This latest book I am reviewing is Aliette de Bodard’s, The House of Shattered Wings. The links for buying the book will be at the bottom of the page. As always, beware of spoilers!
This was a really good book. The narration comes from a variety of different characters, some of them for only a chapter or so, while some take up a larger part of the novel. I thought this was a really interesting technique, while there is still a lot of mystery in the book you hear from a lot of the characters that might otherwise be the most mysterious. This helps to clear up a lot of questions and gives you an advantage over the characters in knowing some of what is going on. Though, obviously, since they live in the world they know more about it than you do, so those little snippets you learn ahead of the crowd are vital to keeping your head above the water. This becomes a really important factor as the story goes on, since without the variety of points of view you would probably end up being very confused, or worse, would miss out on so many of the nuances that entire dramatic subplots would pass you by!
Fundamentally this story is a murder mystery, someone is killing people in the dark and spooky streets of Paris and the characters are doing their best to find out who it is and stop them. However, it is also a story about political intrigue and houses set against each other. And about what crimes are forgivable and which are not. There’s a lot going on, which is probably why it was so necessary to have a variety of characters telling the story.
One of the things I thought worked so well with having a variety of characters to tell the story is that there was a character telling their point of view from each of the different groups in the story. You have Madeleine, a human, Selene, a fallen angel, and Philippe, who is complicated. By giving us a view into each of these worlds we learn more about them all, with and without the biases, and with conflicting biases which tell you a lot too.
It would be really easy to think of the Houses in the story, the big pseudo-noble families run mostly by fallen angels, as the good guys. Or at least, House Shining Spires which is the one the story centres around as the victim. But again and again de Bodard underlines that the story isn’t that simple. The Houses are full of people, and that means they are not so easily pigeonholed as good or bad. Any time it comes close to becoming that easy, she throws a wrench into the mix
One of the factors that really makes this clear is the way that the Empire the Houses once ran is brought up. The other characters think about it on occasion, but it’s not much more than a,”Oh yeah, that was a thing, wasn’t it.” Meanwhile from Philippe’s point of view you see the grief and horrifying actions that made it happen. How the wealth of Paris was built on the all of these terrible things. And how he in particular was torn away from his home and prevented from going back because of the House’s war and their control over his home land. And I found that really powerful. A lot of fantasy books have “Evil Empires” or something along those lines as antagonists. Often a character will leave their place in the Empire once they realise how terrible it all is.
But the Empire in The House of Shattered Wings actually feels real in a lot of ways that those stories fail at. Philippe knows plenty of people who are good kind people, but who have profited and had their happiness secured because of the pain that people like Philippe had to go through. That is something that is missing from a lot of these kinds of narratives. It’s easy to say that an entire Empire is full of horrible, evil people who all deserve what’s coming for them. It’s tougher to say that some weren’t evil, but helped evil things happen and didn’t stand in the way of them. And this is a major theme that book returns to in lots of different ways.
The thing that is killing people is a ghost that has raised the Furies/Erinyes to hunt down those who have ties to her old house. Because, her old house was led by Morningstar, the Fallen Angel, who was once her trusted teacher, and who betrayed her. Nightingale, the betrayed student, is a really interesting antagonist because she has a point. I mean she shouldn’t be taking out her revenge on the people who she was, but she has a valid grievance. Which is a weird way to describe being set up for a murder and then sent to be tortured and killed, but I mean, it works.
And then Selene shows herself to be continuing that, I don’t want to say tradition, but you know what I mean. She sends the newly resurrected Morningstar to face the ghost who hates him, despite the fact that this new version of Morningstar has no memories of those actions. So in a lot of ways is a fresh person, not the person who did all of those terrible things. But she still sends him off, pretty certain that he is going to get killed. But we are told, these are the kinds of choices you have to make to lead a house like Shining Spires.
And you can’t really disagree. The world of de Bodard’s Paris is dark and difficult, it is made very clear. There is murder everywhere. Even the House that is implied to be the “nice” one has someone get murdered right in their main hall. Plus they are as neck-deep in the plots as House Hawthorne which is posed as the “bad” house. If anything House Hawthorne has more redeeming features. We are shown the characters there having more emotional responses and ties to each other. Which readers are generally encouraged to see as a sign of being good. But they’re not. They are still pretty terrible. Everyone is.
In some ways, this book is the grimdark style of story that I don’t like. There’s death, the general state of people’s morals on a scale of 1 to 10 is about minus 2, plus, loads of blood, gore, and general awareness that the world is terrible.
But I don’t hate it? Partly, of course, is just that’s a really good piece of writing. I find it hard to hate that, especially when it has fantastic settings like in this book. But I think another part of the reason is the way the characters have been built. They aren’t cruel for the giggles. They feel strong ties of loyalty and build bridges to others. There is so much potential for warmth that the fact that it is often missing is easier for me to forget.
Plus, de Bodard has made characters who I love and that makes it easier too. Like in real life it is easier to forgive people when you want to. And that is another one of the themes in this book: Forgiveness and who deserves it. I am not going to pretend to know the answers to that, but I am looking forward to reading on in the series and finding out what the characters choose.
But that will have to be some other time. Coming to the end of this book I am really impressed by the breadth of ideas that de Bodard was able to fit into the novel. There is so much to talk about, from the characters to the spectacular setting, to the themes that are massively thought-provoking. It’s a great book, I would highly recommend it, though it might be a bit dark for some so tread carefully.
The next book on the list is Brandon Dixon’s, The Bank Heist. It’s a really interesting book since it is a novel set in a world made by the author for his own Table Top RPG. I’m looking forward to it.
- Link to the Virtual Book Club Page
- Link to where you can buy the book on Amazon. (Oh, and as of this post being written the price for the book on Amazon Kindle is only 99 p. So you can check it out for an even lower price than normal!)
- Link to Brandon Dixon’s, The Bank Heist on Amazon.
See you soon and stay safe out there,