Today, Aliette de Bodard is awesome enough to drop by with a fantastic post about the Paris she wrote for The House of Shattered Wings.
I wrote The House of Shattered Wings partly as a love letter to Paris.
It might seem a little paradoxical, as one of the first things I’ve done with the book is nuke the city: in the novel, the Great Houses War (my alternate equivalent to World War I), was fought not between countries, but between magical factions, and the resulting backlash tore the city apart, destroying the familiar monuments and turning the city into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Among other things, NotreDame is a ruin, the Sorbonne University has been burnt down to the ground, and the Grands Magasins are saturated with magical booby-traps, and you do not go there unless you have a death-wish.
However, no matter how destroyed, the city is still recognisably Paris; and its geography is still familiar — and so is its society, which I loosely based on the 19th Century and the novels I read as a child. I wanted to a write a fantasy that was set among familiar streets and familiar sights, and would incorporate many of the things I grew up with. Equally, I didn’t want this to be the tourist view of Paris: there’s nothing wrong with this narrative, but I wanted to present something a little different, a city from the point of view of those that live there (or in the case of my characters, survive!).
I drew on a lot of things for the world in the novel: the first is the history of the city and of the French state, which I took and twisted sideways to make this post-apocalyptic world come alive. The Seine has long been Paris’s sustenance, an important source of commerce and supplies, but also a line of defence: Ile de la Cité and Ile Saint-Louis, Paris’s two natural islands, are also its historical heart (the city’s motto, Fluctuat Nec Mergitur, “battered by the river but does not sink”, is a clear reference to this). In the world of the novel, the Seine has become corrupted by the spells cast during the Great War: venture too close to it and you run the risk of being dragged underwater by invisible tendrils. Banks are off-limits, and even bending over the parapet of a bridge can be lethal.
In my universe, several magical factions-cum-fortresses called Houses fight each other for influence over Paris. The names of those Houses are easter eggs based on history and geography. The first and foremost House is Silverspires, the major location of the novel. It is of course located on Ile de la Cité, because it was the first House founded, at a time when the city was the island; its name, Silverspires, is a reference to the numerous churches which used to be found on the island before the great renovation of Paris in the 19th Century. Another House, Hawthorn, is located in the Southwest of Paris in Auteuil: during the first half of the 19th century, Auteuil was a verdant village in the countryside, one of the places where the rich had their secondary residences. Accordingly, Hawthorn is famous for its gardens, which it has managed to keep intact (more or less) even in the years after the war.
The 19th Century was a time of unprecedented advances (in the alternate history I describe, those are powered by magic), and of large territorial expansion of the French on other continents. The novel is set sixty years after the Great Houses War: in the wake of the devastation, that century (and especially the Belle Epoque) has become the Golden Age, the halcyon days everyone seeks to remember; but there are also remnants of the colonial empire. Commerce still flows through the port of Marseilles from Asia, and one of the major characters, Philippe, hails from Annam (present-day Vietnam), while minor ones come from Morocco, Senegal and other French colonies.
Another thing which I used was the geography of the city, and the way it would change in a postapocalyptic setting. Because the Seine is now impregnable, the Houses which hold islands (Ile de la Cité, Ile Saint-Louis and the artificial Ile aux Cygnes) now have an advantage over others, as they are harder to storm. Conversely, places like Hawthorn, which are basically countryside, have no natural defences: one of the reasons why Hawthorn and the other Houses are so eager to bring Silverspires down is because of the unfair advantage Silverspires now holds.
Finally, the society I present is drawn from many things: as I said, it is a twisted version of the Belle Epoque, with social mores affected by a devastated setting, but still present. The class system has receded and left in its place a stratification based on who belongs to a great House, and who doesn’t; on who has magic, and who doesn’t; and people make snap judgments based on this. I drew on my classical reading for this, to get both the feel of what it would be like in an upper-class/bourgeois portion of society (within the Houses), and what being outside this system would entail: the society in the novel is a cross between Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (which vividly portrays both the plight of the oppressed and the obliviousness of the powerful), Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin novels (the adventures of a gentleman-thief, but more importantly a powerful cross-section of French society pre-WWI), and Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo (which, in addition to the revenge plot, has wonderful parties and very vivid politics among the bourgeoisie). All were invaluable for creating the interactions between characters who ranked from heads of Houses to more minor roles like alchemists, bodyguards and servants.
This is the underside of the iceberg, of course: in the novel, which has a fast-paced, character-driven noir plot, I seldom had time to pause for history lessons. But there is enough of it there, I hope, to make this strange, unfamiliar and yet utterly recognisable Paris come to life; and to give the reader a whirlwind tour of what might have been, in a slightly sideways City of Light!
Many thanks, Aliette, for writing this post for Bibliotropic! And to everyone who hasn’t yet read The House of Shattered Wings, what are you waiting for?