Paris is often described as “The City of Light” and “The City of Romance” – sobriquets that are understandable, given the way travel agencies and whichever department is in charge of French tourism have chosen to market the city. Both images persist and are perpetuated in film, both French and American, though the former have been known to sniff disdainfully at portrayals of the city created by the latter.
And yet, while it is true that Paris illuminated at night is a gorgeous sight to behold, and that romance is seemingly woven into the city’s lifeblood, it is sometimes easy to forget that Paris is also shadowed in blood and death. Paris has been crippled several times before by diseases like the plague and cholera: the extensive catacombs beneath the city’s streets contain but a fraction of all those who have died from them. Paris also has an intimate history of violence: from the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre through to the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, the two World Wars, all the way to the most recent Daesh bombings. When one wanders the city wearing La Vie en rose-tinted glasses, it is easy to forget that the softly-shining cobbles once ran thick with blood, that the glittering Seine was once filled with the bodies of the pestilential dead.
Aliette de Bodard, however, has not forgotten that darker side, and incorporates it into her novel The House of Shattered Wings, the first book in the Dominion of the Fallen series. Set in a post-apocalyptic Paris shattered by war, it follows the story of Philippe, a scavenger who ekes out a living scrounging up magical artefacts from the ruins of the city. However, a chance encounter with a young Fallen entangles him in the affairs of the Great Houses – affairs that brought about the war that destroyed Paris, and separated Philippe from his homeland forever.
As I mentioned earlier, it is easy to think of Paris as La Ville-Lumière of film and popular imagination, but de Bodard’s Paris is as dark as it can get. While there are plenty of post-apocalyptic cities one can think of (particularly if one reads plenty of young adult fiction or grimdark fantasy), it can be difficult to imagine Paris, of all cities, as being anything like the broken, shadowy locale that de Bodard describes. And yet that is precisely what de Bodard delivers, as this description of the Galeries Lafayette shows:
He and Ninon had been under the dome of the Galeries Lafayette, crossing over the rubble in the centre—what had once been the accessories department. On the walls were fragments of advertisement posters, coloured scraps; bits and pieces of idealised human beings, of products that had long since ceased to be manufactured; and a fragment promising that the 1914 fashion season would be the headiest the city had ever seen: a season that, of course, had never been, swallowed up by the beginning of the war. Ahead were the stairs, blocked by debris; the faces of broken mannequins stared back at them, uncannily pale and expressionless, their eyes shining like cats’ in the dim light.
It is never really made clear just “when” in history the events of the novel take place, but keen-eyed readers who catch the year “1914” in the above excerpt can reasonably assume that it takes place in the wake of World War I – a World War I that went horrifically wrong, if the state of Paris is anything to go by.
The excerpt also illustrates the subtlety of de Bodard’s world-building. She does not ever really reveal her hand when it comes to the details and workings of the world of the novel, and leaves it entirely up to the reader to piece it together for himself or herself. Readers with background knowledge in the history and mythology of other cultures are doubly-rewarded in that they are more likely to pick up on certain clues that other, less knowledgeable readers might miss. Take this excerpt, for example:
He’d thought of a thousand ways she could have reminded him of the Great War, of the bloodied bodies by his side; but in some indefinable way she seemed beyond all that, a splayed doll rather than a broken body—he shouldn’t think that, he really shouldn’t, but 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…
While many readers will likely recognise the term “Great War” as a reference to World War I (thus strengthening any earlier inferences they may have made upon seeing the date “1914”), the word “Annam” is a slightly subtler clue, and one that maybe only a handful of readers will recognise on sight. Readers without the necessary knowledge will find out soon enough what the word “Annam” implies, but readers who know what it means will be in a better position to understand later events, when these subtle notions begin to weave together and become a little less easy to disentangle from everything else.
There is, however, one slight problem with all this subtlety: the world feels more sketched-in than fully-drawn, so to speak. While I do not mind the world not being as completely detailed as I might wish it to be, and am fully capable of appreciating writers who can pull such a thing off, I do wish that there had been just a little bit more detail than what the novel gives. I have high hopes, though, that the other books in the series will fill in all the remaining gaps.
One of the reasons it is easy to let the sketched-in feel of the setting slide is because of the characters. None of them – not even the protagonists – might be considered “traditionally” good, nor are any of the villains “traditionally” evil. They are driven by their motivations, most of which have to do with power and control, but above all, survival, as the excerpt below indicates:
“I’m not interested in your games.”
