Book Review: The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Series: Book 1
Publisher: Roc (8/18/15)
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
It all begins with a fallen angel. The War in Heaven has come to Paris – or what’s left of it. The proud city is a ruin now, the once beautiful Seine clogged with the ashes of the dead and destroyed. House Silverspires, which used to be one of the most powerful Fallen factions, has followed Paris’ downfall into decay and disarray. It is thought that the House’s founder Morningstar has abandoned them, or he may be dead; either way, the fate of Silverspires now rests in his protégé Selene’s hands. And Selene, while she’s no Morningstar, is trying to do her best to keep her House together and her people safe.
The situation grows more complicated when a new Fallen named Isabelle comes to Silverspires with a young man named Philippe. Isabelle, being one of their own, is embraced immediately, but Philippe – as an immortal but not a Fallen – remains an outsider until they can figure out what he is and where he came from. However, as Selene and her alchemist Madeleine struggle to unravel the enigma of Philippe and his strange mental link to Isabelle, a sudden string of uncanny deaths strikes those with ties to Silverspires, including a visiting dignitary of another Great House. To prevent another a war from tearing them all apart, friends and enemies must band together to uncover the secrets of their past and figure out how all of this is tied to the stranger in their midst.
The House of Shattered Wings is therefore a very different kind of murder mystery, one that involves the blending of a great number of elements. Using a broken and crumbling version of Paris as a backdrop lends the story a gothic vibe, in all its dark and portentous glory. Snippets of the story behind Lucifer’s fall can be glimpsed in the long history of House Silverspires and their infamous founder. Fallen themselves become the favorite prey of the urban gangs hiding amidst the hollowed out ruins, waiting patiently for their chance to harvest the magical flesh and bone to sell for lucrative sums on the black market. East also clashes with West when the mythologies of two very different cultures meet. Characters still dream longingly of a bygone era, clinging to ideals that they’ll never have again.
This book also has all the hallmarks of an “Aftermath” story. There’s a strong sense of being thrust into the middle of a situation, which I felt so keenly that at one point I actually stopped to wonder if I had unknowingly stepped into a spinoff or a continuation novel of an existing universe. These types of narratives are often tricky; after all, I have to be convinced that the “post-event” is in fact more interesting to read about than the event itself. For the most part, I think author Aliette de Bodard pulled it off. You won’t get a lot of background information here – at least, not laid out in a traditional or organized fashion. Instead, the world building and character details are integrated seamlessly into the plot, to be absorbed gradually as it progresses. It’s a very immersive way to experience a story.
On the other hand, throughout my reading of this novel there was a constant tugging, nagging sensation deep inside of me always demanding to know more. I wanted to know more about this bombed-out world, learn more about the author’s vision of this shattered version of Paris. I wanted to see the scope of the story expanded, because really, what we get to see here is merely a sliver. While the power struggle among the many Fallen Houses involves a great number of individuals, it’s still a relatively small piece of the puzzle. We know from the presence of Philippe that there’s a much bigger picture, and to her credit De Bodard does plenty to indicate this, though she left little room to explore further.
I also struggled to engage with the characters, the reason being most of them had pasts that sounded a lot more intriguing than their present circumstances. In many ways, Isabelle was a blank slate and Philippe’s own journey was part of the mystery, so I was all right with those two. With Selene and Madeleine, however, I felt like their histories overshadowed their current selves. Selene was apprentice to Morningstar himself, a relationship I would have really liked to know more about. And as for Madeleine, mentions of her past at House Hawthorne often made me feel out of my depth, like I was already supposed to know everything about her origins and her associations with the Fallen there. Ironically, she was probably the most interesting character, but I also felt disconnected to her most of all.
And yet, in spite of the areas which I thought could have been improved, I still thoroughly enjoyed this book. I’m not denying there were hurdles, but overall I thought it was very well put together story that presented an intriguing and sophisticated never-seen-before side to the “fallen angels” mythos. In a way, my desire to know more is a testament to how thoroughly this book drew me in. It might not have swept me off my feet, but it got me paying attention. I look forward to reading more of Aliette de Bodard’s work in the future.