Review: The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard (Dominion of the Fallen #2)

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Publisher: Ace Books on April 4, 2017

Source: Publisher

My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a digital review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.

The multi-award-winning author of The House of Shattered Wings continues her Dominion of the Fallen saga as Paris endures the aftermath of a devastating arcane war….

  

Aliette de Bodard burst onto the SF/F scene with her novel THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS, an urban fantasy that introduced an alternate Paris ravaged by a war between Houses of Fallen angels. Now she returns to that world in THE HOUSE OF BINDING THORNS, delving more deeply into the political structure of the Houses and the personalities behind them…especially House Hawthorn and its mercurial leader Asmodeus.

While the first book was largely set in House Silverspires, THE HOUSE OF BINDING THORNS is set in House Hawthorn, the strongest and most feared of the Fallen Houses in Paris. I was particularly excited about this since Hawthorn – and Asmodeus – looms large in the mind of Madeleine in the first book, and I wanted to see if it lived up to her memory. Madeleine is a lot of things, but she’s not necessarily wrong about Hawthorn: it is just as terrible and dark as she remembers. But it is also more nuanced, and there’s more to Asmodeus than she would care to admit. Dragged back to Hawthorn against her will, Madeleine occupies a liminal space in the House: she is  one of its dependents, but she’s also poised on the edge of knife as someone who opposed Asmodeus’ rise to power. The human alchemist who barely escaped Hawthorn with her life on the night Asmodeus took power is going to have to toughen up if she wants to survive…and she’ll need to kick her addiction to angel essence to do it.

The scheming and plotting of the Houses reveals the seedy underbelly of their political structure: while some House leaders may present themselves as more benevolent than others, all Houses are the same in the end. They will jockey for position, fighting tooth and claw for power that will ensure their dominance…but also ensure the safety and stability of their human dependents. In a city crumbling around them, humans have no safe place to turn lest they be plagued by gangs or used as pawns in Fallen skirmishes. Joining a House is the lesser of two evils, a moral concession that recurring character Philippe understands all too well.

An Annamite (or Vietnamese) man who’s less human than he appears, Philippe came to Paris decades ago as a result of Fallen conquest. His jaded, cynical perspective of the Houses illustrates how the Fallen dominate all those around them, choking out other forms of magic with angel essence in the same way an invasive weed takes over a garden. While this commentary is far from subtle, I appreciated the exploration of white cultural dominance and colonialism on Annamite culture. De Bodard is able to weave together a complex plot, several tangled mysteries, and deep philosophical questions with ease, and she’s earned herself at least one dedicated fan as a result.

As much as I enjoyed the Hawthorn scenes and the political commentary, the dragon kingdom definitely stole the show for me. Paris has been left crumbling after the war, with all manner of debris and fallout making their way into the waters of the Seine where the dragons make their home. Their kingdom is a study in opposites: ornate Vietnamese inspired architecture and art juxtaposed with the slow decay of the kingdom and its people. The dragons are under siege from the Fallen, both directly and as a result of the pollution from their pointless war. But young dragon Thuanh will do anything to save his people from extinction and bring stability to his fractured kingdom, even if it means allying himself with one of the Houses. Even if that House is Hawthorn. I adored Thuanh, with his self-assured yet shy way of dealing with politics and diplomacy. It’s also refreshing to see queer characters and relationships normalized amongst both the Fallen and the dragons.

Complex, creative, and diverse, THE HOUSE OF BINDING THORNS is an impressive sequel that tugged on my heartstrings and made me think deeply about racial and cultural politics. It’s that rare beast: a sequel that outshines an already impressive series debut. Highly recommended.

What is your favourite book about fallen angels? Have you read anything by Aliette de Bodard? Let me know in the comments!

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  • This does sound pretty fascinating

  • That’s fantastic that this sequel was as good as the first and builds up on the previous book. It sounds super complex with all the houses and politics and race issues, but definitely in a good way. I’ve only read The Repahim series and Penryn & The End of Days with fallen angels in them, but I love them, so I need to read more.
    Lovely review, Danya!

    • It’s so rare that a sequel is better than an already solid first book, so I was stoked! There’s sooo much going on in this series, but somehow de Bodard totally makes it work. Ooooh, I loved Angelfall! I really need to carry on with that series, the third book has been on my shelves practically since it came out.

