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THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS by Aliette de Bodard

THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS - Aliette de Bodard THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS

Aliette de Bodard (aliettedebodard.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£14.99

Whilst searching the ruins of Paris’ Grands Magasins for vital resources, Philippe and his companion come across a newborn Fallen, an Angel ejected from The City and exiled to the mortal plain. Deciding to harvest the Fallen for artefacts that contain powerful magic, Philippe is caught when members of one of Paris’ great Houses appears to claim the newborn. Bound to the House by Selene, the Head of Silverspires, and to Isabelle, the newborn, after tasting her blood, Philippe has no option but to find a means of escape. Unrest is brewing in Paris, and another war between the great Houses seems inevitable; it’s a situation that could work in Philippe’s favour, but before he can take advantage, he unwittingly unleashes an unspeakable evil on the House, a shadowy creature that roams the Île de la Cité, picking off members of the Household. Along with Isabelle and Madeleine, the House’s alchemist, Philippe discovers a decades-old secret that could destroy Silverspires.

Aliette de Bodard’s debut novel is set in a post-magical-apocalyptic Paris in or around the 1960s. Destroyed during a magical war that coincided, more or less, with the real world’s Great War, Paris is now a city divided into two main classes: the Houses and the Gangs. The Houses for the most part are run by – or heavily populated by – Fallen Angels, exiled from The City for infractions that they can no longer remember. Paris itself has suffered greatly as part of the war: buildings lie in ruins, provisions are scarce, especially for those not affiliated with one of the Houses, and the Seine is a magic-infested cesspool that humans and angels avoid at all costs.

When we enter this strange new world, we meet Philippe, a Vietnamese national who has ended up in Paris against his will: while he looks to be in his early twenties, Philippe was once Immortal, a member of the Jade Emperor’s court. Now hundreds of years old, Philippe has been in Paris for over sixty years, having been conscripted and shipped to France to fight in the war. Wielding a different flavour of magic to the city’s Fallen, Philippe is an enigma to the elders of House Silverspires of whom he becomes a captive before the story has barely started. His bond with Isabelle, a bond formed when he briefly tasted her blood, adds a further dimension to his captivity: Philippe has a constant watcher, and while Isabelle is new to the House, it is clear where her loyalties will ultimately lie.

Much of the action takes place in House Silverspires, which resides in the ruins of Notre Dame Cathedral and the other buildings on the Île de la Cité. De Bodard uses multiple viewpoints to give us a rounded understanding of how the Houses work, and of the relationships between the different Houses, without the need for much exposition. These viewpoints show us the House from a number of different perspectives: through the eyes of Philippe, who detests the House system for what it did to him during the war; those of Isabelle, the newest member of the Household; Madeleine, a mortal who spends her days working with magic, and dealing with an addiction that could see her expelled from the House should anyone discover it; and through the eyes of Selene, the Head of the House, and the direct successor of the House’s founder, First of the Fallen, Lucifer Morningstar.

Morningstar himself appears only in fleeting glimpses, in visions that Philippe has because of his connection to the evil that now stalks the House’s residents. There is little need for introduction, and de Bodard uses this to her advantage, tagging on the features that she needs for the Morningstar of her own world: the metal wings that were more than an affectation, the aloof manner. In many ways, each of the central characters is living in Morningstar’s shadow, some more literally than others, and despite being missing from both the story and the world – he hasn’t been seen for twenty years at the point Philippe enters House Silverspires – he remains a palpable presence throughout the novel.

The world de Bodard has created is beautifully-wrought, a post-apocalyptic nightmare unlike any you have seen before. There is a dangerous moment early in the narrative where it looks like the story may well stray into the realms of Twilight, but thankfully that proves not to be the case. This is a violent and dangerous world, populated by violent and dangerous characters, many of whom have the double advantage of being able to wield magic and being immortal. It is, strangely, a novel peopled by religious characters that manages to steer clear of the subject of faith (or Faith), bringing the religious mythology from a number of different backgrounds together in a seamless way to tell this gripping story that defies any single genre classification.

