The House of Binding Thorns

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Aliette de Bodard is an exophonic writer (a writer whose mother tongue is not the language she uses to write her stories in). Even though she was born in the United States, she was brought up mainly in France in a Franco-Vietnamese family. She spent a few years in London when she was a teenager (she studied at the Lycée Français) before crossing back over the Channel to study and work in Paris, where she currently lives.

UK cover – Gollancz

The House of Binding Thorns is the second book of her Dominion of the Fallen series, published in 2017 by Gollancz (in the UK). It follows The House of Shattered Wings (2015), which won the BSFA Award for Best Novel of 2015 and was a finalist of the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel of 2016.

A Post-Apocalyptic Paris

The series is set in a post-apocalyptic Paris, divided into Houses. Each of them is ruled by Fallen angels. Don’t be fooled by the mention of angels: this Paris is Gothic, dark, ruthless.
Fallen’s bodies are infused with so much magic that, after their death, they are dismembered to produce angel essence (a highly addictive drug) and other products. Nothing goes to waste.
To make this devastated Paris even more original, Ms de Bodard has added a Dragon Kingdom under the Seine, inspired by Vietnamese folklore and legends, as well as a strong ‘Annamite’ (Vietnam was once called Annam) community, which allows her to indirectly touch upon issues such as immigration and colonialism. 

A 21st-Century Fantasy

What strikes me most with this book is how contemporary it is, how diverse the characters are. Aliette de Bodard shows Fantasy is a genre fit for the 21st-century. Some big names in fantasy are still writing old-fashioned novels, quite heteronormative, heavily influenced by a traditional conception of the Middle Ages (or “half-baked feudalism”, as Le Guin once put it): the novels are male-dominated, with white heterosexuals as main characters. 

In The House of Binding Thorns, Ms de Bodard selects an uncommon set of characters, far removed from the usual clichés: for instance, Asmodeus, the autocrat of House Hawthorn, the most important character in the novel, is a gay fallen angel. 

Aliette de Bodard (credits: Lou Abercrombie)

It’s worth noting that the reader doesn’t see the story through his eyes though. The author prefers to focus on the outcasts and the powerless, the dependents and the have nots. These characters enable her to question power dynamics and inequalities more easily. The third-person narrative follows four of them:

– Madeleine, an angel essence addict, who left House Hawthorn twenty years earlier when Asmodeus took over the house. She has now returned and is kept as a captive dependent;
– Thuan, a dragon prince, sent by his ‘Second Aunt’ from the water kingdom under the Seine to spy on the House. He is more attracted to men than women overall, and his features are those of an Annamite;
– Françoise, a pregnant Annamite, who is in love with Berith, a fallen angel now in the body of a woman. They both live in poverty, outside the House system, in the middle of ‘La Goutte d’Or’, a district of Paris where the Annamite community settled when they arrived in the French Capital;
– and Philippe, an Immortal magician, also of Vietnamese descent, who wants to resuscitate Isabelle, the woman he lost in the first book of the series.

Masterly plotted

Even though on several occasions I was tempted to stop reading and move on to a different book (maybe because I hadn’t read the first book), I am very happy to have persevered. 
In the last hundred pages or so, the storylines started to converge. The book became a fascinating read, a masterclass in how to plot your novel and make sure that no character is left wandering, no narrative thread unresolved. 
Aliette de Bodard delivered a highly satisfying conclusion to the story and I was left full of admiration for her writing skills.

Enzo Daumier

Notes to myself: observations drawn from the book 

– If you plan to write a series, make sure each book is independent from the previous one. It will enable the reader to start at any point. And should the first book not be as good as the following novels, you will not undermine the success of your series. Independent novels in a series are the best of both worlds: you can encourage your readers to come back with recurring characters while attracting new readers along the way. If you plan to do so, make sure new readers have got all the information they need to fully comprehend your secondary world and what it is about. Balance is key: not enough, and new readers will stop reading; too much, and returning readers will be put off.

– After so many years of being fed identical secondary worlds, all medieval and Tolkienesque, readers welcome new influences. I have no interest in fantasy books that offer the same things over and over. Fantasy is – or should be – better than a mere commodity. We read fantasy (and sci-fi too, of course) to inhabit an unfamiliar world so that we see our own reality in a different way. In order to do so, the genre must rely on authors coming from various horizons, who are not afraid to draw inspiration from the place(s) they live in, their family history and heritage, or their personal identity and interests. A mix of unrelated influences creates a highly original fictional world. Nowadays, daring to walk off the beaten tracks is the best way to stand out from a crowded publishing market. Aliette de Bodard took a (somewhat measured) risk, and it paid off.

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