Gollancz, 2015, 408 p. One of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel.
The Fallen are impossible. Their bones are far too lacking in density to bear their bodies’ weights, no backbone could possibly support the wings necessary for flight. (Those wings, useless after falling, are then removed. Only the Fallen, Morningstar, founder of House Silverspires, ever wore wings on Earth; but his were artificial and a species of weaponry.) But the Fallen have magic. Their breath and their rendered body parts can be rendered into magic residues. Each individual Fallen has no idea of the reason for having been expelled from heaven, knowing only that no return is possible.
Paris is dominated by Houses, whose heads may be Fallen or human. The Houses have been in uneasy balance since the aftermath of the Great War between them, which the text has beginning in 1914, evoking resonances with our own world, but this is the only date given in the book and the Houses’ war clearly has no parallel with a lengthy stalemate. The balance is upset by the falling of an angel (that is the only word to describe these beings) into the remains of Notre Dame Cathedral where gang members are scavenging. Their attempts to extract magic residues from her body are interrupted by Selene, after Morningstar’s disappearance head of House Silverspires by default, who names the angel Isabelle and takes her into Silverspires as a member and one of the gang, Philippe, an Annamese exile from the Court of the Jade Emperor, as a prisoner of the House. But during the scavenging they had come upon an artefact which contains dark magic intended to undo House Silverspires.
Religion exists in this Paris and appears to be familiarly Christian (and Roman Catholic at that: well, in France it would be) but how this squares with the existence in the human realm of Fallen from Heaven de Bodard keeps from us. Similarly the Fallen have motivations and desires which do not seem different, if at all, to those of humans (whether inside the story or outwith it in our own world.) We spend a lot of early time with Philippe, who is immortal (an unexplained circumstance but seemingly something to do with his Annamese inheritance) but also inhabit the views of Selene, Isabelle and of Silverspires’s alchemist, Madeleine. Crucially though de Bodard hasn’t done enough to engage our sympathies with House Silverspires and its threatened demise in an act of revenge by a former House member, Nightingale, who was betrayed by Morningstar to appease Asmodeus, head of House Hawthorn. It also wasn’t clear from the text whence Nightingale derives the power to do all this. The eventual resolution of Silverspires’s immediate troubles lies within the logic of the world though. There is, too, a running motif about possible resurrection of personalities which is left unresolved, perhaps for future volumes.
The House of Shattered Wings is not one for me, I’m afraid. I’m puzzled as to why people would consider it among the year’s best. It’s more fantasy than SF anyway.
Pedant’s corner:- written in USian, “boats to Asia almost inexistent” (in this sort of context it’s usually “non-existent”,) “his hand loosely wrapped around his handle” (its handle,) maw (de Bodard uses this to mean mouth; it actually means stomach,) ‘“You didn’t use to be”’ (didn’t used to; which appears seven lines below!) Silverspires’ (Silverpires’s, several instances,) ‘“to leave him into my care”’ (in my care,) the sentence, “The fact that she couldn’t have looked more innocent if she’d tried – and God knew Claire was no innocent,” is missing a main clause, “that no-one and nothing was coming to save him” (the “and” means there ought really to be a plural verb here,) “but nothing would leap into the broken mess of his hands – but there was only” (two “buts”?) octopi (the English plural is octopuses, the Greek is octopodes,) “set them at each other’s throat” (there’s only one throat between them?) “Closer, though, it didn’t quite look as impressive” (it didn’t look quite as impressive,) “Apart from that, it looked like a usual plant” (it looked like a normal plant,) ‘“You’re going to chastise me for lacking to do my duty”’ (failing to do my duty; or, being lacking in my duty,) ‘“You knew the rules and flaunted them”’ (that would be flouted, flaunting is something else entirely,) “the shop” (Les Halles) “ had been nuked in the war, and an upstart House had settled in the wreckage, making grandiloquent claims of restoring the art deco building to its former glory,” (nuked? And it can be restored? Any nuke would have destroyed the whole of Paris – and beyond – never mind Les Halles,) overlaid (overlain,) twinging (I had to think about this a second or so before I thought “twingeing”,) smidgeon (smidgen/smidgin.)