The House of Shattered Wings has all the ingredients a good story needs: a well-developed world populated by identifiable, engaging characters whose fate we care about from the moment we meet them and a story that keeps us turning the pages long past bedtime. Stylishly written, this is the most original piece of fiction – I find that “Fantasy” is far too restrictive – you’re likely to come across this year. A wonderful introduction to Aliette de Bodard, who is already an award-winning short story writer, The House of Shattered Wings is an excellent showcase for this mighty talent and adds yet another author to this reader’s “must-read” list.

Author’s Notes: THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS by Aliette de Bodard

9781473212565 THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS

Aliette de Bodard (aliettedebodard.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

Hardback £20
eBook £10.99

Today marks the publication of Aliette de Bodard’s stunning debut novel, The House of Shattered Wings. To celebrate, and in anticipation of my forthcoming review of the book, I’m very pleased to welcome Aliette to Reader Dad. She has very kindly provided a short excerpt from the book, and a brief commentary of the section by the author herself. Sit back, enjoy, and whatever you do, don’t miss what is probably the most original (urban) fantasy you’re likely to read for a long time.

For a while, [Philippe] hung suspended in time and space; back to a serenity he’d thought lost, doing nothing but letting the world wash over him, every sensation diminishing until he was once more in that quiet, timeless place where his enlightenment took root.

Gradually—and he wasn’t sure why, or how, or when—it all went away, a slow slide from featureless bliss into something stronger, darker; shadows lengthening over the House, until he stood in a room lined with bookshelves, the only furniture of which was a red plush armchair.

Morningstar sat in the chair. Or rather, lounged in it like a sated tiger, his wings shadowing the sharpness of his face. His pale eyes raking Philippe from top to bottom. “So good of you to come. Shall we start, then?” He inclined his head, and between his spread hands magic whirled and danced, a storm of power that pressed against the bookshelves, stifled the air of the room—cut off Philippe’s breath until it was all he could do to stand.

“I can’t—” he started, and Morningstar shook his head.

“This is power. Embrace it, or others will do it, and leave you gasping in the dust.”

Philippe shook his head, or tried to. He couldn’t seem to move, and Morningstar’s presence was as suffocating as ever—lead pressing on his chest, on his fingers—until it seemed that his nails would lengthen and sharpen, becoming the claws of Morningstar’s own hands. . . .

“Come,” Morningstar said, smiling. “There isn’t much time.”

And he found his feet moving of their own accord, his hands reaching for the magic Morningstar was offering; he took one faltering step into the room, even though his skin was being peeled away from muscle and fat, from bones and glistening veins: one step, then another, straight into the growing maelstrom. . . .

Philippe came to with a gasp. He was standing in a room he had never been to, though he recognized it instantly. It was the same room as in his vision, except that it had badly aged. He had vague memories of exiting the cathedral through a side door, following corridor after corridor; gradually leaving behind the more crowded areas until the House became entombed with dust, gray and bowed with the weight of its true age.

Aliette Says…

One of the things I had to decide on with this novel was what I did with Lucifer Morningstar, the founder of the House where most of the action is set. For various reasons, I removed him from the narration: in the book, he’s been missing for twenty years, and the House he founded finds itself without any of the protections he could have provided. But he can still loom pretty large, given the right circumstances.

Also, the relationship between him and Philippe is… interesting: they’re basically polar opposites. Morningstar is the prime symbol of the House system, and one of the foremost characters to benefit from his position as head of the House. Philippe, meanwhile, is the character who loses the most from that system: as a foreigner and a displaced colonial, he’s burning with an understandable hatred for all Houses!

CAMILLE by Pierre Lemaitre

CAMILLE - Pierre Lemaitre CAMILLE

Pierre Lemaitre (www.pierrelemaitre.com)

Translated by Frank Wynne (www.terribleman.com)

MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£17.99

Anne Forestier is in the wrong place at the wrong time. When she stumbles upon the robbery of a Paris jeweller, she is beaten to within an inch of her life, and left for dead. Despite the lack of body, Camille Verhœven of the brigade criminelle pulls strings and calls in favours to get the case assigned to his team. What he keeps to himself is that Anne Forestier is his lover, and Camille has no desire to see a repeat of the events to which he lost his wife, Irène. As the investigation continues, Camille slowly unravels, working above and outside the law to determine who did this to Anne, and discovering that all is not exactly as it seems as he goes along.

