It starts with a Fall. Isabelle cast down from Heaven, wings shattered, doomed to walk Earth until her death centuries later. Or much, much sooner, if the gang members seeking to dismember the Fallen for parts (for their magical essence, not a Lamborghini) have their way. But they are interrupted by Selene, head of House Silverspires, and so Isabelle and one of the gang members, the Vietnamese (or “Annamite”) Philippe, wind up bound to the House.
And so begins de Bodard’s inventive book. The House of Shattered Wings is a new take on the fallen angel. The arrive naïve and without knowledge of their transgressions. “What had her sin been, the one that had cast her out of the City? She’d wondered over the years—at what could be so grave that a God of forgiveness and love would condemn them all to this slow, agonizing path on Earth, with the wound of His absence lancing like salted knives—and known, in the darkness of her own room, that there would never be any answer.” Humans can work magic, too, by manipulating khi currents; indeed, the most powerful human magicians can rival Fallen. That’s largely a matter of skill, though. A freshly fallen, er, Fallen has almost inexhaustible power. It’s their curse that their power fades even as their skill grows. The might of a Fallen is as deep as her bones. She can imbue artifacts with magic with her breath. Her body will be cannibalized by her House alchemist on death to protect the power of her House. And her bones can be ground into an addictive powder that blackens and kills the lungs of its human users.
This takes place in our own world (sort of), somewhat close to the present day, but still shattered by a Great War that started between Houses in England and France and devolved to Houses fighting Houses on the streets of Paris until the city was wrecked and the Seine left fouled by dark magics. Beyond Paris?
The rest of Europe was ashes as well: the Great War had spilled outward from Paris, engulfing every region and every department—and reaching across borders through the alliances struck between Houses, a network of mutual support that had turned to tinder for a continent-wide conflagration—English Houses against French Houses; and then, as governments collapsed and the circle of conflicts tightened, each House for itself. Outside Paris, ruins dotted the landscape—the minor, provincial Houses in other cities shattered, their Fallen and human dependents dead in the hundreds, and the manors of the countryside fastnesses in the midst of wastelands. The travelers from Madrid or London arrived with delegations as large and armed as a battalion, after a grueling journey that had taken them months to complete. And the boats for Annam and the colonies were few, the exclusive province of the favored of Houses.
This is a problem for Philippe, brought from the colonies “[w]en the war had gone badly, when the Houses had needed all the bodies they could spare, and had bled their colonies dry to provide soldiers for the slaughter.” He is trapped in Paris, unable to ever return to his home. It is his incandescent rage at this that drives him, that tortures him. And Philippe is powerful himself. He is a disgraced Immortal, a sort of Vietnamese equivalent of Fallen, albeit dissimilar and in many ways more powerful. The Fallen take center stage but are not the only supernatural beings in the world.
Beyond Europe, before the mad rush to colonize other countries and bring their wealth back to the motherland, there had been—other beings, other Houses: the nahual shape-shifters of Mexico, the jinn of Arab countries, the Jewish shedim and Nephilim—and once, a long time ago, demigods and heroes of ancient Greece and ancient Rome—since long vanished and crushed by newer magics, their creatures cannibalized to form the constructs of the war, or buried so deeply in the earth they required a painstaking and dangerous summoning that no Fallen would dare undertake. The other beings in other lands, too, had either yielded to Fallen rule, or been killed. “Much. But not about Annam.” “Annam . . . is a land of spirits,” Emmanuelle said. “Magic is tied to the land—there’s a spirit for each village, for each household—for mountains and rivers and rain.”
It is Philippe’s curiosity though, not his rage, that leads to what is eventually revealed to be a curse on House Silverspires to be released. It starts with the deaths of human House informers, then the Fallen House apprentice alchemist, all covered in strange puncture wounds surrounded by circles, and the latter drained of his magic. The deaths lead to a conclave, ostensibly to find out who is behind them, more likely to gain advantage. And such a conclave is not to be taken lightly. “There had been one conclave of the major Houses, in days gone by. By the end of it, five people had died; every House had retreated, licking its wounds and vowing revenge on every other House; and the Great War had begun, swallowing everyone and everything in its maw.”
De Bodard’s book is full of beautiful, arresting imagery. The broken Notre Dame, the fouled Seine, will stay with me for a long time. Her take on angels is inventive and refreshing. Philippe’s rage is gripping. It’s the sort of wonderful stuff we pick up speculative fiction books for. But the book still comes off a bit flat. It’s structured around a mystery, but it is a mystery I never found terribly compelling, although going back to my notes to write this review I see cleverly placed clues. The most interesting characters—Philippe, Selene—have the least compelling character arcs, and the characters with satisfying arcs—Isabelle, Madeleine—are the least interesting. The tension never quite pulled me along (I found myself longing instead to crack open the copy of Chuck Wendig’s Zer0es sitting beside me), and an action scene in the climax takes place in the background, just two figures throwing magic at each other—albeit with a great final stroke. What is the most frustrating isn’t the final product, which is still very strong in summation, but that it didn’t rise to meet such great potential.
Disclosure: I received an advance copy of The House of Shattered Wings via NetGalley.