Summary: A superb murder mystery, on an epic scale, set against the fall out – literally – of a war in Heaven.
Paris has survived the Great Houses War – just. Its streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine runs black with ashes and rubble. Yet life continues among the wreckage. The citizens continue to live, love, fight and survive in their war-torn city, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over the once grand capital.
House Silverspires, previously the leader of those power games, lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.
Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen, a alchemist with a self-destructive addiction, and a resentful young man wielding spells from the Far East. They may be Silverspires’ salvation. They may be the architects of its last, irreversible fall…
Thoughts: It’s not secret that I have a thing for fallen angels. So when I heard the synopsis of Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings, I knew it was going to be a novel I’d have to look closely at. And this book is simply unlike anything I’ve ever read before, making it a stand-out addition to my personal library.
Paris has been devastated, thanks to destruction caused by warring fallen angels. The city is in ruin, gangs roam the streets, angel body parts and blood get sold on the black market, and the Great Houses still stand. House Silverspires was once the House of Morningstar, the architect of the falling of the angels, guiding followers in their survival. That is, until he vanished, leaving Silverspires with failing magics and slowly weakening defenses, with other Houses circling it like sharks closing in for the kill. But Philippe, a non-angelic (Fallen or otherwise) immortal with a mysterious past, might be the key to changing the fortunes of House Silverspires and everyone within it. For good or for ill.
This is an odd book. It’s slow, bordering on ponderous, and it’s largely free of the typical action scenes most readers of SFF come to expect in novels. That being said, there’s still a lot to take in, and the story itself is complex and full of spectacular levels of world-building. It combines myths from various religions and regions, some interesting takes on those myths, an alternate history, and all that’s before you even get into the diverse cast of characters who drive the story along. Selene, the leader of Silverspires, hard because she has to take up the mantle of a legend and keep her House and its dependents safe. Madeleine, hiding her addiction to angel essence, which is understandably taboo in Houses when you consider that it involves consuming pieces of an angel’s body.
And then there’s Morningstar. Morningstar, known more to us as Lucifer, appears mostly in flashbacks and memories, the founder of House Silverspires and Selene’s vanished mentor. Morningstar, so charismatic that people, be they angel or human, flocked to him. Morningstar, whose House is now crumbling and who is still somehow related to the events occurring, only just how he’s connected doesn’t really make sense until you have all the pieces of the puzzle. For a character who’s pretty much only there in spirit, he’s definitely a favourite of mine, and I found myself looking forward to Philippe’s looks into the past so that I could see more of the mysterious fallen angel himself.
The writing is downright lyrical at times, evoking some powerful imagery and emotion as the story progresses. It’s a very character-driven story in many ways, since although some plot points were put in motion long before the characters in question ever came onto the scene, it’s Philippe and Selene and Madeleine and Isabelle that move it along. Their mistakes, their curiosities, their fear and desperation and drive, all influence Silverspires. In a way, the House is the novel’s real focus, almost a character in itself, since the story is all about its slow decline and everyone’s attempts to keep it safe and overcome the darkness threatening it.
It’s hard to discuss this book without mentioning spoilers all over the place, honestly. Some books I can manage just fine with in reviews, and others are so rich and sense that it’s hard to say, “This whole section is great because…” or “It really hit home when this character did…” I’ve said before that some of the best novels are the hardest to review, for this very reason, and The House of Shattered Wings is definitely one of those books. There’s so much to it, layers of story and myth and characterization, plots that intertwine, breaking off sometimes but always coming back in the end, and while it takes a few mental twists to follow along at times, it’s worth the effort.
It’s a slow-burn kind of novel, and definitely not for everyone. I imagine that the slow pace would turn away some readers, as well as the fact that it’s set in an alternate past that was affected by various aspects of different myths. It’s a bit trick to wrap your head around exactly where and when this takes place, beyond, “Paris, ruined, with people dressing in fashions from decades ago.” Which, looked at more objectively, goes to show the fine attention to detail that de Bodard put into creating this fascinating setting. It’s a dark and beautiful book, filled with fear and hope in equal measure, and it certainly was unique. An acquired taste, perhaps, but one that suits me very well. If this is what I can expect from other things the author has written, then consider me a fan right from the outset!
(Received for review from the publisher.)