Writer Aliette de Bodard is half French and half Vietnamese, so it's no surprise to find her overtly mixing those two cultures within this fantasy novel. However, knowing at least that much about her background added a real sense of sadness for me as I read this book because where those two cultures meet is never a pleasant thing for the characters involved.
The lead character, if there really is one here, is a Vietnamese man named Pham Van Minh Khiet, though he goes by Philippe. He was born mortal but, through meditation and asceticism, ascended to the Court of the Jade Emperor as an immortal. At some point, during a time when the French dominated Annam, or Vietnam, he and others were taken to fight in the Great War, which was fought between the Houses that occupy Paris. He pines for Annam, but cannot go home, so he bounces around Paris as an anomaly, never finding a place to call his own and resisting any outside effort to bring him into one.
It's a terribly sad thing, to be taken from your home, to which you cannot return, but be unable to find a new one. If any one thing stood free and clear of all others as I finished this book, it was the abiding hope that the author doesn't feel as lost in Paris as Philippe.
He's there as we join the story, a member of the Red Mambas gang who find a fresh Fallen, a point where we realise that we're not in Kansas any more, Dorothy. This is Paris, but hardly the Paris we know, even if we spend time in recognisable places like Notre Dame. The city is divided into Houses, which are both tangible things, physically congruent and protected from each other by magical wards, and intangible ones like clans, the members bound to their House with shared magic, if not blood. When this is, we have no idea, but it tastes like a post-apocalyptic future in which all the city is tainted and decaying.
The oldest of these Houses is House Silverspires, into which both Philippe and the Fallen, named Isabelle, are taken. It was founded by the first of the Fallen, generally known as Morningstar, but also as Lucifer. It seems that when angels are thrown out of Heaven, they don't magically appear in Hell. They literally fall, until they land on the Earth, hard enough that their bird-like hollow bones are pulverised. However, they heal because they're angels, now known as Fallen. They don't remember Heaven as much as they miss it and one fascinating angle to this creation is that some remain devout while others become ambivalent to religion. None, even amongst the more manipulative Fallen, such as Asmodeus, seem like devils, heretics or Satanists; they merely live longer than humans and have more powerful magic. And there are humans just as manipulative, like Claire.
The best thing about 'The House of Shattered Wings', an appropriately poetic title, is how immersive it is. It feels like de Bodard doesn't tell us about its world, she dips us into it and lets us absorb its essence through ripples which subtly disturb its entropy. Tim Powers, quoted on the front cover, suggests that 'this novel will haunt you long after you've put it down.' That's no throwaway word that he uses, because this often feels less like a novel and more like a dream, one whose details fade quickly on awakening but which still floats around in our subconscious, haunting us.
Part of this is because it doesn't seem to have a plot for the longest time. De Bodard gives us characters and mythologies, an infrastructure to house them and locations for them to occupy, rules to govern the relationships and histories. What she doesn't give us is a plot; instead she introduces a single element to shake everything up and follows everything as it shakes. That single element isn't Philippe, by the way, though he could easily have been a world-changing character and I'm not yet convinced that he isn't. It is a mirror, which Philippe finds underneath a throne in Notre Dame, which through him releases an old magical curse that threatens to destroy House Silverspires in entirety.
Sure, we eventually discover who originated the curse and why, but it's hardly something we can figure out for ourselves so there's no real mystery in play. This isn't about a solution, it's about how the various characters try to find one, how their actions affect others and how that all builds. The mirror is merely a butterfly flapping its wings whereas the story is about the whirlwind that ensues.
While it took me a little while to get into this book, it caught me up in that whirlwind and I found myself utterly engrossed for reasons I couldn't place at the time. Now that the final page is turned and I sit back to analyse it, I believe it's because it's such an intangible story.
For instance, we know where we are but we don't know when and nobody seems particularly interested in the passage of time. The most important characters are generally Fallen, who aren't immortal but do live incredibly long lives. They don't think in days, they think in decades or centuries and that detaches them from the moments they exist in. For all the political intrigue between the Houses, which at points threatens outright war which clearly none of them could sustain, the real clash is between fatalism and rebellion. The Fallen take so much for granted while Philippe rails against being one more such thing. It annoyed me for a while how he was brought in to House Silverspires so unwillingly but then ignored for the most part, just left to roam around and feel lost. Yet, that approach comes to ring so true.
In the end, everything changes and nothing changes. Perhaps that's some of the eastern mysticism that de Bodard brings to the table and perhaps it's another reason why this feels so haunting. It's familiar but utterly exotic all at the same time and those two aspects bleed into each other so much that we lose track of which we're reading about at any one time.
Aliette de Bodard is a Nebula and Locus Award winning author with an interest in different mythologies to most. She doesn't just bring her own heritage to bear, but plays in Meso-American and pre-Communist Chinese myth and history. Her other three novels comprise the 'Obsidian and Blood' trilogy, which I now realise I own and whose genre-blending has been described as Aztec noir. On the basis of this novel alone, she's a very fresh voice in fantasy, one that speaks in an enticingly different tongue. Clearly I should listen to her more. ~~ Hal C F Astell