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Gothic Poetry And Grim Necessity In 'Shattered Wings'

Aliette de Bodard's first novel outside her Obsidian and Blood Aztec fantasy-mystery trilogy has a touch of Silly Fantasy Name problem, where florid compound words take over the page. Set in a Paris devastated by a war between factions of fallen angels, The House Of Shattered Wings is packed with sensuous description, and characters with names like Asmodeus, Samariel and Elphon.

These angelic overlords are preternaturally beautiful and graceful, but they've created such a competitive, ruthless world that they need to band together to survive, merging their collective magic and power into Houses. Once, the most powerful House in Paris was Silverspires, the demesne of Morningstar, the first and most powerful of the Fallen. His fellow angels have only slightly less grandiloquent names, but taken together, they all give the book a sense of outsized gothic poetry.

So it's a surprise that the actual book is so grimly prosaic, so wrapped up in intrigue and politics that it comes closer to the blunt, grounded violence of Game Of Thrones than the high gothic fantasy it outwardly resembles. De Bodard focuses on the practicalities of what it means to be Fallen — a creature made of fading magic, in a hungry world where magic is a precious resource. Fallen body parts can fuel spells, or be ground into a powerful drug called angel essence. Even the most powerful Fallen can't help but be targets for opportunists and predators.

Shattered Wings lacks a sympathetic protagonist, because the setting doesn't allow for innocence or purity of motive. The most central character, Philippe, commits an atrocity within the first 10 pages. A Vietnamese conscript unwillingly dragged to Paris, Philippe is forced to help a fellow street-gang member mutilate a helpless, newly descended Fallen. He's caught in the act and imprisoned by Selene, Morningstar's student and heir as head of House Silverspires. But the new Fallen, Isabelle, is more empathetic about Philippe's situation than he deserves. When he unwittingly activates an old curse on House Silverspires, she's his primary ally as he tries to escape.

Shattered Wings becomes something of a murder mystery as the curse takes hold, and Selene and Philippe separately, antagonistically try to unravel it. But it's also a novel of machinations and manipulation, as the other Houses take advantage of Silverspires' weakness. Meanwhile, other characters, like Madeleine, a human essence addict, and Asmodeus, the Fallen usurper of House Hawthorn, pursue their own agendas. They're all selfish, morally compromised, and driven in ways that are understandable, but rarely sympathetic. It's particularly telling that the curse destroying House Silverspires and its people seems entirely justified. Shattered Wings pursues a complicated, admirably ambitious agenda in setting up a world where no one's hands are clean, and they may actually all deserve their mutual suffering.

At the same time, de Bodard gives readers ways to relate to her tragically flawed characters. She dives deep into the mechanisms of loyalty and honor, particularly examining Philippe's alternately guilty and defiant connection with Isabelle, and Selene's struggle to live up to Morningstar's example, even if it involves more cruelty than she'd like. And she spends plenty of time on the complex, painful feelings of unworthiness and devotion Morningstar inspired in his people, and on the many difficult places those emotions lead them. The rivalries between houses are knotty, but the internal storms they provoke are even knottier.

Shattered Wings feels rushed in its final act, particularly with the resolution of the curse and Philippe's situation, and with some of Asmodeus' underjustified choices. But these things only seem problematic by comparison with the rest of the book, which takes place on such a grand-scale playing field that some elements were bound to get left behind. It's a grim story with high-flown conventions, but by finding so much ugliness even in supernatural beauty, de Bodard makes both seem more compelling, and more concrete.

Tasha Robinson is a freelance writer and a former Senior Editor at The Dissolve and The A.V. Club.

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Tasha Robinson