(2017) Aliette de Bodard, Gollancz, £14.99, pbk, 356pp, ISBN978-1-473-21260-2
The second novel length volume in Bodardís Dominion of the Fall series, (which includes a few short stories and novellas) and a direct follow-up to first novel, The House of Shattered Wings. The publishers, Gollancz, seem keen to promote Binding Thorns as perfectly readable even as a stand-alone novel but it really can be confusing without some knowledge or awareness in the previous volume in the series.
Survivors of a devastating war among fallen angels straight out of Miltonís Paradise Lost have set up a new home in the conquered ruins in Paris. There is virtually no reference to any other city on Earth. The demonic entities have divided into a series of ruthlessly competing ruling dynastic houses, and this book takes up after Luciferís house, Silverspires, has been crushed in its struggle with house Hawthorn in the previous novel. Luciferís ghost still appears to haunt the streets of Paris.
Mortals interact with and serve the angels, and much of the story concerns Madeleine, who has become addicted to Angel essence, a drug that gives her some angelic power but which can ultimately destroy her rather than giving her immortality. Much of the story deals with her uneasy service to her demonic house master Asmodeus, who manages to be scary even when he isnít present through fears of what he might be capable of. He sometimes seems anti-climatic when he turns up but there is a brooding sense of great power and cunning at work so readers know he will eventually how his hand. When he does, no one can be left disappointed. When he announces his intention to enter into a same-sex marriage with the dynasty of dragons (crab and fish-like entities who live underwater in the Seine) Madeleine rightly suspects all kind of Machiavellian foul-play and treachery by both sides. She finds herself sent into the dragon realm (angel magic enables characters to breathe as if the water was not there). Madeleine is Asmodeusís second emissary, a worrying task given that her immediate predecessor on the mission has disappeared without trace.
Madeleine has been forced to go cold turkey by Asmodeus, but her use of the essence may be her only means to save a being she both respects and fears. The trouble is that in taking the Essence she could give in again to her addiction and face death at his hands for breaking her pledge not to use the drug.
Though the demons are winged, no one flies, and though characters breathe under-water barely anyone swims. They just walk even on the river bed. Even books and writing paper seem unaffected by the river.
Asmodeus is a truly scary, intriguing and complex character, cruel, but convinced that his actions are justified and fair. He is sadistic from tradition and because it is expected of his office, as with the leader of the rival houses. This story sees a softer side of his heart appearing as the narrative progresses. This is counter-weighed by Phillipeís increasing hardening and passion for justice over a lover he accuses Asmodeus of killing.
Madeleineís option of death or Angel powder cold turkey servitude to Asmodeus is reminiscent of the choice of death or eternal slavery facing the eponymous heroine of The Story of O.
Meanwhile, Phillipe, a member of the Fallen, seeks revenge on Asmodeus for the death of his lover but he finds himself embroiled in a much bigger conspiracy that threatens House Hawthorn almost literally from its roots.
In the hand of many writers this would be a preposterous cartoon fantasy, but Bodard makes her characters highly believable and credible. With so much fear and trembling around the character of Asmodeus, Phillipeís struggle is neatly captured as he is torn between bringing down the much more powerful Asmodeus and saving Hawthorn too.
The first book dealt with aggression and war, while this follow up addresses the treachery and political back-stabbing of the uneasy peace which is seen very much a kind of warfare in its own right. The astonishingly unexpected ending promises to take any future books in the series in a very different direction.
There is a genuine sense of Hell on Earth, with characters longing for death that they are denied while seemingly immortal entities face unexpected death or magical imprisonments. Characters being able to breathe and see so easily under the polluted Seine waters makes the reader forget the story is half set in the submerged World where even book paper seems to be proof against getting waterlogged.
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