Sunday, April 30, 2017

The House of Binding Thorns - Aliette de Bodard

The House of Binding Thorns is the second novel in Aliette de Bodard's Dominion of the Fallen setting. It is not a sequel exactly. Both books can be read independently from each other. Madeleine and Philippe, two major characters from the previous novel The House of Shattered Wings, play an important role in this novel though. You will definitely get more out of the book if you have read them both. Readers who liked The House of Shattered Wings will want to read this one. It has all the elements that made the previous book a great read. Structurally it might even be a shade better.

House Hawthorn is led by the devious Fallen Asmodeus. He seems to be firmly in control, but the power of a House needs constant attention. By reaching out to the Vietnamese Dragon Kingdom, located under the surface of the murky river Seine, he hopes to gain even more power. The magic of the Dragon Kingdom is completely different from that of the Fallen. It offers opportunities, but there is danger in magic you don't fully understand too. Things get even more complicated when it becomes apparent that both House Hawthorn and the Dragon Kingdom are not as unified as they appear to be.

The setting is of course still the ruined Paris introduced in the first book. A city frozen in the remains of the Belle Epoque after a magical war destroyed it. Perhaps it was the absence of the dramatic ruins of the Notre Dame in this book but, I felt the author went a little easier on the worldbuilding. The setting is still instrumental in creating an atmosphere of desperation though. Paris is a dreadful and dangerous mess where people are trying to make life continue as best as they can. Including politics and petty struggles for power. People do not stop being people because of a magical Armageddon.

The story is one of two local powers in conflict. We get to see it from three sides though. Madeleine is dragged back into House Hawthorn after an absence of twenty years. She is forced to do Asmodeus' bidding but he clearly doesn't trust her. Her sense of decency and lack of subtlety get her in trouble quickly. Philippe, the other character introduced in the previous book is now houseless and seeks refuge in Goutte d'Or, the Vietnamese quarter of this alternate Paris. There, he meets the pregnant Fran├žoise and her Fallen lover Berith. They soon find themselves caught in the power struggle initiated by Asmodeus' bold move. The Dragon Kingdom's position is mostly shown through the point of view of Thuan, a dragon prince sent to House Hawthorn to spy. His position will drastically change over the course of the novel.

House Silverspires, the focal point of the previous novel, was not always a pleasant place. It was a house that, even when desperate, showed the tiniest bit of humanity even when making ruthless decisions. That cannot be said of Hawthorn. Asmodeus rules by putting fear into his subjects. Every time he had a scene I could almost hear Mick Jagger sing "Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm a man of wealth and taste.." The way De Bodard lets control slip away from him in the novel is very well done and, at some level, very satisfying. He is as good as creepy characters get. There is quite a bit of biblical symbolism in his acts and dialogue too.

In a way, this novel is not just a clash between two houses, but also a clash between two world views. Fran├žoise and Philippe show us what the bitter legacy of colonialism is. While life in a House is not easy, the predominantly Vietnamese Houseless gathered in Goutte d'Or live in destitute poverty. Here and there, De Bodard also mentions people from other parts of the French colonial empire. We're not meant to forget the multi ethnic composition of the city. Something the climax of the novel will emphasize once again.

The clash between the Judeo-Christian mythology the Fallen derive their power from, and the Khi derived from Vietnamese mythology, is something of a metaphor for many conflicts going on in the world right now. The text poses the question how we want to handle conflicts between various world views. Domination, cultural imperialism, peaceful coexistence, cold war, alliances and synergy all come up in this novel. De Bodard explores how these world views affect each other, how they chafe, how one could destroy the other in a conflagration or through a gradual breaking down of cultural values. In the end, the surviving characters realize they will have to make it work somehow. Let's just hope the world will not have to pay the price this realisation has extracted from De Bodard's ruined Paris.

I generally enjoy De Bodard's work, both stylistically and because of the themes she uses, and this novel is no exception. I thought the plot of this novel flowed a bit more smoothly than that of the House of Shattered Wings. It is dark and desperate, full of characters overreaching in an effort to prevent what little they have managed to salvage from destruction slipping from their grasp. It tackles some of the problems of today's society with a touch of Victor Hugo and a bit of magic. It blends the Christian power of sacrifice and redemption with the eastern flow of life force and sense of duty. It is a novel that has a lot to offer. One of those books that will yield more on a reread. The House of Binding Thorns was high on the to read list for this year and fully lived up to my expectations. Not many books manage to do that.

Book Details
Title: The House of Binding Thorns
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Ace
Pages: 356
Year: 2017
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-451-47739-2
First published: 2017

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