the house of binding thorns by Aliette de Bodard
reviewed by jim hepplewhite
"'And she built her own wards on the blood of those dead dependents?' Thuan guessed. He didn’t expect Nadine to answer: how a House made their wards was possibly their most well-guarded secret, for why make public the making of what protected them?
'Probably. It's always blood, isn't it?' Nadine said. 'And carving out territory through atrocities.'"
I adored the first book, The House Of Shattered Wings, an urban fantasy novel set in an apocalyptic post-WWI Paris. It felt clockwork and brutal, like Aliette de Bodard transplanted LeCarré class friction and unease into her arcane, mutilated French capital. You don't need to read The House Of Shattered Wings to enjoy The House Of Binding Thorns, but if you did, you'll recognize the "catching up the new reader" first scene for what it is.
By comparison: The House Of Shattered Wings' first scene was an angel falling from Heaven and the second scene was human scavengers cutting up an unconscious angel for spare parts.
It's difficult to top cutting up angels, but The House Of Binding Thorns does. Its first scene/reader introduction is an angel essence addict (Madeline) interrogated and tortured by a woman that wants to know if Madeline can be trusted. Ms. de Bodard never writes drug addiction as a personal failing, but instead a person looking for a refuge from grief of fear or pain.
The plot: Leader of House Hawthorn Asmodeus announces a marriage between himself and a prince of the Dragon Kingdom, a previously unknown House of Viet families ("discovered" in The House Of Shattered Wings) under the Seine. Asmodeus enlists three persons as an advance team: two House dignitaries and Madeline still fresh from the smoking crater of House Silverspires.
Unfortunately, Madeline has a temper and a sharp mouth. So why is she, a recovering angel essence addict, tapped to be an ambassador, and why is everyone on both sides uninterested in each other but hustling to cement the political marriage? Also, where'd the previous ambassador go?
"She knew it was him before she saw him, when the smell of bergamot and orange blossom wafted into the room. She would have fled, if she could do more than futilely struggle against the tightened straps.
He was light on his feet. She heard his footsteps only when he neared the bed - a brief touch that made her want to scream and the straps were undone, one by one - her lungs burning as they filled up with the air they'd been denied. She pulled herself up, trying to massage some feeling into armband legs that had long gone dead, and he sat on the side of the four-poster bed, close enough to touch.
'Madeline.' He smiled, showing the sharp teeth of predators. 'Take your time'’"
The House Of Binding Thorns widens the scope from The House Of Shattered Wings. The House Of Shattered Wings focused on three characters and a single mansion complex. Ms. de Bodard expands the scope to Paris in earnest. We learn about magic users who live as best they can outside the Houses and their dependent communities. She fleshes out The Dragon Kingdom, an underwater, jade filled revelation from the previous book. That House's ruler, Princess Ngoc Bich, is no less calculating, exhausted and ruthless as Asmodeus. She maintains a kingdom on her back and a grudge for Hawthorn, which makes the polite negotiations between parties a highlight of The House Of Binding Thorns.
I hesitate to say much more about the plot, since there's a couple and they converge neatly. Ms. de Bodard handles queer characters well, introducing many of them that are just as vulnerable to the savagery of the setting (to use a phrase) as their straight counterparts.
I stayed on a Washington DC train platform, reading until I completed the current chapter. I had somewhere else to be, but I stopped what I was doing to read The House Of Binding Thorns. I completed it that same night, knowing I needed to finish the book because I a) had to review it and b) excitement.
"He wanted no part of House politics. He wanted no Fallen magic. And, above all, he wanted to stay away from Hawthorn and Asmodeus. But in the end, he owed Isabelle something he could never return, and all his unbending principles had ever brought her death.
Berith was Fallen, but not House; and that, perhaps, was all the grace he was ever going to be granted, in the end, by a God who wasn't his and whom he had no interest in worshiping.
'I—' He took a deep, shaking breath. 'I'll do it.'"
Good books draw you into them but great books don't let you go. Ms. de Bodard wrote a great one.