Fiction Reviews


The House of Sundering Flames

(2019) Aliette de Bodard, Gollancz, £16.99, trdpbk, 549pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22340-0

 

Book three in the 'Dominion of the Fallen' series, following The House of Shattered Wings and The House of Binding Thorns.

The internal intrigue and inter-house conflicts of the previous books have severely weakened the great Demon-mastered houses, so the last thing any of them needs is some seemingly external force of destruction willing to take each and every house down. The uneasy peace is shattered when the headquarters of House Harrier is blown up in an act of vengeful supernatural terrorism.

The inhabitants of the other houses are torn between personal survival and uniting to take on the new enemy together.

Much of the action centre on the houses of Silverspires and Hawthorn, ruled by Lucifer Morningstar (Satan himself) and Asmodeus respectively. Asmodeus is a demon gradually learning to soften his approach rather than ruling through torture, pain and fear. A naÔve child refers to him as uncle and even leaves her toys by his side when he sleeps, which would have been unthinkable two books ago.

If the series continues its current course, Asmodeus might well learn full on democracy but there is still a great deal for him to learn yet. Thuan, his shape-shifting dragon lover now shares his power (a binding union made in the previous book) and both men lead the struggle to save their people, not from the external antagonist, who they never actually meet, but against their own living house, which, like its rivals, tries to heal itself by devouring its dependents.

Demons even in Hawthorn face reprisals for rescuing prisoners from the rubble in the dungeons when Hawthorn is partly damaged in the shockwaves from the Harrier explosion, to get them hospital treatment. The torturers see the rescue as a temporary undeserved reprieve from their own cruel torments.

Ultimately, it will be the human refugees empowered with their own oriental magic and Chi energy who will form the front line against the main threat. Many humans have stolen the magic forces used by the angels stripped of their wings, but such power can be addictive and Vietnamese settlers in Paris have brought much of their own lore along too. The mix of powers, styles and entities, human, dragon, demonic fallen angels included, creates a fantastic complex weave that Bodard orchestrates to perfection.

There is a great deal of political and social warning here, with the city echoing a broken divided (post-Brexit?) Europe. The action centres on the ruins of Paris after the demons of John Miltonís Paradise Lost (1667) have been banished there. The reactions to the destruction in House Harrier reflect our own social responses to terrorism. Do you look after your own people or defend your neighbouring powers?

There are many incredible sequences, including the Harrier birds formed from paper, brick fabric and broken cobbles from the devastation caused by the big bad, and the extremely creepy thorn children who capture, and both hamper and aid the Hawthorn houseís defences.

A generally dark often scary tale though not without some humour, as seen with Lucifer, ruler of Danteís Inferno, running away from an encroaching wall of fire.

The pacing is very fast and entertaining, with a balance of fantasy and horror and genuine mystery though its finale seems a little anti-climatic. This really screamed for Asmodeus and Thuan to confront the formidable and genuinely terrifying opponent who even kills off one of the main characters of the series so far.

There is very likely to be a follow up book as the nature of the characters has changed yet again, along with the house system itself.

Arthur Chappell

See also Karen's take on The House of Sundering Flames.

 


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