Oh man, I have the most amazing backlog to work through. It’s incredible how much you can read when you’re trying to avoid looking at your own manuscript.
The House of Shattered Wings wasn’t on my list, or my radar at all, but this incomparable fella lent it me and I couldn’t say no. I have good instincts, and Eren has good taste.
The House of Shattered Wings is, broadly, about a post-war Paris… except the war was fought with magic. I can’t talk about it without making comparisons, or at least wanting to press other books on people, so I’ll get the recommendations out of the way first. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, for those who like magical battles. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville, for those who like the darkness.
The book is dense. It’s not a book to dip in and out of, it’s a book to get lost in. The narrative style is incredibly poetic and full of imagery, conjuring up scenes and memories with a few choice details. That said, de Bodard also from time to time uses a lot of ellipses and hesitations in her narrative (a series of close third person perspectives for those who care) which jarred a bit with the general formality of the style. It felt a bit like she was trying to have her cake and eat it too, with both very intimate glimpses into her characters’ thoughts and careful, exquisite prose, and I wasn’t entirely convinced. The density of the prose (I don’t know how else to describe it. You have to take in each sentence, every word, or else you lose the story) contributes to a sort of debut feel to the book. It’s absolutely not a debut (check out her impressive bibliography) but there’s something of the debut’s breathless feel, as though the writer is putting everything they have into this book, a one-chance book. And I mean that in a good way. This book feels precious.
Anyway, enough of my waffle.
There was a lot I loved. The characters were all well-rounded, complex creatures, and de Bodard plays their motivations expertly against each other. I really liked watching the characters speculate and make assumptions about events I’d seen happen, and then adapt their plans and schemes to those assumptions. There were a lot of balls in the air and they were juggled most gracefully. Each character had their own unlikeable aspects and flaws, but I wanted them all to win at one time or another, which is pretty much the best sign.
And not content with a meaty story of political machinations and mystery and murder, de Bodard brings in France’s colonial history and draws elegant parallels – and nuanced ones, too. Of course, the French colonists weren’t fallen angels and the Vietnamese colonised weren’t Buddhist (I think, but I’m not very familiar with Vietnamese religions and am even worse at the different kinds of Buddhism, so I apologise if I’ve totally got the wrong end of the stick here) immortals, and it’s not a one-to-one allegory or anything, but it’s really excellently done.
Still not enough? What about faith itself? The Fallen [angels] have, let’s say, issues.
I was glad to see that even in this world of actual magic the ordinary mortals weren’t made completely useless. Not a lot of time was spent on the relatively miserable existence of most Parisian humans, and nor should it have been, but the mortal main characters were players to be reckoned with. They weren’t defenceless – they preyed on Fallen when they could get them, to strip their bodies down for magic supplies – and it added a new, interesting strain to the post-war ecosystem.
I didn’t see most of the plot coming, just let myself ride the wave all the way to the end, and there’s just so much here, and I don’t want to give too much away. Argh.
I won’t say too much more. One thing that struck me as weird was a couple of the blurbs on the book described it as a spy thriller, which I didn’t really agree with. Murder mystery didn’t seem quite right either. There are machinations and alliances and betrayals, sure, but not really any particular spies? Not so significantly as to define the genre, anyway. And yeah, there were murders and mysteries, but in a very urban fantasy way. Urban fantasy often feels to me like a murder mystery subgenre of its own at this point. There always seem to be murders and mysteries in urban fantasy. Not that the plot was hackneyed at all. Just that giving it such a specific genre felt misleading.
De Bodard is pretty good at the mystery stuff, by the way (though she doesn’t work to the “rules” that tend to govern Murder Mysteries, which is another reason why that designation gives me pause). Not just in the plot situation, but within the characters themselves. She gives away what you need and keeps back the rest – and there are mysteries left still unsolved by the end, which speaks to me of the sort of authorial confidence I’m willing to trust to a series. I don’t know why, I just feel like a less experienced author would try to solve everything by the end. Some of these mysteries (what gets you kicked out of any heaven?) I don’t think will ever be solved, and I think I like it that way.