My review of The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard, about which I was probably less enthusiastic than most critics, first appeared in Interzone 261 (November-December 2015).
The Great War became known as the First World War not just because it was fought on battlefields from Africa to the Near East, but because the European Powers drew on their imperial possessions around the globe for cannon fodder. Though these generally reluctant soldiers received little in the way of official recognition or appreciation. When, after the war, French officials toured the battlefield of Verdun to find the body that would occupy their Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe, they very deliberately confined their search to those sectors where they knew no Jewish or black soldiers had been engaged.
Something of that underpins the most interesting portions of Aliette de Bodard’s novel, though it too often gets swamped by a far more conventional fantasy narrative.
Here the Great War has been transfigured into the Great Houses War, a magical struggle between the feudal establishments that rule this alternative Paris. It is impossible to tell from the novel how extensive the war was, since we never see beyond the confines of the city or even much beyond the Ile de la Cité, but the effect is the same, a remembered Golden Age of privilege and wealth has been replaced with depression and ruin. This vision of Paris, with a sluggish Seine hopelessly polluted by the effluvia of magic, is an intriguing creation, so much so that I could have wished that the focus pulled away from Notre Dame to see more of it.
This is a world in which local belief systems have been conquered and banished by the colonizing power of Christianity, which takes the form of fallen angels who seem to be cast out of Heaven (or the City as it is known) in such numbers and with such alarming regularity that one must wonder how many can be left in God’s retinue. Curiously, given that the Fallen represent concrete evidence of the existence of heaven, practically all of the mortals we meet in this novel seem to have lost their faith. Curiously also, it is reported that mortals who die may go to heaven or to hell; yet the first of the Fallen, Morningstar, is early shown to be Satan or Lucifer, and since he has here come to Earth, what hell is there for the dead to go to?
Throughout the novel there is an unresolved ambiguity about the nature of the Fallen. When Morningstar (Lucifer), who has disappeared before the novel opens, is the great lost hero, how can the book be anything but ambiguous. Both sides in the over-familiar battle of the magicians that is at the core of the book are cruel and duplicitous. The two Fallen whose development we watch, Isabelle the newly-fallen ingénue and Selene, who is Morningstar’s successor as head of House Silverspires, both become harder and more ruthless as they grow to take on the heroic role of winning the day.
In the midst of all this is Philippe (his real name is revealed only late in the novel); once a mortal in Annam or Indochina (modern-day Vietnam), he became an immortal in the service of the Jade King then was exiled for reasons we never discover, only to be conscripted into the Great Houses War. Now he is trapped in post-war Paris, unable to get away and with no home to return to. His resentment of all of the Houses, though it sometimes seems little more than petulance, is the most powerful and most original driver of the novel. He is taken by House Silverspires, who hold him captive, though for all their powers the Fallen never seem to realise he is immortal (which we are told every time he appears) or to understand the different magic he can command. If we are meant to assume that his racial difference means he does not merit such close attention, this is never made clear. Instead, through his quest to get away, he becomes the vehicle through which an ancient curse is unleashed upon Silverspires.
As a soldier of the Great War, abandoned by the powerful for whom he fought and suffered, Philippe is the engine that drives the plot, and his story is far and away the most interesting thing in the novel. Unfortunately, he is not the focus of the novel. That focus shifts between Isabelle, Selene, and Madeleine, alchemist and addict, who are all tied to Silverspires, so that for too much of the novel we are cheering on their dramatic defence of the House as it comes under multiple magical attacks. Madeleine is, with Philippe, one of the more interesting characters, and the role of the Fallen adds a certain novelty, but this is essentially an overlong account of dueling magicians. The House of Shattered Wings is an entertaining fantasy, but it would have been a shorter and better book if it had concentrated more on the position Philippe occupies within this city.