The House of Shattered Wings – Aliette de Bodard

I had originally been avoiding this book. The title just struck me as too pretentious, and I decided (somewhat irrationally) that I couldn’t be doing with it and was never going near it. This was an Error. Thankfully, it is an error that was corrected by the whole potential-Hugo-nom-athon, so no harm done. Something about the title still does put me off, however, and I rather wish she’d called it something else.

It’s also another interesting one, because I’m not over the top keen on it. I can see that it’s good, and I can appreciate everything in the book that is lauded as good, but at the same time… I’m not 100% sold. I think this is primarily because there isn’t a single character I actually like. And not in a “they’re all a bit despicable and I shouldn’t like them but am rooting for them anyway” way. Not properly anti-hero or anything. Just “none of you make me inclined to care”. And I think that’s quite a lot of a problem, for a book. Especially one that is quite so fundamentally about people as this one is. While there is a plot and things do happen that are interesting and exciting, it feels more character-driven than anything else – and particularly by the relationship between Philippe and Isobel – and so the absence of real sympathy for the characters really leaves a hole.

It’s weird, because theoretically, both viewpoint characters are quite sympathetic. If I described them to you now, you’d probably think you’d care about them. But something about the execution robs them of any real human feeling, and it leaves a gap from “I see that you’re a character with a sad past” to “I care about you” that I just couldn’t overcome. The same is true, though to a lesser extent, to all the background characters too. There’s nothing that feels real enough to latch onto with any of them, and so I find myself just feeling mildly interested in what happens to them and their relationships. Which just isn’t enough.

That aside, the book is pretty excellent. It’s one of the rare one where the twists aren’t desperately obvious (save one) and where you don’t really know what’s going to happen next. De Bodard has been genuinely innovative in her plotting and world building, and I really want more of that. Nothing is explained quite enough to satisfy my curiosity, and in the absolute best way. She also writes someone genuinely lovely descriptive passages, and manages to make the reader really *see* what she’s trying to describe. There’s an ominous greyness to the atmosphere of the whole book, and she carries it off wonderfully, getting hints of it into every description without overdoing it at any point.

If she can make the characters feel… realer in the sequel, de Bodard will have a genuinely amazing book, and I’ll definitely be reading it to find out, but at the moment, the absence of believable characterisation robs some of the most dramatic moments of the story of the feeling she’s clearly aiming for, and just undermines the whole thing. Which is really sad. It feels like it could have been amazing.

Next up will probably be a slew of graphic novels (Rat Queens, Saga and Lucifer), then possibly Seveneves, resuming the Hugo binge.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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