THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS by Aliette de Bodard

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The House of Shattered Wings
(Dominion of the Fallen Book 1)
By Aliette de Bodard
Roc Books – August 2015
ISBN 9780451477385 – 402 Pages – Hardcover
Source: AceRocStars Street Team


Set in an alternate history, late 20th Century Paris that lies in near ruins, The House of Shattered Wings is a dark urban fantasy of competing houses who compete for control of the city. But these houses of noble power set in the ashes of a great apocalyptic conflict are not founded or controlled by humans, but by fallen angels and ancient magic. Once at the top of political influence, House Silverspires is in rapid decline, its powerful founder gone missing decades past, and its current members now targeted by a mysterious, unknown force. As its current leader tries to maintain House Silverspires’ existence, a trio of potent wild-cards fall under its protection: a human alchemist struggling with addiction and escape from past loss, a newly fallen angel, and a strange young man of rare abilities who appears neither human nor angel.
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Those who read the major markets for short speculative fiction and fantasy are likely familiar with Aliette de Bodard’s science fiction stories set within her alternate history Xuya Universe. Prior to reading The House of Shattered Wings this is the only writing I really knew her from, so I was surprised to find out the novel I anticipated was a fantasy. (I later learned she does have another alternate history fantasy series of novels from Angry Robot Books). This ignorance actually made me start the novel with optimistic expectation because I was curious to read something from her that I could approach more independently from my previous reading experiences of her SF.
Of her short fiction that I’ve read, I consistently find the stories to be beautifully written. A native French speaker, de Bodard’s English prose is spectacular and her dialogue is generally engaging. Despite this, her stories have been very hit or miss in enjoyment for me. Some pulled in my attention, while others I could just never fully connect with the plot or characters. Reading The House of Shattered Wings I felt similarly. Rarely do I feel so ‘wishy-washy’ over a book. I had a difficult time first getting into the novel, but slowly began to develop some more interest as the story unfolded. Yet, overall I never felt strongly connected to its characters (perhaps due to their being so many), and I found myself strongly regretting the absence of certain elements, while still enjoying fairly well those elements that were present.
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Another general way to state all of this: I understand how readers could both really love this book, while also find it a big disappointment despite the obvious quality of the writing and de Bodard’s talent. Because I felt all of this, like a tug-of-war, throughout my reading The House of Shattered Wings. So then, what specifically did I like and what did I feel was missing?
To start with my negative impressions, they stem from the complexity of de Bodard’s universe that she is introducing here. The first volume in a series, it contains a troop of characters of major importance, including multiple protagonists. It is a mashup of several speculative genres while also including a prominent mystery, several angles of romance, and some decent delving into matters of spirituality, culture, and mythology. It is rich and dense: a universe I really want to get to know filled with characters that should become dear to me. But it’s all too much for just this book, the first step in what is to be an even grander series. And despite those statements, I’m going to go on and say that I wished it had something more: a fuller setting. With fewer characters, fewer twists to the plot, and perhaps fewer focused themes there could have been some more room to see more of this post apocalyptic, alternate history Paris that the characters inhabit. Another reader I noticed use the word ‘claustrophobic’, and I think this is apt. The view is so close to the myriad characters that there is little direct sense of the physical world they inhabit.
The added bit of mystery genre to this novel, however, is one factor that really made me enjoy the story, particularly by its closing chapters as I finally also got the plethora of character identities under some type of memory, control. de Bodard incorporates the magic, the fantastic, into the politics of this universe really effectively. Towards another point of the novel’s strengths: I’ve read so many novels where I adore the setup and then become embittered by its ending. While The House of Shattered Wings may try to overdevelop its setup, it does takes all of its plot threads and ties them up satisfyingly well. I finished this pleased with its conclusion, and looking forward to what future books would bring, perhaps with a bit narrower focus.
If you’re familiar with de Bodard’s short fiction, then decisions on whether to read this novel should be easy, particularly if you have strong feelings one way or the other on urban fantasy featuring fallen angels (in a generically spiritual sense). For those unfamiliar with her writing, I suggest you try out some of her short fiction if you are curious, but hesitant, to start a full novel. She has several short stories set within the Dominion of the Fallen universe. Though I haven’t read those – like her other short stories – I suspect they are representative of the high quality of de Bodard’s writing, and also contain style,  plotting, or character that will permit you to judge the ‘fit’ for yourself.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher as part of the AceRocStars Street Team in exchange for an honest review.

THE DRAGONS OF HEAVEN, by Alyc Helms

In case you missed it, my review of Alyc Helms’ The Dragons of Heaven from Angry Robots Books appeared this week at Skiffy and Fanty.

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“In the darkened streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown, Missy Masters is struggling to take up the vigilante-hero mantle of her retired, estranged grandfather, Mr. Mystic. Missy shares his stubbornness, his intimate connections with Chinese culture, and his uncanny ability to cross into a realm of shadows and exert limited control over the creatures within…

…The Dragons of Heaven is a fun read. It is a genre blend that combines urban fantasy with folkloric myth, the superhero comic, romance, and the complex family dynamics featured in ‘mainstream’ fiction. There is magical action driving the plot aplenty, there are moments of humor and pop culture reference. But there are also great doses of introspection, of character development for Missy, and deep themes at its core.”

