regional. The frame of the book is not univocal or monocentric. Magical Paris and the Fallen are at the center of this particular story, but there are other cosmologies at work, other stories glimpsed. This de-centering of the fantasy world-building is one of the strengths of the book.
Philippe, one of the principal characters, is neither a mortal human nor a Fallen angel, but something else entirely: an ex-Immortal from Annam, the novel’s name for Vietnam. The description of his perceptions and actions based not on magic and the thirst for power, but on a more ecological awareness and behaviour, sensing the khi currents and the relation to the five elements, is a powerful counterpoint to the Fallens’ experience and hierarchy of magic and to their arrogance in the use of it.
Logically, these two cosmologies should be mutually exclusive, incommensurable. Aliette de Bodard does not explain how their interaction is possible, but begins with the fact of their impossible coexistence and interaction, and with the associated mutual mistrust and incomprehension. There is no over-arching meta-cosmology to tie it all together, and people must learn to get on with each other without knowing all the rules of how things hang together.
Philippe’s perspective as a colonised foreigner prevents the novel from degenerating into a univocal story, Game of Thrones in post-apocalyptic Paris or Fall of the House of Lucifer.
House Silverspires captures and binds Philippe to it, but it is not his home:
It could never be his, even if it had been as welcoming as his own mother’s hearth. He was… Annamite. Other.
Philippe is a former Immortal, cast out from the Jade Emperor’s court, and later forcibly inducted into a House army and embarked to Paris to fight in a war for hegemony that he saw as meaningless, a cynical battle between equally corrupt sides. He desires freedom rather than infeodation, and is radically estranged from the world of the Houses and from the Fallen that preside over their destinies, vainly seeking security in the monopolising of power.
(The themes of otherness, difference, estrangement also pervade the novel, bringing to it a sense of pluralism).
Logic tells Philippe to leave when he can escape, but feeling, caring, a bond across the gap of incomprehension, incites him to stay and to participate in the struggle. He is faithful to concrete life, to people he cares about, and not to abstract principles nor to feudal honour.