2015’s The House of Shattered Wings is the first novel in Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen setting1. Dominion of the Fallen features a world much like our own, so much like ours as to have its own Paris, City of Lights. This secondary world has been a refuge for Fallen angels for at least the last eight hundred years. Powerful and avaricious, the Fallen easily dominate the humans around them. They have transformed France into a paramount power ruled over by the angel-led Great Houses of Paris.
In 1914, the Great Houses turned on each other, transforming Paris from one of the world’s wonders into one of its great horrors. At the time in which this novel is set, the Great Houses War is long over, but Paris remains a post-apocalyptic desolation. Some Houses still stand, but they are much reduced from their glory days.
Thus far, House Silverspires has been one of the lucky ones. It survived the War. It survived the loss of its founder, Morningstar. It survived the unending jockeying for position between the surviving Houses. Whether House Silverspires can survive what is to come is entirely unclear.
The first hint that something is seriously wrong comes in the form of a series of extraordinary murders. In the violent anarchy that is the shambles of Paris, even extraordinary murders do not call attention to themselves. It takes time, too much time, for House Silverspires’ current ruler, Selene, to learn just what her House is facing.
Decades ago, before he vanished, Morningstar made a terrible bargain that made sense at the time, especially since its cost fell on another. Or so Morningstar must have thought. Now, the true price of Morningstar’s gambit will be made manifest:
All that you hold dear will be shattered; all that you built will fall into dust; all that you gathered will be born away by the storm.
As I’ve noted in another review, I cannot but wonder how it is that de Bodard’s world is similar to ours in so many ways, given that some major aspects of the world are so very different. I found no answer in this novel. One might guess that the differences are recent, but the Fallen have been hanging out earth-side for at least eight centuries. Time enough for societies to change enormously. And … the Fallen are far from the only supernatural beings plaguing this world.
In their pre-war golden age, the Fallen were so powerful as to crush all opposition, human or supernatural. Since they didn’t need to understand their victims to overcome them 2, the Fallen and their minions could remain profoundly ignorant of the world they were looting. Their victims must be warier.
One character is known to the Houses and the street gangs as Philippe. It would have been easy enough to discover that he was an Annamese known to his family as Pham Van Minh Khiet. Immaterial … who cares what odd names foreigners use at home? Nor do the Parisians have any idea as to what he really is. Selene at least realizes he is something new, and is curious enough to spare him for the moment. Philippe, on the other hand, is eager to learn as much as he can about the Fallen and their minions, as his very survival is at stake.
This book confronts the reader with a particularly naked imperialism, one whose creators never saw the need for a justifying ideology beyond their greed and their ability to take whatever they want. De Bodard must then figure out how to keep readers invested in her characters and immersed in the plot. If the system itself is monstrous, why should readers care that the oppressors are haunted by some ancient crime? You may remember that it was just this point that so annoyed me about MacDonald’s Luna: New Moon.
De Bodard succeeds where MacDonald failed in creating sympathetic characters, characters who were not the founders and can see no way to reform the system that keeps them alive. Their society may be monstrous (although all too reminiscent of some purely human polities) but appealing characters like Selene, the newborn Fallen Isabelle, Pham Van Minh Khiet, and scholarly Madeleine are not.
The House of Shattered Wings is available from Roc.
1: There are, as previously discussed quite a number of shorter works in the same setting.
2: For example, in de Bodard’s world there is nothing analogous to the development path that led from Hyder Ali’s rocket barrages to Congreve’s rockets.