Thursday, 28 May 2020

House of Sundering Flames by Aliette de Bodard

Let's get right to the point. I am not fully sure what I make of House of Sundering Flames. I ponder and mused, then decided waiting for my mind to be fully reconciled would do a disservice to the review. 

House of Sundering Flames is the final book in the Dominions of the Fallen trilogy, a gothic romance set in a 19th century Paris that was ravaged by a great war and ruled by Fallen Angels and the occasional Annamite (Vietnamese) Dragon. The series has been one full of bittersweetness and harsh power politics played out through barbed words and magical threat, a fantasy of manners that's more about the harm that can be hid behind etiquette than the lovely gestures themselves, but the third book brings a new level of violence and anger to the mix.

I've developed a theory, one that might be making overmuch of coincidence (although if it is one it's a very fine one) that the series is three linked books on how to deal with certain types of threat and pain, with the clues in the names. The first, House of Shattered Wings, is about reacting to threat and pain that has already half-broke you at least, about healing and asserting one's own identity against that being forced onto you. The second, House of Binding Thorns, is about dealing with the ties and bonds that you whether you like it or not, the ones that you think could destroy you. Finally, House of Sundering Flames is about what you gonna do when Hulkamania runs wild on you.

...

Okay. More accurately, it's about death and destruction coming for your world, although for some of us on this planet that's just a daily thing. Do you run? Fight? Want survival? Revenge? Does it twist you? Do you stand firm in who you are? Thematically, it's a very fitting capstone. And in that light, it makes sense that the book has so much more, well, fire.

The plot is that one fateful night, House Harrier starts to die in flames. Truly die. And something can kill the others too. The various factions we've seen previously - Hawthorn, the Annamite community, Silverspires, and desperately Houseless - have to find a way to survive. Yes, I know plot summaries are my specialty. Yes, I know you were being sarcastic. It is a difficult story to summarise though, and one with a lot of characters to name. We've all heard of the series where people grown about them going on longer than anticipated. Dominions of the Fallen might be one of the few that needed an extra book. I only say might.

The story is a slow burner after the original explosion due to the size of it and De Bodard's natural style. She's an unhurried, character-focused writer with elegant prose who writes wonderful scenes so that's just fine by me. It starts to really take off when Morningstar himself strolls deep into the burning embers of House Harrier to set free the caged, tortured Tiger Spirit and weapon Dan Chay.

From there it's a roiling mix of drama and pyrotechnics, one punch after another. It's really good and hits all of my sweet spots. In particular, watching Annamite Immortal Phillipe carefully navigate his way through a mesh of politics, his own fool feelings, and the rising likelihood of getting incinerated was a lot of fun. The conclusion to that arc was very satisfying, his duels with Dan Chay breathtaking. Likewise was seeing the resolution of Thuan's integration into House Hawthorn, and the changes he made there. It could have used more Asmodeus but I'm sure that will come with my ARC of Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders, the soon to be out novella focusing on the couple. Okay, disengage smug mode.

Unfortunately, the book hit a few sour notes too. For the first time in my series, I found myself longing for an info dump into how the magic here all worked, particularly with Aurore's arc. Aurore's arc - a new introduction to the story - left me a little confused at times, a little bemused at the pace at others. It did mostly come together at the end but part of me would have preferred a book without her. The other part of me believes she's absolutely necessary to the story and its themes. I could also quibble a bit about repetition; citrus and bergamot reached braid-tugging levels of ubiquity. Looking at other reviews, for some that repetition also became an issue of subtlety of theme, which I'm not sure I share but don't find utterly crazy either. It certainly blazes with feeling and anger, that's for sure.

Ultimately, where I found myself confused was the tone and theme towards the ending. For a book that menaced much and presented a dark view of the world, the ending felt a little fairytale (albeit in ruins). Yes, De Bodard has always written happy-ish endings for this series, but with the trauma pushed so high it seems... dissonant. That goes doubly so with the theme of how these conditions make monsters. Yet at the end, despite the all-round violence, it splits into good and bad. The bad guys are put down; the good guys live on, hale and reunited with their families. There is some talk of guilt, of prices to be paid, but it would be a more convincing ending to me if we saw the piper take his actual due. Some of the monsters got theirs, most walk on, and I'm not as convinced as I'd like to be that this happened as deserved. Take Asmodeus; is his dictum of only taking from those outside the group that moral, or his enlargened view of the group something that survives? Looking at the ending scene, I'm reminded of Pratchett's quip not to trust revolutions because they always come around again. If there was a sequel, would all of the people shown there forged a good place together? Or would the slide back to warring madness have already taken hold? I am unconvinced.

The fact that I'm wondering what this Paris would look like twenty years down the line is, of course, a tribute to the power of this book. The world it creates has formed its own little dominion inside my head, a tiny part of my brain that is forever France. My moments where the narrative tossed me clear are mostly idiosyncratic, although I can see them chucking other people due to theirs. There's just a little bit of unevenness for want of a better word What is good about the book - the way tension is fed to create a bonfire, the depth of character and world, the magic duels, those are mostly objective facts. It is a shining example of how to make representation of non-European heritage and homosexuals seem as natural and obvious as light at dawn and dark at night. It's epic, moody, enchanting and sometimes a little sweet. It confused me at the end but now, having set it all out on paper, I know my feelings. This is a very good book that didn't convince me at a few important moments and left me with a few too many unanswered questions; I want a sequel.

House of Sundering Flames lives up to its name and is well worth reading for anyone who likes their fantasy epic, character-driven, magical, dramatic, and a little different. 

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