The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

Sometimes there are books that you look forward to reading for a year or more - the anticipation and excitement building with each passing day - that by the time, you get to reading the book, you've built a castle in the air about the book. And with each turning page, you find those ramparts crumbling. slowly but surely.

That was the case with The House of Shattered Wings. Aliette de Bodard is a big name - the Blood and Obsidian series pretty much catapulted her into the big league; And with multiple awards to boot, it seemed like this book, The House of Shattered Wings would be when she would be cementing her rightful place - among the top pantheons of fantasy writers. Alas! it is not to be.

The House of Shattered Wings has an incredible premise - Paris in a post-apocalyptic world lies in the ruins of a Great War between the Houses - as controlled by the Fallen, angels ousted from Heaven by God having to make do with squabbling over House Politics and ruling the ravaged city of Paris.
And the story is centered around one such House, Silverspires - one of the oldest and strongest House, now slowly crumbling away. A house that was formed by the First Fallen, Morningstar now is well past its glory days. And in the darkness of the walls of this House is buried a terrible secret that is now slowly manifesting itself - A string of horrifying murders.
Aliette drops us right into the middle of the shambles of the dark Parisian alleyways in the first chapter without any warning : Introducing us to two of the pivotal characters in the book - Phillipe, a young man with a haunted history and Isabelle, one of the latest Fallen who falls from grace and into the polluted streets of Paris. Both are taken into the protective custody of House Silverspire by Selene, the reluctant head of this house, herself riddled with self doubts - after having been thrust into the position of authority when MorningStar disappears one fine morning never to be seen again. The fourth main character, is Madeliene - a human/mortal within the House who assumes the responsibility of the Alchemist - in charge of extracting, safekeeping magical artifacts within the House.

Heading a house well past its glory days, Selene has to be constantly on her toes to keep the wolves at bay - a politically charged atmosphere with other Houses baying for its blood. And then, creepily the dead bodies start popping up all over town. To make matters worse, Selene is unable to decipher the mystery around Phillipe - a young man who is able to resist one of the most powerful spells of the house with apparent ease.  Does this point to the end of this once proud House?
It should have been a beautifully crafted, intense novel full of intriguing characters and dark magic - set in a wonderfully realized haunting setting of post-apocalyptic Paris.

Sadly it doesn't work.

Post Apocalyptic fantasy. Check. Unexplained magic. Double Check. There comes a point in the book around one-thirds in when you realize you need a bit more rope than what Aliette is feeding you. The magic and the world building is coming at you at a crazy pace - while the plot itself is trundling along. The pacing is completely off-kilter and the levels of tension that is supposed to grip you and keep you on tenterhooks, is basically just hitting the notes of 'mild'. Even in terms of characterization, there are enough and more layers to each of four main protagonists for you to savor and unravel - but I just couldn't get myself to care.

Phillipe, the man with a troubled past and who is slowly falling for Isabelle? His motivations are all valid, the actions that precipitate the momentum of the book but I just didn't care if he and Isabelle got together. Madeleine is a junkie and cannot hold together a coherent thought without inhaling 'angel-essence' that would open up her mind and brighten her senses. And yet, her role is sidelined. MorningStar, the most interesting of the lot as well doesn't get utilized properly. The only character whom I felt anything for - was Selene. She of the myriad crippling self doubts, trying to save a sinking ship and do good for all the denizens of the House. Comes across as a complex, emotionally scarred and vulnerable leader making decisions in the face of adversity.

Magic itself is largely unexplained - citing the prowess of immortal Angels who can access 'khi'currents to be cast as spells and to be stored within different artifacts like nails, bones, hair of the Angels. The prose is accomplished - reaching highs of poetic description of the ruin landscapes of Paris. The drowned kingdom of Dragons under the polluted waters of River Siene - while speaks of Aliette's unbridled imagination just didn't come to pass, for me as a reader. Something snagged somewhere. My reading ended up being pretty disconnected, my brain scrambling to make sense of large unexplained plot holes.

In conclusion, largely drawing on moral conflicts in a ravaged post-apocalyptic world landscape, Aliette's big bet novel, The House of Shattered Wings is a bit confusing and more of a slow-burning thrill-ride of magical battles and intense political maneuvering that left me way behind. As a fantasy reader, this novel failed to strike a chord with me. Would have to suffice with 3-stars for the setting.


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