      Thanks, Nick! 🙂

  • You know what, I totally forgot about this book — as in I get distracted by shiny things (AKA New books) very quickly and forget about good books I already found. Yeah, that’s a problem. BUT what I was actually getting around to saying is: OMG HOW GOOD IS THIS!?

    • Distracted By Shiny Things: The Book Blogger Story. Hahaha. It happens to us all! This was sooo good! Highly recommend this series if you’re looking for a complex, beautifully written fantasy novel.

      • LOL, this is true! Maybe I should make that the new name of my blog — I keep meaning to update, but haven’t got around to it yet.

  • This sounds really cool! I remember enjoying another book about fallen angels (Angelfall), so maybe I’ll give this series a shot too!

    • You’re the second person to mention Angelfall, I loved that book too! I think that series and this one are the only two angel books I’ve ever loved, hahaha. Something about them usually grates on me, but de Bodard and Ee pull it off.

  • Greg Hill

    Ooh that’s a serious cover! And I LOVE it when a sequel outshines the first one. I’m very curious about the Fallen in this one, and also the angel essence- that sounds fascinating. And Vietnamese culture too? Nice.

    I also like the sound of humans having to basically pick a side or a House as it’s the safest thing for them to do. Must be dangerous to be a human in this series… 🙂

    • Isn’t it though? There’s another version that’s a bit dreamier, but tbh I don’t think it fits the vibe of the series as well as this one does. Angel essence is such a cool idea, yet another example of interesting substance use and abuse in fantasy! I’m pretty sure the author is Viet too, so that was really cool. 🙂

      Let’s just say that the humans don’t last long…not unless they’re willing to make sacrifices and be ruthless. The best kind of human characters! *evil laugh*

  • I wasn’t a huge fan of the first book in the series and thus kind of ignored this one. But I have liked a lot of work in the past; several short stories and I loved the Obsidian and Blood trilogy.

    • Oh, bummer! I liked the first book a lot, but The House of Binding Thorns is leagues better for sure. I haven’t looked too much at de Bodard’s backlist, but clearly I need to check it out!

  • This sounds like a high fantasy. A genre that’s generally absent in my shelves.

    • You know, I thought it was high fantasy at first too…until people started driving around in cars and the like! Hahaha. But yes, it’s definitely heavy on the world building so maybe best avoid this one if you’re not into fantasy.

  • This sounds like a must-read. And a sequel that outshines the original book? Yikes, I’ve got to find this one! Glad you liked it!

    • It’s definitely a must-read if you like complex fantasy worlds with diverse characters! This is probably the most impressive sequel I’ve read all year, and it really affected me too. Aliette de Bodard is one to watch. 🙂

  • Gosh, it has been so long since I read The House of Shattered Wings! I didn’t enjoy the book and to be honest, I’ve forgotten pretty much everything I read. 😀 I do remember the diversity of characters and a lot of politics. I’m glad this sequel did not disappoint!

    Great review, Danya! Have a wonderful day. =)

    Alyssa @ The Eater of Books!

    • I actually read it after I got approved for this on NetGalley, because I didn’t realized that The House of Binding Thorns was a sequel at first…Whoops! Haha. The diverse characters, setting, and world building clinched it for me. I loved the literary writing style, too!

      Thanks Alyssa! Enjoy your weekend. 🙂

  • shootingstarsmag

    I don’t know the authors – or any of these books – but I’m so glad it was a worthwhile sequel. Always good to hear!

    -Lauren
    http://www.shootingstarsmag.blogspot.com

    • Whenever I read a sequel that’s better than the first book, I’m happy! It’s so rarely the case these days.

  • The cover looks kind of scary haha but I love that there’s a dragon kingdom and it definitely sounds like an intriguing and creative world!
    I actually don’t like reading books about angels so I don’t have be favourite fallen angel story haha.
    Great review, Danya!

    • HA! It is scary looking, for sure! Pretty accurate reflection of House politics, tbh. 😉 You know, normally I don’t like reading books about angels either! The only other series I’ve liked about them is Angelfall…normally they’re way too angsty and over the top for me!