The House of Shattered Wings by multiple award-winning author Aliette de Bodard is one of the most unusual and absorbing books I’ve read in years. How unusual? Let me count the ways.
First, it doesn’t categorize easily—and bored as I am with the cookie-cutter offerings from the big houses, this is a huge deal. Although shelved as Fantasy, this book is so much more. It’s Alternate History; it’s a Mystery; it’s a Supernatural Thriller; and it’s most certainly a major Gothic novel.
The story takes place in a late 20th-century Paris devastated by the Great War that began in 1914—except that in this world the Great War was a supernatural one between warring gangs, or “houses”, of fallen Angels and their human followers. With no clear victor, the conflict has settled into a kind of supernatural Cold War in which the houses spy on and plot against one another in the ruined debris of the once-great city.
In the burnt-out shell of Notre Dame, surrounded by the hopelessly fouled black waters of the Seine, House Silverspires and its leader Selene struggle to maintain the house’s power and place among the others, and in particular to resist Asmodeus, the brutally cruel leader of House Hawthorn. But when the mysterious Vietnamese Immortal Philippe triggers a curse that brings down the deadly power of the Furies against Silverspires, Selene and Madeleine, House Silverspires’ alchemist, find themselves beset on every side. Especially since Madeleine—now perilously addicted to Angel essence—is an escapee from House Hawthorn. Added to all this is the mystery of Philippe’s connection to the Fallen Angel Isabelle, and the strange disappearance of House Silverspires’ founder, Morningstar (aka Lucifer).
De Bodard deploys the full range of her writing skills and inventive audacity in this dense and deeply melancholic novel. There are strong echoes of both Western and Eastern mythologies, of Milton’s Paradise Lost and the underwater Dragon Kingdoms of East Asian folklore. The novel’s characters are real and believable, layered with tragic pasts and complex motivations as they move through their haunted, broken city. Yet even as the action and intrigue—and sometimes horror—ratchet up relentlessly, there is always a vivid sense of remembered splendour and grandeur, a yearning for the vanished beauty and elegance that seems to shimmer just below the surface of the ruined city.
Those familiar with the author’s Obsidian and Blood trilogy will be delighted to discover this new world in what is hopefully—de Bodard seems to be keeping her options open in this standalone work—the first book in a new series. That this book is both darker and more complex is certain, and some may need a few chapters to adjust to its Gothic tone. But this is a powerful novel that sinks deep into the reader’s psyche, taking you into a world so rich and characters so compelling that they linger for months after turning the last page.
Don’t miss it.