Given how clever both Irène and Alex were in their construction, it was inevitable that Pierre Lematire was going to run out of ways to surprise the reader, not least because we have come to expect the surprises. As a result, we enter into the final part of the Verhœven Trilogy, the eponymous Camille, with our guard up and our senses finely tuned. It is unfortunate, then, that the trilogy’s closing chapter is, in some ways, something of a disappointment, although maybe not much of a surprise.

Set a number of years after the events of Alex – Le Guen has moved up the ladder leaving a new commissaire to butt heads with Camille, and the team itself is now reduced to Verhœven and Louis – Camille opens in brutal style as Lemaitre intertwines the account of the robbery – and the beating of Anne Forestier – and the initial portions of Camille’s investigation. It is clear from early in the novel – as soon as the relationship between victim and investigator is established, in fact – that Camille has been deeply affected by this close call, so it is easy to understand how completely he goes off the rails as the story progresses. Camille is as gruff and unsympathetic as ever, the type of character who shouldn’t make a good leading man, and despite this new, darker side that is a wild departure from the steadfast and conscientious policeman we have known so far, we still find ourselves rooting for him, praying that he solves the case before someone finds out his secret and he loses the case and, most likely, his job.

As with the previous novels, Lemaitre moves through a number of different points of view to give the reader a more complete view of what is going on: Camille himself, Anne, and the robber. There are, as you might expect if you’ve read the earlier books in the series, twists aplenty, though slightly more mundane ones that we’ve grown used to (probably, as I mentioned earlier, because we have grown used to them), and Lemaitre manages to maintain the suspense, if not the solution, for the greater part of the novel. And therein lies my biggest complaint about Camille: the robber’s identity – the identity of the man against whom the great mind of Camille Verhœven is pitted – is telegraphed early in the book, becoming a certainty around the two-thirds mark, despite the fact that the “official” reveal doesn’t come until the novel’s closing pages. It is this that leaves the reader – this reader, at least, feeling that the trilogy has failed, to a certain extent, the final view of Camille Verhœven we get not the triumphant genius of Irène or Alex, but the slightly anti-climactic denouement of Camille and the trilogy as a whole.

In all, I have very mixed feelings about Camille. Given how much I enjoyed the previous two books, I wanted to love this one, so I’m somewhat disappointed that it fell short of my expectations. That said, there is very little structurally wrong with the book and, examined in its own right, it’s not a bad novel at all. Here are the characters we have grown to love from the previous outings, the wonderful writing – and translation by Frank Wynne – that sets Lemaitre’s writing apart from his contemporaries. The violence is graphic but strangely necessary, the type of violence that is difficult to stomach, but almost impossible not to look at, while Camille’s descent into morally ambiguous territory is handled with no small amount of tenderness by the author, the fate of Camille’s wife fresh in our mind even as we watch him attempting to cope with the attack on his current lover.

While not the novel fans of Lemaitre’s first two Verhœven novels will be desperately hoping for, Camille does, however, still have some high points. A welcome return to the world of this strange and compelling policeman, the novel lacks some of the genius touches that mark the earlier books in the series. It may not be a fitting finale, but it’s a competent and enjoyable one nonetheless, and is a must-read for anyone who has already come this far.

IRÈNE by Pierre Lemaitre

IRENE - Pierre Lemaitre IRÈNE

Pierre Lemaitre (www.pierrelemaitre.com)

Translated by Frank Wynne (www.terribleman.com)

MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£16.99

Released: 13th March 2014

Commandant Camille Verhœven’s team are called to the scene of a grisly murder in a well-appointed apartment set in the middle of a largely deserted industrial estate. Two women have, quite literally, been torn apart and the only clue is the fake fingerprint left deliberately at the scene. This single clue links this case with an earlier case, and soon afterwards a third. There seems to be no rhyme nor reason for these murders, until Verhœven discovers that one of the murders bears a striking resemblance to the murder scene described in James Ellroy’s classic novel, The Black Dahlia. From there, it’s a matter of identifying the other books to which he is paying grisly homage in an attempt to understand what the killer is trying to do so they can have some chance of stopping him.