“I know. What a pity. You’ll find, I think, that you need to play to survive, Madeleine; that you can’t go through life enamored of your artifacts and mirrors and scrapings of bones.” …
“If you don’t take control of your own life, other people will do it for you—with far less kindness and far less compassion than you would expect or deserve. …”
Only the strong survive: an old, worn-out cliche, but still true, when trying to describe the characters in this novel. It makes many of them hard, and harsh, and it means they say and do things that I would find deplorable, even despicable, in people I encounter in real life.
And yet, despite all their flaws, it is still possible to feel kindly towards many of them, despite the many terrible things they say and do. I doubt it is possible to truly “like” or “hate” any of the characters in this novel, but I think that speaks to some very strong characterisation on de Bodard’s part. After all, it means that the characters are complex enough that one cannot simply put them in a box and have done with it.
However, it must be noted that, although the characters are interesting as they are in this novel, they are not as fully-developed as some readers might like. There is plenty of backstory hinted at throughout the novel, backstory which would help flesh out the characters more fully, but de Bodard doesn’t really get into those backstories in this novel. But, since this is the first novel in a series, I expect that the other novels will reveal those backstories to the reader.
What really, truly makes this book, though, are the themes. The House of Shattered Wings came out the same year as Zen Cho’s delightful Sorcerer to the Crown, and in my review for that novel I commented on how Cho incorporated Britain’s colonial and imperial history into the story – something that other books with a similar setting and storyline seem to either hand-wave away or ignore completely. De Bodard tackles the same themes in this novel, but her treatment is distinctly darker and harsher:
Who knew what was happening in Annam and the other colonies, after the war? … The guardian spirits of the villages had been slaughtered; the dragons, the spirits of the rain, had withdrawn to the depths of the sea, to the safety of their coral and nacre palaces; the mountain spirits had retreated to their most isolated peaks, licking their wounds; and the Jade Emperor had sealed the court, forbidding Immortals to approach mortals.
While the above excerpt talks about dragons and Immortals, those mythical beings might be perceived as a representation of something else: a country’s sense of self as embodied in its myths and legends. In the real world, if one sweeps away an entire country’s mythology – all its stories of itself – then a colonising power can shape its colony into whatever it wants to make of it. It makes me think of the way that the Spaniards conquered the Philippines, not only with guns and disease, but also (mostly) by eliminating as many of the native religious leaders as they could, replacing them all with Catholic priests. While some of our stories still survive, whether as oral literature or in folk traditions, there is precious little left to fill in the gap left by the destructive efforts of Spain’s, and later the United States’, colonial machine.
But de Bodard also reminds us that colonies pay, not only in terms of their culture, but also in the blood of their people:
”I was brought in…afterward,” Philippe said. When 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 their slaughter.
Parasites, all of them; smiling and bowing in their lace clothes from another age; subsisting on blood. For this Hoang had died, and Ai Linh, and Phuong, and all the rest of his unit. The lot of them could go burn in the Christian Hell.
These are not easy things to read about, especially for someone who comes from a country with a history of colonisation. But at the same time, I am glad that de Bodard has chosen to incorporate such themes into the novel, not least because they are so very rarely tackled elsewhere.
Another weighty theme that de Bodard incorporates into this novel is the question of faith in God. This is an interesting point to consider, especially since many of the characters are Fallen – that is to say, angels who are cast out of the City (Heaven) for one reason or another. Some of them have dismissed God, turning their backs on Him just as He has turned His back on them:
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.
But a few still hold on to their faith – not particularly because they feel any attachment to God, but because their faith is a beacon of light in an otherwise hopeless world:
Perhaps God didn’t acknowledge the prayers of Fallen; having cast them from His presence, perhaps He’d forgotten all about them. Perhaps the more extreme priests were right, and redemption was a gift reserved for humans. He didn’t know. He’d continued to go to Father Javier’s masses, because he couldn’t bring himself to believe in that kind of angry, hate-filled God—because his faith was all he had left, and he clung to it as if to a raft in a stormy sea.
These two themes weave through a plot that, like the setting, leaves more questions than answers. To be sure, the central plot is wrapped up quite well, but there are still plenty of loose threads left hanging that will need to be tied up in later books. While it is somewhat frustrating to have so much unfinished business in one book, it does make me hope that they will be tied up in spectacular fashion somewhere down the line.
Overall, The House of Shattered Wings is a great beginning to what promises to be a wonderful – and heartbreaking – series. Though the settings, characters, and plot are not quite as developed as some readers might like, that means there is plenty of room for growth – and surprising developments – in later books. The themes are strong, with a focus on the effects of colonialism and imperialism that is sadly absent in other genre novels, while addressing the intriguing question of what it means to have faith – or no faith at all – in a higher power. I look forward to the next book in the series and finding out what happens to the characters, and what their actions in this novel mean for Paris and the rest of the world.