Read the complete review at Skiffy and Fanty!

And look there this coming week for my upcoming review of The Liminal War by Ayize Jama-Everett.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher as part of The Angry Robot Army via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

DAY SHIFT, by Charlaine Harris

23281944Day Shift
(Midnight, Texas Book 2)
By Charlaine Harris
Ace Books – 5th May 2015
ISBN 9780425263198 – 320 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Ace Roc Stars Street Team


 Though it’s the second book in a new paranormal mystery series by Harris, I didn’t have much problem getting into Day Shift without having read the first book that gives the Midnight, Texas series its name. Midnight is a tiny, one-traffic-light town with a collection of eccentric residents with closely guarded secrets who appreciate the relative quiet and privacy that their isolated Texas community provides.
If you’ve read the first book, you’ll be familiar with the Midnight residents, but if you’re new to them as I, you’ll find yourself being introduced to these handfuls of characters in the first few opening pages of Day Shift. This may be a bit overwhelming at first, but I quickly got steadied, and Harris does a really good job in providing new readers contextual reminders when these characters return to keep things straight. Likewise she summarizes past events and revelations from the first book sufficiently that a new reader won’t feel behind the news. She nicely does this info-dump of already established matters in pieces, largely unobtrusively.
Several of the town’s residents get their own point-of-view sections in Day Shift, but the main character Harris brings closest to the reader is Manfred Bernardo, a professional psychic whose powers have their moments of strength, weakness, or absence, but who always tries to keep his client experiences as professional and honest as possible. While on a trip to Dallas to hold client sessions, Manfred notices at a restaurant one of Midnight’s mysterious residents, Olivia, talking to a couple over dinner who turn up dead the next morning. Drawn into this through association, Manfred’s day goes even further south when one of his more wealthy clients dies during their psychic reading session.
Manfred returns to Midnight, but soon finds the media converging on his house after the deceased client’s son claims his mother has been killed by Manfred and that Manfred has stolen her valuable jewelry. The other residents of Midnight don’t appreciate the sudden inrush of attention, particularly when the arrival of the media coincides with the unexpected reopening of an old hotel by a strange national corporation who brings in a handful of workers and some elderly residents to live there. As Manfred scrambles to clear his name and enlists the help of Olivia in discovering whether his client’s son had a role in the woman’s death, the other members of Midnight continue about their own business, look into the new hotel residents, and help take care of a young, rapidly growing, boy that has been mysteriously given into the care of Midnight’s aloof Reverend.
Dedicated readers of Harris’ books will recognize a large number of characters from her other series. Having only read the first few of her Southern Vampire Mystery novels (and seeing True Blood adopted from them) I could pick up on references to Bon Temps, Sookie Stackhouse, and the appearance of a character from those books who briefly showed up on the HBO show as well. But it seems that Midnight, Texas is a tiny crossroads not just physically, but also figuratively within a shared-universe of multiple series by Harris. Manfred appears in her Harper Connelly novels, another resident apparently comes from the Lily Bard novels, and more. This surely makes the series a pleasure for Harris’ fans to read, enjoying the team ups and crossovers much like you get in comic books. However it also makes the Midnight, Texas books an excellent place to become introduced to Charlaine Harris’ paranormal mystery worlds.
While her other major series focus on a single protagonist through the books, this one deals with an ensemble cast, like a Robert Altman film – or more in tune with this genre, a lot like what True Blood became like in later seasons. Juggling multiple characters and interlocked stories can be tricky business. True Blood arguably suffered greatly in quality as secrets became revealed, characters added, and complexities propagated. Harris’ fans also seem divided on whether the multiple point-of-view writing and ensemble cast of Midnight, Texas and Day Shift work. For me, I enjoyed the characterizations and the flow of the novel, and didn’t greatly mind shifts in point-of-view.
Though urban fantasies with a paranormal cast of characters, Harris’ main interest in a writer seems to be the mystery genre. Day Shift opens with a series of deaths, but only one of these crimes exists as a mystery for the length of the novel. In the grand scheme of things, figuring out who killed Manfred’s client is not as interesting as discovering why, and this criminal mystery itself pales to the myriad other mysteries hovering around Midnight. Harris uses the paranormal aspects of her world as mystery elements. The reader wants to know what secrets each townsperson is hiding, what their agenda is. There is the mystery of the hotel reopening, the odd young boy, the reclusive reverend, Olivia’s seemingly dangerous job, the identity of the elderly residents of the revamped hotel, the reason why the temporary gas station owners are staying… and many more. As in the Southern Vampire Mysteries/True Blood, many puzzles involve trying to figure out what kind of paranormal creature a given character is. Some of these many questions were answered in the first book of the series, some in Day Shift, but many still remain. The town of Midnight itself seems to be something special, drawing ‘abnormal’ people in, protecting them in some way, but it also seems the town itself needs monitoring for the good of the world, kind of like Buffy’s Hellmouth.
It is easy to see therefore how readers will enjoy getting into this series or Harris’ work on a whole. It is pulp. Entertaining stories with a good dose of formulaic construction, lots of puzzles that extend across multiple books, carefully doled-out resolutions, and some easter eggs for dedicated fan appreciation. A former grad student in the lab I currently work in devoured the Southern Vampire Mysteries. They were the perfect easy read comfort to enjoy when the brain needs some relaxation. I have series that I enjoy like that too, in fantasy and SF and mystery genres. I tried the Sookie Stackhouse series, but found them tiresome. They were okay all, but they got old and repetitive on me fast. Partially this came from being already familiar with True Blood.
Midnight, Texas felt more fresh to me. Certain characters I enjoyed more than others so would be eager to see more of them, learn more about them. A few I found less compelling though, so I could also see tiring of this series with time. (Some really absurdly silly names didn’t help me wanting to read more about some characters). But this mixture of characters as an ensemble makes me think that Harris may be able to get better mileage out of this series before it gets stale to all but the rabid fan.
With pulp entertainment like this there usually isn’t anything deeper to discuss about the novels in terms of themes, but there is one interesting facet to the Midnight, Texas series that I picked up on that as I understand is generally present in Harris’ work: the diversity. Sometimes that diversity seems forced, but overall she does a good job of including many kinds of people/characters. But particularly with this, the town of Midnight, Texas is filled with a small number of relatively reclusive outcasts. They hold secrets, some really dark. But the various members of town are willing to withhold their tremendous curiosity of one another. They may question, but they don’t pry. They may briefly talk, but they don’t gossip. They respect one another and amazingly they support one another even when they may not know the full story. They are the personification of an accepting, reconciling community. When something threatens the town, or they discover that one of their own could be a threat to others they take care of the situation as needed, but they don’t judge, they don’t recoil. Because each knows that they have their own baggage and issues. This kind of community is refreshing to see.
So, if you’ve never read Harris, or only read a bit of her other series, I think Day Shift would be a fine place to start and see if it is something you’d enjoy. Or it may be easier to start with the first novel Midnight, Texas. I’ll gladly read the next novel in the series, but I doubt I’ll go back to read the first because the main plot and revelations I already discovered in this. If you are already a fan of Harris, you’ve probably already read these, or if not your reaction may rest on how well you take to its ensemble, multiple-point-of-view nature.
As a final note, Charlaine Harris is going on a book signing tour for the release of Day Shift. I had hoped to go to a local signing to ask some questions to go with this review. I haven’t heard anything yet, but I’ll put something up separately I guess if that does happen. You can check out her full schedule here and see if she’ll be in a city near you.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Ace Books as part of their Ace Roc Stars Street Team in exchange for an honest review.

