I’ve been struggling with this review. I dawdled over writing it for so long that I stalled out on reviewing at all. Because Aliette de Bodard has done an amazing job writing one of the most nuanced looks at colonialism I’ve ever read. And it’d be impossible to talk in any depth about what she wrote without addressing colonialism.
And I really wasn’t sure if the internet needed another essay about colonialism written by the descendant of a bunch of Scots who got just about everywhere as a direct beneficiary of colonial power.
But I was picking over my lack of recent reviews with a good friend of mine, another critic and they pointed out that, while they got my anxiety, the climate is such currently that, no, it’s probably for the best that there are some white men writing reviews saying, go read this book written by a non-white woman.
So I think I’ll start right there.
Go read this book. It’s a very good book. It’s a very intelligent book. It probably represents the best of de Bodard’s work, and she’s a very good author, so that’s saying something.
De Bodard does something with her work that would put her in a class with authors like Max Gladstone, Kameron Hurley and Saladin Ahmed. And I don’t mean that she’s an outspoken SJW on twitter; what I mean is that she’s an author who can combine the triple-threat of deep characterization, high-concept fantasy and a thoughtful assessment of modern anxieties and pressures.
In the House of Shattered Wings we are presented with an alternate world where the great war was fought with magic by fallen angels and their human servants. The protagonist of the story is a banished immortal brought to the war from the colonies of French Indochine. The war ended, and he survived, but with infrastructure crumbling and the survivors of the war turned inward to lick wounds and pursue old vendettas, nobody really cares enough to help him get home.
So we see him as a person far from home: hating the people who dragged him away but also resigned to the fact that they are likely the only people he’ll ever interact with.
The other half of this equation are the not-so secret masters of this post-apocalyptic Paris: the fallen angels.
Banished from heaven for reasons they aren’t allowed to know, these angels are also trapped somewhere they would rather not be, unable to return. But angels seem plentiful; there are probably as many angelic characters in the book as human. And their fall is into familiar territory. They are the colonizers, the ones who arrive in force at a new land and take it for themselves, unconcerned about how their claims and feuds impact those people who were there before.
There’s an alienation at the core of the story. Philippe, the twice-banished immortal, is alienated both from the Fallen because they are many while he is singular, and from the ordinary Parisians among whom he half-heartedly tries to hide. The Fallen are alienated from their subjects by dint of their own alienness, their power and arrogance. Everybody can speak to each other, and the story frequently plays out over banquets and parties, but nobody communicates without dissembling.
Then there’s the Seine. Twisted by the pollution of a magical war, the Seine is a no-go zone for angel and human alike. It’s no surprise that Philippe ends up at the bottom of it eventually. And there he finds a dragon court, something very familiar to him from home. But the court is rotting, both figuratively and literally. And I think this strikes as close to a thesis as we’re likely to come to this.
Colonialism, the process of power being imposed from outside, the process of creating classes of people based on a sense of an other, touches everybody in the story. It pervades every relationship and taints every transaction. Some of the Fallen angels seem like they’re probably basically good people; but they’re still Fallen. Philippe is a sympathetic person, a person trapped far from a home he longs to return to and believes he never will. But he’s also a man carrying around a lifetime’s worth of anger and resentment, which sometimes lashes out in self-destructive ways. In the ruined Paris of the House of Shattered Wings, the slow, cumulative spiritual decay of these imbalances has been laid bare in beautiful, and terrifying glory.
But don’t take my word for all of that. Read hers.