Review: The House of Shattered Wings

This review contains spoilers.

The House of Shattered Wings is an angel book. Angel books were quite in vogue a couple of years ago, which just goes to show how far behind the cresting wave of Current Literature I am – I also read Daughter of Smoke and Bone earlier this year, which is another angel book with some similarities to this one.

Aliette de Bodard’s novel is set in a secondary world that looks almost exactly like ours – except that it’s inhabited by immortals from all cultures. In Europe, that means the Fallen: angels cast out of God’s City for reasons they can’t remember. These Fallen angels band together into Houses, vast feudal units served by humans, constantly jockeying for position. Chief among them is Morningstar, head of House Silverspires and the most powerful Fallen around.
Around about 1920, a minor tiff between the Houses erupts into all-out magical war, a cataclysm that lays waste to most of Europe. The novel takes place sixty years after this Great War, in a post-apocalyptic Belle Epoque Paris ruled (still) by the Houses, with petty gangs and single humans eking out a meagre life in the gaps between their politics.

So: a newly Fallen angel, Isabelle, is taken to House Silverspires, rescued from the gangs who will carve her body up for its potent magic given half a chance. With her is taken Philippe, who has drunk her blood for the same reason, creating a connection between them that neither really understands. Philippe looks like a human from the colonies – specifically, what we would call Vietnam – but he also seems to have impossible powers, powers which intrigue the new head of Silverspires Selene enough to bind him to the House.

But Philippe unwittingly unleashes a curse into the House, one which promptly begins killing people. The novel sees the various actors of Silverspires trying to navigate this new threat, to trace the curse back to its roots and destroy it, before the manoeuvrings of the other Houses bring down Silverspires altogether.

Our most obvious entry point into the novel is Philippe, who operates as observer, malcontent, disruptor, Other in terms of House society. His reading of the House social system is essentially a post-colonialist one. During the Great War, the Houses raided their colonies abroad for soldiers to die in their name; the survivors were left to fend for themselves in a strange country, with little hope of ever going home. This is Philippe’s backstory, and in his view the guiding principle of the House system – that everything is done “for the good of the House” – is a sterile philosophy that only creates cycles of oppression and betrayal. The Houses destroyed the world, using other people as things in their pursuit of greater power, greater privilege.

This is powerfully imagined: I love stories which recognise the role institutions and systems play in perpetuating oppression. And, further, this picture is complicated by the fact that we have access to those within the House – and, of course, by the extraordinary symbolic freight the angels carry. The figure of Morningstar, former head of Silverspires, hangs heavy over the text: and Morningstar is only another name for Lucifer.

How do we read this – especially in the context of what Philippe does for the text? A starting point, perhaps, is to point to Paradise Lost, that ur-text of Western fantasy fiction. In one sense, we’re receiving a post-colonial reading of Paradise Lost, one which highlights the Westernised narrowness of its cosmogony. (The Fallen literally cannot comprehend Philippe, because his powers – as it turns out, a result of his becoming a Vietnamese immortal – don’t fit into their world-view; because to them, to Christianity, they do not exist.) The Fall of Adam and Eve – caused, remember, by Lucifer – is the West’s ur-apocalypse, to coin a phrase; how interesting, then, to reframe it from a non-Western perspective.

I think, though, we can make more of the perspectives we get from Selene and Isabelle, the reasons they give us for Silverspires’ existence. To them, Paris is fundamentally unsafe. Without the Houses, the Fallen will be destroyed by the magic-hungry gangs. To Selene especially, protecting the newly Fallen, like Isabelle, and the House’s human dependents, is everything. And to Isabelle, the House is a place of safety; for her, too, that’s enough to justify the cycle of betrayal and tragedy. De Bodard pulls off an extremely neat trick here: she has us sympathise with the arguments of Selene and Isabelle, rooting for the survival of House Silverspires, because they are all we know in this disorienting post-apocalyptic world, and we cling as readers to them; and so we too are complicit in the cycles of oppression the Houses perpetuate. And we too have to face Philippe’s questions: what the fuck are the Houses for? What good do they do? Why don’t we do anything about them? (This is really very similar to what Milton does in Paradise Lost when he makes Satan sympathetic: we become complicit in his evil, and so have to answer God’s judgement.)

And one more level: the Fallen have no idea why they are fallen, and neither do we. What’s going on in the heavenly City? Doesn’t God’s abandonment of the angels make Him culpable of the power plays going on on Earth? Are the Fallen just as much victims as oppressors?

And does that absolve them?

This is a novel which asks questions rather than answering them. It doesn’t have any solutions to the undoubtedly abusive power structures that the Houses perpetuate: in many ways, those at the top of the heap are as trapped as those at the bottom. For me, it felt a little airless – partly, I suspect, because I don’t read that many thrillers, which is what The House of Shattered Wings is at root. There are sequels, though, and I’d be happy to revisit these decadent, lost angels in their city stranded in time.

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