Nebula-Award-winning author Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings, the first Dominion of the Fallen novel, won the British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel and was a finalist for the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel. A sequel, The House of Binding Thorns, is scheduled for release in April.
The Great Houses War left Paris in ruins. Those who are fortunate belong to a House backed with magic and power that can protect its members. Most Houses are ruled by one of the Fallen, beings who literally fell to the Earth after being cast down by God. Though they have magic, they are vulnerable since they are literally made of power: their flesh, blood, and bones can make ordinary humans quite potent—and there are many desperate ordinary humans struggling just to survive within the city who desire that power.
When a new Fallen crashes to the ground in Paris, she’s first discovered by two gang members, one of whom convinces the other they should harvest her parts. The young Fallen’s terror and pain lead another Fallen to the spot: Selene, who became the Head of House Silverspires after the mysterious disappearance of its founder and her teacher, Morningstar. Selene fights with magic that should easily destroy both attackers, but the instigator’s companion absorbs her spell even though he’s not Fallen and is left behind by the other, being to weak to run after his efforts. This magic arouses Selene’s curiosity—she’s never experienced anything like it before—and she has this man, Philippe, brought back to her House along with the rescued Fallen.
Though held in House Silverspires against his will, Philippe can at least wander through it. In the course of his explorations, he encounters a cursed mirror that unleashes darkness and causes him to see visions of Morningstar. Soon after, shadows stalk the House, and people and Fallen die suddenly of unknown causes: the only clue is that they all have a wound that looks like a snakebite. Those within the House must unravel the mystery or the entire House may fall…
The House of Shattered Wings is a decent novel with a lot of strengths. Most of all, I loved the blending of different fantasy elements in this setting. Since Europe and the Fallen have been taking over the world, older magics have been fading but there are still remnants (perhaps more than the Fallen realize given that Philippe’s abilities are surprising and incomprehensible to them). Though the details of Philippe’s history in Annam are not fully explained, he was once a mortal who earned a place as an Immortal in the Jade Emperor’s Court—until he was cast out, making him somewhere between the two states. In addition to angels and spirits, the book also draws from Greek mythology.
It’s also a good story with some lovely prose, and the first half was extremely readable as it set up the world and introduced some intriguing characters:
- Selene, a Fallen who tries to fulfill her duties protecting House Silverspires while feeling as though she’ll never be able to live up to her predecessor, the oldest and most powerful of all the Fallen: Morningstar himself.
- Philippe, a former Immortal with a mysterious background stuck in France after he was forced to leave his homeland to fight their war.
- Isabelle, the newest Fallen who can be by turns timid and fierce (or naive and wise).
- Madeleine, the House alchemist who turned to the addictive substance angel essence after she was haunted by the death of someone she cherished and her own narrow escape from a coup at House Hawthorn.
- Emmanuelle, the intelligent, empathetic House archivist and Selene’s partner (the other four are more major characters but I had to include her because I thought she was the most likable!).
However, my patience started to wear thin throughout the second half for one main reason: the narrative is bogged down by too much internal monologue. It’s told through the third person, mainly from the perspectives of Philippe, Selene, and Madeleine, and it seemed as though none of these characters could have a conversation or observe events without following it up with every single thought on what had just happened instead of moving the plot forward. At times, this much telling can work, but I didn’t feel it added much to their characterization. They did not have distinct voices, and most of these reflections were either simple observations or introspection that didn’t show much new about them.
Earlier in the book, this didn’t bother me as much since I was just getting to know the characters, but later it made them seem rather stale, especially since the dialogue was also rather to the point and did not exhibit personality. By the end, I found that the characters who were more in the shadows were more compelling than the main characters, all of whom had interesting backgrounds but did not have much complexity or multidimensional characterization. Even though I was disappointed in the politics between Houses since these conversations lacked tension or fun exchanges, I’m most likely to read the sequel in hopes of more about two of those characters in the shadows, Claire and Asmodeus. Claire, a shrewd older woman, is one of the few mortals to become head of a House and seems to be the type to play a long game. Asmodeus has mysterious motivations, and I am quite interested in learning more about why he has some of the whims he does.
The House of Shattered Wings is a promising first novel in the series, and it is a great story with some beautiful phrasing. However, the narrative is bogged down by too much introspection that doesn’t advance the characterization or add much insight (especially later in the novel), making it less engaging to read during the second part despite the excellent setting and prose. It succeeded in making me curious about the sequel but I’m not quite convinced I want to read it once it has been published.
My Rating: 6/10
Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.
This book is January’s selection from a poll on Patreon.