The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard. Gollancz, 2017. (Ace/Roc, 2017.)
The House of Binding Thorns takes the gothic atmospheric politics of The House of Shattered Wings and ramps them up to a pitch of intensity that I really wasn’t expecting. The House of Shattered Wings was an intense novel, a stunning work of art set in a fin-de-siècle Paris. A Paris ruled by Houses competing for resources in the postapocalyptic decay that came in the wake of some vastly destructive war, filled with alchemists and magicians and Fallen angels, ordinary people and immigrant Immortals.
In The House of Shattered Wings, we first met Philippe, an Annamite immortal who was caught up in the affairs of House Silverspires thanks to his affection for a young Fallen called Isabelle. We also first met Madeleine, an alchemist formerly of House Hawthorne with an addiction to angel dust that was killing her, who had fled to House Silverspires after a coup that caused a change in the leadership of House Hawthorne twenty years before; and Asmodeus, the head of House Hawthorne, one of the Fallen with a twisty mind, a sadistic streak, and a firm commitment to protecting his own. We also met the dragon kingdom beneath the Seine, gradually crumbling in the tainted waters — as much of this Paris is gradually sliding into decay. In The House of Binding Thorns, we meet all three again.
Madeleine, cast out by House Silverspires, has returned to House Hawthorne and the overlordship of its terrifying master. Asmodeus has a use for her, although he will do worse than kill her if she takes any more of the drug to which she is addicted, and so she joins an embassy from House Hawthorne to the dragon kingdom beneath the Seine, an embassy that is arranging Asmodeus’s diplomatic marriage to a dragon prince. The dragon kingdom has their own difficulties, and Asmodeus intends to use them for his own ends. But the dragon kingdom is not without its own resources. One of their princes, Thuan, has infiltrated House Hawthorne as a spy. When things go awry with the marriage arrangements, he is recalled and married to Asmodeus himself — and discovers that Asmodeus means his death and the conquest of the dragon kingdom, or would if his leadership of the House were not under threat from within and without.
Meanwhile, Philippe is working as a sort-of doctor in a poor district, among the Houseless. At the end of The House of Shattered Wings, he’d vowed to find a way to restore Isabelle to life, but so far he has not been able to manage to learn how he could accomplish such a thing — although he knows it is possible to bring Fallen back from the dead. When he’s threatened by strange magic, he finds himself aided by Berith, a Houseless Fallen who is Asmodeus’s estranged Fall-sister, and her human partner Françoise, a member of the Annamite community. Berith is crippled, for a Fallen, and slowly dying: Françoise, meanwhile, is expecting their child. Berith wants Philippe to accompany Françoise to bring a message to Asmodeus and plead for a reconciliation. In return, she promises to give him his heart’s desire: the knowledge he needs to restore Isabelle to life. The plots of Hawthorne and dragon kingdom won’t leave Berith and Françoise alone, though: power is the only real currency in Paris, and Berith does not, on her own, have enough to keep her family safe.
This book. This book. If I call it utterly masterful that is still perhaps an insufficient superlative. De Bodard performs a tricky balancing act in keeping all the politics, all the plots and intrigues, aligned and moving forward, never dropping a thread, seeding early chapters with a whole lot of Chekov’s guns that go off like well-timed artillery volleys as matters draw towards a conclusion. Where The House of Shattered Wings was good, The House of Binding Thorns is even better. Wrenchingly tense, suffused with a creeping undercurrent of atmospheric horror, of decline-and-fall, and yet vividly alive.
For all that it partakes of the atmosphere of the gothic horror, thick with mildew and rot, at times deeply claustrophobic, shut-in — Paris is the world in microcosm, and House Hawthorne and the dragon kingdom are each in their own ways very much enclosed — The House of Binding Thorns is not actually horror. Horror is concerned with futility and destruction, but even Asmodeus, however horrifying one might find him as a person, is fundamentally concerned with the preservation and protection of his dependents: with building, or at least maintaining, the life of his House. De Bodard’s characters are all rich and complex, and deeply situated within a network of connections and obligations. The House of Binding Thorns is, as much as anything else, a book about family and community, the ties that bind — the ties you choose, and the ties you don’t. It’s also deeply, fundamentally, interested in the problems, and responsibilities, of power, and connected to that, the (post-colonial and) colonial relationship that this decaying Paris has to the Annamite community in its midst, and that the dragon kingdom has with itself and with Paris and its Houses.
Also, this book? This book is queer as fuck. It has more obvious queer families, and queer relationships, than heterosexual ones. And it treats its queer relationships — its queer families — as utterly normal (well, apart from the part where they involve Fallen angels and dragon princes and such matters) to a degree that’s still unusual enough to make parts of me want to cry with gratitude. It does so much so right, and so well, that I cannot help but love it wholly and entirely.
It really is an utterly magnificent achievement.
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