Book Review: The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 2.5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 2 of Dominion of the Fallen
Publisher: Ace (April 4, 2017)
Length: 416 pages
Ultimately, my second foray into the Dominion of the Fallen did not turn out the way I’d hoped, though to be fair, I did have a lot riding on this sequel. It’s true that the first book left me with mixed feelings, but I found the premise intriguing enough that I wanted to see where things would lead, and maybe give this series a another chance to sweep me off my feet. Regrettably, this did not quite happen—despite The House of Binding Thorns being a pretty decent follow-up. At the end of the day though, I simply found myself tripping over a lot of same hurdles as book one.
First of all, in spite of the suggestions that this can be read as a standalone, I would highly recommend against it. Definitely read The House of Shattered Wings first if you can; you will find the background information absolutely indispensable, especially in anchoring you to the setting. In the aftermath of the war between angels, the proud city of Paris is now only a ghost of what it once was, and the Fallen are now divided in several houses all vying for power among the crumbling ruins. Most of the characters here were originally introduced in the first book, including Madeleine, an alchemist suffering from an addiction to angel essence. Upon her return to House Hawthorn, their leader Asmodeus mercilessly purges that addiction from her, with the intention of sending her on a diplomatic mission to the dragon kingdom under the Seine.
Meanwhile, Philippe is also back, now mourning the loss of Isabelle, the fallen angel with whom he had shared a mental link. While searching for a way to resurrect her, he comes across Berith, another Fallen who claims to be Asmodeus’ sister. The exiled angel is currently keeping a low profile, hiding herself and her pregnant human lover Françoise from the chaos and poison of the clashing Houses. However, due to their familial connections, Berith may not be as well hidden from Asmodeus as she has led Françoise to believe, and in the escalating conflict between all the factions involved, it is becoming increasingly clear that no one will be safe from the violence.
Right away, I was struck by how little I remembered from the first book. I had to go back to my review of The House of Shattered Wings to remind myself who was who, and in doing so, I also noticed what I had written about the characters and how I’d struggled to engage with any of them. Unfortunately, this is a problem that persists; there are too many characters and not enough personality between them to justify so many, and the result is just a jumble of names and descriptions that I tried to but could not connect with on a deeper, emotional level. For this simple reason alone, the rest of the book fell apart for me, even though I admit from a technical standpoint, The House of Binding Thorns is probably a better book than its predecessor. However, I need to care about the characters to care about the story; without that foundation, it’s hard to get on board with everything else.
Furthermore, though I was impressed with the allegorical themes of post-colonialism, I’m not sure they came through well enough amidst all the noise. Paradoxically, the plot felt simultaneously too complicated and too superficial, overly simplistic. At times, The House of Binding Thorns felt very much like a “middle book”, in the sense that it is neither here nor there, striving to expand the story and characters beyond the first novel but ultimately falling short of achieving the desired result. Again, all the ingredients seem to be there—the history, mythology, philosophical discourse and world-building, etc.—and in many cases they even surpass their scope from the first book, but for the reasons I touched upon above, the story simply failed to “speak” to me.
In the end, I have a feeling that this might just be another classic case of “Good book, but not for me”. Still, despite not winning me over, I’m glad I gave this series another shot. Chances are I’ll probably sit out for the third book of Dominion of the Fallen, but I’m definitely not closing any doors to trying more of Aliette de Bodard’s other work in the future.
More on The BiblioSanctum:
Review of The House of Shattered Wings (Book 1)