The House of Shattered Wings
by Aliette de Bodard
Cover Artist: Nekro
Review by Benjamin Wald
Roc Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780451477385
Date: 18 August 2015 List Price $26.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
The House of Shattered Wings begins with a bang. Phillippe and a fellow gang member slink through the shattered remnants of Paris, devastated by a magical war between the ruling houses, and happen upon a newly manifested fallen--an angel expelled from heaven and forced to take up a mortal form on earth. They immediately set about harvesting the newly manifested fallen's body for the valuable magic locked in her flesh and bones. It's an opening that hits the reader over the head with the fascinating setting Aliette de Bodard has created. However, the novel fails to live up to this powerful opening, leaving us with an intriguing and occasionally powerful but flawed novel.
The novel is quite richly populated. It focuses on the members of house Silverspires. The houses are feudal organizations that promise protection to their dependents in exchange for loyalty and service. Those outside the protection of a house struggle to survive, but even the houses have lost much of their power since a devastating war between the houses that left even the surviving houses crippled.
Selene, one of the most interesting characters, is the head of house Silverspires, replacing the founder Morningstar, who has vanished. Morningstar was the oldest and most powerful of the fallen, and while Selene is also a fallen, she worries that she is not powerful or ruthless enough to protect the house Morningstar built.
Isabelle, the newly born fallen nearly killed in the books opening, is a new addition to house Silverspires, her power as a fallen is tempered by her inexperience, not remembering her time in heaven and not having learned much about earth. Her naiveté puts her at risk, but at the same time she fears becoming as cynical as the more experienced fallen who she meets.
Phillippe is even more of an outsider--dragged to Paris from Vietnam to fight in the war, and wielding magic unfamiliar to the fallen angels who rule Paris. He finds himself a captive of house Silverspire, and must balance his hatred of the houses and the system they enable with his growing sympathy for Isabelle and other members of the house he comes to know.
Finally, Madeleine is the alchemist of house Silverspires, a refuge from a bloody coup in a rival house and secretly addicted to angel essence--a drug made from the bones of the fallen.
Each of these characters have their own goals and drives, and find themselves frequently at odds. The main story concerns a curse that Phillippe inadvertently unleashes, a curse that seeks to destroy all of house Silverspires. As the origins of this curse come to light, it becomes less clear that the house truly deserves to be saved.
One of the frustrating things about this novel is that, after the first chapter, the whole novel takes place within house Silverspires. This prevents us from fully exploring the setting. People often talk about how the houses exploit those without the protection of a house, but we never get to see this first hand, so it remains a very abstract charge. This prevents the setting from fully coming to life for me. This problem is exacerbated by an overly complex plot. The curse that threatens house Silverspires changes its nature several times, and seems to have external allies whose motivations are unclear.
The nature and limitations of magic are never clearly established. People repeatedly declare that some uses of magic are impossible, only to accept them as a matter of course when they later are proven to have happened. For instance, we are told several times that summoning magical creatures is impossible. When it turns out (as the astute reader could easily have predicted) that this is exactly what has happened, we never get any explanation of how it has happened, and everyone who had previously said it was impossible accepts it without comment or apparent surprise. As a result, even though most of the main characters use magic, the reader never really gets a sense of what magic is capable of.
The relations between the characters is the strong point of the novel. Despite the fact that they are often at odds, they each feel like they have their own goals, and we can understand and even sympathize with all of these inconsistent goals. Unfortunately, dialogue is one of the author's weak points. The dialogue tends to be trite and unrealistic, mostly people telling each other things we already know. Worse, all of the characters sound the same when they talk. You'd expect an ancient fallen angel to sound different from a drug-addicted, traumatized mortal, but they speak remarkably similarly.
The original setting and believable, fully-realized characters set this novel up for success. Unfortunately, poorly written dialogue and an overly-complex meandering plot undercut this success, leaving a novel that feels like it overstays its welcome by at least a hundred pages.