Fantasy books can actually be a fun way to learn some history, and today’s book, The House of Shattered Wings, is definitely a book that’ll encourage you to brush up on history—particularly French-Vietnamese history. I actually stumbled upon this book while looking up some interviews for Sorcerer to the Crown, which I wrote about for one of my previous MMs. Sorcerer to the Crown, if you’ll recall, was about two sorcerers of color in Victorian-era England who, while powerful, were marginalized by the magical elite, and the book discussed racism in those terms. That’s probably why it led me to The House of Shattered Wings, which was similarly written by someone from both a Western and an Eastern heritage. The House of Shattered Wings’s author, Aliette de Bodard, is half-French and half-Vietnamese, has a foot in both worlds, and comes at race and culture from a very different angle. In this interview, de Bodard talks about the effect that had on her writing:
I’m interested in the kinds of complexities that you struggled with as a child of both cultures who has inherited this legacy of colonizer and colonized. Would you like to talk about it?
It’s… complicated (yes, I answer that a lot!). I think a lot of what I grapple with is that colonialism (and its aftermath of wars) was horrible and full of atrocities, and yet that I and many other people wouldn’t be there without it; that the culture itself (the dishes that I love, the language) wouldn’t be the same; in fact that the country itself would be utterly irrecognisable if that hadn’t happened—it’s a history of bones and blood and deaths, and yet, like any history, it’s the one that led us here and made us what we are.
And that’s largely why I picked up the book to start with—I was curious as to how another writer from both an oppressor and an oppressed heritage would handle those issues. The House of Shattered Wings doesn’t disappoint, but it also doesn’t have any easy answers for us. Very minor spoilers for the book are below.
The book takes place in a 20th century Paris ruled by Houses—aristocratic groups mostly governed by Fallen. Fallen are angels that fall from a presumable Heaven who, once in the mortal world, forget everything about Heaven, but take on a human body and human sex characteristics. These angels have immense magical powers, and, in the past, used those powers to start the Great Houses War, which resulted in a Paris ruined by magical pollution and destruction. Now the only way to survive in Paris, particularly if you aren’t Fallen, is to ally yourself with a House and hope for the best.
One of our main characters, Philippe, is from the former French colony of Annam (part of French Indochina, or as we would know it today, Vietnam), and, similar to real-life events, was conscripted by the French to fight for House Draken in the Great Houses War. Now, long after the war is over, he’s still stuck in France without any way to get back to Vietnam, and he runs with a gang on the outskirts of Paris, trying to get by on House scraps. Eventually Selene, ruler of House Silverspires, forces him and the newly Fallen Isabelle into Silverspires, hoping to figure out Philippe’s mysterious magic. Once in Silverspires, however, Philippe unknowingly unlocks a curse against Silverspires, and the House starts to (literally) crumble from the inside.
Despite what his mortal companions may think, Philippe is not human, but an Immortal—a magical being who was once part of Vietnam’s Court of the Jade Emperor, and his magic (and the mythology on which it’s based) is very different from the Eurocentric powers of the Fallen. Fallen are themselves comprised of magic—they carry magic in their very bones, and mortals without much magic can absorb magic from artifacts infused with angel breath or, in more morbid cases, by drinking or eating parts of a dead Fallen. Philippe’s powers, as with many Eastern powers, are tied to the land—he can manipulate what he calls khi currents to create fire, to heal, and the like, depending on how healthy the land is. Other Vietnamese spirits, like dragons, are tied to the land as well, but Philippe knows there’s no chance of finding dragons or fairies in the ruined Paris landscape.
What really interests me about this book is Philippe’s conflicted identity as French and as Vietnamese. It’s a small part of a very complex novel, but there were many points of this plotline that struck home for me—Philippe is confused but eventually relieved at being addressed by his Vietnamese name, Pham Van Minh Khiet, and he longs to return home to Vietnam and the Court of the Jade Emperor. However, when he unexpectedly discovers a dying dragon court in the polluted river Seine, he realizes that he barely remembers any of the old rituals or customs that ought to govern his behavior.
Philippe at once wants to stay in the dragon court, which, he tells himself, is the closest he’ll ever get to going home, and he feels that he ought to help House Silverspires, because despite Selene’s cruelty, other people there have been kind to him. Additionally, once he’s in the dragon kingdom, as a long-time resident of France he feels responsible for its ruined state:
In daylight the room was no longer diaphanous or mysterious; he could see the darker paths on the walls, the places where pollution had eaten away at the coral; and Ngoc Bich’s face, painted over with ceruse, couldn’t hide the places where her skin had entirely sloughed off, revealing the pristine ivory of her cheekbones. They were under the Seine, and like the Seine they were tarred with the pollution of the Great War, the cancer that had penetrated everything in the city. Fallen again, corrupting everything they touched. He’d been part of that war, too—under orders, yes, but that didn’t make him less guilty of what had happened.
While Sorcerer to the Crown discussed racism from a second-generation perspective—Zacharias and Prunella both have never known any home but England, and struggle to be accepted as English—The House of Shattered Wings handles another complicated facet of racism and (forced) immigration by discussing what it’s like to belong to two cultural heritages that may be opposed to each other. Questions of race and identity, particularly multicultural identity, are rarely brought up in speculative fiction, but The House of Shattered Wings mixes magic, mythology, and history to make a compelling conflict for Philippe. It’s not the main conflict, but it offers plenty of food for thought, and I hope other authors will consider fleshing out their characters in this way.