This is probably the book with the sharpest decline in quality I have ever read. The first half of its 399 pages was original and amazing. Sadly, the second half didn’t live up to what its author had set up. The House of Shattered Wings is the first book of Aliette de Bodard I’ve read, and I came to it with high expectations: most reviews are glowing. I was also intrigued by the world building it promised: a novel set in an alternative reality Paris, 20th century, in ruins after a magical war. The city is ruled by a few Houses, factions of fallen angels, arcane creatures that wield magical power, at least in this part of the world.
The first 100 pages are truly promising: the world, the characters and the mystery at the core of the story all seem interesting. There’s also beautiful prose, and awesome, intuitive systems of magic.
It left her hands, a barely distinguishable tremor, a pinpoint that became a raised line, and then a rift across the faded ceramic tiles that would tear the girl apart.
Yet after 100 pages more, it gradually becomes clear that the story is only build around one or two things: the mystery of who put a curse on the oldest and most powerful House, and the question of how the curse will eventually play out. When I reached the end, my main thought was: was this it? That’s all there is to it? That wouldn’t have been such a problem if there would have been character development, or a complex world, or depth to emotions. As you can guess, I found none.
Take the character of the alchemist for instance. She is addicted to a certain kind of magical drugs, yet de Bodard doesn’t manage to convey any of the psychological struggles addiction causes. Sure, Madeleine is troubled by trauma in her past, but the true hardship and desperation of having to cope with a self-destructive addiction doesn’t come to life on the pages. It mainly seems a gimmick – writers need flawed characters these days. The addiction does advance the story a bit 2 or 3 times – although using something alternative in each case would have been very easy – , but it doesn’t advance the character at all. Not even an inch. The same goes for the other characters: they remain distant, and almost all of them are one-dimensional.
The world building quickly grinds to a halt. Paris could have been whatever other city. De Bodard does reference to the Notre Dame, the Seine, or Les Halles, or a few other well-known places or buildings, and as such grounds the story firmly in something that is known – as opposed to second world fantasy – but that’s about it. I’ve visited Paris multiple times, but while reading the book I never had the impression I was in this city. Names like Île de la Cité or Pont Neuf just felt like tokens in a game, not as real places in an imaginary world. And where were all the other inhabitants of Paris? The regular people?
What this story also missed, is an economy. What do these Houses actually do? They are supposed to be powerful and grand and woven into the very fabric of the city’s life, yet it is totally unclear why they are powerful (aside from being founded and ruled by magical angels), or what they compete for. Territory? The rights to sell magical artifacts? Political influence? On whom? Humans? The president of France? It all doesn’t seem to matter, as they did import slave soldiers from their colonies – colonial critique, check!
There are some moral questions that The House of Shattered Wings asks. Yet they simply aren’t interesting. Of course betrayal isn’t really the nice thing to do. Neither is torture. Neither is selling one of your protegees to another House. The main emotion driving the story (revenge) is the most uninteresting emotion there is. There’s nothing to it: everybody understands being mad at people who betrayed you big time.
The three main characters all take quite some time to come to grips with the fact that these Houses are corrupt and dangerous. For us readers, that was obvious on page 40. They were founded by fallen angels, their main man is Lucifer and they did ruin an entire capital, not?
I could go on, and tell you about a few plot holes and more than a few unexplained happy coincidences, or about the erratic behavior of some characters, but I don’t feel like going into detail there. Ultimately, they aren’t the biggest flaws of this book.
I should warn you though about the fact that the dialogue in the second half is stale, repetitive and unrealistic. Its main purpose becomes exposition, and that even goes for the inner monologues of characters!
The rest of the prose becomes repetitive too – I don’t know how many times the word “shadow” or “shadows” is featured. Too much? De Bodard keeps on hammering the same nail (there was betrayal, the Houses are bad, the Houses are in decline, Morningstar is dead, etc., etc.) with the same set of words. Whereas the pacing in the first half was amazing, the second half was one long monotonous drag. Really, the contrast is baffling.
As its story is wrapped up neatly, The House of Shattered Wings works as a stand alone, so you don’t need to be discouraged if you don’t want to engage yourself to a series. The next book in this universe, The House of Binding Thorns, is set for release in August 2017.
There seem to be lots of reviewers who do like this book, so you shouldn’t be discouraged by my review either.
The first half of this novel clearly shows de Bodard has talent. Maybe I should have read Servant Of The Underworld – the first in her Obsidian and Blood-series – instead…