The House of Sundering Flame: let the world burn

Book cover: The House of Sundering Flames - Aliette de Bodard (white text against an illustration of flames)When House Harrier explodes into civil war, Paris holds its breath to see who comes out on top. With Silverspires and Hawthorn already weakened, this could be an opportunity for the ruthlessly ambitious – but no-one is ready for what emerges from the fires of Harrier…

Fair warning: spoilers for previous books, although I’ll try to be oblique about key events in this one.

We rejoin Thuan in House Hawthorn, grappling with the tricky politics of being its new joint Head. While being married to Asmodeus has its benefits (a smouldering sex life, less chance of being on the pointy end of his knives), it has not conferred the loyalty – or respect – of his long-time supporters, who see Thuan as a foreign usurper of their beloved leader’s prerogatives. Thuan’s determination to integrate dragons into the House has made him no friends either as the heads of Court feel their own privileges have been trampled on. Welcome to the game of House politics, where you win or Asmodeus stabs you.

I love this sort of thing, although I wasn’t expecting Thuan’s marital insecurities. They make perfect sense, in retrospect: he hasn’t read Court of Birth, Court of Strength, so he has no idea that Asmodeus has a well-hidden soft spot for principled people who defend the weak. Instead, he’s keenly aware that Asmodeus protects his own – and Thuan is only his husband. The husband who stole the loyalty of the House and is being expertly undermined by Asmodeus’s favourites.

If The House of Sundering Flames had focused purely on the internal power struggles of House Hawthorn, I would been entirely satisfied, but these are a mere subplot. Across the Seine, House Harrier is about to explode (literally), setting up the possibility of a new Great War as Houses leap to capitalise on the power vacuum – or something even more deadly.

While I was expecting more Harrier than the narrative serves up, frankly I’m relieved not to have got it. Formerly portrayed as vaguely menacing rivals, in person House Harrier reframes what Truly Despicable looks like in Fallen terms. Welcome to the House of Fallen supremacy, where humans are slaves whose best hope is to be adopted by a Fallen who wants to use their children as magical batteries (not the rechargeable variety).

Where Selene and Asmodeus have saving graces (yes, really), Guy is an out and out bad guy and consequently feels rather one-dimensional. That might have irked me if he were The Villain – but he’s not. Just as the politics of House Hawthorn are a (delightful) sideshow, the fall of House Harrier is merely an instigating incident. Consequently, the bad guy is… well, pretty much everyone. This trilogy is much concerned with the sins of the past confronting those who have benefitted from them, and The House of Sundering Flames is no exception.

Even Philippe must finish unpacking his baggage (and oh my, he has so much) as he learns to take responsibility for his choices and steps up to defend the community that has adopted him in spite of his reticence. Philippe has the most character development across the trilogy, and if it sometimes feels forced that’s mostly because he struggles against it at every step of the way. While I’ve never really warmed to him, I have enjoyed his difficult journey. I was glad to see Flames push him to examine his decisions, not least the ones he continues to make on behalf of Isabelle.

Unexpectedly, it was the return of Morningstar that kindled a spark of sympathy for Philippe. Morningstar has changed in many ways, but his only boundary remains his drive to protect Silverspires at all costs. He is both terribly naive and simply terrible – and in seeing what he is willing to do, I found myself more understanding of Philippe’s fears for Isabelle.

However, de Bodard is letting nobody off the hook. Isabelle is not Morningstar, nor is she Philippe’s daughter (and even if she were, she has the right to self-determination). The Houses are brought low by a threat of their own making, and must decide what they are willing to do to ensure their survival. On a more personal level, Aurore and Emmanuelle each face up to the price they are willing to pay to protect the ones they care for. Flames repeatedly circles back to questions of the good of the few vs the good of the many, without shying away from the rights of the individual.

All of this is wrapped in an apocalyptic conflagration as Paris quite literally burns. It makes for a gripping conclusion to one of my favourite fantasy trilogies.

I’ve been in thrall to the fabulously gothic world-building and intricate plots of the Dominion of the Fallen from start to finish. I may not like the Houses (what sort of monster do you think I am?), but I’ve cared about them: it has mattered to me whether – and, crucially, on what terms – Silverspires and Hawthorn survive. I have appreciated the considered assault on colonialism and complicity, and the examination of how power corrupts. As a champion of compassion, I wasn’t expecting to find it too in the firing line, but I admire the narrative’s relentless focus on acknowledging consequences.

The Dominion of the Fallen has been a satisfyingly thoughtful rollercoaster of murder, politics and guilt. I’m sad to see it finish, but heartily approve of this final* outing.


* …or not, happily. Thuan, Asmodeus and Madeleine return to the dragon kingdom in Of Dragons, Feasts and Murder on July 7th.