Review: THE HOUSE OF BINDING THORNS, Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard’s magical urban fantasy, set in a ruinous fin de siècle Paris, casts quite a spell. As I peel away from the final pages, I am still held fast by House Hawthorn’s spikes. Still possessed by the charred shadow of a water-dragon’s passing.  And bound tight by reader loyalty to Goutte D’Or’s Houseless denizens. It’s with reluctance that I distance myself enough to write this review. I entered it somewhat awkwardly, having missed out on the first book (House of Shattered Wings) in this trilogy. Yet the writing on the first page was so delicious I plunged in anyway. Je ne regrette rien.

Like many fantasy novels, De Bodard’s series gains traction through multiple viewpoint characters inhabiting different layers of its world. We begin with Madaleine, a former alchemist undergoing cold turkey when deprived of her angel essence narcotic. Fallen angels have seized control of the capital’s great Houses and inflicted ‘a cataclysm that had devastated Paris, reducing monuments to blackened rubble, leaving the Seine dark with the residue of spells and booby traps even sixty years later.’ Although there are echoes of the ‘Great War’, these otherworldly aristocrats belong to an earlier century. There are hints of the British-French Opium Wars in the way the Fallen deploy the drug trade to control their subjects. Madaleine, a victim of this policy, now finds herself in serfdom to the terrifying angel, Asmodeus. Also trapped in the House of Hawthorn is a spy from the Seine’s underwater dragon kingdom. Posing as a teenage waif, Thuan (née Prince Rong Minh Thanh Thuan) seeks out whoever is plying the dragon kingdom with poisonous angel essence. His mission is complicated by unexpected friendships and desires.

Meanwhile in Goutte D’Or’s slums, an immortal magician Philippe, tends as a doctor to the Annamite community whose Vietnamese culture he shares. Philippe (born Pham Van Minh Khiet) evokes the nostalgia of the exiled when he’s offered a plate of steamed buns: ‘small, with only the barest hint of fish sauce, but still a taste of home. He could have wept.’ These Houseless citizens are the city’s underclass, vulnerable to all its factions: ‘If they didn’t get what they wanted, they could, like any House, level the buildings and the people inside, with scarcely a thought.’ I thought of the Vietnam War, as much as the Great War of 1914-18. Their fate offers an oblique commentary on colonialism, class and race, on encounters between Western imperialism and Indo-Chinese peoples. De Bodard acknowledges that sub-text: ‘My Vietnam War involves pain and heartache and displacement, and massive family upheavals … At heart, I’m sharing my side of the story … the kind of stories I wanted (to read) as child.’

Her gorgeous prose makes vivid use of the sense of smell, alongside rich description. The post-war House of Hawthorn reeks of ashes and mould as much as Asmodeus’ orange blossom and bergamot scent. The slums of Goutte D’Or smell of smoke and cooked shallots, of flatbreads in the pan and carefully hoarded fish sauce. And then most marvellously, there is the Seine’s underwater world:

 ‘…men and women with fish scales, with lobster’s pincers and crab’s stalked eyes; all tinged with the oily shimmer that lay on the waters of the Seine … fish swam between lacquered pillars, skeletal and dull-scaled … a rising smell, dust and blight, and patches of algae…

Dispatched on a diplomatic mission by Asmodeus, Madaleine finds it alien and disorientating. A dragon courtier’s hostility is expressed in a trail of bubbles or a shape-shifting reptilian snout.

Yet the story’s beating heart for me was the destitute immigrant Françoise. I loved how convincingly de Bodard conveys the physical sensations and emotional complications of her pregnancy. Her lover Berith, once Asmodeus’ ‘Fall-brother’, now presents as female. Despised by Françoise’s community, their tender and prickly relationship is beautifully drawn. Françoise’s recurring desire is ‘a future for them and the child, where they didn’t have to fight for every scrap’.  There are numerous love stories in this novel; queer and straight, friends across the divide, mother and child, master and subject: yet this couple is the most subtly portrayed. Their bond provides a luminous thread in the murky powerplay of the city’s Houses and kingdoms. Françoise remembers Vietnamese dragon legends as: ‘Tales told to children to distract them from the devastation of war.’ But Berith knows ‘something is rising’ from the Seine. Dangerous enemies are circling them with fresh cruelties.

De Bodard’s sprawling narrative of displaced people navigating a war-torn city blends horror and wonder with all too human dilemmas. It’s a good example of the rich lore that post-colonialist voices have yielded in recent years in SFF. And having gotten a taste for this essence, ‘a trickle of power like honey down the throat’, I’ll be seeking out the rest of the Dominion of the Fallen series. ‘The House of Sundering Flames’ finale, published to acclaim this year, promises more Machiavellian intrigue, magic-spiked battles and ‘flower spirits’. You’ll find me curled in a corner with glazed eyes, forgetting meals, as I devour another volume.

THE HOUSE OF BINDING THORNS, Aliette de Bodard, Gollancz, 2017