14 September 2018

The House of Binding Thorns

A review of The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard (Gollancz, 2017) 
Originally published in Interzone

In The House of Binding Thorns, Aliette de Bodard revisits the post-apocalyptic Paris introduced in The House of Shattered Wings. It is a city in ruins after an unexplained arcane war. Amidst this toxic wasteland, ordinary humans and immortals, alchemists and magicians, Fallen angels and Vietnamese dragons struggle to survive. On land, they are ruled by a number of Houses dominated by the Fallen, which offer their dependants and adherents a degree of protection from the dangers of the city. While, beneath the waters of the Seine, the dragons have established their own kingdom which is gradually succumbing to the poisonous fallout from the war.

The events of this novel are set a few months after the collapse of House Silverspires at the end of The House of Shattered Wings. Madeleine, an alchemist who had taken refuge in Silverspires two decades earlier after the coup in which the Fallen Asmodeus became the head of House Hawthorn, has been ejected by them because of her addiction to angel essence. But Asmodeus has a use for her, so she has been reclaimed by Hawthorn and is being weaned off her addiction.

This is an even more complex story than its predecessor, with multiple perspectives and several interweaving storylines. There is Madeleine, struggling with her fear of the sadistic Asmodeus and her desire for the essence that will certainly kill her, forced to serve him and finding herself playing a crucial role in the struggle for the future of Hawthorn.

Asmodeus may be a ruthless sadist, but that ruthlessness is utterly dedicated to maintaining the security of Hawthorn and its dependents, including Madeleine. He is an inveterate schemer, and his present scheme involves a marriage alliance with the royal family of the dragon kingdom.

Thuan is the nephew of Ngoc Bich, the ruler of the dragon kingdom. As the novel begins, he is working undercover in Hawthorn trying to trace the source of the essence that is corrupting the dragon kingdom.

Another escapee from the collapse of Silverspires, the immortal Philippe is trying to keep a low profile as a doctor within the human Annamite community of Paris. At the end of the first volume, he promised to find a way to resurrect a dead friend, the Fallen Isabelle. His quest brings him into contact with Asmodeus’s sister Berith and her pregnant partner Francoise who have been trying to carve out a life for themselves aloof from the machinations of the Houses.

In addition to the storylines driven by these viewpoint characters, it soon becomes clear that other forces are at work resulting in a range of mutually interfering conspiracies. Someone is plotting to undermine Asmodeus as head of House Hawthorn. But does the threat come from dissidents within the House or the exiles from Hawthorn who have taken refuge in House Astragale? At the same time, someone is supplying essence to the Dragon Kingdom (shades of the role of the Western powers in the opium wars), and the finger of suspicion points at Hawthorn. And on top of that, Ngoc Bich has to contend with a civil war fomented by elements disgusted by the essence trade.

The press release from Gollancz describes The House of Binding Thorns as ‘Urban Fantasy in its truest, darkest and most exceptional form’. It is certainly dark, but it has none of the cynicism and hopelessness that seems to have typified much recent dark fantasy. However, I wonder about the adjective ‘urban’. It may be set in the ruins of a great city, but much of the action takes place within the Houses, which are more medieval than modern, in the surreal aquatic kingdom of the dragons, and within Berith’s pocket kingdom hidden in her apartment. For me, these settings created a sense of Gormenghastian claustrophobia, which makes De Bodard’s Paris feel more gothic than grimdark. Much of the time, her characters may be driven by fear, but there is also a pervasive thread of hope. And the novel ends on a note of hope for the future – of Madeleine, of Hawthorn, and perhaps also of Paris.

It may be the second volume of a trilogy – and my reading was certainly enriched by having read its predecessor – but it can be read as a complex and satisfying standalone novel. On reflection, I have rarely read such a brilliantly executed piece of work. The complexities of the plot and the multiple perspectives are tightly woven together. She keeps the reader guessing as to what is going but without resorting to misdirection. And she ties the various strands together in a wonderfully satisfying conclusion. This is a must read for everyone who enjoys complex fantasies with well-developed characters and sophisticated worldbuilding.

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