House of Shattered Wings -- A lush fantasy set in an alternative history post-WW1 dystopian Paris.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Aliette de Bodard crafts a dystopian world in an alternate history where The Great War led to a earth-shattering conclusion forever crippling the civilized world. With its roots in fallen angels, where there is a market in their very skin, bones, breath, and “essence” (an addictive ingestible form of angelic power that gives a short-term boost in abilities while creating dependence and destruction to one’s lungs), the backstory and setting of The House of Shattered Wings is dark indeed.
The story is told in 3rd person limited omniscient with several point-of-view characters, principally Philippe, an immortal who has landed rather hard in the world, Isabelle, the Fallen who Philippe is harvesting for his gang as the story unfolds, and Selene, leader of the house of Silverspires.
A word about the houses, two of which we become intimate: Silverspires and Hawthorn. These are not JK Rowling type houses. In this bleak worlds, the houses fight an endless series of raids, counter raids, and political intrigue, each trying to scrape themselves up a little higher by pushing the others down. Once one joins a house, there is a commitment to fight and defend, and a measured degree of loyalty, all given in exchange for the house’s protection.
Outside of the houses are the houseless who are also hopeless, for nothing protects them from the insane post-Apocalyptic world in which they reside. Philippe, the central protagonist, is one of these. He’s an immigrant from French Indochina and experiences an enormous othering by the Parisians.
The story takes a while to really begin (though later you realize the best place was chosen), but once we arrive at the conclave, the political intrigue ratchets up, and soon there are too many problems to solve by a crew with so much attrition, so everyone works twice as hard and the loyalty of some characters (I’m thinking Emmanuelle, Madeleine, and Isabelle) is frankly astounding. This is indeed a feelgood story eventually, which is good because, honestly, it couldn’t end up any darker.
I loved the world-building. I loved the characters and their arcs (esp. Madeleine’s). I also love how De Bodard works hard for me to be sympathetic to Philippe, even against evidence, only to teach me that a character still has time to change, even when there are scant pages in the right hand.
I cannot say enough about the prose. De Bodard has a magical fluidity that hovers above the story much of the time, but that makes it only more evident when the narrative voice takes total command to pound a point (or tell a joke--it's often funny and heartwarming). There is also plenty of philosophical questions raised, such as whether Paris needs the houses, which reflects of course in the modern world about the role of religion.
I recalled a story that relates to Philippe’s argument. A minister once explained to me his commitment to God was not an effort to avoid sin but to do good. His thought was as long as he was busy doing good, there was no time for evil. The problem in De Bodard's dystopian Paris, though, is that there are few opportunities to do good and many to do evil, so let’s say all the characters are above our judgment, even Asmodeus.
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