Days of Blood and Starlight, by Laini Taylor

Days of Blood and Starlight,
by Laini Taylor
Daughter of Smoke and Bone Book 2
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
ASIN: B0076DCLF6
517 pages, Kindle Edition
Published November 2012
Source: NetGalley

The first book in the series left me impressed even with heightened expectations from glowing recommendations. I really had no idea what to expect from the second. Could it keep feeling fresh, or would it rehash the same themes? Would the characters remain engaging? In what directions would the plot be taken and would its emphasis focus on the romance angles or not? It is easy for a series to unravel after a well-received introduction.

Thankfully, Taylor makes this middle volume and its characters go places, focusing more on the battles and larger scale conflicts between the ‘angels’ and ‘devils’ side of the war. Where the focus of the first book was on the development of protagonist Karou and her personal relationship with Akiva, this focuses on the larger issues of what that relationship now means within the historical context Karou has uncovered by the end of volume one. The scale here is larger, and the themes transfer from being centered on personal or ‘destined’ romance to ones of war, what situations of conflict do to influence lives and how prolonged conflicts can enter into never-ending cycles of loss and retribution.

If these are changes you weren’t expecting, and leads the stories into directions you don’t care to go, this may frustrate you. Liking the first book won’t mean you’ll like the second. But, if you find yourself appreciating the broadening of scope with new characters, new relationships, and most certainly new complications, I think you’d still love this.

Despite continuing to love the story here and the characters, and appreciating the evolutions Taylor writes to avoid simply repeating the same story again, her style of writing begins to get old. Specifically, Taylor tends to forward the plot by ending a chapter with a sudden revelation or occurrence (often in cliff-hanger fashion) followed by starting the next chapter well ahead in time. She then goes back and fills in the missing details of how the character or plot got from the end of the previous chapter to the start of the next. This technique really maximizes reader interest, but when used continually over the course of the two novels it begins to lose its charm.

I’m eager to see where this story and its characters go in the presumably last novel of the series. I would expect a merging of the first two novels and the battle between these two races entering fully into our Earth. I suspect the events will surprise me and the underlying themes of individuals struggling to connect humanely amid horrific conflict will continue to prove interesting.

Four Stars out of Five