I have thoroughly enjoyed Aliette de Bodard‘s scifi short stories and jumped at the thought of a sort of post-apocalyptic angel urban fantasy.
An alternate twentieth century Paris. The Fallen live amongst mankind, banished for crimes against Heaven. Stripped of their wings and their memories, each must rapidly come to terms with their new earthbound existence and find a home in one of the Houses – or die at the hands of humans who steal the magic from their body parts.
Philippe was brought to Paris from Vietnam when the Fallen forcibly drafted people from the colonies to fight in a great war between the Houses. Years later, Paris destroyed by the almost nuclear fall-out of magical pollution, he runs with the gangs, stripped of all hope of returning home. When he stumbles across newly-Fallen Isabelle in the wreckage of Les Grands Magasin, he – and the Fallen – are seized by House Silverspires and taken to Notre Dame.
But Silverspires – founded by Morningstar, its influence slowly crumbling in the decades following his disappearance – is under insidious attack. Philippe and Isabelle find themselves at the centre of the storm as loyalties shift and bonds are forged.
I ended up admiring and being incredibly frustrated by the world-building. It’s good – very good – in the sense that this decaying, dull Paris feels real, it’s inhabitants creeping through mouldering ruins and avoiding the terrors of the blackened Seine. The Houses have real stature in this landscape; the buildings as stricken as the rest, but looming large above the devastated city, bastions of power and influence run by Fallen overlords one can serve or avoid but rarely ignore. The Fallen, with their crisp suits and Louis XV furniture, are a lofty 1% who rarely value human lives as they play malicious games of influence.
The frustrating bit is the lack of detail. The Fallen know their own history on Earth; Philippe knows the history of the apocalyptic war that destroyed Europe; but none of this is spelled out. We get only fragments through memories and references, with nothing to string it together. I couldn’t tell you exactly when the novel is set; I couldn’t even tell you if the Great War it references is World War I or the apocalyptic war between Houses (at one stage I thought the Fallen War had replaced WW2, historically speaking, but by the end I was less sure – it may have replaced WWI). Part of me is rather impressed that de Bodard has managed to construct something that feels so real without ever really giving you more than glimpses of what holds it together, because technically it’s not relevant to the modern story. It’s history. It’s background, and it’s firmly kept out of the way. It frustrates me only because when I know I’m dealing with an alternate history, I like to know how it fits together. On the flip side, I guess there’s a huge opportunity for her to write a lot of novels exploring different periods 😉
The story itself is fairly traditional, but expressed in interesting ways thanks to the infusion of Vietnamese mythology and enough twists to make you genuinely unsure of whether this will end well or badly. This is a dark (but not grimdark) story – as with Hambly’s excellent The Time of the Dark, for much of the novel the enemy is literally a shadow – and the flawed, flailing cast of characters are riven by self-doubt and House politics in their attempts to face up to it. I couldn’t guess how it would end, and I’m happy to say I didn’t call it although I’ll admit that one outcome was both so obvious and so unexpected I felt like a right twit. I’ve not missed something so obvious since a villain ordered a mind-controlled good guy to ‘turn around and kill those behind you’ (think about that for just a second; it’s wonderful when poor grammar is a villain’s downfall).
Doubleplus points for the range of on-page friendships, sexual pairings (NB no sex on-page – it’s not that sort of fantasy), and for strong characters of both genders; also for shady morality, difficult decisions and proper consequences. Nobody gets off lightly here, and while it would be possible to leave this as a stand-alone novel, there are plenty of loose ends for characters and House politics that will make for fascinating future complications instalments.
I’ll certainly seek out future novels in the same setting (there is a sequel in the very early works, and a number of short stories, some of which I’m going to read right now in the hope of more glimpses of that elusive history).