Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings introduced a ruined fantasy world, one of corrupted beauty, populated with warring houses, outcast angels, dragons living beneath the Seine, and those ordinary and not so ordinary folks just trying to get by. In that novel, she charted the threat against House Silverspires, once ruled by Lucifer Morningstar himself after his fall, now wavering under the control of Selene, his former apprentice; Isabelle, a naive recently Fallen; Madeleine, an alchemist with a destructive addiction to angel essence; and Phillipe, a hidden Annamite immortal cast out of his home and forced to labor for House Silverspires. Together, they sought the cause of their house’s decline, and though answers were found, they came at terrible costs: Isabelle lost her life protecting the House as Phillipe tried to protect her, and Madeleine was stolen back to those she ran from in the first place: House Hawthorn, headed by the casually cruel and vicious Asmodeus. In The House of Binding Thorns, de Bodard returns to these characters—their heartbreak, their desires, and their plays for power—as yet more conflict rises on the wind.
Madeleine, now forced back to House Hawthorn after her escape 20 years earlier, is on the verge of a breakdown. Separated from angel essence, her drug of choice, she learns that if she succumbs to it once more, Asmodeus will end her. Not only that, he is sending her into the Dragon Kingdom, which magically exists within the Seine, to broker an alliance between the beasts and House Hawthorn. Meanwhile, Phillipe, having escaped Silverspires, toils as a doctor using his magic, meeting a houseless Fallen, Berith, and her pregnant wife Francoise, who will give him what he wants—the power to bring back Isabelle from the dead—if he acts as a courier, transporting Berith to House Hawthorn with Francoise. Meanwhile, a member of the Dragon Kingdom’s court, Thuan, works as a spy within House Hawthorn, looking for the source of angel essence that has taken hold of the kingdom, and which is slowly killing his countrymen. And all the while, Asmodeus stands apart, certain in his violence and calculations, ready to do whatever it takes to safeguard his house and his dependents, no matter the shadows rising to tear it all away from him.
There is a lot going on in this series, obviously. The House of Shattered Wings at times felt like too rich a feast, overstuffed with a grand mixture of worldbuilding, deep history, significant character exploration, and breathtaking espionage plotting. It’s no slight against de Bodard’s work, not at all—just a sense of staggered awe at breadth and depth of her world. Happily, all that work provides a firm foundation for the sequel, as the author is able to get right into the meat of the story from page one. de Bodard’s prose is as lush, strong, and precise as ever, and her world just as darkly alluring, but now, her attention is firmly on the characters—finding out what they’ll do to survive another day in the dark and strange world Paris has become. Ultimately, it is a story about learning how to trust again, if not learn to love in a setting that demands so much from those who inhabit it.
Berith’s love for Francoise in the fading fire of her life is empowered by her ironclad resolve and strength, and is what motivates her to act; Berith’s pain and hopes are what bolster Francoise’s resolve in the face of terrible trials. Phillipe’s pain at breaking his promise to Isabelle, and his desire to protect, are what propel him to stand again for the people caught in the crossfires of Houses. Madeleine’s fear and anger at House Hawthorn give way as she learns more of Asmodeus—where his fears and desires originate; she must learn to trust him if they’ll survive. These characters are complicated, with deeper secrets still only hinted at. But they are living, breathing, and human (for the most part), and their desires give shape to a tangled narrative. And it must be said that de Bodard’s Paris is filled with queer characters and queer families who are allowed to be, and to live, and are in many cases offered happiness, and not tragic ends.
The House of Binding Thorns is a successful continuation of a truly grand story,brimming with action, heart, representation, and magic. I can only hope de Bodard has more stories yet to tell of this Fallen Paris. Something tells me these two books are only the beginning.