The House of Binding Thorns is the second volume in Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen series.
The dragon realm hidden under the Seine has until now held itself aloof. Their kingdom has been known only to a very few in ruined Paris. Now something has changed. An ongoing crisis in their realm gives Asmodeus, head of House Hawthorn, a chance to open diplomatic exchange with the hermit domain. More than exchange: dynastic merger.
Of course, the dragon kingdom has its own agenda, not to mention long experience of cunning plans aimed its way. The diplomatic mission may well be one from which none will return. It is a risk Asmodeus is willing to accept. That’s why he is sending trusted or expendable (such as returned exile and angel-essence-addict Madeleine) subordinates to conduct the negotiations.
The Ammanite dragons under the river have every reason to be suspicious of Asmodeus’ timing and of his ambassador. The dragons are dealing with an outbreak of angel-essence addiction . Whoever is supplying the substance must have access to the Fallen (angels fallen from another realm). Asmodeus’ determination to bind the dragons to him through an arranged marriage makes him a prime suspect.
Whoever is behind the illicit trade has succeeded in fracturing the dragon kingdom in ways the supplier may not have foreseen. The once unitary realm is unified no more: deeply divided over policy, the ruling classes are carrying out a covert but deadly civil war, a conflict as ruinous as the one that levelled so much of Paris.
House Hawthorn may or may not be complicit in the essence trade plaguing the dragons. Regardless, Hawthorn will most certain pay for the crimes committed against the dragon kingdom.
Asmodeus is very big on keeping his subordinates in line with cruelty and terror, the logic being, I suppose, that his minions will be too scared of the consequences of failing the Fallen angel to even consider betrayal. The downside of that policy is any subordinate who screws up may well decide that since they are doomed anyway, there’s no reason NOT to try to drag Asmodeus down as well.
In general, the deplorable behaviour of the Fallen raises questions about the realm from which the Fallen fell. If their lost homeland is any sort of utopia, it is clear that they did not bring any utopian managerial expertise with them.
Some readers may be curious how it is that elements borrowed from a monotheistic religion — fallen angels cast out after rebelling against the one true god — and elements borrowed from polytheistic cults might work. Not well yoked, actually. Monotheism cannot really exist in a setting where there are demonstrably other great celestial powers. Another consequence is that organized religion in the form it took in the historical Paris does not exist . No need for a church to intercede with higher powers when those higher powers have mailing addresses to which you could hand-deliver a letter.
Asmodeus is not a particularly sympathetic figure; nor are any of the other rulers in Paris. One does not get to be warlord by being kind or pleasant. Well, at least no one in this setting seems to do so. It is just as well that the book focuses on comparatively powerless characters like Madeleine (who knows that her liege may execute her if she disappoints or annoys him or if he is bored) and Philippe (whose determination to bring lost Isabelle back to life leads him into some very dangerous alliances).
The House of Binding Thorns can be read as a standalone but I would recommend beginning with The House of Shattered Wings.
1: You may wonder if it is sometimes inconvenient for the weaker Fallen to be made of addictive materials. Valuable addictive materials at that. As made clear here and there in de Bodard’s Domains of the Fallen setting, this vulnerability makes both for interesting plots and interesting life opportunities for the Fallen. Just like having a body made entirely of high-grade cocaine!
2: I am still unclear how a world whose history is so different from ours even has a Paris.