Novel: The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

For me, Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings (2015) was a tricky one. It lured me in with its rich, intriguing setting and numerous well-developed characters, and kept me on the edge of promising discoveries throughout. However, the narrative momentum eluded me, and ultimately I never quite fell into a comfortable rhythm with it. While I read it through happily, in the end it will slot in as one of those novels I appreciated but never quite fell in love with.

The vivid setting is definitely a keeper: a post-apocalyptic Paris in the late twentieth century. But as apocalypses go, this one is unique, the ruinous aftermath of a great magic war which has resulted in post-collapse feudalism, a world in which rival houses vie for power and prestige. The story revolves around the House Silverspires, a once-powerful clan now in decline, and in for even more trouble as a series of troubling, connected murders spark political conflict with its angling rivals. Trying to make sense of it all are Isabelle, a fallen angel who is sucked into Silverspires’ orbit; Phillipe, a mysterious, magic-wielding figure from a faraway land; and Madeleine, the house’s alchemist, who also happens to be addicted to magical essences. These unlikely figures, both in concert and in confict with Silverspires’ struggling leader Selene, become deeply entangled in the mysterious plot against the house, and embroiled in a magical cold war for power.

The scenario pops off the page in summary, and certainly the pages and scenes and chapters all add up to reinforce the unique, rich world-building. Similarly, the characters are quite wonderfully realized and the scheming rivalries and palace intrigues that characterize their interactions provide plenty of emotional conflict. However, the prose’s stylistic idiosyncrasies proved quite distracting—particularly the way its well-honed turns of phrase are over-punctuated, leading to choppy narrative rhythms. Perhaps related to this, the cause-and-effect mechanics of the overall plot didn’t always emerge into clear view. So while the big picture quite absorbing, the sentence-level details didn’t always service it, leaving me with a vague impression. I suspect this novel will resonate more strongly with readers who revel in language and inventive ambience, but in the end it all felt a little out of step with my reading sensibilities.

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