Pierre Lemaitre burst onto the scene in the English-speaking parts of the world in a big way last year with his novel, Alex. I’m one of the few people who missed the earlier novel, but the publication of Irène makes me glad that I did, since this, originally published in French as Travail soigné (Careful Work, if Google translate is to be believed), is the first of the Camille Verhœven novels, and I can only assume that the consequences of this first novel spill over into the second, meaning that people who have already read Alex may already have some inkling of what to expect. I could, of course, be very wrong; I’ll be reading Alex very soon to find out for myself.

From the beginning, Irène is a straightforward police procedural. For fans of the genre, it gives a slightly fresh perspective given the differences between the UK/US judicial systems and that of France (which bears some resemblance to that of Sweden, for fans of Scandi-crime). We meet the team as they begin the investigation into the first brutal pair of murders. Verhœven is an unconventional man, a man who barely reaches four foot eleven inches, but who commands the respect of the men under his command and, quite quickly, most people who come under his scrutiny. He is happily married, and his wife is expecting a child, and this adds a human touch to the plodding detective that we see in the workplace, and introduces a familiar thread that will ring true for many fathers and expectant fathers: the thought that we’re spending too much time in work, and not enough time with our family, missing vital moments that we will never be able to regain.

In some ways Irène is a love letter to the crime fiction genre, and Lemaitre takes the somewhat unexpected approach of making his killer, who recreates crime scenes from fiction, use scenes from some of the best known novels in the genre: the aforementioned The Black Dahlia, Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (which will be recognisable to anyone who has read that novel as soon as they find themselves in the crime scene), William McIlvaney’s Laidlaw and Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s first Martin Beck novel, Roseanna. These scenes in some ways act as Easter eggs for people who have already read these novels, and gives us food for thought as we try to outthink the killer, or reach a conclusion before Verhœven and his team does. As you might expect from the list of inspirations, Irène is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach.

From the first page, there is an impending sense of doom which may not have existed in the novel’s original form. Despite that, Lemaitre still manages to take all of the reader’s expectations and grind them into dust in a single masterful stroke. Turning the conventional crime novel on its head, the author pulls the rug from under our feet and leaves us uncertain not only whom to trust, but whether anything we’ve read has actually happened or, crucially, whether any of it actually matters. Which is about all I can say without introducing spoilers. Suffice it to say that, bad as that statement sounds, it’s a moment of sheer genius that will leave the reader, jaw slack in admiration, realising that as well as penning a love letter to the genre, Lemaitre has set out to prove that he can go one better than anything that has gone before, and succeeds with verve.

The dynamics of the police team,the individual personalities that make it up, are what drive this story forward. Camille Verhœven himself is a protagonist that will stick with the reader and make us want to read the other books in the series (can MacLehose Press have them translated quickly enough to keep us satisfied?). This is a novel where very little actually happens – the murders have already been committed and, with the exception of two of them, we don’t even get to visit the crime scenes. It’s the very definition of a police procedural, a very cerebral mystery rather than one with lots of action. There are parallels with the television show Whitechapel, which has a similar atmosphere about it, not to mention a very similar setting (large room, plenty of desks and whiteboards  and whatnot).

While Alex received critical acclaim on its release last year, Irène, Pierre Lemaitre’s first novel, will be the book that people will remember in years to come. Intelligent and engrossing, it’s a worthwhile read primarily for that sense of amazement that will have you flicking back through pages looking for the mirrors or trapdoors, but also because of the mystery itself. A crime novel for genre fans penned by a man who is obviously a fan himself, Irène is beautifully translated by the always-reliable Frank Wynne and stunningly presented in the usual high-standard MacLehose package. If you were one of the people who enjoyed Alex, you’re going to love Irène, despite what you think you already know. If you’re lucky enough to still be a Lemaitre virgin, do yourself a favour and read a book that is sure to be high on many peoples’ (my own included) "best of the year" lists come December.

