Paris, after the Great War. Not the Great War we know, but a ferocious, violent magical war fought between angels vying for power amongst each other on an earth that they have fallen to, with no knowledge of the great sin that caused them to be exiled from heaven. A war so terrible and fierce that it destroyed half of Paris, leaving the remains of the city for the Fallen to claim as their own, marking the territories of their Houses, nursing their wounds and gathering whatever power they can from their surroundings, as their own fades. In Aliette de Bodard’s new novel The House of Shattered Wings, Paris is divided into the Houses of the Fallen and the gangs, “fractured and powerless, deprived of magic,” that scavenge what they can off the city and off the Fallen themselves, for the bodies of the angels harbour great power and commercial value—their breath, their nails, hair, skin, blood, bones all can imbibe a human with power to harness the magic around them. “Flesh and bone and blood, all that carried the essence of a Fallen, all that could be inhaled, put into artefacts, used to pass on magic and the ability to cast spells to others.” The Fallen and the gangs who want to harvest their bodies somehow manage to share the city, though Paris teeters constantly on the edge of violence.
The essence of angels is also terribly addictive, wasting away the lungs of the user eventually. One of the novel’s central point of view characters is one such addict, though she manages to keep her secret safe. Madeleine, the human alchemist of the House Silverspires, set amongst the ruins of Notre Dame, is one of the few humans who have been taken in by the Fallen. She has been offered protection by Selene, who heads Silverspires, having inherited it from her mentor Morningstar, the first of the Fallen and the most powerful of them all. Selene is attempting to keep Silverspires from falling apart as her power and that of the house wanes, all the while faced with attempts to dismantle Silverspires by other houses (predominantly the increasingly powerful House Hawthorn). Selene’s magic builds within her, “drawn from the House, from the city and its river blackened by ashes, from the devastated countryside that surrounded them all beyond the wastelands of the Peripherique, layer after layer of gossamer-thin spells, not as powerful as they had once been.” Like all of her kind, Selene fell with immense raw power and little knowledge of how to harness it. But the Fallen’s power fades as they grow and by the time they know enough to wield it, it’s barely there at all, forcing them to reach out around them to find enough to source their need. And yet their bodies, their breath, their very essence are commodities much in demand, even after their power has faded. Even with the power of the House behind her, Selene isn't what Morningstar was, and she knows this. Her efforts to keep the House at the pinnacle of power are constant, but they are also a constant burden.
Both Madeleine and Selene are caught up in the politics of the houses. Less so is the third point of view character, an Immortal named Philippe who has been forcibly bound to Silverspires by Selene, though he is neither human not Fallen but something else entirely. When we first meet Philippe, he is running with a rogue gang of thieves, murderers, and angel essence addicts. In the Grand Magasins, in the “ruins of the Great Houses War, with spells that no one had had time to clean up primed and ready to explode in your face, with the ghosts and the hauntings and the odour of death that still hung like fog,” Philippe leads Ninon of the Red Mamba gang to a newly fallen angel. De Bodard’s description of the fallen angel is particularly evocative, brutal, and lovely. Isabelle falls as
a jumble of crimson-stained feathers, a tangled mass that seemed to be all broken limbs and bleeding wounds; and, over it all, gentle sloshing radiance like sunlight seen through water, a light that promised the soft warmth of live coals, the comfort of wintertime meals heated on the stove, the sheer relief just after the breaking of a thunderstorm, when the air was cleansed of all heaviness.
Philippe isn't the only one to sense her arrival on earth, though—Selene does too, and is able to rescue Isabelle before Philippe and Ninon can do more than sever two of her fingers as bounty. Though Selene takes Philippe in and binds him to the House, she is deeply suspicious of him—she knows he isn’t just what he pretends to be, another mortal. Isabelle is bound to Silverspires too, but she finds a home there, learning to use her power for the good of the House. She and Philippe share a deep bond, a strange friendship that formed when he tasted her blood, though neither of them can understand it. Isabelle finds herself drawn to the House, her loyalties firmly with Silverspires, whereas Philippe resents his connection to the House, and is desperate to break free of it and of Paris.
Philippe’s bitterness towards the Fallen runs deep. During the Great War, many magical creatures had been brought in from different cultures and countries—from the "colonies" as it were (as was the case during the Great War in the real world). Arab Jinns, Mexican nahual, Jewish Nephilim, and magical beings from Annam (Vietnam) were all brought in to fight the war of the Fallen as recruited soldiers bound to fight and die for a war that was not theirs, for a side that was not theirs by choice. Philippe was one such recruit from Annam who survived the war and now must live with the horrors he saw, trying to say alive in a broken city in which he does not belong, constantly reminded of the battles he fought for the Fallen. Even Isabelle, as a newly fallen angel, reminds him of “the Great War, the bloodied bodies by his side,” making him feel that “it was all too easy to remember that it was her kind that had torn him from his home in Annam and sent him to slaughter, that had gloried in each of the dead, that had laughed to see his unit come back short so many soldiers, covered in the blood of their comrades—her kind, that ruled over the ruins of the city. . . .” Philippe wants nothing more than to get back home, but before he can work out how, he unwittingly releases something evil into Silverspires, something that starts to kill off members of the House one by one. House Silverspires and its residents must then find out what is hunting them, while attempting to stave off the efforts of House Hawthorn to take over the investigation.
Madeleine is the perfect human foil to all the magical creatures around her. She is able, as some humans are, to manipulate the magic around her but only to a small extent by herself. Her addiction to angel essence is also an addiction to power and magic—when she uses angel essence or angel breath, she can call forth much more magical power than she can otherwise. But her addiction is slowly killing her, destroying her lungs from the inside out. As the House alchemist, Madeleine is the one who must utilize the bodies of the dead Fallen to suffuse artefacts with magical powers to be used in time of need, giving her access to the essence she craves.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of House politics at play in The House of Shattered Wings. The Fallen seem on the verge of an all-out war again, even though they have not recovered from the immense losses suffered during the last one. There are whispers and intrigue and espionage amongst the Houses, with each player willing to do what it takes to ensure their House has the upper hand. De Bodard’s Fallen can be so insidious and so cruel that it is easy to forget that they were angels once, the commonly assumed epitome of beauty and goodness. It then seems absurd to say they lack humanity because they aren’t human; they never will be and their power struggles and battles are larger, deeper, and more vicious than human ones. None of the characters in this book is entirely sympathetic—no one is a hero, in the true sense of the word, either. They’re all immoral in many ways and all have their own agendas, but they are each complex, interesting, and so easy to empathize with. This in itself is a risky move by any writer, but de Bodard pulls it off with aplomb.
The House of Shattered Wings is many things. It’s a murder mystery. It’s a post-apocalyptic survival tale. It’s a steel-cold look at protagonists who are antiheroes. It’s a slow-burn Gothic narrative with plenty of tension and a sense of impending doom that retains elegance and poise and never comes crashing down. Bodard’s worldbuilding is rich, her writing is sophisticated, almost regal in style. But more importantly, and poignantly, The House of Shattered Wings is also a story about imperialism, about displacement and belonging, about loyalties and the desperate desire to simply return to your own tribe.
Mahvesh Murad is a book critic and recovering radio show host living in Karachi, Pakistan. She currently hosts the podcast Midnight in Karachi on Tor.com and writes for multiple publications. You can find her on Twitter @mahveshm or at www.mahveshmurad.com.