In the late 20th century the ruins of the city of Paris are populated by a mix of humans and fallen angels. The angels may have lost God’s grace, but they still have power. Their bodies contain magic that can be used by humans and angels alike. A central government, if ever there was one, has disappeared and the upper layers of society is organized into houses. These houses continually vie for influence in a Machiavellian political game. Silverspire, the oldest of these houses, founded ages ago by the very first fallen angel, is now in trouble. Since the disappearance of its founder, its influence has decreased to the point where its enemies feel they have a chance of taking them down a notch. The real nature of the threat eludes Selene, the head of the House of Silverspire, as she is distracted by house politics. An addicted human alchemist, a newly fallen angel and a mysterious young man hold the key to saving Silverspire or taking it down for good.
The House of Shattered Wings has so much worldbuilding in it that is almost wasted even on a novel-length work. Fortunately, there is going to be a second book in this setting. The House of Shattered Wings covers the period from the end of France’s Belle Époque to sometime in the late 20th century. (Aliette de Bodard doesn’t mention a specific year, but at least sixty years have passed since the end of the Great War, and Paris is still struggling to recover.) The Belle Époque, a part of French history usually thought of as the years between the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the start of the First World War in the summer of 1914, was a period in which rapid technological progress and economic growth, fueled by France’s growing colonial empire, seemed to make anything possible. There are hints throughout the novel that fallen angels have been present in the world for a very long time, and that they are not the only mythological creatures who appear to mere mortals. Their presence doesn’t seem to have radically altered the course of history up to 1914, however.
The focus of the novel is on House Silverspire. It was founded by the very first of the Fallen. He is referred to as Morningstar in this novel, which is, as most of you will have already guessed, one of the names of Lucifer. The main antagonist is another figure from Judeo-Christian mythology. Asmodeus is sometimes thought of as one of the seven princes of hell, but in the novel he leads a rivalling house. Fittingly, House Silverspire occupies the Île de la Cité in the very heart of Paris. It is the location of one of France’s most famous cathedrals, the Notre Dame, which — like much of the rest of the city — lies in ruins. There is no lack of religious symbolism in the novel.
The author doesn’t limit herself to Judeo-Christian mythology. There are references to Greek and, briefly, Persian mythology as well and, through one of the main characters, Chinese/Vietnamese myths. De Bodard uses the word Annam to refer to Vietnam. It is an old name that was used for Vietnam or parts of it before decolonization. What happened to France’s colonial empire after the Great War is a bit unclear in the novel. Travel and communication have been severely limited, and the characters do not seem to know much of what goes on outside of Paris.
De Bodard shifts effortlessly between Christian images of heaven and hell and the Chinese-influenced court of the Jade Emperor, includes wide-ranging concepts from the grace of God to Buddhist views on reincarnation, and views energy not only in the western sense but also as the flow of Khi (or Ch’i, or Qi). Where many writers would be tempted to simplify matters and pick one religious view as the highest truth, or at best two opposing views, de Bodard’s creation has room for many of them. They co-exist in a way that is as complicated and messy as the real world. Behind each character and each significant event in the book lie layers of history and mythology for the reader to unravel. The temptation to infodump every other page must have been overwhelming at times, but the author manages to keep that to a minimum. These shifts in worldview and thematic background keep the reader on their toes.
The Fallen themselves are just as complex as the worldbuilding. They are born into the world with powerful magic but little in the way of memories. They are extremely long-lived and, particularly in their youth, radiate magic. Their breath holds power; their nail clippings and their blood can be made into magical objects. Even their bones can be ground up to make a particularly potent and terrifyingly addictive magical aid. It puts them in a very difficult position. They are born with power but without the experience to handle it — youth is most definitely wasted on the young in this case — into a world that has as much use for them dead as alive. Although their magic dims as they age, many rise to positions of power. A process that tends to turn them from angelic and naive to cynical and cold creatures. Their very nature makes them larger than life, their flaws and mistakes likely to have severe consequences for the people depending on them. The head of Silverspire in particular is in a position of power but lacks the strength to improve the situation of the house. The best she can hope for is to maintain the status quo. Seeing that precarious balance between the houses break down might be an interesting topic for another novel.
The main characters are all people who are not in a position of power, but possess the potential to wield it in significant quantities. On the surface they appear to be quite different people, but they share the fact that they’ve been torn away from their homes and have to make a new place for themselves in this shattered world. As Paris longs to recapture the optimism of the Belle Époque, the characters long to return to the home that is irretrievably lost to them. The House of Shattered Wings is a tragedy on many levels.
With so many influences, The House of Shattered Wings is not a novel that is easy to categorize. It has a distinct post-apocalyptic atmosphere with Paris in ruins and largely depopulated. I’ve also seen it described as a Gothic novel, which makes sense given the ruins of the Notre Dame, the sense that the past glory cannot be recaptured, and the way some of the characters fit into Gothic archetypes. You could call it an urban fantasy or an alternative history as well, but none of these fit entirely. It’s a fusion novel that, in the way it blends and twists familiar genre tropes, reminds me a bit of Elizabeth Bear‘s EDDA OF BURDENS or Ian Tregillis‘ MILKWEED TRIPTYCH.
My expectations of this novel were probably unfairly high, but De Bodard manages to surpass them anyway. As should be evident from the somewhat rambling review, there is so much in this novel worth discussing that I scarcely know where to begin. It is a novel filled to overflowing with fascinating worldbuilding, complex characters and elegant writing. It is a demonstration of what is possible within speculative fiction if one is willing to look beyond established formulas and classifications. Once de Bodard has dragged you into this world there is no alternative. You will be back for more.