I want so much to say that I loved The House of Shattered Wings, but I actually found it a little disappointing. Aliette de Bodard’s On a Red Station, Drifting is one of my all time favorite novellas, and I really enjoyed her Obsidian and Blood trilogy even though I’m not usually into the magical detective genre, but The House of Shattered Wings just didn’t really impress me. Which sucks, because there’s not much I dislike more than being let down by a book I’ve been so highly looking forward to.
Not that The House of Shattered Wings is a particularly bad book, either. It just doesn’t quite manage to deliver on its really excellent concept. This is primarily because, in the end, it turns out to be an awfully shallow book. This shallowness is characteristic of de Bodard’s previous novel-length work as well, but I think it worked for Obsidian and Blood because the setting there (15th century Tenochtitlan) was so unique and the genre (sort of a magical noir detective thing) of that series is largely plot- rather than either setting- or character-driven. Unfortunately, in The House of Shattered Wings the plot is thin, and the book is dragged further down by shoddy world-building and poor characterization.
As with de Bodard’s earlier work, one of the things that most attracted my to this book was the description of its setting in the cover copy. Post-apocalyptic Paris? After some kind of devastating magical war? With fallen angels involved? Sounds awesome! Except it just never manages to come to life on the page. Everything feels just a bit sterile, too contrived and theatrical to feel real.
The characters as well are all a bit flat and underdeveloped. Madeleine and Philippe have the most potential, but it’s all squandered by the fairly predictable ending of the book. Isabelle is the character that I found most compelling, but she’s never a point of view character, so we don’t get to know her very well and her thoughts and motivations remain largely opaque. Selene, on the other hand, is a character who might have benefited from being left more mysterious. In general, I felt like every revelation about all of the characters was more to do with their history than anything they were actually going through in the book. And that history sounds a lot better to read about than the story de Bodard decided to tell.
The setting might as well be a flat painted backdrop for all the depth it has; the characters were dull and without much growth; and while there are a lot of potentially neat story details and some very cool ideas about magic and religion and colonization and identity, none of them are ever quite done the justice they deserve. I didn’t hate The House of Shattered Wings, and I may check out its sequel when that comes out, but I will probably just be paying more attention to de Bodard’s short fiction for a while instead.