BED OF NAILS by Antonin Varenne

untitled BED OF NAILS

Antonin Varenne

Translated by Siân Reynolds

MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£18.99

When his friend kills himself on stage in a seedy nightclub in Paris, John Nichols leaves the isolation of his camp in southern France’s Lot and heads to the country’s capital to identify the body. But something doesn’t quite feel right, and John finds himself investigating his friend’s final days in an attempt to find the truth. Inspector Richard Guérin, exiled to Suicides following a scandal two years previously, has found a thread linking together a dozen suicides over a period of two years. John’s friend may well be the latest in a long line of assisted suicides, and together these two men aim to prove it.

It doesn’t take long for the reader to realise that Bed of Nails, Antonin Varenne’s third novel, is not your average piece of crime fiction. As the novel opens, two men are dead, though neither of them seem to have been murdered. The first has stripped naked and run, smiling, along one of the busiest roads in Paris until a head-on collision with a truck ends the frolic and the man’s life. The second, an American fakir, has bled to death on stage after suspending himself from a pair of hooks through his chest. There is nothing to suggest these deaths are suspicious, except in the minds of the story’s two protagonists.

The characters are the key to this story, and Varenne has injected each with enough life to leave the reader wanting more from them long beyond the end of their participation in this odd little tale. Caricatures and stereotypes abound, but the characters – and the story, for that matter – never seem stale. Guérin is the inward-looking obsessive policeman, his yellow mac as much a symbol of who he is as the badge he carries. His assistant, Lambert, is the stereotypical French policeman of a hundred films – tracksuits and indolence. The American, John Nichols, is an over-exaggerated Davy Crockett, while even the old men that patrol the streets of the village where he lives might have been plucked from a Stella Artois advertisement. Throw in a beautiful German artist who strips naked, covers herself in paint and throws herself at canvasses, and an old ex-convict who bears a striking resemblance to the late Edward Bunker, and you begin to get some sense of just what to expect.

This is part gritty police procedural, part tragicomic examination of modern life and the inventive ways – and associated motives – in which some people leave it behind. In Guérin, Varenne gives us the shell of a once-great man. A scandal two years earlier – the details of which we don’t learn until later in the book, in a revelation as grotesquely funny as it is shocking – has led to his removal to the wilds of Suicides. But his mind – the mind of one of the force’s greatest detectives – continues to work, and he quickly becomes obsessed with these suicides that he believes have had some outside assistance, to the point that the obsession has an adverse affect on his emotional stability and physical wellbeing. It is his driving desire to find the truth that carries the story along, and ultimately leads him to John Nichols and the death of the fakir. Here we find a more concrete story, involving Gulf War veterans and CIA cover-ups. The fakir’s suicide provides the perfect pivot around which these two seemingly unrelated cases revolve.

Bed of Nails is a beautifully-written novel and, even in translation, Varenne’s flourishes and narrative tricks shine through. There is the hint of a hard-boiled novelist here in some of the phrasing, and the staccato dialogue. Here, too, you will find a Paris that you are unlikely to find in the tourist guides – no Eiffel Tower, no Champs Elysées; this is a Paris where tourists rarely stray. The City of Light and Love has a dark and seedy side, and it is here that we find Varenne’s assortment of freaks and misfits, and spend time in their company.

It’s an unconventional crime novel that nevertheless has the power to shock and entertain. A strong cast of characters and a dark sense of humour are the story’s strong points, and help to carry the reader through some of the more surreal aspects of the plot. Varenne has no trouble getting inside the heads of his protagonists, and has a talent for bringing his readers along for the ride. Bed of Nails is another winner from the consistently excellent MacLehose Press and, while Antonin Varenne may be something of an acquired taste, he’s definitely worth a try. If your tastes are remotely similar to mine, you’ll be counting down the months until his next novel.

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